The Lawnmower Chronicles – Episode 4

Jonas mowed the lawn again last week. He did that while I ran other errands. On the plus side, my own lawnmower is back after only $36 dollars of repair. In lieu of any more words on the matter, just read this Roger Cohen opinion piece in the NY Times – Mow The Law

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The Lawnmower Chronicles – Episode 3

I hired the job out. But not to a lawn service.

One of the young actors in Romeo and Juliet, who is a former student, decided to live locally rather than in Buffalo. And he was looking for odd jobs. So I packaged up a deal for him and another colleague, and he will be taking care of those lawns until he leaves town.

The lawnmower is still in the shop, so I am in effect renting my colleague’s machine when my lawn needs mowing. The wet weather put a strain on the last cut, as my hired help had to stop frequently to clear out the accumulated wet grass around the blade. As of this writing, the lawn needs another cut, and the weather appears to be getting drier for the near future. But it won’t be me behind the mower. I will probably be thinking deeper thoughts in front of my computer. Or else napping.

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The True Heart of a Theatre Curriculum

Two recent and separate articles have appeared on the theatre commons Howlround lately. You can read them here and here. The basic premise of both of these articles is that university theatre training is not teaching today’s students enough entrepreneurial or business skills, which they believe are critical to today’s young theatre professionals. The usual self-congratulating round of comments and tweets inevitably followed. 

This concept – that entrepreneurial skills and business skills should be at the heart of a new theatre training curriculum – is part of a larger movement in the US that is trying to turn college education away from a traditional liberal arts focus towards a more corporate, businesslike model. The focus today is on gaining the requisite skills for jobs and careers, not the deepening of knowledge, insight and wisdom. It is a natural outgrowth of the model followed by the developers of the 20th century US public school model of education: preparing and indoctrinating students to take their place as factory and assembly-line workers by teaching them to sit still, be passive, churn out products, and obey authority throughout the learning day. As the 21st century now requires different skills, those who see education as the means by which we train people for the working world have now turned their sights on colleges and universities, as the 21st century economy now requires a college degree. The corporate oligarchs that control the US economy are too cheap – and too smart – to spend their own money building their own training infrastructures, so they are offloading the job to higher education on the public’s dime. They are also aware that letting colleges and universities continue to try to education intelligent and free-thinking individuals presents a danger to their position. The more corporate and business/career-oriented universities become, the better it is for corporate America to maintain its control over the US economy and, by extension, people’s lives.

I offer this essay as a defense against these ideas. The issue, in my view, does not revolve around whether or not the ideas discussed are right or wrong, practical or needed. In fact, there are points in both these articles with which I completely agree. I simply do not agree with the premise that colleges and their curricula are the places where these problems should be solved, and I take issue with the notion that somehow it is colleges and universities that are being stubborn, resisting change, and standing in the way of progress.

My disagreement with the points of view expressed by these authors stems from the questionable assumptions they seem to make. Their thinking is simply too shallow, and in some ways are just knee-jerk reactions to rapidly changing circumstances. They demonstrate a very surface understanding of what educating a theatre student entails. It does not appear to me that the writers display any in-depth knowledge of what working in academic theatre is, or should be about, at least to some of us.

It is with this idea in mind that I present my point of view. It comes from 41 years of experience as a classroom teacher, 34 of them in a higher-education setting, 27 of them teaching in a NAST-accredited public institution theatre department with an enrollment of over 300 undergraduates that offers 5 degrees (BFA Acting, Musical Theatre, Theatrical Production and Design, Dance, BA Theatre). Concurrently, it comes from being an Equity actor with 27 years as a working actor in the city of Buffalo NY, as well as 9 seasons with the Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival and one year touring with the American Shakespeare Center’s touring company. Finally, it comes from someone who has been working with digital technology since 1986, and created and established degree programs in broadcasting and digital media. Since I primarily teach acting and directing, I will use that frame of reference, leaving the reader to extrapolate to other circumstances within theatre education.

NB – I will use generalizations in this essay to make points within my arguments. There are always exceptions. Your experience, as well as your mileage, may vary. But I do believe the generalizations hold true given the research data done by the National Endowment for the Arts. Most of the generalizations made have their source in that research.

1. Students come to us with little theatrical technique or background

The first misassumption seems to be that we teach nothing but already highly-talented students who know what they are doing acting-wise. And, of course, you “can’t teach talent,” so clearly all we must really be doing is teaching skills (”tool kits”). Nothing could be further from the truth.

