I Say, Chives: Whatever Happened to Language?

I Say, Chives: Whatever Happened to Language?

I know.  Language is fluid, expansive, inclusive, and mutable.  Uh huh, and yet, an entire, dare I say, class of language appears to have evaporated more quickly than one (see?) might have guessed.

Language is still  fun and full of frolic as the yearly reporting of words absorbed into dictionaries attests, and some of the new are every bit as good as the old.  By good, I mean evocative, surprisingly exact, inescapably the right and only word for a condition which has in the moment come into existence.  Well, I suspect that the word “ghosting” used to describe the circumstance by which a spurned someone is completely cut off arises out of experiences that might have arrived in any age, but, still, good word.  Could we have limped along without “froyo”?  Probably, but the world seems brighter with froyo in it.  “Shade” has long been a perfectly utilitarian noun and verb; we can give a hearty shout out to “shady”, cousin to the Briticism, “dodgy”, and refer to the shading of truth with absolute confidence that we will be understood.

“Throwing shade”, however, is a trickier expression.  Merriam Webster defines throwing shade in this fashion: “to express contempt or disrespect for someone publicly especially by subtle or indirect insults or criticisms”.   It may be that the expression was first spotted in the 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. Jennie Livingston’s vibrant picture of Black and Latino drag queens and the last days of ball culture in New York City.  It has certainly moved into the  mainstream since then.

The expression has arrived with full force in the reporting of sports news on those days in which there is no news.  “Were LeBron (James) and (Jim) Boeheim throwing shade?”  “Did LeBron James Throw Shade at Kyrie Irving Again?”  Stay tuned.  Top of the hour.  Around-the-clock LeBron non-stories dripping with shade.  My favorite shade blurb thus far accompanies a picture of Rihanna (Barbadian pop icon/ ambassador) shaking hands with a fan courtside at a Brooklyn Nets basketball game.  “Hands say friends.  Eyes say shade”.

So, huzzah for the relentless swirl of old and new language and for a diversity of manners of speech.  I’ll admit that we Boomers came up with expressions I hope have died and are largely forgotten – “groovy” being the most notably affected pseudo-hip affirmation in modern times.  Ok, “what’s your bag?” was pretty awful, and “bippy”, as in, “you bet your bippy” come very close.  The best of the new survives; the worst, well, can also survive, but that’s not the point.

The point is that lovely, slightly stuffy, language once flourished, primarily in books of a certain genre and on the screen.  This come to mind as yet another tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective premiered last week.  Holmes and Watson, played by comics Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, apparently bumble about with comedic good cheer, adopting the sort of mangled consonant gurgle Americans think of as the delivery used by educated Brits at the turn of the last century.  Their expressions, as one would expect, though amusing, are hardly of the period.  One suspects that Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle’s Watson rarely used the expression, “Mother of Shit”.  If he did, I missed it several times around.  Incongruous and in the trailer perhaps funny, but not really to the epoch born.

Watson might have said in expressing his surprise,”What the deuce is this?”  The devil being frequently called to task for all sorts of unpleasantness.  Watson was, of course, a physician, ostensibly trained in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and also a military man having served in India and Afghanistan.  Holmes and his brother Mycroft speak with the assurance of lads raised in the comfortable ease of country gentry.  A more elevated manner of speech arrived in the novels written by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, DSO), son of Mortimer Gerald Bredon Wimsey, 15th Duke of Denver and Honoria Lucasta, educated at Eton and Oxford, devoted to criminology, bibliophily, music, and cricket, negotiated the solving of crime with impeccable grace, beautifully dressed by his valet, Bunter.  The following exchange is found in the 1923 publication  of Whose Body.

“That’s your idea, is it, Bunter? Noblesse oblige—for a consideration. I daresay you’re right. Then you’re better off than I am, because I’d have to behave myself to Lady Worthington if I hadn’t a penny. Bunter, if I sacked you here and now, would you tell me what you think of me?”

“No, my lord.”

“You’d have a perfect right to, my Bunter, and if I sacked you on top of drinking the kind of coffee you make, I’d deserve everything you could say of me. You’re a demon for coffee, Bunter—I don’t know how you do it, because I believe it to be witchcraft, and I don’t want to burn eternally.”

