Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Image Becomes Identity

I've been wondering about some of the people I see daily.  From my local coffee shop to the grocery store and the gas station, there are familiar faces with whom I exchange greetings.  We all have these folks on the border of our lives.  Out of context, they can be maddening.  That moment when you recognize a person but can't quite get the reason or the place.  I've found that grocery clerks fill this role well when seen out in public without an apron on or away from a cash register.  My meanderings have settled lately on the concept of back story.  I may know something about who these cashiers and baristas and fuel pumpers are now, but what their past holds is equally as fascinating to me.  There seems no way, short of taking the initiative to sit down with someone and simply say, "Tell me about your life, thus far."  I've long fantasized doing that, and on occasion have had the opportunity.  Unless we know back story we judge...big time.  At least many people do.  We look at the image and make assumptions about the identity behind them.  That translates to powerful ideas that may or may not be truthful.

So who is that guy that washes windows with his NRA ball cap on?  Does he come from the city where the college logo on his other cap is?  Did he always wash windows or was he a Wall Street banker in another life?  Is he retired?  Does he know something about how to clean a window that most others don't?
Who is the woman that writes religiously in her journal?  Who will read these finely sketched lines?  Is she a minster?  To whom does she minister?  Why?
Have we become deceived as a culture about making assumptions based on our own projections?  Does this, in part, explain the dichotomy of how we live and experience life in this country now?  Since it's impossible to read minds, all we have as an introduction to another is the image before us.  When that image is perceived as alien to our own values, the wheels begin to turn...silently and quickly.  I marvel how the older version of myself walking down the street brings different reactions from all manner of people.  Especially now that my image is perceived as older male.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Blue Mountain

The headline of the article caught my eye.  "It's Best Not to Play Santa to a Teacher."  What is this about, I thought.  Turns out it was a small piece urging parents , their students, and even teachers not to give holiday gifts to their teachers.  I bristled.  Some new kind of teacher bashing?  Now teacher's shouldn't get any gifts from students because it sends the wrong message.  What next?  But a quick read through changed my mind a bit noting that there might be pressure on kids who would love to show their appreciation or fondness for a teacher, but just can't afford to do so.  Point taken.  The author also mentioned that the best "gifts" are a personal note, which everyone can do.  I agree.  But it seems a bit over the top that some school districts actually have policies banning any form of appreciation gift to any employee.  It's codified.  Wonder if it's ever enforced?  If only they could focus their egalitarian efforts on other things besides teacher's being appreciated.  I know, it's complicated.  But it got me thinking of all the things I've received from students, without violating any regulations.
     Holidays usually brought cookies, candy canes, and fudge.  Occasionally something that really stood out like home made biscotti from a big Italian family whose daughters I was fortunate enough to have in my English classes for two generations.  There were oddball gifts too.  A battery operated watch that looked far better than it was.  Lasted two years...all glitter and glue.  There were cards and notes, many of them.  I'd collect them all up and put them in the box with my winter-break paper load.  Now and then there would be a gift card to a bookstore or coffee shop.  My students knew me well. But one little gift that came right out of the blue stands out as most memorable.  Here's the back story.
That semester I'd been teaching a 12th grade elective course called International Problems.  That year  during a unit on World Hunger we were looking at the economies of poor countries that produced big cash crops...crops like coffee.  This was in the days before Free Trade coffee, so the students were seeing how countries with an undernourished majority of people could produce huge cash crops that made a small minority very wealthy.  During one particularly productive discussion, a student asked what the most expensive coffee was?  I took a guess and promised to return the next day with all the information.  My guess was right-Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  Going back then for about $17-$20 dollars a pound.  The next day, the class was eager to sample some, so we hatched a plan.  I promised on the last day of the class we'd have a small party and offer some JBM coffee.  The class took up a small collection, and I covered the rest.  Coffee for 35 requires a little logistics, but when the day arrived, 3 students brought in portable coffee makers with enough cups and Half/Half  and sugar for those who wanted them.  Only problem was no Jamaican Blue Mountain.  There had been a shortage that year and Japanese buyers had bought up the entire crop.  My good friends at Peet's Coffee suggested an alternative.  "What's the most expensive coffee currently in the store," I asked.  Turns out it was Arabian Mocha Java @ $12.50 a pound.  We enjoyed the coffee but it was with the recognition that there was something more valuable out there.

About five years later, on the Friday before the holiday break, a familiar face appeared in the doorway of my classroom shortly before the end of the day.  Sofia, a former student from that coffee tasting class entered.  Now a college graduate, she returned to campus to see some old friends and teachers.  She handed me a small basket of cookies, chatted for a few minutes, then took off.  She was doing well, and simply wanted to touch base with some of her high school teachers.  I but the little basket in my box and didn't return to it until that evening, when I noticed it felt a little heavy for just cookies.  I lifted the napkin covering the bottom of the basket t reveal a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  This was a gift I could accept.  So much more than a cup of the world's best coffee.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Raking



This Bill Moyers quote is obviously a promo for Mother Jones magazine.  Yet, Moyers brings up a fascinating point about the role of journalists today.  The irony, of course is that with all our fancy technology, the democratic values the U.S. was founded on seem to be leaking slowly out of the airship of state.  Today, with the release of data outlining the CIA's role in employing torture techniques in the new post 9/11 security paranoia, our democratic values have taken a mighty hit.  I'd venture to say that we are at a critical juncture as a democracy; the road ahead doesn't look promising.
Writer/theorist Henry Geroux has eloquently discussed this trend, this slippage in his book The Violence of Organized Forgetting.  What's so troubling is how the mass of the American people can be transfixed by the distractions of a market economy with it's emphasis on constant consumption.  The stupor is thick...and getting thicker one would think.  They don't hear the air leaking out.
When we see the inequity in our social classes, it's alarming that the only one's filling our burgeoning prison system are on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  White collars stay whiter than white, aided by the indecision of Grand Juries, the lock that the wealthy have on our political process, and the intended continual demise of public education.
Back to Moyers, I don't think he's completely right because we have only to look at the efforts of whistle blowers in government and the massive pseudo-security structure forced in place to see how some journalists are trying to get the word out.  Maybe it will be left for the artists and musicians to take that torch and run with it.  Historically there is precedent, much of it to be sure.  Is it such a surprise that people in this country probably place more faith in their favorite musicians than their elected representatives?
If I were back in the classroom these days, I'd put together a teaching unit based on Moyers' idea here. Find the Muckrakers.   Some kind of most under-reported stories of the year weighed by their importance and the process by which they become under-reported. (Who decides what we hear about and what we don't?) Perhaps a good place to start would be with Mother Jones Magazine and see how what they report compares to everything else.  It's the latter, that all other sources, that might be most revealing.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mortal Night

I just finished Dr. Atul Gawande's bestselling book, Being Mortal.  This important look at the way our health care model deals with end of life issues suggests that we focus on the home part of nursing home and ask different questions to those whose days are limited.  But before I turned the last page I had an unplanned field trip to my nearest hospital, briefly facing my own mortality in the back of an ambulance.
I had now warning or pain.  I read for an hour or so that evening and felt fine.  Early the next morning I felt slightly nauseous and ended up on the floor of my bathroom after vomiting blood.  Definitely surreal because what I puked was nearly black.  When my blood-pressure dropped dramatically, I went over and that prompted the 911 call and the remainder of that day and the next in the hospital.  I'm not only mortal, I'm lucky because a series of tests revealed only a very small ulcer and no other abnormalities.  In a few weeks, they'll send the little camera down my throat and monitor the healing.  I look forward to the return of coffee and beer/wine with my meals.

