Friday, May 15, 2015

Back Home: East of the Pecos

I don't like to travel.  It is as simple as that.  When I arrive at a destination, the first thing that crosses my mind is that I'll be able to go back home in (fill in the number) days.  I should modify that a little. If I am in, say, Belize for two weeks, there are all kinds of terrific things that happen:  snorkeling off the second longest barrier reef in the world, climbing to the top of Mayan ruins, catching barracuda and eating them on the beach, conversations with our friends, dinner at Elvi's Kitchen (with apologies to Frank Bonnano and the gang at Lou's Foodbar, the best fried chicken anywhere), breakfast on the beach at Estelle's.  Those are all things I can't do at home, but the list starts petering out at this point.

The fact is that there is a lot of time spent just hanging out in a foreign country and that drives me crazy.  I know I'm supposed to spend idyllic days hanging out at the pool or the beach reading mindless summer drivel and I do manage to polish off half a dozen books or so, but I could polish off those same books at home for a lot less money, money I could use to go to Mizuna every night if I wanted to for dinner.  That's the problem.  The two things I love to do more than anything--reading and dining out--can be accomplished without going through the baggage check at DIA, or sitting in a middle seat in tourist class.  (Tourist class!  Maybe that's the problem.  I don't want to admit I'm a tourist.)  Furthermore, with the exception of New York City, the restaurants in Denver are superior to the ones I've been able to find anywhere else and that includes Napa and the French Laundry.

There are two, maybe three, exceptions to my disdain for travel:  Jenny Lake Lodge, New York City, and Santa Fe. (If I were feeling better about Colorado's excuse for a baseball team, I would include Scottsdale for spring training.)  We stay at Jenny for two weeks every year (July 4 - July 18).  This will be our 17th or 18th year coming up.  Everybody knows us.  Everybody seems happy to see us.  There are all kinds of returning guests during that same time span who have become our good friends.  We hike, kayak, sit on the porch and look at Mt. Rockchuck, drink great wines, and eat great food.  It is the only place I have ever been I am not happy to leave.  I have even been known to shed a tear or two at the last glimpse of the Cathedral Group.  Our annual trip is only a month and a half away and I can't wait.

I can tolerate the plane trip to New York because if I had a lot of money, New York is where I would like to live.  Mostly, I tolerate it because I'll get to see Nate and Ashley and I'll probably get a chance to have lunch with the Monacos and I might meet up with Gavin and, of course, there's MOMA and The Met and Babbo and Morimoto.  Need I go on?

Realistically, Santa Fe is the only place I can see myself living if I ever left Denver (Not gonna happen.)  Kathie and I drove down there on Wednesday to meet the Monacos (Jenny friends) for dinner at The Coyote Cafe.  We had a wonderful mini-reunion--the four of us seem to have a ridiculously easy time talking and laughing with each other--and then we drove back Thursday morning.  Seven hundred and fifty miles round trip.  Six hours each way, but an easy drive.  Just put it on cruise control and follow I-25 all the way.

(One of my favorite things about driving to Santa Fe is crossing the Pecos River between Las Vegas and Santa Fe.  I alway think to myself at the moment of crossing that we are now West of the Pecos.  Makes me happy.)

The Monacos are looking for places to retire to and Santa Fe has perked their interest.  Kathie and I are rooting for them to make the move to New Mexico.  I have this romantic vision of life in Santa Fe for the well-heeled.  If you get involved in the art scene (how could you not?) and the opera scene (again, how could you not?), then I imagine Santa Fe life being one endless party.  Breakfast with friends at Cafe Pasquale.  Lunch at The Compound to celebrate your recent purchase of a new artist's work on Canyon Road.  Mid-afternoon drinks and bar food at the Cantina above the Coyote.  And, of course, tailgating with like minded people in the parking lot before the opera house opens its doors for that evening's performance of "La Boheme."

I could deal with that kind of life.  Of course, for that to happen Katherine is going to have to open up her knitting store on the plaza right next to Gusterman's.  Until then, however, we're just going to have to wait for Joe and Carol to buy some big adobe looking place up on a hill somewhere so we can come and visit.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we already have our reservations at La Posada for August and our tickets to "Rigoletto" and "Salome."  Can't wait.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Conservative Inclusiveness and Log Cabin Republicans

Don't misunderstand me.  With the possible exception of a staff development workshop with rolls of butcher paper, I can't think of anything more horrible than attending the Western Conservative Summit at the campus of The Colorado Christian University.  For the life of me, I can't understand why Log Cabin Republicans would want to attend.  I can't understand why they would want to be Republicans.  I can't understand why anyone would willingly be associated with Republicans.  Furthermore, I think it's great that the Summit has disinvited its LGBT faithful.  Anything that exposes that party for the tone-deaf collection of white male paranoid reactionaries they are is okay by me.

And I really don't understand John Andrews' defense of the disinvitation in today's Post.  He starts our by comparing the Log Cabin Republicans to Holocaust deniers!  The media wouldn't freak out if a Jewish festival barred Holocaust deniers a booth on the convention floor, he asserts.  Similarly, no one would blame a Planned Parenthood seminar for excluding anti-abortion protesters from displaying photos of aborted fetuses in the seminar room.  Catholics would be justified, he suggests, in refusing to give a place on the dais of some mid-western Catholic conference to those who claim the Pope is the Anti-Christ.

