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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Making of a Master Narrative: Flight 93

United 93, the fictionalized, action-packed account of the hi-jacked SFO to DC flight whose deadly mission was aborted by the heroic actions of the flight’s passengers, opens today in theaters across the country. Directed by Paul Greengrass (of Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy fame), it’s sure to be an action-flick blockbuster, while at the same time, one of those films that exhausts you emotionally.

I don’t want to see this movie, but I suspect I will – if only to satisfy my curiosity and put some demons to rest.

I worry about this flick. Although it tells of real events, it is nonetheless a fictionalized account. Captured in documentary style (which will, to the unreflective viewer, lend validity to its “truthfulness”), it’s also a disaster-in-the air action flick.

And because it will no doubt be a blockbuster, this film will mythologize the story of Flight 93 and serve as the historical text of that flight for most Americans. It will become a master narrative.

The tale is pieced together from cell phone records and cockpit recordings – but we truly don’t know all the details of what happened on board that plane that day. And so the details of our master narrative will be fleshed out with fiction.

You might recall that shortly after 9/11, the story of Flight 93 revolved around Todd Beamer, one of the passengers on the plane that rushed the hi-jackers. He was raised up on high as a great American hero, and perhaps he was, but the media’s focus on Beamer left other passengers’ tales by the wayside, most notably, Mark Bingham, who also, according to cell phone records and cockpit recordings, played as equally a heroic role as Beamer. He just didn’t have the same posthumous publicity campaign. And he didn’t utter a commonly used, cliché phrase over the phone either – “Let’s roll!” - as Beamer did. Later, entrepreneurs tried to capitalize on that phrase, using it to hawk their T-shirts and other 9/11 souvenir wares. In response, the Todd Beamer Foundation tried to trademark the phrase. Insanity all the way around.

But back to the flick. I wonder whose story is being told in this film. And how real it is; how truthful. Most viewers will forget, or have never understood to begin with, that when you treat a historical event via the Hollywood lens, you fictionalize it , aggrandize it – what’s on the screen isn’t necessarily what happened that day – nor is it necessarily what didn’t happen that day.

I concede that exploring major events through “art” helps us understand those events. What I worry about is that United 93 will be the major way we, as Americans, re-vision that day and that event; the movie will become our primary text, our master narrative of that event, rather than just one of many ways to make sense of, to understand what happened to the people on that plane, to the people on the ground, and to us – all of us – that day.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Censorship and the Leftist-Leaning, Liberal Teacher

Every semester, I assign a research paper in which students must select a current, controversial topic, research it, arrive at some sort of opinion about the issue, and write a persuasive essay that expresses their stance and attempts to, if not convince a reader to agree with their point of view, at least acknowledge that their point of view is valid and worthy of consideration.

Students often immediately select a topic with which they are somewhat familiar and already have some sort of relatively firm stance. I encourage them to explore the topic - in fact, that's part of the essay requirements – to research multiple perspectives and acknowledge the opposition, and concede the valid counter-arguments to their own stance. Sometimes, students start off with a particular stance and in the process of research, change their point of view. The process of intellectual inquiry and discovery can be an exciting one – something I thrill to witness.

But the assignment has a serious pitfall for me. And that pitfall is the kind of arguments students craft about gay marriage and abortion.

One semester, I had a student whose paper was in support of gay marriage and his main argument was this: Because the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) considers homosexuality a disease, and we do not prohibit people with diseases from marrying, we should not prohibit gays from marrying either, as then we will be discriminating against the disabled.

Sigh. I conferenced with the student and explained that the “fact” he cited was outdated – current scientific and medical research concludes that homosexuality is not a “disease.” The DSM was revised years ago in light of this research. As the student was relying on old and irrelevant data (when recent data was available), I explicitly directed him to continue his research. I also mentioned that the argument he was using to support gay marriage was an argument that would alienate and insult the very group of people he wished to support.

He did not listen. He did not heed my advice, and turned in a paper that although technically adequate was seriously lacking in thorough, academic research and logical, critical thinking.

Other students have turned in essays which argue the case against gay marriage or abortion based on faith alone. And faith-based arguments are not acceptable in an academic environment; nor, in my opinion, are they acceptable n our political system either.

