Musings of a teacher

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Havasu getaway

Susan and I fell into three free nights at a time-share in Havasu City, a sprawling collection of townhouses and malls on a gentle bajada leading down to the Arizona  (eastern) shore of Lake Havasu, which straddles the southern California/Arizona border.

It was good just to experience again the California deserts.  I used to argue with my dad about whether there would be room on the planet for all the world's people.  I thought there would not, but my dad pointed to the big empty deserts of the west and said there would be plenty of room for new cities.  He was proven partially right, as two major cities, Palmdale and Lancaster, popped up in later years in the desert north of L.A. (they look like Havasu City except flat and without a lake).

On Pearblossom Highway, heading east into the still vast and empty desert, my dad seemed further vindicated.  You could build dozens of Palmdales and Lancasters in these deserts, but now I would ask my dad, "Do you want to cover the planet with townhouses, franchise restaurants and malls?"  Just to spar with me, he might have answered, "Yes."

My dad and I would have argued about Havasu City.  I would have moaned from the back seat that it was ugly.  On this trip Susan and I arrived at sunset, a beautiful red splash across the desert horizon, and in the foreground RV lots, warehouses, high tension wires, stray Taco Bells and Burger Kings, and then finally malls, Denny's, Starbucks, Chili's and thousands of townhouses.

I'm older now than my dad was when we had the argument, and I've accepted certain things, for instance, the importance of comfort.  It didn't take long for me to love our Havasu time-share, with its king bed and big plump pillows.  The two mile walk to the nearest mall was aided by wonderful air, warm and cool at the same time, somehow buoyant, as if you were swimming in it. Beautiful desert canyons are everywhere around the city, with isolated trails that go for miles.  The old downtown, where we watched the Veteran's Day parade, has a lot of charm and character, as did the parade.  Not a bad retirement spot, really.  I must channel the 14 year old me and tell him to dull some of his sharp edges.

The history of Havasu is poignant.  It was the last refuge of the Chemehuevi tribe.  Their name might mean, "people who play with fish," or it might mean, "nose in the air like a roadrunner." As the meaning of their name is forgotten, so they are largely forgotten, except in Havasu City in the waiting room for the ferry that takes you to the California side and the Indian casino.  On our visit most of the passengers waited outside, but I wanted the air conditioning in the waiting room.  Inside, several teenagers were enjoying an adult free atmosphere.  I noticed a series of posters around the room that told the story of a Native American tribe.  A boy and girl were horsing around by the first poster, so I had to nudge towards them until they moved aside.  I read that the Chemehuevi were nomadic hunters and gatherers.  Their ancestral territory covered thousand of square miles from the San Gabriel Mountains, through Nevada and Arizona.  They liked to take long trips in small groups, but sometimes men traveled long distances alone.  They were an inquisitive people who "liked to visit all tribes, whether friends or enemies; to speak strange tongues, sing strange songs, and marry strange wives."

They were not particular to the Havasu area, but were hemmed in by European settlement and, at times, hostile Mojave Indians.  Early in the 20th Century a Chemehuevi reservation was created at the low point in the Havasu Valley, no doubt chosen because of frequent flooding.  At this time there were only a few hundred Chemehuevi left.  In the 1930's, Parker Dam, built to supply water to L.A. from the Colorado River, created Lake Havasu, at the bottom of which are the remains of the Chemehuevi reservation.  To make amends, the tribe was offered land on the western shore, which, as it happened, was traditional enemy territory for them.  At this point most members left, or married out of the tribe. Some of the bloodline were able to establish the casino, and these remnants of the tribe, although they no longer command the deserts and mountains- let alone the strange wives- receive boatloads of money.

Is this a happy ending?  It depends on how you look at it.  Certainly the story entails the death of a culture, which is an all-American story.  When my grandfather left Ukraine around 1900, he left a culture that had existed for over a thousand years.  That culture is now gone, though people who were formed by it live on.  Just about every American can say something like that.  We are all Chemehuevi, with our village at the bottom of a man-made lake.