Why does no one complain about those scenarios, he asks?  Because "the American way is freedom, fairness, tolerance as a two-way street.  The American way is live and let live."  Hey, so far so good.  It is hard to argue with his point.  But then in the very next sentence he says, "Private organizations, whether religious or secular, get to choose their partners and presenters in keeping with the organization's core values."  See, I'm confused again.  Andrews clearly states that to "live and let live" is the "coriest" of core values.  "Live and let live" is obviously a core value for Andrews and all the folks at CCU when it comes to their own life choices; if folks disagree with those choices, they are free to live AS LONG AS THEY KEEP THEIR LIFE TO THEMSELVES.

Mr. Andrews, you are a former president of the State Senate.  You are a high ranking official in a local university.  Do you really not see the fundamental difference between your examples and gay Republicans?  Your examples--Holocaust deniers, Pope bashers, aborted fetus wielders--are actively promoting a position designed to bring down their supposed hosts.  They are violating that fundamental American principal of "live and let live."  They shoot doctors in front of abortion clinics.  They taunt unwed mothers on their way to family planning.  They actively choose to ignore all the evidence and persist in their delusional demands.

Is that what gay Republicans do?  Is that what anyone in the LGBT community does?  I'm not familiar with Log Cabin Republicans or their tactics, but unless they plan on showing up at CCU wearing capris, and skin tight tank tops while singing "YMCA", I don't see how they are doing anything other than living and letting others live.  Is the LGBT community trying to put an end to heterosexual marriage?  Are they trying to pass legislation designed to cure straight people?  It seems to me all they are trying to do is be a part of what has become a nationally recognized summit that in fact has a big impact on the Republican presidential nominee.

I'm sorry Mr. Andrews, but your analogies just don't hold up to scrutiny.

At the end of his article he encourages Log Cabin Republicans, he encourages all Republicans who don't belong to the core group of middle-aged, angry, white guys, to come on down to the summit.  "Everyone's welcome at the Summit," he says.  "See you there."

Just keep who and what you are to yourselves.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Agents, Money, Indiana, and The Bottom Line

I haven't been writing very much in here because I have been preoccupied with revising and polishing BEEZUP.  I managed to tighten it by three or four thousand words and am quite pleased with the result.  Anyway, I'm taking a brief break from all that because there are all these ISSUES that have been building up and I need an outlet.  Of course, my renewed quest to get BEEZUP published is the perfect place to start.

Money!  I try never to worry about money or fairness.  People roll their eyes when I say that, but it's really true; therefore, the money driven questions surrounding the attempt to get an agent, or find a publisher, infuriate me.  I know.  I know.  I'm living in this romantic dream I've grown up with.  I'm wanting life to be like Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" where Owen Wilson's character brings his finished manuscript to Gertrude Stein for her comments and she passes it on to Hemingway who alerts Max Perkins and the next thing I know I'm drinking champagne cocktails with Scott and Zelda at The Plaza.

It hasn't  been like that.  If you look at publishing sites and the like, you will eventually (immediately) encounter advice on how to snag an agent.  You will learn about Query Letters and each site will offer pretty much the same formula:  first sentence sums up the book/project and grabs attention, one paragraph points out the highlights of the book/project, short bio, number of words, genre (Romance, Mystery, Young Adult, Erotica, etc.), intended (niche) audience.  All of this advice is intended to help you SELL your book/project.  All this info you are supposed to cram into one page is designed to show the prospective agent/publisher that your book will make a profit.  I came across two potential agents who needed me to include a marketing plan!  A marketing plan?  I just spent the last two years writing and rewriting a fucking book.  I never once considered a marketing plan.  Audience?  How about people with eyes?  Niche audience?   People with eyes who can also read.

Enough whining.

Conventional wisdom says that my reaction to the verities of the market and that pesky invisible hand that keeps inserting itself in the most uncomfortable places is naive.   I disagree.  Why is it that the first question we have to ask about something new is how much will it cost?  How will it raise taxes?  Will my insurance premium rise? Will it hurt the job creators?  Will it add to the deficit?  The debt?  Entitlements?

It seems that conservatives have been clever enough or powerful enough or well-funded enough to have set the agenda, establish the definitions.  For instance, Obamacare.  When the interminable debate over the ACA was going on, I read everything available.  You know, I don't remember a single argument from morality.  No one seemed willing to simply assert that it is Good with a capital G for everyone to have access to health care.  Instead, everyone argued about money and socialism.  Even if Obamacare wasn't working and health care costs weren't rising at the slowest level in my lifetime and millions more weren't insured and the economy wasn't recovering, wouldn't it still be a Good idea?

The event that brought all this to mind was the recent anti-gay legislation masquerading as religious freedom in Indiana.  The immediate backlash was wonderful wasn't it?  One major corporation after another is pulling out.  Good luck recruiting college students and athletes next year.  The governor, apparently moved by the economic impact of his homophobia, expressed his outrage at the intolerant reaction to the legislation.  Unless he gets an influx of cash from the Kochs, you can bet he and the state house will renege.  Business people don't like this mean spirited legislation.

At first glance, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy toward businesses and their well known sense of civic responsibility.  The CEO of Apple lambasted the anti-gay legislation in Texas that makes Indiana look a little like Boulder.  He encouraged other corporations to join Apple in the fight against exclusionary laws.  The reason?  It's good business.  Profits grow.

I'm glad Apple is fighting the "good" fight.  It makes me happy every time I drive by Hobby Lobby and the parking lot is nearly empty.  I hope Indiana goes bankrupt.  Texas too.  It'll serve 'em right for not paying enough attention to the bottom line.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Was there any doubt, when reading ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, that Dr. Stockman was a giant of a man surrounded by puny people, curs nipping at his heels?  When he picked up Katherine at the end of the play and twirled her around, knowing that they were going off to start a better life, a better world, it was thrilling wasn't it?

