13 April 2014

When it Rains and Pours and When it Pours for 40 Days and Nights You've Got Noah


No considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency. - Alan Watts.

Saw Darren Aronofsky's Noah today at a plastic temple selling plastic foods and liquids. There were plastic previews of plastic movies about a Spiderman and a Hercules and real live Bears presented in such a way as to make them plastic and unknowable. Plastic ads and plastic warnings about cell phones preceded and followed the trailers and finally the movie was shown. It being a very early showing there were only a few people in the theater many coming and going to dispense plastic waste or fill up on more plastic consumables or answer plastic messages on plastic devices.

The film was interesting and most of my yawns were because of an unsatisfactory night of sleep and not a reflection on what was taking place on the screen. I went in part because I've liked most of Aronofsky's previous films and I was pleased to have learned that this was not a biblical epic selling any religious orthodoxy and in fact had ticked off the religious right which is so often wrong. Right.

The character of Noah (Russell Crowe) comes off as something of a religious wing nut himself ready as he is to kill babies in a misinterpretation of the creator's wishes. That he is complicated makes him real and interesting as humans tend to be. Overall the cast is quite good and I particularly liked Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah who just wants to eat some berries and don't we all. Emma Watson is Noah's daughter-in-law and I've really grown to like her and were I half my age would have the biggest crush on this wonderful person/actress. Jennifer Connelly plays the long suffering wife and suffer she does.

Such a film demands some very special special effects indeed and they are delivered. Pairs of all manner of animal are required and none were used as CGI providing the critters none of which were harmed of course. The flood the dreams the battles were all spectacular and haven't we gotten used to technical wizardry in film? I know I have. It's all about story for me and there is one mixed in with all the pomp and noise -- although I'd have liked more. This one also leans a little bit to heavily on action as films often do with predictable fight sequences. Bible stories are a useful tool for asking questions and pondering meanings. They also should not be taken literally but try telling that to someone who is a believer in every word of it. I was sent to Sunday school as a child and loved the stories. They tickled my imagination quite nicely. As soon as I graduated to regular church at age 14 I lost all interest. It was the Lutheran church which is the white bread of church going experiences. Just as interesting and meaningful. I had a brief flirtation one summer with an evangelical church when I was heavily into booze and drugs. In sober moments I realized what a crock it all was and how foolish it was of me to participate. I've since eschewed religions of all stripes and  consider my current interest in Buddhism to be strictly spiritual and soul enriching and not at all religious.

When people use faith and belief to contradict knowledge and empirical fact the world is in trouble and my goodness people do an awful lot of that and have for centuries. There's less of an excuse for it today but there it is and here we are and all the rest of us can do is continue to speak truth and meditate and hug. That Christianity has held such sway in political life in the history of this republic is quite sad and quite detrimental (excuse my adverbs). Especially when many of these religious groups would have us believe that Jesus would condone gun toting capitalists bent on making whatever coin they can in this world whether they can take it with em or not.

Aronofsky has proven to be a director who defies categorizing having now made a bible picture to go along with one about a ballerina a wrestler a drug addict and math genius. Can't wait to see what he comes up with next.


12 April 2014

Delicate Balances --Like the Mind and the Wind and the Consciousness

“Are we fallen angels who didn't want to believe that nothing is nothing and so were born to lose our loved ones and dear friends one by one and finally our own life, to see it proved?” From Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.

Beyond all reason there is hope and if you look around you can see it out there. Often clinging desperately persistently to the shirttails of desire. And I sometimes long for the days that I didn't know this or anything else. When I was a young boy surrounded by my imagination whirling about great backyards and playing fields and parks and play rooms. Seeking not an escape from reality but an entrance to a better world that was not confined by rules and obligations and social norms. Hungrily I sought something I could not name nor even understand.

Today I meditate on this and the incredible gift of being part of this mad whirl. But I also reflect on where I've gone in my mind and how it hasn't always matched where I meant to be. Places are ephemeral only consciousness is permanent.

I ran eight miles today after watching a football (soccer to you Yanks) match on the telly in which my beloved Arsenal emerged victorious. It was an FA Cup semi final match which means the lads are in the final next month. I love/hate sports. Sports are the cause of so much pain/joy/indifference. I am long past the stage in my life when I let the results of an athletic event ruin my weekend but I'm not above letting victory bring me happiness. It has taken many decades to reach this point.

Last night I was at a baseball game. I used to go to two or three dozen Giants games a year. I don't know exactly how I managed that. Today I prefer to go to a play where I don't have to listen to idiot teens cursing or watch as people spend exorbitant sums on nachos.

You know I turned 60 some six weeks ago and yet I'm not getting older. I'm just getting to be someone.  My mind is growing and wondering and searching and causing great leaps of wonder and curiosity. Meanwhile my body is just fine. Did I mention I ran eight miles today? I'm sure I did. I take any occasion to tell people of my running. I'm allowing myself pride in accomplishment while trying to repress ego for self's sake. Delicate balances.

