Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Night Meeting

“Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents,
through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?”

John Ashbery

I'm not sure what this partial quote of one of John Ashbery's poems means, but I've never forgotten it and it always terrifies me somehow. Maybe it expresses a simple truth: someone or something is always coming toward you--a new lover, a mortal enemy, a crashing bore, mutant virus, rasping parasite, roaring city bus ramming your soul into the Lake of Fire, Ebola, a glowing red chunk of nickel/iron from a meteor that doesn't quite burn up and blinds your infant child.   Sometimes an unexpected visitor descends in a blinding flash of white light--like the white-robed woman many homeless people claim to have seen--bearing gifts, insights, courage to go on.  And there are always bullet trajectories to ponder.  But how do people and things find each other?  Who charts the course?

Specifically, I'd like to find out as much as I can about who drew the line of the proposed--and apparently locked in--California High Speed Rail Transport directly through the center of the Fresno Rescue Mission, an act which will necessitate a  gradual stripping down of charity and guest services over the next two months and its eventual leveling (dismantling, destruction, razing to the ground--whatever the fuck you want).  The 63 year old Mission--which serves thousands of desperate people--and the ghost train from the world of the future have an appointment, and the results won't be pretty.

Readers of this blog may have noticed I have no interest in the grubby work of investigative journalism, preferring to luxuriate in snide and snarky observations, absurd juxtapositions, mean-spiritedness, and detached obliquity.  I do love a few things in this world, and you can find them in this blog if you actually read the thing regularly.  But because I hate so many things about the Mission--its juvenile, thuggish, and dangerous religiosity most of all--I find myself surprised at my anger and sadness at what's going to happen to the big old place.  

It's going to be turned back into heaps of disorganized molecules.  No more goofy chapel sermons; no more loutish Christian rock bands who never bothered to learn to sing or play instruments; no more hysterical rants or theological arguments in the dormitory or breakfast line; no more starchy, sugary breakfasts and FAILED! scrambled egg attempts by tattooed meth-heads; no more demented and funny street theater; no more stabbings; no more pseudo-scholarly discourses on the connection between NASA's faking of the moon landings, 9/11, TB tests as the Enemy's way of marking you, and, of course, Sasquatch.   No more.

But now I've been doing some direct questioning about what's going to happen and why.  The first thing that's going to happen is that all regular guests will be given the option to become a Disciple of Christ or leave.  Discipleship at the Mission a full-time, unpaid position, a combination janitor/monk/helot not allowed to leave the premises without a permission pass. Disciples must clean, wax, stack, cook, guard, pray, attend Bible and anger management classes, stand and raise their hands to heaven whenever a pastor asks them to (Some guests stand and wave; many don't and aren't required to, although they do get angry glares from staff).  Anyone who gets a job or already has one will be asked to leave.  There are rumors the Mission will try to help people find alternative housing.  The 150 or so guest bunks will be torn out except for 20-30 racks reserved for "emergency overnight guests."  No one will sleep on the chapel floor, which sheltered up to a 100 men this last winter.

 It doesn't take much digging or journalistic  perspicacity to see that the Mission higher-ups are going to employ as much unpaid labor as they can to strip the place down in preparation for eventual demolition, and are perhaps implementing a stop-gap, hunker-down economic ploy on the off-chance the Big Bullet misses its target.

Of course some of my anger is self-interest and simple fear.  I'd planned on exiting the place this coming Halloween Day, because I'll most likely have enough money then.  But now I've already started preliminary negotiations with the staff about my position.  I'm going to start teaching again starting August 20th and the chances of my becoming a Disciple of the Master in exchange for a bed and some daily sugar are slim indeed. 

Lots of guests are panicked and smoldering.  Last night in chapel a casual acquaintance of mine (he reads a lot and writes poetry, which I dutifully read for him.  It's ghastly stuff.  Too bad.) rushed to the stage at testimony time and shocked everyone, me included, by announcing that he was a Muslim (he looks and sounds like a white country boy from "The Dukes of Hazzard.")  and knew damn well that there were other Muslim American citizens in the audience along with Hindus,  atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, and people who just plain don't give a damn about Jesus.  "And you're asking me to betray my faith for a bed?" 

"Fucking terrorist," someone muttered nearby.   My Muslim friend was growled and murmured off the stage, then a couple of Disciples came forward to testify to the extreme wonderfulness of the program and how grateful they were and how grateful we should be. 

Well, I am grateful to the Mission.  I'm here because I've got self-destructive tendencies.  I'm working on them.  For better or worse the Mission has been my home for a year.   But this whole thing stinks to high heaven, the collision of a misguided attempt to create a  Jetsony future and outmoded religious literalism. 

The title of this post "Night Meeting" is a direct steal of a title from a Ray Bradbury Martian Chronicles tale.   In this haunting story, a human Mars colonist walks a road amidst ancient Martian ruins to a party.  He meets a phantom Martian going the other way, also on his way to a party.  Each creature sees the other as ghostly, transparent.  The Martian insists his world is real, the cities and monuments around him still rearing in their glory.  The human also knows his world is real and the Martian is a shade of an ancient past.  Neither convinces the other.  They part, leaving you to wonder about the ephemeral nature of any city, monument, institution, or technology. 

Last night as I lay sleepless on my mat on the chapel floor, I imagined passengers speeding in smooth comfort toward tech jobs and conferences, sipping coffee and tapping pads.  As they rush through the 9th circle of hell that is contemporary Fresno,  phantom images of a blocky, white, green-trimmed old building decorated with brick crosses flash through their brains or seem to flicker on their iPads and Kindles.  For the duration of the Fresno passage they seem to hear men's voices muttering, laughing, spouting obscenities, greetings, yelps.   Around me in the chapel I imagine the snoring and groaning men are troubled in their dreams by the passage of a long silver bullet that seems to snake its way through their brains, making them writhe and whimper.

