Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fun Things to Do in the Middle of the Night

(at least when there is an eclipse---as there soon will be)

We have a total eclipse of the moon coming up, and here in the Antelope Valley, we have great skies for just such an event.

I am always a big fan of spectacular experiences, especially when they are free. Mark your calendars because we have a big, fun, spectacular, free sky show due to come our way next week.

Courtesy of Griffith Observatory (and more about them in just a moment), here is the schedule for what we can expect.

If you have binoculars or any kind of beat up telescope, that's even better. But just with one's own eyes, this will be overhead, and this time of year, odds are, it will be a clear night. For the best effect, go a few minutes out of town, away from the brightest lights. If you're in your own backyard, be sure to turn off the house lights (or close the blinds) and turn off the porchlights. Give yourself a few minutes so your eyes adapt, but soon you'll be able to see just fine. Most people way over-illuminate their nighttimes; as primates, we evolved to see fairly well in the dark, if we can just give ourselves a chance to try it out.

As you can see from the chart, the best action is around midnight. Unlike during a solar eclipse, no filters are needed: it's safe to look at the uneclipsed or the eclipsed moon all you wish.

There is a lot of debate about the exact mechanics of how eclipses happen.

Here is a diagram from a book called Discovering the Universe by Neil Comins and William Kaufmann.

Looking closely you can see the process is basically like this: the sun is a very round, ripe lemon; the Heavenly Father / Mother shines a flashlight down, causing the dragon to swallow its tail. When enough people beat pots and pans in their front yards, the dragon gets scared and runs off, knocking over the flashlight. The eclipse is then over.

For an alternate perspective---oh geez, everybody has to get out an opinion---you can go down to Griffith Observatory that night and use the telescopes there. They will no doubt have some fairy tale about the shadow of the earth and all of that: well, it's a free country and you may believe whatever you wish. From their website, here is more information:

Griffith Observatory Hosts Public Viewing of Lunar Ecipse
April 14-15, 2014 / 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Admission is Free 


  •     Building, roof, and Zeiss telescope OPEN
  •     Lawn telescopes, binoculars, and naked eye viewing from lawn, sidewalks, and terraces
  •     Shows in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium (7:45 p.m., 8:45 p.m., 10:15 p.m., 11:15 p.m.)
  •     Café at the End of the Universe and Stellar Emporium OPEN (starting at 7:00 p.m.)
  •     LiveStream of the eclipse live from the Zeiss dome on Griffith Observatory's LiveStream page.
  •     Special presentation about the Moon with Griffith Observatory Curator, Dr. Laura Danly, and Griffith Observatory Astronomical Observer, Anthony Cook. Joint program with the Los Angeles Astronomical Society.
What if there's a snow storm or a sudden flurry of dragon poop? See their website for more contingency plans, but trust me, they've thought of everything. One prediction I can make is that it will be crowded; you can see more details about which access roads will be open on their web page, but be prepared to have to park a bit of the way down the hill and walk up to the summit. Given the possibility of a marine layer in Los Angeles proper (and the huge amount of light pollution), if you have binoculars and a lawn chair, this might be a fine event just to watch from home. It's too soon yet to know what the weather will be like: both L.A. and Palmdale show a 10% chance of rain on Monday.

The eclipse will be visible across almost the entire continental United States, most of Canada and Central America and parts of South America.  You could always go out to Death Valley --- if we are statistically more likely to be clear than L.A., think how much better Death Valley's odds are compared to ours.

We may be in a drought year water-wise but not for eclipses: if you sleep through your alarm for this one, you have another shot this coming October.

To repeat what Alan MacRobert said in the Los Angeles Times, "Whether you have a small telescope, a pair of binoculars or even just your naked eye --- you'll be seeing part of the geometry of the cosmos happening right in front of your eyes."

I do agree with him on that, but of course we have another vantage point to imagine. At some point in the future, humans will be watching a different series of eclipses . . . from the surface of the moon.


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and he can be reached at This blog does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees or the District as a whole. To leave comments, you need to be logged into some kind of blogspot or gmail account, or so it seems. Sorry about that: it's just how the system is set up. Hood also can forward comments through email.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Where Did All the Ugly People Go?

Living in an Ever-More Demanding World

God bless the Middle Ages. True, the life expectancy of a peasant was 35 years, but at least they did not wake up every morning remembering how ugly they were.

Think of it: one's entire span of humanity might just be the 100 people in your village. Mirrors were rare, and who wants to stare into a bucket of water to see your own face? You just didn't worry about it. Being hungry or getting eaten by a wolf --- the Black Death of the 1350s was a great thing for the population of wolves in Europe --- yes, these were the things one worried about. I really don't think a single peasant for the past few thousand years woke up asking, "Does this hay rake make me look fat?"

This was on my mind today because I go in the mail my members' magazine from the Norton Simon Museum of Art. They're having a portrait show open soon. That's fine, but look at the cover image:

Whoever this young man is, he's somebody the camera has fallen in love with. It's a tribute to the portrait maker's skill here, and the lighting and so on are textbook perfect. It's a very striking image, no doubt about it. But even the Norton Simon must feel that the need to boost their visual presence, since surely, there must have been other shots to use. They did not have to go for the prettiest boy on the block. Who can compete with him? He's perfect. Not so long ago, he would have looked more like these four guys.

Yet now, these days, beauty is normal for us. We see it everywhere. Magazines like Men's Fitness or Cosmo have one message they tell us over and over: however you are now, what it is that you do, you're not okay. Your face is not okay, your tummy is not okay, your cologne is not okay, your bedroom technique is not okay. Buy this product, read this article --- however you are, you must change and try to become closer to perfection.

This flirty tableaux from Vogue Italia is typical of many ads which show us people ten times more beautiful than we ever will be.

Did I miss something? When did People magazine secretly re-brand itself as Beautiful People magazine?

