Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal Wedding

an American in London

For an English teacher, London has some things one can’t see elsewhere—the only copy of the Beowulf manuscript (on display at the British Library), original portraits of the bad boy Romantics (dashing Byron in his Lawrence of Arabia pose, National Portrait Gallery), and small-press editions of contemporary poetry that won’t be stocked at Barnes & Noble in a million years.

Through very bad luck or very good luck, depending how you look at it, a long-planned research trip of mine has overlapped with the Royal Wedding. (I wanted to say, look, kids, it’s a nice time of year and all, but I picked it first.) What has it been like?

Media coverage in the US has probably been as extensive as it was here, so I don’t need to talk about the trees inside of Westminster Abbey or the Battle of Britain flyover or the thrilling and seemingly illicit second kiss.

As with Memorial Day sales or 4th of July barbeques, one thing that may be less clear in the States is the extent to which this is a marketing event, combined with a long-awaited May Day kind of welcoming of spring. London had a hard winter this year, and the economic issues they face are nearly as dire as ours. What we call a “three-day weekend” is called here a “bank holiday weekend,” and the Royal Wedding extended a previously scheduled holiday into an even better, longer weekend. Merchants are thrilled, everybody wants to picnic or have a bit of a night on the town, and in particular, booze sales have shot up.

At the National Museum of the Army, where I had gone the day before to see an amazing collection of made-in-the-field watercolor sketches from the current war of Afghanistan, even the preschoolers on their morning-with-mum outing were going to scribble their way to history.

One can buy Royal Wedding PEZ dispensers, a $4000 wedding couple refrigerator (with their picture filling the entire front door), and Royal Wedding air-sickness bags. Even cigar makers and antique furniture dealers have found ways to tie in. Here is a special loaf of bread at my local baker’s.

A million people were on the streets apparently (so the evening news reported), and I can verify that everybody was on good behavior, and astoundingly so. Lines for the loo were orderly and the police spent more time giving directions to the re-routed bus lines than they did having to use nightsticks or read Miranda rights.

True, some protestors who wanted to stage a mock execution by setting up a non-mock guillotine were arrested—probably for their own safety, since the patriotic good will runs so high that they would have been dismembered by an angry crowd—and here or there, a few people edged past good taste. William and Kate look-alikes have engaged in some x-rated poses, available as books, videos, or shower curtains I am told—and in one bar, as the evening parties drew on, a rather striking young man could be seen dancing on a bar in just his union jack underpants.

Well, if so, Rule Britannia. The members of the monarchy in the UK are hardly any more useless than America’s royalty (that is, movie stars and NBA players), but are about 10,000% more likely to devote their working lives to charitable deeds. It was not so much a wedding event in London as National Feel Good Day, sort of a combination of Christmas and hug your neighbor week. Since the rest of the day’s real news (Apocalyptic tornadoes in Alabama, innocent protestors shot in Syria, the world’s most muddled war quagmiring in Libya) was all too depressing and all too real, I think a Disneyland holiday is just what we all deserved.

I even decided to order an extra helping of cupcakes.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Walt Whitman at LPAC

Coming Soon— “An Old Man’s Thoughts of School”

Here’s some good news: the Master Chorale and AVC Concert Band will be performing Howard Hanson's "Song of Democracy" on May 7th at LPAC. Text is based on Walt Whitman's "An Old Man's Thought of School."

Who’s Whitman?

Sometimes confused with a windbag now fallen from grace (John Greenleaf Whittier, whose grave I have paid homage to outside of Boston), Whitman was the first distinctly “American” voice in transcendental poetry. In the middle of the 19th century, in essay prose we had Thoreau and Emerson, in fiction we had Poe and Hawthorne and Melville, but for poetry, there is just Whitman, and what a one-man mariachi band he has turned out to be.

(Emily Dickenson was writing then but her work would not become known until the 1890s.)

He fashioned himself a rustic, and wanted to expand all aspects of American writing. I quote now from poet Dean Young, in The Art of Recklessness:

"Whitman gives aesthetic expression and formal enactment to possibilities of self-making, the self-made man, while insisting that the self is a manifestation and dependent on interconnection with otherness.

The great sprawl of this poem [ “Song of Myself” ] , ranging from somewhat loopy expressionist free verse to metaphoric collage, biblical incantation, Homeric listing, from narrative to the vaporously lyric, implicates us in a spree of claims [ . . . ] and a sense of frontier, a frontier content and style.”