When I was a kid my father and I both read science fiction and discussed NASA, moon rocks, intelligent computers, and the shining white world of 2001, which he never lived to see.   My dad loved to demonstrate the thrumming power of his Hi Fi rig for the church youth by playing at full blast the Richard Strauss theme that begins and ends the Kubrick vision.   I still love that world, but don't believe it's coming anymore.  What's coming furiously toward us all is a meaner, poorer, rubble-strewn world.  Sorry, but I'm right.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Medium and the Master

I got kicked out of the Mission a few nights ago for reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House on my Amazon Kindle.  This has happened to me 3 times now for reading material in chapel other than the Bible or the Hymnal.  The first time I had enough money to stay at a motel, the second time I stayed at a friend's, but this time I had to find a secluded grassy spot hidden from police car spotlights and casual inspections (I'm not going to tell you where it is, because it's a good spot).  The only problem occurred when the sprinklers switched on at 3:00 AM and woke me.  I waited for them to turn off but it never happened.  I can't imagine why this invisible patch of grass needs so much watering in this broken desert state.   Wet and cold, I spent the rest of the night on a bench.

The Mission's policy on reading in chapel changes arbitrarily along with other rules concerning eating in the dormitory, charging electrical devices, etc.  Most feel the changes are rug-pullers to keep you forever scrambling and tottering and vulnerable.   I agree, but a lot of it is the result of indecision, bad communication, arguments filtering down from paid staff, and a profound aversion to filling out write-up forms warning guests about bad behavior.  Face it, most people can't write or spell in these End Times, even with the help of Apple and Microsoft and Fischer Price, so it's easier to make up rules as you go and just kick people out.   For a long time, plenty of people happily read fat Tom Clancy and John Grisham novels during the idiotic and deranged sermons from the Neanderthal pastors, and the Disciples simply ignored it, staring into the middle distance, snapping into focus only for a drunken outburst or a projectile vomitor.

For a while the guests were allowed to have their smart phones out because many of them claimed to have the Bible readily accessible. This is true, but many of them also have porn and violent weirdness and do a lot of racy texting.   I have a King James Bible on my Kindle, so I devised a scheme that would allow me to switch as fast as possible from the science book or thriller I was reading to the New Testament.  This was a Golden Era to me in chapel sessions, because I could read anything I wanted and even gladly switch to the Bible if the pastor actually happened to have something interesting to say about a particular parable or Psalm.  My black, pebbly-textured Kindle cover is exactly the type of binding you see on many Bibles and New Testaments, and I've lost count of the number of times people have nodded and smiled at me on the bus, murmuring things like, "Good to see you reading the Word, young man."

The evening of my most recent ejection, Disciple Albert, who would have made a good concentration camp guard (his enthusiasm for rules, write-up forms and his gibbering glee upon seeing someone ejected or punished are legendary), snuck up behind me. 

"That ain't the Bible!"   He poked a finger at my Kindle screen.  The S.O.B. almost touched it and smudged it!

"Sure it is!" I retorted.  "Listen to this: 'Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers.'  Esther's one of the books in the Bible." I said triumphantly.

I got insanely lucky with the name of Dickens' heroine, but Albert didn't buy it.  He squinted at the screen for a few seconds.  "Naw, naw.  Get your pack.  You're out for the night.  If you argue with me it's gonna be three nights.  Come back tomorrow.  Remember, I love you and so does the Master."

"The Master," is what some people call Jesus these days.  In some translations acolytes call Jesus "master" which connotes wisdom or divine leadership.  But in the brains of people like dreadful Disciple Albert, Jesus is an iron-hard taskmaster, a cosmic Punisher who will bring down fiery destruction on you at any moment.  Nitwit celebrity Kirk Cameron and inane Pastor Ray Comfort have a TV show about Jesus called "The Way of the Master," a genuinely demented farrago of Bible mistranslation, creationism, and a Jesus who seems more like an evil alien from Rigel 7 than an itinerant Rabbi.  

Comfort and Cameron are notorious on the Internet for their riotous, ignoramus commentary on the End Times, Darwin, and Creationism.  They printed their own severely abridged and annotated version of Darwin's Origin of Species,leaving out the crucial chapter on the geographical distribution of species, something no creationist ever deals with because it's one of the most compelling pieces (among thousands) of evidence for evolution.  They are also infamous for their Banana Argument , a YouTube classic in which they argue that bananas are perfectly designed by God for the human hand, having pop tops and easy-peel perforations and so on.  They're oblivious of the fact that bananas' user-friendly features have been selected over many generations by humans and aren't present in nature.  They back-peddled when the howls went up and now claim they were being ironic.

Bananas are an easy but appropriate symbol for so much of what goes on at the Mission and for the stuff that passes as "spiritual" today: the apish, hooting sapience, the slippery pratfalls, the monkey shines and so on.  A couple of nights ago I showed Disciple Albert a book I was reading by Bart Ehrman called Misquoting Jesus.   "Is this okay?" I asked.  "It's about the Master." (Actually the book is a compelling argument by a real scholar that the New Testament has been copied, mistranslated, forged, and mucked up so much over the centuries, there's no way to know what Jesus actually said or did).

He looked dubious. "Well . . . Naw, naw.  Rules are rules.  I'll give you a Bible if you want.  Your own to keep."

"No thanks," I said.  "I already have a couple."

Then we talked about my Kindle and he told me how much he wanted one, but right now the rules didn't allow it.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Code Pink

This morning in the Mission breezeway breakfast line, Colin, the resident hale-and-hearty-blowhardy  Scottish/Irish/Apache/Australian pseudo-polymath, gave us the news.  I won't dwell on the uniquely American horror of the Batman atrocity or its ramifications, because Colin got right to the center of my thoughts and expressed them to the guests better--albeit campily--than I could or would dare:

"Brothers, I'm sure many of you have heard of the shooting in the screening in Colorado.  Many of you had been speaking of attending such a screening yourself, should the Good Lord have blessed you with the lucre to accomplish the task."

I'm not sure who was listening to him.  Most of the residents seemed mired in their usual  funk of dejection, hunger, and anger, heads sagging toward the floor.

"Of course we'll all pray for the victims.  Of course we'll count our blessings.   But, brothers, every wretched soul within reach of the electronic media will have to endure vacuous and malevolent drivel the likes of which the world has never heard or seen.  My many years in radio and print media taught me a thing or two.  We'll all have to weather the coming storm in the media sphere in our own way.   Steady on."

