Saturday, December 24, 2016

Best for Humanity

Back in the 16 year old days of my life I went for a walk on Christmas eve.  It was an uncommonly cold winter for Southern California, and while there was no hope of snow, there was thick fog and the breath we blew turning to mist and leading the way.  In my new found freedom as a 16-year-old, I went on a little excursion around my neighborhood.  Announcing that I'd be back in a few minutes, I walked the length of my street noticing the frosty windows, the lit Christmas trees or an occasional blue and white Hanukkah arrangement. It was a transcendent moment. I realized too, that every house on my block, both sides, was lit up.  There was no agreement among neighbors to do anything, it just turned out that everyone was on board that year. As I turned to walk back up the street, I stopped and made a vow.  Squinting my eyes to make the colors melt and sear them into my memory, I vowed to remember that moment always. I can still see the golden reds and bluish purples against a blue-black moonless sky. That moment was pure joy.
Maybe it's the fog we've had here in Portland recently, or perhaps the icy malaise that's befallen our country lately, but I was poignantly reminded of that Christmas eve today.

It was a moment in time when the world seemed to be in sync...seemed to be at real peace with itself. Of course that was an illusion.  That was the year President Kennedy was killed and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing.  It was a time when I was realizing the true nature of the mythology that enveloped the version of my country that I had swallowed. Definitely a transformative time in my young life. A time of thinking deeper and experiencing the daylight of realization.
Thinking back now, that moment I wished to freeze may have been nothing more than a brief respite from the world that was emerging and beginning to brandish it's uglier self for all to see. Even though TV was still mostly black and white, it was the vehicle that transmitted and transported social change.
This year feels hauntingly similar. Many of the gains of the early 1960s are unraveling before our eyes and ears. I still can't get my head around the fact that the Voting Rights Act has been a target.  No walks to lock in the Christmas lights this year. Just a warm beverage, a silent prayer, and a commitment to find and foster what is best for humanity and the humanity in my soul.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Some For Later

I've been reading Patti Smith's autobiography entitled Just Kids.  This is not going to be a review of said book or even a critical account in any way.  Rather, it will be what resonates for me because give or take a few months, Smith and I are nearly the same age and definitely from the same generation.
Yes, Patti is an unabashed name dropper, but when you spent a good chunk of your life running around with the likes of  artist Robert Mapplethorpe and poet Gregory Corso, that's t be expected.   Sharing Andy Warhol's table or a chance meeting with Allen Ginsberg can create such opportunities. I'm fine with that.

What resonates most for me is the honesty and self assessment that Smith consistently employs in her narration.  That is, she shares her misgivings about drug use, queer identity and some of the biggest rock stars of the era, like Jim Morrison.  In some ways I hear a voice chiming:"You had to be there." There was a time, you see, when our culture had rigid rubrics for anyone out of the ordinary.  What might seem too inflexible now, was out of the question back then.  People my age can easily calculate the speed of social change by looking at various things like the amount of skin visible in photographs, the language usage in films and now even on TV programs, and the semi-legalization of marijuana in our own neighborhoods.
I like the work ethic that Patti and Robert exhibit in the narrative.  They are committed to their work while questioning the place and purpose of a life in Art constantly.  To be an artist is, for many, to be a constant self-promoter.  There is no fairness or equality involved.  Much is chance and blind luck.  We all know the stories of famous writers whose rooms were plastered with rejection notices and most tragically, those whose fame came long after their demise, either physically or mentally, or both.
Like many young people I worked with for so many years, Patti Smith is and always was, a close observer of her environment.  You can't teach that.  She is and was forever making small altars and performing minor rituals.  I like that.
There are a couple of particularly haunting scenes in the book where Patti and Robert have only enough money for one hot dog or one bowl of soup.  Lest one think that I'm going to extol the virtues of poverty, (nothing virtuous there) I will say that these experiences stay with a person long afterward and can be a powerful shaper of personality.  I'm reminded of the great writer Richard Wright, who even when he would go to literary functions to honor him would secretly slip a few dinner rolls into his jacket pockets.  It never leaves.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Silent Day

People in this town are still friendlier than most places.  They acknowledge your presence, they smile occasionally, they even speak.  Once in a while there is a dismissive look, but usually from someone who associates me with a parent or authority figure, or a walking stereotype.
Yet, the general malaise persists.  This post-election new normal is slithering down our throats like cod liver oil or that cough medicine we never could stomach.  But we continue on.  In some ways it's that quiet shock that accompanies us daily.
Other signs are present.  A bookstore displays Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, and suggests the parallels are uncanny.  I open a copy and read at random.  Could be.  Could be it is happening here.  But, I question myself, maybe it's been happening since the 1903s when that novel was written.  Fascism oozes slowly, sometimes over decades.
This year the holiday spirit seems caught in a snare.  The snow helps the visual landscape, the warm beverages build an alliance, some of the music completes the ensemble, but it's still too quiet.
I decide to turn gifts into donations where possible.

The electronic mailbox bulges:
Petitions to sign about the Electoral College, Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, and the U N Foundation for International Health and Rainforest Alliance.
Old favorites like Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and National Association for Mental Illness.  Don't forget the Alzheimer's Association, Cancer Society, and Heart Association.
Especially important this year is the Dakota Access Pipeline (winter has come to those camped permanently to save our mother) More petitions that would like modest donations:  Fracking, Resist the Muslim Registry, Rainforest Alliance, Voting Rights (Didn't we settle that one 40 years ago?) Pleas to save elephants, sea turtles, Yellowstone bison,wolves, orcas, giraffes, and the World Wildlife Fund.
I have local issues to consider as well: Homelessness, Food Bank, and After the Finish Line (retired race horses) There are my neighbors on the street who shake my compassion because even those with bigger issues can look hungry.
It's uncommonly quiet, but I have things to talk about.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Poem for a Middle School Memory

               Junior High

Seventh grade fears are
                                carved in soap,

Gymnastics with an Olympic medalist,
                                the idiot who pees on your books in the

                                   lavatory where no body laves,

Each day after shifting gears by the volleyball nets,

        dodging balls and anti Semitic jokes and jive (they used to throw pennies at us)

I come home to Ray Charles who never disappoints.

I play the album repeatedly,  a candle in the dark valley.

                       "What'd I say,"

                                               is my favorite.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Before Then

I know a few young people that seem very disappointed with the speed of change.  Aside from the recent election, they feel as if nothing changes at all, or if it does it's at a snail's pace.  It often seems that way, but social change does happen, and it's very subtle, if not sneaky.
In mulling over some short story ideas, I've been thinking lately about all the things my parents never did, saw, used, or experienced.  Since I'm a classic Baby Boomer, it's safe to say that what I'm about to elaborate on considers about the last 70 years.

