Category Archives: education

The Writer’s Own Opinions

Every writer, especially a fiction writer, has an opinion about what his or her work really means.

Of course, their readers have their own opinions of what it means. And the two different flavors of opinion, author sauce or reader ragu, rarely are the same flavor, and often work at cross purposes to spoil the whole stew. Look at how the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird went over with readers for Harper Lee. Or how J. K. Rowling’s opinions about trans people have affected the most recent movie trilogy made from her works of fiction.

So, maybe I should clarify where I stand on certain issues before anybody threatens to make a movie from, or ban and burn any of my books.

(As if either of those things are ever going to happen.)

Trans People

In Texas now, it is generally agreed because of laws passed and pronouncements made by Fox-News-influenced Republican leaders, that trans people are 20-or-30-year-old male perverts putting on dresses and trying to get into middle school girls’ locker rooms, or worse, trying to play and win female sports with the advantages that come with testosterone and male aggressiveness.

My opinion on this issue is… you don’t get to have an opinion on this gol danged issue unless you yourself are a trans person. This is based on knowing two trans people in the entirety of my thirty-one-year teaching career. Not enough to make me qualified to open my stupid mouth about it, but more than any Texas Republican knows about it despite the large amount of foul-smelling opinion-gas they fill their speech balloons with in public.

One of these two people whose real names I will never utter was a confident and highly competent young lady whose sexual identity you could never doubt. I only knew about it because I was the teacher tasked with sitting in on her ARD meeting (a Special Education status update that she needed only because her situation qualified her as a Special Education student under the Emotionally Disturbed category.) She was at the meeting, so she knew that I knew. She would later warn me not to tell anybody, because it was no one else’s business what shape of genitals she was born with, and her hormone therapy and entire life experience made her a girl. Other teachers had leaked her secret in the past, and that was unfair to her. She was definitely a female in mind and personality. She was sweet, intelligent, witty, and capable of laughing at my classroom jokes… if they were funny. I suspect only a few if any of her classmates knew she was actually trans. She was all girl. I never told anyone. I never heard another student bad-mouth her. Although she did tell me that bad things had happened to her previously in elementary school. Nothing she was forced to endure was in any way deserved. And I am confident she is doing fine now.

The other trans student I was aware of, didn’t have it so good. I will call him a “he” because he never transitioned. But he was actually a girl. He had a penis, but it was only on the outside. His interior plumbing included a uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. His hormones were, judging by what puberty did to his body and behavior, mostly feminine. But he didn’t have the other girl’s advantages of being from a wealthier, big-city family with relevant health services available to him. He was a member of a poor, Hispanic family that lived in a small rural Texas town. He was not treated as a trans person. He was considered a homosexual. And Hispanic culture in South Texas is not kind to homosexuals. He had serious mental problems. He tried to talk to me about his problems late one Saturday night. But the conversation ended when he tried to proposition me, and I rejected his advances. I was not a homosexual either. Months later I found him crying in the hallway and bashing his forehead against a metal doorpost. I got help from the Reading teacher to get him to the nurse. He wasn’t in class very often after that. He did not pass any of his classes that year. And he didn’t come to school at all the next year. I heard rumors that he went to Laredo and became a drug dealer and a prostitute. I also heard from one of his relatives that he had attempted suicide more than once. At this point, I feel sadly certain that he never got the help he needed and is probably now dead.

I have now told you everything I actually know about the subject of trans people. And I can safely say I had no measureable effect on either one. I still cry about one of them. I still feel a small bit of pride about the other one. As a teacher I loved both of them, but not the kind of love he asked me for on that late Saturday night when I probably should not have opened the door to him. But I am not entitled to have an opinion. It is not my business no matter how much I care.

One of my favorite characters that I have used in multiple stories, Blueberry Bates, is a trans girl. How realistic she is as a character is probably still up in the air. I have revealed what I know about trans people that she is based on. But I love her, just as I loved the two of them. I think people like that are worthy of love and whatever you have to invest in them to be of help to them. I do not think they need to be legislated against. Their lives are hard enough as it is.

