Tuesday, February 25, 2014

This Table

This table served many before I made it my own,
Oak warms food too,
And then one day it was mine,
Taken from an antique store to my kitchen,
I sit there still,
Bumping my knee--catching my thigh on an angular corner,

How many have I invited here to
sit and eat,
sit and think, sit and explain.

I used to paint at this table
Brush aside a sandwich,
or cold coffee,Peel off a slice of watercolor paper,
and do my best imitation of Paul Klee,
Somewhere in the grain must be teal or magenta,
maybe underneath,
Paint brushes have their own agenda on occasion.

Who sits here now?
and who will never appear?
with hands folded or tucked,
resting flat or propped up.

This table recognizes me,
Sometimes for my forearms,
This table is my legacy.
It knows what I write,
who I write, why I write,

This table, like me, gets smudged,
newsprint tells more than one story,

This table is all about feeding and finding.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I'll take Social Justice for $800. Alex

I saw an interesting video clip this morning with regard to Black History Month.  It was a version of the college edition of the TV game show Jeopardy.  I've always enjoyed this type of program because I learn something even though it's just based on quick recall of specific fact.  All in the form of a question, right?
So here we have three of the nation's best and brightest representing Texas A&M, the University of Chicago, and the University of Oklahoma.  In the Final Jeopardy round, where the cash values are doubled and the questions are supposed to be more difficult, the game came down to the last category selected.  That is to say, every question had been chosen in every category except the entire last category: African American History.  Hmmm.   OK, three white kids as contestants might explain this.  So they start to attack the last five questions and the good news is that three were answered correctly.  No surprise because they were rather easy questions about who delivered an "I have a dream" speech and a famous theater in Harlem (Apollo)  That the three college students didn't get Rhode Island as the site of the first all black regiment is excusable but the real shocker came with the silence that followed when asked about the famous Alabama "boys" in Alabama who were convicted of rape in a controversial trial in he early 1930s.  Not one of them had heard of the Scottsboro Boys.

Alex Trebek, feeling the discomfort of this glaring silence offered,"Well, I guess it was before your time."  Just like the Civil War, George Washington, and about a thousand other well known people and events that are crucial to an understanding of the history of this country.
Was I shocked?  Not really.  With the current emphasis on cramming lots of measurable data into social science curriculum, it's no surprise that an event of this magnitude gets overlooked.  When you choose to include something, something else gets overlooked.  Every time.
I created a good deal of curriculum on this case when I taught ethnic studies classes.  It is often included in U.S. History classes as well.  Since my time teaching about the case, PBS has produced and aired an excellent documentary including teacher's guide.  In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, President Obama pardoned one of the last of the original "boys" to be imprisoned.  This post is not about the tragedy of the Scottsboro case.  It's about the tragedy of such a significant event not being included in the study of our history.  I'm sure many high school and college students are familiar with the history of this watershed denial of civil liberties.  They may even know that one of the women who originally brought the rape charges against these  nine Depression era rail riders actually marched in Washington D.C. with the boy's mothers in an attempt to get their release.  I hope so.  but what I do know is that for one uncomfortable minute three scholars had no clue.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Which Side Are You On?

We're just a few days away from a teacher's strike here in Portland, Or.  Though the negotiations continue and will all weekend, the calendar has been set and the media is already sporting photos of teachers cleaning out their rooms.
I still think the strike will be prevented at this writing.  The reason is simple: chaos will result.  There will be sparse attendance and even less learning or what might otherwise pass for real education taking place.
Strikes make bitter enemies; often for life.  I think the school board and most of the top administrators know this.  If they don't, they are about to get a real education themselves.
What resonates strongly for me is the fact that many teachers don't realize their power as a group.  That's why this labor action is so important.  Union membership has become a virtual stigma in this mean time.  That might change if Portland teachers can jump start the willingness to look at how much power they really have if they represent and exert themselves carefully but firmly.

Another important point that the media completely overlooks is that while class size, a decent wage, and retirement benefits are at stake (they always are) there is a larger issue that impacts all of this.  These teachers like many in other large cities and quite a few smaller towns, are making a statement about the corporate attack on public schools, the current testing frenzy, and the data driven madness that's corrupting much of the creative, engaging curriculum that is lovingly written by teachers whose skill's have been severely de-valued.

Update:  On Tuesday, February 18, two days before the strike was slated to begin, an agreement between the teacher's union and the school district was announced.  Right down to the wire, as expected.  If ratified, we'll get a chance to see what stood in the way of settling this matter in a more efficient way.  My guess is that the salary difference will be half a percent or so; not sure about class size.  Both sides continue to refer to the schools that the students deserve.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Lucky Snow

It doesn't snow very often in Portland, Oregon.  But when it does, I mean really snows, it locks everything down for a few days.  Maybe it's just all the former Californians who can't drive in it or are too busy enjoying the sudden whiteness.  If we get more than a few inches, as was the case last week, it will stick and totally put the city on hold.  Schools close, most folks don't drive, the buses, complete with chains, handle most everyone's transportation needs, and the media goes off the deep end.
Even the Olympics or Nightly news can get preempted so that some reporter can go outdoors and stand in a few inches of snow and seriously report to us about what it looks like, what it feels like, and how long it might be around.

