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.


“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?”


“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?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meditations On Moving Toward Winter

In Blackwater Woods
By: Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
nameless now.

Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,

whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

We decided to get married one winter. We were miserable spending the holidays separately, she back with her parents to save money for school, and me in a crummy apartment haunted by ghosts. I remember waking up at three in the morning on Christmas day, the black and cold of winter firmly locked in place, and hearing a neighbor pleading with his wife through his apartment door, he on the outside, she silent within: “Please, please, let me come home. I have nowhere to go. I am sorry. I am sorry.” His words so plaintive, so helpless, so mired in loneliness. I could not stand it.

The next day I told her, “Life’s too short to be alone. We can have the Christmases we want, we are in love, let’s make a go of it.” We had talked about marriage so often, but we were waiting for school to finish, for our lives to be in order, for financial stability.

Well, turns out, school has never been over, our lives are always changing, and there is never enough money. But we are still married, still in love.

That first Christmas, in our first home, that was magic. It erased the years of pain and struggle and emptiness when we lived apart. We stood out on the street, looking up at our apartment, the six foot pine glistening with white lights in the floor-to-ceiling window. I balanced the camera on the roof of our car and snapped a picture, grainy and out of focus, but brilliantly illuminated. Our first tree, our first Christmas, our new life. I loved it all, even as I knew it would never last, that heavenly things are fleeting, fragmentary, often lost. There would be more Christmases, but none like that first. Christmas is a holiday that never lives up to its promises. That is what I would come to know. But that Christmas, that moment, that was an epiphany. Maybe this year, I can find that moment again.

Flash back to another moment.

A cold November Friday night, and I am six years old. My father parks in a vacant lot, and I jump out of his truck to land in mud. We traipse across the night to the brightly lit football field. This is his high school, and will, eight years from now, be my high school. He packed us a dinner of bologna and cheese sandwiches, and stopped off at the corner store to buy us bags of potato chips and my favorite candy: Peppermint Patties. He carries the ice chest up into the impossibly high bleachers. I am in awe of the intensely green field, the players, the blue and gold uniforms, the marching band.

We eat our dinner, and nothing ever tasted so good. Cold Coca-Cola on an even colder night. I had never been to such a spectacle before—my first football game. As the teams face off with the boot of the ball down field, my father hands me my bag of Peppermint Patties.

And I dropped them.

I watched them fall through the bleachers and into the darkness below.

My father and I rarely found common ground. We were never close. I was not the kind of son he wanted or understood. I liked books and music; he liked working with his hands and sports. We passed each other in our lives like planets in a distant universe.

We have not spoken in a few years now.

But I remember, like my life depends on it, dropping the candy in the bleachers at my first high school football game with my father. He told me then that it didn’t matter. He would buy me more candy another time. But I felt then, as I do now, that I somehow dropped the gift of his attempt to connect with me, that in the arena of our relationship, I had failed him even as he has failed me. In the end, we failed each other.

My students ask me, “How do you remember so clearly?”

I remember because memory is everything, and long after we are dead and gone, there will be echoes in the memory of those who loved us once, and who live on with our faces, our smiles, our gestures. It is my duty to remember because I am a storyteller. I am my father’s oldest son.

I remember and I dream.

The other night, I dreamed of Stone.
In the dream, I am taking him for a walk on a wide boulevard with a grassy median strip running down the middle. Traffic clogs both sides, drivers honking, noise and confusion. But on the grass oasis in the center of the boulevard, we are safe. The road stretches off to the horizon, limitless as roads are in your dreams. Stone wants to run. No, he finds it imperative: he must run. His legs are not crippled and paralyzed anymore, and his coat is silver and glistening. He pulls me along. “Come on, come on,” his thoughts echo in my mind. “We need to run, we need to run.” He drags me along and I cannot keep up. I reach down, use all my strength to hold him for a second. I release his leash and he streaks away from me down the grassy strip. I want to tell him to be careful, to watch the traffic, to wait for me. He is gone like a streak of fire in the brilliant light of day.

I let him go.

I let him go.