My glitchy computer published this before I got to write the conclusion. But having opinions is a matter of glitchiness anyway. And if you find you need to cancel me for my terrible opinions, you don’t need my permission to do it. I doubt you would even think about asking anyway. I hope I have made what I think clear. These are my writer’s opinions. And it is obvious from this essay that this is probably not the last one I will inflict on you.

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Filed under angry rant, autobiography, education, kids

More Simple Answers to Complicated Problems

Part A, Solving Racism

Minnie and my daughter.

I know… Saying I can solve racism simply marks me as something of an idiot. It is a complicated and deeply-embedded weakness of the human race. We are programmed with certain instincts that make us fearful of anyone or anything unknown to us, unfamiliar, or obviously different in some manner.

Consider allowing someone like Minnie Mouse to hug my young daughter. As people go, she is somewhat suspicious-looking. Notice the color of her skin on the neck, ankles, and arms. This is a black person apparently wearing white-face makeup. Is that not something suspicious? Something to be cautious about? In fact, look at the mouse ears and black, mouse nose. She’s not even human! She’s an anthropomorphic mouse-lady. Tucker Carlson would warn you against trusting her with the Princess. And if you point out how silly these arguments are about a Disneyland performer in a costume that represents Minnie Mouse, a character we all know and love, I would say, “YES! Exactly! An unknown person hiding her identity under a costume that will put adults and children at ease… and make them vulnerable to who-knows-what?” Maybe Florida Governor DeSaniflush was right to attack Disney by charging his Floridians more in taxes in the Disney name.

Yes, human beans are inherently suspicious, paranoid, and hateful when it comes to groups that are different than the one we identify with.

Of course, there is a simple answer if you are only willing to look at it that way. There should be no racism because we are not different. We are all one race, the human race.

That means, Mr. Toilet-Cleaning-Chemicals, that you and I are actually the same. You are not made, as I have believed incorrectly, of poop-dissolving chemicals as my demented and paranoid brain keeps thinking because of your DeSantis misnomer. You are not the saint you believe you are because of the meaning of your name in Spanish either. We are both human beans. The same race.

And you are the same race as the beautiful young ballerina I pictured before I added the photo of you thinking about eating too many baked beans, and then drinking Coca Cola while eating Mentos. You are not going to explode. Because even if you consume those ingredients you were thinking about, they can’t actually dissolve the poop you are filled with most of your time on Earth as a human bean.

As a teacher I learned the hard way that all kids are kids. They are all human beans. They all have blood and brains and wants and needs and loves and hates. No matter what color they are. No matter what culture they grew up in, or what religion their parents taught them, or failed to teach them. As a teacher, you have to be able to love all of them. Even the ugly ones. Even the ones whose names remind me of poop-dissolving chemicals and seem to be constantly full of fear and hatred and racism.

Here’s the skinny on those things racists need to hear;

The human beans you need to hate and fear and distrust, the truly evil people, come in every color, creed, culture, and calamitous character. Yes, rich white people, they even come in the color white. No matter what Tucker Carlson says… or thinks about a malevolent Minnie Mouse who may somehow be trying to “replace us.”

And the people you need to get more familiar with, whose culture you need to witness, whose stories you need to hear, and you desperately need to learn to love, come in every color too. Yes, rich white people, even in the color white. I am no more a reverse racist than I am a racist.

And there is a simple cure for racism.

Jesus taught it. So did Buddha, Mohammed, Zoaster, Walt Whitman, and Alan Watts. Jean Paul Sartre too, come to think of it.

The cure is to love everybody. Hate nobody. Suprisingly, if you do that simple thing, nobody will hate you in return. Racism is then cured. I know it is not feasible. Not everybody will even bother to listen to this advice. But the world won’t get any worse while you try to make it happen.

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Filed under commentary, compassion, daughters, education, feeling sorry for myself, finding love, forgiveness, humor, insight, Paffooney, racial profiling, rants, religion

Another “Oops!” School Story

Eating pencils when you are supposed to be writing something isn’t a recommended learning strategy, but is more useful in South Texas than having blue hair.

When I was a rookie teacher in the Spring of 1982, I had to take two busloads of eighth graders nearly a hundred miles to see the State Capitol in Austin for their annual 8th Grade Field Trip.

If you don’t see the potential for disaster in that, well, you are in for a tougher life going forward than the one I am about to complain about.

