Monday, September 22, 2014

My Core Curriculum: The Three Ws

My niece, Abby, was visiting last weekend and talked about her issues with the core curriculum in her daughter’s Los Angeles charter school. 

To me, core curriculums contradict my idea of charter schools. I don’t object to schools separating what is core, and what is not, but I do not like the idea of “core” being suggested by outsiders. Are we sure enough of what is “core’ to impose our beliefs on others?

One of my retirement projects is to figure out what I will teach the next time around. I have little evidence that I’ll be 23 again, with the opportunity for another lifetime in education, but still … it is an interesting pastime. And I’m grateful that I was never presented with many, if any, guidelines as to what I was supposed to teach. I hope the next time around I’ll have the same luxury.

The stuff we teach isn’t always what people need to be learning. We prepare students to work (though many businesses reeducate their employees to make them productive). We sometimes prepare students to think (though that’s hard to show). How well do we teach them to move through life, to observe clearly, and to be patient? That question prompted me to replace the 3 Rs with the 3 Ws (walking, watching, and waiting). 

Yesterday I was fortunate to have a private qigong lesson because the others in the class didn’t show up. We mainly focused on tai chi walking which morphed into walking in general. There is so much to be learned about walking. Where is our weight? How does our weight shift from one side to another (like water, like sand)? How is our core involved? How do we hold our head? Are our feet pointing forward, to the inside, or to the outside? What about our arms—where are they? How are they moving? But walking is much broader than that? How do we move through the grocery store in a way that is respectful to others, so that we aren’t a jerk. How do we move from one station in our lives to the next? Are we able to leave one thing as we go to another. Some teachers have their students meditate for five minutes at the beginning of class. That helps the students' mind to catch up with their body. In the Kung Fu series, Caine, the Shaolin Monk,  remembers how his teacher told him he’d be ready to leave when he could walk across the rice paper without making a sound.

Listening and watching is another skill that I’d place in a core curriculum. Ernest Haas, the photographer, distinguished between “looking” (merely orienting yourself), and “seeing” (really getting what is in front of you). The challenge of learning to draw to mark on the paper what is in front of you. Our minds fool us. Tennessee Williams never graduated from college, but he could listen and depict how people behaved. A classmate, Jon Boorstin, got started in the film industry by patiently watching what was happen on sets. His observations indicated that he could see. Without inhaling you have nothing to exhale.

The third “W” is waiting. Siddhartha talked about waiting as one of the three skills he could do. Events occur at different times. Sometimes we don’t like to wait. When we are twelve we want to be sixteen. Often we have to wait. When I first started to meditate I would wait for the bell to ring, indicating the end of that meditation session. That eventually wore off when I realized that the job at hand, coming back from my thoughts, was a full-time job. There is a lot of waiting in the photographic darkroom. Every process is timed. Even getting a good print takes waiting. You analyize your first print and go from there. The most challenging is “waiting for death.” If you do it hard, your eyes will be glued to the window, watching for the grim reaper. But softly, you’ll realize that your breaths are limited, and then embrace and let go the breaths one by one. Like letting birds free, one by one. It was found that when you present six year olds with a choice of one cookie now, or two cookies in 15 minutes, that the kids who choose the two cookies will do better in school. They have learned to wait. 

Like waiting,  we think that walking and watching are all a matter of trying harder (Avis’s motto—We Try Harder). I suspect the opposite is true. An American Indian knows that it is a soft gaze that lets you know when some prey or an enemy is coming into your territory. Maybe the phrase, “trying soft” is more like it. 

In any case, those are my three Ws. It takes a lifetime to learn these (or maybe two…I’m not even close). Yet they seem essential before you can tackle any other task.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


I don't know what to write.
I could eat something. 
I could see if the news has changed. 

Perhaps someone will refute 
the latest stats 
on the climate.

Or maybe
that new threat to our country 
will strike us dead.

In the meantime,
I can't do the dishes. 
They are in the KitchenAide

churning away, 
eating their dirt 
like a hungry whatever.

You might think, oh, 
it is better to be silent 
than to ooze senseless words.

But suppose, 
through no fault of my own, 
something meaningful comes out.

