Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Searching For Paradise

I've just returned from a week in Florida. Over the past year, I've spent several weeks in Florida. I have driven the Gulf Coast from Tampa to Naples. I have done reconnaissance on real estate from Miami to Jupiter, just north of Palm Beach. I have driven the width of the state from the Gulf to the Atlantic and from the Atlantic back to the Gulf. I have seen more of Florida than 99% of humanity and that's not even counting driving the Panhandle and the Keys on earlier excursions or travels to Orlando, Ocala, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine from times so long ago that they seem to be from another life.

The funny thing is that I've spent the majority of my adult life in the City of Chicago, and I love it in Chicago. Somewhere back there, however, Babs and I decided that we'd like to retire someplace a bit warmer. Chicago in summer is lovely. Winters along Lake Michigan can be quite another matter. "Winter. A nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." I believe the turning point came when we spent two years on a tropical island in the Western Pacific, Guam. Got ourselves a wee bit spoiled with that experience. Began to plan for a permanent move someplace warm.

The trouble with our life on Guam was that A) It was definitely not paradise. B) It was so darned far away that no one ever came to see us. C) It was really expensive. We began to consider other options closer to home. Mind you, Sydney, Australia is a lovely and not too expensive place, but see the above remark about distance from everyone and everything you know. Sydney was out of the question.

Having ruled out Australia and islands in the tropics, we began searching diligently within the borders of the U.S. for the ideal spot. Turns out Southern California has a wonderful climate, but everyone and his brother know this and have driven the price of real estate there somewhere into the stratosphere. Alas we were not destined to be Californians.

There are a lot of people who seem enamored of the desert Southwest and move to New Mexico or Arizona. Did I say someplace warm? In those places you either live in the mountains where it's cold and snowy in the winter or you live in the desert where it's 120 in the summer. Babs can't abide mountains. We're both trying to escape snow and cold. 120 degrees is way beyond warm into the ridiculously hot.

I have family in Texas. I tried living in Austin for a time. Turns out I don't have an affinity for Texas or Texans. From Louisiana to Florida along the Gulf Coast is just redneck. Seems to me that I left Arkansas when I was a youngster to avoid that. Nope, won't be moving to Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama.

At any rate, by process of elimination, we arrived at Florida as a likely destination. We began to seriously search the state for possible places to land. Here is what we have learned. The Panhandle of Florida is commonly known as "The Redneck Riviera." It's just Alabama with a beach. Won't be going there. We considered Key West. Turns out a lot of really rich people also like Key West and have priced us out of the market there. We turned to Florida proper.

Turns out Northern Florida is, well for one thing, still prone to having some winter, and is pretty much Southern culture complete with accents and all. Go down both coasts and into places like Orlando and Ocala and there are huge numbers of people from elsewhere and it's that other Florida, the one of retirees and immigrants who come for the weather. This is where we were drawn.

The middle of Florida, including Orlando and Ocala were clearly out. They have no beach of any sort and being in the interior are just hot, humid, and full of orange groves, alligators, bugs, and the occasional large wild cat. Not my cup of tea.

We went to Miami and found a lot of overpriced condos and people who expect you to pay outrageous prices to live in little bitty places and like it. If I liked that I would have lived in Manhattan instead of Chicago. Didn't happen. Lovely place Miami, but a wee bit overpriced in the real estate market. Thumbs down.

Drove from Tampa to Naples on the Gulf Coast side. Tampa is a good sized city, but a wee bit on the Southern side and not quite the cosmopolitan mix that places south of there tend to be. Had to rule it out. Went all the way to Naples and it turns out that it is really white, Republican, and with my gay, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and African-American friends I might not really fit in.

On the Atlantic side we ruled out Fort Lauderdale and everything between there and Miami. On the Gulf Coast side we ruled out everything except a stretch that included Sarasota, Venice, Siesta Key, Longboat Key, and Anna Maria Island. We looked at more real estate than you can shake a stick at.

When it came down to it, we were deciding between a place with a pool and tennis courts and three or four blocks from the Gulf of Mexico on Longboat Key on the Gulf side and a place with a pool and tennis courts three or four blocks from the beach on the Atlantic side. We drove back and forth across the State of Florida, looking at both places.

