Thursday, August 06, 2020

Up In The Air

The rhythms of this summer have been replaced by the herky-jerky jangling of a new school year beginning. None of this seems familiar. It doesn't feel like the weird rush that accompanied the closing of school and the attendant discovery of distance learning. In many ways, that was survival, and each day that we got through without a dozen questions or complaints felt like a victory. One of our teachers described it as trying to fly a plane that was still being built.
As a result, not a lot of soaring took place last spring. We celebrated completion. We made a fuss over kids showing up. Now, as we creep toward opening for what will be our fourth month of teleducation, we hope to be able to step up our game. A bit. The metaphorical plane has been in the metaphorical hanger for a couple months, so we ought to have a little better sense about how to keep it from crashing back to earth.
I remember the first time I came to the school for those days leading up to Day One. I was a fresh-faced recruit with an intern credential, ready for whatever this teaching gig had to offer. We took a bus to a conference center: an off-site meeting. It was there I got to know my colleagues and began to piece out what everyone was going to do once we started letting children in. Over the course of my career, this bus trip has been a simple meeting in the library, or a trip to Marin where we stayed in a hotel for a couple nights as we repeated that same exercise. Coming together as a staff, old faces mixed with new, changes in curriculum, stories of summers well spent and some not so much. Inevitably, one or two kids would come sniffing around in hopes of getting an early peek at the class lists.
Not  this year. We are doing all of that same work from a distance of six feet or more. I really have no idea when I will see all my fellow teachers in the same room again. Instead, we group text or Zoom, always with an eye toward the day when we might sit around and enjoy one another's company. Not now. There's too much to do, too many choices and connections to make and they all have to be done from the relative safety of our living rooms, offices, or kitchens. Wherever the wi-fi is best.
Except for things like handing out Chromebooks, or helping parents get registered. That's where I put on my mask and wander into the fray, wishing that there was an easier way, repeating myself often to be understood through my face covering. We all know that we are doing everything we can to be safe, with the possible exception of waiting until there was no more coronavirus.
But that's not going to happen. It's time to get this show on the road, plane in the air, with or without wings.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

The Write Stuff

My wife was president of her chapter of the California Writer's Club for (checks watch) about eleventy-seven years. Kind of funny how they would call a smaller group of writers a "chapter" but that is just a funny little bit on the way to my larger point: I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the California Writer's Club. I live in California. I write. What's the problem?
Well, let's start with the wisdom of Groucho Marx who insisted that he would never be a member of any club that would have him as a member. Which is pretty solidly the camp in which I find myself. Not that this is much of a camp, what with all that misanthropy and so on. Part of the reason I started writing was because I was such a misanthrope. I wrote because it was something I could do on my own. I could create worlds to surround me that conformed with the reality that was missing in my day to day. One of my earliest efforts had Snoopy quarterbacking the Denver Broncos. This enabled second grade me to mix my passions without fear of reprisal. I had figured out that being clever with words was a pretty good way to entrance others into believing that I wasn't just that round kid with glasses who always got one hundred percent on the spelling test.
In fourth grade, I was encouraged to mine my feelings of being a social outcast by creating picture story books that centered on characters who were lost and lonely. The fact that I borrowed shamelessly from Harry Nilsson's The Point was lost on my fellow students who marveled at my ability to both write and draw. Arthur the Fish. Larry the Lion. Bubbles the Bear was a side project that I illustrated for a friend who was anxious to follow in my footsteps. The way he borrowed from my previously borrowed plot was homage on top of homage. It made me a star at my elementary school, culminating in sixth grade when my stories, poems and cartoons were sprinkled across Columbine's collection of student work. It might also have had something to do with the fact that my father was in charge of getting the thing published, but it's not what you know, after all it's whom.
Junior high and high school did not offer as much opportunity for my muses. Not at school, anyway. It was during this time that I acquired my first typewriter and began hammering out flurries of thought and what I believed was wisdom, much of which coalesced into my lightly titled Great American Novel, written in longhand over the course of a tortured Memorial Day weekend just prior to moving from ninth to tenth grade.
My peers were stunned and amazed at that forty-two page epistle to and from The Voice From The Great Beyond. It wasn't really so beyond. It was in my head. The device made me appear more clever, which was really the reason why I was in the game in the first place. I took a Creative Writing class when I was in the eleventh grade, which was enough to make me wish that I could just stop those voices. It was a lot of requirements and editing. Not that I felt truly creative when I was trying to unravel the vagaries of punctuation and syntax.
No surprise, perhaps, that I found myself entering my freshman year in college as a studio art major. Not that the voices in my head stopped. By this point, I had been gifted by my parents with an electric typewriter through which all those thoughts kept coming. I harbored dreams of becoming an artist, maybe even a writer, but I didn't discuss them. My writing was only for those in my inner circle then. Perhaps not the best way to find fame and fortune as an author. Or anything.
It wasn't until my fourth year in college that I was forced into a corner: declare a major or prepare to spend the rest of your natural life as an undergraduate. I gathered up my loose credits and took them to an academic advisor. He pointed out that I had taken more than enough literature courses, and more than my share of creative writing workshops to cobble together a degree in Creative Writing. If only I would stop doing that and take a science or history class to meet requirements for graduation.
Which I did. Leaving me out on the streets of the Real World with a diploma and no real idea about how to use it. I spend the next few years attempting to get published in literary magazines, submitting my obtuse prose and poetry to everyone from the New Yorker to literary zines that paid exclusively in author's copies. It was one of the latter that I found "success." Three of my bleak, non-rhyming stares into the abyss were picked up by a publication called The Strain.
I felt that I had arrived.
I hadn't.
So, at the urging of a friend who was on his way to a career in screenwriting to give that a shot. I knew movies. I watched a lot of TV. How hard could it be to harness those tropes that had become nearly second nature to me after all those years? Answer: Pretty. I made a few fits and starts at a Northern Exposure script that I hoped would be picked up on spec. It never got sent off. So that didn't happen. But it was enough for someone from that inner circle to take notice. She thought it was amazing that I would put myself out there like that and create a world within a world. So impressed with that idea, she married me.
And she became the president of her branch of the California Writer's Club, of which I am not a member. I write a blog.
How's that for a story?