I bend over to rest my hands on my knees, and my breath heaves in and out of my chest. I stand up and look for Stone, but to no avail. He has disappeared. I begin to panic, to fear he has been injured or killed by a car. From somewhere far away, like a message in a bottle, I hear him.

“I want to run this way forever.”

I awake to my life and the coming of winter.

The nights are long. I walk through the early evening darkness on the route I used to walk with my dog, observing the yellow light from the homes lining the street. People inside share their days, the “guess who I saw today” stories. Or, they watch TV in separate rooms, eat alone, play games on the computer, do homework. Some are desperate, some are surviving. I wonder if anyone is truly happy.

As we move through these November days, I know the fires that burn within us and the black river of loss. But, I must keep the faith that against impossible odds, we will find salvation.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life
By Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung
 HarperOne, $25.99 cloth
ISBN: 978-0-06-169769-2

Of all the world religions, Buddhism is unique in that it is both a philosophy and a religion. One can choose to follow the philosophy without adopting the faith. With that in mind, Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh and his student, Dr. Lilian Cheung have written a book that is of interest to westerners of all religious stripes who find themselves battling obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other medical conditions associated with an unhealthy lifestyle. Hanh and Cheung focus on how Eastern philosophical principles can be applied to mindful eating and a mindful life, creating a plan that veers away from a prescribed diet, and centers on the psychology and science of food choices, as well as the possible root causes of obesity. They call their plan Mindful Living, and it contains three strands: inEating, inMoving, and inBreathing. The in refers to living “in the moment,” and according to Hanh, that is the central philosophy of Buddhist tradition that people must adopt to change their lives.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a founder of Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery in the Dordogne region of France. He has written more than one hundred books on Buddhist philosophy, and is considered one of the foremost authors on Eastern thought and culture. Dr. Lilian Cheung is a lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health and the director of Health Promotion and Communication.

Their book is a structured, thorough examination of the current crisis in the West regarding obesity and related medical conditions, and the way Buddhist thought might be crucial to solving the unhealthy practices of so many people.

Part 1 discusses the Buddhist view of eating and weight control. The writers tell us that the central tenet of Buddhism can be applied to many areas of western life without the need to be a Buddhist. “To be mindful of something, we need to learn to be fully present for an instant and look deeply into that something.” The “something,” in this case, is eating. “Dealing with our overweight,” they continue, “or with any of our life’s difficulties…is not a battle to be fought. Instead, we must learn how to make friends with our hardships and challenges. They are there to help us; they are natural opportunities for deeper understanding and transformation, bringing us more joy and peace as we learn to work with them. With mindfulness practice, we gain insight into the roots of our difficulties.”

From there, the authors take us through the eating of an apple. Mindful eating of that apple, however, is a bit more intense than most people might think. “Most of the time,” they write, “we are eating on autopilot, eating on the run, eating our worries or anxieties from the day’s demands, anticipations, irritations, and ‘to do’ lists.” This leads to mindless eating. We stuff down the food without savoring the taste. Usually, we do this in front of the television, at our desks at work, or while rushing through traffic to get to appointments and t-ball games. Hanh and Cheung want us to slow down. They want us to smell the apple, appreciate the color, the texture, and finally, the taste. Eating this way becomes a sensual experience to be savored, not rushed through to get the consummation over and done.

To fight against this head-long rush into stuffing our faces, Hanh and Cheung suggest we must live in the moment. When emotions flood our psyche, we should not condemn them, but embrace them and try to understand their origins. “We must acknowledge and accept,” they write, “that we are embarrassed, angry, and filled with despair.”

People overeat, make bad food choices, and disregard their general health for a variety of reasons. Stress, of course, plays a major role. The writers tell us that “We need to compassionately realize that those problems are not separate from us: they are our own body, feelings, and mind, which are interconnected with everything else in our world.” They hit on this theme of the interconnectedness of all things frequently throughout the book. Poor eating choices, they tell us, damage the planet, and not only impact the obese or the sick. Healthy people can be made sick by our environmentally destructive farming and livestock practices. The book does not go into as much detail as Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent nonfiction book, Eating Animals, but the implications of a red meat-based diet and lack of sustainable farming are clear.

