Saturday, December 29, 2007

2007 blog photos

If you want to see an album of all 400 of the photos posted this year on this blog click
free hand ...hold on...reach
A lot of happy memories here. Hope everyone out there has a Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Why we love it here...reason #22

Mount Emily in the winter.

Even when the snow flies it's not much more than a fifteen minute drive through farm and range land up the foothills to the trailhead in forest land. From this point it's a beautiful ski up the mountain.

I took these shots while skiing alone on Christmas afternoon. The snow laden boughs make for some evocative and sculpted images. Bowed hooded figures, some standing others kneeling,

intricate interlacing patterns of dark branches framing snow in a miraculous manner,
they conjure an immense abbey ensconced in downy solitude.

And then, in the process of transferring my camera I mistook the strap on my ski pole for the camera strap. Thinking it was strapped to my wrist, I released it and I watched disbelievingly as it dropped out of sight, swallowed up by the deep powder. I plunged my hands in the snow bank and quickly fished it out but the remaining photos were all a bit cloudy due to condensation...I had to put away the camera and just enjoy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas at home

Beth and I spent late Christmas Eve playing Santa while the kids slept. There were some last minute decisions to make. It turned out that the box supposedly containing two remote control cars only had one. This threw the balance of gifts off and required some relabelling just to make sure our kids' inner accountants were not alarmed needlessly. Sugar looked on; he's a Christmas rookie.

Tess wrote a little note to leave along with the cookies and milk and cranberries. We faithfully ate them up before turning in.

Not surprisingly both of them were at the tree bright (figuratively speaking) and early. During a lull after opening their gifts, Tess looked out the window and observed, "It's still night time!" Indeed.

With one glaring exception, everyone was thrilled with all of their gifts. I was so shocked by this hat that I couldn't muster a credible note of enthusiasm when I said, "Great!"
It's going back, needless to say.

Tess and Colm got a lot of Legos (car, house, and airport) which promises to keep me and Beth occupied right along with the kids. Colm's favorite has to be his remote control car. It would be difficult to overstate his pleasure/obsession with this toy.

Here are the cool shields Beth made for them ( I cut the wood.). Beth really outdid herself this time. Tess and Colm haven't seen them yet as the swords are still in pipeline and scheduled for unveiling on New Year's Eve.

Good day...we went sledding in the afternoon. Sugar walked the whole way to sledding hill and back. Strange cat that one. Refuses to be left behind, but will only parallel us from a few yards off, slipping under parked cars and behind shrubs, almost like he's stalking us. He seems to hate wide open spaces, like intersections. If a dog barks at him he freezes for a few seconds, no matter where he is. Meanwhile cars go by and he barely pays them any mind; it's a bit nerve wracking walking with him. When we got home he collapsed on a good book.
Sugar's a rookie no more.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Edge...the third culture

Ever wonder why science is so important to our culture and yet so absent from popular discourse? In a recent NY Times list of 100 top books of 2007, for example, not a single science book. Here's a link to Edge a website that I drop in on from time to time just to see if I can learn something. An interesting feature on the website is called Edge Video where you can play video clips of interviews with leading scientists and thinkers. Going to this site usually reminds me in a very constructive and often stimulating way that people called scientists are among us doing science and talking about it.
The people at Edge refer to such people as the Third Culture. That phrase originates from the fifties when C.P. Snow wrote how the literary types had succeeded in co-opting for themselves the title of intellectual in the public mind. The science types were left as a result to communicate more or less exclusively amongst themselves. Public discourse found itself framed to a very large extent by an intellectual class that was not only not conversant with science but even willfully so.
The Third Culture refers to a movement within the science community to sidestep altogether the gate keeping function of the literary intellectual class and take their work and their ideas directly to the public. Some of my very good friends are sciencists and/or science lovers and I look forward always to picking up interesting ideas from them...this website is one way to extend that conversation.
Oh, and...Merry Christmas!

Joy is turning a cartwheel

With a tiny assist from yours truly. Pretty soon she'll be spinning all over the place.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Blog photo retrospective part 1

I just became aware of a new feature available via clicking on the image below you can, if you wish, view any or all of the 500 photos that appeared in this blog in 2006.
free hand ...hold on...reach

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Betty Ragsdale (1921-2007) memoriam

Betty died early last week at the age of 86. She was my supervising teacher when I student taught in 1976. I can never think of the word "teacher" without thinking of her. Her influence on me was so penetrating and so enduring that a couple of years ago I attempted to write about it in a short story titled "Daphne's Chair". The characters are fictional but only barely.
I've posted below an excerpt from that story, rather long, but it evokes for me at least the memory of this amazing woman and my own good fortune in having crossed paths with her. As a teacher my ambitions outstripped my reach for one simple reason...I only ever wanted to measure up to Betty's example.

As a student teacher Vincent labored under her hawkish eye and earned his stripes. She was to him then something of an avatar, strictly old school. She treated her classroom like a personal grotto. Against district and union policy, she forbade custodians to enter her classroom, preferring to police and clean her own furniture and carpet. She claimed that people who tried to help her by cleaning her room just created more of a mess for her to undo. When her colleagues would be packing up to go home, Mrs. Daphne would be carefully going up and down the desk rows vacuuming the carpet or mounting chairs to wipe down the enormous chalkboards that ran from the floor to the ceiling at the front of the room.

Her desk sat tucked tightly in a corner of the room from which she could observe at her leisure the backs of her students’ heads. For the students’ part, they could never know what she was up to unless they turned their heads about which as often as not brought them into direct eye contact with Mrs. Daphne. And so they kept their heads trained in the general direction of the chalkboard, a bit like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, thought Vincent in a typically cynical moment. When she arose from her desk, her approach coming, as it always did, from behind, she seemed to produce a general apprehension among the students that Vincent swore he could observe in the way they bowed their heads. He couldn’t decide if they were hiding or arching their necks like a cat that wants to be gently scratched. Both reactions seemed entirely plausible to him. She had repeated lessons on a daily basis to so many hundreds and thousands of youngsters that by the time she was ready to quit, Vincent imagined that she had personally imprinted the minds of more La Grande residents than had the local the newspaper. There was no doubt she had done so to better effect. Her legend had assumed mythic proportions due in part to her longevity but also to her unwaveringly narrow focus - thirty-seven years in that one room with only ninth grade English students.