Anyway, it was an extra-warm sunny Texas day and we had an endless-hours journey in an un-air-conditioned bus with sixty kids and four teachers per bus. And I was the new teacher filled with sizzling rage from enduring eight months and fourteen days worth of get-the-new-teacher tricks by fourteen-and-fifteen-and-sixteen-year-old kids (I didn’t have to rage at the eighteen-year-olds on the field trip because the same things that kept them in the eighth grade until they were eligible for Medicare were the things that disqualified them from going on the field trip). And because the principal was convinced that you could prevent death by throwing things on a bus by having a teacher sitting near the perpetrator, or the potential target, the teachers had to spread out and sit with the kids. Of course, our bus had 59 perpetrators and one potential target (Tomasso, the kid nobody could stand). And the coaches got to sit by the vatos locos most likely to fling metal and hard food. I, of course, got Tomasso.

So, I sat for five hours on the way up to Austin practicing trying to kill apple-core tossers with my best teacher’s stink-eye while ducking gum wads, wrapper balls, and half-eaten Rice-Krispies Treats. And I was also listening to Tomasso’s endless weird questions and comments about penguins that made him the popular target. I got extra practice recognizing bad words in Spanish and resisting the urge to call them “pendejos” in return.

And we got to Austin tired, sweaty, and hungry because it took extra time in both San Antonio and San Marcos traffic, and we missed our lunch connection in a parking lot in central Austin. The kids were mostly not hungry. They were full of chips and hot Cheetos and other salty, unhealthy snack food. Instead of hunger, they were dying of thirst. And while the History teacher in charge of the trip and the coaches were consulting maps and trying to reach the lunch connection with a walkie talkie, I spotted a herd of students going over a wall into a nearby parking garage. I followed to see them walking over the hoods of parked cars to get to a fire hose that they were using as a watering hole.

We were, of course, unable to single out any individuals for punishment. They were dying of thirst, and it was a three-hundred-degree-in-the-sunshine parking lot where we were waiting.

We got to the Capitol and walked around, bored by the tour guide, and found the one entertaining fact about the Texas Capitol Building. Governor Hogg once had two daughters named Ima and Ura. Their pictures hang in an upstairs display case. Kids laughed and called them “pendejos”. Even the white kids.

Then, the way home took an additional seven hours. All of the coaches fell asleep on the way home, and I was the only teacher awake and standing between unpopular nerds and death by de-pantsing. I was told that somewhere in the middle of the writhing masses of eighth grade arms and legs and ultra-loud voices, a shy kid the teachers all liked lost his virginity to one of the more sexually aggressive girls while the other kids close enough to see in the general darkness watched. Was it true? When he got asked in the classroom, he just grinned.

I remember a lot of “Oops!” School Stories happening on field trips. I went on more than twenty of the big trips like that one, and I only remember a handful that went smoothly. But this one stands out in my memory because it was the first. And first experiences set the standard the rest are judged by. And I tell you this because, this time of year, if things were still like they used to be, and there was no pandemic, field trips to hell like that one would be going on for first-year teachers.

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Filed under autobiography, education, humor, kids, Paffooney, teaching, Texas

The Education of Poppensparkle… Canto 5

Canto 5 – Across the Open Arcanum

The next morning Tod and Flute invited the girls to look at the map with them.

“We are here, just south of the Troll Bridge and about to enter into the beanfields of the Arcanum, west of the  Slow-One Fortress called Duffy’s Farm.”  Flute pointed to the spot in the center of the map.  “We have to cross the bridge, and cut across an expanse patrolled by heroes from Demarceaux’s Hero Tree, but controlled mostly by the Unseely Court, surfacing from Castle Stoor over here.  Gobbuluns like Wartoles and Cyclopes mostly, but a few other wicked creatures as well.”

Looking across the gravel road of the Slow Ones, they could see the old bridge of metal and wood and gravel.

“There are Trolls beneath?” asked Glittershine.

“Possibly, but more likely they are sleeping during the day and will not bother us in the sunshine far above their sleeping holes under the bridge,” said Tod.

“Perhaps we should go quickly now, as the sun is bright this morning,” suggested Poppy, not wanting to risk encountering Trolls.  She had hated serving them green slime in the kitchens of Mortimer’s Mudwallow, and here there was no powerful necromancer to stop them from eating a butterfly child they happened to catch out in the open.

