Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Cream Does Not Always Rise to the Top

The best teachers I know, for some reason, are either struggling to stay in teaching or have already left to make money in real estate, law, or to live off of a lucky retirement.

The system makes it difficult to stay in teaching. The money is bad and getting worse; benefits are going extinct; class sizes and required duties keep climbing. The profession works only for the healthiest, most dedicated, idealistic, and head-strong.

And the administrative bloat siphons off already scarce funding. According to Robert Reich, administrative numbers and salaries keep increasing while teachers get less and less. Increases in administrative money match decreases in funding to teachers in the form of stagnant wages, job security, benefits, and class size. Here's a link to an article:

What baffles me is how some who play the bureaucracy game rise to titles and salaries that seem, to me, out of whack with actual work done for students.

Schools have begun to mirror corporate pay structures where the muckity-muck CEOs rake in 20, 30, 40 or more times what the rank and file bring in.

And, I can't tell why it is that they deserve it. Advocacy to state legislators seems very ineffective if that is part of what they are supposed to be doing. States like Arizona swing cleavers to the educational allocation in state budgets.

I know that the root of the this problem is political, of getting voters to demand support for education, but it also strikes me that priorities within education need some rethinking. Bureaucracies tend to become self-interested, self preserving, and see their work as more important than that of the teachers they represent.

I am pretty dense about such things, I admit, but why does an administrator at the UA, who gets every seventh year off for a sabbatical, make four, five, six times more than an experienced teacher who gets little support for professional development (no time off to write), with excellent course evaluations, a real track record of mentoring young teachers (helping them get jobs), years of curriculum innovation, hundreds or thousands of students, and real contact with what students are supposed to be learning?

These teachers have year-to-year or semester-to-semester contracts, decreasing health benefits, little material support, and, often live paycheck to paycheck.

I guess it's just some kind of joke that I continue not to get.

Monday, February 23, 2015

That's Knot: A Sad Story

I met him in his fourth life. In the  other three he had been shot, buried beneath a collapsed boulder, and abandoned.

His name was Knot, as in "that's Knot, my dog." The phrasing took off from there. "He's Knot, a very friendly, smart, hungry dog." Or "Have Knot, want Knot."

Aside from a bullet hole in the outer layer of skin covering his penis that never closed, you wouldn't know he had been through much more than is typical of rural New Mexico dogs. That's because he was so companionable, easy going, friend to all, even cats.

Yes, he would bark when visitors drove up the long drive to Kate's remote home. But it was a signal bark, not a threatening or hostile bark. He was a sentinel, an observer, rather than a guard dog.

It spite of his leg having been shattered by the bullet that hit his femur, Knot could run. For miles. He liked to accompany me on my bike rides along the twin track dirt road that wound through ranch land near El Morro National Monument in northern New Mexico. He would sprint ahead, double back, pass me, turn around, and then fly past me again before repeating the pattern.

He got along with the local coyotes and let them cross the road in front of us without too much fanfare or barking drama that many domestic dogs indulge in. He was comfortable with wild spaces and liked to wander.

Then he teamed up with Diablo.

Two dogs that have too much freedom can become a gang, or a pack, and begin to live by their own rules.

Knot began to get into trouble. He went to the National Monument and wore out his welcome. He was arrested, taken to Grants, and had to be bailed out. More than once. As a repeat offender, his sentences began to lengthen and he started to break bad.

Kate tried to reel him in, but Diablo had replaced her as primary influence.

In bad company, Knot took to the woods and the fields, the life of the back roads. He started to experiment with handouts and free loading. Soon he hit the hard life of begging.

Kate was at her wit's end. No fence could keep Knot at home. He had a taste of feral freedom and wasn't about to return to domestic life.

The dog catcher was looking for him and a warrant went out. He was looking at hard time, maybe even euthanasia.

Nobody knows how this will turn out.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Real Work

What seems so solid -- cars, houses, body, wealth, status -- according to some teachers, is really passing, impermanent, and illusion.

