Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Public Service Announcement




Once again last night, I received an email that must circulate often. It is an apparently inspiring story about late actor Lee Marvin's tour of duty during WWII and how he fought with Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, at Iwo Jima Later. The email adds that Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, served as a U.S. Navy Seal with over twenty-five confirmed kills. The email says that Mister Rogers wore long-sleeved sweaters to cover his tattoos and that after his military service he became a pacifist and so created his children's program.

Lee Marvin did serve in WWII. He was injured at Saipan, not Iwo Jima.

The Bob Keeshan story is fabricated.

So is the Fred Rogers story.

If you'd like to read the details go here and here.

Three Beautiful Things 05/25/08: Interview, Dick Martin, Spurs

1. The Deke interviewed for a first grade teaching job and we had some good conversation about the interview questions and what they say about the school where she interviewed.

2. My memories of Laugh-In and a handful of television game shows were all over me when I read that Dick Martin had passed away.

3. I keep hearing the radio hosts I listen to on ESPN radio say over and over again that the San Antonio Spurs are boring. I think it must be because they are so supremely competent and go about their business in a stoic and steady way, playing lock down defense and disciplined offense. I like all that. I must like boring basketball. The Spurs smashed the Lakers tonight and the boring old Spurs are still alive.

Sibling Assignment #64: White Elephant in a Snowstorm


This week the sibling assignment comes from InlandEmpireGirl who gave us this prompt:

Taking in the strong fragrance of lilacs today reminded me of Spokane, " The Lilac City". Write about a memorable time from childhood that was spent in Spokane.

When my sisters post their pieces, I'll create links to them.

I think it was my twelfth birthday. So, let's say it was December 27, 1965.

Our family loaded up the Chevy, piled in, and headed off to Orofino, Idaho. Orofino is Mom's birthplace and her mother, Grandma West, and I both have December 27th birth dates. We were heading off for a bash.

Instead, we got bashed. We got bashed by a blizzard. When we tried to head south from Coeur d'Alene to head toward Orofino, the state patrol turned us away. The highway was closed.

We decided to go to Spokane where Grandma Woolum lived. At Grandma's house, Dad either had to or wanted to park outside Grandma's backyard garage, but the snow was so thick he couldn't get the car in the spot.

He and I had to shovel it out. The temperature had increased. It was starting to rain.

Each shovel of snow weighed about ten tons.

We finished shoveling and Mom and Dad let me choose where I wanted to go to shop for a birthday gift.

I couldn't believe my ears.

To me, Spokane was a boy's heaven for shopping. I remembered when I was a really little kid and faithfully watched "Romper Room" with Miss Florence. "Romper Room" was sponsored by J. J. Newberry's and all the toys on "Romper Room" came from J. J. Newberry's.

On one of our visits to Spokane when I was a really little kid, Mom took me and InlandEmpireGirl to J. J. Newberry's and it made me dizzy. I had an allowance to spend and I nearly threw up trying to decide between buying a paratrooper whom I could eject from a cockpit and watch him float to the ground or a new Dr. Seuss book or a fun board game like Chutes and Ladders or Uncle Wiggly or a Superball or some Silly Putty or a plastic baseball and bat set.

But, at twelve, I didn't want to go to J. J. Newberry's. That was for little kids.

I didn't want to go to Northtown and shop at The Crescent because we always did that and I wanted to go somewhere new. Besides, The Crescent was not really a kid's store. It was more Mom and Grandma's store.

I suppose a few years earlier I might have wanted to go to Northwest Seed. They sponsored the afternoon children's program "Mr. Wallaby and Jack" and I had it my head that I could see the show's eponymous kangaroo. Can someone tell me -- was there a real kangaroo caged at Northwest Seed?

On some television show I watched back then, commercials appeared for a place called the White Elephant Surplus Store. Or maybe it was that every time we went downtown on Division Street, I saw the flashing neon"Toys" sign.

Something had lured me to the White Elephant Surplus Store and that's where we went.

I walked in the White Elephant Surplus Store and I was shocked.

I'd ignored the fact that The White Elephant Surplus Store was Spokane's Original Source for Sporting Goods.

I had imagined a Toyland, a bright celestial wonderland of shelf upon shelf of Coleco Electric Football games and cool new Table Hockey sets and boxes of Strat-o-matic Baseball and rows of imaginatively designed cribbage boards and maybe even Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.

The White Elephant Surplus store was not celestial. It was dim.

Rather than Hasbro or Ideal or Remco or Kenner toys, everywhere I looked were Remington rifles, blaze orange vests, Coleman camp stoves, Shakespeare fishing tackle, not to mention Wooly Worms, Nymphs, Scuds, Dry Flies, Streamers, and Shrimp.

