Thursday, November 21, 2013

Do The French Have A Name For It?

When it comes to teaching poor kids to read well, it seems they don’t.

The French guy gets it. He looked at my sign this morning. I’d never seen him before. He stopped and said, ‘Exactly. That is an excellent sign. We have the same problem in France where I’m from. They don’t seem to recognize that unless the poor children are taught to read, they can’t do the other school subjects. Why don’t they know that?’ We talked for a few minutes. Both agreeing with each other that the kids need to know how to read well, before they can even know how to write. Reading is the foundation for all of it, we nodded together. We each took off one glove in the cold and shook hands.

I take an hour walk in the afternoons along the East River. Yesterday I had an NPR show in my ears. I couldn’t listen to sports talk yesterday with all the predictable groaning over the Jets and the Knicks. The NPR show had on the author of a book about Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane. Jane wrote many letters to her brother. The host asked if young women in those days were taught to read and write like the young men were. The author replied that they were definitely taught to read, so that they could read the Bible.

We had a Bible in our house when I was a kid. It had a soft light green leather cover and the edges of the pages were shiny gold. It had my parents’ wedding date in the front and the birth dates of the three kids. I stared at my mother’s perfect handwriting in it many times. It was on an end table in the living room and sometimes I would pick it up by the spine and dangle it with the pages facing the floor. It was very thick and heavy and I liked the way it felt holding it that way. Not one word of it was ever read in our house. Not by me or my sisters or my parents or my grandmother who lived with us before she died or my aunt who lived with us for awhile. We were Catholics, and Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible. Protestants read the Bible. Not Catholics. We weren’t supposed to learn on our own. We were supposed to hear the priest read passages from it during Mass on Sundays, and then tell us what it meant. I wonder if Jane had been Catholic if she would have been taught to read so definitely.

On the #6 train a week ago my eyes landed on the stunning cheekbones of an Asian mother reading a book to her pre-school daughter. It was a paperback chapter book and the mother read it so purposefully that the child, even as she slid around on the slippery subway seat, kept her eyes glued to the important book and her mother’s voice. The mother didn’t put the book in her big canvas tote bag until the train stopped at the last station. A young black kid, junior-high-age maybe, in a Yankee cap and basketball shoes, with nothing in his hands, across the aisle from them, watched the angel mother read as appreciatively as I did.

Sometimes when people walk by the sign and me, they’ll smile a full, warm smile and say, ‘Ain’t that the truth!’, and I’ll say back, with total assurance, ‘It could change the world.’ I don’t always think to say that. But that’s what I wish I’d have said to everyone who’s made a comment. It’s what I believe. It’s why I hold the sign. This will be my third winter standing with the sign for an hour every weekday on Chambers Street. Some of the passers-by who haven’t seen me till this year are surprised I’m there in the cold weather. I like being there in the cold. This morning I had a dull headache from the Guinness and the Jameson I had last night at a tavern across the street from my Third Avenue apartment. I went there to watch all the games on the big screens, after I’d read another chapter in Donna Tartt’s spectacular new novel, The Goldfinch. An earlier me might have skipped class on such a morning after or taken the day off from work. But a little headache is nothing now to a guy who thinks his sign’s message could change the world.

Here are two paragraphs from Tartt’s book. In them, 13-year-old Theo has come from the Upper East Side down into the Village, looking for someone who might have an important answer:

And so it was that around half past eleven, I found myself riding down to the Village on the Fifth Avenue bus with the street address of Hobart and Blackwell in my pocket, written on a page from one of those monogrammed notepads Mrs. Barbour kept by the telephone.

Once I got off the bus at Washington Square, I wandered for about forty-five minutes looking for the address. The Village, with its erratic layout (triangular blocks, dead-end streets angling this way and that) was an easy place to get lost, and I had to stop and ask directions three times: in a news shop full of bongs and gay porn magazines, in a crowded bakery blasting opera, and of a girl in white undershirt and overalls who was outside washing the windows of a bookstore with a squeegee and bucket. 

Last Sunday morning two young women and a guy-friend of theirs came to my apartment with a movie
camera. Some months ago one of them had come across one of these newsletters in a bookstore downtown and got a hold of me. She liked the message in the newsletter and wondered if she and her old college friend, who like her had been a film major, could shoot some kind of film about me and why I was so interested in every kid learning to read well. Of course, I said, whenever you want.

So, they set up their lights and put the camera on a tripod in front of me, sitting there on my couch in one of my everyday long-sleeve blue t-shirts, with a bad haircut. The one girl asked questions while the other two monitored the focus and the sound. I talked for the better part of two hours. It was like Freudian analysis. I was allowed to talk without interruption. I learned things, as I said whatever came to mind. I said I loved the poor city kids and was outraged that they weren’t being taught to read. I said it was a sin that they were being denied the chance to be full members of our culture. I said the sign says I love them, and the French guy loves them too. So do other people who smile at the sign in a certain way. Sometimes my eyes almost water when I see a warm face connect with the sign.

When the young filmmakers packed up their stuff and said thank you, we’ll be in touch, we shook hands goodbye. And after I’d closed the door behind them, I broke down in tears for a few seconds.

What Southern Comfort?

