In These Times

OK, here’s a new series. I find a item in the news. I write about it. Neat, right? I know.

What’s my purpose? I wanna write. Also, I want to engage with the information. I want to dance with it. I would like to be present so that by the time my cereal bowl is empty, my mind is full. I want to be a better reader.

This family varies a bit in how it reads the paper. One of us grabs the Sports first and maybe the comics if time permits. One of us used to only read the comics but now reads major articles, especially if musicals are involved. I tend to skim a lot. “1 in 4 Cancer Deaths Tied to Smoking”? Skip. I already knew smoking causes cancer. Flip, flip, oh, I’ll read this.

Then there is my counterpart. She reads the paper like it’s going out of style (which, of course…). She reads it top to bottom, side to side. She reads it at the table, on the couch, in the bathroom, and at bed. She reads it until it’s all read up. When we get our Sunday New York Times, she reads that too, like she’s squeezing water out of a damp towel, like she’s growing potatoes on Mars. The crazy thing is, she’s probably the busiest of us all. I am in awe of her newspaper readership.

So, here I am, starting out. I don’t know what my rules are yet other than read, notice, write. I will start small. It may be painful at first. For instance, today’s item? I just re-read the paper and noticed an ad for John Cleese and Eric Idle. Cleese and Idle! They are appearing soon at a theater near you for “sit-down comedy.” I read the whole paper this morning and missed it. All I saw were issues of the day, politics, health, elections. This almost got past me.

Just a day or two I heard Luke on the Gilmore Girls make a Monty Python reference about the beaking incident on the lake (I’ve said too much already), comparing it to the rabbit. Last week, it was a sign posted on Facebook to do with silly walks.

When I think of John Cleese, I first hear my mom snorting with laughter during Fawlty Towers. There was a sign at the college where I used to teach that I would see early in the morning on my way to my 8am class: “Faculty” Something. Something about it reminded me of Fawlty Towers and every time I saw it I said to myself, need to look that up and compare, but I never did. I forgot all about it until the next time I was stumbling out of the fog across that little bridge past that Faculty Towers sign.

There are some things like that I forget and remember and forget and remember again, over and over. There should be a name for that.

“It’s called aging.” I know, I know. The memory-loss jokes never get old.


My Leap Years

Five years ago I quit a job I had loved for so many years but was physically and mentally wearing me down, packed up my third grade classroom, kissed a good health plan goodbye, and made the leap into deep space: grad school. I packed up my guitar, my songs: Oakland Roads, Monkey Bite and Little Verb, my books: my Charlotte’s Web, Abel’s Island, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But I also packed up, “Your attention please,” and “Clap twice if you can hear me…Clap 23 times if you can hear me.” I said goodbye to an amazing group of teachers and filled my basement with bins full of binders and books.

For what? An MFA! Bicycle rides down the long slow tree-lined entry to the silent library at Mills. Small classes. The quiet lawn. Reading, thinking, writing. Discussions with the higher part of my brain. It was wonderful.

But it was a little terrifying. I wasn’t 29 like most of the rest of my classmates. I had kids. I had a little gray in my barba. In fact, I had a barba and often had to turn on the light when I went into the Men’s room. What if this was a huge mistake? I shrugged, picked up my ukulele and thought, ‘Well, if all else fails I can become a ukelele rockstar.’ I wrote a song called Ukelele Rockstar. It began:

Ukulele Rockstar, really gonna go far

Doesn’t need a house, doesn’t need a car

Doesn’t even know where he’s going to go


Two years of blissful debt later, I got my M.F.A. in English/Creative Writing and put out feelers to teach in a community college. Nope, nope, nothing, are you kidding? Nobody. Nowhere. Doubt. Fear. What had I done? Then I happened to write an email at just the right moment and was suddenly told, “Something has shifted!”