I was saddened though not surprised by David Letterman's retirement plans. He has been a major influence on me as anyone who has seen my teach can testify. That I've enjoyed some success as a teacher while conducting myself in the classroom as a Lettermanesque educator might be baffling to some but there is much to be baffled by in the world today and this should not be the most perplexing notion a person faces in a day. I don't give it a lot of thought myself. I am more now of one who merely does and is. Reflection rumination and contemplation have their places but they are not part of everything.
I is I am I was I will be and always this is true at the same time.

Within a few days it was announced that Stephen Colbert would replace Dave and this has brought me great joy. While I will miss the Colbert Report it is getting time for him to move on from constantly being in character and get to be himself on television. I am certain that we will all be pleased watching the "real" Colbert. He is not only insanely funny but quite intelligent.

I have been studying the Buddha of late and for that matter of early and of now. I find this personally edifying and enriching and wonderful. I could use inner peace in part to prevent innards in pieces. There is a wonderful simplicity to Buddhism that is....

But the study must

Go on.

I'm so excited to have been here to write these words and hope to continue at a later time to peck away at my MacBook Pro putting thoughts on..I want to say paper but this is all out there in some vast untouchable region like the mind and the wind and the consciousness.

I do like being happy. Don't you?

31 March 2014

A Life A Lot Less Ordinary -- Matteo Garrone's "Reality"

Its as if there is a walled city in which famous people live. Most of us are on the outside trying desperately to look in catching only glimpses.  Sometimes they appear outside and we can bask momentarily in their glory. Many of us know someone who is on the inside. They were once a classmate or a neighbor or a student or are a second cousin. I have three former students living within those walls including Andy Samberg. I used to have a boss whose step brother is Tom Hanks. More commonly we catch sight of them somewhere for a moment. My wife once saw Katherine Hepburn for example and I once walked by Danny Glover. Then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his entourage jogged past the missus and I in Paris.

We regular folk cherish these moments and share them with others. Everyone has a brush with fame story. Maybe even an occasion when we had momentary access to where the special dwell.

Once you're inside those walls once you've starred in a film had a hit record or been a regular on a TV show you have access to others there too. When the school newspaper I was adviser for got a phone interview with Samberg six years ago he spoke of getting to meet heroes like Steve Martin and Paul McCartney while working at Saturday Night Live. Imagine if you're famous -- you can hobnob with other famous people many of whom you've admired for years. The rest of us schmucks are left with sending tweets to the famous praying for a response (I got one once from Bob Balaban thanking me for a compliment) But we know that we'll never sit down for a meal at a five star restaurant with them.

Part of the lure is immortality. The famous live on long after their deaths and leave behind not only a name that will be remembered but a presence in films or music or literature. Most of us die to relative obscurity and not even that without loving family and friends.

A few movies have explored the frustration of being just one of the masses for those who seek more. None were better -- in an often creepy uncomfortable way -- than Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1992). This is the story of a would-be comic named Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) who cannot take no for an answer and becomes so desperate that he kidnaps a famous talk show host (Jerry Lewis) and blackmails the TV show to allow him to fill in.

(Actor Delroy Lindo used to occasionally work out at the gym I frequent. I only saw him a handful times but twice I observed people ask if he could look at their scripts. Director Walter Hill appeared for a Q&A at a retrospective of his films at the Pacific Film Archives a couple of years ago and one audience member used the opportunity to ask if Hill would look at his script.)

In Luchino Visconti's Bellissma (1952) Anna Magnani plays a mother desperately trying get her young daughter into show business going to increasingly great lengths to do so. Surely the next best thing to achieving fame and fortune is to have a next of kin climb to the heights.

In some respects the appeal of the gangster film comes from the same source. The successful gangster may not be famous but -- as is illustrated in another Scorcese film Goodfellas (1990) --but he does things on his own terms beholden to no one. The gangster will not be immortal but his (surely using only the masculine pronoun is apropos) time on Earth will not be confined to a nine to five job and playing by society's rules. As mobster Henry Hill says in Goodfellas: "For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it." The movie gangster lives in a fantasy world where he is special just like the famous.

I was lucky enough to catch Reality (2012) --  directed by Matteo Garrone -- when it spent all of one week in a Berkeley theater last Spring. I watched it again courtesy of Netflix over the weekend. The film tells the story of Luciano a fishmonger in Naples who auditions for Italy's version of Big Brother (sad to say that such reality shows have infected much of Europe). He gets a call back for a second audition and is convinced he has done well and is a shoo-in to get on the show. It's the quick fix. Luciano has a decent job a wife three children and a loving extended family. He is in the full vigor of health and makes extra cash with a victimless scam. But he's ultimately just an Ordinary Joe -- or Gisueppe if you prefer.  Being a regular guy is clearly okay for a lot of people but for those with a modicum of talent it can be the height of frustration. Many people feel they are one lucky break from being discovered. If only someone would look or listen to their audition tape or read their manuscript they too could live within the walls of the glitterati.

Luciano is a personable guy very popular funny and even does some female impersonating. Once he gets a hint that fame and fortune may beckon his vivid imagination takes over and Luciano becomes convinced he's on his way. A spot on Big Brother would guarantee big bucks and big exposure and winning the whole enchilada would make one set for life. And it so close. The difference between a life of anonymity and national or even international renown can be a coin flip. Why not me? The idea -- when one gets at all close -- is beguiling and can turn into an obsession as it does for Luciano.

