onselectstart="return false"



My mother, rest her pure, sweet soul, somehow gained a mistaken impression. She believed if one worked hard, treated people with respect and compassion, paid dues of duty and care, one would inevitably come to one's reward: there would be no worries, one's dreams of comfort, travel, companionship, and pleasure in living would be realized. After guiltless enjoyment of these things for a seemly interval, one would drift smiling into the hereafter. For some it may happen; for her, it didn't.

Somehow she missed the revelation that keeps me going: however great the discrepancy between what I want and what I have, in whatever terms you care to frame them, I feel immense satisfaction in knowing I have had great moments of deserved pleasure and of edification; I have given moments of uplift and of pleasure, deserved and otherwise; people who have pleasured or augmented me each have had such moments; each of the people they edified or titillated has titillated or edified (or both) others; there is a giant pulsing quilt of edification and titillation that covers the world, and some of the pulses are related to me, and that knowledge makes me pulse and fills me enough to keep me going.

Not very fast or very far, these days, but going, and going, and going...

I feel a little—no, a lot—guilty because I never convinced her she had made a rich, rich contibution to the quilt; never pointed out how she was entitled to a free ride from early on; never dissuaded her from the notion that she had somehow failed.




From the next room erupts the sound of saliva-throttled deep-throat wailing, sibilants and labials lost to an open-mouthed, lip-stretched vocal environment, the only modulation from exhalations chewed by grief. Keening nasal counterpoint in the voice: "I didn't do anything... I didn't do anything wrong... I thought it was OK... I don't want... Don't do me this way..."

The supplicant's keening springs not from fear, but from hopelessness, despair anchored in knowledge that in spite of rectitude, there is no way the powerful figure is going to reconsider judgment. It is a foregone conclusion: since by now the power has invested bile and adrenaline in a response, the conviction grew a life of its own, and does not respond to a niggling burr of doubt in consciousness' back corner.




In that immeasurable instant between fluid dream and stilted wakefulness she had a flash of omniscience. She saw her life and the universe in crystal-edged relief against the backdrop of time, felt to her core the bittersweet truth.

And then, like her dreams, what is slipped into oblivion and she again accepted as reality her subscription to the USA Today version of life. Not to say that some vestigial plumes of the illumination did not waft behind her eyes to inform her conscious existence: she knew at some level that there is light, sweet perception, and enlightenment. It's just that the way they were manifested in her daily trudge was off by a compass-point or two, sour by a shade or two, flat by a hertz or two.

She liked to keep her sunny side up, and didn't acknowledge that everyone, maybe even including her, saw her sunny side as a green-tainted tint rather than convincingly cheerful yellow.

She liked to say nice things about people, and didn't recognize her topics, tone, and timing as setting her remarks against a strident, fingernails-on-a-blackboard background.

She liked to be treated as if she were thoughtful, competent, and important to someone, and could not absorb the punishing revelation that each step she chose was carrying her away from her goals.

She liked to be liked, and gave every early liker reason to cringe and withdraw.

All day long she moved through temple-high fog that infrequently gave way to tantalizing snippets of clear vision. When she turned her head toward neatly defined objects in hope she could hang her existence on them, they advanced, retreated, wavered and slithered and slipped, and evaporated, leaving her heart diminished, her mind without any memory of what was responsible for her aches, and her fingers, toes, and soul cold and cramped from gripping the earth in desperation.

All day long, fueled by the energy turbined out as the universe whirled unaffected over the tiny precipice of her being, she plucked what joy she could from the tumbling stream.

It wasn't much, and it wasn't genuine joy. It was ugly is what it was, but it was hers, and it kept her alive until that next narrow peek into the pure, sure way it is.




I really hate to describe a group as "mediocre." What I should say is that in the leveling of capacities into skilled professions, it is not usually the cream that finds its way into the classroom. Not usually.

My experience, most of it as a student and a member of a family steeped in conviction that education is the most useful occupation known to man, tells me those who spend their lives on the front lines are the riflemen of the army, not necessarily the great thinkers. Whomever shows a capacity for creative application of intelligence is pressured, one way and another, into administration. The fabled bureaucracy.

