Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tears for the Tigers

I was reviewing an article in the Austin paper regarding four schools in Texas which are on the chopping block. These schools have consistently performed so poorly on state required examinations that they are supposed to be closed or have a “change in management”. By change in management I understand that to be not firing the principal, but having the state take over the school. The Austin article focused on our city’s perennial problem child, Johnston High, but the most intriguing part of the story, for me, dealt with Sam Houston High of Houston.


Sam Houston probably began its descent in 1976, the year they hired me as an English teacher for a semester. The school had been around since 1878 and had an illustrious history, one of its former faculty members was a future President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, who taught speech there in 1930.The faculty was somewhat less illustrious when I served on it, but I, myself had a dragging down effect on that group. I had just finished up my undergraduate work at the University of Houston and was awaiting word from the various law schools I had applied to. I was assured of getting into several of those schools, so I knew that I would be engaged in my new calling the next fall. In December of 1975, I applied for a position as a substitute teacher in the HISD, meeting all the qualifications for the job which paid (to me) the princely sum of $30 a day, when called for duty. Since I would get off at 3:00, I could still keep my job at the campus bookstore and so would be able to put some money aside.


I got a couple of calls right before the Christmas break and found the work to be as easy as I had imagined. Then, the day after the district Christmas break ended, I got a call to report to Sam Houston. I was taken aside by the assistant principal and asked if I was an English major. I equivocated a bit before stating that I was a very strong English minor. Even that was not true, but I figured that a positive response was needed. In that case, asked the assistant principal, would I like to teach English Lit. to Seniors for the whole semester ? The ill teacher that I was to replace that day had had a stroke and would not be coming back until at least the fall. I accepted on the spot and it is a good thing that I did. As I was filling out the paperwork, another substitute was being asked the same questions by an office worker. I am sure that she was more qualified, but it was too late. I was on the faculty at $30 a day which came out to $150 a week. An incredible sum.


The Austin paper indicates that the Sam Houston of today is over 90% Hispanic, 6% African American and 3% white. In my day it was probably 40% Hispanic, 40% white and 20% African American. I could be wrong, that was 32 years ago, but that is how I remember it. The classes I was given were not exactly made up of aspiring scholars. Many ditched class frequently, some more than they came. At least a couple could not read at all. How they had gotten to Senior status I will never know. It was too late for me to change anyone’s academic career and be recalled as a later day Mr. Chips. That was a good thing. I certainly did not have the teaching skills to do it anyway. I was an enthusiastic but indifferent instructor. I tended to teach the things that interested me, whether they were strictly part of the curriculum or not. It was one of the more colorful times in my life and I probably should write a few blogs on some of the funny things that happened, but that’s for another time. Today I am just focusing on my part of the inevitable downfall of Sam Houston. You can imagine that if a school was hiring people right off the street to teach their kids, they probably made a few more mistakes along the way which brought them to the sad circumstance they now find themselves.


About halfway through the semester, most of the kids had figured out that I was going to law school the next year. One day a young African-American student, whom I really liked, asked me if I had a degree in education. I replied no, I had never taken an education course in my life. The young man exhibited an exasperated look and said , “wow, talk about the blind leading the blind.” I told him something to the effect that the Houston Independent School District and their High School felt that I was good enough and therefore, I should be good enough for him. But I’m sure I wasn’t.  Oh, I was smart enough, I knew the material well enough and I enjoyed the job, but that did not make me a teacher.  No one cared. The school and district were saving a fortune, I was making more money than I ever had, and the students had a much easier time with me than they would have with some old battle ax that had been teaching the same thing for forty years. But that’s not the point of public education. The truth of the matter is that those responsible for public education in this country have never, for one minute, taken it seriously. They generally have a constitutional mandate to provide one, and they do so in the cheapest way possible. The only public schools that ever succeed are those with overwhelming parental involvement. Those work quite well, but there are not very many of them.


