Good Things Come in Threes

On my walk to BART I enjoy the little interactions that help to brighten my day. Today I was successful in engaging with a couple of guys who I’ve been working on for a while. There are usually three guys sitting at the end of Lake Merritt across from the Veterans Memorial building. Dressed for jogging, they are always chatting amiably amongst themselves but my attempts to make eye contact and offer a greeting have been unsuccessful. As I get within greeting distance the member of the group who sits facing me as I walk by usually flicks his eyes away. Today, though, I caught his eyes and offered, “good morning!” He smiled and gave that, “good morning,” back to me.

That was enough to make my morning, but as I turned into the driveway of the building next to the Cathedral Of Light, I startled the security guard who had his back turned to me. He turned and snapped a quick smile and, “Good Morning!”

“Good morning! How are you,” I asked?

“Fantasic. And Getting Better,” he replied!

These two interactions would have been enough to carry me through the week. But after I got off BART, as I was approaching the intersection of California and Davis, I ran into my son Nate, who was walking with a co-worker to grab a cup of coffee. The trifecta!

22 August 2016, 07:58 — Mark —

The mixed blessing of information technology

Our son Justin is driving to Arkansas to catch up with his wife and children who flew to Little Rock this morning. They are artists with a small family, and making ends meet in the Bay Area became a significant challenge. Seeking an alternative, they’re moving to a house in a forest near Roland, AK.

I followed Justin’s solo road trip on Find Friends and was enjoying an occasional text exchange whenever he stopped for gas or to get out and stretch his legs. He pulled off at a rest stop on I-40 near Edwards Air Force Base and we caught up on his plans to try and make it as far as Flagstaff. He was making pretty good time, but I had suggested that he might want to think about stopping in Kingman. He would be there around 9:00 and it would be getting dark. He wanted to push on because he is really eager to reach his family. So around 9:00 I saw him arrive then continue on past Kingman. Then, about 9:30 his phone stopped updating in Find Friends. About 10 miles east of Kingman the app just started reporting he was last found 5 minutes ago. 10 minutes ago. 45 minutes ago. An hour ago.

Resisting the urge to panic, I first persuaded myself that the battery had probably died on his phone. Still not panicking, I figured I could at least check for traffic incidents on that stretch of highway on the Arizona Department of Transportation website. My eyes hit on a yellow incident icon was placed on I-40 between Kingman and Flagstaff. The description of the incident was maddeningly vague, which of course made me start to feel some pangs of anxiety. I copied the incident ID from the ADOT website and pinged their Twitter account, asking if they could provide more details:

@ArizonaDOT — any details about event ID 641554 on I-40 west of Seligman? I’m trying to find my son who was driving there 30-45 mins ago.

Within minutes they replied:

@mdh There’s a disabled vehicle on the shoulder that reportedly hit a pothole. No injuries are reported. A tow truck’s en route.

Even as I relaxed I wondered if it was Justin who hit the pothole. Then, a moment later, his iPhone updated it’s location.

Feeling a little foolish over having worried, I started to shut down for the night with a final tweet…

@ArizonaDOT Thanks. Moments after I tweeted you my son’s iPhone showed up in Flagstaff. He made it to his destination.

Love is powerful. After nearly 34 years I can’t break the habit of needing to know he is safe.

11 August 2016, 22:07 — Mark —

Morning Encounter

I often see the same faces each day as a walk to BART along Grand Avenue. This morning, though, I saw a new face. He was walking with a lilt. Three of those little red straws you get in a coffee shop to stir in the cream were hanging out of his mouth. He was grinning and from about 25 feet away we caught each other’s eyes. I smiled.
“How you doin’, big dog,” he called?
“I’m doin’ great, how about you?”
“I’m great, too. Thanks for asking!”
We bump fists.
“It’s good to see you,” I say.
He smiles and we walk on.
15 steps later I hear him call out, “It’s good to see you too!”
I turn and flash him a thumbs up.
It’s a good way to start the day.

10 August 2016, 07:47 — Mark —

Adventures on BART

I’ve started commuting to San Francisco every day on BART. The last time this was a daily routine for me was in the early 90s when I was student at ACT. Back then it was unusual to be on a train with more people standing than sitting. In 2016, during the morning and evening commute hours, the trains are packed.