To those who have never taught high school English it is difficult to convey the dauntingly monotonous prospect of teaching the same freshman English course five or six times a day for nearly four decades. Vincent had done the math and come up with the astonishing figure of nearly eight thousand 14 year olds. Judging from all that he had seen, Mrs. Daphne had shown up, in every sense of the expression, for every one of those eight thousand kids. Those were, Vincent knew, hall of fame numbers, even if there was no hall of fame. As for his own pitifully brief student teaching experience, Vincent would freely admit that he had mailed it in more times than he cared to count. And it wasn’t just on the level of preparation, the demands of which are absurdly enormous for anyone who hasn’t got three file cabinets full of material and twenty years worth of experience to inform one’s instincts. No one could ever be fully prepared for what might happen in a high school classroom, but one could be fully present in any classroom. Vincent had already experienced the disingenuous slide from the spontaneous to the contrived in the paltry span of two consecutive class periods. An off-the-cuff quip that earned a giggle in second period inevitably got trotted out by Vincent for an encore in third period. Of course the giggles were almost never there the second time around or the third, or the fourth, merely the sort of uncomprehending blank looks one might give a doctor in the first moments after he discloses to you that he has amputated the wrong limb quite by accident. Vincent usually received such looks as evidence of a kind of dullness in the offending classes. Such were some of the private and rather mean spirited observations he made in the course of a day’s work with his students. Vincent hated how easily he succumbed to those kinds of temptations, the pandering for laughs, the cannibalizing and fictionalizing of his own life experiences as a form of “relating”. He hated that his students were not terribly interested in him, but he hated even more that he wished they were.

Vincent had never sensed any of these rather venal conflicts at work in Mrs. Daphne’s classes. She seemed both motherly and impersonal, as if her own life hadn’t the slightest relevance to her work. She provided her students with a relentless and thorough security blanket of attentiveness. She appeared at the front doors of homes where she delivered forgotten textbooks to abashed boys and girls; she telephoned at supper with homework reminders. She admonished parents in the same way that she admonished her students; indeed, in the same way that she had admonished the selfsame parents years ago when they had been her students. In this small community, Mrs. Daphne was like the earth - there wasn’t any way around her.

When Mrs. Daphne retired in 1983, she left behind three file cabinets full of material on a wide range of serviceable topics for an English teacher. Such things as unit plans on as Longfellow’s Evangeline and other works from the freshman English canon, worksheets on how to use the dictionary, lists of irregular verbs, and instructions for composing limericks, haiku, sonnets and host of other verse forms. She also left her squeaky swivel chair and a seat cushion bearing a mauve floral pattern.

Vincent had come to room 61 as an intern, full of idealism and cool cynicism all at once. He imagined that he might open some children’s eyes, light a spark of curiosity here and there, plant a seed of intellectual seriousness. Instead, he was overwhelmed and undermined by the frenetic culture of the school. How could he be so recently removed from it and yet feel so alienated by it? It scared him to think, on the eve of launching a career as a teacher, that perhaps he had never really liked school. In truth, he hadn’t liked school so much as he had been good at it. He had earned excellent grades and had excelled in sports, but he had never gone to a school dance, not even the prom. He had forged no friendships that had endured…in short, given the opportunity to go back in time to his high school years, Vincent would have declined. So why had he chosen a career path that led him straight back into that very world? When he attempted to speak of such things to Mrs. Daphne she would offer him an almost beatific smile and tell him that he should trust her, that she knew he would be a great teacher. Her words consoled him only a little; her energy humbled him, and even though he recoiled at the thought of a life spent in the monastic fashion in which Mrs. Daphne had lived, he admired her more than anyone.

When he had been hired at the school a couple of years later, it had pained him to discover that others on the faculty did not necessarily share his affection for her. Indeed, her feisty isolation, her quirky and narrow focus, were laughed off by some as mere oddities. In his heart Vincent remained fiercely loyal to her throughout though there was never any occasion to defend her in a public way, since most criticisms were made in the offhanded and sly utterances that punctuate lunch table small talk. It galled him though to hear the smug and self satisfied tones of people who, Vincent was sure, had never, would never, hold a candle to Mrs. Daphne as a teacher. Vincent had been astonished to see the sorts of things Mrs. Daphne attempted with 14 year olds. They constructed abstraction ladders in order to illustrate how a story like Jack London’s To Build a Fire could be read on multiple levels. Mrs. Daphne showed them how by methodically abstracting any term or element of a story one could begin to both widen and deepen a story’s meaning. She showed them how the Yukon winters in London’s story were but a concrete example of a hostile environment of any sort, be it a jungle, a prison, a school, a battlefield, or even an entire society. Similarly, the dog’s reliance on instinct was a way of showing superior forms of intelligence or by implication, the folly of human intelligence. The greenhorn who freezes to death when his desperate attempt to build a fire fails is anyone too young, too proud or too stupid to know the scope of his own ignorance. His death was simply any failure to learn the principles and rules governing the world, a failure not only of fitness but more importantly of knowledge. Failure to survive in a hostile environment was the result of faulty or inadequate knowledge. In London’s story that meant a floundering, panicky death in the Yukon, but Mrs. Daphne pressed her students to imagine what that failure might look like in other hostile environments. From the class came the expected copycat responses initially – dying of thirst in the Sahara, or of malaria in the jungle, but Mrs. Daphne prompted them to extend their examples and waited.

A girl’s named Eva with red hair and even redder lipstick said, “Your could try the stock market. You could lose everything.”