I wondered today about my old students. They would be only four years younger than me . All in their early 50s.Did my name ever come up at a reunion ? Did they ever figure out the flim- flam the school pulled on them by slipping me in ? Did any of it ever matter at all, or was it just one more step down toward the abyss which the school now faces ?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Justa lika my mama useda make

I had a spaghetti dinner at macaroni grill the other night. I was amazed. It tasted exactly like the spaghetti I grew up with. The spaghetti at our house was not exactly an old family recipe. It was not what you ran home for in Little Italy after a game of stickball. No, the spaghetti I ate, and loved, was from a box purchased from the local A&P and  produced by Chef Boyardee (Franco-American). My mother would bring home the box and open it up, pull out the meat sauce which had to be opened with a can opener and mix it with a pound of ground chuck that she had just purchased for the occasion from that same A&P and our favorite family butcher “Red”. My father never could remember Red’s last name and often had to ask the bag boy, our neighbor Randy Woodum what the name was. It was Smith.


At any rate, the box you bought came with the aforementioned meat sauce, a bunch of spaghetti and a little tin of parmesan cheese that you had to open with the can opener size of the bottle opener. The kind you used to have to open a can of beer with before the amazing invention of the pop top can.  I imagine that this spaghetti was probably the blandest stuff ever put on God’s green earth and the fact that Chef Boyardee was French and not Italian should have told us something about the product, but my brother Clay and I could never get enough of it. We both especially liked the Parmesan which looked like yellow grated sand. For years I did not know that “Parmesan” was “Parmesan cheese” I thought that it was just some saw dust like material that tasted great on Spaghetti. I don’t know when I stopped eating the stuff. I recall still buying it after my marriage in the 1970s. The, somewhere along the line, we started buying fancy sauces and all different kinds of pasta. I lost track of Chef Boyardee and his wonderful concoction.


I was amazed the other night at how the Macaroni Grill spaghetti brought back my old feelings about that dish. I looked at every store I could imagine and have been unable to find a box of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti. I assumed that it had been replaced by the plastic microwavable packages of spaghetti that the Chef (now the late Chef) sells in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. But finally today, I have found a site that sells “nostalgia food”. One of the items they sell is something that looks very much like the old Spaghetti kits of my childhood. It is called Chef Boyaredee Spaghetti and Meatball Kit. The same kind of box, although no longer blue. The same picture of Boyardee. It now claims to have “meat balls” in the sauce, which I am dubious of, but there is no reason that I could not fry up a pound of ground chuck, just like Mama used to. The box says that it has cheese. I bet that they no longer have the Parmesan in a little can. It is probably in a reseal able plastic bag by now, and that’s a pity, but time changes all things.


At any rate, I can order this stuff from Amazon for $17.97 and get six boxes. Sounds good to me. I will order some and let you know if the Chef has still “got it” .

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Errata !

My sincere apologies to Bobby Seale, it was Stokley Carmichael who said that the position of women in the Black Liberation Movement was prone.

Why the West will win

If I ever had any doubt about our ultimate triumph in the war on terrorism, it was removed today. Al Qaeda number two man Ayman al-Zawahirri has been working his way through 900 questions posed by outsiders to al Qaeda on the internet. One question, “Are there any women in al-Qaeda ? “ Was answered simply  “no”. Later on al (you can call me Al) Zawaharri pointed out that there is a kind of al-Qaeda Ladies auxiliary which, is his words, “does a wonderful job in taking care of the houses and sons.” Apparently Sunni daughters require no care, or are just ignored. But at least the house is clean.


I think that it was Bobby Seale (I’ll check this) who was asked in the 1960s “what was the position of women in the Black Panthers ?” Seale replied “prone”. Right. Forty years later Oprah Winfrey is running the country. Any individual or group which believes that success can come without female leadership must be living in a cave. Oh yeah, that’s where Al lives. And believe me, if there is no female leadership , I can predict that there are dirty dishes in that cave kitchen, men’s shoes in the cave living room and the grass, if they have any over there, is uncut. No, most women don’t do those jobs, but they would remain undone without women. If not for my wife, I would always have three pairs of shoes sitting on the den floor. If not for my wife, most of the light bulbs in the house would be out while I “considered” getting around to replacing them, if not for my wife, the electricity would have been shut off months ago because no one would have ever gotten around to paying the electric company. There is not a man on this earth who is detail oriented enough to remember when it’s time for the car to have a 30,000 mile check up. Despite the fact that every day he stares at an odometer recording 30,000 miles. And getting the yearly car safety sticker, or remembering to make a dental appointment twice a year ? Forget it. I’d like to have a look at Big Al Zawaharri’s teeth, that’s what I’d like to do. And I bet his gums are no great shakes either. It is a damn good thing that Sunni Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, or the cave lights would still be up in April.


