Monday, December 22, 2014

Just Another Navel Gaze

Hello, my dear fellow-sojourners in this harsh and weary world! It's me, Anne Johnson, welcoming back the Sun!

This year I learned that a medication I've taken for 25 years causes Alzheimer's disease. Which already runs in my family. I figure I'm brain-fried even if I do stop taking the medicine, which I'm trying to do over the next few months.

The thought that you might forget your life is pretty scary. Lo and behold, I have kept an archive of the events of my life, here on this web log. At 2500+ columns, there's probably stuff I have totally forgotten already that will some day be fun to read again.

Saturday I participated in a lovely, intimate Ritual and even hosted it. The event was held at the pond near my house, under the limbs of a spreading oak. It was the Rite of Alban Arthan, also known as Yule. My dear friends Nettle and Cliff came, and we meditated on the return of the Light.

The day was cold, maybe even colder than is seasonably expected. I lugged a paving stone to the park and decked it out with holly and ivy. (It's still there. I'm going to photograph it and maybe even leave the stone there.) A noisy street runs nearby, but doggone if I can recall any car noise at all during that Ritual. We might as well have been on Avalon itself, calling to Arthur to return and redeem His people.

After the Ritual, the three of us sat by the fire and made merry, talking about this and that. Then Cliff and I went to Woodstock Trading Company. Cliff wanted some incense, and I needed to check on one of my foster cats who lives at the store.

This whole day was uplifting, just the sort of quietly holy experience we all need amidst the gloomy darkness and high expectations of the holiday season. I thank my friends for joining me.

On Sunday I woke early, stuffed my craw with cinnamon buns, and worked off the calories by stacking firewood. Have you heard the Christmas forecast? We'll need dry wood!

THEN, full 90 minutes early, I showed up at the Two Street club house to help make props for our Mummers brigade. Since I was so early, I joined the two club members who were going to the craft store to get supplies.

Ordinarily, craft stores like AC Moore make me break out in acne pimples and cold sweat. But there was something about being there, decked out in my official Two Street Stompers hoodie, with others in their Two Street Stomper hoodies, that made it bearable. I was dispatched to find wide Sharpie markers, and by golly, it must have been Divine Intervention -- I found the doggone things without even having to ask the over-taxed staff!

Back we went to the club house, where I spent the rest of the afternoon making tissue paper flowers for parasols. I only screwed up the first ten or so, and then I got into a groove and made some decent flowers. Oh, I wish you could see our act on New Year's Day! Here's hoping it'll be simulcast on the t.v. station's web site, but even so you'll have to get up early to see my club -- we march fifth in a parade that literally lasts all day.

After helping the Stompers, I went home. It got dark at about 4:15. (Just kidding. It got dark at 4:45.) So Extra Chair and I took the fancy new Subaru out for a spin in search of crazy Christmas houses. We had a swell jaunt! She gets so excited by this stuff and loves taking photos of it. Not kidding when I say that sometiems she coos like a dove.

Saved the best for last. When I got home from the Stompers club house, I discovered that my daughter The Spare had cleaned the whole house and started the laundry. I didn't even ask her to do anything! What a load off my back! Sweet thang.

In less than 24 hours I'll be off for a nice, long Christmas break. This includes another New Year's Day Mummer's Parade. My suit is gorgeous.

Making cookies tonight!

Blessed be to all of you. The light returns. Time to strut.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Torture Is Bad

I have not approved of how my nation has conducted its defense ever since 9/11.

The reason I don't approve is because of the Knights Templar.

The Knights Templar were arrogant, violent, mass murderers, and incredibly wealthy. In order to take their wealth, the king of France had them rounded up and tortured until they admitted to all sorts of absurd and completely unbelievable behavior. Many of them were burned at the stake after very lengthy imprisonments, for which there was no due process.

Before the Knights Templar were rounded up and tortured, your average medieval European did not like them. After the Knights Templar were rounded up and tortured, they became martyrs, heroes, and their fame lives to this day.