"Mom, where are the toys?"

She asked a burly man wearing a Carhartt canvas duck hunting vest and smoking a Viceroy where the toys were and he looked over his glasses, stifled a chuckle, and pointed to the back of the store.

Among the imitation GI Joes and knock off Chatty Cathys, I found some board games. I picked out Clue.

We left.

My spirits sagged. No trip to Orofino. Shoveling wet snow. Toyland was more ToyTundra.

I walked in Grandma's house and could hear chicken sizzling and could smell bacon frying: a fried chicken and green beans and bacon with mashed potatoes and gravy dinner.

My spirits raised.

Underneath the smell of dinner, a sweet fragrance rose.

"Chocolate birthday cake?"

"Yes, Billy," Grandma smiled. "With German chocolate frosting."

Dinner. Cake. Candles. Ice cream. A fire in the fireplace. A marshmallow roast.

Sated, InlandEmpireGirl, Mom, and I went upstairs to figure out if Mr. Boddy was killed with the dagger by Col. Mustard in the Conservatory.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 05/24/08: Checker, "No!", KG

1. Great moment at the Albertson's check out stand. An eighty-four year old WWII vet with a long gray pony tail and the checker talked politics and when he left the checker continued the discussion, advocating for universal health care and more concern in the USA for the little person. I really enjoy this woman and could have listened to her perspective for a lot longer, but there were other customers behind me.

2. Snug and I took a cool and comfortable walk together and he was pretty loose on the leash much of the time and when he began to bark at a dog across the street, Snug obeyed me when I told him to sit and when I sharply rebuked him with a "No!", he shut up.

3. I'm starting to warm up to the Celtics. For starters, I'm sick and tired of listening to the way the yappers on ESPN radio bang on Kevin Garnett all the time. He can't score in the fourth quarter. He disappears. He's lousy in the clutch. He's not Kobe Bryant. Man. I listen to these games and look over his stats and all I see is that Garnett is the most consistent scorer, steady rebounder, most reliable assist man, and, from all I hear, is the vocal and physical leader of the Celtics' defense. He's one of the best players on the team with the best regular season record in the NBA and, here I am, regarding Garnett as an underdog.

Three Beautiful Things 05/22-23/08: Chilean Rocks, Human Centered, Camel Centered

1. In WR 122, one of my students, from Chile, told a story about a river not far from Santiago where peope gathered little rocks because they all had, by nature, had the symbol of the cross on them. She gave me one of these rocks. It's remarkable.

2. In ENG 257/WR 123, Margaret and I showed the movie "Into the Wild". It was the fourth time I've seen it and I was once again enthralled by it. I marveled again at what a beautifully made movie it is, how perfectly cast, and what a puzzling story Jon Krakauer and Sean Penn wrote. Once again, I loved Catherine Keener, laughed at and enjoyed Vince Vaughn, and was deeply moved by Hal Holbrook. For what I enjoy in a movie, "Into the Wild" is nearly perfect.

3. In ENG 109, where I'm trying to expose my students to as much literature around the world as I can, I showed the Mongolian masterpiece, "The Story of the Weeping Camel". Thursday, my students discussed what they learned from the movie. We focused much of our discussion on the place of human beings in the story. Humans are a small part of the story. They are not central. They are in a harsh environment, in the Gobi Desert, and live in the company of natural and supernatural forces much larger than they are and have a humble relationship with the animals they live with. I thought it was fascinating to watch a film whose pace and rhythms were very slow, as if the movie was set to the time of nature, not dictated so much by human activity.

Condom Dream

I've been awake for about thirty-five minutes and I'm puzzling over a dream I had not long before I woke up.

It was a dream with multiple plot lines.

One plot line had to do with a course I was taking and involved a dream that recurs in my dream life. The recurring plot line was moving into a different apartment. I dream this often. I'm going to school and my school term is disrupted by having to move and the papers I wrote for a course are scattered and in this dream I was trying to sort out my grade for the course with my instructor, who was Denise, the woman who directed "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" when I played the role of Polonius in a 1995 production here in Eugene.

Denise and I got the grade straightened out and suddenly I was walking with a group of people down Michigan Ave. in Orofino, Idaho. We were going to a family gathering. My mother was born and raised in Orofino. Part of our group was a tall, strapping man named Jim Thompson, a stranger to me, but we were all talking about him and how important he was in the church.

We arrived at the family gathering. Everyone was really happy to see Jim Thompson. I didn't know anyone except my father.

