Monday, March 29, 2010

Why poetry matters....cont.

A colleague and friend of mine left this in my mailbox this morning. To find something like this just before launching back into work after spring break...well, it's a lovely thing. Thanks Catherine.

If Found, Drop In Any Mail Box. Owner Will Pay Postage
- Jeanne Murray Walker

I'm grading papers in the motel room,
the teacher in me watching as my students
fumble with their keys in the lock of the world.

I crack down on the one who misspells
the minuet amount of imagination a person needs
to live well. And I give a C to the one I suspect

of telling me whatever I want: that summer is a newspaper
printed with no alphabet but pleasure. But I confess,
I feel a twinge for the one who postures,

as if he can't imagine anyone loving him for himself.
And I admit, I cheat on the good side to help the one
who writes that he and his girl are one cell,

sliced apart by the scalpel of her parents.
When I get to the one who says
that he's a lonely space ship flying between stars,

I put my red pen down. I could go under the knife
with him, I think, knowing that I won't.
But let's say this. It surprises me to find out I love them.

I'd like to tell someone, the woman in the next room, maybe,
like to spread this sweetness, to bring about some
minor good. Can I offer you this pale translation

of my students' essays? Nothing special.
The sound of their keys turning in the lock of the world.
I drop it as I close the door, in case you need it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The poll that counts the most

The chattering classes have spent a lot of time over the past several months trotting out and trumpeting various polls on the subject of health care reform. A herculean media effort has been made to completely erase the memory of the poll that should matter most...the 2008 presidential election.

Obama garnered about 70 million votes in an election that featured the highest voter turnout since 1968, that's forty years. He carried or tied every single age group in the electorate except the over 65 crowd. He staked his candidacy on health care reform. He won, and then he followed through on his campaign promise. That's the way it works sometimes; that's the way I wished it worked all the time.

Obama's opponents have done everything but engage Obama on the issues. They've indulged themselves and their fringe with cheap theatrics; they've turned ideas like socialism and facism into cartoon caricatures; they've lamely cloaked themselves under the mantle of victimhood; they've practiced ad nauseum the pose of outrage; they've hyperventilated about how how things are being jammed down the throats of the American people, about how Obama has frozen the GOP out of the process, and about how a rising tide of populist anger will sweep him and his ilk out of Washington in the next election cycle. Meanwhile Obama has refused to be baited; he's perservered - in short, he's behaved like the only the only adult in room.

Know what?...Elections are supposed to matter. I'm glad that all of us who voted for Barack Obama can say that in this instance anyway, we got what we voted for. I'm proud of the guy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Jane Mayer whose acclaimed book, The Dark Side, chronicles the Bush Administration's handling of intelligence interrogation techniques, has written a must-read take down of Marc Thiessen's new book, Courting Disaster. Thiessen main claim to fame is that he was a speechwriter for Bush. His book is a no-holds-barred defense of the Bush-Cheney policies and a polemic against all things Obama. Take a look and weigh the facts and source material for yourselves.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Seven...Lucky and Good

Seven years ago, Colm sounded his yawp and then settled in for a nurse and a nap. Now that he's reached the age of reason, he 's not so easily satisfied, and he's a bit more sophisticated in his modes of operation.

Colm wanted a ball party. Beth gave me the reins for this one. We started with an inflatable, oversized soccer ball. I improvised a game where three pairs of kids each defended their own tree. The object was to hit either of the other two trees with the soccer ball while protecting your own tree...kind of triangular game of shifting defensive alliances. Next we moved on to kick ball which is the huge favorite amongst these kids right now during recess at school. They would have played this game all day long. Next we played some baseball, first a version of work up with me pitching. We used foam balls which flew impressively but didn't leave a mark if they hit you (which they did). Then I set up a tee and we played tee ball in teams (until the tee broke).

Beth made another of her patented cakes. One of the kids was dumbfounded by this. "You made this?!" he exclaimed. We couldn't squeeze in any hoops due to the location and the limits of time and energy (mine mostly). Everyone had a blast.

Interestingly, Colm's favorite gift though, hands down, was the digital camera we got him. He carried it around all day. It has a nice set of features which allowed Colm to explore some options without getting too overwhelmed. He held it like a traditional camera until he realized that it had a digital display screen. He figured out the macro function which was pretty impressive...I told him that alone qualified him as an amateur photographer. Early in the morning he and I took a walk over to the high school as I had to do a little work on my set. Colm was busy snapping shots of Sammy and the street. I told him that he might start noticing photos taken by photographers in books and magazines and online. I asked him what his favorite subjects to shoot were. He said Sammy and everything. He asked me where my camera was. I pointed to my coat pocket. He looked at me and said, "We're both photographers."

