Monday, October 29, 2007

New Ford tail winder

Fried Shoes

My university creative writing teacher, George Venn, once had a student ask him, What is poetry? I remember George going to the board and writing the words Fried Shoes. He allowed a suitable length of time to pass during which he waited to see if anyone would take him up on this gambit. Everyone waited, knowing of course that George was indeed ready and willing to enlarge upon his answer. I always liked the fact that he waited as long as he did, and a part of me always wished that he had simply let it go at that and let us try to make sense of his answer. I've never been able to disassociate the word poetry from Venn's fried shoes.
Which leads me (you'll have to take my word for it) to the subject of teaching poetry to high school freshmen. They remind me often of the dog in the Far Side cartoon who is sitting quietly facing an empty corner of a room. The thought bubble over his head reveals an empty corner identical to the one he is staring at. For me it all starts with seeing, with how one looks at things, and with the proposition that seeing is to a significant degree a creative act or at least the result of a collaboration between the eyes and the mind.
One of my personal goals with kids is to furnish them with reasons and opportunities to see things in different combinations, to experiment with notions of focus and foreground and background, with connection and juxtaposition. I consider it a major event if a kid writes something and then says, Hey, where did that come from?
Creating the classroom conditions where such exclamations are likely to occur is part of what I spend my spare time thinking about.
My most recent idea was inspired by Langston Hughs' verses on dreams... hold fast to dreams for when dreams die/life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.
I wanted kids to practice swinging from abstract ideas to concrete images and metaphors in a way that would allow them to perhaps discover interesting connections ideas and things. So I asked them to generate a list of very concrete details visible typically at home or in their neighborhood. I fed them a few ezamples: sharp, dry crumbs on the linoleum floor; small dark bird on a wire, empty cardboard boxes stacked in the basement.... ordinary stuff like that.
After they had all come up with a healthy list of details, I then gave them a sheet with phrases openers like: my past, my dreams, my passion, my worries.... Their task: experiment with different ways of completing the phrases using the concrete details they had already assembled. The more surprising the results the better.
Here are a few of the results:

This school is an overfilled dumpster.

My dreams are dead grass in the front yard.

My friends are a flock of birds.

My passion is like a single sock in the dryer.

My worries are a pink stuffed pig on a bed.

My hopes are bread in a toaster.

My heart is the last piece of gum in the packet.

My worries are orange and yellow leaves scattered on the grass.

My past is the brown house hiding behind the trees.

My friends are an assortment of different colored flip flops.

My future is an empty water dish

My hopes are like the glint of the sun off a shiny new quarter.

My future is a foreign language.

My life is a pink lazy-boy.

My past is a black dog pulling on its chain.

My future is like mail scattered on the counter.

My life is a large glass window covered with finger prints.

My heart is a big red truck.

My heart is like green grass that turning brown along the sidewalks.

My heart is like an empty fridge.

My future is like a red dog toy in the yard.

While doing this exercise several of my students seemed to be genuinely tickled by what emerged. One girl even went so far as to claim that it was the best poem she had ever written. I looked at her wondering if she appreciated the conceptual leap she had made by viewing her "list" as a poem. It struck me as a claim that was both audacious and plausible, but mostly it reflected an exuberance that may fuel her jets in future writing efforts.

On the other hand, T, one of my smartest and most able students is temperamentally resistant to any mental process that tends to produce more questions than it does answers. She is unremittingly focused and rational, qualities I prize as much as any other. I don't like it when things don't make sense, she says to me whenever I set her to work on some sort of exercise in poetry writing. She systematically sets about ironing out inconsistencies and anomalies in her list of expressions...more or less the opposite approach I'm encouraging. I chide her playfully, encouraging her to be a bit more adventurous. She is good humored about it but stubborn.

The next day I give them another exercise. Everyone has to write a poem entitled "Timeless". There are two simple rules.

1. the only letters that can be used in the poem are the ones that can be found in the title.

2. you have to feature a theme word that poses as the central motif of your poem by being repeated several times.

Here's what T came up with:


time lies
it sets limits

time seems timeless
lest I test it

is time slim
it emits mist

see little sis
time seems less

tilt time
list sites

Else I see
it slits miles

time it is
it melts

I miss smiles
I miss time


I enjoyed the smile on T's face when she shared this with me.

