Thursday, December 31, 2015

Continental Drift

I got over New Year's Eve a long time ago.  There were some memorable ones along the way, but after a bit, they just got into expectations blown way out of proportion.  January is a tough time for many reasons, but tonight it'll get tougher because some folks will end relationships or come to the conclusion that they might think about that.  It just does that to people.
I recall a few NYE's that stand out because of where I was.  A young man in South Texas, a middle aged man on the gulf coast in Louisiana, and one particular night in Berkeley, California.
My friends and I  (at the time) came up with an idea for a New Year's Eve dinner where each guest would bring one part of an elegant feast that would take hours to consume.  The idea was to have each guest bring one dish that was particularly meaning to them and then "present" their dish  with an explanation of what went into it as well as the background detailing how they came to appreciate the item.  One of my friends explained that his aunt made Minestrone soup every day of her life.  She lived on a farm in Washington state and picked fresh vegetables all the time.  He had the recipe and shared this wonderful soup with us early on in the dinner.

I can't remember what I brought, but I think it was a main dish.  The party was at my house and my significant other at the time cooked a stew that traced to her native Kentucky home.  I should mention that it was a particularly cold New Year's Eve that year, so soup and stew were most appropriate.  Over the course of the evening, we ate many wonderful dishes.  Sometimes just a taste, sometimes a bit more.  Our original idea was that if we started at about 8:00 pm we could entertain ourselves with food until the midnight hour.

That was the plan until one of my friends and I realized that nobody brought a dessert of any kind.  Not wanting to  appear unorganized, we decided to make one in the kitchen right on the spot.  Taking some bananas dates and a few Kiwi fruit we found on the kitchen counter, we sliced and diced and ultimately plated what we called a "Turkish Continental."  Presenting this tempting delight, we improvised a bullshit story on the spot about how those ingredients were a sacred combination of healthy and symbolic ingredients that brought good fortune in the new year.  Nobody blinked.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cabin in the Sky

I see it out the window of my upstairs bathroom.  It's a handy perch from which to see everything above street level.  It's been there ever since I moved in here about 7 months ago.  After all the rain, wind, and now sleet and snow it remains tucked neatly in the upper branches of an Alder tree.  From what I can tell, it's empty.  But the fact that it's survived tells me it cold easily be occupied again in a few months.

It's a nest.  Probably a robin's nest because they were visible a while back from my upper vantage point.  I marvel how it remains secure in it's place tucked in tightly between branches and able to withstand all that nature has to offer.
Some of the new apartment buildings going in all around this little cabin in the sky don't seem so well built.  Like the birds that occupy that nest when the temperatures warm, the people soon to move into those new dwellings are just looking for some place to land.  The battle for gentrification is being fought all around my town, with and without the birds and their homes.
Do birds she shelters?  They could in this case because this one on my street is going nowhere.  This week it even filled with snow for a little while.  But like a strong road, it drained well.
Today, as I traversed the city I noticed the skyline dotted with more branch bundles and nests that have survived.  No agent to unlock the premises for potential new occupants, just move-in ready.  The rivers and streams are filling rapidly.  The snow-pack is restoring itself nicely.  And the prospect for new crops of birds look very good on this dark winter day.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Good Lord Book Club

I was looking forward to the meeting.  I't had been a few months since my old book group disbanded and I missed the possibility of discussing good literature with other people.  Yes, possibility, because some book groups don't talk about books.  I conveniently forget that.
The old group was only a few people.  They seemed more interesting in drinking the oversized cups of tea and eating the enormous slices of cake that the little coffeehouse where we met was famous for.     I get that working people have difficulty reading whole books within a few weeks.  Especially books that are deemed to be assigned.  But if the people are friendly, and the conversation good, it doesn't matter much, does it?
It does to me.  I want a book group that reads books and likes to talk about them.  Hell, my writing group could produce quality writing and do it while discussing books at the same time.  Am I being ridiculous?  Is it too much to ask for?  So...I was looking forward to the meeting of this new group sponsored by my local library.  They even give people the books!
When I saw James McBride's Good Lord Bird was to be the featured book of the December 14th meeting, I jumped at the opportunity.  I love that book. It's got everything I look for in a good read.  Dubbed a historical novel, McBride's portrait of the infamous slave rebellion leader John Brown is hilarious and poignant.  The writing voice is electric.  This book is centered in my wheelhouse.  Bring it on.

We arrived a few minutes before the start and found our way back to the little room at the read of the library where the book discussions take place.  Three older women dotted the table in the middle of the room.  They were soon joined by 3 more, all in their late 60s or early 70s.  Then the facilitator arrived.  A peppy woman in her late 50s, I'd say.  She introduced herself as Alice and plopped a bag of doughy scones on the table and proceeded to unload her backpack with books and papers all related to John Brown , James McBride, or the raid at Harper's Ferry.  Two more folks arrived and I realized this was just abut the most bizarre looking group of people I's ever seen assembled in one place.  So this is who depends on the library to give them book, I mused.
"Don't the men in this neighborhood read," as the 10 member , a woman with one eye completely closed and oozing something entered, took a scone and began rummaging around for her copy of the book.  No response to my query, I guess I need to raise my voice...but I don't see any hearing aids.
The facilitator began a brief presentation on the collection of materials she displayed before us.  Other books fiction and non-fiction, adult and young adult, all on the historical figure John Brown and some of the people in his life that many of our book's characters were based on, loosely or not. All helpful stuff.  Before the meeting formally began another person entered.  I almost blurted out , Yay! a man who reads," before the figure before me removed her had to reveal a rather masculine looking woman.  No big deal.  Just glad I didn't embarrass myself.  I'm sure I must have looked as weird to them as they appeared to me.
I was hoping to redeem my estimate of these folks, but then we began to go around the table and each tell what we thought of the book.  That's when things got murky.  The first 3 opined that they didn't care for the book but that the writing voice was great.  That was followed by two confessions that they couldn't make it through the book because it didn't hold their attention.  But...the writing voice was most original.
Who are these people?  For the next few minutes, the time it would be my turn to express an idea, I was debating what word I would use to relate how wonderful this book was and why I thought this way.  I settled on "adore."
So it went.
After the initial comments, we actually did share ideas about the substance of the book.
---Second installment to follow---

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Weather or Not

I just found out something that might be important.  The weather on the day I was born.  Apparently, on my birthday...the was 54 degrees sunny but windy in Los Angeles.  I cannot substantiate that as fact, but the information came to me in the form of an advertising gimmick that offered the opportunity to punch in a few numbers on an web page and get this valuable insight.  Free!
Now what.  Maybe there is a writing prompt here.  Maybe the weather on the day you were born says more about your personality than we think?  Maybe.  Where does that leave folks born in a storm or heat wave?  Am I to believe that my 54 degree first day make me rather moderate, with a bright attitude that is prone to be blown off course from time to time. Or could that be you too?
Aside from savants who often remember the weather on every day of their lives, I wonder how many people would rely on this  data as anything reliable?  So how do we learn previously unknown things that might help us navigate our brief lives?  Other folks comes to mind first.  Here the slope can be times.