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Patience

Patience. It's a virtue.
I looked it up.
Which is pretty much how I feel about the coronavirus. I go back to what feels like forever ago to me: junior high school. My Earth Science teacher gave us a roll of toilet paper that we were supposed to roll down the hallway, then start to mark out historical events and geological epochs on our double-ply timeline. This was our scale. The length of the hallway was the age of the earth. Dinosaurs were in there somewhere. There was a long time before dinosaurs were there. That first mudskipper that pulled itself up onto the beach was before that. This was not as simple as simply dividing the whole thing up into seven days, starting with heavens and earth and so on. This was science.
If you were never part of such an experiment, I can skip to the end for you: Our time, human time, on earth is a thin strip on the end of one sheet out of that roll. All the important things we have crammed into our existence as masters of our domain have been shoved into a relatively tiny sliver of time. Compared to rocks and microbes, we have only been here a short time.
Six months then, is the tiniest fibrous wisp of toilet paper. Which is how long we have been wrestling with the notion of a global pandemic. We tried shutting things down for a few months before we started getting anxious and upset that we were missing out on all that capitalism. And freedom. And not wearing masks. Mostly the capitalism.
Surprise, surprise. The germs were waiting for us when we stuck out heads out of our burrows. As much as we as a species would like to exert our will on one another, we have as yet to discover a way to make a virus go away by simply being mad at it. Baseball players, highly trained physical specimens kept in isolation are contracting the disease, causing games in an already shortened season to be cancelled. Children hurried back to school at our dear leader's insistence are showing up and testing positive, not for academics but for COVID-19. Standing outside the burger hut, waiting for our online order to be ready, we have the urge to creep forward in line to get ours. Social distance doesn't mean a thing when it's keeping me from my double cheeseburger.
How long can this go on?
No one seems to know for sure. But our wishes for a quick resolution is being denied by a timeline that is based more on geology than sociology. At least you can get toilet paper at the store again. We just had to be patient.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Sure Thing

My wife requested that I look to kinder, gentler pursuits as we creep ever closer to The Election. To that end, I have stopped my daily run through the "president's" tweets, making snarky comments on as many as possible, all beginning with "Dude -." Build up, don't tear down was her suggestion. Which leaves me more times for things like this:
Celebrity obituaries.
When I worked at a video store with my best friend and roommate, he had this sure thing. No, it wasn't the Rob Reiner classic rom-com of that same name, but rather a film that was a little more off the beaten path: Birdy, starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage. It tells the story of childhood friends who serve in Vietnam, both returning home wounded. One inside. One outside. Did I mention a soundtrack by Peter Gabriel? Whenever a customer would come in and start complaining that all thirty-two copies of Top Gun were already reserved or rented, my friend would go to the shelf and pull off the VHS cassette of this, his sure thing. Placing it on the counter in front of the customer, he would stake his reputation on their enjoyment of this film, and then insist that if they didn't like it, he would give them a free rental.
In all the years I saw him do this, he never had to give away that free rental.
Alan Parker directed Birdy. He also directed Midnight Express. And Mississippi Burning. He was nominated for Best Director for both of those movies. If you imagined that straight up intensity was his forte, then you might not have seen Bugsy Malone, the all-kid musical gangster movie starring Scott Baio and Jodie Foster. Or maybe you didn't know that Fame was a film before it was a TV show. Perhaps you didn't catch the name of the guy who directed Pink Floyd's The Wall. And maybe now you believe you have Alan Parker pigeon-holed as the director of musicals. He did direct The Commitments and Evita.
Hard to find the musical component to Shoot The Moon, but he did that too. The story of a marriage disintegrating doesn't have much to sing along with, and it's not easy to dance to. But it is another intense look inside the lives as they fall apart. And there was Angel Heart, pitting hard-boiled detective Mickey Rourke against Robert De Niro's Louis Cyphre. Okay, maybe that one wasn't too subtle, but it was Alan Parker frame for frame.
Mister Parker went to the big screening room in the sky last week. His body of work carried me through the eighties and into this century. He will be missed. That's a sure thing. Aloha, Alan.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Death Cult