What a voracious beast beauty can be. Whatever happened to all the ugly people? They have been banished from public display. Even if we buy ever kind of shampoo in the world, wear only the finest couture, still, even so, every day the clock ticks and we grow older, older. We will never be young enough, rich enough, thin enough --- or so the magazine covers promise us. Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman of her era (if Homer is to be believed) and look what came of that: the Trojan War and the death of thousands.

Wouldn't it be nice to banish all the mirrors in the world? True, we might have trouble combing our hair, but that's what hats are for.

This has come up for me as a problem because in Language Arts, we are trying to build up our website inside the larger campus home page. One of the things we want is a directory with room numbers, phone extensions, academic bios. Each staff member gets a picture and an entry.

We have decided not to make any visual distinction between tenured instructors and the adjuncts who may do identical work but usually for less money.  Instead, we are all here in alphabetical order inside of disciplines (Foreign Language, Speech Communications, Reading, and so on). There will be 98 entries when I am done ---- name, photo, email address, and so on.

The photos have been fun to take and most people cooperate readily. Yet I have had some resistance, too; for some of us, photography causes tension, even outright panic. To have your picture taken is to admit to yourself that your beard has some gray in it finally, or that you are indeed the weight you think you are. Few of the 98 folks I have shot have been happy with themselves straight out of the gate. Many of us feel that need to apologize or in some way "change'" in order to be presentable.

Gosh, what a sad thing that is.

In actual fact, we have a tremendous diversity as a staff, and with that, a great range of beauty, charm, brainiac super power, grace, and life. True, the Norton Simon museum may not use us on the cover of the members' magazine, but I have yet to see anybody who isn't really fabulous in one way or another.

Here are some recent shots of Language Arts adjuncts taken for this directory project:

Dr. Robinson, Journalism --- she is in charge of helping to relaunch our student paper, the AVC Examiner. Her dissertation focused on Community College Leadership and Policy Studies. Rumor has it that she is going to be nominated for Adjunct of the Year.

Mr. Horner, English. He has published a book titled Creative Ideas for Teaching Youth the Bible. He has two Masters degrees and a Divinity degree.

Ms. Perez, English. She was kind enough to race like heck from her day job at Eastside High School, home of the Lions, to make it to AVC for our afternoon photo session. She was also able to fill me in on what our colleagues at College of the Canyons have been doing.

Ms. Willers, English. She was previously an adjunct but this year is on contract as full-time. At fashion shoots, the production team brings a wind machine to keep the model's hair blowing in the breeze. Here in the Antelope Valley, we don't need a wind machine, we just have to step outside and we can get the same effect.

While I do not yet have all the 98 photos of staff members that I will need, I do know we won't need any PhotoShop magic or airbrushed perfection.

Unlike what the newsstand magazines tell us, each of us is already exactly fine as is.


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and he can be reached at This blog does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees or the District as a whole. To leave comments, you need to be logged into some kind of blogspot or gmail account, or so it seems. Sorry about that: it's just how the system is set up. Hood also can forward comments if you email him directly.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Are Polar Bears Going Extinct?

looking for the real truth about environmentalists' "poster animal"

Once you get on certain kinds of mailing lists, you never got off, or at least so it seems. After my parents passed away, I had their mail forwarded to my house, thus increasing (in a bad way) the volume and variety of junk mail I get.

One thing I seem to get a lot in the mail are pictures of polar bears. There are a lot of pandas, sea turtles, and white bunnies, but polar bears seem to top the the list.

Inside the envelope or out, polar bears are everywhere. They are hyped as the face of global warming --- large, cute, and very endangered.

They also are part of most zoos. In the San Diego Zoo, for enrichment, they give the bears carrots to play with. (Keeping animals sane and active in zoos is a real challenge. Other kinds of enrichment provided to carnivores are blood Popsicles, chunks of tree trunk, and elk antlers.)

And of course, natural history museums like them too. There are a lot of stuffed polar bears, both in L.A. and across all the cities of the world. This one is in San Diego.

So what's the story? Are they as endangered as the press would have us believe, or is this some kind of liberal, biased, unreasonable, scare tactic? I am sure we have all seen a poster or mailing with one lonely polar bear huddled on the final ice floe.

This question has been asked by others. In my files I have a copy of this magazine which asks the same question.

On one hand, the evidence of decline is hard to deny. There have indeed been cases of polar bears hybridizing with grizzly bears. There are also documented cases recently of bear cannibalism: the hungry dad bear digs out a mama bear from her dean, then kills her and eats her. The babies starve, are eaten, or get crushed in the collapse of the cave. We know that arctic ice is diminishing by overall volume and know too, globally, temperatures are rising.

Since polar bears need sea ice to hunt seals from, bad news from them.

Polar bears have been seen swimming in ice-free sea, 100 miles from land. Apparently, some died of exhaustion swimming this way.

And yet on the other hand, some of the reports are so alarmist that it's hard to take them seriously. If polar bears number in the 10,000 to 20,000 range (and they may well), then the idea that they'll be extinct tomorrow or even the decade after tomorrow, that just does not hold up. But where's the truth?

The decline though seems very real. I have been to look at polar bears first hand, is one reason I know that some of these stories are trustworthy. My wife and I went on board a schooner to sail to the Arctic one summer. It's called the Noorderlicht ("northern light") and oh, this is one beautiful ship.

This part of Norway is called Svalbard. When you land at the final air strip, you have to be careful about the free-roaming wildlife, as this sign indicates.

And sure enough, over the course of several weeks, we did indeed see many living, wild, free, undead polar bears. Here's a frisky cub so cute he could be on the cover of an eco-swag catalogue.

There were other animals new to me too, seals and foxes. Even the famous walrus of song and legend made an appearance.