That's a tough idea for me, but one that is gaining some traction as my body begins to fail.

Life is still a scramble to keep up with expenses, to earn enough to have some fun in this life.

But once I have a roof, some food, and enough clothes to keep from freezing, I have this gnawing desire to wonder about big stuff, life questions, what it means to be a better human.

I see now that I could not work at jobs that did not have at least a little time devoted to these kinds of questions. I could not spend my days counting beans or tightening lug nuts or testing proteins in a lab. I wanted to read literature and be around people who thought about such things.

Those pursuits can get annoyingly esoteric for sure, but I just could not let that hope go.

Ultimately it comes home to the individual. How do I become a better human?

How do I be more honest, more caring, more balanced? How do I better show emotion and love? How do I help others when I am so afraid I won't be able to save myself?

How, exactly, to become a better human is something of a mystery. The great stories talk about meeting demons, of dying to old ways, of finding a chalice or golden fleece. None of the real work is easy. Breaking down fear, greed, anger, and rigidity is a good place to start. Some people call that the egoic self, and that self does not go quietly. It has vested interests in keeping the illusions in charge.

There are many stories, many paths, but none can do the work for you. It comes to rest on the spark of shared humanity. Each of us has to find out way. 

So, after all these years, I am finally beginning to see what the real work is.

I feel the fool for having wasted so much time chasing ghosts.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Coyotes, Bobcats, Owls, Snakes

Luke, the new cat in the neighborhood, was out looking for lizards last week when he was attacked by three coyotes.

The coyotes were not quiet, and their yipping alerted a human who rushed to Luke's rescue.

Luke survived, in spite of his punctured lung and lacerated hind leg.

The attack stirred up a community frenzy about dangerous animals. Some wanted to build a perimeter fence and electrify it. Others wanted to form a posse to chase down the rogue pack of coyotes. Others just decided to keep all pets inside, locked up, safe from an indifferent, wild, predatory desert.

They did not, however want to get a dog to roam the "ranch" as a deterrent to trespassing coyotes. 

Whenever a pet suffers an attack, we have the same conversation about what to do about them dangerous critters.

While I sympathize with the pet owners (I love my cats, dogs, chickens, tree frog, gerbils, and other animal friends and have lost several and still grieve), I differ from my neighbors in how to respond to wild animals. I accept the consequences of how we relate to open desert, at times, they do not.

It's a territory thing. Animals will test the boundaries of a territory whenever one opens up. Our little co-op ranch of seven acres is an open territory in that there are no dogs or other animals to claim it.

The people who live here don't want to shoot trespassers like coyotes, javelina, bobcats, or hawks, so we don't really count as defending a territory.

What I find interesting is the contradictory desires to both have a territory and to be unwilling to do what territorial creatures do -- aggressively defend the space.

We're all pretty nice, liberal, environmental, and self-absorbed. We want nature -- close, beautiful, balanced -- but in a sanitized form. We like desert fauna, in theory, but not too close or dangerous.

As Luke heals, the conversation will die down again, leaving us in our unresolved zone of contradictions. We won't have a fence, a dog, and the posse will hang up its spurs. Coyotes will watch from the edges of the settled spaces, waiting, watching, expanding the territory of our ambivalence.

It's a thorny place to live, but, to me, worth the cost. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

University Lecturers Fighting for Common Good

A Native American parable maintains that life is a fight between two hungry wolves; one of them represents a worldview of fear and domination, the other trust and cooperation. Which one wins depends on which one we all feed.

A version of this fight is playing out in how state funding is allocated. Governor Ducey is opting to cut funding to universities, community colleges, and K-12 education. He also proposes to increase funding for prisons. Short-term priorities that shift funding from schools to other areas, such as prisons, have long term deleterious effects, according to studies by groups such as the NAACP.

Ducey's worldview holds that prison is more important than education and that schools can do with less while corporations get help in the form of tax breaks.

