Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sound Track

Something about a song lyric, popping up in your ear at just the right time and your life can flash by.  Maybe not your entire life, but certainly a few segments.
One of the things that keeps me exercising regularly is the ability to listen to music while doing so.  I move around on Pandora a lot and ultimately settle on a genre.  Usually it's blues music because I know that will keep me awake and to the task at hand.  But occasionally I wonder over to Neil Young or Dylan, or even Jonathan Edwards, a lesser known country rock artist whose sounds often sooth better than a cool drink of water.
Today, a combination of all three took me back to lovers and friends from decades past.  I realized that you never stop loving someone unless you work at it.  There were a couple of times, OK maybe even more than two, when a relationship in my back pages ended and I was feeling undone.  We've all been there but when Dylan sings "If you see her, say hello..." a stone cracks inside me and the beauty and pain and gratitude as well as regret pours out.

As I get older I'm amazed by how often I hold images of people I've known in my mind.  It doesn't matter how many years have transpired since we last saw one another.  True with social media, we have the ability to peer into windows that are open for all.
I've come to believe that we all have a sound track to our lives.  Just as the things we see and experience at certain ages stay with us, the emotions tied to certain pieces of music or places or the artists that accompanied both hold a key to our emotional literacy.  We tend to remember what is held together by strong emotions.  The research supports that, but it doesn't take a study to realize that emotion is thicker than most all else.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Houston Then and Now

It's difficult for me to watch the grim footage coming out of Houston, Texas without thinking about the year I spent there as a VISTA Volunteer.  I knew very little about this 4th largest city back then and in full disclosure, even as a recent college grad, I was heavily influenced by the stereotypes, positive and negative, that focused on TEXAS.
I wasn't even sure I could spend a year in Texas back then.  But, as often happens, when you immerse yourself in what you are doing and keep an open mindset, you often find that the result is pleasantly surprising.
I found plenty of decent people in Houston.  There was Carl Adams, the former trumpet player for such notables as B.B. King and Ray Charles, who wanted with all his heart and soul to run music workshops for kids who lived in under-privileged neighborhoods.  Houston had plenty of those, and when I see much of the footage today of the flooded homes, I wonder what it looks like where I once say large projects for low-income families, and the dismal parts of 3rd and 5th and 6th Ward neighborhoods.

Much of Houston's poverty back then reflected the images of classic Southern poverty.  Lots of "shot-gun shacks" and plenty of old wooden homes up on cinder blocks.  High water is nothing new to Texas and the history of the region is peppered with "great floods" of various years.  The wonderful blues music of some of the regions best clearly illustrates this as well.
I wonder, too if some of the people I met over 40 years ago are still there.  Many of the children would be in their late 40s and 50s.  I'm sure the old redneck who rented us a dilapidated home for $100 a month is long gone as well as the used appliance salesman who sold us a $10. refrigerator and then responded to our address, "You mean you live in colored town, with all those colored boys?"
He and his ilk are not part of the new Houston.  The fact that there is now aa African American Mayor and a Latino Chief of Police show progress and that real change did come to Houston.
Still, he the media reports on and from Buffalo Bayou, I still see it as the place where more than one victim of police brutality was taken to receive justice, Texas style.
Houston will recover and continue to be the home of a diverse community of pioneers, ethnic cultural workers, and loyal Texans.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


In this world of rapid change, it's refreshing to find something that stays the same.  Almost.
Once a year, for two weeks, the little Humbolt County Fair in the small town of Ferndale, California kicks off.  I've heard it's the longest continually running county fair, stretching back to the 1870s if I remember correctly.

Let me set the context, because that's part of the appeal.  Ferndale is a tiny dairy community tucked into the mountains of very Northern California, not far from the costal city of Eureka.  This is beautiful country where redwoods meet the pounding sea.  I've been there a handful of times and now I'm thrilled to be able to watch the horse races at the fair from my TV or computer screen given the technology available now.  The fair is like most county fairs with fried everything and lots of animal exhibits and show competitions.  Against this beautiful backdrop sits a little 5/8 mile racetrack, as cute as it is dangerous.  Tight turns, the intimacy of the crowd and animals, and the enthusiasm by all involved make this a special place.  For once, it's not about the competition as much as it's about enjoying yourself.

Rumors and folklore about Ferndale abound.  From the legendary announcer Gunnar Froines, to died a few years back, to the year of the moth invasion, to the many tales of horses that missed the turns, it's all part of the mystique.  The stories would fill volumes and the fact that this little gem of a fair continues to this day virtually the same, is a modern miracle.
I've done a few articles on Ferndale, once even getting the cover story for The Blood-Horse magazine, where I was a correspondent for almost 20 years.  There is just something touching about this place because of it's size and it's unusual appearance.  Being a dairy town, the home to a Knudsen Creamery, the baked potatoes with sour cream are exceptional.  He townsfolk, so I've heard, save up all year for two weeks of betting horses, enjoying the fair daily, and just marveling at what they've got.  Aside from horses best described as underachievers, what's they've got is something historical, consistent, and timeless.  This is horse racing as it was, with all the risk, color, and pageantry on a slightly smaller scale.
Racing at Ferndale is capped off with the running of the Humbolt County Marathon, at a mile and 5/8.  That means three complete circles around the track.  The lore says that in the beginning, each jockey was given 3 pebbles to hold in their mouth as the race was run.  Every time they crossed the finish line they were to spit out one pebble.  When the third pebble was gone, they were to ride to the finish line one more time and the race was over.  Somehow, I believe this story.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Street Dance

He knows there is something there,
Something most of us can't see,
So he darts out in the middle of the street to peck
the unpeckable.
That's what crows do,
I see it and want it, but there are cars
from both directions
cars that can stop his vision in one spasm of the neck.
Still he pecks,
until the last second, then hops or flies or sometimes walks
as if his life were not at stake.

She has a family to feed,
nothing can go to waste,
Risks envelop everything, they hatch
at all hours,
so she darts, she flirts with the steel boxes
that form the carnival ride of chance.
Something I can digest is hiding from those
that do not see.
Still, she pecks until the sound descends,
she flits aside at the last second,
as if her life were not at stake.

Monday, August 7, 2017


Sometimes trying to simplify our lives can get complicated.  Cutting back and letting go of things need not be so difficult.  In fact, the two or three times I've made a concentrated effort to downsize were absolutely exhilarating.  Filling up a dumpster with material things that have stayed too long at the fair is a very visual measurement of how attached we get to the non-essential.
I've begun to think about finding new homes for anything I still cling to that might be of some value.  In full disclosure, nothing I currently possess is of significant value that it couldn't be replaced if necessary.  Although, my little collection of historical books and primary source objects, while not really worth much, would be difficult to reproduce.
Though my wife worries that some of my most interesting items would be difficult to "place" I constantly assure her that a museum or two would take some and a used record store right down the street would be the place to take my record collection.  Anything they don't want could go to Goodwill or even be placed outside on the sidewalk.  It all disappears and rather quickly.
I had something a few years ago that I really wanted to find a good home for...something that I kept to remind me of the time I owned a horse.  It was a hackamore bridle.  This bridle differs from a standard one in that it has no bit that goes into the horse's mouth.  Granted, you have less control, but the big mare we rode with the hackamore was gentle enough that the hackamore was a good choice for all.

