Tuesday, May 05, 2015

What Do I Know?

There are those who call boxing "The Sweet Science." It's a martial art, and it was a big deal all over again this past weekend. Mayweather versus Pacquiao? You may have heard something about it. Kids at school were talking about it. Fellow teachers and parents were talking about it. It was a great big deal. The anticipation was not unlike that before a Super Bowl or World Series. It was for the championship, after all. I was asked by any number of people what I thought the outcome would be. I said I wouldn't know. I don't follow boxing. Or rather I don't actively follow any of the martial arts. I am aware of Ultimate Fighters like Mac Danzig and Diego Sanchez. Not because I have watched any of their bouts, but because they are available on Al Gore's Internet. There are people beating each other up for the paying public to watch and cheer on most every night of the week. I find myself drawn to sporting events of most every stripe, but I don't watch mixed martial arts or boxing. Not anymore.
There was a time, way back when. The kids in my neighborhood would gather in the basement of the family that lived across the street from us to watch the heavyweights: Frazier, Foreman, and The Greatest. The Greatest was Muhammad Ali. The former Cassius Clay, whom my mother and father met years before on the streets of Denver when he was an up and comer. In the fight game, that is. It was on one particular Saturday afternoon when ABC Sports brought yet another title defense by Heavyweight Champion of the World Ali against someone not nearly as indomitable or verbose as he was. It was this portion of his career that he developed the "rope-a-dope" strategy, in which he would wait out his opponent by covering up and hanging on the edge of the ring. It made for very boring fights, especially from a guy who used to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Now it wasn't so much floating and stinging as standing around and waiting for the other guy to get real tired. Tired enough to let his guard down and get popped a couple times in the head. It was sometime during the late rounds that Mrs. Across the street neighbor leaned forward in her seat, adjacent to the TV and spoke for one of the few times I could remember: "That Muhammad Ali is one good looking man." Stunned silence from the rest of the room, no one more silent than Mr. Across the street neighbor, save for the steam coming out of his ears.
I wasn't invited back for any more heavyweight fights. Or bantam or fly. Or middle. Somewhere in there, Ali retired. So did Sugar Ray Leonard. And a great many more. I didn't watch them, either. I know some of their names. I just don't know enough to talk about it. Or write this blog.

Monday, May 04, 2015

A Matter Of Degrees

I still have this knee-jerk reaction to click on stories that mention Colorado. Maybe it's more of a mouse-finger-jerk reaction, but it continues essentially unabated since I moved to California more than twenty years ago. This is especially true when I see that it involves a student or school in the Centennial State, the land of my birth. I was a student there. I went to school there. When I left, I had no real inkling that I would eventually become a teacher, but I maintained a strong connection to the institutions and instructors who made me what I am today. That is probably why the story of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and their assault on Columbine High School rang so loud an long in my life. I went to Columbine. Not the high school, but an elementary school in Boulder, not Littleton. In all the ways Columbine High School was not Columbine Elementary School, there was still this connective tissue that ran through it all. Or maybe it was just me. And anyone who watched the events unfold in those days before the turn of the century. Way back when school shootings were national news. Before they became almost interchangeable. Pick a state, pick a grade level. There is a school where you can find victims.
There are people who went to school in Connecticut who probably feel the same way. They probably had the same wish I had, once upon a time, that this would be the last time. These would be the last kids killed in that place where they were supposed to be safe. The name Sandy Hook hangs in the air with the same dreadful weight as Columbine. It used to be that I could satisfy myself with the righteous position of gun control solving the problem. Then there's this: A fourteen year old girl was stabbed in the back at Aspen Creek school in Broomfiled, Colorado last week. I know this because it met my criteria for clickable news: Colorado. School. It was violence at a school, not twenty minutes from where I grew up. And went to school. Not once during those years did I think or worry about being shot, stabbed, maimed or hurt in any way other than the threat of getting beat up (never happened) or teased mercilessly (happened frequently). I lived in fear of being bullied, not of being killed.
I know. That was a different time. It was a different world. I suppose back in those days I could have looked to reports of school violence in California or New York and soothed myself with the idea that something bad could happens to students and teachers someplace else. Not where I grew up and went to school. This was the kind of thing I saw in "Up The Down Staircase." Inner city. Movie inner city. Apparently, I was wrong.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