Havasu City is not a great city.  There are no central areas for people to interact- unless you count Starbucks- and little in the way of arresting architecture.  But Havasu City does have the desert, the river, the big sky, the mountains, canyons, friendly people and the spirit of the Chemehuevi. When you think about it, that's a lot.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The GOP: A party without definition

There are various “takeaways” one can find in this week's (Nov. 4) mid-term election.  One might find meaning in the GOP gains in Congress, because of which there are any number of pundits claiming the Republican party is alive and kicking.  I agree it’s alive and kicking, but that’s all it’s doing.  My takeaway is that the Republican Party, both in California and nationally, is not a party at all, because it lacks definition.

Let’s start with the term “conservative,” which has been attached to Republicans for many decades.  As of the mid-term elections, “conservative” does not mean anything.  Consider this piece in Politico the day after the election: “Big win for conservative big money,”  In the opening paragraphs we read, “Conservatives tweaked their playbook to spend bigger and earlier to crush Tea Party insurgents….,” but later the piece quotes “conservative” blogger, Erick Erickson, as saying, “We’ve entered a season of bloody Republican primaries where conservatives try to pick off Republicans and where Republicans try to pour as much money into the primaries as possible.”  That’s right, in this article the term “conservative” refers both to political donors and to the “conservatives” they are trying to unseat,  while the term “Republican” refers to an establishment person committed to fighting “conservatives.”  If you can derive meanings for either “conservative” or “Republican” from such usage, my hat is off to you.

I, and I’m guessing many other voters would like the term “conservative” to mean something politically viable, like, “Unwilling to spend large amounts of money on things that make some people rich but do no good, or do actual harm, to others.”  With such usage, you could, for instance, oppose Obama's Common Core Standards, not because they were written by Satan in an attempt to turn your child into a homosexual, but because California already had excellent standards before Gov. Brown agreed to pay $2 billion for Common Core pork.  A party that approaches issues in this way, in terms of reality, is a party that wins.

The problem is that the Tea Party has co-opted the term “conservative,” which has come to mean, since Rick Santorum represented Tea Party “conservative” positions in the last presidential primaries, harsh social views such as those opposing gay marriage and abortion.  Polls show such views are anathema to all but about 35% of the electorate, yet Mitt Romney felt he needed to keep his “conservative credentials” by holding on to that 35%, that he could not win without it.  He was wrong on both counts: he did not need the “credentials,” and he lost because he did not repudiate Santorum’s views. The association with Tea Party positions was enough to end any hope of crossover votes for Romney from Democrats and independents dissatisfied with Obama.  The Tea Party, in effect, was a gift to the Democrats.

The “Tea Party,” of course, is not a party, but a loose collection of beliefs, much looser than consumers of mainstream media realize.  For my research, I attended a Tea Party meeting in the Hollywood area, and was surprised to find that the keynote speaker was a self-professed gay man who spoke in favor of gay marriage.  I held my breath expecting a lynch mob to materialize, but the audience was calm, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.  Almost dizzy with cognitive dissonance, I asked the host to explain.  He told me that the Tea Party does not take positions on social issues.  Ok, tell that to every news outlet in America, because they don’t know.

Vague Tea Party definitions abound at California GOP conventions.  At the spring and fall state conventions last year I attended the Tea Party Caucus meetings, where speaker after speaker denounced the Republican Party, often proudly announcing that they had quit the party.  It was rather surreal to hear this at a GOP convention.  Talk about a big tent!

Turning to California, the national flush of GOP perceived victories is absent, as once again the state party failed to obtain a single statewide office.  The governor’s race was particularly instructive.  Neel Kashkari, the GOP candidate, made a quick name for himself by supporting gay marriage and abortion rights, which made it easy for him to dispatch his Tea Party primary opponent.  That was an interesting victory which might have provided a lesson for GOP leadership, but there was scant evidence of a lesson learned.  The big donors, some of whom helped put Kashkari in place, abandoned him in the general election.  Kashkari campaigned well, but four months after winning the June 3 primary 20 points behind Brown, he ended up 16 points behind.