Vincent had looked at the girl as if seeing her for the first time. Mrs. Daphne was beaming and nodding her head.

Then another hand, “You could go to a foreign country and get busted for something you didn’t know was illegal.”

Another kid immediately added, “You could drink the water and die of diarrhea.” Kids laughed as a kind of fever began to spread around the room for a little while as kids tried one upping each other. Vincent watched Mrs. Daphne cajoling the kids to leap from the literal plot through progressively more abstract formulations of London’s story and found himself moved by Mrs. Daphne’s determination to lift their eyes out of the thicket of words and into a wider semantic world of meaning. Her students toiled under her watchful eyes, oblivious to the difficulty of what they were attempting, knowing only that life was simpler for each of them to the extent that he or she could somehow satisfy Mrs. Daphne’s expectations. As for Mrs. Daphne, she harbored no illusions about the intellectual capabilities of her charges, nor did she have qualms about reducing great literary works to allegorical puzzles. Indeed, and this was what endeared her to Vincent even at his most callow and diffident stage, she could not help herself. The expectation of good work, of surprisingly good work, always animated her, and even their failures failed to disappoint her. Behind the entire enterprise, Vincent sensed a sense of urgency on Mrs. Daphne’s part. It was as if she herself were outfitting each of them for a journey into a hostile environment no less perilous than the one the foolish greenhorn in Jack London’s story had embarked upon on his fateful trek through the frigid and fatal cold of the Yukon. Sitting in Mrs. Daphne’s chair while she toiled over them and with them, Vincent let his eyes sweep up and down the rows of students, staring into the backs of their heads. Did they wonder, he wondered. Did they see themselves as the man who died in the story or the dog who survived?

Such was the struggle that she undertook on a daily basis. It was one that passed largely unnoticed by peers or anyone else for that matter, except of course her students. She was typically caricatured at the lunch table as a school marm, a grammarian with retrograde politics, an aging widow who was married to her lesson plan book and who loved nothing better than to circle spelling errors with a red ink pen. Vincent knew better, and, to his way of thinking, so should his colleagues have known better. But even Vincent could not seem to borrow from Mrs. Daphne whatever it was that sustained her indefatigable ambitions. The big picture always got in Vincent’s way. The world was a mess, and school was, as far as Vincent could tell, no place to look for evidence to the contrary. To Vincent the ignorance of his students was invincible, at least to his own ministrations. When he confessed as much one day to Mrs. Daphne, she had been quiet a few moments, as if debating within herself whether to respond to this or not. For all her affected ignorance of things current and intellectual - she was too busy in room 61to keep up with the world, she would often say to him with a sly smile - Vincent quickly discovered that Mrs. Daphne had mastered the art of self abnegation in a culture that only understood self promotion. She looked at Vincent and, without the slightest hint of reproach, she said to him, “Someone once told me something about teaching that made a lot of sense to me. He said that the art of teaching is the art of imagining ignorance.” Hearing this, Vincent knew that he had been admonished. He also knew, at that moment, that he did not understand precisely how he had been admonished. Years later he would make his peace with not knowing things, but beginning that afternoon he brooded for a long time about her words and his own future as a teacher.

So it was that Vincent experienced a sense of disappointment, a disillusioning process that began with his joining the staff and becoming a colleague of his mentor, Mrs. Daphne. In the end, the whispers that it was time for Mrs. Daphne to retire were made more brazen by a series of medical setbacks that came to symbolize for Vincent both what endeared Mrs. Daphne to him and what terrified him about all that she represented.

In the fall of her 39th year of teaching, Mrs. Daphne suffered a stroke which, though it did not incapacitate her, did leave the right side of her body impaired. For a few weeks, news of Mrs. Daphne dribbled out from Our Lady of the Valley parish. There were requests for prayers, and candles were lit in hopes of a recovery. As it turned out, she was able to recover quite rapidly a portion of her functionality. She could walk reasonable well; she could manage to dress herself and eat. The most significant and most lasting effect, especially in the minds of her students and her colleagues, in short all those who had to look upon her on a daily basis, was a drooping face on the afflicted side. Her cheek and mouth sagged and her eye drooped to such a degree that it gave the unpleasant impression that it was sliding off of her face, like a fried egg slipping off a plate. Those who, like Vincent, visited Mrs. Daphne at home knew of these things, but as for the rest of the community, it is impossible to know just what people really thought the first time that they saw Mrs. Daphne her on first day back in room 61. She had taken surgical tape and had attempted, purely on her own initiative, to draw up the skin above her right temple and eyebrow with an impressive patchwork of bandages. The results were mixed. Some of the downward sagging had been neutralized although the impression that something might fall off lingered still and was even augmented by the tape which appeared inadequate and ready to break loose at any moment. Her appearance now suggested some sort of injury by trauma rather than by stroke, as if she were a soldier with a head wound. And in yet another example of how ill fortune comes in waves, Mrs. Daphne’s good arm was afflicted with a form of carpal tunnel syndrome which necessitated her wearing a brace that ran from her thumb to her elbow. Unable to type, she could have used her sick leave and retired early, but Mrs. Daphne refused to quit. Instead she forswore the typewriter and transitioned to oral dictation as her primary means of giving directions. Her students acquired something of the habit of medieval scribes, recording as closely as possible the slightly slurred words of Mrs. Daphne. Little by little they grew accustomed to a slower, more deliberate pace of life in room 61. The room, which had never been a noisesome place, attained an almost cloistered sensibility with a distinctly Jesuit flavor. Mrs. Daphne would appear before her classes like some kind of knight errant, her right arm wrapped up like a blunt scepter, her visage partially helmeted in surgical tape, primed for battle. A kind of morbid fascination grew up around Mrs. Daphne. Students and teachers alike treated her with new-found awe and strangeness. She finished out her 37th year in this somewhat bizarre mask, and, having managed to fuse the ridiculously comic dimensions of the knight made famous by Monty Python for asserting repeatedly, “I’m not dead yet!” with the poignant and profoundly dignified madness of a Don Quixote.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Good cheer

