Sunday, October 23, 2016

On Freedom Not Being Free

It seems I'm not the first person to think of this.

Just so you know, I think bullfighting is an abomination. 

I also think this year's three Presidential "debates" were an abomination. So there's some resonance there.

Reading up just now about bullfighting (that's called "research"), I learned that a bullfight is a highly ritualized spectacle, most of which involves goading, torturing, and weakening the bull to render the final, fatal sword thrust more effective. Bulls intended for the ring are raised in conditions that render them more wild than domesticated. The bullfight itself is extremely hazardous, frequently leading to injury and even death for the humans and horses involved in the ritual. Of course, the bull is almost always dead at the end of the show, so maybe there's some justice in that risk.

Back to the debates: each reinforced the impression that what I was watching was a ritualized spectacle, a confrontation between two unequal combatants, with a foreordained conclusion. One was a dangerous, charismatic, mercurial, yet ultimately predictable beast; the other was a skilled athlete, cool, prepared, focused, keeping her emotions in check, exploiting every opening, goading, tormenting, dancing away, exploiting every opening her clumsy opponent gave her. Over the course of the debates, Trump's lunges and charges hurt him far more than his intended target.

Here's where the analogy runs out of steam: as the Trump campaign flounders toward Election Day, this raging bull is stabbing itself. Clinton can just step out of the ring and watch Trump bleed to death.

The real horror of this spectacle, though, isn't the Trump campaign. It's that Hillary Clinton's ascent to the White House had to be in this climate, with this opponent. Eight years ago, we had a Presidential campaign that stirred hearts, made history, and inspired a generation. The ultimate failure of the nation to fully embrace the hope of that moment has been tragic. The auto da fe that Clinton has had to endure is a logical extension of the racist intransigence with which Republicans have treated the Obama administration. Its predictability doesn't make it any more acceptable.

We're on the cusp of a second watershed Presidency, one that could and should be even more significant than Obama's. As many have observed, Hillary Clinton is the most experienced, talented, skilled politician I'll ever have the opportunity to vote for. As President, she'll make pragmatic decisions that will, at times, leave me cold, but there is no doubt in my mind that the direction of her leadership will be for the betterment of this nation. I expect it will be akin to the Johnson administration, making great gains for civil rights and social justice. Hopefully it won't lead us into another Vietnam, but that's a topic for another column.

All of this is a given. Becoming the first female President of the United States should be irrelevant to Clinton's astonishing intellect and skill set. If this election was to be truly fair, if this nation was anywhere close to what it should be to deserve as gifted a leader as she will be, she should have faced an opponent who offered voters a clear choice between pragmatic progressivism and idealistic conservatism: Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, someone along those lines.

Instead, we got Trump. Because, as the red, white, and blue pro-military bumper stickers like to remind us, "freedom isn't free."

Because, as much as this election should've been about ideas, about truly making America even greater, about building on the successes of the Obama years while transcending their failures, in the end, it was about gender. It was about the last gasp of a generation of older white men clinging to what's left of the power they once enjoyed just by virtue of two accidents of genetics: skin color and gender. Obama dealt a mortal wound to their race privilege, and it infuriated them. All they had left, it seems, was their testicles. And now a powerful woman was rising up to render even that distinction moot.

It was too much for them to take. They lashed out in the only way they safely could: nominating a candidate who was a living, breathing, tantruming avatar for all they hated about what America was becoming. Racist, sexist, simplistic, reactionary, an insult to the intelligence of anyone who knows anything about civics, 

Donald Trump should never have gotten past his first primary debate. Instead, he was elevated to as high a position as a monstrous misogynist has ever achieved. He is the Bobby Riggs to Clinton's Billy Jean King. She shouldn't have to prove herself in this kind of a contest. It shouldn't have to be a battle of the sexes. Given the anger of the white male electorate, though, it couldn't have been any other way.

So there she is in the ring, cool, sophisticated, and deadly. The outcome is inevitable: her opponent may be loud and powerful, but his ploys are laughably ineffective. She refuses to be shaken by him. He'll lumber around the ring, bellowing out his fury at her, insisting the whole thing is rigged, refusing to admit that he is the bull and not the matador, sullying American democracy with the blood and feces that spew from his orifices, insisting that the fraction of the crowd who love him should be running the country, forcing the rest of us to deal with the reality that after this election, those angry white guys will still be out there, our neighbors, customers, clients, former friends. They're not going away. President Clinton will have to find a way to welcome them back to our evolving culture.

And maybe that's what needed to happen for us as a nation: we needed to learn just how powerful and angry that minority of white guys is, to have a sense of their frustration before they finally fade from our political consciousness. Our first woman President, too, may very well have needed to defeat the World's Worst Man.