I put the hackamore out at a yard sale I had with some friends many years ago, and actually ended up selling it to someone I knew.
Luis Niebla bought the bridle for a measly $10.  I really wanted him to have it because I knew it would get used.  Luis was a jockey I knew who worked for two trainers that had been movie stuntmen in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s.  They did stunts for John Wayne among other famous screen cowboys.  Luis was the stable rider, in that he rode horses of theirs in minor races.  If ever they had one good enough to compete in stakes races, another more accomplished jock would be engaged.   Luis didn't mind, he had a home, a few mounts a year, and a source of income.  Wayne Burson and Chuck Roberson  (the trainers) would barnstorm some years at the small California and Nevada Fair circuit.   Sometimes their horses were more experienced than people knew because some of the fairs, especially the Nevada ones were so small that statistics weren't recorded.
I once asked Luis how and when he came to California from Mexico.  The answer was astonishing.  Luis was the little Mexican kid in the movie "Stagecoach" that went for a wild ride with John Wane on an out of control coach.  After the filming, he came to California to work at the Bakersfield ranch of his stuntmen friends.
BY the time I met Luis, he was the most unassuming person.  He never won many races.  I even looked up his stats.  He's listed as having 89 wins and 89 second place finishes.  I know there were many more...somewhere.
So that day when Luis appeared at my yard sale, I knew he'd go home with the hackamore.  Hopefully a horse with as kind a disposition as this jockey is enjoying the feel of the fit.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Play Has Got To Say Something

With the passing of American playwright Sam Shepard, I was reminded of a most interesting experience that unfolded at the scene of what is arguably Shepard's most critically acclaimed play, "Buried Child."
Here's what happened.
I'd read some of the reviews of the play and wanted to see it.  So I asked a friend of mine to accompany me.  My friend, Ed Robbin had joined the cast of a modest production about the life of Woody Guthrie that I too was involved in at the time.  We're talking Bay Area circa early 1980s.
Ed had directed plays in the 30s and aside from being the guy who first put Woody on the radio, has a few accomplished friends.  He'd drop names like Theodore Dreiser or mention projects he's worked on with frequency so I thought, naturally it would be useful and informative to watch this play with Ed.  Besides, Ed was in his late 70s at this time and was delighted to get the opportunity to attend a play in San Francisco without having to drive at night.
Now, "Buried Child" was a bit of an avant guarde play and I was sure Ed would share his thoughts in a way that might put this particular piece of work in perspective.  Ed had liberally sprinkled his expertise as a director on our small Woody Guthrie production, so I knew he could talk the talk.
We watch the play and then before the audience leaves, the director comes onstage and informs the audience that they are being afforded the opportunity to meet the cast and director.
If interested, we can make our way downstairs to the first 10 rows of the center section of the theater and the discussion of the play will promptly begin in in about 5 minutes.
Most people depart the theater to cabs and nearby parking lot, but I ask Ed if he wants to remain and he quickly says, "sure."

We join about 75 people downstairs and await this opportunity.
The curtain opens to the cast arranged on chairs in a half moon behind the director.
The director thanks everybody and then begins to entertain questions or comments from the audience.
After a few comments about the plot and characters, my friend Ed rises and raises his hand.  He was immediately recognized.  I knew he would be because of his appearance.  Ed is an olive skinned man with long white hair covered by a seaman's cap.  He just looks like he is somebody worthy of comment.
Ed addresses the actors first: "You're all very good." Then he looks at the director.  But the play doesn't say anything.  A play has got to say something, and this play doesn't say anything."
Silence.  Ed looks at me.  "C'mon Bruce, let's go."
I always wondered if Sam Shepard was in the house that night.  One thing I do know is that "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer Prize that year.  So...somebody heard something.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Wild Man Fischer

Most people ignored him.  Even though he smiled and could talk softly. He offered his wares.  "Want to buy a song for a dime?"  Ten thin tenth of a dollar was all it took for Widman Fischer to sing his original compositions to you.  Most often I heard him sing "Merry Go Round," but occasionally he'd belt out "Linda and Laurie."
     Oh Linda!...Oh Laurie!
     Oh Linda!...Oh Laurie!

Sort of a lilting up and down voice collage much like the "Merry Go Round" refrain. A human calliope.
He was a fixture on the streets of L.A. in the late 60s and a regular on the UCLA campus where I spent my junior and senior years of college.
By the time I was ready to graduate, Widman Fischer, who we all knew was a paranoid schizophrenic, but harmless, had witnessed first hand many of the people and events of those politically flaming days.

 Anti-war demonstrations, take overs of the Administration building, Black Panther Party shootings, you name it, it happened in 1968 or thereabout.  What also happened that year was a new concept in university literary magazines.  It was called Laminas I and came in a box, in layers.  There were poems and essays, short stories and cartoons, line drawings and music.  The latter was a 7" LP that, among other things featured a handful of performances by Widman Fischer.  I briefly helped edit the magazine and received a free copy for my time.
It came as no surprise to me that in the years that followed, none other than Frank Zappa became aware of Larry Fischer (aka Widman) and recorded him.  Even though I spent much of 1970 out of California, I'd heard that Zappa was having Widman Fischer open for him at some concerts.  If anyone could appreciate the genius of Larry Fischer it would be a risk taker like Zappa.
I have a few pieces of that 1968 magazine in a box.  I don't know what happened to the 3 poems I had published in that issue, or some of the art work, but I do still have the recording.  I kept it, because of its size with a small, select, group of 45s I used for a teaching unit on the concept of death and dying in popular music.  The little 33 1/2 rpm recording fit nicely in boxes with the 45s.
Last week, while watching a PBS program about a lost collage by Frank Zappa, I thought of Widman Fischer and his music.  Sure enough, I located the recording from almost 50 years ago.  The once white record sleeve is faded, but the record itself is in good shape.  I'm, hoping a Zappa collector or collector of off beat music will be interested, because I have a lot less than 50 years to find a home for some of the things I clung to for so many years. Want to hear a song for a dime?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Tao of Winshield

She gave me a poem a bout wiper blades,

             tucked it right up under my own on the driver's side

a  too cute, if not subtle tale about how her wiper blades had

            fallen in love with each other, But it wouldn't work

because they would come together and then flee apart...perpetually when activated.

What was she trying to tell me?

       That love and relationships were like sisyphus...?

            condemned to tempt with intimacy and then separate in an instant?

Or did she have something else in mind,

something that would take a lifetime to learn?

Windshields crack, wiper blades do too,

Relationships split but linger long after the parts

wear out.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Looking Ahead

I wonder when it first happens?  My guess is that around age 50.  That's a perfect time to realize that it really is half over.  I'm referring to the realization that life will continue here in your town, your country, this world, long after you do.
People must have some curiosity of what daily life will be like; what the future holds, because we get glimpses all the time.  Aside from picture phones and cars without drivers, we wonder about the small and simple things too.

It does no good resisting any of his and wish to go backward, but how many of us would like to go back a couple of hundred years rather than go forward?
The other day at the train station in Portland I saw an Amish family calmly waiting to board a passenger train.  Certainly not the first time I've seen a religious group in a public setting, but it is real Twilight Zone stuff. Compared to the other folks that surrounded them, with backpacks and tattoos, barefoot and wearing shorts, the optics are startling. Beards were a commonality.
If those folks wonder about life 100 years from now, do they think it will be exactly as they live it today.  Can they survive another generation given the technology they try to eschew?
It seems to me to be a wise idea for some of us to document our daily lives carefully and thoughtfully now.  It may be one of the only ways anyone will know how much we are losing and at what rate.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Find Out What It Means To Me

"It's beneath the dignity of the office." We keep hearing this about the behavior of the current occupant of the White House.  When we look at the highlights and perhaps more accurately, the low lights, of our President's behavior, it's easy to see why this comment comes up so often.
He calls it the "modern Presidency" but in classic fashion even the word modern is out of touch in the 21st century.  Perhaps it's the post modern version, but one thing is clear, our President eschews matters of dignity more often than not.

