You meet some great people on Amtrak

She's 67 and she's got 15 grandkids and five greats. The oldest grand is 35. She had seven kids but 14 pregnancies. It used to be that you could look at her and she'd get pregnant. The last one, though, he's got a different father and that man wasn't supposed to be able to have kids. He had mumps and the doctors said he was infertile. We coulda sued them doctors. All those kids were preemies and every one of 'em is over 6 feet tall now, and look at me--they call me shrimp. The oldest is 51, then 48, then 47... The oldest great grandkid is 15, so you figure if she has a baby in the next ten years, I'll be a great great grandmother. My youngest is 23, but she didn't come out of my belly. She's my sister's kid, but I raised her. She's my youngest. The youngest that came from me is my son. He's 35. He was reading at 2 years old. He was always advanced. When he was eleven, they wanted me to send him back east to a school for gifted kids, but I wouldn't do it. That's too far. Virginia, it was in Virginia. He went to college, but just before he was gonna be finished, he messed up and left there and came home. I told him, you go get your masters, your bachelors and any other degrees they're offering. Finally, he went back. He got his bachelors and his masters. He wants to be a sports commentator. One of my grands is in a group home in Sacramento. She's the only one I'm legally responsible for. I raised several of 'em because I didn't like the way my daughters was raising them. They said, "if you don't like they way we're doing it, why don't you do it," so I did. I believe in prevention, but not abortion.

Another First Draft Poem

Alter Image

The idea of me

that you keep in an alcove

of your mind

bothers me.

I want to take her away

and carry her around,

whacking her carelessly

into tables, leaving her

for a time head down

in the toy chest; later,

buried feet to armpits

in the sandbox

in a rainstorm.

Then I think of that alcove

empty, two votives burning

(or, worse, not burning),

and I want to put me back—

the new me: chipped, ripped,

bruised, wet. Is there a place

for a creature like that

in your mind?

Would the revised me

be relegated to a dark

storage closet with other

damaged icons?

I imagine the idea of me,

no longer able to stand,

propped against an idea

of your mother,

once cherished, now tarnished

and gathering dust.

Who else is on those shelves?

Maybe it's better if I leave

your idea of me


glowing softly in the candlelight

unaware of her own

impossibility, of her distance

from me.

After all, she isn't mine,

she's yours.

A little old, a little new, something home-made, something blue

Someone asked me recently about my workspace, so here's a picture of it. My laptop is on an old desk that belonged to some family member in the past, while my keyboard sits on a rolling pine table that I made to fit under the desk. I intended to stain it so that it wouldn't stand out so much against the darker desk, but I haven't got around to it yet, as I want a non-toxic and non-smelly stain.

In other news:

I went to Sacramento this weekend and had a good visit with friends and family. Got to meet one new person and got to introduce several people to each other. Lots of laughter, which is always a good thing. Incidentally, my mom recently went to a laughing yoga class (which sounds funny, yes, and that's a good thing). They said something like a minute of deep belly-laughing is like 10 minutes of exercise!

Many opportunities for laughter were available on Sunday when my friend R and I went to Grass Valley to see a matinee performance of The Philadelphia Story at the Center for the Arts. Before you think we were laughing at poor Tom Hanks dying of AIDS, please remember that that film was simply called "Philadelphia." The play we saw (originally seen on Broadway in 1939 and the following year made into a movie with Katherine Hepburn reprising her role from the stage) is a romantic comedy. It was funny and the a fine local performance, all the more fun because my friend, T.E. Wolfe, was one of the male leads (in the role for which Jimmy Stewart won his only Oscar). So, if you're looking for an excuse to go up to the hills, this is a good one. It plays for another couple of weekends.

Playing Dress-Ups!

While helping my mom go through a closet, I came across this antique dress. We believe it belonged to my great-great grandmother, Dulcibel Brown who was born in 1856. My mom remembers being told by her mother (who passed it on to her) that it was an everyday work dress. I hope that Dulcy was quite a bit smaller around the ribs than I am, as I can't imagine doing any work in it! An interesting feature is that the buttons down the front (waist to neck) are like cuff-links. That is, both sides of the placket have buttonholes, and they are held closed by two buttons adjoined by sturdy thread. If anybody knows about the history of clothes and knows why this would be done (rather than the usual way of attaching a button to one side and having a button hole in the other), please tell me.
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Cultural Icon

I went and saw Nikki Giovanni last night at the Oakland Museum. Showed up later than I had originally planned, which is not such a common thing for me. In fact, I almost didn't go at all when I realized I was going to be later than the door-opening time, but fortunately I did go. They didn't open the doors at 6:45, but there was already quite a long line when I arrived at 7 as expected. Anyway, just as I got up to the theater doors, they started turning people away toward the auditorium and the live feed video screen. Rather than being a good sheep, I stood around, determined that there would be a space for me in the theater. Sure enough, my patience paid off and I ended up in the 2nd row!

