Friday, December 28, 2007

In Absentia

I've been staying at my mother's house in Kellogg without an internet connection. It's simply going to work out more easily for me to begin posting again when I return to Eugene.

Christmas, my birthday, my visit here in Kellogg, everything has been wonderful.

See you next year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/18/07: Casino, Moss, CyberShopping

1. It was mildly fun to go to the new Three Rivers casino near Florence and see what's happening there. Lousy day playing machines, darn it.

2. The drive over to Florence and back was gray, drizzly, and alive with moss hanging in long spindles from the trees along both sides of the road.

3. I'm having fun deciding what to give my sisters for Christmas and making some discoveries that make me happy. I hope the feeling will be mutual!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/17/07: Groomed, Cool, Tofu Time

1. Snug is groomed. He looks really good.

2. The Honda has a new radiator.

3. The Deke bought a tofu-turkey on a whim a few weeks ago and we enjoyed eating it tonight.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/16/07: Sock Monkeys, Eventual Justice, Fins Win Finally

1. The good cheer of the Deke and Molly sewing sock monkeys gave our home good vibrations today.

2. I watched "The Trials of Darryl Hunt", another documentary movie about a man incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit. Darryl languished in prison for nineteen years before he was released and exonerated.

3. Hiram had to be excited in Miami today: the Dolphins won their first game of the season!

Sibling Assignment #45: Random Thanksgiving

Back around Thanksgiving time, Silver Valley Girl assigned us three siblings to make a video of what we are thankful for. I'm late with mine, but isn't it really Thanksgiving all year long?
Inland Empire Girl's production is here and here is where you'll find Silver Valley Girl's.

Three Beautiful Things: 12/15/07: Hoffman, Scribblings, Catching Up

1. I saw the movie, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead". Could a family have more evil in it? Philip Seymour Hoffman builds on the role he played in "Owning Mahowny", a desperate, addicted corporate underling who tries to hide his panic underneath of a facade of competence. When the facade cracks, look out: violence is unleashed.

2. It felt good to post on "Sunday Scribblings" again after about a month's absence. I've enjoyed the comments different readers have made.

3. I'm trying to finish my sibling assignment from back on Thanksgiving week. I'm creating the assigned slide show of things I'm thankful for and it's been fun experimenting around with different effects and stuff. It should go up today.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/14/07: MomPal, Finished, Choice Bagel

1. I had a good conversation with Mom this morning and it felt more like talking to a friend than my mother.

2. I submitted one last grade change form and I think I've done all I can to bring fall quarter to an end. I know one more loose thread is dangling out there, but I can't do anything about it. The student needs to finish her last essay. I've taken care of everything that has come to me.

3. The sesame bagel I ate, with a cup of coffee, at Market of Choice, seemed buttery and rich and I didn't put any butter or cream cheese or jam or anything on it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: Dance

I suffered torture most of the eighth grade from wanting Laura Oakland to wear my initial ring as a sign we were going steady.

One night I met Laura at Dr. Zhivago at the Rena Theater in Kellogg and never knew what was happening in the movie because I kept obsessively sliding off my initial ring, trying to get the guts to ask her to go steady, and chickened out, my ring finger so slick with clammy sweat that my ring slid on and off as if it were buttered.

At the last dance of our eighth grade year, Laura and I were sitting out a dance or two in the grandstands of the junior high gym. I never asked Laura to a dance or a movie. I was too chicken. We always just met there.

Time was running out. The dance was nearing its end. So was the school year. Laura lived over five miles from our house out in Page and I never saw her in the summer. The Beatles' “Penny Lane” played over the gym’s tinny sound system --

Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes.

There beneath the blue suburban skies

Finally, stomach cramped and cotton-mouthed, I asked Laura Oakland to go steady.

“No. My mom won’t let me.”

“Oh. - - - - OK.”

Shame scorched my face. I bit my lower lip. “Penny Lane’s” trumpets floated with mockery through the gym.

We danced the last dance. Laura rode home with other Page kids. Or spent the night with a girl friend.

I walked home, alone, past Dick and Floyd’s and turned down McKinley. Laughing payday carousers moved in and out of the Rio Club, the Inland Lounge, and the other uptown Kellogg bars.