As the roosters crossed the road, suddenly the smell of rotten, moldy flesh told the group of Fairies that Trolls were on the bridge.

“Tod!  Spur your rooster and make it run!” shouted Flute.

“I see the trolls.  They are lying dead in the road, slowly turning into stones in the sunlight.”  Tod pulled up to a stop beside one of the three Troll bodies.  Poppy could actually hear the Troll-flesh crackling as the sunshine cooked it and made it into rock.

Flute pulled his rooster up too, and he and Glitter dismounted to look at the bodies.

“These bodies show signs of sword cuts,” said Glittershine.

“Yes.  A Fairy sword.  Possibly the Fyrehandle, the great sword of Lord Lancelot himself,” said Flute.

“Who is Lord Lancelot?” asked Poppy.

“He’s a great Fairy war hero, a Storybook Fairy since the time of the Slow One’s King Arthur,” said Tod.

“The son of the immortal Lady of the Lake,” added Glittershine.

But before they could do anything more, one more Troll was lumbering towards them, smoking from Troll sunburn and moaning in an angry way.

“This one is yours, Poppensparkle,” said Flute.  “Use your polymorphing spells to turn the creature into stone.  Put it out of its misery.”

Poppy could call the spell instantly to mind.  But when she pointed her power finger at the Troll, her stomach began to churn, and she couldn’t make the spell kill the Troll.  Not after she had seen the Necromancer kill Fairies and laugh about it afterwards.  The White Stag had taken those memories away from her.  But the situation now brought it back.

“I… I can’t do it!”

“You have to, Poppy!  Before it reaches us!” shouted Tod.

She tried to control the swirling sickness in her guts as she wrestled with killing the poor thing.  And then the spell came out of her pointer finger in a cloud of orange smoke and enveloped the Troll.  And that was somehow not right… because the smoke was supposed to be smoky-colored, not orange.

“Oh, no…”  She fell to her knees and emptied the contents of her stomach on the gravel road.

The cloud dissipated, leaving behind a… small sylph boy?  He was naked and crying.  His brown skin still was dripping with the leavings of the magical orange smoke.

Flute approached the weeping child.  “Who are you?  Did the Troll eat you, or something?”

The child looked at him with frightened eyes.

“Am no Trollz food!   Am Schtinker!  Am baby Trollz!”

“Whoa!  Poppy?  Did you turn the Troll into this sylph boy?”  Flute gasped.

“I couldn’t turn him to stone.  That would be killing…”  Poppy had to stop there and throw up some more.

“It’s alright, Poppy.  This Schtinker is still a Troll on the inside, but the new form is far less dangerous,” said Tod.

“Danger-us?  Schtinker no know danger-us.  Am no killah!  Dat nite be doe killah!”

“What did he say?” asked Poppy.

“So, what do we do with him?  If we just leave him here he will go back to the Unseely Court and be evil.” Tod shook his head sadly as he said it.

“We could kill him here and save him the trouble,” said Flute.

“No!  He’s just a child!” said Poppy, horrified at the callousness.

“We can take him with us and teach him to be good,” offered Glittershine.

“That would be too much work,” said Flute.

“How do we decide?  Take a vote?” asked Tod.

“We let Poppy decide.  She created him, he’s her child, her responsibility,” said Flute, looking her in the eyes.

“Well, that’s it then.  We take him.  I will take care of him.”

Flute looked at her with eyes she thought showed great intelligence.  And then he smiled.

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Filed under education, fairies, humor, novel, NOVEL WRITING, Paffooney

Naked Opinions, Hot Answers

Twitter is a place where trolls live. It is a bull-puckie paradise where trolls can poop on things to their hearts’ content. It is toxic. Not a safe place to go naked. But many trolls do. They tell you exactly how ugly they are, not just in their skin, but all the way down to their bones.

I am not a troll myself. I am a nudist at heart, like the girl in the picture. I think it would be nice to walk in nature nude. But like the girl whose parents are hippies, but law-abiding hippies who would never send their daughter to school without clothing as long as that is an illegal act, I myself don’t put naked pictures of myself on Twitter. Some nudists do that. But trolls throw poo and links to porn if you do that. And being publicly naked physically is not my goal. Only naked ideas publicly.

