Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spending Time At 221B Baker Street

The Complete Sherlock Holmes: All 4 Novels and 56 Short Stories in Two Volumes
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Bantam Classics, $13.90 paper
ISBN: 978-0-553-358257


I have been amusing myself this holiday season by walking the streets of Victorian London with Sherlock Holmes. Of course, it was nothing like when I was actually there, walking the streets of the east end of the city in the steps of Jack the Ripper. The Tower of London is nearby, and across the Thames is the famed Dungeon Museum. However, that was modern London, and nothing like the slums and opium dens haunted by the criminals who are the targets of Holmes and his intrepid partner, Doctor John Watson.

Bantam Classics has a nice two-volume set of the complete Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels and short stories featuring Homes and Watson, reasonably priced, in a cardboard slipcover. This is light reading, something to sit with by the fire in an evening and drift off. The books are also suitable for trains, planes, and automobiles. If you should misplace a copy, the cost is minimal, but the enjoyment is fulfilling and complete.

These days, Sherlock Holmes makes for an intellectual hero, a breed long absent from the typical police procedural or gumshoe private eye stories of the hardboiled type originated by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Holmes solves mysteries with deductive logic. Given a set of clues, he can draw a conclusion using only his mind. Many of the stories involve little action; Holmes simply reasons his way through to the guilty parties. However, if it is action you want, Doyle provides some of the best in his Holmes stories as well. His iconic character is a noted pugilist, occasionally carries a firearm and can use it effectively, as could Watson, and often finds himself in some of the darkest streets and alleys of London with dangerous criminals. At his core, though, Holmes is the thinking person’s detective.

Conan Doyle did not make Holmes perfect. Notoriously, he injects himself with cocaine in a seven-percent solution. He frequents the above mentioned opium den on the pretense of research, and he is often self-absorbed, cranky, and eccentric. Watson warns him about his drug use, legal in the London of the late nineteenth century, and both characters use tobacco.

Holmes is often pictured with a pipe and playing the violin. His alleged famous saying, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” surprisingly has not come up in the number of short stories and two novels I have reread. A quick check online uncovered that he never actually says those words in that order, however, many people assume it is his common catchphrase. Wikipedia claims that the phrase originated in one of the film versions of the great detective. The site also says that Holmes’ famous “deerstalker hat” is not native to Conan Doyle’s works, but added by an illustrator, Sidney Paget.

There is a cottage industry surrounding Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Film adaptations are almost too many to count. I have seen some of the very old movies with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, but the only one I really like is The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). I did not care as much for the 2009 production directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. That movie focuses more on the “action figure” Holmes and exaggerates his eccentricities and his “mad scientist” persona. The recent BBC series, Sherlock, strikes some interesting notes by updating the story to present day London. Holmes and Watson text each other, use modern technology, and race around the city in a hyper-real style. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes, and Martin Freeman portrays Watson, now a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. The first season—three ninety minute episodes—has been released on DVD. When I asked for it at my local Barnes and Noble, the clerk told me they were sold out. The demand for the discs was overwhelming, he said. The series, produced by the people behind the popular English show, Doctor Who, was recently picked up for more episodes in the future.

I love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work because it is flat out entertaining. Cold winter nights, Watson and Holmes sitting by the fire at 221B Baker Street, and suddenly, there is a knock at the door. The game’s afoot, and mystery abounds. It does not get better than that.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Atman Discovery

Primers For The Age of Inner Space VI: Cracking the Code Of the Ultimate Enigma: The Atman Discovery: An Unperceived Revolution
By John E. Whiteford Boyle
Academy of Independent Scholars/Essentialist Philosophical Society/Wheat/Forders Press

$15.00 paper
ISBN: 0-917888-012


This book is a quagmire, a sinkhole of enormous proportions. I found it on a dusty college library shelf. The premise sounded interesting: what if all the world’s religions, quantum physics, and analytical psychology were all connected? The scene is the mid-twentieth century in California, and a group of writers and mystics gather at a Vedantist retreat center called Trabuco. Among the attendees are Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. “Here,” the book jacket promises, “finally is the Pantheist monist philosophical and religious trend line, discernible in their work, extended to our time.” I should have run the other way.

I struggled through several weeks of trying to decipher author John E. Whiteford Boyle’s twisty prose. His work is full of trapdoors that plunge the reader into a mess of philosophical ideas. Sure, there is the occasional intriguing notion here, but much of the book takes what has been written much more clearly elsewhere and needlessly muddies it up. Go read Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy. Or, take another look at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. I stuck with Boyle because I kept hoping he would lead me somewhere. Instead, he doubles back on himself and writes so incoherently that I am left scratching my head in disbelief.

For my own mental health and well-being, let me try to frame Boyle’s argument in coherent language. The world is part of a larger energy force known in several theologies as atman, or spirit, or substance of life. We all have a piece of this life force inside of us. We call it the soul. Boyle calls it The Substance, and we who issue from it, “The Forms.” He compares it to a wave washing on the sand. That is us, and when we die, we ebb back into the sea to become part of the ocean again. We might be part of a new wave that crashes on the shore—that would be reincarnation—but it is not us. It is a part of us. Therefore, all human beings contain multitudes, to borrow from Walt Whitman. We have a collective conscience and a conjoined soul. How this translates into quantum physics and near death experiences is not clear, or Boyle does not make it so.

Boyle finds his evidence in a literal plethora of literature and scientific research. He cites the ancient Greeks, the philosophy of Stoicism, the work of Freud and Jung, and the Transcendentalists, just to name a few of the fish caught in his wide net. He tells us that “philosophy takes its rise in science and issues in religion.” Yes, but he makes several huge leaps that are simply nonsensical because Christianity and, say, Buddhism, have some interesting overlaps, but they approach existence and human endeavors with radically different philosophies. Because Jesus preached and exhibited many elements with parallels in Buddhism does not make him a Buddhist. There is a shared mythological underpinning to the history of the world. There are shared connections, but there are problems with Boyle’s clarity and cohesion as he leaps from religion to science to psychology.

For a moment, let us leave content behind and look at the vehicle Boyle rides into town. His prose is so inept and confusing as to be nonsensical. His errors in syntax, grammar, punctuation, and spelling are simply ridiculous for a published book. Then, he attempts to use his own poetry to distill the difficult scientific and philosophical concepts he wants to present. The poetry is god-awful; there is no other way to say it. And it makes no sense to use a poem as a statement of Einstein’s theories and then spend several pages explaining the poem. Here is an example: “Death, the great lacuna in our wit / is first among arcanae / concerning who and what we are / and what we may become; or where we go, / or who it is has writ our final destiny. / Unreasoned fears of Thanatos are plants, / whose roots are buried deep in psyche’s soil of ignorance. / But That which we cannot ken, we still may yet intuit, / and thus explore the meaning, and even crack the code / of this Ultiimate Enigma, which holds the world in thrall.” The poetry does not breed clarity, of that I am sure.

I do believe there is common ground among the world’s religions, philosophies, sciences, and histories. Yes, I believe we are all interconnected, part of some greater life force that is divine and metaphysical. I know enough not to discount any religion, any path, any philosophy. However, if one seeks clarity and insight, I have to vote for Henry David Thoreau’s advice to “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” That means to haul out Emerson, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and Lao Tzu. Sink into the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita. Go to Herodotus and Pliny, and John Henry Newman. We are lucky in that we have access to countless thousands of books and writers who tell us what our lives mean, and in what context our experiences are placed in the pantheon of history.

As for John E. Whiteford Boyle and his unperceived revolution, can a revolution pass unperceived? Only if it is written up in syntactical nonsense by a writer who forsakes clarity for the love of his own muddled ideas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Knuckleheads


“Hey, knuckleheads, don’t ride in the street,” Monica yelled from the porch. I jumped off my bike and walked it to the curb. Daryl and Keenie continued crisscrossing the empty residential street lined with tract homes. Once on the curb, I rode up the sweeping concrete-gray driveway to where my father and Clete stood in the garage. A 1963 Chevrolet Impala, its windows obscured with brown paper and masking tape, was parked in the interior.

