Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Countdown T-Minus a Day and Some Change

I’ve got plane tickets, I’ve got plane snacks, I’ve got a new Moleskine notebook, I’ve got the new album by GLASYS, I’ve printed and practiced my reading, I’ve chosen some poems for morning meditation, I’ve packed my copies of Monster Talk, I got a tooth crowned, I got my hair cut, I got a copy of As You Like It, I’ve listened to the playlist for the dance, I’ve answered every email, sent off the schedule, troubleshot and revised the schedule, ordered beer and wine for the receptions, made myself a packing list, purchased a pair of shorts with lobsters on them and a couple of silly t-shirts, I have communicated back and forth with my co-colluder Terri Ford, the wonder of the planet, my poet friend and partner in crime, and have almost not forgotten anything important as I do all this stuff in preparation for joining my tribe of writers for the annual Warren Wilson Alumni MFA Conference. All I have to do now is a little laundry, some packing of suitcase and carry-on, eat my last meals in the house, do a couple of drumming gigs, and wait a single day longer. I fly out Sunday morning at six flipping a.m. to St. Paul, Minnesota toward my final destination: Macalester College, which I’m told, looks something like this.

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There are very few things I look forward to more in life than joining my Wally Tribe for Writer’s Camp. I go almost every year. I fly to Massachusetts or North Carolina or California, once I didn’t have to fly anywhere because it was held in my lovely city of Portland, and when I arrive at my destination I convene and commune with the most supportive and creative and inspiring group of people I have ever come to know, with very few exceptions. We talk, we teach, we learn, we workshop, we share our work, we have meals together three times a day, we laugh a lot, and we dance–one of the only places you will ever catch me dancing.  It is, has always been, without exception, one of the most joyful experiences of my life. So I am, to put it mildly, STOKED.

This year’s trip, though, has a note of bittersweetness. I will miss my family more so than usual–because right before I leave, the very day before, my wife and my son will have already been away for a week at a camp of their own, the Alan Keown Drum Line Camp. My family has been away for a week and the moment they return I will be leaving for another week. Well, you know what they say. Absence, and not being together on your 33rd wedding anniversary, makes the heart grow fondue. I mean fonder. I must say, and I’m not joking, that I do feel a kind of fondness blossoming. I am super jazzed about meeting up with my writing buddies, but I do miss my family. I think that’s a good thing.

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On Social Networks, Redux: Is Real Dialogue Possible?

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This is a follow-up from an entry I made in 2012, before Trump’s presidency, before fake news, before Russian interference in our democracy, before doctored videos that made Nancy Pelosi seem like a drunk, from a time when, nevertheless, half way into Obama’s two-term presidency, a vicious kind of divide was taking place, exacerbated by and made manifest in all social media platforms. In that moment, I was writing about a facebook fight that ensued between myself (a public classroom teacher) and a “friend” of mine who posted that school shootings were somehow the direct result of Americans falling away from religion.

I thought I had learned my lesson. I have, since 2012, been in the habit, when facebook friends of mine post something that makes me angry, rather than engaging in the faceless debate, of simply ignoring or de-friending them. It’s easy enough. But yesterday, when a facebook friend (who is not a close friend but a former peer from high school) posted a meme with the image of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accompanied by text seemingly attributed to her, text that she clearly has never uttered, text that, nonetheless, made her sound like an idiot, I felt compelled to respond. I responded. I said something to the effect that the meme was bullshit because AOC had never said the words the meme attributed to her: “Yes, we can land on the sun; we just have to go at night.” So, to unpack this a bit: the message, of course, inherent in the meme is not necessarily that AOC said this–but that if she were given the chance, she would have–because, you know, she is, after all, just a stupid waitress. This is unfair and inappropriate on so many levels, but that, I believe, is the gist of it. And there are lots of mouth breathers out there who would just mindlessly accept that the sentiment here is true. Additionally, and even more troublesome, there may be a number of slow-thinkers reading this meme who believe that AOC actually said these words, and thus, believe it provides proof of her lack of intelligence. This is the fake news–this is the propaganda so perniciously and easily spread throughout the web by an ideology that has no respect or regard for truth.

