Saturday, March 26, 2016

Message Clear

I was in the middle of teaching my fourth hour APEs (AP English) when our principal (name withheld) barged into my room and slapped a piece of paper on my podium.  "What is the meaning of this?" he asked.

The paper contained a phone message from an outraged Catholic youth minister concerning a poem by Edwin Morgan, "Message Clear."  It seemed, according to the message the youth  minister left with our principal, that two of my students came to the parish offices to show him the poem.  They were "extremely disturbed."

So was our principal.  This was, after all, his first year at good ol' GMHS and he had heard disturbing things about me from the powers that be.  And here I was, just as promised by outgoing administrators, distributing inappropriate material.

Don't worry.  There is a point to all this.  Let me explain.  "Message Clear", in the jargon of insufferable AP Literature teachers, is one of the truly great examples of Technopaegnia, poems whose shape informs content and theme and whose theme and content inform shape.  "Buffalo Bill" by e.e. cummings is a great example.  In "Message Clear", Morgan takes the line from John 11:25, "I am the resurrection and the life." and typographically places it at the bottom of one of those old univac computer cards, the kinds with the chads hanging all over the place from a grid of square holes waiting to be punched out.  Above the final line filter different phrases that can be made from that one declaration.  Of course, all the letters maintain their place hovering above the final sentence.  The result is this increasingly thrilling accumulation of one liners all combining in the final, "I am the resurrection and the life."

So, there are individual lines like,
"i am ra
i am thoth
i am erect
i am erection

It was the "i am erect" line that fired the imagination of the youth minister and compelled him to grab the phone and call for my head.  My principal, not particularly skilled in the parsing of poetry, was only partially mollified when I told him that it was a poem taken from an actual AP test.  "Oh, ahem, well, that's okay then."  (I lied about the test, but it would have made a great question.)

The next day in class, furious, I explained the concern of the youth minister.  He didn't think it appropriate to suggest Jesus had an erection.  I explained to him and to my students that if Jesus was who he claimed to be, he certainly had an erection or two.  After all, that homespun cloth was really itchy.  I'm sure if the youth minister had been there, his outrage would have been renewed, but hey, "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."

Outside of my life as a newspaper sponsor, that was the only time I came close to being censored.  I couldn't help think about all that when I read the coverage on the whole student art controversy in DPS.  As part of a public school art show at the city's Webb building, a jury of evaluators chose a Kunsmiller sophomore's work for display.  It depicted a police officer wearing a KKK hood pointing a gun at a hoodie wearing toddler whose hands are up.  As a backdrop, the confederate flag usurps the stars and stripes fading into the background.

It is a powerful piece.  Timely.  Well executed.  Centered around a single idea.  Evocative.  It is all those things.  By anyone's standards, it is a work of art.  Of course, it caused a firestorm of responses from all ends of the political spectrum.  The sophomore wisely chose to have the piece taken down.  At least that's the story.

I have a variety of reactions to all of this.  First of all, I would like to applaud DPS in general and Kunsmiller's principal in particular for standing up for this student's expression.  After all, as Denver attorney Daniel Recht said, "a juvenile has the very same first amendment rights as an adult."  I shudder to think how some of my old principals would have treated the same situation.

I like the ultimate reaction of Denver police and the mayor.  "It was a teachable moment," the mayor said.  But from what I've read, the mayor came away with the bigger learning spurt.

My main reaction is to the supplementary article written by Post art critic Ray Mark Rinaldi.  His thesis is that teaching art to kids "can be tricky."  You have to encourage their free expression, but then you have to deal with their output.  That's hardly shocking information, but then he goes on to suggest the special responsibilities a teacher must take on when dealing with high school kids.

For instance, Rinaldi says that adults have "free rein to express themselves, and they live with the consequences, good and bad."  But he goes on to say that 10th graders don't really know how their work will be taken by the public.  I don't know about Mr. Rinaldi, but I spent most of my career working with 10th graders.  They know exactly how their work will be taken by the public.  That's the whole point.

Rinaldi goes on to ask if a 10th grader would really want to offend police officers.  Is this a trick question?

