Tuesday, March 25, 2008


For S.

I did not know him well the summer I began to loot his small library. He was my father-in-law's father. What was evident as I went through his books was that he had an intellectual life—the books had been read, passages underlined, related articles from newspapers and journals clipped and placed like dried flowers between the pages.

As my father-in-law tells it, his father was a lawyer and intellectual who immigrated to Los Angeles from Ecuador and began teaching Spanish when my father-in-law was young. His Spanish students started the book collection. Many titles from his library were histories, biographies, and books about painters, essays, and philosophy. The books were not random selections, but well-known titles and authors in the selected fields. Someone had chosen these works with an eye toward developing an intellect, a life of the mind. Did he select any of them, or were they all the choices of former students? I wanted to believe that he chose at least some of them, and that the underlined passages were words he found significant and important.

The following summer, my father-in-law let us know the last of the books were ours if we wanted them because his parents had decided to move to a retirement home. Before collecting the books from the old apartment, we visited them. We wound our way through the streets of Glendale to a neighborhood of short, squat older homes and parked in the loading zone in front of a sprawling, pink, single-story building. It was decorated to look like a house, but its size gave it away. It actually looked like four regular houses all hooked together, fronted by a broad concrete veranda.

We ended up on the flowered sofas in the greeting area by the electric door. The grandfather spoke to me in his whispery English. Once in a while, my father-in-law would have to repeat what he said, or answer my questions.

When I asked what he had been reading, he glanced down at his lap. "No time," he said softly. "No time at all." He paused for a moment, glancing around the room. "Besides, that's all over with. No more books."

I looked into his eyes. He had the same resignation I'd seen in other, elderly eyes when they are forced to give up something of their lives and freedoms to age: the end of driving a car; the end of living alone. Yet, there was something else. He was not sad. Maybe a bit wistful, but giving up his intellectual life was something he'd already made peace with and moved beyond. There would be no need to carry baggage on this final journey.

He walked us out onto the veranda in the twilight where we said our goodbyes. He shook my hand and wished me well before turning and making his way back through the electric doors.

At the apartment, I took a box to the dusty shelves lined with the remaining volumes. These were the books he treasured most: his biography of Cervantes, a writer he once told me he greatly admired; his classical volumes of the world's greatest literature; In My Own Way by Alan Watts; Inconsolable Memories by Edmundo Desnoes. There were volumes on science, the nature of the universe, philosophy, metaphysics, and history.

When I finished packing, my father-in-law handed me the latest issue of the New Yorker. "I'm going to transfer the remainder of his subscription to your name," he said. "He doesn't want it anymore."

At home, I sat in my study unpacking the books and dusting each volume. Then I began the ritual of finding space for them on the shelf. Again, I found his scribbled notes, clippings of reviews and related articles stuffed between the pages. In one book was his business card: Gonzalo Garcia. Teacher. Translator.

I remembered the last image of him going through the electric door. I imagined myself someday walking through that final door. Who would come to box up all my books and cart them away? Would they realize that someone once treasured these objects of wood pulp and ink? Would someone come, as I did, to excavate the ruins, to claim the artifacts of what we leave behind at the end of all our days? Carefully, I placed each book on the shelf with all the others. I was the guardian of the relics now. They are a part of my life, representative of what I treasure, and I will keep them safe for all my days. After that, they will be for someone else to keep.

Friday, March 21, 2008

News--More, Paper--Less

In all my syllabi for my four English courses, I demand that students read at least one daily newspaper every day. I make this reading part of the class—I discuss it, refer to specific articles, and assign writing on current events. The problem is that the students do not read the entire physical newspaper; they read selections from the online version. The upside to all of this is that they often read multiple newspapers every day, or at least portions of multiple papers.