Had a great dinner last night with some of our very best friends. John had the idea of writing out the lines of the song and giving each person a line and then he led everybody in an impromptu rendition of Twelve Days of Christmas...what we lacked in musicality we made up for in conviviality.
part 1

part 2 (if you can bear it)

Good friends, good food, good time,

Suite Francaise...a personal review

That's the title of a remarkable novel I just finished. It's written by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian born Jew who moved to Paris in 1920, converted to Catholicism, married and had two daughters, and wrote several novels which became critically acclaimed bestsellers in Paris in the 30's.
Then in 1942 she was arrested by the Vichy government for being a stateless person and an ethnic Jew. After a brief internment in France she was sent to Auschwitz where she died shortly after arrival.
Her husband, who never was able to learn of his wife's whereabouts or condition despite dozens of letters and appeals to officials and friends was himself arrested sent to the gas chambers a few weeks later.
The story of how the manuscript came to be published sixty four years later is equally remarkable. Following the disappearance of their parents, the daughters, Denise, barely a teenager, and Elisabeth, five years old, took as a memento of their missing mother a suitcase containing a leather sheaf of handwritten manuscript in which they had often observed their mother writing. Entrusted to a nanny and forced to move from one hiding place to another for the rest of the war, they managed to stay one step ahead of the French and German police. For the duration of the war they faithfully safeguarded the suitcase without ever reading the contents.
When the war ended, still not knowing the fate of either of their parents, the two girls stationed themselves almost daily at one of the train stations in Paris where daily a flood of survivors was returning from the concentration camps and elsewhere. The girls hoped in this way to catch a glimpse of their mother. One time the elder daughter, believing to have seen her mother, ran after a woman on the street. At length they gave up and some time later learned via official sources that both their parents had been killed by the Germans.
For a long time neither daughter could muster the emotional strength to read the manuscript in their possession. Finally after many, many years Denise decided to donate it to an organization dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust. Before giving it to them, however, she thought that she would type out the cramped, handwritten script. It was then she discovered that what she and her sister had been guarding all these decades was an ambitious series of novels, of which only the first two were fully realized. These writings paint a picture of life in German-occupied France. It is a tapestry of several story lines and different characters, some sympathetic, some not so much, but all of them bound together by a common cataclysm, in this case the invasion of the German army and the rout of the French army.
Nemirovsky offers subtle and finely drawn portraits of people, mostly civilians, trying to cope with the notion that nothing will ever be the same. In many respects this novel is an exploration man's capacity to accommodate new political realities, to adapt to new social arrangements, and to abandon what on the personal level has become useless or even dangerous. It is also a meditation of sorts on the tension that exists between individual identity and collective purpose. There are moments when one feels along with certain characters how tenuous and absurd are the claims of nationalism or religion or race or class or tradition. But such are the waters inside of which we swim about, sometimes conscious of the current that carries us, sometimes beguiled by our own exertions.
In an appendix to the novel, Nemirovsky writes in her notebook, "Salvation is when the time allocated to us is longer than the time allocated to a crisis." Time flows on many levels and is often experienced by the individual as being "out of joint, a perception that might have more to do with a novelistic sense of life than a scientific one. We sometimes chafe at the poorly scripted character of our unfolding life stories, but we also console ourselves that all may yet be well and that later chapters will bear this out...if only we can turn enough pages. Nemirovsky in her notes reveals an ambitious plan for a five part novel. Suite Francaise is comprised of the first two parts, the only ones she had time to finish. They are called Storm and Dolce. In her notebooks she sketches possible plot lines and themes for the entire epic, she envisions them titled Captivity, Battles, and Peace. She muses over the possible lives and deaths of characters she's already brought into flesh and blood existence. But she also reveals a sense that time is too short, that she will not finish what she has intended. In a short verse that she writes to herself she says,
To lift such a heavy weight
Sisyphus, you will need all your courage,
I do not lack the courage to complete the task
But the end is far and the time is short

It is sobering to be reminded by this novel of the ways in which the herd mentality prevails in circumstances of extreme stress, of how tardily people come to realize what is essential, of how strangely people assign value to objects and and how tenaciously they cling to notions of who they used to be. The Germans serve many useful purposes in this novel. They are avatars of something alien or at least unFrench, their uniforms and their bearing and their language set them apart, but they are also disturbingly familiar, indistinguishable really from their enemies and victims. The comfort of hatred, the usefulness of an enemy, the need to declare to oneself and before others "I am not them."...all of these human tendencies take up residence alongside the opposing and often plaintive desire to be seen truly, to be comprehended, to be loved. War thus affords people opportunities to be blinded by prejudice and by insight. Sadly, either way there are always casualties.
War envelopes this novel but the battlefield is nearly always just off in the wings. Meanwhile characters rush about in full flight from it; they rush about in haste to join it, and they sometimes hunker down in resigned anticipation of its arrival. Strangely, when in the novel the conquering German army finally arrives, it does not herald an apocalypse but an armistice. What ensues is a more banal and revealing look at the psychology of war and national identity.
One senses an infinite weariness on the part of the author with the futility of so much grasping, grasping at wealth, at advantage, at comfort, at one more day. Yet she is also able to capture human longings and yearnings that are sympathetic and even at times ennobling. In her notes Nemirovsky says that three things live on. She lists them thus:
  1. Our humble day-to-day lives
  2. Art
  3. God
Wondering what the rest of her novel might have told us is perhaps unavoidable for us but for her it must have been a daily haunting until she died. She writes in her notes of how she "sees" the third part but that the fourth and fifth parts are still "in limbo". She observes that she and her novel are at the mercy of events and the gods who could if they so please "wait a hundred or even a thousand years, as the saying goes: and I'll be far away." Her wryly ironic tone mocks the sloganeering of the Third Reich which predicted a thousand year reign, and it simultaneously evokes her own perhaps ambivalent desire for release from life if not from her work.
In her own life Irene Nemirovski seems to have bravely balanced a profound personal resignation to death with her commitment to life. In anticipation of her own demise, she carefully and effectively made provisions for the safety of her daughters. Instead of capitalizing on her connections and taking flight, she stayed put and she wrote. Not too long before she was arrested she wrote in her notes "Just let it be over - one way or another!"
That clear headed and fatalistic stance cost her her life and bequeathed to the world a novel that miraculously found the light off day 64 years after its creator's death. A salvation of sorts.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