This thought started when recalling a memory from the 9 year old days of my life.  On my first trip to Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, my family went with my aunt and uncle.  This was Disneyland's first decade and some of the things it's known for weren't even in existence then.
I was sitting next to my Aunt Dorothy on the seat of a horse drawn streetcar that went up Main St, and it occurred to me that my Aunt was alive before automobiles were commonplace.  She was born around 1910.  Suddenly the entire scope of her lifetime up to that moment in time had included everything from horse drawn vehicles to L.A. freeways...primitive airplanes to jet travel...silent films to color TV.
With that in mind, it occurred to me that my folks, of that same generation, had never done or seen a number of things commonly done today.  Both my parents were gone by 1976 which means that they had never:
                 used a computer
                written a text or an email
                used a remote, or seen color TV in their home
                Used a push button phone or a cell phone
                bought organic food in their local grocery store
                played a cassette tape a CD, or a DVD
                Seen cable TV in their home
                Purchased anything online
                Shipped anything by FedEx

....More to come

So, these are just technological changes, what about social change?  Has social justice come in ways as revolutionary as the electronic devices we covet?  Is there a relationship between the two?  That's the next step in determining just how much change surrounds us even though it seems we aren't making progress with our own interactions.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dark Hope

In times like these, it's useful to see what our finest minds have to say.
            From Rebecca Solnit:

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Dawning Day

I read an article this morning about the mythology surrounding the first Thanksgiving.  Like all holidays in this country, it's been twisted and transformed, co-opoted and swallowed up by our consumer culture.
The piece I read explained that there were no Pilgrims, rather Puritans, and that, the first Thanksgiving feast wasn't actually a pleasant affair, but rather a survival meal that hardly contained the mighty away of offerings found in most homes today.
The tribe present was the Wampanoag, whose name translated to "People of the Dawn."
How appropriate, I thought, on this Thanksgiving day with the confrontation going on over the North Dakota pipeline and the pall surrounding these United States after the recent election to recall the people of the dawn.
As the song says, the sun will come up tomorrow, so we do well to take some inspiration from telling our truths, especially to the new power structure on the horizon.
I was reminded too of that Ron Cobb cartoon of a family at their Thanksgiving table.  Every year I haul it out and share it in various ways.  Every year a slew of new folks gets to take a look at hopefully some will contribute to that "thousand words" that must surely follow either aloud or internally.  I humbly offer Mr. Cobb's creation here.

In a few minutes, I along with my extended family will share a meal and the kids and any adult willing will participate in a little talent show.  I'll share a silly little rhyming poem designed to tell the story of the "People of the Dawn."
Dawn is just about my favorite time of the day.  I need this inspiration now as we prepare to face the onslaught of political resistance sure to follow.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Talking to Tim

People who don't think like I think
              are what I've been thinking about.
I hope you know some who see the world through a very different lens than you do
                            They will make you think.

I have fears too,
     seems to me those who share the views of my friend Tim are burdened by their fears in a different way, they feel they are playing for keeps even more than I do;
          they seem terrified/calm
They nurture themselves with the soft feel of gunmetal and see the Second Amendment as a framed portrait unable to fade or be re-framed when the paper yellows and the print blurs,
                   1790 never felt so right,

Tim is sensitive to education, his lack and my surfeit,
                              his lack and the mountains of college walls,

His school is "Hard Knocks" only the knocks may not have been as hard as he likes to think. He forgets some of the choices he's made, I suspect.  He can't grasp the privilege for more than a passing minute, a remote nod across an open field in a rainstorm,
                       Like many, he's constructed an echo chamber in which to pitch his tent.
               He scares me, on occasion; his lack of empathy makes me highly uncomfortable,
I feel my sweat roll down my body when his racism and xenophobia surface.
             I can only live my life.  I can only live my ideas.  But when I choose words carefully, choose music and art, and friends, and books; when I am mindful of how I interact with people and am conscious of my smiles,
                                            I realize that I am talking to Tim
                                               Now to make him hear me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Let(s) Go

This is the day we've been waiting for; the day we elect a President and settle some other political races as well as a handful of ballot measures has finally come.  Rather than a collective sigh of relief, we need to brace ourselves for the flood of emotions sure to follow as we process what it means to win and lose this time around.
Our wounds have been exposed and our underbelly revealed to be far softer and uglier than we may have realized. This we need to see as a positive, lest we get lazy and ignore more of our history and fail to see how easily a moral compass can get lost.
As an educator, I see the role of our educational institutions far more crucial this time.  Because so many people are getting their news either from social media or networks that are narrow in scope we seem to have limited opportunity for real discussion and dialogue with opposing viewpoints.  What passes for debate/discussions could never be acceptable in most classrooms I know.  But we may have to remake and re-condition young people to the idea of listening before talking and check for understanding even more as our students represent what they know in an orderly fashion.  We can only hope the major news agencies and networks will follow.

Here's another thing that might be useful.  We keep hearing that the President of the USA is the leader of the "Free World" and perhaps the most powerful person in that world.  Not really.  Anyone who believes that is true hasn't read the Constitution in a while and doesn't know or understand the principle of Federalism.  We have checks and balances on power.  Just look at the power of the obstructionist congress we have now.  Look at a piece of legislation like the 1973 War Powers Act, or the power of a Supreme Court decision.  All power in our government is limited.  The founders provided the nation with these safeguards and for better or worse, they work.
One more thing that  should prove interesting.  In years past, no matter how bitter or disruptive the campaign, the office of the President has always demanded respect.  Candidates as far apart politically as Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson would go at it for months and then come the day after the election would easily refer to the winner as Mr. President elect.  Don't think we'll see that, at least from one candidate, this time.
Make no mistake, this election holds the key to much more than the immediate future.  Social change and demographics combined, we're moving away from one social and political reality to another.  Some call it the "browning of America," while others refer to the impact of technology on all those Norman Rockwell images that comprise the American that some folks continually mourn for and can't seem to let go.  Either way, I don't think the Ford Motor Company will be bringing any jobs back home anytime soon.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Who They Are

Now and then I'll think about somebody for the first time in a good while.  I sometimes remember people I went to school with or a friend I knew briefly in a college course. Often it is a childhood friend or acquaintance who occupied a brief space in elementary school, Boy Scouts or Little League. Sometimes it's a former colleague I worked with for only a few years or even one year. So many of those young teachers appeared and were gone within the space of one school year.
Something will remind us of the person time or place.  Case in point, I once taught next to a teacher whose name was John Brown.  This was at a poor middle school in the Richmond ghetto of Northern California.  The student population was mostly Black and Latino, with a smattering of poor white kids and SE Asian refugee groups that included Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao.
So here were Mr. Brown and Mr. Greene virtually next to each other in the hallway of the main building.  Both of us were in our mid 30s at the time and we both had dark hair and a mustache.  My hair was mostly dark black or brown and Mr. Brown's hair and mustache were at least one shade lighter.  Nevertheless, much confusion.  Between the Brown and Greene, the juxtaposed classrooms and the similar appearances (though we hardly looked alike to me) this was a laughable situation...all year long.  I remember it fondly.
Sometimes we remember more of what we choose to remember than the reality of a situation or the person.  I think emot'ion comes into play here.  If it's a former lover, for example, we can be ever so kind and subconsciously lose track of the difficult times in favor of the more positive experiences.  We have to dig deep to recall some of those long talks or that sinking feeling that this relationship is doomed. Those emotions get buried.
A sort of defense mechanism, at best.  Straight up denial at worst.
I'm at the age when information about someone I once knew often comes out of the blue.  Yesterday I received just such a message.  I learned of the passing of a musician I'd briefly worked with back in my VISTA Volunteer days.  I remember him as a caring, talented trumpet player who had worked with some giants in the Blues and R&B field but got tired of traveling and wanted to do something for poor kids in his home town.  He was always a little convoluted or confused in some of this thinking about working with people or foundations but his heart and enthusiasm for helping people were pure.  I learned from another musician yesterday that he died a few years ago and got "super religious" before his death.  He became a self-styled minister with equal amounts of evangilism and paranoia in his writings and ramblings.  I'd completely forgotten he had a propensity for that.  There were signs now that I think further. So be it.  He was who he was and I recall some of the better parts.  So much is missing from the entire picture here but in the end I guess we just have to let folks be who they are. Nobody is defined by one trait alone.  No memory is fully complete or incomplete.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Luxury of Knowing

We could hardly have known it at the time.  Known that there might be a way that we, as teachers, could keep track of how some of our students were doing long after they exited our classrooms for the last time.  Of course, there are some teachers who couldn't care less.  Just a few, in my view.  But for most of us, we care about the people our former charges are becoming.