Will he ultimately get on the show? Will he drive his family figuratively crazy or himself literally crazy as he awaits word on his fate and tries to influence events beyond his control? These are questions best answered by seeing the film yourself. Suffice to say it is worth the time. Garrone is an excellent director whose previous films include Gomorrah (2008) which had a relatively good run in the States no doubt because it was about organized crime in Italy. Garrone lets the story and its characters speak for themselves. His camera work is subtle at no time does he try any trickery instead relying on simple medium focus shots -- although he begins and ends with camera shots from the sky that wonderfully bookend the movie.

Reality stars Aniello Arena who is a story unto himself. Prior to filming, during filming and I write these words, he is serving a life sentence in an Italian prison for a triple homicide. Say what? Marrone discovered him when he visited the prison to see some one of its theater productions. Arena was let out of prison for filming but being a lifer behind bars is Arena's true reality -- albeit as one who got to star in a film. Arena is -- by the by--  quite good and were it not for his incarceration might star in more films. Then again if he'd never gone to prison he wouldn't have gone into theater and been discovered and been in a film and isn't fame interesting?





29 March 2014

Thank You Neil Young For Helping Me Write


"Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning,
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around." From Don't Let it Bring You Down by Neil Young
 

There is some disagreement about whether such a thing as writer's block really exists. Some claim to suffer from it at various times. Others say that it is a fiction created by people who are simply lazy. I know that at times when I try to write there's no there there. This only happens when I have nothing very specific to write about or when I don't have to write. Sometimes -- like today -- I really want to write and indeed feel I need to but the well seems bone dry.

That's when I turn to Neil Young. It never fails. I play some of his early music -- such as After the Gold Rush which I have on now -- and the problem is solved.

This is only my second blog post of the month after cranking out 15 in February all part of my Countdown to 60 series. I have however been quite prolific with my poetry having published 26 poems in March with two more waiting in the wings and maybe another one or two to follow. I have also been putting the finishing touches on my second unpublished novel. I have made steady progress on my third novel which will likely remain unpublished as well. Maybe I'll write a fourth book on how to write unpublishable fiction.

I've been reading a riveting non fiction book called The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn. It's difficult to write about the experience of reading the book. It recalls the world of the early teen years describing as it does much of the political and cultural atmosphere of the country in the mid and late 1960s even referencing Berkeley and San Francisco. Manson spent a short amount of time in Berkeley when I was about 12 years old. I don't recall seeming him around -- some joke.

Manson's story is utterly fascinating and depressing to me much in the same way I've always been intrigued by Hitler and the Nazis. Humans are pack animals and love a charismatic leader. Of course some individuals and groups are particularly vulnerable to messianic figures who claim to have all the answers and in turn require blind obedience. Hitler found large swaths of a country who would pledge loyalty and Manson built a huge "family" of over two dozen who would submit to his will even to the point of murder. This is a phenomenon that is not going away. Although one hopes that modern industrialized nations don't follow some loony to war (looking at young Putin) or that we don't have murderous cults preying upon the innocent. By the way Guinn's book is excellent and I highly recommend it although I don't review books for Amazon anymore and haven't in almost seven years yet I still get emailed requests to do so. Some of which are for the type of books I wouldn't read if you paid me.

Among the other books I've read recently was an excellent biography of Allen Ginsberg I Celebrate Myself by Bill Morgan. For me Ginsberg has become -- in addition to a favorite poet -- a favorite person. Speaking of Hitler Putin and Manson, Allen Ginsberg was the opposite being so much about peace love and the buddha. I'll set aside the topic for now as I'm thinking of dedicating a longer writing to Mr. Ginsberg but I did want to give him a shout out. Talk about a spirit that lives on....

Melancholy mornings I do go to work and riding the subway trolley walking and coffee and photocopying later I am full of piss and vinegar and spout my happy lessons to legions of students who do upwards learn. Successfully completing a day's work is one of the better feelings that can wash through your body. Like. If only the day did not stretch out so long with scrambling back through an hour long commute to return home still needing to tie up loose ends and then to relax at last taking tie off and eating dinner and watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and reading poetry and sleeping until doing it again blessed weekend comes only to zip by. But I. I. But. Happiness is not minding so much what burdens you carry what cares you care about and there I did it.

18 March 2014

Seven of the Films I've Watched of Late Some Were Okay Others Great

Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) I liked it a lot it was swell. I grinned from ear to ear from opening credits to closing credits and for several minutes thereafter. There's not much better a recommendation one can give a film. I suspect there are some who don't appreciate director Wes Anderson and his unique visual style and quirky characters. That's there problem. Anderson doesn't so much make movies as he creates worlds. This is the essence of story telling. This story is a doozy set as it is in a fictional European country in the 1930s and replete with all manner of character from the lovable to the detestable to the hilarious to the bizarrely eccentrically weird. The cast features over a dozen Hollywood stars many in very small roles indeed. This would suggest that actors are chomping at the bit to get into Anderson's films and who can blame them? Ralph Fiennes Tilda Swinton and F Murray Abraham are among the more prominently featured but the real star is the previously anonymous Tony Revolori as Zero the lobby boy. One suspects we'll be seeing a lot more of him and desperately hoping to see a lot more from the mind of one Wes Anderson.

