Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Me at the Helm

My Uncle Don has everything and charm, too. As a kid we loved family vacations visiting him because he was so affectionate and had such exciting stuff! We did not have a lot of anything but siblings. Time with Uncle Don meant, delicious foods, resorts, plane rides, private islands and yachting. Here I am at the helm of one of his yachts. He always made me feel special. I think back and realize that I was able to experience some wonderful things that most people raised broke would never have because he was willing to share. If everyone did that- nobody would feel poor. I am grateful to him and anyone rich willing to enrich the lives of others. Tee hee. Good times.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Who can "vouch" for schools as they currently are?

Vouchers…should we or shouldn’t we? It is probably a moot point because it won’t pass anyhow. However, just for fun let’s kick this around. I can afford to be a little objective and dispassionate because I home school my kids and would thus be unaffected either way.

But here is what I know to be true…any bureaucratic or government organization is about power and self preservation, even if they claim to have altruistic intentions. The other thing I know that, albeit ugly, capitalism works. Money is power. If the schools have the money they have the power (the individuals at the top, anyway) and if the children do, then they are upgraded to consumer, and thus have clout. Would the voucher give under privileged children a choice for once? It would appear so. I suppose if the special needs children or the immigrant children suddenly were armed with money there would magically appear out of a vapor a “product” that suited their needs. Supply and demand. The “one size fits all” of a public school cannot work in today’s society of diversity and growing numbers. I think there should be schools all over. All shapes, sizes and kinds to fit the needs of children of every ilk and disposition.

Would vouchers leave special needs children behind? Behind where? In the public schools where they are stuck already? Not if they have the dough to go somewhere better. (This concern is an example of where it seems the schools are more interested in staying in business than whether the children get what they need.) I question why the schools are fomenting the argument that all our hopes and dreams for a brighter future would be shattered if there were a voucher. Well, there isn’t a voucher now- where are all these great programs the possible voucher is preventing? Also I have heard the argument that schools would loose money when they loose students- I guess so- however if in the unlikely event that half the students opted out the school would only have the other half to afford educating. The scale would probably balance out. I suppose there would finally be some incentive for schools to be very good and competitive. And the free money they get whether they were any good or not would suddenly be something they would need to earn.

On the other hand- it could be a huge disaster if people were allowed options- chaos might ensue if we did not have the steadying hand of a government institution to maintain the status quo. I think it is important that we stay unemotional in the face of conjecture on either side. It could work and it may be a bust- at which point we scrap the whole idea and go back to the way it has always been.

Most people agree that some change is needed. The complaint against the current state of affairs has led to this idea of vouchers in the first place. But, change will rarely come about without a catalyst. With 30% of American kids dropping out before graduation and about half of the graduates going on to college one could argue that it is good enough, or one could argue it could be better. I guess we won’t know until we try.

In the end I have to say that it very well could be an awful idea to have a voucher…but I just can’t help smelling a rat when fear and false compassion are used as the argument to keep in business an institution who have long been incompetent and ambivalent, while the tip toppers are glutting themselves on ill gotten monopoly money. It has never been the public school system that has been great, it has always been outstanding teachers, individuals and students who have succeed in spite of it; I guess it is because of this that I have no particular loyalty to the antiquated, socialist regime we are all so afraid to let go of. Much in the way the Chinese fear loosing Communism- it is all they know and they have always been told they would fall apart if left to their own devices in a Democratic society. (Okay, that may have been an overblown comparison.)

Is a change risky? You bet. But that is what America has always been about from overthrowing the King onward…If the voucher bites the dust that is okay. It is just nice to know that somebody somewhere is getting creative and bucking the system. Or we can keep hoping things will change without actually trying anything new. Failure in risk, if it comes, is always a sign of progress.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


To have a pet monkey was unusual enough; to have it live in her shirt was even more bizarre. My aunt kept her pet like a child, close to her chest. It wore small diapers. It nestled there, peeking out like a scared little man, between her large, augmented breasts. I remember thinking it must be like a water bed in there for her cleavage monkey. As children, we were frightened and fascinated by the wide eyed, hissing wild thing tucked into her shirt. It became a part of her in our minds.

My aunt was tall and leggy. She wore tight jeans, low cut shirts and high heels. I thought she was like Cruella De Ville billowing in fur coats, smelling of perfume and cigarettes. But, she was young and beautiful. Her face was always made up, and she jingled and clicked when she walked. She modeled. One time Jose Canseco tried to pick up on her behind stage at a fashion show while she changed the monkey’s diaper.