I've read quite a bit about how these men were tortured. It's scary how little the techniques have changed since the early 1200s. The Knights Templar were chained in dark dungeons where they were subjected to the whims of the outdoor temperature. They were fed hog slop and deprived of sleep and daylight. They were not allowed to wear clothing, except in "court." The Inquisition would torture one man while the others watched.

All of this barbaric torture did not elicit a single verifiable "confession," because there were no charges filed in the first place.

I cannot believe that the United States of America is treating human beings this way in the 21st century. It boggles the mind.

It also runs absolutely counter to every logical manner of national defense.

When people are tortured, those who love them venerate them. Those who might have been mildly interested in the cause become zealous about it. Torture does not curb terrorism. It creates martyrs. Heroes. It reflects badly on the nation that initiates the torture. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but in the centuries to come, even in the decades to come. Even in the nearest years to come.

I would rather myself and my beloved daughters be killed in a terrorist attack than be a citizen that condones the inhumane treatment of individuals in my defense. In fact, in the remote chance that anyone in my family actually is harmed by a terrorist, refer to this post! I do not condone torture!

The men who flew those planes into buildings were barbarians. Our response to those acts has been equally barbaric. What is it we teach kids about bullying? Don't fight back! But why, then, have we responded to bullying by being worse than our attackers? What does that solve? What does that say about us?

It could very well be that, 800 years from now, there will be boys' service clubs called Bin Laden. Jacques de Molay was pretty much a dimwit when he led the Templars and was burnt at the stake. Now his name is highly regarded. Torture does that. It makes heroes out of people whose deeds should be vilified or at least long forgotten.

I'm ashamed of my nation. "God bless America" is a strong damnation of the Christian deity.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It's Not Just Teenagers

When you get your ticket punched to Geezer City, your consolation prize is a cup of wisdom. Sadly, that wisdom comes from years of doing the wrong thing and seeing how it turns out in your own life.

For instance, I'm intensely glad that there was no Blogger or Facebook when I was an impetuous youth. If you are an impetuous youth reading this, you've probably already been around the block and learned a sharp lesson about social media.

But what about the in-betweeners? The people who are neither savvy young people nor creaky change-of-lifers? Those are the folks getting themselves into trouble.

I friended a few of my school colleagues on Facebook. Not many. Just a few that I work with closely. These few are mostly in their thirties and early forties.

Last Friday, my school district threw a dinner party for the employees. It was free for the staff and $15 if you wanted to bring a spouse.

I would rather spend an evening scrubbing my basement floor than to go to a party with people I see all day long. (This shows I'm a geezer.) So I didn't go. Friday is drum circle night anyway. I didn't even have to scrub the basement.

Actually, not many of my colleagues went, either. But a goodly cluster of them had their own party at another venue. And they posted a beery photo on Facebook the next morning.

I looked at the photo and recognized everyone in it. If I was in my thirties, I would have been crushed to not be asked to hang out with the office clique. However, I'm in my fifties. When I looked at that photo I did not see a bunch of folks I would love to drink with, but rather a largish group of adults who should know better than to pose for a group photo in a party setting and then post it on a social media site where their colleagues and employers might see it.

Some of my co-workers are deeply hurt that they weren't invited to the side party. They saw the photo on Facebook and realized what they had missed (whatever that was).

I look at that photo from the perspective of an alcoholic. Chances are, in my thirties I might have been in that picture. Now all I see in it is the bad outcomes it could have for the people I work with who haven't reached my stage in life. I feel for them. It's a stressful job we have, and this is how they are handling it. I know, because until the summer of 2012, I was handling it by doing the tango with Tanqueray each and every night. Only when my daughters could take no more and called me out did I drop the green bottle and do a little reflecting.

It's a shame it had to come to that.

So, when I see a party photo and know most of the people in it, and know they are under stress, I think to myself, "When will they reach the milestone I reached, and how will they get there?"

I hope their outcome is better than mine, and that their parties become placid and stodgy over time. Better yet, I hope they reach a day when they'd rather be anywhere but a bar.