Sayers, who was among the first women to be awarded a degree at Oxford, was not an aristo, but she picked up the lingo of the right schools and clubs, as did P.G. Wodehouse as evidenced in this exchanges between his central character, the feckless Bertie Wooster, and his valet, Jeeves in the eponymous, My Man Jeeves.

“Jeeves,” I said that evening. “I’m getting a check suit like that one of Mr. Byng’s.”

“Injudicious, sir,” he said firmly. “It will not become you.”

“What absolute rot! It’s the soundest thing I’ve struck for years.”

“Unsuitable for you, sir.”

Well, the long and the short of it was that the confounded thing came home, and I put it on, and when I caught sight of myself in the glass I nearly swooned. Jeeves was perfectly right. I looked a cross between a music-hall comedian and a cheap bookie. Yet Monty had looked fine in absolutely the same stuff. These things are just Life’s mysteries, and that’s all there is to it.”

It occurs to me that the phrase, “Injudicious  … unsuitable for you, sir” fits almost any situation in which I am at odds with a decision I consider unfortunate.  Bertie and his pals, including the unfortunately named Gussie Fink-Nottle, mix public (private) school slang with odd locutions of their own, as immortalized in Fink-Nottle’s Sodbury Grammar School speech:

“Boys,” said Gussie, “I mean ladies and gentlemen and boys, I will not detain you long, but I propose on this occasion to feel compelled to say a few auspicious words. Ladies – boys and ladies and gentlemen – we have all listened with interest to the remarks of our friend here who forgot to shave this morning – I don’t know his name, but then he didn’t know mine – Fitz-Wattle, I mean, absolutely absurd – which squares things up a bit – and we are all sorry that the Reverend What-ever-he-was-called should be dying of adenoids, but after all, here today, gone tomorrow, and all flesh is as grass, and what not, but that wasn’t what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was this – and I say it confidently – without fear of contradiction – I say, in short, I am happy to be here on this auspicious occasion and I take much pleasure in kindly awarding the prizes, consisting of the handsome books you see laid out on that table. As Shakespeare says, there are sermons in books, stones in the running brooks, or, rather, the other way about,[16] and there you have it in a nutshell.”

Indeed.  All flesh is grass.

To return for a moment to the purpose of this short screed, some phrases have a short half-life, disappearing before being absorbed into the permanent collection of words to be used on a daily basis.  I’ll nominate five right here, right now, and for better or worse pledge to include them in my conversations with the general public this week.  The first of these, and the easiest to fling about is “jolly”, not the Santa and bowl of jelly jolly, but the extremely urgent commanding, “You will jolly well fill my prescription while I stand here”, or the extremely complimentary affirmation, “They serve a jolly good sandwich at Sams Samwhich stand.”  Another affirmation?  “Rather!”  “Did you think Rihanna looked smashing at the Nets game last week?  Rather!”  Rather as a sly adjective is also quite useful.  “I felt rather timid in approaching her.”

Encounter someone of unimpeachable character, dependable, forthright, honest? That paragon is a “brick”.   “He’s been a brick since the indictment came down.”  On the other end of the spectrum, the friend who lets one down has also been beastly to countless others.  “Beastly” brings to mind the more rapacious beasts, not the fuzzy creatures great and small.  Finally, having used the word “spiffy” for decades, I’m resolved to use the more decorous “smart”, more restrained than swanky and less obscure than modish.

Oh, and I’m not going to the picture theater to see Holmes and Watson as the hope of finding a trove of expressions chronologically inaccurate but blooming marvellous is rather unlikely.


152 Days Until Fire Season

152 Days Until Fire Season

I live in Oregon, only a few miles north of the California border.  The local paper of record, The Medford Mail Tribune, arrives with close observation of the daily events that animate Jackson County, from the sudden emergence of hemp production as a primary agricultural enterprise (“2018 – The Year of Hemp”) to the celebration of local teams (“Crater High School, Home of the Comets, 5A State Champions in baseball!”).  Big news at the start of the new year is that motorists may now take dead deer and elk from “grille to grill”, as the paper so tastefully put it.

The paper arrives each day with a large box bordered in red on the front page announcing the number of days left until the start of Fire Season.  I wasn’t expecting that sort of countdown to be part of my daily life here, but then, I hadn’t expected to live next to a hemp field or to cheer the Crater Comets.  We moved to the Rogue Valley from Coastal California, a quiet beach town halfway between Ventura and Santa Barbara.  Our home was adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest.  It’s a large forest; its tendrils stretch from Palmdale in the Antelope Valley to Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County, almost three thousand square miles, almost two million acres.  The forest has a second location in Monterey County, including the Big Sur coast.

