Byline: October 2, 2018 – San Francisco, CA
As we left the San Francisco Airport in the Marin Airporter (a bus service that would take us to Marin County, our initial destination) I remembered what I always notice about this place. California feels, looks, and smells different. The sunlight falls in an unusual way; the air carries haunting, unfamiliar scents (“Is that…..eucalyptus?”). The landscapes seem alien. Parched hillsides and clusters of homes, gaggles of housing seem to have landed on the rising earth in the distance. And ROADS everywhere, bejeweled with franchise stores (The Dollar Store, McD’s, Laz-Y-Boy, Burger King, etc.) Unending traffic and more SUV’s than you can shake a stick at (or count!). Solar panels on Parking Garages! Neo-penal looking "public housing" for the “less able” (though far more elegant than Robert Moses’s cruciform brick towers in my home town). South San Francisco’s 19th Avenue is dotted with “Lodges” and “Motor Inns” for the weary traveler (or hot sheet business exec). The El Camino Real is one long strip of burgers and banks. Tract housing on distant hillsides overlooks it all.
The street names are distinctly Californian: Junipero Serra Drive., Balboa, Anza, Park Presidio, etc. To sustain the green economy gas prices are high, $3.43 (the cheapest we’ve seen) to $3.89 for Regular. The Stonestown Galleria features Nordstrom, Target, Chase Bank, and the City Sports Club. We roll past churches every few blocks.
I’m fascinated by the cramped single-family homes (No room between lots!) and the interesting (and odd) variety of design. There’s a Spanish influence for some, lots of weird kinds of “modernist” (“I failed that course on Frank Lloyd Wright but still got my architect’s license") shapes & sizes, and then an array of cookie cutter cluster housing as we get closer to the city itself. The traffic starts to really choke up as 5:00 pm rolls around but we eventually make it to the Golden Gate Bridge, still a marvel and treasure after all these years.
Marin County, according to Wikipedia, “is a county located in the San Francisco Bay Area of the U.S. state of California. As of the 2010 census, the population was 252,409.” Marin is the home of San Quentin Prison and George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. The population is about 80% white and “as of 2010, Marin County had "the third highest income per capita in the United States at $89,936.” (wiki) Despite the high income “the county is also well known for its liberal politics.” (And 56.5% of the population claims: "no religion") It is a bastion of left-leaning communities and Fairfax, the town we stayed in, is actually the home of the “Mountain Biking Hall of Fame” (who knew? --- Mountain biking, apparently, began on nearby Mount Tamalpais). Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Civic Center, in San Rafael(the county seat), and there are a number of natural sites (the Muir Redwood Forest & Point Reyes National Seashore) that attract thousands of visitors each year.
As a result of staying in Marin, we had the unique experience (as “tourists”) of taking ferries into San Francisco (once to see the Giants/Dodgers game at AT&T Park and then to start our stay in San Francisco proper). Aside from the incredibly scenic views these trips provided we also got to see just how busy the San Francisco Bay is (something the Staten Island Ferry doesn’t particularly provide --- especially since the “Port of New York” has shifted, essentially, to New Jersey). SF Bay is filled with Container Tankers headed to Oakland, the 5th busiest port in the U.S., and you really appreciate that once you are on the water, seeing those massive ships up close. It provides a perspective you might not really appreciate if you simply do the “tourist thing” visiting Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Terminal.
Today we start our two days in the City by the Bay and are hoping to explore familiar and unfamiliar places while, once again, enjoying the company of old friends who are far too geographically removed. The privilege of being able to travel to new places (or even “old” places you know a bit) definitely opens one’s eyes to seeing the world in new ways again and again, stimulating and energizing your mind and soul. It reminds us of the vast world we live in as well as how much more there always is to learn.
Stay tuned . . . and thanks for reading!
Waking Up in California
Byline: Fairfax, CA, Sept. 29, 2018
There’s something about waking up three hours later than you usually do on the East Coast that is jarring. The world, your “usual” world has already been up and running (without you, btw) while you’ve slept! It’s not so much the notion that you’ve “missed something” as the realization that the “world” (big and small) has been quite busy without you, without your awareness of it.
So, while it was only 6:30 a.m. when I completed my normal sleep cycle, it was already 9:30 a.m. back in New York --- and in Washington, D.C. --- and in Boston. The Yankee game had long been finished as I watched the A’s and the Angels here last night. Folks here, West Coast denizens (natives and transplants alike) could care less, it seems. There is a satisfaction among Californians that they, in fact, have made the right choice and that this is the place to be. It is neither arrogant nor pretentious. It simply “is.”
They are doing the most about climate change. They are overwhelmingly progressive with only pockets of reactionary “Redness.” The weather’s great (if you discount those mudslides, fires, and earthquakes, of course --- but don’t quibble). The produce is fresh, the scenery is breathtaking, and the people are beautiful. And yet . . . they are three hours behind!
I haven’t looked at the news yet today --- not on my phone or any other electronic device, not in a newspaper or on television --- so I don’t know if anything has happened “back East.” And it’s not that Californians aren’t engaged in all the insanity that currently roils our nation. But, like a good athlete, a good ballplayer, “they let the game come to them,” they don’t swing at wild pitches. Maybe it’s the three-hour gap that allows for certain ballast. Maybe reading that Tweet three hours later than when it was “hot” has a certain mitigating effect.