In other words, he was a Beat poet before the Beats were around, and at the same time, he was a gay rights activist and Native American rights activist and African-American rights activist too. (His work was banned in Boston, though that probably increased sales overall.) Walt Whitman was a patriot and a word-maker-upper and a man in love with the sound of his own voice. He was a nurse and a Kind Soul and a walking movie camera a hundred years before cinéma vérité was ever talked about.

That his words have been set to music is not surprising; others who have done so include Kurt Weill, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Paul Hindemith, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Benjamin Britten, and Leonard Bernstein. The poets Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and Galway Kinnell (among many others) have written important tribute poems.

The engraving above comes from the cover of a new (and recommended) Whitman edition edited by former Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Whitman now even is part of architecture. According to Wikipedia, “The final stanza of the poem ‘The Wound-Dresser’ [ . . . ] has been engraved across the top of the massive granite walls encircling the 188-foot north entrance escalators descending to the underground trains at the DuPont Circle stop on the Washington, D.C. transit system. The installation was formally dedicated as a tribute to caregivers for those with HIV/Aids.”

In a forty-year career, Howard Hanson was a fierce advocate for American music—as an educator, as a composer, and as a conductor. He has touched American life from the inauguration of Richard Nixon to the background music in the movie Alien, and he had an especially good ear when it came to filling out the words of Walt Whitman.

This promises to be a special evening. Dr. David Newby will conduct.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bob Dylan Wants to Join the Circus

the Changing Face of Americana

This past weekend I was helping install an art show at AVC so was on campus both days of the weekend, thus missing the Poppy Festival. My wife and daughter went without me—not a hardship, apparently, since as they both cheerfully said, “more kettle korn for the rest of us!” (Wonderful thing, these families, hmm?)

They did though have a good time and one of the pictures they brought back was a hobo clown riding a velocipede.

That reminded me how “present” the metaphor of a circus still is in American culture, even though the actual experience going to a circus (or wanting to run away, to join one) is less and less a direct, first-hand memory. We’ll say stop clowning around, or else, “that meeting was just a big circus.” The circus idea even informed a Las Vegas casino, the hotel of choice for my mom and dad when I was growing up. (Good puritans, they thought that the nickel slots were dangerously thrilling decadence.)

I saw some circus tents from the 14 freeway a few weeks ago, and had to stop to take a picture. How could I pass them by? They have as powerful a draw as does a tractor beam from a death star.

Even Bob Dylan wants to join the circus. In New Zealand this winter, I bought a three-CD retrospective of Dylan’s music. I know it well of course and have just about all of his albums, but being apparently the last person on the planet not to own an iPod, I needed something to listen to during an all-day drive. I went to the discount bin of the local mall. Dylan it was. Later I saw that the collection had a little souvenir booklet. It had photos of him through the years. Here is the last one. Who does Bob Dylan want to be when he grows up? Apparently a sideshow barker.

Earlier this spring I was helping my wife gather material for a book project, and we were shooting pictures at a classic “roadside American” attraction, House on the Rock, in Wisconsin. This oddball collection of faux Tiffany lamps, half-naked angel mannequins, self-playing organs, old cars, old guns, and old scrimshaw (much of it fake) includes a variety of circus-themed collections. Is the “Frog Girl” banner authentic or a modern workshop replica? Only the curators know for sure.

The great American essayist Edward Hoagland (as close to Thoreau as we get these days) once worked in a circus. This was back in the 1950s, when to be part of the carnival trade or to be a roustabout in a circus was a bit dodgy—these were people of loose morals and quick tempers, and he was countering an Ivy League education by being an animal tender who slept on straw under a wagon. Please allow me a long quotation:

When the circus came to town it provided universal entertainment. First the procession to the lot, with elephants and painted wagons and caravans of flighty horses; the tents were slowly lifted; the cookhouse stove-pipes started smoking. The Midway was public property, and then with the band music drifting through the sidewalls, a crowd sometimes almost as large as that inside the Big Top stood around the rope barriers of the “backyard” during the hubbub of the night performance. Before each spectacle, custardy ruffled frosted floats bearing lighted castles and ballet girls perched in them were hauled into position. The tumbles practices their flips, their voices as tense as barks as they prepared themselves, and horse-holders and spear-carriers ran around hitching the teams, adjusting the gaudy-looking carpets on the floats, grinning at the girls and giving latecomers a foot up. The elephants arrived, with their imperial howdahs on, galumphing, as ponderous as Hannibal’s army but carrying the accumulated grace of twenty centuries. They took hoops in their mouths and more girls sat and swung on these, rocking gently as the beasts walked. The clowns got into line, and the jugglers, the costume mistress dressed as the Queen of Hearts, trained palominos drumming their feet, and several strange stalking ladies who released pigeons on signal.

