Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Monday, April 20, 2009
This week, weeklystorybook.com features one of my favorites of the series, a Japanese story about two sisters with very different priorities. And I have a new interest, in that an ESL teacher in Texas has been using the stories with her third graders each week, asking them a fairly simple question and collecting their answers on-line.
What I find fascinating is that, while their answers are very short and unsteady, they are picking up nuances in stories I would think would go over their heads while missing some points in the more straightforward tales.
It is important not to underestimate the abilities of young people.
Ten years ago, the Denver Post was running a serialized story, "Field of the Dogs" by Katherine Paterson, known for "Bridge to Terabithia," "Jacob I Have Loved" and "The Great Gilly Hopkins," among others. In the story, a young boy moves to Vermont and is having problems with his relatively new stepdad, his very new baby brother, the move to a rural area and fitting in with the rough-edged blue collar kids at his new school.
He discovers that, when the neighborhood dogs get together in an isolated field, they talk to each other. He also discovers that there is a particularly unpleasant dog they fear. He decides to help out his dog and the nice dogs in that pack, and swipes his stepfather's shotgun. Things do not go as he plans, no dogs are hurt on either side of the social divide, and he instead turns his energies to working out his own problems and letting the dogs work out theirs.
It's a nice minor story, but, by the weekly schedule on which the Post happened to be running it, the chapter in which Josh steals the shotgun coincided with the shootings at Columbine. Fortunately, it was not the same day, and my friend Dana, who runs the Denver Post's NIE program, was able to pull it from the page before it ran.
But now what? They held the chapter for a week, and then ran it the next week and continued the story. The response was extremely positive, as both parents and teachers thanked them for providing a safe place in which to talk about the issues that had exploded in Littleton that past week.
That's what children's literature, and folk tales, and literature in general, is for: To inspire people to reflect on things.
Alas, this is more typical: Two years later, the paper where I was no longer working bought "Field of the Dogs" to run in their NIE program, but apparently only read the three sample chapters, not the synopsis, and didn't bother to read the entire thing when they had it in their hands. They simply began running the chapters in the paper, until they reached that one.
Guns? Kids? That's a no-no, and they pulled the serial two-thirds of the way through. They subbed in a much more placid tale that wouldn't upset the kiddies or their teachers or their parents.
Because we all know that kids can't think or react or analyze anything that might be difficult or nuanced, right?
If it were just that one little newspaper, it wouldn't matter. But for every Katherine Paterson being published these days, there are 50 Madonnas and Dutchesses of York providing safe, stupid utterly unnuanced stories that will do nothing to inspire children to read or think. And parents, and grandparents, and other grown-ups see the pretty pictures and fill their children's bookshelves with this uninspiring, formulaic pap.
Well, Katherine Paterson continues to sell a lot of books anyway, thanks to parents and teachers who understand the difference and who aren't afraid to offer their kids challenging material that might stretch their little brains.
And I'm grateful, both as a writer and as someone who needs to share a world with the results of their efforts.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Paige (second from the right) came over today for a final get together before she leaves for her new parish in San Diego. In about a month, Gabe, Sarah, Johanna and Tobias (at left) will take off for Michigan State. Jed, Courtney, Liz, Abby and Sam (at right) are moving down here, but I'm not sure where I'll end up.
It seemed like a good time to get a picture, quick, before the changes began to take effect.
As we did our hugs, Paige began to tear up and said, "You've been my family for 20 years!" and I, of course, reminded her that we were still her family.
Paige came East to be a freshman at Boston University in 1988, at a time when I was dating her mother, and she slid right into the family and has been big sister to the boys, an aunt to their children, a daughter to me and a confessor to all, performing a wedding and a couple of baptisms and extending her reach beyond our little circle and into the larger clan. When her mother and I broke up, she said, "I don't want this to affect your relationship with Paige," and some 13 years later, it has not in the least. Fact is, none of the kids in this picture were born when she joined the family, and, as far as they know, she has always been one of the gang. I, on the other hand, remember how quickly she and the boys hit it off, and love her as much for her influence on and affection for them as for any of the things that have passed between us.