I have been deeply disturbed by the collapse of the newspaper just in the last few months. Depending to whom one speaks, newspapers are somewhere between irrelevant and dead. I cannot accept this. To protest, I still subscribe to two dailies, and even though one, the Los Angeles Times, has fallen in quality, I refuse to cancel my subscription. Whenever possible, I also purchase the Los Angeles Daily News, USA Today, and several New York tabloids. The newspaper is not dead, damn it!

But when talking with my students about their online surfing of the major metropolitan newspapers, I could not help but draw the conclusion that the newspaper is simply being transfigured. The news is still vital; the paper part is the irrelevancy. Therefore, I believe newspapers will survive online. That is the direction the tide is moving, and we need to embrace it.

David Simon, creator and head writer for the HBO television series, The Wire, spent much of the fifth and final season of his show writing about a fictionalized Baltimore Sun, in reality, the newspaper of H.L. Mencken, the most famous journalist of the early twentieth century. In the world of his show, the paper is suffering round after round of buyouts and layoffs. Veteran reporters are let go, and youngsters who replace them lack the credibility to report the news. In fact one spends the ten episodes fabricating a major story and making up quotes only to receive a Pulitzer in the finale. All of this occurs against the backdrop of a failing infrastructure and collapse of a major metropolitan city: Baltimore, Maryland—fictionalized, but closer to truth than fiction.

In recent interviews, Simon spoke about how the reporters and editors at the fictional paper lost touch with their community. The paper was no longer relevant. Every major story over the years on the show—from the drug trade to port smuggling and corruption to failing schools—was overlooked by the paper. Simon’s argument is clear: unless newspapers find a way to become relevant to the communities they serve, their fortunes will continue to fall. And they cannot be relevant with fewer reporters and editors. They cannot “do more with less.”

The other night, I was out walking my dog and found a street two blocks from my home blocked off with police tape and armed men. Two large vehicles were parked nearby labeled “Bomb Squad.” Down the street, squatting by itself alone, was a car with its lights on and motor running. No one was in it. All the police on scene were respectfully giving the vehicle plenty of room. “What’s up,” I asked one of the cops.

“We have a suspicious vehicle,” he replied.

The police helicopter circled overhead. The radios crackled. After a while, the tape was taken down, the car was towed away, the neighborhood went back to evening quiet. The next morning, I could find no information about the “incident” anywhere.

I want to know what is happening a world away and I want to know what is happening down my block. I want to know, and so do many others. Journalism is not dead. We need the same information, the same reporting and thoughtful analysis.

So how can newspapers remain relevant with a gutted masthead and a dead delivery system?

A community needs reporters—writers must hit the streets and city council meetings and report back. If, like both the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News, the ownership keeps cutting personnel in round after round of belt-tightening, who will be left to report the news, in whatever form?

As for the traditional delivery vehicle, newspapers need to stop being paper. The daily newspaper, or update, or bulletin, whatever you call it, will be delivered not at your doorstep, but on your computer. This is already the case, but what will happen in the future is that more of us will jump on the bandwagon and read it on our desktops and laptops and other devices.

Advertising? Yes, well we already know that advertising is completely integrated into the web. The newspapers will sell ads in the online addition, like they do now in print. Capitalism always makes the transition.

Editorial content? Here is where it becomes fun. Newspapers will not be relegated to print and still photos. Check out the major U.S. papers online today. They have libraries of still images, video clips, interactive sidebars, graphs, statistics, galleries, catalogues, and archives. Online readers get it all, full access to not only today’s issue, but all editions for the history of the publication.

So staffing needs to be increased, not cut. To provide the service, we need reporters, photographers, editors, technicians, and programmers. We need more people to gather the news, not less. We must find a way to solidify the economics online and re-staff the newsroom. The model must succeed financially online where it could not as a newspaper.

This also makes sense editorially; as reporters and readers dialogue, comments and questions can be integrated into stories—the great discussion, the essence of democracy. Stories can be updated, added to, revised with new information at a moment’s notice. No need to wait for tomorrow’s edition as we must do with newspapers.