The second part of the book is a primer on how to develop a Mindful Action Plan. Mindful Eating breaks down the basics of nutrition and food. Dr. Cheung’s medical perspective is fully present here, with a thorough biology lesson on how our food breaks down into fuel for our bodies. The plan is detailed; specific foods are defined and organized, and the writers give us clear directions how to actualize the process of better eating.

Mindful Moving is a step-by-step plan for exercise, addressing all kinds of people, including those who can jog or engage in fast-paced, cardio exercise, as well as those for whom taking a walk around the block will be a torture test. Again, the specifics are clearly explained, and the directions are concrete and easily doable.

The final chapter in this section explains the overall Mindful Living Plan, breaking the process down to the three strands: inEating, inMoving, and inBreathing; they explain how living in the moment forces one to truly engage with life.

The authors include a nifty section on meditation during ordinary, everyday activities like brushing one’s teeth, turning on and off lights, and sitting in traffic. All are quick breathing activities that return one to mindful focus on the here and now.

Part 3 concludes the book with a meditation on the Mindful World. “Our body is the whole universe,” the writers tell us, “and the whole universe is our body.” Again, there is a specific focus on the interconnectedness of all things. Healthy eating means that we care about the environment as well as what we put in our bodies. “When we are looking deeply,” they write, “the moment we take a mindful step the world changes; everything changes.”

If we are to change the epidemic of obesity in this country, and somehow reverse the steeply climbing rates of diabetes and hypertension, Americans must change their entire life philosophies. We can learn much from the East, and this teachable moment does not mean we must all become Buddhists. (Really, would that be a bad thing? A subject for another essay, I guess.)

In Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung’s writing in Savor, we learn that better living through diet, exercise, and a heartfelt change in philosophy could extend our lives. We would have more time with those we love, we would be able to appreciate another day, another sunrise, another experience in this existence.

When I asked the book store clerk where I might find this book, he kept calling it Savior. At first I was annoyed and kept insisting on the correct title. Now, I don’t have a problem with his vocabulary deficiency at all. The writers tell us to savor our food, and by connection, our lives. And in that way, they might be saving us all from an early grave. Saviors, indeed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Deer Hunting

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”
Psalm 23:4

Through the scrim of sepia-colored memory, two ghosts walk across a ridge and drop down into a canyon. One is a man in his thirties, working class, with a stocky build. He wears a red wool shirt, jeans, and steel-toed boots. Slung across his back is a heavy-gauge, lever action hunting rifle. He also carries a canteen of water, a bone-handled hunting knife, and a snake bite kit. The other figure is a ten year old boy wearing a heavy coat and jeans. He, too, carries a canteen of water and a silver referee’s whistle on a lanyard around his neck. He is the man’s son, and he shivers with nervous energy. This is his first hunt.

They make their way in the cold morning darkness to the outcropping—a bit of soft earth beneath a large, mesquite bush overlooking a deep canyon where the older man has come every fall of the year since his childhood. They settle in to wait for the deer.

“So I blow the whistle?” the boy whispers.

“You blow the whistle.”

“And what will that do?”

“The deer will stop running to hear the sound. Then I can get a clean shot.”

“Why do they stop?”

“They just do,” the man says gruffly. “Now be quiet and watch.”

The boy pushes himself into a better position, loosening a cascade of small stones down the slope.

“Stop!” the man hisses.

They sit in silence, watching the sky fly through a progression of moods and tenses to arrive at daylight. Far down the canyon, a dog barks incessantly. A cabin materializes in a stand of scrub oak in the distance, and a tiny figure emerges from the shadows and walks to the woodpile. He swings his ax which catches the rising sun with a flash, but the sonic impact of blade on wood arrives a long two to three seconds later, the delay of sound across time and space.