This is neither the time, nor the place (well, O.K. maybe it is the place) to go into my theory on women being the superior sex. I’ll give you the benefit of my views on that some other time. For now, just take it on faith, they are. Once arm strength was no longer the criteria for leadership, men began to fall out of those roles. Every year there are more women leaders in government and business and fewer men. Every year the % of women in college increases over men. Oh, there are still a few places for men. Al Qaeda comes to mind. That’s what men have come to, leading organizations like al Qaeda, which specializes in suicide bombings (all males mind you). Let’s see, what is the logical outcome to an organization that sends all of its members on suicide missions ?  The reason that there are only four Shakers left in the Shaker denomination was because they were celibate. That’s not the best way to grow a religion, hard to recruit, impossible to propagate. I suspect that al Qaeda would have faced similar issues had they not been destined to collapse from the ennui caused by living in a cave with no lights, toilets with the seats up and shoes strewn across the living room floor. That will get to them eventually. The triumph of the West is assured.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dayton Ohio 1903

“Would you like to come over for tea, with the Missus and me ?

It’s a real fine way to spend the day in Dayton, Ohio

On a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903.”     Randy Newman



I was at a light this morning checking my e-mail on my phone. I had to check it at the light because if I did not I would not have been able to check it until I got to work four or five minutes later, and I had not checked it since I had started my car at my house two to three minutes before. At the exact same time, Newman’ song “Dayton, Ohio” was playing on my car stereo. For some reason it never hit me until this morning that Newman’s song of a nostalgic invitation to a tea party was really so full of irony. Dayton, Ohio was where the Wright brothers were from. On a “lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903”, just as the tea was being poured in Dayton, Orville and Wilbur were making the first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk. There would never be another truly lazy Sunday afternoon.


That Sunday in December of 1903 is as good a place as any to mark the end of life as it had been lived for thousands of years by billions of people. We can trace a direct line from that three second flight to my sitting at a traffic  light punching at a small phone, desperate to get information before the light turned green. Information that would have meant exactly the same thing to me if I had waited to get it for a few more minutes, or a few more hours, and probably a few more days.


Every advance in life is a trade off. The reason that Sunday afternoons were so lazy in 1903 is that everyone was asleep. A working man in 1903 averaged 60 hours a week over six days at work. He was the lucky one. His wife probably worked 50% more. It was nice to be able to rely on mechanization to get us down to a forty hour work week. That same mechanization which now makes it possible to always be at work. We don’t drink tea or even  sleep on Sunday afternoon now because we are checking our e-mail . Sometimes we are flying off to a Monday morning meeting , kudos again to the Wright brothers. The nature of capitalism is such that every labor saving device invented ultimately makes it possible to work harder. If you invent a widget that lets you produce something in two hours that used to take you four hours to produce, you produce twice as many of them ! The fact that there are now twice as many of them makes them worth a lot less on the market place so you have to produce more to make up the difference ,and so on, until you have chased your tail into exhaustion or bankruptcy. Usually both. I never knew a bankrupt (and I have known many) who was not exhausted. Bankrupts are seldom lazy, they are almost always the hardest of workers who do not have the best of sense or  have perfect timing for their idea


The true irony in the Newman song is that there is no irony. There never was a lazy Sunday afternoon in Dayton, Ohio. What the Wrights wrought was just a different way of wearing out the body and soul. You don’t load 16 tons today, but you probably bill 16 hours. But at least, if you are lucky, you get to do it in the air-conditioning.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What's so funny ?

I seem to have lost my sense of humor. Nothing seems all that funny to me anymore, which certainly makes for a longer day. Is it possible to lose a sense of humor through some disease or syndrome (and by the way, what makes a syndrome a syndrome?). Well low and behold, one of the first symptoms of a lack of niacin is the loss of your sense of humor. That does not mean I have a niacin problem, but it is a logical first place to start my investigation. I would start too, if I knew what niacin was (vitamin b3). I checked to see what foods I could consume to get more niacin in my diet. Turns out that I may be in need of brewer’s yeast which, I assume can be most commonly found in beer. Well who knew that beer could improve your sense of humor ? And the more beer you drink, the higher your niacin intake and the better sense of humor you will have. Upon reflection, It has come to my attention over the years that people will laugh a lot more often after seven or eight beers, so there may be something to all of this.