I crossed over to the alley by the YMCA. It reeked where someone had taken a leak on the west wall. I trudged down to Railroad Avenue, past Freddy Walter’s flimsy house, on my way past the IGA at Cameron and Hill and further west on Cameron, past the Sunshine Inn where Dad was tending bar, and on to our house.

“Penny Lane” played over and over in my ears. I imagined that wherever Laura Oakland was, she and her friends laughed.

I arrived home. Mom was asleep on the couch. The front door opening woke her. She lit a cigarette. “How was the dance?”

“Fine. Care if I change the channel?”

“Go ahead.”

I watched a fight, probably Ray “Windmill” White vs. Mike “Irish” Quarry on Boxing from the Forum. I ate a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli. I went to bed.

I had baseball practice in the morning. Looking back, I remember that practice. Scott Stuart sang lines from “Lady Madonna” while we waited for our coach. He made it sound so funny. He only knew three lines:

Lady Madonna,
Baby at your breast
Wonders how you manage to feed the rest.

Later that summer, our team, Jim Schaffer Auto played the Eagles. I made four errors at third base that day. In one inning.

That summer Jimmy Ferris ran into John Kerns. John was in high school. John lived in Page. John boasted to Jimmy.

He and Laura spent the summer making out.

Photo Hunt: Small

Small price to pay.

For other small photos, go here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/13/07: Dylan, D to A, "Autobahn"

1. Having watched the movie, "I'm Not There" yesterday inspired me to listen to Bob Dylan songs much of the day today. After all these years, I'm starting to not only continue to enjoy his music, but to understand his songs and his artistry better.

2. I'd had to submit a D grade for two very good writers who hadn't completed their last essay by the time I had to enter grades. Their papers came in today and I changed their grades to A, the grade they earned and deserved.

3. Rolling Stone online has named the fifty best songs that are over seven minutes long, here. Among them Kraftwerk's "Autobahn". I went to Napster and found a version that is about twenty-three minutes long and I enjoyed the sensation of being behind the wheel of a BMW, feeling its power on the Autobahn.

Learning to Read

Instead of a final examination, I assigned my students a retrospective essay to be written during the time reserved for the final exam.

I created an imaginary situation: your Uncle Dan and Aunt Jill have won 133 million dollars playing Powerball and have decided to fund your education.

All you have to do is write a letter telling Uncle Dan and Aunt Jill what you have learned in WR 121.

I didn't know what to expect. I had read their essays and helped trigger some rambunctious discussions about war, loss, reconciliation, and survival, but I wanted to read my students' own perceptions of what they had learned.

Before I write what surprised and pleased me most, let me say a word or two about teaching college composition.

A college composition course doesn't have any inherent subject matter, aside from the abstract principles of what good writing requires.

Therefore, I assign my students books to read and structure the reading around a central focus. For years, the question I've raised in WR 121 has been, "What is a well-lived life?" and I've worked with my students to read and understand books and films ranging from Plato to Tupac Shakir, from Into the Wild to Drinking: A Love Story.

For the first time, this quarter our readings centered around coming to understand the experiences of loss, survival, and reconciliation, which is the emphasis of Lane Community College's Reading Together program this year.

We read Tim O'Brien's The Things We Carried, a hybrid of fiction of memoir of O'Brien's Viet Nam experience; Dan O'Brien's Buffalo for the Broken Heart, the story of O'Brien transforming his ranch and his soul by deciding to no longer raise cattle and to raise buffalo instead; and, Louise Steinman's The Souvenir, a memoir centered on Steinman discovering who her father was after he died and she found his WWII letters and a Japanese flag hidden away in the garage in an ammo box. The flag has a Japanese soldier's name on it and Steinman tracks down the family of the soldier, travels to Japan to return the flag, and visits sites where her father was in combat in the Phillipines. (The books are here, here, and here.)

As I read my students' retrospective essays I discovered that none of my students had read books with attention to seeing how the story illuminated the larger human experience, not just the surface experience of the book's story.