This boy could hardly be more loved. His grandparents got him a remote control truck which he also loves. Beth wrapped him up with a soft blanket and wool lamb from the Pendleton Woolen Mills...he's her lamb. Lucky boy, good boy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Getting outside the box

Back in early winter as I began preparations for this spring's production of The Diary of Anne Frank, I decided to investigate the possibility of locating resources on the subject of the Holocaust that might enrich the theatrical experience for my cast, the student body, and the community as well. I contacted a couple of Jewish organizations in Portland, and one, the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, eventually steered me in the direction of an intriguing idea for a field trip.

It so happens that during the months of February and March this year, the Jewish Theatre Collaborative is producing a play called Kindertransport, which explores the midlife crisis of Evelyn, a woman who as a nine year old Eva, was shipped to England by her German Jewish mother in an attempt to save her from increasingly virulent antisemitism triggered by the awful experiences of Kristallnacht. While Jews were free to leave Hitler's Germany in the months prior to the outbreak of WWII, there were precious few ports of entry willing to accept them. A few dedicated activists and organizations prevailed upon the British government to accept Jewish children to be placed with British families. The parents of these children were not allowed in and most of them perished in the nightmare that followed. The children were, like the protagonist in the play, mostly between the ages of three and fifteen; they were raised for the most part as English. Many of them lost all contact with their former lives and their former selves; they became English and many were baptized and became Christian.

The play revolves around a crisis of identity which breaks out when Evelyn's own daughter Faith, discovers letters and papers in an attic box that suggest a past which her mother has kept secret. What at first seems like an understandable desire to leave the past behind, slowly reveals itself to be something darker, more haunting and infinitely more heartbreaking. I won't spoil the plot for people who hope to see the production one day, but suffice it to say that I was more than a little excited about the opportunity to travel with my cast to see a play so topically relevant to our own and at such a timely stage of our own rehearsal process.
The people at the OHRC and the JTC arranged tickets at very cheap rates for a morning matinee production just for high school students. I was unable to secure any funding for our trip, though I was granted a sub for one day. We paid for the entire experience out of our own pockets.

We left La Grande immediately after school on Wednesday in three cars piloted by mothers of cast members. The kids proposed a stop at a supermarket just before Portland as a way of economizing on food costs. We hit Fred Meyer in The Dalles. I watched these kids choose their evening fare, mostly sandwichesm, crackers and hummus or dip, and fruit. One kid came out with a block of cheese, a jar of peanuts, and a 48 oz pop. I asked him what his favorite fruit was, thinking I might get him an apple. He shrugged. How about vegetable? "Pumpkin, " he said with a guileless grin on his face. I shrugged and gave up. Twenty four field trip, he won't starve on my watch.

We arrived in Portland at about 8:45. As I finished checking in I was taken aback when I saw two colleagues of mine from the English department of our high school standing in the hotel lobby; we all laughed and then I noticed about four more colleagues. Turns out the school district had sent a team of teachers and administrators for a two day, two night junket on writing across the curriculum, all expenses paid, one bed for each person. I felt a little twinge of envy, I suppose, but it didn't last long. Our group was fairly tingling with excitement, and I was pretty sure we were going to have a better time than my colleagues. Our group, which included three mothers who drove the cars, met up a half hour later in the lobby, and we walked to Powell's where we stayed until it closed at 11:00 pm. It was a kick seeing a few of the kids experience Powell's for the first time, kind of jaw dropping for the uninitiated. That night I shared a room with a couple of my actors and stayed up late talking about books and music. I told them that if I had hung out with guys like them when I was in high school, I surely would be smarter and more creative today. They laughed.

Early next morning we got breakfast. It was raining, and as we prepared to walk the twelve blocks to the Artists Repertory Theatre for the 10:00 am show, I noticed the kid who liked pumpkin standing there in cargo shorts and a tee shirt. "Where's your pants? You have a jacket?" He shrugged still wearing that smile. I hadn't thought to explicitly require my group to bring pants and coats. Maybe next time.

We watched the play. My actors, only four weeks out from their own opening night watched the performances with a keen interest. At intermission we compared notes about favorite moments, the set design, the actors, and the annoying habit some of the kids in the other groups had of texting and chattering during the show. One kid behind me munched on chips and crinkled the plastic wrapping during the first five minutes of act two. All that being said, the actors managed to win everyone's full attention at length.

The finale of the play has a bit of surreal staging which delighted all of us in much the same way a magic act might. The director came out immediately after the show and tossed a few questions to the audience, there were two other high school groups there, both from the Portland area. Initially the director's questions were met with silence, not altogether surprising. But then the kids opened up, several of my cast had things to say, including the one in cargo shorts. I was proud of them.