You live long enough and you know these things are are coming..without warning on occasion.  When they do, it's never as you imagined.  I can't help but think that reading that book prepared me for the emotional shock of being instantly vulnerable and in the hands of health care professionals who took blood and pieces of me to measure and analyze throughout the night.
Did my life flash before me?  Hardly, but I did have time to reflect on what I've accomplished thus far, and what I've still left to do.  The vulnerability has dogged me for the last 10 days or so.  I've noticed small things like not wanting to exert too much energy lest something snap or break, and my voice  has lessened in volume.  Wonder if that is common for those recently going through medical emergencies?    It's as if I need more confidence to resume where I left off.  There is the aura of a trauma here both for me and my family members.  Mortality does that now and again.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Condition

Teaching provides many opportunities to collect artifacts.  Here's one I've been meaning to share.  I consider it an art form of popular culture.  Sadly, it's now probably extinct because of the way textbooks are distributed.  But...there was a time, when a teacher was responsible for collecting and distributing books.  Lots of record-keeping here.  Some may still do this, but my experience recently says all students go to the textbook room and check out their own books with computerized ID cards.
Anyhow, one of the rituals back in the day was to determine the condition of the book, record it on the little form stamped inside the front cover, and then add date and teacher's name.
Students, being the clever beings that they are, would often embellish the choice of descriptors.  For years one of the most common forms of written classroom folklore was found inside books that had been checked out.
In deconstructing my classroom of 25 years, one of the last things I did was to go through some old copies of books that I believed might soon be discarded.  I tore out a few of these book condition charts and put them in a folder.  Here's one:

 You can see that in 1971 a student named John Khure was not content with the choice of descriptors and took it upon himself to write a short essay in the space provided for one word.  John wrote: "Examining this book closely, I find very little wrong with it.  But that on no grounds means it is therefore free of blemish."  No good, fair, or unsatisfactory for this guy, he wanted to make a statement and therefore did so.  Reading down the list of subsequent readers of this one book shows that it's condition went from "New" to "Dead."  It appears that for a few years, the book came in at "Fair" and even "Used."  Before it was declared dead in 1989, it languished at "Very Poor" for a decade.
I've always loved the spirit of these little bulletin boards found inside most schoolbooks for many years.  Can't help but think that it might be lost forever.  This one, like the small collection I managed to harvest become like Zen Koans for contemplating the arbitrary spontaneity of young people. Especially when it comes to completing a simple task. In this era of standardized curriculum, here's a flaming torch that shines on individuality.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Elliptical Voyage

If every piece of writing has a thousand faces, then a poem must have a few hundred, at least.  So many incarnations possible.
Here's one:


Elliptical voyage  

Music
Inside my head 
Lends Creedence to the rainfall 

With eyes closed
I'm running
Back in time 
Back to brown leather and red flannel 
Back hair and blues music 
Echoing
Moving past Neil Young,
Dylan's acoustic set, 
Harmonicas soothe the
Glare of neon idols
Is this nowhere? 
Does anybody know where
The darkest night 
Has a few bright stars...

Baby, 
Let me
Follow you down.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Gifted

A friend of mine just won the "Teacher of the Year" award for the state of Oregon.  Most deserving he is too.  I first met Michael about six years ago when a student teacher I was supervising was placed in his classroom.  We bonded instantly.  He now gets to meet the President, the Secretary of Education and banks a $5,000 check as well.  Sometimes they get it right.
Got me thinking, however about the time when I won a similar, local award.  Not quite as prestigious, but certainly very gratifying for someone like me that doesn't handle accolades well.  Nevertheless to be singled out as one of my district's candidates for what was called the annual "Teaching Excellence" award was very humbling.  I'd been nominated by a colleague (and former winner of the award) so it was even more gratifying.  I received a wooden plaque with engraved lettering in gold, and a check for $500.
I wish there hadn't been a competition for the award.  I'm not sure how many candidates were nominated, but I recall going for an interview late one afternoon and being told that I was the next to last interview of a long day.  They then asked me if I was nervous.  My saving grace has always been that these things don't make me nervous at all.   I either don't take them all that seriously or enjoy the attention.
At the award ceremony I had to make a speech.  There were about 5 other winners who also made acceptance speeches so it was a long evening.  I was feeling at one with the profession that night, but even though I acknowledged all teachers everywhere, I knew deep inside that there were severe differences.  In my speech I talked a bit about my students because they are instrumental in any recognition a teacher might get.  I told a story about the wall in the back of my classroom that was collaged with hundreds of pictures of people.  Sort of a pop culture who's who that often came in handy during class discussions.  At the mention of a name like Amelia Erhard, or a writer like Salinger, Steinbeck, Flannery O'connor, Alice Walker or Toni Morrison...there was a picture.  Lots of athletes, pop culture and music icons too.  Occasionally a student would add his or her own portrait to the wall.  How's that for self-esteem?

One day, one of my favorite pictures from the wall went missing.  It was a lovely picture of Buckwheat from the Little Rascals.  Certainly part of my childhood, this picture disappeared right about the time when Eddie Murphy started doing his version of Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live.  Now I know that anything in a classroom is fair game.  Once you put it out there, you have to be ready to say good-bye any time.  But I really loved that picture and I told my classes that I was bummed out because it was gone.  It was a beautiful portrait of Buckwheat; in no way stereotypical.  About a week later the picture was discovered in the Boy's Locker Room, destroyed.  Nobody knew why or how.  But what happened after that is why I referred to it in my little speech.  I started receiving pictures of Buckwheat anonymously.  Lots of them.  In my mailbox at school, under the classroom door they slipped.  Once another Buckwheat was added to the wall.  They were all nice pictures, but not the one I lost, the one I loved.  But my students were trying to take care of me and that's what mattered.  I mentioned that in the speech, but I'm not sure how it went over with the crowd that night.  No matter.
My plaque sits on a bookshelf today.  It's mostly what remains of my 33 years in the classroom.  What physically remains.  My district gave me a certificate of thanks, but I'm not sure where that went.  The $500 I spent on a new clutch for my car at the time.  Today I found the picture of Buckwheat I loved so much online.  I feel better.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mental Construct

I said good-bye to someone I recently met.  I said good-bye because this person no longer exists.  She was completely in my mind.  The image, and all that went along with it, were based on misconceptions.  Here's the context.
A few weeks ago I began to mentor a couple of first year teachers.  Since one of the two was someone I never really met, and didn't know well, I assumed I knew she was.  That assumption came from a memory I had when we were actually in the same room together at the beginning of the previous school year. It was an orientation meeting where all the new student teachers meet their supervisors for the upcoming year.  Somehow, I held on to this image as if it existed. So here we are, a year later and this person is now a first year teacher assigned to me.  We spoke on the phone a few times, and I've gotten to know this young teacher in these early attempts to build trust and learn a little about each other.  That kind of trust and knowledge is essential if my efforts and her interest in them are to continue.

So last weekend, after a handful of failed attempts, we decided to split the difference in miles between us and meet face to face. I drove the 50 miles to a coffee shop in Salem. A different person showed up.  She was not who I thought she was.  She looked completely different from the image in my mind.  Maybe there is another teacher I actually did meet once a year or two ago that fits the image I have.  But I was way off.  Off in age, appearance, and demeanor.  The voice was the same, rather hoarse, but the rest of the person was completely different than I expected.
The immediate response I had was one of overwhelming relief.  I'm not even sure why.  perhaps tis revelation brought with it the chance for a new beginning.  It got me thinking, though.  How many times do we construct images and personalities of people based on seemingly reliable information? If we do this, and we do, what are the consequences?
Maybe this isn't a big deal at all.  Maybe it's just a reminder that people are always much more complicated than we think. That, and we are often misled by our mental constructs.
My mistake was an honest one.  I'd met a roomful of young teachers a year ago, thought the one I'd been in contact with was an image I retained from that meeting, and then found out it wasn't.  Sp why the tremendous relief?
I can venture a few guesses.  I realized the instant the face to face meeting began that everything I previously thought about this persons personality and ideology, her values and level of commitment, was subject to change.
What if she experienced the same thing regarding me?  That's certainly possible because all we really knew about each other in terms of personality or ability to work with others, or even our teaching styles, we got from other people.
I was reminded, from this experience, how it applies to interpersonal relationships like dating.  Ever meet someone through a phone call?  Images in the mind abound.  Then the day of reckoning and the person that shows up to the first face to face meeting either fits the image or doesn't exist.  I think the latter is often the case.