To see ourselves as others see us is a real privilege.  I sometimes think I have an exaggerated sense of self.  Perhaps having the bully pulpit of the classroom for many years contributes to this.  But then I hear from someone about something long buried in the past and I think that maybe, yes, I did have a hand in shaping a few lives along the way.  It's never an overt or purposeful endeavor.  It just happens from a combination of things.  Immeasurable, to be sure but delightful in it's recognition.
Malcolm X used to say, "the chickens will come home to roost," in describing the wrongs done to African Americans.  At this moment in time, we are seeing more of the chickens and getting a good glimpse of the roost.  Just think how many atrocities have gone un-videoed and how many are popping up currently.  There are homeward bound chickens all over the current political scene and system.  This reckoning will hit a temporary climax with the next Presidential election.  Core values, what it means to be American and the ethical and moral consequences of our actions now are at stake.  That's all.  I wonder what the weather was like on the day the Constitution of the United States was written?  But then as Bob Dylan has so often reminded us, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Humanity's Reminder

Dark days get darker.  More shootings than days in the year gone by, more stereotypes, and the line between perception and paranoia diminishes to a slender thread.
The nation readies itself for the holiday season as anticipation gets tempered by the varieties of pain and suffering never before imagined.  We are all waiting for another large shoe to drop somewhere...nearby.

That a pall hangs over our planet is hardly news anymore.  And still we go to the well to find relief.  What do you do or where do you go for a reason to rise and do it all over again from day to day?
Best advice I ever got was to go to what you know will always be there and what you know to be true.  The variety of filters we all use to comprehend our eternal predicament makes anything possible.  I go to the Blues.  If nothing else, it brings a smile, or a tear.  The polarization of my emotions.  The reminder of my humanity.
We all need our escapes and there are an infinite amount of alternate universes from which to choose.  Maybe we could simply by a gift for someone or pay forward  few dollars we intended for something else.  Most likely, we don't even know what we intended a few dollars for, do we?
Somewhere, a tiny voice reminds us that January is almost upon us and a huge collective corner will be turned.  The color of the month will change.  So, if in this pitch we currently navigate, the reds are violet to burgundy, and the greens don't quite have the odor of fir or spruce, the light of another sun will glow over the mountain in that someday to come next year.
This is how we do it.  We savor what we know to be permanent or at least seems so, and force ourselves to remove our own agendas from our dealings with others and then stand (and sit) back and watch the river flow.

Monday, November 23, 2015


A pumpkin that is too small for anything else cowers near her front door,

              She cobbles a holiday together from scraps of buttered imagination.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Knock Knock Knockin'

Trouble in mind.  I recently read that a new poll reports that 29% of the American people still doubt that their President, Barak Obama, is not a muslim.  Though he regularly identifies himself as a Christian, so do they.  I feel like conjuring up the ghost of Woody Guthrie to deal with this one.  Political and religious denial of the worst order.  What would Woody do, I keep asking myself?  Aside from a few clever retorts in the form of barbs, the great American folk interpreter would no doubt have a few unusual ideas.
"Get these here folks in a room together and then bring in the Pres, " he might say.  "Let them talk face to face with the man they try so hard to ignore.  I'll bet they find they have more in common than not."

What a great idea.  Demystify the cloak of separation and be required to tell a lie to someone's face.  Oh the psychopaths will do just fine, but the one's with a heart and soul might have difficulty.  It could be the start of something big for them.
This week has been filled with all sorts of denials of the human spirit.  The fear mongers are feeding mightily on all the terrorism threats, so their intolerance is flowing like the Texas flood plains right now.  They are closing the wagons while all the while forgetting the compassion that is one of the only remaining positive traits of this culture right now.
Americans have always been a generous, empathetic people because of our history.  Oh I know not always.  When you give smallpox ridden blankets to Native Americans in trade and you mercilessly invade the sovereignty of nations time and again while lying to your own people (Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Grenada, your generosity and empathy quotient declines rapidly.  But on the plus side, billions of dollars in aid, relief, food and weapons constantly pour from the red, white, and blue.  So it is that we approach this holiday season with renewed calls for bombing the hell out of our foes and denying entrance to families who risk their lives daily (some lose the gamble daily too)
This polarization is only exacerbated by the polarization of the media.  Whole news outlets preach to the converted and chisel out the chasm wider and wider all the time.
How much is ignorance and how much is ignorance fed by fear?
It takes it's toll on our daily lives as well.  At least a thousand times a day someone realizes that a friend or family member is spouting untruths or racism, or ethnocentrism or just plain sloppy thinking.  What's double fascinating is that even in what we take for clearly polarized communities there is always contradiction.  Case in point: I've got a number of friends and family members who are rather conservative.  So much so that I completely disagree with any of their thinking.  Some borders on anti-intellectualism.  Some of them live in fancy houses and off of old money, but some are hardscrabble.  Like the thoroughbred horse community I know. They like to remind people that they studied at the school of hard knocks.  That old chestnut of a metaphor becomes their excuse for not reading about or thinking through big issues.  I get that they are wired differently from us folks on the left side of the aisle, but I do like to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to human beings and flat out falsehoods. Just this week, two jockey friends of mine were told by trainers with differing political beliefs that they would no longer be riding for them any more. What to do with these folks?  Don't stop.  Keep telling what you know to be true.  Try to imagine the world from their perspective, and think about Woody's mythical solution.  Sit in a room with them or a virtual room and talk face to face.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Dark and Darker

The temperature is changing.  In every way.  One minute we are dealing with air conditioning and then it's the concern over freezing pipes.
One minute it's the solid red Starbuck's cup and the disappearance of holiday symbols and the next we're on high terror alert.
The President of France declares, "We are at war."  Ten U.S. governors simultaneously say they will not accept any Syrian refugees.  A few of them conveniently forget they once were refugees who fled the political consequences for their families in difficult times.

The sabres are rattling and the machine is crying for oil.  The bombs are already falling and as the season of Peace on Earth Goodwill towards mankind approaches, we have collective PTSD.
If our hair and beards are darker than most, we have cause for concern.
As a culture we like our wars to be the "good war" variety and our warriors to come from the "greatest" generations.  After the recent events in Paris (November 2015) we may get plenty of both.
If our values with the forces of evil that ISIS represents are in conflict, so too are our values among one another in question.  Will the real Islam please stand up?  How can we know what is the bigger threat, our intolerant enemy or our intolerant compatriots?  Both?
The mood feels dark and darker.  If innocents can die so quickly, something must be done immediately.  It's a little like The War of the Worlds.  The antidote to conflict and confusion among ourselves can be a common enemy.  Trouble is, we can't always see or define the foe here.  It's a real guerrilla war because the enemy doesn't always wear a uniform.  So we suspect and we assume to the point of assumicide.  It's a good time to make new traditions.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


This week has been full of disconnects.  I finished reading Michelle Alexander's important book The New Jim Crow about how the Drug War is the new form of racial caste system in this country.  Her research and statistics are impressive.  Simply put, she argues that we have gone from slavery to Jim Crow laws, to mass incarceration.  All are a form of race control. Fascinating too how she quotes both Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin in her final chapter.  Would that both were with us today to provide additional insight.
So then, the day after I finish the book, I sit down for the best entertainment of the week, the next Republican "debate."  Of course these two hour "watch me talk over you and get my time" telecasts aren't really debates, but they are fun to watch because they expose just how polarized our politics are these days both within and without our political party affiliations.
No mention of racial issues anywhere.  Not even connected to the talk about the economy or minimum wage.