But I do have to admit, there were times when the bears seemed voracious, as if the general eco-line of "they're all starving to death" were true. But then all bears seem voracious to me all the time. I've seen dozens of bears in the wild, including grizzly bears, black bears, and even one in India called the sloth bear. If it's not hibernating, a bear is probably hungry. I could feed Lucy my mutt dog pork chop cutlets all day and still she would pretend to be hungry for more. It's just the nature of "feast or famine" wildlife: if there's food, gorge yourself. If I had been feeding Lucy all day long, when my wife got home, Lucy would go to the door and give her best "I'm so neglected" look, and try to cadge a few pork chops from my wife, too. 

So even agreeing that polar bears look hungry most of the time no matter that the actual conditions, statistics show that some populations overall are losing weight, producing fewer young, and declining, year to year to year.

One problem is, it's a big place, the high Arctic, and to do census work is nearly impossible. There are not enough helicopters to go around, nor enough funding to send biologists to count in every piece of ice and tundra. Just compare that to something local. Let's say it were important to know how many coyotes were living in the Antelope Valley. First, we would have to decide what we even mean by the "Antelope Valley." Does Gorman count? Cal City? Acton? Second is when to do the survey --- often (though not always) coyotes are nocturnal. If we used some kind of night-vision or infrared goggles, can we be sure we're not counting feral dogs, skunks, bobcats, or even small mountain lions?

Third, even if we do come up with a perfectly reliable number --- we know for sure that 1,483 coyotes are alive and well as of 6 a.m. today in the Antelope Valley --- how can we then know anything stable about their status? We would not know if they were expanding or contracting their population, and even if we knew for sure which of those it was, we would not know why. It could be global warming or it could just be that the landfill fence has a hole in it, so more coyotes are getting more tummy-loads of garbage for more nights in a row, so their pups are doing better this year than they were last. It could be a one-time thing, not an actual trend.

Maybe we should just be happy looking at coyotes in the museum.

Even though it's dead, seeing a polar bear in a museum somehow feels less upsetting than seeing a dead one just out in the wide world. I once stayed with an Inuit family on an island off the coast of Nome, half way to Siberia. (I was on a bird study trip.) They had a dead polar bear frozen in their service porch. Here is a different one --- dead of unknown causes --- I found on a beach in Svalbard.

Global warming may or may not have had the slightest thing to do with this one, but I must say, it was a shock, either way.

After reading all of the comments, pro and con, my thoughts are these. (1) Global warming will reduce ice, and in doing so, speed up further warming. (Black mud warms up faster than white ice, et cetera.) (2) Some polar bear populations may be able to find alternatives, eg, raiding land-based goose colonies, eating berries as grizzly bears do, or getting good at finding fish and seals via ice at times other than high summer. Some won't, though. These are essentially marine mammals --- sort of like four-legged killer whales. They're designed to operate differently than do, say, grizzly bears.

(3) Does that mean polar bears will be extinct by 2050?

No. One sees a lot of numbers but the actual situation (as with the coyotes) is much too complex and consisting of too many unknown variables to pick an exit date, and even if one were to pick a date, that one is too soon. In that sense, there is a degree of alarmist reporting in the popular media.

(4) Can zoos help? No, not really. A zoo polar bear won't be able to hunt in the wild, and there just are not that many, and especially not in prime breeding condition.

(5) Does it matter? After all, a jungle cockroach may go extinct before sunset tonight, and we all will sleep as soundly as ever. Will it matter if the ice thaws and the bears go extinct?

It may, but not for the reason you think. It may not be the bear itself we should worry about, but the causes behind its decline.

Dr. Steven C. Amstrup of Polar Bears International writes "I cannot overemphasize that hybridization provides no solution to the polar bear's dilemma. And to the extent there may be increased hybridization, it probably will be of little consequence to polar bears facing dramatic declines in their habitat base. Polar bears are likely to starve out of their present ranges long before their genes are swamped by those of grizzly bears. If some polar bear genes persist in grizzly bears, after polar bears have disappeared from their current sea ice home, that fact will be irrelevant with regard to efforts to retain the magnificent and highly specialized life form we now know as the polar bear."

He concludes, "Discussions of hybridization aside, it is important to remember that by the time we allow the world to warm enough that the polar bears' sea ice habitat disappears, challenges to humans will be so great that no one will be thinking about polar bear conservation."


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and he can be reached at This blog does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees or the District as a whole. To leave comments, you need to be logged into some kind of blogspot or gmail account, or so it seems. Sorry about that: it's just how the system is set up. Hood also can forward comments internally.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Living in the AV Does Not Have to Mean Living in Exile

the world comes to us almost daily --- if only we will let it

The AVC English Department is a bit split. Some faculty live "down below" (which always sounds like a descent into Hades, doesn't it?) while some of us live out here. In my case, I live in East Palmdale with my wife, pets, mountain bikes, kayaks, and various kids and stepkids, depending which of them are passing through on migration from one life to another. Bill Vaughn lives nearby, which is a good thing, especially when I need to have more bookshelves built.

Note to our wives: see, we do too use eye protection and hearing protection. There is not even a can of beer in sight! Not only does my house have good, sturdy bookcases (lots and lots of them), but some of the windows are custom-made stained glass panels, courtesy of ace designer and all-around artist Nicelle Davis.

In the backyard is a stone sculpture that not only quotes Stonehenge in England but alludes visually to the "standing stone" monuments found all over Northern Europe. It's made from limestone slabs that originally were gate posts and fence posts in Kansas, and they each have embedded in them hand-forged iron nails and lots of fossils. My wife calls this art piece "Hoodhenge." The tallest pillars are eight feet high.

It seems to me a good life, especially one built on a teacher's salary. In contrast, when I am in L.A. at art events I often am asked where I live, and when I say the Antelope Valley, there's a general note of condescension, even pity. I am either looked at like somebody who likes to have marital relations with sheep or else as some tragic artist, sent into exile for some unspeakable misdeed. The comparison here is to Ovid, on the three greatest poets of Ancient Rome, who in some way got on the wrong side of Caesar Augustus and got himself sent into exile to a port on the Black Sea, the same body of water on which one finds present-day Sochi. (We hope that Ovid's hotel at least had a roof.)

