Walking by Faith

It has been an extraordinary weekend. First, Admiral Kraft, then today I met Lincoln Brewster and Josh McDowell. Both are Christians and were here in town for a gathering called “One.” On Pentecost Sunday, 14 local area churches gathered together at the football stadium of Camarillo High School (the place were I teach), and held worship.

Brewster was the nicest and most down to earth guy. I reverted back to reporter mode and wasn’t star struck at all, partly because I really didn’t know who he was. But he seemed fine with that and had such a clear focused vision for what he was doing there. He opened with a set of five songs and he was awesome. I confess, I’ve never heard him before as I don’t follow Christian music closely. My own faith life, though, got richer and deeper today listening to Brewster’s music and hearing Josh McDowell’s message.

Here’s the thing–there were more than 8000 people gathered today. The expectation was for 5000 or so, but it was 8000. That’s just incredible to me. The city of Camarillo has some 80,000 people in it when the University is in session. That means that about 10 percent of our community was worshiping God this morning in one spot.

I’m not much of a non-denominational guy. I don’t like to raise my hands at worship and shout, sing, etc. But, today was moving and unique. In the act of reporting on the event for the paper today, God used that still small voice and he spoke to me. There was something in this time and place that really drilled at me and when I combine it with the warmth and kindness I felt at the Santa Clara High School graduation (see post below), I know it’s not coincidental. God is working in my life just now. Always has been, perhaps, but He’s making me aware of something I wasn’t aware of before.

The choices I make in the days ahead will have to be made deliberately and in God’s time. But, there is something weighing on me that’s not easy–it’s not a burden by any means. It’s a series of decisions, I think, and all of them are important–and life changing. And they make me rather happy in a way I have not been since I was a kid.

We do indeed walk by faith, and not by sight.

Meeting Terry Kraft

Aside from the fact that the newspaper industry is dying, there are many joys to being a reporter–especially since, in the first case, I’m a freelancer, or what the paper calls a “correspondent.” You know–like Dickens, Hemingway and Steinbeck before me. OK. Maybe that’s pushing it.

One of those many joys, however, is meeting fascinating people and really, even extraordinary ones. Tonight was one such case. I covered the graduation ceremony at Oxnard’s Santa Clara High school, a private Catholic school in the heart of South Oxnard.

It’s place that breeds success and it is apparent when you walk on campus that there is a warm feeling there, a feeling of family and of challenge. It feels like a place where people really do care about each other.

But it is also the home to some extraordinary alumnae and one of those is Rear Admiral Terry Kraft, the former Commanding officer and Captain of the USS Ronald Reagan. Kraft now calls D.C. home and works in the Pentagon. He was the keynote speaker tonight and mentored one student at Santa Clara who will be headed off to the US Naval Academy.

I spoke to Kraft for a few minutes, interviewed him for my piece. I tend to get star struck pretty easily. When I first started writing about wine, for example, I really was in awe of the people who made the wine and sold it and it showed in my writing. I even got criticized by an editor at Wines and Vines, one of my first big breaks in the industry, for being what she called “star struck.” I’ve been working on the problem since I was told that and having now been a “street reporter” for more than a year, I’ve overcome that habit.

Still, in Kraft’s presence, I felt a bit of it come back. This is a man that for three years served as Captain of the US Navy’s biggest, baddest aircraft carrier and sailed it into harm’s way more than once. He did all of this, by the way, before he turned 46 years old. Pretty darned remarkable if you ask me.

He’s as soft spoken, gentle and unassuming–except for the blazing white uniform, Admiral’s epulets and gold wings on his chest–as any man I know. He has a ready smile, even an impish grin at times, and he’s an eye-contact guy. Graying on top, losing only a little hair to his otherwise boyish navy haircut, Kraft is at the top of the game. He holds one of the highest ranks in the navy and he has served under a number of Presidents. He’s a true career officer with a good deal of combat experience, both in the air–during 1986’s attack on Libyan targets and, of course, Operation Desert Storm–and at sea during Operation Iraqi Freedom among many, many others.