I broke high school. Not for everyone. Not for always. It was a long time ago, and it really only affected a few hundred people, but I would like to apologize. I am sorry that I broke high school for that group of kids who came along in my wake and hoped to get away with some of the ridiculous things I did and wanted to follow in those somewhat mighty footsteps that I generated way back when. Sorry. Sincerely.
Not that I was such a star. Nor was I particularly popular. I filled a niche that had been waiting to be filled for some time, and with the opportunity arose, I grabbed it, wrestled it to the ground and choked the life out of it. That meant that anyone showing up in the classes right behind me were stuck trying to do a pale imitation of the mess I had created, or had to be satisfied by the restricted path that I had forced the administration to shove us all into as a result of my actions. I wasn't a juvenile delinquent. I was Pep Band President.
I should say from the outset that anarchy was the style of the Boulder High Pep Band long before I arrived on the scene. The first time I went to a football game with my older brother and saw what these guys were doing, I knew I had to be a part of that scene: crazy costumes, boisterous cheers with an attitude, and a powerful sound that belied their outward appearance. These guys could play. That's why it was so cool, to me, that when I found myself with the chance to join that same group. Qualifications: Ability to play a brass or percussion instrument. Check. Willingness to appear in a bizarre variety of dress and manner is a plus, but we had a few members who didn't always take the dressing up to an extreme. Some of us did. This was in large part thanks to my mother, who helped me design and execute a reindeer costume, and a Spider Man uniform, as well as any number of clever combinations of what we found in our store room or the local Army Surplus store. The other element necessary to be a part of this ragtag ensemble was a desire to be a part of a spirit building group. The Pep Band had to act, at times, as if they didn't care about what was happening on the field or court. But we did. Passionately. The Pep Band comprised some of the biggest sports fans in the school. We wore our athletic support proudly.
It was that anarchic edge that got us into trouble, however. When I say "us," I mean "me." I was the one who instigated the commando raid on the gym before the boys' basketball game. I was the one who suggested that we show up to our hated rivals' game dressed in black, carrying a coffin with a banner that read, "RIP Aurora Central" draped across it. I was the who sat across the assistant principal's desk shortly after those incidents and when I was asked what our next costume was going to be, I replied, "Clowns, Ken."
We never went as clowns. That was my way of brushing off authority, with the notion that the school needed us more than we needed them, so the idea of any sort of actual disciplinary action would be out of the question. I was flaunting the relative fame that I had achieved in my corner of the hurly-burly world of high school. I was a band geek but, to paraphrase Anthony Michael Hall in "Sixteen Candles," I was King of the Geeks. It was a nice ride, but it all came crashing to a halt when I missed that bus to the state championship basketball game. I wasn't there to help propel Boulder High's basketball team to victory. Actually, I was there. I sat with my friends, glowering at my band director and his sycophants who followed all the rules. The next Monday, there was an announcement made that the Pep Band needed a new president.
From that spring day on, the fun was drained from Pep Band. A lot of if was drained from me, too. There would be no more surprises or "acting out." Play the charts as written and don't get in the way of the cheerleaders. No one was coming to see the band. They came to watch high school sports, with the occasional and appropriate musical interlude to fire up the crowd. As far as I know, there was never another Pep Band like ours - mine - at Boulder High. For that I am truly sorry. There were plenty of band geeks who came after me who deserved to have the ride I had. I messed that up for them. But oh, what a ride it was. Sorry.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