I got a part-time job at Laney College, a community college in Oakland, exactly where I wanted to be, because a wonderful teacher happened to retire and they happened to need someone rather fast. I taught an English class called Foundations in Reading and Writing in a program called Gateway to College. These students had dropped out of high school and then turned around and, judo move, gotten into a dual enrollment program at their local two-year college. My students were wonderful, full of hope, new beginnings, determination. We read Zora Neale Hurston and Hill Harper and recited “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” Some of my students were challenging, full of anger, substances, trauma. I rode my bike down through the mansions of Piedmont to the sparkle of Lake Merritt, rolled past the trees and geese and joggers and dogs, over the little green bridge, under the tunnel, past the person sleeping in a tent, past the boarded up Convention building, to Laney. I added classes. I taught students from 18 to 88 years old, from all around the world. I worked with a great bunch of dedicated colleagues. I quickly discovered teaching kids had taught me how to teach anyone. I loved it.

I was getting paid peanuts. I added a job teaching English at Diablo Valley College. I rolled out through the tunnel listening to All Songs Considered. The sun rose on the sleeping lion, Mt. Diablo. I cut across pleasant hills and rolled into a pristine campus. I loved my students there as well. The teaching was fabulous. You stepped up to the front of the room and they got quiet and looked at you and listened. Can you imagine? Sometimes I stepped up twice just to marvel.

I was working with great colleagues and amazing students from all backgrounds at both colleges. I was still making peanuts, almost half what I made teaching third grade.

A full-time English job opened up at Laney. It was the first in eight years. I applied. I waited. I never heard back. I followed-up. They told me I had applied incorrectly. The gods cackled. HR slammed shut the door.

Months later, I applied for a full-time job at Diablo Valley College. I’m told some 200 apply. They choose 15 for an interview. I managed to get the interview. I interviewed. I didn’t get called back. I hadn’t interviewed in a million years.

The next year, my third as an adjunct, I rolled up my sleeves and said, OK, I’m all in for this job hunt. I went to a workshop on the hiring process. I asked wonderful, veteran colleagues for help. They went out of their way to give me advice. I went to a job coach. She helped me lead with my “headline.” I applied for four jobs. I got interviews at three of them.

The first was far inland. I was excited about the possibility, but I had doubt about working in what seemed a more insular community than I had ever experienced. Nearby was an extremely wealthy gated community. Still, it was a community college, serving students of many backgrounds. I needed to get a full-time job. I practiced hard for the interview. I did well. They called me back for a final interview with the district president and the vice-president. There was a mix-up and they didn’t show me the interview questions 30 minutes before like they were supposed to. They handed me the questions and said take as long as you need and then we’ll start. They stared at me. I read the first question over and over, not concentrating, and said, “Let’s just start.” At the end, the president looked into my heart and saw I had doubt. He said, But how would you feel about teaching out there, away from your diverse urban community? He had me. I said something unconvincing. He shook my hand out the door.

The next interview was for Diablo Valley College where I had already taught for two years. I had been evaluated twice and had excellent evaluations, but they don’t use those in the hiring process. This was my second time interviewing there. I prepped hard again. It was extremely competitive. I didn’t get a call back. Again. I felt the fury of the scorned and vowed to seek part-time employment elsewhere. I rattled off emails to a different district. They didn’t reply. Apparently nothing had shifted.

I had one option left after all my hard work and preparation: Merritt College in Oakland. I was excited about the position because it was the only one to list being bilingual in Spanish as a desired qualification. It is in Peralta, the same district as Laney, but smaller, still incredibly diverse. I prepared hard again. I circled the table talking to myself. “You see before you a re-invented man. After 16 years teaching reading and writing at the ground floor…” This job would mean teaching exactly where I wanted to teach, in Oakland, in the same community, más o menos, where I had taught for 18 years, at a diverse, urban college.

I drove the ten minutes up the hill to Merritt. I interviewed for the job with no doubt in my heart. All I knew was I wanted it and I would do great things if I got it. They were nice and the interview was structured in a way that felt friendly to the applicant. They laughed at my jokes. I walked out feeling hopeful. Outside, in the parking lot up in the Oakland hills, I looked out over a crystal clear view of the entire San Francisco Bay, the new white Bay Bridge in the foreground with its long white cables, the Golden Gate far in the distance.

I waited a week. I waited 8 days, 9 days. I decided it was time to move on. Suddenly, I got a call to come back for a final interview.

I returned to the campus on the hill. Another interview around a conference table with many new faces and questions taped to the table.

I left feeling good but had no idea who I was up against. I waved to the gods and said, I’ve done my best.