“I’ve fucked over a thousand women,” Clete was saying to my dad, “and every one said thanks after, you know what I mean?” My dad glanced down at me, his face going red. “I’m good. I don’t need General Motors to make me a man. I can paint any car as long as it ain’t moving. I don’t need GM.”

Clete, Daryl, Keenie and Monica lived down the street from us when I was ten years old. I often rode bikes with the boys up down our quiet street. My dad had an uneasy relationship with Clete. They had been hunting together a few times because Clete had a Jeep with four wheel drive. However, he used language that my father never used, and he was not particular keen on having me hear it. So these encounters between the two men were fraught with tension, Clete using his questionable language while my father rocked nervously back and forth on his heels.

“Daryl, get out of the street,” Monica yelled again.

“Hey, Monica, give that shit a rest, huh,” Clete screamed back at her.

She gave him a look. “They’re your kids.”

“Go back in the house and mind your own fucking business.”

Even at ten years old, ignorant about the mysteries of sex and love, I thought Monica was beautiful. She was tall and lithe, like a dancer, with black hair and green eyes. The haunted look in her eyes only contributed to her beauty, and I did not understand what she feared. I just knew that I had a monstrous crush on her.

“Gotta go, Clete,” my dad said. “Take it easy.”

“If it’s easy, I’ll take it twice!” Clete laughed heartily and picked up his paint gun. As we made our way down the street, me walking my bike next to my dad, I could hear the hiss of the paint hitting the car. We walked to our own home seven doors down and across the street.

The next day, I met Daryl and Keenie in the street. Clete was putting the finishing touches on the Impala, which was now an awesome blood red. Daryl was the oldest and attended the neighborhood public school. This was his second year in second grade. He had red hair and an unfathomable number of freckles spread across his face. On his upper lip was a ceaseless stream of green and yellow snot. He once stuck a small stone up his nostril in an attempt to staunch the flow. The snot continued to run and he had to go to the emergency room to have the stone removed. Keenie was a few years younger and blond. His face was always caked with dirt. He also drooled uncontrollably and little streams would run from each corner of his mouth.

We decided to play “Chicken” on our bikes. Daryl had an old Schwinn he stole from a little girl at the park. I had a bike my parents bought for me two birthdays back. Keenie rode around on a plastic motorcycle that Daryl snatched from someone’s trash. The wheels were cracked and one pedal was just a metal bar, having long ago lost the plastic footpad. Keenie could not get enough speed on the cycle to keep up with us, so he usually lagged far behind.

Daryl rode to the far west end of the street while I rode east to where the street curved. We started at Keenie’s signal, trying so hard to reach top speed that our chains slipped and the tires wobbled. Approaching top speed, we hurtled toward each other, laughing. At the last second, I veered off and rode up the driveway becoming a little airborne off the dead, brown grass of the lawn. Daryl kept going. In all the times we played this game, he never veered off first. He was fearless, or just plain stupid.

I slid to a stop next to Keenie. “You’re a chicken,” he said to me, then quickly added so I wouldn’t get mad: “Tomorrow’s my birthday, I’ll be seven, you wanna come to my party?” Keenie always said it was his birthday and then invited you to his party. I didn’t know when his real birthday was, and he never had a party.

“Sure,” I answered, playing along with the ritual.

“It’s tomorrow.”

“I’ll be there.” I looked for Daryl and saw that he had turned around and was now racing back down the street from the east. A black, Ford pick-up passed Keenie and me, advancing toward Daryl who was at full speed flying toward the truck. I nervously glanced at the garage, but Clete was out of sight. The two objects raced toward each other, the monstrous black truck and the streak of red hair. Having nowhere to turn, the truck slammed on its brakes, but Daryl kept coming. He swung to the passenger side of the vehicle and slammed both fists on the hood of the truck as he passed, momentarily letting go of his handlebars. The horn blared and Daryl lost control of his bike, ramming the curb and flying over the front tire to land on his back.

The driver jumped out of the truck, a look of shock and fear on his face. “Did you see that crazy kid?” he yelled to no one in particular.

“Hey!” I turned around and saw Clete coming from the garage, a large caliber revolver leveled at the driver. “That’s my kid.”

The driver backed up against his truck, hands raised in defense. Monica came from the house and ran to Daryl. Clete went right up to the driver, shoving the gun into his face. “Get in the truck and leave before I blow your fucking head off.”

“I was stopped,” the driver insisted.

Clete cocked the gun. “Get in your car and leave before I fucking blow your head off.”

The driver edged away from the gun and got into his truck. Clete kept the weapon trained on the Ford until it rounded the curve at the end of the street and disappeared. Clete released the hammer and stuck the gun in his waistband. “Dumb ass,” he said. He walked back up the driveway and into the garage.

When I told my parents what had happened, my father told me not to play with Daryl and Keenie again, but a few days later, Daryl showed up at our door. “You wanna come over for Christmas candy?” Daryl asked. My dad was working the swing shift now and my mom was taking a shower. I figured I was safe, so I got my bike and rode with Daryl to his house. We threw our bikes on the lawn in the frosty air. “My dad and Monica and Keenie and me are going bird hunting Saturday,” he told me. “I’m gonna shoot my new gun. You wanna come? There might be snow.” I could not believe Daryl now had a gun. “It’s a .410. My dad had it when he was a kid.”

“I don’t think my dad will let me,” I said with embarrassment.

We stopped at the garage to see Clete who was painting a dune buggy. His face was red and running with sweat despite the cold. The odor of stale beer, cigarettes, and paint made me lightheaded. “Hey knuckleheads,” he shouted over the blaring country music. He lost his balance and fell against the buggy, smearing gold-sparkle paint all over his bare chest. He laughed so hard he turned purple. His body looked thinner now, more wiry. He was a small man, but muscled and hard. He had a number of tattoos, one of which was a naked woman.

“Knuckleheads,” Monica called from the porch. “Come on in.” She opened the door for us and we stomped into the house. Her face looked tired, and she had dark circles around her eyes. The haunted look was more noticeable. We sat at the dining room table and feasted on homemade Mexican sweetbreads and cupcakes.

Clete staggered in and stripped down to his underwear in the living room. He threw the wad of clothes at Monica. “Those need washing,” he said. “How are my boys? You coming hunting with us Saturday, Paul?”

“No, I can’t,” I mumbled.

“Honey?” Monica said from the kitchen.

“What’s up, doggy?” Clete replied.

“My registration for college is due Friday and you said this would be the semester I could start going.”

I glanced at Clete. He was red and he wouldn’t look at her. “We don’t got the money,” he said through his teeth. He playfully kicked Keenie who was hiding under the table.

“But it’s important and you promised,” she whined.

“Yeah, I promised, but I ain’t got the money. So that’s the way it goes.”

“Clete, please. I really want to go. It means a lot…”

“Why?” he yelled into her face. “Why does it mean a lot? I give you everything and still it ain’t enough.”

“No, I want to go to school. I want to get a job.”

“No, you want to fuck yourself a college professor so you don’t have to go with an ignorant redneck like me.”

“Clete, you know that’s not true.” He grabbed her by the neck and pushed her against the kitchen cabinets. I was out of my chair and through the front door in one smooth movement. I got on my bike and pedaled for home.

My mother was sitting at the dining room table when I burst through the door. “Clete is fighting with Monica,” I said. “I think he was going to hit her.”

“Your father told you not to go down there anymore.” My mother saw the fear in my face. “Sit down.” I fell into a chair. Lights flashed in my brain like Christmas tree bulbs. My legs were rubber. “What happens in that house is their business and none of yours. Do not go down there anymore and then you won’t be scared.”

“But I think something bad will happen.”

“Worry about yourself.” My mother continued calmly opening the mail, which included a healthy stack of Christmas cards.

