Dog Days

IMG_4008At least the dogs are happy. That seems the most universal silver lining when I talk with friends. People home from work and school, walks a joy (for homebound humans as well as four legged bundles of fur clad love), the COVID-19 induced time at home means that while many of us wrestle with uncertainty, anxiety, and a dollop of boredom, the pups are active, appreciated, and bounding into what mother nature tells them is spring. They are angels, and perfect reminders that there is still much that is right in the world.

But that world.

Today, in addition to a video conference on how our district might facilitate online learning and how we can support our soon to be graduating seniors, I spent two hours back on campus to allow teachers and counselors time to come in and collect plants, files, and anything they need before we’re away from campus for a spell. (I’d say until April 28, the governor’s latest return date for schools, but the world seems to change every morning when I get up and a date like that could seem antiquated before anyone reads this post).

It was wonderful (and a little surreal) to see the adults I work with coming back to campus during the allotted window, even if we all kept a sensible distance between us and weren’t quite sure what to say (“See you soon?”) as each person left the building.

We’re all trying to figure out what happens next, both as an education system and each of the individuals who make up our school. I know students are feeling the strangeness of it all; I’ve gotten concerned emails from some and marvelous emails from a few others, sharing the art and music they’re making and ideas for when we get back.

I got another email from a teacher who had driven by our old campus, soon to be our new campus as they build a new building that we’ll move into in the fall of 2021. “Sun is out,” he wrote. “Weather nice. Construction going well. Even though we are all stuck things are moving forward. Thanks for all you do. See ya soon.” He threw in a few photos of our building rising up against a beautiful blue sky, and I could believe that all will be well.

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The first full week without students, teachers, and staff is finishing with a sense of the unknown looming over all of us. We’re about to go into what would have been our spring break, a week usually filled with renewal and maybe an adventure or two. 

We’re all on a huge collective adventure instead, maybe one navigated primarily from our living rooms and shared over Zoom. Heading into week two my thoughts go out to all those whose situations are filled with much more stress than my own. They are many, and need all of us to show kindness, patience, and support.

I wish I had answers to the questions people are asking me as a principal. (When will we be back? What will it look like when we are? Why can we just switch to online learning now?) But the truth is that while I’m fortunate to have lots of autonomy in my building, the answers to all those questions are beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. I know that our district is at work on what it can address equitably and thoroughly, and the state is assessing things every day. So, I believe the answers will come, some we like, some that may frustrate us, but those will take time.

Time that my dog tells me would be well spent on a walk.

The Thing With Feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
                               Emily Dickinson

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hope. By February, in climates like mine, the world around us has been gray and rainy for months, car windows need ice scraped off in the dark of morning, and it’s easy to let gloom, or pessimism, or frustration creep in to hearts otherwise open to something more noble. 

The stresses of the workaday world feel more real in February than they do in other months, and this year I’ve written far, far too many condolence cards. The stress of our culture and the very personal stresses of a thousand different origins seem to be on display everywhere. And…

If Emily Dickinson is to be believed, somewhere in our souls perches this thing with feathers whose singing never stops at all. I believe that.

I believe that because I caught a verse of that song when I read something a friend wrote last week, and since then hope has felt more real to me than it has in a long time.

photoHe wrote: “Hope has been a central theme for me these past seven weeks. Hope for a good PET Scan, hope for a negative biopsy, hope that the cancer hasn’t spread, hope that the chemo treatments will kill all the cancer, hope that I can grow old and have grandchildren. I have always loved to hope – whether it is looking forward to a vacation during the summer, or watching my favorite show on TV after a long day of work. Hope to me -means you are still alive and you have a chance to make it better. Hope is a wish and belief in your heart of good things to come. This is what sustains me during all these treatments. I am reading a book now called 50 days of Hope written by a cancer survivor that had a highly aggressive type of cancer and is doing well. This summer after I am done with my chemo treatments my doctor wants me to spend a month at a hospital in LA called “City of Hope” to do a stem cell transfusion. The hope is that this treatment will keep the cancer from reappearing. I need that hope – it keeps me going!”

