Friday, September 17, 2021

Heads Down

 My daily runs last between thirty and sixty minutes. On Monday, during the forty minutes I was out of the house, six people were shot in the vicinity of my home in Oakland. When I say "vicinity," I mean that I saw two of the crime scenes as I was out exercising. Three of the victims died. 

That seems like a lot. To me. And I have lived in Oakland for nearly thirty years. The news that a shooting took place in Oakland does not always garner the attention it might. These tend to be reported as part of the "in other news" section. Or if you can put a helicopter over it, then you might wind up with some "breaking news" to punctuate your broadcast. Holding on to the conventional wisdom that "if it bleeds, it leads." 

Had I put in a few extra miles and made my way south from the second crime scene, I might have encountered the third. It should be noted that all three of these events occurred during what most folks refer to as "rush hour." This might have some bearing on the way things went down. They might also be connected to the ongoing fear and anxieties stirred up by living through a plague. A colleague and I were discussing what we believe is a slow deterioration of social contracts. We were noticing this as we tracked the number of cars blowing through stop signs on either end of the block where our school is situated. Our job is to sit out in front and wait with the children who have yet to be picked up by their parents. On a somewhat frequent basis, this wait lasts past the time that our crossing guard works. Once her orange vest and hand held stop sign is out of the intersection, it seems as though brakes become optional and acceleration holds sway. 

I am happy to report that our students have remained safe, and whenever we can catch a license plate we make note of it. And sometimes, the scofflaw turns out to be a parent rushing to pick up their kid. At which point we sigh and appreciate the way they managed to rush over in such a timely fashion. 

At least they haven't had to dodge any bullets. That would probably make it to the headlines. A shooting in Oakland may not be front page news, but a shooting in front of an Oakland elementary school might rate. 


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Busy Weekend

 It's a snake chasing its tail. I find myself wishing bad things upon the teens who broke into the PE office at our school. Then I switch the blame to all of us who were too busy to latch our windows before the weekend. And what about those kids from our neighborhood who naturally found themselves here on that big empty stretch of asphalt, looking for a place to play. And balls to play their games. 

Which would be fine if I could stop there. Just go to the closet and pull out a dozen new basketballs and a few new soccer balls, pump them up, and get on with the business of recess for the week. Because we should surrender to the notion that as a public school, we are providing supplies for the neighborhood. Like the parents who stop on the out after dropping off their kids and take a fistful of masks to tide their family through the next few days of the pandemic. From the stock that we have been supplying all of the kids from our school and will continue each time one of them pulls the strap of the side or drops theirs into the toilet. 

It's not in our budget to endlessly replace the things that we use on a daily basis. Like teaching students that pencils do not need to be razor sharpened after each use, as if they were surgical instruments. That makes shorter pencils faster and we have yet to discover a use for pencil shavings. 

I retrieved the four square balls that were kicked on the roof. I dragged the chairs they dragged across the playground back to the coach's office. I found enough balls to get the week started. I reflected once again on the lack of daring these youngsters showed in their daylight ransacking of an elementary school. Not satisfied by the plunder they discovered in the coach's office, they went to work on one of the previously cracked windows at the end of our atrium. They accomplished nothing more than the need to replace the high impact glass that became a mass of spiderweb cracks. 

And again, I thought about what sort of anger and frustration could lead a teenager to an elementary school playground on a Saturday morning to pilfer the meager supplies and batter a window until you couldn't see through it. It is a near certainty that these are former students or siblings of current students. Who were caught on video surveillance. 

What happens next weekend? 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021


 I have never been the fastest. I have, on occasion, been the last one standing. Tenacity doesn't always get you a blue ribbon, but it does give you the opportunity to see who else will win the trophy in successive years. I keep running in hopes that there might be an award where someone steps out of the bushes and puts a hand on my shoulder and says, "That's enough. You can stop now." 

But that probably won't make me stop anyway. I can remember running laps around the backstops at Columbine Elementary School. Somewhere in there I was asked to run with my shoulder pads clacking around the practice field at North Boulder Park. And then there was the seemingly endless circuits around the quarter mile loop at Centennial Junior High. In high school, there wasn't a lot of running. During this period, my aerobic exercise was primarily marching. 

It wasn't until near the end of my freshman year in college that running became a thing again. My father asked me if I wanted to run a "ten K." Having been brought up in the 1970's here in America, I had heard of the metric system, but had no real sense of what I was being asked to do. To prepare, I began to run around the perimeter of the campus of Colorado College. I had no idea of the distance I was covering. I simply maintained the idea that I should keep going until I reached the end. Surely someone would step out of the bushes and tell me to stop. 