When I retired from full-time teaching I knew very little about Facebook.  Other than it involved being "friends" with one's peers, it was mostly used by college students and had just begun to infiltrate the universe of high schoolers.  That was only 10 years ago.  Since stumbling on to my own account on Facebook, mostly to sign an Amnesty International petition, I've been able to have contact with a few hundred students from about 25 years ago to the present.  I rarely ask them to friend me, as a sign of respect for their privacy.  But if they find me and request "friendship" I will oblige.  It's been worth every second.  I have a chance now to see them as mature adults, parents, teachers, and thoughtful, decent human beings...for the most part.  That's priceless.  It gives me the luxury of perspective so that when I'm with a group of educators today, especially beginning teachers, I can allay their fears about what really matters.
Even though I get into a classroom now and then in my work with student-teachers and first year teachers, I sometimes doubt how long I could last today if I returned to full-time teaching.  That's because so many things are tied t the computer.  From audio visual materials to attendance taking and record keeping, it's all done on the keyboard.  Lots of advancements but something is lost even amid all the gains.  Kids today will never know the sound of a movie projector or a record player.  Even the technology with cassette tape recorders is hugely outdated.
I did a lot of oral history type projects with my students; how does one go about that today.  I guess digital tape recorders are the preferred method, but again, it's a matter of re-tooling everything and everyone.  Still, it's worth it.
Now and then I hear from a former student out of the blue.  Their stories and emotions are touching.  They make me incredibly aware of all the kinds of learning that can take place in a classroom. They remember much of what I remember, but add insights and often, things I could never know.  Most gratifying are those who apologize for not being as motivated or not contributing their best efforts at the time.  Still, they acknowledge what was available for them at the time and feel so strongly about how they have changed that they are compelled to contact me.  It's humbling, yet fascinating.
All teachers remember their first class.  Mine was in the early 1970s and if they are on Facebook I don't know.  They knew me as a student-teacher who was in his 20s at the time and who was finding his way.  I recall some of their names, so I could do a bit of research.  There are advantages and disadvantages in doing that.  The students who were last in my classes know me as a journeyman.  Someone who taught their siblings, and in a few cases, their parents.  They are computer savvy and seem to easily find me.  Facebook has become a sort of Zen Coan.  I'm still figuring out what it all means and could mean.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Like A Rolling Stone

When I heard the news, I gasped.  Breathtaking.  Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I fact checked lest I had been tricked by the artifice of the internet.  There it was in the New York Times.
I let it

By the end of the day I brought myself back to my high school graduation weekend.  The Saturday night following my speech at graduation, in February of 1965 I went to a party with and for my classmates.  The Beatles were hot and hotter that month.  But a specific memory came to me of standing in a circle talking about music with my friends.  I was defending a particular singer, an unusual performer I'd recently learned about through my best friend.  Bob Dylan...the guy who wrote some of the Peter Paul and Mary songs and the guy with the very folkie sound who recorded my favorite song of the previous year, "The Times are Changin.'"  On Thursday nights when I put  out the trash cans for the next morning's pick up, I'd time my chore to begin at a few minutes before 7 pm.  That way I could stick the tiny earphone of my transistor radio tuned to KFWB and hear the countdown to the top ten songs in England.  Dylan was always near the top.  That's when and where i first heard,
                              Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, 
                              And don't criticize what you don't understand,
                              Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,
                              Your old road is rapidly fadin'
                              Get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand,
                              For the times they are a changin'

This was some lyric for an 18 year old about to end 12 years of public schooling and finally be treated as an adult by the society he was beginning to question.
So here I am a few weeks later at this party and I'd heard some more from Bobby Zimmerman...aka Dylan.  The local stations were all playing "Like a Rolling Stone" and it had a bit of a different sound.  Sure Dylan wailed.  He hardly had a melodic voice.  He was no Elvis and John Paul George and Ringo had many more fans at that point in time.  But my God, this guy was saying something!  That's what I began to stress in the conversation at that party.  I was convincing very few.  But when someone asked me where all this excitement was coming from, I gathered up all the arrogance and insight I could summon and declared, "Bob Dylan is the greatest poet of the 20th century."  I wasn't messing around, I went for the whole century.  Apparently a few folks in Sweden and around the globe see my point. I may be the only one of those kids from that party that remembers that group conversation.  I may have convinced no one.  But one thing is certain.  I did follow the career of this troubadour turned rock star very carefully.  He got me through college and a battle with the Selective Service System.  His anti-war songs remain among the best.  As his mystique grew , so did his audience and subject matter.  Dylan recorded with Johnny Cash and ultimately with some of the Beatles themselves.  He continued to impress and frustrate his fans and followers.  We went away, he came back.  He endured while always keeping his mind and his talent relevant.  He even got old.  In the end he left his mark.  The word that many have placed next to the news of his Nobel laureate award is immortal.  Hope so.  We need him now more than ever.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Color of Alienation

I haven't felt that feeling in years...decades really.  That notion converted into a sinking awareness that the train is off the tracks, that those in the control room are so misguided that we are all in danger.  That feeling that mirrors the far side of what most believe to be accurate but is, in fact, a mirage.  A mirage with bad intentions.
I felt it during the height of the Vietnam War.  When your personal freedoms are impacted based on age and gender, there is no way around it. The law comes calling.   As the evidence mounted of ill-informed decisions and a government that valued duplicity over the lives of it's youngest men...the feeling grew.  Simply stated, it's an "I gotta get out of here moment."  When you realize that there is no unity of thought, that there are people that are "face down in the Kool-Aid" and broadcasting lies and misinformation and it's all tangled up in life and death consequences, it gives rise to a specific emotion. It's alienation as a vivid color.  An ugly color. Alienation as a headache.  A deadening pain that persists. A kind of frustration that is equal part anger and oddly, the serenity of knowing you know the truth. You know what needs to be done. So it is with our current situation.  An enormous harness of twisted emotion and knotted reason has settles on the election of our next President.  We have two candidates that inspire disgust even within their own parties.  Only one seems mentally healthy.