When we arrived in 1996, Santa Barbarans still talked about the Painted Cave Fire of 1990, a fire that burned about five thousand acres, a fire blazing at a height of more than seventy feet at its worst, a fire caused by arson during a hot spell in which the temperature had reached 108 degrees.  We knew several families who had lost homes in that fire, most of whom rebuilt in the same  area, in the canyons and passes between Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez.  During our time in Santa Barbara County, we saw ten more fires move quickly as Sundowner Winds brought by high pressure to the north preceded the Santa Ana Winds charging from the south.  We had moved to Oregon just before the Thomas Fire, pushed by the Santa Ana winds, swept from Santa Paula in Ventura County to Santa Barbara, torching almost three hundred thousand acres, destroying more than a thousand homes, and bringing about two billion dollars in damage to the area.

Fire is now a way of life in this region.  The causes are many and blame moves at the speed of a Santa Ana blast.  Timothy Egan’s remarkable book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that saved America, published in 2009, documented the Fire of 1910, a fire that destroyed an area of Idaho and Montana the size of the State of Connecticut in a weekend.  It’s a book of large purpose, examining the impact of the fire as well as its causes, and it’s a book I used in 2010 as the central point of focus in a school wide exercise in inquiry as it presented issues of immigration, large-scale exploitation of the western lands, and the emergence of a progressive movement resulting in the establishment of National Parks and the conservation of public land.

It wasn’t a hit.

Although the region had been damaged by eight large fires at that time, the small town in which we lived and taught had escaped danger.  We drove through fire ravaged areas, but we hadn’t faced evacuation and the loss of our own homes.  The Thomas Fire changed all that.  The school’s playing fields were used by firefighters from around the world as the base from which the Thomas Fire was fought.  Before the fire was contained, all students and all teachers had been evacuated.  The book appears more prescient now.

Southern Oregon was devastated last summer by raging fire to the south and north, resulting in a period of about six weeks in which heavy smoke so filled the valley that readings of air quality determined the daily business of the region, essentially devastating towns such as Ashland, dependent on income earned during the summer months.   We’ve come to expect summer after summer of extreme fire events as global warming has altered the landscape and high temperatures accelerate winds carrying fire to the region.

152 Days until Fire Season.  It’s the new reality and one we are only starting to understand.

OK, OK, I’m Doing It Myself

OK, OK, I’m Doing It Myself


It’s not Home Depot’s fault.  Except that they promised that I could manage whatever home related project came to mind.  “You can do it”, they said, and like the lemming that I am, I happily dove off the cliff of home repair.*

*Apparently lemmings don’t actually do the cliff diving ascribed to them.  Here’s some homegrown heartbreak – Disney faked the lemming suicide scene in 1958’s White Wilderness.  I’d like to know who pitched the wholesale tossing of lemmings into the void; there’s a naturalist with a serious lack of respect for lemming migration.

I digress.  Home owning handiness.  Right.

The first small projects ought to have been instructive; replacing light bulbs and air filters, surely within my reach.  And, after a few tries, they were.  Bulbs of proper wattage and of proper luminosity are now in place and filters appropriate to the task set them and of the correct size are equally happily placed.

Apparently the “few tries” might have informed more ambitious projects, but they did not.

We had moved into a perfectly fine house, laid out exactly as we had wished, in great shape.  But the door knobs in the kitchen differed from those in the living room, which were not the same as those in the bathrooms or bedrooms.  Not simply different in size or color, but violently different in what might be called character or tone.  Large circular bronze knobs in the kitchen, a semi-Florentine tubular crest opened the front door, and the rest of the doors had a variety of sleek curlicues in mottled beige.

Not acceptable, and equally unacceptable was the thought of hiring a locksmith or other door knob specialist to do what Home Depot assured me I could do myself.  I was advised that the contemporary door sports a sleek handle rather than a clunky knob.  In addition, I’d been advised that handles were easier for the “older person” to manipulate, particularly in situations in which we had to flee from fire or flood.  I always appreciate recommendations directed to the quasi senescent homeowner, but sleek and sensible?  I ordered ten sets in brushed nickel.