This is the same week that the President of the University of Missouri resigned for inaction involving blatantly racist incidents on his campus. We're talking explicit KKK type acts.  That spells ignorance, but it also spells take this seriously...immediately.  Alexander, in the aforementioned book says that indifference is, in part, responsible for the new Jim Crow.  I see that.
A couple of weeks ago the Internet was filled with examples of a Texas approved history text that attempted to whitewash slavery, calling the "immigrants" from Africa, "workers."  I guess more accurately workers with no pay.  Which brings up how each Republican candidate spoke against raising the minimum wage to $15.  In their view that would cause unemployment.  What about the cost of living in a time when rents are rising faster that American Pharaoh, the Triple Crown winner.  Disconnection.  To this mix add the introduction of a simply red holiday cup from Starbucks.  No snow flake or snowman, no musical note or green tree.  Red...just red with their pagan mermaid logo. Christian persecution.  Never mind that for the previous 300 years only one kind of religious icon was "acceptable" for the red and green.  Some of the entitled are feeling the pangs of disconnection.
The clock is not only ticking, it's melting.  As we digitalize everything, we are becoming multicultural whether we like it or not.  Most of us do value the mix.  Like the research in The New Jim Crow, the numbers don't lie.  I only hope the latest versions of the American story include the old Jim Crow. Lest we forget.
A final thought:  Alexander's work also retraces the tragedy of poor people, both black and white throughout our history, to unite.  There have been brief periods when poor and working class Whites realized that with Black support, both could defeat a common foe.  Enter the race card played by White power brokers.  "You may be poor, but at least you ain't black," is the implicit message.  This division represents the biggest disconnect of them all in many ways.  This capitulation to racism is eloquently detailed in C. Vann Woodward's seminal work, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.  Connection, yes, but disconnection as well.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Face Facts

It's been about 9 years since I wondered onto Facebook for the first time.  I'd been retired from full-time teaching only a couple of months and I was trying to track down an Amnesty International petition so I could keep up my involvement.  Amnesty had gone to Facebook in an attempt to use social media to reach more people.  Without thinking too much I filled out some information via my new laptop and suddenly I was confronted with the challenge of filling out a profile.  Literally within minutes of this initial log on, I began to receive "Friend Requests" from former students.  The first one came from Paris, France.
In my 30+ years in the classroom, I must have had a few thousand students.  Suddenly, they began to return to my life.  This was heady stuff.  Of course I wondered what ever happened to so many and now I began to find out.  I soon realized that as I accepted new Friend requests, I was getting more exposure.  As the class of 2004 began to find me, so too did the classes of 2005 and 2006.  Now and then, because of a sibling, I began to hear from classes in the 90s and then the 80s.  There may even be a few from the late 70s at this point.
This re-connection has been welcomed and highly satisfying, for the most part.  Recently I felt the desire to "unfriend" a couple of folks because their politics and mine are so opposite that I can't stand some of the junk they leave on my page.  I can tolerate a difference of opinion, in fact, I welcome it, but it's those long conversations that people feel compelled to prolong.  The kind that generate an email notification 25 times a day.  No thanks.

One particular former student is a most intelligent young man whose thinking appears convoluted to me.  He delights in starting discussions about school reform.  A crack debater in high school, he's now a lawyer who will no doubt read this.  I have always admired the depth of his intelligence, but for the life of me I can't figure out how he came to have some of the opinions he holds.  I'm beginning to think it's genetic in that we're all wired differently.  He enjoys an argument, to be sure.  I get that.  But his latest post decried the "myth" of schools needing more money.  It's no myth, sir.  He's convinced that an influx of money in public schools would make no difference because it's the teachers that need to be replaced that would cost nothing.  How absurd!  Some schools need everything from new furniture to technology, to simple daily supplies and copiers.  It occurred to me the other day that the debate team he was on in high school used to fund their trips to tournaments by selling junk food.  They took over a small room that used to be a student bookstore and turned it into an unsightly space with a sticky floor that housed about a half a dozen soda and candy machines.  What angered me even more than the crap that was freely disseminated to the student body was that these budding intellectuals were selling mostly to the underclass of the school.  This was a fascinating phenomena to watch because it became a large elephant in the room.  But the reality was there wasn't money for programs like forensics, hence the junk food hustle.  I discussed the outrageousness of this with a few of my colleagues at the time, but nothing happened.  It couldn't because the district was complicit in it's commitment to selling junk food in the cafeteria and elsewhere.  Then there were he hundreds of other candy drives to deal with as well as handing out the kind of candy that pulls out fillings for kids taking standardized tests.  They encouraged that.
There are many ways a school teaches, aren't there?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Water Signs

The clocks are re-set; Halloween is over.  Rainfall graced the streets with a few ponds and made the curbs small versions of the bigger dams that surround the local rivers.  The calendar page reads November and a brief glance out my window makes clear the reason that Portland, Oregon was named after Portland Maine.
Orange is ubiquitous.  Butternut squash, pumpkins and candy corn, Indian corn, popcorn, persimmons and a new crop of navels. Leaves...many leaves. Fall is inevitable.
It means I must stow away all my fishing equipment until Spring...except for that travel rod which offers hope when snow is on the ground.  I reluctantly remove all the gear from metric and wonder where the chains I think I have might be.  Time to think about holidays and winter travel and of course, time to take stock of the previous year.
I've heard this is the time when some folks think the moon is in Scorpio.  I don't follow astrology, but history shows us that strange things do happen between the first of November and the end of the year.  Just last year I found myself in the hospital for an unplanned visit.  Fortunately only overnight, but it goes with all the data about this "time." Age has taught me to take things slowly, when possible, and live from day to day.  For an ever vigilant person like me, that's a moment to moment challenge.  But I'm learning.
The days ahead have some wonderful things to anticipate.  Cold, wet weather with warm drinks and good books to curl up with and contemplate.  Visions of the Spring to come.  Fingering the grain of years and people passed.  Realizing what stays in the consciousness and no doubt always will.  Writer Neel Mukergee has called this chewing the cud of memory.  Do you do this?  I find that it increases with age as well.  Maybe that's what we do...most everything we do... play and re-play.  And re-play some more.  Isn't that what a blog is all about?

Yesterday I spent much of the day watching the Breeder's Cup Championship races from Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky.  I anticipate this day for weeks and when it finally ends, I feel bit of post part depression.  Maybe that's the wrong term, but in a way the images of anticipation are, in a way, something we give birth to, aren't they?  I have no real sadness, rather the loss of something to look forward to.  Maybe the next time I walk 6 blocks, sloshing in the icy rain, dipping my feet into newly created lagoons, I'll think of a pasture and a new crop of  2 year olds, romping in the Bluegrass state.  That  will get me through the darkest days and still have plenty of time for painting watercolors in my mind of rainbow and brook trout.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Music is the Medium

"There's only two kinds of music, good and bad."
I'm not sure who said that, but it's been attributed to many.  I rather like the story that Duke Ellington's father imparted it to a young, gifted, son.  Duke certainly got the message because he made so much of the former kind of music.
Most of us have our favorite genres.  A quick look at someone's playlist or Pandora radio stations will reveal much about the person.  For those who have stacks of tape cassettes, or boxes of vinyl records even more knowledge and experience shows through.  Case in Point:  I went to a popular breakfast place the other day only to be greeted by the voice of Blind Willie McTell.  A record was playing...a real record making circles under a needle arm.  Felt like I'd walked into a Texas roadhouse.  I think it even made the food taste better.  I may have been the only one in that room who knew the voice, or even cared, but the music was the medium in that moment.