This must be, it occurred to me recently, what it was like to have a sociopath in charge in Nazi Germany.  Trump is so off the wall that every time he opens his mouth we're treated to a first for a person who would be President.  He represents the worst of our lesser selves.  He's arrogant, unstable, defensive to the Nth degree and lusting for power.  If you turn off the sound to his presentations, just look at the body language, he's Hitlerian.  We know from past experience that sociopaths can and do assume the roles of leadership. They are often surrounded by blind people who never see was seems so obvious to others.  Those folks have their own agendas too.
The shift this week is that now he seems to be planning for the aftermath.  He likes to use the term "rigged." As if it's all been decided. His excuses and babbling are so transparent that it's easy to see how some are beginning to fear the climate of election night or the days that will follow.  We're in for it.  He's given us that gift.  The one we don't want...thought we had made that clear. He's sliced large chunks of the racism, xenophobia, misogyny and anti-intellectualism that lives beneath the surface of our shattering dome.  Served them up on a gaudy table for the confused to consume. We don't need to be told to be very afraid, because we are.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Fly Fishing in the Bottom of the Ninth

Yesterday was the day.  The clear October day, before the rain and snow set in and the transition to winter cannot be denied.  It was my chance.  Last chance to get one more day of fly fishing in on one of my favorite Mt. Hood lakes.
These lakes fish best from 10 a.m. till 2 p.m. so the thought of being home to catch the Division series game between the Giants and the Cubs was also foremost in my mind.  I put my eggs in a 4 hour basket.  If I rise at 6:30, I can make coffee, drive for a couple of hours, get all geared up (inflate float tube, change into waders, assemble fly rod, tie on fly, and get down to the lakeside) and fish until 1:30 or 2:00 without getting in rush hour traffic on the drive home.  A few fish, some spectacular weather, and then a victory by the Giants to extend the series to a final game wasn't too much to expect. Right?
It didn't hardly go that way.

Things happened.  I did catch a couple of trout.  But they were on the small side and one ended up being foul hooked.  He was a jumper, and somewhere during his aerial display he must have slipped the hook and got it caught on his side.  After I carefully removed the hook, I left him in my net in the water a few minutes to revive and then released him back to the lake.  Or so I thought.
My last hour was filled with rising wind and the realization this fishing year was rapidly coming to a close.  I tied on a new fly I'd been curious about and sure enough got a take within minutes.  A formidable bend in the fly rod and then nothing.  The fish either broke me off or my knot failed.  That's how the season ended.  Disappointing to be sure but even more so when I found that my second fish was still in the net.  Literally and figuratively.  He somehow managed to slip back in after appearing to have gone back home.  They can do that because fish don't go backward.   They only go forward and if you release them from the net, they won't back out. My net is attached to a D ring and rests behind me, out of view. It's best to pick a fish up and place them back into the water again. I didn't do that, because it's also good advice not to handle fish.  Either way, another loss.  I would have left him for the resident osprey to feed her family, but by the time I noticed, I was all the way back to my truck.  Anyway, it's not a good idea for a catch and release guy to leave a dead fish on the lake.  So I buried my victim in the woods.  I could have eaten him, but I wasn't in the mood for that given the spirit of the day.  Somehow I managed to lose my line clipper too.
Things went a little better for the Giants, who managed to be leading by 3 going into the 9th inning.  Then, their bullpen failed, just like my knot and everything fell apart thereafter.  The baseball season and the fly fishing season both ended by sundown.  Just knowing there is a next year is enough to warm me this winter.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

From All Sides

A Tropical Storm that the Governor of Florida says "will kill you" plods toward the East Coast
     Some have "hurricane complacency" and want to ride it out
          The election is 35 days away and we must endure what passes for a debate
               we must ride it out
                    when a horse in a race has given his best, but it isn't enough for that day, the jockey
                          must ride him out: keep trying or at least make it look that way

The season is changing by degree(s) daily: we smell rain, breathe in spores with colder air and
     calculate the consequences of turning on the heat too soon
          By the end of the month, we'll feel some relief when Halloween reminds us to wear another
               layer.  The price of gasoline climbs, competing with traffic fatalities.  It's increasingly
                    dangerous to cross a street and night-stalker clowns await all who walk alone.
                              We're Getting It From All Sides Now

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Nation We Are Becoming

I sometimes wonder why would anyone run for President of the United States.  But then I realize the nature of the "political animal," as Aristotle so perfectly labeled us.  The power is seductive for those attracted to same.  The desire to sit at the top of the heap, call the shots, and perhaps most significant, to realize you have a place in history, must be all to much for those of us with enormous egos to be assuaged.  Occasionally, we'll see a genuinely selfless person throw his/her hat into the ring, but for most who give it a try, they all have that common denominator.
In this current campaign, we've seen some new lows.  Decorum be damned, most of the political discussions that pass for serious commentary quickly disintegrate into alley fights with people talking over each other smiling a smarmy smile until some kind of order is restored.  What I've seen on the networks lately, I wouldn't let stand in a classroom discussion.  Some role models we're getting these days.

I've been thinking, too, about what the real qualifications of the job might be.  Given life in America in 2016, seems to me that a whole new set of criteria are necessary.
Lets start with Empathy:This new President is going to have to deal with gun violence, and be the bearer of bad news to families as well as the nation.  Since we've taken our place as "The Gun Country," it's not unrealistic to think that our new leader is going to have a fair share of mass shootings to deal with.
Emotional Strength: Given the state and frequency of terrorism and the degree of paranoia currently present, our President is going to need to be level-headed under pressure.  There will be emergencies both human and natural (nature) aplenty in the next 4 years.
Intelligence:  A captain at the helm better know the lessons of history as well as the latest information about technology, geo-politics, climate change, and cultural sensitivity.  Speaking a few languages wouldn't hurt either.  I would add another characteristic here.  Who do these candidates surround themselves with?  What kind of people do they take for the finest minds out there?  Who will be in their sphere of influence.
Vulnerability and Humanity:  This quality would make some folks I know cringe, but I want to advance it anyway.  A President that the majority of the people can respect is crucial.  Being vulnerable and showing human qualities can do just that, in my view.  Our populace is so polarized now that it just might be too late for any kind of lasting unity, but someone in the White House that earns and commands respect by virtue of just being a human being with human frailties and sensibilities would be refreshingly welcome.
Come November 8, we'll see just what we get.  And...if there is any truth to the notion that the people we elect are the people we deserve, we'll learn a bit about the nation we are and are becoming.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Forever Elvis

I dropped Elvis in the slot
      His signature guarding my mortgage payment
on a journey to Southern California.
The stamp said Forever, like the inside of the Community Market resting for eternity in my brain.
As a 10 -year old, I purchased "Jailhouse Rock" for 69 cents. The 45s were in a bin near the cash register.
At 69 I hope to have 10 years in my home.
Elvis is forever

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Tree Without Roots

Yesterday I watched the President speak at the opening of the National Museum of African American History.  Long overdue is the understatement of the year; even in this year of the Trump!  Against the background of a nation building a shrine to the people and contributions that literally made this country came a couple of cringe-worthy news sound bites where people in the Trump campaign showcased their ignorance by making such outrageous claims as, "There was no racism before the Obama administration."
Where to begin?
That many people in influential positions do not know their own history is a good place.  This is the mission I was on when I decided to become a teacher.  I was fresh from a history textbook education when I entered college.  It just so happened to be 1966.  In the immediate years that followed, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement came my real instruction in American History.  Fortunate enough to find myself with the likes of Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the first African American history classes at UCLA (of course they were called Negro History back then) I recall saving all the reading for those classes until everything else was done.  I savored those book.  No matter that the subject matter was often brutal and gut wrenching, I read like Lincoln by candle light.  Black Cargoes, by Malcolm Cowley and Daniel Mannix. The narrative of Frederick Douglass, the novels of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, the poetry of Dunbar and McCay, the writings of Dubois, B.T. Washington, Malcolm X,  Where were these texts when my love of history was developing in high school?  Where are they now, I wonder?