Cutting funding for education has ripple effects for the economy, politics, culture, and quality of Arizona life.

A recent study by Timothy Bartik of the Upjohn Institute estimated that every dollar spent on pre-school education, for example, resulted in a three dollar increase in per capita income for the entire state by the time students got out of high school. Kids doing better in school has a snowball effect on the entire economy. These kinds of benefits result from funding education at all levels. Students who start school well, tend to achieve more, stay in school, go to college, get jobs, and tend to stay away from crime.

Other studies have shown that state dollars invested in universities resulted in increases in grant and scholarship money to those universities; the state dollars multiplied. And businesses looking to relocate go elsewhere when they see that levels of training and education of potential workers is lower than what they need to be successful.

In short, investing in education has real benefits, many of which are economic.

Cuts to education in Arizona are nothing new. Arizona families have seen tuitions skyrocket as universities have tried to make up gaps in funding. The rise in tuition is well documented and has been a response to legislative cuts. Universities are scrambling to increase enrollments, but not to handle those enrollments with support for teachers.

University lecturers, the ones who do the bulk of teaching in survey courses such as first-year writing, have also been paying for the cuts in lack of pay increases, increased work-loads, decreased health care, and increased class sizes. These teachers have helped keep the quality of education at the UA high, in spite of these challenges. They are dedicated, creative, and often inspired teachers who teach because they know education can change a life, make the difference between a productive livelihood and a low wage, desperate scramble to survive. These teachers are also the ones who work with students most in need of a good teacher -- first generation students, students returning after military service, students whose second language is English, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and students less prepared for college.

They are speaking out and asking for community support to invest in the long term, to feed the wolf of potential, possibility, and prosperity. They are holding a rally on February 25, in front of the Administration Building at eleven thirty. They are speaking up for Arizona families, UA students, and for education at all levels.

They are asking Arizona to choose a path and a worldview that values teaching, students, and quality of life, that we feed hungry wolf of the common good.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Taking Responsibility (Personal Inventory Taking)

I drag a long bag behind me. It is filled with excuses for why I have not fulfilled my potential as a writer, teacher, colleague, father, husband or any number of other roles I play in this life.

Voices in the bag lament that I had to work too hard at teaching, had to put in too many hours, too much energy, to really focus on a long writing project, the one that would have solved all my problems, redeemed me. The voices point and blame my original family for lack of support and opportunity, my wife for wanting me to be a better provider than artist, bosses for lack of release time or promotion or recognition for work done as low rung lecturer. They remind me that I inherited depression in my genes and live under its shadow, live in constant company of the black dog. The voices say too that it is the system, the state decline in funding for education, the lack of value seen in the humanities. The reasons for me failure are legion, complex, deeply rooted in my life narrative.

Yes, it always other people's fault if I listen to voices in the bag, the voices in my head, the voices I have composed to explain away my unhappiness with my lot in life.

But, if I am honest, I see that the place I am at is the result of my actions, is the consequence of choices and behaviors, and that I have gotten exactly what I "wanted" on some some level, self-sabotaging as that might be.

I chose not to pursue an MFA, not to work with mentors who might have helped me toward greater success as a writer. I chose to spend time with family and friends and this lovely desert. I chose to ride bikes when I could have been studying or writing.

I chose life over art, gainful employment over sacrifice for creativity. 

It's hard to look back on a life and not feel some regret or to fall into the trap of coulda-shoulda-mighta. And I confess that I do that, but I also see how dishonest it is.

What it comes down to is that I did what I did and that there is no going back to change any of it.

But I can start here, where I really am, and begin to pick up the pieces of a half-lived life and assemble them into something that looks like calm, peace, energy, and presence.

Since I can't be anything other than what I am, I might as well make peace with that.

So here I am, somewhere in my 59th year, a teacher, a pilgrim of sorts, a clumsy beginner. I toil in obscurity and scribble out little truths as they come to me. A light has begun to show the way and it reveals a truth behind the shadows, the demons, the habits of thought. The rest of my life is up to me. I am learning to accept the consequences of my behaviors and decisions.