After that, we heard the testimony of a Dutch survivor of the Holocaust. Chella is an eighty-something who, like Anne Frank, hid for a time in an attic. The Nazis invaded her country on her fifteenth birthday. She and her sister and father evaded the Nazis for a time but ultimately were betrayed and sent to Auschwitz were she spent a year and a half. Her father was gassed upon arrival, but she and her sister survived the ordeal, including the death marches in the final winter as war came to an end. Chella, whose gentle, smiling demeanor make you anticipate the arrival of a plate of chocolate cookies and a glass of milk at any moment, fixed every teenager in the house with tales of her harrowing experience and the long and painful aftermath of coming to terms with what she had seen. She spoke of surviving her survival and how it took her thirty years to find her public voice, but when she told us "You have to fight to live...every day you must live," we all sat still and accepted her admonition. When she said, half to herself, half to us, "You must tell yourself, "I can do it." And then you must do it," we all nodded. She told us the survivor adage, "If you cry, you die." She had to pause more than once, to collect herself and continue on.

My eyes welled up with tears several times. I thought of all the hurt in the world, and of her brave stance vis a vis that hurt. I thought of how one lifetime is hardly enough time to heal some kinds of hurt, and how it is not nearly enough time more often than not. I thought of how important, how necessary, it is that people like Chella show the rest of us how to undertake that healing regardless of how little time might be left because the hurt in the world, left to its own devices survives every lifetime and is bequeathed to the newly born. Chella appeared to me in that moment to be a true hero. There was steel and milky human kindness mingled in her.

After Chella's talk my cast was given a private sit down with play's director, Sacha Reich, one her actors, Patricia Hunter, and Chella. The kids sat on the floor of the lobby and we carried on a rambling hour long conversation about the Kindertransport, The Diary of Anne Frank, acting (Patricia had also been in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank), and the Holocaust. My kids seemed willing to sit there and absorb every syllable, every story. The director had to, finally, tactfully suggest that it was time to go. Everyone hugged Chella, and she, though very hard of hearing, seemed delighted by all the enthusiasm and affection.

It was almost two o'clock in the afternoon when we finally walked back outside. I gave them an hour and a quarter free reign to walk the area. We had to head back to La Grande since we were all expected back in class the next day, a Friday. We hit the road right at rush hour. I felt grateful to the mothers who had volunteered to drive. I spent the trip down and back poring over the script of our play, finalizing my light and sound cues. Every so often one of the kids would call out a question about a movie or a music group and we'd toss it back and forth for awhile as we headed east.

My colleagues, some of them anyway, were sure to take advantage of the junket to spend part of the weekend down in the metro area, possibly catch our boys basketball team's quest for the state trophy in Corvallis. They've got a real good team, a fun team to watch, full of talented and dedicated players and led by an equally talented and dedicated coach. I look forward to hearing about it, and there is no doubt that I will hear about it. In the meantime, I thought I'd set down the tale of our own team's experience, just in case anyone might be curious.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Not my lunch table group blog

I recently came across the blog Positive Liberty via a link from Andrew Sullivan. I've only given it a cursory examination. The blog's creator, Jonathen Rowe, describes his focus thusly:
Yet another social commentary blog by a libertarian lawyer and college professor. This blog focuses on religion, history, constitutional law, government policy, philosophy, sexuality, and the American Founding. Everything is fair game though. Over the past few years, I've done much historical research on the America's Founding and Religion.

A sampling of Rowe's interests, he is apparently at work on a review of a book on Joseph Priestly, the following quotes from Benjamin Franklin and his own pithy commentary in between:
Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price and to the honest heretic Dr. Priestly. I do not call him honest by way of distinction; for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however mistake me. It is not to my good friend's heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, 'tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic. ...

Franklin admired men honest enough in theology to come to terms with their heresy...

Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: ...

"Corrupting changes" of course, refers to a term Priestley coined -- "the corruptions of Christianity." And it had specific meaning: 1) original sin, 2) trinity, 3) incarnation, 4) atonement, and 5) infallibility of the Bible.

Then there are Rowe's readers. Not exactly my lunch table group. Check out this post and follow up on its comment thread. Challenge yourself to read down through at least ten comments on the thread...even though I cannot begin to follow the substance of their mathematical discussions, I love the avuncular tone, the unabashedly esoteric references, the gentle remonstrances and reminders, and the idioms of address, especially when disagreeing with a previous commenter. "Well, no..." It makes me wonder if this is a trait of this particular community of blog visitors or if it is characteristic of a particular academic discipline (Mathematics, Philosophy, Physics...).