The thing about the Antelope Valley that few people realize is how connected we can be to the rest of Los Angeles, and indeed, to the rest of the world, if only we take the effort.

Coming up later this month are several things that prove this. In a previous post we interviewed Rachel Jennings and her thoughts on Romeo and Juliet. That production is still running. Meanwhile, from the Royal Opera House in London comes a classic version of Swan Lake. I am on the mailing list for the Royal Opera House simply to feel a mild connection with London, my favorite city in the world. I do wish I could go back more often than I do. Yet here it is, coming to us.

From their email:

Thursday Feb 20, 7pm (local time)

The Royal Opera House's magical production of Swan Lake was created for The Royal Ballet in 1987 by Anthony Dowell. Zenaida Yanowsky and American dancer Nehemiah Kish take the lead roles in what is surely the greatest of all Romantic ballets. In this timeless tale of good vs evil, Prince Siegfried chances upon a flock of swans while out hunting. When one of the swans turns into a beautiful woman he is instantly captivated, but will his love prove strong enough to break the evil spell that she is under?
Don't miss this dazzling production in select US cinemas for one night only.

It is going to play at the local Cinemarks. Also coming soon to Cinemark is the theatrical version of War Horse, which is about 1000% better than the movie.

Want something more immediate and "in person"? One of the Canon Masters of Light is due to come visit us, on 25 February. Here is a bio:

Workshop: Lewis Kemper, Feb. 25 2014

Lancaster Photography Association presents:
Lewis Kemper, Sponsored by Canon USA
February 25th, 2014, 6pm to 8pm at the Antelope Valley Senior Center
777 W. Jackman St., Lancaster, Ca. 93534
Lewis Kemper has been photographing the natural beauty of North America, and its parklands for over 30 years. During his extensive travels, he has been to 47 states from Alaska to Florida. His work has been exhibited and published in magazines, books, and calendars worldwide.
Before moving west, he received a BA in Fine Art Photography from the George Washington University in 1976. The grandeur of the west beckoned and Lewis moved to Yosemite National Park, where he lived for 11 years. From 1978 until 1980, he worked at The Ansel Adams Gallery. Working at the gallery gave him the opportunity to meet, observe and learn from some of the greatest photographers of our time. “The experience of working at The Ansel Adams Gallery was very influential in my development as a photographer,” he states.

Lewis photographs in color using Canon digital cameras and 4 x 5 cameras. His work has been sold for editorial and commercial uses in over 16 different countries ranging from national ads to book covers.
Kemper’s photographs are in many private collections as well as in the permanent collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art and Kaiser Permanente. His work has been shown nationally in galleries and museums.

His work has been published in numerous books including publications by The Sierra Club, The National Geographic Society, Little and Brown, APA Insight Guides, Prentice Hall, and Hyperion Books.

Workshop topics
Light, Color and Composition: Tips to Improve your Photographs!

  • Compose more varied and effective image
  • Expand your ability to "see" images
  • Learn how to think about the direction and characteristics of light
  • Use color just as you can use lines, shape and form enhance your compositions
  • Grasp the concept of the color wheel and how to usecolor relationships deliberately to build vibrant images
  • Give a distinctive feel to your images based on Cool tones with a Warm Accent; Warm tones with Cool Accent; Pastels, Saturated Color; Monochromatic Color, and the paradoxical No, Color, Color
  • Master composition fundamentals including the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Repeated Patterns, Horizontal vs Vertical, and Horizon placement
  • Simplify your images and emphasize the important elements of the composition
Both of these events are on nights when I am working with writing students in my English 097 class. If I adjust the syllabus a bit, we can have a field trip to one or the other events, but not both. It is going to be a tough decision to make! A dance program offers great cultural literacy and the analogy of text-as-movement, while Mr. Kemper will talk about composition, framing, and visual structure, all of which also translate directly into skills we cover in a writing class. It's a tough split indeed.

Although I for one think many of us could get down to L.A. more than we do, it's also true, the world comes to us all the time. As William Mulholland said when the L.A. Aqueduct was turned on for the first time in 1913, "There it is. Take it."


The AVC Blog is curated by Language Arts member Charles Hood. He can be reached at This blog does not represent an endorsement of these events by the campus as a whole, the Board of Trustees, or the Antelope Valley College District. Further, if you put large stone slabs upright in your backyard, be sure to anchor them securely. After all, this is earthquake country.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Romeo and Juliet Live and In Person

Why the Bard Still Matters (and is more fun than you might guess)

At Antelope Valley College, we offer a number of ways to appreciate live theatre, from student-written one-acts on up to the Great Man himself, Billy Shakespeare.

It's easy to dismiss great plays as being "old" or "dull" or "not worth the bother," since too often, especially in high school, that is exactly how they were presented. We might think of Elizabethan performances as being stuffy affairs, very serious and probably boring. We expect to have to put our necks in something starched and stiff and scratchy, and to be made miserable for one to five hours.

The truth is, Shakespeare didn't get paid unless people came to see the plays, and up to 7,000 people a week were sneaking off during working hours, paying a boatman a penny to cross the Thames over to the red light district on the South Bank, and indulging themselves in a few hours of bloodshed and mayhem. Shakespeare gave audiences what they wanted, then and now --- if you can think about all the sex, violence, and transgression in a tv series like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, you're getting closer to what Shakespeare gave his audiences then . . . and still gives them, now.

Of course there are moments of great poetry, soaring language, and dazzling insight, as well. And let us not forget the fight scenes: people went to his plays in order to see a great sword fight, or maybe an off-stage beheading. We still covet all of this today; the Godfather movie triology is Shakespearean in its violence, drama, and story arc. I quote from poet, critic, and sometimes Fascist nutcase Ezra Pound, one of the few rivals Shakespeare ever had for having perfect pitch when it comes to the nuances of English. Pound in The ABC of Reading said

Shakespeare made sixteenth-century plays out of fifteenth-century Italian news. The Italian stage had given [ the world ] the commedia dell’ arte, and Italian oratory, law court stuff, the example of ornate speeches. Shakespeare already was looking back to Europe from the outside.