I took a few University courses in Education. The facility of the teachers and what they required from their students was far below what I found in Academic courses. There seemed to be an assumption that standards for educators were less rigorous than for those in the remainder of the curriculum. This was in a public university known at that time as "The Princeton Of The West." Which leads me to think that way, way back in history the teaching profession assumed Academia was right: teachers don't got to be too good.

My Dad was a teacher for a few years. He liked it and was good at it, but was sure he could contribute more to the society by facilitating acquisition of skills by others less well endowed. He became an administrator, and was one of the few who was anti-bureaucracy: he hated teachers' unions and school boards whom he saw as bringing a non-teaching, anti-society agenda to the arena. The people who ran those organizations were, in his view, eager to build their own empires as an expression of their egos rather than in the furtherance of community goals, and demeaned the "calling" of education (is there a priest's union?).

On the other hand he loved good teachers, and spent great institutional and personal resources ensuring that students had access to the best the community could offer. He hired real experts in practical aviation (Art Scholl) as teachers in aviation programs. He more-or-less invented public television's association with educational institutions and authored the legislation that made it legal to transmit from California campuses, giving birth to practical broadcast media education in public schools.

Over the many years he was influential in Southern California and national education circles, he championed the students, campaigning for legislation and money to fulfill the educational life needs of every kid who started kindergarten. Apparently the only one aware of the need for public relations and politicking, he leaped into the breech and pretty much built El Camino College (Alondra, California) with his bare hands. He pulled together the financial and legal elements that resulted in successful bond issues, selection of administration and faculty, site location and acquisition, curriculum and physical construction, and the rest of it. He did that because he was convinced that the Community College concept had the most potential to bring the greatest number of young people online as productive members of society.

His degrees were in Psychology and Counseling, and he knew about intelligence, skills, talents, and—his favorite—potential. He figured that not everyone could be at the top of any field, but that anyone could learn a skill that would contribute to the common weal. Not everyone can be a general, colonel, major.

Then as now the backbone of the campaign to march confidently into the future was the foot soldier, the platoon leader, the "on the ground" personnel who accomplished the grunt work. His idea was that the universities and major colleges were smart enough to take care of themselves, churning out research and upper-echelon actors and leaders. And teachers with both intelligence and a dedication to teaching.

Community Colleges were where the real teaching should happen. "Vocational" education in the most charitable sense of the word. It was a place where "undecideds" and "marginals" could discover their paths and demonstrate their capabilities. It was a good plan, and to a degree it succeeded. If you want to see its current descendants, the Ventura Community College District is a good example of where he thought it should go. He was responsible for spreading it out physically and ideologically.

Secondary schools (and some community colleges) and below have become something less than educational institutions. They have even lost much of their potency as instruments of socialization. The only influence that is unswerving and undiminished lies in the dedication of the few—the very few—teachers who can inculcate worthwhile values and knowledge in the face of volume, discipline, and legal constraints. I salute them.

Remembering that the most important element of an army is the front line soldier, I exhort the others to wise up, suck it up, show the necessary battle-wise courage to stand up: to the unions, the administration, and to honest evaluation of their own abilities or lack thereof; and for the students, or get the heck out.

Summary: A society stands or falls on its educational system; not everyone can be a good one of anything; if enough people pay attention and act their consciences, more roles can be optimized; practical is not a derogatory term; everyone is a tool of the system; the system gets the tools it asks for and deserves.


Written on 4/18/00


Question (from another writer in a thread called "It's new, it's pretty, it's banal-free!"):

The thing is, I just know I'm gonna end up writing things that I'll later cut because they're not essential to the story, but this will break my f***ing heart, because I'll love the way I said them. Does that make sense?

My answer:

It's (prolly not) new, it's (not) pretty (yet), (and there is no guarantee) it's banal-free!

Today is my daughter's birthday. We are having a few people in for dinner and a cake. I'm looking forward to it.

Wait, I left out something... She's now eight years older than her mother. Margin of sampling error: plus or minus 400%.