I've always marveled at how advertisers use the music of our formative years to sell their products.  When the Pillsbury Doughboy showed up playing blues riffs on a harmonica, I used to tell my classes that someday they'll see him as a rapper trying to sell the same old puffy white dough.  Lots of laughs, but mark my words, it's coming when they reach the right demographic in a few years.
As we age, we seem to get frozen or at least locked in for awhile to certain music genres and/or artists.  Again, Pandora helps because if you create a Neil Young station, you'll get lots Crosby Stills and Nash along with those Beatle songs that remind you of when and where you were at a certain time in your life.
I hold on to the Blues.  I'm overjoyed when anyone today covers a classic artist, but truth be told, I'd rather listen to the originals.  I'm old enough to have seen many of the classic Blues performers in their hey days.  Some like me feel it our duty to keep the music alive, so we wear T shirts with Blues graphics, and listen and talk up the music whenever we can.
With every year I'd say I know less and less about current popular music.  Can't tell you how many Grammies anybody won and it takes a good cluster of years before I feel certain I can put a date on a particular song or band.  It's of little value to do so now.  But make no mistake, I care about and listen to new artists.  In my hometown of Portland, Or, I hear all manner of street performers.  Occasionally I'll feed the kitty because it takes guts and resilience to stand out there (often in rain) and sing your heart out.  Now and then it's painfully obvious the busker on the street has a past.  They're too good, they have complete mastery over a piano, a fiddle, or a guitar.  The have a voice!  But then we all do.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Right Deal

I planned on a two hour wait time while my truck was getting serviced this morning.  The Tacoma I drive is getting on in years and has reached the age when there are really no surprises, just unplanned for expenses.  That's why I spent almost 3 hours in the waiting room today.
I can do waiting time.  I read, check email, read some more, do a crossword puzzle and finally get some alone time to just think.  Sitting there with a dozen other people, all of whom drive newer vehicles, I'm sure, I make a little time to check out who is waiting along with me.  Today it was a few retired folks, and a tech wiz, who was plugged in to a few devices, and a couple of folks whose loud phone conversations informed everyone in the room that they had just returned from Canada or that they had no idea how much money was in their checking account.  Ordinary stuff.

And then there was that TV that flashed constantly while no one in particular watched.  With no volume on, most folks just ignored the high definition images constantly pulsating through the room.
After a bit, I noticed what the TV had to offer between 9:00 and 12:00.  Sure, soap operas and game shows, but with the sound off, they can appear very differently.  I spent a total of 10 minutes watching two 5 minute segments of two game shows...soundless.  No questions to answer, just estimate the price of an object or choose between this or that.  You know the shows, both hosted by former comedians who must be laughing to the bank at these steady gigs.  What comes across, more than anything, is that lots of 20-40 somethings come absolutely unglued at the prospect of winning consumer goods.  I took the role of an anthropologist, pretending I was from another universe and was examining data about this strange civilization.  These people, who would eventually assume the role of contestants, would adorn themselves in bizarre attire.  Not really costumes, but rather a blend of home-made outfits composed of inexpensive material and fuzzy, fluorescent, colors.  To this bunch add the svelte models with extended arms,  exhibiting the items up for grabs.  They wore tight-fitting frocks, mostly of primary colors.  They kept their least while on the air.
All this needed no sound to figure out what's going on.  This day, October 21st 2015 is supposedly called Back to the Future Day, in light of the movie that predicted what life in 2015 would be like.  They were right about a few things.  The people in these TV programs seem to value automobiles above all else.  They pause to touch them or stroke their smooth fenders, tops, curvy lines.  If they win, they convulse.  What must they have been fed before they entered the TV studio?  I wonder if their gaudy outfits will survive?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Time Out

Shakespeare used to write about a time when things were "out of joint."  When the music of the spheres was out of tune and the concord of the heavens was discord.  This is that time of year.  Some would say when the moon is in Scorpio while others simply feel that it's all another version of what goes around, comes back...comes around...or represents the myth of the eternal return.  In any case, we seem to be in such a time these days.  It's raining inches and inches in one part of the country while the drought persists in the other.  It's 100 degrees in L.A. with November on the horizon.  Trappers in Alaska can't get to their lines because there has been very little snow for the past couple of years, and this year the Yankees were one and done and the Chicago Cubs have dispatched the Cardinals, perhaps the best team in baseball, and have a chance at the World Series.  Out of joint or simple just time?  Any real baseball fan has got to be smiling right now.  It's been over 100 years since the Cubs were in the World Series.  This is a just once in my lifetime precipice they are on.  As a Giants fan, my mantra this year is "Wait till last year."  Having 3 Series appearances in the last 5 years is more than I ever could expect.  Therefore, it follows that rooting for the Cubs now is a no-brainer.  I noticed that the Cubs uniform has the number 14 on it.  Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, the humble, talented, All-star who's baseball card we all wanted and whose career was stellar never got a shot at the World Series.  His number and spirit will be with this team and yet another powerful force to reckon with in this extraordinary time.

Watching the Cubs fans last night, I noticed how they  waited patiently for the last out to celebrate.  They've been near the top of the mountain too many times to rely on anything but facts.
But this just could be the year.  Forget winning the series, just getting there is the real victory...perhaps.
I'm reminded of a pair of brothers who used to hang out at the racetrack.  Transplanted New Yorkers, they were perhaps the loudest and physically repulsive human beings I ever came across.  Every now and then when the most improbable horse would win at box car odds one of them would yell, "Every dog has his day."  Politically incorrect...yes...bad use of the word dog...perhaps, but the message was clear, don't ever give up on anyone because it all comes around eventually.  Oh, and did I mention that this is the year that Yogi Berra left us.  "It ain't over till it's over, and it ain't over yet."

Friday, October 9, 2015

Postcard to a Beginning Teacher

I was asked recently by a former colleague to share some thoughts on the work/life balance for teachers.  My colleague is teaching in the school of education at UC Berkeley and originally asked me to be part of a panel discussion.  I wold have loved to do it but my work in Portland makes that impossible for now.  We settled on some written thoughts she could share with her students.  Those appear below.  Because I seemed to explore other pursuits while teaching 33 consecutive years I guess I had a reputation of figuring it all out.  Hardly.  I invite comments from other teachers, especially beginning teachers because I know full well that it's intensely personal and the job will take over your life if you let it.  Here's my postcard:

Teaching is all consuming.  Most of us in the profession could work 16 hour days is we allowed ourselves to do so.  For morning people, like me, it is self-defeating and unproductive to keep at it when I should let go to rest or simply lighten up.  It took a while to learn that, but everyone finds their own balance after a decade or so.  
In my 33 years, I learned to recognize where and when to move away from the classroom and put some time/energy into other things.  Of course, back in the early 70s, when I began, the technology we enjoy today wasn’t around and simple things like showing a video/film or obtaining copies of a short story or other textual resources required much more time and effort.  Sometimes, if you wanted to use a particular short story, you had to type it completely.  The masters lasted only one semester, and that was it.  No saving it on a disk or in a computer file. But I know, from continuing to work with beginning teachers as a supervisor and mentor, the all consumptive quality of teaching is very much alive and well today.
As we all know, for beginning teachers, this obsession with your classroom, your students, your curriculum, even your choice of career, can have serious consequences.  Relationships suffer, personalities have been know to change, frustration and anger need to be dealt with, sometimes daily, and the predictable cycles from anticipation to depression are very much true realities that all teachers face.  As the cliche goes. "choose your battles" or as my wife, Katie, likes to say, “Is it a 2 or a 10?”  Sometimes it seems like there are only 10s.