So just how much dignity should we expect from the office and the officer we call our President?  I'm reminded of a student who entered my classroom about 20 years back.  His first name was President.  Yup, there it was, right on the official roll sheet and all the other school district documents.  Davis, President.
His peers knew the story, or perhaps it had been passed around so much that by the time I officially asked him on the first day of class, I may have been the only one who didn't know the origin of his name.
I should mention at this juncture that the person so named was sitting in front of me with a strong persona.  He was an African-American young man with a well groomed natural and a broad smile.  He exuded self confidence and was verbally proficient.
"It's simple," he told me, and the remainder of the class who didn't know the story.  "My mother wanted me to be respected at all times, and she figured by naming me President, everyone would call me by a name that demanded respect.  She wanted her son to know respect at all times."
There you have it.
I believe that this President went on to become involved in the music industry as a producer of Hip Hop and Rap recordings.  He certainly was articulate enough to perform himself.
So, here we are with a less dignified leader that probably won't inspire anyone to name a child after the office.  Perhaps a few of his minions will take Mr. Trump's first name, but who'd want to be associated with the kind of dignity currently connected with this President.
Somewhere, I hear Aretha singing, R E S P E C T...find out what it means to me.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Big George

Yesterday, I learned of the death of a friend and former colleague.  George Austin was a big man.  A social science teacher and football coach, he taught and mentored thousands of young people over a long career.  Although George was not elderly, he had recently retired, but never lived to enjoy the rest he deserved.  That often happens. He'd recently had knee surgery and to the best of my knowledge some of the complications of subsequent surgeries took his life.  George was the kind of teacher who could easily put his students needs first.  He took the time to do that.  His priorities were solidly in order.

About 20 years ago, we were roommates for a week at a National Writing Project conference in Princeton, New Jersey.  I really got to know George that week.  Aside from the intensive work we participated in regarding teacher research, there was time for some relaxation free time.
One morning, George asked me to accompany him on a search for clothing.  He knew about a store for large men somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike and had rented a car for the purpose of going there and later to New York.  So here we are, two California guys trying to deal with the toll roads on the East coast and  starkly unfamiliar territory.  When we found the place, George was able to benefit from the current sales and managed to find a few things.  As I perused the inventory of this specialty shop, I was amazed at some of the sizes available.  I never knew of the existence of Triple X and beyond sizes.  Some of the garments made big George look small.
Later that week, the teachers at this conference decided to have a talent show and one evening before the show, George and I cooked up an idea.  We'd spent some free time walking on the Princeton campus and generally comparing the environment of the school and the town to the milieu of UC Berkeley.  We were struck by the fact that the lack of diversity and homeless people was striking.  We'd shared that idea with some of our east coast colleagues.  So that evening we hatched a plan.  I would go on stage with my harmonica pretending that I'd play a few tunes as my contribution to the talent show.  But suddenly I'd announce that while walking around the town I ran into a famous bluesman.  George would take the role of "Big George" an important and well known figure in Blues circles.  I told the audience that invited him to perform tonight and them introduced him to the crowd.  Out walks George, with appropriate pork pie hat and a bluesy disposition.  We then performed a revised version of Muddy Water's "I'm a Man."  I think a few folks were momentarily fooled, or at least confused.  Great fun.
Later that week, George and our new friend Marsha from Philly went over to the then Philadelphia Park  racetrack where, in the rain, I introduced them to the concept of mud breeding and we managed to hit a nice exacta before returning to the evening session of the conference.  Great day.
While those memories of George will stay strong, I'll never forget the day after Bill Clinton was elected to his first term.  Winning the Presidency after years and years of Reagan and Bush, we were all ready for the future.  That Wednesday morning, as I walked down the hallway of the main building of our school, George approached me from the other direction smiling broadly.  He motioned me over and whispered in my ear, "The money be flown' now," he said.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Homeless Business

When I drive around the Berkeley/Oakland area on one of my annual visits to the place that was home for 40 years, I can't help but notice the re-ordering of buildings, businesses, and neighborhoods.      To drive the streets and look for familiar haunts is a challenge as new configurations abound, and new incarnations of coffee houses, restaurants, and various businesses are the order of the day.
I still see the old hardware store or the stationery store that used to be there.  An Italian Deli has sprung up two doors down from where one used to be.  A small bookstore holds on for dear life and even though the drug store with the soda fountain intact has somehow managed to be preserved, it's changed ownership a handful of times in recent years.

I see the little Egg and Apple Press shop where I once dated that red-headed waitress with the smiling face and brilliant eyes.  It's been a Middle Eastern cant for a couple of decades now.  Of course the travel agency is long gone.  Do they still exist?
One bakery survives, and a little parking lot is still there.  It's presence makes all this reminiscing possible.  Parking is 7 min. for a quarter.  A nickel buys a minute a dime two more.
In place of the big Chinese restaurant, I see the Hofbrau with the Italian name that was always good for an affordable carved sandwich and a quiet place to read day or night.  The little ice cream shop i gone, the savings and loan is a boutique, and the little soup place with the lovely wooden tables is an import shop with rugs hanging on the walls and shawls in earth tones visible through the windows.  I graded a lot of papers in my early years as a teacher at that corner table.
Surely something has got to be the same, weathered the storm from four decades of gentrification and transition?  Maybe it's the little pocket park along the stretch of Ashby Ave that rises to the hills.  Perhaps the 7-11 store that sits in the same mini strip mall with the laundromat and the thrift store.
Even the bank has morphed into another one.  This time there are a few empty spaces.  Recent casualties and left blank until someone steps up to take a risk.  It'll need to be something that is immune to online shopping or a kind of food nobody is doing nearby.  Like many communities, it may just linger for awhile and be a homeless premises, in a time when buildings, like people risk abandonment from a culture in transition.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Tao of Impermanence

Been thinking about a conversation I had some years ago with a wonderful elder.  I's befriended him at a local coffee shop in Oakland and we became fast friends.  Maybe it was the Austrian accent, or the fact that he'd been a teacher.  Maybe just the fact that he was a warm, funny and vulnerable person who depended on me from time to time to accompany him on errands and getting around.  I knew he had a daughter, with issues that remained mostly estranged, but one day I asked if he had any other family.  "I have a son too," he told me.  Where is he, I asked.  "He disappeared," was his quick reply.  "What do you mean he disappeared," I countered.  "People disappear, you know."
I left it t that but figured that they's lost contact somewhere along the way.

Things disappear too.  Sometimes they turn out to be some of your favorite things.  Recently a funky little breakfast place I frequent changed its menu.  Gone were the wonderful home fries that kept me coming back.  Their toast order was diminished and the color of the building had also changed form blue to light green.  No warning, just gone and different one day.
Now this is no great shakes.  Definitely a first world problem that I'll easily get over, but it joins a long line of products, services, and places that seem to be disappearing on a much too frequent basis these days.
Things change.  We know.  But do they always have to.  The makers of the best marionberry scones are still up and running even though their bakery closed without warning.  Ice cream flavors, hair shampoos, restaurants, even coffee shops just up and vanish sometimes.
I know all about the Zen of impermanence, but why does it seem like when some things are no longer available, there is nothing we can do about it?
There are far too many more important items to deal with for me to put any more energy into the rant.  But sometimes, when the rug gets pulled out from under, I just want to have a say in the matter.
Back to the Tao of substance.  Enjoy it while it exists.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Political Animals

The current malaise that seems to be enveloping this country will react to the hearings being televised and Tweeted, consumed and considered.  We have a President that lies and who's lack of concern for protocol seems to be catching up with him.  As expected, he tries to run the country like he runs his businesses.  He cares little for ethics and makes moral calculations that are sadly lacking.  This is what happens when you try apply one model to another.  In business, you can step on people.  It's done all the time, because "business is business."  When you work with people and have the power to impact lives while seemingly advocating for the greater good, you can't quantify issues and boil them down to what is most expedient.  With people there is supposed to be a human factor.  Human beings are emotional and in the words of Aristotle we are "political animals."
That does not mean we like politics, or that we are ever engaged in politics, it means more that we are social creatures.  As such it follows that we should have empathy for one another.