Of course, I also receive essays in which students advocate for gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. And I scrutinize the students' arguments on those essays as well. They must support their points, their arguments, with solid evidence and rational thought. Many do not, nor do they always acknowledge the valid counterpoints of their opposition. And I call that to their attention.

But invariably, the essays which argue against gay marriage or abortion are usually either faith-based or demonstrate seriously flawed critical thinking and argumentative skills – gaping holes in the argument, or a lack of acknowledging (and understanding) an alternative perspective on the issue.

I try to grade objectively, wisely. I conference. I tread lightly on students’ religious beliefs while still trying to hold them to the academic standards of reasoned, intellectual inquiry and debate.

And I typically fail. And students become frustrated. Because I am asking them to examine their beliefs under a microscope and critique them; because I am asking them to consider what is to them an alien point of view. And because though I am not necessarily asking them to change their stance, I am asking them to change how they support that stance. And I do ask them to reconsider how they think and how they feel.

I ask my students to engage in this task because this is what intelligent, educated, rational, critically-thinking beings do. Analyze. Critique. Reassess. Examine. Not just the “facts” of the issue, but the assumptions underlying our opinions and those of others. It is a most disturbing practice – one that, if pursued with discipline, can shake our convictions and deliver us to a new understanding, or lead us to a new insight that further reinforces our previous beliefs and makes us better able to arugue our points in thoughtful, rational, and persuasive manner.

And all of that is an extraordinarily difficult and uncomfortable task for any human being. And yet, our intelligence demands that we do it.

But this semester, I banned all gay issues and abortion as topics for the research/persuasive essay. Because right now, I cannot tolerate reading essays which vilify so many of my loved ones, or which declare that women who have abortions (of which I am one) are habitiualy careless and thoughtless, or severely psychologically disturbed.

Though I am relieved not to have read such essays this spring, I am troubled that by banning these topics, I am denying my students a learning opportunity; denying them discussion, conversation, debate. Denying them a chance to re-vision their thinking, to explore ideas, to arrive at new conclusions.

But right now, this semester, I am not wise enough, noble enough, caring enough to allow for that opportunity. I simply no longer wish to read essays that so assault my sensibilities and cause me anguish.

And in that regard, I am no better than any student of mine who argues solely from a faith-based perspective and refuses to see, or acknowledge, an alternative point of view.

And yet, for this semester, I can live with that.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Paradise (and it ain't lost)

I woke this morning to strange sounds and a strange absence of sound as well. I heard birds – singing in the trees outside my window. I haven’t heard birds singing in the morning for countless days, weeks.

I heard too the strange, quiet, smooth sound of car tires on dry pavement. A sound so soft, it is sometimes barely noticeable.

But I did not hear the steady, plop-plop-plop of raindrops on the sunken, soddy ground below my window.

I lay in my bed, half afraid to rise, pull back the curtain, and gaze on the day, for fear I would see grey clouds gathering or the eastern sky tinged with red (red sky in the morning, sailor take warning).

Summoning my courage, I rolled out of bed, crept softly, quietly (lest any noise create some sort of catastrophic atmospheric chain of events that could quite possibly wreak havoc with my fragile mood) and, barely able to stand the suspense and filled with dread and fear, pulled the curtain back just a bit, just a tiny, teeny bit.

Beyond the curtain, through the window, I saw what seemed to me to be …

Blue. I flung the curtain open and saw – a clear sky reveling in its blueness. A sky so broad, so deep, so blue – it must be heaven. Not a single cloud - not one wisp, nor strand, nor stray bit of fluff - in sight.

Nonetheless, being a skeptic and a cynic and half-convinced that I was merely delusional, I took my raincoat with me to campus.

But I never used it. Not today. After teaching and then conferencing with one student after another, I headed out to Ocean Beach, pulled neatly into the first available parking space, and pretending to completely ignore the young man smoking pot in the car next to mine, I changed as quickly as I could from my “take me serious – I’m your teacher and I can flunk your ass if I choose” clothes into my “I don’t give a damn what I look like - I’m walking on the beach” clothes. I locked up the car, and for one moment considered asking that young man for a drag off his blunt, but deciding that I was quite high enough already on the color blue and the gleaming sunlight, turned my back on the sweet scent wafting from his car and joined the giddy, dizzy, amazed San Franciscans out for a romp on the beach.