Today there was a young man on the train who looked different than most of the other commuters. His hair was unkempt. He was carrying a plastic Target bag. And he was moving around alot, so he had created a pocket of space around him that others on the train were trying to maintain. When we got to West Oakland station he made his way to the door and got off. But just as the doors were about to close he got back on. At this point there was no way to grant him the extra personal space he’d had before, so he reached over to grab onto the vertical bar next to the door to steady himself. This meant that he had to move very close to a woman who was also using that grab-bar. Their physical closeness at that moment appeared to make the woman a little uncomfortable, but she was facing away from him and seemed resolved to accept the circumstances.

This did not go over well with a short balding guy sitting several rows away. He stood up and stared intently at the situation, trying to get the attention of the other passengers standing around the young man and the woman who was cornered. He kept pointing as he tried to make eye contact, indicating that the passengers should do something to help the poor lady. Finally, just before the train pulled into the Embarcadero station, the woman closest to the pair realized what the bald guy was upset about and moved her body to make room for the trapped woman to work her way free of the young man.

The sad moment for me was making eye contact with the young, disheveled man. I couldn’t tell if the confusion in his gaze was his general state of being or if the interaction with the other passengers had triggered something. I tried to hold his gaze for a moment, but he looked away quickly.

9 August 2016, 07:34 — Mark —

Independence Day

When Thomas Jefferson wrote his first draft of the Declaration of Independence he included this in the list of complaints against King George:

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Obviously, this paragraph was problematic for the representatives of the states who were profiting from slavery (both for the southern states where slavery was the foundation of plantation culture, but also for northern states who profited from selling black humans to their southern neighbors). This paragraph could have set the stage for ending slavery in the creation of our new nation, but the delegates to the Continental Congress’ conflicting economic interests superseded Jefferson’s complaint against the king, and that paragraph was stricken from the declaration. The legally sanctioned, systematic degradation of black humans would continue for several generations before Abraham Lincoln finally signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Some of us will acknowledge that the system of white supremacy that was rooted in the foundation of this nation did not end in 1863, and that white supremacy must be extinguished before we can truly celebrate “Independence Day.” I look forward, with hope, that this day comes soon.

4 July 2015, 13:39 — Mark —

Memorial Day

One of the great challenges for a citizen of the United States is the intellectual gymnastics one must perform in reconciling our national ideals with our living reality. We are a nation committed to the ideals of freedom and equality, and the belief that justice and equity will prevail in all cases. We honor those individuals who have sacrificed their lives in the defense of these ideals, and Memorial Day is an occasion on which we redouble that honor. This, despite the fact that our nation often fails to live up to these ideals, and in some cases, those whom we honor have failed to live up to the ideals they claim to defend.

Last week a judge in Cleveland acquitted a veteran-turned-police officer who inexplicably felt it was his duty to leap on the hood of a citizen’s car and empty not one, not two, but three magazines of bullets into the already bullet riddled bodies of the two men in the car. The officer had chosen a bench trial, possibly assuming that a jury of his “peers” would not afford him the same leniency as a judge. What this judge proved as he twisted his way through a pre-verdict presentation is that justice is not just blind. In the United States, justice may also be deaf and mute. The judge determined that there was not enough evidence to hold this veteran accountable to the ideals of justice that the soldier presumably fought to defend in our country’s wars in foreign lands.

If this were a single, isolated incident of injustice, we might overlook it as an aberration. But this story of the Cleveland police officers who acted without honor, who violated nearly all the ideals we profess to hold dear, and the judge who excused them from responsibility for their acts of violence, is just the latest in a string of similar stories of the kind of inhumanity that seems to have taken root in police departments across the country.

If we hope to live in a free, just, and equitable society we may need to reexamine our uncritical reverence of those who claim to protect us. I have met police officers and soldiers who are worthy of the honor we bestow, and a blanket pardon for crimes against other humans would likely offend them as much as it offends me. So, on this Memorial Day, as we reflect on the service of those who died serving this country, let’s also remember the victims of state sanctioned violence — those who died at the hands of police officers. And if we really believe in the American ideology, let’s take a stand and say we won’t ignore the brokenness of a system that fails to treat all its citizens with justice and equity.