He goes on, shifting to focus on the sounds he could remember:

There was the racket of the tractors working, of generator engines; shrill whistles blew; and in the meantime the canvasmen, the cookhouse crew, menagerie men, prop handlers and ringstock roustabouts gathered around, wiping the crumps from supper off their mouths and squinting at the leggy girls like they were looking into a spotlight.

Hoagland sums up:

The splendor and the smells, the wealth and deprivation, the jammed exotic mass islanded in flooding lights, fairytale figures leaping to life in plaster masks and sequined frocks (Jack Horner, Goldilocks), and fleshy glamor girls, and pachyderms like African kings in thick brocade, swaying and heralding themselves with French-horn honks and waving trunks—we ragged Bedouin types darting in and out were the connective tissue of all of this. Inspired as the circus was, we [ common working men ] were the meat and gristle: we made the circus be just so.

A young man with a young man’s interests, Hoagland remembers the sexual allure of a circus—a place for real or imagined fantasy connections. In that sense, it was as close to “naughty” (and even “deviant”) as small-town America ever got. A recent Taschen release, The Circus: 1870s to 1950s, talks about this. (The photo above and below come from that book.)

Ever since their earliest days, this sexual tension is something American circus advertising played up. Here is a very racy ad, from well over a hundred years ago.

I suppose Las Vegas showgirls still fill this niche, though some of the old circus acts, like looping the loop on a bicycle, now are sponsored by Red Bull and appear on ESPN. To get shot out of a cannon is sort of a Jackass kind of thing, and to see animals perform, now we go to Sea World or the San Diego Wild Animal Park (renamed recently the San Diego Zoo Safari Park). I am still glad though that I saw tigers jump through flaming hoops when I was a child, back in the days when there was no foam mats under monkey bars and half the cars I rode in didn’t have seatbelts. We didn’t wear helmets to ride bikes and half the time my parents did not know where I was after dark. It was a hard, cruel world, but spectacular, in its way—Hoagland captures it well, in the passages quoted above.

What about your childhood will seem distant and foreign in a few more years? (Anybody remember Pogs?) When I went to college, you could smoke cigarettes in the hallways (but not the classrooms), and before an exam, everybody would be lined up at the class door, trying to get one last drag in.

One of my dad’s favorite movies was Larger Than Life, with a broke and harried Bill Murray trying to transport his father’s circus elephant across America and delivered to a humanitarian flight bound for Sri Lanka. I wonder now if part of the attraction for my dad was nostalgia. In the movie, the elephant connects us to an older, simpler America, a time of trains and circus tents, clown noses and small-town diners. A circus was always on the move, and its “one step ahead of the law” reputation meant you could join up, no questions asked.

I guess I miss that fantasy of escape: now, if you’re tired of your life or need a break from Mom and Dad, where would you go? Even the hotshots on tour with Red Bull have to have liability insurance and social security numbers. Perhaps you can escape into a video game and have the same feeling. I doubt it. So is it inevitable? Will some day the idea of “circus” need a footnote? In Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic, topsy-turvy world of the song “Desolation Row,” the opening scene is nightmarish, off kilter. He sings, “They’re selling postcards of the hanging / They’re painting the passports brown / The beauty parlor is filled with sailors / [ and ] The circus is in town.”

Some day the special arrival of a circus “coming to town” may not make sense. In that case, the song will have come full circle, giving to us the reality of a middle stanza:

    And the only sound that’s left
    After the ambulances go
    Is Cinderella sweeping up
    On Desolation Row.....

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kay Ryan

Shakespeare, Joshua Trees, and the Metaphor of the Acorn

As the front page of the Antelope Valley Press recently reported—as did Channel 3 and other local media outlets—AVC grad Kay Ryan was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent book, The Best of It.

Note the Joshua trees on the cover. She grew up here and did her transfer requirements at AVC, before going on to UCLA. In December of 2009, already nationally recognized by being named Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress, she came back to AVC. First, she did a private workshop with advanced writing students. Here she meets in a library study room in a session co-moderated by Kate Gale, a nationally known poet as well, and editor for the prestigious Red Hen Press.