There's just nothing thrilling anymore.  Even things that happen on an athletic field, or field house, have lost their luster.  There is no one out there who is larger than life and as soon as someone looms above us, you can count on our 24/7 media to lay him/her low.  Peyton Manning might be a great player on the field, but he doesn't spend enough time out in the community.  Von Miller is a monster pass rusher, but he gets high.  Johnny Manziel is, well, Johnny Manziel.  Ty Lawson comes back late from the all-star weekend.  Nothing is thrilling because we only seem to have the time or the inclination to focus on puny little nothings, little behavioral flaws magnified by the relentless scrutiny of the media.

It's everywhere.  The Supreme Court is taking the next two months to rule on the meaning of FOUR WORDS in the Affordable Health Care Act.  Four words!  Is wasn't that long ago that they stopped the presses by ruling on hanging chads.  Scalia and Alioto and Thomas (if he could speak) all spout Fox News speaking points about such crucial issues as same-sex marriage and how many immigration agents can dance on the head of a pin.  When they do tackle a "big" case, they end up gutting the Civil Rights Act, or deciding that corporations are really people.  I've walked by the Supreme Court building in Washington.  I couldn't help but think that its magnificence only serves to make the small mindedness of the denizens of that place stand out even more.  With the possible exception of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there "be no giants" there.

Republicans like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz whose only agenda item is to play to the selfish screaming of their base, want to wrest power from Obama and his party.  But when they do come into power, when they do control both houses of Congress, all they can do is tear down, make us afraid.  They have no ideas of their own, at least no ideas that anyone has expressed.  Instead, they rant and rave about how issues that have already been decided by simple progress--gay marriage, internet regulation, American exceptionalism, Obama's birthplace, illegal immigrants coming to take all those jobs we prize so highly--are all going to spell the end of America as "they know it."

And the thing is that in that poisonous atmosphere it is virtually impossible to rise above the noise, the chatter.  It is pretty obvious that the citizenry of this country is not well informed.  They don't take the time to read about the news; instead, they listen to whichever "news" outlet is the loudest.  When an individual arises out of the masses who is larger than life, we don't trust him or her.  Maybe he went to a snooty ivy league college.*    Maybe he's fabulously wealthy and can be seen wind surfing on the ocean off Cape Cod.  Maybe he's from Kenya, a Manchurian candidate who from birth was groomed to bring about the end of our exceptional country.

Bill O'Reilly and the rest would call me unpatriotic, but I think the only thing exceptional about our country is how puny it is, how puny its wants and needs.  The kind of hope that Obama started his campaign with back in 2007, is anathema to anyone who likes the status quo.  This country is always less rancorous when we have a Republican in the White House because, with the exception of Eisenhower, Republican presidents only react to the rest of the world, they rarely ask us to dream.

And that is how it should be.  Dreams are the province of the states; when we have a dreamer in the White House, that's Orwellian.  Just ask Cory Gardner whose recent election to the Senate shows just how small minded, petty, and puny we really are.

*Yeah, yeah, I know that George W. Bush went to Yale, but he spent most of his time getting drunk in his frat house and avoiding the draft.  In other words, he's a good old boy.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Carpet


It is conventional wisdom that when you are a child in a poor but loving family, you never realize just how impoverished you are.  At least that is what my mother always tells me whenever I visit her apartment in my sister’s basement in Estes Park.

“We were poor Jimmy, but we never acted like we were poor.”

That is always my cue to nod my head in slow and steady agreement.

“Well that’s just because you worked so hard and I never really needed anything.”  That response never fails to make my mother’s eyes sparkle and her lips just perceptibly purse in assurance of her triumphs at single-parenthood.

She wasn’t completely single.  It is true that she left my father back in Illinois while she, her four children, her sister, and her mother resettled in Colorado.  But technically she was not alone.  My aunt was with us.  My grandmother, an Illinois saloon keeper, champion arm wrestler, and basic Jack of all trades, was also there to take care of the kids—my little brother and I—while my mom, aunt, and two sisters went out to make a living.  So like I said, she was not alone; she was just husbandless.

But my fatherless state, just like my poverty, wasn’t something on which I dwelled.  He was just a vague memory.  I could, for instance, remember Sunday mornings when the rest of my family went to ten o’clock mass.  I would be exempt because of my recent bout with and year long recovery from rheumatic fever; my father would be exempt by virtue of his professed atheism.  On those mornings he would make fried egg and tomato sandwiches on white bread with the tomatoes cold and crisp and the hot yolk of the eggs mixing with the pulp of the tomato and the plastic doughiness of Wonder Bread.  It was our own secular communion.  Now, sometimes on Sunday mornings I whip up those egg and tomato sandwiches and think about my father.

My father’s child support for the four of us was a court ordered $25 a week which he dutifully sent, minus ten cents for postage.  I remember that check for $24.90 every week.  I can still see the pink tint behind the numbers and the pink and blue line running from the twenty-four to the ninety on the face of the check.  There was never any note and the check didn’t even have my father’s signature

Of course, when my mother talks about us being poor but not noticing it, I don’t bring up my father’s checks.  I also don’t bring up the carpet.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After an initial stay in a ratty one bedroom shack on highway seven, my mother and aunt somehow managed to buy a two bedroom home with a sun porch and full unfinished 
basement on highway thirty-six right across from Lake Estes.  It was in an old reclamation project created to house the workers and engineers who built the Lake Estes Dam twenty years earlier.  It had a nice living room and a tiny dining room with an even tinier kitchen.  (We had some memorable Thanksgiving dinners in that tiny dining room, although one wonders how it was possible to make a twenty pound turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and beans and pumpkin pie in a kitchen barely big enough to turn around in.  And how did we get as many as fifteen people around a table that could barely seat six.)  Mom and her sister shared a bedroom; my sisters slept on the sun porch.  My grandmother had her own room.