For the record, the interior of Florida down around Lake Okeechobee is a sad place. There are long stretches of nothing North of the lake that are interrupted by cattle ranches and the occasional prison. There are long stretches of nothing but sugar cane and the occasional prison on the south side of the lake. The towns are little pockets of poverty with rows of concrete houses side by side with trailer parks full of old beat up mobile homes. Then you get to the coasts and there are people with money.

As it turns out we're probably making an offer on a place in Jupiter, Florida, about 10-15 miles north of Palm Beach. It had everything we were looking for, including a long stretch of beach and sea turtle nesting areas and a sea turtle rescue center. The price is right. The assessment fees for the community are lower than the place on the Gulf Coast side. It seems a little less fussy than the community on the other side where we were warned about people who complain about people trespassing on "their stretch of beach" and where it is rumored to be mostly deserted from June until November.

Is it paradise? Not likely, but the price is right and the weather is warm and we can afford to keep it up for a few years without actually living there full time. Saves a lot of time and worry about where to go on winter vacations. Gives us options for the future. Funny how life's decisions are made when all is said and done.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

On Vacation

Views From the 14th Floor has been in Florida on vacation and will continue to be so for a couple more days. Will be back on Wednesday. Enjoy yourselves. It's summer after all.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Non-Parenthood: The Choice That Surprises Everyone

Yesterday was Father's Day. The clerk at the bagel shop wished me a Happy Father's Day. The homeless guy selling Streetwise wished me a Happy Father's Day. Very nice of them. Trouble is that I'm not a father. Just didn't get around to it.

When Babs and I first met she used to have this t-shirt that had a picture on the front showing a man and a woman driving down the road in a convertible. Both the man and the woman had big grins on their faces and their hair was blowing in the breeze. The thought bubble above the woman's head said, "I can't believe I forgot to have children."

Turns out that t-shirt was somewhat prophetic. As mentioned above, just never got around to it. Oh there was a brief flirtation with parenthood once, but when the pregnancy thing didn't happen right away, it was soon forgotten. We took in a foreign exchange student for a year one time and a year with a teenager seemed to satisfy any latent longing we had for parenthood. With the foreign exchange student we were able to send her back to Europe after her year was done. Now we get e-mails, Christmas cards, and all of that other stuff that parents get from their real kids and we did it in one easy year.

In the meantime, Babs and I have traveled around the world and taken all of that money that would normally go to child rearing and put it into a comfortable existence that we probably would not have been able to afford otherwise. We have grown comfortable with our existence. It is others who are not comfortable with our existence.

When Babs tells other women that she has no children, the usual reply is "Oh. I'm sorry." Sorry? Why? Babs readily admits that she prefers it that way. Not every woman is cut out to be a nurturer. There are children aplenty in the world without contributing more when you don't really want to.

Often my students at school ask me, "Mr. Ray, do you have any children?" When I tell them no, they inevitably ask "Why not?" Puzzled expressions ensue. Puzzled explanations follow from myself. Not really sure why not, but it doesn't bother me. Not every human being is cut from the same mold. Not every life has to follow the same pattern.

And then when my gray haired self in the company of my lovely, not gray wife go wandering into a shop, when we wander down the street, when we go into a restaurant, or check into a hotel, or hop on a flight to somewhere everyone who sees us quietly assumes that a normal looking couple in middle age have children and possibly grandchildren and they smile little knowing smiles at us. And then we smile knowing little smiles back at them in return and quietly smile at each other, knowing how little these people really know. We smile at one another knowing how great 25 years together and the prospect of 25 more can be, without children, and yet so very very normal.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Politics of Education: Who's Going to Pay For All of This?

The Chicago Board of Education just voted to approve raising class sizes to 35, and subsequently eliminating teaching positions, numbered in the thousands. The Republican across the hall at work came into my classroom today and asked facetiously, "So do you have 35 desks in your classroom?" Also, facetiously, I turned and counted the rows of 5 in my room, "Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty....." I paused at this point because I was frankly surprised. Then I said, "Thirty-five." With the one extra desk by the wall, not in a row, the total came to thirty-six. Mind you, I was surprised. I have had thirty-one desks in my room for the better part of the year. At one time I had thirty-two, but one disappeared mysteriously. Now, just as mysteriously, an extra row of five desks had appeared in my classroom overnight.

It would appear that CPS has made their decision and the administration of my particular school has begun to comply with that decision. Oddly, the guy across the hall did not have thirty-five desks and I did. Makes a guy begin to wonder whether administration has it in for him or not. "Congrats Mr. Ray. In light of the new classroom size guidelines, you have been chosen as the first recipient of an outrageously oversized class. Thought we'd try it out on you first. See how it flies." What the @#&*(!?