Here’s what worked for me.  I have no silver bullets, just a description of how I managed to attempt the balance for 30 years.  After about 7-8 years, I had an “Is that all there is” moment.  To be sure, teaching remained my passion, and I felt some success and dare I say, pure joy on occasion.  All the romantic notions of teaching are gone by then and that makes some of the better days stand out even more.  I was fortunate to be working in a dynamic social science department as well as an English department loaded with consummate professionals that kept me challenged and growing.  Both departments were collaborative and filled with colleagues who also became life-long friends.  Still I wanted to do other things.  I thought about a sabbatical to travel or do research, but I never wanted to leave the classroom bad enough, I guess.  I had other interests that I wanted to develop, and my epiphany came when I realized I could do both: teach and pursue other interests.  That’s when I became conscious of time management.  Throughout the last 25 years of my career, I managed to produce two radio oral/musical history documentaries on American subcultures that fascinated me, (1979-84) Hobos and rail-riders and horse racetrack culture) act and play harmonica in a stage production about the life of Woody Guthrie, ( 1980-85) and finally, work as a correspondent for a national Thoroughbred horse magazine (The Bloodhorse 1985-2005) I did about 8-10 short articles a year along with various major feature pieces/personality profiles over the years.  Much of the time devoted to these endeavors involved weekends and summers, but not exclusively.  Some summers were spent doing BAWP activities or pursuing other education opportunities like a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer seminar on 4 Southern Women writers in New Orleans. (pre Katrina)  Enough about me!  Here’s what helped me keep the balance.  
I set priorities. One easy way to do this is to make lists. Beneath a large clip on my roll book was always an index card with an updated list. It really does help to write things down.  Even the act of making a list helps gain control over everything you need to do on a daily basis. While in the classroom, my lesson plans, organization and preparation always came first.  While teaching multiple English 3 Honors classes my paper load was enormous, but I would not allow myself to get too far behind because I held tight to some daily time to grade papers and keep plans and resources up to date and available.  Obsessive, yes, but that’s what worked for me.  There were two times that were sacred for me.  Between 4 and 6, on afternoons with no meetings, I’d plant myself in a coffee house and read essays or grade papers for my psychology classes.  Just making a dent in the stacks is crucial.  I found that if I could keep this a routine, by the time I came home, I already had something done and I could  listen actively to my wife discuss her day, indulge myself in a quiet dinner,  or catch up on world news/pop culture (both are vital for teachers) and perhaps some junk TV to just escape.  While writing for the horse magazine I’d often have a 24 hour deadline.  So, I began weekends by getting up fairly early (6:30 on Sat. but never on Sunday) getting some laundry done, grade a few papers while at a coffeeshop and then by 10:00 just stop and don’t think about school until Sunday afternoon.  Often, I’d make sure handouts, books and other things needed for Monday were in place before I left on Friday afternoon.  Most teachers do that normally, so it was no big deal.  
Again, when you have my kind of obsessive personality along with the need to put time in with other passions, it can conflict with personal relationships.  Granted I did not have children of my own, but there was a 4 year period in my life when my significant other was a woman with a 6 year old son, so I did assume all the responsibilities of a step-parent on occasion.  That’s no substitute for having children of your own, but I  did experience how important it is to compartmentalize and prioritize and just plain sacrifice your own interests and spend quality time with your family, whatever form that may take.  
To conclude, let me offer some general advice.  Acknowledge that being a full-time teacher will consume you if you let it.  There is never enough time, there is never enough you can do for students, you will rarely, if ever get caught up on anything, but there are things you can do about that. Try not to do anything school-related on Saturday.  Just one day a week that is yours alone can work wonders.  Try to set an evening time, i.e.. 9:00 pm when you don’t do any school work. I learned from a Norwegian educator who once did some research at El Cerrito HS that American teachers feel they have to grade everything.  She told me that in Norway, students might complete 3 assignments and choose one for grading.  I found that helped reduce the massive paper load and enabled me to feel more in control of my classes and ultimately my life.  I also placed more value on formative assessments and self-assessments by students when possible.  These are the kinds of things many young teachers feel pressure about doing because of the current test culture affecting morale.  They are, however, strategies that are useful, productive, and valid and ought to be explored through collaboration with colleagues. 

Finally, because it is vital for teachers to share some of their personal lives with students, you must maintain that life, explore other interests, take a few risks and put some time and energy into passions you may have neglected.  You’ll be doing something great for your own mental health and have plenty to share with students as you build those important relationships.  When you get particularly angry or frustrated, remember that both teachers and students have tremendous resiliency.  Get back on the horse right away and do what you know you were born to do.  Final thought, don’t let anyone tell you that you might be burning out.  People used to ask me if I felt burn out when I expressed anger or frustration or even outrage at some of the things teachers are asked to do or the loss of autonomy that often comes down from on high…it’s possible to be just as passionate and caring in the classroom while feeling all the emotions that come with the complexity of teaching today.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Body Politic

After all the initial reactions to the regularity of mass shootings in this country, the comments seem to divide themselves into categories.  It's the gun's mental illness, it's it entire history and totality of violence in this country's past, it's our lack of adequate health care, it's all these things, it's none of these things.
Some folks don't like the pressure put on mental health acknowledging that mentally ill people are no more violent than anyone else.  Others want to regulate guns while some think that arming teachers will be just the ticket.  It seems to me that teachers will not carry least most of them.  I'm sure some already do, but then there is a wide variety of personality types in the profession in case you hadn't noticed.

I favor the gun obsession argument.  Chickens do come home to roost.  Think about how much exposure a typical citizen in this culture has to violence.  It's revered.  It has enormous arenas built to celebrate might.  And those are just the healthy responses!
What also seems to bubble to the surface are the profiles of these shooters.  There are so many similarities with the depressed, disaffected, isolated, alienated 20 something that it seems we could predict some of these paroxysms before they take more innocent lives.  What pains and continues to mystify me is how some of these folks have so many guns in their homes.  In the recent Oregon shooting there were 6 guns on site attribute to the shooter and another 7 more found at his home.  All legal, of course.
In the wake of all this, I've been reading what I consider to be the most powerful and insightful book about race, violence, fear and anger born and bred in America.  Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me  should be required reading.  In fact, that's what Toni Morrison urges in the blurbs on the cover.  What Coates does, that seems to be the singular quality of this book, is set the fear and anger in it's accurate historical context.  There are powerful reasons that people don't feel comfortable talking about these things.  Coates' book is in the form of a letter to his 15 year old son.  Aside from being the familiar father-son talk necessary for African American men, he sheaths his ideas in the form of threats to the body.  You must realize that there are forces out there who are trying to take your body from you.  These forces feel entitled and emboldened in doing so.  The similarities to what many innocent students feel in this moment in time are inescapably glaring.

Friday, October 2, 2015


The postal clerk hands me a sheet of Maya Angelou stamps.  We both hear his radio.  Breaking news tells us of the latest school shooting.  This time in our state.  This time only a few hours down the Interstate.  This time more people reported dead than usual.
The postal clerk is hardly empathetic.
"Criminals will always get guns," he spits at me.
Any gun control will just keep the good people from their right to own guns."
I don't respond; just take the stamps and walk away.
We don't see eye to eye.  In fact I can't begin to fathom how he sees this issue.
But we both know the drill.  Deflections cobbled from "mental illness" a twisted version of the 2nd Amendment, or anything that fits the bill.