Monday, October 20, 2014

More Complex

I realize that it is not enough to simply post these dramatic and engaging drawings with nothing more than a brief explanation.  It occurred to me also that in posting these pieces here that they could easily be reproduced.  I agonized over that for a time but in the end decided that if any young teacher, given today's climate, ever reads this and can clearly see how multiple intelligence theory applies here, then it will be worth the risk.   Like thousands of former students of mine, I lost contact with James and it would be difficult to track him down to secure permission.  The drawings were a gift to me, so legally, I'm covered, but that doesn't lessen the dilemma here.  In any event, what is important now is to offer some additional comments on the topic here: visual learners.  To do this, I ask any readers of this blog to comment on what you see in the drawings.  I'll share a few thoughts and then post a couple of additional pictures.
The concepts of Adlerian psychology reflected here are wholly symbolic.  Though they don't articulate the concept completely, they do invite discussion that will do just that.  After James' group's presentation, many of the drawings were displayed around the classroom so that his classmates could look at them, think deeply, and raise any remaining questions.   This first one represents the concept of organ inferiority.  Adler believed that each person has one organ that is more dysfunctional than others and therefore impacts our personality and behavior.  For example, a bad back might explain why someone continually "backs out" of difficult situations.


This drawing focuses on Adler's importance of the mother.  The brief caption reads "Drink Up."  I leave the next observations and interpretations to you.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Complex

One day, right in the middle of the introductory psychology class I taught, a student ran through the classroom door and then just stood there.  I recognized him as an autistic Special Ed. student who was usually accompanied by an aide.  My class recognized him too.
"Hello," I said, "welcome to our psychology class."  He said nothing, but instead ran over to a small bookcase behind my desk in one corner of the room.  My students and I were spellbound.  After a few minutes, he selected a small pink volume from the top row of the shelf.  Without a word, he ran out the door.  I recognized the book as Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings.   Thinking I'd better check with the Special Ed. teacher a few doors down I reached for my classroom phone.  Just then his aide came in, quickly apologized and left.  I never mentioned the book and my students were asking if I ever expected to see it again.  "Guess, we'll find out one of these days," I said.
What followed was a spur of the moment class discussion about autism and a few related things.  More proof that teaching "moments" are unpredictable, happen randomly, and often take their place among the most memorable experiences in an otherwise routine school day.
I think one of the reasons that my class was so responsive and "chill" throughout this little incident is that a few Special Ed. students were sitting right there too.  The introductory psych classes were de-tracked, like most of my schools classes, and composed of the widest variety of learning abilities and learning styles.  As an elective, the students were engaged and eager to share their own experiences and perspectives. The wanted to be there. Typical groups in that class might be composed of students who were headed off to Ivy League schools or the local community college.  Students who would be first generation college students and others whose parents taught at nearby U C Berkeley.  National Merit scholars and students who were headed to the military or the workforce within a year or two at most.
Working with this kind of class really taught me some remarkable lessons on how kids learn within the confines of a typical classroom environment.  It's hardly the same way, as you might expect.  Students learn concepts and skills that never make any textbook or set of standards too.
In one of the aforementioned psychology classes was a student who was a classic visual learner.  He was in my classroom right about the time computer art was first becoming popular.  An immigrant from China, James was the son of a Chinese woman and a British ex-patriot.  His parents were older, if not elderly and he'd spent most of his time in the U.S. as a Special Ed. student.  James enjoyed psychology but his Asperger's necessitated sitting near the front of the room where he felt safe near the teacher.  Over time, I began to see some of James' art work.  He began spending his lunch period in my classroom using a computer or just making ink sketches.  He seldom talked with his peers. Until...they began to see some of his computer art.  He made new friends.  many pieces fit neatly into the Fantasy genre so popular with teenagers.
What was particularly fascinating about this art was its complexity.  It was abundantly clear that James had a fine mind, even if he couldn't always represent his knowledge in conventional ways.
Later on in the semester the class was studying personality theory in groups.  Each group was assigned a theorist and the task of teaching the class, through a group presentation, about that particular approach to personality theory.  Using a case study the class had discussed thoroughly gave students an opportunity to apply the new concepts learned for each subsequent theory presented. James was working with the Alfred Adler group.  His work for the group's presentation remains, in my view, an excellent example of visual intelligence.  Though he could barely write a cogent paragraph, James displayed incisive knowledge of Adler's personality theory through the drawings he made to illustrate the various concepts his group discussed.

These concepts included Adler's Inferiority Complex, his ideas on the importance of the mother, and his views on organ inferiority. Nobody told him what to draw.  The groups simply read and discussed their assigned theorist's ideas and decided on how best to convey them to their classmates.
Here are a few of the drawings:


Oh yeah, one more thing.  About two weeks after that little book disappeared, the student who "borrowed" it returned.  Saying nothing, he placed it on the top shelf exactly where it had been and then walked out the door.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An Invitation

The legendary oral historian and raconteur, Studs Terkel, once concluded that "your work is your identity."  This, of course, came after completing the wonderful collection of interviews that comprised his book Working.  Stands to reason that when we change jobs or retire, we often have to deal with an identity crisis.  For teachers, this is all too common. Who will I be when I am no longer Mr. Greene?
Guess what?  If my experience is any indication, you will be Mr. Greene.  Maybe not in deed, but certainly in idea and inspiration.  I no longer arise at 5:47 (that's right) and teach a full day.  I no longer experience the anxiety that accompanies a new lesson or parent conferences or grading or even the weekend.  But I do still discuss the direction of the profession.  In fact, I do it too much.
It's all to easy these days to engage others in an exchange of ideas.  Whether it's social media, or just casual talk in the grocery story or coffee shop, people want to share their ideas.
Everybody went to school, so everybody has something to say.  We are all experts on our own experience, right?

It doesn't take long to get into a spirited conversation, whether it's teacher bashing, union bashing, single parent bashing, or...one of Oregon's favorite targets...public employees.
Half the time we are preaching to the converted, but occasionally the art and skill of sharing your ideas involves being true to yourself without alienating someone with whom you completely disagree.
I've noticed that when I get extremely frustrated with an opinion particularly vitriolic or uninformed, I issue an invitation.  I'm fond of inviting people to join me for a first hand trip inside a classroom. My hope is that I might be able to provide some insight into what and why many teachers do what they do. They never accept.  I expect that.  Something more than sitting in anonymity would be just too much to ask.  Here's another way of looking at this dilemma.
Imagine a clean white linen tablecloth that's suddenly lost its luster with the presence of some unsightly crumbs.  The next course won't come until the crumbs are removed...only there is no one willing to do the honors.  Why should I have to clean up after myself in a restaurant? goes the internal message. All parties have the option to remove themselves and often do.  Game over.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Rufus Rastas Johnson Brown" (Von Tilzer) Ragtime song by Arthur Collins...