Ms. Giovanni was amazing--truth-telling, joke-cracking, story-telling, gossiping, haranguing, scolding, praising, even a little play-acting, and smiling her dazzling smile. She has a no-nonsense straight-ahead style that matched her menswear look of necktie and suit, but also a really mischievous side. She seemed to be really enjoying herself quite thoroughly.

I think it was a special treat to see her in Oakland, as she seems to have a fond spot in her heart for us. Before she was introduced, the host of the event told the audience that we were going to have to be really efficient to do get autographs signed because we had to be out of the parking garage by 9:30. One of the first things Ms. Giovanni said was that she understood having to be out of the building but she wasn't going to turn anybody away. "We can go out on the street. I don't care. I'm not afraid of Oakland."

She talked about meeting Rosa Parks in an airport, and about her mother and sister dying of cancer, and she took Barack Obama to task for not defending Rev. Wright enough and took the Black community to task for bagging on Tavis for complaining about Obama dissing him, and she talked about gun control (for it), and about people being anti-abortion and then not wanting to provide any services for those born children. She criticized Juno as the dumbest movie of the year and criticized "Hils" for running a racist campaign. She talked about the books she's written, and she even read several poems, but mostly she talked. It wasn't, however, rambling and disconnected as I've made it seem through my stream-of-consciousness listing, but a coherent and cogent performance.

If you ever get the chance... go see her!

Happy Earth Day

I'd like you to parse that [Happy Earth] Day. It's easy to make fun of National [whatever] Day or Week or Month because it can imply that the rest of the time [whatever] can be ignored. (Think of Black History Month, Women's History Month, etc.)

While I understand those objections, I'd like to be less cynical than that and think of today as a day to bring our attention into sharper focus on issues that we are concerned with every day. Today is also a day to celebrate what we are doing right for the earth and to renew our commitments to do more (or at least not to slacken our resolve or give up in despair).

We don't have to do anything different today, just be aware, pay attention and be conscious of how we live. On the other hand, today might be a good day to start a new habit.

If you haven't discovered Grist yet, go check it out. It's an environmental news and commentary magazine, but so much funnier and hipper than that sounds!

For a local organization working on a lot of good causes, check out the Ella Baker Center, whose tagline is "Working for justice in the system, opportunity in our cities, and peace on our streets." Keep your eye on the founder, Van Jones, who is likely (I think) to be a key national figure soon. Look for him in President Obama's cabinet! Jones works on environmental issues and urban poverty issues, besides being a great and motivational speaker, with charisma to spare.

Have a beautiful day!

Next Year's Sitch

Several people have asked for more info about the school I'll be at next year. You can find the school website here, and a school blog written by students and staff here.

I will be teaching English Language Learners and struggling readers, as well as having an advisory group.

I will get to the school from here by (first) walking to Ashby BART, (then) riding BART to Richmond, and (finally) walking to the school. If I get impatient with the walking parts, I might replace them with bike riding, as I can put my bike on the train.

I have signed the contract and am excited to start in the fall. I may do a little planning work with the principal in June before I go to Australia.

Is this a satisfactory amount of info? What else d'you want to know?

House of Plastic Flowers

Here is the House of Plastic Flowers of which I wrote in the nearly-eponymously titled post. Isn't it great? Don't you want to walk up those steps? Doesn't it feel like a party or a celebration is about to begin?

A Long Bike Ride

I signed up to do some trash pick up at a park in Richmond this morning, a little gesture for Earth Day. So, I had a long bike ride this morning from my house to the Bay Trail in Berkeley to Richmond. I wish I could post a map with the bike route I took on it , but I can't figure out a way.