So I called out my high school friendly-acquaintance. He wrote back: it’s just a joke. I wrote back, how is this funny? He wrote back: get a sense of humor. I wrote back and thanked him for the sage advice. He wrote back: go ahead and unfriend me, then. Okay, but then, a couple of his buddies chime in. One says, to confirm the veracity of the meme, “AOC is a dumbass.” And then, some other guy, after calling me “bitchy,” says this: “Mike, I’m close. Come find me.” And I’m like, what the fuck does that mean?–but I didn’t post that. In fact, at that point, rather than unfriending or blocking the friend or any of his brilliant pals, I just decided to turn off notifications to the thread. I don’t know what that guy meant, but it seemed to me potentially threatening. It’s the grade school playground all over again. Someone disagrees with you? Threaten to beat them up. And here’s the thing that I would like these guys to understand, even though I have refused to further engage with any of them: I don’t care what your politics are. I DO care that your idea of political engagement is to post insulting and blatantly untrue memes about your opponents. I DO care that you take the time to articulate your criticisms of policy and politicians with substance, thoughtfulness, and above all, honesty. I went back to this thread today to see if anything else had happened there, and this is as substantive as it got: “Three words: green new deal. How stupid can you be?” Wow. I’m convinced, aren’t you? This guy has deemed stupid the green new deal–and me into the bargain. I am sufficiently put into my place. I can’t even begin to unpack the ridiculousness of this comment.

So the question, again, is this: is dialogue possible in this format? I am almost completely convinced that it is not. There’s a part of me that feels responsible for calling out bullshit when I see it, because that’s the ethical thing to do, and yet there is another part of me that does not have that kind of energy to invest, that believes that ultimately, any effort I make to ask people to explain their insane ideas will fall on deaf, dumb, and hostile ears.

It’s all kitty and puppy pictures from here on out.

 

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#343: Dudes, Step Aside. Let Women Steer This Ship. It’s Their Turn.

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When I think about the
most effective principals
I have ever known: women.
When I think about my
most effective, most respected
colleagues: women.
When I think about my
most influential mentors,
college professors, coaches,
teachers, and facilitators:
mostly women.

So, I’m thinking, when it comes to
the 2020 elections: dudes, step aside.
You’ve had this whole show in your
greedy little hands, in this country,
for about 244 years, in history,
more than 2,000, perhaps thousands
more than that, with an exceptional
matriarchal bubble here and there.
And you’ve mostly
made a mess of everything.
I look at the faces of those 25
senators in Alabama, all white,
all male, and I am just devastatingly
embarrassed by my gender
and my ethnicity. Fuck you guys.
Let women steer this ship.
It’s their turn.
It’s their fucking turn.

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#342: May 8, Soul Work

It’s May 8.
I sleep in an extra hour.
I make myself a kick-ass scrambler.
I pick my brother up
at 9 and we drive toward
I-84. There’s a bunch
of teachers on an overpass
wearing red and hanging
their banners and I honk
at them. My brother and I
make our way to the Gorge
to visit the retreat center
I have chosen for some
fall Courage work.
Afterwards, we drive
to the Vista House, and
yes, by god, it’s a vista
all right. On the way
home we stop at Edgefield
for burgers, beer, bourbon.

This day is for the kids.
My t-shirt says that I stand
for students. And I do. No doubt
about it. But I’m also struck
by the notion, the conviction,
that teachers can’t take care
of students if no one
is taking care of teachers.
I’ve had to practice self-care;
additionally, I’ve tried self-medication,
but I find I have to balance the two,
which is hard. I try to err
on the side of care.