And let's not over-emphasize the impact of all this moving. Over the years, we have not always had this little knot of siblings in one area the way we have for the past six years or so. It's been great having the kids in New York, Vermont and Maine, but there have been times when some of them have been living in Japan, California, Colorado or England, and we've managed to keep it together without geography's help. I'm sure we will continue to do so.
But the geography has certainly made it easy over the last several years.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
It's been 10 years since schools began to lock their doors and make visitors sign in. The best commentary I can make is to direct you to this site by Ed Stein, of the late Rocky Mountain News. Ed is one of the few editorial cartoonists not to be fired by his paper. Instead, his paper simple ceased to exist.
And so Denver lost this voice. Unless they look on line.
I don't know if he'll ever be as eloquent as he was in probing the disturbing implications of that horrible day, 10 years ago Monday. I hope he never gets another chance.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Holy Week and the Perils of Irony
An old college buddy dug this up from his basement, scanned it and sent it along. It originally ran in the Observer, Notre Dame's student newspaper, on May 11, 1970.
This was during the Student Strike, when schools around the nation shut down in protest of the invasion of Cambodia. The Kent State shootings had been May 4, and Notre Dame (or at least my department -- there were a lot of meetings that week!) had taken the position of allowing students to take their grade at the time of the strike, take an incomplete or finish the semester.
There were a lot of speeches being made and I was once again in the uncomfortable position of opposing the war, opposing the incursion which a lot of people felt brought with it the risk of Chinese intervention and of having high school friends serving in Southeast Asia. For me, the answers were not as black-and-white as they were for students whose high school buddies were also attending universities where correct answers were either one thing or the other.
So I wrote this piece, with the headline signaling my approval of John Lennon's approach of "you better free your mind instead." I don't know how my fellow students took it, but my department head told me he was at some parish council meeting when someone came in waving it and shouting about what they were teaching kids at that college of his.
We both laughed, but it was an early lesson in how irony is often lost on readers and you're better off just stating what you think without trying to make them think in turn.
However, it being Easter and relevant to the Scripture being parodied, I post it here for those of my readers who enjoy thinking. A higher percentage, I think, than I had back then or in any of my paying venues since.
(Click for a readable version. Please remember that, in them thar days, your hard copy was typed into the system by someone whose spelling skills might not be as good as your own.)
Thursday, April 09, 2009
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
In which two old men attempt to explain the world without losing their values
(Yesterday, I was twice reminded of this column that I wrote back around 1996 or '97. First, I had a conversation about the officer involved, and then I found a video by the young woman. He was eventually kicked off the force. She has flourished.)
“I grow old. I grow old.”
I thought of T.S. Eliot’s poem, the other day, as I sat in an attorney’s office, myself, the attorney, and a young woman who trusted us, who trusted the system, who believed, still, that, if you follow the rules and tell the truth, all will be well.
And we told her to lie. We explained to her, carefully, patiently, lovingly, that she should admit to having done a very small, wrong thing, so that she not be found guilty of having done a somewhat larger, wrong thing.
“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” she protested, looking from one of us to the other. “Why should I plead guilty to anything when I’m innocent?”
And the attorney and I looked at each other, and remembered when we had believed, and wondered when we had stopped believing, and had begun to hand out such practical, adult advice.
And we explained again this traffic ticket she had received, for a wrong turn she hadn’t made, and explained how the attorney could talk to the officer, and she could then admit to having done something with fewer points for her license, maybe even something that wouldn’t show up on her driving record at all.
And she kept asking why she should say she had done something she hadn’t done, when she hadn’t done anything wrong at all.
Let me pause here, and explain that I have respect for the law. I once ordered one of my sons not only to plead guilty to speeding, but to go into the court personally, and apologize to the judge for driving through his town at such an unreasonable, unsafe speed.
And let me explain that I want young drivers to be careful. I lost my little brother to the bad judgment of a young driver. I do not laugh away the mistakes of young drivers.