Whatever the case, it’s a phenomena that hit me hard this morning --- a lovely Saturday in the Bay Area. We’ll head out on the Larkspur ferry later and be deposited at the foot of AT&T Park to see the hometown Giants take on their longtime rival Dodgers --- two teams that I first knew when they lived in my time zone, three hours earlier. A rivalry that simmered for years between the Polo Grounds in Manhattan and Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. When Jackie and PeeWee and Duke battled Willie and Monte and Sal “the Barber” Maglie with only a subway ride separating the dreaded foes. Now it’s a flight of several hours and most of the league’s games are almost over before a first pitch is thrown. There’s that three-hour gap.
In the grand scheme of things three hours isn’t much, of course, and maybe that’s why these Californians seem so cool. While we New Yorkers careen at a breakneck pace as if every moment matters so much, that three-hour time cushion has conditioned these Golden Bears to take a deep breath, relax a little bit and let the game come to them.
In the Wake of 9/11,
On the Cusp of Florence
September 1, 2001 is one of those days that people remember the way an earlier generation remembered Pearl Harbor and another generation remembers the Kennedy Assassination. The shock of losing a life, or thousands of lives, in an unexpected and horrific manner sears such a memory in people’s minds. The attacks on 9/11 took the lives of 2,996 people (2,606 in the Twin Towers, 125 at the Pentagon, 265 on the planes) and yesterday’s memorial services across the country paid tribute to those losses. What seems to have been missed amid our reverence for those souls is the longer-term consequences of the 9/11 attacks. 17 years later we are still in Afghanistan, embroiled in a war that seems to have no clear mission statement or exit strategy. There have been 2,372 American military deaths in Afghanistan (1,856 from “hostile action” & the rest from “friendly fire,” accidents, etc.) as well as 1,720 U.S. civilian “contractors” (mercenaries) --- for a total of 4,092 dead. This, of course, does not even account for the 4,424 deaths in an Iraq War that was foisted on the U.S. public under false pretenses (WMD’s) and still is, in the minds of many, incorrectly conflated with the 9/11 attacks. That means over 8,500 American lives have been lost since those September 11th attacks --- without including all those wounded (over 50,000 in Iraq/Afghanistan) who need Veterans Administration care. The question, at this point, needs to be: why? And where is the leadership? Why is there NO debate/discussion in Congress about this?
We are now in our third presidential administration overseeing the war in Afghanistan and there seems to be no clear explanation of why we are there, what our mission statement is, or what our exit strategy might be. We initially went into Afghanistan to root out Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Bin Laden is dead and the Taliban (who are allied with Al-Qaeda) seem to be back in control of most of Afghanistan (as it was on 9/11/2001). We currently have at least 8,400 American troops (out of a NATO force around 13,000) in Afghanistan. But, again, what is the mission? We know the Afghan government is corrupt, authoritarian, and tenuous. The original Bush Doctrine notion of “democratizing” the Region has clearly failed. While Obama removed troops from Iraq, the Afghanistan “offensive” was maintained --- to what end? And now we have Trump, who seems to have no clear idea what’s going on, much less where Afghanistan is on a map!
And that brings us to a more local disaster: Hurricane Florence. Shockingly, Donald Trump claimed that his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was an “unsung success.” What we know, however, as a result of a George Washington University Institute of Public Health study (August 29, 2018) is that there were 2,975 deaths as a result of Maria. Unsung success? That is a death toll strikingly similar to the 9/11 total. Yet this President believes his Administration’s response was an “unsung success!” So, as the Southeast U.S. coast faces a hurricane threat worse than what we saw in Maria or Harvey (remember Houston?) last year, do we honestly believe that FEMA (which shifted $9.8 million of its money to ICE, to separate families, apparently) is really prepared to meet this crisis?
The hope is that locals along the Carolina Coast will heed the warnings to evacuate and prepare for record storm surges, 83-foot waves, 160 mile per hour wind gusts, and 40 inches of rainfall. We can only hope the forecasting models are wrong, somehow, but it seems unlikely --- this is not a “maybe” situation, this storm is going to hit and it’s really only a matter of where (exactly) and when (precisely). We know that roads will be closed, power will be cut off, floods will shock us, and video of submerged cars, trees ripped out by their roots, and boats tossed ashore like toys will fill our screens over the next few days.
So, as we commemorate a horrific attack and loss of life we brace ourselves hoping that we will not see a comparable loss of life over the next few days as a natural disaster slowly approaches, like a horror movie monster we can see but the potential victims may choose to ignore. Let’s hope not. The disaster in Puerto Rico did not result in an outcry to improve our readiness for these storms. Rush Limbaugh is screeching that the “panic” over these storms is simply a left-wing conspiracy to increase belief in climate change, once again ignoring science, facts, and basic reality --- not unlike the delusional Chief Executive who believes the handling of Puerto Rico’s crisis was an “unsung success.” We can only hope that local authorities and common sense prevail over the next few days and Florence’s toll is kept to a minimum.