The newspaper has been a valuable conduit of information for hundreds of years. It is remarkable how long it has remained the gold standard for communicating the news. Even after television came, we clung to that wad of tree fiber hitting our front walkway each and every morning. I love the newspaper—I used to deliver it as an adolescent. But it is gone, or will be soon. Newspapers are dead, long live the newspapers.

So let’s crank up those newsrooms. Let’s get the reporters back out on the streets of the world, here and abroad. Let’s kneel at the altar of saints Woodward and Bernstein. Let’s fold print journalism into the other forms and make it all one entity. It will never be a profit-generator because journalism is, at heart, a public service. We need to recognize its continuing necessity to a democracy and focus on its true nature: to communicate, analyze, and comment upon what is happening in our world.

This morning, I turned on my computer, and worked my way through the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, The New York Post. I read some blogs. I glanced at MSNBC and CNN. I also checked the Drudge Report, L.A. Observed, and the Huffington Post. Yeah, I also read the printed newspapers—the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, but I do not know how much longer I will keep my subscriptions.

This is the new world, the paradigm shift. There is nothing like the smell of ink and paper, but things change and a new day dawns. It is the age of digital enlightenment, of gigabytes and flat screens, downloads and instant delivery. Journalism is alive and well, as vital as ever. Only the format has changed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Do Dead People Watch You Shower?

Do Dead People Watch You Shower? And Other Questions You’ve Been All But Dying To Ask A Medium
By Concetta Bertoldi
Harper Collins, $13.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-06-135122-8

Okay, I’ll admit it. I was walking through my local Barnes and Noble when I spied Concetta Bertoldi’s book on a table marked “New in Paperback.” I do not believe in mediums or speaking with the dead, but I am intrigued by the mystery. So I picked up the book and began to thumb through it.

“When we cross over is there really a ‘God’ to meet?” she writes, in her question and answer format. “There is, absolutely a God and we do meet Him…God is all and when we cross we go from being a piece of God to being one with God…God is pure loving energy.” All of a sudden, I am hearing echoes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Oversoul or Atman, the principles of Transcendentalism. So I bought the book.

The reality is that this book is not really a book, but more of a transcription of common questions Bartoldi is asked when she makes appearances, followed by her answers. There are no chapters. Her case for talking to the dead is laid out in the question and answer format. And she does not just steal from Transcendentalism. It turns out that Bartoldi cribs from a number of religious and philosophical ideas.

In her particular dimension, there is a God. He or she loves us, and joining the afterlife is a pleasurable experience, a chance to bathe in the pure light of divinity. “When we cross,” she writes, “we are no gender. We are pure energy and one with God.” This does not stray too far from my Catholic school religion lessons.

“…[W]hen we die we leave either through our feet or the top of the head,” she continues. “And we know and understand what our purpose was in this lifetime…There’s a period of transition, a time we get to reflect on our lives…For many there may be a necessary period of healing any physical or emotional issues, especially forgiving ourselves for anything we did while living that we don’t feel proud of, that may have hurt someone, before we are able to interact with this side, the living, again” In this testament, Bartoldi seems grounded in the Judeo-Christian traditions.

When she writes about rejoining God, reuniting our little piece of him with the greater mass of divinity, I hear the echoes of Hinduism. In her insistence on reincarnation, I sense the precepts of Buddhism. She also includes animals in the afterlife, something that always bothered me in Catholicism—they do not believe animals have souls. “…[A]ny living creation is the energy of God, that God created and that goes back to God,” she writes. So animals, imbued with the spirit of divinity, return to rejoin God as do human beings.

Murderers, she tells us, are not invited into the realm of God. She even names specific murderers like Charles Manson, Adolph Hitler, and Ted Bundy. And though he was found not guilty by a jury of his peers, O.J. Simpson will not escape punishment either. He will have a “reckoning,” Bartoldi tells us.