I told him when I finished talking to him that it was an honor to meet him–and it was. I am enormously in awe of our country’s military members and even more in awe of those that lead them. They have a kind of drive, focus and initiative that is rare today, and they combine that with a heart for service and caring. That is the whole package, friends. The real deal.

So, like I said–there are a lot of joys in being a reporter. None of them, however, surpasses the joy of meeting such a diverse group of interesting people and Rear Admiral Terry Kraft is certainly one of the more interesting people I’ve ever met.

Just like James…

James Lileks says everything I want to say and far better. I would so very much like to sit and have a “wee dram” with the man someday. I believe it would be both a very entertaining and a very fruitful conversation with lots of good wine.

His latest “bleat” is a must read. Key graph:

Excuse me: burping sheep are the environment. Burping sheep are natural. Ah, but we raise too many to eat, so they’re not natural. But it would be natural, I guess, if there was a parasite that flourished at the expense of sheep’s predators, leading to a temporary increase in gross sheepage until the situation rebalanced. But everything that rebalances the old unbalances the new. There is no balance in the long run. Balance is an illusion you get when you don’t live to an age of 125 million years.

Do read the whole thing. It’s masterful. And, of course, right.

Doing the Duty

pic_0562Still sore from the workouts and though I continue to stretch and to demand more of myself, I am pretty sore. The neck and shoulders have been acting up on account of the push-ups. I may have ameliorate those a bit.

Today, did the cardio over at the track and brought Peanut along. She played while I walked and then I joined her over at the playground. When we got home, her friend came over to play for a bit, so I was able to cool down. But after dinner, I was asked to give a command performance. It goes like this:

She’s the princess and I am the princess’s bodyguard and servant. I have to do what she tells me. She dressed me up, too. I wore my walking shorts and a gray long-sleeved shirt and a pair of top-sider like shoes. Oh–and a belt around my waist. Pretty spiffy, actually.

It’s a fairly sweet gig because many times, she has me follow her to her room and then turns, puts her hand up in a gesture that is very obviously telling me to stay put and she shuts the door. Then, I hang out in the hallway, pet the dog, think about things, sing to myself. But just as swiftly, she opens the door, I snap to attention and she walks ahead of me. “Come,” she says. And I obey.

Outside where she discovers that the plum tree is in full-bloom and there is one plum within her grasp that is indeed turning a nice ruby and purple. “I want that,” she says in her best commanding voice. I retrieve it, tell her that princesses always wash their fruit first and so she does. She eats, then says very matter of factly, “it’s the best one I’ve tasted. Thank you, guard.”

It’s good to be the dad.

The least in-shape man in the room

The muscle pain and burn was tough to deal with all day. I slept OK last night, but rolling out of bed this morning was nearly impossible. Even now, more than 24 hours later, getting up out of a chair and sitting down in one hurt to the point of impossibility.

Am I complaining? Yes. Yes I am. But still, I went out today and took the dog for a mile and a half, albeit a bit slower than usual. Big brother told me to take it easier as at this point, the muscles can’t really do a lot of strenuous stuff. That’s how injuries occur. And since I’ve had my fill of injuries, I am choosing not to do any more lasting ones.

School draws ever closer to an end and like the students, I cannot wait to get there. It’s been a bumpy road this year with some really nice highs, particularly with the student newspaper, and some remarkable lows. It wasn’t a typical year–at least it didn’t feel like one. Too much weirdness and I’d rather not recount it all here.

Peanut ends second grade in a couple of weeks. That’s where I’m marking my life right now. It’s amazingly hard for me to believe that she’s as good as she is, as focused as she is. She’s at that age where she’s starting to strain and find her independence, find her own sense of being–while still being a little girl very much wanting to be treated like “the baby.” I don’t mind, either. I like the tension because I like who she is on both levels.

Well, since I’m still “feeling the burn,” and since I’ve submitted one piece tonight and am at work on a couple of others, I’m going to call it an evening.

So–an evening.

