Friday, December 14, 2007

"Not for the Lack of Trying"

(Previously printed under the name “Slaying Tiny Giants” in Elevation, Issue 4, 2000. Some editing had been done to it, but this is the original text. Photos by Rick Graham)


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/by the false azure of the granite plane…


All poetry aside, there I was...doing battle on the high lonesome, awash in a sea of granite.


At my feet, a yawning void. Above, a horizon bereft any discernible texture.
It is in such a situation that a singular moment of clarity is achieved by the bouderer. The words may vary, but the sentiment remains the same, "There's nothing for me on the ground."


For millennia entire cultures have traveled to the mountains in search of greater wisdom and raw, transcendental experience. Luckily for the boulderer, the journey will be at most 30 feet. Perhaps Iron Maiden said it best, "Heaven can wait!"


And being that gravity is the great equalizer, a good deal more time is spent on the ground, 'talking it over' rather than pulling down with righteous abandon. If you can't top out it is because you're flat not good enough and sob stories just won't work. "The shade got in my eyes." "White men can't jump." "I picked the wrong week to stop taking 'roids." The myriad excuses that plague our spandex-clad brethren simply don't apply in the realm of the tiny giants.
But be wary, as with any discipline requiring supreme focus—billiards, bullfighting, sex—bouldering takes 'a minute to learn and a lifetime to master." Abyssus abyssum invocat.*

*For those with a late-pass, this is Latin and translates loosely as, "the abyss calls forth the abyss," or "one mishap begets another."


Thursday, November 29, 2007


Blowback (n) harm done by one's own weapons; the unintentional consequence of shortsighted actions

Arming Bin Laden in the 80s to fight the Russians

Exporting e-waste to China to be turned into lead-based toys for import in the US

California's Proposition 13

49th Ronin

"Subtitle" by Paul Beatty

grape street tateyaku
renegade hollywood
sidewalkin stars
suzuki samuri warriors
uzi looney
purple robed
toshiro mifunes
patrol nickerson gardens

living the project credo

bushido walks
loaded gats talk

a moviemakin ghetto akira kurasawa
waits patiently for the santa anas
to blow in the heroes direction

(from Big Bank, Take Little Bank, out of print)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"Go get a late pass"

(Originally published in HeartAttack's "Eductation" Issue, 2003.)

I am 28 years old and I have these dreams. I see my neighbors tread more lightly on this fragile earth. People are as concerned for others as they are themselves. Citizenship means more than just the right to consume. And literacy—the ability to read, write, and speak one’s experience of life—is a right, not a privilege. Because of these dreams, and occasionally in spite of them, I teach.

An Anthem in a Vacuum…

Make no mistake; we’re in the middle of a new civil rights movement. In the years since “Separate but Equal” schooling was dismantled, this country has neglected to hand over the bricks and mortar of a true democracy to minorities and the poor. The ability to read is the ability to participate and until massive, systemic reform is enacted, American social policy for the poor will continue to be prison and the military.

I missed the march on Washington. I missed Roe vs. Wade. The end of Vietnam marked my birth. You’ve got to live in the time you live in, and creating equitable, sustainable schools that give students access to democratic life IS the place I feel myself needing to be. Language is the currency of power in this country, and to neglect the literacy needs of students is to commit educational malpractice. James Baldwin once said, "Without the word, we are imprisoned. With the word, we are set free." No matter how persistent it has been in our history, illiteracy is not inevitable.

And yet my school doesn't see it that way. Only half of those students who start the 9th grade end up graduating, and failure must after all boil down to "student apathy." The school continues to live under the delusion that there are white, English-speaking bodies warming those seats. It’s as if, in thirty years, no one has bothered to look up to check for understanding. Beneath this lies the blind and racist assumption that some kids—Latino kids--"just can't learn"? Put the lack of resources aside for the moment, and we still have a system that socially promotes second, third, or fourth grade readers well into high school. As a teacher of a second language, reading, and literature, these are the realities of teaching in a low-income, low-performing Californian school. Unfortunately, my school is more the rule than the exception.