These Alabama tenant farmers had little of it.

In 1936 ‘Fortune’ magazine rejected the article they’d assigned to James Agee (and photographer Walker Evans) about three southern tenant farming families. It was way too long and way too artfully written for a business magazine.  Agee eventually made it even longer and it was published as the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

A few months ago, the original, rejected manuscript was published. It’s called, Cotton Tenants. It has the Evans photos. You’ve seen the one of Allie Mae Burroughs. I just read it. It’s hard to believe people lived that far off the grid. With hardly any comforts. Bad teeth. Primitive sanitation. Flour-sack clothes. No prospects for the kids. School took a distant second place to planting and picking cotton.

You should probably read it, to know about such lives.
Big Adventure In The Mailbox
My unlikely once-a-month excitement

Maybe 40 years ago I was sitting in the sun reading on the uncovered upstairs porch in a double house inLakewood, Ohio when two squirrels started racing back and forth aggressively in a love duel on an overhead, right-near-me power line. The noisy tooth and claw and fur of it all, sent me inside. I was scared. Weirded out.

So, you wouldn’t think that ‘Outside’ would be maybe my favorite magazine. I love it. The photos most, of snow in the mountains, yurts at night lit up like pumpkins. Campfires. Rivers and rafts. Ads for cool-colored outdoor stuff. Clothes. Ads for summer trips through Yosemite. Or to Patagonia. Ice fishing. Great writing.

I’ll bet you’d like it too.

Do yourself a favor. Read this book. Story-telling/writing at the highest level. Her descriptions of New York people and the places they go are perfect.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


There are two sides or more to every life. 
Mine too.

I lead two lives. One loves to hang out in bookstores and libraries, and put out a newsletter and hold a sign about kids and reading. For Christmas, one sister buys me a healthy gift certificate to a bookstore in the Village. For Christmas, I send only books to both sisters and my three daughters and my five grandchildren and my nieces and nephews and their kids. My apartment is spilling over with books. I sleep on the couch rather than the bed because I like the way the lamp by the couch lights up the book I’m reading before I’m ready to sleep, or when I frequently wake up two hours later from things that keep going bump in the night. I have more than one copy of some books.

My other life likes sleeping on the couch, too. That’s where my little clock-radio is, on the coffee table, sitting wobbly some nights atop a jagged, ever-changing pile of books and magazines. I need a radio on to fall asleep. I need sports talk. I don’t need scores. I need talk. Marty from Woodside. Vince from Staten Island. When I visit my youngest daughter in Wyoming, some nights I can’t find a sports station. Then I have to make do with talk about alien abductions on ‘Coast to Coast’ radio.

On the bus to visit my friend in Boston last weekend, I read from a book of stories by Alice Munro, who had just won the Nobel Prize. She’s my all-time favorite writer, which you wouldn’t think from a guy who listens to sports talk to get himself to sleep every night. Her stories make you put the book down when you finish one to let your mind and your whole life readjust to your surroundings. I’m moved to easy tears at the end of some of her stories. I’ve read a few of them out loud to a friend over the years. There were times I had to stop and clear my throat, so perfect and miraculous were some of her sentences.

I’m from a small rural town in the western part of New York State. Not too different from Munro’s Canadian settings. I’m a displaced person I realize when I’m reading her.

When the bus was approaching Boston, I put the book away in my backpack. I wanted to be alert so I could see Fenway Park out the right-side window. The small town kid in me never tires of seeing the park the way it sits there squeezed among the old buildings. The big book-cluttered house of my friend where I’d be staying is very stimulating and comforting to me with all his stacks of reading matter. So is the high quality of Boston sports talk. Tommy from Dorchester. Jonah from Newton.

Some women I dated over the years, knew, but denied it for years in some cases, when they saw my house or my apartment, with all the books, and the dust under some of them, that this was not a guy who was going to get married again.

Two weeks ago two guys who I worked with on a magazine I edited in Cleveland stayed at my place for a few days. They’re younger. Both writers, like me. And, like me, both sports fans, big time. We drank beer most of the nights at a bar down the street and watched, and talked, baseball and football till the wee hours.

One thing about Alice Munro I noticed in all her stories is that they’re not about you. They’re exactly about the people in the story. They are so particular, rendered in such a way that they become more real than any people you read about in other writers’ stories. They’re not even about her. I like that. It’s like looking at a box of random old family snapshots at a flea market. The names and dates written in white ink.

Not everybody on buses is reading Alice Munro. Though the people on a bus to Boston are more apt to be reading something than passengers on buses I’ve taken to other places. They mostly look bright, like you think people going to Boston for the long weekend would. Less than half of them got off to get food when the bus stopped for 15 minutes at a Burger King. Most buses empty out at such stops, some of the sleepy people with long cigarettes in their mouths waiting to be lit as soon as they file off the bus. The guy sitting next to me had a Mac Pro on his lap and was writing music on it. It made me think of Sister Ambrosine in grade school making musical staffs on the blackboard with a rake-like holder with five long pieces of white chalk in it.