What is the lesson of that?  Why, if Kashkari learned from Romney’s mistake in appearing to accept Tea Party social positions, did he not fare better in centrist California?  The reason, as I outlined in the July 22 Flashreport (, is that it is not enough for candidates to distance themselves from losing positions- their party must do the same, and forcefully.  In other words, Kashkari lost because his party has no definition.

What could the Republican Party do about its lack of definition?  It could copy a page from the Democratic playbook and re-define itself, as the Democrats did at the end of the Reagan administration, when the Democratic Party was the subject of obituaries.  They created the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), whose chair and major beneficiary was Governor Bill Clinton.  The DLC moved the party to the right, toward welfare reform and fiscal deregulation.  Key to DLC credibility were high profile conflicts with prominent progressive Democrats, like Jesse Jackson, who called the DLC “Democrats for the Leisure Class.”  The DLC ensured Clinton’s success as president, and its formula for success at the polls supported Obama as well.

Cleary the GOP could save itself by renouncing the Tea Party, but there is no sign yet of the serious Republican leadership this would require, either at the state or national level.  By all appearances, the goal has been to make it through the mid-term election with a takeover of governorships and the Senate, hoping no one will notice that the wins did not happen because of Republican meaning and purpose, but were merely a reaction to collapsed hopes for Obama.  

It has been enough for party leaders to help various Republicans retain their seats or gain new ones, but if anyone thinks the inconsistencies of the party don't matter, think again, because in 2016 they will matter.  No political party can go on indefinitely without clear definition of its political purposes.  The sooner the GOP wakes up to this, the sooner we can resume a two-party system.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Letter to the L.A. Times re: L.A. Unified School District

My letter posted in the L.A. Times, Saturday, 11/1:, on the current meltdown in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), for which I have worked for 30 years.

Here's some background.  LAUSD is the second largest district in the nation, after New York City.  It is run by superintendents and board members who see their job as bringing civilization to the non-tech heathen, in the form of big money deals with publishers and tech-firms.  This year the education folly was led by the state and our recently returned Governor Jerry Brown, whose Proposition 30 will tax Californians $2 billion to pay for Obama's Common Core Standards (CCS), which replaced, in September, our previous, equally good standards.  LAUSD and the state (and the media) will not see the problem until spring testing, when it is revealed, as if for the first time, that there will be no spring testing, not even, probably, base line testing, because the state legislature tossed out all the old testing, with SB 247, to make room for CCS, which, though fully paid for, has not yet arrived.  September was a perfect storm for the Los Angeles Unified School District.  In addition to the apparent invalidation of all available state curricular materials and cessation of testing, LAUSD implemented MiSiS- "My Integrated Student Information system"- designed to replace and combine all other online student accounting systems: including attendance, grades and class assignments.   MiSiS crashed and turned into a multi-million dollar nightmare for everyone but the vendors, but wasted money isn't the half of it.  Such was the hurry to get the checks in the mail that there was no Beta testing of MISIS; the system was launched district-wide in September against the advice of virtually everyone actually working in a school.  The result, in my high school and throughout the district, is an inability to place kids in proper classes, to correct the thousands of resulting placement errors, to send college transcripts (due today), to do grades and attendance.  In other words, the district, in striving to ensure maximum profit for its vendors, has destroyed its schools' ability to function.  MISIS was preceded by other wasteful moves, like spending millions in bond money on useless Ipads (the software did not work), money that might have gone towards repairing the crumbling infrastructure of L.A. schools.   [Update, 12/14: Last week the FBI carted off dozens of boxes of the superintendent's, and others, files, in particular files documenting the procedures followed before, during and after the IPAD bidding process, e.g. the superintendent was in an Apple promotional video before the bidding process, which Apple won].