I became a big tennis fan at age 18. I was at the old Forest Hills Stadium (the West Side Tennis Club) in September of 1968 when Arthur Ashe beat Tom Okker at the first U.S. (truly) Open. During the 1970s & 1980s I watched (on television and in person at the “new” Flushing Meadows complex) as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe raged and ranted on courts from Paris to London to New York, and everywhere in between. Never, in all those years (and certainly not at a Grand Slam event), did I ever see either of them penalized a game for their behavior. Yet that’s what happened to Serena Williams on Saturday during the Women’s Final of the United States Open. In what has now become the subject of numerous articles, op-eds, and talking points on tv news shows, people are debating whether Serena’s treatment by Umpire Carlos Ramos was sexist and unfair or whether her conduct deserved the penalties she was assessed. There may be some irony that Les Moonves is leaving CBS under a cloud of workplace abuse at the same time Serena was so severely penalized by a male umpire this weekend.
While there is no doubt Serena lost her cool throughout the match, overshadowing Naomi Osaka’s brilliant playing, I think we need to consider just what happened Saturday. There are several thoughtful articles I would recommend reading (Jonathan Liew in the U.K.’s Independent-- https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/tennis/serena-williams-us-open-final-umpire-naomi-osaka-flushing-meadows-a8529611.html -- Billie Jean King’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post - www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/09/09/serena-is-still-treated-differently-than-male-athletes/?utm_term=.225f0c75f0f3l –-- as well as Juliet Macur’s piece in the Monday New York Times www.nytimes.com/2018/09/09/sports/tennis/serena-williams-us-open-equality.htm) but, ultimately, I think people will come down either defending or castigating Serena based on their own predilections.
From my perspective, I agree with Billie Jean King that the umpire inserted himself into this match in ways that he shouldn’t have. And, as noted in Liew’s article, we should consider the situation from Serena’s perspective. Saturday’s match came on the heels of the announcement that the “catsuit” Serena wore at the French Open this year (an homage to The Black Panther) will be banned from that event. Tennis, as a sport, of course is vestigial in many ways --- with dress codes at Wimbledon (and now, the French Open) and men’s tennis given greater status than women’s. If Arthur Ashe was the “Jackie Robinson” of tennis then the Williams sisters are certainly Rosa Parks on steroids!
In light of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, as well as the emergence of the blatantly racist/misogynist Trumpist movement, I don’t believe we can simply shrug Saturday’s “incident” as a “law-enforcing” official simply sticking to the “rule of (tennis) law.” There are folks citing Ramos’s penalizing Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray --- but he never awarded their opponent a game! While Serena’s behavior may have crossed the line, strictly regarding the rules, it hardly compares to French (male) tennis pro Benoit Pare’s racquet abuse at the Citi Open in Washington, DC (www.usatoday.com/story/sports/tennis/2018/08/01/benoit-paire-citi-open-tantrum-marcos-baghdatis/877988002/) only a few weeks earlier --- which only cost Pare one point in penalties. Again, my own experience from watching Connors & McEnroe (and Ilie “Nasty” Nastase before them!) makes Serena’s outburst hardly seismic.
Can we separate what happened on Saturday in Flushing Meadow from the racism and sexism we know permeates our society? I don’t think so. It’s a shame the drama unfolded the way it did, stealing the spotlight from Osaka’s sterling performance, but this was the tournament where a woman was penalized for taking her shirt off (for a moment!) while men sit without their shirts on during changeovers! We won’t even get into the implicit racism we still witness in sports (starting with the “President’s” castigation of NFL players protesting for social justice). If you’re as old as I am you remember how Patrick Ewing was treated when playing for Georgetown (opposing fans blatantly displayed “gorilla” posters as well as taunting his “intelligence”), or how Warren Moon (a black quarterback) was relegated to starting his career in Canada because the NFL didn’t believe African Americans could “lead” a professional team.
We can neither avoid nor deny our history in these United States. That we have been a sexist and racist nation from our inception should inform us as to who we are and why we are still struggling with the legacies of those prejudices. As we move ahead in this 21st century and the nation becomes more diverse, more “feminized,” and more just (we hope) we need to take note of “incidents” like Serena’s at the US Open as part of an ongoing struggle to live up to our ideals.
What We Can Learn
From “Worst Cooks in America”
If you have read The Blast since its inception you know that the Lovely Carol Marie and I probably watch The Food Network more than we should --- particularly since I’ve been on a high-protein, low-carb, gluten-free regimen since February. But old habits die hard and, having been a dedicated Food Network viewer since the late 1990’s (the network was originally owned by the Providence Journal so I may have heard/seen more about it in its early years because I lived in Providence), and because I do love food (and eating), we still tune in more than most people. So, it may be no surprise that Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. we never miss an episode of Worst Cooks in America --- a show featuring people who don’t know their ass from a frying pan and whose challenge is to become a competent home cook by the end of the “season.” In the new world of streaming television, of course, a “season” can be any show that runs for 6 or 8 or 10 episodes and, while “Worst” is in its 14th season it actually started in 2010 and has been interspersed with short “Celebrity Worst Cooks” seasons after the amateurs complete their challenge.
The one constant since the show’s inception has been Ann Burrell, the tough as nails chef who has become a Food Network superstar, easily recognizable due to her better-than-Guy Fieri shock of blonde styled hair. Ann has had a variety of co-hosts on “Worst Cooks,” ranging from Beau MacMillan to Bobby Flay to Rachel Ray to Tyler Florence and Robert Irvine (doing his second “tour” this season). The “worst cooks”(usually a dozen to begin with) are divided into “red” and “blue” teams and run through “culinary boot camp” with each celebrity chef guiding their progress and, starting with the second week, eliminating one red and one blue team member until they are down to two. If you are someone who cooks --- and particularly if you are somehow who loves to cook and knows his/her way around a spice rack --- the show is shocking and hilarious. The contestants are stunningly ignorant about cooking, about basic kitchen utensils, about food in general. It is perversely entertaining.