It is people like my friend who keep me going, and inspire me to believe that as crazy as the world around us can be, as difficult as situations prove (and it’s true that sometimes the difficulty is profound), there is still room for “belief in your heart of good things to come.” I’m inspired by his definition of hope as meaning “you are still alive and you have a chance to make it better.” That notion of giving to others, of making a difference, of improving the world (all hallmarks of my friend) makes the concept of hope active. We are not called on simply to listen to the song of that thing with feathers, but to sing along, to ask ourselves how we can make it better, and then get to work doing just that.

2017 World Series Champs

Once a year I allow myself to write about baseball. Just baseball. It happens in February, right before that magical day when pitchers and catchers report to spring training signaling that spring is really truly coming and somehow all will be well. 

This year that return feels a little different with the news of an ongoing campaign of dishonesty coming out about the 2017 World Series, cheating that helped one team win the World Series by the thinnest of margins, a margin one can imagine would not have existed if it weren’t for a few folks willing to put integrity in the garbage can they were pounding on to tell hitters what pitches were coming.

photo-3I know I am not an impartial observer. I’ve been a Dodgers fan since LA’s infield was Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey. More than forty years later I didn’t have to look up that lineup, or have to double check that Steve Yeager was the Dodgers catcher, or Dusty Baker, Rick Monday, and Reggie Smith patrolled the outfield at Chavez Ravine.

The Dodgers lost the World series to the Yankees in 1977 and 1978, formative years for me that instilled a dislike of the Bronx Bombers that rivaled —in my young mind— the expected animosity reserved for the dreaded Giants.

I didn’t like watching Reggie Jackson becoming Mr. October, but when he hit those legendary home runs I understood that it was part of the game. Sometimes your team won, sometimes it lost. Sometimes a slugger walloped your starting pitchers.

I could even (almost) allow myself to appreciate it when years later, in person at a spring training game when Reggie was back with the A’s (and playing against a Cubs team that included Ron Cey) I saw Jackson hit a towering home run over the right field fence. Earlier that morning I’d stood six feet away from a batting cage marveling at the combined power of Mr. October, Jose Canseco, and Mark McGuire hitting pitches one after another. Their power felt unbelievable.

So, yeah, that.

I also understood that when in 1981 Fernando Valenzuela and his Dodgers won the series that too was part of the game. The magical part.

Magic happened again in 1988, and then a long drought in Dodgerland before my bums had another chance, this time against the Astros, in 2017.

Two things stood out for me about that series. First, my kids watched it with me. Eight and eleven at the time, there were increasingly fewer entertainments they both agreed on, but baseball (at least World Series baseball) was one of the few. 

Second, there was a moment in game three when an Astros player hit a home run off Yu Darvish and made a racist gesture to add insult to injury. Watching that with my kids, both of them half Asian, my heart dropped. We spend so much time talking about the importance of kindness, both at my home and at school, that to see an action so arrogant and mean spirited injected a sense of sadness in the game. Just why? At least, I thought, in baseball there are second chances; perhaps the team that isn’t racist might win.

And then they didn’t. 

But this is baseball. Sometimes your team loses, even close series like this one. The Astros outhit LA, and even if actions like that cruel home run celebration helped to define the Houston team, they were the champions. For my team, well, there was always next year.

The next year meant losing the championship to Alex Cora’s Red Sox.

So, yeah, that.

And now word is out that the Astros cheated. Their power, like the power I saw in that spring training batting cage, was as fake as it seemed real. And the hardest part of watching the Astros beat the Dodgers became that much harder.

The 2017 World Champion Astros are still the 2017 World Champion Astros. The cheaters won.

It’s a sobering thought in a sobering time, when integrity (in the world even beyond the baseball diamond) sometimes feels strained. Fairness, clean competition, and good sportsmanship, which were easier to imagine were true when the Yankees beat the Dodgers back in the late ‘70s, feel like they’re in short supply.

So this week, as pitchers and catchers arrive at baseball parks in states warmer than the one I live in, I want to believe that this is the year. 