The sunlight cleaves the cold. The boy flexes his hands to keep the blood flowing, picks up his binoculars, and scans the surrounding hillsides for movement. The dog below continues to bark. Time is elliptical in this moment, circling back on itself, and in the silence of the burgeoning dawn, the man and his son become primordial hunters of a thousand years ago, or travelers from another continent on a voyage of discovery, and then they come back to themselves again, two of a modern world acting out a script written in DNA. But they are obsolete, moving through time and space to a future where there will be nothing left to hunt and no reason to walk these hills looking for prey. For now, they sit under their mesquite cover and wait for what is to come.

“There,” the man whispers.

Two hundred yards away, a deer enters a clearing. It is a female, a doe, and the man knows his license and tags only allow him to hunt adult males. They freeze, the boy and man, barely breathing, watching the animal move toward them unaware of their presence. The man chopping wood down in the valley has returned to his cabin, and the dog is silent. There is just the wind, the new sun, the doe, and the two hunters, watching.

Behind the doe a buck emerges from the brush. His rack of antlers contains at least three points, making him legal game. The duo move up the hill toward them, grazing in the sunlight.

The man eases his rifle into position and snaps off the safety.

“Get ready,” he breathes.

The boy puts the whistle to his mouth, careful so his rapid breath does not force a sound.

One hundred fifty yards and closing. If the deer continue on their present course, they will walk right up to them.

The man sights down the barrel, coolly targeting the buck’s broad chest. The boy shivers almost violently, biting the whistle with his teeth.

The buck stops and raises his head, wary. He stares up the narrow canyon right at the hunters. Then, he lowers his head and continues up the hill. The doe has disappeared.

At about a hundred yards, the man prepares to fire, bracing his body against the recoil of the gun. “Ready?” he whispers to the boy.

The man fires.

There is a barely perceptible flash in front of the buck who shies away.

The boy releases all his nervous tension into the shrieking whistle.

The buck is running, loping through the air, seemingly floating down the canyon.

The man fires again.

The shot hits farther down the canyon, kicking up a hail of stones.

The buck turns and mistakes the impact for the hunter, and whirls around to head back up the hill.

The man fires a third and final time.

The buck dives into a thicket and disappears.

The man lowers his rifle. The air around them is charged with the blue light of gun smoke. After a moment, he reaches over and takes the whistle out of the boy’s mouth to stop the sound. Only then does the boy realize he cannot hear anything. The blasts from his father’s gun have obliterated his hearing and left him temporarily deaf.

The two gather their things and begin the hike down the canyon to where they last saw the buck. His father strides with determination, but the boy has trouble controlling his legs; they wobble and shake, and his breathing is labored. Colors seem too bright.

About twenty yards from where they think the deer fell, the man places his hand on the boy’s chest in a motion that means to wait. He moves forward alone toward the thick brush. The boy loses sight of his father, but his hearing has returned enough that he can detect him thrashing around in the thicket.

“Come here,” his father calls. There is something wrong in his voice. The boy is startled; he cannot understand why his father sounds different. Then it hits him like an electric shock. Fear. His father is afraid. He has never heard fear in his father’s voice. Carefully, he moves forward. He can see his father’s red shirt through the scrub. He bursts through the brush into a clearing to find his father standing over a body, his face ashen. This deer has no horns, and is much smaller than the boy imagined.

“I killed the wrong one,” his father says. “Somehow, I shot the wrong one.”

The boy stares down at the dead animal. It is a fawn, less than a year old.

“He must have gotten between the buck and me,” the father says.

His father begins working his way out from the dead fawn, searching the brush for any other bodies. Nothing.

“Why can’t we take this one?” the boy asks.

His father ignores him and continues searching frantically. The boy stares down at the deer, black blood draining from a chest wound into the earth. The eyes are vacant and glassy. Flies are already at the blood.

His father gives up the search and returns to the boy and the dead deer. He rolls up the sleeves of his woolen shirt, unsheathes his hunting knife and plunges the blade deep into the animal’s neck with the practiced precision of someone who grew up on a farm. A rush of blood drains down into the earth and forms rivulets that trickle away from the animal.