After this session and after dinner at Fresca II, she came to the AVC cafeteria and shared her insights and read poetry, including from the manuscript-in-progress that become the Pulitzer-prize winning book.

Yes, she really did grow up out here (she had a different last name then)—here’s the high school yearbook.

Her poems are deceptively simple, and, in contrast to much contemporary practice, are brave enough still to rhyme. She compares a summer hailstorm to a “storm of hornets,” using slant rhyme to connect the hailstones to “little white planets.” She even writes about the catch-basins that wait to fill up with summer runoff, teasingly calling them beachless oceans. In her poems she writes about that moment when you are so glad when you find the lost car keys or mislaid purse, or about how in the paintings of Chagall, for him, angel wings “come from bottomless wing source.” (Some painters ration their angels—Chagall had enough red horses and blue violins for entire villages of angels.)

Where does this language come from? Part of her success comes from a willingness to live in the now. For her, even a doorknob can be a magic subject for a meditation.

We often use clichés to frame experience, such as to say that the might oak was once a mere acorn. Yet this is true: some trees (Joshua trees included) can spread or regenerate from underground runners, but others, including the mighty Sequoia redwood, start out as seeds, and oaks are one of those. One thing that science can’t yet explain is how oaks know to “mast” in synchronization. (Masting means they release all their acorns at once, forest-wide.) It makes sense: by flooding an entire landscape with nuts at once, no matter how greedy the bears and acorn woodpeckers are, some seeds are bound to survive and germinate. Other years hardly any acorns at all are released. How do the trees all agree? They seem to be on the same twitter feed, and magically, just “know.”

In Shakespeare’s time, the chestnut and oak masting marked a time for those with the proper grazing permits to go into the forests with their herds of swine. You paid the local lord as sort of lease fee for permission to be the one to mast your pigs. As I often tell my students (and said again on Channel 3 yesterday), Shakespeare grew up in Palmdale. After all, it’s not like Stratford was any kind of heady intellectual center. (Or, as the British would spell it, “centre.”) True, it had a very good local school, and it even had a stone bridge across the Avon, at a time when bridges were rare indeed—London only had one total, for example. (To attend plays at the Globe Theater, visitors paid a penny to be ferried across by row boat.)

Stratford at this time had maybe 2,000 people in it. Shakespeare’s father may have been tangled up in some illegal wool trading but his main job was to make luxury gloves, using, for example, kid leather (the supple skin of a still-born goat), giving us the expression that a delicate matter needs to be handled with kid gloves. (Not the gloves one needs to handle a child with, in other words, but an especially fine grade of leather.) Stratford was not the real “sticks”—it was not Trona or Boron—but it was not London, Oxford, Cambridge: the places where the intellectual elite congregated and where, the expectation of the times ran, one would go to find a first-rate poet, a top-notch playwright.

In London, he had to fight that prejudice. In essence, he was a community college grad, and was mocked for his poor Greek and Latin skills. Much evidence exists that, contrary to this prejudice, his Latin was quite good, and in fact, he seems to have a pretty good ear as well for French, Italian, and all the nuances of high, low, and middle English. Shakespeare would laugh at the notion there is such a thing as “proper” English: to him, the only thing a word needed to do was to convey a nuance of meaning, and so for him, a curse word and a slang word and a word from royal falconry all would serve equally well. For him, “good” English is whatever English you need to get the job done.

Similarly, Kay Ryan needs no fancy trappings to become a great writer. Sometimes she will make a sly and erudite pun—turning the word “grandeur” into a boring and tasteless cousin word, “blandeur”—but a look at her titles shows a willingness to be plain and direct. Poems are called “Heat” and “Midas” and “Patience” and “Age” and “The Woman Who Wrote Too Much” and “Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing” and even the child’s expression, “Say Uncle” (which also became the title of a 2005 book).

It was a great honor to have Kay Ryan here but it was not that singular. Her co-presenter that night was Kate Gale, who has come out twice before. In fact, the list of writers visiting here has been extensive:

Chris Abani
Zaia Alexander
Jimmy Santiago Baca
Gwendolyn Brooks
Wanda Coleman
Kate Coles
Paul Fussell
Michael Harper
Eloise Klein Healy
Lee Herrick
Doug Kearney
Dan Neil
Robert Peters
Amy Stolls
Quincy Troupe
Sandra Tsing Loh

There were others; these are just the ones I have hosted in the twenty-odd years I have been on the faculty.