So much about what happened
today I find totally inspiring,
all my colleagues out there in their
red shirts holding their signs,
thousands of them. But it’s also
exceedingly sad. It’s like if firefighters
had a massive demonstration to call
public attention to the dangers of fire.
People don’t understand in the way
they understand that fire can kill you
that ignorance and stupidity and poor
mental, physical, and emotional health
are just as deadly–even though it’s staring them
down every single day in the person of the
president of the United States.
Democracy is at stake and we are
well on the way to losing ours,
and losing our souls into the bargain.

Souls need tending,
They whisper their sweet nothings
into our ears, and if we can’t listen to that,
we are doomed. Soul, Jarmer, what are you
talking about? Parker J. Palmer tells us
that it doesn’t matter what we call it
as long as we call it something, as all the
great traditions have: the great mystery,
the spark of the divine, big self, true self,
inner light, inner teacher,
“the being in human being,”
the wild animal in us all, resourceful,
resilient, strong, yet shy–and in need
of the greatest respect and care.
You do that for teachers by making
the conditions of their work
as humane as you possibly can make them,
and give them not lists of standards
and administrative hoops of fire
to jump through and an impossible
student load, but the appropriate
space and time and creative freedom
to cultivate the minds, the bodies, and the
souls of their students, together.

I checked out the setting today for
some October soul work in the Columbia Gorge,
I spent time with my brother,
I took a nap, I had pizza with my family,
and I wrote this poem.
This is the best I can do.

 

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#341: You Do What You Need To Do

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You do what you need to do.
If you want to hang a banner over an overpass,
you go ahead and do that.
If you want to stop by the union office
and write a letter to your representative,
you do that.
If you need to go downtown to be
inside of a crowd of people who cheer things
and hold up signs that say things, you go.
If you want to hang out at a transit center
and greet people getting off and on the train,
answering questions they may have about
why their children aren’t in school and
why their children’s teachers are hanging out
in transit centers, you go ahead and do that.
If you are an English teacher, and the most
needful thing for you is to have an extra eight hours
to grade all those fucking papers, you, do you.
If sleeping an extra hour is your protest, go ahead, sleep.
If you need to drive to a retreat center to check out a venue
you have booked for October to bring educators
together so they can figure out how they can stay
in the profession, you do that.
Maybe you want to write a poem or an essay
about what it’s like to be a public school teacher
in 21st century America. You do that.
And maybe you need to sit on a meditation cushion
for an hour instead of your daily fifteen minutes
in order to breathe more deeply than you usually do,
breathing out everything that makes the gig suck,
breathing in everything that makes the gig the greatest gift,
you go ahead. Myself, not a banner guy or a cheer guy
or a press the flesh kind of guy, I still may do a number
of the above things on May the 8th.
I vow to do at least three of the above things on May the 8th
and you can do as many or as few of them as you desire.
You do what you need to do.
And maybe it goes without saying: do something.
Please, do something.

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#340: Why Teachers Walk Out (A Short List)

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Here’s a short list of reasons
why teachers in Oregon
are walking out on Wednesday:

First, some math:
40 kids in a class room–
times six. A student load
anywhere between 160 and 240.
6 sections of up to 3 distinct
courses to teach, 87 minute periods.
An 87 minute preparation
period to plan a meaningful
261 minutes of instruction.
Another 87 minute prep
period to grade 240 papers.
If a teacher is smart and doesn’t
ask all 6 of her classes to turn
in papers at the same time, best-case
worst-case scenario is that she
will have from her three 9th grade
classes only 270 pages to read, on
which she should provide timely
and meaningful feedback.
When she puts response journals
into the mix (an English teacher
staple), she’s looking at closer to
thousands of pages of reading
for only 3 of her 6 total classes.

Enough math. Let’s talk about
some conditions: Let’s say, that
in each class of 30 to 40, a number of her
kids, maybe a full third of them,
are impaired somehow: resistant,
recalcitrant, angry, depressed,
hungry, homeless, violent, distrustful,
absent, disengaged, disinterested,
high, attempting to vape inside their sweatshirts,
attached to their stupid smart phones
as if these devices were evolutionary
appendages, functionally illiterate,
and finally, learning-disabled in a myriad
of ways, towards all of which, as their teacher,
she is legally bound to be aware
and accommodating.
She is not afraid of her students,
but she knows that some of them
may be dangerous, and she’s
crossing her fingers.
She cannot take comfort
in the fact that there
are only three full time
counselors in a building of
approximately 1300 students.