Blue Jasmine (2013) on DVD Blanchett still amazing as anyone can see. I'm much more a fan of directors and am infinitely more likely to watch a movie because of who directed it rather than who starred in it. The few exceptions are with older films that star people like Cary Grant The Marx Brothers Humphrey Bogart Marlene Dietrich and Barbara Stanwyck. If I love a movie its probably because of my appreciation for the director's work than for an actor's. Rarely do I rave about actors. Blue Jasmine was written and directed by Woody Allen and in both roles he did his usual excellent job. However this is a Cate Blanchett film. Rarely does a performer so embody a role -- Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Kristin Scott Thomas in Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (2008) Sean Penn in Milk (2008) and Bette Davis in The Letter (1940) are other examples. This was my second viewing of Blue Jasmine having seen it when it hit theaters last Summer. Knowing "how it ends" I could better focus on Blanchett and marvel at her immersion into the character. I also noted how strong the supporting cast around her was particularly Sally Hawkins and Alec Baldwin. It's an Allen film but al hail the great Cate.

I Confess (1953) a Hitchcock film among his best. This is a criminally underrated Alfred Hitchcock movie. Montgomery Clift hears a confession of murder and is subsequently the chief suspect in the same murder. Of course he can't reveal what he was told in confession even though the murderer is a scoundrel (as most are) so for that matter is the victim. Meanwhile he's tangled up with a woman -- Anne Baxter -- who knew the victim and its all rather complicated or would be if it weren't for the fact that Hitchcock was the director and he had a way of making complex stories accessible and understandable without dumbing them down an iota. I suppose I Confess just gets lost in the shuffle among all of Hitch's great work but in my mind its great in its own right.

The Human Comedy (1943) here is a movie I never again want to see. Just preceding and after US entry into World War II Hollywood cranked out a lot of thinly disguised propaganda films meant to stir public ire against the Axis and stimulate patriotism. Surprisingly a lot of these ended up being damn good films even a classic or two such as Casablanca (1942). However the Human Comedy directed by Clarence Brown and starring Mickey Rooney was not among them. To call it sentimental pap would be an insult to sentimental pap everywhere. Spoiler alert: at the end of the film Rooney has just found out his big brother Marcus has died in the war. On his way home to tell the family a friend of his brother who served in the army with him shows up. He's been injured in the war. The film ends with Rooney entering the house where he tells ma and siblings that "the solider has returned". The end. Of course the family will expect that Marcus will walk in. Not only will it be a stranger instead but they'll then learn that Marcus is dead. Utterly ludicrous. Up until then the film is just a study in unrealistic sentiment. The ending is just intellectually insulting.

The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975) (2011) a very good documentary and that ain't no jive. When I was in high school we took a field trip to Black Panther Party headquarters in Oakland. Later I briefly dated Huey Newton's sister-in-law. I was enamored of the Panthers and the black power movement growing up as I did in Berkeley during their heyday. Both the Panthers and the black power movement took some wrong turns but their principal impact was to make the civil rights movement relevant to a younger generation and teaching that turning another cheek wasn't the only response to virulent racism. This documentary was culled from Swedish TV documentary and news programs of the period. It is excellent. It offers a fine overview of the time and from a fairly neutral perspective though truth be told most Northern European nations couldn't help but be sympathetic to the struggle for black power in the US. Were I still teaching US History I would use large section of the Black Power Mixtape.

Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) a German film with a lot of violence and a little sex. I'll grant you this was an excellent history lesson for anyone and it is an engaging story that maintained my interest for its entire two hour plus running time. BMC is a fine introduction to the radical left movement that employed violence in the 1970's. But there is no center to it and very little way in character development and is ultimately superficial as cinematic art. It was good enough to preview its subject matter but not good enough to make me want to explore it. Meh.

La Vie de Boheme (1992) a film so great I want to scream. I have never purchased a film for my DVD collection without first having seen it and loved it. So it was quite a surprise that I put La Vie de Boheme on my Amazon wish list. It was quite a delight that the missus gave it to me for my birthday. Why such confidence that I would love the movie? In large part because Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has yet to make a film I didn't at least really like and everything I read about LVDB as the good folks at Criterion previewed its coming release convinced me that this was one of his best. It is. LVDB is set in Paris and centers around three struggling artists -- a musician a writer and a painter. One finds love one finds some success they all find that life and love are often to be endured. It is as beautiful and honest a film as you'll ever see and indeed proof that honesty in art often equals beauty. In glorious black and white.