These folks want to kill terrorists.  Their lens is clouded because they hardly realize thousands more have been killed by our home grown variety than by any from another country, culture, religion, or organized group.
We've perfected the lone wolf.  The depressed kid that often lives at home with his mother.  The one that can easily obtain an assault rifle.  He poses with his long gun.  He paints his social media efforts with plenty of images...plenty of convoluted thoughts, yet maintains the aura of surprise.
Our politicians have no will.  No backbone.  No huevos.  That adds up to no ethics.  Like my friend selling stamps, they've all gone postal in a rather strange way.
All of these impotent ideas under one flag today at half staff

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Hard Talk

Been wondering about the value of having conversations with people whose politics can only be described as delusional.  I't's really a waste of time.  Just this week I found myself privy to social media discussions on a number of things from the current presidential race to education reform.  In most cases the thread of the dialogues involved people trying to maintain civility while completely disagreeing with one another.
Fascinating how the U.S. Constitution can have such divergent interpretations.  Add to that the Bible, and most of the spewings of political candidates.  People mask and rationalize their racism, their nativism, and their empathy or lack thereof.
I've even come face to face with some folks who will always believe that Barak Obama is a Muslim.  Paranoid delusion is the only explanation I can manage.  I suppose this denial is something they really need to hold onto.  Another "friend" of mine continues to bash teacher's unions in his desire to remove poor teachers and drive his view of "school reform."  He conveniently forgets that these unions are composed of teachers and serve many purposes from securing a just wage to defending academic freedom.
I'm not going to take the bait anymore.  I've been hooked and managed to throw the hook, so not going to go there any more.  I'm coming to believe that it's only worthwhile to exchange views with people on education if they have taught more than a decade.  Ridiculous, I know, but so many people have strong opinions on school reform and education policy who have just not walked the walk.  So, I try not to talk their talk.
Another phenomena that keeps rearing it's ugly head is how to respond when someone makes a blatantly racist or homophobic or sexist  statement in public.  Of course, if you respond directly, you'll be labeled "politically correct."  What happened to simply being correct?  To merely tell the truth and to push back against those who do not.  This would certainly be part of my curriculum.  Great opportunity for role playing.  Maybe one of these high paid TV executives could pitch a TV show that offers people a chance to role play these situations.  "What Would You Do" comes close but what we need now is the opportunity to play the roles from all sides.  Not gonna happen, is it?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


A friend of mine is putting together a panel about work/life balance for a teacher education class at UC Berkeley.  I had to sadly decline an offer to be on the panel because I won't be in town but it got me thinking.  In some way I was the poster child among my colleagues for someone who seemed to have the balance figured out.  That's because I had a few very specific passions I incorporated into my life throughout my 33 year teaching career.  After about 7 years in the books, I had what amounted to an "Is that all there is" moment.  I was fascinated by oral history and teaching both history and literature through traditional and contemporary music and began to think about a project where I could combine these pursuits.  What resulted was a radio program I produced for a listener sponsored Pacifica radio station in Berkeley.  I had been involved in a traveling show about the life of Woody Guthrie (another work/life balance adventure) and had some contacts with the radio station after we did a series of benefits.  One of the station producers agreed to assist me with the project and it took life after a couple of years working on it during summer breaks and now and again on weekends and whenever I could get a few minutes. It was an oral/musical history of hobos and rail-riders.  The folklore and folk music is rich in this area.  From that initial venture came another radio program based on another passion of mine, thoroughbred horse racing.  The race track was a perfect sub culture to investigate and contained many similarities to the romanticism and alternate universe that surrounds train hopping.   That second project led to another career in journalism after I was asked to write an article about my interviews with horse trainers, riders, and the plethora of colorful characters that surround horse racing.  The music, from traditional folk to blues, to progressive country is rich in horse racing lore as well.  Over a period of 10 years I became a correspondent for an industry publication that, pre-internet, came out weekly and brought me a small bonus income while allowing me to meet and interview many of the athletes (equine and human) in the sport.
All this while teaching full time, and if I might be so bold, garnering a teaching excellence award from my district and peers.

So, what's missing here?  Well, the balance comes at a price.  It ain't easy and requires some sacrifice.   Let me explain.  When I'd taught about 5 years or so a friend once asked me how it was compared to how I thought it's be.  I used a metaphor to explain.  "Remember that guy who used to be on the Ed Sullivan show when we were little.  You know the one who'd get the plates spinning on sticks and then get some plates twirling on a table in front of him simultaneously, and the have to rush around to keep them going, but all the while still adding more and trying to juggle balls at the same time.  There would always be one wobbly plate you were sure would fall but he'd revive it at the last minute as the audience gasped."
"Well, I said, that's my life teaching."
In the end, the takeaway here is that you have to make room to explore other interests if you want to keep everything spinning.  To do that requires sacrifice.  I used to get up just as early on weekends to do laundry while grading papers or lesson planning so I could free myself for other pursuits.  When I wrote for the horse magazine, an article was on a 24 hour deadline.  That sometimes meant working on school things on a Friday night to clear the weekend and making sure I knew what I was doing (and had everything in place!) for Monday.
I think I fooled a lot of people, because the balance didn't come easy.  I tried to be one of those teachers who said I never do anything after 9:00 pm or I clear all my weekends...always.  When your students write, you can't do that.  But you can overlap.  You can take a couple of hours for yourself daily.  (4-6pm was mine...if possible)   And then there is the complexity of relationships to factor in.  That changes everything and you have to be an expert in compromise.  Again, it's not easy and there were days when I was irritable because I ended up going to a family function or doing something I didn't want to do and lost time on my precious "project."  In the end,  go for the balance and let it take whatever shape works for you.  Teaching is consumptive; you can never do enough for your students and you will never be caught up.  Once you realize this it is possible to develop other parts of your personality, other talents, other interests.  It's all worth it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Talk To Me

We all know that the impact of ever changing technology is having a dynamic impact on how we relate to one another.  The contradictions are glaring.  We are supposed to be closer to one another than ever, but the reverse is often true.  People walk around tethered to their phones sneaking looks at the small screen.  They often walk into things, lose concentration, and probably most significant of all, don't relate to other people.  They drive around with personal soundtracks booming, sometimes with earphones on blaring something else into ears assaulted with multi rhythms.  I was once reminded by a student who seemed disconnected, "we can do more than one ting at a time."  So can I but is that always a good thing to do?
Out of all tis came the comment from a friend the other day about a sports team from a high school traveling on a bus.  The driver had remarked how quiet his passengers were, and that was only recently the case.  Connected to phones, I Pads and ear buds leaves little time for conversation.  I've noticed, too how every time the media shows a professional sports team arriving for a game the players emerge plugged into something.
Is face to face conversation threatened these days?  Apparently so.  Recent studies suggest we engage in live face to face (face2face) conversations increasingly less than ever.  What are the consequences for a culture when we speak only through text message, email or phone?  Do we speak differently, alter our speech in inflection and content?  What about our ability to focus on another person and actively listen?
This bus ride thing got me thinking.  If young athletes traveling to a venue don't really talk to each other like they once did, what was it like on a team bus20 or 30 or even 50 years ago?  Minor league baseball teams are famous for 12-15 hour bus rides.  Imagine taking one of those trips in the late 40s or early 50s?  What went on for 12 hours?  A quick bit of research yielded an idea of what that must have been like.  Players traveling from Minnesota to Colorado or California to Washington or even across the state of Texas (nine hours from El Paso to East Texas) My guess is that the did two things more than anything else.  Aside from sleep, they played a lot of cards.  So where does that leave conversation?  Probably baseball was high on the list.  They must have talked about their own stats. their opponents, the various cities they rolled through and their opponents.  Then on to the big league players and their dreams and goals of making it to the big time.  Since we are talking about mostly 20 something young men, probably a portion of the conversation had to do with their love lives or lack thereof. In the days of the Negro League, it's a good bet that they talked about their treatment.  Which cities were better for players of color.  What the "Green Book" said about places to stay or eat, or which places to avoid.
 I'll keep looking at this because it's not impossible that they regularly talked about other things, things that seem to go undiscussed these days.
A colleague of mine once suggested that one reason kids were often too talkative in a classroom was that they were rarely in an environment where the TV or other media weren't constantly on, so that when such distractions were not present, they made up for lost time.  Plausible.  At least they are talking...It's what we do with that talk that can make a difference because it looks like opportunities for one on one conversation are dwindling.  Who will we be then?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Loss of Sense