What then? 
Your thought was wrong. 

I like to imagine 
all the seemingly useless lives 
that were on the wrong track, 

barking up the wrong tree, 
like all the alchemists
trying to make gold out of this or that... 

and then for the few, 
something happened and we became 
more civilized, or less...

depending on
how you look at it.
So, I'm so blocked,

with nothing
at all to say,
except that [I know]

you can't get wet 
unless you go out 
in the rain.

Which isn't 
really true
but what the hell!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Cat Killer

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And I thought I was doing a mitzvah by giving flowers to my wife. But ... discovering that these flowers were poisonous to cats suggested that I might not know the effects of my actions.

We don't have cats but I know that every time I've buy something I encourage that product's production. So my generosity makes me a cat killer, of sorts.

Should I put a sign on the door, beware of lilies if you are a cat?

Psychologists have noted that often when one does a mitzvah their next action is more likely to be a bad action. A recent study showed you were 3% more likely to be bad if you had just been bad. It seems similar to the idea that a New Year's resolution told to others often is not followed. We have fulfilled our social obligation by announcing our good intention so now we don't need to do the act. That's enough to contemplate keeping away from people who have recently done mitzvahs, isn't it?

I recognized I wasn't very nice after giving my wife the flowers. She commented that her glasses were dirty, which reminded me that my glasses were dirty, so I got up and cleaned them. She was upset because I got up quicker than she and so she had to find another sink to clean her glasses while I cleaned mine. I'm not sure this is ground for divorce, but I do know that I wasn't very thoughtful, believing (unconsciously) that the flowers gave me the right to use the sink first.

I think this whole event, as minuscule as it was, taught me that a gift doesn't have to be a bouquet of (cat killing) lilies, but it could be, as Wordsworth wrote, ...his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.

I spent the other evening at the University of Texas, and was struck by how kind and thoughtful were the students. When I was lost, three students stood around with their Androids and tried to find where I wanted to go. But the most unusual event was the woman who was standing in front of me on a crowded bus. She asked if I minded if she stood in front of me. “Of course not,” I told her.

My challenge today is not to give any overt gifts, but just to be thoughtful like the woman on the bus. I want to recognize what spaces I might be invading. What might I do to make others more comfortable? Just because I can get off the couch faster doesn't mean I get to wash my glasses first!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Buying Flowers for My Wife

I asked my neighbor when you should buy flowers for your wife and he said, “Anytime.” Then I asked if you should get her flowers because you wanted something or because you were bad. “No,” he said.

I knew an artist who bought jewelry for his wife because she posed for his paintings. That seemed a little bit tit for tat (or visa versa).

I'm not too good with gifts. My parents didn't get it. They would insist that they gave me everything that I needed, so why should I need anything else?

And I think of Milton Friedman’s diagram about how we spent money most wisely when it is our money spent on ourselves, and least wisely when it is a third party’s money spent on someone else. I would get a number of presents from my in-laws that were things I didn't need. I’d then spend a copy of days after Christmas returning things. Somehow they got wind of this so they just give cash that I appreciated more.

No wonder my grandkids call me Grandpa No Fun.

I asked my wife when I should buy her flowers. I wanted to be sure it would not seem like prostitution. (I've been watching the evil Tony Soprano lately and my mind is going “to hell in a hand basket,” as my mom would say.

Anyway, my wife said I could “just” buy her flowers someday. I really surprised her today by doing that, though I have to admit that I was trying a little bit to appease her because she said she gets mad at me all day when I go to bed so late (which I often do).

Is there any pure generosity, with no thought of any gain? One of my Zen teachers speak of giver, gift and receiver all being one. I really like this. If I'm stuck in the idea of one person giving a gift to another then I'm always going to be having thoughts of gain and loss. But if I get pass that and see the giver, gift and receiver of all being inexorably interconnected, then giving is purer. Or, as I see Mother Teresa, she gave because giving needed to be done. In one of the chants at the Zen center, there is the line “The four elements return to their natures just as a child turns to its mother….” Ideally there is no gaining thought in those situations. Our compassion tells us what needs to be done.