In almost every instance, a public event was paired with a private workshop, so that AVC students could get mentorship and tutorial help equivalent to that given at Stanford or UC Irvine or any of the other big-name writing campuses. Some writers have proved a bit too full of themselves to come here (I won’t name names, though I am tempted to), but most of our visiting authors have been impressed by the sincerity, passion, and potential of the AVC students.

Many of our writing students go on to grad school and some even teach for us now in Language Arts, including Melanie Jeffrey, Santi Tafarella, and Nicelle Davis (formerly Nicelle Hughes). In Ms. Davis’s case, just a year and a half out of grad school, she already has three book deals pending. One person that Nicelle finds inspiration in is Wanda Coleman. Here is a photo of Wanda Coleman—sometimes called (a direct quote, so forgive me) “the feistiest Black woman in America”—speaking in the Board Room a few years ago.

Her reaction, after meeting with our students? “Wow!” She said it three times, then explained: “What they have is a direct line to experience, and the willingness to represent. This is the direct stuff!”

I feel that way too, and usually just ask for one thing of them. I want a signed copy of their first book—and the promise that they will come back one day and speak. I don’t know how many seeds will become trees, but I do know one thing: there are right now on campus plenty of people who are destined for great and brave and powerful things.

Kay Ryan is proof of that.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

In Praise of Veterans

It’s Not Memorial Day (but Thank You anyway)

It is nearly the anniversary of a small but important date in World War II, and that prompts me to stop and honor the US military personnel, past and present, who share my classrooms with me.

Because I teach online classes, some of my students are physically far from campus—sometimes really far. As in, serving overseas and yet still trying to stay up on their studies. God bless all of you. You give me hope and determination. Perhaps some of these folks are the people Paul Simon had in mind when he wrote his newest album, So Beautiful or So What.

This is a very spiritual album, filled with grace and redemption, and a meditative one too, as he thinks about the simple beauty of our lives, our planet. In the song “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” the narrator says “I got a nephew in Iraq / It’s his third time back / But it’s ending up the way it began / . . . he’ll [ end up ] eating his Thanksgiving dinner / on some mountain top in Pakistan.”

Is it “good” English if somebody says, “I was due to rotate home but I got stop-lossed, so am still stuck here, all effed up”? Good English maybe yet sad reality. (There is a tradition for using the language of military slang in literature. T.S. Eliot in his landmark 1922 poem “The Wasteland” speaks of Londoners who were being de-mobbed, that is, being de-mobilized after World War I.)

Paul Simon’s song has layered into it a “call and response” African-American sermon from 1941, the year that World War Two started. My father served in this war, from the first day to the last, and yesterday in an old journal I found a note in my late father’s handwriting. Here it is:

My dad served in the Navy, and among his duties was to stand watch at night on an anti-aircraft battery. In the note he is remembering the time while on nighttime watch he saw the glowing sparks of the engines, as General Doolittle revved up his bombers on an adjacent aircraft carrier. This became known as the famous “Raid on Tokyo.” Some of the younger students may not recognize his name, though he is commemorated on Lancaster Blvd.

Discouraged by our losses at Pearl Harbor and the immediate months afterwards, the American people wanted some indication that we could win this war. Jimmy Doolittle provided it. In an audacious (almost suicidally brave) raid, he launched a flight of B-25 bombers from an aircraft carrier on a one-way flight to the Japanese main island of Honshu.

They took off from the U.S.S. Hornet, as my dad’s note recalls. You could—barely—get these medium bombers to take off from an aircraft carrier, but you could never land these planes back on any U.S. ship, so these were missions that would cross the Pacific, bomb Tokyo, and then try to reach friendly territory in Russia or China before running out of gas. Some crews made it, some died en route, and some were captured and executed. The mission’s success was not measured in bomb damage, but in morale: the raid electrified the American people. To his dying day, my father remembered hearing the engines start in the dark, and then watching the red glow of the engines as they revved up prior to full-throttle takeoff.

He served in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and over the years, as chance allows, I have tried to visit some of the places he served. This picture below looks like a simple slice of paradise but instead marks another important piece of American history.

True, the water here is spa-tub warm, and the nearby coral reef swarms with beautiful fish. This is the island of Tinian. On this beach—the exact spot where this picture was taken— the U.S. Marines came ashore to capture this island from the Japanese. Out of sight to my right are the rusting remains of U.S. tanks, and behind me as this picture was taken are the concrete shells of Japanese bunkers. Later this island became an important airbase, and it was from this island that the Enola Gay took off in August, 1945, carrying the atom bomb destined for Hiroshima.