The recent storms had left their mark – sea boulders, rocks, stones, crushed sea shells, driftwood scattered across the dark sand. But the waves glittered in the sunshine and there was not even one hint of off-shore fog. Snowy plovers scurried along the shoreline. A dog gleefuly trotted down the beach with a stick in his mouth while others of his kin chased balls or frisbees; toddlers ran with pudgy little legs and bare feet across the sand, giggling then squealing when the wet waves lapped up and covered their pink little toes. Old men in fishing boots clumped along, their eyes scanning the horizon, watching a barge move north along the coastline toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Two old women, walking arm-in-arm, one wearing a red scarf, the other a dark brown cap, gossiped in Italian and pointed first at the seagulls, then at a little boy and his kite. Bikini-clad girls stretched out in the sun. Buff young men, breaking just a trace of sweat, ran shirtless down the beach. And I smiled at everyone. They all smiled back.

Now I sit on my balcony, the day over, sipping a cosmopolitan. The sun shines through the green leaves of the prickly maples that frame my balcony. The air has a nip to it – I am wearing a sweatshirt – and a gentle breeze moves the wind chimes ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly – yet I can hear the sweet tones – just barely, just barely. The sun is still shining and the sky, as it has all day, remains cloudless.

No matter that rain is forecast for Friday. Today it was sunny and I walked on the beach.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Bliss is

When my daughter calls me and asks me out to the ballet or a baseball game or she stops by my apartment unexpectedly with chocolate ice cream, or with nothing, and says, “Can I hang out with you for a while?”

My son calling just to say “Hey Mommy!” then laughing a deep, goofy, doofus laugh before he hangs up.

Clean sheets on the bed and iris and calla lilies in the vase on the dresser.

Dogs loping across the beach, tongues hanging from the side of their mouths.

Rainbows after rain, finally.

The crack of the bat and the cheer of the crowd on a sunny day at the ballpark, and of course an ice-cold beer in a BEAT LA cup.

Bliss is coming home from the North, rounding the bend through the tunnel and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and the City in the background, the sun sparkling on the buildings, and just a faint trace of wispy, spun-cotton fog stretching its delicate hand out from the ocean, trying to touch the bridge, yet not quite making it.

Bliss is a baby asleep in your arms, smelling of milk, your milk.

Bliss is a deep red, ceramic bowl filled with plump blueberries.

Bliss is the rosemary bush flowering purple and the hummingbird that pauses in the air, hovering near the feeder on the balcony, its iridescent wings seemingly still with such rapid beating.

Bliss is the surprise letter in the mailbox; the familiar yet almost forgotten voice of an old friend on the message machine.

Bliss might be sitting on your front stoop, or pushing the walk button over and over again at the intersection down the way. Bliss may be pinching the loaves of sour dough in the bread aisle at Safeway, or looking for you at the bus stop.

Bliss may be hiding in your heart, waiting for you to wake up.

Friday, April 07, 2006


Hasn’t New Hampshire lost enough face? The old man crumbled and it seems the state’s citizens are losing their backbone as well - someone had the not-so-clever idea to use a tourist slogan “You're Going To Love It Here” on road signs, instead of the old “Scenic New Hampshire” or “Welcome to the Granite State,” or better still the venerable, independent, kick-ass, don’t-mess-with-me-state motto, “LIVE FREE OR DIE.”

State representative Tim Robertson claims the traditional motto is “in your face” and doesn’t fairly represent the good people of New Hampshire. He’s concerned the motto might be taken out of context.

Hell then! But some context to it! The words were uttered by General John Stark – who fought in the Revolutionary War. He said: “Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils.” The man had some spunk – unlike Rep. Robertson, who is perhaps better suited to leading songs around the campfire (Kumbaya).

And how ‘bout this little piece of information to put more “context” to the motto – the great State of New Hampshire has a right to revolution written into its constitution! Article 10 of New Hampshire’s constitution audaciously asserts that

Whenever the ends of government are perverted and public liberty
manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and ought to, reform the old or establish a new

So buck-up my Northern Friends! Hold on to your heritage and LIVE FREE OR DIE!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Blood Is In The Water - Watch The Sharks Come Out To Feed

Libby has squealed on Dubya.

Of course, Libby is no doubt squealing to save his own neck (though I doubt that invalidates the veracity of his disclosures).

Will the press run with this story not only to redundancy, but to great detail? Will they gnaw on this and suck all the juice out and spatter it across the page and the screen?