Anyhow, I rode over into Emeryville, then up to Berkeley Aquatic Park, over the freeway on the bike bridge to the Berkeley Marina, then north along the Bay Trail to Golden Gate Racetrack in Albany. The trail ends there, but one can ride back behind the racetrack (it's a little hill) and down to the Albany Bulb. From there I picked up the Bay Trail again and rode up past Point Isabel (which features a huge dog park next to the trail).

My intended destination was Vincent Park, Richmond. I was expecting a filthy shoreline where we'd be picking up broken bottles and dirty needles and old tires.

After the Meeker Slough, I found myself riding along a very well-kept trail with landscaping on both sides and quite populated byjoggers and bike riders and walkers who presumably lived in the gated community to my right. I kept going and came to a bay full of sailboats and kept going until the trail ended at a chainlink fence and an oak tree. Heading into the parking lot there, I found a map which told me that I was at Lucretia Edwards Park and had gone right past Vincent Park.

I rode back to Vincent Park (my jaunt to Lucretia having added an extra 4.4 miles to my trip--there's a detailed map of Richmond Marina with mileage here), where the group was getting off to a late start and in fact was heading further back down the trail to another park I had passed, Shimada Peace Park. I locked up there, and then we walked down the trail back to the slough area, and just beyond that we picked up trash. It wasn't that trashy looking until we got down in it.

A great proportion of the trash was from convenience foods: plastic straws, plastic drink caps, styrofoam bits from containers, plastic to-go coffee lids, foil chip bags, etc. I was thinking how good it would be to do a lesson with kids that included nutrition and environmental issues and included a little shore cleanup.

[Let me note that I did not come across any plastic flowers!]

It took me about an hour to get home, riding easy and slow. The best I could figure out, it's probably between 8-10 miles from my house up to Vincent Park, so my total today was at least 20 miles, maybe as much as 25--anyway, a lot more than usual!

I'm sorry I didn't bring my camera and have no photos to post.

Plastic Flowers

How do I feel about plastic flowers? Scorn. Disdain. Like any imitation, they are obviously inferior to the Real Thing, right? They belong with polyester, flavors instead of extracts, shake-on parmesan cheese, fake wood paneling. No, don't try to talk to me about silk flowers, either.

But how do I explain this without acknowledging classism and snobbery, things I don't want to admit to? I'm a lot more careful about flinging around the word 'tacky' than I used to be as a young person. Declaring something 'tacky' is just another way of saying, "I have better taste than that; whoever would like/choose/do that is inferior to me." I'm not comfortable making that judgment, or maybe I am, but I'm not happy about it, it's not something I want to encourage in myself.

Back to plastic flowers. When I lived in the Solomon Islands, I witnessed a couple of weddings in our village. They both involved some of the more prominent, better-off families in the community. By this I mean they had a little more access to money than other families in this subsistence-agriculture based village, and also a certain amount of prestige (whether that stemmed from the outside-money access or whether the prestige had allowed for the opportunities to gain material advantages was not clear). Anyway, both weddings featured plastic flowers--plastic bouquets held by the brides. This is the tropics. There were gorgeous flowers growing all over the place, and many of these were in fact used to decorate the church. The flowers of honor, however, were the plastic ones.

Of course I cannot scorn this use of plastic flowers. My desire to see things through others' eyes allows me several reasonable explanations of why someone would choose plastic over natural. They might be a way of displaying wealth, as plastic flowers are obviously bought, while real flowers are free. (Displays of wealth seem an important part of weddings around the world and across very diverse cultures, but that's another topic.) The flowers' permanence might also be attractive, not wilting in the tropical heat, and they could be kept on display in the home forever as a reminder of the day. The plastic flowers also came in colors and shapes not available in the local naturally-occurring flora.

Here in Oakland, I have a neighbor who, during the winter, fills her flowerbeds with plastic flowers. You might expect that a person who did that was not a gardener, the plastic flowers being the best she could do. In fact, she is a terrific gardener and the flower beds have real flowers in the summer. She also has a large vegetable garden which looks very productive. She is one of few neighbors who regularly hangs her laundry on an outdoor line. I like her without knowing her. She helps undermine my prejudice against plastic flowers, or at least against the people who have them.