If political power is decision-making power, and I think it is, then an empathetic leader should be a necessity.  We don't always have one, and we certainly do not have one now.
What we seem to have a difficult time learning is that there are some specific characteristics about the people who seek public office.  They crave power.  The power to impact the lives of others.  I submit that if we look into their backgrounds we can find the reasons and that what fuels the drive for power will emerge.  Could be genetic or the product of their environment. Probably both, but they all seem to have the need to control, be at the helm, be the one who makes the call.
On the personal and political hierarchies of politicians, some of their core values get short shrift.  They shuffle their moral and ethical principles when necessary and parse words in ever fascinating and increasing ways.
It's often been said that all politics is local.  That seems to be a good indicator of how corrupt it can be.  Think of all the city councils and local police departments that have some sort of scandal right now.  It's a constant.  Something we continue to face day after day. Almost predictable.
I will not compare the current situation concerning the Trump presidency with Watergate.  There may be some similarities, but not enough to make the contrast worthwhile.  Instead I will offer the possibility that we learned a good deal back in 1973 and I expect we will learn a good deal more this time around.  If we incorporate that knowledge into our take away, perhaps we can save the fragile form of government we purport to adore.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

My Summer of Love

We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the "Summer of Love."  Ironically that contrasts sharply with the summer of hate that seems to be upon us now.  People seem to be muttering "something's happening here, but the contexts are vastly different.  50 years ago, I was a college student living in Southern California.  Like many, I went north to San Francisco that year to check out the intersection of Haight and Ashbury and see what all the fuss was about.  No, I did not wear a flower in my hair, but there were many who did.  What we all had in common was the overwhelming sense that a substantive change was upon us.  People were fed up with the direction of the war in Vietnam and the lack of trust they felt in their government.  They were buoyed by those that sacrificed all in the struggle for civil rights, and the hypocrisy of a star-spangled monument that was beginning to tarnish.   To be a young person that summer was to be insanely curious and optimistic.  It was to feel supported on the crest of a wave that had you breathing fresh air and certain that together, we could make a real change.
Because I was a struggling student the 500 mile trip was done in sections.  With a friend, I took a Greyhound bus, and rode all night to Salinas.  As unromantic as that sounds, it was terribly exciting to be going somewhere north. I studied the people on the bus.  A smattering of Latino farm workers, servicemen, and single women with children.  Throw in a few old timers, a few more college students and the bus was full.  After a brief early morning stop at a near deserted Salinas station, we rode to Monterey and then made our way to Carmel, where we had booked a room in what was then known as a "guest house."  In the pre-computer, pre-Air B&B world, there were still folks who had a spare room that they rented out and my friend had been there before.  In a beautiful little home on a very quiet street, we explored the Carmel-Monterey area for a couple of days.  On the wharf in Monterey, I found a craftsman by the name of Grabowski who had all manner of things I'd never seen before.  I left his little shop with a peg belt and a knit scarf.  That belt, which featured a wooden peg that went into a couple of leather loops in the belt was one of my signature garments throughout the 60s.
The most memorable part of that little trek came when we stood on Highway 1 and hitchhiked our way to the city by the bay.

San Francisco was buzzing that year.  Thousands flocked to "The Haight" and congregated in Golden Gate Park.  I vividly recall how young most people swarming the streets of the city were.  How broke they were two. People walked calmly but curiously through the streets. They seemed to be wondering, "Where you from?"  My first encounter with what the media soon dubbed "hippies" was a couple of dirty faced, tired kids from the midwest trying to get quarters to "buy some doughnuts."  I forked over a quarter to the chants of "we love ya man, we love ya." Nothing romantic there.  I remember an ice cream store on Haight called "God's Eye" and, of course picking up copies of the San Francisco Oracle and numerous other counter culture publications, all of which have vanished like the morning fog every day.

My friend Rob and I stayed in a cheap hotel in North Beach.  This was almost required behavior for young poets celebrating the hallowed ground of the Beats. One bathroom down the hall and a blinking red light from a strip joint flashing at night.  I recall that I just laid on top of the bed, not wanting to discover what surprises laid under the covers.
We frequented City Lights books and took in the scene on upper Grant Ave. near Chinatown and then rode Cable Cars to Fisherman's Wharf.
In what might be a classic scene from a bad movie about the "Summer of Love" one memory stands out as most amusing. Walking from the heart of downtown Monterey back to the highway, a Gray
Line tour bus drove by.  Both Rob and I had bought new hats, rather big black frontiersman looking things that kept the sun out of our eyes and the rain off our heads.  As the tour bus passed, I could hear the driver talking on his microphone telling the passengers to glance at us over to the right.  "Two hippies on their way to hitch hike...blah blah tailed off.  Laughter and tired feet, sourdough bread and cheese...Summer of Love.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

No Fly Fishing on the First Date

Finding a fly fishing partner has eluded me.  Since moving to Oregon, I've had a couple of short term relationships with fly fishers, but so far none as gone the distance.  It's complicated, but either they no longer share my passion for the sport, or have moved away, or aren't available.  I once tried placing an add on an online community bulletin board, but that only resulted in a woman who was looking for more than a fishing buddy.  Truth be told, she lined up under the banner of "I always wanted to try fly fishing." Not interested.

I need a clone.  Someone near my age and ability who enjoys getting into a float tube and onto a lake, or perhaps walking the banks of a small stream or friendly river.  But the risks are great.  I have fears too.  I'm afraid of finding someone who isn't all that easy to be around, or who has bad habits, or plays food and alcohol fast and loose.  Someone who talks too much, or is a slob, or isn't punctual or is essentially too needy.
I'm not perfect. Hardly, but I'm at the age when I refuse to lower my expectations for a partner who would accompany me in this sacred endeavor. I'm conscious of time and health and this is serious.
Sure my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I write this but these are real considerations nonetheless.  It's somehow a whole lot easier to go alone and avoid unnecessary drama or time with someone I don't respect.  It's a lot like dating.  It can get lonely too.  So I'm looking and trying to put myself out there again as summer nears. As I said to my neighbor, an older woman enjoying the independence that retirement brings, "No fly fishing on the first date."  It's like that, you know.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Jerked Around

I had a rather unsettling, if not bizarre encounter with a homeless person the other day.  As I was scurrying to meet with a teacher I'm mentoring a 20 something guy sprang from a bus bench and asked if he could ask me something.  We all know the drill here, but his youth and condition held me for a split second so I thought I'd just cut to the chase and tell him I was busy but here's a dollar.  The dollar bill I thought was in my front pocket turned out to be a five and at that point the threshold is crossed.  No turning back.  He took the money and then rather uncharacteristically seemed to undergo a personality change.  What followed was a rather speedy, rather schizophrenic diatribe complete with people from another universe and his anger at have ing the 5 dollar bill.
"Well, if you're angry about having it, you can always give it back," I replied.  He wasn't going for that but seemed intent on continuing the conversation, one-way as it was.