If you always have to know the sense of things before you write it down, you'll usually end up writing less than you know; whereas if you allow yourself to write things whose sense is not yet apparent to you, you may surprise yourself be writing more than you know. In other words, sometimes we write to report what we know; sometimes we write to find out what we know. If one can't surprise oneself once in awhile, it's hard for me to see where the pleasure in writing comes from.

It's hard to explain Fried Shoes.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Family night out

We went to a costume party last night. Colm went as Cookie the Ghost.

Notice the stitched in goggle eye wear to prevent ghost blindness.
Tess went as Fall the butterfly fairy princess, more or less a medley of her favorite themes.

I scored an afro wig, darkened my facial hair and went as Slick aka Sly (boom shakalakalaka boom).

Beth went platinum on top and silicon up front and generally made me look good as Angel.
The kids had never seen their parents do this before. They couldn't stop giggling.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The education of Tess

Beth visited Tess's class this morning. Her mission: to teach a lesson on nutrition. Tess of course revels in the fact that her mom is in the room. Beth is equally happy and proud of her daughter. Beth begins the lesson with a quick review. What are some whole foods? she asks.
A couple of kids answer then Beth sees Tess raise her hand.
Pleased, she calls on her angel who blithely asks, Would you turn on the light please?
Beth carries on slightly put off balance by her daughter's non sequiter but not too bad really. A couple of minutes later she is asking another question and again the hands go up. Beth sees Tess raise her hand and, after making sure she's called on some other kids first, she calls on Tess, not without a tinge of anticipation.
Tess looks at Beth and says, Where's Colm?
Beth has to deal with a few immediate and conflicting impressions, she does have a lesson to conduct, and there is the question of Colm's whereabouts which seems to have suddenly been elevated to a class wide concern even though no one else in the room has any idea who Colm is. There is also taking root in Beth's mind the growing impression of Tess as gadfly replacing that of Tess as perfect little student.

Later, at bed time. I sit on Tess's bed and begin the slow and circuitous process of talking her down to earth and her pillow. Tess pauses for a moment and says, What did you do in school today?
I sense in her question a certain relish. The role reversal must be delicious for her. I indulge her to best of my ability. In French we sang a song. In English we wrote poems. Tell me some, she says. I feel as though I have no choice but to try, especially if I intend to redirect the question her way. When I get the chance to ask her she seems satisfied with the deal and after thinking for a few moments she decides to tell me about how the school counselor came and taught them the difference between telling and tattling.
What is the difference? I ask her in all sincerity.
Well if someone tells you that you have to call someone stupid and you say something ....well that's telling and telling is good.
Tess pauses. I can tell she's getting a bit tangled trying to reconstruct it.
Actually, she says, it's kinda both telling and tattling.
Yeah, I say. Sometimes it's complicated trying to tell the difference.
Tess nods and turns her attention to Sugar who's jumped up into bed with her. She seems to dismiss the topic as a dead end. Easier to go to sleep than stay up trying to sort out the ethical intricacies of telling and tattling.
I'm of the same mind for now. Besides there is no doubt that the future will furnish ample opportunities to revisit the question.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Beth has nearly finished putting the garden to bed. It was a big job after a year of going to seed. I watch her nurture the garden, and I think how what she's cultivating there is nothing more or less than hope.
Her example is one that I am grateful for since I am by temperament moved in more fatalistic directions this time of year.

Autumn leaves burn
in the shivering sun
running through my veins
my dreams are all undone
everything I have
will fall away
but I burn for you
as the sun sets every day

You've got to settle down
You've got to move on out

You've got to hold on tight
You've got to lose your mind

You've got to love someone
Who's moving on
You've got feel so good
Your tears fill you with song

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fall fun with Sugar

Sugar took another walkabout while we were in Portland. I found him at a neighbor's house down the street. He'd been there since Friday. It seems that Sugar can't abide an empty house, not even one with another cat in it. Anyway he's back again...I can't even count how many times now we've brought Sugar "home."

Once he's here in the bosom of the family, he shows little inclination to wander. Just don't leave him alone.
Fall is in full flame here. The pumpkins are on the stoop. The leaves still hang in the trees mostly though they have begun carpeting the ground as well. It will only take a couple of hard frosts to bring the rest down too.
It's nice to have two kids to help with the raking. Their motivation is all about creating piles to jump in of course.