Were there moments of challenge?  To be sure, but my memory is that most were met with serene acceptance and abiding faith that all would be well in the end.  I like to think that I displayed unflappable determination throughout; that would be a nice fiction, but other voices were less certain of my eventual success.  There may have been a moment in which I let slip an oath of unfortunate volume and specificity, and a screwdriver may have been driven into the laundry room wall in an attempt to convince the do-it-yourself gods that I meant business.  I admit to momentary lapses in buoyant good cheer; setbacks are to be expected, properly identified by aforementioned oaths.

Mission roughly accomplished, I then turned toward the maintenance of the lush front lawn.  I’d killed my share of plants over the years, but had learned a valuable lesson in the aftermath.  Apparently, I kill with kindness, over-watering, constantly fidgeting with pots, soil, fertilizing sticks.  This lawn would be different.  I would follow instruction to the letter, mowing, raking, fertilizing, and seeding as the experts advised.

This lawn was doomed.

I mowed, raked, fertilized, seeded.  Within a month, the lawn was marbled with yellow patches of dead grass and crisp brown rings that may have had something to do with four dogs finding what professionals call “The Squat Spot”.  In any case, the meticulously measured lawn food and the artfully spread seed appeared to have had little success in battling fungal grass cholera.

Not to worry.  The internet is rife with advice offered by lawn doctors from every region.  I knew enough to stick with tips from the Pacific Northwest and just enough to not spring for “Kobi”, the Roomba of Lawn Maintenance, and I’ll pause to suggest that life has already begun to have its way with me as I find myself using the phrase,”Roomba of Lawn Maintenance”.  And there’s something just wrong about longing for a lawn robot to do my job, but I would have bought a Kobi in a flash had the cost of Kobisizing not exceeded the value of my car.  As I looked across the expanse of  mottled , crusted silage that my lawn had become, however, I was tempted to sell the car,  buy a Zamboni, flood the yard, freeze the damn thing, and invite the neighbors over for a quick round of snap-the-whip and mugs of hot chocolate.

Except for the global warming thing.  So, that was out.

The which is to say I do have moments of quiet desperation as a homeowner, and yet … The doors operate smoothly for the most part, the lawn comes back to life in the spring, the surface of the deck no longer buckles every summer, and the fruit trees actually bear fruit.  There are pleasures to be had in holding the place together, and as tasks go, these are relatively rewarding.  

There is also some pleasure in recognizing that the nice folks at Home Depot are unlikely to pop in should I decide to rip up the floors and lay down tile.  I can watch ambitious handy folk tear down and restore homes from Waco to Vegas in an hour or less without feeling the slightest compunction to grab a crowbar myself.  I am free to admire their gumption, invention and resilience without having to do a dang thing other than make more popcorn.

And there’s not much point in taking on a lawn robot when I still get a kick out of mowing a pattern on the thick grass in  the pasture.  It’s not uniformly green; I skim over the bald spots and double down on the mounds left by the tireless gopher.  Still, at dusk it looks ok, and when the leaves start to fall, any imperfections become a tapestry more handsome than any I could design.








Not On Broadway … Yet

Not On Broadway … Yet

New Yorkers have long known that the current generation of Broadway production is all about revivals and musical adaptations of successful films.  Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, Porter, Coward, Berlin – the hills are alive with the sound of recycling. Yes, an original production appears from time to time, but for every Hamilton there are three Hello Dollys and a pair of Showboats.  Need something more current? Tap those toes to Groundhog Day The Musical, Legally Blonde The Musical, Shrek The Musical, Waitress The Musical, Sunset Boulevard The Musical, Mean Girls, SpongeBob The Musical

Really?  SpongeBob?

An unusual opportunity has come my way as my wife went to school with a producer constantly on the lookout for the next bright Broadway bound idea.  I see every production here in Southern Oregon; she’s asked me to pass on any new work that might do well in the Big Apple. She has said she needs gripping contemporary dramas, new voices, fresh ideas; I beg to differ.

I’ve sent her my slate of hot prospects, any one of which could be bouncing its way as the centerpiece of next year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, a once-proud celebration of music and spectacle culminating with the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus, now devolved into Broadway’s version of product placement.