After watching the most recent episode this past Sunday I realized that the show has a genuinely useful subtext, though, and one that’s worth noting as we struggle through this difficult political time. In the early episodes of each season of “Worst Cook” one of the most striking characteristics the contestants share (whether “celebrities” or “civilians”) is their total lack of knowledge, familiarity, or awareness of a vast array of foods, many of which seem commonplace to your basic omnivore. So we watch as the contestants are afraid to touch a fish or don’t have any idea how to cut up a chicken (god forbid its head and feet are still present!). That the contestants have no idea of what squid ink is, how pasta is made, or what an avocado tastes like is par for the course. Contestants actually try cutting with the wrong side of the knife, include raw garlic in a recipe and, often, have no idea how salt can enrich or destroy a dish. The scent of a cucumber throws one contestant into paroxysms of repulsion while another doesn’t understand the basic concept of separating yolks from the whites of an egg. A consistent theme, and this will come as no surprise, is that there is a general fear and revulsion associated with food and basic kitchen experiences --- particularly those that the contestants have little or no familiarity with!
That’s a short step away from Trump World, isn’t it? As we watched this week’s episode (we’re more than halfway through the “season”), and saw some of the contestants moving about the kitchen with greater ease, handling ingredients without second thoughts, and generally becoming more competent in their environment, it struck me that this is really a grand metaphor for the Red and Blue polarization which is rampant in our national “conversation” these days. Having grown up in the “liberal” northeast, where my life (from Day One) was filled with “others” who were black and yellow, and brown, listening to a wide variety of accents (regional and immigrant), and playing team sports where your success totally depended on other people, no matter what race or religion they subscribed to, created a worldview that is very expansive --- not unlike an omnivore in a grocery store.
What we clearly observe, particularly as the “Chief Executive” harps on “difference” and intentionally promotes one group (race) over all others, is that the folks who respond positively to his message are those who find “others” threatening, those who don’t have real contact with those “others” and are susceptible to believing the shopworn mythologies of white supremacist thinking. I say this from the personal experience of my own extended family --- where I was derided for "incorrectly" promoting civil/equal rights --- because “you don’t live with them” (not that my family members, did --- but they believed their proximity --- Canarsie next to Brownsville --- made them more “expert” about the subject of “race”). As the first college graduate in my family I was told, at a family graduation party: “You! You went to Yale and learned to love N#gg#rs and hate money.” That’s when it became clear to me that there were people I knew and loved who simply found it easier to fear and hate than dig deeper into the issue to understand what circumstances created the mythology (and the attendant hatred) they subscribed to.
No, like the “worst cooks” they simply believed certain fruits or vegetables were “disgusting” and to be avoided --- even though they really never went deeper than an eyeball test or word of mouth from someone else. The amateurs who ultimately make it to the last few episodes of Worst Cooks in America are those who overcome their fears and prejudices and broaden their palate, discovering, in fact, that clams or oysters or squid are actually quite delectable, or that some herb they thought was a “weed” actually adds a delicious spice to their dish. As one who loves to cook and eat --- and as someone who attempted to teach young people to broaden their worldview and open up to new, and sometimes contrary, ideas --- Worst Cooks in America seems, indeed, a show that reflects our current politics in a vivid and visceral way.
The First Day of School
A September to June Life
School started in Connecticut today (Thursday, August 30th) and brought with it a flood of memories and reflections. For 60 years my life revolved around a September to June calendar. I loved school from Day One and found a way to never leave! Looking back on one’s own history (as you’re approaching your eighth decade!) is really quite an exercise —- particularly if your life covered the second half of the 20th and the opening stanzas of the 21st centuries.
I started school in September of 1954. That May the Supreme Court had made its Brown v. Board of Ed decision. That same month the siege of Dien Bien Phu (in what was then called “IndoChina”) ended, driving the French out of VietNam, instigating a civil war between the North and South there. At age 5 I was enjoying kindergarten and had no idea that those two events would be so formative in not only my adolescence and young adulthood but in shaping my lifelong worldview. As I progressed through elementary school, other historic events did start to penetrate my consciousness.
In October of 1957 I was in 3rd grade, but distinctly recall the front page of Newsday (“The Long Island Newspaper”) heralding the launch of Sputnik. The grown ups seemed concerned but it would take years before I really understood the importance of the event. 1960 saw the “Class of ‘67” moved to the Bay Shore Junior High School for 6th grade (school construction to accommodate the Baby Boom had necessitated our spending 4 years at BSJHS, in fact). I had become something of a news junkie by then and was attuned to that year’s presidential election, initially believing the experienced VP Nixon would be better suited to succeed the grandfatherly Dwight Eisenhower. But I saw that debate on television and, zap!, that was it —- “JFK, all the way!” I remember watching the inauguration (we had a snow day), with poor old Robert Frost trying to read “The Gift Outright,” a poem written for the occasion, with a glaring January sun interfering —- and the handsome young president trying to block the glare with his top hat, so Frost could read his poem. After that inaugural address not only was my whole family on the Kennedy bandwagon but I totally took to heart the “ask what you can do for your country” mantra.