But I put a lot of opinions on Twitter that are totally naked. They have no clothes on to cover up how I really feel underneath, the way a lot of so-called conservatives do to get their racist points across without being accused of having racist opinions. They dress them up nice.

I have a naked opinion about the impending repeal of Roe Vs Wade beginning the roll-back of safe abortion-services and the right for women to control what happens to their own bodies. I am not pro-abortion. I am pro-choice. And that is how I will vote. But I also believe it is the wrong approach to have this issue before considering some other very important things.

You need to be providing a better life for the majority of children brought into this world than you do now. Not just the Republican answer to abortion being adoption. You need to do something about all the unloved and disadvantaged children that already exist. Too many die of starvation. Too many die of abuse. And far too many are abused by the adults in their lives to the point that they grow up into monsters, abusing their own children, the children of others, and sometimes becoming sexual predators.

Why don’t we make a law where all parents must undergo intensive training and get a license to be a parent? You need to earn a license to drive a car. Why don’t we pass a law that corporations have to make certain that all children in their assigned districts are well-fed before they can do stock buy-backs to increase their value? If they want a healthier, more-capable work-force, they should invest in one. Why are we not passing laws to ensure that the planet’s environment is protected and children’s future is guaranteed? And all of these things should come before we worry about all people who are conceived actually getting born.

And why are we putting up with places like Florida punishing teachers for teaching tolerance to people who are different, not only by color of skin and culture, but by the sexual preferences and gender identity God made them with? If you truly want to do away with the need for abortion services, then you need more and better sex education rather than gag-orders against teachers to be punished by parents suing to get them fired and pilloried.

There will be less abortions needed if you teach kids what they need to know about how babies are made, how to use contraceptives safely, and how to talk to others about the facts of life so that everyone can know more about it and proceed with procreation properly, according to whatever version of God’s plan (including science-based secular beliefs) that you choose to believe in.

These are naked opinions. Saying flat out what I believe. Open to the poo-flinging of trolls and those conservatives who are easily offended if an opinion contradicts their self-proclaimed truths wearing the clothing of rather twisted and misrepresented Christian beliefs.

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Filed under angry rant, education, family, Liberal ideas, Paffooney

Lessons From Tchaikovsky

I used to be a classroom storyteller.  As an English teacher for middle school kids, I often would give brief biographical insights into famous people we were talking about at the time.  I told them about Crazy Horse of the Sioux tribe, Roger Bacon the alchemist and inventor of chemistry as a science, Mark Twain in Gold Rush California, and many other people I have found fascinating through my life as a reader and writer of English.

One bright boy in my gifted class remarked, “Mr. B, you always tell us these stories about people who did something amazing, and then you end it with they eventually died a horrible death.”

Yep.  That’s about right.  In its simplest form life consists of, “You are born, stuff happens, and then you die.”  And it does often seem to me that true genius and great heroism are punished terribly in the end.  Achilles destroys Hector, but his heel is his undoing.  Socrates taught Plato, and was forced to drink poison for being too good at teaching.  Custer was a vain imbecile and got what he deserved at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Crazy Horse, who made it happen, was pursued for the rest of his short life for it until he was finally captured and murdered.  Roger Bacon contributed immensely to science by experimenting with chemicals, but because he blew up his lab too often, and because one of his students blew himself up in a duel with another student, he ended his days in prison for practicing sorcery.

But if you have listened to any of the music I have added to this post, the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, then you recognized it, unless you have lived your whole life under a rock in Nomusikvetchistan.  And why is that?  Because even though it is all classical music written in the 1800’s, it’s basic genius and appeal is immortal.  It will outlive all of us.  Some of it, having been placed on a record on the Voyager space craft may get played and appreciated a million years from now in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.  It will still be a work of pure genius.

