Musings of a teacher

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

$6.99 is too much to pay Time-Warner for a rental

That's what I'm sweating in my living room tonight- I've got the house to myself and I'm looking at this potentially interesting movie but when I see it costs $6.99 I get upset. On the one hand I could spend the evening pondering all the ways we're soon to go extinct: nuclear war, bioterror, climate change, the genetic engineering of our replacements, boredom, anger- but none of this tonight, at least for me, is able to compete with my rage at Time-Warner for charging $6.99 for a movie I don't even know if I'll like. What does it mean, this preference for the passing peeve over the great DOOM? Does it mean that the truth is so sickeningly awful that we can't actually think about it for very long, or....stay with me it because, just maybe, it really is terrible that Time-Warner would charge, well, anything to rent a movie. I already paid the bastards, now they want more for this over-hyped stuff? Before going any further I want to mention- what the reader may well have noted- that I'm using a standard s.o.c. (stream of consciousness) style, and also that I've decided to write, for now, without paragraphs. This last might sound odd from a former English teacher who enforced on generations the solemn duty to write in paragraphs, but it's just the way I feel. I realized I don't always have to give the reader such a blatant signal that I've shifted focus. You, the current reader, can tell already when I shift focus, can't you? Not that I claim to be doing this as a great artist would. As, for instance, Cormac McCarthy did when he stopped using quotation marks, and then he stopped describing his characters' physical selves. The difference between me and McCarthy is that he never said, "Hey, look, I stopped using quotation marks," while I felt the need to announce my experiment, as if in fear of reprimand for breaking rules. That's what happens when you give up fiction and sign-on for the literal, where rules are rules. And when you retire from English teaching, you say to your former students, "Consider this: you have to know about paragraphs before you can stop using them." You have to know about anything to stop doing it, otherwise you don't know what you stopped doing, or why you stopped. This gives an insight into original sin. It's said that we don't have to have bitten the forbidden fruit ourselves to have, more or less, virtually bitten it, and to decide, again, not to bite it. But, as noted, you can't stop doing something unless you are first doing it. The resolution, I think, is that we bite the apple (as popularly conceived) when we first achieve consciousness. Then we see ourselves, what we are made of, our appetites, our actions. Then we see other people, and note similar patterns. Not only does the apple not fall far from the tree, it grows on the tree. In the Wizard of Oz when the apple trees, under the influence of a witch, pick their own apples and throw them at Dorothy et al, they are throwing knowledge at them, packets of understanding that the innocent travelers are not ready for, one of many assaults during their quest that lead Dorothy to choose the drab plains of Kansas over the sensuality and vivid life of choose Auntie Em over the Wicked Witch. I'd like to see a movie about that, but I'm still not sure I'd pay $6.99 for it.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

What did Jacob say to God?

Tell me about the last vision,
After the last
Reductio ad absurdum
-before the animal sleep sets in-
When the eye
Expanding beyond light
Sees its own context,
Just for a moment.
I want to see it now!
so that
I do not need death
to be alive.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

A dangerous 4th

Note, 7/5/14, Obviously nothing happened on the 4th, but it does seem likely to happen, and when it does, my points remain.

It's July 3, 2014, and the world looks shaky. Every country in the Middle East seems on the brink of war, as do the Ukraine and Russia, the U.S. and its immigrants, most of Africa and Asia, and every type of human seems pitted against its counterparts: the rich and poor, the black, white, brown and red, the Christian, Jew, Muslim and Hindi, the religious and the secular, the young and the old, the man and the woman. But the United States, the self-proclaimed post-World War II superpower and world policeman, cannot act in any arena, in spite of traditional quests for war from money and political interests, and despite the tedium and emotional despair of the masses, for whom "life" from movies, TV and yes, even novels, is not enough for the savage needs of their souls, so that the idea of war seems a balm to many- in spite of these circumstances we cannot act because after 60 years of attacking countries that have not attacked us first, consistently with dismal results, we are stalled in a new tacit public morality in which we require that we be attacked first before attacking. 9/11 satisfied that need for a time, resulting in aggressive interventions against vague targets and a dramatic shift in the U.S. mentality towards paranoia and expenditures to assuage it. Our post 9/11 efforts in the Near and Far East have resulted, not in a diminution of terrorism, but in an exacerbation which seems about to erupt in something far worse than 9/11. Yet we can't move beyond a renewed public morality which dictates that we must be attacked before we attack. That's what I'm pondering this July 3. The weeks leading up to tomorrow, July 4, have witnessed a dramatic increase in tensions almost everywhere. What would it take to overcome the new U.S. public morality and stir up a frenzy of war sentiment sufficient to support a U.S. military action? An attack on us on the 4th of July, the celebration of America's birth and manhood, would certainly do it. Any number of suspects could be the perp, and any number of conspiracy theories could be the explanation, but conjecture would be moot- if it happens we'll never know who did it (unless you subscribe to the Rolling Stone's assertion that "...after all, it was you and me"). The only certainty would be that there would be nothing anyone could do about the resulting war hysteria. As Bertrand Russell roamed the streets of London at the start of War War I, watching young men boarding trains on their way to the front and bemoaning the futility of trying to steer the world toward rationality, wisdom and life, so we will be awash in a tsunami of emotion, unstoppable no matter how ill-advised. It's just a reality of where we are in our human evolution, which is that we are at the very beginning of it, the lowest, most ignorant stage. There is a theory making the rounds that the reason astronomers have been unable to find intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is that whenever intelligent life develops, it kills itself. This begs the question, of course, of what "intelligent life" is, or would be, but we may know in the lifetimes of the youngest amongst us whether that theory applies to us.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

If I could write....