I managed to avoid Daryl and Keenie for almost two weeks. It wasn’t hard because the weather was cold and they did not play outside. The street was lonely and empty. Toward the end of the second week, Clete, Daryl and Keenie drove by with a large Christmas tree on top of the car. I grabbed my bike and meandered down the street in the cold early evening, hiding behind the parked cars until I found a position to spy from across the street. I saw the three of them working feverishly setting up the tree in their living room. As the multi-colored sets of lights twinkled in the window, Clete danced around the room screaming. I could hear Daryl’s hoarse voice trying to out-scream his father. Monica was not in sight. I strained my ears, but I could not hear her voice.

Back at home, I took a bath and prepared for bed while my dad watched a football game in the living room and my mom talked on the phone. Sirens were common in our neighborhood, but they rarely came down our street. When they did, it was something of an event. I heard the long, low howl almost from the time it left the fire station a mile away. When it turned down our street, I heard my father get up and go outside. I quickly pulled on my jeans, tucked in my flannel pajama shirt, pulled on my tennis shoes and ran for the front door.

Down the street surrounding Daryl and Keenie’s house was a swarm of blue and red flashing lights. I followed my father for a better look. Most of the lights were police cars, but there was one ambulance parked in the driveway. Two policemen were wrapping the perimeter of the property in yellow tape and detectives in suits stood around on the driveway and porch. I could see the periodic hyper-white flash of someone taking pictures in Clete and Monica’s bedroom, as if the house contained its own private lightning storm. Faintly behind the living room drapes I could see the lights of the freshly decorated Christmas tree.

“What’s the situation?” one of the cops taping the barricade asked an older detective in a gray sports jacket and yellow tie. He had just exited the house and was rummaging through the front seat of his unmarked car.

“Lady blew her guts all over the bedroom,” he answered.

“Merry fucking Christmas,” the tape cop said.

“Yep.” He found a clipboard under the seat and went back to the house.

That night, I could not sleep. The lights from passing cars on the street outside my window made strange, film-like frames on the wall. Then rain came with a vengeance, pounding on the roof and cascading in streams down the windows. Thankfully, there was no thunder, just water from the sky in rivers down the walls of my house, soaking the earth.

It took Clete thirty-six hours to get in touch with us. I answered his phone call, and my heart slammed into my sternum and stuck there aching.

“Is your daddy around?” he asked over the line. “Put him on.”

I handed the phone to my father. When he hung up the phone, he turned to my mother. “He wants me to come down. And he wants me to bring Paul.”

“Suicide,” he laughed. “Wasn’t like her.” We stood in their bedroom. Clete wore rubber fly-fishing pants and a flannel shirt with silver paint stains. In his hand was a long, wooden-handled wire brush. There were huge, brownish splotches and splatters all over the bedroom wall and a large, red stain on the bed. Clete stood there in his rubber pants which ended in rubber boots, scrubbing the huge stains and most of the paint off onto the plastic sheeting covering the floor. “Tore up all the carpet,” he said. “Blood soaked through and stained the sub-flooring.”

I gripped my father’s hand so tight my nails dug into his freckled skin. He did not seem to feel it. The room was harshly cold and brightly lit, reeking of ammonia and Ajax.

“We are so sorry, Clete,” my father said.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“Well, I wanted you to know our thoughts are with you.”

“I’ve said it before,” Clete continued, oblivious. “I’ve had over a thousand women. But I loved only one, God rest her soul.” He struck out savagely at the stains. They dissolved slowly and ran in red rivulets down the wall and into a puddle.

“Sorry,” my dad mumbled again. He pulled my hand to go.

“Kids nearly stopped it, you know.” He quit scrubbing and stared at us as if we were transparent. “Yeah. Two seconds earlier she wouldn’t have pulled the trigger. She used Daryl’s .410. Even small bore shotguns make a hell of a mess. I bet the kids startled her. She was here with the butt of the gun resting on the bed and the barrel in her stomach. I think Keenie screamed and startled her when he walked in. Yeah. That’s what happened.” He went back to scrubbing the wall.

When my father and I left, Daryl and Keenie were watching cartoons on TV. They did not answer our goodbyes.

Two days later was Christmas Eve. My parents were locked in their room wrapping presents when someone knocked. It was Clete. I got my father and he came to the door, but did not invite him in.

“Wanted to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas,” he said. He looked nervous and scared.

“Good to see you, Clete. Merry Christmas too, if that’s possible.” My father rocked back and forth on his heels.

“Yeah, listen, we’re pulling out. Montana, maybe. I’m about nuts, you know, and I can’t get the blood out. It just won’t come out. The bedroom is ruined. She really did a number on us.” He ran his hand through his greasy hair. “I’m sorry we never had no funeral, but that is probably the way she’d want it.”

“Well, Clete, it’s your choice.”

“No, no, she made the choice for us. She deserves what she gets you know,” he said, his voice rising. “I buried her at the Mission. Grave is in the directory. Could I ask you to throw some flowers her way once in a while?”

“Ah, yeah, sure,” my dad stumbled. “My father-in-law is buried there. We go all the time.”

“Great, great,” Clete said, sounding relieved. "I’m so sorry to impose you know.”

“No, no, it’s fine.”

“Listen, can you make the flowers, whatever they are, you know, carnations, roses. Can you make them red? Just red. No other colors.”

“Okay.”

“Merry Christmas, man. You’re a good friend.”

“Merry Christmas, Clete. Good luck.”

It took the police almost a full week to get around to interviewing my father. They stayed almost two hours. My father told them what he knew of Clete, how he had been fired for fighting with other workers at GM. The detectives seemed to trust my father. They talked about the circumstances of Monica’s death, how her arms were not long enough to reach the trigger of the shotgun with her stomach pressed against the barrel. They tried to explain to my dad about bullet trajectories, blood spatter patterns, and homicide.

By the time the detectives started putting the pieces together, the Christmas tree I watched them put up was stuffed in the trash can, ornaments and all, and set out on the curb for the after-holidays pick-up. The garage was padlocked. The front door stood ajar, creaking on its hinges. Cats roamed in and out of the house and although the valuable stuff was removed, some of the furniture, including the bloodstained mattress, remained. Ghosts haunted the place, but the knuckleheads were gone.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Coffee, Tea and Me

I have defected to the other side. About a month ago, I gave up coffee and switched to tea. Aside from that one nightmare I had where Voltaire visited me as a disembodied spirit surrounded by fifty or so empty coffee cups floating in the air, things have proceeded quite uneventfully. Why would I forsake a beverage upon whose altar I would have gratefully sacrificed my first born, if I had a first born? There are many reasons, but first, some history.

I started drinking coffee in college when it became necessary to live on a maximum of six hours of sleep per night. That was a good night, six hours. Most of the time, it was more like three or four hours. I fell hard for this lover. I arose with half a pot, took the other half to work with me and finished it before ten in the morning. I purchased the largest cup possible at the local 7-11 on my break, and a second during lunch. (I am the only person I’ve known who tried to fill a Super Big Gulp with coffee instead of soda.) I struggled through the afternoon and made a pot when I arrived home. After downing half of that and thermos-ing the other six cups, it was off to night class. I polished off those six and hit the cafeteria for a last cup at the break. Once back at home, if I had homework for my full day of classes on the morrow—I alternated work days and school days—I downed another pot carrying me into the wee hours of the morning. This was my usual pattern of consuming coffee, day in and day out, Monday through Sunday. The habit stuck on tight like a glove.

My first appliance when I moved out: a coffee maker. My main interest in the house wares department of the local store: coffee makers. Then I hit upon the grinds: Ethiopian, Kenyan, Morning Blend, Sumatra. Addict, I was, and this in the days before Starbucks made it out of Seattle, Washington! When I couldn’t get my specialty coffee, I’d suck up Yuban if necessary. Anything to feed the monkey on my back.

Things got dicey with high blood pressure and diabetes, but I figured I’d be buried with my thermos at hand. If they wanted my coffee, they would have to pry it out of my cold, dead fingers. I endured years of wildly fluctuating blood sugar readings and multiple hypertension remedies. I would eat one small meal a day and still my blood sugar would be out of control. At first, my doctor said caffeine should not have any effect on blood sugar; she was more worried about the hypertension. Then I read that caffeine can have an impact on sugar in the bloodstream, and even though I used artificial sweetener, non-dairy and dairy creamers, I could not control the numbers. Still, I was unwilling to kick my habit.