I want to believe that this is the year that my team might win the World Series, but truth be told, it hurts my heart to say that I’d settle for this being the year that they, and every team, just have a fair chance. 

A long time ago…

I write a lot about Star Wars. I realized that the other day as I paused composing a post long enough to preorder tickets to the new movie, making good on a promise to my son that I’d take him to see the show early in the Rise of Skywalker run. For the last half decade or so stories inspired by that epic space opera pepper this blog, usually nostalgic, always heartfelt.

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Me looking like old Luke

With the latest in the series opening this week, I thought I’d take some time over the next five days to celebrate a few of my Star Wars inspired posts. I’ll link to one a day on Twitter, but for any constant reader who’d like to know what’s coming…

A few years back, when my youngest son was very into Star Wars action figures, we happened on some toys that an 8 year old me had purchased in 1977. A plastic C3PO got me thinking about technology and the differences we’ve seen emerge in the past four decades.

Star Wars has always been about imagination, and on the eve of taking my son to his first Star Wars movie in the theater, I got to remembering “Space Week” and a host of creative enterprises I shared with students when I was an English teacher. I’d tried to capture some of that magic in a post called “Young Jedi.”

When Star Wars Legos first took over my house I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I saw my dad and my son building Lego ships together I figured out that it was all pretty swell. These “Couple of Jedi” were, and are, an inspiration.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 6.35.26 PMIf you’re still reading this post, you’ve probably muttered to yourself “Star Wars Nerd” at least once. I take that as a compliment.

Finally, being a principal means many things, among them sometimes feeling like cloud city Lando Calrissian. There are certainly worse ways to feel.

Whatever your Star Wars, I wish all my readers some fun escapes this winter season. I hope that you and yours can find time in the wild rumpus of the school year to breathe, laugh, and maybe even visit a galaxy far, far away.

Thank You

A short (work) week and a short post with one simple message: thank you.

Being an educator means being busy, and being a principal in November means that the world feels like it’s rushing forward and only picking up speed. For teachers, and students, and administrators too the pace and intensity can be unforgiving, and as much as we talk about getting up early to work out, eating well, or taking care of ourselves, if others are much like me the reality involves far more black coffee on the run and late nights than my doctor would like to hear about.

With Thanksgiving break, and the five days in a row free of an alarm clock, I almost feel like I have the chance to take a deep breath, close my eyes for a moment, and appreciate those around me.

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Because I do appreciate the amazing educators, spectacular kids, engaged parents, and the many, many kind, caring, and patient people who help make my world a better place.

With a small gesture like a smile or “good morning” (which in the moment doesn’t always feel so small) or a grand one, I am so fortunate to have people in my life who care.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve gotten emails from former students and former colleagues, had such care shown me from colleagues and parents, and benefitted from the exuberant joy and kindness of the students I get to work with. To each of them my appreciation is real and too seldom articulated.

The world can be overwhelming at times, especially around a school in November, and Thanksgiving (and Thanksgiving break for educators like me) is a good time to pause long enough to appreciate those forces for good that are also a part of our lives. Whether in a moment of reflection, an email to someone who makes a difference to us, or a note of thanks, now is the time to embrace Dickens’ line: “Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

For everyone who is one of my present blessings, and there are so many of you, I say “Thank you!”

 

…and I’ll add a special thank you to everyone who reads these little posts from time to time. I appreciate your comments, your kindness, and your time. Happy Thanksgiving!

Big Jake

Today I found myself watching the 1971 John Wayne western Big Jake with my dad. My folks were visiting from their home in California and my eleven year old son (knowing that “Papa likes westerns”) found the movie on demand to help fill a drizzly afternoon. 

As my 83 year old father dozed intermittently through the Duke’s gunslinging, my son and I watched the story unfold in 20th century technicolor; we were three generations finding some common connection.

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I was two in 1971, a world away from 2019 for both me and my dad. He was a vibrant 35 when Big Jake hit the theaters, more than a decade younger than I am now. My son thinks the 90s were forever ago; I can only imagine what he imagines when we say the 1970s. And here we were, watching this movie, a paean to one vision of fathers and sons, gathered together in the living room for a couple of hours.