This year they discovered a new wrinkle, piling leaves on Sugar.

The cat thought it was great fun too and allowed Tess and Colm to surround him with leaves for at least fifteen minutes or so. At several points we lost sight of him altogether (he's in there if you look hard enough)...didn't seem to faze him though.

Maybe it's because he loves the idea of being unveiled.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A brigde to Monday

We got out of town after work on Thursday and headed for Portland. Beth drove while I graded essays and the kids read books. We had a full slate of activities ahead of us. Our friend's daughter turned eight, so there was a slumber party-birthday celebration for our friend's daughter Ariel. There was also an Apple Fair on Hawthorne where there were literally fifty different varieties of apples to taste...Beth took the kids there while I went to one of the world's great private bookstores, Powell's Books. There I bought some reference books for French and Spanish classes at LHS and I also graded essays for another couple of hours. Saturday we went to the Northwest Children's Theater production of "Honk!" Not as good alas as "Frog and Toad" from two years ago but still worth seeing. There was one endearing moment that came not from on stage but from Piper, Ariel's little sister. It came at the end of a chorus number. All the singers on stage were sustaining a long plaintive note when I noticed a new and slightly sharp voice added to the mix. I looked over and there was Piper, her lips rounded, her voice sounding out as if by instinct to the "ducks" on stage. When the chorus stopped in unison, Piper's tremulous little voice continued for about three seconds, having melded with her flock it had become by the end nearly pitch perfect. The lights went out leaving some in the audience unsure of what they had just heard. Piper's mom and I laughed....worth the price of admission, that moment.

After the show we made a very random connection with a friend we first made last year in Lege. John is an American married to a French woman. We met in France and spent a few enjoyable evenings together but upon returning to Oregon we fell out of touch. Then we learned through a mutual friend that he has moved to Portland where he is working feverishly to open a restaurant called Isabele in the Pearl District on 10th and Flanders. It was only six blocks from the theater so we checked it out and we found John and spent a little while catching up...wierd. He's a mover and a shaker and it will be fun for us to monitor his exploits from a closer distance.
Sunday it was back to Powell's (on Hawthorne) for a not so random (in fact, very contrived) meeting. Our next door neighbors, whose kids are best friends with our kids were also in Portland. We all agreed it would be fun to blow their little minds by setting up an "accidental" encounter in Portland. Powell's was the site chosen because of its terrific children's book section. Turned out to be a great idea, we all bought lots of books, too many really (I got Persepolis 1 and 2 and also Sacco's Palestine...gonna try and interest my Social Studies colleagues in them.
After that it was time at long last to trek home...a four hour drive.

I'm boning up for a course I'm teaching at penitentiary in Pendleton next month. We'll be reading and discussing excerpts from Aristotle's Ethics, Plato's Republic, and Thucydides' History of the Peleponesian Wars. On the drive back Beth let me practice on her a little bit. I'm actually growing more and more sympathetic to what his views, at least as I understand them. Perhaps more on that some day.

Let me just finish this with an observation that getting in a car and going some place with Beth (and the kids) is invariably a good thing. We pass the time a variety of ways, some of them practical (school work), others not so much, but there is always time for us to talk at some point. There's nothing like talking on the road. Maybe it's the fact that no matter what you say, on at least one level you're always getting somewhere. All I know is that it makes for good times and good travel.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Your job or your life?