So what changed? Nothing. That’s right: zip. A month ago, I just tired of the taste of coffee. I tried hot tea and never looked back. I had a cup of coffee in the morning for the first few days, but I liked the tea better and quit coffee altogether. Mainly, I liked the varieties of tea. I had my basic black, green and white teas, but there were also herbals and flavored varieties. I could pick my beverage to match my mood. A little anxious today? Herbal Chamomile. I quick pick-me-up? A strong black tea. Some antioxidants to promote heart health and prevent cancer? A nice cup of green tea, maybe with some hints of coconut or mint. Fruity aromas and subtle spicy blends became my holy grail.

Many people told me I would miss the energy burst from coffee. Others told me I would sleep better and be more relaxed with tea. I would say neither side had it right. I find that tea gives me a slower burn. I feel a boost of energy with caffeinated varieties, but the energy lasts longer and does not drop off suddenly like coffee, nor do I have the anxiety associated with the blackest of brews. Yes, I still get anxious, but coffee made the feelings worse and tea soothes me. In the evenings, I switch to herbal teas and they help relax me a bit, yet the act of drinking something hot and fragrant keeps me awake and alert. It is a strange dichotomy, but it works.

I have tried all kinds of teas in the four weeks since I said goodbye to coffee. My only regret is that I stumbled into a tea place in the mall. Those kinds of boutique tea emporiums are a rip off, and should be avoided at all costs. Tea is relatively cheap, but the store I walked into charged me twenty-seven dollars for a small bag of loose tea. Worse, the sales girl sold me a variety that was guaranteed to put me to sleep at night and didn’t. I tossed and turned fitfully throughout the darker hours. Evidently, she inadvertently added some green tea to the mix that caused the problem.

Mostly, I make do with the common tins and boxes at the local supermarket. They are cheap and tasty. Occasionally, I find a variety that is a little on the weak side; then, I use two tea bags or sachets, as they are now called. I squirt in a dash of honey, and I am good to go. My blood sugar does not react to such a small amount of honey, and I find tea keeps my sugar level even and steady.

I do not order hot tea at a restaurant because I have found that no one brings the proper set up. A small pitcher of sometimes not very hot water and a stale tea bag do not work for me. I’ll order iced and save the hot for home. I am sure there are places that do it right here in America, but the only place where I have had a good cup of restaurant hot tea was in England.

Will I ever go back to coffee? Maybe. I do not hate coffee. It is not like how some people speak of former lovers, their words dripping with the bloody daggers of anger and revenge. Coffee and I are on good terms, and I would not be opposed to sampling a particularly fine blend one of these days, but my daily beverage, my habit of choice, is the tender leaf not the roasted berry. Yes, tea is proper and English, but that is not why I drink it. I am not trying to be more writerly or literary. No pretension here. I like the simplicity of tea, the comfort, the soothing warmth and subtle shadings. No cream, no Splenda, no bleached filters. A shot of honey and I am easing into the stream, the flow of serene consciousness. And at two o’clock in the morning in the middle of a good book, there is nothing quite like it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Free For All


Why aren’t state colleges and universities free? The question popped into my head while watching stuffy Prince Charles and his horsy wife, Camilla, get pummeled on a London street by students protesting the tripling of tuition fees. A Huffington Post piece stated that the vintage 1977 Rolls-Royce Phantom VI containing the couple was also damaged.

But who cares about the car or the royal couple. I am with the students. How are people supposed to get an education if tuition keeps skyrocketing? The average amount of student loan debt an undergraduate accrues these days is approximately $23,186. A graduate degree requires another $25,000 on average, and a doctorate involves $52,000. These are averages; costs can be a lot higher for some students, especially those who do not have parental support or who attend a private university. I do not expect private universities and colleges to be free. If a student selects that option, then he must pay the full freight. However, public universities like the California State system or the University of California schools should be free.

Should a government that cannot decide whether or not to allow more than twenty-six weeks of unemployment when one of every ten people is out of work also pony up for tuition? Yes, and I know that someone must pay the price. Disclaimer: I am no economist or financial wizard. In fact, let me admit up front that my wife keeps the books for the household and balances the checkbook. I am given cash as needed. This has led many of my male friends to question my manhood, but I am unfazed. I hate math and I do not want to think about how little money I have. In the area of government spending, however, I am not na├»ve. Tax payers must pay for services, and that means we would all face higher taxes to pay for a free university system. I’ll leave how to pay for it to the bean counters. I want to examine the practical benefits of free school for everyone.

In researching the subject, people think that free education for everyone means that everyone would have a college degree—at least a bachelors, and probably a masters or doctorate. Therefore, those degrees would be worth less in the marketplace. Just because we allow everyone to get a degree does not mean they will. Classes should be rigorous and demanding, and if a student does not measure up with good grades, she is shown the door. In fact, I have seen a lot of grade inflation in my time as a teacher. If anything, we need to move the system back to a C being an average mark. Most graduate programs require a B or A average to advance to a degree. Although the cost is free, one must work and achieve to continue in the program. This kind of qualitative grading should be instituted at every level of public education. If a student has grades below a C in high school, his educational career ends there. Getting an advanced degree in a public college or university means a time commitment as well as dedication to doing well. If a student does not meet the minimum grade point average coming in, or falls below the acceptable threshold during her stay in school, she will be forced out. However, a student should not be barred from seeking an education because she cannot afford the cost, or does not want to accumulate crushing student loan debt before even landing her first job.

So much has been made recently about our failing schools. Experts say American students are weak in science and math, thereby crippling American innovation and manufacturing. President Barack Obama has committed his administration to improving America’s standing in math and science education. I would add to the argument that we need improvement in all subjects. Learning to think critically and analytically requires solid coursework in English, philosophy, history, and the other humanities. In an age when industrial manufacturing is increasingly computerized and mechanized, we need to create thinkers, people with the brain power to be innovators and creators. We do not need the worker to stand on the assembly line and put doors on a hundred automobiles a day. Machines do that. We need people who can solve problems, create concepts, and develop technology.

Allowing for a free education democratizes the university. People with the ability to think and be creative will have no obstacles in their paths to achieve. In turn, we increase the educational level and proficiency of the next generation of American innovators. Those who are older have the opportunity to return to school for retraining in an emerging technology, like green industries. Removing the financial obligations of an education leaves one focus: achievement. Students who achieve have no roadblocks to complete degrees and certifications.

To the charges that without fees and tuition, everyone will get a college degree, I say, what is wrong with that? Having a better educated populace is a bad thing? It might not be what politicians want because educated people cannot be fooled or duped as easily. They will ask questions and demand accountability.

To revamp the entire system, we need to blow the doors off the school and make high achievement the only criteria for continuing education. President Obama should nationalize the public universities, and dump money into the system to allow every qualified American to enroll, and increase the quality of teaching and learning. Where will money come from to do this? Well, we will need to tax people, starting with the wealthiest two to three percent that every politician seems so concerned about protecting. But we will have to go further and have all people foot the bill.

There is so much waste. To start, bring our men and women in uniform home from these egregious wars based on lies and subterfuge. Why are we risking lives and spending billions propping up corrupt and incompetent governments in other countries? We hand suitcases of cash to Hamid Karzai while our own people struggle to pay for an education? Or worse, we offer grants, loans, TARP money, and bailouts to banks so that they can continue to pay their multi-million dollar bonuses to CEOs. Wrong, wrong, criminally wrong!