The usual cry after such malfeasance is to get rid of the old leadership and find new, more enlightened leadership, but, sadly, mere change at the "top" will not help the district, because it is suffering from a condition that has never, to my knowledge, been fixed in any large American institution so afflicted.  The condition entails a disconnect between those in the field, i.e. teachers and students, on the one hand, and administrators on the other.  They exist in two different realms with almost no cross-influence.  Teachers and students consume the education "product," administrators buy the products and implement them.  It seems like a naturally close relationship, but it is not close at all. Administrators consider teachers to be naive and unknowing.  Most administrators, forced for appearance sake to teach for a few years, do not like teaching, because of the low pay, the incessant needs of children, above all the crappy cafeteria food and 20 minute lunch, and they end up viewing teachers as passive and childlike.  Teachers are not blameless in this.  They tend to express themselves privately, leaving confrontation to their union, where financial demands usually overshadow ideas about the profession.

How do you fix a system in this condition?  I don't know.  Fortunately I'm not running for office, so I can say that.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Happy Yom Kippur!

Not really: Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, when you stand before God and He sees you, really sees you, not normally a "happy" experience.  Before the last (second) Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE., the temple contained a physical space for the Yom Kippur meeting with God: the "Holy of Holies," in which a high priest or (according to some traditions) a common person who represented everyone, entered the space, where this person would be joined by God. Today, at least before we fight World War III to get the space back, we must conceptualize that space, and each Jew is supposed to enter it on Yom Kippur to confront, or be confronted by God.

Imagine how it would be to stand in an enclosed space the size of a closet, no one in there with you except God.  Clearly an intense experience.  To add to the intensity, Jews must fast for 24 hours, the duration of Yom Kippur.  I have made the decision not to fast, because I see the holiday as a meditative one, and I can't meditate when I have a headache and can't think of anything but a grilled Reuben. Further, I'm not sure that being in the presence of God (defined here as any force affecting human life that we can neither see nor understand) requires mortification of the flesh.  I find guidance in the Book of Genesis where Jacob struggles all night with the angel of God.  In the morning the angel proclaims that Jacob's name will now be "Israel," meaning, "He who struggles with God and prevails."  In my personal Yom Kippur meeting with God, I don't seek to "prevail, " but to make contact, to communicate, laying bare my weaknesses and mistakes, and my strengths, and then, as in a conversation, awaiting a response.  Mortification may ensue, but that's not my job.

Yom Kippur comes one week after Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish new year.  As noted in the previous essay on this blog ("Happy Jewish new year!"), my wife and I celebrated Rosh Hashona at our Reform temple in L.A., but planned to observe Yom Kippur in the Twin Cities, the morning service at the Orthodox temple in St. Paul where we were married, the evening service at my sister-in-law's Conservative temple in Minneapolis.  So here I sit in a St. Paul Caribou Coffee the day after Yom Kippur, enjoying the 40 degree early fall outside (it's 105 in L.A.), recounting my experiences yesterday.

In the morning, my father-in-law, Max, my brother-in-law Steven and I, with my wife Susan and her mother Edith, set off for their Orthodox temple in St. Paul.  I describe us separated by gender because the temple experience described us so.  On arrival, Max, Steven and I entered the sanctuary, where I saw the Lubavitcher rabbi who married me and Susan 43 years ago, standing at one of several podiums before a prayer book, chanting and rocking back and forth in a form of physically expressive prayer called "davening," scores of men around him absorbed in similar fashion, creating a soothing cacaphony of recitation.

I took note of the gender screen at the back of the sanctuary, actually a wooden partition topped with tinted glass through which I could see all the women- daughters, mothers, sisters, wives- wearing hats (as the men wear kippahs) and watching the mens' service intently.  I was surprised, because in my memories of the segregated women I see them talking and laughing, basking (as I wrote in "Happy Jewish new year") in a secret knowledge that Judaism, if not human culture in general, is female driven and directed. But Susan told me that my new impression was correct: the women were fascinated by the men's service and watched it quietly for the many hours duration.   I found this revision in my understanding so surprising as to be almost disorienting.  The "war of the sexes," as we used to jokingly call it, does not seem a joke anymore, but, at least in certain arenas, a real war for dominance and redefinition.  Yet here these women sit, many of them younger, reverently watching the men monopolize spirituality.  I don't think this precludes their having a female world of irony and revisionist history, but it's startling enough to see, anywhere in the modern world, a seeming acceptance of patriarchy.  Susan, who normally views patriarchy as the failed experiment it increasingly appears to be, explained that the experience behind the partition was comforting: viewing the men, not as megalomaniac, but humbled, joining with each other in common search for sense in the universe, with entire extended families together in the small building, youngest to oldest, set to come together in a communal meal at sundown.