Sometimes time seems frozen.  I'll see a picture of a friend or acquaintance that I've not seen in person for decades and their image from days past is fresh in my mind.  It hardly seems like years since we last hung out or saw one another.
If the person means more than just a passing friendship, the effect of stopping time seems more vivid.   Perhaps a defense mechanism, or another manifestation of holding on to something ephemeral.
The technology we now have incorporated into our daily lives adds to this phenomena as well as creates additional twists of reality.
Scroll through a host of Facebook posts or even a lengthy list of Facebook friend pictures and experience most of the people in your current and past life all flashed before your eyes in a mass of slideshow moving parts.  Most likely most of these people know a limited few of the other faces they are on this moving billboard with.  Yet the juxtaposition of their smiles and grimaces makes for a fascinating kaleidoscope of humanity.  A few tinges here and there too, no?
To this add the realization that some of these folks you probably will never see again.  And that's OK too.  It's that particular phenomena of our internet age where we are closer than ever, but really just as far away.

I experienced this in another way a few days ago.  Looking forward to watching American Pharaoh run in the Travers Stakes, I cleared the day and set up my computer.  Of course I don't have to go to a race track any more to follow the sport.  Even a smart phone will let you place a small wager and watch the race, albeit on a two inch screen.  I refer to that experience as having a race track in your pocket.
Saturday began with all the excitement and anticipation of Derby day until a power outage forced my day at the races onto the I Phone.  While I momentarily felt rescued from the dilemma, I realized in a profound moment what was missing.  No smell of cigar smoke, no mustard or crowd roar.  No seeing the thoroughbred dancing in front of you.  Thoroughbred racing is one of the most intimate sports for the fan.  Getting close enough to talk to the jockey or see a horse saddled with nervous owner and hopeful trainer (or is it the other way around) is easily done at most tracks.  So, for the convenience of watching a televised race and interactive betting, we must sacrifice most of the sensory experience that is such an important and aesthetic part of the sport.
True it is still possible to go out to your nearby horse track.  But with out the throngs that only show up on the biggest days, you might as well just stay home.  So much is missing.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lost and Gained

I think it's the Woody Allen movie, "Play It Again Sam," that features a scene where Tony Roberts character is telling Woody Allen's about how he can feel better about the loss of a relationship.  No matter that the relationship in question is the wife of Robert's character.  Allen is having trouble with accepting loss (what else is new?) and Roberts reminds him that there are certain things in this life that will always be with you.  In fact, he goes on to say that when you feel particularly depressed about the human condition for any reason, these things will always be there.  A Louis Armstrong trumpet solo, a dynamic sunset, great works of art, or even just places you like to visit, foods you enjoy, or the sound of wind, guitars with harmonicas, or a child laughing.  Simple as it is, just knowing these things will always be there makes it possible to endure some of the dark times we all must experience.
I can't remember how this impacts the lives or events of the movie referenced here, but I do know the concept has certainly helped me through a dark time or two.  I've gone so far as passing along this advice in one form or another to friends in need or folks I know feeling the full effect of loss in their lives.
 I had a chance to listen to some song lyrics the other night at a local music venue. One of the featured performers did a cover of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery."  One particular stanza that got me thinking.
             Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery,
             Make me a poster from an old rodeo,
             Just give me something that I can hold on to,
             To believe in this living is just a hard way to go. 

Something that I can hold onto; it's the same issue, isn't it?  We all have angels from various cities and posters from past events that we can and do hold onto.  They will always be there for us.  
Angels and posters come in many forms.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bonus Word

“The bonus word is paraphernalia,” Mrs. McCarthy said. 
“Para..what,” someone yelled back.
“Par a fen al ia”  Mrs. McCarthy stood her ground.  All five feet 11inches of her Irish school teacher self.  Her mother of the brood, warm, stern, no nonsense self.  We loved her 7th grade English class and especially the bonus word on spelling tests.  If you got the bonus word right, it counted in place of a missed word somewhere else on the test.  The bonus word came with all the anticipation of a mystery.  Even a word like paraphernalia was fair game.  The trick, of course was that it was para …pher…nalia, not para… fa… nalia.  We knew this because paraphernalia had been the bonus word a few times already.  
   So, most of us at Sun Valley Junior High could spell paraphernalia, but we never used the word.  It wouldn’t come into heavy usage until the word drug preceded it a decade or two later and we were not in the habit of discussing our “camping paraphernalia,” just our shit. 
In that select group of 7th graders who not only knew the spelling, but the definition of paraphernalia, were students who no doubt would become very familiar with the concept as they navigated the passage from youth to adulthood.  Many, not the ones we’d expect. 
First choice would have been Mickey F.  His uncle was supposedly “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the gangster.  Mickey was a quiet kid with the short sleeves of his white Tee shirt rolled up all the way and the traces of a cigarette pack in the wrinkles.  He had the wavy hair and receding hairline of a 40-year-old man.  Nobody knew exactly who Pretty Boy Floyd was, except that he was a gangster that rode around in cars with running boards and “plugged” people with a Tommy gun.  It would be 20 years before any of us learned of his Robin Hood reputation and how he’d anonymously beg a meal with a poor Oklahoma family and leave a hundred dollar bill underneath his plate so they could “save their little home,” as Woody Guthrie sang. 
Arthur H. would come to know paraphernalia well.  His life was sucked up, spun dry and then shoved down the drain of the Vietnam War.  There must have been others in that group of Mrs. McCarthy’s but Arthur is one of the only one’s I heard about.  College wasn’t for him right out of high school and he’d hooked up with his fast lane girlfriend faster than a GTO.  The army offered mechanical training but they soon took the auto shop tools away and planted an M-14 in his hands.  By the time he had a weekend of leave in Hawaii, he’d been dumped by his “wife” and was back in Vietnam the following Monday.  He soon acquired paraphernalia.  Many of those boomer kids in uniform carried the same trappings of their brothers and sisters in Haight Ashbury.  Arthur’s collection, eased his pain, but stole his soul. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Stationery Story

The back to school commercials start in late July now.  I don’t feel the pull until the second week of August.  This is the exhilaration time for teachers, and even after retiring from the full-time routine the pull is always just as strong. 
I begin to think about stationery stores and then quickly lament that they don’t exist any more.  Or if they do, they hide in plain sight.  We have the big and getting bigger box stores and that seems to be about it.  Now the two giants, Depot and Max or Club, or whatever it’s called today, have merged.  Then there is Staples but they don’t even have decent staples.  I miss a good stationary store. 
Once upon a time I found things like file folders in unusual colors or wood grain.  Many choices of pens, pencils and the thing I love most, college-ruled, easy on the eyes, light green writing paper. 
I remember how just putting 5 sets of essays to grade in crisp new folders lightened the task.  I still employ that method for the work I do now with beginning teachers.

