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17 December 2014


------------NPR reported a story about a woman released from prison after serving 17 years of a life sentence. This was from her third conviction for drugs. Cocaine, not murder, took away her life.

"When she went to prison on drug charges, Stephanie George was 26 years old, a mother to three young kids.

"Over 17 years behind bars, her grandparents died. Her father died. But the worst came just months before her release."

It might have been cheaper to give her a life at home. Drug treatment, a safe home, food, healthcare… it would have been kinder. 

Why are Americans so intent on punishment? But I know the answer. It's back to our Puritan roots. People think those old people dressed in black and white were only puritanical about clothing and sex, but it was worse. They believed people get what they deserve in life. 

The Puritans held to an ancient notion that how people fare in life is a reflection of God's favor. They ignored The Book of Job, which make's clear, that no, no you cannot assume any such thing. People cannot assume that what happens to people is a refection of their character. 

We cannot assume that a soul is lost, or that punishment is always the best answer, and we cannot afford to write people off for their mistakes either. The United States holds a larger percentage of our citizens as prisoners than any nation on earth. Last year 1 in 100 people lived in a prison. It costs us in more than the suffering of prisoners. It costs us in families and lost productivity and in cold, hard cash. Our prison population has quadrupled during the 40-year period while our murder rate has plummeted. "The most serious charge against 20 percent of state-prison inmates is a drug offense. That's much lower than the 51 percent in federal prisons, though it's still larger than any other single category of offense in state prisons." Private prisons are actually making a profit at public expense, and those for-profit prisons have been found guilty of collusion with crooked judges to get "easy" prisoners (usually minors) put away for over-long periods and of abuse. While I can't find a figure for the total cost of our prison systems,  one study of just 40 states found they spend $39 billion, and more than 10% beyond what was actually budgeted. We pay.

Even FOX News has reported that we spend four times more per prisoner than per student. It would be cheaper to more than double what we spend on education, than to continue paying for bigger prisons. Education can keep people out of jail. Those numbers are easy to find. Why educate people in prisons? Because the original purpose of prison, beyond punishment and keeping the public safe, is re-education. Once Americans and the rest of the world thought beyond public stocks, banishment, and branding, we wondered how to make the person, him- or herself, a better person. We decided putting the person behind bars and providing training might help. 

And reeducation does work. We know it does. It's cheaper than jailing a person. It's cheaper because re-education cuts down on repeat offenses.

Have a look at Sweden as an example. Their prisons are nice. I mean they are actually nice, resembling an upscale summer camp more than the sort of bare bars and wet cement of American prisons. And the result of spoiling prisoners with comfortable jail time? The surprise is that increasingly they don't return.  (And yes, I know it's a small country, but surely no one is going to argue that the people in Sweden are better people than in the U.S.? Seriously?)


People don't return to jail because it's better than their life in the real world. And they do that because they don't have an alternative. They don't return to jail because it's easy. And they don't return to jail because of all their many other options, jail is the best they can think of. They return to jail because they continue to make the same stupid life choices over and over again. They return to jail because they have no choice.  

Given a choice, most criminals—well, probably not the white collar criminals—would prefer a normal life with a job and family and ordinary worries. 

Most people want a better life, at least better enough that they don't worry about their basic needs. Recent studies suggest that money can buy happiness. To a point. When you are worried about the rent, food, health care, being sick and unable to work, how to find the money buy your child a tricycle for Christmas—when those are your concerns, more money is the answer. Attitude and hope are fine, but when you can't afford to pay the electric bill, more money will make you happier. 

Some people believe the only reason anyone would stop working a minimum wage job—think washing dishes, changing beds, frying burgers—is because the pay is so bad. Raising the minimum, they reason, would discourage people from making something more of themselves. 