This did not happen. Instead, when I reached the end of the race course, I was ushered through a chute where my time, such as it was, got logged in with the rest of the cattle in front of and behind me. Yes, there were a number of folks who came in behind me that day. I tried not to be smug about this as I made my up into the stands. Still moving. And as I made my meandering way toward whatever my final destination might be, I was accosted by a number of well-meaning individuals who stuck fliers for yet another ten K into my face as I became increasingly aware that there was no actual finish line.

The race would go on. And on. 

These days when I am out continuing to exert myself, I get passed on the left by someone younger or at least more sprightly as I chug along. Waiting for someone to step out of the bushes and tell me that's enough. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

 Every time you fill in the blank, the terrorists win. Filling in the blank was easy for the longest time. Every time you thought of something with which that blank could be filled, the terrorists won. It didn't really matter. Every time you buy breakfast at Denny's, the terrorists win. Simply invoking the notion was enough to generate terror. For the past twenty years, we have all lived in a heightened state of  anxiety. The terrorists are on a winning streak like Tom Brady could only dream of. That didn't change just because the government stopped color-coding our shades of fear. The threat level has been, and continued to be elevated. 

Interlude: My wife and I are stuck for something to do on a Friday night. A sudden burst of inspiration led us to the airport, where we paid for short term parking and went on inside the terminal. We had dinner at the Tower restaurant. We watched planes land and take off. We imagined all the places we might like to go someday. The food wasn't what made this such an amazing destination. It was all of that potential. It was an absurdly romantic evening. 

We can't do that anymore. The terrorists won. I don't wear my Converse high tops when I travel by air anymore. The terrorists won. I can't meet anyone at the gate anymore. The terrorists won.

And the most absurd thing about this of course is the fact that since September 11, 2001 most of the terror exacted upon American soil has been perpetrated by Americans. We hesitate to refer to mass shootings as acts of terror, but I can't think of any reason why not. Of course, it is completely possible that all of that Patriot Act and tightened security at airports have all but eliminated terrorist threats. But not likely. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. That and the right-wing nutjob down the street who is planning to blow up the Verizon Store in the mall because they overcharged him on his family and friends plan last month. And something about Planned Parenthood. 

Instead, we can just toss the War On Terror in a box with The War On Drugs and The War On Christmas. These were fights we never should have taken on in the first place. In each case, it turns out that the real enemy is the one staring back at us when we look in the mirror. 

Come to think of it, I've been writing this same blog for getting pretty close to twenty years. Not every day. Not even once a month. But often enough that I keep helping the terrorists win. 

Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

I Took The Call

When I got downstairs to his classroom, Jared was rolling about on the rug. His teacher had called me because the rest of his students had gone on up to the library. Only Jared refused to get up off the rug and go pick out a book. Leaving his teacher in a bit of a predicament, since he knew that he could not leave a student unattended. Especially a third grader who was voicing all manner of despair and anguish. 

So he called me. 

I relieved Jared's teacher to return to his regularly scheduled weekly trip upstairs to the library, and sat down in a chair next to Jared, who continued to froth about. Not in a violent way, more in a manner that suggested that he was attached to the floor and could not get up. 

"How're you doing, Jared?" As good an opening as I could come up with in a pinch.

After a few more twists on the rug, he sighed, "I don't have any friends."

Seeing an opening, I took it: "Well, what about me? I came down here to see how you were. Doesn't that make me your friend?"

Heavy sigh. "I guess so."

"And your teacher? He called me down so that you wouldn't be left alone. That sounds pretty friendly."

"Yeah." Jared's rolling stopped with him face down. "And Luis."

He was starting to come up with names on his own. "What about Marcy? She's your neighbor, right? Don't you guys play together after school?"

"Yeah," now he was on his back. Eye contact. "And William. And Felicia."

"William and Felicia are up in the library now, picking out books. Do you want to go -"

"No." Abruptly. "I don't like reading."

"Oh? What do you like?"

"I like math."

I gave him a moment before I played my next card. "What if we could find a book about math in the library? Could we go look?" 

"Can Yoshi come?" Yoshi is his class plush animal used for denoting who is speaking, and a source of comfort for kids like Jared.

"You bet."