No End in Sight

Last night, we watched the award winning documentary No End in Sight directed by Charles Ferguson. Released in 2007 it is a detailed look at the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Irak, the moment famously invoked by Bush in 2003 as marking the end to military operations in Irak. The film examines how the days and weeks which followed the "mission accomplished" speech were crucial and perhaps decisive in contributing to the situation that now prevails in Irak.
This is a movie that hawks and doves alike can benefit from watching and one in which they may even find common ground in the process. I say this because the film does not take up the question of the whether or not the war was a good idea; rather, it focuses on how policy for the occupation was planned, implemented and managed. In this regard, it is the opposite of a Michael Moore style film which is typically more polemical and theatrical than factual. Ferguson's brings a wonkish attention to detail and chronology and chain of command.
In lieu of editorializing on these topics himself, Ferguson lets us hear the direct testimony of many people who were involved in the reconstruction effort. His interview subjects include military and civilian members of the Bush administration's team. While most of these people were highly placed people reporting directly to the likes of Bremer, Slocumb, Rumsfeld and Kinseki, some of them are also grunts who served on the ground. The story they tell is alternately unbelievable and infuriating, and it will give you pause no matter what your overall position on the war may be.
Interspersed with these American interviews are also Irakis whose individual perspectives are revealed to be as complex and nuanced as their collective plight is so poignant as to defy our ability to adequately gauge the depths of their disappointment over what has transpired.
If you haven't already seen this film; I urge you to rent it, watch it and let it work on you.

Christmas cat blogging

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

hope...the thing with wings

Tess sat down and composed a letter last night, from time to time barking out questions like "How do you spell North Pole?"
Then she addressed an envelope, folded the letter inside, put on her winter hat and coat, and went out to the mailbox and posted it. It was all done in a very businesslike way, her self-satisfied look, suggesting to me that this is not really a faith-based initiative which connotes an inner fervor wrestling perpetually with doubt; rather, it it seemed more like an act of hope, one nourished by the memory of past good things and thus focused on the future with the expectation of more good things to come.
The laboratory chimp that pulls a certain level in the expectation of reward does so not by faith in man or God or Santa Claus but in the perfectly reasonable expectation that history will repeat itself. Tess has no reason yet to question the underpinnings of her assumptions about the goodness or the fruitfulness of the world she inhabits. I have no eagerness for her learn otherwise though I know that all hope is tempered by experience. This time is so benign.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Making Christmas

Beth leads the way this time of year. She has a marvelous sense of blending art and craft into our daily lives, but at Christmas she kicks it into another gear.

There are so many ways in which she draws the kids into imaginative acts that result in handmade artifacts that they can play with, give as gifts, display arond the house, hang on the tree, even eat sometimes.

Every morning Tess and Colm jump out of our bed and race back into their rooms and open their advent calendars to see what's behind that day's door. Yesterday it was all about creating a gingerbread house sprinkled with bird seed to put outside for the birds. Overnight, a handmade fairy takes up residence. The kids are learning to become vigilant; they never know what surprises might be hiding right in front of their noses.

The day before, the kids hung decorations on the tree.

As I watch Colm lean precariously from a chair, extending as high as he can. I am struck by the many textures of this moment. Colm's desiring, his reach, the handmade star, my son, and behind him on the wall a painting made by Beth, his mother, my wife, the face of the Madonna in a field of corn momentarily obscured by the face of my son...all of it mysteriously coalescing in my mind's eye as I snap the picture.
Today there will be cookie baking and decorating at our neighbor's house. There are also letters to Santa under composition.
A list of her other projects underway includes: a wreath, shields for Colm and Tess to use with their swords, crowns, Christmas napkins, a princess dress for Tess, another dress for Tess' doll Swanna, a cape and crown for Colm's doll Charlie, knitting slippers and mittens, make her final illustrations for a children's coloring book, make Christmas cards...and of course write and mail them.
Beth is devoted to the idea and the ethic of making things and finding things instead of buying things. But it isn't merely frugality, and while it is partly born of a desire to not participate willy nilly in the consumer culture, it is mostly an expression of Beth's innate sense of beauty. It is something that sustains her and which radiates outward, warming and brightening those of us fortunate enough to be in her orbit.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Update on Deanna

The previous post generated some concerned comments from people, mostly former students, who are wondering how Deanna is. She was airlifted to Boise (not sure yet what hospital) on Friday and place in intensive care. Today they implanted a pacemaker in her heart. Apparently, if all goes as expected, she'll be coming back to La Grande on Tuesday. That's all I know right now. Pretty good news all things considered.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A letter on the last day of school