Some folks try to act like it's not snow and go about their business as usual.  We find then in ditches with their cars, or walking around in shorts, or even unaware that public facilities and scheduled events have all been cancelled or closed down too.
I call it lucky snow.  Lucky because it forces to stop and put everything on hold.  We have the luxury of just hanging out, or reading the paper longer, or catching up on emails or even starting our income tax preparation.  Of course with the Winter Olympics on TV and the snow and ice outside my door, it's all the more delightful and realistic.
In all my years teaching in the Bay Area I never had a snow day.  We had something called Ski Week which was a holdover from the days when Bay Area folks who could afford to, went to Tahoe to ski in February.  Now, they just sandwich in a couple of days with President's Day and call it a ski week.
But since I've been in Oregon, I've had a half dozen or so snow days that affected the student teachers I currently work with.
Eventually lucky snow,  like all other types, turns to slush.  It ceases to be soft and powdery and becomes crunchy dirt.  Fortunately we have rain here.  Lots of rain.  In fact, as a friend of mine likes to say, the official policy of the city of Portland with regard to snow/slush disposal is to let the rain take care of it.
In the end, what is most satisfying, and a bit lucky as well, is the fact that our snow pack and rainfall totals have moved into the positive column.  Not exactly where we want them to be, but getting there.  All evidence indicates that we'll be able to stop using the "D word" fairly soon.  By May, the rivers will be full of runoff and white water.  The mountains and meadows will be deep green and sprinkled with lupin.  This is why we live here.  When the sky turns dark and they days are charcoal gray for endless hours, I simply recall the early days of summer and the long balmy nights of fall and feel lucky all over again.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Still Friends

I thought he was dead.  If fact, I'd heard he died, or must have.  But there he was sitting across from me in the small OTB on the Sonoma County fairgrounds known as The Jockey Club.  The chances of me being there, 650 miles from Portland on a Saturday in January were slim and none.  This time slim won.

Ted, my old friend from the Bay Area could have died for many reasons.  My complete opposite, in many ways, this Vietnam Vet, former heroin addict, turned caterer, lived alone and chain smoked his way into my life as a thoroughbred horse handicapper.  We met along with a slew of characters at Golden Gate Fields in a small room called The Top of the Stretch.  There was Zim, the psychiatrist, Mike the Berkeley publisher/writer, Bob, the day trader, and Gene the lawyer.  A motley crew of horse players and friends, we'd swirl in and out of each others lives from Friday until Sunday for a few years.  And then we fanned out, back to other lives.  I went to Oregon, Ted ...who knows?  For about 7 years I'd ask anyone I saw, what happened to Ted?  The conclusion was he must have died.  Why so radical a conclusion?
Easy, Ted was battling no only the demons of drug addiction from his years in Vietnam, but he was as likely a candidate for lung cancer as I've ever seen.  he'd had a year of rotten luck that saw his apartment burn down, a driver hit and run as he walked to work on a typical San Francisco foggy morning, and then a battle with prostate cancer.  There were many possibilities.  So many, in fact, that when he went AWOL from this little circle of friends, we all expected the worst.  Besides, we all had each other's phone numbers...BUT that was right before everyone had mobile phones.  Land lines, like people disappear, don't they?
Cut to last weekend.  I decide to accompany my wife to her sister's home in Santa Rosa for the day.  We'd been in the Bay Area for a few days, and this was a rare chance to help my sister-in-law organize her home office.  After the heavy lifting was over, my reward was a couple of hours at the OTB.  I love the Kentucky Derby prep races this time of year and looked forward to spending a couple of hours getting the chance to see the new crop of 3-year-olds.  That's what took me t the OTB.
When my eyes met Ted's we each uttered the other's name.  I was a bit grayer, and he was ...he was...let's just say gaunt.  But he wasn't dead.  Trouble was, he probably soon will be.
I couldn't focus on the horses too much after finding him there, so we talked about the last 8 years.  He confirmed that he was, in fact, battling cancer.  It was spreading too.  He'd moved north from S.F. to Sonoma county just t get away from everything and everyone.  Apparently not the horses, though.  He'd quit smoking a few years ago and now he was dealing with chemo and some spreading tumors.  Apparently he has the same kind of pancreatic cancer that took Steve Jobs life.
Ted and I talked for a few hours.  Even though we exchanged contact information, that's probably the last time I'll see him.  But at least I know where he is and how he is and that we're still friends.