I'm Too Tired To Write This…

Memorial Day Weekend is always a raucously good time and we never really plan it that way. But, a few bbq’s, a family visit with my brother, swimming parties and good friends later–we’re beat. Exhausted, actually, beyond the capacity for rational thought. I know, cliche.

My brother Doug is a bit of a work-out fiend and while I am a hiker and walker and occasional jogger, Doug put me on a cross-fit work out today. 15 minutes. You do five push-ups, 10 sit-ups and 15 squats and you keep going in that order until the time is up.

So, how’d I do? Well, how to describe? Let’s start with the facts. In five minutes, I did 15 push-ups, 30 sit-ups and 45 squats. The sit-ups were not my best gig and that’s not because I cannot do them. Rather, it’s because of my now two year old neck injury. Bad discs and such make sit-ups rather painful and it’s not the resistance training for me.

As for the rest, well what can I say? I did five minutes of that and I’m wasted. My legs feel like dried glue and my arms are all rubbery. We went over to our neighbor’s house for a pool party. Ty and Tracey have quite a nice backyard spread with an outdoor bar and bbq set into stone and the like. There was a gathering of a few families and the kids swam and the adults talked and drank and ate food. What did I do? I found a chaise lounge in the shade, next to a hedge and some low bushes that smelled lovely and I fell asleep. For about half an hour. If it hadn’t been for the various pranks that my pals were trying to play on me, I’d probably have gone a lot longer.

I’ve not been this tired since my unit attacked that group of Cuban regulars on Grenada in the heat and humidity in 1983 and we took a machine-gun nest, killed four and ran up to the top of the hill behind them with full-packs. But, since I was never actually in the military, I think that that was the dream I was having while sleeping on the chaise lounge chair. I’m so tired, that even sleeping requires too much energy. I’m not actually typing this, I’m simply willing it to be written.

Drooping eyes, a weary core, rubbery arms and legs of glue. Yep–I’m a true man. I had one margarita at the party. I was too tired to lift anything else. I had my wife hydrate me with some water by pouring it down my gullet and then I drifted off.

Worked all weekend, too. Wrote a piece on Saturday and wrote a piece on Sunday and generally kept quite busy while at the same time going to peoples’ houses, watching my daughter swim and collapsing on the more comfortable pieces of their furniture.


Good night.

School Daze

No excuses that work. I got busy writing and forgot to….well….write. So, here I am.

The two plagiarists quickly became four plagiarists with a suspicion of a couple more. It happens that way a lot. You find your first one or two, then you become extra careful about the papers being handed in, so you start paying closer attention and google becomes your best friend. You type in suspicious sentences, fragments and nuances of what the kids are saying–and stealing–so that they have something to say about the text they were supposed to have read and have an opinion on.

Jason’s comment below is too simple for me. I cannot chalk it up to “cutting corners.” Cutting corners is when a kid just kind of gives a general summary of something that they were supposed to read. Cutting corners is when they are told to write two pages and they write a page and a half or so. There are lots of ways to cut corners, get an honest grade and walk away from it. Plagiarism, the act of stealing someone else’s work and passing it off as your own, is dishonesty, lying and theft–plain and simple. I cannot countenance it–nor should any educator for any reason.

Look at it this way, if education is falling apart, and there is no doubt that on some level it is, then there has to be one last bastion, doesn’t there? There has to be one last rampart to stand athwart and shout, “STOP!” as William F. Buckley might have said.

If that is so, then honesty is that bastion. There has to be a point at which a line is finally drawn. There is no question that curriculum is faulty. There isn’t a doubt that the bureaucracy of public education is a joke. It isn’t even worth arguing that, as an educator, I have now more often to defend myself against parents who believe their children can do no wrong than I do have parents who back me. So–if all these things are true, then they represent a drift and a shift. It’s one educators have been talking about for years. I’ve seen the shift since I got into the profession 18 years ago–and it is simply this: for all of our hot gas about standards and raising them, what has actually happened is that we have lowered them. As a society, as an institution, as parents and educators-we are too worried about being sued, or creating discomfort or being politically correct, or whatever–to call them like we see them.