I'm sad that the piece in question has been taken down, but it has served its purpose as art.  There has been a dialogue, a "teachable moment."  After thirty-five years in the classroom, it has always been my experience that all the best "teachable moments" came from kids.  Mr. Rinaldi take note.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Barbarians Are At The Gate

The most irksome thing happening today is the media's tendency to do our thinking for us.  News outlets latch onto newsworthy moments--for obvious reasons only those moments when a public figure can be exposed as incompetent, hypocritical, or just plain stupid--and those moments end up defining that individual.

The Broncos' new quarterback, Mark Sanchez, is a case in point.  He was the fifth overall draft pick four or five years ago.  He led the Jets to two consecutive AFC Championship games.  His idiot coach decided to take Tim Tebow from the Broncos and Sanchez found himself in a QB controversy that never should have happened.  Then, of course, he did the famous "butt fumble" and that has defined him.  Mark Sanchez?  Ah, the Butt Fumble.  He has better numbers than either Manning or Osweiler put up last year.  On paper he is every bit as good as Kaepernick, clearly better than Osweiler, and a safer gamble than any potential draft pick.

But he is the Butt Fumbler and he always will be.

It is all about conventional wisdom and my experience and my reading has convinced me that conventional wisdom is anything but wise.  It is mean spirited and lazy, settling for media generated sound bites that mean nothing.

Hillary Clinton?  Her husband's pathetic infidelities and backroom blowjobs must have been her fault.  She lied about Benghazi even though fully seven commissions, all led by Republicans, have exonerated her.  Makes no difference.  In order to fulfill the media generated narrative, she must have lied.  Facts and logic don't count.

Politicians?  They all lie.  They all make promises they can't keep.  They are all bought and paid for.  All they care about is getting reelected.  They are the cause of all our problems.

Every time I walk into the men's lockerroom at the Y I hear people talking about the evil of politicians.  People are actually going to vote for Trump even though Politifact has rated almost 80% of what he has said in this political season as outright lies.  Their rationalization?  All politicians lie, so even though Trump supporters ostensibly like him because he "tells it like it is" and he's going to change the way our government works,  they forgive him for acting just like all the other politicians they distrust.

These people say they like to make up their own minds, but that's bullshit.  The media and the shrill message of Donald Trump that the media is eating up has done the thinking for them.

There is an article in today's Post exploring the reasons why there are so many Trump supporters in Colorado.  In the course of interviewing a bunch of old white folks, we hear some puzzling answers.  One transplanted New Yorker said that Trump was different than the usual politicians in Washington, "They are all wearing the same clothes when they are in there," he said.  "Republican or Democrat.  At the end of the day it's all about what are we going to do for each other."

Really?  I haven't noticed that much cooperation in Congress.  The guy goes on to say about Trump that "now we have someone looking out for us."

A lady said, "My husband and I can't remember an election when we didn't vote for the lesser of two evils.  Finally, we have someone who is standing up for the people instead of the establishment."

I suppose, as long as "the people" are not from Mexico or the Middle East or poor and living on welfare or Black or LGBT, I suppose that is a true statement.

Another guy said, in an expression that I have come to despise more than any other, that Trump "thinks outside the box."  If we actually tried to trace the scatter-shot trajectory of Trump's musings, we would have to agree that no box would be able to accommodate the Donald's "thoughts."

Another guy said, "I hope he doesn't put up with anybody's bull.  I hope he tells China where to go, tells Mexico where to go."  I'm skeptical.  I think both China and Mexico are too big to relocate.

Finally, and here is the real reason why these people who, given the life styles on display in the accompanying art, have nothing to be so angry about are supporting Trump.  "Yeah, we want to take our country back."

Back?  Back from who?  Back from uppity Black people who have the temerity to occupy the White House?  Back from LGBT types who have the nerve to want wedding licenses?  Back from parents who want their children to walk the streets without getting shot?

In the same issue of the Post there appeared the following headlines:  Russia Will Pull Bulk Of Military From Syria;  Bill On Hiring Passes Hurdle;  US Stocks Close Nearly Unchanged.  And buried somewhere inside is the information that Colorado's unemployment  rate is at 3.5% and falling.  Of course, all those angry white guys don't look that far into the paper and they certainly won't read anything that might run counter to their thinking.