I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton's victory speech and inaugural address will be models of grace and reconciliation. She's been studying for those moments for her entire life, and she's a very good student. I, for one, will be celebrating these accomplishments, doing my best to put all the ugliness that is candidate Trump behind me, as I hope the nation can do.

We didn't give Hillary Clinton the campaign she deserved. Let's see if we can help her have the Presidency she deserves.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Finally, a Bridge Too Far

Not just this guy.

Really? This is what it takes?

Donald Trump's campaign has been off at least one of its rails as long as it's been running. Trump was never interested in being respectable, civil, eloquent, diplomatic, statesmanlike, or even coherent. He was always a loud, bellicose, attention-demanding incarnation of masculine id, with a dog-and-pony show that was irresistible to a large enough plurality of Republican voters that it overcome all the shallow business-as-usual candidates--as well as a few other wingnuts who lacked his eye-catching vulgar appeal--to bequeath him with a nomination to become the world's most dangerous head of state. His rhetoric was scattershot when it came to positions on any of the issues the serious candidates were debating, but consistent in one regard: he hated the same people as that large plurality of voters, and cared not a farthing for how his targets felt about that hatred.

The size of his following, while not large enough to constitute a majority, was always disturbing. This country has appeared to make progress toward becoming more diverse, more tolerant, more open, more humanist, as civil rights have expanded, communities of color have become more prosperous, and calls for equity have resonated with larger and larger swaths of Americans. It's important to remember, though, that much of this progress has been despite the ongoing existence of that bigoted plurality. Much of it has happened in the court, not the ballot box. And while it is increasingly reflected in popular culture, it is the young who largely dictate the attitude of the media toward diversity. Many who have been left behind--who don't care for hip hop culture, who are revolted by public displays of non-heterosexual affection, who are frightened by non-Christian expressions of faith, who hear terrorism in the voice of anyone speaking a language other than American-accented English, and whose professions and trades are being globalized or rendered obsolete by the increasingly borderless global economy--have longed for a prophetic advocate who would promise them simple protections from the things they fear most.

Trump's solutions to these problems were always simple: Expel immigrants who were already in this country, and wall off the southern border to keep new ones out. Create old economy jobs and erect trade barriers to keep them here. Torture and bomb Muslims to end terrorism. Strip non-whites of their Constitutional rights in the name of "law and order." This fascistic agenda struck a chord with that disaffected plurality, landing Trump the Republican nomination.

It could've ended there. If the party's elite--Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, the Congresspersons and Senators they represent, the governors and state legislators who have gerrymandered this nation to a fare-thee-well--hadn't been so desperate to put a Republican in the White House, so insistent that anything would be preferable to having a (gulp) woman in the Oval Office, especially after eight years of having a (double gulp) Black man there, this could've ended in August. Refusing to endorse the demagogue, withholding party campaign funds, saying "no" to being his running mate, speaking out against his racism, sexism, nativism, using the rules of the party's convention to end his candidacy, could have nipped it in the bud. Yes, it would've been messy, and cost the GOP the Presidential election--but then, how is that different from the train wreck that's happening now?

The elite didn't do any of these things. Instead, they shook their heads at Trump's constant invective, put it all down to the tropes of an entertainer, and endorsed him. They hitched themselves to the hellbound train, and now it's too late to break away.

And they're only doing it because finally, there's a video clip of Trump saying something appalling about women that only his most rabid followers can explain away. It's a candid admission of sexual predation, and it rings all too true for the more-than-50% of the electorate who are women. Even if Trump could've put together a large enough plurality of racist whites to squeak out a win, he can't pull it off without women.

Meanwhile, that vulgar 11-year-old claim to sexual privilege has exposed the horror lived every day by so many women and girls. I'm offended that so many of the male Republican politicians finally turning against Trump are doing it because they have to be able to face their daughters. What about their mothers, their wives, their colleagues, and much more than that, all the anonymous females, young, old, and anywhere in-between who, for no other reason than their gender, have been classified as fair game for molestation by men since the dawn of human existence?

So many women I've known and loved have been subjected to sexual abuse that I've begun to wonder if anyone is safe. In the last twenty-four hours, I've heard stories of twelve-year-olds being pawed in public places by men who then casually went on their way. Almost every woman I've ever been involved with romantically has had stories to tell of harassment, innuendo, inappropriate touching, and rape. I find myself revolted by my own gender.

I have daughters, a wife, a mother. I've heard their stories. But even if I hadn't, I would be grieving for the global disgrace that is men's treatment of women. Perhaps this (hopefully) campaign-ending abomination can finally open up a dialogue about what it really means to be a woman, and start to move the men of this country toward treating the women around them as fellow human beings rather than sexual prey.