That was about it.  Then it was time to express dismay at the single rubbery fried egg, inedible waffles, and unforgivable absence of the pastry table. 

After breakfast I headed off to the Fresno Community Medical Center Ambulatory Care Pharmacy to get an early spot in line for some prescriptions I'd been lax in filling.  A visit to the (more or less) free clinic and pharmacy is always a bit of a heart-thumper.  Plenty of altercations with the staff behind bullet-proof glass, security and police calls, screeching and genuinely woeful tales of insulin denial because of lapsed insurance.  "Go the ER if you feel you're going to go into shock.  Next in line!"

Still, I was surprised at the stepped-up security.  I always pass through the main hospital before hiking out the isolated clinic.  The instant the sliding glass doors admitted me, an armed guard was in my face, demanding to know my business.  "On my way through to the pharmacy," I said.

He checked his watch, stared at it for a long time, then looked carefully into my eyes.  "Right, pharmacy opens at 8, that's 10 minutes from now.  Go on through, sir.  Have a good day."

To understand what happened next, you need a bit of expository filler.  I'll try not to make it lumpy.  A few weeks ago I lost a backpack on a bus, and during a visit to my sister's, my lovely and brilliantly artistic niece took me thrift shopping for a new one.  After visiting several stores, the sturdiest yet cheapest one we found was a standard affair done in two-toned wilderness brown with some inexplicably pink fishnet pockets.

"This is the one," said my niece and shoved the bag at me.  My treat.  And don't worry about the pink parts.  I can paint that out for you easy and use some gray duct tape if I need to."

"What should I be worried about?"

"That pink could get you into trouble in some of the areas you pass through and with some of your buddies."


"You're a quick study, Uncle G."

Well, the duct tape didn't stick, as it often doesn't and lots of walking and sweaty abrasion summoned the pink as brightly as ever.  I barely thought about it, consoling myself with the thought of all the poor bastards I'd seen stuck with Care Bear and Strawberry Shortcake packs. 

Having passed the initial security check without so much as peep regarding my back pack, I wasn't prepared for the trio of security guards, two female and one male, who seemed to spring out from behind some decorative shrubbery near the rear doors. 

"Whoa!  Sir!  Sir!  Stop right there, sir!  Whoa!"

They surrounded me.  "Backpack check!" said one of the women.  I noted hands on bristling hip belts, thought about the blood pressure medication I should have filled. 

"Destination, sir?" asked the big male guard, who reminded me somehow of a  toothy, smiley hamster, in spite of his baldness.

Under the spell of uniformed authority, I found myself bending over and unzipping the pack without recalling the start of the action.  "Pharmacy," I muttered, "I guess I should have known, with the thing and all."

"We've got a Code Pink in the hospital, sir," said the rather friendly Asian woman, who seemed to be amused as I fumbled with my books, water bottle, lunch, bag of dirty whites.  "Got any babies in there?"  All three laughed.

I still didn't get it; Mission-dopey and sugar-fried, I still thought they wanted guns or explosives.  The second woman, sort of round, muscular and surely competent with various body-holds and throws, began helping me poke through the bag.  She touched my Kindle Fire.

"Kind of funny about the pink on your bag," said the male guard.  "Hey, is that a Kindle!  I wish I could afford one of those!  Where'd you get it?"

"The pink?" I asked.  "Oh, a Code Pink!  Someone took a baby from the nursery!  I thought you guys . . ."

"We can't tell you what's happening, sir," said the tough female guard who had my Kindle.   "It wasn't the pink on your bag.  But Buddy noticed it and it kind of surprised us."

"Kinda funny when you think about it," said Buddy.

"Pretty funny,"  "Oh . . .yeah!" "Gee!"  "Ha! Ha!"  Lots of eye rolling and silly glances at each other.

"Is the nursery pink?" I asked.  "That's why it's a Code Pink, right?  But it could be Baby Blue, too." [Like my blog]

"We can't discuss anything.  Don't worry, sir," said the Asian woman.  "It's just routine."

My eyes were starting to come into focus.  The woman who had my Kindle Fire was Officer Gomez. "Long line in the pharmacy, I bet," she said.  "You'll be glad you have this."

I wanted to ask for it back.  We stood wobbling there like old friends stunned to see each other by chance after many years.  Finally, I reached out and took the Kindle from Officer Gomez, who gave it up with a grin.

"What are you reading?" asked Buddy.

"Lots of different stuff.  I jump around a bunch because it's hard to stay focused."

"Wish I had one."

When I got done with the pharmacy and returned through the cool of the main building, planning to stop in the cafeteria for an orange, no trace of the Code Pink remained.  My new friends were gone.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Parenting Class and Other Adventures in Adult Education

With tuition rates on the rise, and the cost of a college education far outweighing any future benefit, many are looking to alternative methods to expand their intellectual and earning power.    I began attending a low-cost parenting class even though I don't have any biological children and haven't seen my ex-stepchildren in years.   I used to babysit my nieces and nephew years ago, but they're all grown up and don't need my help anymore.   One of the bus routes I take conducts several impromptu and loosely organized classes in the seating area in the vehical's back, a U-shaped space surrounded by eight seats--two on each side, four forming the bottom of the U.   I like to sit in one of the far back corners of the bus and read, so I often get to sit in on these group therapy-style encounter classes.  My favorite is Parenting Class.  This informative session teaches you how to properly raise offspring, should you ever have any.

In this group you can usually find a multi-racial crowd of tattooed, angry, and bellowing mothers dandling and slapping the babes on their laps, and giving each other parental advice while a shaky, amped-up and teeth-chomping boyfriend or two snickers and looks on with fiendish red eyes.  

One bald mother is heavily tattooed with pictures of foreign currency--colorful stuff from Europe, China, the Ukraine.  "I call myself "MOB," she tells people.  "That's 'Money in the Bank,' get it?  Most people have no idea how dull our money is--just a bunch of green shit like vomit or ulcer shit--but the rest of the world got more class and more imagination.  I want to go to Italy some day or maybe France.   I tried to get a fucking job at Cricket but they said 'look,  we're a professional organization and we have to project a professional image' and I said look BITCH! I'm a walking, talking  fucking cash box, what could be more fucking professional than that?  Here! take her for a sec while I show you all something!" 