Meanwhile I have seen reference in the Chicago Sun-Times for two days running that this is a power play. It seems that the downtown people have agreed to give all teachers the 4% cost of living raise that is in the current contract. There will just be a lot fewer teachers to receive said raise. The suggestion is that if teachers are willing to forgo the 4% raise, jobs will be saved. On the other side a hardass no budge woman was just elected President of the Chicago Teachers Union and judging by her stance, a strike could be imminent come fall. I believe this is the point where references to rocks and hard places usually come in.

Then there is the money that comes from the state. Just last week I was part of a group of teachers who were chosen to meet with the Assistant Secretary of Education, Carmel Martin. This guy is Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan's right-hand man, and the "go to guy" on promoting the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Mr. Martin specifically mentioned that as a part of the revamped, reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, money would be included to help avoid the sort of mass layoffs of teachers we are talking about here.

Of course this money has to be approved by the Congress of the United States and we all know how lightning fast they move to approve money for such projects. There will be Republicans decrying the downfall of the republic due to money being given to lazy-ass, do-nothing teachers who are failing our children and deserve to be fired. With a sizable Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, some watered-down version of this bill will be passed, eventually. Then the money will be filtered down to the state level for distribution. Before it can be distributed the state General Assembly will have to wail and gnash some teeth, going through a process similar to that that was described on the national level. By the time any actual money reaches the Chicago Public Schools, a couple thousand teachers will have been relieved of their employment, and if the central office administration can play the public sentiment correctly, the remaining, employed teachers will have to forgo their 4% cost of living raises to boot.

In a best case scenario, the extra money from the feds will be filtered down to CPS and the Board of Ed and the Teachers Union will work out some reasonable compromise. This would probably look like, oh I don't know, maybe a 2-3% raise instead of the usual 4%. Classroom size will be increased to maybe 30, instead of 35 and both sides will be able to crow about how the other side was being stubborn and intransigent, but hard-nosed sticktoitiveness from their side (Choose one.) averted near disaster.

All of that being said, I anticipate returning to work after the summer and finding that I will make a little more than I did this year, but not that much. I anticipate that a larger class size will be de rigeur, but I already had two freshman classes with over thirty kids in them this year. Officially we had a twenty-eight max this year, but I had 33 and 32, respectively, in two classes. So much for the union watching my back.

What we have here is a lot of posturing for the press and for the public on both sides. The reality of how it will play out is basically predictable. Can we just cut to the chase and get it over?

Monday, June 14, 2010

End of the School Year Blues: To Pass or Not to Pass? That is the Question.

The school year is winding down. I entered my final grades on the computer today. As a teacher, no matter how hardened you think you have become, you always agonize over the grades. Was the kid actually trying? Will he or she benefit from summer school? Should you fail a borderline kid who was a jerk and wasn't really trying, but actually knows more than some of the kids who are busting their butts? What criteria do you use with special education students, those with IEPs (Individual Education Plans)?

Within the general heading of Special Education there are a great many labels that are applied to kids. The most common is LD (Learning Disabled). Theoretically these kids have some disability that can be overcome by the IEP and the child can then achieve at the same level as kids in general education. In reality, LD is a dumping ground for kids that we used to call "dumb." Very few of them actually achieve anywhere near the level of general ed kids. There are levels of disability in this class, LD1, LD2, LD3, etc. that tell you the degree of severity of the disability. If you're paying attention, it tells you how low the IQ goes, that is to say it goes lower with the rise in numbers attached to the LD label.

When you get beyond the LD label, you get to EMH (Educable Mentally Handicapped). This is what once was referred to as "mildly retarded." Then you have TMH (Trainable Mentally Handicapped). I think that is more or less self-explanatory. These kids will need care of some sort or other. They can be trained to dress themselves and brush their teeth and bathe, but little else. They have a severe mental handicap.

Of course the really frustrating kids are the ones labeled ED/BD (Emotional Disability/ Behavioral Disorder). Lots of these kids are actually pretty smart, but they can't learn anything for cursing out and threatening teachers all the time, having constant fits of temper, and generally disrupting the entire learning process for themselves and everybody around them. A real barrel of fun these kids are. Think it ever occurred to anyone to put these kids in a structured environment where they don't destroy everyone around them's learning experience? Nah, too expensive. Put them in the regular classroom with everybody else and expect teachers to deal with it. A real barrel of monkeys.