In addition, she believes there is such a thing as pure evil in the world. Surprisingly, this is not all that difficult to believe when looking at history. “What we call the devil, or an evil spirit, really does exist. Just as there is positive, there is also negative—this is a world of duality and you can’t have one without the other.” Of course the idea of a world in balance, the yin and the yang, the dark side and the light, good and evil, have all been subjects of numerous philosophies in all ages. Christians have long struggled with the question, if God created good, did he also create evil? Theologians believe he had to be the architect of evil; how else would we know and value goodness?

Bartoldi keeps her views simple. She does not stretch to discuss philosophy or theology. She simply presents what she knows from her conversations with the Other Side. Like James Van Praagh and John Edward, she claims her ability is just like any other talent in a human being. She shies away from calling it a gift as she finds such designations “pretentious.” Bartoldi tries very hard throughout the book to portray herself as a normal human being, someone who has issues with her in-laws, and suffers the slings, arrows, as well as the successes, of marriage.

Having seen mediums and psychics on talk shows, I was familiar with their proclaimed abilities. I found some of what I’ve seen to be interesting and intriguing, but far from concrete and believable. I feel the same way about Bartoldi’s book. It is interesting to read something like this and see the connections between the psychic and religion and philosophy, to hear the overlays of medicine and psychology, and explore a description of the realm of the dead.

Ultimately, though, I was left unsatisfied by the book. I felt it told me nothing new. Having studied Emerson’s writing and the Transcendentalist philosophy as well as other views, I felt more deeply engaged by those works than Bartoldi’s alleged communications with the dead. The most startling revelation I discovered here is that knowing what the dead have to say to us, the living, ruins the mystery. I would much rather contemplate a world where the dead may, or may not be all around us. I can feel that there are aspects of this world that we can perceive only intuitively, and that in these situations, our senses may be useless. That is where things get interesting. I am too afraid that the dead might be just as ordinary in the afterlife as they were on this side. Better to only get a hint of them, a wisp of smoke on the staircase, and wonder.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


There is a town in Norway, up near the North Pole, the northernmost town in the world, and its citizens are waiting for the sun to rise for the first time since October.

My seniors are anxiously waiting for the first letters from their colleges. What does the future hold? Where will I be in the fall? What is to come?

I am already thinking about next year. What things will I do differently? What works of literature will I teach? What methods will I change? Which methods will I keep? Will the problems of this year be solved for the fall? Will anything ever change, or will we simply keep marching toward mediocrity?

In the pause between winter and spring, we are all waiting. The nights are getting shorter; the sun sets later. Daylight savings time returned last weekend. Outside, it is windy and balmy, a night for walking the streets, listening to music and television programs from the houses on the block. Everyone is restless. Waiting.

Up in Longyearbyen, Norway, a town recently profiled in The New York Times ( March 3, 2008), 2000 inhabitants wait for March 8. That is the day “the sun will rise again in Longyearbyen.” It is, for all purposes, the first day of spring, not because of the date, but because of the rising sun. The first day of spring does not arrive until March 21.

“Longyearbyen, originally a coal mining town named for the American who founded it a century ago, is in total darkness from mid-November through January. During the first part of November and in February, when the sun is well below the horizon, daytime is only indirect light, a brief period of bluish twilight.”

It is in the period of waiting for something anticipated that we all stand in the twilight.

In the town of winter darkness, when the light returns, “people will be driving their cars and scooters in light rather than darkness. They can see their kids when they run on ahead. They can hike up the glacier.

“The return of the sun also means the return of warmth to this frigid land, although that concept is relative. Summer temperatures average only 43 degrees. The record high is 64.” Such is summer in Longyearbyen, Norway.

I can feel summer. I remember it in my genes. I can smell the heat, the cracking asphalt, the days of reading and studying and preparing to teach another year. Right now, as we trudge through our days in the soggy spring, we all dream of summer. My seniors are dreaming ahead even further, into the realm of the future.

