30 August 2011

New School Year

A new school year has begun.  Usually at this time of year I enjoy a palpable change in the cosmic energies of the universe. The usual flow of things alters, and the physical and spiritual currents churn and give the air a strong electrical charge. At this time of the year I begin again to see and hear children in the streets, home from summer camps and employments and family vacations; and when I drive on the roads I trail behind school buses practicing their routes in anticipation of the official start of school. In the early mornings, where I run high school football practices fill the air with shouts and grunts, and school parking lots begin to fill with the cars of administrators readying student schedules and of teachers preparing their rooms for the flood of students soon to arrive. All the stores about towns are stocked with school supplies: pencils, pens and paper fill the baskets of mothers and fathers anxious for the start of school. Clothes stores are running Back-to-School Sales, even furniture stores advertise desks and chairs suitable for budding students.  At this time I feel that a change in the direction of the universe is imminent. The air is charged with the nervous energies of the directed activities that mark the Fall tradition of school openings. School will soon be back in session: millions of people will re-direct their lives suddenly and disappear into the caves of the Pied Piper. The public world will experience a tidal shift; there will be a dramatically different dynamic out here. 
But the news is all bad. Though polls report that most parents love their local school, the same polls report that few approve of the school system as a whole. Books attacking the public schools, teachers and their unions pop up overnight like poisonous mushrooms, and the government initiatives, policies and programs offer little respite and more critique.  Too many in education walk about with their spiritual lives at risk. 
There are almost 3.5 million public school teachers in the United States; there are perhaps another 60,000-70,000 more teachers in private and independent schools and almost 1.7 million teachers in higher education. And almost daily I hear someone not engaged in the schools or education decrying the incompetence of most of these teachers. Since at least 1983 and A Nation at Risk, teachers have been the object of the vitriol of the politicians and businessmen in the United States. Everyone who has no knowledge of education but a great political (or economic) interest in it has weighed in on the poor quality of the whole system and particularly the ineffectiveness, nay, the incompetence of the teachers. And many of those teachers skulk about almost ashamed. And that is a terrible shame. 
The usual change I sense in the universe is gone, and as the school doors open I see too many teachers steal through the doors ashamedly; they have been labeled the enemy and their effort denigrated and condemned. It is they who have caused the imperial decline in the United States; it is they who produced the economic downturn and they who have caused and ill-fought two wars. The decline of the Cities, the return of segregated education, the growing gap between rich and poor lies at the feet of the incompetent teachers. It is all a terrible, stinking lie. 
Sometimes, as I drone on and on telling my daughter exactly what is wrong with her and how she might rectify herself, she turns to me and says “Will you just stop and get out.” I think that this is a strategy we teachers might assume. And we should enforce the order. We ought to assert out authority in the classrooms and do the work we used to love before it got ruined by people like them.

27 August 2011

Moving On

Thoreau says that he left Walden for the same reason he had moved there: he had other lives to live. His is an interesting statement. Certainly it was always Thoreau’s life that he led regardless of the place and the activity, but in this statement he seems to acknowledge that life is not some packaged screenplay that is given whole at birth, a part to be learned and then enacted according to a script; rather, life is the myriad moments of active living in which, at each moment, we enact a different life according to purpose (conscious, or even otherwise) and context (Marx said that men live their own lives but not in circumstances of their own choosing). Not a chaotic disordered life without purpose, but the possibility of many opportunities to explore and discover. The choice was all. At Walden Thoreau learned to live with what the world might continually offer, and as his life he sought to pursue possibilities in a variety of modes, registers and locations. Thoreau knew that it was always conceivable that he could live a life of quiet desperation: he remarks that he hadn’t been at Walden a week before he had already beaten a path to the pond. Habit is too easily formed; change requires determination and even strength. If necessary Thoreau was prepared to live such a life of desperation if he discovered that this is what he had to do. He acknowledges: “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary” But if there were alternatives, then Thoreau intends to pursue them aware that each pursuit would not lead to but actually be a different life. 
And so we continue to move on. He not busy being born is being dying, Dylan warns. Sometimes the motive to move comes from within; sometimes we require an external stimuli to alert us that we have become sedentary to provoke our movement. Sometimes this stimuli is pleasant and at other times not so, but finally movement is good and necessary.  And I am fortunate to experience change as not only essential but available. I am not threatened now by change and challenge. 
We are moving on: a curious metaphor, in fact. Moving on suggests some pathway or track on which we traversed but have become somehow . . . inactive? We have become stuck, or perhaps unaware of our activity, which may be the same thing, I suppose. We are not awake, and know not necessarily what we do. Somehow, we appear as if we move though we are really just standing still. We have already beaten a path down to the pond and no longer consider the walk to our daily bath with any curiosity, if we think about it at all. 
Sometimes I avoid thinking where I am because it is too unpleasant to do so. But this present moment of movement affords me some time for pleasant reflection. We are moving on.  We had other lives to live. And right now it feels like freedom.