I waited a week. Nothing. I waited two weeks. Silence. It began to feel a bit pathetic to tell people I was “still waiting to hear.” OK, feller, time to move on. The days piled up. Summer was starting without me.

I took a deep breath and told myself it was time to get back on Adjunct Airlines, a freeway flyer. Here’s your peanuts.

For three weeks I answered every phone call. It was election season and there were a lot. Then, on a Monday, the phone rang again. I answered it and it was none other than Bernie Sanders, or a recording of Bernie, urging me to get out and vote the next day. Later, the phone rang again. I answered it. It was a Feel the Bern volunteer, making sure I knew where my polling place was. I did: the garage where it always is. The phone rang a third time. I considered not anwering it. What was the point? I picked it up anyway. It was the robot lady calling me about an urgent deal with my credit card. Bless her.

Three weeks of this, fueling my doubts. You’re too old. They’ll want one of those 29 year olds you sat next to in grad school. You’re too white. Too male. The kids came home from school. Milo asked, “Hear anything today, Papa?” I shook my head. Maya had recently written an essay where she mentioned that she knew how hard it was get a job because her dad had been looking for one for two years.

An hour later, the phone rang again, on that Monday before election day, and Maya was sitting nearby on the couch in the office and the door was closed because Milo was out by the piano having his first saxophone lesson with the same teacher who has now taught him ukulele, piano, and clarinet.

So Milo was blowing strange notes loudly out of his newly borrowed saxophone and the door was closed and Maya was typing on a laptop and I was standing there holding the phone. I peered at the number and it was local, so I answered it, expecting Bernie, Hillary or the credit card robot lady, or maybe that fun fellow from the fake IRS, threatening to throw me in prison. But it was someone named Vivian, calling from “Peralta” (the community college district of Merritt) and she asked if Evan Nichols were there. People trying to sell me stuff ask for Andrew, my first name.

I said, “This is he,” and she said, “Hold on” and there was fumbling and silence and I thought, well, even if this were about the job I’ve just blown my whole future with that whole “This is he” thing. Still, I gestured to Maya as if to say, this is something maybe. She sat up and looked at me.

“Sorry about that,” said Vivian, coming back on. “Are you still there?”

I searched my brain for an answer and replied, quite cleverly, “Yes.” My heart was pounding and I just wanted the news one way or another, bad or good.

“We would like to offer you the position of English Instructor at Merritt College,” she said. I gestured to Maya. Her eyes widened. I searched my brain and said, quite cleverly, “Really?” I pumped my fist. Maya smiled. Milo blew a bad note on the sax like a dying whale and his teacher said, “Good!”

Vivian told me they would send me an offer letter and I would need to circle that I accepted the offer and sign and date it and then scan it and send it back by clicking Reply All. I said will this be a letter or an email and she said, “It’s a letter, sent as an attachment.” That didn’t seem possible to me but I tried to be reasonable because she was offering to change my life. I thanked her and told her that was wonderful news. I hung up and whispered to Maya, “I got the job!” and she got up and gave me a hug. I wanted to shout but I wanted to wait ’til Milo’s lesson was over and his teacher had gone.

When his teacher whistled his way down the stairs, I told Milo the story and he couldn’t stand the waiting even from the beginning of the first sentence to the end, so I quickly blurted, “I got a phone call…and I got the job!”

Later, at dinner, we waited ’til Amy was seated and eating and then began giggling and looking at each other and I said something about Bernie calling and Maya said, “Yeah, Papa got some good calls today.” Amy looked around and instantly knew and it was time for celebrating.

Today I met with my tenure committee and tomorrow I will complete three weeks on the job as a full-time Merritt English professor, teaching reading and writing to an amazing mix of students. I was falling through space for a while there but oh what a glorious leap it was. My feet are just now touching down on the ground. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing when I took that mad leap. I knew that being a third grade teacher had been the best job in the universe for 16, or maybe 15, years, but I also knew my vocal chords were going (surgery the year before) and that my class size was growing and I really wanted to try teaching grown-ups. So, I leapt. I’m awfully glad I did.

Let the new adventure begin!


Sitting on a Branch in the Drizzle

Some people need to sing. Others to dribble the ball. I need to write.

It happens for days, weeks even. My fingers twitch at night. I toss and turn, words and phrases dropping through my brain like Pachinko balls.

