Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fog and Dreams

Back when I lived in the mountains above Los Angeles, I used to walk Archie, my dog, to the rim just about every day where I could look out over the city, and the dog could pad around, sniffing and exploring, chasing a lizard or squirrel. I loved looking down like that on the city I commuted to every day, but I liked it so much more when the hikes were foggy.

There’s something about walking in fog in the middle of a forest. Someone told me once that one of the effects of playing the didgeridoo is that the player is in a kind of trance dream state. It’s an interesting feeling and a little of what the forest fog walks are like. We’d be out there in the middle of the woods listening to the slow drips of dew, lost in our own world of thought, and then a bear would come ambling by. Neither I nor Archie would be surprised. The bear wouldn’t be either. She’d just move on her way.

There were other things that might have seemed surprising too, cars abandoned where there were no roads, a coyote who thought he was alone and playing with an old rag like a pup, stones stacked as monuments by local kids. Nothing was surprising here, and it felt like everything was as it should be out in the cool, nearly silent morning air.

The only thing that’s ever been comparable is that willing suspension of disbelief when I’m reading. It’s dreamtime same as the didgeridoo, same as fog walks. I love a writer who can drag me out into the fogscape and make me believe that not only do I belong there but so does everything else I’m seeing. Pat Barker’s been taking me back to World War One lately. Bonnie Hearn Hill took me on an adventure the other day.

Even better than that though is when I do it to myself. When I get into that space in my own stories, that’s a magic that I haven’t felt since I was ten years old and my conservative teacher forbid me from reading J. R. R. Tolkien. That was the best gift that person could have ever given to me.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2 Minute Book Review

I've fallen behind my blog post, and I read one book that I didn't like, so I'm going to catch up here. Two books that I did enjoy. Also, sat in the library and read a bunch of books by Degas, but for the life of me I can't remember titles. Read about Degas though. Interesting cat.

Meet You in Hell by Les Standiford

This is a discussion of the relationship between Andrew Carnegie and his sometimes-rival, sometimes-friend Henry Clay Frick. As an admitted history dilettante, I enjoyed this. It really focuses on the Homestead debacle that the two were really to blame for. It was a strike that went bad, and it ended in bloodshed. Frick and Carnegie simply refused to deal with a union in any way, even when the union gave them all they wanted, and then they sent in the Pinkerton agents. I'd known something about Carnegie, but less so about Frick. I have only one real complaint about the book, and that is Standiford gives the two bastards much too much sympathy. They starved people and order executions so that they can make an extra 1% profit when their profit margin was extraordinarily high and I'm supposed to feel sorry for them when they screw each other? They felt a little betrayed? Tell that to the people they had killed. Still, it's an enjoyable book from that crazy period of American history.

Balance by Robbi Nester

A collection of poetry that focuses on yoga. No one in this world is less flexible or knows less about yoga than I do. Still, I enjoyed the poems. They are good clean poems about a subject the author is a master of. That's going to turn out well. You might get more out of it if you know about yoga, but I got much as an outsider.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2 Minute Book Review

Lawrence Block's Tanner's Twelve Swingers

This was the first time I've read any of the Tanner books. This one was written in the 1960s and has Tanner slipping into Eastern Europe, going from Yugoslavia to Latvia, making border crossing after border crossing. He's a secret-agent type who has had a wound to the sleep center of his brain so he doesn't need or want sleep, and he rescues a bunch of defectors including the Latvian women's gymnastic team.

All of this sounds goofy and to some degree it is. This is a really early Block novel, and not my favorite. Still, I enjoyed the feel of it and the read. I enjoyed thinking about those days and the Eastern block. It was kind of fun and kind of interesting. I was in Yugoslavia for a week at the very end of the Cold War before the war happened there, and I found myself a little nostalgic while reading it. That might be the chief reason to read this book, Cold War nostalgia.