In the sanctuary, my memories of freedom of movement and expression and family togetherness were confirmed. Young boys davened or horsed around with each other amongst the men, accepted both as spiritual and childlike.  How often do you see that?  A little girl wandered in to try to tickle her praying brother.  I expected some sort of outrage, but she stayed for a long time, her father clearly happy to see her.

It appeared to me that the magic of orthodox Judaism is that, for those it fits, many modern obstructions to family life are transcended. The need for men to think and feel like men; their need to be loved by women even though they think and feel like men; the reciprocal need of women; the need for adults and children to be "on the same page," to see the same world and agree on what they see: these treasures, so hard to come by in the "real world," seem to magically arrive, at least once a year, for orthodox Jewry.

Further notes: doctrinally, I could find no major distinctions between the orthodox and other Jewish denominations.  I did note an indifference to architecture.  The temple is an unremarkable structure on a residential street, the sanctuary all dry wall and plaster, even the Ark of the Torah a simple plywood cabinet.

Which brings me to the Conservative temple in St. Louis Park (a suburb of Minneapolis) where we attended evening services.  This temple was architecture intensive: visible from many blocks away, its imposingly arced and thrusting spire enveloped in a huge stained glass window which, from within, rises above the altar, beautifully illuminated by the setting sun.  Women, of course, were everywhere, sitting with the men, standing and singing on the bema, though the rabbis were men.  A final note: Conservative services entail considerably more mortification of the flesh than do Orthodox, with long periods of motionless standing (one such period lasting about a half hour).

Today we relax and re-enter the secular world, later this afternoon mediated by art at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Will I be able to meet God there in other ways?  Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Happy Jewish new year!

Or, Shanah Tovah!  Sundown, Friday, 9/26, marked the end of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  It is now the year 5775, meaning that it's been 5,775 years since God created the universe and us.  Thus Rosh Hashanah is not in doctrinal conflict with the Christian new year, which indicates that 2,014 years have passed since the life of Jesus.

Of course, we don't choose religions based on our own calculations of when things happened.  The typical religious adherent is not an astrophysicist with a personally derived figure for the age of the universe.  We let the idea that the universe is less than six thousand years old slide by; we're interested more in the rest of the message.

The essence of Rosh Hashanah is that the closing of the old year, and the opening of the new, entail an accounting of things, a thinking about loose ends- especially involving people.  To this end, I wrote a college friend I hadn't spoken to in a while, telling him I wanted him to remain in my "book of life" in the new year.  He replied that he would.

Rosh Hashanah is part of an extended period of several weeks called the High Holy Days that culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins at sundown tonight (Friday, 10/3), and concludes at sundown tomorrow, when people fast and visualize themselves standing before God.  The experience is expected to be wrenching, as God sees into your every part, and judges what He sees.

The High Holy Days are a catharsis, a way to deal with questions of self-worth, of human limitation.  It's interesting that synagogue attendance approaches 100% of congregants for the High Holy Days, which is the only time that many Jews attend services.  Attention Madison Avenue: Pain sells.

This year my wife and I will be celebrating the High Holy Days in two different ways.  We celebrated Rosh Hashanah at our Reform temple in L.A., "reform" indicating a loosening of ritual (dress codes, types of music, use of English as well as Hebrew), rather than doctrinal differences, and next week we'll be in St. Paul for Yom Kippur services at the orthodox temple my in-laws attend, where my wife and I were married 43 years ago.