Lately I’ve been better about taking a minute to sit in my front porch (enclosed), feet on the furry green pillow, and dash off some thoughts in my journal (it’s really a little blue keyboard, but that’s another story) before bed.

But there’s the writing you do for yourself, like lifting weights to build muscles, like going for a walk to clear your head, and then there’s put words into whiteness that are read by someone. That’s where writing gets exciting.

So, here I am, in between grading reading quizzes, writing again. Here I am, flapping up to a branch and singing my song. (Suddenly, as I am just about to reach the last line, I remember something I actually wanted to write about! Coming soon! The ice begins to crack. The flow returns.) It feels pretty good.

Finger on the Issues

It is raining in drought town again

but who is more confused?

the flowers

or the electorate?

this climate change uncertainty

those white flowers used to bloom only on my wife’s birthday

now they are angry,

drive white trucks

and vote the game show ticket

…except, looking closer,

the bumpersticker says “Bernie,

because F*%k this S#%t!”


how can we join hands

and throw our petals in tickertapehooray!

when the only thing we have in common

is the middle finger?

Keeping the Streets Safe

Today I saw a guy out walking without earbuds in. He was apparently just listening to birdsong, carroar, the beat of his own heart, the breeze, the whisper of leaves, the crunch beneath his feet. I, of course, alerted authorities and he was immediately swarmed and brought down. They quickly got him set up with a pop music IV, a nice blend of Bruno Mars and Beyonce with a dash of Drake, and sent him smiling down the street towards the nearest phone store, with a coupon for an upgrade.

In related news, check out this blasphemy in the L.A. Times Monday. Whaddya think? I’ll wait for the song to end…


The Dogged Moon

This morning my semester began again and the moon was waiting for me as I emerged from the tunnel. She rose just over the green hills. I told her she looked full, hastening to say I meant healthy, but we both knew she was on the wane. She dogged me as I turned off the highway and wound through the hills, disappearing behind leaveless trees, rising briefly above a cow’s head, and then vanishing into a thick fog that gobbled up every last bit of cheese.

My students were waiting too, sitting at those small forward facing desks, staring at an empty blackboard, as if willing the chalk to rise up and write fabulous things. For some, this 8am reading class was their first college class and so 8am would be their first college moment. All I had to do was open my mouth and it would all begin.

I said, “Good morning, good morning!” as I walked in, because I’ve been burned before, those times I said just one good morning and no one answered back. With two good mornings it at least feels like call and response. Actually, I tried this in both classes today and found I got far more good mornings back than usual, as if they fell for the illusion of conversation and wanted to get in on it.

The day was spent talking too much, as always, and the best moments were when I had them talk to each other, sharing their answers to a reading and interests survey. What’s your favorite subject? Do you have a job? What kind of music do you like? Suddenly they were smiling and room came alive for a while. Don’t worry. I shut that down and got them back to staring up at me, wide-eyed, nary a twitch on their faces.

For my first act of cruelty, I asked them to share what they had learned about their partner: commonalities or differences. “He speaks Chinese,” said one, “and I speak Farsi.” Another said, “We’re both Psych majors.” As they ran out of comments, I introduced them to my old friend, Awkward Silence. I told them I was OK with awkward…(wait for it)… silences because just like boredom they usually lead to good things. I then laid some more awk-si on them. Several more students crumbled under the pressure and shared what they had learned about their partner: “She doesn’t like reading either,” “He speaks another language too,” “We both like to study in the library.”

It was the first day of my semester and I taught two classes and returned to my car. The fog was gone but the lower corner of my front windshield was still fogged up, a kind of frozen blue color, as if someone had fired a freeze ray at it and soon would punch their way through. As I drove off through the hills, I had the sneaking suspicion it had been the moon, still offended by that “you look full” comment.




Final Moments

Six hours of finals washed away when the student turned in her paper, paused, looked at me, came back and said, “Thank you. I have learned so much in this class.”

Beautiful and Cozy

Over Thanksgiving break, my 75 developmental reading students at Diablo Valley College had the option of a “November Check-in” on how this semester was going (for most of them, their first semester of community college): two paragraphs on expectations, reality, points of stress and intentions for the final stretch. I find this a good time to reflect on whether you have entered a November Nosedive and whether you intend to pull up or crash and burn.