She made sure we knew how to read and spell and write neatly. We had to stand up straight sometimes and
read to the class. We had cursive charts above the blackboard. We had spelling tests every Friday. Spelling bees, too. Everyone had to line up against the wall and participate. Kids like me with college-educated parents, next to kids who lived out in the country, next to foster kids. She walked among the aisles with a ruler or a rubber-tipped pointer and you were always a little bit afraid of her. A football player I roomed with at Notre Dame said his favorite coach always kept you a little bit afraid.

What would the NYC public school grads who read at such a poor level do on the bus? Would they read? Or would they sleep? Would they even be going to Boston for the weekend? What if they had had Sister Ambrosine? I wonder if that would have made a difference. What do you think?

Stephen King has a new book out. So does Donna Tartt. And Elizabeth Gilbert. And Alice McDermott. And Terry McMillan.  And Amos Oz. Jonathan Franzen, too. And Dave Eggers. Alice Munro’s paperback collections are hastily being restocked since she won her big award. I wish I had a long bus ride, long enough to read them all. When I needed a break, I could pull my iPhone out of my left hip pocket and dig my ear buds out of my backpack and listen to some sports talk, while the country glided by the window. Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat.

On Saturday my Boston friend drove 45 minutes to Lowell so we could see Jack Kerouac’s grave. That night we went to a local tavern to watch the first few innings of the Red Sox game.  We listened to the rest of it on a good radio in his big kitchen. Nice day.

Thirty-Five Bucks Might Seem A Lot

But it’s 1268 pages of dazzling writing

Do you have any of The Library of America series? They’re beautifully bound books, on fine delicate paper. You think you’re holding a museum copy. They’re still adding to the library. I’ve got Philip Roth’s works, and Saul Bellow’s works.

I’ve got Flannery O’Connor’s too. If you read her in school, you’d remember. If you can’t remember, there are books of hers in any good bookstore you try. Do try.

Some day you might want all her stories and some essays of hers. This is the book you’ll want.
Are Grass Stains A Thing Of The Past?

A book in praise of playing outside

I grew up in a rural small town. Some of my buddies in grade school had BB guns and hunting knives. And they loved to fish. They were like their fathers. I was like mine, who did none of that stuff. I thought he was a wuss sometimes for not being an outdoorsman.

I did go in the woods a lot though. We were always outside. Sports every afternoon. TV didn’t rule then. It does now. We watch it 60 hours a week, studies say.

Kids need to play outside more. This convincing book of essays from Orion magazine is what we need to read to remind us to turn off the tube and have the kids investigate the real world.

It’s in bookstores. She’s not Anne Frank, but her face is an icon now.

Monday, September 9, 2013

What’s Your Sign?

Thinking back on a conversation with a young woman about the meaning of things.

I should let the sign do the talking. It says exactly what I think. But sometimes people ask me about it and I have to say something.

Last week a young woman who works for the Department of Education, whose big building I stand in front of on the sidewalk every morning for an hour with my sign, approached me and said she sees me there and don’t I think they’re doing that, teaching the kids to read?

I rushed out an answer; something about how the numbers we read in the paper, the reading scores, show that, no, they certainly aren’t teaching the poor kids to read well. I said it too hurried probably (there were people passing us there on the sidewalk and I wanted them to see the sign), which, I’m sure, made me seem distracted and aggressive. I felt glum later that I’d poorly represented my thoughts to her. Which is of course why writers write: to give a more extended answer/critique/suggestion to the things they see wrong with the world.

Here’s what I should have said. I should have said how dare the department begin yet another school year without a plan to attack the sinful lack of ability to read well that so many of their students suffer from? I should have said I hadn’t read anywhere that some new plan was in place to rectify that. If she’d said the Common Core curriculum was going to do that, I’d have said, no it’s not. Not that it’s a bad idea for a program, but it’s just not meant to tackle the tough stains. Something stronger is needed for that.

I thought about taking my sign to the debates the candidates for mayor have been having. But I decided to keep holding it in just the one place I hold it in the morning on Chambers Street. I wasn’t going to chase down the pols. I don’t think much of this batch at all. None of them has spoken about the problem I see as the most urgent: teaching all the school kids to read well. These candidates are an unimaginative group of people.  How could they not see that as the biggest problem? It really is the crucial problem. Solve it and almost everything else will fall into place. Sometimes when a person walking by my sign will say, I couldn’t agree more, I’ll say, it would change the world. They almost always nod in agreement.

Just before Labor Day I took the train to Chicago to meet up with one of my sisters and my niece to drive to Northern Michigan to my other sister’s cottage. I like the train. I like looking at the Hudson River out the window. It’s a long ride, but I take a book with me and some magazines and a notebook. You can walk through the cars and look at people. The poor people sleep almost the whole way. They bring old pillows and sheets. They don’t read. They look at movies on their screens when they aren’t sleeping. Their kids aren’t reading anything either. They’re restless and you hope you aren’t sitting across the aisle from them. If I had a chance to talk to the young woman again, I’d tell her about the train.

The book I took with me, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’d read 40 years ago when I was a teacher in Cleveland. I taught school to get out of going to Vietnam. A lot of young men did that then. It wasn’t only to avoid the draft that we did that. It was an idealistic time and teaching in urban schools was a way for us to change the world. The book evokes that era. It brings back vivid, wistful feelings. It’s not lost on me that I still say teaching poor kids to read well could change the world. I believe it. It’s tragic that that mission is still not being accomplished. Forty years later. My hair’s turned gray. I have five grandchildren.

