Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dina gets props as Polack gets master's

What the heck did I do this year?

In a whirlwind of a year that forced me to take a lengthy golf hiatus, I remodeled our new home and earned a master's degree in educational leadership and a school leadership credential, all while preparing for Aug. 4 — the wedding of Joe and Dina — and teaching five high-school classes a day.

When I think of all that I have done, I must give the biggest props ever to Dina, who stood by me the entire year, supported my master's quest and loved me daily. "Behind every man, there's a great woman."

Well, that phrase has a lot of connotations, and in 2017, it's probably outdated. However, Dina did act like Barbara Nicklaus this year as she enabled me to go through a rigorous master's program. I know that she sacrificed repeatedly for me, our time together was lessened, and she listened to me talk incessantly about education, corporate America, the prison system and Koch brothers.

Basically, I took 12 classes in two semesters to get my degree. That's a lot of classes! I did this at Cal State University Dominguez Hills. The highlight of the program was creating a teacher support program for my school, and I feel so strongly about it that I hope other schools and districts adopt it. Adding that to the mix, it's safe to say that the workload was intense, and it had been 20 years since my previous master's in journalism.

I did grow in many ways through CSUDH. One excellent thing about it was that I got to meet many inspiring educators, whom I have a lot of respect, especially Toni Issa-Lahera, the director of CSUDH's School Leadership program. Here we are, taking a selfie:
So I analyzed my school, and district, on many levels, and saw areas in which both can improve. But, egads, after hearing repeated horror stories about the Los Angeles Unified School District and the realities of charter schools, I am counting my lucky stars because, comparatively, my school/district is excellent.

Man, it feels nice to breathe now and not have some looming assignment. I can full throttle give more attention to the woman I love and get ready for our wedding. I may not be that well-versed with color schemes, centerpieces and floral arrangements due to my bombastic heterosexuality, but damn it, I will tell you what I think!

The irony is that even though I read a lot through CSUDH, took hours of tests and created a sustainable support program for new teachers, I actually may be learning more post-program than during it. In the past two months, I've read a run of books that I recommend including "Born on Third Base" by Chuck Collins, "The Big Miss" by Hank Haney, "Dark Money" by Jane Mayer, "A World in Disarray" by Richard Haass, "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin and "What Does it Mean to be Well Educated?" and "The Homework Myth" by Alfie Kohn.

Maybe, then, CSUDH was a success because as John Dewey says via Alfie Kohn: "To be well educated is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends."

I guess that's what's happening to me. As my love for Dina and my daughters grows each day, I — in turn — am growing spiritually, emotionally and professionally.

Bixby Elementary, where Chloe is finishing up fourth grade, has had a push to have parents and students alike embrace the idea of a growth mindset, how abilities develop through dedication and hard work and how a love of learning and resilience are essential to a good life. I couldn't agree with this more, and as I worked so hard this year with the woman I love supporting me, this is the happiest I've been.

Maybe I subscribe to the quote from Joshua Marine that is above Chloe's desk at Bixby. "Challenges are what makes life interesting. Overcoming them is what makes life meaningful."

Monday, May 1, 2017

Cuba: Mofongo, cigars and ballerinas on bicylces

"To live outside the law, you must be honest."

Bob Dylan sang that line in his 1966 tune “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” For me, that quote never rang more true than when I spent a week in Cuba and Nicaragua this month.

Cuba is a land of contradictions, two currencies, pain, pleasure, surrealism, honesty and outlaws. It’s pretty damn poor with cars still from the 1950s that run on diesel fuel, and the country's had hardly any trade for half a century. It was the perfect place for an adventure for seven guys — seven educators.

Now, here’s the thing about a trip with seven guys. That’s a lot of guys. It could be like “Bachelor Party,” but in reality, we are all in our 40s. So, we kept the parties under control, vaguely attended two dance clubs one night and had a group total of five drinks total at both. I confirmed with a few others, “Uh, yeah, we're not really into dance clubs, at this point. Cuba or no Cuba.”

To get to Cuba, the plan was for half of us to go through Nicaragua and half of us to go through Cancun. A late addition to our crew went directly from the U.S. To do that would have saved us all a whole lot of travel time, but one of my best friends lived in Nicaragua until fifth grade. So I loved the idea of seeing my compadre’s homeland.

Trouble abounded immediately! For unforeseen reasons, the Nicaraguan trip became just two people — me and my friend, Kaytan. It turns out that the uncle of my Nicaraguan friend got us from the Managua airport and packed a week’s of exploration into a day. We saw Granada, the lake of 366 islets, a volcano that was gurgling and met Jimmy Three Fingers. He’s an expat who lost one of his fingers from the mob.

Nicaragua was beautiful, and Uncle Ray, who is the head of the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, was truly a great guy who showed Kaytan and I so much. Props to Uncle Ray and the Reverend Guiterrez (my spiritual advisor) for hooking us up big time. Thank you!

After an extremely long, long day, that was really like three or four days packed into one, it was onto Cuba. Kaytan and I arrived in Havana, where we rendezvoused with two more of our team, including the Reverend, in the airport. Three others were already stationed in Cuba, having traveled through Cancun.