Mr. Ed : The Musical

The Great White Way has long hoped for a bit of equine humor with a dry twist.   Mr. Ed, the astounding American Pharoah, displays a shaky baritone warbling the familiar “A Horse Is A Horse Of Course, Of Course” but who cares?   Ed’s manipulation of his ostensible owner, Wilbur Post (“Hay, Wilbur”), darkens the show with Gone Girl gaslighting, setting Louis Black as Wilbur up as an ineffectual and psychologically disordered stooge (“What’s The Matter, Wilbur?”).


The Bachelor: The Musical

Roses for everyone!  Twenty high-strung, conniving, emotionally wounded women provide an unmatched chorus of voices on the show’s title song.  Lyricist Chuck Palahniuk’s deft patter (Total Heartbreak Never Ends/  No Skank Here Was Making Friends.  Although Corinne Opened Up To You/ You Didn’t Need To Bonk The Shrew.) elevates the pedestrian script.  Daniel Baldwin’s off-handed portrayal of the show’s host is completely incomprehensible.  Lindsay Lohan’s desperate also-ran Bachelorette is both compelling and truly disturbing.


Talent Roundup Day: The Musical

This clumsy pandering to nostalgia-bound Boomers plumps an ersatz Annette, Darlene, and Clubmaster, Jimmy, in a noxious triangle set against a ripped-off Chorus Line musical confession.  Fresh faced Erik Von Detten (Brink) almost saves the last act as Cubby, the driven drummer whose frantic timpani solo brings this mess to life for a fleeting moment.


The Newlywed Game: The Musical

From the signature game show anthem to the disturbing “Where’s The Strangest Place You’ve Made Whoopie”, this challenging and thoughtful examination of the early years of marriage raises questions perhaps better left unanswered, particularly in the awkward duet, “I Thought You Liked That”.  Johnny Depp is miscast as provocateur Bob Eubanks, but the rest of the cast carries the day. Dakota Fanning as the wrong girl married to the wrong guy breaks hearts nightly at the Orpheum.


The Rifleman: The Musical

Sensing a shift as older generations take their leave, the NRA commissioned this faux-western musical in the hope of bringing an iconic and well armed figure back from TV Land obscurity.  Against all odds it works. Lin-Manuel Miranda holds the audience hostage with the stirring “I’ve Got My Sights On You”. Bernadette Peters as the Rifleman’s nemesis, Shotgun Polly, rocks. “My Cold Dead Hands” in a delightful dream sequence set in the Arlington Cemetery.


Hogan’s Heroes: The Musical

Never has a prisoner-of-war camp been more lively!   Matthew Broderick is the wily Hogan routinely outsmarting Neil Patrick Harris’  rigidly obtuse Colonel Wilhelm Klink. Harris’ dimwitted Junker Kommandant does most of the musical heavy lifting, leaving to Broderick fast paced-bamboozling with Seth Rogen’s Sergeant Hans Schultz (“I Know Nussing!”).  Hyper-hormoned French detainee, Louis LeBeau (Zac Efron channelling Maurice Chevalier) and zaftig camp follower Megan Hilty romp through the raucous “What’s A Latrine For If Not For Love?”


Leave It To Beaver: The Musical

Hugh Jackman is Ward, Kristin Chenoweth, June, and delightfully miscast Martin Short the Beaver.  This airy farce is reminiscent of the most artfully choreographed French comedies as indiscrete couples in flagrante delicto narrowly escape exposure.   Wally (Taylor Lautner) stolidly juggles his three girlfriends while keeping the aroused Eddie Haskell (Jesse Eisenberg) on a short leash and away from June.  Short’s Beaver whines charmingly, particularly in his rendition of “Miss Landers, You Are So Hot”. Chenoweth is one of Broadway’s signature voices, never better when chiding her distracted husband, “Ward, You Have To Talk To The Beaver”.

Afterwards – Forward to the collection from The Cogitator

Afterwards – Forward to the collection from The Cogitator

I’m increasingly aware that the 2008 hijacking of trillions of pension dollars, the stonewalling tea party Congress, the election of 2016, the abandonment of the Paris Accords, Charlottesville, mass shootings, police shootings, imminent environmental chaos, protection of sexual predators, and the steady erosion of the rule of law, decency, and compassion had pretty much knocked the whimsy out of me.