A friend of mine wondered: "Imagine gambling with your life - and losing - in order to make Donald Trump feel a tiny bit more validated for one evening." He was referencing the death of Herman Cain, politician and businessman, who ran for president in 2012. Coronavirus killed him. Mister Cain was one of those Trump supporters in attendance at the Tulsa rally back in June. Health officials have determined that the spike in COVID-19 cases was in direct correlation with that event, including eight of Trump's advance staff testing positive afterward.
My reply to my friend's wonder was one word: "Can't."
This game of brinkmanship with public health evades me. It seems that barely a day goes by when there is not a sad story to tell about someone who had insisted that the pandemic was a hoax or overblown or "no worse than the flu" is diagnosed with the virus, many of them dying as a result. The day before Herman Cain passed, Turning Point USA announced that their co-founder had died form coronavirus complications. The conservative youth group quickly deleted a Tweet from their account posted just the day before that mocking the suggestion that people wear masks to avoid the spread of the disease.
And the list goes on. It should be noted that in a country that has now seen more than one hundred fifty thousand deaths due to the pandemic that continues to affect all of us that there would be plenty of stories like this. Like Texas Representative Louie Gohmert who suggested that it was wearing a mask that gave him his own case of COVID-19. This came after months of insisting that he didn't need to wear a mask because he was tested frequently. The GOP congressman reportedly went back to his office on Capitol Hill after receiving his positive test result to inform his staff. In person. There has been some talk about how the virus may affect brain function, but I don't believe we can blame the germs for this one.
Instead, we are stuck in a time where flaunting the recommendations of doctors and health officials is a symbol of "freedom." Never mind that this liberty comes at the cost of every other living, breathing soul on the continent. The Constitution says nothing about wearing a mask, so you can't make me. It is precisely after these edicts that the clock starts ticking. How many minutes until the next case is added to the roll? One more shot at tragic irony. One more dead American. One more day that we all have to remain vigilant while those who insist that this pandemic is cooked up by bad people who only wish the "president" harm.
Last time I checked, the "president" was fine. It's the people around him who are dropping like flies.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Synonyms

Prime and choice
loaded words
with lots of meaning
You can prime a pump
Choice can be the best
Of course, so can Prime
Prime can be numbers
that cannot be divided
except by themselves
Choice is something
we all say we want
My wife likes to talk
about her prime
She remembers those days
when she felt free
to make a choice
She smiled brightly
when she told me
that our relationship
was in its prime
Which made me glad
that she made a choice
a long time ago
and that choice was me
We are a prime example
of making a choice
and sticking with it
There have been times
for both of us
when we wondered
about the choice we made
We had to find a way
to prime the pump
and make things new
because we are saving
our prime time
for each other
As it turns out
not such a hard choice
after all

Friday, July 31, 2020

Live Through This

So sorry. In all this confusion, I must have lost track. Somewhere in the past month or so I slid on past the fortieth anniversary of my graduation from high school. Part of my surprise may stem from the fact that I just spent a few quality hours with some of the folks with whom I shared the experience of high school.
Not all of them, mind you. This is the cardinal reason I have avoided organized reunions of my graduating class is because I was not a big fan of all the people with whom I endured those years. I know this leaves me wide open for the suggestion that I am telling tales out of school. This is precisely what I am doing. The choice of the word "endured" was not one I landed on lightly. I was in band, after all. I played sousaphone in band. Which is just a sly way of avoiding saying that I played tuba. I had one date in my junior year. None in my sophomore year. The friends I made were almost exclusively those I made while practicing and marching and going out for pizza after practicing marching. The friends I had coming up from junior high drifted away, finding their own social strata and cliques.
And yet, somehow, I managed to have some fun. Part of that fun came in the form of direct confrontation with the powers that were in charge of that paramilitary group to which I belonged. In my older brother's day, these characters were known as "Band Baddies," as distinguished by their obsequious and conformative "Band Goodies." By following the path laid out by my big brother, I managed to further distance myself from anything that might have made me visible. It wasn't until my senior year that I began to feel my oats, aided in part by an increased effort to generate a social life. Not that this social life crept anywhere near the boundaries prescribed by my bandie affiliation, but a sense that perhaps the "permanent record" of which I had been so concerned all my life might not be such a big deal.
I skipped some classes. I lied to the vice principal. I was kicked out of band rehearsal. Three times. These were various smart aleck remarks and disregard for authority. It should be noted, however, that none of this delinquent behavior kept me from doing my absolute best when it came time to preform. I was still a team player, in spite of my questionable attitude. I was also kicked out of my Elementary Functions class. I was asked not to return. I dropped the class and replaced it with Selected Topics in Math. Got the credit. Graduated. Done.
On graduation day, I heard about all the parties that other people were attending. I landed on my parents' back patio. With my family, and two of those people I mentioned at the outset. There was no drunken brawl of a celebration. That would have to wait until my "gap year" when I worked at Arby's instead of heading off to college.
No word yet on when that reunion will be taking place either.