The age of assembly lines and factory work, the suburban tract home, the car in every garage, that American dream is over. If we are to regain our strength, all paths lead to the intellect. We must endeavor to be the smartest, most ethical people on earth. If it takes roughing up a prince in London or placing a greater tax burden on Wall Street fat cats in lower Manhattan as well as the rest of us, so be it. We’re talking about the future. We have had street protests over tuition hikes here in America; maybe it is time for American students to follow the lead of their British counterparts and return to the streets again. The Brits chanted “Off with their heads!” at bonny Prince Charles. That might be a bit over-the-top, but we need a take-no-prisoners, spare-no-vintage-automobiles attitude. We want to learn, and we do not want to sell ourselves into indentured servitude to get an education. That is a reasonable demand, I think.

Photo courtesy of Associated Press and Huffington Post.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Montaigne





Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Works
Edited by Donald M. Frame
Everyman’s Library, Alfred A Knopf, $30.00, cloth
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4021-3


Sarah Bakewell takes an interesting approach in her new biography of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, How To Live or A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts At An Answer. She focuses not on a linear telling of the writer’s life, but divides the book up thematically according to the answers Montaigne considered in his essays regarding the most basic of philosophical questions. She succeeds in rendering a complete and compelling narrative while also addressing the more philosophical implications of the French essayist’s work.

As Shakespeare is to drama in the Western Canon, Montaigne is to the personal essay. He was born near Bordeaux, France in 1533, where he grew up to become an emissary, diplomat, and farmer, but his true calling in life was the writing of one hundred and seven personal essays that digress into a myriad of areas. These works have been published in a variety of translations and editions over the course of his life and beyond, with one of the most complete and beautiful books coming from the Everyman’s Library in 2003. Montaigne influenced generations of writers from Virginia Woolf to Joan Didion.

Bakewell actually begins the book by calling out bloggers as one group that might take their inspiration from Montaigne. “Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of self,” she writes. “This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne…”

Bakewell structures the book around the “how to live question,” focusing on the different possible answers present in Montaigne’s life and work. She begins with a near death experience Montaigne had after a riding accident. This was a turning point for the writer. Before the accident, he obsessed about death, spending “too much time reading classical philosophers.” He was mired in Cicero’s axiom, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” We also learn of his philosophical inquiries into the ancient Greek and Roman ideals of the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Skeptics. After the very strange incident where he was literally run over by a fellow horseman, he decided to embrace life and “live for himself rather than for duty.” Thus began a life of most personal self-reflection and study.

His philosophy of how to live takes the form of close observation, both of his fellow human beings and most particularly, of himself. Montaigne was the first writer to compose in this way and use himself and his experiences as fodder for insight and revelation. In fact, such revealing subject matter as his sex life, politics, and bodily functions, served to put off some readers, but the audience also appreciated his candor.

One of many interesting points about the essays, according to Bakewell, is that Montaigne is not a highly structured writer. He tends to digress to the point that many of the essays’ titles do not match up to their content. This allowed readers through the centuries to cast Montaigne in whatever light they wished, and use his work to support whatever cause or position they desired. He is an everyman, a writer that, although composing intensely personal essays, holds up a mirror for all humanity. He wanted to know how to live a good life, and he was willing to dissect his own predilections, foibles, and mistakes to learn the larger lessons. We, the readers, are the benefit of his self-examination, and made all the wiser through reading his work in our own time.

Some of the more difficult periods of Montaigne’s life make for the most interesting chapters in Bakewell’s book. His very short but intense friendship with Etienne de La Boetie, who died of the plague in 1563, left the writer in mourning and in significant psychic pain. The loss colored Montaigne’s life going forward, and the friendship could never be duplicated or replaced. Montaigne used the idea of losing a dear friend in many of his essays, as well as the death of a child, something he experienced many times over. The plague and a variety of accidents contributed to Montaigne’s fear of death, and his writing about the subject served to get him through many of the losses. He felt by writing about these events, he was actively working through them.

Montaigne was haunted by disease, suffering and death all his life. He suffered from extremely painful kidney stones, and because his father died from an attack, Montaigne felt that he, too, could succumb to the pain and complications of the stones. With the plague periodically raging throughout Europe, and France’s bloody civil and political discords, Montaigne was well aware of the fragility of life.

Bakewell devotes considerable space to Montaigne’s critics and detractors, some of them famous in their own right. Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal both had issues with the essays. According to Bakewell, Descartes’ problem “was that his whole philosophical structure required a point of absolute certainty, which he found in the notion of a clear, undiluted consciousness. There could be no room in this for Montaigne’s boundary-blurring ambiguities.” Pascal quibbled with Montaigne because he “feared Pyrrhonian Skepticism,” Bakewell writes. “Unlike the readers of the sixteenth century, [Pascal] felt sure [Montaigne’s views] did threaten religious belief.” Bakewell clearly explains Montaigne’s philosophical underpinnings in this form of Skepticism. “Ordinary dogmatic Skepticism asserts the impossibility of knowledge,” she says. “It is summed up in Socrates’ remark: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ Pyrrhonian Skepticism starts from this point, but then adds, in effect, ‘and I’m not even sure about that.’” Montaigne believed that one must live with “the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens,” or amor fati, literally “love of fate.” This did not set well with either Descartes or Pascal.

In the end, there are many answers to the question, How to live. Montaigne ran through a number of philosophies and opinions in the course of composing his essays. Bakewell distills his views for us in several pithy sentences: “Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.” Or, “Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection.” There is much to quote for the daybook in Bakewell’s biography and in the essays, themselves.

Of course, one should read the essays in a definitive edition. Alfred A. Knopf’s Everyman’s Library imprint has a hefty volume of his complete works, translated by Donald M Frame. Bakewell quotes extensively from the Frame translation throughout her book. Although not an edition that fits neatly into a pocket or purse, this particular collection is most complete, containing all of Montaigne’s essays as well as his travel journal and letters.

Sarah Bakewell somewhat maligns “blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods,” whose authors she characterizes as “fascinated by their own personalities and [shouts] for attention.” But if Montaigne were alive today, he might embrace self-publication in the digital domain. He was a writer who continuously added to his work in revision, growing the essays from a slim beginning to a mammoth tome that could stop a door. Blogging, with its instantaneous publication and the ability to edit and repost on a dime, would appeal to this most personal of personal essayists. His essays have made for great reading for as long as Shakespeare’s actors have lit up the stage. That, in and of itself, makes him good reading for yet another audience in new age.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sleepwalking Through December

“So we beat on, boats against the current...” F. Scott Fitzgerald  The Great Gatsby

The long drive home in the evening. Endless traffic and gridlock, all of us like one animal curling our way through the streets, inching our way forward. One hour to travel a mile. Plenty of time to ponder recent events:

Nice to know we are pawns in a political game. Multi-millionaires in Congress make deals that favor the rich. Tax cuts for the wealthiest two to three percent of the nation? Oh, yeah, we will throw in the middle class cuts and reluctantly add another thirteen months of unemployment. Meanwhile, the 99rs, or those whose unemployment benefits have completely run out, must shuffle through the holiday season with no income. Worse, the talking heads in Congress call them “shiftless” or “lazy.” They are “people who won’t get a job until the government money runs out.”

I do not understand why people in this country do not realize that our government favors only the wealthiest Americans. That two to three percent—billionaires, many of them, and many times over—dictate our policies, our economic system, our very future.

In this last election cycle, many middle class voters elected these shyster politicians into office because they were sick of the other side. But what Americans fail to understand is that those newly minted senators and representatives are at war with us. This country is suffering through what has been predicted for years: the disappearance of the middle class. In gathering speed, only two classes remain: the very rich and the poor. Many people are now without homes, without retirement savings, without jobs, without any recourse whatsoever. People in extremis discarded in the art of the deal! Banks got the bailout; human beings got nothing.

Who knew back in January, 2009 when we celebrated the inauguration of our first African-American United States President Barack Obama, that his race would be his only legacy. We elected the first black president, and that is all he turned out to be. I had hoped for so much more, but I should be used to potential heroes disappointing us. It is childish to believe that heroes come along and save the day, and I am an adult now. “Yes, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.”