My brother and I slept in a room built in the basement next to the coal burning furnace it was my job to stoke every day.  Once a week a local coal delivery truck would pull up to our backyard, place the chute from the truck into the coal bin and deliver our week’s supply.  Those were the worst days to be in the basement because the dust from the coal exchange hung everywhere.  I had a punching bag in the basement that my mother gave me one Christmas in a half-hearted attempt to get me to learn self-defense. I always avoided working the bag on coal delivery days because I would come upstairs streaked with black lines of sweat pouring down my face and I would have a hard time breathing.  And when I dusted our room once a week, the rag would come up nearly black with the week’s worth of coal dust hanging in the air.  If I contract emphysema in old age I will at least know the cause.

Coal miner’s lung not withstanding, the real problem with the house as my mother saw it was that the house was carpetless with hardwood floors throughout.  I know that in this day and age most house shoppers actively look for places with hardwood floors.  Real estate advertisements list hardwood floors as selling points.  But for my family, who had just left a three-story Victorian with hardwood floors in Freeport, Illinois, they meant drudgery and cold feet.  The hardwood floors also were a sign that we were poor and my mother saw it as her mission in life to weed out from around the house the tell-tale signs of our economic woes.

The solution came to her, like so many others, right out of the pages of READER’S DIGEST.  The whole family was gathered around our Zenith watching GUNSMOKE when my mother found it wedged somewhere between “Laughter Is the Best Medicine” and “Life in these United States.”  It was a quarter page ad from some carpet maker in Duluth asking my mother if she was tired of the feel of bare feet on cold, bare floors? if she was tired of getting on hands and knees to wash floors? if she was longing for the warmth and comfort that only wall-to-wall carpeting could bring?  The answer to all of those questions was a decided yes.

Mom first introduced us to the ad during a commercial.  Imagine what it would be like, she said, to be watching Matt and Miss Kitty while curled up on a floor covered with plush carpeting.  Imagine what it would be like to sit on that floor, back propped against the couch, a bowl of popcorn in easy reach.  Imagine what it would be like to invite friends home from school so they could see and revel in our new floor covering.  Why we would be just like the Bartletts who had shag carpeting in every room of their house.  You could be sure that June Bartlett didn’t get down on hands and knees to clean the floor.  All she had to do was plug in her Kirby vacuum cleaner and stand there offering minimal guidance and it would do all the work.

She painted a compelling picture and I spent a goodly portion of that night dreaming about the rewards wall-to-wall carpeting would bring.  Friends would come running after word of our largesse got out.  I would stop going through so many pairs of socks because I would be frolicking barefoot on our luxurious floors instead of sliding across the unadorned wood in stocking feet.  My mother would be happier and my grandmother’s back would not hurt so much from scrubbing the floor.  (We all knew that it was really my grandmother who did the heavy lifting in the house cleaning department.)  Well, we all got caught up in my mother’s excitement and encouraged her to send off to the Duluth Carpet Mills for more information.

The week waiting for the response from the carpet gods in Duluth was a great one for my mom.  She always felt so good about herself when she scored a victory in the family war against squalor.  On those rare evenings when we would have a really nice cut of meat for dinner, for instance, my mother would be so proud of what she had provided.  No meat loaf tonight, her face would proclaim.  Kiss that tuna casserole goodbye.  I remember one glorious day at Moorehead’s Super Market when my mother bought a prime rib.  (In my mom’s eyes prime rib was the holy grail of foodstuffs.  In her taxonomy of taste a shrimp cocktail, prime rib medium rare, a baked potato, and a bottle of Lancers was the meal that all people of taste—Cary Grant, say, in all those Doris Day movies—were ordering at the Brown Derby or Chasen’s.)  Her eyes widened and her head shook as she weighed the rich marbling of the beef against the price.  She stowed it safely in the cart and then did the unthinkable:  She picked up a pound of shrimp.

“Jimmy, get a bottle of that cocktail sauce down there.  This will go so well with the prime.”

I liked the way she said “prime” like we ate it every day.

But the prospect of a carpet was better than the prime rib.  It lasted longer and the anticipation was twice as sweet.  Most importantly, as my mother explained at dinner the day the people from Duluth sent more information, we would all have a kind of stake in the carpet.

The major selling point of the original ad in READER’S DIGEST was price.  Where a traditional approach to carpeting our home might cost $1200, the Duluth approach was something like $179.99.  Of course, that did not include installation.  Mom was quick to point out that if we just made our measurements exact, we could do the installation ourselves. 

The brochure stressed that the carpet would be made from the fibers of old coats and sweaters and throw rugs we had lying around the house.  Just gather up the items—the more items, obviously, the larger the carpet—and ship them to Duluth.  Specify the dominant shade you would like in the final product, provide measurements for each room and hallway, and before you know it the United States Postal Service WILL DELIVER YOUR NEW CARPET TO YOUR DOORSTEP!  

It was at this point that, contrary to my mother’s injunction, I began to feel poor.  The blithe comment about old sweaters and coats lying around the house did not apply to our household.  I had a brown wool sport coat and gray wool slacks I wore to mass on Sundays.  I also had a corduroy winter coat with a red flannel liner, a couple of wool stocking caps, and my first communion suit.  On the wall above my bed hung a Navajo rug I dyed in a crafts class one summer when I was still in Illinois.  I loved that rug.  

My brother, who was only six at the time, didn’t have much to worry about.  True, he did have a first communion suit, but he needed it.  The only other item with any potential was his blanket which I figured he should lose if I had to give up my rug.  He was too old for a blanket anyway, both of my sisters insisted, especially when they saw boxes of old school sweaters go out their door.  But even my mother’s wistful dreams of running her bare feet through the thick pile of our carpet were not strong enough to endanger Stevie’s ratty blanket.