Up the stairs we went. I introduced Jared to our librarian who was more than happy to direct him to the math books. And suddenly the day was ever so much brighter. Later, at recess, Jared told me that Yoshi had found a book that he liked. He promised to read the whole thing to him. 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

You May Say I'm A Dreamer

 I was nine when John Lennon released his album and title track "Imagine." That was half a century ago. Americans were still fighting a war in Vietnam. Nixon was President of the United States. Cigarette ads had only recently been banned from television and radio. Charles Manson and his followers were on trial for the Tate/Labianca murders. Starbucks Coffee is founded in Seattle. Ed Sullivan made his last broadcast on CBS. Disneyworld opened in Orlando. Eighteen year olds in America were made eligible to vote. 


All of those events are available in my memory banks, but the one that stays on my desktop is that song. It remains the most singalongable of John Lennon's solo catalog. So much so that ten years after its release, an episode of WKRP In Cincinnati used the lyrics of that tune to cement its place in my heart forever.  Over the course of the episode, station owner Arthur Carlson confronts his devotion to religious leader Doctor Bob as the censorship police come to the door of everyone's favorite Ohio rock station. Arthur, "The Big Guy," wonders how he can continue to let this happen. He brings the lyrics of John's masterpiece to Doctor Bob for his opinion:

Dr. Bob: That sounds like Communism to me. If there's no heaven, no religion and I assume no God.
Carlson: There's not an obscene word in here.
Dr. Bob: Not the way I see it.
Carlson: Go on your list?
Dr. Bob: Arthur, this is typical of the kind of secular liberal humanist point of view that gluts our airwaves.
Carlson: Yeah. But we're not talking obscenities here anymore, Bob. We're talking about ideas, political, the philosophical ideas. First you censor a word and then you censor the ideas.
Dr. Bob: The idea is man-centered, not God-centered. Man is an animal. The Bible tells us to put our reliance in God, not in our fellow mortals. Arthur, this song says there's no heaven.
Carlson: Ah. No, it says just imagine there's no heaven.
Dr. Bob: That's blasphemy.
Carlson: On the list or not?
Dr. Bob: I have no choice but to say "on".
Carlson: That decision was made by one man.

I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one


Saturday, September 11, 2021


 Listening to the radio in the morning twenty years ago was disturbing. I had my alarm set to wake me to my favorite radio station. I was used to waking to the sound of my favorite AOR morning crew, with music that tended to suit my mood and my mind. Every so often, I would be dropped into a news or traffic report, but those were a mere pause in the important thing: tunes to start my day. 

This is not what I heard twenty years ago. The sound of the voices were distinct but confused. The regular news guy was trying to pull together reports from their sister station down the hall. The news station. They were trying to put together the facts about a plane flying into the World Trade Center. There was a lot more speculation than facts at that point. When accounts of a second plane hitting the South Tower, it became muddled. Even eyewitness accounts were hard to unravel. What people on the ground were watching in New York City was difficult if not impossible to comprehend. 

America was under attack. Across the continent from us. My mind leapt to the friends I had in Manhattan. Then they turned to the matter of my own day. How soon before planes began to rain down from the heavens in my own neighborhood? What could I do to prepare my family for what was starting to feel like the end of the world? Without any outside direction, my wife and I chose to go about our day. I would head out to my school. She would take our son to his nursery school and we would all wait for news that would tell us if we were in danger. 

Somewhere in there, the North Tower collapsed. Then the South. The Pentagon was hit. Was it a missile or a plane? At school, we didn't have televisions on to show us the carnage and destruction. I used my nascent Internet connection to try and piece together what was going on. Each teacher who showed up had a different account or update. My wife was met by a sign at my son's school: "Let's leave the outside world outside." Which was how we all got through the day at my school. There was recess. And lunch. There was probably some reading and math taught. But mostly we tensed for the bad news alerts that were pouring in. 

And we wondered when the high rises in San Francisco would be hit. How long before they blew up something in Los Angeles? 

And who were they? 

Twenty years ago, we had no idea. We wandered around in a daze, hoping for a clue. Shielding my son from the reality of the outside world did not last long. Like his parents, his eyes were transfixed on our new favorite show: New York. For weeks afterward, there were images burned into our memories. The impact of a commercial airliner accelerating into a skyscraper. Then another. Watching as those buildings collapsed on themselves and the debris fields they created. The hole in the Pentagon. United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. 

I felt that day that my job as a parent became more difficult. I was going to try and explain to my four year old son how this could happen. My job as a teacher became more difficult. I was going to try and explain to elementary schoolers how our world had changed on that morning. Forever. 

I am still trying to figure that out.