We soon will have a chance to hear and see a local version of the classic and often misunderstood early Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. Dr. Rachel Jennings of Language Arts is involved in the presentation, and she made time between rehearsals for an interview.

Question: Many people have been mildly traumatized by Shakespeare in the past and find the language inert, even painful. What would you tell them, to get them to give the play a second chance?

Answer: Well, please come and see our performance. And if you are inclined, do some homework beforehand. There are several barriers to our appreciation of Shakespeare’s language. First, there’s a lot of it. Elizabethans would say they were going to hear a play, not to see it. So how do we, in our visually-oriented culture, step into their shoes? One suggestion I make to my students is to listen to an audio version while reading a play. (I recommend The Arkangel series).

Another tip is to read a Manga version --- there are at least two of Romeo and Juliet which are quite good. Though abridged, they use the original language, and the reader has the advantage of seeing the action while reading the words at his or her own pace. Another barrier is the impression many have that Shakespeare’s language is always posh or pompous. This is a fallacy. Romeo and Juliet includes everything from complex heightened rhyming verse, to simple bawdy jokes, to grief-stricken meaningless babble. Something else we need to know about, as Norrie Epstein points out (in The Friendly Shakespeare), is the Elizabethan pastime of quibbling, or battle-of-wits word play. 

Original audiences would have relished scenes such as the opening one of Romeo and Juliet in which two servants pun on “colliers,” “choler,” and “collar.”  Modern audiences, unfortunately, are unlikely to realize the characters are discussing coal bearers, a bodily fluid that causes ill temper, and being hanged. That’s another barrier --- Shakespeare’s plays are packed with jokes we don’t understand, including some racy ones. If you want tips on understanding a text like this, please listen to my free podcast on Shakespeare’s language available via iTunes and the IMC. This podcast is on how to approach Shakespeare’s language, including simple ways to notice whether it’s in prose or verse, is the verse rhymed or unrhymed, is it in ordinary or heightened language, does it use repetition, and so on.

In short, to appreciate Shakespeare, you need to be prepared to put in a bit of work. It pays off though. Recent research in the U.K. demonstrates that reading Shakespeare stimulates the brain. And he provides us with a word-hoard for life. Next time you want to insult someone, wouldn’t it be more fun to yell, “Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,” instead of the usual over-worn modern expletives?

On a more serious level, Shakespeare helps us at momentous times in our lives. Students often report to me that his sonnets, for example, help them think through relationship issues. And I asked my cousin to read sonnet 18 at my mother’s funeral. So often in life we say we don’t have the words to express our feelings or think through a problem. Shakespeare has the words.

Question: How has being an actor as well as an academic changed how you see R & J?

Answer: The advantage of being an academic is that I have contextual knowledge. (For example, I can explain how the fire element affects Tybalt). 

The advantage of being an actor is seeing the play through the eyes of one character. After rehearsing the nurse for seven months, I understand in-depth how her lines work, and I’m more amazed by Shakespeare’s brilliance. But I’ve also noticed some mistakes, which have made him more human to me (as opposed to a literary demigod). An academic may privilege a perspective because it fits a critical approach (such as gender theory), but (as our director Rose Story says) an actor should choose the most dramatic interpretation. For example, I used to think that the nurse is upset by Juliet’s arranged marriage to Paris, but I now realize the play works best if the nurse favors the marriage and Juliet feels betrayed. Acting also takes more of a toll than being an academic --- I have permanent sore eyes because I cry in two scenes every rehearsal.

Question: There are many film versions of R & J. Do you have a personal preference, and if so, why?

Answer: I love Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, especially the settings. He achieves a perfect uneasy mix of comedy and violence in the opening gunfight at the gas station, for example. And the elevator for Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss is intimate while foreshadowing the fact their time together will be short. The larger-than-life minor characters, such as drag-queen-Mercutio, are inspired. And I find it apt that the first half of the movie is often frenetically paced, like the end of a Benny Hill episode, whereas the second half (after Mercutio’s death) is more naturalistic. This fits the fact that the play transitions, at the mid-point, from comedy to tragedy. Mostly I like it because it takes risks.

Question: What is one aspect of the play that most people don’t expect or perhaps misunderstand?

Answer: “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” is popularly believed today to mean “Where are you, Romeo?” But it means “Why are you Romeo --- why were you born the son of my family's enemy?” Before they saw the play, Elizabethan audiences knew the story as a warning to children to obey their parents. So they would have been very surprised to see how Shakespeare turned it around to blame the parents and to celebrate risking all for love. The Friar warns Romeo that “violent delights have violent ends” and that he should “love moderately.” But who wants that?

Last question: What are the performance dates and how can the community members get tickets?

Answer: Romeo and Juliet, presented by It’s Only Tuesday Productions, will be performed at the Arbor Court Community Theater, 858 W. Jackman, Lancaster, on three weekends from January 31 to February 16. Three of the roles (Romeo, Juliet, and the Nurse) are double-cast. I am in the shows on February 1, 14, 15, and 16. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 8pm. The Sunday performance is at 3pm. You can purchase tickets by calling 661 726 9355, or at the theater one hour prior to each show. There’s a Valentine’s Day special offer. For full details, visit

Hood's updated notes: the Theatre can be a bit tricky to find: it faces an inside courtyard, nearest a parking garage. You can't see it from the street. There's one small sign on the street, and when you see it, pull into either side of a loop parking route. The theatre itself has one sign (high up on the facade); it's about half way along a gallery of doorways, in between the parking access on either side and facing the parking lot, not the street. After the performance, you will have a chance to meet the actors. Run time nears three and a half hours, with a 10 minute intermission.