25 May 2015, 08:21 — Mark —

Looking for Steve

Stephen Michael Morris

I went to bed Saturday night (August 2nd) thinking about getting up on Sunday morning and having an early brunch with my wife Anna, my brother Jon (visiting from Illinois) and my parents. Our plan was to eat at a nice place where our son, Justin, works. That plan changed when Anna woke me a little after midnight on Sunday morning. Her tone was urgent — “Steve is missing in the mountains.”

She was on the phone with her sister Carrie, and they were trying to figure out how to locate Steve’s iPhone with the Find My iPhone app. We tried several Apple ID and password combinations without success. Carrie had been in touch with the Trinity County sheriff, and they intended to start searching for Steve on Monday morning. The friends Steve had been camping with (near Stoddard Lake in the Trinity Alps) had already been back to the peak they had climbed earlier that day, looking for him. As we grew increasingly frustrated at being unable to find Steve’s phone (as it turns out, even if we knew the right Apple ID and password, there is no AT&T coverage anywhere near Billy’s Peak where Steve got separated from his friends) Anna and Carrie began to make their plans to drive up to the mountains.

Anna drove to Carrie and Steve’s house on Sunday morning, accompanied by our son Nate and his girlfriend Katherine. From there Anna and Carrie drove to Weaverville where they checked into a gloomy, dirty little motel that I had booked for them. (The motel had a 3.5 star rating on Tripadvisor. Apparently Tripadvisor isn’t a reliable rating service for little, off-the-beaten-path motels. When they first checked in they discovered that the sheets were dirty from the previous guests.) Fortunately, after a couple of nights they found a place to stay in Coffee Creek — a small house just up the road from the command center.

Steve MorrisInitially we had been given a story about how Steve got separated from his friends that was both confusing and misleading. We were getting information that was passed to us third and fourth hand. By Tuesday, after talking with Steve’s friends, Anna was able to share a clearer narrative of the events. Steve and three friends had hiked to the top of Billy’s Peak on Saturday morning from their campsite at Stoddard Lake. It took a couple of hours to climb over the rocky path from the lake up to the summit at about 7,300 feet. They reached the summit in the early afternoon. The smoke from the nearby Coffee Fire is visible in some of the photos taken at the summit. The men who were with him reported that Steve was in his element on the top of this mountain.

The climb up had been challenging and Steve thought there might be an easier, safer way down. Two of the hikers felt that they would feel safest returning by the same route by which they came, so they started back to camp. Steve and the other hiker, Bob, began looking for an alternate route, and they began to circle the peak, moving gingerly and carefully to look for another way down. Each of the men looked in a different direction, but they were never more than a short distance apart. Because of the terrain and jagged rocks they could not see each other. After a few minutes Bob returned to where the men had separated, expecting to find Steve, but Steve had not returned. Bob called out, but the wind and noise from the helicopters fighting the fires just a short distance from the peak seemed to drown out his call, nor could he hear any response from Steve. He continued to look, and call, but never again saw or heard Steve. He returned to the camp by the original route arriving there a short time after the other two hikers. It was still early afternoon so the group returned to the peak, and for a couple of hours continued looking for Steve, returning to their camp as the night grew dark.

Knowing that he had some water and a Power Bars, they might have hoped he would hunker down for the night, and find his way to camp in the morning when the sun came up. Two of the men walked out on the trail to a location where they could use their cell phones to contact the sheriff and report Steve’s situation. They also contacted the pastor of Steve’s church. (The men who were camping together were all members of the congregation’s men’s fellowship.) The men continued their search on Sunday.

