Blast Radius (NaPoMo 4)

You ran up to me today,
waved me in, whispered for me,
called me close, leaned in,
and shouted at me: BOOM.

You were born with a pressure in you,
a drumbeat that itches and drives you to dance.
All the routes you take are parkour courses.
All the shoes you own are running shoes.

You sprint like a robber through the junkyard of your journal,
surfing jagged waves of the trash-compacted letters,
blocks of story crammed together in the fury of creation,
top to bottom, edge to edge, not a break, not a breath,
scribbling with the pinhole-skinny focus of the genius,
single-minded agonizing rapid manic joy.

You have seen the pool of life and reckoned
that the only worthwhile way of getting in
is to cannonball from 15 meters up. 


Almost Almost (NaPoMo 3)

But it’s almost

almost time, you plead,

pushing and pulling the painted bars

between you and the parking lot,

pressing your sleepy black curls out

toward the light, the noise, the world.
But all the chances you look past

chasing what is sure to come soon enough

during the almost


Dunkelvolk (NaPoMo 2)

Can you read it?

from the German on your T-shirt from Peru

Can you read it?

in the silence that you keep tucked in close around you

Can you read it?

in the bones that you flash when I tell you
Dark folk

Black people

Dark people

Black People

Can you read it?

in your focus as the bodies hit the water

Can you read it?

as the naming of the monsters gave you power

Can you read it?

in the pride, in the joy when you discover
Dark folk

Black people

Dark people

Black People


Field notes: A pay-it-forward economy


Motorcycles are everywhere here, and the majority of them are business vehicles.  Every medium-size business- grocery stores, pharmacies, schools, McDonald’s- has a delivery guy and courier, a necessity since there’s no postal service.  Add to that the motoconchos that serve as mid-range public transportation and you have probably a third of the vehicles on the roads.

They’re all men, by the way.  The reason they’re all men is that there are gangs entirely funded by motorcycle theft.  It’s as easy as walking up to a motorcyclist at a red light and holding a gun to his head.  Women drive enclosed vehicles or, sometimes, dinky scooters.

It’s not infrequent to find two motorcycles driving quite close to each other.  Since the delivery guys are frequently young men, they engage in exactly the kind of heart-attack-inducing pedestrian-threatening insurance-rate-doubling behavior you might expect, and some that you wouldn’t.  Racing up and down the street doing wheelies? Swerving around little old ladies on their way to church? Launching themselves airborne over speed bumps and potholes? Going Evil Knievel without helmets on the public highway? Check, check, check, por supuesto.  As the kids say, YOLO.

But there’s a fraternity among these chaps.  They’re all colleagues, more or less.  They’ll cruise alongside each other for a chat.  They’ll hold up twenty cars at a green light to shout hello to a guy on the opposite corner.

And sometimes, if one of them is running low on gas or struggling to get up a hill or having trouble getting his motor started, another guy will give him a push.

This works kind of like an inverse V of geese.  Instead of drafting off the front rider, the pusher gets behind him at an angle, his front wheel lined up to the left of the other guy’s rear tire.  Then he sticks out his right foot behind the guy’s passenger footrest and accelerates.

The two drive together like that for a while, locked in perfect formation, until the front motorcycle is up to a good speed.  Then his helper hollers out a goodbye and speeds off.

It’s one instance of a broader kind of generosity that’s built into the culture here.  If I have three bunches of bananas, I’ll give a sack-full to whoever’s passing by, and all the neighbors will eat well.  If I need 100 pesos, you give it as a gift, not a loan.  There’s an understanding of interdependence: I’ll help you out when you need it, knowing that my turn will come around some day.  It’s a kind of pay-it-forward economy, an informal market of favors and goodwill, that ties communities together.

I have an issue

Forgive me.  I have to get political.

There’s this phrase, “single-issue voter”.  There are people who decide who to vote for based on a candidate’s position on one particular topic.  Sometimes they’re simply deciding who to vote against, without considering who and what they’re actually voting for.  That’s true to a historic degree in this presidential election, when we have the two most disliked major party candidates ever.

I’m not naming names- yet.  My problem with this approach is more general.  People who call themselves single-issue voters are one of two things:

They’re lazy.

If there is anyone out there who really looks only at a candidate’s position on one particular issue, then they’re just being lazy.  More than that, they’re being foolish.

God put this brain in our heads that’s capable of doing computations far more complex than any computers we have built, and He means for us to use it.  We ought to weigh all sides, take many variables into consideration, and judge wisely.  If we try to avoid the work of exercising sound judgment by redefining the problem to a single issue, preferably one that’s most convenient or interesting or beneficial to ourselves, we are being inexcusably lazy.

The only other explanation is

They’re not single-issue.

If you reduce the problem of choice to one criterion, you are taking a position about every other issue: namely, that they don’t matter.  You’ve taken a glance at a candidate’s stance on other issues and decided they’re not wrong enough to make you a two-or-more-issue voter.

But it’s possible to prioritize an issue more than it deserves.   If you can listen to a candidate promise genocide or nuclear winter and still make, say, NAFTA your single issue, you have some really messed up priorities.  If you care more about defending a particular tax break than about children dying, you should seriously consider the condition of your soul.