08 March 2014

The Wind Blows at Midnight a Non Sequitur in Three Parts


"...the crash inside my soul when you think of babyhood..." - from Tristessa by Jack Kerouac

ONE
On the trolley going to work yesterday reading Ginsberg poems large butted Pacific Islander woman wearing a pound of make up on face sits next to me plays games on smart phone. I sigh. I read. I get to work. I work. I head back to Berkeley. BART trains not moving due to police action. Announcements thank me for patience but I never get to say you're welcome. Delay amounts to 30 minutes equivalent to half an hour. (Later discover this police action was due to suspected kidnapping that wasn't. Gee thanks.) Meet wife downtown Berkeley have pizza go to play at Berkeley Rep called "The House That Will Not Stand." I stand at end to give ovation of the non sitting variety.

This morning watch my favorite British footie team win match (The Arsenal!) and am happy. Go to Telegraph Avenue. At Moe's buy book of William Carlos Williams poems. Sit in Peets sipping freddo (not the weak brother in The Godfather. The caffeinated beverage). Three young men look college age sit at nearby table. One is upset others comfort him. Looks serious. Looks like friends taking care of friend. This is good.

I walk home. The mail has arrived and it consists of one unwanted catalogue. Yawn. Next will watch a movie. Perhaps one I got on DVD for birthday last week. (Had a nice birthday. Dinner with wife daughters two nephews a niece great nephew and others. Any day holding a baby is a good day.)

TWO
Have not written here about movies much lately spent last month counting down to the aforementioned birthday. Also been working and sleeping and commuting and reading and a few times sneezing and looking at clouds. Clouds are nice. They offer shade and sometimes carry rain and can even be in different shapes and sizes and sometimes -- sometimes -- they come en masse and cover the sky. They can change a sunny day to a dark one. Many people object to this but not me. Differences.

So when will I write about movies again? Was going to now but jus' not feelin' it. Y'all. Happens. For me writing is important but the subject isn't always. As long as I'm releasing words from wherever they store up inside me -- heart? soul? brain? -- so I don't get literature constipation. Same reason to run. The sweat brother (you too sister).

Sometimes it is impossible to write about a movie because the experience of watching it and listening to it and making an experience of it is too much to put into words without a compelling reason like someone is going to give me money for it (who would do that?). I can't just muddle through a mediocre writing of a great film and justify it to myself. Not even. Also some films are such transitory experiences of the fashion that you don't want to bother with reliving them. And then there's laziness.

THREE
From pharmacy to bookstore I walked past the middle school where I labored for some 20 years. Hadn't set foot on its grounds for over five years. Nor even walked by. I gazed upon the earth and asphalt upon which I trod so often in so many moods after so many happenstances and with so many opinions and feelings and ideas and in so many conundrums and dilemmas and carrying so many burdens and joys.

Twas like I never left and like I'd not been there in this life. I realized that I will always have been there and I have will always be there and am in there now/then/later and it is all as one and there is no more a today than there was a yesterday or that there will be a tomorrow. There just is a flickering moment seen from light years away and it has no meaning and all meaning encompassing as it does everything. That is nothing.

We are all so reactive. We never let things be or see them as they are. They must be interpreted and viewed through a prism. Staring aggressively our eyes searching for meaning and ideas that aren't there and were never meant to be and we are so certain of how they are. Thus anger and resentment and longing. Instead of being. Least I think so.


28 February 2014

"We Have Lift Off I Am Officially 60" The Conclusion of My Month Long Autobiographical Series - Countdown to 60

My big bro and I some years ago.

"I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we've passed the audition." - John Lennon after The Beatles rooftop concert their last live performance.

The best time to be happy is right now. And I am.

If I had to do it all over again...well I don’t and neither does anyone else. It’s rather the point of this whole exercise. We get second chances at certain things but not the whole thing itself. This life business. We have to make do with what we did do.

Someone recently asked me if it was difficult to write some of what I’ve described here. The answer is no. Some of it was difficult to live through but writing about it after the fact is a stroll around the block.

I was a shortstop in Little League.
Some people I know claim that their lives have been wonderfully free of any serious problems or turmoil. How dreadfully dull. Of course one shouldn't look for heartache and strife and I hope that my children avoid it but it is through the hard times the misfortunes and the upsets that we learn and grow and become. We can't always control what happens to us but we do control how we respond. In given situations sometimes we crumble or tumble and other times respond and grow and grain strength.

I’m not entirely certain what this exercise of living on planet Earth for however long we get is all about. Many pretend to know and to that end they create entire religious beliefs that in turn sometimes get into conflict with people who have different belief systems. These conflicts have resulted in the premature deaths of tens of millions of people over the millennia. Rigid belief systems have caused irreparable damage in other ways too. Limiting self expression oppressing groups of people and stifling creativity are just a few examples. I find myself much happier acknowledging that I don’t know what its all about but continually trying to understand what I can and never stopping in my pursuit of enlightenment.

My approach to life has been to lower my shoulder and forge ahead. It has served me well as an employee. I show up and put in a day’s work for a day’s pay. Meanwhile I find pleasure in the arts principally films literature and music and by getting as many yuks in the course of a day as is possible. I also keep fit which is and end in itself. Long hard runs feel really good at the time and create euphoria in their immediate aftermath. I subsequently enjoy not having a protruding belly. Of course the primary ingredient to a happy life is love. To love and be loved are the greatest experiences one can hope for in life.