So I am driving the streets in the falling darkness of another evening. I truly believe we have lost our way. We worship at the altar of Oprah, of pundits and charlatans. And there are pretty shop windows, malls full of people, everyone frantically preparing for a Christmas we can no longer afford, so caught up in our holidays of orgiastic buying. We are Americans, and this is who we are.

If we have any hope in this country, in this world, of ever rising to our potential, this much is clear: it will not be Barack Obama or John Boehner who leads us home.

Remember the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
At the end of the day it is we who must save ourselves.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
John Milton (1608-1674)  “On His Blindness”

In the Catholic Church, the season of Advent is a time of reflection and preparation leading to Christmas. It is, as Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D writes, “a season of hope and of longing…”

As with Christmas, Advent is associated with a variety of symbols and traditions, such as the use of an Advent Wreath composed of evergreen branches and four candles—three purple and one pink—which are lit each night, one purple candle per week with the pink candle used during the final week before Christmas; liturgical music; cultural traditions like Los Posadas; and my favorite, the Advent Calendar.

When I was a child, my mother taped an Advent Calendar to our bedroom windows. The calendar was usually a Christmas scene, like the infant Christ in his manger-cradle surrounded by shepherds, farm animals, and his parents. Embedded in the picture were tiny doors with a number on them corresponding to the December calendar. Each morning, we opened a door for that day. Behind the door was a quote or biblical phrase illuminated by a piece of stained glass wax paper. The sunlight shining through the miniature window would light the phrase. We found the opening each morning of a new window to be the highlight of the days leading up to Christmas. However, the best Advent Calendar I remember was one that had candy behind each door. Stained glass wax paper is beautiful, but chocolate is better.

The season of Advent is about waiting. We are waiting for Christmas, for the Messiah, and of course, for our presents. As I have grown older, the season of expectation reminds me of how we wait for what is to come in our lives. I couple Advent with not only Christmas, but the New Year’s celebration on December 31st. What will the New Year bring?

Advent is a time to reflect on what has happened, the journeys we have traveled, the steps we have left to complete. I find it a time for making amends, drafting plans and resolutions, considering new roads in the New Year. Actually, the first Sunday of Advent is the New Year celebration in the Church, so the secular and the religious are not far apart.

The word “advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” To quote Father Just, this arrival could mean “something so important that it radically [changes] the whole culture.” He also explains the Latin roots of the word: “adventus (‘arrival, approach’), made up of the preposition ad- (‘to, towards’), the verbal root ven- (from venire, ‘to come’), and the suffix -itus (indicating verbal action).”

During Advent is the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6th (tomorrow, actually). On this day, old St. Nick brings gifts for children, one of the origins of the Santa Claus story. My parents would place our Christmas stockings out and St. Nick would fill them with candy, small gifts, and fruit, a sort of precursor to Christmas Day. If we were bad (never!), St. Nick would leave coal in our shoes. I do not know why the stockings were preferred over shoes, and I never got any coal. Good thing, because in my natural gas heated home, I would not know what to do with it.

I am thinking these days about waiting, about expectations, about hopes and dreams. In the persistence of memory, I used to lie awake and dream childish fantasies about the toys under the tree. I cared very little about reflection or making amends.

I rarely dream of presents anymore.

As a middle-aged adult, I think now about home, about what is lost, about friendship, and love. I know that in the year to come, I will have to live with less. Material goods will be less important than the spiritual. We will still be involved in a questionable, spiritually-draining war. People will hate one another because of skin color, or religious beliefs, or simply because we are different. There will be misunderstandings, random violence, and unanswered questions. People will behave in a way that defies logic, and denotes a lack of respect for others. We will continue to hate and abuse and destroy.

But I hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that this year will be different. I prepare for the worst while having faith that the best is yet to come. As much as I suffer to see depression, emptiness, lack of soul, depletion of wit, ignorance made easy, I believe in the human spirit because I have seen it in the eyes of others:

The young, vitally strong woman I helped last week prepare her scholarship essay about being struck down with leukemia this year. She is back, and she is alive and ready to fight on.

Another young man who is finishing his education in medicine so he can enlist in the military and treat soldiers overseas as a nurse. When asked if he was scared, he said yes, but to serve is what he is called to do.

The summer night on the boulevard when I saw more than a hundred homeless people standing around in abject silence, heads hanging, defeated? Why were so many gathered? Then I saw twenty or thirty volunteers coming down the street, each carrying foil containers, tables, grocery bags. They set up a station and began doling out hot food and beverages to the lost ones. Suddenly, people were talking together, laughing. Someone put out a boom box for music. The downtrodden and their saviors mixed together, laughing, commiserating, sharing, even embracing. They fed everyone on the street, no questions asked, and then they melted like ghosts into the night leaving an empty street.

In this season of waiting, I refuse to give up on the human spirit. I decline to ignore the growing evidence that all things are intertwined, connected. I simply cannot, cannot give up hope. There are dark days ahead where we will make tough choices about what we believe, what is important, and where we stand. We will have to fight wars and battles. People will single us out for ridicule, for suffering. There will be days when we will be tempted to wish we had never been born.

But there will be other days, ones where we will see the birth of a child, two people in love, and friends growing old together. We will see souls reach out to comfort each other in the hour of need, we will hear voices crying and other voices offering solace, there will be companions for those walking alone through this valley of tears. People will swear allegiance to art and truth and beauty.

We will defy the odds.

We will win.

This Advent, those are the days for which I wait. I hope and pray and dream, that somehow grief will leave us alone for a while, that we will find salvation, that we will be reunited with the ones we love. No need to be rich or powerful or feared. Peace and love, that is all we need.

I hope. And I wait.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Riding The Train

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion.

I vacillate between these two quotes on a good day. On a bad day I am apt to curl into a fetal position and give up the ghost.

I spend a lot of time examining my life, and what I have discovered in my thorough study is a lot of regret, even as I face new situations that offer yet more regret. As much as I try, I cannot see the future. I am no oracle, no visionary. My gut instinct is way off. Meanwhile, the things happening now get short shrift while I am mired in regret, and therefore, I make new mistakes to regret tomorrow.

And right now, more than any other time in my life, I need to be able to see where my life is going because I am making decisions that will affect my life for the remainder of it, and I have no trouble admitting that I am scared.

So, if I turn to what I feel is the right course of action, I definitely have a gut feeling, but is it just a story I wish to be true?

I know what I want to be true, but if things were that simple, we would all be a lot happier. I have learned through heartache that no matter how much we want something to be right, whether it is or not is a matter of time and circumstance to be revealed slowly.

I need to know now if my path is the correct one. I have prayed and meditated, considered all options, tried to talk to others, but the fog in my life remains. I cannot see past it. Worse, talking to others has actually clouded the field even more. Everyone has a different opinion, a different story to tell.

When in this kind of situation, I find emotional triggers embedded in literally every situation in life. Someone helps an elderly woman to her car with her packages. Another person goes out of her way to bring joy and comfort to people she barely knows during the holidays. Someone else encourages a person, or offers a quick, “You can do this. Keep trying.” I witness these acts and listen for the voice, the hand, to reach out and touch me, nudge me ever so gently in the right direction.

I believe in the inter-connectedness of all things. Nothing is chance. There is a purpose, there is a why. What frustrates me is that I do not know the why. By the time I figure it out, I have moved into the land of hindsight. So I sleep restlessly through the night, find myself dreaming during the day, pondering, wondering. Where is this going? Where is this train taking me?

I tell myself the story that things will be revealed in time. It is a good story, and the only one I’ve got right now.

I hear the steel wheels clacking over the rails. I see the hills and valleys flying past the windows of the train. I know that I am moving somewhere, accelerating toward something, but I must live with the uncertainty. I exist with the missing why.

I must consider every step of my path while telling myself that I am going somewhere. I must embrace the unknowable, revel in the mystery. In the end, to paraphrase John Henry Newman, we must keep going, even though the night is dark and we feel so far from home.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tell Me The Good News Only

Once, having transferred to my first Catholic high school teaching position, I walked into trouble. I was eager to please and willing to do anything to be successful, an often fatal combination. As I signed my contract, I did not think about the principal’s off-the-cuff remark that, “the tenth grade English teacher is also the faculty advisor for the school newspaper.” I was so excited and overwhelmed planning my classes that I gave little thought to my upcoming foray into journalism.