Tinian today, as the beach picture reveals, has been by-passed by development. There are some small and overgrown markers memorializing the war, and from the air, coming in by propeller plane, one can see the stripes of lighter jungle cut into the darker bits, marking where the old airfields have filled in.

It is easy to forget the sacrifices of the people who helped make us who we are, and as the anniversary of the Doolittle Raid approaches, I just wanted to take a moment to say thanks Dad, thanks veterans, thank you to all who believed enough to make the world a better place. Musician Elvis Costello says that Paul Simon’s new album “rejects the allure of fashionable darkness and the hypnosis of ignorance.” The music (Costello says) celebrates “the endurance of spirit and the persistence of love.”

On the anniversary of the raid I will put a flag out in front of my house and driving to or from the college, to or from Trader Joe’s, to or from picking up my kids, I will play the new CD, paying particular attention when a closing song says “something called me / from my sleep / [ it was ] love and blessings / simple kindness / ours to hold / but not to keep.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011


The Budget in April (notes from the cemetery)

As spring break week winds down, it is such a warm and perfect Sunday that instead of going to church, I went on my bike to the church of the grass, the church of the sky.

There is much to think about: I have friends abroad and here, administrators and teachers, who are losing their jobs, and meanwhile, at AVC, we will have what I assume will be a contentious Board meeting on Monday, followed by what could be an equally-contentious all-campus staff meeting on Tuesday. We face class cuts, layoffs, salary reductions, and partial closures. Things will change, and most of it not for the better.

Yet in Yosemite (where I was earlier this week), the Western Redbud is in bloom.

Waterfalls flow in gushing white profusion and the same Steller’s Jays as always beg for crumbs outside of the Lodge cafeteria.

It made me think of a story I heard when I was in Poland this fast autumn. I met with somebody who had risked Siberian exile to defy the Communists, and for whom “solidarity” means not just a labor party or the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the very essence of humanity itself. He talked about the secret police, and his friends who disappeared, and he quoted a Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska. She once said, “we are—each of us—the miracle of an alder tree. Many miracles in one, in fact: the miracle that the tree is reflected in the water, that the tree is backwards left to right, and the miracle that it grows there, year after year, crown down, and yet it never reaches bottom. The miracle of where the water comes from, where it goes, and the miracle of how vividly and permanently we can see it, even when we are far away.”

He said that for him, it was not the miracle that the Communists left (sooner or later, he said, even if it took hundreds of years, he knew they would), but that he and the people left behind had managed to make a new society so easily. Do they know who had collaborated, who had resisted? Of course. (He could also give me the full names of everybody in his family who disappeared in World War Two.) The important thing is that those who survived then turned and imagined what they wanted the new world to look like, and turned right around and began to build it.

True, AVC faces its worst budget reduction ever. What the next weeks will bring I am not sure anybody can predict.

Yet even so, I will stand with my students and friends, colleagues and deans, as we remind ourselves that the greatest thing we can do is to be sure the college remains open and that we teach well and truly as many students as we can fit into the rooms, the halls, the deep and sometimes wounded places in our hearts.

The only defeat will be to give up and fail to adapt. Indeed, under the most dire of the predictions, I have heard it asked, can the community colleges even survive at all?

The answer is yes. Yes we can survive.

Yes we will survive.

And, yes, in solidarity and hope, we must survive. The future generations of California expect and deserve nothing less.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Cage for Dinosaurs

Meditations on Construction and Change at AVC

In search of good news and a quiet place to walk, on a recent Saturday I spent some time enjoying the progress our bond-funded construction is making on main campus, and was thinking too about the possibilities for our Palmdale site.

Things are changing fast on campus, and it’s not all just pay cuts and cancelled classes. It seems like only yesterday when I took AVC journalism students on a “how to shoot” tour of the new Theatre Arts complex. At that time, the site was mostly scraped up dirt, bundled piles of rebar, and abundant hope.

Time passes—welders weld, bolters bolt, and the magic happens. Now, finally, as anybody driving west along Ave. K will have noticed, we are close to thinking about the grand opening.