Here’s the first paragraph of the book.  I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of my cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon.

Reading is our best, most enduring pastime. TV and movies are stimulating in their way. So is listening to music. So is noodling around on the computer. Sports and exercise excite parts of us. But reading is that quiet, deeper pleasure that talks to us privately. It makes us dream our dreams. I’d like to have said to the young woman the other morning that we’re taking dreams away if we don’t teach kids to read well.

What she really should do is hold my sign for a week. She’d see the faces on people who look at the sign.
I just hold the sign. I take no credit for its message. That came to me from I don’t know where. Maybe in a dream I had.

Another school year is beginning.  I’m excited. Kids will be back on the street where I stand with the sign. College kids. High school kids. Little kids with parents or nannies. Some in cute uniforms. Some of the little ones will try to read the sign. They’ll keep looking back at it as they pass me. You should see their faces when they work their way through the words and decipher the message. They’re very proud of themselves.
There are some adults who also look back as they pass. They couldn’t read it at a glance. You wish the young woman could see that. You wish she would tell her next department meeting what she saw.

I take the 6 train in the morning, with my sign and a book and some of these newsletters, from where I live on Third Avenue in the 20’s down to Chambers Street. It’s a quick trip and I maybe get three pages read each way. I’d get more read if I didn’t look around at the other riders so much. Many, maybe most, of the people are the same every day. I like to see what they’re reading. More people than I would have guessed are reading the free paper they hand out at the subway stops. Some people are reading a daily newspaper. Some have Kindles. Not that many though, which surprises me. The people I stare at the most are the Asian mothers or fathers or grandparents with little kids. They make sure that the kids have something to read, or they give them word search pages and a pen or pencil to pass the time till they get to Canal Street. If I had not been in such a hurry when I was talking with that young woman the other day, I could have told her about that train ride too.

Highway 74 Revisited

On the road again

I read it on the subway. In the morning when I’m coming and going with my sign. I get at most three pages read each way. The book will last me a long time at that rate. I want it to.

It already has lasted a long time. It came out in 1974. I read it that year  or soon after when it came out in paperback. It was a small paperback. A pocket book, they called them. They could fit in your Levi’s back pocket or your coat pocket.  You could tap a song against them in your coat pocket.  Your cigarettes were in your other pocket.

This book is extraordinary. Then and now. 
The Great Outdoors

A stimulating way to help keep it great

You don’t have to be green-all-over to think this is a very good magazine.  In fact, if you aren’t all that green but are concerned, Sierra is a good place for you to jump in.

It makes you think.

You can get it free six times a year with a Sierra Club membership. Or for $15 if you’re not a member.

Your kids will like it too.

                                   September 13 issue.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Morning After

Remembering the freedom of getting out of college, and the
freedom to read as I pleased.

It may have been the freest day of my life. Or let me at least say it was the first free day of the rest of my life. I can still see part of it. I can see the outside of the campus bookstore I was heading into. It was mid-morning. The windows on the front of the store reflected big trees and a clear sky. Or maybe it just looks clear in my mind now.

I was 21 years-old. A little hungover. I was almost certainly smoking a cigarette. About to flip it anywhere it landed, as I approached the entrance to the store. It was 1969. You could flip a cigarette wherever you wanted then. Maybe you could smoke it in the store; I can’t remember.  I know you could smoke in grocery stores.

There was hardly another customer in the store. It was dead. No surprise. It was the morning after my college graduation. Everyone had headed out of South Bend, Indiana already, or was still sleeping off their last college beers. I’d been up for a few hours already. I lived off campus.  Unlike my buddies at our all-boys school, I lived with a wife and a week-old daughter 15 minutes away. It would be a few days before I’d get to put college in my rear-view mirror.

For four years I’d roamed around the second floor of that bookstore. The first floor was all notebooks, and pens, and slide rules, and T-shirts and sweatshirts with a two-fisted leprechaun on them. The second floor was books. Mostly heavy, dust jacket-less textbooks which I had no interest in reading, and usually didn’t. I wasn’t alone with that attitude; the late ‘60s upended a lot of conventions, like studying outmoded received ideas. What I went up there for were the few rows of trade books, as they’re called; the books you buy for pleasure, and for your own real education. That’s what I was after. I went up there all the time. I picked up new hardbound books and turned them over in my hands, aching to read them. I handled, and often bought, paperback books by writers like Thomas Pynchon, and Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice showed up my junior year. I would stand there by myself, my buddies weren’t drawn to books like I was, and wish for a time when I didn’t have the tedious pressure of schoolwork hanging over my long-haired head. A time when I could read any book I wanted.

That’s why I was heading into the bookstore that liberating June morning. Finally the day had come when I could buy books I wanted without thinking I shouldn’t, that I should be reading my heavy school books instead.