23 August 2011

I'll Take Mine with Mayo

I had dinner in Rochester, Minnesota this past evening. In fact, I had spent the entire day there, and some of today as well. Then, on the way home I missed a turn and became so seriously lost that even my iPhone couldn’t fine me. I had issues. 
Downtown Rochester, Minnesota is a bustling, crowded city scene. There is a thriving community of restaurants, bars, cafés, and shops of all sorts. It is summer, and so the restaurants all have outdoor seating and at all times the tables are occupied and people are eating and drinking, talking and laughing about the world outside. I ate and I drank and joked about the wicked world outside. The Barnes & Noble establishment there is particularly large and extremely well stocked. I browsed. Rochester, Minnesota appears very much a tourist town. 
But people visit Rochester, Minnesota not for its scenic value or its culinary offerings; there is little of much historic interest here except that Rochester, Minnesota is the historic home of the world renowned medical facility, the Mayo Clinic, and people arrive in droves here because they are sick and would be made well. Too many tourists to Rochester, Minnesota come for healing as pilgrims and penitents once traveled to Lourdes or Turin for redemption. In the center of the downtown, the series of buildings and hospitals that comprise the Mayo Clinic towers over the city, literally and figuratively, as those space ships in the science fiction movies that hover over the metropolis casting shadows over everything. And the glass doors through which one enters the various edifices give the building the appearance of floating above the earth’s surface removed from the dirt and grime of the world. When they walk into the buildings of the Mayo Clinic, the sick can experience hope despite the seriousness of the illness that brings them to the remarkable facilities in Rochester, Minnesota. Here there is no hint of death, decay and disease; here, there is only light and sparkling. 
But it was an interesting phenomenon to be in Rochester, Minnesotaat least this section of the cityand understand that in all probability everyone whom I saw out in the streets of the city was either sick themselves or were here because they were caring for someone who was sick. The others out there on the streetsmany wore the identity badges of the Mayo Clinicwere responsible for attempting to heal the sick, and all of the others serviced the sick and the caretakers and the medical servicers. They were the waiters and the bar and shopkeepers for whom the Mayo Clinic and all its illness is a godsend. 
I wonder if Rochester, Minnesota might not serve as some kind of metaphor: in the center of life rests mortality but all about life goes on, ob-la-di-ob-la-da. 

21 August 2011


There is no end to the guilt that white people experience regarding the legacy of slavery and race relations in the United States. Rightly so. Perhaps as Freud suggested, we whites work out our guilt and shame in dreams and the popular media productions. It is a nightmare history from which we would escape, yet there can be no respite from this guilt. I am weary of the seemingly endless attempt to find some absolution. 
The film The Help (I didn’t read the book) was a feel-good film made for whites only, addressing a very complex and ugly issue with a simple-mindedness that not only belies but falsifies the reality. Oh, these things happened, but I suspect what transpired was a lot more ugly than the film depicts. Nor was the resolution as easy as the film suggests. The attempt here was to give voice to those who had been rendered voiceless, but finally the film didn’t give them much to say. Most of the work was accomplished by Skeeter (Emma Stone), a twenty-two year old citizen of Jackson, Mississippi, who has graduated with a degree in journalism, returns to her place of origin, gets a job writing the Miss Myrna domestic advice column for or the local paper. In her very short tenure, she decides to write a book exploring the experience of domestic hire in the deep South from the perspective of the help—African-American women oppressed and terrified. She had been raised by one of the Help and never quite found out what had happened to her. She learns. 
Ah, but whites always have the necessary connections, don’t they? Skeeter’s book sees publication because she is white working in a white publishing New York City world. It is her voice that reaches the world. In The Help the good guys win in the end, though it is at the time more a moral victory, the best kind because it requires little personal sacrifice. T film’s end, not too much has changed. But the film’s resolution satisfies because we know that conditions finally did improve, but not with the ease or bloodlessness that the film suggests. Not many of us in the audiences suffer directly from the struggle. Like at the movies, we were mostly spectators. And I suspect that some of us might have even been complicit. There were too many martyrs, and too many deaths, and the attempt to tell the tale through the voices of the help fails completely because it is a white woman through whom they must speak. Skeeter’s project is viable because she lives on the family plantation that probably once was worked by slaves. It employs Black domestic help. 
At the showing I screened this afternoon the theater was filled not only with whites, but the seats were occupied also predominantly by women. It was the women who managed the African-American domestic help, hiring and firing the servants with abandon and impunity. Perhaps the women felt especially culpable. Perhaps they sought a form of catharsis, and to experience some relief from responsibility. The film, we knew, would end hopefully and we would feel exonerated. And though in the end power remains in the hands of the white power-elite, the times, we knew, they were a’changin—though the only Bob Dylan song in the sound track was “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.” It was played when Skeeter’s racist boyfriend abandons her because her work gives voice to the Help.  “Yes, you just sorta wasted my precious time, but don’t think twice, it’s alright.” 
No it wasn’t alright! Skeeter’s book has narrated the stories she has heard from the help, and in her work Jackson, Mississippi and its racist population are exposed.  In the end, the white women might have been exposed in their racism—but neither did these women have reason to really care. Nothing had really changed. The film’s last shot, of the fired (and now endangered) maid, Abilene, walks down a long road through the center of residential Jackson, and in a voice-over says that someone once said that someone in her family would be a writer and that now it seems it would be her—a line at which the audience applauded—was written by a white person in a movie directed and produced mostly by white people. Once again, Black voices appropriated by white folks. 
White people exposed? To quote another Dylan song, nothing was delivered. Mississippi appears in the film exactly as those of us who lived through the era knew it: Phil Ochs very early and rightly had demanded that Mississippi ought to find another country to be part of, and the book American Insurrection by William Doyle (2001) details that such was their intent as well. One of the help comments that they are in Hell, but the film balances the suffering: whites don’t have it easy either. The murder of Medgar Evers in this film is balanced by the murder of white John Kennedy: the black and white photo of Abilene’s son who died because the whites-only hospital would not take him and the colored hospital couldn’t save him is over powered by the color photo of the smiling murdered president. Ah, we all lost people in the struggle, didn’t we? No, this film suggests that the Civil Rights Struggle was a liberal white endeavor, and the help needed white help. 
Bury the rag deep in your face, now is the time for your tears.