Middle (Named) Child

There is an old, American, popular music tune about a character called Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown.  That name alone should tell you a couple of things about this song.  It was popular in the early part of the 20th century when records were of the 78 rpm variety and the music industry was new.  It was a time of elaborate vaudeville-type recordings and a time when racism was about as overt as it could be.
"Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, whatcha gonna do when the rent comes round..."
This genre was dubbed the "Coon song"  for obvious reasons.  Collectors of Black Americana today have assembled a variety of this type of sheet music as well.  It's always shocking, always disturbing, often accompanied with graphics that are too.  When we look at the dates, it's not all that long ago, is it?
The Jim Crow Museum uses this type of artifact to educate and remind us about this difficult time in our history.  True, the stuff continues today in more subtle, if not sophisticated forms.
Save that for another time. (See next post above to listen to the original 1903 recording)

I got to thinking about people with more than one name.  Seems like one name is all the rage today.  Rhianna, Pharrell, Madonna, Usher, Seal.....
But what about people with three or more names?  Will that be next?
I have some Latino friends with multiple names.  Of course the mother's maiden name is often incorporated into these lengthy monikers.  When both the mother and father have the same name (i.e.Gonzalez) it makes for an interesting repetition.  Jose Luis Martinez Gonzalez Gonzalez.
Some folks agonize over what middle name to give their children.  They try to honor a grandfather or great grandmother, or aunt, uncle or sibling.  Given most of them will never have enough children to cover everyone, I say give your kids as many as five middle names.  They can then choose which they want to use or change them up just to be different.
I always thought if I had a son, I'd name him Ben after a grandfather I never met.  I can throw in Joseph for my other grandfather and perhaps Woody, Willie, Patchen, Rilke, Casy,(Preacher) Paul, (Klee) and Sonny Boy (Williamson)
Say hello to Joe Ben Woody Paul Willie Casy Greene.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two Paper Towels

One of the realities about teaching that seldom gets any attention is the role of parent that accompanies the job.  As a culture we acknowledge that the classroom teacher wears many hats, from instructor to cop, nurturer to protector.  Parents are usually our allies.  We partner with them in the same way we partner with administrators and other community members.  But playing that role to 35 at a time, and 150 a day can sometimes take a toll that seldom gets discussed in all the well-meaning reform conversations taking place these days.
Often this role involves what Dr. Phil calls "a safe place to fall."  Teacher as advice giver, as listener, as role model.  Sometimes it's more like first responder.
Certainly in the spate of recent school shootings, we have seen teachers and other school personnel rise to the occasion and play the protector/defender role with selfless courage.  And then there are those physical emergencies.  Actually that seems to be a euphemism.  The emergencies aren't physical, they are health oriented.  Kids in pain, kids under the influence of a controlled substance, and certainly the least favorite kids getting sick...sloppy, disgusting, messy sick.
I still recall some of the specific occurrences I witnessed as my classmates lost their cookies during the lesson of the day.  From kindergarten while at the easel doing watercolors to my 7th grade Art elective (hey I see a pattern here) there were a few memorable upset stomaches and their consequences whose memories never faded with time.
When I look back on my 33 years at the helm I recall a few instances where I played the role of care giving parent.  From fainting to the crippling pain of ovarian cysts, I have knelt in hallways trying to reassure a scared adolescent that this too would pass. Lots of Kleenex for tears...a panic attack or two, and certainly many, many fistfights that saw blood trickle or clothing torn or, the worst injury of all, a bruised ego.
But one incident stands out from all the others because of the response I received.  During my year teaching middle school,  I  experienced what could only be called an underwhelming response.  My 7th grade class was reading silently.  As I often do, I was glancing around the room to observe their reading behavior.  How they appear while reading, whether they are focused, or restless.  I chanced to glance in the back corner of the room and noticed Fernando, usually quiet, rather squirmy.  Then his head went down.  I thought about walking back to see if he was OK but decided instead to just keep my eye on him.  Within a minute his head rose and his face was olive green.  You know what's coming, yes he puked all over the table in front of him and thensome.  36 twelve year olds reacted, as did I.  Opening the windows on the opposite side of the room, I told the class to face me and I would call the custodian and see that Fernando went to the school nurse.  There was relative calm.  I seemed to be in control and sensitive to the embarrassment that Fernando must have felt.  I called the office and asked them to send the custodian because a clean-up was needed at once.

I marveled at the composure of this class although the odor in the room was beginning to make the kids uncomfortable.  Nobody reading now.  While waiting for the office to respond, I conjured up visions of my beloved elementary school custodian Mr. Herrick.  A hard-working German immigrant, Mr. Herrick could do anything.  His well-worn kakis were always a welcome sight.  I recalled too, how in situations like this he arrived promptly with a bucket of sawdust that absorbed everything.  He swept that up with a few quick strokes and then mopped with a cleaning solution.  The room was clean within minutes.  Reading resumed.  While congratulating myself for navigating this difficult situation there was a knock on the door.  When I opened it an extended hand offered me two paper towels...then walked away.  Official response.
I want to end here, but I won't.  here's what happened next.  My anger and astonishment quickly turned into action and I had the class move into the hallway.  I asked my colleague next door to watch my class as I went to the closest men's room and grabbed the entire roll of paper towels after wetting a few.  Mildly enraged, I cleaned up that mess in about 5 minutes and the class returned to the room.
We read a little longer that day.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Surprise?

I was reading an article by a woman called Julia Galef about a new teaching strategy called Surprise Journals.  The thinking here is that we get locked in to our opinions and beliefs and then seek affirmation from those with similar thinking.  She writes:  "Many behavioral psychology and cognitive science studies demonstrate that humans find it difficult to change their opinions.  In what is known as the "bias blind spot," it is much easier for us to see other people's biases than our own. The "confirmation bias" reveals that we seek out feedback from people who are likely to agree with us: We read newspapers and watch TV talk shows that are probably going to tell us things we already agree with. Galef says that there is much more research about how biased humans are than how to change these biases. "I really wanted to get better at changing my mind...This is not a perfect solution, but it has gone a long way to making me more open and less defensiveness about when I'm wrong."
 The writing technique asks us to note down the times/circumstances we fall into this trap and then challenges us to change our thinking, especially when we must go counter to people or institutions that we don't usually disagree with or that whom we respect so much that we couldn't possibly imagine being of the other side of their ideas.
It's easy to see this "bias blind spot" all over our culture these days.  From TV stations that are slanted to our deepest thoughts about public institutions like schools and political parties, and law enforcement.
The photo here shows the teaching strategy as students write potential Surprise Journal entries on Post It notes.

The Surprise Journal helps us change our mind about things and argues that it's healthy to do that.  So what would be some of your first entries in a Surprise Journal?  What assumptions, I keep asking myself, do I make about things I assume to be true but are probably not?
Recently I nixed a move because I felt the new place was just too small.  I was adamant.  I may also have been wrong.  At least I was decisive, I kept telling myself.  But I now have the option of allowing myself to be surprised by this assumption and can work to change my thinking.
It's easy to see how this would work with something of real significance, too.  We all assume things about the important people in our lives and our skills and abilities.  Any surprises there when you stop to reconsider?
In the end, this is all about opening our minds even further than we think they are.  Many surprises to follow.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Brown-Eyed Girl

I remember going for a walk that day.  It must have been before the VISTA training was over because I didn't have a car.  I must have been eager to get outside and off my myself because most July days in Houston, Texas are hot.  Hot as in 100 degrees or more, then muggy then cloudy then gully-washer rainstorms, then steamy, then hot again.
I remember it was Westheimer Road where I ended up walking.  Not sure how far out of town or where exactly but I entered a small antique store and began to look around. The usual array of items in a small glass case. Some jewelry, old political buttons, Depression glass...watches.  On the walls various paintings, on the tables, more glassware and dinner sets of fine china.  And then I saw her.  I looked right in her face and was fixated.  The oval frame was cheap but the watercolor painting was deep and clear, and haunting.  The artist had talent.  The brown eyes were lifelike, the yellow bonnet enchanting.