I went back to pieces I had written before the Trump ascendency and quite liked the voice I found there.  I’d written the sorts of bouncy, occasionally silly short essays that had amused me throughout my reading life.  On the off-chance that they might amuse a small cohort of like-minded readers looking for something to pick up on the way to the bathroom, I decided to snare what I saw as the best, or most palatable, of the bunch and pop them into a collection entitled Afterwards.  The title is cryptic enough to fool attract the unwary while acknowledging this later, post-retirement, chapter as the cauldron in which this bouillabaisse was steeped.   I’ll be proofing and reconfiguring then dropping text on my pals at Kindle Direct Publishing.

Here’s the actual foreword –

Afterwards.  After Words.

I wanted to call this collection Bertha and the Blueberry Country Club for Cats, a reference to one of the essays in this collection, a whimsical description of a fragment of conversation overheard, a silly piece, one that amused me in the writing of it, and an excellent example of the frivol I chose not to escape.  I suspect a cat themed book would be far more successful than the obscure musings of an obscure writer, but as I have been untroubled by success thus far, why mess around with it now?

The Impractical Cogitator pays tribute to the extraordinary compendium of short essays by the world’s most cogent thinkers and writer, The Practical Cogitator, edited by Davis and Greenslet.  Any scattered shards of wisdom that show up in my work land with little authority and even less consistency.

“Entertaining ideas without the slightest concern for their efficacy.”

The plan was that I would entertain the ideas, turn them loose, and let them land as they might.  As are all aspiring writers, I had been told to write about what I know, which turned out to be a very limited horizon of opportunity, so I decided to write what I like, and I like self-deprecating, rambling, slightly goofy armchair observation of the universe’s merry march toward whatever comes next.

I am aware that the audience for that sort of reflection is small at best and that my brand may not suit every (any) taste, but what the heck; what’s at risk beyond the shards of remaining dignity in self-publishing this collection?  I can give copies away as gifts, scatter them around waiting rooms in doctor’s offices, leave them on the bookcases of various bed and breakfast inns, and keep a supply in the car in case I get caught in a snowstorm and need both reading matter and insulation.

So, without further chatter, you are invited to see what happened afterwards.


Red State, Blue State, Who Shot Who State?

Red State, Blue State, Who Shot Who State?

The United States of America is more violent than three-quarters of established nation states.  If we still had a functioning Department of State, we would be cautioned against visiting … us.

This is insane.

I started to write about gun violence, mass shootings, the hideous parade of innocents slaughtered by madmen, but what is there left to say?

Are we crazier than other nations?  It’s hard to tell because so many guns, and by guns I mean weapons of mass extinction, are so widely literally at hand that the same number of chaotically disordered people, and by people I mean men, might be ravaging yoga studios and school yards in Canada.

But I don’t think so.

The culture itself is deranged, spinning out clinically psychotic fringe-dwellers so frequently that we have nothing left to say about rage filled murder on the grand scale.

And when we do have something to say about the insanity around us, the pushback is immediate and unrelenting. The NRA has rebuked the American College of Physicians for calling for gun control measures in response to what they see as a public health crisis.

The NRA tweeted,“Someone should tell self-important anti gun doctors to stay in their lane.”  The someone in this case is the NRA, passively but entirely aggressively, telling doctors to shut up about guns.

The physicians went way over the line, apparently, in suggesting that those carrying out domestic violence might not be permitted to own guns, that background checks be extended to all sales of guns, and that we might consider legislation banning 3-D printed guns.  Dr. Esther Choo puts it simply, “We are not anti-gun; we are anti-bullet holes in our patients.”  Doctors who described themselves as “gut punched” by the NRA have responded with #ThisIsMyLane, and are increasingly frustrated by the NRA’s relentless opposition to research on gun violence.

I am particularly struck by the tone of the NRA tweet; it’s snarky, mean-spirited, and dismissive, and it’s not from a single disgruntled passive aggressive knowledge phobic yahoo; the message comes from a non-profit organization which presents itself as, “Freedom’s Safest Place” and which holds gun safety as a cardinal virtue.

Just as we have waffled our way to the brink of irreversible climate disaster, we’re teetering on the edge of even greater violence as hate crimes increase exponentially and the wide-spread availability of terrifyingly powerful weaponry is more common.

We have a crisis right now.  The reaction to the call for open discussion from the Trump wing of the Republican Party , however, is extreme and divisive.  There is a reactionary scoreboard somewhere that counts every barbed insult, every dismissive act of graceless bullying, as a kind of triumph.  Fake news wins by calling honest reporting fake news.  We are living in a schoolyard dominated by bullies whose mode of expression is often, “…is not!” or “that’s stupid”.