I'm Painting Again

When I was young, and believed that I thought I might like to be an artist when I grew up, Part of this impetus came from the support of my parents who seemed to enjoy the scribbles I made that eventually turned into the selection of Studio Art as a major when I finally packed up and went off to college. The other major influence on that decision was Joe.
Our family friend. The guy who came with us to dinner. The guy with the basset hound named Mister. The guy who I was told worked feverishly in a studio but always seemed to me as if he was on his way to a cocktail party. The guy whose laugh would fill small rooms and loud restaurants. That guy. Joe. He's gone and he won't be forgotten. Not by me or anyone in my family.
Part of this is because of the body of work he left behind. At one time, my parents' house served as an unofficial gallery for his woodcut prints. It never occurred to me at the time just how special a distinction this was. Living in a home filled with original art, signed by the artist was a luxury I didn't consider as I ran up and down the stairway on my way to dinner. Yes, it was a beautiful print of the Mission at San Luis Obispo, but it was suppertime and my little brother was in front of me. I couldn't stop and ponder this framed moment while I was climbing over him to get to the table first. I can see it clearly in my mind's eye now. It is a very accurate depiction of the mission that is located in the city where my son will be going off to college. I can't stop to think too much about the significance of this omen, since he also did woodcuts of a Quena player and an interesting vacuum-formed plastic portrait of a Native American. We, as family friends, received a generous helping of his prints, sometimes on a trial basis, sometimes on permanent loan.
That was great, but mostly I will remember the hand-painted sign he made for our cabin, the front porch of which he sat on countless summer afternoons, smoking cigarettes and sipping at a beer or two. He made the sign for my parents, who had puzzled mightily for some time after the construction of our mountain hideaway, and they needed just the right name to affix to the entryway. Whispering Pines or Eagle's Nest or even Caven's Cave would all have made fine titles for someone else's summer retreat. Joe was the one who correctly identified the correct name out of the dozens that were discussed. "Where do you tell people you're going," he asked us. "To the cabin," we replied. And that is what he lovingly lettered on a six by eighteen piece of varnished plywood: "The Cabin." Every summer and any other occasion that we found ourselves going up to the hills to get away, the first thing we did to christen our stay was to hang that sign out over the stairway leading to the front porch.
Joe is gone now, having spent many years after that making art and homes and adopting dogs, but he will always be that bald head, sunglasses, beard and rafter-shaking laugh. He made art. He stomped on the Terra. Aloha, Joe.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Disturbing The Peace? I Didn't Know We Had Any

I've referenced this here before: "A riot is an ugly thing, and I think it's about time we had one." Add the oomph of a thick German accent, and you've got "Young Frankenstein." Take away the silly voice, and you get some sad truth. We have been living on the edge of a riot for forty years, and surprise of surprises, it has come to pass. Here in Oakland, we have become used to the sound of breaking glass and somewhat immune to the sight of dumpsters set on fire and pushed into city streets. Our highways have been blockaded and the scent of tear gas still hangs in the air. The Bay Area doesn't pass up opportunities to express itself, and lately that has taken on the form of riot.
Another quote: "A riot is the language of the unheard." That one wasn't Mel Brooks. It came from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A proponent of non-violence, what was it that King was saying? Are scenes such as Ferguson and now Baltimore inevitable? Perhaps as long as those voices go on being unheard. For so long, we believed that we had this whole racism thing taken care of. We elected an African American to the highest office in the land. What better indicator to the rest of the nation that men and women are now being judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin? Answering that is as easy as taking a look at the Department of Justice's report on the Ferguson, Missouri police department. A quick scan of the table of contents gives all the clues we need. "FPD Engages in a Pattern of Unconstitutional Stops and Arrests in Violation of the
Fourth Amendment." "Ferguson Law Enforcement Practices Violate The Law And Undermine Community Trust, Especially Among African Americans." And it does go on. The response to the report's contents has been initially loud, and then silence as we turn our collective attention to the next riot.
It is certainly great theater, and even better TV, but when the response we see and experience is the National Guard being called in it does beg the question: What is the point? Violence generates violence, but are we asking everyone of all race, creed and religion to stand idly by while we try and catch up to the lofty goals of 1964? Where does all that energy go, if not into throwing rocks and bottles? The fires that are burning outside are the ones that have been burning on the inside for centuries. are now raging in Baltimore. Should we be surprised? Should we be sad? No and yes. In 1967, they called it "The Long Hot Summer," when one hundred fifty-nine riots broke out across the United States. Somewhere else it was called "The Summer of Love," but that's not the way it showed up in city after city that churned with racial tension after the assassination of the man who had a dream. You don't need a history degree to know that that wasn't part of Dr. King's dream. And neither is this.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