Every student who wrote about the reading in the class expressed a mixture of surprise and joy that they could learn so much from books that had nothing to do with their own specific experience. None of my students had fought in Viet Nam. None raised buffalo. None had gone in search of a father through war letters and travel.

But, all of my students know loss. They all struggle with different kinds of survival. They all long for reconciliation.

My students came to understand what I hoped they would. Good stories narrate the dramas of the human soul. They experienced reading these books as looking more deeply into the stories, as helping them understand deeper experiences in their lives, experiences they shared with writers whose stories, on the surface, bore little resemblance to their own.

They learned to read more critically. They began to understand that how a story is told and how sentences and paragraphs and chapters are structured is as important as what happens in the story.

I was stunned with joy reading these retrospectives. For so long I have been reading books as a way of understanding the nature of human nature and as a way of better understanding the universal experience of human beings, that I had forgotten that for many this is a new experience.

The most rewarding payoff in centering a writing class around good books and philosophical questions is that students are faced with questions to write about that are alive in their lives. Again this quarter, as it always is, it was an immeasurable pleasure to read the essays my students wrote.

Many came to understandings of themselves and their lives they hadn't ever thought to consider before. They came to see that the questions published writers explore and dig into in their books are their questions, too, and that a person doesn't have to be a published writer to express cogent, poignant insights into one's own life, and, in turn, into the human experience.

Several wrote that what they learned about reading and from their reading would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

It's just a start. But, my students learned to read and came to understand that reading leads to thinking and that writing helps deepen and structure one's thinking and insights.

I couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/12/07: The Dead, Deep Reading, The Playlist

1. After driving to Corvallis to watch the beguiling and exhilarating movie "I'm Not There", Kelly and I had a fine meal at the Firkin and Fox and swapped Grateful Dead show stories and fired each other up with our affection for the band and its music.

2. I read more of my students' WR 121 retrospective essays and enjoyed the quiet satisfaction of learning that the course helped my students read books in a deeper, more satisfying way than most of them had ever done before. Most of my students had never read books with an eye to the the way stories explore shared human experience. Most had previously thought, for example, that to read a book about a rancher's experiment raising buffalo was book about buffaloes and not much else. Now they know that such a book can help them explore their own experiences with loss, survival, and reconciliation, even though, on the surface, the book seems to be about a subject they have nothing in common with.

3. I discovered a blog that reports on all kinds of news about movies and their music. It's called The Playlist. Check it out here.

The Idea of Bob Dylan: "I'm Not There"

The six "Bob Dylans" of Todd Haynes "I'm Not There"

And I stood outside myself,

Beyond becoming and perishing,

A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still . . .

from "The Rose"
Theodore Roethke

About sixty seconds into Todd Haynes' movie "I'm Not There" I made a commitment. I would not try to figure out this movie. I committed myself to taking it in, moment by moment, and to let its stream of images, associations, scenarios, news clips, short stories, dream sequences, shocks, songs, dreamscapes and hallucinatory sequences keep coming at me. I would not analyze, sort out, or question anything in the movie. I kept my commitment. I surrendered to the film.

The more I gave in, the more I felt, to quote Theodore Roethke, "A something wholly other". It was a Dionysian thrill. It was as if "I swayed on the wildest wave alive", a wave of imaginative, adventurous, free wheeling, unorthodox film making. Throughout the movie I was still. I was transfixed. I was overwhelmed. It was almost erotic. I could have watched this movie for four hours. I wasn't ready to stop at two. The movie created world of wildness I did not want to leave.

I had another thought during this movie. I wondered what it would be like if this were the first movie I'd ever seen. I wondered what it would be like if this movie became the standard by which I would view all other movies, if "I'm Not There" was the normal way to make movies and all the other movies were the unusual ones.

How about if I thought that if a movie had a linear plot, that was weird? How about if I thought that the way to make a movie was to have six actors play the main character? How about if I thought movies were an art form that explored characters so complex and enigmatic that it took six actors playing different dimensions of the character to begin to create a portrayal of that character? And how about if I thought the way to make movies was to present a two hour series of multiple styles of photography moving from shot to shot with the logic of dream and memory, somewhat chaotically, and what if I thought the whole idea of filmmaking was to make poetry, and not to tell a story with a strong sense of beginning, middle, and an end?