Plenty of people believe those in prison deserve their punishment and helping them in any way is an injustice to those who managed to pull themselves up without help. These are people who seem to believe that the only way to become better is to be beaten. I understand that from one angle, but from straight on I do not. My faith in other methods comes from personal experience and from undergraduate psychology classes. Punishment is not a good teacher. I wouldn't want to be the daughter of someone who believed the only way to teach me a lesson was through fear and punishment. It is a vindictive and heartless attitude when I look at it straight on. And it costs us in more than our spite, which is bad for our souls, I think. It cost us in dollars. It costs us in common sense. 

The next time someone complains about their taxes, remind them that putting 1 in 100 American citizens behind bars costs us. 

Stephanie George made some stupid life choices that took her to drugs. Maybe as a society we have been making our own stupid and costly choices about what to do with people like George. 

What would it have cost us to help George instead of merely punishing her?

Our determination to punish rather than teach costs us in more than dollars. It makes us a heartless and wasteful nation.

14 December 2014


"I think women have a very difficult time knowing how valuable they are." Veronika Scott is one women who learned. As a class project built on her work with the homeless, she designed a coat that converts into a weatherproof sleeping bag, and then she hired homeless people to work the company that makes them—to sew and keep books and do all the jobs necessary to the task. 

Scott s earned a scholarship to college, but came to the table with her own hard beginnings as the child of drug addict. She didn't need the desperation for more money to motivate her to act in the world. She had compassion. She acts for others. 

The Empowerment Plan offers work to people who need it most, to those living on the streets and to those open to hope. 

"Our Mission

"We're a Detroit-based nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the homeless community. We mostly hire homeless parents from local shelters to become full time seamstresses. These individuals manufacture a coat that transforms into a sleeping bag, which is then given out to homeless people living on the streets at no cost to them.

We believe in giving second chances to those who want it, and providing warmth to those who need it." 

A reminder that there are better people in the world. We better hope.

13 December 2014


Please help get the word out about the upcoming Tillamook Head Gathering on Saturday, January 17, 2015, at the Seaside Convention Center. Doors open at 6 p.m. The show starts at 7 p.m. 

MC—Mike Mizell.

Music by the Kelsey Mousley Band, Vanessa Unger, Dave Quinton and Jackson Andrews, John and Ashley Mersereau.

Q and A with Matterhorn and What It Is Like To Go To War author, Karl Marlantes, and writer Peter Lindsey.

Dancing by Linda Villasenor and Sal Oros.

Hors d'oeuvres provided by local restaurants.

Silent auction of work by local artists. (I will be offering the "peacock" shawl/scarf.)

Tickets on sale at Beach Books, Seaside Coffee House, and Seaside High School. $10.00 advance; $15.00 at the door.

All proceeds benefit literary, musical and visual arts enrichment at Seaside High School. 

Print by Stirling Gorsuch.

12 December 2014


Calling all grads, their families, former awardees, and anyone who would like to offer a helping hand to local students who have ambition and hope.

Seaside High School has embarked on a worthy journey to establish a fund for local scholarships. Other school districts have such endowments, but our scholarships to date have relied on yearly donations. Our goal is to build a reliable endowed fund to continue helping our graduates pursue higher education. 

Class of 2014 graduates who were awarded scholarships.

A local anonymous donor has challenged our community to match a $50,000 donation dollar for dollar. If we give our half, the donor fills out a $100,000 scholarship fund! This will mark a solid beginning to meeting our goal of helping every student who needs help. We're getting there, but we have a ways to go, and we have only a limited time to get there. 

"Paying for higher education or vocational training has become a daunting task for many high school seniors, with standard student costs for postsecondary education ranging from about $14,000 to more than $50,000 in 2013-14.

"Unwilling to let students and their parents face that challenge alone, Seaside Scholarships Inc. is dedicated to raising money and distributing it to Seaside High School graduates for higher education, and now the nonprofit organization has a new partner. A local anonymous donor has committed to match up to $50,000 in donations raised by the community for Seaside Scholarships campaign. The campaign will, run from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15."—revised from the Seaside Scholarships, Inc. website
Please dig deep and spare what you can to make this endowment fly! 

To make a tax-deductible matching donation, go to

Direct questions to Celine McEwan at 503 738-3569 or

You know you're from Seaside when you know the locals have your back. 