We loved the “New Frontier” and I clearly remember that, somehow, everything felt different. There was an energy, an attitude.. Despite the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961 the fall of 1962 (8th grade) was still brimming with energy for me (I could try out for freshman sports teams and, ultimately ran for the Cross Country team and played on the 9th grade baseball team). Then, in late October --- The Cuban Missile Crisis. While I was aware of adult “concern” over Sputnik, the Missile Crisis engendered real fear among the adults I knew --- the genuine belief that there was a nuclear war on the horizon was pervasive. Very scary for a 13 year old. Of course it didn’t happen and, after that deep sigh of relief, life went on.
Fall of 1963 was especially exciting because it was the beginning of high school and we were starting on the heels of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, a particularly inspiring moment. That said, I was focused on two things: school and sports. There was an unspoken understanding in our household that my brother and I would go to college, no questions asked. As the oldest I felt a certain (self-inflicted) responsibility to insure not only my acceptance to a college but to also win a scholarship (because I knew we were not “well-off”). After a spectacular freshman football season our first 9th grade dance was scheduled for Friday, November 22, 1963. Needless to say, the dance was called off. The devastating news of Kennedy’s assassination reached us in 8th period study hall and, maybe as an indication of how at sea we were, we missed our bus home and walked back to my friend Gil’s house to see Walter Cronkite lose his composure while announcing Kennedy was dead.
As traumatic as the Kennedy assassination was, 14 year olds soldier on, and basketball season began --- and we had a particularly talented team. What I distinctly remember, though, was a bus ride in December where the black guys on the team were doing syncopated clapping to a tune emanating from someone’s transistor radio: “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The Beatles had, indeed, landed in our world. The rest of the year was nose-to-the-grindstone schoolwork and playing baseball while learning to play the bass guitar (in hopes of finding a band to play with!).
Sophomore year (1964-65) featured my permanent move to leftist politics as Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election. Beyond that it was sports and school, the Beatles & Stones on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and general adolescent goofiness. As the Class of ’67 moved toward graduation we not only had fabulous success in athletics but also became one of the strongest academic cohorts to travel through Bay Shore High School, up to that point. By the time we marched onto the football field for graduation on June 24, 1967 we had students accepted at Smith, Vassar, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, the University of Michigan, Columbia, Stevens Tech, Swarthmore, Berkeley, and so on. With the Civil Rights and anti-War movements gaining momentum, we were headed to college campuses around the country. The results of those two events from my kindergarten year would now dominate my college years --- isn’t history something?
In the interest of brevity, let me only say that four years at Yale flew by, with marches on Washington, assassinations of another Kennedy and Dr. King, a huge Black Panther MayDay demonstration in New Haven, Woodstock, and countless hours forging friendships that last until the present. All the while, of course, I was still running on that September until June calendar. Initially taking “a break” from school, in September of 1971 I took a job as a carpenter’s apprentice on Long Island but, after an unfortunate hammer/thumb experience in early December retreated, once again, to the world I knew best and became a Substitute Teacher in the Bay Shore Schools. I applied to the teacher preparation programs at Harvard and Colgate and, by June of 1972, was headed to Colgate (Harvard offered admission with no money, Colgate gave the $un/moon/$tar$!!). By September of 1973 I had secured my first full time teaching position at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in Port Chester/Rye Brook, New York. September to June was still my calendar.
From 1973 until 1993 I taught Jr./Sr. High School, coached sports (basketball, volleyball, tennis), directed school plays (“Buried Child,” “The Day Room,” “The Skin of Our Teeth”), and got deeply involved in school reform, aligning myself with Theodore Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools. That last element led to my enrolling in an EdD program at Columbia Teachers College (where I remain ABD – all but dissertation), helping found one of the first Charter Schools in Massachusetts in 1994-95 (The Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School) as well as in Rhode Island (The Blackstone Academy) --- two fabulous schools I’m extremely proud of, and getting three books written (the two-volume “Performance Assessment Handbook” and “The Student-Centered Teaching Handbook”) --- all while remaining on that September to June schedule.
After Parker I spent time as a teacher educator at Brown University and Yale (1995-2007) before returning to high school classrooms in New York City (2008-2014), finally retiring in June, 2014 --- at which point my September to June calendar life shifted. Nonetheless, as school started in Connecticut yesterday and those yellow busses were seen all over the streets of Norwalk, Westport, Wilton --- wherever I traveled in my retired leisure --- I couldn’t help but think about my September to June life that started in 1954 and had a 60 year run, full of ups and downs, immeasurable joy amid some discouraging losses, and innumerable connections and friendships that sustain one’s spirit no matter how dark the clouds may be.
Here’s hoping you have a great school year!
Some Schooling on Education
(or: Some Educating about School)
Sunday’s New York Times ran two articles (in different sections of the paper) that led me to reflect on my 42 years as a teacher and teacher-educator. I’ve written about education and school before but I believe it’s one of those subjects that you can’t discuss too much. The Sunday Review’s last page featured an essay entitled, “Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach,” turning an old cliché on its head (“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”). Written by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the article posits that those who “do,” those who are “experts” in their field, are very often not very good teachers. In Grant’s words, many eminent professors, “knew too much about their subject, and had mastered it long ago” and, therefore, couldn’t identify with the ignorance of the novices in their classes. I’m guessing there are more than a few people reading this who sat through classes in college that were taught by “renowned” professors who were, at best, “boring,” and, at worst, impossibly boring! While they may have won Nobel’s or Pulitzer's or other notable prizes/awards, they simply stand before their audience essentially showing off how smart they are and presenting what they know. This reveals one of the great misconceptions about educating people --- the notion that “teaching is telling.”