I can see why there are a lot of angry people in the country.  Income inequality is a  stultifying reality.  Wages for blue collar workers have remained stagnant.  We still have to deal with racism.  But what I don't see is what all those folks spouting bile about evil politicians have to be angry about.  They need to face the fact that they will never "take back" their world of White Privilege and cozy little certainties about how one should live one's life.  Those days are gone.  The barbarians are at the gates.  And you know what?  Those barbarians are us.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Old People Playing Croquet!

One shudders at the thought

There I am resting up before reentering the fray on the croquet court at Meadowood.  Notice I am wearing whites.  I had to buy them at the pro shop (yes, a croquet pro shop) just for the occasion.  I had to make sure the white shirt I purchased had a collar.  People in tee shirts need not apply.  Now, usually I wear a sleeveless wife-beating shirt when I play a round ("quiver"?) of croquet.  I like the way my triceps look when I do one of those between the leg shots.  Of course, the mallet has to be the right weight and balance.

A good Jenny Lake friend of ours has his own mallet.  I don't think he plays professionally, but he does have, I suspect, a special croquet playing shirt with an insignia.

I had my own pool cue once.  I loved opening its case and screwing the two pieces together.  My opponents were impressed.

I'll bet it's the same with croquet mallets.  Except the carrying case would have to have a little bulge at one end or the other to accommodate the mallet head.  Imagine pulling out your hand carved mallet, the two part shaft a miracle of engravings and notches, like a back woods' tally stick.  You'd walk around, assess the condition of the court, the heft and smoothness of the balls, test for wind conditions.

I mention all this because of an alarming item in today's Post.  It seems that kids at Graland Country Day School are going out and playing croquet with old people!  It's all part of a science course they're taking which evidently includes a unit about Alzheimer's.  Playing croquet with old people (They bus them in from local memory care centers.) apparently gives junior high types special insight into dementia.

Here.  Just look at this quote if you don't think the Great Alzheimer's Croquet Experiment is a good idea:  "Small groups of students gathered around each senior and showed them how to play, occasionally helping by kicking a ball through a wicket."

I just don't think it is right to teach old people how to cheat at this late stage in the game.  I remember a time Kathie and I played a round of croquet with Joe and Carol Monaco at Jenny Lake.  On Wednesdays on the lawn at Jenny they have Wickets and Wine, an opportunity to meet other guests, get loaded on some pretty good vin ordinaire, and play croquet.  I mean what else are we doing?  Anyway, we were playing with Joe and Carol.  The length of the grass threw me off my game, but Kathie and I still had a commanding lead when Carol started furtively kicking her ball through random wickets.  It was an outrage.  If she had been at Meadowood, the pro in the golf shoes and knickers would have thrown her unceremoniously out.

So there you have it.  If perfectly cogent middle aged (well, upper middle aged) people can shamelessly cheat with a mallet in their hand, what do you think will happen when seriously old people start playing.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to go there.

Friday, March 4, 2016


4 March 20

That's our cabin at Jenny Lake Lodge.  It was built in the mid-1800's and moved to its current spot around 1952, or so.  This has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of this post, but it makes me happy to think we'll be there in a few months.


Maine's lobster season is going to be too early and too small because all along Maine's coast temperatures have risen 2 to 3 degrees higher than usual.  This is the straw that broke the camel's back.  Rising sea levels is one thing, but lobster prices?  Please.


South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard (R) vetoed a bill that would restrict transgender students' access to public school bathrooms and locker rooms.  There are a lot of these so called "bathroom bills" going around the country and it is a little surprising that in South Dakota, at least, sanity would prevail.  The cool thing is that Daugaard cited what should ordinarily be the conservative position on such bills as his reason for the veto.  Local schools, he explained, are doing and should be able to continue doing a fine job dealing with any problems caused by transgender students.  I'm sure there are just thousands of them in the Dakotas.  Isn't that the whole point of conservatism, to keep federal government out of the way of state government and state government out of the way of local control etc.?  South Dakota conservatives, of which there are many, are ironically bummed.  The motivation for bathroom bills is to legislate morality from the top down.  Doesn't sound all that conservative to me.


