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


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.