At one time special education students were segregated in small classrooms and teachers who specialized in certain kinds of disabilities taught them, based on their abilities and lack thereof. Then lawsuits from parents who didn't like having their children ostracized changed all of that. Along came "total inclusion" in the classroom. So as not to discriminate against any student, no matter the ability, every student of every level began to be included in the regular classroom. Teachers now had to balance their time between students who are gifted and learn at a rapid pace, students who are average, students who learn at a very slow pace and have difficulty with academics, and the odd kid in the corner swearing at the top of his or her lungs and trying to start a fight. As a result, the teachers are torn every which way and often no one's needs are met.

There are a great many people who think that because a child is labeled Special Ed they cannot be failed, no matter what. So many people believe this that a great many special education students are passed along year after year with no effort whatsoever. They learn that they cannot be failed so they fail to attempt to pass. Doesn't matter. They'll pass anyway. What I have learned over the years is that this is a false assumption. All students must show up for class. All students must attempt the work that is being assigned. Certain accommodations must be made for Special Education students, but they still have to try. Document the lack thereof and they can be failed.

I was one of a group of teachers who were chosen to go to a meeting with the Assistant Secretary of Education (from Washington D.C.) last week. One special education teacher mentioned in passing that special education students cannot be failed, and the Asst. Secretary of Education was thoroughly baffled. "Why would you do that? You're certainly not preparing them for the future. You're sending entirely the wrong message." Well of course you are. When you do that, you graduate kids from high school with no skills, or ability to cope with the realities of the adult world. After school, there are no special ed labels, no accommodations, no IEPs. Do the job or fail and get fired.

Let's face it. A lot of these kids are not going to graduate from a 4 year college. A lot of these kids need basic math and reading skills, not British Literature and Advanced Algebra. A lot of these kids need vocational training for a job that will pay the bills, not an unrealistic belief that they are going to become a degreed professional. Our schools need serious revamping. Do we have to wait for the parents of the advanced students to get litigious because their kids' needs are not being met while they are sharing classrooms with kids who do not have the ability or are unmotivated or both?

There are a lot of do-gooders out there who think it is a disservice to track kids according to ability. Based on a lot of years spent in real classrooms where kids of all levels are mixed in, I think we are doing all of them a disservice by expecting them to suffer through "total inclusion." Get real people. A teacher cannot give a gifted child what they need while at the same time providing for the needs of a child who can barely read, and while trying to control the negative and disruptive behaviors of an emotionally disabled child. This is not "no child left behind." This is all children lagging behind except those who get lucky and are removed to a school that actually segregates by ability. This is the result of a lot of well-intentioned, but pretty ill-informed adults trying their best to do right by every child, and in the process doing right by none of them.

So who passes this semester anyway? What are my criteria? For whom should I fudge that criteria? How far should I fudge it? Awww heck, pass them all, right? Wrong!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Responding to Anonymous

When I wrote my last post, lauding the wonders of large cities and thanking my lucky stars that I do not live in a small city I also, in passing, mentioned the suburbs. I knew that there was a strong likelihood that I would offend someone. Someone who reads this will live in a small city, or in a suburb and will take exception to the fact that I think these places are for those who wish to be safe and not experience the adventure that is the large city. Did it happen? Well yeah. It was anonymous.

Anonymous opened with this "Easy to criticize from your perch overlooking the lakefront." I might add that it is also easy to criticize someone's earnest writing while remaining anonymous. You can say what you want but never fear having that coming back to bite you in the butt. I, on the other hand, put myself out there. If you read Views From the 14th Floor, you know who I am. You know what I think about things. I pull no punches. I say what I think (to a fault sometimes, agreed). You even know where I live.

Anonymous went on to note that a great many would love to live where I do, but financial reality will not permit. The implied in this statement is that people live in small cities or in the suburbs because they cannot afford anything else short of "the slummy dangerous areas where their kids would be at risk in a number of ways." To this I must reply that I moved to Chicago in 1985 and I did not arrive in my "perch overlooking the lakefront" until 2005. I busted my butt and lived in a few less desirable spots, and none of them were what I would call "slummy" or "dangerous areas where" the kids might be at risk. There are a great many safe places within the city.