After classes began and I had a free moment, the first task I focused on was setting up the journalism room. Actually, the room was a storage closet, but I was not going to complain. I’d make it work. I carried fifteen electric typewriters up two flights of stairs to our newsroom. I wanted computers, but there were none to spare. “Besides,” the principal assured me, “journalists have been using typewriters for a hundred years. And these are top of the line: they’re electric!”

As I won over my students in my English classes, I started recruiting the best writers for the newspaper. I found out critical information immediately from them. The newspaper was a well-known campus failure. Every new teacher was forced into the advisor position with no budget, no class time, and overwhelming expectations from the administration. “The principal only wants to trumpet the good things at school,” one student explained. “She won’t let you get real stories that make the school look bad.”

The first story we chose to cover began as a rumor. Two of the student reporters heard that a homeless woman had given birth in the park across the street from the school. This was a story that even the local papers did not get. So on a crisp, cold day in November, the two reporters and I headed across the street in the fading twilight to hunt our story.

At the center of the park was an isolated square of grass surrounded on three sides by thick shrubs. It was there that the homeless people camped out. When we arrived, they were cooking their evening meals and preparing for another cold night. One woman who looked to be in her fifties said hello. The reporters opened their notebooks and began to ask the questions we had worked out back at school.

“Yes,” she said, “the story is true, but I’m not lookin’ for trouble.”

“We’re not trying to cause trouble,” one of my new reporters, John, replied. “We just want to know the story.”

“Look, you wait here. I’ll go see Sabine. If she wants to talk to you, she’ll come.

We waited as the woman melted into the shrubbery. It was getting colder and darker. About fifteen minutes later, the woman returned with what I thought was a young man. It was Sabine. She had very short, dark, brown hair and a silly smile. Her work shirt and pants were dirty, and when she sat cross-legged on the grass, her boots had holes in the soles.

“This is her,” the woman said.

It quickly became apparent to us that Sabine was mentally challenged. When asked questions, she giggled shyly. When she did speak, it was in the breathless, high-pitched voice of a child.

“Sabine, these people want to know about your baby.”

“Gone,” Sabine answered, and started to cry.

“Yes,” the older woman said. “The baby’s gone.” She looked at my young students and then at Sabine. “You know, Sabine’s your age. How old are you? Seventeen, eighteen?”

“Sixteen,” John replied.

“I was there when it happened. Someone’s got to tell the story for her because it’s not right. Sabine was pregnant, only no one knew. I knew, but then I can sense those things, just like I knew when it was near her time. I told her to walk to the clinic on Arizona Street, but she waited too long. She didn’t have no baby in the park. If she did, it would have been okay. She tried to walk to the clinic. Got as far as across the street in front of the old folks’ home when the head popped out.”

“Popped out?” John asked.

“From her thing. He private parts. The head popped out. She lay down right there on the sidewalk. One of the nurses from the old folks’ home saw her through the window and called the fire department. The baby came out right there on the sidewalk.”

“What happened?” John asked. “Did they take her to the hospital?”

“Oh yeah, you bet they did. Baby went one way; Sabine went the other.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“They took her to the hospital, fixed her overnight, and put her back out on the street.”

“What about the baby?” John asked.

“They told her she wasn’t fit to be a mother. They said Child Services would find the baby a good home. And they put her on the street. I found her outside the clinic crying the next day. She still had blood on her shoes.”

“So she has no idea where the baby is?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“Gone,” Sabine sighed as she rocked back and forth with her arms wrapped tightly around her knees.

“What about the father?” John asked.

“What about him?”

“Maybe he could help.”

The woman laughed. “Why don’t you go ask him, kid?”

John stood up. He was angry. “Where is he?”

“Over there.” She gestured across the street to the church.

John was confused. “Where?”

“He lives in the priests’ house. Young guy, blond.”

John and Lawrence looked at me. That sounded like Father Kerry, the school chaplain. Lawrence found his voice. “How do you know he’s the father?”

The older woman shrugged her shoulders. “All I know is, nine months previous, Sabine knocked on that very door and the blond, good-looking priest answered. He gave her food, clothes, that old pair of boots she’s wearing. Next thing I know, she sleeps across the street on the carport roof. Tells me the priest says it’s okay. She tells me he’s nice.”

I was beginning to feel as if I’d fallen down a deep hole.

“He must have known she was pregnant?” Lawrence pushed.

“Sure he did. That’s why he eventually called the cops on her. They kicked her off the roof and told her to stay away from the church.”

I could tell both boys were disturbed. “I can’t believe this,” John mumbled.

“If you don’t believe it, go ask him yourself. He’ll probably tell you Sabine’s the new Virgin Mary or something. All those priests got stories to tell.”

We left the two women in the park and crossed the street. “We can’t let this go,” John said. “A good reporter follows the story. You said that, Mr. Martin. We gotta talk to Father Kerry. He’ll explain what happened.”

I had this sick feeling that I knew how this would turn out. Some time next week, I’d be looking for another job. For sure the article would never see the light of publication, and I’d probably not have to worry about being the journalism moderator. If they kept me, I’d be monitoring after school detention the rest of my time there.

John rang the bell. When the cook answered, he asked for Father Kerry. She told us he was finishing his dinner and would see us in the library. We were escorted into a dark room lined with religious books.

“So men,” Father Kerry said as he entered the room. “You guys are putting in some late hours. School ended a long time ago.” His eyes were cold and steely blue.

“We’re working on the school newspaper,” I replied.

“Father,” John began, “we were just over at the park interviewing for a story. Did you know a homeless woman gave birth over there a while back?”

Something changed in the priest’s face, a slight twitch of the lip. “Yes, I’d heard rumors. Father Roy went over and didn’t find any truth to them.”

“The rumors were true, Father,” Lawrence said. “She really did have a kid in the park.”

“Well, I’ll have to pass that news on to Father Roy.”

John’s voice cracked. “They took away her baby. They said she wasn’t fit to take care of it.”

“She is homeless,” he replied.

John pressed. “They did not even tell her where the baby went.”

“Boys, listen,” he said, leaning forward. “What may seem cruel is really what’s best for both mother and child. What chance would the baby have growing up in a homeless camp in a city park?”

“We were hoping we could find the father,” John said. “Maybe he could help.”

The priest’s face was a mask. “The father is probably another homeless person.”

Lawrence’s voice seemed far away, like the distant rumble of an airplane overhead. “Father, did you let a homeless woman sleep on the roof of the garage last year?”

The priest’s eyes flickered. “Listen, sometimes we break the rules here. We go across the street and give those people money and food. We often make arrangements for them. That’s what priests do. We just don’t work at schools and churches. We help people.”

“The woman says you let her sleep up there for a while,” Lawrence said.

“Well, now that you mention it, I, or maybe Father Roy, we did let a retarded woman sleep up there. She was worried about advances from other men, and we decided she’d be safe up there until we could get her some help. Unfortunately, she became very erratic and we were forced to have her removed by the police.”

“So you know her?” Lawrence asked.

“Yes.” Father Kerry suddenly looked surprised, but his eyes did not change. “Was she the one who had the baby?” Both boys nodded. “Well, it’s a shame that people take advantage of the retarded.” The priest stood up. The interview was clearly over. As we shook hands, the priest stared into my eyes.

Out in the parking lot, the boys talked excitedly. “We should have asked him, point blank, if he was the father,” John said.

“I don’t think he was,” Lawrence replied. “I mean, he’s a priest. He was trying to help someone.”

“What should we do, Mr. Martin?” John asked.

I remembered a line I read in a book about journalism. “You write the facts, the verifiable truth, and let the readers form their own opinions.” It was a simple rule, and the only thing I could think of to say.