That process is slow, circuitous, and recursive, like writing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Anti-Intellectual Politicos Want to Strip Titles From Critics

The Kansas Legislature wants to ban university or state employees from using titles such as "president," "professor," "dean," "director," "doctor," "head," "chairperson," or any other when publishing opinion pieces critical of legislators.

Supporters of Kansas House Bill 2234 apparently don't want critics to include their levels of education, responsibility, or expertise when pointing out how cuts to education, social programs, or health care cripple state progress. And they especially don't want any titles used when critics cite ways legislators accept kickbacks from lobbyists.

I guess education, and the titles that go with it, does not equip writers of op-ed pieces or columns with any more authority or knowledge than a random person on the street.

The legislators are doing a great job, too, of driving teachers away from teaching with their cuts in pay, lack of job protection, and micromanaging curriculum.

Not only do these state legislators want to dis-incentivize education by taking away the credentials that come with the work, they want to drive good teachers out of the field.

That way students won't learn enough to ask questions and those who do won't be able to lay claim to titles they have earned.

Looks to me like they want to invest in ignorance for the long haul -- not the brainiest of game plans, even to this anti-prentention, low level, no titled paper-pusher.

The Right Thing (A Meditation)

It's best if no one finds out.

When people see someone doing the right thing, they shower the doer with praise and accolades and deferential honor.

All of that is good, and people doing the right thing deserve the recognition.

But, like love unrequited, the right thing done anonymously, done "just because," has more power, keeps the focus on the love rather than the person. When the act is all there is, it becomes possible that anyone did it.

That mystery can be a game changer.

And it runs contrary to the American belief in the individual, the self, and the right to take credit for things done well, done ethically, done because they are necessary.

Not taking credit undoes the story, flaunts the need for recognition and attention.

It can become a spiritual path, work done for something other than this world.

I believe that every act of selfless kindness adds a brick to an edifice in a spiritual realm and that every brick then becomes timeless.

Simply put, you only get to keep what you selflessly give away.

If one believes in God or some creative force behind the workings of the universe, then such endeavors can be between the doer and the deity and no one else.

The most invisible and anonymous of people may be giants in this spiritual sense.

That homeless guy in a blanket that I almost ran over this morning, for example, might be the king of generosity.

I am grateful he had the right of way.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Don't Go There?

People don't like to talk about it, don't want to hear about it either. They just want something pleasant to fill the time.

Widening gaps in wealth, declining opportunities in education, climate change, cyber attacks -- all of it just seems to be too much, over the top.

Even if there is a flicker of interest, the talk goes along the lines of "it's always been like that," or "it's not a good time to rock the boat," or "I'm doing OK for now and don't need to really act or wake up."

Those are just a few the messages I get to change the subject.

And they have started to wear me down.

I am so tired that I can barely move in spite of losing ground in most of the areas of my life.

A course I designed has been canned because it costs too much. Never mind that the data show better retention, faster time to degree, and improved achievement. Or that national award.

My bosses just go along with whatever comes down from the tower of administrators and encourage me to do the same.

My chosen field, education, operates on fundamentally wrong-headed assumptions about the values of testing. The whole testing enterprise and "data driven" frenzy has wrecked what I think is good about education: problem solving, creative expression, and critical thinking.

There just "isn't time for those things."

Corporations and billionaires tailor political structures to better control what is left of a democratic system.

Prison gates shut tight on the poor, the marginalized, the mentally ill, the throw-away people.

A prison industrial complex has grown into big money as it grooms governments to lock up more and more as a way to make money off of the declining education and work opportunities.

Even those who can find jobs, can't make ends meet because wages are so low.

It is a bad time to run a small business or to work for a living in America.

And only a very few are willing to talk or think about the issues, much less act on them.

So I keep it all to myself and try not to offend polite conversation.

The truth of things is usually too much to hear, too unpleasant, to close to the bone.