I left out something else. The weather the week she was born is just like that we experienced yesterday: cold and rain, wind and thrashing greenery.

More things I left out: I have developed a strange way of viewing television. I don't watch it. I listen to it, mostly, but that is usually more than enough. Last night I watched, full frontal contact between eyeballs and screen, "David Copperfield." As good a Dickens as I remember seeing. I just wish Uriah Heep had been shorter, more monkey-like (as in the early movie) and had spoken louder.

OK, the truth is, I left out a LOT of things about today's celebration:

Today is my daughter's birthday. I'm the menu chairman for the event, conception to fruition, so to speak. Here I go to the provender mart. When I shop I run out of things to think about. I guess what I do is "buy," and "shopping" is alien to me. I know what I'm after and where it is, so as my tangible self goes on about its business, my mind wanders a little.

It went to this question of what to include, what to cut, just as I reached for the 5.63-pound strawberry cheesecake, Best If Used Before 4-23-00. It was in my hands, complete, attractive, and guaranteed to be among the highest concentrations of calories and cholesterol anywhere. Real, fresh strawberries and all they and their setting implied. Even though it reposed nakedly in its sturdy cardboard box, cellophane top panel exposing the entire heavy but fragile foodstuff to my view, I was not completely aware of its details.

A vision of an iceberg was foremost in my consciousness: through a fog composed of equal parts boredom, excitement, discovery, and amusement, I wondered how the elements I sensed were not yet within my ken would play out if I took the serving-cheesecake scenario as a metaphor for writing a story. Could I, should I try to give readers a taste of what it will be like to expose this contraption in its final moments of coherent form?


There will be a dozen people around the cheesecake this evening. For some of them it will be the highlight of the day. Some, perhaps even some of the highlighters, will have decided against having any of it, minutes, months or years before. At least one will be glad for that, and will think—out loud unless I miss my guess—"Menos burro, más comida."

There is responsibility resident in the role, Partitioner Of The Strawberry Cheesecake. He could offer knife, plates, forks and "Serve yourselves." That would be infra dig for this occasion, already elevated as part of fond ritual. He could cut and serve equal slices of what he thought reasonable size based on his experience with the slim slivers served in 24-hour troughs near freeway interchanges, pieces that seemed always on the cusp of serve-lying-on-a-side width-to-height ratio. A little more generous than that, of course, but not so much so that the superrich paste reached a point of cloy and saturation and might be wasted on pushed-away plates or surreptitious dog bribery.

Rather, he will exercise his knowledge of each of the celebrants, he will cut and serve a piece proportional and appropriate to each of their spoken or unspoken, known or unknowing requirements.

Extra strawberries for the young blonde who is so deliberate in her eating that she might have a ritual or two of her own going. Extra wide, no-holds-barred, fall-off-the-knife portion for the slim-bodied high-metabolizer who may or may not actually be in contact with any seat he seems to be sitting in. For the calm-when-organized one, a carefully cut piece chosen for the direct open path between circle center and periphery, a cutline that breaks no berry, smears no sauce, swirls no substances between strata, crumbles no crummy crust particles onto a pristine paper plate.

The occasion might call for a toast, or lecture, beforehand. If we assume the provider knew all the ingredients and processes that eventually found resolution in strawberry cheesecakeness, even the agricultural techniques and the philosophy of dessert, and the incipient ferment within the thing that might progress and add an exotic "nose" for an attentive taster, would we want him to share that with us? Sometimes, maybe.

To another the delay could reveal cues to the close relationship between cottage and cream cheeses. Yet another might begin wondering if he should say what he is thinking, if he will ever tell anyone what he is thinking, has thought, might think, might do, might be resigned to. Do we need to know that? Could be.

Serious responsibility, deciding what to leave out.

The recipients of my affection and attention depend on me to offer, to shield, to share, to expound, to require, to consider them and the context and the content, and to make good choices on their behalf. Behalves?

I hope I continue to merit their trust.

And that ain't all...

©2000 F Sheff
All rights reserved


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