Saturday, May 31, 2008

Scott McClellan Does Not Deserve All This

At least once a year I like to engage my fifth and sixth graders in a thought experiment that has led year after year to passionate discussions involving ALL of my students. Sometimes it grows out of a lesson on the role of slavery in the writing of the United States Constitution. Sometimes it comes from a study of gender roles in ancient China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Invariably, it turns into a discussion of how context-dependent ethical issues can be.
I start by making an outrageous statement to the class. I shocked this year’s class by telling them that if I had grown up in South Carolina in the 1770s, I am certain I would have been a staunch supporter of both slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise. In other years I have said things like, “Of course women should not have the right to vote,” Or, “It is only right that the United States took the land from the Indians.”
I then back up and lead the class into a discussion of context. We talk about how hard it is to be different from the society that surrounds you. We discuss the bravery needed to stand up and point out how wrong something is if everybody is doing that thing. I then ask the students to project themselves two hundred years into the future and to predict what those future people will look back on and say, “Holy cow—it is so clear that that thing was evil and just plain wrong—how could they have done that?” This year’s group came up with three big future indictments of modern American society:

• our attitude toward homosexuality,

• our treatment of animals, and

• our treatment of the environment.

They may be right about all three. Or maybe there is some other cultural activity or attitude to which we are all blind yet which will be glaringly immoral to our great-great grandchildren. Time will tell.

Oddly enough, it was the media hubbub over Scott McClellan’s new book, What Happened, that got me thinking about this thought experiment today. I read blogs and political websites from all across the ideological spectrum—from Free Republic to Democratic Underground. And for the first time ever I have noticed an alarming consensus among commentators of all stripes. No matter what the leanings of the writer, they just about all are ripping into Scott McClellan.
The right-wingers are up in arms about Mr. McClellan’s disloyalty. They are horrified by his willingness to bite the hand that raised him up out of Texas and put him in the national spotlight. I expected these conservative commentators to tear into poor Scott and their collective assault is not at all surprising.
It is the venom spewing from the left that has taken me by surprise. Many lefty blogging heads are saying, more or less, what Arianna Huffington said on her site The Huffington Post:

“How many times are we going to have a key Bush administration official try to wash the blood off his hands -- and add a chunk of change to his bank account -- by writing a come-clean book years after the fact, pointing the finger at everyone else while painting himself as an innocent bystander to history who saw all the horrible things that were happening but, somehow, had no choice but to go along?”

To me, this is a lot like my fifth- and sixth-grade students saying of the ancient Egyptians, “How could they ever have had slaves?” Context is important. In fact, much more important than people are willing to admit when it comes to judging the behaviors of others.
I am glad Scott McClellan has written this book. Nothing I have read about the actual content of the book has surprised me. Nor does the lag time between Mr. McClellan leaving the Bush administration and the publication of his memoir. Scott McClellan was paid a lot of money for several years to work as a spokesman for a good friend whom he admired. His disillusionment took a while. His making sense of his experience took even longer. And his record of that process is an invaluable piece of history penned by a man who has shown himself to be utterly human.
Of course I wish he had stood in front of the national press corps and the people of America in the days before George Bush launched America’s misguided and unnecessary war-of-choice against Saddam Hussein and said what he is now saying. But he didn’t because he could not have. His realizations have taken a while and I am glad that when he did see what really happened that he stepped forward and told the world. With the publication of his book, Scott McClellan has gained my grudging respect and the liberal commentariat has dropped a notch or two in my estimation.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Banning Cluster Bombs

Good News! Today in Dublin more than 100 countries signed on to a treaty banning cluster bombs. According to the treaty, the signatories agreed not to develop, use, trade, or sell cluster munitions ever.