I don't need to elaborate here, but I find it interesting that establishment Republicans from Romney on down the line are attacking everything about Trump.  To listen to them talk, electing Trump would be an unmitigated disaster for the country (Read: Republican Party).  Then, as soon as they get the dirt out of their mouths, they quickly assure everyone that, should Trump get the nomination, they will support him.  So does that mean that EVERYTHING they say is bullshit?


I've seen SPOTLIGHT three times now.  I think about it all the time.  It is one of those rare films that never lets up.  The narrative builds without a lapse from beginning to end.  I also think it might be one of the best examples of ensemble acting I've ever seen on film.  I even like it better than ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and that's saying a lot.

If you don't know about it, SPOTLIGHT is about a Boston Globe investigative team blowing the lid off the sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese.  I keep thinking about the victims and how their lives, unless they brought a preternatural amount of strength to their molestations, were ruined.

My mother, after all this started coming out years ago, asked me if Father Sanger ever molested me!  I gave her question the respect it deserved and laughed at the suggestion, but I wonder if I was extraordinarily lucky.

According to the research, priests involved in this scandal (6% of all priests supposedly) preyed on the children of poor families without a father.  That was me!  I spent more time with Father Sanger than my own family.  I helped him chase mice out of the church.  We built a little shrine together.  He took me on skiing trips where we spent the night.  He truly was a father to me.

When I went to Regis, I was surrounded by priests of all sorts.  I loved hanging out with them.  I'd sit in the campus coffee shop till all hours arguing with them about religion or politics or football.  I went with them to a local bar where we continued the conversations and they would help me score drinks that I was too young to have.  The way I think, talk, write, the values I have, they all come from those encounters.  And in all that time nothing untoward ever happened to me or anyone else I knew.

I'm just so thankful that was my experience.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


1 March 1916


There used to be a law in Ohio making it illegal to make false statements about candidates running for office.  Makes sense.  That law was struck down by a US Circuit Court in the past few days.  From what I have been able to observe, that law was struck down years ago.


An Australian teenager posted a photograph of himself holding a foot long Subway sandwich up to a ruler.  The sandwich was only 11 inches long.  So, what was the result?  A class action suit against Subway for misrepresenting its product to hapless consumers.  The consumers won!  In response, Subway has retooled its ovens to accommodate longer rolls.  I always thought there was something fishy going on.


An English gentleman legally changed his name to "Bacon Double Cheeseburger."  His friends call him Bacon.  His wife is pregnant and he, a huge fan of John Travolta, has already decided to name his first born "Royale With Cheese."  If it is a boy, his friends will probably call him Roy.  Not so sure about a girl.  (Actually, I am making up the stuff about children.)


When we walk our fifteen laps around the track at the Y to warm-up each day, we usually end up talking to our friend Sherry about the FoxNews Republicans who people our local YMCA.  These are all people we like (most of them, anyway) and they seem to be Trump supporters.  One of them told us that Trump is saying the things they feel!

I don't get that.  The gentleman who made that statement is a nice guy.  He seems to be a successful entrepreneur.  He drives a nice car.  Takes his family on vacation.  Plays a round of golf every day, weather permitting.  Does he really feel the rage that Trump is tapping?  The other old white guys at the Y are the same way.  What do they have to be so mad about?

I used to use an article about pop culture by David Denby as a catalyst for a writing assignment about BRAVE NEW WORLD.  If there are any CCB types reading this, you will remember (I hope).  In it, he uses the example of white suburban rap groups (Read: Beastie Boys) who were writing their raps expressing the same rage that black groups from the inner-city were expressing.  These white suburbanites had co-opted black rage, but the fact was they had precious little to  be outraged about.  I'm sure Denby overstated his argument; maybe The Beastie Boys just liked the way their stuff sounded and maybe they also liked the amount of money it realized.  The point is that my Republican friends at the Y have done the same thing.  Is it possible they just like Trump's music.