And so we coast along...

Until a story pulls us in enough to entertain even the most aversive and unpleasant of facts.

It's up to the writers, movie makers, and artists to tell the tales that might matter enough to push others to take a stand. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

My Trip to Visit My Father Who Has Alzheimer's (work in progress)

Gus made Tater Tot casserole for the church dinner. He and the girls took it to feed the homeless. That meant The Bear and I were left at the Road House with the paid programming that followed the Packers game.

The Bear didn't much mind, or better said, he didn't complain. He is used to being left in front of the TV as Gus's family goes about their business of high school sports, boot camp workouts, homework, errands, and Midwest socializing.

Gus's dinner does not include many green leafy vegetables. It's like most of the meals I will have on my trip to the visit The Bear, but that is fine. I'm used to Wisconsin food, and have lived on it most of my life.

I'm here now from Arizona, where I live, to see my father, who has just received his official diagnosis of Alzheimer's. I've brought him up to my brother's from where he lives in Janesville, thirty miles to the south. The farmland along the back roads is frozen and snow covered. Ponds are slick, shining sheets of black ice.

We saw three wild turkeys on the way up.

I have never, in many years of living in Wisconsin, seen wild turkeys. Yet, there they were, off the side of the road, crossing a corn field stubble.

I'm staying with the Bear and his new wife Linda. They have a guest room that faces the street in a Victorian brick house. The old furnace and steam-fed radiators can't keep up with the cold. They clank all night. Flannel sheets and a pile of qulits help with the cold.

After Gus and his family leave for the church dinner, The Bear and I decide to hit the road too. He needs help with his jacket, but stands and uses the bathroom before we go. As we walk in the cold out to little rental car, I hold his elbow. He is stooped from the Parkinson's and not so good with stairs. The driveway is shoveled but slick with patches of ice.

We make it to the car, and I help him in. Once settled I ask if he wants to take a road trip rather than go home.

"Hell yes," he says.

"How about the brewery over in New Glarus?"

He nods.

On the way we take a tour of reminiscence through downtown, the downtown of my adolescence and his glory days as town councilman. We drive past the old house. We talk about things that happened in places in the town -- a canoe race that we lost, neighbors who divorced, houses I helped paint for work while in college, times we worked together on the family house.

The town has changed, seems so much smaller than in my mind's eye, my dream life.

Once on the highway, I gun the little car. The Bear likes that, has always liked cars,

I hated them. He worked for Triple A.

Now, we just enjoy the view as the shadows lengthen.

He is more lucid than people think. My brothers and sisters tell me he is "too gone" for conversation. I disagree. In the car, we have plenty of time to think in silence, plenty of time to process. He tells me he is concerned about US fiscal policies, not exactly the subject of a feeble mind.

His age and decline in function has softened him. I tell him I am sorry for having been such an asshole of a son.

"It's alright," he says. "Make the most of the days you have."

In New Glarus, the brewery is closed and it's getting dark. But a grocery that sells the brew is open, so we go in. The Bear uses the grocery cart as his walker and we find the display in the back of the store. They let us mix and match single brews for a six pack. I get a Fat Squirrel and a Spotted Cow. The Bear picks out a Black Top. He doesn't drink, so doesn't really care what they will taste like.

I take a picture of him in front of the brewery.

On the way back home, we call some of my siblings A few of them are having trouble. Maggie had serious issues with Earl. She is distraught. The Bear can't stop being the father.

"Sweetheart, you let me know if you want me to come down there to help. I can come down if you need me. You just let me know."

This comes from a man who cannot remember where he is, much less drive a car to Florida, yet his role as father won't quit.

As we roll through the hills, I tell him about my own struggles with parenting, with marriage. I stay away from money, because I don't want him to worry. I tell him about my writing projects. He doesn't scowl like he did when he was younger, stronger. He was disappointed that I did not follow him into the military, but has come to terms with my choices.