 MOB shoves her blond infant at the guy I think of as BW because his tattoo scheme imitates barbed wire coiling around every exposed body part.   He's often the only male in class besides me.   He takes the baby and stands it up in his grease-caked lap while MOB bends over to rummage in a handbag.  She comes up with a fistful of coins.  

"See those coins? All from overseas.  Even their coins are prettier than ours." The group murmurs and seems to agree.  "I'm gonna get some coin tattoos, too."  She shoves the coins back in her bag and shrieks at BW,  "Hold her right, you stupid son-of-a-bitch!"

"I'm holding her just fine, baby doll.   She's happy!"

"She's biting her nails again!  Sherri!  I told you not to bite your nails!  It's dangerous!  You wanna get smacked?"

To me it looks as if the child is too young to bite its nails and is more likely sucking its fingers.   I feel like saying something, but as in cases where parents beat children in public, it often--not always-- seems wiser to keep your mouth shut.

MOB continues, "I knew someone who swallowed too many fingernails and they died!  Got punctured in their stomach and bleeded to death!  You want that to happen?  Give her here!"  She snags the baby from BW's grasp, plants it in her lap like a sapling and starts shaking it--hard.  "Take your fingers out!"  She cuffs the child on the cheek (you can hear the slap) and it starts wailing.   She shakes it some more.  "Cut that shit out!"

"There's some stuff you can put on their fingers.  Can't remember it.  It tastes bad so they stop."  This is from the mother next to me,  a very pale and slender red-headed and freckled Caucasian woman with a toddler who looks African American.   He always wears Spiderman attire and eats Nutter Butter cookies from a long box. 

"What's it called?" asks MOB.

"They sell it downtown by that candle shop where you can get stuff for scrapbooking and stuff."

BW is shaking his hands out in front of him like two limp gloves he's trying to rid of fluid.  He catches my eye.   His eyes seem solid crimson.  "Women!" He grins at me.  "Can't live with 'em . . ." he surveys the circle of women and babies . .. . "Well, I bet you can fill in the rest, buddy!"

I give a brief nod and return to my book.

Another good one I attend with the same group is Linguistics and Genetic Inheritance, a high speed science class with a fair bit of technical information tossed at you, but still recommended.  It's always held without the red-headed mother and her seeming black child.

A typical comment for discussion:  "I'm telling you, that boy don't look nothing like his daddy."

"What's his daddy look like?"

"Like her.  And don't tell me he's adopted.  He had a different biological  daddy.  He talks like an African, with an accent and everything."

"Girl, you don't talk like your dad just because you inherit his looks.  His hair looks that way because of his genes, but he talks like his mama."

"He don't ever talk."

"I've heard him talk plenty of times and I've got a good ear for where people were raised.  He was raised in fucking Fresno."

And the debate rages.   It's exciting to sit in on these heated exchanges.

Attending Baby's First Step, I get a glimmer of an entrepreneurial idea.   In this class young mothers let their issue stand up on the seat beside them while they talk on their cells and the bus careens around and makes rapid lane shifts.  A couple times I reach out to steady a child whose soft cranium is about to impact a metal seat frame.  Motherly snarls and bared fangs greet me.  My idea is this:  I could work as a child advocate and make digital video documents of precious moments for proud parents, thereby working two often adversarial social strata at once.

I also recommend Free Food, an informative seminar on churches and charity offices that give out free eats, and Collecting Child Support--Non Violent Course.    

I hope this brief guide to back-of-the-bus adult education gets you headed down the path to enlightenment and financial solvency.  Or, as another child raised under a harsh regimen said as an adult, "Live Long and Prosper!"

Friday, July 6, 2012

October Lights

I've been thinking a lot about Halloween lately because of the recent death of Ray Bradbury.   Despite any objections about a strained or overly "poetic" style he might have employed, he was the best writer about Halloween and all things spooky, windy, bone-rattling, and autumn chilly.  In books like Dark Carnival, The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man, he turned Halloween into more than a night of masks, discount costumes, tricks and treats; he made it his own realm--a strange wild territory he conjured like the Mars he still owns--where the thrills and scares were composed of a rarer, more life-enhancing energy than the shock-porn of most horror fiction and films today.  His descriptions of that daily-darkening autumn country could change your sense of self, make you feel that your bones had a life of their own, force you to feel more alive by dealing in beautiful death.  When as a kid I read a Bradbury story like "The Jar" or saw its unforgettable adaptation on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"--a man buys a mysterious jar from a carnival barker that contains what seems to be a pulpy tentacled horror and later contains something worse--I was deeply disconcerted, afraid, and the world seemed a vertiginous place, but I was somehow eager for more.

Halloween is my favorite time of year, and I love discussing it with schoolchildren.  However, in public classrooms you've always got to be careful about raising the topic of All Hallows Eve.  Plenty of religious-minded parents and teachers don't want their offspring and students cavorting with the Devil.  And there's always a kid on hand named Jerry wearing a T-shirt that looks at first glance like a "Coca Cola" add, lettering and all, but actually says "Christ is It!" that he got at Bible Camp who says, "Halloween is evil," in a flat, dead voice.  

If the room is already bedecked with skeletons, silhouettes of flying witches, and gauzy spider webs, you've got an all clear to use subjects like favorite monsters, costumes, candy, tricks, etc. as a sure-fire time filler or just an opportunity to get to know the kids better and occasionally hear a funny story or a kiddie tall-tale (a lie) about getting chased by a ghost or seeing "Bloody Mary" conjured up in the bathroom mirror by their cousin Jocko.  Few things are more fun than telling a story with a slow, repetitive build-up to a "Boo!" ending that you can actually shout at the kids, making them shriek and do the boogie dance (See Mark Twain's How to Tell A Story for his terrific rendition of a an old African American shocker (His performance would be seen as racist today, but check it out anyway,  and note his advice about how to time a climactic scare--preferably aimed at a girl who looks like a screamer). 