Anonymous also saw fit to note "you've worked hard and had some lucky breaks." This suggests that anonymous may just be someone I know who lives in the suburbs or in a small city and is just pissed off at me and doesn't want anyone to know that they are the one who said what they said. Que sera, sera. This made me start thinking about what lucky breaks I've had, though. Hmmm.

Admittedly, I have had some lucky breaks. I was born with the appropriate genetics to function well in an academic environment. I spent a lot of time in school as a result. Society has rewarded me for my academic diligence. More education=more money. Lucky break. If anonymous is a person who does not do well in school and could not parlay schooling into a rise in income, well I'm sorry. Anonymous has, no doubt, done quite well with his or her innate abilities.

In yet one more example of a lucky break, I had the good fortune to be born into a family who valued a strong work ethic. Things do not come to you just because you are a nice person. It generally takes a bit of hard work and effort. I took this lesson to heart. My family was poor. I paid for all of that above mentioned education myself. I hold a Master's degree plus 58 semester hours of education and I got all of that graduate education while working full-time. As mentioned above, society has rewarded me for that hard work with more money. If Anonymous was not raised in a family that inspired hard work to achieve goals, well once again, I'm sorry. Reality sucks. Got to work hard to get anywhere in life. Nobody just gives it to you.

Now there is one truly lucky break that I got in my journey to my "perch overlooking the lakefront." When I bought my first house, I bought it in an up and coming neighborhood where real estate values shot through the roof shortly after I bought. In a nine year span my property value nearly tripled. I sold that place and took the money and rolled it into my "perch overlooking the lakefront." Wouldn't have been able to afford it otherwise. Yes I now live in a famous landmark in a respected neighborhood of the wealthy, partially because I got lucky and a lot because I worked my butt off my entire life to get here. My previous experience in the big city, before arriving on the 14th floor, was not so godawful, however. Never been mugged. Was able to walk around the neighborhood at all hours of the day or night. This is admittedly nicer, though.

There are those who like to complain about "the system" and how it's rigged to help certain people. There are certainly a lot of things about this system that I would love to change. The Beatles got filthy rich and even they said, "We all want to change the world......We'd love to see the plan...." Thing is, short of starting a revolution and probably coming to a bad end, you have to recognize the system for what it is and learn its rules. You have to play it to the best of your ability with the abilities and inclinations you're given. When I was 9 years old my family lived in a house with heat in the bathroom and kitchen only, and with cardboard over the broken out windows in the bedrooms. When I was 19 years old I lived in cockroach infested apartments that were rented out to students while I lived off rice and beans.

Now I am 59 years old and the journey has taken me around the world. I didn't always embrace the rules, and often I fought against them with a vengeance. Eventually, I learned the rules and played the game as best as I could. With a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck I landed here in my "perch overlooking the lakefront." I have no apologies for that. Nor do I have any apologies for the fact that I do not choose a life in a small city or in the suburbs because they are viewed by Middle America as better places to raise a family. That's not me. Perhaps, Anomymous, it is you. Embrace who you are. Don't make excuses. Make the most of it, and don't get all up in arms by those such as I. I have an opinion, and as we all know "Opinions are like....., everybody's got one," protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Small City, Big City. Safety, Risk.

I was recently struck by an online article that touted "The Top 5 Places to Raise a Family." My curiosity was piqued. I looked. I was appalled at what I found. I was appalled at the assumptions that are routinely made. I was appalled at what mainstream America values and expects of a place to raise children. It appears that I have very different values and expectations than do most of America. I grew up in the suburbs. I left and didn't look back.

Let me just preface this with a look at the cities on the list. They all qualify as cities, albeit small cities. All have a population of 100,000-200,000 and metro areas from 500,000-1,000,000. Of for goodness sakes, this is where I grew up. I couldn't wait to leave. Safe? Check. Cheap? Check. Reasonably good schools? Check. And as Garrison Keillor says, "The women are strong. The men are good looking. All the children are above average."

The list? 1. Des Moines, Iowa 2. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 3. Rochester, New York 4. Syracuse, New York 5. Provo, Utah. Let it suffice to say that I would no more consider moving to any of these places than I would consider moving back to Little Rock, Arkansas from whence I emerged in the 1970's. Of the top ten cities on this list, only Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania actually qualifies as a real city in my mind, and it's pretty small. At least it has professional sports teams (Major league, not minor league) and a little grit to its character.