If you are unfamiliar with cluster bombs, they are a particularly nasty weapon system designed to spread hundreds of “bomblets” over a wide area. The bomblets are often brightly colored and small—much like children’s toys—and they often fail to detonate on impact. There are now more than twenty countries that have had vast swaths turned into uninhabitable minefields due to unexploded cluster bomblets. Most recently, Israel dropped an estimated four million bomblets on Lebanon during a short-lived war in 2006.

Roughly 25 percent of these bomblets failed to explode on impact. Since that 34-day war ended, more than 250 civilians and bomb-disposal experts have been hurt or killed in Southern Lebanon. Many of the civilians hurt or killed have been children.

So again I say, Good news! These 111 countries have recognized that munitions that remain deadly long after hostilities have ceased have no place on the modern battlefield—a “battlefield” that is more often than not comprised of city streets, farmers’ fields, or disputed villages. When these fights are over and the warring sides have agreed to set down their guns and silence their mortars, the killing should cease. But instead it goes on for years. So, when combined with the international treaty banning land mines, this treaty makes an excellent start to addressing the problem of civilian casualties of war and should be celebrated.

And now for the bad news…the United States has refused to participate in the talks leading to this treaty and has steadfastly refused to sign the treaty. State Department spokesmen have said that cluster munitions are an important part of the defensive strategy of the United States. In fact, estimates are that the United States has more than one BILLION bomblets stockpiled. Additionally, companies in the United States and Israel are some of the largest manufacturers of cluster bombs in the world.

So, as things stand now, the United States, Russia, China, and seventy-some other countries have not yet signed on to the new treaty banning cluster bombs. Nor has the United States signed the treaty banning land mines—a treaty much of the world agreed to more than ten years ago. President Bush has stated outright that the United States will NEVER agree to the land mine treaty.

When I have finished with this post, I am going to contact the two United States Senators from Connecticut as well as Senators McCain, Obama, and Clinton to express my opinion on this issue.
It is hard to accept that my country wants to hold onto its landmines and cluster bombs. I know there are bigger, more pressing issues facing our country right now, but this one has resonated with me more than most of the others. It somehow gets at what I feel is wrong with our national attitude toward the world lately. Maybe by letting those in charge know how we feel, we can effect some change in the next few years.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

My Trip To Yemen

My trip to Yemen took twenty-one years, ten months, and fifteen days. The final two days of the trip were by airplane from Miami, (via Charlotte, New York, Frankfurt, and Amman). For most of the trip I didn’t really know that Yemen was the destination. (And, as it turns out, Yemen wasn’t really the destination anyway. It was just another stop on the way to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maine, Delaware, Montana, Ithaca, and Connecticut.)
The conscious portion of my trip to Yemen started one July night in a bar in Lewisburg, PA in 1986. I was with a few friends enjoying a post-softball pitcher or three on a warm night between junior and senior years of college. Most of my friends were Management majors who knew where they were headed. My roommate Mike asked us all, “Where do you think you will be one year from tonight?” As people in the circle took turns answering with a fair amount of certainty, I scrambled to find anything even remotely plausible.
I had started college as a Biochemistry major but changed to a double in English Literature and Political Science. I had devoted hundreds of hours to both the cafeteria and the school newspaper—The Bucknellian. But still, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. It came to be my turn before I was able to think of anything, and I was shocked to find myself stating rather calmly and quite certainly, “I am going to join the Peace Corps.”
When I woke up at the crack of noon the following day, I found my words from the night before echoing in my brain. They still felt right and true, in spite of the fact that I had never once before that moment in the bar the night before thought about joining the Peace Corps. I tracked down the phone number and gave the Peace Corps a call. And, to make a long, grueling process short, in September of the following year I was on my way to Yemen.
What got me thinking about this today was a request my daughter made in the car this morning. We had a thirty-minute drive and ten minutes into the trip it became clear to Isabel that I was lost in the radio show called Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Whenever this happens, she will think hard for a moment and then ask a very specific question designed to get me to tell a story. Today she said, “Daddy, turn off the radio and tell me about a time when you were experiencing something VERY exciting and even while it was happening you KNEW it was special.”
After a quick TiVo scan of my life, I settled on the moment on September 26, 1987 when I arrived at the airport in Sana’a, Yemen Arab Republic. At that point in my life, I had not seen much of the world—and I had not slept for forty hours. I got off the plane, crossed the tarmac, and lined up at Customs with my United States Passport in hand. As the “line” moved at Third World speed and I eventually made my way to the front, it struck me hard that I was as far out of my element as I had ever been in my life. My heart started to pound, my breathing grew shallow and fast, and I began to quickly consider the implications of turning around.
I knew even in the moment that I was starting something hugely difficult and hugely exciting and I really didn’t know if I could do it.