Two weeks ago I read in the Times a summary of Bloomberg’s years in charge of the schools here. It said that only 22% of the city’s high school grads were ready for college.  I think that’s a sin (the Times didn’t call it that; I don’t know why) that so few kids are prepared to go to college. Which says to me that the city’s school kids don’t read well enough to do college work. That they can’t read well enough to keep up. They can’t read well enough to enjoy the material or participate in class discussions about what they read. It means they can’t write well enough either. You can’t write very well if you can’t read very well.

What was all that about all these years then, all that talk about schools and preparing the kids for the future? They were our future. That was said all the time. And now to find that a mayor who’s had three terms to make a mark, has not done any better than 22% of the kids he’s been responsible for being prepared to go further in school than high school where they didn’t read very well at all. Ike Davis got sent down from the Mets to the minors for only getting hits 22% of the time.

All the guys in my college in 1969 could read well. Even the guys who were still sleeping off beers that morning after could read well. They might have spent more time reading the Chicago papers in the student center over coffee and cigarettes with Steppenwolf playing on the juke box than they did reading their airless text books. And they might have skipped class to read about the Warren Commission or to finish reading Portnoy’s Complaint. But they could read well. It wasn’t a question. It was effortless. The kids who didn’t do well in college slept through their 8:00 classes, or drank too much, or didn’t care about reading what was assigned and chose to read other stuff.  It wasn’t that they couldn’t read well.

What do you do with your life if you can’t read well? What does the mayor think about that? What about all those kids who can’t read well enough to go to college? What are they supposed to do? And it’s not just that they’ll have to face life and the job market and the dating market without a college degree; it’s they likely can’t read well enough to get even a decent job, not a great job, a decent job. What can you do without an ability to read? You can go through your head now and think of the jobs available to those who can’t read well. A lot of people who are relegated to such job choices aren’t by nature cut out for them anymore than my old buddies would have been.  But my buddies could read well, and had more options available to them, assuming they made it back from Vietnam, or had come up with some way out like I did.

Later that week after graduation, my wife and teeny daughter and I drove to Cleveland where my wife was from and where I had found a job in the inner-city teaching English to 5th grade kids. That was my way out of going to Vietnam.  Not long after I got there, mail started coming to my new address from my college. I was an alum now and so got applications for football tickets, and letters with fund-raising appeals. Four times a year the alumni magazine came. The issues were—still are—all good.  I’ve looked forward to them for almost 45 years.

One issue made an impression on me, or I should say, one guy, in one issue, made an impression on me.  It was a couple years after I graduated. There was a small piece with a small photo. The guy in the photo was holding a can. That’s all he had, as I remember it anyway. Maybe there was a little sign, or something on the side of the can, that said he was collecting money for the people who were being devastated by war and storms in Bangladesh. He had a plain white T-shirt on and khakis. No slogans anywhere. No two-fisted leprechauns. The article said he stood with the can in front of either of the two dining halls when guys were filing in to eat. It mentioned who he was and why he did it and how much money he’d raised.

I’ve thought of him often over the years. I thought of him when I decided to hold a sign that says: WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL. I've kept that photo of him in my mind, through divorce, through the deaths of my parents and of some of my friends from college.

Not My Kind Of Town

This gossipy new book reminds me why

In spring when the trees in my New York neighborhood are full of buds, I think of Washington where I went to high school. At my age I get wistful for things and places from my youth. Each spring I tell myself I’d rather be in DC. 

After reading Mark Leibovich’s This Town, I won’t waste time with such thoughts again.

It reminds you that the guys who ran for office in high school (yours and mine) are the guys who run DC. The guys who made posters for themselves. This book is all about them, with their insecurities and their vanities. It’s full of good bad-stuff. Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for the ‘New York Times Magazine’. The book is like a good magazine article that lasts a nice long time. 
The Tipping Point

America’s first bestseller

Thomas Paine published Common Sense in January of 1776. It pushed a lot of American colonists to seek independence from England instead of some kind of settlement that would allow them to remain subjects. There were around 2.5 million people in the colonies then. 100,000 of them bought the pamphlet. That’s a huge bestseller. (It may be the all-time bestseller when you consider the small population then.)  More than that no doubt read a friend’s copy.

Paine didn't care to profit from it:

‘As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author.’

Former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in a piece in ‘Fast Company’ magazine. He’s been working for Rupert Murdoch on some ambitious school equipment. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

What If You Couldn’t Read Well?

 11 ways to see to it that our city’s school kids can (I ran this essay before. Many of you haven’t seen it):

'Like any other part of yoga, only practice will increase your aptitude.’ I read that sentence in a magazine last week. It didn’t surprise me. You either. Of course that would be the case. In every thing we try, even spiritual, graceful yoga, we don’t get good at it without practice.

When you watch a TV football game and the holder on a field goal takes the long-snapped ball and turns the laces away from the kicker’s on-rushing foot while straightening the ball and angling it just so, you wonder how he can do that in such pressure-filled, tight time and space. If he got injured, could just any guy off the bench come out and do it? No, he could not. The any-guy wouldn’t have practiced it enough. Wouldn’t have taken enough reps to do it well, if at all.

Reps are what I believe many of our city school kids don’t get enough of when it comes to reading. Without reps they have no shot of reading well. Here are some things I’d do about that:

1.) I’d look at the syllabus and see if enough time was available for kids to get the reading reps they needed. If there wasn’t enough time, I’d alter the syllabus. Or ignore it. School is the only quiet time most of the poor readers have to get up to snuff. Everything has to take second place to their getting to read well. Everything. All chancellors, principals, teachers must believe that. Because school is where it has to happen. Only place.