The man rolls the deer onto its back and plunges the bloody blade again, this time into the animal’s chest. He rips downward to the genitals. He splits the gut and steam exhales from the cavity into the too bright morning. The man shoves his hands into the animal in a bloody, horrific violation, and with a few quick jerks and slashes with the knife, rips out the intestines and nameless organs from the body and tosses the detritus under a nearby bush. The boy watches the flies attack, impervious to the steam rising from the awful pile. He realizes there is a profound stench.

Suddenly, his father is in front of him. Bits of meat and tissue cling to his bare arms, and his red wool shirt is soaked with blood and sweat. He tries not to touch the boy, but he cannot help himself. He is frantic to get the boy’s attention. He demands his focus.

“I cannot do this,” he says to the boy. “This one is illegal. If we get stopped going down the mountain, I could be arrested, fined at the least.”

The boy stares into his father’s florid face, horrified by the stench and blood.

“We need to get rid of the evidence.”

His father turns back to the deer and drags the oozing body into the brush. He frantically throws rocks and scrub on top of the carcass, burying it in leaves, stones, and dirt.

The boy watches his father lose himself in panic and heap more rocks and dirt with his bare hands onto the cairn. He has never seen him so shattered, so out of his head with fear. Then the boy glances down at himself. Blood covers his shirt front and dots his shoes. He tries to wipe off his shirt, but the blood smears in partially coagulated streaks. His coat sleeves are soaked. He is tainted; he is marked. He is now part of his father’s sin.

“Come on,” his father tells him, picking up his rifle and canteen. “We need to get out of here.”

His father almost runs up the hill to the ridgeline, and the boy struggles to keep up. He is afraid his father will leave him behind, lost in the wilderness, and he will face the same fate as the deer at the hands of coyotes attracted by the blood.

His father reaches the ridge first and disappears, and the boy begins to cry. When he crests the hill a few moments later, he sees his father at the truck unloading his gun. They throw their stuff into the bed and open the doors of the vehicle.

“Take off your coat and shirt,” his father commands.

Both take off as much of the blood-stained clothing as possible and still remain clothed. The boy shivers in his undershirt and jeans. He watches his father pull an old paper grocery bag from beneath the seat and stuff all the bloody clothing into it. He wedges it back under the seat, and they leap into the car.

“Don’t say nothing to no one,” the man says as they are rocketing down the dirt road back to the highway. “Don’t say nothing if we are stopped. Don’t tell your mother. Don’t tell your friends. Don’t tell your grandparents, your uncles, anyone.”

“What about the clothes?”

“I’ll take care of those.”

The truck bounces onto the highway and lurches toward home. The boy stares out the window at the trees flying past. At first they seem to float by, but then they become all twisted and skeletal, and the boy feels a heave in his throat.

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

“No you won’t. You will not throw up.”

The boy fights down the nausea. He closes his eyes tight to block out the swirling trees. He tells himself it doesn’t matter. It didn’t happen. When he opens his eyes, he turns toward his father, driving purposely home to civilization. His jaw is tight, his hands grip the steering wheel. He is calm again, focused. He is determined.

The boy stares down at his own hands and sees a smear of coagulated blood across his fingers. It is dry and black and flaky.

All that he knows, all that he believes about his father, his life, has vanished like a wisp of smoke in an azure sky.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Privileges

The Privileges
By Jonathan Dee
Random House Trade Paperback, $15.00 paper
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8079-0

We have seen the high profile cases: Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff, Michael Milken. These are the people who live far above the working class, and when one falls, we revel in the story. In America, we love to see the high and mighty brought low by time and fate, and almost immediately, we begin rooting for their comeback. Madoff’s return is still in the offing and probably unlikely because he is safely locked away in North Carolina with a release date, even with good behavior, of 2139. Stewart has returned to the scene with her empire bigger and better than ever, especially with her recent deal to all but takeover the Hallmark Channel. Michael Milken used his considerable wealth after his release from prison to fund a variety of charitable, philanthropic, and educational organizations as a way to give back and seek redemption for his criminal activity.