It was good that she joined the family for a traditional campout. All the aunts and uncles and cousins and my grandparents were glad, I think. She did not do a lot with us in those times. The grownups prayed for her and exchanged meaningful looks behind her back. Bits of stories trickled down to me and the other children like fables with warnings. Had she really smuggled drugs from Hong Kong in her enormous hoop earrings? We knew she had come home from that trip with the monkey. Was she held at gun point by a black man? Did she sleep with men? These things were incongruous with my life, they did not happen in my family. But she had come to camp with us with lips outlined to look larger and eyes traced in black. She smiled a lot and gave us gifts and sweets. I struggled with my unsanctioned admiration of her.

I agreed to walk her monkey in the woods. I held the leash with trepidation and pride. I felt cool and anticipated the fun. Bright rays of light shot down through the trees like stage lights as our stroll began. I tugged gently at first on the leash and the little creature responded hesitantly. His round eyes were demanding and suspicious. He wanted my aunt. He needed to retreat to her bosom. I was in charge and continued to pull him along. Attempting to dominate a wild thing, I stumbled onto a realization: a leash cannot save you.

I became uneasy when I heard the deep purring sound, but before I could even assess the situation there was a blur of brown flying toward my face. My arms flailed to block the attack. I could feel the painful pinch of the monkey’s teeth on my arm through the sleeves of my sweatshirt. In self defense I flung the tiny body away from me. To my horror the monkey hit the ground and bounced back immediately before I could even draw a breath. Repeatedly I thrust the assailant down, but each time he sprung back, undeterred toward my face. I was losing. My attacker was beyond reason, his eyes bulging, baring his teeth as he screeched and clawed. There was only one thing I could think of doing to keep the monkey at a safe distance. I grasped my end of the leash, tossed the angry creature off me one last time and swung my arm quickly and deliberately. I rotated my arm like a windmill around and around my head.

The element of surprise was on my side. The monkey helplessly flailed at the end of the leash as it rotated above me. I felt as if we would lift off the ground. I almost laughed out loud in relief as my enemy became dizzy at a safe distance. But, my moment of triumph was short lived. The monkey began to curl around, grabbing at the leash. Then, in terror I watched as I realized what it was doing. Hand over hand it pulled itself toward me on the leash, wild faced with fury. In my panic I could only let go of the leash- hoping the outbound flight would buy me time as I turned and fled in the opposite direction. As the monkey screamed through the air like a deflating balloon, I ran and did not look back until I heard nothing but my own heart pound between my gasps. When I reached the camp I was safe… my aunt was there to intervene. She laughed and gathered the monkey as it trembled with rage. She patted and cooed at it until it was soothed. I was shaken and she joked about it until I could relax. Once out of danger the absurdity of the event struck me.

I don’t remember my aunt before her monkey era. I doubt I would have childhood memories of her at all if not for the monkey. The other adults were only a watercolor background to my childhood. She stood out. I do recall when the monkey left. He had matured and become very aggressive. He grew fangs and raged with hormones. One day the monkey bit right through my grandfather’s hand as he fed it. They sent the monkey away. Ironically, the new owners trained him to be the hands for a paraplegic man.

Around that time my aunt got rid of her awful husband and began coming back to church. She stopped smoking and causing a ruckus. I never asked her the details of her life back then or what had caused her to lead such a lifestyle. But, she came out of it- probably slowly in reality. It only seemed suddenly to me as a child because the change was dramatic. Only the residue of her former wild life remains in her sometimes crass and loud manner. She is kind, generous, resilient, and a crusader for the underdog. But, I think she was always like that, even when she was “bad”. She has always thrived on chaos but has sublimated to be the mother of a large family who runs her own business. Experiences like she has had may leave scars, but it also can bring wisdom and pluck. I enjoy being around her, in fact she is a friend. Of course, she is flawed like the rest of us and she is monkeyless.

As I have grown older, when I think about the monkey I wonder what vices I carry in my bosom, nourishing and cherishing them only so they can turn on me and those I love. What does it take to put them down? Will I outrun them? Deep down I know I’m not all that different from her. My mistakes have been different ones but only by degrees. Many of my virtues are untried, I have never had her beauty, money or career. Would I have been any different in her shoes? I honestly can’t be sure.

My aunt was the example all the parents used any time we made a mistake. “This could happen to you…it only takes one step in this direction so beware.” I can see their fear and as a parent now I understand it. It is easy to imagine worst case scenarios when children rebel and that was what my aunt represented for all of us. But, when I think of my aunt and see her life as it is now I feel differently. Now, she exemplifies hope. She is living proof that we can fall hard and far, but thank goodness we can come back and leave the monkey behind us.