Happy New Year


This is my second fall since retirement from the classroom, and though I am content with my decision to leave, I am feeling a little nostalgic.

From the portal of my computer I have watched teacher friends psych themselves up for their annual migration back to school. Pristine, empty classroom pics are gleefully posted online, arranged with care for the students to arrive. Posters are tacked up on the green cinder block walls, desks neatly arranged, and books organized on shelves. (By the way, the day before the kids came was the only time of the year that my room looked that orderly).

Believe me, the night before classes start feels electric. No “60 Minutes,” or “Sunday Night Football” can dampen the anticipation for the following morning–we are restless horses pushed into the gate. For the one and only time of the year, I actually would iron my clothes, set up the coffee on a timer, and review my plans for the morning. If I slept at all, it was only for a couple of crazy dream-filled hours. This was big stuff, life was starting over again, the possibilities seemed limitless.

I cannot speak for other departments, but mine was terrific. We all authentically liked and respected one another. And even better we laughed a lot. I think that is the part of starting up the new year that I miss the most. I weathered more seminars, speakers, and other “professional development” drudgery than I like to recall, but nothing ever restored my spirits quicker than a good laugh with my colleagues.

As I reminisce about school, I’m reminded that members of my department didn’t approach their teaching duties at all  the same way, but still effectively reached their students.

One colleague tried so hard to seem stern and exacting, really wanted to be seen as a disciplined guy. He demanded punctuality, meted out consequences according to the student handbook, but it was no use. The kids saw through his pretense, and many went out of their way to express their amusement with his charade. Kids waited for him at his door to harass him with shoulder bumps, jokes, razzing. They loved him and knew he felt likewise.

Another teacher was a completely different character. Meticulous to a fault, his classroom and teacher desk always in perfect order, his lesson plans exact and centered on the desktop. In the front of the room lay needed supplies, seating charts, sharpened pencils . . .the whole deal. And though it sounds like he ran a regimented show, his kids too, adored him, thriving in a well-planned and secure environment. Though they didn’t bounce him around, he wasn’t the type, the kids hollered greetings down the hall, waving excitedly to get his attention.

Then there was the guy next door. His style was just as different as any two sets of fingerprints. My neighbor maintained a strong boundary between himself and his students. His magic came through with his classroom instruction. Walking past his door revealed students busily delving into the subject matter through the medium of cardboard, music, duct tape and research for presentations. This teacher presided over a carefully managed laboratory, empowering students with his experiential style. Those kids learned self management.

I know that those outside education have a hard time understanding why we do it. We make so little, are so pushed around–by politicians, administrative dictates, and from parents rescuing their kids from one thing or another. In the end I believe we teach because we are determined optimists. We believe deeply in the rightness of our calling. We know that we can quietly do more good for our country than any other occupation. We model knowledge, compassion, fairness, enthusiasm, humor, and hope for the future.

We teach ourselves. Happy New Year.



The Sultan’s Tent


Words, when used with purpose can trigger a powerful array of emotions. There are words such as “ruthless,” “cruel,” “tyrannical,” and countless other passionate terms. “Empire,” has become one such pejorative in the early Twenty First century, particularly when hyphened after the name American.

Empires reach back to the earliest of civilizations: Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Mayan, Inca, British, and on. The terms listed above certainly applied to the tactics of oppression used commonly by those powers. Still there isn’t much discussion of the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, (14th to the early 20th Centuries).

We are living today in the fallout of that once powerful Turkish Empire, and the west, for the most part, has no idea of this historical backdrop. And this is no study of the Ottomans, by any means, but it is a look at the consequences of that powerful empire’s ruthless, cruel, and tyrannical reign.

By the turn of the Twentieth Century the Sultan’s realm was waning, the borderlands began breaking free from centuries of aggressive persecution. So unstable was the region by 1914, Turkey became a known as, “The Sick Man of Europe.” Siding with the Central Powers in World War One, (1914-1918) the once powerful kingdom gambled all, and ultimately lost their lands to treaty makers at Versailles. The western victors quickly assumed authority over the fallen empire, and promptly commenced to dissect the region, dividing up the spoils of war.

Before the Great War had ended devastation visited the various populations within the failing empire. Armenians had been slaughtered, Kurds, Yazidi’s, Christians, Jews, and Muslims began to emerge from under the now-eclipsed reach of Turkish authority. Western nations swooped in, and attempted to organized this unruly disgruntled mix of contending ethnic communities. Oblivious European leaders divided up much of the former Turkish empire, and Syria, for example, was born and handed over to the French. Mesopotamia ended up batted back and forth in heated debates between the two major Colonial  powers; Mosul ending up in the hands of France, and Baghdad into the hands of the Brits. At the same time uncooperative tribal strong arms jealously guarded their newly liberated territories from the presumptuous Europeans.

Enter the oil business.