Sometimes teachers come right out and leave you a note along the lines of "No Halloween talk!"   Once, walking to a classroom with a young teacher who was going to guide me through her lesson plan for the day, I casually mentioned that I liked a Halloween mural  painted by several different kids and obviously school-approved because it was hanging in the hallway.  She stopped dead, turned, fixed me with glazed eyes and gritted out, "the Devil does not come into my classroom.  If other teachers want Satan in their rooms they have that free choice, but it doesn't happen in my room and never will.  I emphasize the harvest season.  We have pumpkins but don't carve them, and we have a scarecrow, but not an evil one.  Is that all perfectly clear?"

"A kindly scarecrow, eh?  But does he have a brain?" I asked brightly, pointing with index finger at my head.  Her eyes went weird, then weirder.

"Is it clear? she repeated.

"Yeah, sure," I replied.  "What church do you go to?"

She mumbled the name of some Assembly of Something or Other and we were off to a really bad start.   During an afternoon birthday party for one of the kids supplied by her visiting Granny, to get back at the life-denying, cold-hearted, Martinet/Harpy/Gorgon, whose room was an anal-retentive Skinner box festooned with Shocking Pink Post-Its all screaming versions of "Forbidden!" I kept referring to the fruit punch as "blood."  "Finish your blood, little ones!  It's the blood of the innocents--like you."

When I left the room at the end of the day, I tacked her scarecrow's finger to its strawy noggin and affixed one of her Post-Its to its hat: "The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side! Oh, joy, oh, rapture!" It's always a risk to do things like that, but I'm the kind of sub who likes to live on the edge.

I was almost angry at the Mission this last Halloween morning for making things too easy. After all, I thought, this place is a real haunted house, with moans, drafts, odd decaying odors masked by disinfectant, clanking chains and screeching gate hinges; the whole labyrinthine tomb inhabited by dimwit characters from the Monster Mash: skeletal meth-heads, implacable syringe-zombies, werewolves beholden to the med cycle instead of the lunar;  drifting wraiths scoured by the street of all personality and substance;  and all manner of slavering, fanged and rabid beasties tottering about on their hind legs; the blasphemous Black Mass chapel with its campy sound system and video-worship kiddie show stage where rangy, thuggish fiends calling themselves “Pastors” and obsessed, absolutely obsessed with the Hot Place, stride about showing off their pompadours, bandannas, and their bad anti-Darwin/ pro- Nazi motorcycle gang poetry; Lovecraftian creatures groping about in the showers with cilia and tentacles; and a new breed of Pale People who are planning, although they don't know it themselves,  to live in deep underground caverns, to turn white, pulpy, and blind and live in slithery darkness for a thousand years. And did I mention there are lots of people who are 7 feet tall  and have one eyebrow?

Much of this blog so far has focused on the jarring transition I frequently experience going from the Mission to the playground, but this was almost embarrassing, like awakening on Thanksgiving morning by a bunch of Disciples dressed as Heathen Scalping Redskins, caterwauling and wielding rubber tomahawks, then skipping off to the Pilgrim Playhouse to make trace-your-hand turkey art. 

That was months ago.  Back then, I could pretend the Mission, the street, the hordes of Fresno homeless wrapped in filthy blankets in doorways, were all elements of a farce staged for my benefit.  Oh, fun stuff still happens:  Last night in the dormitory someone kept screeching at irregular intervals after midnight, "Fire Phasers, Scotty!  I need more power!  Sperm! Sperm! Start flagellating!  Warp factor Nine!"  In this respect, the Mission never lets you down.  But now the summer heat is bringing the demons out, steaming off their skins, and their sinister writhing is worse than anything last winter brought shuddering in.

All my life when I've set my sights ahead, or felt my prospects brightening and vistas opening, it hasn't been things like the last day of school or summer vacation or Christmas and Baby New Year that turn the cosmic rheostat toward the brighter, the dawn.  Instead it's always been the drawing down dark of Autumn Country rolling into view, Sleepy Hollow just ahead, the ambiguous greenish-gold glow of the hilly land beyond the dark vault of the covered bridge that tugged at my spirits.  Now my sights are set again this year on October as the time to escape this godawful place.

I don't care if I never celebrate another Christmas or New Year.  I want out of here in more ways than one, more days of the week than is healthy.

Last Halloween I headed off that morning across the moonscape toward the day's bus ride and 1st grade sub job feeling jaunty and reckless.  The night before, adrift with a few extra dollars in pocket, I decided to buy a few props for a stunt I'd read about but never tried.  I bought some black construction paper at the teacher supply store, a selection of those little food coloring squeeze bottles, and the cheapest glass pie plate I could find and stuff into my backpack.  

When I checked my cell phone voice mail later before lights-out, I found a rushed, cheery message from the teacher, a woman I'd worked for before:  "I left out a bunch of Halloween xeroxes and coloring pages, a couple of videos, a bingo game and a jar of candy for prizes.  Bring in your own stuff or ideas.  I know you'll do fine!  Happy Halloween!  Oh, yeah, I've got a new girl, Tanisha, she cries a lot, can't be with the other kids, Mr. Garza will take her part of the day, call his room if she gives you too much trouble."

Well, then.  Okay.  Anything Goes . . .

On the bus I recalled a sad story my mother told me about something my father tried for Halloween early in my parents' marriage. Instead of giving out candy that year, he decided to invite the neighborhood kids in for hot apple cider and homemade donuts.  You already know how those lousy little late 50s-early 60s juvenile delinquents reacted.  "Your father was so disappointed!  He couldn't understand why those kids didn't appreciate his efforts."  If you tried a stunt like that today,  the kid's whole damn tribe would show up on your lawn with blow torches and chains.  

When I arrived at the classroom I remembered why I'd enjoyed working for this teacher before.  I'd been here at least 3 times but never met her in person.  Her classroom was pretty much empty, devoid of bright posters and props and elaborate "stations".  Still, it was somehow a bit grungy and cluttered, with broken pencils and crayons in coffee cans, and a filing system on her proper squarish wooden desk that involved stacking and shuffling.  She'd covered up the big white computerized SMART Board she was supposed to use with pieces of paper on which she could scribble.   Her student' desks snaked toward the back of the room in jagged rows, but they were rows, not groups.  Studies and experience show over and over that that the best classrooms are the ones where the teacher sits up front behind the desk and talks or reads, and the students sit facing her reading and writing, maybe sneaking in an occasional glance upward at the cursive alphabet cards or the Presidential portraits, but no one in the Education Guild ever listens.