And, of course, the horrible life and terrible death thing is a part of it too.  Tchaikovsky’s work took an incredibly difficult path to success.  He was criticized by Russians for being too Western and not Russian enough.  He was criticized in the West for being too exotic and basically “too Russian”.  He railed against critics and suffered horribly at their hands.  Then, too, his private life was far less private than it had any right to be.  He was a bachelor most of his life, except for a two year marriage of pure misery that ended in divorce.  And everybody, with the possibility of Pyotr himself, knew it was because he was a homosexual.  He probably did have that orientation, but in a time and a career where it was deemed an illegal abomination.  So whether he ever practiced the lifestyle at great risk to himself, or he repressed it his entire life, we will never know for sure.

But the music is immortal.  And by being immortal, the music makes Tchaikovsky immortal too.  Despite the fact that he died tragically at the age of 53, possibly by suicide.

So, this is the great lesson of Tchaikovsky.  The higher you fly, the farther you fall, and you will fall… guaranteed, but that will never make the actual flight not worth taking.  Some things in life are more important than life itself.  As I near the end myself, I cling to that truth daily.

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Filed under classical music, education, empathy, humor, insight, inspiration, music, strange and wonderful ideas about life

The Adventure of Reading Something New

I can travel through time. I can fly without an airplane. I can visit other worlds, other societies, on distant planets elsewhere in the galaxy.

I don’t do it literally. I do it by reading, and the movie version of it plays in my mind, an additional lifetime. Experience beyond the boundaries of my normal life.

I have rafted on the Mississippi in the 1830’s with an escaped slave and a couple of con men who pretend to be a duke and the rightful king of France. And the voice of Huckleberry Finn guides me as we overcome ignorance, racism, and an inability to get away from the things that pursue a boy who doesn’t quite understand how the world really works until he finally gets it right by listening to his heart.

I have fought giant squid with a whaling harpoon alongside Ned Land and Captain Nemo on the deck of the Nautilus, trying to comprehend the wonders under the sea without the villainous robber barons of industry turning scientific discoveries into the business of making war.

I have grown up on the Great Plains with Peta (Fire) of the Mahto band of the Dakota Sioux, learning to live with the spiritual power of the white buffalo in Ruth Beebe Hill’s book Hanta Yo! written from a story told by a Sioux painting on a ceremonial buffalo hide.

And all these many lives and wisdoms that I have added to my own I have achieved by the magic of deciphering… reading and understanding… books, many of which were written by men who died before I was born.

Anyone who would say that magic isn’t real… well, how do you explain the power of a good book?

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Filed under education, magic, reading

Another “Oops!” School Story

Eating pencils when you are supposed to be writing something isn’t a recommended learning strategy, but is more useful in South Texas than having blue hair.

When I was a rookie teacher in the Spring of 1982, I had to take two busloads of eighth graders nearly a hundred miles to see the State Capitol in Austin for their annual 8th Grade Field Trip.

If you don’t see the potential for disaster in that, well, you are in for a tougher life going forward than the one I am about to complain about.

Anyway, it was an extra-warm sunny Texas day and we had an endless-hours journey in an un-air-conditioned bus with sixty kids and four teachers per bus. And I was the new teacher filled with sizzling rage from enduring eight months and fourteen days worth of get-the-new-teacher tricks by fourteen-and-fifteen-and-sixteen-year-old kids (I didn’t have to rage at the eighteen-year-olds on the field trip because the same things that kept them in the eighth grade until they were eligible for Medicare were the things that disqualified them from going on the field trip). And because the principal was convinced that you could prevent death by throwing things on a bus by having a teacher sitting near the perpetrator, or the potential target, the teachers had to spread out and sit with the kids. Of course, our bus had 59 perpetrators and one potential target (Tomasso, the kid nobody could stand). And the coaches got to sit by the vatos locos most likely to fling metal and hard food. I, of course, got Tomasso.

So, I sat for five hours on the way up to Austin practicing trying to kill apple-core tossers with my best teacher’s stink-eye while ducking gum wads, wrapper balls, and half-eaten Rice-Krispies Treats. And I was also listening to Tomasso’s endless weird questions and comments about penguins that made him the popular target. I got extra practice recognizing bad words in Spanish and resisting the urge to call them “pendejos” in return.