It seems I’m heading in the direction of giving advice so I’ll go ahead and get on with it.

Richard’s Tips For A Happy Healthy Life

Have a high fiber diet. No details just trust me on this one.
Plenty of sex. I assume there are no questions here.
Develop an appreciation for the arts. This can include sports as well but principally I refer to arts in the traditional sense.
Stay fit. It’s not so much a matter of living longer but so that you can be healthy and thus enjoy the time you have. Exercise helps you emotionally as much if not more than physically.
Never stop learning. If you do your intellect atrophies. Warning the more you learn the more you'll want to learn.
Accentuate the positive. There is more than enough to be negative about and it is important to shine a light on all the horrors and annoyances of the world but for goodness sake live in what is positive.
Have positive obsessions. Obsess about things that make you happy or at least leave you feeling fulfilled. To act contrarily is to get eaten alive by resentments.

Chico News & Review staff 1978. As usual I manage to be the
center of attention.
Vote for and support the champions of the oppressed and unfortunate. If you’re looking for a political figure or party to back why not settle on those who fight for the poor the voiceless the forgotten and the needy. Any party or person who exists to keep the rich and powerful entrenched needs strong opposition.
Don’t brood over your mistakes. Learn from them and move.
Find work that you love so that it doesn’t feel like work. I was asked not long ago when I planned on retiring. Why would I retire from a job I love so much? It’s like asking someone when they’re going to stop eating pizza. Only when I have to.
Have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change and the courage to change the things you. Having the wisdom to know the difference is good too.
Laugh. Whenever possible. It’s really good for you.

So here I am at six zero (I refuse to preface with “the big”). I still feel like a kid and unless I’m around small children I always feel like one of the younger ones in a room full of people. When I was a kid older people were grown ups or adults. They were people of an unimaginable age who knew better and did things like pay bills and work at jobs and they could be mean and were hopelessly square. Supposedly I became a grown up at some point as I worked and paid bills and knew better and could be mean too but I don’t think I was ever hopelessly square and never felt fully mature or old. Maybe I’m all screwed up in this respect or maybe I’ve got it together. In either case life’s worked out pretty well. I keep expecting to some day feel like a grown up but I’m not losing sleep over it.

I’ve had some bad breaks and made colossal mistakes and made bewildering decisions along with outright stupid ones but I wouldn’t trade places with anyone else. I’ve learned the importance of humility. Suffice to say that I’ve figured out that to find my own worst enemy all I need is a mirror. I can also find in that mirror a pretty decent guy who never meant any harm and may have made a small contribution to the world. Oh and if I’m looking in that mirror today I hope I’m seeing someone who is going to be around a lot longer. Life is just getting to be really fun.

(This series is dedicated to my mother Gertrude Marie Hourula (nee Kurki). Mom, I’m sorry we never really got a chance to talk.)

27 February 2014

"TIme May Change Me But I Can't Trace Time" Part 14 of My Month Long Autobiographical Series - Countdown to 60

Yours truly in Paris last May.


“Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” - Jack Kerouac.

Great now what do I do? I’d been a public school teacher for 20 years. I was 54 years old and my skill set was limited to teaching editing and writing. It took me all of about three weeks to set my next course in motion. I would teach ESL to adults. I had a very good if somewhat foolish reason for reaching this decision: it would allow me to move to Europe and teach there. Perfect. I sort of forgot the part about having a wife who was not ready to pull up stakes and changes continents on my whim. It took me an embarrassingly long time to see that we weren’t leaving any time soon. (I hasten to add that this plan could well be set in motion when the missus retires.)

Be that as it may going back to school to get a TEFL certificate (Teacher of a Foreign Language) is one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever made.

Through my coursework at UC Berkeley Extension I met some wonderful fellow students (many in my age group) and had some truly grand professors highlighted by Dr. Sedique Popal one of the best people I’ve ever met -- let alone took classes from.

But while I was taking classes by night and weekend I would need to bring in a bit of cash. So I took my vast teaching experience to the fetid cesspool that is the Oakland Unified School District (Berkeley Unified and I were done with each other) and began the easy and impossible task of being a sub again.

Substitute teaching has the considerable benefits of not requiring one to grade papers plan lessons or attend meetings. But the rest of the job can be either frightfully boring or just plain horrible. Not to mention depressing. But that’s if one contemplates it and once I left whatever site I was at for the day I managed to put the work day out of my mind.

Students have always treated substitute teachers like they are the lowest form of society and when you go into a hell hole like Oakland it can be particularly bad. If a school was especially bad I simply crossed it off my list. Oakland is a big district so there were still plenty of schools to be slightly less miserable at. The response of administrators and staff to the mayhem that could take place with a sub in the room varied. Some schools had a zero tolerance for misbehavior and dealt with ruffians swiftly and efficiently. Others took their sweet time with mealy mouthed responses and at still others you were left to twist in the wind. At one high school there was all manner of insanity going on in a classroom. I spotted a vice principal passing by and told him of the miscreants and their misdeeds. His response: “leave the teacher a note she’s pretty good at following up.” He then went on his way. Suffice to say I never showed up at that madhouse again.