17 August 2011

Bold Riley-o

Sometimes I awaken from a night’s sleep and carry into the waking life a tune that must have played in the dream, and I bring that song along with me into the day and it becomes the day’s original soundtrack. I awoke this morning to the Wailin’ Jennie’s version of “Bold Riley.” Kate Rusby has a version of this song as well, but it was certainly the Wailin’ Jennies I carried into the day. I don’t remember the dream. 
Bold Riley is the ship heading out on its long voyage, and as it slowly leaves the harbor, the sailors sing as they work. 
We're outward bound for the Bengal Bay,
Bold Riley-o, Bold Riley,
Get bending, me lads,
It's a hell-of-a-way,
Bold Riley-o has gone away. 
It is a song of regretgoodbye my sweetheart, goodbye my dear-oand also one of promiseWhite Stocking Day, when we’ll drink our rum, refers to the day the sailors would return to port and receive their pay. In honor of that celebration, the sailor’s female relatives would dress in their finest clothes (including white stockings) and collect the money earned on the voyage. 
“Bold Riley” is a work song, sung by the sailors as they lifted and lowered the sails. I read (http://welove1997.blogspot.com/2005_09_01_archive.html) that the men would pull on the chorus and rest on the verses. I doubt they sounded like the Wailin’ Jennies. 
But perhaps my dream can be, if not remembered, at least understood from its soundtrack. I pass now into my 65th year heading out still I hope for the Bengal Bay busy raising and lowering the sails. And though this endeavor requires considerable effort, the gorgeous harmonies of the Wailin’ Jennies suggest that great beauty accompanies it. 
The day has dawned magnificently; the sky is already a deep blue and Bold Riley-o has gone away.

15 August 2011

Now I'm Sixty-Four

I’m wondering how long it has been that I have been celebrating my birthday with some form of assessment of the year past and a hope for the year to come. I know that throughout my journal writings there are missives to myself using my birthday as some kind of trail marker, though rarely do I reread them and make any judgment. Or even look for some direction. These reflections seem rather as rhetorical pauses where I stop to note what happened here. Historical trail markers along the side of the road. 
It was the Beatles who identified sixty-four as the significant age: the narrator wondered (ironically and seriously) whether when he turned sixty-four if “you” would still need and feed him. Well, I am not at present losing my hair, though it does appear to be thinning somewhat; I do like my wine, and though renting a cottage on the Isle of Wight doesn’t appeal to me, the idea of the apartment in the Cities makes me happy. But if I have to be in my sixties, I’d prefer to be sixty-six and collecting social security. 
I think at this juncture I am reviewing the situation. I have no interest in retirement, but neither do I have any desire to climb Everest to prove my vitality.  Not in over my head but treading water nonetheless. Now I find myself awaiting something onto which I can direct my passion, and trying to bring to fruition those projects on which I have spent some passion for the past several years. The books pile up by the bedside. And I watch episodes of Joan of Arcadia and Mad Men. I love the former. As for the latter, I really don’t like any of the charactersexcept maybe Peggyand I find it hard to believe that men who drink all day the way those men do could be still standing by 3:00pm. At sixty four my tolerance has declined though the pleasure remains. 
And so on this birthday, I celebrate the Muses I have enjoyed and await the Muse who will reside with me next.  And celebrate the wine sent from a dear, dear friend.