When I finished telling Isabel about that moment, our drive was finished and she said as we got out of the car, “I want to join the Peace Corps when I get older.”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Chalk Dust (Revised)

I found myself sitting in a bare-bones classroom in an old house in a suburb of Sana’a, eight thousand miles from home, twenty-one years old, and suddenly thinking of the Talking Heads lyric, “This is not my beautiful life.” I was there with twelve American Peace Corps Volunteers and Fritz Pipenburg. Fritz was a German follower of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and also an expert on Arabic grammar.
The sun was falling inevitably toward the gap in the mountains that ring the high-plateau city at 7,800 feet and its light slanted through the traditional stained-glass half-moon shaped windows high in the wall. My head was aswirl with the deluge of new experiences I had subjected it to in the preceding six weeks. New friends, new food, new country, new language, new life.
Fritz was telling us that when we got to the “willages” people would speak ungrammatically, but that we should learn proper Arabic anyway. On the board he had written out a conjugation for the verb “to know”—a’aref. I had been listening to Fritz for four hours and my brain was simply unable to absorb one more speck of knowledge.
Rather than focus on Fritz, my eyes fixed on a shaft of red light that was angling through the space between us. He erased his sloppy Arabic—I know, you know, he knows, she knows, we know, you know, they know—and the red shaft was brought to life with a swarm of swirling ex-words dancing a modern pink composition in mid-air, all twirls and sudden mass movements one way or another, like a school of fish or a flock of birds all responding to the same stimulus.
For just a moment I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open and I was seeing chalk dust swirl through sunlight or if I had nodded off and was somehow able to see into my own brain. It was a moment of such perfect one-to-one correspondence between exterior and interior states that I felt as if the membrane between me and not-me had dried up and flaked away to join the gyrating words before me in their dance.
Fritz must have seen the look on my face and so he called on me to conjugate the verb “to know” in the present tense. Without thinking, I gave him the correct answer. I pulled it out of thin air.

If You Build It, They Will Come

There are two villages called “Birney” in Southeastern Montana. One is on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and it is called “Indian Birney” by everyone. The other is ten miles south of Indian Birney and it is off the reservation. It is known by all as “White Birney.”