I was done.  I wished him luck and fought off the temptation to urge him to get help.  I can still see the tattooed letters over one eyebrow.  At first they looked like RFK.  A homage to Bobby Kennedy?  Not quite,  just another use of some letters that might have been an R and a K somewhere.  So what's the takeaway?  That even homeless people can get angry when taking your money?  That finding food and shelter come after finding mental health resources?  Probably all of it.
That afternoon I had a scheduled visit from the cable TV guy.  My signal boxes, like me, are old and need replacing.  Since he lived in my neighborhood, we got into a quick discussion about some of the new places coming into our rapidly gentrifying corner of North Portland.  Soon we focused on a jerk chicken place called Jamaica House.  Just opened, it's been filling the surrounding streets with the aroma of cooking chicken.  I mentioned that I'd seen a guy with dreads and a ball cap with a large cannibis leaf on it working over a BBQ placed in front of a Jamaican flag that adorns the old house where the restaurant is located.  My technician, a Puerto Rican, originally from New York said he'd heard of the place and was wanting to try it also.  He then launched into a diatribe about  how one can't be too careful about assuming anything because it might just have been a non-Jamaican sporting all the cultural regalia out there cooking.
That afternoon, we walked over to the place, my wife and I, and entered the Jamaica House.  Said cook emerged from the kitchen with a big smile and gave us a menu.  Though the place was empty, it was still early enough in the afternoon so we waited.  A woman sitting at the bar offered a comment about the uncharacteristic spring weather.  The old house turned restaurant reminded me of a few similar places I'd seen in Texas.  Only those were BBQ joints with red soda water and potato salad.  They often had juke boxes, one in particular with only BBKing, Bobby Bland, and Little Milton records inside them.

We heard hacking from the kitchen; meat cleaver cutting up chicken...I hope.  10 minutes later we were home with our meals and the moment of truth was at hand.  The chicken was OK, not memorable and rather bony.  Present were a few parts most people don't eat.  I must confess that I'm a chicken bone lover and eat most anything and definitely every part except a few.  What passed for beans and rice was a large serving of rice, completely undercooked.  Crunchy.  Hard crunchy, not fried rice crunchy.  The beans present I could count on one hand.  That's right, five or fewer, no joke.
I hope this place makes it, but I have my doubts.  Portland is a food town and people will vote with their dollars and their palates.  I'll try again in a few weeks, just to see if anything has changed.  In the same way, if I ever encounter that homeless guy again, and we are both not in such a rush to condemn, we'll see if a donation to his well being still makes him angry.  You got to accept people and things were they are, not where you want them to be.  At least, in the beginning.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Places Gone Places Remembered

I live in a small community that's constantly changing.  Yes, some of the change can be filed under gentrification, but a good deal of it is subject to the changing social, economic, and technological shifts occurring in this early part of the 21st Century.
Old businesses, like the outdated means of communication and means of purchasing goods and services are dropping by the wayside.  Their replacements are not always progressive, but they are hard to ignore.  Just the other day I saw an older woman write a check to pay for groceries.  In an age when a phone app or the swipe of a plastic card is commonly used to buy a cup of coffee, this seemed like such an anomaly.  I half expected the cashier to take the check and ask, What's this?'
Maybe that's a little extreme, but rest assured, that day is coming.
We do so many things interactively with our phones and computers.  Our phones are our computers now, aren't they?
At this point in my life, I've made some decisions about reading and writing with regard to the technology available.  While I know it's neither good or advisable to ignore what I don't like, nevertheless I'm going to stick with books and records as long as I can.  I like the look and feel of them.  They are more than just words on a page or screens or sound coming from somewhere. They are entities that I want to have and hold.
We like to document the loss of places that have vanished in space and time.  My community is filled with homes and buildings that have been repurposed a few times over the years.  Just this morning I noticed a restaurant that closed down a few months ago will soon reopen as a bottle shop featuring beers and wines of the northwest.  The space was once a tavern that looks and feels like it's origin in the lumber industry as a local tavern.  It's got one of those beautiful ceilings that always grabs those who chance to look up.  I love that it now looks down on millennials drinking pinot noir when once it sheltered flannel-clad lumbermen.

The Beatles sang about "Places I'll remember all my lifetime."  Though gone, we do recall the people and things that occupied these locations.  Some spaces remain permanently in the mind.  The old Polo Grounds,  the house I grew up in, and racetracks like Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, and Longacres.
I never went to see the Giants play in New York though I have early childhood memories of Willie Mays playing in the Polo Grounds.  The house I grew up in is probably still standing but looks nothing like I recall, though in my mind I see it perfectly and could navigate each room in the dark from memory.
When a racetrack dies, all the memories come rushing back.  Something about an empty grandstand and the stillness of a site that once was filled with color and movement.
Longacres, near Seattle Washington was the quintessential mid century racetrack.  With equal parts country and art deco, it's pastoral setting and classic green/white color scheme made it a template for all the hope and promise...luck and excitement it dished up for years.  I went there once in the 1970s while passing through the area.  The day was stunningly beautiful.  It was a week day so the on site crowd was smaller than usual and I wandered upstairs to a private box in the grandstand.  There was nobody around and as the crowd began to fill in before the first race, I decided to make myself comfortable as if it were my box and I belonged.  I just wanted to watch a race from this prime location.  I had no intention of trespassing.  Looking over the railing at the horses on the track, I sensed two people enter this box of 6 seats.  In my mind I rehearsed what I would say, and how I would apologize, but before I could say anything, one of the two men behind me asked, "Have you seen Richard this morning?"
"No, haven't seen him today," I replied realizing they mistook me for someone they knew.  Sensing I belonged, I relaxed and remained until the horses of the first race crossed the wire.  My two new friends departed shortly thereafter and I decided to move along as well.  I'll always remember Longacres as a very friendly place.

Friday, April 14, 2017


The first time I went to Disneyland--the Disneyland in Southern California-- I was about 9 years old.  I vividly recall sitting with my aunt on a horse drawn streetcar that took visitors from the front of the park up Main Street.  Back then, it was a re-creation of a turn of the century (20th Century) Main St. with what we loosely called "old fashioned" stores with cracker barrels, penny candy, and proprietors who wore hats and garters on their sleeves.  Disney was always keenly aware of the romanticism of the "good old days" and probably wanted his guests to breathe in the nostalgia as they entered his masterpiece of an amusement park.

So, sitting there with my Aunt Dorothy I had an epiphany.  My aunt had lived in aa world where she could actually remember horse drawn streetcars as the state of the art.  Suddenly, she was, at the age of 50, part of the recent past.  As I watched the monorail train go by and eagerly awaited my first look at Tomorrowland, I realized the pace of technology.
Now it's my turn to be sitting on the streetcar of defunct technology.  I realized the other day how many things that young people today will never see outside a museum or an amusement park.
A couple of years ago, one of my niece's children accompanied me in my pick-up on an ice cream run to the local grocery store.  It was a warm summer afternoon and Annie was anxious to show me that she was now old enough to ride up front in the cab with me.  She suddenly realized she couldn't roll down the window because there was no power window button.  When I showed her the little hand crank, she was dumbfounded but quickly recovered.  Then she thought that it was the "coolest" thing.  I guess it would be never having seen a window  come down that way.
These little revelations occur daily.  Sometimes I marvel at the fact that I went through college without a computer.  I've heard that it's possible to get a college education these days without ever going in a library.  I see how, but I'm not sure I like that idea.

Wish I still had my little Remington portable.  I couldn't get rid of it fast enough when I bought my first word processor.  I should have thought longer on that decision, but then, I do enjoy going to museums.