Some of my better subbing days were at a continuation high school where the students who couldn’t hack it in the regular schools were sent. The creme de la creme in reverse. All the rotten apples in one place. It no doubt sounds counterintuitive to suggest that this was a nicer place to be assigned but it was. Many of these kids had parole officers most had had some sort of scrap with the law and all had far far better things to do then with mess teachers even if they were subs. Most students simply didn’t show up. Those that did were either there for social interaction or in rare cases to work towards their graduation. Most subs would not go to the school which meant I got plenty of gigs there. The students would test me. They would try to bully me and when they saw I didn’t scare would leave me alone. The way to earn respect is to not flinch and  I didn’t. Students had no end game if they tried intimidation. They were never going to hit you because that would mean expulsion and jail. So I got a reputation among the students and the pretty much let me be and I let them be.

Finally I got my TOEFL certificate and was freed from the drudgery of subbing. I could actually teach again.  Really teach. My own lessons to my own students in my own classroom. And this time I’d be with cooperative mature appreciative students. Bliss.

In July of 2011 I started working at an international language school in San Francisco. I am still there today. The first few months working there was like a long protracted orgasm. Students from all over the world -- most between 18-25 but of all ages beyond -- who were polite kind smart and happy. To teach happy people! My co workers were the nicest people on the planet and funny clever and full of mirth. The boss was totally supportive of teachers and a regular human being with a soul and heart. This was a school?

Some of the initial euphoria has died off now two and half years later and many of my original colleagues have moved on as has the boss. But the new boss is equally grand and the new teachers are wonderful too. I’m still treated to delightful students. Thus far I have had students from at least 41 different countries.

Since leaving public school teaching I’ve finally resumed writing regularly and this blog is but one example. I’ve completed a second novel (the first done while I was teaching has been rejected too many times to count and I believe the primary reason for this is that it is no damn good) which I am readying for publication and a prolonged stint on the best seller list (a fella can dream). I’ve also made progress on a third which will become an international sensation (again dreaming is right not a privilege) and I have started writing poetry as my poetry blog proves.

There has also been two trips to Europe which have -- among other things -- caused me to fall madly in love with Paris. I know I’m not the first. A long overdue sojourn to Finland is up next.

During my last year of public school teaching my father died. Though he was 92 it was too soon. Dad had lived 91 healthy happy productive years before a fluke fall caused a head injury from which he died ten months later. Aimo Hourula was a remarkable man and I miss him still. He was beloved by both his sons and six grandchildren in addition to countless others. The man knew how to live. Dad pursued life with energy and enthusiasm setting an example I hope to follow.

Two years ago my big brother died much much too soon at the age of 64 as I recounted on this blog the day it happened. I can only hope to be half as good a man as he was. Mom had died in 2001 a few years before I was able to forgive her for unwittingly putting me through hell. When my big brother died I was left the sole survivor of the family I grew up in. It was and still is a weird feeling. At times I feel desperately alone. I am extremely fortunate to have a family of my own. Nothing means more to me. The kiddies are grown and I must say the missus and I did a good job or raising them.

Tomorrow this series concludes.

25 February 2014

"Disrupting the Dharma of My Teaching " Part 13 of My Month Long Autobiographical Series - Countdown to 60

The last team that I coached.

“Teachers, let me tell you, are born deceivers of the lowest sort, since what they want from life is impossible -- time-freed existential youth forever. it commits them to terrible deceptions and departures from the truth”. - From The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

During my first year as a teacher I gave my classes a test that a higher percentage than I would have expected failed or barely passed. I was mystified. I thought it was a good fair test and that I had adequately prepared them. I spotted the principal in the hallways right after school and told her what had transpired. Her reply was as follows: “that’s a sign of bad teaching.” And she walked away.

And this ladies and gents was one of the better administrators I encountered. (She later went on to be the superintendent of a school district.) They got worse. Much.

After over 20 years in public schools it is my considered opinion that the average school administrator is a species best kept away from teachers students and schools in general. They are soulless bureaucrats whose primary talents lie in quoting the “latest research” avoiding law suits and going prostrate before any fellow administrator to whom they answer. They are of course all former teachers and they are generally people who have total amnesia when it comes to understanding what goes on in a classroom. I didn’t care for ‘em.

Part of their creation is the modern form of teacher evaluation. The following is absolutely true: in all the evaluations I had no one ever looked at the kind of tests I gave how I prepared students for them or how I graded them. No one ever looked at the kind of projects I assigned how I prepared students for them or how I graded them. Not once did anyone look into the homework I gave or how I related to students on a one-on-one basis -- an essential part of teaching. Here’s what was looked at: the arrangement of my desks the amount of student work on my walls and the allegation that I was once reading the newspaper during a district staff development meeting.

Suffice to say that administrators were the bane of my existence. Students could be difficult but they had the excuse of being 13 or so years old. Some parents were a bit eccentric nutty or abrasive but the vast majority were peaches. Fellow teachers -- with an exception or two -- were paragons. Indeed the average public school teacher is a saint and I was humbled and honored to be among their company.