A twelve-pack of Lucky Lager beer rested on a table and had become a bit warm. In my dream, I hadn't drunk a can of Lucky Lager for years and I was excited, except I had quit drinking and I puzzled over whether to drink a can. I decided to drink a can, in part to have a beer with my dad. I grabbed a can and made sure, with a stranger, that I wasn't taking a can away from anyone. I wasn't.

We were sitting around a table and I was next to a man who was older than I, and he had a box of condoms. He told me had seen a box of them at the store and bought them on a whim.

He opened the box of condoms and asked what they were for. He didn't know what a condom was.

I took his question very seriously. I didn't laugh at him or say, "You're kidding! Right?"

I gave a very straight answer. I told him that you slipped the condom over an erect penis before sexual intercourse and the condom captured the semen when a man ejaculates and provides a means of birth control.

He had kind of thick glasses and his appreciative eyes were magnified and he thanked me very much for my explanation. He said he didn't think he'd need them.

By the way, I knew what the condom was, but I couldn't get my can of beer opened. I tried and tried to get the pop top opened, but it kept closing back up. I never got to drink the beer.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 05/21/08: Spurs' Collapse, Essay Struggle, Cerebral Palsy

1. Well, if the Spurs are going to be like the 1969 Celtics, they are off to the right start! They have made it unlikely that they can win the Western Conference finals series after giving up a twenty point lead tonight and losing to the Lakers. It's going to be fascinating to see if they can regather themselves and come back Friday night with a brave effort and knock off the Lakers. I was at once disappointed tonight in the Spurs, but very impressed, as always, with how the new and mature Kobe Bryant led the Lakers from so far behind to victory.

2. My student Ryan has great ideas and is a smart guy, but he has problems envisioning how his thoughts and ideas can take shape in an essay. He came to my office today. I gave him some advice about how he could write his essay about his mother's sense of self-worth is attached to her job and how Ryan thinks one's sense of self-worth should come from within, not from a job. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for him.

3. I had another "get to know you better" conversation with Trisha today. She has a teenaged son who has cerebral palsy and I inquired into his condition and learned more about what his challenges are and how his condition manifests itself in his day to day life. He's very fortunate to have Trisha as a mother. His father is devoted to his well-being, too. I say it all the time: I'm not sure how my students do it, how they face the difficulties of their lives away from school and manage to excel in their studies at the same time. I admire Trisha a lot, along with so many of my other students.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 05/20/08: Weeping Camel, Prying?, Sky of Stone

1. I'll find out when we meet again on Thursday what my students thought of it: I showed the documentary film "The Story of the Weeping Camel", a magnificent Mongolian story about a nomadic family on the Gobi Desert and their efforts to reunite a mother camel and her colt whom she has rejected. It's a luxuriously slow movie, giving us a full experience with the rhythms of nomadic life and with the strength patience requires.

2. Maybe I pry too much. I become deeply interested in my students, especially, I think, my composition students because their writing is so much more personal. Last night I learned more about one student's unsettling ultrasound results of her current pregnancy, about another student's pastor father, why another student moved to Oregon a few years after his father died, how another student's mother has been in ICU and in and out of hospital care since suffering gall bladder trouble, and there's more. I hope if my interest and care passes the boundaries of privacy, my students will let me know.

3. This evening, my WR 122 class began our discussion of Sky of Stone, and I was very pleased with how my students recognized the way Coalwood, West Virginia, supposedly a idyllic company town, was, in reality, a town curbing freedom, one where not only the mine, but the citizens, were owned by the mining company.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 05/19/08: Sophie, Spurs, Susana

1. I participate in a very low key mentorship program through the University of Oregon. All it requires of me is to talk with a student for a half an hour who thinks she/he would like to someday teach in a community college. I met Sophie Grow today at Espresso Roma and we talked for two hours. I enjoyed listening to Sophie tell me about her life and her studies and I enjoyed responding to the questions she posed. I was happy she experienced me as enthusiastic and positive about my work.

2. The San Antonio Spurs impress me in the same way the Celtics of 1969 did. That Celtics team was aging, but battle tested. Like the Spurs, they always had someone come up with a big play, whether on defense, the boards, or scoring. No one thought the 1969 Celtics would defeat the Lakers in the championship series, but they did, with guile and persistence. They were a team that knew how to grind. I think the Spurs are similar. The Spurs knocked off the Hornets tonight and now they face the Lakers, a younger and athletic team. I'm eager to see if the Spurs can, like the '69 Celtics, pull of the unlikely and beat the Lakers.