Of all the art forms one can pursue, students seeking to learn acting come to college with the least amount of exposure and technique. They may be talented, but talent only goes so far. Unlike the situations in music or art (which are bad in and of themselves), theatre exposure and training within K-12 public education is practically non-existent. When they arrive on campus, most of our students have no understanding of text analysis, they have minimal voice and movement training, they have little background in either theatre history or dramatic literature, and none at all in theory. They come with bad habits, stage tricks and quirks, and weak working discipline. Often the initial process is not about learning, but about “un-learning.” In most ways, teaching young students any skills in theatre means starting from scratch. We take raw talent and do whatever we can to turn it into talent combined with knowledge and technique.

Additionally, most of them have only a vague desire to be actors, a vague understanding of what it means to be an actor, and cannot clearly articulate any reason why they want be one, other than for the sake of fame and “making people happy.” Musical theatre is by far their greatest interest largely because it’s the primary experience of their high school years. They were stars in their high school musical, they got a large amount of uncritical praise from teachers, family and friends, they’ve watched every episode of Glee and Smash, and they are bombarded with the images they see of Broadway all over the media. This leads a lot of them to have a very, very narrow perspective on the wider world of what theatre is beyond the world of Broadway.

Finally, their time spent in American K-12 education has pretty much squelched their sense of creativity and spontaneity. They come into beginning acting class looking only to find out what’s the “right answer” or the “right way” to act. They want answers only because they have no process to provide answers for themselves. These are the major issues that a teacher of acting has to face to begin with. The raw material is very raw indeed. Even by the end of their four years they are little more than rank beginners. There’s a lot to deal with over that time beyond entrepreneurial skills. We need to see our students first as young people who need nurturing and support, and not as people who need a collection of various skills.

2. Four years is not that much time

The second misassumption seems to be that we have ample room in our curricula, and adding these skills should be no problem. In fact, the curriculum is already overloaded to the point where many theatre teachers fear students are not getting enough of things like a solid background in dramatic literature (they don’t read plays), devising theatre, or alternative theories of theatre creation.

Given the veritable “blank slate” we start with, four years (which in actuality boils down to about 28 weeks per academic year, which comes to a little over two years of effective time) is precious little time to work with students to give them the fundamentals and foundation of good acting technique. There is a lot to cover; just mastering the fundamentals of Stanislavskian realism takes quite a bit of time. From the point of view of acting alone, a year of exposure to improvisation, a year devoted to scene study, and two years devoted to other styles such as Shakespeare, Greek, Restoration, and other 20th-century non-realistic techniques takes quite a bit of time. This is on top of voice and movement classes, as well as vocal lessons and dance classes for musical theatre majors. If you haven’t been in a situation where you have to measure this kind of progress each day, every day, it’s hard to fathom how much time and effort it takes to produce a student with at least adequate technique as an actor/singer/dancer.

And we do not have them all day. In a liberal arts context, they also take general education classes in which we push them to succeed. Some take a minor or in some cases a second major so as to have additional skills to take out into the working world and help forge a career.

The greatest false assumption being perpetrated on higher education today is the assumption that EVERYTHING has to be taught within this four-year time frame. The reality is that this is untrue. Learning is a life-long process, and there are some things that perhaps are best left to pursue after one completes their formal education. Critics of theatre education are succumbing to the “rear-view mirror” fallacy, in that they look back from where they are now and the skill set they currently possess, to what they learned in the past, and come to the conclusion that since they did not learn skill set X when they were a student, that skill set X must now be taught to those currently in the system, because they have come to realize how valuable skill set X is to them now. They could, of course, come to the more valid conclusion that, since they now possess skill set X even to the point where they can run workshops on it, they have successfully moved forward in the process of their own personal learning, moving beyond their undergraduate days, because they learned how to identify and obtain skills they now need for themselves. Learning is ongoing process, so rather than insist that we cram something else into the curriculum, perhaps we might suggest that students continue their education beyond the four years they have in undergraduate school, and pick up those skills at a later time from other sources, or maybe even learn them on their own right as they begin their careers (see #4).

3. We are teachers, mentors, and educators

The third misassumption appears to be about the nature of our jobs as professors of theatre. There seems to be an assumption that all we do all day is walk into the classroom and teach skills to talented and well-adjusted young adults, or that we watch scene work or monologues, make some critical comments about the work, and walk away. Somehow, because we are college professors, we are therefore not “teachers” in the sense that one thinks about teachers at the K-12 level. There is much more to what I and my colleagues do than that.