So, plagiarism is simply that last rampart. I cannot turn a blind eye to theft and say, “no big deal–it happens. Whatever…” If there is only to be one crackdown left-and I hope there is more than one–then it has to be intellectual property theft.

To end on a positive note, the school newspaper, the Stinger, for which I am the adviser–won countywide awards for the first time in more than 10 years today. We took second place countywide in design and my photo editor took first place for a feature photo countywide. It’s a good day and there are still some great kids in schools. Let’s try to create more of those…

Happy Memorial Day Weekend, all…

The Long, Slow Slog to Summer

I’d like to chalk it up to time of year and maybe that feeling the kids have, regardless of the reality of the world, of the job market and all the other stuff, but I can’t. It wouldn’t be honest and honesty is what this is all about.

I caught two confirmed plagiarists today and might possibly have a third, but I cannot prove that one definitively, so not much to be done. The other two I caught because they just simply aren’t smart enough to cover their tracks–one of them being so remarkably bad that when I typed the suspect sentence, which happened to be the first sentence of his essay, into Google–it was the first thing that came up. My comment to him was, “if you’re going to plagiarize, you ought to at least use an essay that isn’t so easy to find.”

My record in one year is the capture of 10. I’m under no illusions. I know that hundreds more over my career have escaped undetected or unconfirmed by me. In order to convict someone of the crime, the teacher needs to have definitive proof. In case number one, I have it–the essay in question was literally cut and pasted to the page.

In case number 2, the essay uses the same phrases as the popular book perusal sight Sparknotes, but with a few changes and some paragraph shifts. At least number 2 was smart enough to attempt to cover his tracks. Props to you, old boy. Too bad it’s not enough.

I can say unequivocally that though it is spring with its cool ocean breezes and May/June gloom that I love so well, it’s also a dark time. It’s too easy to do what I sometimes do and say, “it’s not the kids–they’re fine. It’s the bureaucracy and the stupidity of the administration of it all.” And there is truth in that.

But the kids have indeed gotten progressively lazier and more pathetic. Of course not all of them for if that were true, it wouldn’t be worth doing anymore. But the numbers have increased rather consistently over the past few years and the result is that not only do I get kids who cheat, lie, steal, plagiarize and the rest of it–I get their parents who defend them.

I imagine in this batch of work that was turned in last Friday and that I will return to my students tomorrow, there are probably more than half a dozen plagiarists of which I’ve caught only two. When I catch them it is largely because I know the kid’s writing and I look at what they wrote and generally think to myself, “there’s no way…”

The ones I don’t catch are the ones who are smart enough to cover their tracks. They take someone else’s info, but change the wording, the structure and the design making it nearly impossible to prove.

And I’d like to think there is justice for them, but I’ve gotten cynical. Our school leaves it to us teachers to decide what to do, which is a good idea. But all we’ve really agreed to is that the student gets no credit for the assignment, parents are notified and that’s about it. I’ll talk with the kids, but in the end–there is less than a month left in school and these two who are guilty of the crime have never been stellar students, decent people in the classroom or in any way interested in creating a relationship with me. The result is, I’m a lot of hot air talking to them and that’s the way it will be. I may assign extra work to them or–I may just give them their “0” and send them on their way.

I’m not sure yet.

18 years of teaching is coming to an end this year. I’m not as swift on it as I used to be and I’m of the opinion that sooner or later, change is in the air…

A Slow Rush to Judgment

I’ve posted before about music and my playing of it, listening to it and my concert going years. No need to rehash that I suppose.

I still have a vivid memory of the day I went down to the Topanga Plaza shopping mall (which isn’t called that anymore) in the San Fernando Valley and bought my own vinyl copy of Rush’s Moving Pictures album. I’d been introduced to the band by my pal, Keith and I became a huge fan.