One of the great problems we have in education --- and it most often starts in upper elementary grades and continues on through graduate/professional school --- is that what a teacher “does” is stand before a group of students and talk/tell. This is why most non-teachers believe they know what “teaching” is, and why so many believe there is “nothing to it.” This is a medieval model of “teaching,” of course, when European “professors” were the most literate people in the society and had possession of the few texts there were (most often in Greek or Latin) and stood before their “classes” explaining (telling) what was in the books. In a pre-Gutenberg world, that makes sense. Nonetheless, even after the invention of the printing press, mass production of books, and, now, the digitized print world, “teaching” has too often remained medieval! And that’s why there is still a widespread belief that someone who is “successful” in the “real world” can glide into a university or school and be an “outstanding” teacher/professor. Not so.
Think about any real/true educational experience you’ve had in your life: be it learning to ride a bicycle, solving a difficult problem, or putting together your latest IKEA purchase. There wasn’t anyone standing there telling you how to do it. Genuine learning requires active engagement, so a teacher may have to “lecture” to provide novice learners with information they will need to use to then ride the bike, solve the problem, or put the IKEA item together. Deborah Meier, one of the great thinkers about education since the second half of the last century, often wondered why it was that students were only “active learners” in their early elementary years and then again when they were in PhD or Med School programs! In between, most of us were subjected to good old fashion medieval boredom! The misconception that “those who can, do” and “those who can’t, teach” perpetuates the denigration of the profession of teaching --- and it is simply incorrect thinking! Good teachers are those who engage their students in active, thoughtful education that develops critical (and deep) thinking about serious problems and issues.
Toward the end of Sunday’s Business section was the weekly piece by Rob Walker (The Workologist) --- essentially an advice column (“for workplace conundrums”) for those in the business world. This week’s piece was entitled Is Having Friends at the Office a Job Necessity? and the email writer (a “socially anxious” individual) noted that, despite working in a “small department,” (s)he did not feel “a connection with any of my three direct colleagues.” I found this interesting because teaching, as a career, is a decidedly isolating and isolated profession --- to the detriment of practitioners, students, and their community. Because of school structure and history, teachers most often work by themselves --- with little critical/collegial observation (which could help!). Sure, there are “faculty” and “departmental” meetings but those are often hours of administrivia that you never get back. Middle schools introduced the notion of “teams” and that creates some common planning, as well information sharing about students --- but in many instances the time together is brief and it is often usurped by some “crisis.”
I bring all this up because I don’t think the average non-teaching civilian considers what a teacher’s day/week/month/year is like --- often falling into the easy clichéd criticism about how much “time off” teachers have (a subject I’ll discuss---and dispute---some other time). My best times teaching were in settings (at Blind Brook High School, at Brown University, at the Parker School, at the Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction) where I was able to work closely with my colleagues (and not just people in “my department”) and, in fact, was friends with those colleagues. I do not think I can emphasize enough how much it improves a teacher’s practice, as well as his/her morale, to work with committed colleagues you trust, believe in, and enjoy (as people, beyond teaching). It is an aspect of the profession that is too often given short shrift --- once again, to the detriment of our teachers, students, and schools.
While we are distracted on a daily basis by the current circus in Washington, D.C., “school” is already starting around the country. If you have children, or grandchildren, (or nieces/nephews, friends/neighbors) who are attending school --- at any level between K and Graduate/Professional School --- I hope you might consider exactly what it is their teachers are doing. Test scores do not (necessarily) reflect great teaching. Administrator’s “observations” often miss the mark, as many administrators (not all) don’t know good/great teaching, even when it’s right in front of them (a “quiet” class isn’t necessarily a “good” class where anyone is actually learning anything!). One thing you might consider is simply asking the kids what they’re doing in school, which teachers are the ones they feel they’re “learning” from (and why), as well as what they’d like to be learning about (something schools do a terrible job with).
Schools should be active, exciting places where students are engaged learners and teachers are enthusiastic “coaches,” guiding those students through the maze that is the curriculum (more on that another time, too). As citizens in a democracy that feels more and more threatened as each day goes by, we need to remember that public schools were created for the sole purpose of ensuring we have an educated electorate. Our daily observations illustrate how poorly we have done in reaching that goal --- which only reinforces why it is so important for each of us to take an active, engaged role in making sure teachers and students are given optimal opportunities to achieve and succeed.
Unbreakable Donny Trump
If you are not familiar with the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (starring Ellie Kemper; created by Tina Fey & Robert Carlock) you may not have recognized the similarities between the titular character of the show and our current Chief Executive. Unbreakable is a comic satire about a young woman (Kimmy Schmidt) who is kidnapped at age 14, along with three other young women, by a cult leader, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), who convinces the girls that doomsday has come and gone --- and they are the only people left in the world. After 15 abusive years in captivity, the girls are rescued and make the obligatory appearance on the Today Show. Kimmy decides to stay in New York City and not return to her hometown in Indiana. The show then follows her life in NYC as the irrepressibly optimistic Kimmy navigates life in her new world. With only an 8th grade education and totally unaware of the social and technological changes of the past 15 years, Kimmy charges headlong into her new life --- with poignant and comic results.