This morning I came across another plastic-flower displaying house. I'm going to go back and take a picture because I was utterly charmed and delighted by the house. Not in a condescending "Oh, aren't those (foreign/different) people interesting?" kind of way. At least I hope not. I think my feeling was genuine pleasure at what someone had done with plastic flowers. It would have been possible with real flowers, but it would have lasted only a few hours, and I wouldn't have had the pleasure of seeing it on an early morning walk. Who knew I would ever come so far from my scorn and disdain?

continuing with the posting of new poems in the rough

The Pedestal

It got where she was used

to the pedestal.

She couldn't even remember

when or how she was put there.

But then she decided

she didn't like it. She wanted


So she took a deep breath

and leapt, kicking the plinth

as she went.

She heard it fall, and

shatter. That was when

she realized that she herself

had not fallen,

that she couldn't breathe,

that she was hanging

from the silk cord

she had always thought was

a scarf.

Feeling Twainish

I finished (re)reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn last night, so I thought I'd share a few choice quotes before putting it back on the shelf. [The emboldening is mine, the italics are Twain's.]

" 'You've put on considerable many frills since I been away. I'll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You're educated, too, they say; can read and write. You think you're better'n your father, now, don't you, because he can't? I'll take it out of you. Who told you you might meddle with such hifalut'n foolishness, hey? --who told you you could?

'...looky here -- you drop that school, you hear? I'll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better'n what he is. You lemme catch you fooling around that school again, you hear? Your mother couldn't read, and she couldn't write, nuther, before she died. None of the family couldn't, before they died. I can't; and here you're a-swelling yourself up like this. I ain't the man to stand it--you hear? Say--lemme hear you read.' "

"'Is a cat a man, Huck?'
'Well, den dey ain't no sense in a cat talkin' like a man. Is a cow a man? --er is a cow a cat?'
'No, she ain't either of them.'
'Well, den, she ain' got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of 'em. Is a Frenchman a man?'
'Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan' he talk like a man? You answer me dat!' "

"I ain't opposed to spending money on circuses, when there ain't no other way, but there ain't no use in wasting it on them."

New Change

I got a job offer this morning at a school I'd like to work at doing something I'd like to do! Lucky me. I'm waiting on the contract, but it seems highly likely that I've got my plans in place for fall.

It feels great not to have to think about it any more and to be able to look forward to a new setting, new duties, new colleagues, a new organization and a new mission. There's nothing quite so heady as change, especially when you're feeling fed-up and dissatisfied with what you're currently doing.

More details at a later date!

Another bit of writing I've just started working on

Children's stories are full of late bloomers:

the ugly duckling, cinderella, sleeping beauty,

snow white, and various enchanted beasts & frogs

& bears who turn out to be handsome princes.

The message is clear:

don't despair, you may feel

out of place, ugly, unappreciated, thwarted by enemies

and jealous old people, but at just the right time

something magical will happen

and you will get what you deserve:

your rightful beauty, a place in the palace,

perfect love.

You go on about your life,

holding in the back of your mind the idea

that you will be a late bloomer,

And then you realize that the time for blooming

is past.

You show no hints of latent buds

curled tight and waiting for just enough

light and heat to unfurl and dazzle the world

with opulent petals and heavenly scent; no,

no signs of that.

But you're not dead or even dying,

no symptoms of underwatering or overwatering,

not weak or struggling for survival.

Rather, you are sturdy and strong, robust,

with the light green foliage of new growth

apparent at the tip of every limb.

You wonder, "Is my blossoming still

so far off? How many more branches and leaves

do I need before I burst

into bloom?"

It occurs to you that perhaps you are not

a flowering species at all,

but maybe an evergreen oak or pine.

What you offer the world is not

beauty or sweetness, but respite from the heat,

shelter from the storm, a haven for small creatures.

And then you're inspired by the image,

turning it into a thing of beauty: the lone pine,

silhouetted on the hill, a beacon, a signpost, a symbol

of continuity and endurance and wisdom.

Or maybe you are the one oak left downtown amidst the sky-

scrapers, near the corner of Broadway and Grand,

in front of Louisiana Chicken, which itself is looking a little

like an ugly duckling these days, dwarfed and outclassed

by the mighty glass and steel structures

that are going to (finally) revitalize downtown.

Yes, maybe that's you—

small and unnoticed, but holding your roots firm, reminding passersby

that this land once belonged to you, a reminder to others, too, of their own

true wild nature, a breath of green in the urban gray.

But, no, you're not that tree either. You know it.

You're too idiosyncratic to be symbolic.

An awful little thought skitters like a mouse across the floor

of your mind: "What if I was, in fact, an early bloomer?