2.) The kids’ home environment could no longer be used as an excuse for the kids not learning to read well. Factor in the kids’ upbringing, and go from there. Maybe even more reps are needed for some kids. If so, then those reps must be gotten. There’s no option. For a kid not to learn to read well is not acceptable. It’s hard for me to accept that the old excuse of the kids’ home environment is still being trotted out. It’s a messy world we all live in. It always has been. When it comes to poor kids and their environment and their reading abilities, we luckily have a place to make a difference for them. It’s a classroom where the child has to come every school day. It should make a difference. If a heavy guy had to go to Canyon Ranch every day for 10 years, that’d be a gift to him that would make a difference. School is that gift for kids who need to have a sturdy environment to come to every day to learn to read well. It must be made as pleasant and purposeful as the Canyon Ranch is made for the big guy.

3.) For homework, I’d have the kids read 10 pages from the book they’re reading. A book they chose. One they like. Or it could be Sports Illustrated or People magazine. Anything that lets them know that heat rises off a page. That’s the key to liking to read. Feeling that heat. They might think it only comes off a screen or through headphones. Throw a reader a good mag while they’re watching TV, they’ll go to the mag every time.

4.) Kids must see teachers reading. While the kids are reading, the teachers can not be grading papers. They should have a book and be reading it. If the kids aren’t seeing reading at home, how great it is that they can come to a place every day with a desk of their own and something to read they like, and a teacher who likes to read, too. Teachers shouldn’t try to ingratiate themselves by talking about TV very much, if at all. Teachers who don’t read shouldn’t be teachers.

5.) The school should have a good library. If I were a teacher I’d demand it. If I were a parent I would demand it. The librarian would have to be a real reader who would enthuse, not too much though, about the things she has. Kids should want to go to the library. If I were a teacher, I’d suggest to the parents that they take their kids at least once a week to the neighborhood library. (Of course, in all of this, I’m talking about poor kids and poor parents. They’re the ones who the system everywhere is failing.)

6.) If I were a teacher, I’d demand that the school be kept orderly and quiet. If reading was the emphasis of the school day, keeping the halls quiet would be done for that good reason, an understandable one, rather than be quiet because I said so. Big noise can not be tolerated. It ruins everything. (It drives me nuts when people talk in movies or libraries. I got punched in my neighborhood library here for telling a hyper-talkative drug addict to please be quiet. It mostly bent my glasses.)

7.) There should be magazines in the room for the kids to read when they’ve finished other work. There’s heat in the right magazine.

8.) I’d try to find a philanthropy that would underwrite a subscription for each kid to get a magazine of their choice. Sent to their home. It’s nice to get a magazine in the mail. New York publishes so many magazines, someone ought to be able to get them involved in this.

9.) I’d think of the schools as reading academies. What’s a ‘school’ anyway? All of us at one time or another during our school years thought why couldn’t we just go to the big library downtown every day and let our interests take us where they will. That might have been logistically unrealistic, but each school could be an academy of reading. Filled with good books and the time to read them. No more underlining adverbs. Or weekly vocabulary tests. I was good at all that stuff. Because I was a reader. That’s the only way. The rest is time-filler, time-killer.

10.) I’d do this all until each kid who wasn’t disabled in some way could read well. It might take a year for some. It might take 10 for some others. But they wouldn’t leave my system until they could read well. Not haltingly. Well.

11.) At their high school graduation you should be able to toss any book on the New York Times Best Seller list to any kid up on the stage and say read page 201. They should be able to read it as well as you or I. That would make it a commencement. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Who Reads Poetry? Do you?

 If my friends do, they haven’t told me

I think of myself as a guy who reads poems, but I don’t much.  Sometimes in the New Yorker. But I can go weeks without noticing their poems, which is of course a problem with the way they present them. I’m more apt to look at books of poems I might come across in a book store. I like the slimness of poetry books. I like the way a poem lies alone on a page. Like a spare, white gallery, one painting per wall.

You might not think of poems when you think of John Updike.  But he was good at writing them, of course. Americana touches on a lot of things. Makes you miss him.
Just An Old Book To You

It may be a big deal to a collector

My father collected stamps and coins. And railroad stuff. I was a little kid sitting in the dining car once when I watched him convince a conductor to give him one of the buttons off his coat, right then and there. It’s an obsession. Obsessions are fun. Book collecting is an intense obsession.

There used to be a lot of shops and galleries where book collectors would go. A lot of it happens on the internet now. Amazon has valuable books listed.

The Steinbeck book in the photo was in the window of the Strand Bookstore at 12th and Broadway.

The best (to me, anyway) book for summer. I've read it three times. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Book That Still Comes To Mind

And maybe we could use it to guide the schools.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the one. It’s the book that naturally comes to my mind when I’m asked on the sidewalk, when I‘m holding my sign, what are you trying to do? I don’t have a pat answer. I should, probably. Sometimes I’m agitated the rest of the day over a poor answer I’ve given. I get thrown off sometimes by questions that are too aggressive. When I’m thinking clearly, I say, among other things, that I want the kids, when they’re standing on the stage at graduation, if someone tossed any one of them To Kill a Mockingbird, to be able to read it as easily as you or I can. That’s the answer that says it for me. That’s what I’m trying to do.