How, then, does Kimmy Schmidt resemble our current President? An immediate parallel is the effect isolation has had on both characters. While Kimmy was secluded in her bunker, DJT was holed up in Trump Tower (aside from his occasional public appearances for tabloid coverage) and neither character has an understanding of what normal, civil, human interaction is. While Kimmy’s blundering and missteps are comic, 45’s are, ultimately, rather sad (when they’re not infuriating or frightening). Kimmy blurts out whatever’s on her mind and, as we know, Trump tweets it. In both cases, their inability to understand what is going on around them is clearly revealed in what they say.
Likewise, Kimmy only has an 8th grade education and, as a result, is grossly ignorant regarding government, economics, the world of sports, social inequities, etc. While Trump claims to have a “Wharton” education and degree from UPenn, it is difficult to believe this when he, on a daily basis, unfurls his massive flag of ignorance about the Constitution, economics, diplomacy, and just about everything else he “expounds” on. The only difference, really, is that Kimmy is a good soul and well meaning while Trump is an insecure narcissist who sees nothing beyond the end of his nose.
The Unbreakable descriptor for Kimmy relates to her ability to miraculously find silver linings while soldiering on, whatever the circumstance. In Donald Trump’s case, his “unbreakable” nature is baked into a belief that he is always right and that loyalty, to him, is paramount. He does not deviate from those core beliefs --- just as 8th graders are always convinced that the adults in the room “just don’t get it” and only 14 year olds know what’s really going on. It is this core characteristic that connects Kimmy Schmidt and Donald Trump.
If you haven’t watched the show (and have Netflix), please give it a look. The half hour episodes go by quickly and there are wonderful performances delivered by superb actors, show after show. You may decide that Jon Hamm’s Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne --- the manipulative, woman-abusing cult leader --- is a more apt parallel to our current “leader,” but I’ll simply posit that the basic bones of the show have strong parallels to our current situation. The wonder of watching someone who has “grown up” in an isolated bubble misunderstanding (time and again) what’s really going on seems one way to gain a moment or two of comic respite from the daily drama being cranked out by the Unbreakable Donny Trump.
All the President's Men --- AGAIN
(A History Lesson)
August 21, 2018 may be the beginning of the end for Donald Trump’s presidency, but don’t bet on it, of course. Nonetheless, Paul Manafort’s 8 guilty verdict convictions and Michael Cohen’s claim that Trump “directed” him to pay off TWO women to influence the outcome of the 2016 election certainly look like the tip of a very dangerous iceberg. It is immaterial if the strategy was successful or not (we can never know what number of voters may have not voted for Trump or simply did not vote at all) --- the criminal conspiracy that the candidate (now President) engaged in violates campaign finance laws.
We are hearing (everywhere but on Fox News, of course) this parallels the Watergate Scandal of 1972-1974 and, certainly, there are striking parallels. The President’s lawyer (John Dean/Nixon, Michael Cohen/Trump) has tossed the first damning stone in the pond of illegality and corruption that the President has/had been treading water in. With Cohen’s admission yesterday, under oath and in court, we have the first clear evidence of Trump’s attempt to fix the 2016 election. What Robert Mueller may be able to expose --- with Michael Flynn (guilty), George Papadopoulos (guilty), Michael Cohen (guilty), and Don McGahn (the President’s counsel) already on the books regarding Trump and Russia --- could lead to charge after charge exposing Trump’s clear attempts to fix the 2016 election. And that’s where the strongest parallel to Watergate exists.
Most folks associate Watergate with the notion of “cover-up” and fail to recognize that the break-in at the Democratic headquarters in June, 1972 was only one of many actions taken by the Nixon Committee to Re-Elect the President (aptly known as CREEP) designed to insure that Nixon would run against the weakest possible Democrat in the 1972 election, thereby fixing the 1972 election. And that’s exactly what they got in McGovern. Edwin Muskie, the front-running Democratic candidate, was disposed of early on as a result of the bogus “Canuck letter” (a document produced by Nixon staffers that accused Muskie of prejudice against Canadian-Americans just before the New Hampshire primary --- where there are a significant number of French-Canadian/American voters --- reducing the candidate to tears on national television as he denied the charges!!) Let’s remember this original sin for Nixon and Trump: we are talking about tampering with the Electoral process and actively working to fix a Presidential election.
Let’s also clarify another point that the largely fact-averse and historically ignorant Trump “base” likes to harp on about the Democrats. A very popular chorus from the Trump faithful clings to the notion that the Democrats have, historically, been the party of segregation and the Ku Klux Klan. While this is true --- from 1865 to 1968 --- it fails to recognize that those same Democrats (primarily from the South & rural America) left the Democratic Party to become Republicans in 1968 --- voting for Richard Nixon or George Wallace (the racist former governor of Alabama). The “Southern Strategy” for Republicans began as opposition to the Civil Rights movement beginning in the 1950’s. Simply put:
In American politics, the Southern strategy refers to a Republican Party electoral strategy to increase political support among white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans.