Step outside the classroom.
There are two staff bathrooms
in the entire building and they
are about a football field
or two apart from each other.
She’s got seven minutes in
between classes to go to the
bathroom, but that’s only
if she talks to zero kids after
class is over, and spends zero
time greeting kids from the
next period as they come in
her room.

Generally speaking, her work
life is frantic and frenetic, and
while she is a deeply reflective
person, there is no time to be
reflective long enough to result
in significant advances in
her never-ending desire to be
more effective at her craft.
She sincerely wants this for
herself and her students, but
the reality is that her job does
not afford her the opportunity
in time to do her job, at least not
in the way she would hope to do it,
not within a 40 hour work week.

For this teacher, simply because
she is who she is, money is not
the issue–but she knows fully
well, that compared to other professions
requiring similar schooling and
accreditation, pay for teachers
is low and has fallen precipitously
over the last decade or so.
She cannot live her
modest middle-class lifestyle
unless she has a partner
who also works full time,
or by living with a room mate
or extended family members.
It is, at the end of the day,
perhaps, a living wage.
But she has not had a pay raise
in a long time; when she reached
the top of the pay scale 15 years
into her career, having tapped out
years of experience and having
finished that other 3rd degree,
she understands that
cost of living is the only adjustment
she will see for the rest of her
teaching life. While there are lots of
opportunities to do more work
for free (serve on committees, mentor
other teachers, lead workshops
in her school, attend after school
study sessions), there are no extrinsic
or monetary incentives to do more or to be better.
In actual fact, when she thinks further
about it, money is the issue. Schools
in her state are poorly funded,
perpetually operating in a shortfall
and this results in the large classes
and the mediocre pay and the lack
of supplies or new materials and
the dearth of support for kids
who need what their teachers
are not prepared to give them.
Sometimes she despairs.
She may as well phone it in, she thinks.
But she doesn’t. She doesn’t phone it in.
That is not the way she rolls.
Because she cares so much,
she is used to doing everything
she can do to make the very
best of a bad situation, even while
she understands her middle school
and grade school counterparts have
it much worse than she does.
She’s done this for a very long time
and she’s tired of it, frankly, so on
Wednesday, she’s walking out.
She’ll leave that stack of papers that
need grading behind in the classroom
and she’ll walk out. She’ll walk out
so that people will ask, listen, and learn.

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#349: Bad Checker

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I walked through the express checkout,
up to 12 items, with a jug of milk,
a carton of orange juice,
some lunch meat,
and some chicken thighs for the grill.
Four items.
The checker, he was a bad checker.
He didn’t greet me,
he didn’t ask me how I was,
he didn’t smile,
he didn’t ask me paper or plastic.
But he did ask me, did I want the milk in a bag,
and I said, no,
and he went ahead and
put the milk in a bag.
I wanted to say,
did you just ask me if I would like
the milk in a bag? If he answered, yes,
I would have said, dude.
I bought four things.
You asked me one question.
And you weren’t listening, to yourself or to me,
because either you didn’t hear my response
or you forgot you asked the question,
and you finished the transaction
in total auto-pilot.
You suck at your job, I wanted to say.
But I didn’t say anything.
I try not to judge.
Who knows what he’s suffering?
I have to try really hard not to judge.

It’s like the student who freaks out
about the spider in the classroom
during a reading about surviving
a Nazi concentration camp.
She’s oblivious to what’s inside and out
and has no perspective whatsoever.
Maybe she’s just a stupid person.
Maybe not. Maybe she’ll end up
one day becoming a bad checker,
asking me if I’d like a bag,
and giving me one whether
I want it or not, and I will try
very hard not to judge, and fail.

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