For those mired in the middle class, it is difficult to connect with those people, and others like them who have made their fortunes on Wall Street. They do not make for sympathetic characters, so one must admire writer Jonathan Dee’s attempt to make such characters the centerpiece of his newest novel in paperback, The Privileges. His work, however, falls short of the criteria for great storytelling, and leaves us hungry for a fiction of more substance.

Dee traces the lives of Cynthia and Adam Morey, beginning with their lavish wedding in Pittsburgh through their fabulously wealthy middle age. Adam starts the novel working for Morgan Stanley, but moves quickly to a private equity firm known as Perini Capital. From there, using his generous bonuses from his boss, Barry Sanford, Adam enlists a young hothead named Devon to set up a variety of schemes netting him millions upon millions of dollars. With seeming grace and ease, the Moreys move themselves into rarified circles of which most of us can only dream.

From there, the novel meanders into convention. Adam amasses his fortune, much of it illegal, and is obsessed with his fitness and image. Cynthia flounders, seeking a purpose in her life. The couple’s two children, April and Jonas, grow up to face problems so stereotypical of children of privilege. April is a party animal, falling into drink, drugs, and sex; she eventually manages to escape a near tragedy that requires her to flee the country with her father to China to avoid the possible fallout. Jonas, involved with an art student and graduate work, tries to befriend a troubled and mentally ill artist who holds him briefly prisoner before he manages to escape.

The final scenes of the novel bounce back and forth from Cynthia at her long lost father’s death bed, to Jonas struggling to escape the crazed artist. No character gets his or her comeuppance, and there is no moral or decisive outcome. The novel reflects the life of the rich, wandering from one party or charity event to another, with none of the blowback that is normally a consequence of an immoral life. Nothing sticks to these characters as if they are coated with Teflon. Yes, the Moreys are privileged, but what that means, or ultimately, what Dee wants to say about that, is static and unrealized.

If the point of fiction is to create an imaginary world that illuminates and comments upon our own, what purpose does a novel like this serve? Yes, you have characters, but they do not rise above the level of cliché. In the end, Cynthia’s conflict with her father and stepmother is mildly interesting, but like the scenes with Jonas and the artist, lacks context. Not to put too fine a point on it, what is the purpose?

The problem with fiction in the twenty-first century is that real life is far more intense and intriguing than fiction. A novel should focus a light on the darkness and perversion that lurks in cyber space, on religious extremism, on man’s inhumanity to man, to name a few areas of exploration open to a fiction writer. A novel should strive to say something.

Think of past fictions: the ache of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, their emptiness, their futile attempts to recreate what they once had; Hemingway’s old man, in his desperate work to land the great fish, the heroism prevalent in the face of failure; Joyce Carol Oates’ implied violence, echoing the work of the great Flannery O’Connor; Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch; Winston loving the Party he once hated at the end of 1984; and of course, the epic autopsy of 19th century London in the novels of Charles Dickens. Successful fiction of the last 200 years is filled with enlightening and thoughtful work that demonstrates far more insight and creativity than many of the novels published today, including this one.

Jonathan Dee’s novel does not advance the human story because it tells us what we already know. Although there is some interesting reflection in the characters, The Privileges is easily forgettable. In an interview attached to the end of the novel, Dee says that “In the end, what was engaging to me was not the idea of how the world might bring the Moreys to some kind of justice, but what the world would look like after the Moreys had passed through it. As time goes by, Cynthia and Adam become very concerned with the notion of their own legacy, and so did I.”

Writers should be primarily concerned with telling a story that illuminates and comments upon the human condition. If a writer does that, the legacy will take care of itself.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Carpinteria Getaway

“The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow was writing about the east coast, but he just as easily could have been talking about Carpinteria, California.