The thing is that the criteria for being on the list are as following: 1. Cost of living. That pretty much leaves out New York, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, or any of a hundred more interesting places than the basic vanilla small cities on the list. 2. Crime Rate. Guess what? My neighborhood in Chicago has a low crime rate too, and it has as many people as some of the cities on the list. Chances are there are bad neighborhoods in the listed cities as well, just not as large as the bad neighborhoods in big cities. You still want to steer clear of them, though. 3. Commuting distance. Well, duh. These are small cities and thus have short commutes. I live in the middle of the City of Chicago and I have a short commute. It's those people who opt for the suburbs who have to commute long distances. 4. Household Income. Cost of living in Chicago is high. So is household income, at least in those neighborhoods where the professionals live. I do better here than I would in any of those cities on the list. 5. Home ownership. Well, high percentages of the population owning homes just means that there are very few poor people. You can find that in certain suburbs and gated communities as well, even in large cities. So what's going to happen the first time one of these kids raised in an ideal community actually encounter a poor person, a person of color, a person who is very different from themselves? 6. Homeowner cost. Well yeah, homes cost more in interesting places. More people actually want to live there. Demand drives up the cost. Make more money, as I do in Chicago, and you can own one. Don't have to move to Des Moines to own a home. 7. Level of education. Well, once again, it just depends on where you live in a large city. Some neighborhoods, very few people have a high level of education. Some neighborhoods are full of professionals with degrees out the wazoo.

I guess the question is, "If you are actually looking for a great place to raise your kids, what do you want for your kids?" An awful lot of people in America shy away from the big cities. They think the schools are better. They think the neighborhoods are safer. They think the big cities are a great place to visit, but they wouldn't want to live there. They flee the big cities for smaller cities and towns or to the suburbs, seeking that ideal life. People such as myself flee to the big cities searching for diversity, culture, art, opportunity, and diversions that Des Moines and Provo can only dream of.

Honestly, I have no children, but if I did I believe I would be presenting this same argument. Children benefit from exposure to diverse stimuli. Despite all the negative publicity about failing schools, in the neighborhoods where I have lived these last 25 years, there are good schools where kids graduate and go on to good colleges. Children of the cities are exposed to every possibility and have opportunities not available elsewhere.

And yet children of the big cities do all the same stuff that kids do everywhere. Ride their bikes? Ever seen the lakefront bike path in Chicago? Play ball? There are parks everywhere. Indulge their imaginations? There is so much to imagine in a big city. It is to big cities that big imaginers go, from Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and his glass and steel buildings, to Pablo Picasso and his 50 foot metal sculpture that he gave to the City of Chicago as a gift. Writers, artists, musicians, and business men seeking their fortunes. They take risks. They dare to dream. It is in the small cities, the "Safe Places to Raise Kids" that men go to be safe, to dare to be middle American, and forget dreams of greatness. I am sure that most are quite happy with this, accepting their lot, but it is this that I flee.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Was That Racism? You Tell Me.

Let's face it. Racism is ugly no matter who it's coming from, no matter who it's directed at. I'm sure some of you are wondering just what a white guy who lives on Lake Shore Drive really knows about racism. Ever been a white guy working in schools on the Southside of Chicago for 15+ years? When you have, come back and tell me about racism. Ever been a liberal with black friends who grew up in Central Arkansas? When you have, come back and tell me about racism. It's ugly and every time I think the U.S. may be improving some ignoramus comes along and proves me wrong. Racism is still out there lurking behind every corner, just waiting for the unsuspecting and the unprepared.

Just yesterday a student of mine who has decided that she can do whatever she wants, say whatever she wants, and do whatever she wants without consequences was wandering around the classroom willy-nilly, folding paper airplanes, and generally disrupting the class. So I, the white guy at the front of the room, had the unmitigated gall to tell her to sit down, be quiet, and complete the assignment. She refused and continued to disrupt so I had to call security to have her removed from the room. It was at this point that I heard her mumble something about "mother fucking cracker." When I took issue with this she went ballistic and started screaming "Cracker, cracker, cracker!" Followed by "White mother fucker. I'm gonna smack you up the side of the head with this," and she hefted her book bag.