I consider myself a teacher first and foremost. I think that’s important to state clearly and up front. Of all the professions one can pursue in this society, teaching, at every level in this country, is the most maligned. Teaching is the only profession I am aware of where people who are not teachers get to tell professional teachers what to teach and how to teach. No one goes into their doctor’s office and tells them how to practice medicine, nor goes into their lawyer’s office and tells them how to practice law. But many people have no difficulty saying to teachers “teach this subject matter or these skills, and teach them in this way.” They do not present the issue as a matter for dialogue or discussion; rather, it is often presented as a matter of policy or even law, and if you don’t follow their dicta, you are labeled as stubborn, recalcitrant, and resistant to change. Despite any evidence presented to the contrary or rebuttals from classroom teachers nationwide, “teaching to the test” as a result of No Child Left Behind has become the rally cry of educational reformers, almost none of whom are teachers. 

When people tell me that I should introduce some new skill or other to my curriculum, it is very clear to me that they have no concept of the holistic nature of the work I do, day to day, every day I am in the classroom. I am not in the business of teaching perfectly well-adjusted adults how to act. I am in the business of helping sensitive, nervous, scared, insecure, bright, talented 18-22-year-old adolescents who think they want to be actors how to find themselves, know themselves, develop a sustainable creative process that will get them started as actors, accept their strengths and limitations, and ultimately become well-adjusted adults. My objective as an acting teacher is to develop an individual who is creative, able to express themselves, and has developed a personal sense of discipline and character. The teaching of acting is merely the conduit, the method I use to help my students grow up and become young adults with at least some grasp of the meaning of their lives and their relationship to the lives of others and the world around them. I strive to help my students become keenly self-aware, accepting of themselves and others, empathetic, and people of strong character. I truly don’t have time to teach them the skill set you think they should have. As their teacher, role model and mentor, I think they need much, much more first. That’s my professional judgement.

Apart from simply the teaching of acting in a classroom setting, I also attempt to help my students work through various life issues and problems. I find money to help a student who hasn’t been eating afford food. I support students who are missing classes because they are fighting cancer. I listen attentively when students talk to me about problems ranging from suicide to gender identity to sexual assault to addiction to body image issues to broken homes and beyond. Helping them stay whole, sane, positive, and alive takes up a good portion of some days. I’m of the opinion that every theatre department should have a staff counselor as much as they should have a technical director.

And frankly, this is far more important to me than whether or not they can create an effective résumé, know how to handle digital audio/video software, or even audition well. The data clearly indicates that the vast majority of my students will never become people who make their living as actors or performers. Many will have careers such as mine, that mix a full-time job with part-time acting. Many others will drop out completely (I have one former students who calls himself a “recovering actor”). When looked at from this perspective, I really question how anyone can say with a straight face that “entrepreneurial skills” should be at the center of a theatre curriculum. I am dealing with the nurturing of young artistic minds, hearts and souls – that is what should be at the center of a theatre curriculum.

I am a teacher, and you don’t get to tell me what to teach, because you don’t teach on an everyday basis. You don’t handle on a daily basis what I’ve been handling over my career as a teacher. It’s not your career nor your field of expertise. The most hateful cliché I hear is “Those who can’t, teach.” The response to that is, “Those who CAN, teach. Those who can’t go into some less significant line of work.” Like teaching entrepreneurial skills. 

If you believe that you did not get this kind of experience from your undergraduate education in theatre, then all I can tell you is that you probably did not have good teachers. It is a sad fact of higher education today that research and creative work is valued more highly in the academy than good teaching. Often people are hired who have little skill in teaching, but who bring prestige or money to the university. To be sure, we need better teachers, especially better teachers of acting, in the academy. That’s a complex issue worthy of its own essay.

4. College is about more than obtaining skills.

The fourth misassumption is that learning entrepreneurial skills is something that rises to the level of being necessary for a good college education. But the truth about obtaining entrepreneurial skills is that, as far as I can see, they are surface skills that are not that hard to obtain. While they may be necessary to acquire, a point I am willing to concede, I remain unconvinced that college is where they should be learned. As noted above, we are busy with other, more difficult human concerns.