I talk to him like I have always wanted to talk to him -- openly, with emotions like fear and anger and shame. He listens, hears me. Nods. Asks questions.

He tells me things I never knew about him, about his own dreams. His dream to be a pilot. His days as a lineman in North Dakota in the winter. His courtship of my mother.

I see monstrous hay bales left in a field out the window. They are frosted with snow as the sun sets and a near full moon rises. 

I have so many amends to make. I have been too hard on Wisconsin. I have been an arrogant prick to my dad. I am such a beginner with being the son who comes to visit. How can I tell him that, in many ways, I have failed? Failed professionally. Failed to become the writer I wanted to be. Failed to become the father and husband I wanted to be.

And I wonder if I am next, if the Alzheimer's that wracks my father will soon lower its hood on me.

The radio say it's zero degrees out there in the cold fields as we wind our way back to my father's home.

My dad is happy with his new bride. She takes care of him. I guess that's what matters. My sibs don't visit him, don't like his wife. haven't gotten over my mom's death. Fear losing inheritance. Or whatever it is. I sleep in the basement. It's cool. I wait for the bats. Text my beloved.

I don't talk to The Bear about depression and how I feel it is aptly named. The whole system slows down. Thoughts don't happen. Connections don't get made.

I think about my nieces.  The youngest of them, Kortney, sits with my dad where he sits in front of their TV. She is the only one who seems to see him. But she is getting older and now plays solitaire on her I-Pad.

When I leave him to return to my own home, he is hunched over, listening, watching, waiting.

Beneath the Wheels

Sean took me to see the other San Diego last Saturday.

We left the beach area, the La Jolla / Scripps dreamland and went south and inland, past the airport, the harbor. We rode our bikes down to the loading docks, the bridges, the industrial parts of the city.

Like many cities, San Diego is divided between the haves and have nots. Not surprisingly, the haves get to tell their side of the city story more than the others. San Diego, to outsiders, is beach houses, surfing, sunsets, recreation on bikes, skate boards, boats, hang gliders, fast cars, scuba.

It's a fit man's paradise of tight, tanned asses and tidy utopias. Milk, honey, and money.Ego, self-absorption, Me-Me.

Of course, there are other stories, other San Diegos. Somebody has to work once in a while, after all. For so much wealth to collect at the upper crust, some has to be funneled from down below.

There are tents belonging to homeless people on the sidewalks near the stadium. Hookers flirt with drug dealers in sleek cars with dark tinted windows. Drud addicts lie on the sidewalk, filthy with the grime of the streets and their bodily secretions.

The dream didn't work for them.

And then there are the activists, the ones who work with the invisible San Diego. One of their projects, an attempt to tell the story that is seldom told is in Barrio Logan, Chicano Park. There, artists have put together images that show struggle for a place to stand, a working wage, decent education, an identity for the invisibles.

Some of the murals tower over viewers on columns that support the Coronado Bridge. They are powerful in color and design, with messages of action, character, and work. They are not the ethos of fun and privilege. These are the stories of the marginalized, the outsiders, the underclasses.

But they are also beautiful, erotic, and portray the many forms love can take. The art shows possibility in alternatives, asks the viewers to imagine potential.

Interestingly, the park was quiet, except for some men pushing shopping carts or bikes loaded with the supplies necessary for life on the streets. I saw no tourists other than us, no photographers, no elite museum patrons. The common good seems very out of fashion here in So-Cal.

The quality of the murals was the equal of those I have seen at the Museo be Bellas Artes in Mexico City, but no entry fee was charged here.

This art required scaffolding, prep work, paint, skill, and long days of hard work, yet they stood here, outside, free for the taking.

And few seemed to care.

I guess that says something about power and how we view the possibility of social change.

The artists and activists are my heroes. They carry on against a stream of thought that is all but impossible to overcome. They swim up the stream fed by privilege, wealth, advertising, powerful narratives of corporate control.

Power does rest with the people, they say.

It's waiting there for us when we wake up, when we remember, when we can't take the injustice any more.