By Monday morning the sheriff had activated a full scale search. A California Highway Patrol helicopter made several flights and searched in the areas where the men thought it was likely they would find Steve. (Mostly along the Southwest side of the ridge.) As the Coffee Fire on the other side of the valley (further to the South and West) continued to grow, the Forest Service asked the men in Steve’s party to leave their camp and return to the search command center in the tiny community of Coffee Creek at the eastern base of the mountain where Carrie and Anna had stationed themselves. The Marin Search and Rescue team was onsite and they and other searchers deployed to the mountain with dogs in search of Steve. The Marin Search and Rescue team is one of the most experienced and respected high mountain rescue teams in the state and they were led by Michael St. John, a battalion chief with the Mill Valley Fire Department. Initially they were approaching the mountain on foot, but by Tuesday the California National Guard had deployed helicopters to airlift the search teams to the top of the mountain so they could search more effectively and for a longer period of time each day. Searching with the assistance of trained dogs, the team covered all the terrain between Billy’s Peak and Lake Stoddard to the South West side of the ridge and the Minnehaha Creek drainage to the North-east, on the opposite side of the ridge from Lake Stoddard.

The search continued on Wednesday and into Thursday morning, with Matt Shargel (a middle school science teacher and member of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team) taking over the leadership of the search team from Mike St. John. Mike had to return to work. Anna’s respect and admiration for these two men is boundless. She speaks of their intensity, clarity, and sensitivity. Of their drive and passion for the work they do, and of their deep, heartfelt compassion. Working alongside the Trinity County sheriff’s department, the search teams are comprised of volunteers who take time away from their families and other work to respond to the call for searches like these. They gave selflessly and bravely to scour the mountain, and despite the many hours spent looking and calling, the searchers (numbering around a 100 altogether) turned up no evidence of Steve. A blue UC Berkeley Nalgene bottle and a nylon cap were the only things the team found — items left behind by other hikers, not by Steve. The rocky terrain along the ridge at Billy’s Peak did not reveal any bootprints or other evidence, and by mid-day Thursday, having covered the areas around Billy’s peak that could have been safely reached on foot, Matt began to form a theory about where Steve might be.

While the Trinity Alps wilderness area is large (821 square miles) the search field for Steve was relatively small, and there were roads within a couple of miles of the peak and the Stoddard Lake campsite in any direction Steve could have walked from the peak. If he had found a way down the mountain, even if he had minor injuries (sprained ankle, broken arm, etc.), it was likely he could have reached a roadway within a couple of days.

Matt’s theory is that while Steve and Bob were looking for a path down from Billy’s Peak, Steve may have lost his footing and fallen from the mountain. The decaying granite is extremely unstable, making even careful movement around the peak very dangerous. Bob and Steve were separated for a relatively short period of time, and Steve’s disappearance seems to have been very sudden. Matt’s theory is consistent with Bob’s description of the timeline on the mountain. Based on the terrain where Matt believes Steve might have slipped, it is possible Steve would not have survived the fall, and if he fell, it is likely that his body is lost in a rocky crevice, lodged where he cannot be seen from the ground.

Mid-day Thursday, having found no clues and with little evidence to support any other explanation than what Matt put forward, the decision was made to suspend the search. If any new evidence or information about Steve’s whereabouts or movement should surface, the team assured Carrie they would resume, and search until Steve is found. Anna and Carrie spent one last night in Coffee Creek and on Friday morning they began their journey home.

It has been a week since we first learned that Steve was separated from his friends. The intervening days have been filled with emotion. Deep sadness has given way to a realization that the family has lost a husband, father, brother, and uncle. If Matt’s theory is true, Steve died doing what he loved to do. He was on a mountain top, pushing the limits of his hiking skill. The last photograph of him shows him with a huge smile, gazing into the distance, wind at his face. His body may remain forever on this mountain, and we can think of no more fitting place for his final rest.

10 August 2014, 17:06 — Mark —

Too Precious

Back in the 1990s I had an idea. Actually, I can trace the early origins of the idea to 1980 when I lived in New York City. At that time, whenever I went out to dinner with friends I’d order a hamburger. Partly this was due to my limited cash resources. A burger was generally the affordable and filling option. I used to explain to my friends that a burger was a barometer of a restaurant’s quality. If the chef treated the burger as if it held a legitimate spot on the menu and put a decent expression of this humble meal on the table, it was a good sign that this restaurant was committed to good food.