That wedding was a big deal for my family, which had turned secular, on my dad's side, since my paternal great grandfather was killed in a pogrom in his village south of Kiev.  He had refused to interrupt Shabbat prayers and hide in the fields with the rest of the family (including my 10 year old grandfather), and so was cut down.  My grandfather, who with his mother and one brother emigrated to America, showed his reaction to his father's sacrifice by saying things like, "When you're dead, you're dead."  My parents, though they taught us that we were definitively Jewish, continued a secular tradition, eschewing all ritual, including observance of Jewish holidays and bar mitzvahs for their three sons.  Only my maternal grandmother was not happy with this (when I was 12 she defiantly took me to Yom Kippur services at her Hollywood temple, while the rest of the family went shopping).

The 1960's excited my inner Ukrainian's need for disorder, but it really was too disorderly.  After all the conventional sacraments- career, marriage, family and middle-class life- had been scornfully discarded, there was nothing left.  The orthodoxy and structure of my wife's family seemed like a balm.  I liked their "Lubavitcher" temple in St. Paul, which was surprising in its freedom of expression.  First of all, women are separated from men, in an ostensibly rather insulting fashion: the men are in the temple proper, where praying and relating to God happen.  Such activities are, apparently, not the domain of women, who are segregated behind a screen and tend to congregate in the kitchen.  Why did I like this?  I didn't at first, because it seemed a statement that spirituality is essentially male, that women's place is in earthly pursuits like cooking.  That would be a pretty outrageous idea all right, but it's not the idea of the women of the temple.  Spirits are high behind the screen, as the women share their views about male egotism and self-importance, laughing happily in the knowledge that they are actually running the whole show, including the spiritual part.

Regarding the men on their side of the screen, their form of prayer is considerably freer than in Reform temples, where congregants are restricted to their seats until told to stand, where all recitation is simultaneous and directed from the bema.  In an orthodox service, men stand and read in solitary fashion, engaged in "davening," a form of prayer involving physical expression of ecstatic visions.  Small children also experience quite a bit of freedom, and are allowed to swarm through the congregants and onto the bema.

To give our reform temple its due, its experimentation with music has led to some beautiful sounds which very much enhance the services.

Next week I will file a full report on my Yom Kippur experience at the Lubavitcher temple in St. Paul, as well as my wife's experience from behind the screen.  One thing I will be watching for is expression of political matters.  I was somewhat surprised to find that there was little mention of this summer's Gaza/Israeli war at Rosh Hashanah services.  That war is front and center in my mind as I consider the new year, but possibly it's too disturbing and unsettled to emphasize at what has become a family celebration.  We'll see if that's the case at the Lubavitcher temple.

Shanah Tova!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Obama's ISIS news conference

I have a great idea for a science fiction screenplay (like most teachers, I think about screenplays a lot), but rather than write it and fling it into the meat-grinder of hope, I'll post a synopsis here, so my readers can appreciate it without pop-corn:

                          Return to the Planet of the Humans

On an unstable planet in the Crainial Cluster, creatures called "humans" have progressed from a few thousand perishing and panicked progenitors to planet-wide domination- though they have not yet dominated themselves- with a speed many times faster than the ambient evolution.  At the time of the story, the most recent human civilization to achieve financial and military superiority over its neighbors has developed a conscience and wants to do good, so it elects a liberal icon as leader who promises peace but brings what they fondly term "world war."  This world war serves in turn as a cover for the expression of advanced technologies some of the humans have been working on, entailing abilities to recreate their own species from the molecular level and to re-create their planet.  The humans, as usual, never knew what hit them.  The End

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Joe Biden- be quiet!

It's not that I disagree that we need to stop ISIS- in the wake of the murders of two American hostages, of course we need to stop ISIS- it is dominated by sociopaths who have no business on the world stage. What, then, is wrong with Vice President Biden howling to the nation that we will follow the perps to "the gates of Hell!"?

What's wrong with Biden's demagogic outburst is that it is designed to preempt our mood, inserting lust for revenge as the default sentiment.   That might have been helpful when we needed to mobilize the troops, but we're not going to get rid of ISIS with troops.  That job will be done by a few technicians who are already motivated and focused.  There is no need for the VP to lead the rest of us in frenzied celebration of our inner homicidal chimpanzee.  We can take care of the business of war without worshipping it.