Yesterday while eating lunch at school with my usual lunch bunch I heard one of my colleagues bemoan the fact that when he left work last Friday at 3:30, he still had work left to finish.
I remember wondering what was so remarkable about his claim since bringing work home is and has been a part of my professional life since I began teaching 25 years ago. The man was clearly nonplussed by what he saw as an alarming trend. As if to underscore the injustice of it all, he added, "I already donate the district five hours a week as it is."
I mulled this statement over while chewing my sandwich. My colleague is not a fool; he chooses his words intentionally. I wondered therefore how seriously he meant this statement to be taken. In our lunch meetings it isn't unusual for someone to lob a rhetorical grenade and then sit back and see how much chaos ensues. I didn't bite at this one however, nor did anyone else for that matter. We moved on to the sports where I managed to provoke outrage over my claim that Pete Carroll was no longer the most overrated elite coach in college football since after losing to Stanford he could no longer be seriously considered an elite coach.
The next day, however, my colleague repeated verbatim his claim about "donating" five hours a week to the district. I decided not to let it pass unchallenged this time and so I asked him if he accepted the distinction between professional salaried work and hourly wage labor?
His response was that we have a labor contract, that we are paid a per diem rate, and that we have a clearly defined contract year and contract day. I give the district five extra hours every week and this year I still can't get my work done, he said. I didn't use to be that way.
In my whole career, I've never been able to finish my work withing the confines of the contract day, I said. We have professional responsibilities that must be fulfilled regardless.
I have a family to spend time with and a life to lead, he said.
Someone else in the room chimed in, I give lots of time, evenings and weekends. It's part of the job.
Try this sentence on for size, I said. We don't give the district our time; we don't donate our time. We're paid to do what we do. It's the difference between being a professional and being an hourly wage earner.
To this my colleague whose remark had triggered all of this responded, Put me on a time clock. I'd rather punch in and punch out than give my time away.
The conversation more or less ended along those lines and it left me wondering about the thread of my own career and the ways in which it has woven itself into the fabric of my life. I have struggled at times to keep it overtaking my life, from isolating me from my own family and friends, from ruining a marriage, from turning me into some kind of martyr on the altar of public service. By the same token, I've never ever really wanted to wall off my professional life from my personal life. For me teaching is too wrapped with who I am for me to treat it as nothing more than a job. It's a vocation. If I'm a sucker, so be it.
My colleague's hard line on this matter strikes me as a rationale for pretending that he is in fact going over and above the call of duty, that he is being exploited, when the truth is more likely that he has perfected an approach prizing efficiency that embodies minimum personal investment for maximum pay. His irritation over increasing work demands reminds me of the complaints I hear from some teachers when they have to change textbooks and thus rewrite their lesson plans. His system isn't as efficient as it once was, it needs attention and tweaking, which translated into more work for him, which of course is what his system is designed to prevent from happening. He demands from his system no less than getting out of the building every day with his desk cleared off and his mind unfettered by unfinished business.
My colleague is a job holder, a worker, an public employee...and a teacher.
So am I.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Blockbuster Video blues

Every so often we get caught between Netflix mailings and we have to suck it up and risk going to Blockbuster. Each time I go there,I make a private resolution to just get a video and get out of there, but all too often I end up getting sucked into the vortex that is Blockbuster retail culture...
Exhibit A:
I pull a disc off the shelf. It says on the cover disc Deadwood season 3 disc 3. I give the Blockbuster maid my dough and go home. Unfortunately, when I look at the disc I discover that what's inside is season 2 not season 3. Soooo I drive back to Blockbust'me, and I ask for the correct disc. The clerk, the same girl, takes the disc scans it and informs me that since this is a new release I owe another 50 cents (the figure is not exact but close enough). I look at her and say, "Huh?"
Without missing a beat and without the slightest trace of regret she blandly repeats, "New release, that's 50 cents more please."
"But you gave me the wrong disc."
"No I didn't."
"The shelf said Season 3. This is Season 2."
"Somebody put it in the wrong place."
"Yes. Somebody-not-me. Somebody-me ,however ,took your shelving arrangement seriously and rented this disc. Then that same somebody had to get back into his car and drive all the back here just so that somebody here could tell him that he owed them another fifty cents for having made the mistake of believing this disc was what it was advertised to be."
"We can't help it if discs get misshelved, sir."

You know, it' very hard for me say this but I see her point on this case...even though it pisses me off to say so. I need to read all the labels from now on just like I'm supposed to read food labels...lesson learned, grudgingly.