In the 90s I encountered a book written by a friend, Don Knuth. His book 3:16: Bible Texts Illuminated posited that one could understand the whole of the bible by reading the sixteenth verse after the start of the third chapter of each book. His theory that a common sample of many texts could prove illuminating, revived my interest in the burger theory. Over the years I collected some notes on favorite burgers, and from time to time I flirted with writing a book about burgers, how they capture a chef’s humble side, and explore the theory that you can really know a restaurant’s gestalt by tasting its burger. I’m not convinced there’s an audience for such a tome, but I have a hard time shaking the urge to order burgers when I eat out.

Three years ago I decided to commit to a vegetarian diet, and to be completely honest, the most challenging part of this commitment was giving up hamburgers. I enjoyed being a vegetarian (pescetarian, actually) not only because I felt great, but also because there are lots of healthy vegetarian foods I enjoy that I ate more frequently. The draw of burgers was strong, though, and a few months ago I gave in. I still eat meat rather infrequently, and when I do indulge, it’s often for a burger. And I’ve revived my interest in exploring restaurants by their commitment to this simple sandwich.

Recently, Anna and I shared a meal at the new Umami Burger on Franklin Street in Oakland. Umami is a chain which has its roots in Southern California. I thought it would be fun to sample their fare so we stopped in early one evening for a taste. Before I describe that meal, I want to provide a little context about my burger preferences.

I have a few favorite burger places in the Bay Area. Trueburger in Oakland is one of my top choices. Their burgers are simple, straightforward classics, perfectly portioned and cooked juicy. Just enough of a bun to make eating possible without overpowering the sandwich. Trueburgers are made with quailty beef, ground on site. They are cooked to order, but prepared quickly. No pretense here. If you don’t want a tomato on your burger just say so. They’re happy to give you what you want. A trueburger is also a decent value. At $5.15 it’s as cheap or not much more expensive than burgers at various greasy neighborhood burger stands (Kwik Way, Ahn’s, Giant Burger). A real deal.

When I’m working in the City, I often grab a quick lunch at Super Duper Burger. Like Trueburger, this is a classic, straightforward burger. Lettuce, tomato, onion, and a small tasty Niman Ranch patty, cooked crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. This is a two-napkin burger. I order the mini, which is a quarter-pound patty, priced at $4.75. This is a very tasty burger. If you visit Super Duper during happy hour you can get the burger, a beer and fries for $9.25.

Trueburger and Super Duper are essentially fast food joints. You order at the counter and the food comes out a few minutes later, on a tray. You find a spot for yourself in the dining area — bus your own tray, please. But the burgers are very satisfying and prepared with attention to detail, and a good value.

If you want to sit, order, and have your meal delivered, you can’t go wrong at Barney’s Hamburgers on Piedmont or College in Oakland. Barney’s isn’t much more expensive than Trueburger or Super Duper, and it’s also a decent alternative when you’re dining with a group. Burgers are around $7 to $9 — still a decent value. Barney’s offers lots of variations on a burger, and the Niman Ranch patty is a bit bigger than a Trueburger or Super Duper Mini burger.

So when we came to Umami, our expectations were shaped by a fairly positive experience with local burger restaurants. I should start by saying that we enjoyed the flavors of our Umami burgers. Anna had some sort of Turkey burger. I ordered Umami’s “Manly Burger.” I can forgive the fact that the burger was overly salty — several of the ingredients were contributors: the salty onion strings, and the bacon lardon contribute sodium, and I’m sure the cook salted the burger patty as well. The taste wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a very small burger, it’s diminutive size emphasized by the fact that there was nothing decorating the plate. Just a small burger surrounded by a sea of white porcelain. This was a $10 burger, small by comparison to Barney’s options, and not even as tasty as a $4.75 Super Duper Mini. (The Mini might actually be a little more filling than the Umami burger.) Anna and I shared a very small kale caesar salad, each of us had a beer, and we each had a small burger. The check was over $50. We didn’t even have fries with our burgers.

What made the evening especially interesting, though, was overhearing the conversation at the table next to ours. Our server turned to our neighbor to take his order. He asked about the Beer Cheddar cheese which was served on the burger that he wanted. He told the waiter that he didn’t drink and would like to substitute a different cheese. She initially agreed and went to the kitchen to turn in the order. She was back in a few minutes with the bad news: “No, the kitchen will not be able to switch the cheese on that burger,” she said and then offered some sort of explanation about the integrity of the menu and the chef’s wisdom about pairing cheeses, bacon, and other ingredients into a subtle symphony of flavors that was the essence of an Umami burger. She held her ground as the patron redoubled his effort to make the change, finally suggesting that the chef leave off the Beer Cheddar on the burger he was ordering, and then he ordered an additional burger with the cheese he wanted, so that he could scrape that cheese of the second burger and put it on the burger he intended to eat.