Today my dad’s eyes mostly follow the sweeping vistas of the epic western, and he chuckles at John Wayne getting tossed in a mud puddle, but his once usual sharpness and focus are gone. His understanding of the plot waxes and wanes, nuance (such as it is) lost to the fog of age.

But Big Jake hangs on a simple premise, telling the story of a kidnapped grandson, about my son’s age, and the heroic grandfather who swoops in to save the day. My son didn’t know that when he pulled the movie up, but there it was, somehow poetically right.

My dad is struggling with dementia now, unable to remember the names of the cats or exactly how he got wherever he happens to be. Snatches of history are still vivid to him: his days working in the Parks and Rec department in Long Beach, his time as a serviceman in Germany, bits from when he and my mom were first married. He’s a fan of routine and right angles, happy with cowboy movies where the predictable hero solves the inevitable problem of bandits terrorizing the village/robbing the bank/making off with a young hostage. John Wayne will take care of things in the end, we all know that, and despite the dated tropes of such movies, for a fellow of my dad’s age and politics, The Duke is just about right.

But Big Jake feels a little different than many old westerns with the inclusion of motorcycles and Model Ts sweeping along the desert alongside horses. This turn of the 20th century new fangled technology baffles  the elder Jake of the movie, but delights his kids. A posse in a horseless carriage may chap Jake’s hide, but you should see the motorbike jump the canyon. I could imagine the 1971 audience applauding.

Cowboys in cars getting kidnappers. There’s a Netflix show in that maybe.

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It’s just one of the places the movie uses its 1909 setting to introduce some tension between the modern and traditional. John Wayne demurs on using an automobile, of course, drawling the line: “Me and my way’s old fashioned.” When the auto caravan gets ambushed, he’s proven predictably correct. My dad was awake for that exchange, and he smiled at the TV. His way, as best as he can recall it, is old fashioned too.

And yet, as my parents prepare to relocate back to Oregon, downsizing and moving to a place where they can get a little more help, I suspect that John Wayne isn’t quite right.

The rugged independence held in such high regard by most of the westerns I’ve seen stands in contrast to the dependence so many of us have on one another. We rely on kindness, we hope for support, and we benefit from looking out for one another.

There are those around us intent on preying on the elderly: the cable company that gouges my folks to include the Western Channel, the mobile phone company eager to take as much from them as it can. Left to their own devices, I worry about how the world treats my parents and others like them. In a simpler time, perhaps, when fewer technologies competed for our attention and dollars it might have been easier to navigate the online world. Today, when my parents who grew up without cable or cell phones or home computers look at the landscape around them it doesn’t matter how old fashioned they’d like to be; the world isn’t.

…and it’s not always bad. It was my mom getting an iPad that opened the door for video calls where she and my dad could see the grandkids on screen and talk face to face every week. My parents didn’t always have the built in camera exactly pointing at themselves, sometimes it looked up over their shoulders, but we did our best to on our end, and that meant my kids could connect with their grandparents in a way I never did.

IMG_4245I look back at those Facetime conversations with my folks and remember that hanging on the wall above them are two Remington prints of cowboys. I’d never thought of them as cowboy people, but an honest inventory of their home (that bronze of a bucking bronco, that painting of the wagon train in the den, that inexplicable horse collar mirror) suggests otherwise. Big Jake is a familiar guest in their home.

Patient reader, I’m not sure what any of this really means, and certainly not how it connects to my usual bread and butter of education related miscellany. If you’re still reading, I’ll just say that I appreciate your kindness and willingness to listen to a son doing his best. Aging parents is a reality that so many face, and I’m still finding examples of people who do it well. This trail is rough and filled with as many rattlesnakes as it has fresh springs or warm campfires.

Sometimes an afternoon movie is a welcome respite.

So Big Jake rode on, deep into Mexico in search of his grandson and the bandits who stole him. His sons rode with him, exchanging barbs and banter along the way to getting to know each other better. It was quieter on our couch. My son and my dad built a couple of lego spaceships (a decidedly modern pursuit, I thought to myself). I brought tea and snacks from the kitchen. Outside our living room rain fell, quiet and steady.