I can also feel some disappointment coming. Many of my students will not get into the college of their choice. They will have to settle for something else—a nearby four year university, a junior or community college. They will soon realize that the hard work never ends. As soon as this acceptance or refusal comes, they will have to get back to the hard work of living day to day. There are tests coming, final exams, AP exams, life exams. The test never ends. And next fall, when they arrive on a new campus, they will start over again. They are the freshman class, once again. The climb to success, to the next plateau, begins again in earnest. The repeated word: again and again and again.

I plan. I anticipate. What does the next group of students need work on to compete on the AP exam? What skills will I stress more next year? Next year, next year it will be different. It always is, and then it isn’t.

I wish the principal would stop playing politics and make decisions based on solid pedagogy. What is best for the students and their education? How refreshing that would be! I wish the parents would stop excusing the behavior of their children. Students who quit working in the spring, who turn in blank tests, who fall in love with the wrong people, or break school rules, are not the teachers’ fault. It is spring. They are young. They have yet to realize the test never ends. We keep teaching, through the bored looks, the minds that go elsewhere.

All I know is that I have the most important job in the world. To teach someone to think for himself is to arm a person to face the never-ending test. Life is so hard. We should be lucky to be armed against the bumps and bruises and storms of life. If it only could be summer always, but that is not real. That is not the way it is.

Take heart, seniors. Soon the light will come. All will be revealed. When the success happens, we will all celebrate together. When the crushing disappointment falls on us, we, your teachers, will be there to console you.

This is the cycle of our lives: fall into winter into spring into summer. Around and around we go.

Like the citizens of Longyearbyen, we hope and pray that soon the light will come, that tomorrow, the sun may rise.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Stone Dialogues

5:35 AM. We are walking the street outside my house, Stone and I. The morning is still black and two bright stars hang in the heavens in the east. The air is damp and cold. We walk down the street to the end of the block, cross over to the other side, and make our way back up the street. Stone smells the air and seems to relish the morning. I am not a morning person, but I feel strangely invigorated by our walk. “Morning is a metaphor for birth,” I whisper to Stone. “Each morning is like a chance to begin life all over again.” Without comment, Stone urinates voluminously on a tree.

He came into our lives on December 21, 2007, the first day of winter. He is eight years old, or 56 years old, or middle aged, any way you slice it. He is also overweight. Aside from this, he is in remarkably good shape, physically and mentally for someone who spent the last two years in prison and suffered a brutal attack by his brother. We rescued him.

4:59 PM. We are moving down the street at a brisk pace. I want to hit the two mile mark today. Stone moves rhythmically along by my side. But periodically, he stops suddenly and veers off onto the parkway to smell the grass and maybe even chew some. “That’s okay, Old Sport,” I say, resorting to the language of Jay Gatsby. “Salads are good for the diet, but you break my rhythm when you veer off so suddenly.” Stone ignores my comment, and I realize that it is the veering off onto paths unknown and never traveled, that makes all the difference. Has Stone been reading Frost? We move on.

We knew when he came to stay with us that he had family issues. His brother attacked him, ripping open his side from just below the spine to almost the center of his ribcage. It was, by the scars, a brutal fight. They were separated and Stone went to the hospital, never to see his brother again. They have not had contact. Stone feels he has made peace with the conflict and has moved on. We do not know what happened to the brother.

11:28 PM. We round the corner and nearly fall over a man and his dog out for a late night walk. The dog erupts in vicious snarls and Stone and I jump into the street to get away. The dog was not on a leash. Stone especially hates this and has no mercy for such irresponsibility. We stare down the dog’s owner until he pulls out a leather leash and attaches it to the canine’s collar. Only then do Stone and I rest easy. “Remind you of your brother, buddy?” I ask him gently. I usually do not bring up the subject with him. He does not like to think about it. He does not answer me, and I know to leave it alone.