I'll never forget the first time I set eyes on this diagram from the book Black Cargoes:

I remember when I was a VISTA Volunteer, working in the worst areas of Houston, Texas, how one of the guys on my project set about making sure that some of the aforementioned titles and authors were available in the local public library.  It was his personal mission.  One thing that helped him that year was the fact that as employees of the federal government we were able to access what was called a "government book kit."  Part of the budget of the Office of Economic Opportunity in those "War on Poverty" days included a set of about 25 books, mostly paperback, that we could receive and distribute as we saw fit.  Some ended up in local libraries.  How gratifying it was to bring African American titles to the Jefferson Davis county library in Texas!
I'd love to see the federal government reinstate this policy and distribute some book kits to people who don't know their own history.  I've a few books I can suggest that might help hide our embarrassment when people who know nothing embarrass themselves and our image as a literate people.  As Malcolm X said, "a people without history is like a tree without roots. "  Now that so much of our country's history has been recovered and revealed, it's a shame not to spread it around.
A few books that would make any list would include:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Black Cargoes by Cowley and Mannix
White over Black by Winthrop Jordan
Slave and Citizen by Frank Tannenbaum
My short list is a mix of new and old.  There are hundreds of others in all fields from literature to the behavioral sciences.  Hopefully one read will lead to another.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Clear on the Concept

So here we are with the familiar lesser of two evils situation for a Presidential election.  So many people feeling the pull of "been there and done that."  Except that the done that part is different because they don't want to "do" anything.  They don't want to vote.
Dangerous thing. Very dangerous thing.
If we have a "both candidates suck," situation, shouldn't we work on how we got this way?  Shouldn't we realize that whether we vote or not, of the evils is going to be the next President of the United States?
Third parties are tempting.  They will siphon off thousands of votes this time, like they always do.  But they will probably do nothing to ease our dilemma.  Still, I hear, more and more, "Im not voting this year.

So what exactly happens when an individual surrenders her/his vote?  This time around, it makes possible the first candidate in a good while that is truly unfit for the job.  It makes the forces of all this evil easily able to propagate their questionable agenda.  It disrespects democracy.
Let's look at that last point.  When I taught U.S. Government, we were able to register 18 year olds if we had any in class.  Many would probably not make the effort themselves, but our on site registration would occur only after studying the history of voting rights struggles in this country.  I think many folks who are eagerly abandoning their vote this year could do with a review of this history.  It's almost impossible to sacrifice your vote when you know about the poll tax, the grandfather clause and, of course, the literacy test.  Those three were effectively used to deny Black Americans the right to vote for decades.  The documentation is all there.  "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" really was on a literacy test.  Of course, if that didn't do the trick there was always outright violence as a form of imitation.  How many lives were taken or permanently ruined all for the desire to do a little voting.  To acknowledge this and to learn from it means voting...every time.  Period.

Today we have what one writer recently termed a "National Emergency."  That's a direct reference to the Trump campaign.  He would ask people to vote for Clinton if only as a way to acknowledge this threat our democracy as the number one priority.  Cue flashing lights and sirens.  Some, no doubt, will do this. Sadly, others will not.  In the end, we will get what we deserve.
I'm reminded of a couple who lived in rural Kansas.  He was a Republican and she a Democrat.  Each election day they would drive for 3 hours to vote, and then 3 more hours after a lunch break to get home.  Though their votes always cancelled each other out, they never missed voting.  Now that's being clear on the concept.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Three Creeks Lake Day 2

The weather changed and day two at this small lake high in the Cascades dawned clear and sunny.  The water was calm with only a twinge of wind from time to time.  Still the fishing was slow and all I got for my efforts was tired.  Nevertheless, it's wonderful to be there.  I thought the rainbow that appeared over the lake yesterday might be some kind of omen.  Just a brief beauty, that's all.  After about 6 hours in two visits, I decided that the fish were laying low and not eating much.  Maybe they indulged too much on Labor Day?

Then a dragonfly landed on me?  Another omen?  I was hoping.  By 1:00 I was hopeful of a hatch and fish rising to make landing something easier.  Not to be.  Then, in a heartbeat, it all changed.  A bump...was that a bite?  Well, just making contact was a relief.  I can stop second guessing myself.  Then that unmistakable feeling of a fish on; fish gone.  Finally a huge tug and the rod bends mightily. Suddenly it's over.  Lost him.  I retrieve my line and see that the fly is gone.  Either the knot failed or he bit or snapped me off.  The tug was strong.  The feeling of a wild fish unmistakeable.  That's what I have.  All I have.  Once the frustration and anger disappear.  I tally up the learning.  I made contact. I will always have the knowledge that I had that success.  I need no trophies.  I need no more pictures.  I would have loved to see the colors and size of that fish, but that will never be.  I must be content to own these memories.  I am.
Sometimes when I float on a lake I get to thinking about all the things that have to come together for me to feel a fish tug on the end of my line.  There is the travel time to get to the water.  There is the road and weather conditions.  The rod is assembles, the reel added and then line strung through the guides.  Flies need to be carefully tied on the tippet.  Try threading a needle with your glasses slipping or wind snapping in your face.  Inflate the tube. Change into waders, wading boots and ultimately swim fins.  Carry it all down to the water.  Don't forget sun screen, water, some food, your tools (line clipper, forceps, fly boxes) sunglasses, hat, landing net.  Now you're set.  Just add patience.  That instant you make contact with a trout, all the pieces fit together.  All the effort intersects with chance and luck and a little bit of skill thrown in.  Then it all comes undone until next time.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Two Lessons

I drove up to Three Creeks Lake this morning.  It was only a 16 mile drive because we've been staying in Sisters, Or for a few days.  I usually get up there once a year and put my float tube on that little alpine lake high in the Cascades in search of Rainbow and Brook trout.  It's a fickle lake offering up some of the finest days and then some of the worst. fly fishing, or rather the Zen of fly fishing, it all has meaning and my task is to be content to learn from what I get.  What I got this day was cold, wet, and very windy.  Wind is the foe of the fly fisher.  It's difficult to cast line because the wind will blow it off course, or back in your face.