What if my heyday is behind me? What if I've already

made all the impact I'm going to make?" You think of the poinsettia

put outside after Christmas.

You chase this notion out of sight behind the futon in your mind.

You're drawn back to the flowering plants.

What are you really waiting for?

The desire to bloom, the hope of being a late bloomer, is the wish

to confirm that you are not alone, that your life impinges upon others,

that it intersects, connects, affects, interrupts. You want to know

that you are not merely a drop of water sliding off other people's slickers.

You want to touch skin. You want to bloom

profusely & abundantly, or rarely and with great fanfare, like the titan arum lily

or the kurinji plant. You want to make an impression, to touch hearts.

You want to know that you'll be remembered, not so much

after you die, as after you leave the room, because there is that nagging

question of whether you really exist

in other people's minds.

Comment on new format

One of the reasons I changed my layout was to be able to try out a new feature, the blogroll you see on the right. I like how it shows a bit of each blog's latest entry and tells you when it was last updated. However, since the feature is still in testing mode, it is not working as it's supposed to yet. Specifically, it's not updating when new entries are posted. I checked the blogger help site and many others are experiencing the same issue. Hopefully, it will be resolved soon.

Public Poem Drafting

In an effort to shame myself into writing more, I'm going to post--gasp--incomplete work. Here is a poem I began last year but still can't quite figure out what I want it to be, or what it needs to be. There's a cracked green hose that needs in, I think. Perhaps in the posting of it, or in your comments, I will find the poem's true shape.

My Neighbor

Behind the chainlink fence

brown camellia blossoms lie scattered

on the ancient Sparkl-Wite gravel.

One flower, still pink, has fallen

in a stainless steel water dish

abandoned by a long-gone dog.

I imagine another version:

crisp bleached linen, silver antique bowl, floating flowers

A few camellias, both pink and brown, cling to their positions

among the green leaves of the bush.

In the driveway, behind the locked chainlink gate,

a Jaguar, gleaming.

The curtains at the window never move.

What do you think

of this new look? Do you prefer the old template? Is anyone reading this any more?

Close to Fine

Today was one of those days when everyone's beautiful. As I rode my bike up to campus, all the people I passed seemed translucent: their fragility and strength, their hopes and fears all visibly shimmering and quivering inside them, announcing their individual humanity.

[This is where the chorus breaks into a round of "We are stardust, we are golden, and we have got to get ourselves back to the garden."]

Sometimes when I ride through Berkeley, I look at the lovely houses with their perfect xeriscaped yards on tree-lined streets and I feel sad and a little confused: why didn't my life lead me here? why don't I live in a house like this, on a street like this? why am I not spending my weekends futzing in the garden and refinishing antiques? Other times I just shake my head and wonder how such comfort and excess can exist in such close proximity to the squalor and hopelessness that are the hallmarks of neighborhoods less than 5 miles away. I think about Octavia Butler's vision of the decline of the middle class enclave depicted in her book Parable of the Sower, and wonder how much longer until the poor rise up?

But today I had no such thoughts. I was able to admire the houses without coveting them or disdaining them. I saw ceanothus in bloom. I saw wisteria in bloom. I saw orange poppies in green grass. I saw the people with their imperfections and their longing. I smiled at them and some of them smiled back. Even people in cars smiled at me, and today none of them tried to kill me through their usual inattentiveness and thoughtlessness.

A lively discussion in my seminar reminded me of how much I like a lively discussion and that school really is a place I feel comfortable and free to be myself. The next question is whether I can get that same feeling any place else or in any way besides being a student. Imagine how the world would be different if everyone got to do whatever it is that makes them feel alive and valuable and stimulated every day. A world full of happy, curious, engaged people.

[Now for a chorus of "Shiny happy people holding hands/Shiny happy people laughing" with the understanding that it is not to be heard ironically, no matter the intentions of r.e.m., or maybe what we want here is "It's the end of the world (as we know it) and I feel fine"? Hmmm. I think the soundtrack needs tweaking.]

I am feeling hopeful and grateful, so all my chemicals and hormones must be flowing in the optimal amounts, or maybe the stars are aligned correctly. I'm looking forward to going to Australia this summer and to starting a new job in the fall (though I don't know what it will be), but right now I'm going to concentrate on right now.

[chorus: "The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine"]