I’ll use myself as an example in terms of learning new technologies. You’ve no doubt deduced by now that I am a member of the baby boom generation. I am not a digital native by any means. But every skill I have seen listed in these sorts of articles are ones I taught to myself. I’ve never taken a single class in computer technology at any level, yet I managed to learn a great deal about all kinds of technology, because I was motivated to learn these skills so as to adapt to a changing world.

My first computer was a Kaypro 2. I also had access to Tandy computers (i.e. Radio Shack)  such as the TRS-80 (”Trash 80″) models 4 and 100. I learned how to run these computers from command-line operating systems (one regret I have is that I never learned how to code). I learned Wordstar and Viscalc, precursors for Word and Excel. I bought a 1200-baud modem, got on Compu-Serv, and when I built my first cablecast radio station, I used Compu-Serv to provide the station with a “rip-and-read” news service. I started using email in 1991, and in 1992 I made students in my Shakespeare acting class learn to use email to collaborate with a Shakespearian scholar (whom I recruited from the Shaksper Listserv) from another university to write a 5-page research paper. I was one of the first (if not the first) professors on campus to lecture using Powerpoint slides, including the use of captured video. I began incorporating technology into shows I directed in 1996. I taught myself HTML, Dreamweaver, Final Cut Express, Macromedia Director, Photoshop, and other programs.

I could continue, but the point of listing all this is not to demonstrate my skills, but rather to point out in no uncertain terms that skills such as these, and those the authors mention, can be learned at any time by anyone who knows how and is willing to teach themselves these skills. This applies to business and marketing skills as much as it does technology skills. And it’s much easier today, as the web is full of webinars, DVD courses, on-line courses, and the like, and the software available today is much more user-friendly than in the past. To suggest that skills as simple as these should be at the “heart” of a theatre curriculum is, at best, a misunderstanding between the nature of true education, and the acquisition of skills. A university should be much more about coming to grips with your relationship to the rest of humanity and its various ideas, not about learning a set of easy-to-acquire skills.

5. It’s still about “becoming a professional.”

The fifth misassumption seems to be that university education programs are primarily for preparing students to be professional actors. This in fact is likely true, but that does not mean that the corrective that needs to be applied is to continue to make students even more professional by giving them these entrepreneurial skills. The corrective, as I see it, is to re-think why we believe theatre is necessary, who we believe theatre is for (i.e. who is our audience), and what it truly means to be a “professional” by widening the definition of that word.

I will be the first to admit that there are many things wrong with theatre education today. If you asked me to give you a concise statement as to what is wrong with theatre education today, I would say that it has forsook its role to train scholar/artists whose mission is to express the universal humanity of us all in particular times and places with particular stories, and instead sold its soul to the marketing power of Broadway and “professionalism.” The holy grail now is the pursuit of a professional career, where one earns one’s living completely from the income one makes as an actor in any medium. Given that this is now the be-all and end-all of many theatre education programs, it of course stands to reason that they would want to incorporate any new shiny theory that mesmerizes us with the belief that if we only procure this one additional skill set, we will then be able to successfully achieve that Broadway dream.

That’s too bad, because the available data clearly demonstrate not only that the vast majority of would-be actors will be unsuccessful in achieving that dream, but that theatre at that level is an elite art form catering almost exclusively to an upper-middle-class, white, 55+, well-educated demographic. When you pursue a career such as this, essentially you are saying you pretty much want to be a member of the cultural 1%. You want to participate in a system which is deepening the already wide cultural (and, by extension, economic) divide, where only a certain collection of elite and well-off individuals who can pay the price of a ticket can have access to theatre.

It is a sad fact of my own career as a theatre teacher that, as a young 36-year-old gung-ho acting professor, I was caught up in this thinking myself. I had hopes that one day many of my students would rise to theatrical stardom, and perhaps make a difference in how theatre was conceived. My only saving grace is that I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have helped students make their way through serious problems in their lives, if not their careers. But I regret I did not have the foresight, insight or wisdom to see what kind of damage pre-professional thinking is doing and has done over the past 30 years of theatre education.

We are wasting an entire generation of theatre artists by misdirecting them towards the empty promise of Broadway and away from enhancing the lives of people and communities across the country. We are telling them that corporate theatre is superior to community-based theatre. We are telling them it is more valuable to have a professional career than to work with the overlooked, underserved, and underrepresented members of our human family. We are encouraging them to move to cities where hundreds of thousands of others just like them are competing for unbelievably scarce opportunities, and away from cities, towns and villages where opportunities abound and are there for the taking. We are saying to them that participating in an economic model of art where the community consists of art consumers who will pay big dollars to watch, is better than working with art makers who will join you in creating art that expresses their sense of heritage and community. 