Friday, April 7, 2017

7th Decade

Outside my walls,
     I welcome measured mystery,
          I no longer remember eating the Blues,
Drinking ancient sadness,
     Just poetry from green lakes,
          and gray rain,

What now?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Gary Redux


It took me a while to get this picture (taken by David Soffa) of Gary.  But here it is, at last.
Gary was one of the most memorable kids in the St. George Homes back in the early 1970s simply because of his voice.  High Pitched doesn't really come close, rather pre pubescent sums it up.  Like a few of the other kids Gary had a fixation.  Comic Book superheroes, to be sure.  But not their images, more like the words used in their exploits.  Think Batman and think Pow and Zap and BOOOOM!
At some point in his formative years those comics were all he had and he managed to incorporate all those adjectives and verbs into his reality.  Even in this photo, Gary is about to smile.  He laughed a good deal.  Laughed and
smiled when uttering those action words,
laughed and smiled when being hit by other kids in the home.  His agggression was sublimely passive and that further inspired his tormentors.  Of all the kids I recall, Gary was perhaps the most lovable.  His histrionics often took the form of self-deprecation.  "I can't do anything right..."  "Everything always turns out wrong."  Just imagine that in the voice of a pre-pubescent 12 year old.  But Gary  was centered in his own way.  Despite the violence that surrounded him daily, he managed to find humor more often than all the others.  Today, when I think about Gary, I realize that he must be in his late 50s by now.  My hope is that his voice is as deep and mellow as his disposition could be.  I hope, too that a few things have gone right for him.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Charles and Gary

They were among the most memorable.  Charles and Gary.  Gary I'd heard about.  His "thing" preceded him.  Charles I met first.  Waiting outside the office of the director,  thinking about the interview questions they's ask and what it would be like to work in the residential treatment facility, Charles approached me.  "I'm not like the others," he said in his deepening voice.  Quickly changing the subject to his black raincoat, his most prized possession, Charles was convincing.  Maybe he's right, I thought.  "I'll soon be leaving here," he said.  "You probably won't get the chance to know me, but I wanted you to know I'm not like the others."
Charles wasn't leaving.  He was, in fact, lucky to be there.  It was better than that other place he'd been forced to call home: a closet.

The story goes that his father was a visiting professor from Japan.  When his mother got pregnant, the father would have none of it...literally.  At a young age, Charles was kept in a closet and given a transistor radio for amusement (and a parent) and had managed to survive until the truth was out and he was removed from the home.  A mild mannered, if not disinterested kid, Charles had made the world of top 40 radio stations his new home.  Listening to that little radio day and night, He could quote the top ten singles by month and year.  It was not uncommon for someone to say "Charles, June 12, 1996 and for him to reply, "on June 12, 1967 Tommy James and the Shondells hit the top of the charts with "I Think We're Alone Now."
Charles used to lay his carefully folded raincoat on the end of his bed at night.  It was never far away. It didn't help that he lived in what has previously been referred to as the "crazy" house.  These were the more disturbed kids in that rather than just emotional disturbances, they had all manner of issues from being somewhere on the Autism spectrum to Tourettes Syndrome.

They were seldom violent like the other teen boys in the other houses.  Their emotional outbursts were rare, in favor of flat out passive aggressive behavior.  They knew how to use their limited resources to great advantage.  You can get plenty of revenge by defecating in someone's clean clothes drawer or creepily asking about their ethnicity ad nauseam.  (Brent used to sped hours asking Charles if he was Chinese or Japanese after lights out.  Every 15 minutes or so Charles would reply, "I already told you, I'm Japanese." And so it went.
If Charles had made the world of top 40 radio his alternate home, then Gary had done the same using the universe found in Superhero comic books.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

After Love

In celebration and memory of the late Derek Walcott, West Indian poet and Nobel laureate.  This poem occupies a place among my favorites of all time.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Egg Salad TV

This is Leonard.  You would never want to have the responsibility of waking him up in the morning.  Not when this picture was taken.   He was about 12 or 13 here.  Like the few things he came to the group home with, his bicycle was very important to him.
My introduction to Leonard was abrupt.  It was the day I came to the home for an interview.  Lunch time. A few of us potential "counselors" were waiting to be interviewed in the living room of the large house that was home to the offices and director of the St. George Homes.  The boys that were placed in two other nearby homes came to this home for lunch.  They were in an adjoining room watching cartoons when a fight broke out. A thud; someone hit the floor. One of the counselors jumped up and opened two sliding doors.  I followed.  When he pulled one larger kid off a smaller one I went over to what appeared to be the victim.  He was curled in a ball and crying.  I bent down and tried to roll him over to see if he was hurt.  That's when I caught a fist in the mouth.  He greeted me with a punch.  Leonard.  Angry Leonard.  Extremely angry Leonard.  Working with emotionally disturbed teenagers required knowledge that I did not possess.  Not at that point.
A day, any day was filled with lashing out, fist fights, and violent actions for Leonard.  He'd snap over everyday things.  Living with 5 others with similar issues truly tested his ability to change or gain any insight.  Still we tried.  There were group outings, activities filled with music and artistic endeavors.  There was free time to ride bicycles, there were football games and camping trips.  Leonard and his anger attended all.  Rarely was there no incident to set him off.  Even when things were going well you could always count on Leonard or one of his roommates to calmly walk into a room where 4 kids were quietly watching TV and change the channel.  No talk.  Just action.  On one occasion Leonard grabbed one kid's egg salad sandwich and rubbed it all over the TV screen.  Fight ensued.
Yet, Leonard could be a little boy.  I've seen that quality in some very violent adolescents.  Regression?  Arrested development?  Probably.  One day I tried to find some background information on Leonard.  Through a combination of other counselors and a social worker associated with his placement I learned that Leonard had 8 placements in his first 12 years.  He was part Mexican, part Apache Indian.  He had a twin brother.  Apparently the social worker who knew his brother was overjoyed that he had finally expressed some anger.  His personality was the complete opposite of Leonard's.  The brother had told someone to fuck off and that was perceived as progress.  I do not know if Leonard and his brother were born under the sign of Gemini.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