After that extremely long Nicaraguan adventure, it felt excellent to get the seven hombres together. Immediately, we were greeted by a cousin of the Reverend’s who had a cab waiting for us. I quickly learned we all had new names. “The Mexican.” “The Filipino.” “The Nicaraguan.” “The Indian.” I was dubbed “The American,” but I quickly corrected that. I am “The White American.”
I took a bigger step with the Spanish language in that week than I ever had, even though we had fluent Spanish speakers in our group. The reality was that, almost always, English was not a remote possibility. I was forced to speak Spanish, and I actually did (in my limited way).

After a minor day of recovery and eating in a local restaurant that we loved, we invented a poker game dubbed "Mofongo," after a Puerto Rican dish I hoped to run across in Cuba. It turned out we loved the game Mofongo and played it every night as we unwound from our various journeys.

The next day, we took a local's bus to the center of Havana. Extremely crowded, but interesting. That turned out to be the only bus we took, and a key member of our travel group looked like this:
With the '50s cars everywhere, Havana seemed a bit surreal. Moments after we exited the bus, we saw ballerinas riding bicycles who were being filmed.

We found a cafe with Cuban music, had some cigars and spent most of that day exploring the streets of Havana. One random highlight was going into an art gallery, where some of our group members played the guitar, keyboard and bongos and jammed with people in the gallery.

The next day, our group moved from seven to four, as three had other travel plans. We quickly witnessed the "Power of Four." It was so easy to get on the same page with just four, and we could all fit in one cab. After mucking it up in Havana the previous day, we opted to go to the beach in Varadero and hired a driver for the day. This was probably the day that felt the best. It was fun, chill and much-needed.

The next day, we went out to Vinales, where I should not have tried sugar cane. It was so crazily sugary that it basically made me bounce off the walls for a few hours, only to come crashing down and insult various friends. Vinales definitely was highlighted by hanging out in the cigar-leaf hut of Don Alfredo, a 69-year-old guy who has been smoking cigars since 13 and gave us an insider's tour of how Cuban cigars are made.
On our final day, our group downsized to three and through superb airport diplomacy, convinced Avianca Airlines to not have us travel through Nicaragua to get back to the States. Instead, we skipped that leg of the journey, and the airline put us up in Melia Cohiba, the nicest hotel in Havana.

Man, this was an adventure. I do take for granted the bombastic economy of the United States. I often hear people complain about taxes, but they don't have to give 90 percent of their wages to the government like in Cuba. But if someone does not believe he is oppressed, is he oppressed?

The lack of police presence anywhere also was interesting to me. No matter how I might judge Cuba's past or government, the individuals I ran across were honest and trustworthy, and that's how things must be there. It felt great to get off the grid and live a different life for a week — and to walk away knowing that to live outside the law, you must be honest.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Legit points on American 'culture'

Go to Netflix ASAP, and binge watch "Legit" with Jim Jefferies. The two — and only — seasons of the show will be on Netflix until April 7, so this is time sensitive.

Oh, Lordy, this is just a hilarious show, and I can't think of a show I've liked more since "The Office."

"Legit" starts with Jim Jefferies helping a friend's brother follow his dream — be with a hooker in Las Vegas. The only wrinkle is that the friend is in a wheelchair, and so that adds a funny yet human element. As the show progresses, the characters develop, and it turns out to be absolutely hilarious but with substance, too. The show was embraced by the disabled community and critics as well and is an absolute diamond in the rough. The show is legit!

As I pondered why the show is so good, I came to an odd realization, which I should have figured out years ago. American pop culture ain't hardly anything unless you add a foreign influence.

Jefferies — he's the star of the show, and he's Australian. Even the last show I liked, "The Office," was a spinoff from the original British show.

I happen to be reading "Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica" to have unity with one of my students in our two-person reading club. Metallica, well, there's an American band. Not really. The driving force behind 'Lica is Lars Ulrich, who is Danish.

Then, think of the best bands ever to be heard in America. We got the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin — damn, all British!
Well, let's think of the greatest artistic achievements possible. What randomly comes to my mind are Shakespeare, Picasso, Aristotle, Socrates, Mozart, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Brahms, Beethoven. ... Will an American ever crack the list?

Look, I'm not saying America never brought anything to the table in terms of art. We got jazz, of course, the Harlem Renaissance, Elvis, the blues, Motley Crue, Ted Danson and Emo Philips. But let's get real, by my definition of culture, America ain't no cultural center of anything (unless maybe we count my beloved Cleveland as the rock 'n' roll capital of the world!).

How could I not have realized this until now?

I'm certainly not trying to be anti-American, but when you put the constraints of our harsh economic system around us, how often do we get kids who aspire to be artists? My freshmen in high school students believe they're doing the right thing by eschewing art for business internships, but are they really?

In a page-turning frenzy, I just read "Born on Third Base" by Chuck Collins. He examines the United States' economic state today as 1 percent of the country has 99 percent of the wealth. This book was not only an education in the reality of our economic system today, but it made me again realize that art, creativity, dance and innovation are not rewarded in the U.S. Sadly, if you do that stuff, you better get a day job.

And back to "Legit" with Jim Jefferies. Why in the world were there only two seasons of that show? Despite incredible critical acclaim, it was apparently mishandled with Fox and never truly got to its proper audience. Also, it's ratings were stagnant on an odd network called "FXX." Well, you know how it works in America, if it doesn't sell, it ain't worth anything.