 For the float tuber, like myself, it's a double whammy because you get blown all over the place and kick with your fins (we wear swim fins on our feet) twice as hard.  In the end I took a little break after a couple of hours kicking around the lake.  I went back for more, but after another hour, when the wind came up again, and another drizzle left me dripping, I decided to give it another try tomorrow.  The weather in these parts changes from minute to minute.  Life is like that, no?  Here's where today's lesson comes in.  Change is from minute to minute and we cannot predict how something will go.  Just because we've had one experience with a place or person, doesn't mean it will be the same next time.
On my way back down the mountain, in the couple of miles of "Rough Road," I decided to let a Forest Service truck pass me.  I like to slowly wind my way down that washboard surface and sneak a peak at the wildlife and bird life that abounds in that area.  So I pulled over and he went past.  Just as I was about to turn back on the gravel road, my wheels started to spin in a thick pocket of loose gravel.  I was stuck.  A couple who'd been hiking the nearby wilderness trail walked by so I rolled down my window.  The guy offered, "Back up and then go forward.  If you get a running start you'll have a better chance at getting out of there."  It worked.  I came spinning up and over the hindrance and back onto the main road.  For some reason I said to my new friend, "Much obliged."  Where did that come from?  Well, it is the wild West up there.  Lesson number two, sometimes we have to go backward before we can go forward.  Or at least right ourselves.  Pictures to follow.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Census Takers

Census Taking
              South Texas-1970

The front door is not visible,
We walk up a pathway to the side of the house,
A backdoor awaits; three crisp knocks,

A voice barely audible
We try Spanish; "Es El Censo..."
"C'mon in, just turn the handle, it should work."

She sits at her kitchen table, surrounding the wooden
chair, leaning forward, yellow-gray hair sighs,

First question: Names of all people in residence?
"It's just me, and I'm waitin' to die."
There is no room  on the form for commentary,

We stay an extra few minutes,
Maybe there is something we can do?
No, something we can actually do for her.
There isn't.
Just finish the required questions and leave the gifts of the future behind.

Back on the street; four more unanswered doors.
All with children playing in the front yards.
Some of these kids understand English and my Spanish
Between the mixed dialogue we learn there are six families here

We can't leave the state until all the Census forms are in,
The phone book reveals that Martinez and Ramirez
Appear more often North of the railroad tracks.
Es El Censo
We complete the forms
Martinez and Ramirez still in the lead,
We leave the state

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Fritz Part II (Ali by candlelight)

Fritz Ehrler was as German as the name indicates.  Yet he was a WWII vet who spoke little about that as well as the pin-up tattoo that adorned the inside of his forearm.  He had deep tanned skin, no doubt because of the hours he spent fishing in sun drenched lakes.  Making Fritz smile or laugh was simple and often elicited a story or two from his reservoir of lifetime experiences.
He found his way into my life through my Texas born neighbor who was trying to patch up a leaking version of her California dream in post war suburb.
Fritz had deep lines chiseled into his face.  He had tools and worked with wood easier that he could hold a conversation.  Yet, sometimes he'd open up on those long trips back home after baking all day and handling big lake trout.
Something deep in his past triggered the tale of a phone call he'd received in the recent past.  The story he told goes like this:  He and Mary were painting a bedroom when the phone rang.  Being up on a ladder, he said let it go, but she went to get the phone.  There were no answering machines back then.  A minute later, Mary returned and said, "You better come to the phone, it sounds important, it's your sister." Fritz climbed down and went to answer the phone.  He returned shortly and resumed painting without saying a word.
"What was that about," Mary continued.
"Dad died," Fritz said.  Nothing more.  They painted together for another hour in silence.When I pressed Fritz on the subject of his father all he would say is, "My did was an SOB."
After my mom died, Fritz would occasionally look in on my dad and me and compliment my cooking.  Once when I had a little fuzzy mustache he asked me if I was going to grow a beard someday.  I quickly showed him the new dark brown hair under my arm and he advised me to circle it with a red pen so it'd be easier to find!

One rainy night my dad and I were all set to listen to the Sonny Liston Cassius Clay heavyweight title fight on the radio.  There was no TV, so we settled in when suddenly the power went out.  We later found out a light plane had crashed into some power lines and the power was out for hours.  I tried in vain to coax my little transistor radio to find the station by candlelight.  When finally successful, the radio's battery was just about spent.  "Maybe Fritz has a spare," my dad said.  We both found our way to his door by flashlight.  Fritz had no battery, but he did have a better idea.  We heard every bit of that history making "I shook up the world" title fight in Fritz's car.  My dad and Fritz in the front seat, and me in back leaning my head between them.  Male bonding at its best.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Fritz Part I

When the weather in Portland hits three digit heat, I often think of growing up in Southern California.  Everything from Little League games in scorching weather to sitting outside till dark licking popsicles with neighborhood kids comes flooding back.  And then the people...the characters, and of course the neighbors.
Today I thought of Fritz.  Fritz Ehrler was a father figure for me because he liked to fish and he took me fishing...often.  Something I couldn't do with my own father.  My dad and I had baseball to share, but Fritz was a real outdoorsman who had the patience and kindness to teach me what he knew.  He also had access to a private lake.  As a member of something called the Fin and Feather Club, he could bring one or two guests along in his small boat.  The lake was located in Palmdale, way out in the desert North of L.A.  It took a couple of hours to get there and by the time we'd get his small boat off the trailer and into the water it was a good 3 hours till we could wet a line.  This was bait fishing, something I no longer do.  Fritz didn't miss an opportunity to succeed.  He started the process about 5:00pm the previous evening when he'd ask me along to go to a local market.  The Community Market, a small independent San Fernando Valley grocery store was the first stop.  They had a modest butcher counter and Fritz would buy a half dozen mackerel.  At home, he'd cut them up into chunks, add a little water and then load the stink mess into a large empty mayonnaise jar.
After anchoring the boat, he'd unscrew the lid on a the jar a bit and slowly, when the coast was clear, lower the jar into the water.  As it slowly sank under the boat, it let off a stream of mackerel.  Chumming at it's finest.  Our offerings of salmon eggs or worms had lots of takers lured there by the scent from the jar.  Fritz didn't worry about ethics when it came to catching fish because all trout caught on this lake found there way to frying pans.

Fritz was a chain smoker (but not while fishing) He smoked one Camel after another while driving.  He had a small Smokey the Bear ash tray mounted on the dash of his Ford station wagon which always contained a cigarette butt.  Before lighting a new cigarette, Fritz would transfer the last butt into the car's large ashtray below the dash and ready Smokey for his latest offering.  It was ritual.
Much of Fritz remained a mystery to me.  He was the second husband of my neighbor Mary who was a single parent other two daughters, one slightly older than me, one slightly younger.  I'd know her first husband and the girl's father until their divorce about three years before Fritz first appeared.  He was Bob, the Don Draper of this Mad Men world.  I see now how many of those folks in my 50s childhood were alcoholics.  This launching pad for the post War boomer generation was often much rougher than it appeared behind those suburban doors.
But Fritz reached out and took this kid with him.  Maybe I was the son he never had, or maybe he just wanted to talk to someone while he fished.  I know how lonely going out alone can be.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

If the Trucks Pass

With the political ascendency of Donald Trump comes one of the true moral challenges of our time.  In deciding whether or not to support the nominee of their party, Republican politicians as well as the base of the party are confronted with the politics of sociopathology.  When, in the course of human events, it becomes obvious that one who seeks power displayed the characteristics of mental illness, what to do?
For some, the choice would be simple.  Their moral compass makes definite the options.  They draw upon the lessons of history, the instances of crossroads previously chosen, and the powerful example of reasoning the consequences of a haphazard decision.  But even the notable moral philosopher/psychologist Kohlberg acknowledged that for most people, attaining the highest level of moral reasoning based on conscience is difficult, if not unreachable.
One also runs the risk in this discussion of being the haughty one on moral high ground while you all struggle to even reach the threshold.  Still, let's go on so that this discussion can take place.
The Nobel prize winning author, Toni Morrison, while being interviewed by the late Ed Bradley of CBS, once said, "I feel that white people will betray me.  That in the final analysis, they'll give me up.  If the trucks pass and they have to make a choice, they'll put me on that truck. That's really what I feel."
She went on to add, "By the way, there are lots of black people who'd put me on that truck also, so I'm not trying to demonize the white race.  It's just a kind of a constant vigilance and awareness that maybe these relationships can go just so far."