In the course of the last eighteen months, topics calling for measured, moderate, inclusive discussion on virtually all difficult issues facing a polarized nation have been “weaponized”.  Fires in California have been weaponized, health care has been weaponized, climate change weaponized, vetting of Supreme Court Justices has been weaponized, reporting of the news has been weaponized, the MeToo movement weaponized, Black Lives Matter weaponized, school shootings weaponized, opposition to Nazis has been weaponized, immigration weaponized, global cooperation weaponized, Participation in NATO has been weaponized, the Women’s March, NAFTA, the media, Facebook, Google, CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Justice Department, the State Department, Amazon, the cast of Hamilton, the NFL, Huffington Post, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, James Comey, and, of course, anything having to do with Barack Obama has been weaponized.

Points on the scoreboard.

Meanwhile, there are millions of guns out there, some of which will be used in domestic violence, some by children, some by madmen.  We can’t get them back, and the slightest intimation that more stringent gun laws might be in the offing is guaranteed to boost the sales of guns and ammo.

We have a problem.

Other nations know violence, of course; the cartels kill, maniacal dictators kill, contending armies in war zones kill.  The United States is not the most dangerous nation in the world.  Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan are the three most dangerous, followed by the usual constellation of beleaguered states – Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Colombia, Venezuela..  There are forty-one nations that experience violent death more frequently than the United States.  The U.S. is nestled between Myanmar and Armenia, these three followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, China, Brazil, Rwanda, Uganda, and Jordan and the other one hundred and twenty nations less likely to present its citizens a violent death.

Let’s just consider that fact.

The United States of America is more violent than three-quarters of established nation states.  If we still had a functioning Department of State, we would be cautioned against visiting … us.















Blue Ribbon for Coldest Nose and other lessons in teaching

Blue Ribbon for Coldest Nose and other lessons in teaching

I’d been teaching for about five years, knew it all, and had generally buffaloed my way through my first three jobs, blissfully unaware of my self-satisfied hubris.  I’d left the doctoral program in Education at the University of Massachusetts – what did they have to teach me about teaching? – and had finished grading exams and brilliantly describing the deficiencies of my students in the end-of-year comments.  The summer was mine to do with as I pleased, so I had nowhere to hide when my son’s preschool asked me to be a judge at the annual pet fair.

The pet fair was a very big deal.  The school was in the northwest corner of Connecticut, leafy farmland and forest in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains, an enclave rife with artists, musicians, and actors; activities such as this felt improvised, but the energy and talent that fueled the enterprise reminded me that we were only an hour-and-a-half from New York City.

I was ready to start studying breed standards when the school’s director called us together and reminded us that every entry would be given a blue ribbon; it was up to us to find the attribute that distinguished each entrant.  On the day of the fair, the other judges phoned in their excuses.  One had a call back for a Broadway show, the other was filming in Athens.  I had a pressing engagement at the Bradley’s in Winsted, so …

I stood next to a table piled high with blue ribbons, each with a white square left blank within which I was to write the appropriate categorical victory.  I had a black marking pen and no plan of action.  Kids arrived with rabbits, ducks, two ponies, hamsters, cats, a goat, parrots, dolls, goldfish, stuffed animals, and a very wide assortment of dogs.

The idea had been that they’d circle before the panel of judges, giving us time to confer and establish the critical parameters of our judgment.  No other judges on duty,  virtually none of the pets were interested in circling, and fully two-thirds were not capable of organized movement of any kind.  Now,  left to my own devices, I had to come up with Plans B through Z and start dishing out ribbons before kids and pets mutinied in the heat of an uncommonly sweaty afternoon in June.

Desperation breeds invention.  I picked up the marker and went from “pet” to “pet”, tossing superlatives like confetti.  Drool soaked Raggedy Ann doll – Most Loved Cloth Doll,  timid bunny – Wriggliest Nose, massive and massively clunky Great Dane – Most Impressive Ears, panting cat with matted fur – Most Expressive Breather, Hamster hiding inside a paper cup – Most Successfully Reclusive.