...I would write about an older guy who, at his wife’s behest, cleans out his closet of items that can go to Goodwill, but as he takes long un-worn garments off the rack and gazes at them, opening unaccustomed windows of memory, he is overcome with emotion.

…I would write about the same guy doing the same thing with his old clothes a week later and not giving a shit.

…I would write a story about how last week an asteroid struck the earth and destroyed it, but we don’t know because we're an afterglow.

…I would write about a man who suddenly discovers that he has aged.

…I would write about a young man who wishes he were older.

…I would write about a man who wonders what it would be like to be a woman. Would it be easier, more powerful?

…I would write about a woman who wonders what it would be like to be a man. Would it be easier, more powerful?

…I would write about tardigrades, animals the size of pinheads who live everywhere on earth, in space and at the bottom of the oceans, and all over our bodies.

…I would write about what would happen if you tried to kiss a tardigrade (it would eat your face).

…I would write about a man who inherits his son’s dog when his son goes off to college. This man only liked cats, but now he has a dog.

…I would write about the same man with the dog, who realizes that he loves the dog but would rather have a cat. “What are the ethics of this?” the man wonders.

...I would write about a high school English teacher who, for years, wondered, “Is there value to what I teach? Will this 14 year old boy who wiggles in class and dreams of freedom on the bonny green be nurtured and guided by 'Great Expectations'?” “Why not?” the man concludes, “It’s as good as anything else.”

...I would write about the same high school teacher thinking about the earlier years when he taught elementary school. “Am I as useful now as I was then,” he wonders, “I taught kids to read and do arithmetic. Now what do I teach them?” The man answers his own question: “I teach them what it’s like to be 68 years old.”

...I would write about a man who wanted to be a novelist and one day he has an idea about why it never worked out: His thoughts are most comfortable when expressed in short outbursts, rather than ongoing narrative. “I don’t have enough to say to fill a book, “ the man thinks.

…I would write about this same man whose friend told him that in heaven he would be talking forever, because he likes talking so much, this man who does not have enough to say to fill a book.

…I would write about the sister of my friend, a professor of rhetoric, who used to tear out pages of books after reading them. She did this in the front row of her university classes, letting the pages drift down before the professor. I would write that my friend’s sister was a Zen master.

…I would write about enlightenment, without a capital “e," and I would write, “All humanity is waiting for it,” with a capital “A.”

Sunday, March 02, 2014


My grandfather left you after you cut his father down
What do you want now,
why have you come around?

He came to New York then Bismarck and sold liquor.
The Sioux and Germans came to buy in World War II
but World War II was quicker.
My dad quit the town- the city slicker!
And then I came, I saw, I begged to differ.
Los Angeles!

What a haven from Ukraine you’ve been,
You let everybody float, we think we win!
Oh Ukraine, they even let us sin!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lasken pieces on other sites

Discussion with Dr. Cheryl Lubin, host of "In Our Times," on internet radio, go to, click on July 11, 2014 show.
"The pragmatic case for Kashkari," Flashreport,
"Tax Day- how we were sucker punched":
"Drug research and a viable candidate for CA GOP Governor,"
"The merry-go-round in San Francisco,"
"CA GOP needs pro-gay marriage candidate for governor," Flashreport,
"Can the GOP learn from Democrats' history," Flashreport,
"Leggo my ideology,"
"Bad Words,"
"Memory mandala,"

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why I quit politics

Reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse,

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, the year I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V. I talked to the newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck. Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign. I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging. I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge deeply to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company. The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front in the form of a cashier's check. Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth). Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people. For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, said in reference to the signs that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky. The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant L.A. school district (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup. The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor. Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades. This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors, most particularly Jack Miles at the L.A. Times, liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of articles on bilingual education; several appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization. They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice. I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates. The effect of " 1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu race). Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off. The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary of me. Something sank inside me. The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind. I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why. I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it. I'm going to try to say it now: Politicians can't say "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think. Well "Duh",you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate to deal with such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc. Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children. I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary. It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores. My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign. No sign comes. Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes. Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores. I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result. After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few numbers going up; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities. How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school? How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end? Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training. There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics. These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in the real sense. In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students. If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia. Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now. It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not? Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete. Standards are important, and logical instruction is important. But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores. Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth. What would I have said? I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure." The reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it. If he was polite, though, there would be a pause, and then I would begin to think. This in itself, the sight of a politician lost in thought while the world waits, is anathema to a successful image. But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer. The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting. Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers. We have nothing effective to counter this. We have not figured out a modern motivation for students. The one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool (Singapore, much admired by math reformers, achieves the highest secondary math scores in the world partly by beating underachievers with bamboo canes). We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes. Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties. They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit. There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, not even menial ones. The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs. Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist. Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait. It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market. The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me ( after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career. Even an answer like, " We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over two hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know." Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work. Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition. We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something. If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror. Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot,to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind. Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.