My late great friend Grizz goofing with a student.
I made many friends during my public schools days and none was better than the multi named Grizz. Born Richard Brown and mostly known as Rick as a teen he got the nickname Grizzly or Grizz which is what most of us called him. He changed his named to Saad Muhammad when he became a Muslim. Grizz was a wrestler and a competitor in world’s strongest man competitions who traveled the globe displaying feats of strength and in the process meeting various bigwigs include her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Grizz was once in the Guinness book of world records for having the world’s largest biceps.

At our school he was one of a trio of student safety officers who protected our student body dealt with disciplinary issues and counseled wayward youth. In the latter area Grizz excelled. Here was a big mountain of man with a booming voice softly extolling the virtues of a getting an education and leading a disciplined life. Students loved him. He in turn loved students and loved life. He was an erudite chap who though lacking a formal education past high school was a well read man who could discuss all manner of topics be they current events sports history or crime lore. Grizz was a sensitive man who was easily moved to tears when we discussed our mutual hero Muhammad Ali. He was the best friend I ever had. We thought of one another as brothers. He called me -- most affectionally mind you -- a Finnish nigger.

Most of all Grizz loved his two step sons and his own natural son. This made his death in 2002 of liver and kidney failure especially tragic. The boys were two six and twelve years old. I miss the man still as I will for the remainder of my days.

If you want to go into the teaching profession you’ve got to have a real flaming passion burning like a wildfire. You can’t go in half assed. Teachers get knocked on their rears on a daily basis and have to be able to bounce back up without hesitation. Patience is not enough in fact I’m not so sure its a virtue for educators. You haven’t got time to be patient you’ve got to push pull and kick to get results. I was more than once told that I played soccer with reckless abandon. Well I taught that way too. Most students responded positively though I rubbed some the wrong way. I was at least successful at combatting the boredom that surrounds middle school students like a fog. Besides innovative lesson plans I was an effective lecturer because -- as even administrators had to admit -- I was a natural storyteller and what is history but stories.

The bests parts of my job were not actually when I was teaching history. One was as the faculty advisor to the school newspaper. We produced a terrific monthly paper for years on end filled with hard news charming features hilarious comedy pieces and thoughtful columns and editorials. My main function was to turn over the running of the paper to students and staying out of their way. I gave them suggestions guidance and my trust and they responded wonderfully. The other role I loved was as the school’s soccer coach. We had a dynasty and moreover our players (both boys and girls) represented the school admirably. While I was often frustrated with trying to teach hellions I loved coaching and mentoring young people who were eager to be there. I can objectively say that I was loved as a coach. My secrets were making sure players enjoyed themselves (“play hard have fun” I always said) and felt good about themselves. Simple really. I still miss coaching and likely always will.


Former student now a Golden Globe winner.
I was far happier in my work than I ever realized. It is hard to be self analytical when you are so thoroughly absorbed with what you’re doing. But in being so immersed in my work I was losing who I was and what I was doing. I had become something other than myself. I had ceased to be Richard or Rip or Riku or Ace or Rich the Finn or anything else I’d been or been called. I was so wrapped up in being Mr. Hourula I didn’t know who I had buried within myself.

Eventually I had enough. I could have dealt with students and all the attendant headaches for longer but the goddamned administrators...They didn’t like me and I didn’t like them. Once an administrator told me that I should never trust an administrator. I later discovered that he was one of the ones I couldn’t trust.

In August of 2008 I resigned. The expression “the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders” perfectly describes how I felt. I could have skipped down the street. Truth: I skipped down the street.

I was and am very proud of the service I gave to the school the community and of course the students who entered my classrooms. I could have been a better teacher but for a lot of students I was pretty damn good.

Now I could take on new adventures -- the most important of which was self discovery. This would be accompanied by a sudden and most personally welcome boom in my writing.

Before I move on from my public school teaching career I offer the following anecdotes each of which -- I swear to whatever deity you worship -- is true.
Once received a note from a tardy student written by her mother which said the following: “Please excuse Rochanda for being late she had a painful bowl movement.” You know what if you pass a bowl through your rectum it is bound to hurt.
On a test a student once identified Pearl Harbor as “the woman who dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.” I guess that’s why they named a naval base after her.
Asked to describe village life in West Africa during the time of the European Slave Trade one student wrote that “it would be hard cause you wouldn’t have no cable TV.” Truth.
During the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal a female student stood up for Clinton saying that it was his wife’s fault for not doing all the things she was supposed to then followed up by asking to me “Mr. Hourula don’t your wife regularly give you.....” I’ll leave the rest to your imagination suffice to say she used a graphic term for a certain sexual act. This query -- as inappropriate as it was in a middle school classroom -- produced one of the greatest laughs I’ve ever enjoyed.
I was once mystified because none of my students knew who James Naismith the inventor of basketball was. Finally I indicated a student named Sam and said: “he invented what Sam does after school everyday.” To which Maura replied (without missing a beat): “James Naismith invented mastrubation?” Ya can’t make this stuff up.