Anna and I were blown away. This is a hamburger restaurant! And unless I’m totally uninformed, Umami doesn’t have a Michelin star. I realize that there is a faction in the food industry that treats preparing and eating food as high art, but there’s a point where taking yourself too seriously wanders into the realm that another friend, English professor Dave Crowe, calls “too precious.”

We won’t be going back to Umami.

UPDATE: Here are some other interesting thoughts about burgers.

4 August 2013, 18:34 — Mark —

Bold Italic: A Beginner's Guide to Oakland

Bold Italic: A Beginners Guide to Oakland
The Bold Italic has put together a clever A Beginner’s Guide To Oakland which helps San Franciscans who wish to move to the warmer, laid back climes of O-Town make the transition. It’s a list of great places in San Francisco that have an equivalent (or sometimes better) expression here in the East Bay.

The list does include one entry that strikes a personal note for me. Writer Sarah Verena Kleinman notes that the Brown Sugar Kitchen is a suitable substitute for Brenda’s Soul Food. While Brown Sugar does produce a mighty fine breakfast (and we have always enjoyed eating there) our older son Justin works weekends serving food at Brenda’s and we are just not ready to give up the occasional trek to the West Bay for Brenda’s beignets, cheese grits, and tasty Bloody Marys.

Do yourself a favor and hop over to the Bold Italic for a really fun list.

2 January 2013, 12:05 — Mark —

Taking Stock of 2012

I haven’t blogged much in the past year, and what I did write was not totally focused on Oakland. But I do want to get back to blogging about Oakland as the year wraps.

I love Oakland. From where we live we can look out our windows and see Lakeside Park and Children’s Fairyland, the Port of Oakland, the Oakland hills, San Francisco Bay, and our immediate neighborhood, Adams Point. From our vantage point, sunsets over uptown are beautiful, casting a glow on the city that masks the gut-wrenching reality that visits so many of Oakland’s neighborhoods. Anna and I celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary a couple days ago, on a day that Oakland experienced it’s 128th, 129th, and 130th homicides of the year.

Oakland is praised by the New York Times for our emerging foodie culture while Bloomberg reports on Oakland’s high crime, loss of police, and bad financial dealings with the Oakland Raiders. We have a mayor who was elected by getting the most second or third choice votes. Our school district is struggling with shrinking enrollment. Port directors are accused of partying with hookers on the city’s dime. And yet, when people ask me where I live, I’m proud to report I live in Oakland.

So many good things have happened here in the last year. A twitter friend, Rebecca Saltzman, @RebeccaForBART, won election to the BART board, and I’m hopeful she’ll help make the system more accessible and economically sustainable. My good friends at Great Oakland Public Schools have been working to influence Oakland’s school leadership in a positive way. The restoration of the Lake Merritt walking path and the restoration of the lake’s connection to the estuary continues. The A’s pulled ahead of the Rangers on the last day of the season to win the pennant. Producers Associates theatre staged its 46th season of musical theatre in a jewell of FDR’s WPA, the Woodminster Amphitheater, dedicated to California writers. The redwood forests continue to stand in majestic beauty.

As the year ends and our country continues to grapple with the plague of gun violence, I feel compelled to share a few things I learned from my students earlier this month. For some children in Oakland, gunshots are a percussive punctuation to the rhythm of life in their neighborhoods. Some of my students laugh when they talk about how quickly they hit the floor or start to run when they hear shots around them, but I know the laughter is put on to mask their real fear. When I was sitting with one of them the other day, he asked me if I had ever seen or been around a shooting. I admitted that I had not. He looked at me seriously and quietly for a moment before saying that it was something that made him deeply afraid and he hoped he survived long enough to escape his community.