This is what should be at the heart of a university theatre education: the vision to re-think and re-invent a sense of doing theatre that works for everyone, from people living in rural pockets of Appalachia to those struggling in low SES communities to those whose personal identity, race, or ethnic heritage is being crushed under the weight of the artistic blandness of pop culture and mega-entertainment. 

Only a very, very few universities should be in the business of training professional actors. The rest ought to look around their own communities, see what opportunities there are for theatre in their immediate area, and get to work teaching their students how to devise theatre for that community. And by the way – if you want to teach these kinds of theatre students entrepreneurial skills so they can make that become a reality in a quicker and more effective way, then I am right on board with you on that!

Conclusion: The Law of Unintended Consequences

Often, whenever change of any kind is proposed, there are always unintended consequences that accompany that change. Take, for example, the effort to create more family-friendly workplaces. The unintended consequences of such policies have led to a situation where, in many instances, women are worse off than they were before, not better. Are we prepared for the unintended consequences that such curricular changes will bring? Are we prepared to have students who are experts at preparing websites, video reels, and high-quality voiceovers, but who have nothing substantial to contribute to the content of theatre and art? Are we prepared for theatrical automatons who have high-quality headshots, great-looking résumés, great audition skills, but haven’t read the plays from which their monologues came, and couldn’t tell you the difference between Michael Chekov and Anton Chekov? I’m seeing this phenomenon already in many of my students, and am looking for strategies, not to eliminate the need for these skills, but to mesh them with a solid foundation of basic knowledge and skill, something today’s theatre curricula is designed to do.

As someone who has spent his whole life in academia, either as a teacher or as a student, I resent strongly the implication that the problems which beset theatre education are the result of narcissism, as one of the writers stated. Nor is it “my fault” if my students do not have the skills that the authors wish they had. If anything, it is the result of inertia – on that I would wholeheartedly concur. The university as an institution dates back to at least the 12th century, and up until perhaps 30 years ago there was little reason to change; the system worked reasonably well on the whole. But the last 30-50 years have brought about such an incredible amount of change in such a mind-staggeringly short period of time that it is unrealistic to expect that such an institution can turn on a dime. I’ve read somewhere that it takes about 4.5 miles of full reverse propellors to stop completely an aircraft carrier. Imagine what it must take to turn it around. Universities are, intellectually speaking, not much different from an aircraft carrier in that regard.

Change is sorely needed in theatre curricula, but we should never forget what should rightfully sit at its heart. The theatre is an intense artistic synergy between the observer, participant and creator in an exploration of the human psyche so that we can better understand our relationships with each others as human beings. That is the heart of any theatre curriculum. We forget that to our peril and the peril of the art form we so dearly cherish. -twl

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The Lawnmower Chronicles – Episode 2

I have never been good with engines, small or large. My skill level does not go much beyond changing various fluids. When it comes to serious repair, I hand that off to professionals. Doing it myself would probably only ask for more damage.

The intent today, on my first full day off in 8 weeks, was to get the lawn mowed, get a haircut, and then work on the RV, which my brother is coming to take tomorrow to travel to moe.’s Summercamp concert this coming weekend. Naturally I would have preferred to take a hike or something equally relaxing, but the lawn was in desperate shape, and my two neighbors had recently cut their lawns, so my stood out like it was in front of an abandoned house.

I had some trouble last week starting the beast, but had thought that, when I had put it away, the machine was ready for the rest of the summer. Not so fast. I did manage to get it started, but had not gotten even a third of the way down the first row when the mower sputtered and died. Not an auspicious beginning.

My first thought this time was to replace the gas. That had worked in the past. So I managed to dump the old gas into a 5-gallon pail (which is still currently sitting out on the garden rail), and then dumped the old gas sitting in the gas can into the Toyota Echo. I bought the good stuff – gas containing no ethanol. I thought that would help clear up the carburetor if that was where the trouble was. When I got the fresh gas into the machine, it sort of started and sputtered, but nver got up to full strength. Then it died.