I was the big loser among the children.  My mother glommed onto my first communion suit without a second thought.  And then, in order to have enough carpet for both bedrooms, my prized Navajo blanket was added to the shipment.  I also lost one green sweater from Wards with a series of snow covered pine cones emblazoned across the chest.

My grandmother, the oldest, literally had the most baggage and thus the most to give up.  Several sheared wool coats that made her look “sharp” when she dressed for mass in the wintertime, three or four wool suits, boxes of sweaters, and her favorite stocking cap all made it into our shipment to Duluth.  When my mother ultimately added all of the throw rugs in the house to the pile, my grandmother could no longer take it and quietly disappeared.  

When it got close to dinnertime and Gram was still unaccounted for, my mother sent us out on searching expeditions.  I walked all the way to the shore of Lake Estes to see if Gram was by her favorite fishing hole.  She wasn’t.  I knocked on Carmack’s door across the street.  No Gram.  She wasn’t in her room.  She wasn’t anywhere.  Finally, right before we sat down to eat, the rattling of the stoker impelled me to go downstairs and shovel some coal.  When I opened the door to the coal bin I found Gram lurking in the corner and clutching a sheared sheepskin coat that was evidently one of her prized possessions.

“Is your mother out there?”

“No, Gram.  She’s upstairs making dinner.”

“Is she still looking for clothes to send to Duluth?”

“Not any more.  I think everything is boxed up and ready to be shipped.”

After a few more assurances, Gram lugged herself and her prized coat out of the coal and I helped her upstairs where she quietly grabbed her meatloaf and took it and her coat to her room.

“Oh, she’ll get over it when she sees the new carpet,” my mother insisted, but you could see the first shadow of doubt cloud mom’s face.

“She might get over it, but I’m never going to get over losing my letter sweater,” my sister Jeri offered right before she went to her room to brood.  

My oldest sister, Mary Jo, looked at her despondent sister in one bed, briefly contemplated following Gram into the coal bin, but instead left home the next day.  While it is true she had been planning on leaving ever since she graduated from high school, I couldn’t help but think it had a lot to do with her depleted wardrobe.

With similar sacrifices from my mother and aunt, we packed up the items, specified tone and measurement, and sent the whole thing off to Duluth.  In two to three months we would be wiggling our toes in wall-to-wall carpeting.

The house felt different in those three months.  We were no longer walking on bare, cold floors; we were imagining walking on plush carpet.  When we sat down to watch GUNSMOKE, we were no longer sitting on bare floors; we were luxuriating on the carpet we know would be ours any day now.  We became, well, middle class.  

I came home from school the second week of May and there they were:  five card board shipping tubes, each containing the precisely measured carpet for one room or hall.  My mother sat on the front porch holding the end of one opened tube on her lap as I walked up.

“Jimmy, come over here.  Look at it now.  Is that green?  We asked for green.”

“Well, it’s kinda green.  There’s some red and blue in it too.  It’s not like it is any one color.”

“I know.  I know.”

I left mom on the porch and went into the house.  My grandmother, who decided to end her brooding once the carpet arrived, was sitting in the living room looking at an old picture my grandfather had taken of her in a sheared sheepskin coat  that had since become part of the tangle of fibers composing the carpet.  She would look at her picture, then look out the window at the carpet, shake her head, and take a big pull on a Schlitz.

“I know what’s wrong,” my mother said as she staggered in off the porch.  “We are just looking at a small part of the carpet.  When we get it all down it will look fine.  You’ll see.”

We immediately launched into carpet laying mode.  We removed the furniture, laid out the surprisingly well measured carpet, tacked it down, and replaced the furniture.  Of course our job was simplified by the fact that we had no pad to worry about.

We had the carpet in by 8:30 and it did end up having an overall tone that, for want of a better term, you would have to call green.  My grandmother started popping corn and we all got into our pajamas ready to watch GUNSMOKE.

We all sat there, just as my mom had described, on our new carpet, propped up against the couch, pop corn by our side.  It was that great episode where some hot headed young man comes into town to make trouble.  Miss Kitty warns Matt of the danger he faces, as does Doc.  But Matt faces the young gun and plugs him right between the eyes.  They bury the punk on Boot Hill and all convene at the Long Branch for drinks.

We were surrounded by our new luxury when my mom came out in her bare feet to give the installation her final approval.  

“C’mon mom.  This is a great episode.”

“I’ll be right there.  I want to put some socks on.”


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Obama's Selma Speech: Bill O'Reilly's Take

"I Was There."

I'm looking forward to checking with MEDIA MATTERS in the next few days to see how the right wing nutjobs manage to spin the President's Selma speech into an anti-American rant.  I mean, if looked at the RIGHT way, there are lots of things to be outraged about.

For instance, Obama "played the race card" again and again.  He managed to talk about the heroism of a young black firebrand like John Lewis and then just a couple of sentences later highlights his own racism by suggesting that the White presence in Selma diluted the power of the message because White people can't' sing!

I can just hear Bill O'Reilly now.  "Look, I was in Selma.  I stood firm on that bridge when I covered the whole thing for FoxNews.  And let me tell you, I know the tune to 'We Shall Overcome,' in fact I'm pretty sure that I'm the one who came up with the lyrics.  I didn't see you there Mr. President, so don't go lecturing me with your revisionist history.  Next thing you'll be talking about Gandhi.  Hey, I was right there in that cell with him when he went on his hunger strike.  I lost forty pounds.  But that's okay, because I've only gained back fifteen."