And we got to Austin tired, sweaty, and hungry because it took extra time in both San Antonio and San Marcos traffic, and we missed our lunch connection in a parking lot in central Austin. The kids were mostly not hungry. They were full of chips and hot Cheetos and other salty, unhealthy snack food. Instead of hunger, they were dying of thirst. And while the History teacher in charge of the trip and the coaches were consulting maps and trying to reach the lunch connection with a walkie talkie, I spotted a herd of students going over a wall into a nearby parking garage. I followed to see them walking over the hoods of parked cars to get to a fire hose that they were using as a watering hole.

We were, of course, unable to single out any individuals for punishment. They were dying of thirst, and it was a three-hundred-degree-in-the-sunshine parking lot where we were waiting.

We got to the Capitol and walked around, bored by the tour guide, and found the one entertaining fact about the Texas Capitol Building. Governor Hogg once had two daughters named Ima and Ura. Their pictures hang in an upstairs display case. Kids laughed and called them “pendejos”. Even the white kids.

Then, the way home took an additional seven hours. All of the coaches fell asleep on the way home, and I was the only teacher awake and standing between unpopular nerds and death by de-pantsing. I was told that somewhere in the middle of the writhing masses of eighth grade arms and legs and ultra-loud voices, a shy kid the teachers all liked lost his virginity to one of the more sexually aggressive girls while the other kids close enough to see in the general darkness watched. Was it true? When he got asked in the classroom, he just grinned.

I remember a lot of “Oops!” School Stories happening on field trips. I went on more than twenty of the big trips like that one, and I only remember a handful that went smoothly. But this one stands out in my memory because it was the first. And first experiences set the standard the rest are judged by. And I tell you this because, this time of year, if things were still like they used to be, and there was no pandemic, field trips to hell like that one would be going on for first-year teachers.

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Filed under autobiography, education, humor, kids, Paffooney, teaching, Texas

Wisdom From a Writer’s Life

Don’t get too excited.  I searched every box, trunk, bag of tricks, safe, closet, and jelly bean jar that I have in my rusty old memory.  I didn’t find much.  In fact, the old saying is rather applicable, “The beginning of wisdom is recognizing just how much of a fool you really are.”  The little pile of bottle caps and marshmallows that represent the sum total of my wisdom is infinitely tiny compared to the vast universe of things I will never know and never understand.  I am a fool.  I probably have no more wisdom than you do.  But I have a different point of view.  It comes from years worth of turning my ideas inside out, of wearing my mental underwear on the outside of my mental pants just to get a laugh, of stringing images and stupid-headed notions together in long pointless strings like this one.

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Mason City, Iowa… where I was born.  River City in the musical “The Music Man“.

One thing I can say with certainty, nothing makes you understand “home”, the place you grew up in and think of as where you come from, better than leaving it and going somewhere else.  Federal Avenue in Mason City looks nothing now like it did when I was a boy in the 1960’s going shopping downtown and spending hours in department stores waiting for the ten minutes at the end in the toy section you were promised for being good.  You have to look at the places and people of your youth through the lenses of history and distance and context and knowing now what you didn’t know then.

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Grandpa Aldrich’s farm in Iowa is now Mom and Dad’s house.  It has been in the family for over 100 years, a Century Farm.

The only thing that stays the same is that everything changes.  If I look back at the arc of my life, growing up in Iowa with crazy story-telling skills inherited from Grandpa Aldrich, to going to Iowa State “Cow College” and studying English, to going to University of Iowa for a remedial teaching degree because English majors can’t get jobs reading books, to teaching in distant South Texas more than a thousand miles away, to learning all the classroom cuss words in Spanish the hard way, by being called that, to moving to Dallas/Fort Worth to get fired from one teaching job and taking another that involved teaching English to non-English speakers, to retiring and spending time writing foolish reflections like this one because I am old and mostly home-bound with ill health.  I have come a long way from childhood to second childhood.

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                                                                                      If “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is really true, I should be Superman now.  I look like I’ve seen a lot of Kryptonite, don’t I?

Six incurable diseases and being a cancer survivor since 1983 have left their marks upon me.  Literally.  Little pink bleedy spots all over me are the mark of psoriasis.  The fuzzy-bad photo of me spares you some of the gory details.  The point is, I guess, that life is both fleeting and fragile.  If you never stop and think about what it all means then you are a fool.  If you don’t try to understand it in terms of sentences and paragraphs with main ideas, you are an even bigger fool.  You must write down the fruit of your examinations and ruminations.  But if you reach a point that you are actually satisfied that you know what it all means, that makes you the biggest fool of all.