If "I'm Not There" were to define the making of movies, then our movie going experience would be a most challenging and imaginative experience and we wouldn't always know what happened to us.

It is because "I'm Not There" is so unusual, runs so against the grain of plot driven movies, and works so beautifully in the realm of metaphor and poetry that I loved it.

I never knew what was coming next. Another montage? More surreal images? More anachronisms? What style of photography would I see next? Would there be more news footage from the 1960s? What would I see next and what would the next surprise do to further complicate the idea of Bob Dylan? What would be the next thing to come across the screen that I wouldn't intellectually understand, but that would thrill me with its audacity and imaginative zeal?

This movie is not a biographical portrayal of Bob Dylan. It treats Bob Dylan as a cultural idea, an idea composed of rumors, legends, interviews, gossip, cultural criticism, popular music history, puzzlement, reputation, talent and all the other factors that work together to create what we think of and what we feel when we hear the name "Bob Dylan".

Kelly and I drove nearly an hour to Corvallis to see "I'm Not There". The film left Eugene after a week. Kelly and I made up half the audience watching this afternoon's 3:30 screening. It's not a popular movie. It doesn't do what most movie viewers expect from movies in general and definitely does not do what viewers expect from a "biopic".

That's exactly why the movie gave me goosebumps.

As we left the theater, Kelly said, "I think I want to see that movie about twenty-seven more times."

Me, too.

Maybe after the seventh or eighth viewing I'll make sense out of it and piece together its fractured story lines and understand what it all adds up to as a vision of Bob Dylan.

But for now, I'm not ready to think about this movie in these ways.

I'm just going to keep swaying on the wild wave of this movie. I'll indulge the pure pleasure its copious visual variety and musical wealth afforded me.

And be still.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/11/07: Drive-By Coffee, Finished, Being and Nothingness at the 7-11

1. Jeff and Margaret and I had a lively cup of coffee this morning. Margaret had to leave early and Jeff and I had a rousing discussion of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, The Allman Brothers, The Drive-by Truckers and other music and musicians. I hope we didn't bother other coffee drinkers. We were getting kind of loud in our enthusiasms.

2. I finished grading papers and posted grades for my three sections of WR 121. I am no longer under the avalanche.

3. I dropped by 7-11 around nine o'clock this evening to pick up a Diet Pepsi and Saab was working the counter with Walter Kauffman's classic study, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre lying in front of him, ready to be read during lulls in the 7-11 action. I did the obvious. I looked around the store, noted the young frantic mother with two cold children, the whacked out guy trying to figure out how to buy cigarettes, and the fellow in front of me in line scanning the Maxim cover on the magazine rack. The 7-11 is existentialism unplugged.

Onion News Network: Nation's Wealthy Cruelly Deprived of True Meaning of Christmas

Monday, December 10, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/10/07: Coffee Capers, Appreciation, Out of the Avalanche

Note: The demands of my job have kept me away from blogging. After I get my grades in tomorrow, a tidal wave of posts will be coming. I'm going to do just what successful bloggers don't do: I'm going to have multiple posts in a single day!

1. Michael and I thought today was the day to meet Margaret and Jeff for coffee, but because we were wrong together we got to have coffee ourselves. Then we went Allan Brother's where we thought Jeff and Margaret might be, and they weren't there, but our fellow teacher and great friend Jose was and the rocket fueled conversation continued.

2. A student of mine from last spring came forward in a great email to tell me he's been reading this blog and he addressed some questions to me that I'll respond to in future posts.

3. I'm almost done grading essays. I'm almost out from under the avalanche. I'll miss my students' papers, a lot. Reading their work has been very satisfying, but I'll also be happy to get other things started and finished.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Climate Change/Global Warming Tipping Point

NFL Meteorologists Warn Steaming Black-Guy Heads Occurring Later Every Year

The Onion

NFL Meteorologists Warn Steaming Black-Guy Heads Occurring Later Every Year

NEW YORK—Steaming black-guy heads, the traditional sign of approaching winter for generations of football fans, have been occurring later in the season with every passing year, a fact that may be evidence of a climatic change with long-term...