Stone makes me walk. He demands that I exercise. I find that I have not lost much weight yet, but my mind is clearer, and I have time to think about things in my life. For instance, in a moment when I felt completely overwhelmed, I decided to give up this blog. Maybe I would give up writing altogether. On a walk with Stone I realized that writing is as much a part of me as reading. I would be lost without the physical act of writing, if for no other reason then to make sense of what I am thinking. I decided to stick it out and redouble my efforts. I feel so good when writing, like the floodgates are open and everything is flowing and smooth. It is too important not to give up when facing adversity. I discovered this one day on a walk with Stone.

3:23 PM. I am walking with Stone in the park. There are at least twenty soccer matches going on, and people are flying kites. Stone decides he likes soccer. He realizes that it is a popular sport in his native Germany. He stops by some players lounging in the grass and checks out a soccer ball. He likes it, but really prefers tennis. Actually, he does not like the game of tennis, just the balls. We move on. We pass a group of Emo teenagers sitting in a circle. One is playing a guitar. They have on the requisite jeans that cling tightly to their legs. The girls have on heavy eyeliner. Some are singing. Stone has no interest in them. “You do not like music, do you buddy?” I ask him. He says nothing, but I know the answer and smile to myself. I like to tease him. He is not happy when I play music at home. He will put his head under his blanket. He can barely stand classical music at extremely low volumes. He cannot abide loud noises. He made it clear that it was because of the prison—there was always too much noise there.

I am contemplating my teaching. It is that time of year when we begin thinking about next year and the changes to be made in course curriculum and methodology. So many books to teach, and so little time. I think I want to select fewer texts, but go more deeply into them. We need to do more close reading, more explication and analysis. I need to continue to teach my students how to formulate an argument. A revised list of texts is due in March so books can be ordered. I enjoy this process. Over the course of several walks with Stone, I bounce ideas off of him. He thinks I should teach more of the classics—Old Yeller, Sounder, Where The Red Fern Grows. He particularly likes that new book called Marley and Me.

6:03 AM. Stone is not afraid of anything. Even when dogs growl at him, and bring back memories of his brother’s attack, he stands still and endures it. He is also curious about his world, and this leads us into trouble. We are walking the streets in the early morning darkness when a disheveled woman lunges out of the shadows at us. She is carrying something shiny in her hand, either a knife or a broken bottle. “Hey, hey!” she yells. Stone freezes and stares at her. He wonders at the animalistic behavior of humans. He tries to decode her aggression. Where does it come from? Why is it directed at us, taking this early morning walk? I want to get the hell away from her. Stone resists my demands to run. Finally, he relents, and we move off rapidly down the street. The creature behind us gives up the chase. “Stone, why did you hesitate?” I ask him. “She could have hurt us.” He does not answer me. He lowers his head and continues down the street at a trot. I know what he is thinking. Life is inherently dangerous. One cannot avoid it. When death comes, or violence, or danger, one must stand and face it in order to overcome fear. He knows that his silence teaches me volumes. There is no need, in many cases, for dialogue.

In life, one must choose a teacher and choose a friend. I am lucky. Stone is both. I already dread the day when death will separate us. But I will cling to the memory of our walks and the unconditional love he has shown for me. Only I could adopt a middle-aged, overweight dog with family issues. We are kindred souls, this Weimaraner canine and I.

4:50 PM. We walk along the tide, Stone and I. He marvels at his feet getting wet, the ripples of the waves, the way the ocean reminds him of the edge of the world. He does not care for the water, but he comes to accept its mid-winter coldness, and he loves the birds soaring above him crying into the wind. They say dogs live in the moment. There is no past that they carry, and they do not worry about what is to come tomorrow. If this moment is happy, they are happy. I walk down the beach with Stone at my side. He is happy. I try to live in the moment, to soak up the fresh salt air and the roar of the sea. Stone is teaching me how to do this. And I am most grateful.