I spent several summers in Indian Birney, sleeping either on the floor of an old doublewide trailer or in the desanctified nave of an old Catholic Church. During my second summer in Birney, the group of teens I was with helped build a traditional powwow arbor on an unused patch of land just off the main drag. As we built it, I knew that my kids were getting an experience few of their peers back East would be able to understand.
They got to go up into the pine forests on the rocky hillsides of the reservation and help choose which trees to fell for use as support posts for the double ring of the arbor. Then they helped strip the branches, dig the post holes, plant the posts, tamp the dirt, tack chicken wire overhead, and lay the pine boughs across the top for shade. It was backbreaking labor and my sixteen wealthy teenagers from the East Coast could not get enough of it. One of my favorite pictures from that summer is of a sixteen year-old girl from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She is holding a worn and dirty work glove in her teeth, examining the bloody blisters on her hand, and smiling from ear to ear.
It rained a lot that summer, forcing us to delay and cancel many workdays. As the final day of our program approached, we began to seriously think the arbor would not be finished in time for us to participate in the first powwow held in Birney in many years. Our penultimate day on the reservation was a fifteen-hour work marathon that left us all simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. As the last of the long lingering twilight drained from the sky to the west, we got it done. The arbor was complete.
Some of the tribal members who were working with us had spread the word that there would be a powwow in Indian Birney the next day.
Saturday morning dawned grey, cold, and wet and a feeling of depressed anti-climax settled over us all as we began to pack and get ready for the following day’s drive to the airport in Sheridan, Wyoming and the ensuing flights to points East. We all kept one eye to the sky, but the sky just kept raining on our arbor.
My friend Mike, who lived in Birney, just kept telling me and the kids not to worry. He said the sky would clear, the sun would shine, and the powwow would happen. As morning turned past twelve and into afternoon, the rain kept falling steady as a drum on the church roof. The atmosphere grew more and more disappointed inside as kids played Hearts, took pictures, and copied down each other’s phone numbers for when they got home.

At three o’clock the rain stopped falling. By three-fifteen the clouds were breaking up. And by four we were practically dancing as we set up tables, brewed coffee, and changed into our fancy clothes for the powwow. By five o’clock more than one hundred cars had arrived and there were hundreds of Cheyenne tribal members there to christen the new Birney Powwow Arbor. Elders showed up and thanked my kids in the Cheyenne language, people brought out tons of food from their trunks likes clowns from a circus car. When the buffet tables were all set, we had enough food to feed everyone twice.
My kids participated in giveaways, grass dances, and circle dances set to traditional drumming circles pounding out the heartbeat of a culture determined to survive. Everything stopped at one point and my kids were asked to line up in the center of the arbor. Each of them was then presented with a beautiful hand-beaded gift from the tribe as a way to say “thank you” for all their hard work.

Here it is fifteen years later and whenever I allow myself to really remember the details of that afternoon and evening and late into the night, I cry. It was one of the most authentically touching moments of my life and whenever I need to feel good about the future and about humans’ ability to bridge cultural divides, I dive into my memories of that summer and that particularly magical night.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Saturday Mornings

Most mornings I feel the tick of the clock like a physical tapping on my brain. From the moment I wake up I am aware of having rejoined the flow of time as it picks up speed after a long slow stretch of sleep. If my days are a river, then weekday work mornings are the stretch where the river leaves a deep, calm pool and starts to pick up speed for a run through some rocky rapids.
For this reason, I like Saturday mornings. A lot. On Saturdays I don’t have to be anywhere until 9:15 at the very earliest. And even then, it is simply to drop my daughter at a math activity that she loves. From there I am free again for another hour. It is hardly onerous. On Saturdays, the flow of the day never really gets much faster than it is when I wake up. I wish my weekday mornings could have more of this lazy flavor to them, but often my bad habits get in the way. I need coffee right away. I need to run through my favorite websites and check my e-mail right away. My morning habits are not conducive to peace and calm.
Lately I have been trying to create new habits in my life—habits that will help me feel more relaxed, more centered, more in control of my own hours. In this search for a little peace in my life I have remembered something I learned fifteen years ago and then slowly forgotten.

NY Times article on habits.