I can’t wait to go to the first performances. As fond as I am of hearing the LA Phil inside the Disney Concert Hall or going to plays done by Glendale’s (soon to be Pasadena’s) Noise Within, the fact is, AVC’s Visual and Performing Arts faculty and students provide world-class performances, often for less than the price of two fancy coffees at Starbucks.Here is a shot of Test Flight (our student rock band) as well as the Antelope Valley Symphony as conducted by Dr. David Newby, with background images provided by JPL. We will learn more about the symphony in another post, as we think about the great American poet, Walt Whitman. Here are the arts in action:

On another side of campus, a new science complex rises from the dirt. Here is a “then” shot (wasn’t this just a year ago?), versus a few “now” shots, from today.

Of course, some projects now have reached the “ready to move in” phase. Have a look around the tech ed and greenhouse areas on the north side of campus next time you have a moment to spare. There is even an allusion to a scene from Jurassic Park.

One bit of construction that has already come and gone was carried out (without permit or permission!) by our resident owls, who successfully nested and raised young again this year. Their nest is no longer required: Junior is already so large he is out of the nest (or it could be a she; at this age, there is no way to tell them apart visually), and now has almost fully fledged.

He (or she) waits to start hunting actively, and for now, sleeps near the library during the day, a parent usually protectively roosting nearby. Here is the juvenile.

It is easy to find our owls during the daytime. Just look for their cast-up pellets. These are small, cylindrical wads of fur and bone that the owls cough up because they cannot pass some material through their digestive systems. Look around the grass under the big pine trees for a scattering of owl pellets, then, when you find some, look up. One or two owls are probably right over your head, looking back down at you.

The pellets themselves reveal what the owls have been having for dinner. It is okay to touch these, and to let kids touch them too. You can just pull them apart with your fingers and see what the bones have to tell us. Great Horned Owls eat rats, mice, rabbits, domestic cats, skunks, and even scorpions. In their detritus you can find tiny mice teeth or itty bitty vertebrae. If you come across some of the pellets under one of the campus trees, it is okay to pull them apart to see what drama has been going on during the swing shift. (Just be sure to wash your hands afterward, and don’t lick your fingers until you’ve cleaned up.)

If you want to play CSI, that’s fun too: just bag and tag, then do a home dissection with tweezers and rubber gloves. It is more fun than watching tv (as most things in nature are).

These nests and buildings so far all have been from the main Lancaster Campus, but what is happening in Palmdale? The District still owns a lovely piece of vacant property near Pearblossom Highway and 25th East.

Times are hard. We all know this: the State may not be bankrupt, but it’s no longer in the “building colleges” business. Our current bond money—generously supplied by District voters—cannot be diverted to Palmdale, even if we wanted to. (And we have to finish the current projects first, anyway.) A new, stand-alone Palmdale campus won’t be breaking ground any time soon. But that is not to say it will not come. When the main campus was started at its present site of 30th and K in Lancaster, prevailing comments (I am told) went along the lines of, “whad’a building it out there fer?” It seemed utter folly. Roads were not even paved this far away from town. The west side wasn’t a side, it was just jackrabbits and dust devils.

But times change—buildings are planned and built; trees grow tall and owls make homes in them. There will be a Palmdale campus. Maybe not this year or even the one after next, but it will come. (And to be accurate: we do have a Palmdale campus; we just do not have a Palmdale separate dedicated site for the Center that now exists.) Funding will be an issue, but then it always is (and always has been). Maybe R. Rex Parris will donate the money, if we promise to name it after him.

One issue for people to dream about is, when it comes, what do we want our next college campus to look like? At times I am deeply fond of the Lancaster campus, with its stamped sheet metal sun-shades (what were they thinking?) and its trees leaning 45 degrees off axis. But when we think ahead to the next incarnation of AVC, what should it be?

While I am sure the Office of the State Architect will have various requirements for us, and while we will want to include restrooms and parking lots and soccer fields and maybe even a drive-thru bank, speaking just for myself, I already know what the next installment of AVC should look like.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Antelope Valley constituencies, may I present to you the new and improved AVC, the Palmdale Campus during its grand opening, 2021:

Instead of being a dirt lot off of 25th East, the Palmdale campus will be the hip place to see and be seen. All of the up and coming local bands will want to jam at the opening, and the mayors of Palmdale and Lancaster will give three speeches each. Rich Sim will still be the most senior faculty member still serving, and the art buildings (the ones we don’t name after Rex Parris) will be named for him.

See you there! (Just don’t forget to put a parking sticker on your space ship on your way to class....)