Three Beautiful Things 12/05/07: Pandora, Skillet Lickin, Deep Learning

1. I decided to take the Pandora plunge and my mind is swimming with the pleasures of Patti Smith, Van Halen, Gun N Roses, Lou Reed, Harry Chapin, Leon Russell, Sleater-Kinney, The Talking Heads, Jim Croce, The Allman Brothers, Iggy Pop, John Denver, The Clash, The Kinks, Harry Nilsson. If it's not one obsession it's another.

2. I scrambled up a nice yam, Walla Walla sweet onion, mushroom, egg, four grated cheese, and salsa skillet dish with a side of buttery English Muffins for breakfast and sprang into action this morning, making my way through many of the gorgeous final essays my WR 121 students have written and are still turning in.

Breaking Free of the Five Paragraph Essay

3. I've taken a sneak peak at my students' final retrospective papers they wrote Monday and Tuesday. I had them imagine that an Uncle Dan and Aunt Jill had just won 133 million dollars playing Powerball and that Dan and Jill offered to pay for their entire education in exchange for a letter telling them what they'd learned in WR 121. I'm saddened, but not surprised, at how many of my students have in earlier writing classes been forced to write essays following strict formats and structures. The most ubiquitous is the five paragraph essay. I eschew these forms. That's putting it politely. Time and time and time and time and time again different students have experienced liberation and inspiration this quarter in not having to fit their thinking to a form, but have been asked to create structure and coherence on their own, in a way that best serves their rhetorical purposes. It's been an ecstatic experience to read how many students have had felt a new or a resurrected love writing simply because they were in charge of how to make their essays work, not under the iron repression of an abstract form.

Bonus beautiful thing: Many of my students had never read books as a way of understanding the common threads of human experience that run through all good stories. Many have expressed delight that even though they had never fought in Viet Nam, were never buffalo ranchers, and had never taken a Japanese flag taken as booty in war back to a family in Japan, that because we looked at these books in terms of loss, survival, reconciliation, my students were able to emotionally and intellectually connect with writers who wrote about surface experiences foreign to almost each and every of them. Few things make me happier than when students from 17-55 years of age have this experience for the first time and realize that the best academic study is not about something outside of themselves and distant. It's about the inner life human beings have in common.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/04/07: Hilarious, Handshake, Watch Instantly

1. During Finals Week we faculty meet our classes just once during the week. Meeting classes less often affords us more time to grade essays. It also affords us faculty members to talk with each other and late this morning Dan, Margaret, Eileen, and I had a great bullshit session, marked by stories about characters who have retired or been fired from our academic division. Our loud voices (well, my loud voice) and laughter echoed up and down the hall as we swapped tales of days gone by.

2. One of my reserved students who shows little affect and is a brilliant writer surprised me with an enthusiastic handshake when he handed in his final and with an email asking me to stay in touch, now that class is over.

3. I've just begun to tap into the "Watch Instantly" feature of my Netflix account. The "Watch Instantly" offerings are limited and uneven. Nonetheless I've watched two gems instantly , over the last week. I mentioned "Helvetica" earlier and tonight I watched "Tom Dowd and the Language of Music", an inspiring film about sound engineer and record producer, Tom Dowd. Parallel to the documentary "Cutting Edge" about film editing, this movie afforded me insight into the world of recording and producing record albums that was all pretty new to me. Dowd was widely regarded as a genius and an unflappable, positive creator of fine recordings made by artists as different as Ray Charles, Ornette Coleman, and Cream.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/03/07: Doughnuts, Thanks, Pork

1. Every quarter, it seems, I indulge in doughnuts during finals week. I always drink what our union president calls the college's proletariat coffee, the inferior stuff not served at the espresso counter. So today, I found the combination of an oblong chocolate doughnut bar and and a chocolate frosted old-fashioned doughnut bar with proletariat coffee to be just about the best damn combination of tastes I'd experienced in a long time. Sometimes it really pays to have a very egalitarian palate.