She also had exactly what I needed--a rattling old overhead projector with a noisy fan and a scattering of colored dry erase markers.   An easy way to quiet an unruly class of any age, K-12, is to mark up an projector's glass surface with a multicolored drawing--any damn thing, lion, monkey, UFO, turn the lights out, switch on the projector bulb, let the kids see the wobbling picture on the streaky old screen for a moment, then spray it with the water bottle.  The lights swirl, the water globules form, the devouring blobs expand--red ones, blue ones, green ones, blending gobbling ones.   "LIFE!  WE HAVE CREATED LIFE!" you hiss, and you've got them, eyes glazed, faces slack.  

We did some real learning that day, practicing printing the alphabet, counting, reading sight words, but we got in plenty of kicks and giggles and shrieks.  I read them a couple of stories from some beat-up copies of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," a popular set of books with remarkably gruesome details and drawings.  Some teachers have them, some don't.  

Tanisha, the problem child, turned out to be a non-problem, because she was a somnolent little mess who spent the day sniffling with her head down on her desk beneath the filthy pink hood of her puffy winter jacket.  I asked her to sit up a few times, take her hood off, etc.  She perked up for a spooky story or a coloring sheet, and snarled at me a couple of times when I asked her a question, but basically I had to file her away-- had to!  thirty other kids needed me!--thinking what I always do: "Why do grown-ups do this kind of thing?"  This from a shelter resident with broken glass and muddy gravel in his brain. 

At lunch time I cut out a few spooky black shapes--spiders, whispy ghosts--from the black paper I'd brought and affixed them to the overhead projector border.  In the middle of this crude frame I placed the pie plate, filled it with water, got the food color droppers lined up, then went out to bring the kids in from lunch.

In the darkened room the kids sat on the carpet in front of the projector in a huddled group.  "No touching, remember your space bubble," I muttered,  then switched on the flashlight beneath my chin.  I read aloud from a script I'd stitched together from Internet samples and my own head, a tale of competing witches and ghosts trying to create a magic brew for a Halloween contest.  I camped it up, cackling and HOOOOING and burbling . . . then switched on the overhead.  

Appropriate OOOOHHHS from the kids at the sight of the black shapes.  Then I started with the colors.  SOME GREEN BAT BLOOD!







I swirled the colors with a popsicle stick.  The witches and ghosts argued about the brew, a reckless cat tasted the vile stuff and turned into a winged monkey.

All the while beneath the delighted OOHs and AHHs I'd noticed Tanisha off to the side with her hood back on--some kids go hours without taking off their hoods and backpacks, no matter what you threaten.  She was pulling the sides of the hood forward so her face was mostly covered and shaking her head, making ragged ERRRRR! ERRRR! ERRRR! sounds.

Oh fantastic, I thought,  fabulous.  Is the breakdown here?   Is Mr. Garza going to walk in and see this travesty, this blasphemous unapproved display?

I stopped reading and swirling and stepped over to Tanisha.

"Tanish? Honey?  What's up?  Take off your hood for me.  Let's see you."

She shook her head and went Errrk!  Errrrrk!  ERRRRK! in a guttural croak.

What have I done?  Conjured an evil spirit?  A Demon?  Summoned a parasite within her guts?

She threw her hood back.  She looked past me at the colors still swirling, blackening as they blended, slowing, guttering, yellow, orange, green flashing their final appearances.   Drumming her heels on the carpet, she clapped her hands to her face, tears squeezing out from between fingers gripping her cheeks and shrieked, "It's beautiful!  I'm so glad!   I'm so glad I'm here!”  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Homeless Teacher's Amazon Kindle Sample Review Corner #5

The Homeless Teacher's Amazon Kindle Sample Review Corner #5

Mission statement: “I read and review Amazon's stingy free samples of books, saving you the need to read either one, and in some cases will do a better job in a couple of paragraphs conveying ideas than the author in 300 pages. I also freely admit to laziness and irresponsibility in not reading the entire book, but I've personally met “book reviewers” for prominent papers and journals who only read book jackets and press packets before writing their reviews. Besides, you don't have the time and should be thanking me."

As a responsible blogger, it behooves (I've always wanted to use that word) me to take a look back at this blog's most frequently occurring and regular “feature,” taking stock of review choices and what they might say about my attempt to direct readers' thinking and my own predilections. A quick glance reveals an obsessive concern with religious encroachment on the secular republic of America, a keen interest in evolution and the assault upon it by creationists, and the blessedly nascent field of neuroscience. I say “blessedly” because it's one branch of science its practitioners insist is yet in its infancy, perhaps even the embryonic stage, as ingenious brain-scanning technology improves and the vistas of possibilities for understanding the universe inside peoples' skulls grows ever larger and more exciting. Decide for yourself as I examine these samples' Best Part (s), Main Ideas (s), and present provocative and haunting post-reading Also ruminations if these themes are intimately related and urgent (I think they are) or just show an obsessive eccentric doodling around (Or both)

Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby. This sample is a fairly meaty one as free samples go (the amount Amazon decides to give you seems completely arbitrary; and let me tell you that the free samples of audio books are a real rip-off because you often just get a minute or so of the introduction, read by somebody who doesn't even read the rest of the book). The weightiness also might have to do with Jacoby's excellent style and firm grasp of her theme, the efforts of “the apostles of religious correctness to infuse every public issue, from the quality of education to capital punishment, with their theological values.” 

Best Part: The account of the centennial anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and great but now largely forgotten champion of free thought Robert Ingersoll's tribute in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois to the wisdom and courage of the framers of the Constitution in omitting any mention of God in the foundational document, thereby creating the world's first secular government. Jacoby highlights the impossibility of such a celebration in today's increasing theocratic political environment. In addition, Jacoby contrasts George W. Bush and his post-9/11 address from Washington's National Cathedral, “indistinguishable from a sermon” and “a gross violation of the respect for separation of church and state” with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who did not use an altar as a “backdrop” for his declaration of war after Pearl Harbor and Abraham Lincoln, a non-church-goer, who delivered the Gettysburg Address on the field of battle.