I spent four or five summers in the early 1990s working on various Indian reservations in Montana. I was hired by a non-profit corporation called Visions International to lead groups of upper- and upper middle-class teenagers from the New York area to Montana to perform community service work. My favorite location by far was a small village in the Southeast corner of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The village was called Birney and it had no mall, no movie theater, no stores at all. Not even a gas station. There was nothing in Birney except about twenty or twenty-five HUD houses.
One of the men in the village was named Mike. Mike is a Sioux who married a Northern Cheyenne woman named Florence. Mike worked for me as a staff person with the teenagers. But this doesn’t really describe our relationship very well. It was far from that of manager and staff person.
One morning, about two weeks into my first summer program in Birney, I woke up in the trailer where I slept with the eight teenage boys in the group. It was five in the morning and instantly my brain seized on the long list of logistical details I needed to address that day. But, because it was five a.m., I couldn’t do a thing about anything on the list. The hardware store in Billings was not yet open, the grocery store in Lame Deer was shut, the laundromat in Colstrip wouldn’t be open for another two hours. The girls in the group were sleeping in the old church right next to the kitchen so I couldn’t even go make some coffee because it would have woken them up.
I couldn’t get back to sleep so I put on some clothes and went for a walk through the sage scrub just outside of town. As I walked through the chill of an early July morning my hands were deep in my pockets, my shoulders were hunched, my eyes were focused on the ground about ten feet ahead of my steps, and my brain was revving itself up way too fast.
As I walked I heard the unmistakable sounds of someone walking in the distance behind me. I stopped and turned to see Mike making his way slowly down the same trail I had just passed. I started walking again, but with a much slower pace so that Mike could catch up if he wanted to. After just a few moments Mike fell into stride next to me. We nodded to each other in greeting, but didn’t say anything right away. We walked quietly side by side for a good fifteen minutes with Mike pointing things out to me with a quick jut of his chin to direct my attention to a coyote on a ridgeline, a meadowlark on a fencepost, the Morningstar dimming as the sun brightened.
As we returned to the village Mike stopped and leaned on a fence post to look out at the playground we were building for the children of Birney. I stopped too. Mike is not a preachy man. In fact, he is quite the opposite. He is stingy with advice, even when asked directly. But on that particular morning Mike must have seen that I needed something. Apropos of nothing, Mike said, “Do you know how I try to start each day?”
Sensing even then that I was about to be given something that I would hold forever, I said, “I don’t…tell me.”
“I stand outside alone, before there is much going on, and I face each of the four directions, starting with the East and the sunrise and working my way around to end with the North. And then I direct my attention up to the sky and then down to the Earth, and I say out loud, ‘Good morning East, South, West, and North. Good morning sky. Good morning Mother Earth. Please watch over me this day and help me keep my heart at the center of all I feel and say and do today.’”
I have no belief in God or any sort of caring creator, but this prayer rang true to me. So now, when I remember and can make the time, I like to take my dog Ginger for a walk early on school days instead of wasting the time dinking around on the Internet. As we walk, I think my way through Mike’s morning greeting and it never fails to get me to a quieter, slower place from which I can start my day. I am hoping this habit will grow and out-compete the other, more stressful and less productive habits I have already developed.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

It's Raining Again

All morning I have found myself plagued by a Supertramp song running through my head. The song has hovered just below the threshold of my conscious awareness for most of its infestation, but several times it has broken through and forced its way to the front of the attentional line that forms in my head each morning. It is not a song that is particularly well-crafted. Nor is it one I liked much when it was hit twenty-some-odd years ago.
What the song has going for it is relevance. It is indeed raining again. Seems like it rains a lot here in the Spring. But what I want to know is, of all the rain-related songs stored away in the recesses of my brain, why did THAT particular song bubble up through the grey and into the light? Why not Dylan, the Beatles, or Blind Melon? Why not CCR? Why not Counting Crows? Why, oh dear God, WHY Supertramp?

More Than a Woman
Billy Collins

Ever since I woke up today,
a song has been playing uncontrollably
in my head--a tape looping

over the spools of the brain,
a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,
mad fan belt of a tune.

It must have escaped from the radio
last night on the drive home
and tunneled while I slept

from my ears to the center of my cortex.
It is a song so cloying and vapid
I won't even bother mentioning the title,

but on it plays as if I were on a turntable
covered with dancing children
and their spooky pantomimes,

as if everything I had ever learned
was slowly being replaced
by its slinky chords and the puffballs of its lyrics.

It played while I watered the plant
and continued when I brought in the mail
and fanned out the letters on a table.