3. I asked my students to write a challenging essay this week in ENG 1o9. They are writing essays about how the mad character, Susana, can be seen as the central character in Pedro Paramo. I read the first wave of essays that came into my email box tonight, and what a pleasure to see these students rise to the challenge and write insightfully and eloquently about Susana.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dream Last Night

I'd been cast in a play. It was a Shakespeare play, but not one I recognize now that I'm awake. I was at rehearsal, three weeks before our play opened and I'd missed every rehearsal up to that point. I wondered if I'd been kicked off the cast. I wasn't. I didn't know my lines so I had to read from the book, but every time I tried to read my lines, I couldn't find my place. Every effort I made to be a part of the play was futile. Rehearsal was in a house in Kellogg up a hill. When I went to start my car, I'd left my lights on. The battery was dead. Dickie Costa needed a ride. I kept trying to find a place in my car where I could roll it downhill so I could start the car with compression. It was snowing. No one had jumper cables. I could move the car Fred Flintstone style, with my feet. I got the car to the front of a Chinese restaurant. Dickie was waiting for me, the snow starting to cover him. I rolled the car downhill, popped the clutch and turned the key and the car started. I woke up.

Three Beautiful Things 05/18/08: Walking Snug, Essays, Celtics

1. I took Snug for a walk today and he didn't growl and snarl and spit and leap up in the air and try to wrestle free from his leash when he saw a dog across the street. This is an improvement.

2. My WR 122 students had the option to write an essay exploring how their family history as affected their own attitudes about and relationship with work and with jobs. These essays were superb. So were the ones where students defined and explored what writer Mike Rose calls emotional intelligence in the workplace.

3. I listened to the Celtics and Cavs on the radio as they squared off in game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals. For years, I was a Celtics fan and I rooted for the Celtics out of habit today. Truth be told, I haven't warmed up to this team. I don't know what it is. It might just be the curse of thinking everything was better when I was young and that there will never be teams like the Celtics I loved all through the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and on into the 90s. You know, it's never felt like Celtic basketball since Rick Pitino coached them and since they left the ancient ruins of the Boston Garden.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Recurring Dreams

I have two recurring dreams. I might have written about one of these before, but it puzzles enough that I'm writing about it anyway.

I dream about playing golf a lot. It's always the same situation, but in different locations. I try to hit a golf shot and some obstacle is always in my way. I have to hit a drive through a slightly opened window or there's a structure in my way. Sometimes it's a tree.

I also dream about golf courses. They are always a combination of different golf courses I've played or seen on television, so that the golf course in Pinehurst, Idaho is combined with Indian Canyon in Spokane which is combined with Liberty Lake. The courses are impossible. In this one dream, the landing area for my second shot on a par 5 was a little isthmus surrounded by a stinky lagoon.

In none of these dreams do I hit a successful shot. It's like I've been sentenced to a purgatory of impossible golf shots.

The other recurring dream I have involves going from one place to another and in order to get there I have to walk through a stranger's house.

I didn't think much about this dream when I first had it a few months ago. I was in Kellogg, on Market Street, and I walked in the front door of someone's house and a couple were seated in the living room and I told them not to worry, I was just passing through, and they nodded, watching television.

Two nights ago this dream took an odd twist. I was out walking on a closed highway and over a bridge that had been closed with grass growing though its unused cracked asphalt. I looked down a trail just off the bridge and as far as I could see was lush jungle vegetation on both sides of a hiking trail and the trail was brightly lit with lights located near the ground.

Once I crossed the bridge, I had to enter a stranger's house to get where I was going. I opened their back door, started through the kitchen, and as I strolled through the living room, reassuring the residents that I was just passing through, I suddenly realized I was packing a bag of golf clubs that rattled with my every step.

When I dream these dreams, I can hear a voice in my conscious mind say, "Here we go again."

Three Beautiful Things 05/17/08: Lilacs, Blogs, Sandwich

1. Deke and I used to have a lilac tree in our back yard, but had to take the aging beauty out. This evening I was walking Snug and suddenly lilac perfume intoxicated me as I walked by a neighbor's yard.

2. I haven't done a blog tour for quite a while and I enjoyed reading blogs like In Search of Walden and The Dubya Blog and others and was reminded of their good humor and excellent writing.

3. It's just Albertson's brand beef salami, but when I put it on sourdough bread with some Albertson's brand extra sharp cheddar cheese and some mustard and drink an ice cold Diet Pepsi, I feel blissful.

Sourdough

I went to the store today and one of the things I purchased was a loaf of sourdough bread.

I've been on a weekend sandwich kick. Deke isn't eating bread these days so I buy a loaf and I buy a cheap pack of beef salami and some extra sharp cheddar cheese, throw them together with a smear of mustard and wash it down with Diet Pepsi.

I've been helping teach a course in American Working Class Literature and all the reading we've been doing and the films we've watched have made me hungry for the sandwiches I used to carry to the Zinc Plant. These sandwiches were not made from sourdough bread, but the sourdough bread takes me to another part of my life in Kellogg.