I thought to myself that, since I had the time, I’d see if I could figure out for myself what might be wrong. I removed the air filter (it’s dirty), and loosened the gas tank, I took off the muffler, but that appeared fine. I removed the spark plug, but lacking any sandpaper I could not do a very good job cleaning it. But that did not really seem to be the issue. When I poked into the carburetor, the machine started up fine, so it does appear that the issue is some sort of carburetion issue. With the air filter off and the carbuetor intake exposed, the machine fired up. I sort of giggled the butterfly valve, and the machine seemed to run fine. After putting everything back together, the machine started for awhile, but soon enough gave up.

I have deduced that perhaps the trouble lies in the fact that when the mower gets too heated, something happens to the air/gas mixture. It seems to run OK when cold, but if I run it for a bit, then it sputters and conks out. Long story short, it took most of the day tinkering with various carburetor settings and pieces being on or off the machine to cut about 2/3 of the lawn. The front is cut, but the back is only about halfway complete. My last attempt ended about 4PM or so.

This sucked because I had intended to rest the old bones and sort of get back to a physical normal. Instead, I am sitting in front of the TV, watching the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics play some ball, and have taken 600mg of ibuprofen. My hair is uncut, and the RV seems to have a major leak somewhere in the water line around the bathroom.

So I gave in and called a lawn service. They have not returned my call as of yet. This may be the shortest writing series ever. Unless, perhaps, a new air filter…. 

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The Lawnmower Chronicles

Episode 1

The lawn needed mowing for the first time this season. I could tell by the dandelions that had sprung up overnight with the first sunny 70 degree day. I like dandelions well enough, but a nagging voice in the back of my head kept telling me that the average joe driving past the corner of 4th and Woodrow was probably muttering under his breath “What a dick” as he ran the stop sign for the 14th time. Time to suck it up, I thought to myself as I left the office early to play hooky from the hordes of hungover college kids marking time until the semester ended. Good thing I got the snowblower put away just in time.

I’m not a whiz with things mechanical. If I play with something long enough eventually I can probably fix a small engine or two here or there, but since I figure I only have about 32 productive years left on this planet I let other people do that kind of tinkering. I pulled the lawnmower, now in its third year of service, out of its hibernation in the backyard shed, gassed it up with gas left over from last year, and pulled the cord. Surprisingly, the beast started up on its third pull, a success in anyone’s book. After carefully surveying the 50′x150′ plot of earth that western civilization and American ingenuity allows me to call mine, I am off on the first row.

I decided first to get the perimeter cut. It occurs to me that the ancient post-and-wiremesh fence that surrounds my yard should be replaced soon. It’s been there for 27 years, and looks like shit. I did have the back fence, a nice stockade-looking sort of design, put in a number of years ago to gain some privacy from the rental house that juts up at the south end of my back yard. You never knew who was going to live there, so it seemed best to fence it in. I waited until the year the sunbathing neighbor moved out.

This first cutting, I decided to go for a box cut at first , moving from the yard’s perimeter and cutting along all four sides until the box kept getting smaller. But that strategy bombed out this year when I discovered it might be best to keep a linear north-south route going. There are too many obstacles on the lawn to really keep to one pattern, so I am forced to mix it up. One pattern I have yet to try is a diagonal cut .Perhaps with the next cutting.

It began to look like rain might set in while I was cutting the lawn. I was glad to be getting the job done, because if it rains in the next day or so I will be glad that the lawn is mowed. Rain delays the inevitable ,and during this time of year the grass is always the thickest and hardest to cut. A delay of two or three days can be disastrous and wreck havoc on your schedule. So I was pretty happy to be out mowing.

Today’s thoughts while out on the mow consisted pretty much of keeping tabs on how tired I would get. I have serious thoughts this year about hiring the mowing job out. People have been encouraging me to do so. I am resisting at the moment, although I have to say the thought is tempting. I want to believe I can still get out there and mow my own lawn. This feels like keeping death a little further away from the door. I am struggling to reconcile myself to the fact that the remainder of my life will in large part be measured by the the things I can no longer do, so mowing the lawn is perhaps a demarcation line in some sense. As long as I can mow my own lawn, I am alive and prospering.