2. You know what? I know I do a good job in my work and that my students appreciate all the hard work I do and all the patience and flexibility I practice on their behalf. I know that. It feels good being told, though, and some of my students passed on their gratitude for my work and the WR 121 course after their final today.

3. I had to eat something today to balance the low brow beauty of those doughnuts and coffee! The Deke provided the balance with a spaghetti squash covered with a ground pork tomato sauce, the pork a product of the local pig farmer we buy from, Laughingstock Farms.

Sibling Assignment #46: The Writing Life

InlandEmpireGirl assigned this week's sibling assignment: What does your writing life consist of? What works for you? What advice would you share with other writers? IEG's post is here and Silver Valley Girl's is still to come.

By the way, I'm one assignment behind and when I've dug out from the avalanche of student essays I'm under, I'll post #45, but it requires some time at the scanner and in the My Picture folder, not to mention the CD collection.

My writing life consists mostly of not writing.

That makes sense. If I look at a typical day, I spend a great deal of time sleeping, eating, working, driving here and there, picking up some groceries, watching movies, listening to music, reading, grading student papers, socializing, in addition to taking care of Snug, gambling once in a while, and, well, suffice it to say, I spend a lot more time not writing than I do writing.

So, this can only mean one thing: what I do when I'm not writing is the most important aspect of my writing life.

Writing is the record of one's life's events and imaginings and thoughts and memories and feelings that occur when one is not writing.

Therefore, the best way for me to prepare and groom myself for actually writing is to be as fully conscious of my surroundings, the workings of my mind and heart, and my observations when I'm not writing.

This is what makes writing difficult. To write well, one has to, at some level, live well. It's so much more comfortable to live in a slumber, to retreat from the world and all that is happening around us, but wrapping oneself in a thick duvet of unconscious living dulls writing; living consciously sharpens it.

A difficulty arises for me, though.

I am simultaneously obsessive and easily distracted.

On the one hand, I can sit down with something in mind to write, and suddenly a latent interest I've had gets sparked by a documentary I've seen or by a conversation I've had. I wander away from the task at hand and begin to obsess and fly all over the World Wide Web trying to learn more about this distraction that then becomes a short term obsession.

For example, I've been watching documentaries and reading stories about people who have been imprisoned, but who did not commit the crime. I wrote about this recent obsession here.

My obsession with Public Defenders has led me to read Public Defender blogs and to find the titles of more books to read and it throws me into yet another arena where I learn a little, not a lot, and begin to develop some thoughts and ideas, but I'm out of my depth.

I've been thinking a lot over the last several days about Joseph Duncan, the man who today confessed to a long list of crimes, including murder, kidnapping, sexual abuse of a minor, ten counts in all, in federal court.

I oppose the death penalty.

I am chilled by the number of men and women who have been on Death Row, only to be found innocent of their crimes.

I stand firmly upon the principle that the state should not put criminals to death as long as there is any chance that any person sentenced to death might be innocent.

As long as the judicial system is flawed, as long as it sentences innocent people to death, it's my opinion that the state should end all capital punishment.

The system will always be flawed. Therefore, the death penalty should be outlawed.

But can I write about this? I have, at best, an amateur's understanding of this problem.

It's like so many other things I want to write about.

I just don't know that much and by being alive to so much in life, I almost never stay focused on one interest, so I have a cursory knowledge and understanding about a lot of things, but I don't know a lot about anything.

But, back to InlandEmpireGirl's questions.

My advice to a person who wants to write is to read about and practice the tenets of Buddhism.

I'm not a Buddhist.

But, my readings in Buddhism have enriched and enlivened my writing(and teaching) more than anything else.

Buddhism is not dualistic. Buddhism helps me see what we usually think of as contradictions as complements to one another.

Buddhism focuses the mind on the connectedness of all things. Buddhism encourages my mind to see that anything I might be contemplating and writing about is connected to all else, so Buddhism encourages me cast the net of my thinking wide and see that things we might not think of as related to each other are.

Above all, Buddhism teaches that to understand a tree or criminal or a spouse or a dog or a person I disagree with or a person I love, I must become that person.

Buddhism encourages the imagination. Buddhism encourages us all to move outside the confines of our own perceptions and experiences and enter into those of others, into the experience of all animate beings and non-animate things.