Suppose, however, I decide not to imbibe on this beer cure, what happens to one when they run out of niacin, besides loss of a sense of humor ? Well it is characterized by what is known in medical circles as the “three Ds”, these are , diarrhea and dermatitis and dementia. Each one of the Ds is bad enough, getting them all together sounds like hell. I guarantee you that nothing would be funny at all if the three Ds hit you all at once. Then again, as you are madly scratching yourself on the toilet, wondering what you are doing there, a sense of humor may seem to be the least of your worries.


So I may as well take the stuff. Any side effects ? Well there is one dozy. It often causes dilation of blood vessels in the skin, resulting in skin flushing. In other words, it turns you into a Mr. Tomatohead. While walking around the office looking like you just took a warm bath in simmering marinara sauce might not do much to pick up your sense of humor, your co-workers might get a kick out of it. And you know what they say, “laughter is contagious”. I have never understood how laughter could be contagious ,while at the same time it is “the best medicine”. Wouldn’t those two old homilies work to counteract each other ? Who wants a beer ? It’s Miller time.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The man who knew God face to face

I opened my Sunday bulletin at church yesterday and found that we were to sing something called “This is God’s Wondrous World”. As the music began to play I immediately recognized the hymn as a politically correct version of the classic   “ This is my Father’s World”. Some years ago, certain zealous Methodists went through the hymn book and boiled it pure of every lyric which might equate to the paternal or fraternal. “God  our Father, Christ our Brother” was taken out of “Ode to Joy”. The old Christmas Carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” dropped the  line “Born to raise the sons of earth.” And one of my personal favorites, “Faith of Our Fathers” became “Faith of the Martyrs”. For some reason, I had never noticed that “This is my Father’s World” had been changed. I guess I missed the Sundays where it has been sung. I was somewhat gratified to notice that the majority of the congregation still sang the old lyrics, although the hymnal commanded them otherwise. It will not be too many years before the original lyrics will be forgotten, which is, of course, the whole idea.


I thought about this  Sunday as I puzzled over the life of Charlton Heston, the actor who died this weekend at the age of 84. Heston lived, and made movies in a world that was very much paternal. There was no doubt that Heston’s God, whether  Heston approached him as  Moses, Judah Ben Hur, or President of the National Rifle Association, was male.Heston gloried in playing the suffering man who did his duty, to God and his people. And he was good at it. While his portrayal of Moses seems “over the top” today, it was an outstanding performance in its time. Today, an actor would play Moses with more care to the detail of the bible. But Cecil B, De mille was not going to cast a Moses with a speech impediment or a stammer as the bible infers. He needed a vigorous and manly voice to demand of Pharaoh to “let the people go”. And so , he got Heston.There he was, in Cinemascope, his beard and robes flowing in the strong winds, raising  his staff both literally and figuratively  to part the Red Sea and drown Pharaoh’s charioteers. A man’s man in a man’s world. A man who, like Moses himself “knew God face to face.”



At some point along the way, Heston changed phallic symbols, replacing the staff of God with the long barreled rifle. The man who had pleaded for Congress to pass Lyndon Johnson’s anti-gun legislation became the best known advocate of private ownership of the means of death. I suppose that when you have drowned thousands of Egyptians, you are a little calloused to the occasional death by gun shot. I hated seeing Heston with that group. I especially hated seeing him, as he did, hold a rifle high above his head and proclaim that they could “take it away from me when the pry my cold , hard fingers off of the trigger.” The news this weekend did not report as to whether this was necessary. Although, since Mr. Heston had suffered from Alzheimer’s for some years, one doubts that this was the case. By the time I ran into Heston, at the British Museum in 1984, he was no longer universally loved. Then again, as between the two of us, he, at least, was universally known.