Sound familiar? While Trump, of course, denies being “racist” it is difficult to ignore the evidence. Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist (and former senior consultant for Paul Manafort’s D.C. consulting firm) described the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” in a 1981 interview with Alexander P. Lamis:
Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger." (wiki -- boldface, mine))
“Abstract” and “coded” messages are Trump’s stock in trade and consistently “rile up” his base. In December, 2017, Vox reported that a Washington Post survey of millennials reinforced a number of previous surveys (https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/12/15/16781222/trump-racism-economic-anxiety-study). In short their story noted:
Even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, region and a host of other factors, white millennials fit Michael Tesler’s analysis. As he put it, economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety. We found, as he has in a larger population, that racial resentment is the biggest predictor of white vulnerability among white millennials. Economic variables like education, income and employment made a negligible difference. (Vox, German Lopez, December 15, 2017)
So, the “Southern Strategy” is alive and well and it is Republican, period. Those who support Confederate statues remaining “as is,” those who believe whites are “victims” and minorities are given a “free ride” (particularly by Democratic administrations), those who oppose “affirmative action” and “voting rights,” and those who oppose sensible immigration policies are Trump’s “base” and are the products of the Republican party’s “Southern strategy” --- and clearly represents the ideological foundation of the 1865-1968 Democratic Party, now morphed into the right wing Republicans.
“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” (Mark Twain) We don’t have to look far to see the rhymes that compose the Donald Trump campaign and his presidency: election fixing and racist code words exemplify the legacy of Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency and may well bring down the current administration. If nothing else, it would behoove citizens to understand, clearly, the history behind what’s transpiring and see it as a logical outcome of a long historical arc.
What we needed – Baby, She Had “It”
In April of 1967 I was finishing my high school sports career running sprints and hurdles for the Bay Shore track team. We had a teammate --- and I’m not sure I ever knew his actual name --- we called “Double-O” because he always carried an attaché case to practice (a la James Bond). In that case was a rather large, battery powered transistor radio (the 1967 version of a “boom box”) and the anthem for that track team quickly became Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Whenever it played on that scratchy radio (which was often!) the entire team, black kids, white kids, Latino kids, all started moving, all picked up a little more “strut” in their step, and all felt, somehow, energized after hearing Aretha belt out that “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Long before any of the single name stars of later years (Madonna, Cher, Beyonce, Adele) we had “Aretha” --- a touchstone for soul, rhythm & blues, and rock music all in one.
Otis Redding's “Dock of the Bay” was released (posthumously) in January of 1968 and it was only then that I discovered he had written “Respect.” I vaguely knew who “Goffin and King” were (they had written scores of hit tunes) but it was Aretha’s “Natural Woman” that became the defining rendition of Carol King’s song, long before the “Tapestry” album. While my musical interests and tastes were eclectic, to say the least, my love for the Flying Burrito Brothers tolerated their (sexually confusing) rendition of “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man,” knowing that only Aretha’s version was the legit one.
So, starting at age 18 (for me) Aretha was seared into my musical consciousness but, even more so, into my soul, white boy or not. Her output in 1967-68 alone was enough to sustain any other artist for an entire career. Consider this: aside from “Respect” in 1967 Aretha turned out “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” the aforementioned “Do Right Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby, I Love You,” and “Dr. Feelgood.” In 1968 she came out with “Think” (wonderfully revived in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie), “Ain’t No Way,” “People Get Ready” (the Curtis Mayfield classic!), “The House That Jack Built,” “(Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” From that point on Aretha was simply part of my life’s soundtrack. Her “Until You Come Back to Me” (1973), a song Stevie Wonder co-wrote and chose not to record, is Aretha’s from Note One.
Throughout her career, her covers of a wide variety (blues, rock, r & b) songs become uniquely and wonderfully her own. In 1969 she did a version of “The Weight” (by the Band) that rivals the exceptional rendition on Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” with the Staples Singers & The Band performing. Her “Bridge Over Troubled Water” vied for #1 on the charts with Simon and Garfunkel in 1971 and her “Spanish Harlem” is certainly as good as Ben E. King’s original. There are too many songs, really, to list them all but, again, part of my personal history includes 1970’s “Call Me,” “Spirit in the Dark,” and “The Dark End of the Street." While I was listening to a wide variety of music (thanks to being surrounded by great musicians in Morse College at Yale) Aretha was always right there! It was no surprise, then, in 1985, to hear her rocking out “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” for the Whoopi Goldberg movie. Her Eurhtymics duet on “Sisters are Doin’ For Themselves” (1984) and “I Know You Were Waiting (For Me)” with George Michael (1987) reminded all of us that Aretha was always a presence in the popular music of whatever era we were in.
So, the sadness we might feel today, as the first woman admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shuffles off this mortal coil, is balanced by knowing that her voice --- that incredible instrument that could soar and dive, growl and snarl, that could make you feel the music --- will always be there. As I write this my Amazon Alexa is cranking out “Aretha’s Greatest Hits” (which is a 30 song compilation, btw) and it’s hard not to move, even while sitting and typing (keyboarding?) this piece. And that was/is the magic of Aretha, a woman who could somehow turn a lyric like “Your Love is Like a Beach Ball” into a wonderful, soulful, exciting piece of art. Her mark on the last half-century of music is indelible and she was more than the “Queen of Soul.” She was the Queen of Popular Music, spanning genres and styles. Simply, the Best.