I had the good fortune of having a photographer for a roommate many years ago.  It was 1970, the beginning of my life away from home.  After a year in Houston, Texas, as a VISTA Volunteer I wound up in the Bay Area.  Seeking draft counseling and the opportunity to hone my social justice skills I ended up working in a care and treatment facility for emotionally disturbed teenage boys. Because there were so many conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, the place was approved for alternative service.  We were non-violent young men working with very violent youth.  The Feeral Selective Service (draft) law said that approved service had to "dispute your life and involve sacrifice")  This did.  That's why we worked 3 day live-in shifts and got $50.00 a month plus room/board.  Thought these homes were privately owned houses, it was an institutional setting.  The training and support we received was questionable, at best, ineffective at worst, but the experiences and stories that remain from that time are indelible.
The photo here is taken from one of my colleagues' Instagram page.  He recently decided to scan and preserve much of his work from the last four decades.  I have his permission to use this picture and I'm delighted because it is worth at least 2,000 words.
His name was Brent and he lived in the home that had the most mentally disturbed boys.  I say that with a grain of salt because while his roommates had mental illnesses they were deemed less violent or angry as another home with more emotionally, physically, and developmentally mature kids.  While Brent and his roommates certainly were not exempt from some forms of abuse, they were severely limited in their ability to make and flourish with social relationships.  Sometimes people confuse the term "crazy" with the person and not the behavior.  The kids could be funny, entertaining, even lovable, but they were loaded with "crazy" behavior.
Brent had, among other things, a large dose of Obsessive Compulsive Behavior.  His OCD, however didn't involve hand washing or counting, or cleanliness, but rather an obsession with huge disasters.  He was fascinated with natural disasters like tidal waves and volcanic eruptions, but especially enthralled with the disaster of Hiroshima.  In a low almost whisper, he'd say, "Bruce...Bruce... Fifty thousand people killed in Hiroshima."  Then he proceeded to extend both arms forward and violently shake his fingers.  Creepy, yes, but also eerie and somewhat fascinating.
Brent and his roommates were also going through puberty.  They didn't have the skills to discuss sex and their sexual awakening in a mature way, so they were often shunned by the boys in the other 3 houses, who were just beginning to act on their urges and certainly didn't want to be associated with these "crazy" ones.
Brent had a crush on the actress Marlo Thomas.  It was the 1970s and she was a big TV star.  He build huge fantasies around how he would meet her and how they would "get together."  He used to show me long, long short stories he'd written.  Always there was a scene where something happened to Marlo Thomas, and he just happened to be nearby.  She sometimes was in an ambulance after being hit by a car, or perhaps the victim of some sort of misfortunate and he suddenly be there and she would fall in love with him right there on the spot.  He got much pleasure from these stories.
Working in these homes as a 22 year old conscientious objector I learned much about both mental illness and my own threshhold for keeping my cool.  Often, the worst times were waking the kids up and getting them to settle into bed at night.  One of the therapists employed by the facility used to tell us that unlike most people, they felt they had no reason to get up in the morning.  Often, the first hour of the day was fraught with anger that erupted into fights and resistance of all sorts.  As for Brent, the end of the day was the biggest challenge with him.  He used to ask one of the other boys, Charles, who happened to be Japanese, if he was Chinese or Japanese for hours.  "Charles...Charles...are you Chinese or Japanese."  Imagine that in a raspy voice for a couple of hours.  It was always followed with a sniveling little laugh.  I conclude this memory of Brent with one of his evening surprises.  If a woman houseparent was on duty he was likely to do this one.  Slipping off his pajamas, he's suddenly burst out of bed and announce, "Exercises in the nude."  Whereupon he commence doing jumping jacks and encourage all within earshot to do the same.  More about Brent and his roommates in my next post.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Blue Celebration

Seems like hardly a day goes by when I'm not realizing that something I really like is gone.  It can be as local as that new bakery that opened a few miles from home...the one with the marionberry scones like no other, to a product like soap or a brand of cracker.  Stuff disappears.  They don't make it anymore.  I can see if it's a product that's not selling, but I can't help but feel that someone or something is messing with various goods and services that many folks have come to depend on.
I once wrote a letter to a shampoo manufacturer because they changed the aroma, viscosity, and color of their product.  To no avail.  Seems like it's happening more and more.
Now I realize that this is minor stuff that hardly threatens the existence of civilization as we know it.  I know it's only mildly irritating in the long run.  Other products that I will grow to love will soon be replaced or disappear, no doubt.
That's why I'm going to flip this diatribe and celebrate the long enduring fact that Levis Jeans are, were, and will always be in my life.  I've worn Levis for over 50 years and have no intention of stopping now.  I even went as far as saying that when I retire from full-time teaching I will wear them every day of my life.

Over the years the simple act of wanting and wearing Levis has become more complicated.  In Jr. high and high school there were two kinds, regular blue jeans and then what we called
white Levis."  By my 20s that changed with the introduction of colors, numbers, and corduroy choices.  Today you need to know the difference between 501s and 514s.  Even the sizes vary.  Where once I could go into any story and buy size 34/32 in any variety and not have to try them on in advance, today that's a bit of a gamble.  Still, there is something reassuring about knowing that the Levi Straus company lives on with a fair amount of success.
I must have about 10 pairs of Levis jeans in my closet right now.  Three  of them might as well be retired because of holes worn through.  I keep them for painting rooms, or wearing on evenings I stay at home, or to go fishing and have a back-up.  Another pair isn't my correct size, so it's in the the earthquake kit along with a faded brown pair that once was part of my classroom wardrobe.  I have one new pair, a pair of chords, and three pair of blue jeans that I wear from week to weak.  Oh yeah, there is also a pair of gray Levis I bought for classroom visits when I observe beginning teachers.
All these jeans have distinctive qualities.  I can tell them apart by the color variation, the wear, and the fit.
Sometimes just being comfortable is enough reason to celebrate.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Is It Rolling?

I hate the term.  Every time I hear it it takes me back to the first time I heard it used.  Connotation, I guess that would be called.  Like a specific smell that becomes associated with an emotion or an event, the term "roll out" or more specifically "rolling out," sticks in my craw.
Products are rolled out, Presidential appointees and programs are rolled out, and the latest edition of something...anything... is now "rolled out."
Literally, the image conjures something on wheels.  A curtain opens and Voila! Here it is, our new improved version of something that needed to be rebooted. On wheels.

Oh that's the story.
I was once summoned to an English Department meeting where a newly appointed district administrator was going to be introduced and then inform a group of veteran teachers that the curriculum they wrote, created, and lovingly taught and improved for decades was to be scrapped in favor of some new anthology where all the lessons were predetermined and pre written.  Sort of a microwavable way of teaching.  Just take the amount you want, add water and nuke it for 20 seconds. Never mind that that administrator and every other underling in the room had no knowledge of what  these veteran teachers were teaching, or how, or how effective.  Never mind the teaching of whole books,  they were saying, the snippets of classics and classic writers were all here in their fragmented glory and all you have to do is use this newly minted rolled out anthology now and we'll all do the same thing at the same time...district wide.  Great, huh?
Oh Hell No!
That was the conclusion my colleagues and I reached.
We got advance word that this was coming so we entered the meeting with a bit of a chip resting on our tired shoulders.  Then the new Mr. Big was introduced and used the expression.  Reminding or perhaps warning us that he had a PhD from Berkeley and probably knew best what and how we should be teaching, the woman introduced Dr. Big and he began by saying today "we are rolling out the new curriculum that you'll be using from now on."  I don't believe any of us in that room who would be going back to classrooms full of students believed for one moment that they would use the new mandated text and accompanying lessons.
In what would certainly be one of the best rejoinders I've ever heard one of my colleagues, countered, with, "well, I have a PhD from Cal too and I think we should be teaching whole books."
The meeting ended shortly after that.  Hard to tell what people thought, but this I do know.  That administrator and the one who introduced him are nowhere near the district these days.  No, we never used what was rolled out and rolled over us that day.  What followed were a series of student and teacher demonstrations that used a public reading of Fahrenheit 451 to make the point.  I guess we rolled out our great effect.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Advanced Composition for Teachers

Mrs. White was Black,
     I, white, loved blues,
She taught me to put rhythm in my prose,
     A dab of Charlie Parker shortened some sentences;
smoothed some edges,

     Mrs. White spoke every syllable,
Nobody said "particular" they way she did,
     Her voice was smooth as a Louis Armstrong solo,
She always called him Louis.

Sometimes we spent extra minutes talking about Billie, or Jean Toomer, or
the Big Bands she saw at the World's Fair

Jimmie Lunceford was her favorite,
     I love how she said Lunceford,
Not ferd but f o r d.  Lunce f o r d,

Mrs. White never lost her sense of humor,
     She understood why black actors played the parts they did,
She saw the power that came from their pain.