I don't remember how Mom got going with it, but she either made or purchased sourdough starter. She kept it in the fridge and on the weekends, usually Sunday morning, Mom made sourdough pancakes.

Today when I bit into my beef salami, extra sharp cheddar cheese, and mustard sourdough sandwich, I suddenly was back at the kitchen table and it was before Sunday school and Mom was making sourdough pancakes. They might even have been buttermilk sourdough pancakes. That just popped in my head.

Mom made silver dollar pancakes on her an electric grill. I loved to butter them and pour Aunt Jemima syrup over them, or Mrs. Butterworth. I like the idea that I poured buttered syrup over buttered pancakes.

Silver dollar pancakes were fun because when I went to Sunday school I got a kick out of telling my friends or my Sunday school teacher that I had eaten a dozen pancakes for breakfast. I had also eaten sausage and eggs and had a couple or three glasses of milk.

Why I thought my pancake breakfast eating prowess was such a big deal, I don't know. I suppose I was always looking for a way to impress my friends and my Sunday school teacher.

I developed a love for sourdough. Sourdough is not only delicious, but it always transports me back to Sunday mornings, getting ready for Sunday school, and the pregame NFL show coming on the television. By the time I got home from church, it was often time to watch John Brodie, Abe Woodson, and the San Francisco 49ers, Dad's favorite team.

I don't remember the last time I ate sourdough pancakes. I'll have to eat some soon and take a trip back to those sweet Sunday mornings in Kellogg.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 05/16/08: Metaphors, Assertive, You Are My Sunshine

1. I read my ENG 109 students' papers on their understanding of how metaphors take what is familiar and makes the familiar strange as a way of rearranging how we see things, of disrupting our usual perceptions. Their essays were stellar and I was very proud with how well they explained themselves and illustrated their insights with poem's and stories and film we've been studying.

2. Snug wants me to be more assertive with him so he knows better what to do. He needs my direction and today I did just that for him and I could see his face look more secure and happy.

3. I showed the film "You Are My Sunshine" to my students today and I think the story of the 1972 Sunshine Mine Fire and the way the survivors talked about it had a moving impact.

Sibling Assignment #63: Silver Valley Voices

Silver Valley Girl assigned this week's sibling assignment and it's pretty straightforward:

What is it about telling people you were born and raised in Kellogg that gives you a sense of pride?

InlandEmpireGirl's post remembering the good times is here. Silver Valley Girl's will be coming before long.

Kellogg and the Silver Valley has dominated my instruction the last two class meetings in the American Working Class Literature/Research Writing course I help teach.

Wednesday I read a paper I wrote about coming to need the poetry of Richard Hugo as a way of sorting out what I experienced growing up in Kellogg. Today I showed the film "You Are My Sunshine" which unfolds the story of the 1972 Sunshine Mine Fire with interviews with survivors of the fire.

I can hear myself speaking with pride in my voice as I talk about being from Kellogg, even as many of the things I talk about, the danger, death, pollution, disasters, and other dark things, color my stories and insights.

Today, I've been haunted by "You Are My Sunshine". I've watched the film at least ten times and each time the way the miners, and some others, talk about the mine fire unsettles me. On a day to day basis, I work with highly articulate, highly educated fellow instructors. Regularly, I hear polished speech, advanced vocabulary, conversation that is stimulating and genuine.

What unsettles me is that the voices of the miners are the voices I listened to all through my youth and that I slowly left behind after I was nearly killed in the Zinc Plant and as I pursued college degrees.

Today I was proud to know that the essence of my being is rooted in the men's voices of the Silver Valley.

How can I describe those voices? How can I describe the emotion that wells up inside as I hear these men speak?

Here's the best I can do.

My experience working in the Bunker Hill Zinc Plant was that I was in the midst something larger than I could understand and that had the power to injure, or even kill me, at any moment. And I wasn't underground. I've never worked underground.

My sense, though, when I read stories and books about mining and as I listen to miners speak in person or on film, is that to go into a mine is to enter into the most powerful of all natural environments. It is going into the heart of gravity. The earth is shifting, buckling. Men are in tunnels and gravity is always pulling down. That means nature's force's inclination is to pull down the roofs above the miners. Rocks burst. The hard rock is stubborn and must be blown loose with explosives and powerful drills.

Moreover, going into the depth of nature is to tunnel into heat. With technological genius, the minding industry has devised ventilation systems to combat the heat, but miners often work beyond the reach of these systems.

The miners' voices in "You Are My Sunshine", as well as the deeply lined looks on their faces, were colored by awe, by trying to talk about an incomprehensible fire in a work place defined by natural forces always just beyond human control.