If I have any wisdom at all to share in this post about wisdom, it can be summed up like this;

  • Writing helps you with knowing, and knowing leads to wisdom.  So take some time to write about what you know.
  • Writing every day makes you more coherent and easier to understand.  Stringing pearls of wisdom into a necklace comes with practice.
  • Writing is worth doing.  Everyone should do it.  Even if you don’t think you can do it well.
  • You should read and understand other people’s wisdom too, as often as possible.  You are not the only person in the world who knows stuff.  And some of their stuff is better than your stuff.
  • The stuff you write can outlive you.  So make the ghost of you that you leave behind as pretty as you can.  Someone may love you for it.  And you can never be sure who that someone will be.

So by now you are probably wondering, where is all that wisdom he promised us in the title?  Look around carefully in this essay.  If you don’t see it there, then you are probably right in thinking, just as I warned you about at the outset, “Gosh darn that Mickey!  He is a really big fool.”

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Caravaggio’s Dark Angel

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio [1571 – 1610] Amor Vincit Omnia 

I don’t often choose to write about works of art that creep me out in a bad way. Or works of art that I harbor some mild hatred for. But this is one that bothers me, and I feel compelled to explain why.

I first saw this painting in a freshman-level Art History Course taught by a female Art-Nazi. I was repelled by it, completely unable to explain why. Even then, before I psychologically overcame the mental barriers that kept me from allowing myself to remember my own sexual assault when I was ten, I had a fondness for idealized nudes, even nude boys. None of the other paintings disturbed me in the way this one did.

It was explained in the textbook that Caravaggio was famous for his chiaroscuro style using strong light in a dark background to paint figures and faces. His work would inspire later greats like Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens. And his work would evolve into the works of the Baroque movement in painting.

So, what could it possibly be that turned me against this artist and this particular painting? It would take me years to figure out.

I believe if you look carefully at all of Caravaggio’s faces, you can see why I view them all as self-portraits. Compare the eyes, face-shapes, and brows of these faces with Caravaggio’s own (depicted here by another artist to lend veracity.)

He was, in fact, noted for his brutal realism in his paintings. So, did he use only relatives as models? As near as historians can tell, he did not.

But, the Cupid or Eros in the painting that annoys me is bothersome because I am the one being painted in the middle of the darkness.

Cupid, even a nude Cupid, was a common thing for painters to paint in the late 1500’s. But other painters would paint him as an idealized, beautiful nude boy. Caravaggio’s Cupid may be a beautiful nude boy, but is in no way idealized. His teeth are crooked. His smile is devilishly smirky. Even his body is awkwardly posed and plumpish in places that are not what you would call a perfect “10” model. Yes, this boy is trapped in a pose that reminds me of being pinned down and helpless, told that I shouldn’t scream or things would hurt more.

And Cupid is supposed to be wielding weapons that will make you fall in love. But these wicked bronze arrows will pierce the heart and cause death. The bow looks like a mere stage prop, as do the instruments and armor strewn about as if left by someone fleeing this deadly child. The painting is not about love, but violence in matters of life and death. I hated it because it brought to mind my own personal trauma.

The actual model for this painting was a boy named Cecco (a nickname for Francesco,) and is identified later by historians as a young art student named Cecco del Caravaggio (Caravaggio’s Cecco.) Much of Caravaggio’s life is a mystery. He never wrote an autobiography, and no biography was written about him when the people who knew him were still alive to tell on him. Only police reports and the gossip that surrounded the Greatest Painter in Rome of his time are available to speculate from. But he was definitely a brawler, drunk, and eventually a murderer. He had the bad sense to murder a gangster from a wealthy family which probably caused his own possible poisoning and death in 1610. He was rumored to be a homosexual, and was accused of molesting models, even, likely, Cecco from the painting. It is easy to see why I came to detest this man and his work, simply because I was a victim of sexual assault.

But being a student of art, I never gave up on learning about this painter and his work.

And just as I forgave the man who molested me, I have come to forgive Caravaggio for his brutish ways and painting such a nude picture of me. I may never actually like his work, but I do see his skill and what makes him a celebrated artist.

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