Discovered by intrepid Western engineers, places formerly ruled by the Ottoman’s were found rich in petroleum reserves. A new, more urgent need for order rose because the financial stakes were, oh so much greater. The British charged into the unruly breach, and aided by the French (who also desired oil), contrived a new nation. Placing a puppet leader on the throne, the nation of Iraq was born. Muslims–Shia and Sunni, Kurds, Christians, Jews, etc…now found themselves suddenly under a new boss, a new flag, and lots of western oil engineers.

Now, due to short sighted foreign policy makers in Washington, no central government actually exists in this fabricated country of Iraq. The lid is off, and the artificial ties that supposedly held the nation together have utterly vanished. Mesopotamia had been a seething, unstable area before World War One, before Versailles, before Saddam Hussein, and before George W. Bush. Still, a thorough look back in time, without the blinders of oil profits clouding the issue, might have saved us all from the consequences of falling into the morass left by the Ottomans.

A bitter, contentious mess endures where the Turks once ruled. Now, today, the world looks to the American-Empire, which so unceremoniously blundered into this preexisting turmoil to restore stability to the chaos created long ago under the “Sultan’s Tent.”

How Many Presidents Are You?


A life can be measured in a variety of ways. Most customary are calendar years, but except for birthdays, Driver’s Licenses, Voting, Social Security, and Medicare that approach is hardly an increment that shapes all people. Haphazard events, personal, national, or global can chisel changes as permanent, and indelible as any wrinkle or gray hair.

In River of January my central characters celebrated long lives filled with extraordinary adventures. Montgomery “Chum” Chumbley came of age in an uncertain world of rural isolation. His was a harsh environment of feast or famine, drought or flood, butchering livestock for food, and cruel, sweaty labor. His life offered narrow and limited opportunities–still trapped in the unchanging mold of the 19th Century.

William Howard Taft presided over the White House the year Chum was born. There were no niceties like electricity or indoor plumbing in his world. In fact the White House itself had barely installed electricity, running water, or a shelter for automobiles. Yet, by the time of Chum’s death in 2006, George W. Bush had ordered spying satellites and drones over Iraq, and NASA’s Space Shuttle program was headed into retirement. The last years of his life, Chum used a computer to keep up with his friends, and along with his television, he was current on world affairs.

Taft to Bush, seventeen presidents. He lived seventeen presidents. I’ve only lived through eleven. My parents thirteen so far, and my  own kids, five.

How old are you in president years?

What I Heard


Ken Burns has done it again–hit another historical piece of film over the wall. I’ve enjoyed Burns work for decades, beginning with “The Civil War,” through “Baseball,” to “Jazz.” He has consistently combined solid historical research with the subtle beauty of an artist. But in his new “Mark Twain” biography I made a discovery I once believed impossible. I watched the film without any historical analysis or comment.

For the first time since publishing “River of January,” I watched simply from a writer’s perspective. In the film, scholars discussed how Clemens didn’t find his unique American voice until well after “The Innocence Abroad,” and “The Prince and the Pauper” were published. Twain’s masterpiece, “Huckleberry Finn,” came after years of hesitation until that singular voice could no longer be kept tethered.  The author reached deeply from his childhood–a bigoted world of ignorance, poor grammar, and slang with a twang. He defaulted to what he knew best, his inner core and colorful life.

That resonated with me in my own struggle for voice. I have come to realize that a personal truth has to come off the page to remain in the manuscript. If the story line, or flow of dialog doesn’t resonate, it has to go. There must be a truth to tell. The obstruction of a badly worded sentence, or contrived  idea hangs uneasily in my psyche. I have to write what I know to be authentic. It’s a weird dynamic too, and takes concentration to pull off. I put myself in the scene–whether it’s a cockpit, or a dressing room. From that bit of time travel I can survey the setting, describing it both physically and emotionally. I understand the importance of familiarity.

In another tidbit from the documentary, Ken Burns examined Clemens daily writing regimen.

At his home in Hartford (I’ve been there, it’s so cool) Twain worked in an upstairs room, away from everyone, committing his tales to paper. Each evening Clemens gathered his family and friends to listen to  his day’s bounty. I found that intriguing–not as a historian, but as a writer. (Twain had many notables among his friends, President Ulysses Grant for one.)

Samuel Clemens made writing his day-job, and used his household as an audience. Something I find I am unable to follow. However, my ears were carefully adhering to that writing schedule revelation, contemplating his patterns.

I too, need quiet and solitude, but don’t produce the same way. My engine needs to rev up before any writing session. I think and think and think (like Winne the Pooh) then inspired fire up the old laptop. The historic record can spark my thought processes, and the Chumbley archives also can prompt a productive writing session. All in all, a “fits and starts” style best describes my method. Both “River of January” and the new one “Figure Eight,” have come to life through my haphazard style.

Mark Twain can stand alone as a historic figure, apart from his brilliance as a man of letters. He belonged to a political group known as the “Anti Imperialist League,” opposing unrestrained immigration, especially from China and the Philippines. He disapproved of  John D. Rockefeller and other greedy Robber Barons, making no friends among the elite. All that I all ready know, and taught for years. The astounding thing is I watched the program hearing only the literary journey of an American lion.