The boys took off for home. Tomorrow, they would write their story, and the facts alone should make things bad enough. I slumped against my car. It was a chilly night with rain predicted for the weekend. I was so exhausted that for a moment, I seriously considered resigning on the spot.

The principal, a nun, came across the parking lot from the convent on her way to evening Mass. “Hello, Mr. Martin,” she said. “What were John and Lawrence so excited about?”

“A newspaper story they’re writing for our first edition. A homeless woman had a baby in the park.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, good night, Mr. Martin, see you tomorrow.”

“Good night, Sister,” I replied. She started on in the dark toward the softly lit church, but stopped suddenly and turned around.

“Oh, Mr. Martin?”

“Yes?”

“She wasn’t one of our graduates, was she?”

It was at that moment that I knew the school paper would never be published. By the next fall, I was gone, and a new teacher struggled with the cursed burden of finding only the good news to tell the world.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Babette's Feast

Babette’s Feast
A film by Gabriel Axel
Denmark, 102 min. 1987, Color

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and of course, one expects special holiday essays about heartwarming moments and time spent with family, but what this weekend is all about is eating, pure and simple. If one is not into football and visiting with family members, the thing to do when not eating is to watch films about eating. And that brings me the long way around the barn to Babette’s Feast.

Twenty-three years ago, Danish director Gabriel Axel made a special movie based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. (A little secret: Isak Dinesen was actually a woman named Karen Blixen.) The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987. The cast is made up of relatively unknown French, Danish, and Swedish actors, and features the starkly beautiful coast of Jutland with its wind-swept beaches and harsh climate. Axel makes us feel the cold and biting wind, but he also rewards us with a feast of sensual extravagance.

The plot focuses on two spinster sisters living out their lives in a small town on the Danish coast. They lead a congregation of aging Christians founded by their father. Their days are spent in prayer and worship, but that is not what their lives were always like. We flashback to the sisters as young, beautiful women courted by handsome and debonair outsiders who come to visit the small enclave. Martine is pursued by a young army officer, Lorens, who has a gambling problem that makes him an unsuitable suitor; Philippa’s beau is a burned out opera singer, Achille Papin. Lorens comes to town to visit his aunt while Papin seeks solace and rejuvenation. The burgeoning romances come to naught when Lorens quickly realizes his gambling and immaturity limit his chances with Martine. He is forced to leave town. Achille Papin makes the wrong move during a singing lesson with Philippa, leading to his expulsion.

Years later, a strange and mysterious woman arrives at the sisters’ home, bearing a letter of introduction from Achille Papin. The sisters have mercy on her and take her into their home where she becomes their cook. Babette performs admirably, making the bland, unappetizing dishes the sisters and their congregation have come to rely upon for sustenance. However, actress Stephane Audran does an excellent job of conveying the passions running beneath Babette’s stoic exterior.

Babette discovers she has won the lottery in France, and is to receive 10,000 francs. This coincides with the sisters’ celebration of their deceased father’s one hundredth birthday. Babette convinces Martine and Philippa to allow her to cook a real French dinner for the congregation, and then the fun begins.

We see every preparation for the meal, from the raw ingredients to the table settings to the wines and dessert. Babette cooks like a fiend in the kitchen. I am not sure I would partake of every course of the cuisine, but Axel brings it on in healthy servings of sensuous delight: turtle soup; quail set on a puff pastry with foie gras and truffle sauce; caviar and sour cream on a buckwheat pancake; salad, cheeses, fruits; and finally, rum cake with candied fruit. The surprised congregants also imbibe a variety of wines during the meal. The entire preparation process as well as the meal itself is a treat for the eyes. It is worth the two hours of watching just for the food. The story is a good one as well, with a surprise at the end that makes the whole feast both sad and glorious. Babette is an artist, and she assures the stunned sisters that, “An artist is never poor.”

So, if the end of the Thanksgiving feast finds you prostrate on the couch waiting for the Alka Seltzer to go to work, football might be the safe alternative because watching Babette’s Feast is like eating another meal. It might be best to watch this in the hours leading up to dinner or wait a few days after the big meal to rev up your appetite again.

On this long weekend we must all give thanks for whatever comforts we have and celebrate a holiday only Americans could invent: a day devoted to stuffing our faces. What a concept!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Principals and Principles

I have written a previous post about Diane Ravitch and another on the film, Waiting for “Superman.” In the November 11th issue of The New York Review of Books, Ravitch does a thorough job of reviewing the film herself. One point she makes stands out.

In her discussion of who, exactly, should be held accountable for the crisis in American education, Ravitch makes the following statement:

"Ultimately the job of hiring teachers, evaluating them, and deciding who should stay and who should go falls to administrators. We should be taking a close look at those who award due process rights (the accurate term for ‘tenure’) to too many incompetent teachers. The best way to ensure that there are no bad or ineffective teachers in our public schools is to insist that we have principals and supervisors who are knowledgeable and experienced educators. Yet there is currently a vogue to recruit and train principals who have little or no education experience."

I would add that too many administrators are failed teachers themselves.

I once worked for a principal who kept a contact list of prominent parents in her desk drawer. She was a brilliant politician, skilled at working crowds, kissing babies, and securing funds from donors in high places. She was always off to concerts, public events, and public celebrations. By her own admission, she had little classroom experience, finding teaching to be rather limited in scope. She enjoyed the glamour and benefits of being the principal of a prestigious private school.

This principal never observed my class and never entered a classroom of any teacher the entire time I was there. She had no idea what teachers were teaching, and worse, did not care. A principal, the “principal teacher of the school,” should lead her teachers. She should know what is happening in every classroom, as well as the curriculum of each department and discipline. She must literally have her hand in every aspect of the education offered by the school.

Is this an isolated incident? Hardly.

I worked with another principal who was promoted into his position after a few years of teaching where students often complained they could not follow his lessons. There was no logical thread running through anything he did in his classroom. It was the “Nutty Professor” with severe attention deficit disorder. He rambled, he forgot what he meant to say, he missed classes, he announced tests and then did not give them. Thankfully, he left the classroom, but unfortunately, he moved to the main office. Teachers now had the pleasure of trying to understand what he meant. Parents and students simply ignored him.

Another principal observed teachers, but would take cell phone calls during the observation, speaking loud enough that students would lose focus on the lesson and turn around to see what was happening. Once, when a teaching candidate was doing a sample lesson in my classroom, she took several calls. Later, the candidate told me that he had never seen such unprofessional behavior from an administrator. This principal also reminded me several times a year that she knew nothing about English.

Yet another example? One principal informed me that she would be in that week to observe my lesson. On the appointed day and time, she waltzed into my classroom, set up a video recorder and tripod in the back of the room, and left as I was getting started. I taught my lesson. When the bell rang for recess, the principal re-entered the room as the students left, took out the video cassette, and handed it to me. “Watch it and write a report telling me what you think,” she said. I did as I was directed and turned in my report. She thanked me, signed the last page, and placed it in my file without reading it. She never asked for the tape.

In all this talk of school reform, the blame lands on teachers. But as Ravitch points out, who is giving those bad teachers contracts year after year. If someone is really failing at the job, shouldn’t his immediate supervisor be held responsible to do something about it?

In another section of the essay, Ravitch explains why teachers make good scapegoats: “If the economy is a shambles, if poverty persists for significant segments of the population, if American kids are not as serious about their studies as their peers in other nations, the schools must be to blame…it’s the public schools, their teachers, and their unions.” So what about the administrations of those schools?

A good principal is a good teacher. Once in the position of leadership, she should be in her teachers’ classrooms daily, observing curriculum and methodologies. She must be actively involved in curricular decisions, textbook adoption, and teacher training. There is not one thing that should go on at a school that she is not cognizant of, or that does not serve the best educational interests of the students. Everything in a school centers on the classroom. That is the heart of the matter, and if it is not happening there, the principal should be the first to sound the alarm and do something about it.

If the Los Angeles Times publishes the test scores of teachers, especially those who are failing, they must also publish the names of the failing principals in those schools. For incompetent, inept, inadequate principals, pink slips are in order. Why should they get away unscathed?