Eighty miles up the left coast of the United States along Highway 101 sits the hamlet of Carpinteria. Incorporated in 1965, Carp, as some of the locals call it, is named for the Spanish word for carpentry, mainly because of the Chumash Indians. They had a thriving canoe-building business in the area long before the white man arrived. The Indians used the natural tar vents bubbling to the surface in the area to seal the canoes they built. The area is a sleepy small town, perfect for a getaway, for the weekend or the day. Carp is home to the fiftieth largest oil field in California, the Carpinteria Offshore Oilfield, and I cannot help but think of the possible disasters looming in the form of brightly lit oil derricks twinkling off the coast at night. But Carp, for the most part, remains a small community that lacks the pretension of Montecito or Santa Barbara. If you can, plan to be in town for the annual Avocado Festival on the first weekend in October on the main drag, Linden Avenue. There is a lot of good food and relaxing fun.

I find myself drawn to Carp in the fall and winter, when the sea air is crisp and clean, and the crowds that gather between the brackets of the Fourth of July and Labor Day have all gone home.

My first stop is the Carpinteria Bluffs, a place of quiet trails that run through the grass and Eucalyptus trees down to the sea. The residents of the area fought for this stretch of valuable land, where oil companies threatened to drill, and housing developers saw a gold mine in potential resident and vacation properties. The area remains a recreation and wildlife preserve, open to the public from dawn until dusk. Railway tracks cross the area, and if one is lucky, the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner will rumble through taking travelers the length of California and beyond. Cross the tracks and make your way down the steep paths to the strip of sand at the foot of the bluffs. Seals frolic, and even give birth nearby, and one can walk for miles along the coast, watching waves crash against rocks with a roar of spray. Starfish live in tidal pools and dolphins swim by on their way to God-knows-where: when the sea is your playground, the world is infinite almost.

Back on the highway and a few miles farther north is Carpinteria proper. Linden Avenue is the main street running west from the highway down to the beach. There are a number of great little shops to peruse. Robitaille’s Candies advertises fresh fudge and an enormous variety of sweet delicacies. There are a few brand stores, like Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Sly’s is a well-reviewed restaurant on Linden.

The place I must go to is a small shack almost at the beach on Linden Avenue and Dorrance Way. Spot Burger serves the best hamburgers in California, hands down. Better than In & Out, and better than The Habit (which originated down the road in Santa Barbara). Dine on the open air patio.

Another great place for dinner is Clementine’s up on Carpinteria Avenue. The restaurant bills itself as a steakhouse, but I like the fresh fish. They also serve a jumbo, succulent fried chicken that you will not be able to finish in one sitting. The best part of the experience is that for 25-30 dollars per person, you get a complete meal: iced tea, coffee, or assorted soft drinks; appetizer vegetable tray; bread and butter; soup; salad; entree with a fried baked potato or rice; vegetable (usually buttered carrots); and homemade pie (choose from apple, cherry, blueberry, rhubarb, pumpkin, banana cream, multiple chocolate varieties, strawberry cream, and others that I am too hyperglycemic to remember right now). “Homemade” is a word that a lot of restaurants toss around, but at Clementine’s, the pies are homemade by the owner, in house, and are the best I have ever tasted.

Why does food taste so much better by the beach?

What I come to Carpinteria for, more than anything, is the beach in fall or winter: it is deserted, cold, and beautiful. I bring my winter coat, bag of books, my chair, my thermos of coffee, and read my way through the day right there on the sand.

Why is literature so much better by the beach?

I watch the sun tumble into the sea, the gulls cry their goodbyes, and I wait for the stars to congregate in the sky above me. Ahh, the remains of the day. The water turns from deep blue to shining orange to red wine and finally, to a deep ebony: all the colors of the world stretching off to the horizon.

At the end of the day, I gather my books and chair and now empty thermos, and walk to my car. On my way, I pass the mysterious mermaid woman heading down Elm Street for her nightly swim in the ocean. She is a Carpinteria urban legend, but I can bear witness to the truth of her.

I drive slowly up Linden Avenue. The shops are closed, the sidewalks empty; Carpinteria is asleep, like small towns tend to do on a week night after 9 PM.

Back on the 101, I float south to Los Angeles and the work-a-day world. When things get dark, as they often do, and my life bogs down with the weight of its own entropy, I know that up the coast is a sandy beach calling my name. When I need her, Carpinteria will be there, waiting.