Their voices were proud without being in the least bit haughty; they were courageous without being defiant. Their voices spoke of expertise. They knew the mine. At the same time, they spoke of things that were so far beyond understanding that there was bewilderment, a kind of humility, a respect. Sometimes their sentences were jumbled; often they were searching for how to say what they had experienced, not out of a lack of intelligence, but because when it comes to talking about men being killed in a mine, there really isn't polished language for it.

What I'm trying to say is that I could always hear this tone in the voices I grew up with. I didn't understand it at the time, but as I remember hearing the men in my life talk, I now believe that the mine or the plant or the smelter or the phosphoric acid plant was always in their voices.

I am proud of these voices I grew up with and as I grow older I understand more deeply all the time that we all live in a world beyond our comprehension, and that when I can hear my own voice colored by this humbling fact, I realize I came by this knowledge and my voice very honestly.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 05/14/08: Hugo, Pedro Paramo, Controlling Snug

1. I wrote a paper/lecture several years ago entitled "On Needing Richard Hugo". It explores my experience growing up in Kellogg and how the poet Richard Hugo has been pivotal in helping me figure things out. I read the paper today to Margaret and my Working Class Lit/Research Writing class and we had a very good discussion about it.

2. I keep digging more deeply into Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo and I'm eager to get to class at 8 a.m. tomorrow and discuss it more with my students. It's a beguiling, confusing, magical, depressing, tragic story, filled with questions and longing.

3. I've decided to seek out help giving Snug more training. He has these occasional outbursts of aggressiveness and I want to see if I can help him stop doing this with professional help. He's a very sweet dog almost all the time, but he is terribly uneasy around dogs he doesn't know and acts out in other isolated situations and he'll be happier and I'll be more relaxed (as will Deke) if I can help him get these outbursts under control.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sibling Assignment #62: I'd Be Gene

I assigned this prompt to me and my sisters. It's pretty simple: "If you could act in the movies like anyone, who would it be and why?"

You can find InlandEmpireGirl's wonderful homage to Sally Fields here and Silver Valley Girl will post hers, I'm sure, once she's done skiing with John Kerry and Bruce Willis at Sun Valley.

I've been cast in four plays since 1995 and each time I was cast in a minor role. Being able to play a small role means focusing intensely on the gestures and speech that the character will express in a brief amount of stage time. If the character is to be memorable and believable, those gestures must be performed with energy and efficiency.

If I could act like one character actor in the movies, it would be Gene Hackman. But, Gene Hackman is a leading actor, too. He brings the discipline and efficiency of drawing a character memorably and believably that if often thought of as a character actor's forte to leading roles, making his performances unforgettable and, for me, inspiring.

I'm not going to try to explore the whole of Gene Hackman's career, so I'll point out two of his leading roles that epitomize, for me, his acting.



In between directing the first two Godfather movies, Francis Ford Coppola directed a jewel of a film, The Conversation. It's the story of an audio surveillance expert, Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman.

Harry Caul works as private investigator. I guess he'd be called a private ear. The work has deadened him. He claims indifference to the things he hears and the tapes he makes. His concern is with his art, not with the content of his art.

This indifference carries over to his private life. He lives alone and the only intimate contact he has with anyone is with a lover he has sex with on occasion. It's not passionate sex. It's functional. It has little content and gives him little joy.

The content of his work has affected him, though. He's paranoid, walled off, as if he's living a life under surveillance himself, so he gives little of himself to those who work with him, let alone his lover.

But, as The Conversation develops, we witness Harry Caul unable to keep his distance from the content of one conversation he's recorded. Gene Hackman portrays the slow dropping of Harry Caul's veil, as gradually Harry Caul can no longer bear the pressure of his isolation and he gets involved in the details of a case he's investigated, beyond electronic eavesdropping.

Harry Caul confronts a deep existential crisis. The man he has presented to the world and the man he has believed himself to be turns out to be add odds with who he is when faced with a situation that he cannot distance himself from. The situation, however, deepens his paranoia, painfully portrayed as the movie comes to its enigmatic and unsettling conclusion.



I've acted, but I've never been a basketball coach.

I fantasize a lot about coaching basketball. In my daydreams, I picture myself as Coach Norman Dale, as portrayed by Gene Hackman in Hoosiers.

Hoosiers could have been a cliched movie as it documents the improbable rise of Hickory High School's boys' basketball team from rural obscurity to state championship in Indiana.

Gene Hackman's performance keeps it from being a cliche. As in The Conversation, Hackman plays an outsider, a volatile coach at the end of his tether, who is hired at Hickory as a favor from the principal, old old friend of Norman Dale's. Dale's volatility cost him his collegiate coaching career and he's in Hickory, in part, to redeem himself.