This is not a sermon from a church lady. This is the hard-won wisdom of bad mistakes and rotten decision-making. I'm not predicting anyone's doom here. I just hope their lives turn out okay.

Friday, December 12, 2014

In Honor of December 13: Young Black Men

I can't make it to Washington, DC on December 13 to march for justice. This is my contribution to that cause.

Over the past nine years, I have gotten to know over 100 young black men. Let me tell you about a few of them.

"M" stands out in my mind. He was very tall and very dark-skinned, and he had a Muslim surname. I was a substitute teacher, and he was a high school freshman surrounded by his buddies. We locked horns. He got angry and shouted right in my face. (I can't remember what he said. He didn't curse.) I just blinked at him and wrote him up. Never raised my voice. After that, I had a private conference with "M." I told him, "You know, you're a born leader. You have presence. You should put it to good use." We were fast friends after that. He graduated a few years back and went to college.

"A" wanted to be a poet. He asked me to teach him how to write poetry. I said he probably was already doing it right, and he admitted he had a box of poems he'd written that he had hidden under his bed. He showed them to me. I typed them up for him and stored them in a file. "A" always had a smile on his face. He had big soulful eyes and had had a brush with the law. One day after he graduated, he returned to school and told me to delete his poems. He had embraced an austere sort of Christianity that lifted his soul but did nothing to his smile. He stopped by my room this past October, just to say hello. He's almost done four years of study at a Maryland Bible college.

"D" was in the performing arts program at my school. Since he already knew some poems, we registered him for a program called Poetry Out Loud. "D" would come to practice after school if he felt like it, but he would never take my advice. I told him, "You speak too fast. Your words aren't distinct." He did it his way. We went to the competition, and he was eliminated in the first round. His father, who had come to see it, glared at me as we got on the bus to return to school. After that, "D" never spoke to me again.

"S" was a jock. While in school he scored over 1,000 points as a power forward on the basketball team. I could get no work from him at all. He mocked me at every turn, gnawed at the edges of disrespect without crossing the line, and played shamelessly to his basketball buddies, who were all in class with him. I was probably the only teacher in the school who didn't congratulate him when he made his 1000th point. I have no idea where he is now.

"J" was in my class as a freshman and again as a sophomore. He was extremely serious and had a soft voice. He wasn't the best student I ever had, but he worked hard and turned in all his assignments. He seemed aggravated by his rowdier classmates. By the middle of sophomore year, I said it felt like he was my son or something, I had seen him grow so much. He hasn't even graduated yet, but this soft-spoken, lovely young fellow is working at Wegman's grocery store. Last week he rang up my order, and I got to introduce him to my husband.

"A" was also an athlete. He kept falling asleep in class. Finally I called his house and got his dad on the phone. I said to the dad, "I come in to the cafeteria for breakfast duty every day, and 'A' is already there ... at 7:00 in the morning. He's not getting enough sleep." The dad said, "I had no idea he had to get up that early. I work night shift."You see, "A" lives far from the school and has to take a bus at 6:15. Can you imagine a teenage boy having to get up that early? I still see him every day in the cafeteria. He plays his music too loud. I worry about his hearing. Those earbuds are no good.

"K" was highly intelligent and intensely competitive. He wanted to be valedictorian and was already planning for it as a freshman. His mother was a helicopter parent who hovered so close you could feel her wind in your hair. "K" was excitable and enthusiastic about everything he read and did. He brought energy into the classroom. As a junior he transferred to our sister campus. I haven't seen him since.

"T" is extremely overweight, to the point where he can hardly get around. Still he comes to school every day and struggles away to keep things in order, to get his assignments done, to get work in on time, to perform at the level at which the other students perform. He seems half out of breath all the time. I worry about him. I don't think I've ever seen him smile.

"D" is in my home room. He ran track this fall. He writes in a notebook every morning while the other students do silent reading. He's never shown me what he writes. He always has a pleasant word when I see him in the hall.