We walked the beach every morning when we were in Puerto Vallarta a few months ago.  That daily walk would take us by the resort where the "Affluenza Kid" and his mom were staying to avoid the sentence the kid received for a DUI.  His lawyer defended him by saying he lived a life of affluence so extreme that he could not be held accountable for  his actions.  The judge saw that for the BS it was.

I think that may be Trump's problem.  Affluenza.  Maybe he could go to a clinic to get it diagnosed and treated.  How else do you explain his TOTAL disregard for any social convention.  It isn't that he is an inveterate liar so much; it's just that he has never had a need to worry about the difference between fact and fiction.  It isn't that he is a bigot, a misogynist, and a shameless bully; his money has insulated him from any repercussions for his horrible behavior, so what do you expect?

Poor Donald.  He's just a victim of his upbringing.  Imagine the heavy burden of inheriting $200,000,000 from your father.  It's child abuse.  That's what it is.


Sunday, February 28, 2016


28 February 2016

I have made a resolution which is going to last at least until I finish this post.  Enough with all this negativity.  I'm sick of hearing prophecies of doom that never come to pass.  I don't agree with the Republican freak show that America is going to hell in a hand basket.  So I'm going to ignore all that and just offer here a random list of things to be happy about.


This was buried on the inside of The New York Times this morning.  No, it is not an overwhelmingly hopeful piece.  After all, the cease fire has only been in effect for one day, but it has already exceeded the expectations of conventional wisdom and I like that.


In an election for Parliament and another for a clerical council seat, reformists outperformed Iranian hard liners.  The reformists favor the "nuclear deal"; the hard liners don't.  This was the first election held in Iran since the John Kerry-brokered deal and the turn out was above 60%.  You won't hear about this on Fox.  Of course, if the election had been a farce, Fox would have spent at least a full week explaining why Obama was at fault.


This is truly cause for celebration.  Monarch Butterflies, major pollinators, include Mexico in their migration pattern.  But just like a dwindling bee population, the Monarchs have been in decline.  Until this year.  Butterfly experts in Mexico measure the butterfly  population by counting the number of acres the fluttery little insects blanket at this time of year.  They covered 10 acres this year, more than three times the coverage of the year before.  This provides cause to hope that flowers will still be pollinated.  Of course, 20 years ago the Monarchs covered 45 acres.  No one has an explanation, but they may be rebounding.


In Warren Buffett's annual letter to the  stockholders of Berkshire Hathaway, he rejected the false picture Republican candidates are painting of an America in decline.  He fairly brimmed with optimism, but he also cautioned against income inequality.  "The price of achieving ever increasing prosperity for the great majority of Americans should not be penury for the unfortunate," he wrote, immediately endearing himself to right-wingers across the country.


Remember John Cusack's list of perfect jobs in High Fidelity?  Writing for Rolling Stone in the late 60's was one.  He also wouldn't mind being a record producer for a specific label that escapes me.  This list is different.  Millennials were polled.  The number one response:  Google.  Walt Disney comes in #2, followed by St. Jude Research Hospital (makes sense to me).  Surprisingly, Apple is behind St. Jude (and falling).  A career in the army was toward the bottom of the list with Build-A-Bear Workshop at 50.  In other words, these people are all over the place.  When I was thinking career, my choices weren't quite so endless.  I can remember the order.  Teacher - Lawyer - Priest - Writer.  If I had known about places like Google with cool little cubicles and water slides and colorful places to have lunch and exercise, maybe my list would have been different, but I doubt it.


Just as I turned onto Wadsworth with Willa and Jaydee in the back, Willa asked for her pacifier.  I told her that when I was packing up for the return trip to her house, I must have spaced out her pac (soft c).  Her face fell, she looked at the pac in Jaydee's mouth, and start a pretend whimper that I knew would quickly become real.  In spite of my reasonable explanation, my telling her that she might as well stop because there wasn't much I could do traveling 65 miles per hour on C-470, it was to do avail.  All of a sudden--somewhere around Quebec--the whimpering stopped.  Since it was 4:30 and the traffic wasn't moving, I was able to turn around.  I was just in time to see Jaydee reach over and hand her pac to her big sister.  "I love you Willa," she said.  Willa stuck the thing in her mouth and then they both reached out across the back seat and touched hands.  It might have been the greatest thing I've ever seen.  I took advantage of the jammed traffic to wipe the tears out of my eyes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

PV Reads

I'm going to start chronicling the books I read again.  I had gotten away from that activity because I was busy trying to write my own books and I have also been spending some time taking care of Franny's kids.  So I guess you could say the main reason I haven't been writing about books is because I haven't read very many lately.