NOTE: The campaign has been renamed since there is a preexisting trademarked nonprofit "Dollars for Scholars" founded more than fifty years ago.  

08 December 2014


What: An Evening with StringTown Contributing Authors. This free event includes readings of poetry and fiction from Steve Cleveland, Jan Priddy, Carrie Allen, Matt Schumacher, Polly Buckingham and more followed by a reception and signing.

When: Friday, December 19th from 6-8pm

Where: Cloud & Leaf Bookstore
148 Laneda Ave., Manzanita, OR 97130
(503) 368-2665

StringTown is an annual magazine available at independent bookstores in the Northwest and selected locations throughout the country.

Cloud & Leaf is a wonderful, locally owned bookstore with a rich selection of books for all ages. Cards and gifts too. Open 10:15am to 5:00pm every day. I hope to see people there!

07 December 2014


"Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud" by Carl Schleicher, 19th century
The other day we were rehearsing a discussion strategy in my college lit class. One or two students spoke more than their share of the time. We talked about that, I think without hurting anyone's feelings. I confessed that I understood the need to talk too much, that I was conscious of holding back with peers, but I enjoy talking too much. That's probably why, I said, though all my peers are in book clubs I have never been asked to join one. One girl muttered she wouldn't want me in her book group. I'm not supposed to have heard. 

But I realize my comment was incorrect. A professional translator and poet, Jane Todd, invited me to join a book club several years ago. (Thank you, Jane.) While I was in my MFA program I was in a writer's book group with serious writers including Ursula K. Le Guin and Molly Gloss and Cheryl Strayed for several months before I found the 90-mile-commute to be too much. 

How could I forget that? 

I am fairly certain that I never monopolized the conversation in that book club, but then, look who else was talking. 

This morning I left a Facebook group of teachers I had joined in the hopes that they would be as "bad ass" as they professed. I found their conversation wasn't much different from the general population. Some great alerts and a number of whiners. Some important information, but also uninformed comments. I don't know why I was surprised and disappointed by this. But I was. 

Before I went out for my walk this morning, I read a series of essays about education, about what's wrong with the direction we're going—just about everything we're trying now has failed when we tried it in the pastand what to do to get ourselves back on track—not what we're doing. 

It's possible that I am smarter and better educated than most teachers. I have the paperwork to suggest that. I have the grades and the honors and I have put in the years. 

But I've also been very lucky. Teaching was a fortunate choice for me. It's evidently true that I would be earning more money as a dental hygienist, and certainly my hourly pay (which does not cover the hours I spend grading homework or most of my planning hours) is less that the hourly pay of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, lawyers, doctors, many nurses, and other college-educated people. But I like my profession. I've been doing this work for almost my entire adult life. I care about my students. I am not anxious to stop doing my job.

United States colleges graduate almost twice as many teachers as we need each year, but 40%-50% of teachers leave the profession in their first few years, so we need those extra teachers. Some teachers find they just are not very good at their job. Some find easier or better paying work elsewhere. Some don't actually like teaching all that much or at all and become cocktail waitresses or start a small business or go back to school so that they can tell the rest of us what we're doing wrong. A few even choose administration in order to tell us what we are doing right. One very candid no-longer-a-teacher stayed in education but not the classroom. She told me she would still be teaching if it weren't for the homework. I get that. 

Almost always I still do every assignment I give my students. I still watch the movies I have seen thirty times in order to set an example for attentive watching. It's a rule I have for myself: Don't ask students to do what I am unwilling to do myself. A colleague once told me that was ridiculous: "We ask students to do things we have never done all the time." 

I don't. 

Current and former students will surely be able to cite exceptions to my self-imposed rule. Some assignments I have only completed a half dozen times. Some assignments I alter for myself because I've already done them a dozen times. Sometimes I have a letter of recommendation request handed to me the day before it's due and I type throughout the time my class is reading a story I have already read many times. 