Monday, January 6, 2014

2 Minute Book Review

John Gardiner's Coyote Blues

This is an environmentalist's look at Laguna canyon, what it was and what it's become and becoming. There's no way not to lament this of course, but his poems go beyond lament and he is able to find peace in what's left of the natural world in a number of his poems. And he goes beyond the environment and Laguna as well, traveling every where across the world, especially in his first section. I felt all kinds of sad in a number of these places in the loss of the world and in all those places he's been and I'll never get to. Anyway, it's a very straight-forward yet meaningful kind of poetry. Read it.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

I Hate Teacher Movies

I met a couple of retired police officers who told me why they hated cop shows, couldn’t watch them. The cliches were just too unrealistic. No police officer would ever act in that way.

It got me thinking about my own profession, teaching. I’m a professor at a community college, and I never thought there was much mystery to what I did, but apparently there is. I cannot watch movies about teachers. They make me so very very angry for a number of reasons, but the cliches put forth in them make me think the general public has no idea what teachers go through. Here’s a list of the worst of them:

1. Teaching isn’t about the money.

Imagine the scene in any number of movies. Robin Williams goes home to his little hovel. All day long he’s been fighting with bureaucrats who flat out hate all students and teachers. They’ve been insulting and condescending for the worst possible reasons. The students have been fighting, doing the foolish things that they do, and now his reward is to come home to his mini one-bedroom apartment and stare out the window, wondering how he can get through to these kids. A single tear drop slowly works its way down his cheek, but he’s fighting the good fight even if he lives in a dump and has to even buy his books used.

“Teaching isn’t about the money” is something I hear not only in the movies, but in news reports, on the radio, and from people who don’t teach. Of course, it’s about the money, at least in part. Teaching is a really difficult job, and although I love it, and I never expect to get rich, I would like to be able to afford a two bedroom apartment and a decent meal just like everyone else.

People don’t make this claim about any other profession. Sure, there’s nobility in teaching, but there’s nobility in medicine and the law too, and no one’s asking doctors and lawyers to forgo a decent paycheck. You don’t ever get the scene of Sam Waterson going back to his tiny RV and sipping a thin cup of tea from a tea bag that’s been used and reused.

Up yours, Robin Williams!

2. Teacher and Administrators Are Natural Enemies

How many times have I seen a movie administrator with a cynical smirk on his face talking about how he has bigger concerns? I’ve worked with a lot of deans, vice presidents, presidents, board members, and others. Some of them have been terrible people. But no more so than anyone else in any field. Mostly they are kind, intelligent people trying to do the hard job of helping students to learn. Most of them are former teachers who thought they could make a bigger difference by guiding the school.

They make more money than teachers do. That’s because it’s not as fun as teaching, and they need to be recruited into that profession in some way.

They’re at odds with teachers during contract negotiations. Of course they are. That’s their job.

They’re not a group of evil yes men bent on conformity any more than the teachers who are supposed to be heroic are.

3. Good Teaching Requires a Great Deal of Loss for the Teacher

Michelle Pheiffer goes into the class full of kids who need her so desperately. The only way to get through to them is to first put herself on the line physically. She has to fight! Oh, she might take a beating, be permanently disabled, killed even, but if that’s what it takes, it’s a small price to pay. Somehow, she stands up to them and lives, but she doesn’t bother to get help from security. No, earning their respect was enough. Now it’s time for the second loss. Now, she must meet students and tutor late into the night. That’s fine. She doesn’t have kids. She doesn’t want free time. Dating, pfff! She’s a teacher damn it and that means sacrifice across the board.

I think Hollywood thinks that when people become teachers they have entered a kind of priesthood. They have accepted the idea that their life is over, and they will now devote themselves to the prospect of slow death so that others might learn.

Are they out of their minds? When people treat teaching in this way, they burn out fairly quickly just as anyone would burn out working these kinds of hours under these kinds of conditions. You can’t teach well if everything is always sacrifice.

Anyway, I know these cliches make for a more dramatic movie and that people love them. I understand why people love them. It’s just that I can’t watch teacher movies any longer.