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Elements of Great Teaching:

Sense of Humor

When I was in my first years of teaching I did what I like to tell myself most baby teachers did when confronted with discipline problems.  If I was conducting a fascinating discussion on the correct punctuation of introductory adverb phrases and I noticed a kid in the corner writing something on the arm of the kid sitting next to him, I might have ignored the behavior at first, especially if I was on a grammatical roll.  

But then, as was always the case, the kid with the scribbled on arm would retaliate and some friend on the other side of the room would point out the conflict to the kid sitting next to him, and on and on.  You know the story.  So I might have said something devastating like “Okay people, this is important, and you’re going to need to know it when you get into Mr. Fagin’s class.”  If, for some reason, that riposte didn’t phase my recalcitrant corner dwellers, I might have launched immediately into disciplinarian mode.  “Alright, if you people don’t settle down, we can all do this as homework!” 

Of course, that petulant outburst might leave the rest of my students – you know, the ones who looked forward to the daily comma drills - confused, or even outraged.  The class would usually deteriorate from there and I would spend a restless night trying to figure out how I could win them back by making tomorrow’s grammar lesson even more relevant.

It takes confidence to confront the specific evil doer in the corner before the behavior metastasizes to the whole room.  Even at the end of my career I found myself resorting to the same old “some-of-you-people-are-doing-such-and-such” gambit.  It wasn’t any more effective.

I feel like I have just been to confession.  However, I rationalize that penitent feeling away by reminding myself I learned this generalized name calling technique by sitting through faculty meetings and by trying to make sense out of district wide administrative directives initiated to address some specific problem but which invariably ended up in district wide fiats that only ended up confusing or alienating those of us who were plugging away in our classrooms, dutifully following all the other proclamations already in place.

I had an assistant principal once whose unhappy assignment it was to keep order in the parking lots.  When confronted by the problem that some of the faculty members put their parking stickers on the wrong side of their rear view mirrors, he convened an emergency faculty meeting to correct the problem.  

He walked into the meeting brandishing a rear view mirror he had procured just for the occasion.  I can only assume he got it from the auto shop.  That was back in the days when schools had auto shops.  Either that or in his zeal for order he ripped it off his car.  It took him awhile to position himself and the mirror correctly for the demonstration, but after about fifteen minutes the vast majority of the staff walked out of that meeting looking at parking stickers and assistant principals with new eyes. 

This was the same AP who, when weekly forms for discipline, attendance, ineligibility, and the like were not being handed in by everyone with the kind of regularity that a smoothly running school demands, convened yet another emergency meeting.  At retirement get-togethers we still talk about the forms we were asked to fill out if we had no forms to fill out for any given week.  The No Form Form became a reliable source of conversation at faculty parties that year and for years to come.

There was the year when a number of older faculty members were grousing about the latest round of faculty meetings to rewrite philosophies and objectives and standards and all those other things that faculties are always rewriting.  I’m not sure exactly what our goal was, but I do remember that it involved lots of butcher paper.  Instead of dealing with the individual grousers (full disclosure here demands that I was prominent in that group), our principal dug deep into contingency funds and bought a dozen copies of WHO MOVED THE CHEESE for all of us to read.  The idea was that we would take turns reading the book and pass our copy on to the next staff member in line.

WHO MOVED THE CHEESE was a best seller a few years ago.  It was especially popular among people in the business community.  If I were a cynical person, I would suggest that its popularity was due in no small part to the fact that it could be read during the average plane ride and the tedium of print was broken up with an occasional illustration of frustrated mice looking for misplaced pieces of cheddar.  

The faculty all took turns reading the book and certainly got the point the book was trying to make.  Paradigms are shifting.  We have to look to new places for solutions to old problems.  We have to “think outside the box,” to use a phrase that has become meaningless through overuse, kind of like power point presentations.

Of course, we never reconvened as a faculty to talk about the little book.  We just read it, rolled our eyes, and went to more faculty meetings with butcher paper and long submarine sandwiches and potato chips for lunch.  I noticed that one of the football coaches, obviously not grasping the idea that the long subs were supposed to be shared by the various committees, scarfed an entire sandwich for himself, leaving at least one group hungry.  I didn’t worry about it though, content in the knowledge that the misunderstanding would be cleared up at our next faculty meeting.  

* * *

Believe me.  You don’t survive scenarios like that for very long without a sense of humor.  

We had a teacher in our department once who was not blessed with a particularly expansive wit.  Watching her from a distance it was clear she was just barely holding on.  She had lessons to plan, papers to grade, parents to call, attendance to fill out, attendance referrals to complete, discipline referrals to write, hall duty to perform, study hall to oversee once a week, department meetings, team meetings, parent conferences, back to school nights, school plays, football games, basketball games, forensics meets on weekends, Key Club to help sponsor, and the list just keeps on going.  

I remember the fateful department meeting when we all learned the district was changing its email server and we would have to learn a new protocol for accessing our inbox or something like that.  She stood up, eyes streaming tears, dropped her books and papers on the floor, threw up her arms in despair and ran sobbing from the room.  One of our female department members went out into the hall to comfort her and she eventually returned, redfaced and resigned.  I wasn’t about to go after her.  I thought her tearful departure, if made permanent, would be one of the best things that could have happened to our department at the time.

My older colleagues and I hardly ever burst into tears.  We had been through enough protocol changes in our careers to realize the underlying truth to all of these district mandates--the truth, in Bill Murray’s words, that “It just doesn’t matter!”  Poor what’s her name.  She just didn’t get it.  We all realized if we just waited around long enough without moving on the protocol shift, the District would set up an inservice.  We oldtimers had learned to wait, as it were, for the movie.