"The Real Deal"In

I use them a lot. "Quotation marks." They are useful in the setting aside those words or phrases that are direct quotes, hence the name. Inside those little sets of what many of my students have called "backwards apostrophes" are the utterances of a person that the writer would like to set apart. Just like I did there with the description of the punctuation itself. I thought it was a particularly effective and amusing way to describe the look of those marks. It also showed the level of understanding that the kids I teach have for them. I don't know how aware they are of the power we have invested in these backward apostrophes.
Maybe it would be more useful if I started from the place they know them best: hanging in the air, not on the page. The use of air quotes by children as young as six and seven surprises even a hardened veteran teacher like myself. This is especially true when I consider that one of the earliest lessons I remember getting at teacher school was that we should avoid using sarcasm in our classroom. Kids don't get it, we were told. Or maybe what I mean is, "Kids don't get it." Or perhaps the most accurate depiction of my meaning is, "Kids don't 'get it.'" Notice the single quotation marks set inside the double there. It sets apart the 'get it' from the rest of the quotation. Not only are those the words my instructor used, but their meaning became more specialized with the addition of an additional set of punctuation marks. I might have chosen to write it thus: "Kids don't get it." Those leaning letters suggest that they be heard differently than the rest of the sentence. Italics. Another game changer, at least as far as meaning goes, but I am not aware of a culturally prevalent way of conveying the same meaning that the air quotes have for anything in italics.
Unless you include the eye roll. It is very interesting to me that the use of quotation marks, which used to be a verifiable way to check to see that the exact words that were used by a speaker were taken down directly by the writer is now being used as a device to throw doubt on those very words. Take this headline: Southwest Airlines flight diverted to Denver over "pressurization": media. Those quotation marks around "pressurization." Are they there to make sure that we, the readers, know that someone officially declared the problem with that flight to be pressurization, or should we be taking that assessment with a grain of salt? In the body of the article, this sentence appears: The diversion was blamed on a "pressurization issue," though the statement did not elaborate on the problem. This statement about a statement casts some doubt about the problem on board, primarily with the use of quotation marks. Are we to believe that there may have been some more nefarious goings-on in the sky that are being blamed on "pressurization?" So-called "pressurization?" 
How much better would we all be understood without these "backward apostrophes?" I guess "the devil is in the details." And you can quote me on that. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Just Like The Ones I Used To Know

This past weekend, it seemed like anywhere I turned, every TV station and cable outlet had a superhero movie running. Spider Man. Hulk. Thor. Iron Man. Captain America. X-Men. Originals. Sequels. Everywhere. It was saturation programming, obviously in anticipation of the release this coming Friday of the highly anticipated "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, it should probably be pointed out that there are are plenty of folks who look to the first of May as a celebration of the Workers of the World, not a chance to sit inside on a lovely Spring day, watching a bunch of spandex-clad goofballs perform computer graphics-assisted feats of heroism and strength. I will be in the latter category, staring at the screen in wide-eyed amazement, as if any of what I was about to see was new. These movies have been playing in my head for decades.
I grew up reading comic books. Lots of them. Most of them from Marvel. Much in the way that I became a Coca-Cola drinker instead of Pepsi, I found myself drawn to the titles of Stan Lee's company more than those of their main competitor, DC. The DC line was too straight down the middle for me. They were the ones who were selling their characters to the American Broadcasting Company to form "Super Friends." These were cartoons in the most juvenile sense. It would be years before Frank Miller would come and resuscitate their goody-two-shoes characters. I wanted pathos. I wanted soul-searching. I wanted drama. Marvel gave me that. First in Captain America, the super soldier the Avengers found floating in the North Sea. A man out of time, a hero from another era, who is asked to find his place in the modern world. I followed Cap and his partner Falcon for years. It was a short hop from there to the teenaged slinger of webs, Spider Man. As long as I stayed away from the CBS TV show, which may have been produced in my back yard, I was fine. The action contained in the images that fairly exploded off the pages of those comic books kept my mind racing.
It wasn't until Sam Raimi worked is magic on everybody's favorite wall crawler that I believed that I would ever see a movie as lovely as a Kirby. Then came the flood, and all of a sudden I believed not only that a man could fly, but a Hulk could smash. I don't read comics much anymore, but I do go to the movies. Especially when they swing, fly, smash and blow up just like I remember.