This is precisely how I feel about people who are either unable to see Trump for what he is, and/or people whose politics have no moral compass whatsoever.  The trucks passing is of course a reference to Nazi Germany and many Jewish people who were placed on those rolling trucks by those unable to make a moral decision in time of crisis.
I suppose we all have relationships with people that can only go just so far.  In my effort to maintain a variety of friendships from the different universes I frequent, I'm often confronted with the roadblock that says, this is where you stop.  I must add, no, this is where I need to get off.
I realize there is grave danger in walking around constantly wondering who would throw me under the bus if it came down to a choice, but that's precisely the kind of thing the current political climate creates.  I see, almost daily, the kind of politico who, on some level, must know better, but in the end is incapable of making a moral decision.  What remains to be seen is what, if any will be the consequences for all involved.
If I were in the classroom this school year, I'd go deep with the metaphor of trucks passing.  The possibilities are unlimited.  By winter break, there is even the possibility of getting answers to some of these crucial questions.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Turn Tables

I have a friend who seems to have made a major pivot in his life.  He's realized that he's lived more days than he probably has left and has altered his reality accordingly.  Unemployed, he'll probably never work again because the economy and the skill set he possesses don't quite fit in to today's circumstances.  He's bright...very bright, a college grad and has the gift of empathy.  Lots has gone wrong in his interpersonal relationships, but he's content to spend his time reading, observing, and commenting on the current political farce now playing everywhere.
I mention him because like many, he's an anomaly.  Between social and cultural realities, no sense of urgency, watching the parade go by.  Who knows, maybe he has a trust fund that supports this lifestyle.  There is often more behind what we see from the outside looking in.  But it occurred to me that this purgatory applies to us all in many ways, especially those of us who relate to the having lived more days that I expect to live in the future.
There are things that most folks no longer do; simple things, daily things.  Mail a letter, buy a newspaper, and pay for something in cash come easily to mind.  Writing a check in now passed, as is going inside a bank.  The nightly news is relegated to those over fifty these days.  And music...there's the rub.  It now seems if millions should have hung on to their turntables and boxes of vinyl records.  I'm even thinking go buying one of those Crosby record players so I can spin some of my prized blues collection again.

About 50 years ago the Kerner Commission, that blue ribbon committee that investigated race relations in 1968, warned that the U.S. was in grave danger of becoming two separate societies, one black and one white.  In many ways that has happened; yet there has been much cultural blending that they could not have foreseen.  It's always more complicated than we initially think.  There appear to be other dichotomies as well.  One of age seems apparent.  Generationally we don't do things the same way.  We don't shop, eat, recreate, and seek entertainment in a similar fashion.  Yet, this doesn't always impede people in social  situations.  Often situations arise where we dance, we talk and we grieve together.  Here's where I miss my students the most.  Learning is always a two way street.
Something that slowly sneaked up on me is my consciousness  of being the oldest one in the room.  I know I can fool people because I look and usually act a little younger than I am, but damned if I don't catch myself wondering who here is older than I am, when I walk into a pub or restaurant.
Fortunately (I think) I always find somebody if I really look hard enough.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Imagining the Positive

Today I read a short piece in an online literary magazine about robots that can now write poetry.  This type of "Artificial Intelligence" uses algorithms to churn out complex imagery and messages from the heart.  Is this an example of because we can or is it perhaps something to be welcomed.  We can't stop it but the contradictory nature of this genre seems to be something we might learn from.  At least it seems to be.

Perhaps there is a slippery slope here.  If the trend of replacing humans with robots goes uncontrolled, what can human beings expect for future generations.  This could go two ways.  There's an idea for a novel: one scenario, two possible outcomes.  I see the dark version already.  It's probably the one that would win out and that explains why so many dystopic views of the future are so negative.  They abound.  From the Hollywood tropes like "Wayward Pines," to some of the classic literary versions that continue to pour off the presses and entice young adult readers.  But it is the positive side that needs some attention lately.
Just imagine how easy and stress free life might be if humans had nothing more to do but improve and protect the environment and work on their own happiness.  Of course it's not that simple, but there is a possibility of an optimistic future in there somewhere, just this side of John Lennon's Imagine.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Dog Tired

We've hit the dog days of summer.  Uncommonly hot temperatures that help create the image of a pack of tired hounds lying around trying to beat the heat.  Even though the expression traces it's roots to the star Sirius, (the Dog Star)we use the term to illustrate that time of year when we're "dog tired," hot, and worn out.

The dregs of July through the middle of August usually encompass this time to lay low.  I don't fly fish much in August. The fish aren't as active during the daytime.  They lie deep in the darker cooler areas of lakes and streams. Maybe, if your offering brushed close by they'll nip at it. If you go after them, you bake up top.  Sun screen, water, an oversized hat and some breaks now and then are necessary. The fact that the two political conventions take place during this period really adds to the theme this year.  We're enduring the process like walking, or rather slogging trough an enormous swamp.
August is when teachers hear the dreaded phrase "back to school." Not because we hate teaching, but more because it means our vacation is ending.  There are touchstones all along the way.
Officially, the "dog days" are supposed to end by mid August.  In these years of climate change it could get "doggy" all through September and into October.  No doubt the election will add to that.
In the end, the dog days might just be a good thing.  We slow down, we live moment to moment, we have something on the horizon to look forward to and to provide relief.  Hopefully, we'll all go from dog tired to inspired.  We'll fall into Fall.  Just a few degrees makes a big difference.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Alex Part II

After a while it was not uncommon for Alex to give me a phone call.  I became his companion to the dictionary.  Usually it was an idiom that made no sense to him.  It could be something like “let sleeping dogs lie” or perhaps a slang expression that he took literally.
“Gree” what it mean when someone call something “raw” or “bad” but it not really bad.”
Try explaining that bad is good and raw is a very positive connotation.  After a while it got humorous.  Very humorous.  But always, with thanks and plenty of relief, Alex seemed to get the difference between the literal translation and an idiomatic expression. 
One afternoon he seemed very preoccupied with something.  When I pressed a bit, he told me that he was worried about a car that he had.  It hadn’t run for months and he was trying to save up a little cash to have it looked at.  His main concern was that he’d let the registration lapse because he had no plans to use the vehicle until it was running properly and just couldn’t afford the expense.  He wanted t move the car from a driveway to a spot in front of him home.  
“So,” I asked, Can’t you just push it there or will it start and run for a couple of minutes while you re-park it?”  
“It should start and run, but it says in the book not to operate a vehicle that isn’t registered.”
Alex was afraid that if he got caught moving an unregistered car from driveway to curb he’s lose his license.  Maybe there was more at stake there too.  I never asked, but assured him that there would be no way he’s be seen moving that car such a short distance.  
“Just don’t wait for a cop to drive by while you are in the car,” I joked.