The AVC blog is curated by Charles Hood and he can be reached at chood@avc. It does not represent the official position (or dramatic tastes) of the Board of Trustees or the District as a whole. See you at the show!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Late, Great Wanda Coleman

World Poet and Lancaster Resident, Farewell

We have had a lot of great writers come through Antelope Valley College. A Pulitzer-prize winner and Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, even is a graduate of this campus. Since I was hired in 1989, I know that these visiting writers all have read and given workshops: 
Chris Abani, Zaia Alexander, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wanda Coleman, Kate Coles, Paul Fussell, Kate Gale, Michael Harper, Eloise Klein Healy, Lee Herrick, Doug Kearney, Sandra Tsing Loh, Dan Neil, Robert Peters, Kay Ryan, Quincy Troupe, and Amy Stolls.

One of the most indelible of all of these was the Voice of L.A, Wanda Coleman. She finished her life as a resident of Lancaster, living with her children and her artist and poet husband, Austin Straus, off of Avenue J on the east side of town.

Over the weekend there were two events in honor of her life, work, memory, and spirit. I was only able to attend one of those, but in reading about the second one, her life shines through so well, I want to quote it in full. This shot is from the first event. It's a real "who's who" of poetry. People came even from the East Coast to share their memories.

This summary below is from a blog series sponsored by the LA Times called "The Reading Life." It ran under the headline of "A weekend of tributes to Wanda Coleman."

Here it is. All the rest that follows comes from the Los Angeles Times website.

If you want to know how much Wanda Coleman meant to the poetry community of Los Angeles, consider this: Her memorial service Sunday (called “the world’s first improvisational memorial” by her husband, Austin Straus) lasted four hours.

At times, it felt like everyone who had gathered at Santa Monica’s Church in Ocean Park would get up to speak, to read a poem, to sing a song, to honor the life of a writer, who as poet and critic Bill Mohr recalled, “always took the singular to the plural: We are literary L.A.” Even Coleman herself made an appearance, in the form of a couple of riveting video pieces; “I’m talking to me, the me that exists in my imagination,” she declared, when asked for whom she wrote.

The Sunday memorial was the second Coleman tribute of the weekend; on Saturday afternoon, in association with Red Hen Press and the Poetry Society of America, the Central Library’s ALOUD series hosted a celebration of her work.

National and local poets, including Terrance Hayes, Douglas Kearney, Suzanne Lummis and Laurel Ann Bogen, read favorite Coleman pieces: “In That Other Fantasy Where We Live Forever,” “Angel Baby Blues.”

“She did not traffic in phony uplift,” observed Stephen Kessler, and yet, this only made her, as both poet and personality, resonate all the more. “I just want to say,” Lummis noted, after reading the poem “I Live for My Car,” “people talk about Wanda’s rage, but there was a lot of love in that woman. The proof is right here in this room.”

Lummis is right: Coleman was complicated, forceful, but in every way that matters, she was motivated by love. That love could be fierce -- Hayes recalled her telling him off onstage -- but at heart it was idealistic, driven by a vision of the way things could be. “Wanda went ahead of all of us,” remembered Sesshu Foster, “and she explained a major portion of what this city is about.” Without her, he continued, “we’ll just have to pick up our game.”

This sense, that she was the trailblazer, that without her we are fundamentally diminished, resonated through both of the weekend’s memorial events, albeit in different ways. Perhaps it’s easiest to break it down by saying that one focused on her professional life and the other on her personal life -- and yet, what they really have to tell us is that there was no division between the two.

Rather, Coleman, lived it as she wrote it: sensitive, righteous, full of generosity and spirit, dedicated to building and sustaining a Los Angeles poetry community. “Remembering her makes me proud to call myself an L.A. poet,” said Cecilia Woloch at the library, a sentiment echoed so often that it became a kind of refrain.

Whether in her work or the work she admired -- participants on Sunday included a flutist who played a favorite piece by Debussy, the vaudeville act of Sharon Evans and Rick Rogers (Coleman’s sister and brother-in-law), and poet and performer Eric Priestley, who described meeting her during a 1960s production of Jean Genet’s play “The Blacks” -- what emerged was her engagement, her sense of humor, her sense of justice, the full scope of her influence.

I lost track of the poets who reflected on how Coleman had helped them, whether in terms of publications or readings, or in having them as guests on “The Poetry Connexion,” the KPFK radio show she co-hosted for many years with Straus.

It all ties into her belief in writing as the “highest form of politics,” a forum in which we reveal the truest essence of ourselves. Coleman was always about that, about unveiling herself, her city, her circumstance, about saying what no one else was willing, or able, to say.

“I expect my ashes to be scattered like pollen,” she once wrote, and over the weekend, downtown and in Santa Monica, one could see the outcome: a writing community in which, thanks to Coleman, a thousand flowers bloom.


The AVC blog is curated by Charles Hood of Language Arts, who first heard Wanda Coleman read when he was a student at Glendale Community College, many years ago. He has been admiring her work ever since. Hood can be reached at This blog does not represent the official views of the Board of Trustees or the District as a whole, though we all join in sending our best wishes to Ms. Coleman's surviving family.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Antelope Valley is Going to the Dogs (that is, I mean to the Crows)

The Recent Arrival of Crows in Lancaster and Palmdale

There's a change going on, as one species begins to replace another --- I am talking about the recent arrival of crows. 

Most of us know that the Antelope Valley has a LOT of ravens. On any given day you can hear them, see them, watch them build their nests on freeway signs, and you even may have to shoo them out of your garbage bin. Other than a few landfills in Alaska, it's hard to find anywhere in America that has more ravens in a ten-mile radius than does Lancaster. They love all the things we provide: garbage, roadkill, nesting cliffs (also known as highway signs and tall storefronts), and thermal updrafts to soar on as they circle effortlessly higher and survey their domain. Ravens have been here at least since the end of the last Ice Age, but like raccoons and probably coyotes too, their populations surely have increased with the arrival of quote unquote civilization in the past 100 years.