Halfway through the job (which is basically getting the back yard done), the lawn mower decides to stall. Great. It appears my usual luck with machines is rearing its ugly head. A few anxious pulls on the cord result in sputters and stalls. I head to the house to take a break on the belief that letting the lawnmower sit for a few minutes to cool down will help. While inside, I check up on some internet shit. A terrible waste of time that turns out to be. Returning to the lawnmower, I fill it with some gas for some unknown reason, but probably in the illogical belief that a full tank of gas is better for starting the machine than a ½ tank of gas. Three pulls, and nothing. I am about to give up when I take another pull. A huge roar, and this icon of suburbia comes to a decidedly peppy new life. I engage the transmission, and we are off to do the front lawn. This is good, because the front lawn is where the money is. People notice your front lawn, but not your back so much. And since I am a social cripple and rarely have people over to my place, there is less need to keep the back lawn cut. I should learn to do the front lawn first,

Sometime last fall I removed a part of the fence so that I could get from the back yard to the front yard along the east side of the house. Very convenient now, what with the RV taking up most of the back part of the driveway’s width. I really need to repair those ruts in the front lawn from the construction I had done two years ago. But of course, I am waiting for some college students who owe me work to come do it . No doubt I’ll be waiting until next fall. They’re probably graduating, I think.

The west panel of my front lawn is below sea level. It has sunk over the years, and sits below the concrete edge of the driveway. I know it needs to have new topsoil added to it, and perhaps re-seeded. Maybe the whole think needs to be dug up and re-done. That’s more than I can do. But it’s a bit depressing on this first cutting to begin to realize how much work your lawn needs.

Coming to the end, I don’t feel so bad. Doing it on a Monday is good, because I have almost three days to recover before the weekend of shows begins again. I think to myself that in two weeks the semester and the academic year will be done, and the students will go home. I congratulate myself on getting through another year. But soon, I realize, mowing my lawn will be the highlight of my day – a day when all there is to do is mow the lawn.

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How the New Flexible Economy is Making Workers’ Lives Hell

How the New Flexible Economy is Making Workers’ Lives Hell

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The Big Chill: How Big Money Is Buying Off Criticism of Big Money


Not long ago I was asked to speak to a religious congregation about widening inequality. Shortly before I began, the head of thecongregation asked that I not advocate raising taxes on the wealthy.

He said he didn’t want to antagonize certain wealthycongregants on whose generosity the congregation depended.  

I had a similar exchange last year with the president of a small
college who had invited me to give a lecture that his board of trustees would
be attending. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t criticize Wall Street,” he said,
explaining that several of the trustees were investment bankers.

It seems to be happening all over.

A non-profit group devoted to voting rights decides it won’t
launch a campaign against big money in politics for fear of alienating wealthy

A Washington think-tank releases a study on inequality that
fails to mention the role big corporations and Wall Street have played in
weakening the nation’s labor and antitrust laws, presumably because the think
tank doesn’t want to antagonize its corporate and Wall Street donors.

A major university shapes research and courses around economic topics
of interest to its biggest donors, notably avoiding any mention of the increasing power of large corporations and Wall Street on the economy. 

It’s bad enough big money is buying off politicians. It’s
also buying off nonprofits that used to be sources of investigation, information, and social change, from criticizing big money. 

Other sources of funding are drying up. Research
grants are waning. Funds for social services of churches and community groups
are growing scarce. Legislatures are cutting back university funding.
Appropriations for public television, the arts, museums, and libraries are
being slashed.

So what are non-profits to do?

“There’s really no choice,” a university dean told me.
“We’ve got to go where the money is.”

And more than at any time since the Gilded Age of the late
nineteenth century, the money is now in the pockets of big corporations and the
super wealthy.

So the presidents of universities, congregations, and think
tanks, other nonprofits are now kissing wealthy posteriors as never before.

But that money often comes with strings.

When Comcast, for example, finances a nonprofit like the
International Center for Law and Economics, the Center supports Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner. 

When the Charles Koch Foundation pledges $1.5 million to
Florida State University’s economics department, it stipulates that a
Koch-appointed advisory committee will select professors and undertake annual

The Koch brothers now fund 350 programs at over 250 colleges
and universities across America. You can bet that funding doesn’t underwrite
research on inequality and environmental justice.

David Koch’s $23 million of donations to public television
earned him positions on the boards of two prominent public-broadcasting
stations. It also guaranteed that a documentary critical of the Kochs didn’t air.

As Ruby Lerner, president and founding director of Creative
Capital, a grant making institution for the arts, told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer,
“self-censorship” practiced by public television … raises issues about what
public television means. They are in the middle of so much funding pressure.”

David Koch has also donated tens of millions of dollars to
the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian National
Museum of Natural History, and sits on their boards.

A few weeks ago dozens of climate scientists and
environmental groups asked that museums of science and natural history “cut all
ties” with fossil fuel companies and philanthropists like the Koch brothers.