…on a Hyperstation…

In the early years of schooling, a person learns the basic sounds, symbols, intonations, and process of learning to read. From fourth grade on, a child then reads to learn. The emphasis of the classroom moves to reading for content. Stories become more complex and history and science reading gains more depth. If a student has her education derailed by weak instruction at this critical stage, students are continuously behind in their comprehension of the written word put before them. In teaching circles this is known as “The Matthew Effect”—the reading rich get richer, while the reading poor get poorer. For those in my community, mainly US-born Latinos whose parents are predominantly from the state of Michoacan, Mexico, children becomes functionally illiterate in both their first and second language. This is a unique population of in that they have high oral fluency (they sound like native speakers of both languages) but have poor reading comprehension, both in Spanish and English.
Here’s an illustration of the breadth of experience I’ve encountered in my classroom. Last spring, as I began a unit on poetry, one kid recited the baseball ode “Casey at Bat.” Just minutes later another kid asked how to write the capital letter K. Still another girl was heard making a post-lunch commentary with the insightful, but grammatically puzzling comment, “There’s so not any ranch dressing in the salad bar!” Add to this the image of a chubby Filipino boy, festooned in the latest hip hop gear, sporting a “corn row” hairdo a la Allen Iverson, beat-boxing and channeling Nas with the line, “I rock more heads than those niggas on the slaveships.” Contemplating the spheres of linguistic, racial, and teen cultures they negotiate daily is enough to make your head spin. For me, though, these are the most beautiful, engaging, challenging and complex individuals I have ever met. And in a small way, they have all become my children.

Freshmen are my current favorite. Sure, they have the energy of electrified soap, but that’s part of their charm. They’re just so open and malleable. And they’re totally transparent in their exploration of the world around them. It’s all so totally new to them, and they want part of it all. The ladies develop much quicker than the fellas, and their sophistication shows in the way they carry themselves. My grommets, however, would just as soon be out playing ninjas in the woods. Regardless of their abilities, “Dick and Jane” books just aren’t flying with this crowd. Struggling readers in the later grades develop a full complement of coping mechanisms to deal with their shortcomings. More often than not, the troublemakers are those who mask their inadequacies with unruly behavior, taunts, and jeers. If you can build their trust, you find quickly just how much they read the world, and the word, and how they make sense of it all on their own terms.

Each year I begin with a tapestry of rich thematic pieces of reading. Julia Alvarez' "Autobiography of Sheherezad", Judith Ortiz Cofer's "Abuela Invents the Zero", and some very accessible Greek myths provide a scaffold with which I can build confidence, fluency, critical thinking, and close reading. These tales also help create a connection between personal experience—within the community—and the similar experiences of those from radically different cultures. This year I knew I was onto something when Daisy Rangel came in one Monday morning, eager to tell me about her weekend dramas and her latest crush. She also relayed a story of how her aunt had been going through a hard emotional time, and Daisy, never one to miss an opportunity to share her opinion, told her aunt, "Tia, that problem, that's your Achilles heel. That's what's bringing you down." I nearly cried. Another time, as I guided my class through the prejudice and perspective of To Kill a Mockingbird, Marisa Barajas connected her own life to that of the mixed-race children of Maycomb County. “They’re outcast like me. Mexicans won’t have me because I don’t speak Spanish. Whites won’t have me cuz I look Latina.” These are the aspects of teaching that break your heart, but also make you endeavor on the behalf of others.

…Daydreaming Days in a Daydream Nation…

I was just another no-future cynic teenager from the ‘burbs when it happened. Literally within a month of one another, two slogans from the annals of political rabble rousing arrived in my life. “Destroy Power, Not People!” “All Power to the people!” Each resonated with immediacy and intensity that even the Bones Brigade or Public Enemy couldn’t match. Buddhists say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and I guess they’re right. These phrases have each influenced me innumerable ways, and it is the latter that I bring to my kids. The fact that I’m an authority figure, revered by parents and the community, doesn’t rub me the wrong way. I’m a leader to these kids. I want them to have the ability to read and the confidence to learn. For me this means walking with, not above my pupils, and sharing what I know of the world in an effort to bring greater cultural, economic, and social power to them. For as fundamentally flawed as my current school situation is, I love that I am a teacher, connecting with others in the most powerful of mediums there is: language.

I'll conclude with one such connection from the early days of my reading class. We had just read Pandora's Box and, after all the hate and anger and sorrow had been released into the world, hope emerged. One of my kids raised a hand to say, "That's just like the saying in Spanish, 'la esperanza muere al ultimo. Hope dies last.'"
Much love, friends.