Main Idea: Being a Freethinker, an agnostic, atheist, doubter, skeptic, or just curmudgeonly questioner used to be an honorable thing in America, but now such troublemakers and “hepcats” and bongo banging “beatniks” are relegated to a tightening “kook's corner”--Jacoby's phrase—by the Religious Right.

Also, keeping religion out of the public sphere is the best way to protect religion. Inside lovely old hilltop chapels and dentist's offices converted to Blinding Glow Ministries, religious believers can do and say anything they want without fear of stomping boots and fast-moving metal contrivances splintering the sanctuary doors and walls. In the public sphere, in politics, schools, medicine, and law, the inevitable divisiveness and chaos hurts and weakens religion. Too bad that too few can grasp this urgent truth.

The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is not Designed for Us by Victor J. Stenger.  Recently physicist Stenger (it's always a good sign when a scientist doesn't put the Ph.D. after his name on the cover) has released a seeming fusillade of books with daring titles like God: The Failed Hypothesis, and makes bold claims that we can now state with confidence that Gods like the one of the Judeo-Christian tradition simply don't exist. Facts in science are really statements that have a probability so close to “one” that we carry them about in our daily quotidian puttering as provisional truths. They may change, but why waste time trying to walk, chew gum, and juggle chainsaws at the same time?

There's just nothing for that kind of God to do anymore, unless you want to believe he's fiddling about with things on the quantum level to get you to the yard sale before the Tasmanian Devil Pez dispenser you need for your collection is sold.     In recent years believers, having accepted an ancient earth, evolution through natural selection, and witnessed mind-boggling feats like the possible discovery of the science-predicted Higgs-Boson particle, have been forced to retreat to a question that goes something like this: “Okay then. It happened naturally according to natural laws but who made those laws in the first place, huh?”(This question, it's never acknowledged, makes Christians into Deists, almost by definition) 

Believers continue, “and what about the fine-tuning of constants?"  This last question refers to the fact that our universe contains about fifty physical quantities or constants fixed at the time of the Big Bang.  If any one of these constants were  changed even slightly, it is claimed, life would be impossible in this universe.  One example is the strength of gravity which, were it changed by only one part in 10 to the 100th power, would forbid life's existence.  One way scientists have gotten around this is by positing a multiverse--trillions and trillions of parallel universes, most of which don't contain life.  We just happen to be in one that allows our kind of party.  While more and more scientists are taking the multiverse idea seriously, opponents and believers are quite right to point out that it's outrageously unparsimonious, violating the principle of Occam's Razor (don't multiply variables unnecessarily). However, Stenger's proposed strategy for his book is this sample's best part: 

Best Part:  Stenger claims he doesn't even have to resort to the multiverse move and claims he will show in the rest of the book that life could indeed develop with lots of constant fiddling and that nothing about this universe is particularly designed for us.  But the sample doesn't go that far. 

Main Idea:  Stop trying to find God in numbers.  It won't work and it's a little pathetic, betraying an insecurity about faith.   As Martin Gardner once said, "God is the Great Magician," who is too good at misdirection to leave traces in niggling figures and quantities.

Also:  I don't like the multiverse idea even though Family Guy had a great episode with Brian and Stewie hopping around different universes.  This universe is already too big, in my opinion, and it was really mean of God to induce hideous existential vertigo in the contemplation of something as simple as the distance to the nearest star.  

Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga.  In a previous sample review I was pretty impressed by neuroscientist Sam Harris's Free Will, a short, vigorous argument that we have no such thing, that we are completely determined creatures.  Here Gazzaniga, another brain guy perhaps most famous for his work with split-brain patients, agrees with Harris up to a point.  But then he claims that the physically determined brain creates the mind, which in the context of social interaction exerts a measure of control over the brain and its creation of behaviors.  In other words, the individual is the wrong hierarchical level at which to look for freedom of choice.  Such freedom emerges only in the realm of social constraints, just as games emerge in part from components like nets and borderlines.   I think that where he's going.

Best Part: Gazzaniga has a warm, reassuring tone, in contrast to some people who write about our alleged lack of free will with a "you've got to be joking, you dolt" tone. 

Main Idea: We have free will after all.

Also: It says something really pathetic about me that this week, after my employer lost my paycheck and is claiming I lost it and I really did lose both my cell phone and my wallet, I fervently hope there's no such thing as free will and that these stupid things aren't my fault but were determined billions of years ago;  and it's equally pathetic that when things inevitably start going a little better for me, I'll take full credit for my great choices and brilliant insights.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

"School of Rock" Rocks

Everyone has at least one guilty pleasure when it comes to movies, but usually they don't mind admitting to friends that they enjoy downing a few beers and chuckling at some really quite unfunny Adam Sandler  movie or Meet the Parents (Admit it, you've seen that movie five times and enjoyed every viewing.  Robert De niro is really funny and a little bit scary when he demands that Ben Stiller explain why he doesn't like cats.  And Ben Stiller's mealtime "grace" is a masterpiece).  We all know the cliche' about Oscar-sweepers like Gandhi that you can tell are bad five minutes in (have you ever really noticed how horrid director Richard Attenborough's eye is?  Is he even on the set when he directs the movies?) that you only watch once and then never again.  Can you imagine the fickle leers, snickers, bafflement, and frantic behind-your-back discussions  that would ensue if you invited a group of friends over to watch The King's Speech or Out of Africa?  Remember when "Video Rental" stores had an "Oscar Winner" section that was covered in a thick coat of moondust that no self-respecting minimum wage worker would ever even think of approaching with the feather duster at closing time?

Then there are movies that aren't really bad, actually pretty deft and skillful, but you still feel embarrassed to tell anyone you watch them, perhaps because you watch them and think about them all the time, and even if they are actually funny, your friends and aquaintences might start thinking in terms of a visit to the psychopharmacologist if they knew just how much this inconsequential movie meant to you.