I couldn't have paid much more than $20.00.  Thinking back, I doubt I had more than twenty bucks with me any time that year.  Wish I could see the face of the man that sold me that painting.  Wish I could recall the name of that store.  All that remains is Westheimer...the name Westheimer is recognizable in Houston.  One of the early pioneers, Michael Westheimer gave his name to the street and left a legacy.  His wife, Bettie, supposedly made the painting I took home with me that day.  That's what the man who worked in the store told me.  I never forgot that.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I recently contacted David Lackey of the Antiques Roadshow.  I've watched his appraisals for fine art for years.  He's from Houston and has his business very near where I found the little watercolor.  I knew he'd respond, and surely, in a matter of two days, he assured me that the beautiful little painting was not really worth more than $50.00 and may or may not have been painted by Mrs. W.  Nobody seems to know whether, in fact, she painted at all.
So...happily, the mystery continues.  Just fine by me, because I'd never sell this watercolor.  It continues to please me everyday.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sound Behavior


Most teachers I know have heard the sound.  They know when it is likely to happen, and, truth be told, which student is likely to make it.  Probably Social Science and Language Arts teachers have more experience with it.  Subjects that deal with the human condition are more likely to produce the sound, but it’s definitely not exclusive to the humanities.  All too often the sound is predictable.  In fact because a teacher is often able to predict this occurrence it could actually be avoidable.  But censorship presents other problems.
So what’s the mystery noise?  It’s the enthusiastic, often adoring, sound of unbridled excitement when one human being hits another.

 You might be showing a documentary on labor strife or the film version of a classic piece of literature.  When raw violence occurs, usually in the form of a slap across the face, or as we’ve recently seen in surveillance videos a knockout punch, there are always a few in any classroom who literally jump out of their seats with joy.  While others might wince, or look away, or display empathy with the victim, these few who seem over the top with glee get most of the attention.  It usually takes them a few minutes to calm down.  Any information or film dialogue that follows the violent outburst is always lost.
It’s unsettling.  It’s curiously disturbing.  It’s usually left alone.
We like to think that no person or culture values violence for it’s own sake, but they do.  In my classroom experience it is most often the students whose childhood involves corporeal punishment that react the most enthusiastically to violence.  Their lives are most likely to be filled with violence either from family, friends, or the amount they see in the media.  Physical fighting is often encouraged. Discipline gets confused with punishment. Might usually makes right in their world.
I taught a full year in a middle school once when the historic education cutbacks hit California in the early 1980s.  My students were mostly Latino and African American.  The school principal was African American as was one of the three counselors.  The year proved most enlightening for many reasons.  While my students were engaged, intellectually curious, and developed a love of reading, there were a few who acted out on occasion.  On one rare occasion that I sent a student to see his counselor because it was not a good day for him to be in class, I was asked by the counselor if I could please join a meeting between her and the student in question.  She phoned to tell me that the boy’s grandmother, with whom he lived, was not able to attend.  After school that day I gladly went to her office.  I knew the back-story.  The grandmother adopted Paul when his parents abandoned him.  In her late seventies, she could barely get around so attending this discipline meeting was out of the question.  Mrs. Washington, the counselor, played a vital role in Paul’s life.  She was the role model he needed.  She set the limits and she enforced the rules.  Paul was not a difficult student.  He was not meaning, vindictive or even unmotivated in the classroom.  He simply found himself out of control on occasion and had the habit of displacing his anger on his classmates or even his teachers.  Mrs. Washington gave him a choice.  He could either be suspended for two days or face her consequences.  We all knew suspension would not be the choice.  It was merely a formality because Mrs. Washington knew that if he stayed home with grandma nothing productive would result.  Paul chose the alternative.  Mrs. Washington told him to get ready.  He then thrust forward his arms and she produced a ruler from her desk drawer.  I watched her strike his wrists with the ruler about 5 times on each arm.  Paul apologized for his behavior in class and then left the office promising to be on time to class the next day. 
I never spoke much with Mrs. Washington about her method of discipline.  I knew that culturally it was the norm.  The rod was not spared in many God-fearing families.

But this is part of the behavior that needs to change.  Today that form of traditional discipline is gone.  Even the wooden paddle “swats” my P.E. teachers administered to their all male classes are a thing of the past.  But residual behaviors and attitudes survive.  They have come to light as the technology continues to encroach on our time and privacy.  Reluctantly or benevolently, we move forward.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Tackle This

The media is all abuzz with the story of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.  New video released today shows just how brutal his violent assault on his then girlfriend, now wife actually was.  That the NFL failed to act in a serious and timely fashion is part of the story.  Today he was summarily cut by the team because there is definite proof that he knocked his beloved unconscious with one punch to the jaw.  All this took place behind the closed doors... of an elevator.
Sure he should be severely disciplined...even lose his job, undergo counseling, and serve as an example to other young NFL players who think they are untouchable.

But something is missing from all the outrage.  The NFL is and has been getting increasingly violent.  Small wonder that it's players often react violently in every phase of their lives.
Until this story surfaced, and then resurfaced with the new video most of the current NFL concern centered around the impact of violence on brain injuries.  Al Jazeera submits the following data:

AMERICAN FOOTBALL RISKS
  •  American High School football players were struck in the head 30 to 50 times in every game and regularly endured blows similar to those experienced in car crashes, according to a Virginia Tech study
  • 47 per cent of high school football players say they sustain at least one concussion each season
  • 35 per cent of them say they had more than one in the same season - according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
  • 85 per cent of sports-related concussions are not diagnosed - according to the American College of Sports Medicine
  • Three million sports concussions occur every year in the US
  • 57 per cent of fans believe something should be done about head injuries
  • But nine in ten football fans say reports of head injuries will not affect their viewing plans
  • A record number - 111.3 million - watched American football's big game, the Superbowl, this year
  • The National Football League made some $9 bn in revenue in 2010 from merchandising, advertising and stadium revenues
Source:
Al Jazeera
I'm curious just how long it will take mainstream media to make the connection.  Just last weekend, while watching some of the opening week highlights, I noticed something I've never seen before.  While returning a kickoff, a running back attempted to hurdle his pursuer.  Oh, I've seen them do that before, but when it seemed that he hadn't quite cleared the would-be tackler, he extended his foot and kicked the defender in the face.  Penalty flag. Yes.  Fine and league action...probably.  What's next?
Remember the days when they called it tackle football because it was about tackling the other guy not "hitting" him.  Football, and NFL football is evolving right before our eyes, in my view.  

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Quick Take

One of the most succinct and accurate observations I've heard all week about the rise of ISIS in Iraq and the terrorist threat they represent all over the globe involved the use of a famous quote from John F. Kennedy.  Fascinating how decades later, it applies perfectly to so many uprisings violent reactions, and tyrannical leaders currently on the scene.  I'd love to use this quote as the basis for an essay or better yet, group discussion in classrooms this year.
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Change Is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke, 1963



Seems like things have been particularly difficult the last few weeks.  Hamas/Israeli conflict, execution of an American journalist by ISIS, Ferguson, Mo.  Afghanistan, veterans care at home, natural disasters- mudslides, forest fires, bizarre climate change whether, drought, floods, loss of Robin Williams, Ebola virus, Nigerian girls kidnapped, biased media coverage, ignorance/intolerance, pervasive violence in everything from sports to gaming to "entertainment," Immigration/humanitarian crises...
I was telling some young friends the other day to remember what I learned a while back, that no matter how bad things seem, how down/depressed we get, that some things will always be here.  This Sam Cooke tune is timeless and ever available.