Crows, in contrast, rarely occurred out here. As compared to ravens, crows are smaller, have squared-off tails (when seen from below, in flight), have slimmer beaks, and mostly go caw-caw-caw. (Ravens have a harsher, more croaky sound, though they also make gargling noises and klock klock klock and so on.) It used to be, going to L.A. to do research at UCLA or visit friends, I knew I had arrived "down below" when I could hear the crows in the trees. I didn't even have to look up in order to know I was in a different place.

Out here it was always different. For many years, one could go all year and not run into a single crow in the Antelope Valley. Then for a while, they were one corvid out of a thousand. A corvid is either a crow OR a raven, as a general group, like the fact that humans and chimps are both primates. Most corvids here were ravens but once in a while, there might be the stray, oddball crow mixed in --- as I say, 1000 ravens for every 1 crow you came across. Cal Yorke and I can still remember when "crow" got added to the official AVC bird list. (Well, actually, it was "American Crow," our particular species. In proper ornithology, it would be typed with a capital A and a capital C, American Crow. It's sister species properly typed is Common Raven.)

The old ratio seems to be changing. But before we talk about this week's "invasion of the crows," let's quickly review which one is which --- after all, you want to know yourself, right? Impress your kids, wow your friends by being able to correct them each time they get it wrong.

Here is a page spread from the National Geographic Guide to Birds, showing the different kinds of crows and ravens in North America, and showing maps of their ranges. Crow in flight is at the top right, with the more squared off back edge to the tail, and the raven is bottom, with the more wedge-shaped or diamond-shaped tail.

Here in Southern California, there is usually a fairly reliable range separation too, or at least, there used to be. Around the Los Angeles basin, crows were usually found in "nice" places --- they liked beaches and lush neighborhoods and settled farmlands. Coming up the 14, one left the crows behind at the In n Out Burger on Sand Canyon, well before Canyon Country and Acton. Heading northwest, if one took Highway 138 out of the Antelope Valley towards Gorman, the first crows usually did not turn up until you got to the Lebec Rest Area near Fort Tejon. They then became dense up 99 past Bakersfield and through the Central Valley. Ravens and crows can be found together, but you mostly expected crows down in Los Angeles proper and ravens in the deserts.

Here is classic crow habitat in Southern California.

In contrast, ravens favor harsher, more wild conditions --- they are birds of mountains and deserts, cliffs and salt flats. If you are in open rangeland like this shot from Nevada, there never will be any crows, only ravens.

And since the open range shot more classically describes the Antelope Valley than the beach shot from Santa Monica does, you can see that we would expect to have ravens, not crows, resident locally, as indeed was the case.

I suppose that fits with our "wasteland" image. Since we're thought of as a body-dumping sort of place (a cross between the New Jersey Meadowlands of The Sopranos and a survival show set in Death Valley), ravens somehow fit the profile. And crows and ravens as a group are associated with ill-omen, death, misfortune. The group noun for a flock of crows is "murder." As opposed to a pod of whales or a pride of lions, one correctly says that it is a "murder of crows." The collective noun for ravens is to say not flock or herd or gang or flight, but that it is an "unkindness" of ravens. Bad press indeed! They need new management teams.

So just look around --- of course we would not have the crows of Beverley Hills, but instead, the ravens of Littlerock.

This is just our own cultural hangup, of course, not any indication of actual malice or evil. We are a culture that also hates wolves, is afraid of the dark, and that thinks that all bats carry rabies and want to get into our hair.

Other societies have a different view. In Inuit culture, the raven is a trickster character, brimming with sexual energy and mischief. He is somebody to watch out for (he might want to sleep with your wife) but he's also to be envied for his ability to play pranks and get the best of any situation. He is a survivor, a bad boy but in a fun way, sort of the Jack Nicholson of the bunch. This illustration is by Cape Dorset resident Echalook Goo, and dresses up the birds with the colors perhaps they they see in their own minds.

That just goes to show that it does not have to be a cemetery all the time, any time we want to think about wildlife. It is just here in the classical Judeo-Christian tradition that ravens and crows are associated with melancholy and death --- remember for example that the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem is not called "The Mockingbird" or "The Sparrow," but "The Raven." That seems a bit unfair. Here is a very well-drawn crow, grim and dead, from an Andrew Wyeth painting, Winter Fields. If he had shown a dead cardinal or a dead puppy, he might have had the Humane Society after him. But a dead crow? No problem --- they represent death already, so what better irony than to see one stone cold dead. Nobody objects to an image like this. There is no "save the crows" society.

We actually should praise crows and ravens for being the clever and varied beasts that they are. They can count to seven, use tools, remember enemies for years and years, and play in the snow just for the fun of it. Ravens mate for life. Here is a note from artist and author David Sibley. "Ravens [in a lab] faced with a novel task, such as getting food that is dangling on the end of a string, were able to assess the problem and then use their feet to hold the string and pull the food up." In other words, they pulled in slack with their beaks like a fisherman reeling in line, held the slack in place with their foot, and then pulled in more slack, until the food was all the way up on the branch. "They performed this action without missteps the first time they attempted it." Smart birds indeed!

Crows and ravens are related to other corvids, the jays and magpies. World-wide, there are over 100 kinds and the group shows a really interesting diversity. Here, look at these Green Magpies, from Vietnam:

As this illustration shows, corvids do not always limit themselves to goth black. Even ravens come in different patterns. One of my pleasures on a trip to Ethiopia was getting to see one of these guys in the wild, Ethiopia's endemic Thick-billed Raven. Note the snappy white beanie. For once, the common name matches the beast exactly. That bill is like some kind of medieval poleaxe or halberd. 