Exhibit B
I rent a vhs video on a Wednesday night, Searching for Bobby Fischer. It's a five day rental. on Friday I get around to playing the last half of the movie and discover that the last fifteen minutes are unwatchable due to some sort of tracking problem with the tape, everything is garbled, frustrating.
Friday evening I skip, (trying to stay upbeat you know) down to Blackbuster serenely believing that I'll be home in a matter of a few minutes with a credit slip for another video in my pocket.
At the counter I recognize the same Blockmeister maiden. She is young, cool and solicitous in a way that might be confused with sweetness were it not coated with a teflon-like, computer generated delivery that only coincidentally jives with whatever energy you might be bringing her way. She will never know my name, she will forever need to ask me if I have a Blockbuster card or driver's license. I am not a customer to her so much as a training script, a walking meme, that triggers a protocol that she has learned how to execute with ease, if not with feeling.
I tell Blockmaiden my situation. She listens and informs me that credits may only be issued on the day of the rental.
"But,..." I'm already stammering. "It's a five day rental. I didn't even open it until yesterday."
"That's our policy sir. Same day as rental."
"But the tape is damaged. I paid you for a video and you gave me a damaged product."
"The policy is the same no matter what."
"But I didn't do anything wrong. You did. I paid you and you gave me a broken video. I took it home. I tried to watch it. It didn't work. I immediately brought it back well within the agreed upon rental deadline. What did I do wrong? Why don't I get my money back?"
She stares implacably at me as though I'm misfunctioning, stuck on a track endlessly looping.
"can I talk to the manager?"
"Yes...she'll be in tomorrow."
"So let me get this straight. In the future if I rent a video for five days, I have to watch the whole thing on day one just to make sure it isn't broken so that if it is broken I can still get my money back?"
"the policy is..."
"Let me just ask you one thing....Do you wish the policy were different? Would you like it if the policy allowed you to make this right?"
"The manager will be here tomorrow..."
"You really don't want to help me out here do you? You're not gonna say to the manager, gee, if we're sure the guy's not scamming us can't we just give him a credit? You're not gonna say that to the manager are you?"
"Is there anything else I can help you with sir?"
Suddenly I felt terrible. The whole exchange had been futile and worse it had driven each of us further into our own retrenchments. She had given me nothing but corporate policy, chapter and verse. I on the other hand had been keen to see her as some as some foil to my own Everyman. Have I missed something crucial and cultral? Did I grow old without realizing it?
The counter over which we look warily at one another is not a place on which to lean one's elbow and exchange pleasantries and sly smiles, it is rather the cool sterile surface over which plastic goods and plastic money glided from one realm to the other, each one, the goods and the money, bount to be translated into pulsing electrons streaming into electronic bank accounts or shimmering across HD flatscreens. I feel like a stick being held in the current of a moving stream. I feel turbulence at every side of me and yet just over there across the counter it is all placid and smooth sailing. The young woman on the other side of that counter might as well be from Mars or...France? (kidding, sort of).
I leave vowing never to return to Blockcrusher, and yet I have to admit that it's strange to take solace in the thought that in a day or so there will be a netflix video in my mailbox, placed there as if by magic or by gods whose names are unpronouncable to me at this moment.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Plum good

Friday after school, Tess and Colm went to Emily and Edan's house and all four of them picked a mess of plums. Then they went inside and painted a sign.

The next morning, bright and early, we set up shop amongst the vendors at Saturday Market. It was capitalism with a small "c". In the beginning the "c" seemed to stand for "charity" as Colm kept handing over dollar bills along with the bags of plums.

It didn't take too long to straighten him our and pretty soon he and the rest of them were hawking plums like nobody's business.

They became proficient at bagging plums in advance, counting out dozens and always adding an extra one or two as a bonus for their customers. They developed a little sing songy call for customer that worked like a charm. I saw more than one person who had every intention of walking past get drawn in by their siren song and their infallibly optimistic smiles.

By midday when we packed up to go home, they had sold about thirty dozen plums. We went home and counted up the money and divided it into four equal piles. Next step: to spend or not to spend?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Better than the original

A friend of mine shared this Youtube video with me the other day. I found this guy's act to be jaw droppingly good. See if you don't agree.

But that's not all. It turns out that in the juggling world (one with which I'm not familiar at all)the routine in the video above has become something of a pop standard that the purists love to parody. Here's a sample below...even more amazing.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Nature's palette

Pot Of Gold
a poem by Kevin Cahill

This morning felt like winter.

A cold wind bringing down tree limbs

A thick mantle of grey clouds.

But later, brilliant patches of blue.

Then sudden gentle showers -

October has many minds
As the sun descends

it leaves a splashy rainbow for an encore.
Tomorrow I'll content myself

with golden leavings
on the frost-kissed grass.
kick at them and think,
It must be here...the end I mean.