Of course the choices are more complicated than that.  But if you know that there would be a line somewhere where you would no longer be a single-issue voter, then you never were a single-issue voter.  You were simply saying that the other issues were not as important to you.

Our priorities are not neutral.

The issues we prioritize are not morally neutral.  Some things really are more important than others.  I’m just going to boil this down to the elementary Sunday school level.  This is the order:




First, you obey God.  Then, you care for your neighbor.  Last, you look out for your own welfare.  You can argue about the relative importance of issues within a category, and you can even see an issue as falling on more than one level.  But if you’re ambivalent about religious liberty or racial discrimination and make the estate tax your single issue?  I seriously doubt Jesus is cool with that set of priorities.

Disagree wisely

I have seen some truly awful justifications, by professing Christians, for their voting choices.  I obviously have some opinions.  You do, too.  Christian liberty means that we might disagree.

But for heaven’s sake, family, let’s be honest and not be lazy.  Let’s do our duty as dual citizens of this world as well as the one to come.  Do your research.  Be honest about how you’re weighing your options.  Reason faithfully about what you make your priorities.  Have good reasons.

Because my heart

I can’t write.  My heart hurts.

I must write. My heart hurts.

I don’t know if all writing lives on the corner of these two streets, but I suspect it’s true of the writing that matters.  Writing is surgery, the kind of have to perform on yourself without anesthetic in the most drastic of circumstances, the kind you have to get through or die.  There’s a reason so many writers say writing fast is the only way to write.

I have not been writing fast.  I have not been writing at all. The little daily hurts, the news,  the mundane disappointments, the spiritual paper cuts, build up and fester without writing.  They mildew like the spoons that get tossed one by one into the office sink.  I skip writing for one day, and four months later, I find myself going mad.

Then I remember that the only way out is through.  I have to write.

I have to write because my heart is full of the names of the murdered, all the hashtags that should never have been.

I have to write because my heart is longing for my students who suffer because their parents will not see them.

I have to write because my heart is glad in the moments of laughter I want to share.

I have to write because my heart is an unfinished thing.

I have to write because my heart is aching to connect.

I have to write.

American educational reform: A dialogue

The “failing public schools” narrative is literally older than I am.  It never dies.  Sometimes it gets a boost from clueless billionaires in Silicon Valley who think they can pay to make the world fit their conception of reality.

Quick summary: The US is not falling behind Finland or China or Estonia in any meaningful sense.  The PISA test is just a test.  And when you correct for childhood poverty, the US hops right back up into the top of the rankings.

What we actually have is an equity problem.  We have a system that adds to the disadvantages poor and minority students face rather than compensating for them. “IT’S POVERTY AND RACISM, STUPID” would be my campaign slogan when I run to replace John King as Ed Secretary. (Yes, I know that isn’t how it works.)  There’s a whole lot of evidence for that.  Actual research from people who know what they’re talking about.

But reformers don’t like that message. They also resent the implication that money and good intentions doesn’t qualify them to override the professional opinions of, well, professionals.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Teachers aren’t considered professionals, and teaching isn’t regarded as a profession – that is, a bundle of knowledge and skills that are not innate or common to everyone but which take work to acquire and can be expanded with study.  And although the comparison is tired, it’s true: doctors don’t get treated this way.

For example:

Doctor: You are experiencing these symptoms because you have cancer.  You need chemo and radiation.

Patient: I have heard antibiotics are good.  Give me antibiotics.

Doctor: Antibiotics are not going to do anything to help. You have cancer.  You need chemo and radiation.

Patient: Chemo and radiation are expensive. Antibiotics are cheap.  Give me antibiotics.

Doctor: It would be malpractice for me to give you antibiotics.  You do not have a problem that antibiotics will help.  Your problem is cancer.  You need chemo and radiation.

Patient: I will pay you extra if you cure me with antibiotics.

Doctor: You can’t bribe me to change how medicine works.

Patient: Give me antibiotics or I will get you fired.

Doctor: Threatening me isn’t going to change the diagnosis or the treatment.

Patient: You’re a lazy doctor and a parasite on society.

Doctor: And you still have cancer.  I’m just rapidly losing interest in continuing to try to help you with that.

Patient: Stop making excuses and fix my illness.

Doctor: My treatment plan is chemo and radiation.

Patient: A good doctor would be able to cure me with antibiotics.

Doctor: (leaves medicine to work a cubicle job where she never has to deal with people)

Faith, Hope, and Grit

I listened to an episode of Radiolab about American football (the only real football). In the back half of the episode, they examined the declining enrollment in youth sports. In calling up coaches, they heard a recurring theme:

“You can’t just hit reset.”

Coaches were saying that kids won’t play if they can’t win. It’s not like a video game, they said, where if you’re losing, you can start over. Teams that don’t win have a hard time getting and keeping kids.

I felt like I had heard this story somewhere before. Kids don’t stick it out when things get hard. Hmm. I swear there’s an educationish reformy word for this.

There was also an interview with an 8-year-old kid, who rejected the entire model of winning and losing. Playing is for fun, he said. Winning and trophies was just for people to be bullies.

I started considering whether this growing mindset is really a bad thing. Do we still live in a world where sticking it out when you’re losing is an important lesson? Continue reading