In the fall of 1961 I’m at my desk in my room at a Catholic boarding school. I’m a freshman, a long way from home. I’m at my desk during mandatory study time, two and a half hours  each night after dinner, and I’m not studying. I’ve got the radio on real low and I’m straining to hear if Roger Maris is going to break Babe Ruth’s home run record.  There’s a lamp on my desk that lights the desktop up brightly. It’s a wide fluorescent lamp and it makes my radio all static-y, and I worry that I’ll get caught not studying by a sneaky-soled  Jesuit roaming the hall. Besides the stack of heavy  books I’m supposed to be studying (Latin was the big thing), I have a paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that we’re reading in English class.  Over 50 years later I can still see it on the upper right corner of that desk. It was the first real book I’d ever been assigned in school. This was not a story in an anthology. This was not a school library book. This was a book adults were reading. It was all the talk. I knew it was important. The title alone was curious and magical. To say the title to yourself today still feels magical, and beautiful, and sad.

If the school system had the same wish I did, that every school kid at graduation could read the book easily, then they’d have a real goal to shoot for, and it would order the way they do things. Now I don’t know what their goal is. That every child go to college? I cringe when I hear that. It’s impractical. It’s so general. And it reeks to me of elitism. Better they teach every kid to read well. And see where that goes. Festooning the classrooms and hallways with Stanford pennants is nonsense.

Freshman year was probably too early to have read Mockingbird. Even for me, who’d come to boarding school from a small town in Western New York where potato farms were a big part of the landscape. I’d seen many  migrant workers. I’d seen the shacks they were put up in. I’d stare out of the back seat of our big shiny car window as we’d drive by some of those shacks when we’d be on our way to the next town over to get dinner or a root beer float on a summer evening. I’d see black kids playing out in front of the shacks in the dust with dusty toys or a tire. I don’t know what I thought.

If not every graduate was able to read the book easily if it were tossed their way, then that would signal something was wrong with the schooling they’d gotten in 12 years. If it came to be apparent that 12 years of schooling weren’t enough for some kids to be able to read that book easily, then maybe it would underscore how important pre-school was to reading development. Or maybe it would show that the curriculum had to be re-thought.  However many years it might take, or however many changes had to be made, it would have to culminate in the kids being able to read that book easily. If it took Saturdays, well then, Saturdays would need to be included. That book would have to be able to be read easily on graduation day.

There are the equivalent of those migrant shacks here in the big city of course. Whole communities of them. We seldom go by them on our way to our root beer floats. But they’re here, in parts of town where we never go on our bicycles that we can rent now when we need them like they do in Europe. You can’t see the shacks from the High Line either. From our tall apartments, we want a river view. We don’t want to see shacks. This is maybe 60 years after I looked out the car window at the migrant shacks in my home town. I guess I can’t be too hard on my parents for not doing something about it, when even now there are worse shacks here.

I wonder if the book means that much to black people. Is it college-boy presumptuous of me to think that Mockingbird is significant to everyone just because it was to me and the other white people? Or does the very fact that we like it so, mean that it couldn’t possibly be the truth.  I wonder.

I don’t remember much from the classroom in the boarding school I went to for four years.
Oh, I remember what the teachers were like and I remember who I sat near. I remember the announcement junior year during French class that President Kennedy was killed. I remember how chilling and exhilarating it felt that night that Bethesda Naval Hospital was just up the road from our school. But I don’t remember much subject matter. Almost none at all. Do you? All I really learned was how to read better.

The paperback copy of Mockingbird on my desk that night that Maris was chasing Ruth was of huge significance. It, along with folk music, spoke to me more compellingly about social issues than did the priests or my parents. I never looked back. Certainly not to the priests. My late-parents are another, ever-evolving, matter.

Mockingbird is symbolic and important to me.  But to the kids who are in high school now, there’s maybe some other book that would be the one. Let that be it then. But let it be read easily and well by any kid on the stage, should he or she be asked. The schools have to see to it that that’s the norm. It’s the most important ability the students can take from high school.

Why not teach every school kid to read well.

Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.

-Scout    Chapter 31

It’s Not Cheap (it’s $10 an issue at the


But I like the pictures                                          

I pay around $50 a year to get it in the mail. I’m not sure I get my money’s worth out of it. I thumb through it when I’m watching a game on TV. Very few games can I just sit there and watch with nothing else to do. I used to smoke.

Wallpaper* is from London. It’s about interior design mostly, but there’s also fashion and art. The photos grab me. The feel of it I like too. My only complaint is that there are too many ads for expensive watches. I haven’t worn a watch since I got one for my birthday in 8th grade. I lost it a week later at the altar boy picnic. 
The Shiny Section

Some weeks you read it all, other weeks…

Only in the last month have I started getting the Times delivered. It’s five dollars cheaper a week than going out to get it. And you get unlimited online access. But I have a growing certainty that I’ll cancel it and return to going out to get it.