My first knowledge of Heston was as Ben Hur. So popular was that movie, that in February of 1960, the Houston Live stock Show and Rodeo, held annually at the Sam Houston Coliseum, replaced the traditional Chuck Wagon race with a Chariot race. It was spectacular. Not a spectacular as getting to see my hero Hugh O’Brien play Wyatt Earp at the same show, but pretty damn spectacular. Judah Ben Hur was a hero to every young boy in the neighborhood because he was larger than life, because he was Heston. Of course, at the time we were unaware of the homosexual overtones that the screenwriter later claimed to have put into the script. I find it odd that Ben Hur has not become a gay icon in America but perhaps Mr. Heston’s closeness to conservative political causes kept this from happening.



At any rate, now when I think of Heston, it is as Moses. I have written a lot about Moses in the past. He is a wonderful character. Of all the prophets who ever lived, he was best at keeping God in check when the Lord would go off of the deep end and want to kill every man, woman and child for some perceived insult. Moses knew God “face to face” and could stand up to God “nose to nose”. And sometimes, it was God who would blink. God got the last laugh of course, God always does. Moses was not allowed to cross over the Jordan to the land he had lead his people to. But he saw the land, all of it, and he lived 120 years  (if some translations of the Bible are to be believed) without loss of sexual vigor. I’m sure that that was some consolation for not getting to go into Israel.



Heston did not make 120. But 84 Is not too bad. He lived a life which saw much of what he stood for slip slowly away. Perhaps the long fog of Alzheimer’s was a blessing in some ways. But he never gave up. He fought the fight, although some of us doubt it was “the good fight”, he fought it none the less. You don’t have to like a man to admire him for certain things. In most ways he was not my kind of actor, and towards the end, he was not my kind of man, but he lived life with the vigor of the characters he played. Would that we all did that.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Faulty Syllogism

As most baseball teams celebrated opening day yesterday, the world of Formula One racing was discussing what to do about its president who appears in a sex tape of “a sadomasochistic orgy with five prostitutes that reportedly involved Nazi role playing.” Portions of the tape are available on YouTube. Apparently, the Orgy and the Nazi role playing have been cut out, because all I saw was an old man being spanked by a couple of folks in black leather and then, without explanation,, all (still disrobed) drinking a cup of tea together. Ah England !


It is the Nazi part of the story that has everyone riled up, especially Karen Pollock, the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust who is quoted as saying that it was “sick and depraved..I am appalled. “  The Formula One group (FIA) has said that Mosley’s job is not in jeopardy and that he is not going to resign. “It sounds to me like a set-up.” Said one Formula One executive.”Set up” may be stretching it. I mean, it’s hard to convince someone to report to a dungeon, take off his clothes, get beaten and then drink tea with prostitutes. I could see the tea drinking part of the set up, but the rest sounds (and looks) like something Mr. Mosley habitually engages in.


The Nazi angle is tough because Mr. Mosley’s father, Oswald, was founder of the Pre- World War Two British Union of Fascists. There are some old pictures of Max (and that name sounds suspiciously Nazi like) giving what is described as  a heil Hitler salute. But it is one thing to be labeled a sexual pervert, and quite another to be called pro- Nazi. I just do not see this as a Nazi issue and believe that Mr. Mosley is still suffering for the sins of his father in this regard. It is true that all Nazis wore black leather(at least in the movies) but not everyone that wears black leather is a Nazi. It is a syllogism as faulty as Woody Allen’s was in “Love and Death” which, as I recall ran, A. All men are mortal,  B. Socrates is a man , C. All men are homosexuals. At least Allen had anecdotal evidence of his syllogism, claiming that certain ancient Greek philosophers used to all rent a big house together every summer on Crete.


I do have to admit to being a little shocked that the Formula One folks are taking the thing so casually. I mean, what would the fellow have to do to get fired from his job ? I don’t care if people who work for me trundle off to dungeons to get beaten, but I would damn sure would  draw the line when the video tapes started making the rounds and attached my company’s name to it. Competition is tough, and being known as a place that hires sadomasochists, on balance, hurts more than it helps. I have to believe that despite Mr. Mosley’s “stiff upper lip”  it might soon be deemed better for formula One Racing if  he resigned. I’m pretty sure they would fire the Commissioner of Baseball if he did this, then again, these European sports play by different rules. It is undoubtedly a violation of the European Union labor laws to fire a fellow for this type of behavior. I think that the Netherlands specifically recruits workers for these very jobs. It would be hypocritical to get upset about it now. So perhaps Mr. Mosley will survive, and, if he does not, there is always NASCAR. Maybe they could use some new blood.