Dear Deanna,
I saw you in the office this morning while I was taking Tess to her school. You were there collecting lesson plans for a day of substitute teaching. We didn't say anything to each other because I was busy with Tess who was exchanging gifts with the Iris, the secretary, a woman that Tess has adopted as a kind of auntie/grandmother figure and who we visit each day on our walk to her elementary school. I saw you watching the two of them. Iris fawning happily over my little girl. She cupped Tess's face, her eyes moistening with every moment. Only a year earlier, her only son had taken his own life. From just behind me I heard you murmur to me, "My she's tall."
We were running late, as usual. I collected Tess and we left you and Iris in the crowded office and we made our way outside to her school.
About ten minutes later I sat down in front of my desk and tried collecting my thoughts in advance of first period. You appeared at my classroom door as you used to do almost daily in the fifteen years or so you worked at the high school as my colleague in the English department. My desk, positioned as it was right by the always open door seemed always to divert you daily on your way to wherever you might be going. I'd be working on the computer and I'd hear your voice.
"Hey! Kevin?"
It always sounded like a cross between a courtesy and a question. But what it turned to be was usually the continuation of an interior monologue which you'd been having at the moment you passed my desk. For me your visits became like weather reports from your native bipolar regions. Blizzards of gossip, torrents of complaints, breezy jokes...all of them perennially in the wings and poised to burst onstage. Your visits became such familiar and ritual landmarks in my professional life that since you retired three years ago I've still not lost the sensation arising vaguely from the back of the head that you're about to pop by, stand there fidgeting a bit nervously.
"Hey!Kevin?" you said this morning.
"Hey! Deanna! Who are you today?" I asked you.
"Social Studies," you chuckled. Then you repeated what you'd said to me in the office earlier, "My your daughter is so big!"
Again I nodded. I wondered if you might give me weather report, some soap operatic dish, part rumor, part invention, part yearning. Instead you asked me a question.
"Are you still writing?"
Almost nobody ever asks me that question. To everybody out there I'm an English teacher, but to you, Deanna, I'm someone who, like you, is also something else. We write. We may not be writers in the professional sense; call us practitioners. In any case, you made me stop and reflect a moment before answering.
Was I still writing. I thought about all my stories, poems, novellas and even memoirs all gathering dust on shelves, all shopped about and for the most part unread and unremembered even by me. I had to admit that I wasn't doing that anymore.
"I'm blogging."
"Huh..." You paused, as if unsure what to make of my response. I could tell that you were not a visitor to what we bloggers call the blogosphere. You had cut your writing teeth during the Beat Generation era, scribbling poems by hand, gathering with kindred souls to brandish texts and words like they were saxophones. Writing, for you, had always been a tactile and a confessional kind of experience. I could see the question in your eyes. Blogging? What kind of writing is blogging? It wasn't that you were suspicious of new technology, not like a Luddite; rather, you doubted your ability to master it. You loved films but you couldn't program a VCR. You loved computers but you couldn't find where you saved files. You loved wide screen tvs but you couldn't figure out the remote control. Suddenly, I wanted to see if I could tempt you into visiting my blog.
"Yeah, I write about a variety of things, post photos, short form, first impressions...that sort of thing."
I could see I wasn't making too much progress. I shifted gears. "Here. Look." I brought up my blog on my computer. As soon as words appeared on the screen, you became interested.
"How do get there?"
"Give me you email." I copied my blog's URL into an email message and I sent it to your email at home. "It will be there when you get home from work today. Just click on it and then when you arrive, bookmark it." I said. "I'd love it if you'd drop in on my blog once in awhile."
"Okay!" You chuckled again. I thought to myself that the odds were probably 50-50 that you'd remember. I kept my fingers crossed. Then the bell rang and you left with a hurried wave.
About forty minutes later, my French class had just finished carolling the office staff and I had sent them back to the classroom when a girl came in and said that a substitute teacher was on the floor in the hallway in the old building. I dropped my stuff and ran. I found you there on the carpeted entry ramp just inside the blue doors on the floor on your side. Beside you knelt the school nurse. I kneeled down beside your head. Your eyes opened and then closed, you were on your side, your body was clenched as if the grips of a spasm, your chest heaved, and when you exhaled a long guttural moan escaped your body. I cupped your head in my hands and I called your name several times. You seemed very far away, unable to hear me, buried under the forces wracking your body. The nurse monitored your pulse while I kept talking to you and stroking your hair. Neither of us knew what was going on; we were just holding on until help arrived. Your moans continued for a full minute, maybe more; they seemed completely involuntary and yet they seemed to tell of waves of pain. At length you fell quiet, your body seemed to relax a bit, your eyes now open but not yet seeing me. The nurse said, "I don't have a pulse." We turned you on your back, and she made ready to administer CPR. Then she as she put her hand on your chest she felt your heart beat again. Where are you Deanna? I kept thinking as I tried to keep talking to, hoping that somehow, somewhere you might be tempted to answer me.
Then your eyelids fluttered and your eyes began to regain their light. It was if you were surfacing from underwater. I grew hopeful but then you began to thrash about as if you were in the grips of a nightmare and were trying to wake up. Your eyes grew wide as if fearful. It took you half a minute to clam down and to begin to respond to our words. Finally, you relented, perhaps you were exhausted. You laid there, your breath shallow but regular, your eyes seeing us for the first time. The nurse said, "Don't worry, the ambulance will be here any minute."
Your response was instantaneous. "Ambulance? Not the ambulance. I can't afford an ambulance!"
I recognized you finally in that utterance, however bizarre it may have sounded to the others around us. It was you Deanna - alarmed and confused by finances. It wasn't funny, but it was you and I smiled at your appearance. Your were back. But only barely. When the EMTs arrived they discovered that your heart rate was only 20. As quickly as they could they put you on an IV and then loaded you on to a gurney.
You rambled a bit about the lessons plans for that day and who would be subbing for you the rest of the day. You grumbled some more about the medical bills. On the way out I said to you, "It's good to have you back, Deanna."
You chuckled for the first time.
"Keep that sense of humor. It'll come in handy."
"What sense of humor. Look at me."
"I know," I said laughing. "You're a piece of work."
"Hey!" you said and chuckled weakly again.
Then they loaded you into the ambulance and took you away.
All of us who had been with you, we all looked gratefully at one another and slowly began to think of what we had left behind 20 minutes earlier.
I checked my watch. There were still five minutes left in first period. My kids were presumably waiting for me. As I mounted the steps I barely noticed the tightening in my chest but when I cleared the door to my room and saw my students sitting peacefully in the room, watching a video they had found in my closet, I realized that I was in the grips of a feeling that I had not had time to fully recognize. I turned off the television and began to speak to my kids, trying to explain where I had been since we'd finished singing Christmas songs. But as soon as I opened my mouth I began to lose it, my eyes grew watery, my voice tremulous. Every word was another floodgate and pretty soon I had to stop talking altogether. I took a few deep breaths. I noticed the concerned and bewildered expressions on my students' faces. I tried again, but all I could manage was, "She's alright; she's alright." I not sure these kids even knew who I was talking about, or even if they knew who you are, Deanna. Three years of retirement is after all practically a lifetime to these kids, but all the same, I see it in their faces, they were relieved.
So that's what happened on the morning of my last day at school before Christmas break. If you open your email and visit my blog you can read the whole story.
It's good to have you back,
Love and Merry Christmas,