I’d seen this kind of over reaction before and was even reminded of an ESL class I’d taught while waiting to get hired for my first full-time teaching job.  A recent immigrant from South Korea was always looking at a Steno pad he carried around with him when he had a spare moment.  Upon further investigation, I learned he’d translated the entire California Vehicle Code from English into Korean on 1 Steno Pad.  He didn’t want to miss any questions on the written test.
BY now, my exchanges at the track with Alex were mostly about language and infrequently about horses.  Because of the large Asian population in the Bay Area and at the race track, in particular, he’d found a second community; a home away from home.    
While our little tutorials were often about the English language, I found Alex could translate some things from Chinese for me as well.
One afternoon during the re-play of a race, an elderly Chinese man was standing close to the TV monitor pointing his finger and yelling at the screen.  Throughout the running of the race, he kept up his tirade.  Heads turned as his voice and demeanor rose and changes with every step down the stretch.
“What’s he yelling about,” I asked Alex.  “What’s he saying?”
Alex watched and listened for a minute then turned and told me.
“He say jockey fuck up.”  
“What else, there must be more, he keeps talking.”

“No, just jockey fuck up.  He saying it over and over in more than one way.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


I met Alex at the race track.  At first he was just one of those familiar faces passing by in the line for a program, the line tomato a wager, the line to by something to eat or drink.  Something about his smile and his ability to be alone in a crowd was soothing.  He often huddled with groups of other Asian horseplayers.  They all spoke Chinese, I guess.  But once Alex asked me something in English.  It was probably the meaning of some footnote in the program.
"What this mean, horse is two pounds over?"
"It means the total weight carried by horse and rider is two pounds more than the assigned weight.
"Why that important?"
"Maybe the jockey ate too much last night or drank too much water, but they are just telling yo what the horse will carry."
"OK, thanks."
Our friendship grew from there.  When Alex learned I was a teacher, his questions about language usage multiplied.  He was always asking about idiomatic expressions.  I was always reminding him that English is a strange language and has many contradictions.  I think he knew the parallels to horse racing too.

That Alex could switch from English to Cantonese so quickly always amazed me.  But he was so curious, he began asking me personal questions.  He learned I had a wife and also a part time job writing for a thoroughbred horse magazine.  My interest in going to the track was much more than trying to win a few bucks.  For Alex, it was his escape from a minimum wage job, a home with some family members in an overcrowded apartment, and a chance to hang out with friends.  It soon became a chance to learn more about the English language.
We exchanged names early on but somehow he was more comfortable calling me by my last name, or most of it.  Greene became GREE.  This in the same way that Alex and his Chinese friends took American names and make them one syllable sounds, like the jockey Tom Chapman.  I'd hear them shouting Chap Mon   Chap Mon.  The numbers too got translated into loud one syllable sounds in staccato.  If the number two horse finished first, and the number five horse was second, followed by number 8 in third, they's shout TU-FI-AYE  (two-five-eight)
One afternoon, Alex and I shared a small table in the Clubhouse.  We ultimately shared food and more of our life stories.  I learned that Alex had lived most of his life in Vietnam.  I knew that South Vietnam had a large Chinese population at one point in it's history, but never went into the war and the U.S. role in Vietnam.  I figured if it ever came up, we'd be good friends by then and it might be better understood by then.  During the course of this afternoon, I mentioned to Alex that I had a Stereo receiver that had recently stopped working.  He told me that he was good at electronic repair and that I should bring it with me and he'd look at it.  A week later, we met in the parking lot of Golden Gate Fields for the exchange.  A week after that the receiver was in working order again.  Alex explained that it was nothing more than one loose wire that he re-soldered to the proper connection.  I offered to pay him; he said no with that wonderful smile.
"No," I countered, that's at least $20. for your time."
He refused.  But I had the last word when I left that day by giving him my voucher with an extra $20. on it.  You see at the racetrack people run around with little slips of paper called betting vouchers that they insert into self-operated betting terminals.  Alex and I often split the cost of a bet.  If we wanted to "box" three horses in an exacta (any combination of the three numbers has to run first and/or second) we'd each put up three bucks for a $1 box or six bucks for a $2 box, or nine dollars for a $3 box.  If the horses came in we'd split the winnings.
"I gotta go,"
 I told him and stuffed the small slip into his shirt pocket.
"Who you like," he countered.
"Play the five horse, with any two others you think have a chance. See you later"
That night the phone rang.  I answered:
"Gree" we didn't win, FI ran third.
Oh but we did, Alex, I thought.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

1968 Redux

It feels the same.  The pall of 1968 has returned.  The air is thick with questions...with "work left to be done," with the simplicity of polarization, and most importantly with the anticipation of what is to come when we look over our shoulders.

1968 was a difficult year to endure.  Like 2016, it was an election year where the choices seemed clear, no matter the fact that few felt comfortable with any candidate.  It was a year of surprises, of shocking media imagery, of calls for law and order, and, of course, of guns...guns...guns.  It was a year of assassination and civil disobedience. The Constitution was asked repeatedly to bind a bleeding wound.  We investigated with blue ribbon commissions.  The massive tome of the Kerner Commission boiled it down to one simple statement...that we were becoming two separate and unequal societies.  Didn't we know this?  Weren't we trying to teach our complete history? Hadn't many of us raised our consciousness considerably in the last few years?
I often imagine the year 1968 with the inclusion of smart phones.  What if we had been able to record our daily experiences, to stream the political events that occurred within and without us?  Would that have made it easier to bridge the gap between the unfinished work and the current state of affairs?  Perhaps.  I'd have been able to video demonstrations against the illegal war being waged in Vietnam, the visible and audible signs of racism, and a few personal experiences like the time an elderly Black woman with a cane fell boarding a bus in Houston, Texas and the driver sat there, and sat there, and sat there.  The look I got after helping her would be mine to keep forever.

In 1968, people had difficulty communicating their differences.  Whites asked, like they do now, What can we do?  They were told, like they are today, to work in their own communities to educate, to change attitudes, to develop cultural sensitivity, and ironically, to learn their true history.
The term white privilege and the phrase Black Lives Matter did not come until 40 years down the unpaved street we've trod.  The terms "red lining" and gentrification were not that commonly used either. The complexities of race in America seldom penetrated Sunday morning talk shows and Presidential platforms.  By the time we elected our first Black president, we got lazy. We were momentarily buzzed. The term "post racial America" surfaced no matter how absurd. Some folks didn't want to be bothered with the warning issued by the Kerner report.  The two cultures expanded, grew together and apart, together and apart.  The media exploded...24/7 piled words and images in huge heaps full of sound bites and furious verbiage.  Signifying little or nothing.
I recall a time in my 7th grade history class when our teacher asked us to place the USA on a graph that measured the quality of life in our country.  This was in the midst of the Cold War and the blossoming Civil Rights movement.  Were we still on our way ascending arrow...or had we plateaued..or were we, as a culture, on our way down?  By far, my classmates and I had never even considered we weren't still climbing on that chart.  The moment we considered anything other than a soaring potential, we realized we were unprepared to deal with the consequences, should that perception be valid.  1968 made me think of that mythical chart.  The same way I think about it today.  We can't keep reminding ourselves that we have work to do, while our culture is being destroyed.
I find that in the last few days people are anxious to talk about this pall that hangs over our heads.  That's a good sign.  But that's all that it is.