I remember, some 4 years later, going down on a weekday, with Keith, in 1985 to get tickets to see them play at the L.A. Forum. Those were the days when you showed up at the venue to buy tickets . You were given a wristband that signaled what place you had in line and then you got to go get your tickets. That was the Grace Under Pressure tour and I am hard pressed to believe that it was 24 years ago.

So, here I am recently just listening again to Grace Under Pressure when I had what recovering alcoholics call, “a moment of clarity.”

I’ve listened to every album the band has made and that’s a lot of albums going back to their first in 1973 and finishing recently with 2008’s Snakes and Arrows. The band’s music is so impressive and on such a grand scale much of the time and yet, recently, as I get older, I’ve found I don’t enjoy the music as much.

I chalked this up to my growing older, different interests, moving on, whatever. But then I put Grace Under Pressure on and all the old feelings were there again. I was moved by the music again and felt that same connection with it that I felt when I was a teenager and all the way through my 20’s.

That’s when it occurred to me that I was basically trying to like the newer albums. I’ll admit, there is some wonderful music in the most recent recordings and I think some really delightfully creative moments. However, that music doesn’t speak to me much and it never really did.

I got into Rush in 1981 when I was 15 and 16 years old. When I saw them for the first time in 1985, I was about to turn 20. I’ve seen them 10 times since and all of the concerts have been wonderful.

But, the fact remains, that music identified who I was when I was a youth. My mid-teenage years through my 20’s were a difficult and trying time for me as they are for most adolescents. My parents divorce, my move across the country and then back again, my contracting mononucleosis and because of it, my inability to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County where I intended to go after high school, the decline of my application to Cal State Sacramento–all of those negatives fueled a lot of issues through which I fought to maintain perspective.

And, in the end, I did indeed maintain perspective. I came out of it just fine, thank you. But the time is marked by realizing my own strength, my own ability to overcome failure, not to accept it and the soundtrack of that time belongs to three albums: Moving Pictures, Signals and Grace Under Pressure, all of which signify moments that really coincided with who I was.

Now, as I listen to the music in all its rich texture, its youthful fervency and its complex structure, I find myself remembering how I got from there to here–not wallowing in how I felt then, but rather taking joy in the fact that things change and I still get to make choices.

As my friend Edd says, even if the later albums haven’t really thrilled me, they are still good in their own way–and the band has earned deserved praise and they’ve also earned the right to play what they want. That’s beyond question. But, in a way, acknowledging these things is also a way for me to realize that their music, so freeing then, so much a part of who I was, isn’t so for me anymore.

So, I got out the CD’s today and put Grace Under Pressure, Signals and Moving Pictures into the car. I have the others, to be sure. And once in a while, I’ll listen. For now, though, it is a question of reliving the joy of that freedom and the memory that music can indeed change you, so much that it drives you to find your own new expression and your own balance.

For me, that’s worthy of real thanks.

A teacher votes No

I really don’t like to write about politics anymore. Seriously, I don’t. But I also think that in a free society, you have to stand up for important stuff, no matter what side you take. So….here is one such brief post:

No on the California ballot propositions, 1A-F. No to more tax hikes, no to more spending. No to the legislature whose bloated bureaucracy is even now sinking the ship. No to a once thoughtful governor who believed in cutting taxes and now thinks the only thing to be done is to raise them. No. No. No.

“Oh!” you’ll cry. “Education in this state needs more money. We lag behind many other states in education spending.” Yes, we do. But, to borrow from P.J. O’Rourke’s analogy, giving money to Sacramento is rather like giving whiskey and car keys to 16 year olds. The money for education is there, folks. Always has been. It’s not used properly–and in fact, it’s used rather improperly. Remember all the lottery funds? They were supposed to go to education. What happened to them?

No, I can honestly say I will get on board with the majority of the people in my state and with the exception of public employee unions, of which I am a member, I will vote “No” on the 19th of May. And the no vote will be a resounding echo heard from the west coast all the way across the U.S. where in Washington, it may still ring in a few tin ears as even people of the left–people who voted for President Obama, say “No” to more taxes, more needless spending and more debt.