At about this time the Special Education teacher in the room grabbed her by the arm and tugged her out the door. By the time security arrived she was long gone. I had to take time to document all the b.s. and give it to the security guard. What happened to the paper work? Who knows? One would think that a student screaming racial epithets at a teacher and threatening to "smack them up the side of the head," would be enough to get a student suspended at the very least. I saw her in the hallway today.

Was there racism involved? On the student's part, of course. The security detail who are almost all African-American, seemed to find the whole story about an African-American girl screaming racial slurs at a white teacher just too hysterical. The Dean of Students (Disciplinarian) is also African-American. The Principal is African-American. If a white student screamed racial slurs at an African-American teacher, I suspect that student would be out the door before the echoes of the yelling stopped. Yet this student was allowed to act in this fashion without consequences. Was there racism involved on the part of the African-American staff who deal with disciplinary issues? You tell me.

Putting the shoe on the other foot, once when I was a freshman in college at Arkansas State University, I found myself playing poker on a Saturday night in the dormitory. That night I got the shit kicked out of me by some racist good old boys who took issue with the fact that I took issue with their calling a friend of mine "that nigger down the hall." Got quite a few stares that time I went to dinner with an African-American female friend at TGIFridays in Little Rock. Nobody got beaten up that evening, however, just stared at real hard and seated off in a corner. Racism? You tell me.

To put the shoe on yet another foot, let us move beyond my personal experiences and talk about the gubernatorial race in South Carolina. Let us take time to note, at this point, that it was South Carolina who first seceded, fired on U.S. troops, and ignited the Civil War. It was the State of South Carolina who a couple of years back refused to remove the Confederate flag flying over the State Capital. Well, in some circles things haven't changed very much. Still a lot of racial animosity and bigotry running around loose in the government.

Apparently there is a woman, Nikki Haley, who is running for the Republican nomination for Governor in South Carolina. Ms. Haley's parents are Sikhs who immigrated from India. She has converted to Christianity. Ms. Haley is the local darling of the Tea Party and has been endorsed by Sarah Palin. Tea Party sorts endorsed by Sarah Palin are not my cup of tea, so to speak, but I have to stand up for the woman in this instance. One State Senator, Jake Knotts, was campaigning for her opponent and went on a radio talk show. In the process of an interview he was heard to say, "We already have one raghead in the White House. We don't need one in the Governor's Mansion." Just in case you are the only person in the U.S. who doesn't know what a "raghead" is, it is a racial slur that is used when referring to those of Arabic ethnicity, and by extension, to all Muslims. I believe that is what I think of as "Redneckese."

Need I remind people that President Obama is a mixed race American who belongs to a Christian Church and that the lady in question is Christian, and her parents hail from India and are Sikhs, not Muslims? And all of this is beside the point. Even if Ms. Haley and President Obama were Muslims, so what? A) All Muslims are not terrorists. B) All Muslims are not terrorists. and finally C) All Muslims are not terrorists. What can be said is that State Senator Knotts and I suspect many of his friends and supporters are indulging in some very ugly xenophobia against anyone who is not just like them, i.e. people with too much pigmentation in their skin to be dubbed "white guy." Is this racism? You tell me.

I could go on about the Haley case and how Republican operatives also began spreading ugly rumors about her being a slut. That, however, is a blog for another day. I don't care if the racism involves whites hating blacks, blacks hating whites, both whites and blacks hating all people from the Middle East, or any other group hatred that humanity manages to concoct, it's all ugly and stupid. It just makes a guy want to gather up all his friends, men, women, whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, people with religions, people without religions, artistically inclined, business oriented, gay, straight, and thoroughly confused, and take them all with himself to an island where we could all start over in a society that accepts people as individuals.

So you may be asking yourself about this point, "Is there anybody you hate, Mr. Self-Righteous?" And the answer would have to be "Yes. I hate people who hate." So there you have it. I'm bigoted against the haters. So keep that stuff to yourself. I really don't want to hear it, and frankly there are a lot more of us out there who don't want to hear it either. It just makes you sound stupid.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Driving to Iowa

Drove to Iowa and back this past weekend. I know many of you are asking yourself, "So what's the big deal? Iowa's only a 3 or 4 hour drive from Chicago. Not a bad drive." Are you kidding me? Where I go is technically in Iowa, but if it were any further north it would be in Minnesota. Where I go is so far into Central Iowa that if I went any further I would be in Western Iowa and verging on Nebraska. Where I go is a two hour drive directly south of Minneapolis. It is home to my in-laws and Grain Millers, the largest oat processing plant this side of the asteroid belt. They make oat stuff for Quaker and other assorted oat product companies. We're talking about Saint Ansgar, Iowa. Who knew that Norwegians had so many saints? Just when I'd learned about Saint Olaf, along comes this Saint Ansgar dude.