This illustration above and the next one below come from the same book, Crows and Jays by Madge and Burn, as did the green magpies, above. The corvids are such a diverse group they have enough species to merit their own book. The book describes bright green "blue jays" and other kinds of jay found only in the remotest parts of the Amazon.

I hope to go to Tibet next summer, and if that trip comes together, one species I will look for is a very strange jay indeed, the Bidduph's Ground Jay.

That one has a very restricted range, listed as "Tarim Azne east to Lop Nur," on the China / Tibet border. According to the book, it is shy and elusive, running away over sand dunes or diving into scrubby bushes to hide from people. It's one rare blue jay!

One corvid that doesn't mind hanging out next to people is the Indian House Crow. This kind will ride on the backs of cattle, stowaway on cargo ships, gather by the hundreds on tall buildings to play chase-me and loop-the-loop, crack open nuts by dropping them on the concrete, and at least in one instance, steal golf balls from games in progress, seemingly for the pleasure of watching the golfers wave their hands and chase after them. Here's a pair on the beach in an outer atoll of the Maldives. (I was careful to protect my golf balls.)

The Indian crows bring us back to the crows of Palmdale. It's trash day today as I write this, and as usual, some of my more prolific neighbors somehow have more trash than the rest of us, so much so that they cannot close their trash cans' lids.

Leaving bags of trash exposed like this will bring ravens from far and wide, since they can easily slice open even the toughest Hefty bag, and they will have a feast as the mess spills down onto the street. It's bad for the birds --- this is not a healthy way for them to live --- and untidy for the neighbors, whose yards will become filled up with trash as the wind blows things away. One thing about ravens, they are not big on cleaning up after themselves.

Trash day used to be raven day, but now it's crow day, too. All winter I have been hearing one pair of crows on my block. Whether they came up the 14 from Los Angeles or down from Bakersfield and Tehachapi I am not sure, but each morning all winter I have heard this one pair of crows vocalizing and chasing each other up and down the block. My wife and I keep an informal list of all of the birds we have seen from our house, and it's up to 54 species now. One of the first birds on the list when we moved in was raven. Now, as of this winter, the list includes American Crow.

Not only are crows becoming more common, they are starting to gang up on the ravens. Many species of birds participate in what's called mobbing --- getting together like an angry gang of peasants with pitchforks and torches, ready to drive away an intruder. Here is a picture of crows mobbing a Great Horned Owl.

This comes from The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by the National Audubon Society. The caption says this: "American Crows mobbing a Great Horned Owl. All corvids are rather noisy and bold. Traveling in small groups, they mob predators with belligerent calls and cautiously aggressive actions. This behavior serves the purpose of alerting other animals to the presence of a predator and in many cases is sufficient to drive the predator away." You probably have seen this too, especially in the spring when parent birds want to protect their nests. Blackbirds will chase ravens and even full-grown hawks, harrying them until the larger bird gets tired of the hassle and soars away.

In my neighborhood today, we had a gang of 6 crows, and they were busy beating up 2 ravens. One-on-one, no crow can match a raven, which has larger size, longer wings, and a much heftier beak. But as a group, the crows were being very territorial, saying (in essence), "This is OUR garbage, sucker!" Here is my photograph from this morning.

The top bird is a crow (note the more squared-off tail), the middle one is a raven (note the wedge-shaped tail), and the bottom one is a crow as well. They look as big as the raven because they are closer to me while the raven is a bit higher in the air.

The reason the top crow is missing a wing feather is just normal molt: as feathers wear out, they drop away and regrow, usually on left and right wings at the same time, and usually just one pair at a time, so the bird always can fly even as new ones grow in. It's possible that feather got snagged on a branch or a cat got it, but most likely it is just a normal sequence of molt and replacement. I doubt it's a wound from the raven, since in their feints and jabs, none of these birds ever made actual contact. There was a heck of a lot of cawing --- nobody ever accuses a crow of being too quiet --- but no direct contact.

This makes me wonder, what has changed? Why crows now? They are not undergoing a particular range expansion nation-wide that I know about. What it may reveal is that trees and landscaping in the Antelope Valley are maturing. For a bird that size to do well, it needs more than roadkilled coyotes. It needs fruit trees and dead squirrels and half-eaten cupcakes and compost piles and tall, dense hedges in cemeteries.

Our property values may not mirror Santa Monica's, but perhaps our backyard plantings now do. My tract was built in the mid-80s, so most of the trees are not much older than that. We have the usual California urban mix ---- eucalyptus, mulberry, Bradford pear, Japanese plum, some London plane trees, some Italian cypress, and so on --- and some of these are now quite substantially filled out. Almost all the houses have trees, and almost all those trees look "full grown." And crows don't nest on cliffs or pseudo cliffs --- unlike a raven, you won't find a crow nesting on the Ave H exit sign on the 14 freeway. They will use telephone poles but prefer the crotch of a tall, bushy tree, the kinds of trees that now we finally may have started to provide.

Or maybe it's not that, but that I have some neighbor I don't know about who leaves a lot of cat food out. Maybe winters are a bit less frosty overall. Maybe we leave out more trash on trash day. Maybe the raven population has been attacked by a disease or parasite, or maybe it's that my local ravens have shifted over to the west side of Palmdale, to be closer to the landfill, and so crows have moved in to fill the void that way. Animal populations reflect a wide spread of dynamic factors, and it's rare than a trend can be traced to a single cause.

What I do know is that nature is never static, and one reason to keep a house list such as I do is not to set any records (other birders have house lists in the 300s), but just to have a reason to be a bit more aware, a bit more attentive to the world around me. Crows and ravens look and sound enough apart that you can distinguish them without binoculars, but to do that, first you have just to start looking and listening in the first place.

It's an interesting, ever-changing world out there, and this week's invasion of the crows reminds me of that all over again.


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, and he can be reached at It does not represent any official position by the Board or the District about the correct way to use a garbage bin, about the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, or about which is prettier, our raven or Ethiopia's.