Maybe the pull of the office supplies has to do with the momentary control that comes with organizing the new products.  There is an instant for teachers preparing to open the year, when everything is pristine.  Nothing is missing, torn, graffittied, or broken.  The stapler is full, the writing paper in good supply.  Even the windows are clean.  For some, as in much of my experience, this all comes with rooms and furniture that have lasted for generations, but nonetheless, a delightful, ephemeral calm has settled on your learning environment.
One year, a particularly insightful parent worked a deal with a local stationary store in my community.  Each teacher was given about $300. credit and allowed to purchase whatever they wanted/needed for their classroom.  It resembled one of those multi-party lottery tickets for some.  While most purchased paper and art supplies and things that would hardly last the year, a few went for one big purchase.  One even bought a lectern.  I'm still trying to get my head around that, but it can't be helped.
Maybe just going online and being able to hunt for one of a kind or unique items will fill the slot that a local small business once held.  I doubt it but it's all that's left.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Jump Back

Last night I lost a post I'd written due to a poor internet signal in Central Oregon where I am currently spending a few days.  The irony of this jumps high in my face like the huge rainbow trout I also lost,  That fish was the subject of the post.
My thought was to get a written description down somewhere because it just might have been the fish of a lifetime.  Of course, for a fly fisherman who dutifully practices catch and release, I will always have the memory.  That's all we ever have anyway, isn't it.  I'll go out there today but it wont be like yesterday because no two days are alike.  Perhaps a few hours on the water will help sharpen my description skills.  More to come...
The second day arrived a bit cooler with very few clouds and fewer people.  I took my camera along mostly to tempt the fates, but was rewarded with a nice pic of the landscape, a surprise selfie, mostly from boredom, and a nice rainbow who pounced on my fly as I was floating peacefully eating an energy bar.  They always seem to make contact when my concentration is not 100 %. 

So long until next year or perhaps a post Labor Day adventure calls.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Picture This

I spent some time this morning looking at a slide show of photos from the 1930s.  Most of the work in this collection was of African Americans.  Having taught about The Great Depression many times, I'm familiar with many of the books and photos from that crucial time period.
Visual literacy is a subject that always played a role in the curriculum I created.  Who doesn't love to look at pictures.  Granted, there are historical photo essays that are difficult to look at, but in the long run, they are, in my view, always worthwhile.
One particular photo caught my attention.

This picture of a man walking up stairs to the segregated section of a movie theater wouldn't leave me alone.  As I've often done, I asked myself what I see first... and then what?  There is an artistic symmetry to the photo; a dualism from black and white to shadow and light, to have and have very little.  Lots of symbolism too.  The clock the Dr. Pepper message and of course the ladder that appears under the price of admission to the "colored"section of the theater.
That section would have been the balcony.  From there I wonder what films the good people of this little town had seen at this theater.  Since the photo dates to the 30s, there is a good chance that some of the most popular films of the era where shown.  If so, then they no doubt saw films that were characteristic of hard times.  Films that showed a better world, a world where want wasn't so extreme.  The era produced many of those.  Maybe they saw King Kong.  The beast that humanity eventually conquers serves to provide additional symbolic comfort for those who feared even more than fear itself.
Sitting in that darkened balcony, what must have gone through the minds of that audience?  If they were fortunate enough to purchase 10 cents worth of escapism, what reality did they exit the theater to?
I suppose I could do the research and answer some of my questions, but right now, I prefer to simply wonder.  I'm curious too, if in this segregated movie theater, some of the short films and advertisements directed at a Black audience were shown.  Maybe there were separate days/nights when Black folks could sit in any part of the theater.  Maybe not.  Occasionally, the old films surface locked away in a warehouse, for decades, and sometimes restored to once again reveal so much of our history.  For now, we do have some of these wonderful photos (sad and alarming as some may be) that still have the power to open up the imagination.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

RPM in Peace

There is a wonderful little record store in my neighborhood.  That's right a record store.  It's name says it all: Vinyl Resting Place.  We seem to have hastily buried the notion of records a few years back and now, as a culture, we may be having second thoughts.  It's no secret that younger generations prefer listening to vinyl.  They say the same thing that we said when CDs first came out.  All that stuff about sound quality and tone.  I've never really been able to tell the difference but I confess I did buy into it.  I used to find myself buying albums I had on vinyl as CDs only because I thought they might sound better.  Still not sure if that was a mistake but I have a few hundred of each now.
So, I peeked into the resting place the other day and found it was much more alive than I suspected.  One of the owners was there, a woman about my age and playing some Muddy Waters.  The selection was modest, but all albums were reasonably priced and appeared in good condition.  If I ever decide to send some of my vinyl to it's big turntable in the sky, this is the venue.  Someone will have the pleasure of discovering some of my best stuff anew.  Much more satisfying than a funeral.

As a result of my little venture there, I began recalling just how important buying was to me as a kid growing up in LA LA land.  Guess that began when I saw a 45 of Elvis' Jailhouse Rock in it's original sleeve.  I bought that exact record at the Community Market In North Hollywood when I was in the 5th or 6th grade.  Think I must have given 50 cents back then.  It sells for ten bucks today.  If my copy exists some where it might not have any sound left on the disk.  So many parties and bedroom performances...The same would go for one of the first 33 albums I bought, Ray Charles' Greatest Hits.  I played the hair off that album along with Hully Gully by the Olympics.  So much for Jr. and High school.  Along came Dylan and things changed.   Very few of my vinyl recordings from 1965-75 would bring much of a price. That's because I traveled a good deal from coast to coast those years and the times being what they were saw heavy use and many additions and subtractions from my collection. That's just the price paid.

There is one exception, and that is the RCA Vintage Jazz and Blues series that I consciously began to collect in the early 70s.  I had my first teaching job and the resources to "invest" in what I thought would be a worthwhile group of albums.  Besides, it was fun trying to find as many of those still in print as I could.  It often took a trip to another state, or even Canada to find something unavailable in Northern California where I lived most of my life to date.
My vinyl is in a couple of boxes, having recently moved.   I still haven't got a turntable but that may come.  At least one thing is settled.  I know where it's going to go when the time comes.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hot Time

This has all the hallmarks of a long hot summer.  Start with the literal.  Here in Oregon, the record for consecutive 90+ degrees was not broken, it was smashed...with authority.  No rain here in Portland for over a month and though the city's beautiful parks still have greenery, the grass is turning brown.  Maybe a thunder shower or two will stop by this evening, but things are dry and getting dryer.
Last week I drove up to one of my favorite little lakes on Mt. Hood to do a little fly fishing for the first time this year.  The water temperature in the morning was well over 70 degrees and even at 7:30 in the morning, there was very little fish movement.  Only a few half-hearted rises and no interest in a dry fly whatsoever.  I managed to hook three in a two hour period, while landing only one.  The other two came unbuttoned either because they only nibbled at my nymph or because I was deliberately taking it easy on them and opted for the quicker release.  Either way, I went in early and called it a day before noon.
Hopefully things will straighten out before Fall arrives.  August appears a real desert right now.  We'll see what Central Oregon has to offer in a few weeks.  The altitude might be just the ticket, because there are a few places with shreds of snow remaining.  Even just looking at it might make the weather more endurable.

But while Portlanders have a difficult time with 90 degree weather, it's still nothing compared to a summer in Texas or Louisiana or any number of East Coast cities built on swamps.  We get a bit of humidity now and then, but more often than not, the heat is not as intense and besides, this is Beervana, so we have ample opportunity to mitigate the issue  in our favorite pubs.  Air conditioning helps too.
The Presidential campaign too has sparked a few outrageous thoughts recently.  Donald Trump is such a wonderful representative of the worst our culture has to offer.  His values spill out of the convoluted musings he utters daily.  To my refined educator's sense, he has no editor, his comments are unrehearsed, right off his expensive cuffs.  The question persists: For whom does he speak?  Could there be millions that share his racism, his misguided greed and his inflated sense of self-importance?  Probably.
And in the other corner sits Bernie Sanders.  Bernie has lit the fire under a simmering middle-class.  I'd love to see them go toe to toe.  That might heat up the air waves.  A good bit more than the luke-warm lessers of evil we will have in the end.