Anyway, I have been married to Babs for 23 years now. We've been living together for 25 years, but that's another story. What that means is that I have driven to Iowa so many times that I could do it in my sleep. Come to think of it I probably have, any number of times. Not only do I know the primary route to Saint Ansgar, Iowa, but I know a fairly sizable number of alternate routes for those times when I'm feeling just a little tired of driving down that same highway one more time. I know how to get there by going through Wisconsin and Minnesota. I know how to get there by leaving Chicago on I-90 or I-88. I know how to get there by going through the Quad Cities, through Dubuque, or by going through LaCrosse. I know how to get there by at least 3 different routes leading from Minneapolis there.

This, my friends, is love. Oh it is not love of Iowa. It is not love of little St. Ansgar, population 1000. This is love of a woman who hails from this town and must return periodically to renew her Iowan credentials and family obligation checklist. Oddly enough, I do not return to my own home town in Arkansas nearly so often. Last time I was there, I attempted to show my lovely bride around the area, and it had been so long that I scarcely knew where I was going. Everything looked different. I hadn't been there in a very long time. Whatever for? Babs and I have carved out a perfectly lovely life in Chicago, and have traveled the world. My Arky credentials have lapsed, I fear, and I have no desire to renew them. My mother and father passed away many years ago, and I have no reason to go anymore.

Babs's parents, on the other hand, just keep on going and going and going, like elderly Energizer bunnies. We return to Iowa again and again, at Thanksgiving, at Christmas, on July 4th, Memorial Days, Labor Days, odd birthdays, when there are assorted family crises,........ I know the major players in St. Ansgar by name. I know them better than I know the people I grew up with and have seen once since graduation, at a 40 year class reunion. I do not keep up with them on Facebook. I see them face to face, at least once a year, usually more often.

St. Ansgar is quintessential small town America. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone knows everyone else's business. Everyone talks about everyone else, incessantly. Walk down the street when visiting, and even if someone passing by doesn't know you, they wave. Why? Because they know everyone and they think they should know you too, even if they don't. Wave back. It's the friendly thing to do.

People hold small town America up on a pedestal, as the model for the good life. It's a place where it's safe to raise children. It's a place where America is at its best. Right? If you can find anyone. Babs and I live in Chicago and we walk all over the place all the time. There are people everywhere. Go to St. Ansgar and walk around the streets and its deserted. Nobody is outside. Nobody is on the streets. It took me several years and many trips to get accustomed to, but it's actually possible to walk down the street, not on the sidewalk mind you, but in the middle of the street, literally. No one will run over you. There's nobody there. Where are they? Inside their houses hiding behind the curtains looking out at the weirdos walking down the street enjoying themselves, and wondering all the while, "Who the hell is that? Why are they outside walking around instead of staying inside and watching '60 Minutes' like everyone else?"

Driving to Iowa is a Midwestern experience. One can drive across Illinois and Iowa. One can drive across Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Still, one has to drive across stretches of America that are all rural, that are all farmbelt. What does one see? Corn, soybeans, hogs, dairy cattle, and the occasional dead deer on the side of the road. If you get off the beaten path, you may also see an emu, a llama, a bison, or maybe an elk. In Wisconsin you can see some hills and the occasional landform that might qualify for a smallish mountain. In Western Illinois, you might see President Grant's home and a lot of antiques and touristy stuff. For the most part, however, what you will see is miles and miles of flat farmland and straight roads.

While driving to Iowa on the most recent trip, the following occurred to me:

Flying down a two lane blacktop on a straight shot highway.
Railroad tracks along the side heading western, my way.
Ditches, trees, and stands of bushes separate roads and cornfields.
Two story white farmhouses overlooking farm yields.
Moving past. Moving fast.
Road is flat. Road is where it's at.
Flying down a two lane blacktop on a straight shot highway.

The road is mesmerizing. The drive is straight and flat. There is more to the poem and there is music that will go with it. There is more to the drive, and there is more to the visit in St. Ansgar. This, although, is my little immediate impression of the experience, driving to Iowa. Take it for what it's worth.