By the end of the afternoon, I’d handed out a boxload of ribbons and exhausted my powers of invention, but I’d also discovered something about myself that I had been too glibly sure of myself to recognize.  I was the teacher I had been because I had been taught by the teachers I had known, all of whom were really good at identifying what I couldn’t do well.

Maybe their language was different in responding to better, more motivated students; my academic reports pretty much sounded the same from fifth grade on, regardless of subject.  I was never surprised by their assessments;  I knew I wasn’t good at the skills I was expected to master.  I wasn’t good at them in fifth grade, and I wasn’t any more proficient by the end of the twelfth grade.  On one hand, points for consistency.  On the other, years without improvement spoke volumes about all of us, assuming that this enterprise had been a shared adventure.

But it had not been, and in recognizing that there had not been mutuality at any point along the way, I resolved to become at least as inventive and responsive a teacher as I had been a pet fair judge.  If I’d been able to see something distinctive in every pet.  If I’d been able to identify what they offered rather than what they lacked, it seemed I should be able to begin my work with each student by actually seeing them, without rushing to judgment.  I was lucky in that I also coached a sport every afternoon, and in coaching figured out how to design practices that aimed at the development of particular skills, development that began with an understanding of each player/student’s strengths.  It doesn’t do a player much good to hear a coach say, “Hey, you didn’t hit that ball.”  Pretty much understood without the comment and not much new information available should a player hope to improve.

I started actually teaching that fall, when the challenge for me in the work we did together was not about my acuity in describing deficiency but in my willingness to try everything from Plan B and beyond in order to connect each individual’s gifts to the appropriate next set of skills to be mastered.  A few years later I got involved with teaching the 4MAT method to teachers, explaining when I could that it might be helpful to imagine that there are at least four significant and significantly different ways in which students approach learning.  I won’t go into the 4MAT idea in detail, but I’ll pass on two of the examples I used to attempt to convince teachers that not all students learn the way we were taught by teachers who pretty much learned the way their teachers taught them, recognizing that, with some exceptions (me), most teachers are people who liked school and did well there.

I’d ask what sort of person they’d like to have running their school.  The choices?

An attentive, friendly Principal who clearly cares about you as a teacher and as a person and who connects with you on  a personal level.  Or … a highly competent professional whose education and previously held positions clearly indicate a superior level of preparation and whose first objective is the presentation of well-organized information about the teaching of your subject.  Or … a problem solving, practical and well organized hands-on expert on the financial and technical support of schools and teachers who makes sure that you have an effective place in which to teach.  Or … a creative, energetic, charismatic innovator, eager to embrace change and  supportive of new ideas, willing to shake things up just to get rid of the cobwebs.

Each of the options is good; some are better than others for some people.

Similarly, let’s imagine that history had coughed up four presidential options that roughly parallel our hypothetical Principals.

Taking a short detour to Mt. Rushmore, for example, we find Abe Lincoln, eminently human and humane, gifted in crafting personal connection, empathic, compassionate, an extraordinarily good listener, accessible despite his stature and elevated position in society.  Thomas Jefferson has his place as well, a scientist, architect, man of letters, founder of the University of Virginia, author of the Declaration of Independence, pretty much the ultimate brainiac.  There’s practical George Washington, an engineer, surveyor, military tactician, man of action and successful businessman, competent, steady, responsible, not given to flights of fancy.  Finally, we find the surprising fourth, Teddy Roosevelt, sometime biologist, occasional cowboy, pugnacious pugilist, conservationist, crusading politician, unpredictable, charismatic, energetic, and unapologetic.

Once again, very different, each very right for the job in a very different way.

It’s pretty much the same for each of us as learners.  Some of us need connection, need to know how the skill we’re attempting to learn connects with what we see as important – why we are learning.  Some of us need as much information as we can grab from the most authoritative source and need to know what we’re likely to be tested on – what we need to know.  Some of us need to get our hands dirty and work things out for ourselves, taking the darned computer apart – how things actually work in the real world. Some of us need stimulation, variety, change, and the opportunity to get creative – what if we looked at the entire subject differently.

Coldest nose.  Fuzziest tail.  Most artistically arranged spots.

I never wrote student comments the same way again.  Sometimes all a confused teacher needs is an incredibly muggy June afternoon and a five-year old holding a shoe box containing a whistling guinea pig completely hidden in wood shavings.  No problem – Best Original Song Composed in Wood Chips.















students are my age; we’re all in the same happy boat.