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

une petite americaine chante Petit Papa Noel

In the process of preparing to teach the song Petit Papa Noel to my French classes, I started singing it around the house. Tess absorbed it enthusiastically, and lately, Colm has begun chiming in with the odd line.
The song itself is a French original made famous (in France anyway) by Tino Rossi here in the 40's and 50's. It's a cutesy take on the kid's-letter-to-Santa story with almost no higher message than that kids badly want their toys. The grandiloquent melody suggests rather more profound dimension which, alas, are not really there. Fun to sing though. Here's Tess giving her rather breathless rendition.

dreams and grievances

Colm woke up crying yesterday. I went to his bedside and found him actually still have asleep still in the grip of something. He called for his mother. I wrapped my arm over him and murmured into his ear, "It's okay Colm."
"I had a dream."
"It's okay."
"I had a bad dream," he whimpered, drawing his knees up under his chest, his face pressed into the bed. "I was wearing Tess's shoes...I couldn't find my shoes and I was wearing Tess's shoes...and she took one of the shoes...and she wouldn't let me have it." With that he lifted up his head, tears streaming down his cheeks.
"It's alright Colm." I gathered him up. "Tess is asleep in Mommy's bed. You had a dream. Everybody's still in bed. You had a dream, didn't you?"
Colm whimpered a little, but as if to underscore something that I didn't understand, he added, "It was a dream... but one time Tess really did it."
I nodded and carried him back to our bed to be with the rest of the family. Perhaps if he fell asleep one more time, it would be as if none of it ever happened.

Monday, December 10, 2007


I'm winding up a unit on Romeo and Juliet in my freshman English classes, and so I decided to bring in Somewhere from West Side Story and also the Dire Straits song Romeo and Juliet. We've spent a fair amount of time doing a variety things with the play. We've gotten on our feet and performed a fifteen minute version of it; we've tried rewriting some of the speeches in contemporary English; we've played around with generating Elizabethan-style insults; and we've done some vocabulary work. I've talked to them about Shakespeare's London and Elizabethan tastes in entertainment, tastes that Shakespeare both catered to and competed against as a theater producer.
I had no illusions about them loving the song "Somewhere" from the musical. I played the Barbara Streisand version, which even made me cringe a little and which drew rather embarrassed looks from a few of my students. But when I turned to the Dire Straits song I was a bit dismayed (shocked in truth) to learn that no one in my class had heard of them.
Believe me when I say that I'm over the fact that I'm old in their eyes...but today I realized that I might even be alien to them...ancient at the very least.
I went ahead fearlessly (actually I had no choice, it was all I had planned). I gave them the lyrics and asked them to tell me after hearing the song how the Dire Straits version of the story changed the ending of the Shakespeare version. (Juliet jilts Romeo and leaves his sorry lovestruck self to skulk about in the shadows of the streets.)
Anyway, I start the song and sit back. I watch my kids' faces. They seem absorbed in the lyrics, which pleases me. I too look at the lyrics just in time to hear the line "I forget the movie song". It occurs to me that as many times as I've listened to this song I've never come to terms with that phrase "movie song". What is that about, I wonder?
I shrug yet again and troll along the lyrics until towards the end of the song that line echoes again but this time, "there's a place for us, you know the movie song," and suddenly it hits me. "Somewhere...there's a place for us." Oh my god, I think, conjuring Streisand's voice in my mind.
Excited, I pause the song and I challenge my students, "What's he talking about, 'the movie song'?"
Nobody answers.
I hold up the lyric sheet of Somewhere, and then a girl across the room gets it. "He's talking about the song in West Side Story," she says. I nod wisely. The kids nod too at the connection and at me, silently giving me props for drawing the circle to a close. Trouble is, it's just dumb luck on my part. I can't maintain the pretense so I cop to it a few moments later.
One of the kids looks at me and says, "I thought you planned it that way."
"Next time I just might," I say.
Some day, somewhere.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Noble Fir

We went out to a nearby tree farm in the valley today to find our Christmas tree. Beth is partial to Noble Firs; she likes the short, dark green needles with silver backs.

The tree farm is situated near the foot of Mt.Emily and is a nice place for the kids to run about in playing hide and seek.
We passed a nice tree at the entrance to the farm but

we couldn't accept being done with the selection process without seeing the full range of offerings. An hour later we came back to the selfsame tree, cut it down, and tied it to the roof of our car.

We broke out a thermos of hot chocolate to mark the occasion,

Tess used a chunk of snow from the windshield to cool off her drink.

Before leaving we said hello to a couple of horses

in a nearby pasture.

We set up the tree in the corner of our living room...

the season has officially begun. Both kids are excited but Tess especially is waiting for the arrival of the tree fairies...a tradition Beth started a couple of years ago. They're scheduled to take up residence in the tree this evening after Tess finally goes to sleep.
"Where are they?" she asks me from her bed, a half hour after being put down.
"They're shy; they're waiting for you to fall asleep."
"I can't sleep because I'm waiting for them."
"Well one of you is going to have give in...I think I'm going to bed."