I don’t need unlimited online access. For what? And I like the smooth feel of the paper in a stack at the bodega where I get my orange and banana every day.  And I don’t need the magazine coming on a Saturday. It’s a Sunday thing you check to see is there among all the sections  when you buy your big heavy paper in the morning.

A book of wonderful photos of workers at disappearing jobs. Here’s a typesetter. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Willie Mays Needs No Introduction
Unless you’re sending a book about him to three little kids a long way from here.

I rush things. I sent my three granddaughters in Wyoming a new kids’ book about Willie Mays. The oldest is six. She can now read, but she doesn’t care about Willie Mays. She’s never heard of him. Maybe it matters that I sent it though. A book coming in the mail. A book with cool pictures, even if they don’t know who #24 is. The book preceded me.  I went out there a week or two later. I just got back last week.  

You don’t think of Wyoming as a book place. You think of cowboys, or mountains, or elk. But the library in Jackson looks like one you’d think would  be in Palo Alto. Glass and stone and timber. Perfectly bright. It’s open till 10:00 on week nights. Shouldn’t ours be open that late here, where we all live in cramped apartments? Shouldn’t libraries be open till 10:00 on week nights in neighborhoods where there’s  no Barnes & Noble? Where do kids go after dinner to hang around together and do homework? Think about it, New York, us with our High Line and our new bicycle racks. What’s more progressive: making it so smarties can ride around on a borrowed bike like they’re in Amsterdam, or having the branch libraries open later?

The woman next to me on the flight back read a magazine the whole way. About four hours. It was the Entertainment Weekly summer movie special issue. She read every page thoroughly. Nothing else was on the pull-down tray.  I had the Sunday Times which I’d picked up during the Denver plane-change. I had a book. I had a notebook. My area was clutter.  She just had her magazine.  The exact magazine she wanted. Other riders were sleeping and/ or looking at a laptop of some kind and/or watching the in-flight movie. Planes are great places to read. She knew that.

If I ever get a tattoo, it’ll probably be # 24.

April was National Poetry Month. In the library in Wyoming there was an ambitious display of books of poems and books about poets. Prominently on display there was a Robert Pinsky book and a Sharon Olds book and one by Rita Dove, right by the complete poems of Emily Dickinson. Out the big window you could see aspen trees lit up by the sun. It’s a big country.

The  woman next to me on the first leg of the flight back was in Jackson, she said, to study frogs and toads. You wouldn’t have guessed that. She was a biologist. Divorced with an eight-year-old daughter.  They live in Fort Collins, a college town. She said they don’t have a TV. That you might have guessed. She had a Nook though, and excused herself so she could get back to reading a new novel by Barbara Kingsolver.

Now that my six-year-old granddaughter can read, I try to see through her eyes how opened-up the world must be to her.  The parents of kids in her kindergarten class were given a memo with a lot of information on it. One thing I noticed was that each pupil was expected to read three books every night at home. That’s kindergarten! And that’s Wyoming, where until very recently you could drive your car with an open can of beer between your legs.  Let’s go New York. Let’s get on it. What’s the excuse? Let’s go.

Willie Mays would have broken Babe Ruth’s record if he hadn’t missed two years serving in the army.

You can get the New York Times in Jackson, Wyoming. Thank God.  I‘m not much of a TV watcher.  But out there in the Painted Buffalo Motel I lay in bed at night and watched the Boston Marathon bombing coverage. You can just see the same images so many times and you glaze over.  Hear the same thing said. Holding a good newspaper the next day, and the whole week after, was what I craved. Not the online version either. A real paper. Even the kids, when I’d show it to them out at their house later in the day, liked the big movie ads and theater ads, and the feel of the big paper.

‘If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?’
― Emily Dickinson

I took a book with me. Hope Against Hope. It’s about poor kids in New Orleans and the schools they go to. It kept me connected to here and my sign (WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL.).

We saw nine buffalo in a field one day driving into the Teton National Park. I saw some elk out by the Museum of Wildlife Art.  There’s a sign along the highway with electric lettering that says Elk Crossing Next 5 Miles. All this is fascinating to a New Yorker even after 30 or 40 trips out there. It’s also comforting to a guy who grew up in the rural snowy hills of Western New York.

I missed holding my sign and worried that the people who pass the sign and me every day would think I was some kind of dilettante, some kind of slacker, some kind of escape artist, who had left without leaving a note.  Life changes all the time. I wondered if they thought I was gone for good.

In high school and in college, I found myself in countless heated arguments with guys who thought Mickey Mantle was better than Willie Mays.

My favorite place to have a beer out there is the Snake River Brewery.  The beer they make is good and it’s fun to look at the people. It was still cold out there, so they had on all sorts of knit caps and beards.  The women working behind the bar and waiting table work out, you can tell. The vehicles in the parking lot all have ski racks on them. When you get out of your car and are heading toward the door, there’s a huge permanent outdoor vat that the brewer uses. It’s covered with stickers and decals that patrons have plastered on there over the years. Two years ago I slapped a ‘cityReader’ sticker about halfway up. This time my granddaughter could read it. I’ve been waiting for that.

Why not teach every school kid to read well.