It repeated itself when I took a walk
and watched from a bridge
brown leaves floating in the channels of a current.

In the late afternoon it seemed to fade,
but I heard it again at the restaurant
when I peered in at the lobsters

lying on the bottom of an illuminated
tank which was filled to the brim
with their copious tears.

And now at this dark window
in the middle of the night
I am beginning to think

I could be listening to music of the spheres,
the sound no one ever hears
because it has been playing forever,

Only the spheres are colored pool balls,
and the music is oozing from a jukebox
whose lights I can just make out through the clouds.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Field Trips

I took my students to Boston last week for an overnight whirlwind of a field trip. We were in Beantown for less than twenty-seven hours. In that time, we walked some of the Freedom Trail, participated in a re-enactment of the meeting that led directly to the Boston Tea Party, had free reign at the Boston Museum of Science after-hours, toured Paul Revere’s house and neighborhood, and shopped and hung out in Quincy Market on two beautifully sunny 70-degree afternoons.
When I tell other adults who are not teachers about this trip they adopt a look of equal parts horror and pity. The part about sleeping on the floor of an exhibit room at the Museum of Science with 18 fifth- and sixth-grade students and no shower or electronics allowed often elicits actual gasps. I often play along with their idea of how burdensome the trip must be for me, but I do so with a secret in my heart.
The secret is that I actually LIKE the trip to Boston. In fact, I look forward to it. Truth be told, I look forward to ALL of the field trips I take with my kids. There is the obvious reason that I am the one who chooses the field trips and I am careful to select only trips that are interesting and exciting to me as well as to my students. But there is also the less obvious, (though more important), reason that field trips get us out of our classroom and into the wider world.
The students at my school have, in many cases, known each other for seven years—more than half their lives. As a result, they are close. As a group they have grown up together. In many ways they are like a family. By the time they get to me they have a fairly well-defined group personality, with each student having identified his or her niche. In fact, many of them have staked out their particular niche so thoroughly that they have laid down carpet, painted the walls, and moved in some pretty heavy furniture.
This can make for a huge level of ease with each other. My students feel very comfortable talking about some pretty tough issues together. They also develop a level of confidence about speaking in front of large groups that I rarely see in ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year olds. They know each other WELL and there can be a real comfort in that. But, as with any family, this level of comfort can sometimes translate into an unwillingness to allow each other to change. When my kids get to be sixth-graders, some fairly drastic changes start happening shockingly fast. It amazes me each year when I look at the class photo taken in September and then compare it to the graduation picture taken in May. The sixth-graders have become their own older brothers and sisters by the time they graduate in June. Along with the drastic physical changes, there can be some substantial changes in personality, interests, and self-identity.
But their peers don’t always acknowledge these changes. As a result, there can be some dramatic conflicts during the year as people “try on” new ways of being with people are used to the old ways.
The reason I enjoy our field trips so much is that being outside of the environment in which these students have grown up and forged their personalities allows for a reshuffling of the deck, as it were. Something as simple as a change of scenery allows for changes in the dynamics of the group. Different people emerge as leaders, new connections are made between students who have known each other for years, little-known facets of some students get to take center stage and then those students are recast in the eyes of everyone. Something as simple as a long bus ride can create a new bond where for years there was none.
I feel like a big part of my job is to help prepare my students for life beyond our safe little world. One of the ways I can do this is by making it safe for them to change—to experiment with who they are and what they believe. And, as is often the case with the lessons I apply to
my students, the same can be applied to me. This is one of the things about my job that makes it so fulfilling even after so many years in the game. By thinking about my kids and what they need, I often gain insight into what I may need, too. I have not stopped changing just because I have hit forty. And neither have the adults around me who are important in my life. My daughter has really just started on her many changes to come.
This 27-hour jaunt to Boston helped remind me of how important it is to give the people around me room to change and grow and to ask them to do the same for me.