“When some of the biggest contributors to climate change and
funders of misinformation on climate science sponsor exhibitions … they
undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for
transmitting scientific knowledge,” their statement said.

Even though gift agreements by universities, museums, and
other nonprofits often bar donors from being involved in decisions about what’s
investigated or shown, such institutions don’t want to bite hands that feed

This isn’t a matter of ideology. Wealthy progressives can exert
as much quiet influence over the agendas of nonprofits as wealthy

It’s a matter of big money influencing what should and
should not be investigated, revealed, and discussed – especially when it comes to the tightening
nexus between concentrated wealth and political power, and how that power further
enhances great wealth.

Philanthropy is noble. But when it’s mostly in the hands of
a few super-rich and giant corporations, and is the only game available, it can
easily be abused.

Our democracy is directly threatened when the rich buy off

But no less dangerous is the quieter and more insidious buy-off of institutions
democracy depends on to research, investigate, expose, and mobilize action against
what is occurring. 

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Ku 147

Squirrel nests like condos

line the high-voltage highway.

Traffic is heavy.

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The Spock Factor


I was there at the beginning, when Star Trek first aired in 1966. I am not sure I “got it” until midway through the second season, but by the time the show was canceled in 1969, I knew I had been watching something special. And it wasn’t the science.

As a budding pacifist trying to find my resistance voice during the Vietnam War and my high school years, Star Trek, and especially the character portrayed by Leonard Nimoy, that of First Officer Spock, gave me the path to find that voice. Here was a world where war, poverty and disease had been eliminated. A world where money had no meaning (except to Mr. Mudd). A world where a Russian (by implication, a “Communist”), a black woman, an Asian, a Scotsman, and even a green-skinned alien (although his skin never looked that green to me) co-existed with nary a problem. But it was Spock especially, an alien who was also a pacifist as well as a vegetarian (I didn’t go that far), who enthralled me. Here was someone who had a deep inner life, a being who did not believe in killing, who took the humans on board to task when the discussions turned to war and the savage killing history of humanity. Here was someone unafraid to speak the truth. Here was someone who meditated, who sought inner peace and wisdom, and more than anything else, someone who was constantly fighting an internal battle to maintain his emotional discipline, something he had to deal with due to being half-human and half-Vulcan, just as I grew up half Irish and half Puerto Rican. He was an extraordinary and exquisite character, and probably without really truly realizing it, he crept into my subconscious and had more than an outsized influence on the manner in which I would shape my own beliefs and philosophies on life.

He continued to follow me through the first two years of college as Star Trek went into syndication. Almost every evening, from 6-7PM, the Riggs Hall dormitory rec room, where the one TV in the building was located, would fill with maybe 2/3 of the dorm’s inhabitants M-F to watch the evening’s re-run of Star Trek. By now we had come to realize how corny some of the special effects were, and as more sophisticated college students we could see through the ham acting of William Shatner. But Spock never failed us in this regard. In fact, Spock’s life philosophies only became clearer, more concrete, wiser. His was the voice of reason mixed with an other-worldly sense of compassion. His faithfulness, loyalty, and sheer strength of character became, for me, the standard by which any reasoned human being should live life.

I feel that in today’s society we have too much passion for things that are too insignificant. We are struggling to create many of the things that Star Trek presented on the screen – a society without hate, fear or prejudice. Yet we approach our struggle with a self-conscious and self-righteous passion, and with emotions that only get in the way of our solving them. We all could do with a little more Spock in our lives, but with the passing of the actor who gave this incredible iconic character its life and breath, I wonder whether that can ever take place.

His NY Times obituary included one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite episodes. In Episode 24, “This Side of Paradise” (D.C. Fontana and Nathan Butler wrote this episode), Spock is temporarily released from the constraints of his logical side through the effects of “spores,” and falls in love with a woman, Leila, he once knew on Earth. He is, in fact, in one shot seen hanging upside-down from a tree. But the effect of the spores wears off, and when he returns to himself and meets Leila in the final scene, he says this to her:

“I am what I am, Leila. And if there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s.”

It’s a quote worthy of Samuel Beckett: we are what we are, and we suffer because of it. Yours is no worse than mine. We would honor Mr. Nimoy’s life well if we were to keep that in mind as we make our own way through our own particular purgatories.

Live long and prosper; peace, and long life.

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Ku 146

A hawk swoops in for

breakfast. He kills with cold 

furtive glances. And is gone.

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