We talked about images in the mind... Amos 'N Andy...the TV version
     The massive talent of Tim Moore (Kingfish) was something she placed in front of
her students who were members of the Black Panther Party.
     Mrs. White defied them not to laugh; they smiled then erupted in laughter,
               (she knew they would)
she knew there was real comedy in those forced roles.
     She praised talent,
   She wanted to give credit where it was due,
 to make Black Power part of enduring.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

At The Core

As the Executive Orders keep tumbling out of Washington D.C. and the Trump administration continues to make good on it's promises, the atmosphere around the nation is palpably depressed, confused, and angry.
I'm finding that I'm hearing from all sorts of folks from the corners of my live about what I think of it all, and what I think we can do about it.  As much as I want to compare the goings on these days to other Constitutional crises we've experienced, it is not a perfect comparison.  Far from it.  We are in new territory because the President, in my view demonstrates severe personality disorders.
Writers have often postulated universes where the leader of a country is a "madman" or for some unknown reason has surprisingly changed his views on crucial issues.  Perhaps the person on the other end of the puppet strings suddenly emerges, or suddenly assumes more control.  In our enjoyment of such a fantasy, we often ask ourselves, could that really happen?  Now we know.
In the present, we are getting a beautiful lesson in historical perspective.  We are reminded how a megalomaniac takes over the reins of power.  We've seen it all the time, but thought we'd seen the end of it.  Hardly.

What I tell my friends is that in times like these I always do two things.  First, I think about the finest minds out there...who I consider them to be, and see what they think about things.  If they are not saying anything currently I look to them to find their views on similar issues historically.  Often their wisdom helps to calm the riled soul.  What also does the same thing is to soothe myself with art or artistic expression that I know will always be there.  Usually, for me, it's music.  I can always find some Blues master, or the purity of traditional American music or a jazz solo that has moved me in the past.  Comforting to know that it is always there for me.  The other thing that occupies my thinking is all the forms of resistance that are do-able and within the moral expanse of my thinking.  This can be something as simple as signing a petition or donating to an organization, or, and here's the hard part, to try to talk to people.  This time around, it is especially important to continue some sort of dialogue with folks with whom we don't agree.  When that stops, we're all in trouble.
Finally, people keep asking me, "How are we going to get through 4 years with this guy in the White House?"  Granted, it won't be easy, but what it will do is mobilize people.  Two weeks in and there has been more mobilization than in the last 10 years.
By way of prediction, if the current administration continues on the path they've now trod, it won't be long before a full blown Constitutional Crisis emerges and we'll all get to see what our Congressional representatives are made of.  Even though it seems like many of the fundamental values are being shredded along with the Constitution, what does remain is the fact that a majority of the people will recognize what is happening, take steps to alleviate that, and continue to live lives that follow a moral compass.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Boots on the Ground

Like millions of people all over this country and the world for that matter, I took to the streets to join the Woman's March in the wake of the Trump inauguration.  While the new administration quibbles about the numbers of people who attended the inauguration and how many participated in the marches, the following day, a few facts do emerge.  In most of the large U.S. cities the numbers in attendance were far larger than expected.  Thousands larger.

Here in Portland, that was certainly the case.  The prediction called for as many as 30,000, but in reality the figures were more like 50-75,000.  Standing cheek by jowl in the street, looking in every direction, seeing bridges blocked with folks carrying signs, and noticing people pour into the area as fast as the rain came down, it felt like 100,000 people were there.
And who were they?  They were everybody.  They were children and the elderly. They were Black and Brown, Native and Asian, trans-genderded and questioning.  They were peaceful, angry, confused, afraid, and wise.  They rode on backpacks, in wheel chairs, on the shoulders of parents and relatives, and moved with walkers, or their own two feet.  They moved when they could, because mostly they were standing in packed stacks. Signs, original signs, funny signs, deadly serious signs were everywhere.
The signs screamed misogyny, inequality, grabbing back, and human rights.  They contained caricatures, clever slogans and eye catching art.  "Make America Think Again,"  Tweeting is not Leading," and one particularly poignant one simply stating, "Muslims are peaceful people."
We stood in the street for hours, we stood in rain, for hours, we sang a bit, we smiled at our new neighbors, we helped with an older person's needs or a child's frustrations, when we could, we knew why we were there and we felt active in the act of passive resistance.

Inevitably, I was reminded of a March I attended 47 years ago in Washington D.C. The President was different as were the issues.  But back then Mr. Nixon, was aware that thousands were in the street demanding an end to the U.S. misadventure in Vietnam.  It rained that day too.  The bridge over the Potomac River was gridlocked too.  That march, and the ones that came before it and after it did have impact.  This week I've been given the opportunity to remind my friends that participated in their first march to never forget that these efforts do have impact.  That social change moves much slower than we'd like it to, but it does move. That the future will not unfold as our most fearful misgivings, that there will be uncertainty.  Beautiful, helpful, meaningful uncertainty.
As events unfold, it seems clear that a good pair of marching shoes/boots will be a wise investment. It won't rain every time and perhaps a few new songs will make their presence felt.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Greatest Show is Gone

We all knew it was coming.  Or rather it's not coming...any more.  After more than a century, the Ringling Brothers Circus will be no more.  Definitely a sign of the times and the evolution of social change and attitude change as well.  When the elephants went a few months ago, the entire "Greatest Show on Earth" was sure to follow.  It did.
This is not something to be mourned, but rather acknowledged.  Just think we don't have the dissonance any more about how wonderful the circus coming to town is for kids and how barbaric it has been for the animals under the big top.
As entertainment evolves, the circus had too much to compete with these days.  Although some of the smaller boutique circuses seem to do well and a number of performing horse shows seem to be free of any public outcry.

If anything is sad about the loss of a big circus, it might be the magic and the sheer delight reflected in the eyes of children watching three rings of spectacular entertainers, from cars full of clowns to trapeze artists, to performing horses, bears, elephants, camels, and, on occasion, birds and penguins.
Like the minstrel show and the "freak show" of yesteryear, the circus has run it's course.  To be sure, the time has come, but the tradeoff is still fascinating to look at, if not nostalgic.
All the major circuses used to have a "side show."  Like the stereotypic "freak show," the side show would feature all the acts or people who had to be seen up close for full effect.  Much like the pay to enter tents in county fairs, the side show was off to the side with a separate entrance fee.
When I was about 5 or 6 years old, an elderly couple whose kids were grown and lived across the street form my family took my sister and me to the circus.  Maybe they did that for us, or maybe for themselves. I'd seen pictures in the newspaper of the train pull into downtown Los Angeles, but never dreamed that I would be able to go.  While I recall the elephants and the clowns, the cotton candy and the peanuts, the side show left the biggest impression on my young mind.
Much like walking through carnival booths, I saw a true melange of human experience and existence.  There was a "Giant" who drank a six pack of 7-Up at one sitting, a bearded lady, and a woman in a short yellow dress with no arms or legs.  The Giant was about 8 feet tall, thin and probably suffered from some pituitary disorder. The bearded lady had hormone issues, and the limbless woman smiled, all the while as people gawked and occasionally asked questions.  In my young mind they were celebrities and proud to be on display.  At age 6 it seemed like a great day job to me.
 I saw a sword swallower, ( he swallowed fire too) and a man who, when he removed his bathrobe, had "alligator skin on his back."  Yup alligator skin...I saw it, or something like it.  I'm sure there is an explanation, but it was a greenish brown, and covered his back and shoulders.  He smiled all the while too. Thinking back now, no wonder this left such an impression on me.  All the people in the side show were happy, or so I thought.  They were gracious, informative, and seemed to enjoy their lives with the circus.  What did I know at that age.  That's the way  remember it...and that memory is clear. Before we went home, the couple who took us to the circus, Doris and Henry, said we could each have one souvenir.  My sister picked out a baton, as I recall.  It was red white and blue and all glittery.  She had to wait until we got home to show me her twirling skills.  I went for a plastic sword, so I could know what.