I've been watching and watching Richard Linklater's School of Rock, with Jack Black as a failed rock guitarist masquerading as a sub and starting a kid's rock band,  because it's bright, technically polished, funny, kid-loaded in the best way, musically pleasing, and because Black pours on a kind of Hell-Beast energy and righteous-down-from-the-mountain-staff-of-power glory he might never have again in movies.    I've also been watching it because I've been a substitute off and on for 15 years, and nothing but a substitute teacher since I got booted out of college teaching a few years ago.  And now, because I'm pitifully indulging a damaged double-identity fantasy routine as a homeless shelter dweller and substitute teacher, I find School of Rock comforting and companionable in addition to being funny and very true to life, in a compressed, Looney Tunes manner.

Remember many years ago when Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out (it's my favorite of those films) and  all the "what about the children?" moaners and posers descended on the larky, silly movie for its violence and "child abuse," resulting in the PG-13 rating nobody pays any attention to now? (this was all before Spielberg got all "issue"-oriented and historical-important and started doing daft things like CGI-ing out the guns in the agents' hands at the end of E.T.)  Another complaint people had about that film was its level of unreality, its blithe disregard for the laws of physics in the action scenes, not realizing that Spielberg was deliberately and with jaw-dropping precision staging his own versions of Buster Keaton-style stunners and that the nutball action was a cartoon thrill-ride and nothing but.  For god's sake, the movie opened with Kate Capshaw heading a Busby Berkley-style production number in a Shanghai nightclub complete with tap-dancers and swooping cameras and Kate shouting Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" over and over right in your face:  "Anything Goes!" This is what the movie is going to be about, dummies.  And people still complained about the action being over-the-top and got all solemn in op-ed columns (Op-ed columns? Huh?) about the hysterically funny sight of all those kidnapped Indian children chained together in Kali, Goddess of Destruction's temple, forced to dig for magic stones.  If you have to ask why that's funny . . .

It's funny the same way it's funny when Jack Black, impersonating his substitute teacher roommate to earn rent money, shoves the class's prim know-it-all "factotum," aptly named Summer, quite hard in the back, actually making her stumble while she's taking  roll, using a clipboard with irritating formality.  In real life, you can't touch a kid, even a light tap on the shoulder to get their attention.  When Black's sad sack rock slacker character Dewy Finn confesses that he's hungover, a smart ass blonde troublemaker who later becomes band drummer (what else?) sneers at his fake teacher, "Dude, you got a disease!"  Black shouts at the kid, "Shaddup!"

(Any honest teacher will tell that a good bit of energy each day is spent giving verbal twists to permitted phrases like "be quiet," "close your mouth," and "zip your lip" so that they so that they sound as much like "SHUT UP! YOU STUPID KID! SHUT YOUR BIG STUPID YAPPING MOUTH RIGHT NOW BEFORE I SIC THE RABID HELL HOUNDS AND EYE PECKING RAVENS ON YOU! SHUT UP!" without ending up on the local news that evening)

Of course Jack Black could never shamble into a very upscale elementary school with no identity badge or ID number and start a kid's rock band that practices for months in a supposedly sound-proofed room and get them all to a Battle of the Bands $20,000 contest without anyone, especially the principal, finding out until the last minute . . . but that moment when Black, in his campy AC/DC rig and armed with his shaggy rock show melange takes command of the audience and the kids turn magically into a crack troop of glittering back-up singers and dancers--that's a a great real life moment.   Do I have to say it's real because it's a metaphor for what a sub or any kind of teacher has to go through and hope for every time they stand up in front of a class?  I guess I can be forgiven for underlining it.

The movie is sly enough to do plenty of ironic undercutting anytime a message or metaphor starts circling and stalking the pristine premises.   I'm a big believer in what Neil Postman in one of his many fine books on education called the "Thermostatic" technique in the classroom and curriculum. Don't try to give the kids what the culture gives them 24/7 to "draw them in" "relate" or "make learning fun."  Don't rap the alphabet or try to be "cool" or kid-slangy.   School should give children  precisely what the culture is not giving them--it should be a watchful thermostat, in other words, keeping their cultural environment balanced.  But being an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse scold is just another kind of cultural clowning.   When the uptight principal pays a surprise visit to the room and wonders why other teachers have complained about hearing music and spies Dewey's guitar, Black is forced to improvise a "School house Rock" moment (Remember those 70s cartoons you got on Saturday morning?) that's somehow a perfect nostalgic tribute and has exactly the right satirical tone.

Good teachers are classical but also trickster flexible.  Black has a couple of nifty moments in the teachers' lounge, nearly always an irony-free and brain-freezing zone.  Asked his opinion of standardized testing he responds with a poker-faced recitation of those wretched lyrics from that Whitney Houston song about the children that never made any sense and probably caused brain damage on a generational scale.   Director Linklater even gets away with having Black recite the old "those who can't do, teach, and those who can't teach, teach gym!" gag to the nervous faculty.  They titter, haw haw and do weak little knee-slaps as if they've never heard it before.

There are two types of jokey movies that wink at you and say 'it's only a movie,"--sloppy ones that don't care, and those that care you know it's only a movie and want you to care enough to demand it be a quality movie.  This is the second type.  It even evokes the loneliness of a substitute teacher effortlessly in the context of character development (subs don't take class pictures home with them, can get arrested for taking pictures in fact, rarely get the credit they deserve and are too often seen by schools as a necessary evil.  I had one principal, known city-wide as Queen of the Harpies, tell me right to my face that subs are "unskilled laborers." Many office managers treat subs worse than they would ever treat a janitor).  Jack Black plays several understated moments with fat or nerdy kids, giving them a bit of uplift with no musical swelling, no cameras closing in on faces, and the closing credits with Black and the kids improvising joyfully and spontaneously are some of my favorite movie moments.

I'm worried about Jack Black (at this moment, more than I'm worried about me).  This film came out nearly a decade ago, and since then he's been miscast in King Kong (actually he should get some kind of award for facial muscle control, he was trying so hard not to laugh in that bloated film) and stuck in things like Gulliver's Travels.

Well, I guess the message is, the children are the future, teach them well, and put on the greatest show you possibly can.