I'm ashamed to admit to being childish and petulant, but since literary agents haven't been beating a path to my door trying to sign me up I've had a hard time reading any fiction at all.  That's a pretty startling admission for a retired literature teacher.  The thing is, if the piece of fiction is great, I just get depressed because I evidently can't write anything that would compete.  If the piece is mediocre and filled with pedestrian sentences, I get mad because my stuff is better and the stupid agents of the world are just too blind to see that.  Maybe I'll grow up some day, but I doubt it.

So I've been reading non-fiction instead and as long as I stay away from partisan political rants, I'm a happier man for it.  I read three such works in the week we were in Puerto Vallarta.

Between The World And Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates

I love this writer.  He writes more powerful stuff than Baldwin at his best.  This book is a novella sized letter to his son that serves as the story of a young black man trying to survive in America and a brilliant analysis of the current state of race relations in our country.  As such, it is not your typical beach read.  I had to stop every five or ten minutes either to force Katherine to listen to me read a powerful passage out loud, or to wipe away my tears over the sheer beauty of his prose.

There isn't much more to say.  At the risk of sounding like a pompous ass, I didn't really learn anything new here.  Instead, I was reminded on every page of the injustices that occur daily in this "exceptional" country of ours.  I particularly like Coates' take on the idea of being exceptional.  He says that if people who insist on self-identifying themselves as White continue to stand by their claim of Exceptionalism, then they need to also hold their precious country to an EXCEPTIONAL moral standard, a moral view that doesn't systematically ignore some of our more disgraceful historical moments.  Until we can do that--and we never have--we will never be EXCEPTIONAL.  Bill O'Reilly take note.

David And Goliath - Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell dispels the myth of the underdog.  In point of fact, underdogs emerge victorious about 50% of the time.  When the underdog defies accepted practices, he wins 67% of the time.  One need go no further than the war in Viet Nam or the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc. to see the truth of that.

Of course, the story of David and Goliath serves as a controlling metaphor for the entire work.  When you examine the terrain, the history of warfare at that time, and the arrogance of the Philistine giant, you discover that poor Goliath never had a chance.  David possessed the better technology and anyone who witnessed the "fight" knew that David was going to kill the clumsy oaf the minute he took out his sling.  Slingers, it turns out, were accurate within a hair's width at distances of over 100 yards!  A slung stone had a velocity of about 180 mph and the stones in the valley of the battle were particularly dense (don't ask me why).  One of those stones flung at that speed would certainly penetrate a giant's exposed forehead.  Death would be the only result.  Even Jack in INTO THE WOODS knew that.

The book does make an inescapable political point.  All those folks yelling about launching a full-scale attack on ISIS, ISIL, or whatever other acronym we're using these days, clearly don't understand history.  Of course, they don't understand the constitution either, but that's another story.

The Boys In The Boat - Daniel James Brown

This is one of those books I was talking about earlier that made me mad.  It tells the fascinating story of nine relatively poor guys from the Northwest who tried out for crew at the University of Washington and ended up winning the 1936 Olympics right in front of a chastened Adolph Hitler.

The problem with the book is that it contains one awful sentence after another and the transitions from one scene to the next sound like something out of a travel book.  I got pissed every other page.  BUT the story of Joe Rantz and the rest of the crew told under the backdrop of the lead up to WWII was impossible to put out of my mind.  I read it in one day at the pool and the plane ride home.

It has the same feel as SEABISCUIT or CINDERELLA MAN in that it uses the story of a small group of individuals to illustrate an entire historical era.  If  you can get by the dreary sentences, it is well worth the read.