"C" comes to class late, doesn't turn in his assignments, comes to tutoring late, asks to go to the bathroom every day, and enjoys cutting up in class. He told me he has never read a whole book in his life. He's in tenth grade. I've asked the guidance counselor to arrange a meeting with his mother.

"T" is angry at the world. He won't do any school work. He just sits and glares. I suppose he must have problems with some of his other teachers, because he is often in detention. When "T" doesn't look furious, he looks abjectly miserable. No amount of encouragement seems to rouse him.

Another "T" is soft-spoken but remarkably observant and candid. He's in my Honors class. Earlier this year he took a standardized test, and his math score was college level. He also reads at college level. I saw him this afternoon, playing volleyball in the gym. The phys ed teacher and I agreed that if the planet was comprised solely of people like "T," the world would be heavenly.


Do you get the picture? These young black men are young men. They are just like other young men their age. Except for one thing: They're far more likely to be considered a threat, far more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police. Why? They're people. What exactly are we overlooking here?

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

A Lesson in Resilience

Every winter, the town of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania holds a festival based on -- big "duh" here -- the Phoenix. The Heir and I make a pilgrimage to Phoenixville to participate in this event because it has a sacred application to life.

The festival occurred yesterday, in a deluge of rain. I told Heir we would go anyway, so long as the precipitation was water and not something frozen. Phoenixville is a pretty long way from where I live.

What happens in Phoenixville is this: After drumming and dancing by people clad in Firebird costumes, a giant bird sculpture made of wood gets set on fire. How does this happen in a pelting rain storm? Well, the thing is chock a block with accelerant.

Artists and builders work on the phoenix sculpture for months before the event. This year's bird was over 30 feet tall.

Until someone courting a maximum smite of Bored God karma burned it down at 3:00 a.m., the morning before the festival.

Phoenixville held the festival anyway. In a day's work, in pelting rain, its residents built a smaller but still inspiring substitute bird. With the dark ashes of the prematurely immolated bird still on the field, the new bird smoked, caught, and sent bright flames into the night sky.

How inspiring! What a lesson in resilience ... one I needed after a soul-sucking week at my workplace.

One of the traditions of the Firebird festival is that you can pay a small fee to have an Intention for the new year put into a box and sent Heavenward as the sculpture burns. This ritual had to be scrapped when the vandals struck.

But Heir and I are ourselves resilient. Heir made two origami birds while we ate dinner (the iconic Speck's Chicken in Collegeville, PA). We wrote our intentions on our paper birds and committed them, with prayers, to one of the smaller bonfires on the festival site. I brought a stick from that fire home to burn at Yuletide.

There we stood, Heir and I, dripping but unbent while the flames crested a sea of umbrellas. We knew the original bird had burned down before we left for Phoenixville. Like the other people there, we stubbornly proved that all which falls will rise again.

Blessed be the mighty Phoenix, the Sacred Firebird! All hail!

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Phoenixville Firebird Burned By Vandals Hours Before Festival Begins « CBS Philly

Phoenixville Firebird Burned By Vandals Hours Before Festival Begins « CBS Philly

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Charlotte Danielson Nightmare

Have you heard of the Danielson Framework for Teaching? It's a teacher evaluation tool.

It's 27 pages long.

It works like a scoring rubric: 4 to 3.5 = highly effective
                                                 3 to 2.65 = effective
                                                 2.65 and below = double secret probation

The model has four "domains" and over 22 subcategories within those domains. Only two of the four domains have anything to do with classroom activities. The other two have to do with planning, grading, collegiality, etc. etc. etc.

This thing is a nightmare. Go ahead and look it up if you want a case of vertigo.

I had my first bout of Danielson evaluation today. And it was not pretty, let me tell you. I didn't care at all that the woman gave me "partially effective" on my classroom teaching. But not deeming me highly effective for the lesson plans I created for the world wide web about my husband's book has me thumbing through the Bored God Craigslist Ads for a deity who will have nothing to do but smite her.