For a writer, this means that in my poems or in my essays or as I write bits and pieces of memoir, I can, through compassion and sharply heightened consciousness, explore the world through how others see it. I'm not confined to myself.

For a writer, Buddhism is a source of liberation, flexibility, deeper perception, deeper focus, and mental alertness.

When I'm at my best in my writing life, I'm awake, alert, attentive, outside of myself, accepting, receptive, all principles of Buddhism.

I'm not often at my best.

I try.

The best I can do is encourage my alertness when I'm not writing and hope that when I sit down to the keyboard that some of the connections, some of my perceptions, some of my meditative self-examination translates into words that someone else might enjoy reading.

Three Beautiful Things 12/02/07: Dancin' Fool, Secure, Student Writing Pleasure

1. Man do I love Spirit's early 1970's song "Mr. Skin" off their album "The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus". Today it made me dance. In my office at home. Alone. With joy. And as much abandon as my old body will let me express.

2. I live in a sturdy, unremarkable 1940's bungalow near downtown Eugene and with winds gusting, knocking down trees, falling electrical wires around town, I was comforted to live in such a solid house.

3. My students' papers on Louise Steinman's The Souvenir helped me understand the book more fully and deeply, an immeasurable pleasure.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 12/01/07: Defense, Showcase, Damned

1. I've spent quite a bit of time today reading the blogs of Public Defenders. It's fascinating. I have enjoyed reading so many posts by men and women who work to make sure that those prosecuting their clients have their evidence in order and have done their work right. It's also fascinating to read about the very very difficult clients they represent.

2. I attended the end of the term Shakespeare Showcase at Lane Community College. I helped start this project back sixteen years ago and tonight, sitting in the theater watching another series of scenes being performed, I had a part of my life, in the Blue Door Theater, flash before my eyes. Moreover, I sat next to Ann Marie who performed the very first scene ever given when this project began in December, 1991.

3. I read excerpts at Google Books of "Defending the Damned" and these pages riveted my attention. I've got to get a copy of this book and devour it.

The US Justice System on My Mind

A few weeks ago I read Timothy Egan's astonishing book "Breaking Blue", which tells the story of Tony Bamonte's tireless effort, in the late 1980s, to close the case of the 1935 murder of a Newport, WA marshall, George Conniff, outside the Newport Creamery Company. Conniff was killed for butter. Drought engendered a butter shortage and Conniff was killed by robbers, looking to steal Newport butter and sell it on Spokane's butter black market.

Bamonte's investigation leads him to discover that Conniff was killed by a cop, Spokane Police Detective, Clyde Roston ( Roston was never convicted of the crime and maintained his innocence his entire life.).

For me, the heart of the book was its account of the insulation policemen wrap themselves in to protect each other's actions, decisions, and methods, even if it means protecting rogue, not to mention, criminal behavior.

I served on the Lane County Grand Jury back in June, 1999. For four weeks, five days each week, I sat with my fellow jurors and listened to evidence presented by prosecutors and policemen and other prosecution witnesses. Oregon Grand Juries have only one task: to decide if the prosecution has enough evidence to indict a suspect of a felony. That's all. Grand Juries do not determine guilt or hear defense testimony. All a Grand Jury does is determine whether an indictment should go forward.

During the month of June 1999, we heard evidence asking for indictment of a man who killed his girlfriend and wrapped her in a futon and threw her in the McKenzie River; of an abusive nursing home; of a man accused of setting SUVs on fire in a local car dealership parking lot; of scores of men and women in possession of meth; of a man who killed a child in a hit and run accident; of meth house fires that killed occupants; of a negligent semi-truck driver who killed the driver of a car in a collision; there were many more.

What struck me, time and time again was how understaffed the District Attorney's office was and how intensely overworked the police were. I asked myself many times how crimes could be confidently prosecuted when Deputy District Attorneys, detectives, investigators, lab workers, police officers, and others on the prosecution side were stretched so thin. I admired their hard work. I laughed at their gallows humor. I could feel the strain and stress they were under.