Hackman creates Norman Dale as a man who carries the indignities of his past, but who will not bend to the will of the people of Hickory and coaches the Hickory team with methods the Hickory citizens regard as insane. But, Dale is a tender man. Hackman's Dale rides his players hard, imposes strict rules and disciplines them hard. At the same time, he opens his heart to his players, draws upon deep intuition, and wisely knows when to be soft and minister to his players' insecurities and difficulties.

Hackman took what could have been a sterotyped ex-military basketball coach and creates a character of passion not only for basketball, but for serving the players and people of Hickory.

Hackman's Norman Dale ministers to others, but he's not sentimental. When he reaches out to the town drunk, former Hickory basketball star, and father of a current Hickory player, Shooter Flatch and tries to help him dry out by making him his assistant coach, it's vintage Hackman. Norman Dale disguises his compassion by offering Shooter the position in an indirect way, as if he really needs assistance, when, in fact, his purpose is to help Shooter regain dignity and possibly reconcile with his son.

I think of all the roles I've seen Gene Hackman play and I'm astounded by his versatility and breadth. But most of all, it's his dependability and his solidness that impress me.

His characters come alive from the inside out and Hackman does what the great character actors do: he dives deeply into his characters, gives them physical life and a full indentity, and always makes them memorable.

Three Beautiful Things 05/10/08: Book of Brevity, Magic Realism, Mike Rose

1. I've been teaching a book of short short stories, sometimes called microfiction, sudden fiction, and other names. They are kind of a combination of prose poem and short story, but rarely over a page long. The stories I've been teaching are all from Latin America and were translated by one of my fellow teachers, Jose Chaves. Jose came to my class and talked about the background this genre emerged from and listened as my students shared their insights about the stories.

2. The stories often explore a dimension of reality known as magic realism. It's a way of writing stories that treat the realm of dreams and the absurd as if the incongruities and fragmented nature of dreams and the absurd live with us all the time. I want to strike the words "as if". Dreams and the absurd are always with us and these stories magnify that reality.

3. My WR 122 students have been reading the writing of Mike Rose and are doing a great job understanding Rose's thesis that we need to look at manual labor and recognize the multiple intelligences hard labor requires, even though it is common to regard blue-collar work as performed from the neck down.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 05/05/08: Essays, More Limbo, Old Laughter

1. I spent much of the day reading WR 122 essays, many of them about what our work teaches us, others about the merits of free thinking and the downfalls of closed-mindedness. Meeting with this class is a pleasure every Tuesday and Thursday evening and reading their insights, stories, and reflections made this day one of sweet labor.

2. Margaret opened the floor for discussion of Limbo today and our students verbalized their many experiences with what expectations they have grown up with regarding the world of work and social status; comments ranged from the proud to the puzzled to the bemused to the heartbroken.

3. The Deke and I have had a long-standing joke between us about a couple of musicians here in town, and, lo and behold, they have popped up in her life again and gave us some grist for laughter this evening.

Onion News Network: McCain to Slash Secret Service


McCain Declines Secret Service, Dares Assassins To Try Something

Monday, May 5, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 05/04/08: Breezy, Limbo, Surreal

1. Walking the neighborhood with Snug and we were welcomed by a pale blue, slightly cloudy sky, warmth, and a tempering cool breeze.

2. It's been about a year since I first read Alfred Lubrano's book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams. While I don't enjoy the feeling of being in two world and often feeling out of place in both, I do enjoy his articulation of this experience and I enjoy the self-examination his stories and reflection inspire in me.

3. I've started to re-read my fellow instructor Jose Chaves' Book of Brevity, a collection of micro-stories (flash fiction) he translated from Spanish into English. The stories are from several countries including Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, and others. They are mind bending stories, told as jokes, parables, allegories, dreams, and other forms that explore life by means other than realism. It will be fascinating (I hope) to see what my students make of them!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Education and Salvation

Marla, a Survey of World Literature student, wrote an insightful essay about Etienne, the central character of Zola's Germinal. She argued that Etienne's devotion to reading and self-education might have been motivated, in part, by his desire to overcome the bleakness of his days as a boy and the alcoholism he inherited.

Her point hit home for me. It took me back, in particular, to my sophomore year at North Idaho College and the years that followed at Whitworth College (now University) and my graduate school years at the University of Oregon.

Although my outward expression may have seemed to belie it, I entered college very insecure, especially regarding my inward self and my understanding of the social world around me. Everywhere I looked, young people my age and little older seemed to know how to get on socially and seemed to have knowledge and and understanding of things I was clueless about.