When I checked today, I found that only five students took me up on the extra credit in each class (20%), going online and posting two paragraphs about their semester on our discussion board. At first I was disappointed, but then I thought, well, they were probably crawling to their break and going on the computer to do some extra assignment was the last thing they wanted to do. Then I read through their responses, eager to see how they felt about things. They said it went better than expected. They said it went normal. They said it was going “pretty good.” They said, “Overall, this is a good adventure for me.” One student said his first semester had been “A blast!” Another said, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it wasn’t easy either.”

One comment which really caught my eye, though, was about the sense of community in our class. When I was in grad school, something that always troubled me (as a trained elementary school teacher) was the lack of community building. Sometimes, if there were personal writing involved, we got to know each other that way, but very rarely did we spend any real time, beyond perhaps the first class, going deeper in our understanding of and comfort with our classmates. When I first started visiting community college classes, I asked the students if they felt like at the end of the semester they knew their classmates. Most agreed: nope. Not at all. The same people always sit together, they told me, and they just talk to each other.

I decided that my classes would not just start with introductions and personal writing, but would include time throughout the semester to check in with each other: dumb stuff, simple stuff, good stuff, from what kind of alarm do you use to get to this 8am class to where did you grow up to what’s your favorite movie or dinner or singer? I made a real effort to break up the pods and cliques, mapping out different groups ahead of time, moving the back row to the front and the front row to the back, drawing random cards to re-seat students and, later, as they grew to trust me a bit more, asking them to go find someone they had never spoken to and interview them, find out a little bit about who they were. Which is why today, reading through the comments, I was so pleased to see this comment:

“As the classes went on, my fellow classmates and I were comfortable because of the many times we had to switch around the class and interact with one another.”

Another goal I have with my basic skills and developmental classes is to build some muscle memory with them around going to their college library. Marching them in for orientation and showing them around is great, but you’ve got to go back and back again (and back some more). After the tour, I bring them back and have them grab a magazine and find a good study spot to fill out a worksheet reading and responding to the text…but really I’m more interested in them finding a good study spot. I bring them back again and have them use the library computers to go to some web site or send me an email describing a character sitting next to them. I have them check out a book and, if they wish, immediately slide it back through the return slot, just to make sure they know how. Sometimes I have them spend the full class time sitting in the library reading, taking notes, or catching up on their work.

So I was equally ecstatic to see this comment in the November Check-in from a foreign student. Pardon his rapidly-improving English.

“I have never reached out library in my High School and Junior High School. I don’t think library is in my dictionary. I felt so odd with library, once I heard about it, my first impression is nerd, dusty, old and silence. Until… [my professor] encouraged us to do our assignments about library in the library. That was the first time I entered DVC Library, and it overwhelmed me. I have never know library could be so beautiful and cozy. It is not dusty. It is not nerdy. And it is not old. After that assignment, I know something that I have a new place to study now.”

Is he possibly just writing what I want to hear? Almost certainly.

Do I care?




Ode to That Dude This Morning from my car window

No hands no helmet baby

 completely free

No hands no helmet baby

It aint up to me

Sailing thru the four way stop

Y’all can take turns

Sailing past the traffic cop

Feel the muscles burn

Hauling butt down the road

Hear the siren wail

You’ll never take me alive suckas

It’s death before jail

Chance of Rain

California: It’s not going to rain, is it?
Weather: (Distracted) What?
California: You said it was going to rain, but it’s not. Is it?
Weather: There’s a chance it will rain.
California: (Mumbles) There’s a chance I’ll find out where you live.
Weather: What?
California: Nothing. Look, how do you even know there’s a chance?
Weather: (Flipping through weather puppies on phone) Hee hee. Ahhh. Wha…What?
California: What are your sources?
Weather: It’s hard to explain. You have to study metear…uh, metur um…Metallur…It’s, really complicated.
California: It’s a set up, isn’t it?
Weather: Whaddya mean?
California: It’s a set up. Every now and then you put chance of rain five days out and then downgrade it each day, chance of mist, chance of coldish breeze, until on the day it turns out to be one rain drop. You probably drop that drop with a freaking drone and a bucket.
Weather: Dang it.