When I talk about a sense of humor as not only an essential element of great teaching but as the one element you cannot do without, I am not referring to regaling your students with jokes and papering your classrooms with funny Garfield posters.  Your students are not the prime beneficiary of your sense of humor; you are.  It is the one thing that keeps you afloat, that keeps you “passing the open windows.”

Did you ever notice that almost all existential novels or movies take place in prisons, hospitals, theatres of war, or school rooms?  There is always some outsider confronting the impersonality of the bureaucracy in charge always embodied by some evil manipulative nurse, or warden, or teacher.  The rules are at once inaccessible and inescapable.  The hero eventually deals with the absurd situation by finding meaning in the meaninglessness.  Of course, all of this discovering is conducted with a certain amount of amusement if not downright hilarity.  As a 35 year veteran of the public school classroom, that perfectly describes the situation in a public school classroom.  You have to learn to laugh to keep from going crazy.

The group think that necessarily drives large school districts demands an appreciation of irony.  After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold dressed up in trenchcoats and proceeded to murder some dozen of their classmates, the principal at my school reacted by banning trenchcoats!  I had one perfectly sane, but poverty-stricken, young man whose proudest possession was a trenchcoat that looked just like Keanu Reeves’ in THE MATRIX.  It was also the only winter coat he owned.  One day he was accosted by an over zealous parent in the parking lot who had him sent to the principal’s office.  His coat was confiscated and he was left to freeze his ass off on the way home.  You can react to that situation either by laughing it off or by going slowly insane.

My best practice, to use a term all the rage nowadays, vis a vis humor in the classroom, was to let students in on the joke and create a kind of us against the system ethos.  For instance, students were not allowed to come into the academic area during lunch and instead had to scramble to find tables in a commons area too small to hold them all.  Social Studies teachers, most of them ex-jocks who enjoyed flexing their disciplinary muscles, patrolled the double doors leading into the Social Studies/Language Arts Suite.  Even students who wanted to talk to a teacher about an assignment weren’t allowed in.  My wife and I, partly because we preferred hanging out with kids to hanging out with teachers and partly because we couldn’t abide the silly rule, helped students sneak into our area and eat their lunches in our classrooms.  The principal reprimanded us repeatedly for such a horrible breach of professionalism and we dutifully repented.  Then the next day we would sneak the kids back into the room.  We figured that firing us for eating lunch with our students would look bad in the local papers.

One day three kids snuck into our room, each armed with a top of the line HP calculator.  One of the kids, a brilliant senior named Isaak Winkler, had composed a sonata for HP calculator and programmed the three calculators to “play” the music.  It was one of the more remarkable days of my career:  three young prodigies, defying the powers that be, eating their lunch, listening to the original composition, with scowling Social Studies types walking by the scene shaking their collective heads in disapproval.  Now that is funny.  It is also disrespectful, but some rules and some rule makers deserve nothing less.

There is precious little data generated about the effectiveness of humor in the classroom.  In fact, a survey of professional literature on the subject conducted by Israel Magazine-on-Web showed humor has no measurable effect on learning, other than reduced anxiety.  However two separate studies (again this is reported in Israel Magazine-on-Web, November 2000), one in a psychology class and another in a statistics class, used control groups who received lectures laced with humor compared to groups who received lectures stripped of humor.  The humor recipients scored higher on content tests in each instance.  

But here is where it gets interesting.  The conductor of the experiments, Tel Aviv University professor Avner Ziv, went on to quantify the optimum amount of humor to be used during any classroom session.  He concluded the optimal amount of humor was, at most, three or four instances per hour.  So for humor to garner its maximum benefit it should only be utilized to underscore key concepts.

That’s why it is imperative for a teacher to have a sense of humor.  You can bet that if an administrator got ahold of Professor Ziv’s conclusions there would be a top down fiat mandating the number of times students should or shouldn’t laugh during a given hour.  It would inevitably become part of an evaluation form and certain teachers would be written up for being too funny. 

The biggest impediment to using humor to make life in a public school tolerable is Administrators who invariably ask the same question of every new thing they see or hear:  “Can we get sued over this?” or “Will this cause a phone call from an irate parent?”  

I was always getting called into some administrator’s office only to be greeted by a stern faced parent with a list of grievances.  Be forewarned if you are reading this with the idea that you will start using humor as a survival mechanism, you too will be a frequent visitor to some administrator’s office.  If you want to accomplish something worthwhile in your classroom, you have to follow the golden rule:  YOU GET A LOT MORE ACCOMPLISHED BY SAYING I’M SORRY THAN BY ASKING  PERMISSION.

My favorite example of that rule happened during my first year sponsoring the school newspaper.  During the first semester of that year Colorado had passed legislation to allow for the sale of state LOTTO tickets.  It was all the rage.  A Denver Post columnist, Woody Paige, had heard LOTTO tickets were being sold illegally to underaged kids, so he called me up and asked if I would get some of my under eighteen year old students to go do some investigative reporting with him on a Saturday.  I jumped at the chance.  Giving my kids that kind of experience was what teaching newspaper was all about.

I chose five kids and was careful to get permission slips from all the parents.  On the following Saturday my students were able to illegally purchase LOTTO tickets at every venue they tried.  They were thrilled by what they were uncovering.  They were also impressed by Woody’s diligent note taking and serious approach to the whole thing.

The next day Woody’s piece appeared in The Denver Post, explaining how a bunch of intrepid and underaged reporters from Green Mountain High School had delivered the goods.  My principal could not have been happier and he came down with the article in hand and congratulated my students personally.  I was understandably proud of the job I was doing as a newspaper sponsor.