Let's see how well the Repubs man the lifeboats on this one.

And after the feeding frenzy, will the sharks move on to the next story while the rest of us gaze in complacent rapture - our attention distracted by ... whateva.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Who Is Exploiting Justin Berry?

Tuesday morning I briefly caught part of Justin Berry’s testimony to the House, testimony in which this young man related his experiences with pornography. Between the ages of 13 and 18, Berry (now 19) was involved in a pornographic webcam production. He received gifts and attention from pedophiles and met with them in person. Needless to say, as a youngster, Berry was manipulated and betrayed by adults.

Watching Berry’s testimony, I was struck by what an intelligent, articulate, and good-looking young man he is. But although I felt he was brave for sharing his story, I was troubled as well by his open testimony. Later, I caught Berry on Larry King, and I was again struck by how intelligent and well-spoken this attractive young man is. And I was further troubled by the ideas that were coming up in my head.

What troubles me about Berry’s testimony and his Larry King interview? The overwhelming sensation that this young man is still being manipulated and exploited and that he is aware of and complicit with it as well. It seems to me he is still on display, not just on the Internet, but also in print and on television. Berry’s story was first told over a year ago by Kurt Eichewald of the New York Times (and the NYTimes has made the story premium content, so you must be a paying subscriber to access the story from the NY Times website), and he has also appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Who knows where the next stop is for this young man on the publicity trail. I concede that perhaps sharing his story is cathartic for him, a means of therapy, perhaps eventually of closure. But something’s not right with this picture.

I have no doubt Berry was a victim, plain and simple. Even though he “consented” to strip and masturbate in front of a web camera, he was seduced and manipulated into the situation as a child. Yet I can’t help but wonder, as things progressed – did he not know, even as a child and then as an older teen, that his behavior was inappropriate? Berry spoke to that in his testimony, acknowledging his own lack of morals in some ways, yet making it clear that as a troubled young boy, he was easy prey. As I listened to his testimony and the King interview, I began to wonder how the adults in his life could have failed him so miserably. What was his mother doing, thinking – and why, when his activities became known at school, didn’t social services step in?

I wonder as well how this young man can ever possibly have positive and healthy sexual relationships – not only because of his porn activities and how that must surely have warped his understanding of sex, love, and trust, but also after his face has been plastered not only on the Internet as a “porn star,” but throughout the media as a victim and apparently, given his testimony, as the poster boy for a more rigorous and aggressive stance against child pornography.

Berry presents himself in many ways as rehabilitated (from drugs and porn). But I wonder if he is totally rehabilitated. I wonder if he has exchanged the fame and attention he received for stripping and masturbating on the Internet for the fame and attention he is now receiving for what in many ways (metaphorically speaking) is stripping and masturbating once again in the public view. Yet certainly, his testimony is important to hear, and perhaps his story will strike a cautionary note for teens and adults as well. But somehow, Berry’s recent public appearances feel manipulative and exploitive. And I am not entirely sure who is doing the exploiting and manipulating. The press? The House Panel? Berry’s lawyers? Berry (who no doubt has learned the art of exploitation and maniulation quite well)? Perhaps everyone.

A transcript of Berry’s testimony to the House panel is available in PDF format at http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/Hearings/04042006hearing1820/hearing.htm).

Monday, April 03, 2006

Who'll Stop The Rain?

We're experiencing record-breaking rain in the Bay Area. As of March 30, it had rained 24 days in the month, beating a March 1904 record of 23 wet days. Now we are at April 3rd, and it is raining, as it rained yesterday. No let up in sight. This isn't fucking Seattle!(Apologies to Seattle-ites - I love that town.)

Levees are breaking in the Delta, roadways are flooding, hills are sliding. It's just lovely. And I can't stand it anymore!

So I'm writing very poor rain haikus. Please join me - send some haikus my way! (Remember, haiku is 5/7/5 syllables - but liberties are of course allowed - there ain't no haiku police around.)

rain falls endlessly
drip, drip, down the water spout
will it never stop?

Rain falls steadily
cars swoosh by on wet pavement
Slip. Slide. Honk Honk! CRASH!

I sing in the rain
Stomping in puddles, water flies up
My voice is tuneless now

Drenched in the rain
Shaking fist at dark, grey sky
Fuck the rain – fuck it!