Monday, August 18, 2014

When I Die

With the nation's eyes on Ferguson, Missouri this week, the dialogue, defense, and disintegration of race and racism in America continues.  Every hour of every day brings new and questionable revelations about the incident that caused the death of Michael Brown.  Trying to figure out how and why an unarmed individual took six shots is tricky business.
So many of the lessons learned from the 1960s have served me well in trying to make sense of this latest episode of the tragedy that is American race relations.  Granted, so much has changed in the last 50 years, but astonishingly, some things remain the same.
Best to distinguish between a riot and a rebellion first.  Both elements are at play here.  Also important to recognize who and where some of the protesters are, and are from, and what views they represent.  There will always be those elements who desire confrontation, and those who will depart with the slightest sign of conflict.
In the end, the personality of the real Michael Brown, whoever he is/was and the personality of the officer who fired the shots will probably get buried beneath all the tear gas canisters, all the ashes, and all the confused, disillusioned notions of righteousness.  Still, some things remain abundantly clear:  There is such a thing as police brutality, and we all have miles to go before we can even begin to sleep.
Some ironies abound as well.  This area, near East St. Louis, was the focal point of one of the most important and disastrous "Race Riots" just about 100 years ago.  Roots go deep.
And while we're in the last century, I was thinking the other day of a song lyric that kept rambling through my head.  From the classic St. James Infirmary Blues, come the lines:

     Oh, when I die, please bury me
     In my ten dollar Stetson hat;
     Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
     So the boys'll know I died standin' pat.

That last line...about standing pat in death is most intriguing.  The expression traces it's origin from poker players who took a stance with the cards they were dealt.  It's a kind of honesty or integrity to stand pat.  So it is with human beings.  To die with dignity is, in another way, like the gambler in St. James Infirmary with his hat in place and the gold piece in his pocket.
No dignity, no peace.



Thursday, August 14, 2014

Backstory

The small university where I supervise and mentor beginning teachers is hiring a new teacher.  A professor, if you will.  It's a process that invites all members of the Ed. Dept. to participate by attending a formal presentation of the candidate's research, followed by an informal interview type discussion.  I'm not sure who makes the final decision, but I know I can provide feedback from my perceptions and that it will be considered by the dept. head and the other faculty.
There were three candidates, and I only attended one of the presentations because of schedule demands.  No matter.  I don't really work all that closely with the profs and I may not do this very much longer.  Of course, I say that every year and then go back for another round.
So, I decided to attend the presentation/interview for a candidate who attended two branches of the University of California, like me, and then lived and worked in and near the Bay Area.
I was not disappointed.  I say this because this woman had a backstory I found most unusual.
Before the reveal, let me just say that we endured the Power Point about her research, asked pertinent questions, calmed her nerves a bit, and then proceeded to have a concluding discussion that included feedback from everyone from current grad students to other profs and even the much qualified Dept. Secretary.  (She's the one who holds everything together.)

OK, here comes the real story.  This woman, whose research concerns the non-traditional support systems in a Latino community elementary school, was herself a member of a similar community.  In short, she was a white woman, adopted by a family of Latino migrants after receiving foster care in their home.
Ever heard of that?
She is also a first generation college student, as far as she knows.
People assume all sorts of things about migrant workers and their sub-culture.  This woman's life, in my view, has the potential to inspire and inform on a whole other level.  If it hasn't been done already, it should be.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Like what?

His obituary was on the front page of my local paper.  Robin Williams commanded that kind of attention.  Shortly after news of his apparent suicide, the internet lit up like a 50-1 longshot.  But there were really no surprises here.  The price of massive talent, massive intellect, massive sensitivity and genius is often depression.
And yet, this is a different kind of denial.  I'm more angry than sad right now.  The shock and empathy will come later on.  It always does.
There will, no doubt, be testimonials for months to come.  Unlike other celebrities, I won't tire of them.  he was so different.  More like Richard Pryor, the kind of comedian that didn't need to say anything to elicit laughter.

There is a haunting image this morning.  The media shows Robin Williams star on the Hollywood walk of fame.  It is surrounded by people and flowers and all manner of messages and tributes.  Only the stoney monument looks back.  The golden letters that spell out his name stare back too.  Solidified.  This is as close as anyone can get...could ever get.
There will be explanations and analyses.  There will be tears and unfortunately copycats.  Maybe someone will get help for their own depression because of Williams death...many more will not.
The questions swirl around, up and over all the flowers.  How can someone who brings so much laughter suffer so much?
I remember some years ago that I met a woman who was Robin Williams high school English teacher.  I'd been invited to give a workshop for Marin County teachers at Redwood HIgh School.  The room assigned was the classroom of this veteran teacher.  In casual conversation at the end of the day, someone asked her if she had ever had Robin Williams in class.  When she replied that she had, the obvious question sprang from everyone's mouth: "What was that like?"  She smiled softly and said, "You all know what that was like?"
Just as we surely all did, so it appears that most of us still don't know what he was like.

Monday, August 4, 2014

At Your Feet

Like most people I know, I've been following the recent flareup between the Israelis and the Hamas led Palestinian government insurgents.  I guess that's what they should be called.  It's such a complex situation to begin with, so the terminology is always dicey.
I know the roots of this seemingly ageless conflict.  I know the convoluted series of viewpoints and most importantly the glaring contradictions.  I've read, with interest, many articles and op ed pieces detailing all manner of solutions or bleak forecasts.  In recent weeks, the glaring problem here is the continual maiming and killing of women and children in Gaza.  Today alone, another report came of 10 death at a U.N. sponsored school in Gaza.  If the thought of that is troubling, then the pictures available are more so.  Tenfold troubling.  With the technology available today the carnage is PTSD worthy.
     Like all wars, this conflict seems to be bringing out the worst and the best in humankind.  Some people remain grounded in their inflexible beliefs, while others cut to the ethical chase.  At what point, I would ask, is it morally acceptable to bomb schools and hospitals?

Of course the media coverage ranges from fairly objective to downright deceptive.  But this morning, as I walked a few blocks from my car to the coffee shop I found myself atop the issue-literally standing on it.  Someone or ones had chalked the sidewalk on both sides of the street for blocks.  Written in white, pink, yellow and blue chalk were the names of Palestinians recently killed in the conflict.  "Killed by Israel" was written near some of the names.  Here and there the age of the victim accompanied the notice.
Many people failed to see or read the chalk marks.  I always knew people rarely looked up when they walked, but apparently they don't often look down either.  I wonder how long these messages will last?  We don't expect any rain for the next few weeks, so that won't be a problem.  I suppose it's possible the chalk scrawling will offend some.  Will they take action?
Tomorrow, at 8:00 a.m. a ceasefire is slated to take effect.  Shortly thereafter, I'll make my way down the sidewalk to the coffee shop to begin my day.  Like those people in Gaza and Israel, I'll be looking carefully...up and down.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

John Fahey-Red Pony 1969

When I stopped in at my local Powell’s bookstore this morning I noticed a new biography of guitarist John Fahey. I guess I knew died a few years ago, but looking through a few chapters and some of the photos of the book confirmed it for me. One thing that caught my attention was the author saying he regretted having only seen Fahey in concert one time and toward the end of his career at that. I realized that I hadn’t seen him or even heard about him for years but what was even more striking was the fact I used to see him often in the early days of his career. That would be the mid to late 1960s. John Fahey was a master guitar finger picker and had a he following back in the day. He also had a few albums out there and played a variety of venues from small clubs to large theaters. I recall seeing him in The Ashgrove, the famous L.A. folk club a few times but also while a student at UCLA. Fahey played a few times in Royce Hall, the UCLA landmark of Italian Romanesque architecture so prevalent in Hollywood films and now commercials. This morning I sifted through a few You Tube clips to see if I could find what I recall was something unique to Fahey. No luck, but you deserve to know. Back then he was a smoker. He’d often light a cigarette, take a few drags and then place the filter end into the guitar strings near the tuning pegs. It would sit quietly there, burning down until he stopped in the middle of a song, take a few drags and then begin again. He did this with Coca Cola too. Fahey would often come onstage with his guitar and then have two large bottles of Coke just to the left of his guitar mike. He’d take a break, in mid song, guzzle down about half the bottle, and then resume. At first the audience would react or laugh. After they got used to it, it just happened. RIP John Fahey, American original.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Consderation

The question stayed with me.  It was so simple, so direct, yet it had been asked so many other ways before.  One of my writing project colleagues asked it of university students, but I couldn't wait to get it into my high school curriculum.  There were so many places it would fit.  the wait would not be long.
About a week later, during my unit on the American Dream /nightmare in 20th century literature, the opening came.  The key to the lock was a small op-ed piece by an Asian American that also happened to be accompanied by a picture of Olympic champion Michele Kwan.
The piece detailed how a TV reporter momentarily forgot that Kwan was an American and then went on to explain and illustrate the author's plight being misjudged the same way.  Hence the question:
Do You Consider Yourself an American?