I’d be foolish to imagine that I have years more of these afternoons with my son and my dad, one on the edge of adolescence, one decidedly in Shakespeare’s sixth age “of lean and slipper’d pantaloon.” 

We ride on, in pursuit of what we will, none of us sure about what might be over the next hill.

Screen Shot 2019-07-10 at 12.38.51 PMThe crescendo of the film came for Big Jake: a double-cross, a gunfight, a pitchfork impaling one of the worst of the bandits. The bad guys get it in the end. The grandson is rescued. The tension between modern and traditional, between old and new generations fades behind the swelling score and Big Jake and his boys go home. 

Would that life were as tidy. 

But today… today it was John Wayne. We knew who was going to win. Today my dad, my son, and I watched a grandfather connect with his sons and save his grandson. It was a good day.

 

Playing Catch

I bought a mitt today.

The last time I did that I was thirteen, and if I’m honest it was my mom who bought me the baseball glove, a Larry Hisle model that lasted me more than three decades.

Larry-hisle-baseball-cardBy the end there wasn’t much left, just some well worn leather and more than a handful of memories of being a kid.

That mitt saw me through the ups and downs of little league, lay in a trunk for a spell, and then reemerged to see action in staff vs. student softball games, my coaching stint of my son’s t-ball team, and hours of catch when my daughter started playing softball.

Sometime over this last wet winter it disappeared, probably tucked away in a forgotten corner of the garage, and certainly not available to say “put me in coach.” I searched for it a time or two, but with snow on the ground those efforts lacked urgency. Spring rains further slowed the priority of my search. Had I left it in the trunk of the car? No. Up by the suitcases? No again.

Then, over the weekend, on a trip to the beach, I was tossing around a tennis ball with my kids. It was a perfect night. The sun was setting, my wife sat by our fire on the sand, and the little green ball flew through the dusk in a big familial triangle. This was one of those moments I’ll tell my grandkids about, a memory I hope will be as rich for my own kids.

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The next day my wife reminded me that I was missing my mitt.

I told her that I’d noticed Larry Hisle’s absence a few weeks earlier, but the bustle of life got in the way and it was so easy to forget searching or running to the store for a replacement.

She’d noticed it too, but had the presence of mind to also know how important it was. “Henry is ten,” she reminded me. “How much longer do you think he’ll be excited to play catch?”

Forever? I wanted to answer, knowing it was a lie.

As a principal, as an educator, it’s easy to find ourselves caught up in the current of “must-be-dones.” In May and early June that number of required tasks swells. Nights out pile up, and working every weekend and every evening still doesn’t guarantee that all the items will come off the to do list. It can feel overwhelming.

For those of us who strive to be productive and responsible the pressure of doing it all has the power to blot out better perspective. Planning, preparing, finishing, writing, signing, answering, diffusing, solving, responding… the list is endless. Life will feel different in July, but in the mad scramble from spring break to graduation the world of a school is more frantic and filled with obligations than most of us like to admit. It’s easy to lose perspective.

And when we do, what’s left?

I’ve long celebrated the notion, shared with my by a teacher who had it right: “The best teachers teach from a full life.”

But I’ll admin that as a principal I was certainly not embracing a “full life.” Caught up in the sturm und drang of late spring, I had allowed myself to focus on one thing at a time: my job, sure, something I care deeply about, too easily all consuming.

Until my wise wife caught me after that weekend at the beach.

I won’t go into our conversation that morning, other than to say there is a reason she is the best part of my life. Then today I bought a mitt.

I’m not so foolish or filled with hubris to imagine that I’ll never struggle with balance again. Looking back at this little collection of posts that have piled up over the past six years I see more than a couple of times I’ve acknowledged being out of balance. But today, as the summer sun peeks over the trees and makes it easier to imagine that I can life the “full life” that teacher talked about, I’m seeing as clearly as I have in a while.

When I get home from work today I hope to go to the park with both my kids and have a catch.

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