I began to realize more clearly than ever that crime and public demands for the punishment of criminals puts enormous social and political pressure on prosecutors and law enforcement officers to perform, to produce, and performance and production is measured by convictions.

The statistics that assess what kind of job the police and prosecutors are doing focus on convictions and on incarceration: the more the better, whether convictions are achieved in trial or through plea bargaining.

Serving on Grand Jury and reading "Breaking Blue" has got me wanting to learn more about police abuses, wrongful convictions, forced confessions, unreliable eyewitness accounts, and sloppy investigations. Most of all, I've been trying to understand police and prosecution self-protection more fully. And, the pressures that bring it about.

If you'd like to follow the tracks of some of my reading and film viewing, here are a few links:

Academy Award winning documentary movie "Murder on a Sunday Morning" looks at how Jacksonville public defender Patrick McGuiness spearheads the retrial and exoneration of accused fifteen year old murderer Brenton Butler. See more about the movie here and here.
Here's a reflection upon the movie at the blog LawCulture.

I check David Brookbank's exhaustive and obsessive blog regularly to read about police abuses in Spokane, both current and past, here.

Advances in DNA technology have advanced the cause of exonerating falsely imprisoned men and women. Learn more at the Innocence Project, here and its blog, here. You can also check out the Life After Exoneration Program, here.

Reasononline, a libertarian enterprise, advances the argument that the government underfunds public defenders through a review of the book, "Defending the Damned, Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office", by Kevin Davis, here. Here's an excerpt:

A 1999 U.S. Justice Department study of the country’s 100 most populous counties found that 97 percent of their law enforcement budgets went toward police, courts, and prosecutors, with the remaining 3 percent going to public defenders. That study didn’t include less populous, rural areas of the country, where the public defender position rotates among private-practice attorneys or is filled by a single lawyer in private practice who receives a stipend of a few thousand dollars per year.

Prosecutors have police to investigate crimes, medical examiners and crime scene investigators to provide them with evidence, and considerably more support staff than public defenders do. The 1999 DOJ study, which seems to be the most recent one of the subject, found that prosecutors’ budgets exceeded public defense budgets by about 2.5 to 1. Indigent defendants don’t have their own forensics experts or private investigators, and courts aren’t always obliged to grant them taxpayer money to hire them.

Such underfunding, coupled with the threat of mandatory minimum sentences and an increase in the number of crimes on the books, results in an overwhelmingly high number of plea-bargained admissions of guilt, as prosecutors look to pad conviction rates and defense attorneys have no choice but to slough off burdensome caseloads.
A note: You might remember that I said I thought Lane County's D.A. Office was understaffed and underfunded, along with the police department. So, if an underfunded, understaffed agency gets about 97% of the meager funding, in contrast to the 3% that goes to the public defender, you can see that the public defender offices across the nation are in an abysmal state.

Another good blog is Grits for Breakfast which looks at the justice in Texas and features a look at "Defending the Damned", here. You might also check out the blog Public Defender Stuff
who posts a public defender blog guide, here.

That should be just about enough or now, but if you'd like to read and listen to CourtTV's Jami Floyd, she's got a lot on her mind, here.

Three Beautiful Things 11/30/07: Endings, Exoneration, Enthusiasm

1. Regular class meetings ended today for fall quarter. It's a great day to start to look back over the quarter and reflect on the way I've seen so many of my students gain confidence in their writing, think through ideas of great consequence regarding the deep themes of their own lives, and read compelling and moving books focused on the human experiences of loss, survival, and reconciliation. I'm already looking forward to the start of winter quarter.

2. I watched the documentary "After Innocence" tonight. It's a moving hour and a half look at The Innocence Project and at a handful of men who had been incarcerated, despite their innocence, and what their lives are looking like since being exonerated. It's a sobering movie. It underscores just how very difficult it is for criminal cases to be properly prosecuted and how impoverished our judicial system is when it comes to providing proper defense to those accused of crimes.

3. I spent nearly a half an hour talking with Alexandra today, a student who came into fall quarter with a chip on her shoulder, doubting that she had anything to learn in college, and who turned a corner about four weeks in and is enthused about learning, admits her disenchantment was wrong, and has developed into a very good writer, eager to continue to improve.