I felt sheltered and naive, and I can't say it was because I came from Kellogg. I knew Kellogg and Wallace and Mullan and Sandpoint and Post Falls and, of course, Coeur d' Alene kids who were more worldly. They seemed to have secret knowledge. They were (much) more experienced sexually and had partied (much) more than I, and the Christian kids had a depth of experience with the spiritual life that it had never occurred to me was even possible.

I felt inferior. Very inferior. I was especially confused about what it meant to be a Christian and, on different plane, very confused and awkward regarding women and did not/would not become sexually active.

The other place in my life where men were talking about experience far out of my range was at the Zinc Plant. These men hunted, gambled, talked about motorcycles and snowmobiles, had served in the military; some were dopeheads; others cared for and drove muscle cars.

I didn't hunt, gamble, or recreate with motorcycles or snowmobiles; I wasn't a vet; I didn't do any dope, though I started drinking a lot; my car was a 1969 Volkswagen bug. Not much muscle.

My only special knowledge related to sports, but I was starting to get really interested in school.

Over my first two years of college, I began to regard formal education as my way to overcome my social deficiencies and my failures with women, not to mention my theological ignorance.

I really thought that if I learned all I could about human nature and the human condition, I could overcome my lack of sophistication and, above all, could succeed in relationships, and, ultimately, in marriage.

I really thought that if I could meet and get together with a woman with a similar love of learning, where would read poetry and theology and novels together and become students of human nature, that would be the way to overcome my inherent deficiencies, including my dark mood changes and unpredictable and irrational temper.

Like Etienne, I lived in a fantasy world, informed by great ideas and beauty. I grew passionate about history, art, literature, theology, and the study of human nature.

In the same way that Christians sought salvation in the church, I thought I was finding social, marital, and personal salvation in my studies.

By the time I was in the midst of graduate school, my obsession with this road to salvation became so seductive that I spent most of my time reading and writing papers. I rarely took breaks. I resented visitors. If I went to a movie with my wife or if her family came to visit, if these things pulled me away from studies, I panicked inside, afraid that I wouldn't get a paper done or not pass an exam. I was committed to overachieving.

I feared I would lose my salvation.

The fantasies deepened. I thought the only thing wrong with the world was that others didn't know what I knew. I began to think if more people would study Shakespeare, and understand his wisdom, or would read Death of a Salesman and understand its warnings, or plunge into comedy and understand it promises and hopes, then they would find what these stories had to say and the world, and my personal relationships, would change for the better.

It was intoxicating, much as Etienne's readings about social revolution intoxicate him.

For me, the word that governed my thoughts was "transformation". I thought that others didn't understand that literature and history and theology could transform one's life, and so I pursued my vocation as a teacher with zeal, with the idea that I could be an instrument of transformation.

I felt the same way about marriage, that regardless of tensions, my bouts with depression, and my tendencies toward withdrawl, that if my wi(ves) and I understood life the way it is portrayed in great literature, we could both avoid and overcome the pitfalls of failure.

Little to none of this has or does work out.

I still love to read, study, and write. I still get intoxicated and still find myself wishing or believing that by the power of intellectual will problems can be avoided or overcome and family rifts and social situations can be solved.

But my thirty-five year belief in this kind of salvation is falling away.

I look back at my history of delusions and feel foolish and know old habits are hard to break. It's true that what I thought would lead to success in my life outside of reading and thinking has been largely a failure breaks my heart.

I will probably always be a romantic in my core approach to life, but at least my failures in this way of pursuing success have been tempered and maybe I'm starting to mature.

Three Beautiful Things 05/01-03/08: Intelligence, Sky of Stone, Living Poetry

1. My WR 122 class is focusing on the subject of work. We are focusing right now on the multiple intelligences present in what's often referred to as semi-skilled or unskilled labor. We are reading parts of Mike Rose's The Mind at Work. Christine electrified our class discussion with her comments about her father's work as a logger and her experience being from a logging town, Oakridge, from a working class family, and attending Lewis and Clark College, a privileged private school in Portland.

2. In this class, we are going to study Homer Hickam's magnificent memoir Sky of Stone. I read it yesterday to prepare for teaching it and this story of Hickam, after his freshman year at Virginia Tech, working in a coal mine and learning about the social and political underworld of Coalwood, West Virginia was invigorating and deeply insightful. I highly recommend this book. It's tender and Hickam's self-exploration is at once penetrating and forgiving.

3. In ENG 109, students chose and read aloud the Neruda Odes that had captured their imagination and interest the most and I loved hearing these Odes come alive in the reading voices of my students. Their choices were wonderful and those students who read aloud presented the poems with passion and commitment to the beauty of the poems.