The next day, however, a lawyer from the State LOTTO Commission paid my principal a visit informing him that the school was probably going to be indicted for a class 4 felony, contributing to the delinquency of minors.  The principal stormed up to my classroom, ushered me down to his office, and introduced me to the grim looking legal type waiting for my arrival.  I showed the guy the permission slips.  I assured him none of the LOTTO tickets we purchased paid anything, so we didn’t make any money.  He still was trying hard to scare me into never using my students in such a way again.  I’m proud to say I laughed at the guy and told him if he was trying to intimidate me it wasn’t working and  instead of wasting his time scolding us for our investigation, he should be getting angry at the people in the state commission who were responsible for oversight.  He left in a huff.  My principal looked at me and asked “What kind of newspaper are you trying to run here, The Village Voice?”  I smiled and said we have to model ourselves on something.  That was the end of that little episode, but it still makes me happy just to think about it.  Those are the kinds of moments that make all the bureaucratic crap you have to put up with worth the effort.

My first teaching job was at Marycrest High School, a catholic girl’s school run by the Sisters of Loretto.  It was a pretty grim place.  The school building was constructed of cinderblocks and stretched down Federal Boulevard like a concrete bunker.  I had to punch a time clock and submit weekly lesson plans which no one ever looked at.  Sister Joan was a lot like Meryl Streep in Doubt.  The faculty consisted of older nuns, three rather young and rebellious female teachers and two males other than me.  My starting salary was a whopping $6300 a year.

To make matters worse, the teachers in the English Department had to follow the Nebraska Curriculum which asked freshman students to read things like Tristam Shandy as a “fun” introduction to Gulliver’s Travels.  After taking the curriculum home that first night and reading through it, I don’t think I had ever been so depressed before or since.  I wanted to teach fun stuff just like I did when I played school on my back porch in Estes Park, but no, this was a no nonsense approach to instruction.

I plowed through the curriculum that first nine weeks and pretended I bought into it hook, line, and sinker.  I discovered the school owned enough copies of Animal Farm that I could use it in my freshmen classes and I quickly substituted that work for the fun and frolic of Tristam Shandy.  Things were going okay, but my classes were pretty deadly.  

At the end of that first nine week grading period I was beginning to doubt my vocation when I saw Kathleen Bischoff, my department chair, skipping down the halls after turning in her grades throwing ungraded papers hither and yon to celebrate the upcoming weekend.  She saw me struggling at my desk and flitted into my room, walked up to my desk and said, “Ya know, you are taking all of this way too seriously.  Nobody pays any attention to that curriculum, so what are you worried about?  Do what you want to do.  You’re not going to ruin anybody!”

“Oh, and another thing you need to realize.  Teaching is the only job where anything you don’t get done by the end of the year you get to throw away.”  

I joined her in her lark down the hall and my life has been better ever since.

 Not too long ago I found myself in a video my son produced for his sister’s wedding.  The video involved numbers of comments by friends and family.  I remember all of my comments, but one struck me as particularly profound.  I said that when two people were in love it was kind of like they were in on a private joke the rest of the world wasn’t privy to.  I firmly believe you can see that glimmer of humor in the eyes of a married couple, the knowledge they are in on the joke and no one else is.  That is precisely the kind of environment that should characterize a classroom.  

You  have to give kids the illusion that all of this stuff they are being asked to do is fun and you have to make them believe the unlucky slobs who are not in the classroom are missing out on some great times.  Now I know that probably alienates other teachers and certainly turns off administrators, but their opinions don’t count.  All that counts is what goes on inside the classroom.

There are little things you can do to create this atmosphere.  Taken individually, these little things seem silly and insignificant, but taken as a whole they seem to work.  

I used to make my seniors in Composition for the College Bound (a serious sounding class if there ever was one) line up in two rows, one for boys and one for girls, whenever we went to the library to do research.  They would be required to hold hands and skip to the library.  Weird, yes.  But it pointed out the built in artificiality of high school research projects and gave the whole project a nice ironic feel.

Depending on how Draconian our administration was at any given time, we would be required at times to issue hall passes for students out of class.  I always had a hard time with that particular directive because I usually taught college-bound seniors who could be trusted not to wreak any havoc in the halls, but I had to play along or get written-up.  I finally found a solution to my dilemma and used an old Macintosh SE 20 hard drive as my pass.  It was an irreverent way to make a statement without getting in trouble and my students thought they were being subversive whenever they went to the bathroom.

I called quizzes “reality checks;” multiple choice tests became “multiple guess;” we would loosen up for class by sitting on the floor in a circle for a rousing game of categories; I would write irreverent choices on Bible as Literature multiple guess tests;  I would show off the wall movies whenever I thought certain kids were taking things too seriously; we would “waste” entire class periods playing improvisation games.

There were times when I would write parodies of poets and poems as permission slips:

“I have borrowed your students
Who you were probably wanting to teach today.
Forgive me.
They were so talented.
So young,
And so bright.”  

Believe me, for an English teacher a parody of William Carlos Williams is a guaranteed knee slapper.

I used to be the secretary for our faculty liaison committee.  Every week I would publish uncapitalized notes e. e. cummings style dripping with sarcasm and inside jokes.  I kept it up until a few of my more serious colleagues complained about my irreverence.

As a defense against the above mentioned colleagues, I would write Elizabethan Sonnets during faculty meetings to keep from going crazy and running madly from the room.

Whenever a colleague had a birthday and it was my turn to get the cake and cookies, I would always pen a sonnet to mark the occasion.

None of this is meant as a cookbook of recipes to inject humor into your classroom.  It is just a collection of pleasant memories that helped keep me afloat for some thirty-five years.  Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.