On any given day any evaluator is going to tear up your best lesson. They are paid to criticize, and they aren't gentle about it.

But the Danielson model is supposed to give credit for things done outside the classroom that enrich the teaching profession.

It doesn't.

I showed my evaluator the wonderful, thoughtful lesson plans I provided this nation's teachers absolutely free of charge. It happens I was using them for the class she observed, that's why they were pertinent. She said because I didn't create them during this school year, they didn't count. This, apparently, is district policy. NEVER MIND that I was USING THEM for the class.

I seriously doubt that my district even has a policy covering online content created by its teachers, because none of them have done it but me.

Picky, distracting shit like this, which teachers have to grasp for like thirsty demons in Hell, is an outcome of getting a numerical score on an evaluation.

The evaluators will tell you until they're blue in the face that it's not about the number. Mine got very vexed with me when I wrote my score on the white board:

2.89

and said I wanted to find a way to get the other

.12

After much haggling, I was able to wrangle another .04 out of her by showing a little loophole in the Ridiculous Rubric that actually deems a teacher "highly effective" for being able to get newspaper clippings off Google!

So, there you have it. A teacher can create a published unit of study for an award-winning book, and that's not highly effective. But that same teacher can Google "Brittnany Maynard," find an article, and that's highly effective.

I hate this profession.

Before you comment (again), "Why are you doing it, then?" I will tell you:

Two days ago, The Spare fell flat on her face when she tripped over a wire in her apartment. After 24 hours she had developed blurred vision and a bad headache. She and her dad spent last evening (until well after midnight) in the local emergency room. She had a CAT scan that revealed a concussion but no bleeding.

THAT'S WHY I'M DOING THIS. She's on my health plan.

Few professions provide health care anymore, and politicians are working like fiends to get around having to give it to teachers. That's where torture instruments like the Danielson Framework for Teaching come in handy. The harder they make it for teachers to be artistic about their work, the more likely the older, more experienced, and more creative teachers will bail.

Why did I ever cease to be a goat judge? I miss those little cloven-hoofed charmers!

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Guest Post: Mark Kram Jr. reviews Glimpsing Heaven:The Stories and Science of Life After Death

     To the eternal question -- "What happens when we die?" -- the human species has searched for answers in a wide range of spiritual and scientific realms. Though I am not affiliated with any organized religion at the moment, I have always tended to think something happens, if only because of our inability to grasp the complexity of the question. I have an uncle who is of the belief that nothing happens, that we should enjoy the here and now because we end up as food for earthworms. Science has persuaded him of this, yet I am just as certain that there are aspects to our existence that are unknowable.


     So I came with an open mind to Judy Bachrach's book, Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death. But I also approached it with the eye of an experienced journalist, which is to say I held the author to high standards of reporting and writing. Happily, she exceeded both. Drawing on interviews with an array of people who have had what is commonly called "near death experiences" -- but what she refers to more accurately as "death experiences" -- Bachrach exhibits the same journalistic skill that has distinguished her as a contributor to Vanity Fair. All had been declared legally dear, yet they retained a consciousness that existed outside of their bodies. They came back and spoke of experiencing "pure unconditional love," of seeing deceased relatives and being overcome with enlightenment. And, yes, they remembered being drawn to a "white light."

     One "experiencer" Bachrach spoke with was Bill Taylor, a computer analyst who had suffered a heart attack. "The next thing I knew, I was out in space, looking on all the stars and planets ... There were threads connecting all of the bodies in the universe. And I am also connected to all these forms ... The threads were energy -- and it was love that connected everything to everything."

     Interviews with doctors and scientists who have explored this subject are woven into the narrative, which Bachrach moves along at a highly readable pace. There would appear to be agreement among them that something indeed happens when we die, although it is not yet clear how or why. No book of this sort could possibly answer all of our questions, but it does give us the "glimpse" it promises into a realm that exists beyond the wall of time. And it reminds us again how little we know.

Mark Kram Jr. is the author of the PEN/ESPN Award-winning narrative Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion.

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