I had my class respond anonymously to the question and then shared some of their statements with surprising results.  My students did and did not consider themselves Americans.  Whether they were in fact American citizens did not matter.  A few had bizarre notions of what and who had the right t consider themselves Americans.  Notions of race, skin color, religion, eye color, nationality.
It occurred to me that these notions exist mightily today.  I saw a woman interviewed on the local news yesterday about the current immigration/refugee crisis involving Central American children at the border.  She kept referring to them as Mexicans (not true) and in a few words managed to unfurl all the feat and ignorance so prevalent today.  She certainly considered herself an American...on her terms.
Sometimes I wish I could intervene and remind people like this that the very land they are standing on, living on, all belonged to Mexico not all that long ago.  I know they don't know that, but did they ever?
What if American citizenship were a renewable requirement to "consider" yourself an American?  Then people like that self-righteous, ignorant, arrogant woman would have to be accountable for their knowledge about what an American really is and what it really means.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Shipping News

The other day, I thought of something that happened decades ago.  I was 18 and a college Freshman, working a minimum wage job for barely a dollar an hour.  Summer...Southern California...no air conditioning and bottom of the totem pole.  The distributorship for Sony tape recorders had recently opened a plant in my home town of Sun Valley.  Cassettes were just coming within reach, video tape was a few years away, but reel to reel stereo recorders were the thing and this business was growing daily.
I packed small electronic parts and weighed them for either United Parcel or the U.S. Postal Service.  I ran errands which could be anything from picking up food orders for the executives when they worked overtime to taking their Cadillacs to be washed and gassed.
By 4:00 in the afternoon we'd load a VW van and whoever was working with me that day and I would take a truckload of small parcels to the post office.  Clean up and one last interoffice mail delivery and that was the day.
I got two 10 min. breaks and a 40 min. lunch break daily.  Sometimes during those breaks I'd wander over to the shipping department where guys loaded big semis with tape recorders for orders that included large department stores or electronics retailers.  Lots of heavy lifting there.  A silver-steel conveyor belt with what looked like roller skate wheels often led into an immense truck backed up to the shipping dock.  The shipping guys were tough.  They worked hard and at the end of each day, most went across the street to a small bar for a few beers before going home and doing it all over again.  Sometimes they fought, sometimes they joked with one another, sometimes they sat with me and talked about baseball, or politics, or what assholes the owners of the company were.

I learned how to swear in Spanish from those breaks.  I saw first hand how most of those guys were trapped in a situation where their labor, non-unionized, was all that they had and there was really no room for discussion of their conditions or rate of pay.  The trucks rolled in and out.  Recorder parts were transformed into units and large lots rolled out.  A couple of beers and it started all over again until one day someone didn't return and someone else was hired.
That's where I met Charlie.  Charlie worked on the shipping dock.  Just one look and you knew immediately here was a guy with a back story.  About 55 or 60, Charlie had been well-built.  His biceps were still outstanding, but when he took off his shirt, not uncommon during the hot afternoons, you could see that the elasticity of his skin was beginning to diminish.  Charlie had been a stunt man in Hollywood.  One of the guys called Gypsy had told me that at one time he'd done very well playing a heavy in films of the 40s.  It was evident; he'd had the body of a body builder.
This was before Arnold's "Pumping Iron."  Charlie was more in the mold of Charles Atlas.  In fact, one day Charlie told me that he'd prefer I use his whole name, Charles Treadwell.
Over the months from June until October, we talked about all manner of things.  Charles was fascinated that I was taking philosophy in college.  When I'd show up for an afternoon shift he was often eager to ask me what philosopher I was currently studying.  From the Greeks like Plato and Aristotle and Heraclitus, to Kant and Shopenour, Charles was enthralled.  One day I happened to mention Spinoza, saying that he called emotions "confused ideas."
The weeks turned into months and the guys in shipping came and went.  One day, I wandered back to the shipping dock after running an errand.  Dickie, the leader of the men there ran up to me and asked if I'd seen Charlie.  "Not yet," I replied.

 "He's been asking about you all day, wants to show you something."
I looked around but couldn't find him so I went back to the mail room.  Two hours later, on my last break of the day I made my way over to shipping.  There was a huge semi backed up and a gang of guys, Charles included, working feverishly.  I didn't want to disturb them so I decided to creep closer hugging the wall.  The conveyor belt was rolling full tilt.  A portable stairway on wheels was just off to the side.  That's where the foreman perched with his clipboard as the units entered the truck. As I neared this scene I could see some letters painted on the side of the stairway.  In dripping royal blue letters I read, "Emotions are but confused ideas"
                                                                   SPINOZA

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Open Up

One of the books on my summer reading list is the currently popular self-help book called Mindset by Carol Dweck.  I'm not usually in the habit of reading this type of book, but Dweck's credentials are impeccable as an educational psychology out of Stanford, and ...the book was assigned, I mean agreed upon for  a small group of educators I'm currently working with...In other words, I gotta read it and be prepared to discuss its application to current pedagogy.
The thesis of Mindset is simply that the way we approach a task often determines how successful we will become.  An open or closed mind might be another way t think about this.  Dweck offers numerous examples from the world of sports to the academic universe to support this idea.  The book is, in fact, quite repetitious.
Is this idea new?  Not really, but it does force us to think about the mental attitude we bring to everything from daily tasks to life changing decisions.  She highlights the "growth mindset" as the preferable point of view. Hard to argue with that.  We see daily how people who approach a tak or a major life decision with their mind made up will ultimately fulfill that prophecy.
So I've  been thinking how this applies to the life I've lived so far.
What resonated first was the writing group I recently spent a few years attending.  Those writers, myself included, who were able to view severe criticism as a growth opportunity rather than take a defensive stance, ultimately achieve more success.  They welcome the opportunity to grow and learn rather than simply shut down and convince themselves that people just don't understand what they are trying to say.  As one of my writing buddies likes to say, "If one person doesn't understand something I've written, then potentially thousands of others might not either."
Open Mindset.