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Fifteen minutes

Last evening as my class at the penitentiary was drawing near the end of the period, we were discussing Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The bell sounded signaling the beginning of the final fifteen minutes before inmates would have to assemble outside and leave the educational facility. Reflexively I checked my watch and then soon afterwards began saying things like, "If you don't have anymore questions or comments...". One of my students in the far corner raised his hand.
"Yes?" I said.
The man said, "We still have ten minutes..." he paused and added, "I'm in no hurry to return to my cell. Let's talk about Plato some more."
I felt abashed, and immediately I embraced his suggestion and I tried to explain how in my other life the sound of a bell often precipitates a sudden and mass exodus from my classroom. For me, it was a wake up call, that bell. A reminder that time is precious, never more so when you're doing hard time.
"Ok," I said, "What do you want to talk about?"
There was a short pause and then the same man raised his hand again.
"How do you get better at this?" he said.
"At what, at reading things like this?" I said indicating the text of Plato's Republic.
"No," he said. "Better at finding that middle ground, better at finding the good, happiness, all that."
He wasn't really asking me, fortunately. He seemed to be more thinking out loud in front of us.From his desk in the back corner of the room he sat slightly turned into the aisle running alongside his desk row. With a forearm leaning on one knee he seemed to contemplate the closed book in his hand. When he looked up, it was just as often to look at and address his fellow inmates as it was to look at me. He had all of us in view from his corner spot in the room. The rest of them, by contrast, had to swivel their heads if they wanted to see him. A few guys along the opposite wall and corner kept him in view. Invisible lines of sympathy or allegiance crisscrossed the room, to find them you just had to connect the heads that moved however subtly toward one another. They were the ones nodding or smiling slyly as if to say, "Damn!". Others sat facing straight ahead, unprotected by a wall, surrounded by space and other inmates, locked in a pose not unlike the cave dwellers in Plato's cave. From my vantage point, I could see their faces sometimes impassive, sometimes faintly pained or bemused but always constrained, reserved, not consenting to turn and face the speaker.
"Good question," I said, "I won't pretend to answer it. On the other hand it seems like you've identified the project that all of us in here seem to have signed up for. It's our homework, so to speak, our life work. Whatever the path is, I tend to think that this project has both individual and social dimensions. Which might sound obvious except that it reminds us of a couple of traps to avoid. First, we are, each of us responsible for the integrity of our personal choices, the so-called man-in-the-mirror test; but we must also not retreat into isolation in our quest for the good since our it is only in the context of our relations with others that the good becomes manifest. A man who will not submit his private investigations to the rigours of social discourse risks living in an echo chamber. A course like this one is designed in large part to furnish you with both the inspiration and the resources and to pursue this project on both fronts, the personal and the communal."
Outside the classroom in the hallway, we could see other inmates filing past. It was time. Everybody knew it and got up. A couple of the men wished me a good trip home, a couple of others said see ya later. The class philosopher, looked at me and smiled good-naturedly and then followed the others. Quietly and unhurriedly they vacated the room and disappeared into the corridor, human beings being put back into the closet like toys or tools. Their silent disappearance left me to wonder at the reality of anything that had transpired in the last ninety minutes.
Aristotle's notions about friendship seemed very poignant to me at that moment. We cannot do it alone, yet there is no one else who can do it for us. We need, we long, to discover our very best selves, but we can only do that by keeping faith with true friends, that is to say those people who reflect our best selves back to us and thus nourish us with the pleasure of being good...yet we tend to form friendships with those who most reinforce our current conception of ourselves and so we are reminded daily of our shortcomings, and so we yearn hungrily, guided only by shadowy intuitions of something better.
Seen in this light, the call to friendship is perhaps the highest calling imaginable.
It's time for me to leave as well. I'm supposed to make sure that I don't leave anything in the room, anything that might be swiped and turned into some form of contra ban. These duties serve to chase off my earlier thoughts. I'm about to leave the room when I remember one more thing - my portable radio walkie-talkie unit on my desk. I lift the unit and look at the red emergency button. I've been informed that pushing the button will bring help if ever I should need assistance. Needing that button would be a bad thing indeed; having it is a good thing though, I suppose.

Friday, December 07, 2007

rabbit ears

We're sitting, all four of us, around the table eating our bowls of breakfast cereal. A voice on the radio drones, "in Nebraska..."
"Turn it off Kevin," says Beth.
I'm caught a little off guard and being also out of the loop regarding current headlines I react too slowly. I turn off the radio only to hear Colm say, "He killed eight people and then he killed himself?"
Beth looks pained.
Tess says, "Somebody shot him?"
"No," says Colm, "He killed eight people and then he killed himself ."
Beth starts to say something to Colm but I wave her off gently. Let it ride, I think to myself. But I'm startled at the accuracy and the receptivity of our four year old son to what so often just seems like noise coming out of the radio.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Why we love it here...reason #14

This post inaugurates a series of randomly ordered offerings on why living in La Grande, Oregon is a good thing.
Reason #14 is Twelfth Street Hill.
Only a couple of miles from our front doorstep, Twelfth Street Hill offers instant access all year round into the forested foothills overlooking the valley. Our friend, Charles Jones skied up the hill on the last day of November and took this pics.

Don't really need to add anything to what they have to say.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Listen to the song of the Christmas spirit

Meanwhile...on another stage on the other end of the valley. Tess debuted at the Elgin Opera House last night in a production of A Christmas Carol..
Here's her number which Beth filmed from her seat in the balcony. You can find Tess on the lower left corner of the screen. You'll also hear Colm laughing gleefully at the end and of course Beth leading the cheers.

It's been a long and theatrical week. I got home from my show about 10:30 pm. Beth arrived home with the kids about fifteen minutes later. Theater life means long and strange hours.
Truth be told, the highlight for Tess was losing a tooth during the show last night and carrying it with her all night so that she could put it under her pillow...this morning she found a silver dollar. The miracle of the tooth fairy still overshadows all other miracles at this stage of her life.