Postscript: As my school year draws to a close amidst budget cuts, the imperialist war in Iraq, and violence in our local community, I want to dedicate this article to the thirty 11th grade students of mine who dropped out last year alone. It is also dedicated to the students who chose to escape a small town by joining the armed services.

(Originally published in HeartAttack's "Eductation" Issue, 2003.)

King Lear redux

"God Hunger" by Michael Ryan

When the immutable accidents of birth--
hometown, parentage, all the rest--
no longer anchor this fiction of self
and its incessant I me mine

then words won't be like nerves in a stump
crackling with messages that end up nowhere
and I'll put on the wind like a gown of light linen
and go be a king in a field of weeds.

Ask the Dust

“You people!” That’s what my girlfriend says to dismiss those without a full complement of X chromosomes—especially climbers. My baby loves me, but there are some things honeydip won’t tolerate. For instance, she draws the line at toenails that flake off in bed, and me shopping for commercial vacuum cleaner solvent to heal an aching shoulder. If it’s “not intended for use on skin,” why did they package D-M-S-O in a roll-on? I rest my case.

Winter means bouldering, but for some reason she frowns on my peers buying C-clamps at the hardware store to mend blown out tendons. “You people,” she mutters. “It’s a miracle the species continues.” Am I really that far beyond the pale when I look at a roadside pull-out deep in the mountains and think aloud, “If I lived here I’d be home now…”? Is that really so wrong? She should take her case up with Lito and the Funhogs.

But somehow, along the way, compromise entered into the equation. She concedes that stinky poly-pro may in fact be the new black, and I, in turn, get to send the El Cap of laundry on Sunday mornings. I am not to digress into endless accounts of anything involving a Roman Numeral 6 or the letter V while in mixed company. In exchange, I get to hatch my plans for a satellite-up-linked web-cam of pie selections at the diner in Tuolumne Meadows. So long as I don’t drop veggie-chicken nuggets in the toaster to feed road-tripping visitors, she’ll give me a wide berth when I need my space – and not just because I’m wearing the poly-pro. After all, let’s face it. The topo and I need to be alone.

(Originally written for an old Black Diamond. They couldn't handle the truth and it didn't run!)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bread and Circuits

"Justice runs a clorox beat/up and down Valencia street...pick your poison/division or diversion/we're given bread and circuits/for a purpose--to keep us tranquilized" (Bread and Circuits, 1999)

In '98, hardcore was at yet another crossroads. To one side were the turbulent early 90s with its reinvention and reclamation of hardcore punk idealism. Owing as much to Revolution Summer as Mumia's incarceration, the uprising in Chiapas, and pre-Internet networking, "kids" were hashing out their principles, privilege, and independence in ways unseen. On the other was an agressive backlash against all things emo. Thrash, grind, and nihilism were making a come back and the dot-com bubble had yet to burst. In the middle stood five individuals who would create a soundscape of confrontation and complexity that was as immediate and honest as the times demanded. For about six months or so I was lucky enough to share food, conversation, and time on the mic with this group. Knowing them helped me grow. This isn't to say that we always agreed on things, but for the short period when I was brought into the fold of the BnC community--a community that was really much larger than the band--I connected to the spirit of possibility that epitomizes the very best of a culture of resistance.


Here, at the first BnC show he read from a fist-hand account of a lynching in the Deep South. If you look closely, Molly--who later replaced Mag--is standing with Tim who now plays with Baader Brains.


Mike gets pigeon-holed a lot--agitprop poet, student of People's History, Ebullition best-seller--but he's rarely noted for his great sense of humor. He also does mean a capella rendition of old Night Ranger songs and can name-check Yes prog-jams like few of his punk peers.


Jose rounded out this Ebullition super-group and played with a passion seldom seen--then or now.




Vancouver Friends 1

Keep the Saffron Revolution Alive!

Graphic artist/activist Marc Vallen has created a pdf stencil image of silhoutted Burmese monks protesting authoritarian rule in their embattled country. Print the image, reclaim visual space in your community, and share the message of resistance.

The Saffron Revolution Worldwide website serves as a hub for disparate individuals and communities acting in solidarity with those opposing the military junta in Burma. Check it out and contribute something unique:

burma shirt