Last week I realized that I have been learning to open my mindset while learning the craft and skill of fly fishing.
I've always been a bit impatient so one of the things that first attracted me to the skills necessary to be successful at this finesse sport was the opportunity to slow down and be in the moment.  The Zen of fly fishing is well documented.  It's about being there, being in the beautiful settings of lakes and streams.  Everything else will follow.  But the frustration of not catching fish or wondering what you're doing wrong or the difficulty of casting, getting hung up on low hanging branches or unseen tree stumps...you get the picture.  With time and experience came patience and acceptance that every day is different.  Every moment could be the one that yields the prize.  In recent years that's been the case as I sought to validate my skill by catching and releasing (and fooling) fish that are more difficult to catch.  The frustration of seeing others do what I wanted to do has yielded to my own success.  But always, with little or no expectation.  And always, without knowing when.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

No Ladies

Im not quite sure when Feminism turned into Post-Feminism.  I see evidence all around me that the consciousness of the early 1970s seems to have vanished. Beauty contests abound, the media is rife with all the old stereotypes, just in slightly different forms, and much to my surprise, the language hasn't changed all that much.  The "B" word seems to be as prevalent as ever and men continue to put down other men through women whether it be motherfucker, bitch, son of the later, or any of the other possibilities.
And then there is the use of the term lady/ladies.  I thought for sure that woman/women would completely replace that one.  Or so it seemed. The women I knew back then didn't want to be referred to by any term that smacked of "dainty" or "lady-like."  Ladies, they informed the world, were put on pedistels by the patriarchy.  Seemed reasonable.
In one of the most memorable moments from my time spent in Texas I recall an angry young Feminist railing against a friend of mine for making some sort of unconscious statement. "You tiny little punk," she screamed.  He had no idea what he could have done or said, but she was plenty pissed.  Wow, I remember thinking, I need to be very careful in navigating this mine field. My consciousness elevated in that moment, so it was, in the end, a good ting because the language we use can be so biased.  We can be offending people when that is clearly not our intention. All I could do was repeat the words from Dylan's "Ballad of the Thin Man"   ..."You know something's happening, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones."

I don't think it's happening in quite the same way these days.
A couple of years ago I went to a book conference with authors, publishers, and speakers of all types promoting all manner of publishing from small presses to the top houses in the business.
I wandered into a presentation by a young woman somewhere around 30.  She'd written a book about her misadventures trying to meet a man through her wonderful Italian cooking.  During the discussion that followed, the author railed about a first date with a man that wouldn't pay the check at a restaurant where they met.  She was incredulous. "That was it", she said, "there would be no second date, I got everything I needed from that behavior alone."   I get that; or at least how someone could think that way.  But I specifically remember when women requested splitting the check on a first date.  They were moving away from traditional roles, and men had better be aware of that.  Not any more, apparently.
I't's not about the money, really, it's about the confusion.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Medalist

It was the bronze medal for the high bar from the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.  That's what everyone said.  And it belonged to one of the P. E. teachers, Mr. Thom.  They said it was on display in the P.E. office at Sun Valley Jr. High where he taught.  If you got Mr. Thom for P.E.  then you were in for some serious gymnastics from an Olympic medalist.
In 7th grade, I had 1st period P.E.  Mr. Schorr was my teacher, but I got plenty of glimpses of Mr. Thom and a few of the medal in a window display near the Boys locker room.  That first year was uneventful, except for the time Ernest Takimoto forgot to put his shorts on and came to attention in his tightie whities.  We were all barely awake by the start of 1st period and Ernest paid the ultimate price.
My 8th grade year began with new teachers and...of course...Mr. Thom


The word gymnastics was enough to strike fear into my 13 year old self, but when coupled with the thought of Mr. Thom, it became sheer terror.  I wasn't the gymnastics type.  I could catch a fly ball with the best of them, but turning flips or climbing the rope, or what were called "C-circles" on the high bar...I had nothin'.
And then there was Mr. Thom's physical presence.  He had the biggest thighs I'd ever seen.  Massive, and they gleamed like his bronze skin.  Mr. Thom was Filipino, spoke with a little accent, and grinned broadly whenever he spoke his name.  Despite the angst, it wasn't so bad.  We all had to "skin the cat" which was the term for jumping up on the high bar and with him spotting us, turn an under flip and then dismount.  I always wondered what went through his mind as each one of us dutifully went through the motions. Somehow, he got me over the hump.  I landed on my feet after a complete loop and was ready to retire from gymnastics...forever.  I didn't need a medal.
Years later I've thought of that bronze medal sitting in the display case in the P.E. office.  When I tried an Internet search for any details...I again got nothin'.  Except for the fact that no bronze was awarded in 1952, I couldn't find his name anywhere.
So just what was that displayed so prominently for all those middle school athletes to admire?  Urban folklore?  Perhaps.  Just another mystery to let go of if I choose.
But those thighs were real.  I still see them in his bright red-orange trunks.."I am Mr. Thom..."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Snapshot

Today I mark the 48th anniversary of my mother's death.  Over the years, I've noticed that by the middle of June, the date enters my consciousness and I begin to take notice.  It's been so many years but I still dream of my parents and of the house my small family and I shared for almost 20 years.  These constructs are with us for a lifetime.
My mother was only 54 at the time of her death so it's inevitable how many medical advances have come along since she battled cancer.  Back then, the word was difficult t say, and coming out of the mouth of a doctor was as chilling as it gets.

What I wonder about the most, however, is how her death has impacted my life and various decisions and choices I've made over the years.  I wonder if she would have been pleased with my girlfriends, wife(s) and some of the friends I've collected a an adult.  It's all conjecture, of course, but just being able to have those conversations would have been wonderful.
I remember during the last few months of her life I'd have these conversations with her about what I think would probably happen in my future.  I was just about off to college, driving around in a little VW bug, and just beginning to wonder about the draft, the changing music scene, and this place called Vietnam.  She missed all that and sometimes I think it's just as well because of all the pain, the chaos, and realization that things were no exactly as we thought them to be.
Mostly, when I think of my mom, I recall the chance to get close to her in her dying moments, growing to appreciate the struggles of a young couple moving from the east coast to southern California soon after the war ended, and trying to chip off a little shard of the American Dream in a place that came to be known as Sun Valley.  Some things were so simple then.  Television was new, cars became available and futuristic, houses were affordable, public schools nearby and most everyone went there.  My parents, despite being perceived as the other by some, fit in well to their burgeoning neighborhood.  There they found similar folks from Boston to rural Tennessee.  They all became Californians and identified themselves with barbecues, and new Fords, raking leaves and taking snaphots of their gardens.
Today, when I think of my mom, I'll see her sitting on the end of the front porch, smiling as I take her picture, but not really wanting to be photographed.  I'll remember the pain, but also the smiles and all the things she made possible for me from Little League to Cub Scouts, to PTA meetings.  She was the classic martyr because her kids always came first.  Ma, just want you t know that I never forgot.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ben

That summer of 1964 was particularly warm in Southern California.  One more semester of high school to go and then hopefully on to a state college.  I was looking forward to the local Catholic church's carnival and car raffle. (The Monsenior won the car every other year, I swear!) The playground of Holy Rosary school was transformed into booths and stalls with all the teddy bear games and dime pitching glassware you could carry.  There was cotton candy, sno-cones and, of course, lots of girls in small clusters to gawk at for my 17 year old friends and me.
There was also news of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
I knew about the literacy tests, the marches and demonstrations, the danger of trying to bring liberty and justice for all.  My history class the previous semester gave me the opportunity to study current events and my eyes opened to the reality of democracy, or the lack thereof, in America.
When the three civil rights workers went missing in Mississippi, nobody expected a happy ending.  The South, especially Mississippi, seemed intractable. We knew about the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council, and the code of silence that daily covered up all manner of crimes and thuggery. Most of the country knew the time had come. There would be no turning back, but they also knew that this struggle would take sacrifice.  People's lives.
Perhaps I identified with one or two of the young Freedom Riders.  Perhaps my understanding that my baseball idols, like Willie Mays, hadn't had it so easy.  Maybe it was that essay exchange between my English class and one from South central Los Angeles.  No matter, the subsequent deaths of these 3 young martyrs hit me much harder than anything I'd ever experienced.
Before that summer ended I remember watching the younger brother of James Cheney crying at the service for his lost older brother.  That image never left me.

Shortly after that funeral I went to the church carnival and came home with a small goldfish in a bowl.  I named him Ben for the youngster whose grief wouldn't leave me alone.
The following year, my mother's terminal illness would occupy most of my time and turmoil.  I'd go on to study history in college and within five years from that life-changing summer, I'd find myself in the South as a VISTA volunteer.  I'd see parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and yes...Mississippi.  I'd also have a couple of sleepless nights courteously of the Klan.