Let me explain, too, that I know many very good law officers, and I do not envy them the pressures of their jobs. But I also do not envy them having to work alongside some others. The one who wrote this ticket had nearly been the star of a news story, back when I was a reporter, about his pulling a gun on a kid. As it was, the hothead served a month-long suspension without pay over the incident.
And now the bully had written a ticket that didn’t have to be written, that, even if the turn had really been so abrupt, should probably have been a roadside lecture and a warning.
“You pissed him off,” the attorney explained. “That’s why you got a ticket.”
“But he was speeding! He told me he was going 60 miles per hour; that’s a 40 zone,” she said. “Anyway, I went back and measured. Even if I did turn too soon, he wouldn’t have had to brake to avoid hitting me, even at 60. My physics teacher helped me work it out. There’s no way.”
“That’s not the point,” we said.
“But I didn’t fail to yield. He had plenty of time!” she protested.
“It’s a judgment call,” we said. “He’s considered an expert.”
“So he can say anything,” she suggested. “He could say I made the turn wrong, even if I didn’t turn at all. He could say anything he wanted to about me, and the judge would believe him?”
I looked over at the attorney, and he looked over at me, and then he spoke. “Listen: The judge sees this guy all the time. He has to deal with him again and again and again. He only has to deal with you once.”
And she looked at me. And I grew very old and cynical and wretched. “Here’s the deal,” I explained. “You can go to court and fight this, but you’re going to lose. The judge isn’t going to rule against him.”
“I thought I was innocent until proven guilty,” she said.
And we looked at each other again, and we sank a little lower, inside. “It’s not that simple,” we told her.
“I have witnesses,” she said. “People called my mother afterwards, and told her how he was screaming and everything, how totally out of control he was ... ”
“That’s not going to be relevant,” we explained. “He can say he was upset because you created such a dangerous situation ... ”
“But I didn’t.”
“We know.” And there was a silence.
“You can go to court,” the attorney said, at last, “but you don’t need me. It would be too expensive and it wouldn’t make any difference. But, if you need to do this, you should.”
“Just know that the judge will rule against you and you’ll have to pay the ticket,” I said. “Look, we don’t want you to plead guilty and then go around thinking that you did the wrong thing, that you should have stood up and fought it. If you feel that you need to go to court and see this through, then you should do that. But you need to be realistic about your chances.”
And she looked at me, and she looked at him, and a few days later, she agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge.
“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.”
I do not think that they will sing to me.”
Monday, April 06, 2009
This is one of two stories in this series that qualify as "fairy tales" but that are much more in tune with the folk lore theme in which fairies are other-world characters and not simply little women with wings and wands. Still, it's one of the more wistful stories in the collection and I think the timing is right, as gardeners begin to think about spring.
Saturday, April 04, 2009
About six months ago, I came to the Upper Valley to edit a weekly paper. Made some changes, tightened some things up, helped to mentor a young, inexperienced and, to that point, somewhat undisciplined staff. (As writers, I mean -- their professional decorum was fine.)
However, editors serve at the pleasure of publishers. Thursday, my publisher told me he wasn't satisfied with how things were going and will advertise my position. It's basically a case of a bad fit rather than any actual professional shortcoming. I'm welcome to stay on board until a new person is interviewed, hired and ready to start, and it was a cordial meeting. But I figure I've got six weeks or perhaps a bit longer to find another gig. And I was told I could take time off for interviews without being penalized, so my paycheck is secure for the moment.
At this stage, I'm not sure what I'm headed for. I won't move for an uncertain job, and I'd like to stay in the Northeast. Newspaper work isn't so reliable that I feel the need to seek only newspaper jobs. At the same time, it's a little late in life for this old dog to start a job with an entirely new set of skills, so I'll be looking for something I already kind of know how to do.
Between drawing unemployment and being old enough to take from my 401k for immediate needs, I should be okay for awhile and there's no need to jump into something stupid.
And, hey, it'll make for some interesting blogging. What else matters in this world?
(Discreet inquiries and suggestions may be emailed to me here.)