That's not typical. When I give a new assignment for the first time, I do it with my students. And all the time I am planning such assignments I am challenging myself with the certain knowledge that I will have to do the assignment too. If it isn't worth my time, it's not worth theirs. 

Homework was not my friend as a teenager. I'll admit I do a lot more homework now as a teacher than I ever did as a student. I procrastinated and faked it, and generally indulged in all the same avoidance strategies my students try. I love to read, but I didn't even always read what I was supposed to read in high school. And I did not find high school to be "the best time of my life" the way people kept insisting I would. I had some hard times as a teenager. My students know their own hard times. I get that too. 

What matters to my students becomes interesting to me, and this is one of the greatest gifts of teaching . . . for the teacher. I get to learn about 4-H hog judging and GMOs and graphite bats, and roads in Africa and preserving indigenous languages, and all sorts of issues, because my students write about them. I learn their terrible stories and enjoy their beautiful observations. I read the books they recommend and watch the movies they tell me I would enjoy. Thanks to a couple of generations of teenagers, I know things about subjects I would never have discovered on my own. 

I will be retiring in the next few years. In fact, when I run into a former student or old friend, their first question is always: "Are you still teaching?" Yes, and I would like never to stop. But I don't know if my school district can afford to keep me on half time, the way I would like. I don't know if educational reform will allow me to remain a part of the conversation. 

Teaching is still a critically important part of my life. I still want a place at the table. I still have my two cents to add to the conversation. I think I still have something to offer my students. I think I am not ruined for teaching. Not yet. I hope not ever. 

I still have a lot to learn. 

06 December 2014


Recent neurological research shows that human beings respond to fiction in the same way they do to real life. That is, given happy endings on the page, they learn that a happy ending is possible for themselves.  Given paranoid dystopian novel after dystopian novel, is it any wonder that they begin to believe in conspiracies in their lives?  Or despair?

The Bluest Eye is the only literary work I teach that doesn't offer obvious hope at the end—and even here I find Claudia, the narrator, hopeful. She is the girl who survived the racism- and poverty-crippled childhood to develop compassion for the poor destroyed Pecola. Another Toni Morrison novel makes people want to sing at the end, though it's no easier to read. Song of Solomon flies at the end. I can recommend that one. Stories that offer no hope at all tend to fall off my personal reading list. Cormac McCarthy, for example, writes powerfully and often beautifully, but his world vision is too depressing to dwell in for any great length of time. I read three of his novels and will not read a fourth. 

When I began teaching there were several plays in the Junior curriculum—two by Tennessee Williams and two by Arthur Miller. All of them completely and totally depressing. I tried teaching The Crucible which had made me furious when I read it as a teenager. I was disappointed not to find the same fury in my students. Their attitude seemed to be: Yes, it's terrible, but that's the way it goes. 

How is it that John Proctor seduces a child in his household, betrays his marriage, and gets to blame his wife for his fornication because she wouldn't sleep with him? The real John Proctor had been divorced already and by all reports was a brutal and arrogant man. The girl who worked for the real John Proctor was younger, and yes, Proctor refused to confess to witchcraft and was killed, but it wasn't any sort of honor that killed him, it was stubborn pride. I discovered Proctor's story much later by doing research on my own. But even as a teen I was aware that Miller was betraying his own wife on his way to marriage with Marilyn Monroe, and The Crucible was not merely a condemnation of the "witch trials" of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), but also a self-justification of the pain he was causing in his personal life. 

Anyway, this play and pretty much anything by Williams ends in absolute despair, at least from my point of view when I was a teen. I read them all.

I just can not teach those plays. Teenagers hope that they can survive despair and get someplace better. I don't believe in offering blindly happy stories, because most teenagers have already lost faith that everything will "work out fine" in their lives. They aren't that naive. Life has already hurt them and they are scared; they are looking for reassurance of a more meaningful kind. They don't expect to live without suffering. They need to know they can survive it. 

Teenagers expect struggle and pain, but they need hope so very badly. They need to see through suffering all the way to success. At least that's what I think. 

Teach your children well.

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