But to get back to the even larger disgrace of Donald Trump coming so close to having a chance at the White House: one need not be Black, Hispanic, Muslim, an immigrant, or female to understand that humans ought to treat each other with kindness. The five-year-olds in my kindergarten classes already understand this. When one kindergartner starts to cry, several others cluster around that child to comfort him or her. It doesn't matter why there are tears. It absolutely does not matter what the gender, color, or ethnicity of the crying child is. The others just know someone needs a hug, and that it's not okay to hurt someone else's feelings.

If my kindergartners can understand this now, just a month into their first year of public school, why has it taken the leaders of the Republican party so long to even start to get it? Where is their empathy, their compassion, their simple humanity? Is there anything they won't sacrifice for the promise of a seat at the table of power?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Coming Home Happy

Image result for edward byrom elementary school
All-staff selfie, taken by Principal Matt. I'm not sure where I'm sitting.

For the first time in my life, I'm coming home happy every day.

At 55, I've had many jobs. Some I liked, a few I even loved. And some were miserable. Looking back on four decades of work, I'm sure of this: none of those jobs even approached being as consistently satisfying as this one.

What makes teaching music at Byrom so wonderful? It's hard to pin down. It's not that my fellow staff members are exceptional: like every other school I've worked in, they're mostly enthusiastic dedicated educators, most of whom are on time to drop off and pick up their classes. Nor is it that my teaching space is spectacular: it's just the right size, and mostly well-equipped, but the Orff instrumentarium needs some major investment and the room is both windowless and chronically dusty. The building is a relic of the 1970s open classroom philosophy and, like most schools built along those lines, is rife with flimsy walls erected when it was realized how misguided that philosophy had been. The commute is similar in driving time to my last gig, 30-35 minutes when traffic is moving freely, more like 45 when, as is usually the case on the way home, 217 is congested. As far as building and district administration goes, my experience, and that of my colleagues, is consistent with other districts where I've taught: we're mostly on the same side, but at times it feels like we're working at cross purposes.

And yet there's something very different about this job, something that seems so different, so wonderful that I come home smiling every day. Amy was the first to notice this, and her observation about it caused me to realize that she hasn't experienced this in the seven years we've been together: we met just months before I was laid off in Banks. When I was rehired there, it was to teach high school music half time, something which, after two years with some of the nicest high schoolers I've ever met, I could safely say is just not my cup of tea. (Sometimes I enjoy a pot of tea with breakfast.) I went from that job to a full-time position teaching disadvantaged children at an elementary school in outer northeast Portland. That job was challenging for many reasons, most of them not related to the children: lack of proper facilities, a poorly constructed schedule and, most of all, unsupportive administrators. But yes, as much as the extraneous parts of the job made it difficult, the children themselves played a significant role: children who've experienced a high level of trauma at home often act out at school, the one place where it feels safe to express their deep, sometimes violent, feelings.

For all that I struggled with the nature of that job, I did love my students. And by the time I finished my third year there, I had developed a set of classroom management skills that are leaps and bounds beyond what I had before arriving there.

In the three years that I taught in the Reynolds district, I mostly came home tired, frustrated, sad, and, all too often, frightened, because I always had a sense that my job was on the line: if I couldn't get those children to behave under those extreme conditions, I was not going to be able to stay. For about a month last winter, I was in limbo, the job falling away from me, no replacement on the horizon.

Then came Byrom.

The interview was promising. The trial lesson was a home run. There were several weeks of waiting then, but at last, I got the offer.

The children at Byrom love music, and they know how to express that love in appropriate ways. They listen to what I have to say. When I outline the expectations, they pay attention. When I remind them of those expectations, they acknowledge the reminder with serious expressions, and change their behavior accordingly. They are enthusiastic about every lesson, go out of their way to thank me for teaching them, and express their affection for me freely. I have a clear sense that my colleagues and my principal are working with me to achieve the best outcome possible, addressing whatever behavior issues may arise the same day they happen.

I miss many of the children I left behind in Reynolds. I wish I could have brought them with me. But at the end of the day, this is where I've landed, and I'm loving this work. I'm teaching music to children, and it's everything I always knew it could be.

This is why I'm hardly blogging at all these days: so much of my creativity is going into teaching I've got little left to type up. More than that, my heart is so full with love and joy, and I come home with such happiness, that I have no frustrations to channel into punditry.

Well--almost no frustrations. There is a certain vulgarian running for President who has me feeling so furious I'm bound to write something soon about him.

But not today. I came home happy yesterday, and I'm not ready to let go of the glow.