After the shootings of first graders in Newtown, Connecticut, several students in my classes shared their feelings of frustration over what they perceived as a disproportionate reaction to those killings. “Everyone is sad because those were rich young white kids,” said one. “Why don’t we have a moment of silence for the people who died here in Oakland,” asked another. It’s true that the terror of a mass shooting catches the national attention in a way that the killing of people on the streets of Oakland doesn’t. Five times as many people were murdered in Oakland in 2012 as died in Newtown on that day. Oakland is a place where breathtaking beauty meets heartbreaking reality. As we begin a new year, I hope our community can find ways to break the cycle of violence.

On a bittersweet personal note, 2012 is the year I say goodbye to my colleagues at Edna Brewer. While I loved being in the classroom and building relationships with the students who I served at Brewer, I found the bureaucracies of the school district, the teacher’s union, and especially the special education department increasingly frustrating. My plans for a new approach to serving special education students at Brewer were scuttled at the last minute when PEC (OUSD’s special education department) re-assigned me to two sites just days before the first day of school. That reassignment was rescinded, but only after it was too late to follow through with my plans. Frustrated by this and other idiosyncrasies of working for a department that seems out of touch with its primary mission, I chose to accept an offer to return to my work in software design and development. This new position combines my previous experience with my newly gained interest and experience in education. I’ll be working on staff for Teach For America, developing tools for teachers to track and foster student achievement. Fortunately I’ll be able to remain in Oakland, and able to stay in touch with the students who deeply impacted my life.

29 December 2012, 12:18 — Mark —

Certified Letters

I got a pair of certified letters last Saturday transferring me to two school sites for the 2012-13 school year. It wasn’t a complete surprise. Ever since someone in Oakland’s special education department (called Programs for Exceptional Children) made a multimillion dollar accounting error, PEC has been frantically trying to solve its budgeting crisis by reducing its human resources. The first response was to fire all of the program specialists — a group of teachers who work outside the classroom to provide support to the school-site special education teachers. Most of them were rehired a few weeks later.

The second response was to reassign and expand the case-loads of a bunch of resource specialists — teachers who provide services to students who primarily remain in general education classes but who need additional support to be successful in their classes. In many cases (like mine) the reassignment took the form of splitting a teacher’s week between two schools instead of one. About a third of OUSD’s resource specialists were sent transfer notices like the one I received on Saturday. Now, instead of just being responsible for students at Edna Brewer, I’ll also need to serve students at Westlake Middle School. Last year there were four resource specialists between these two school. This year there will be three, and I will shuttle back and forth between the sites.

What was bizarre about the letter was the rationale that was given: “As you are aware, student needs change, and we must ensure that we meet their needs promptly and fully.” It’s certainly true that student needs change — every day is a new challenge for many of the kids I serve. But the issue that triggered this transfer has nothing to do with student needs, and everything to do with the massive, avoidable, accounting error made by PEC administration.

It’s absurd to claim that my transfer will ensure that the district is better able to meet student needs promptly and fully. The students in the resource program at these two schools will now have three teachers instead of four serving their needs. That’s a 25% reduction in resources. The aide who supported students at Edna Brewer last year will also be split between the two campuses — another 25% reduction in available resources. PEC is disturbingly confused about how to “promptly and fully” serve student needs.

The fact that this decision was made without teacher input and announced a few days before the beginning of the school year also meant canceling a special program that I have been designing for my students. I had been designing a class that would have targeted students who need a program that draws on their existing skills and interests. Many of the students in our program have struggled in school for so many years that they have lost their enthusiasm for learning. The program I had designed, with input from my students, was intended to help rekindle their curiosity and reinvigorate their love for school.

Katy Murphy wrote about this situation on her blog yesterday, and several teachers have left comments. My situation is not unique, and in some ways, less disruptive to student needs than some of my colleague’s situations. It’s extremely disheartening to treated like a widget. PEC’s decision, made without regard for the relationships and programs that exist at many schools, is disrespectful of resource teachers, students, and of the staff at the affected school sites.

The school board meets tonight, and I think a few resource teachers will be attending in hopes of sharing our frustration over PEC’s ham-fisted handling of their self-inflicted crisis. PEC has a new director, hired over the summer to replace the director who presided over the accounting error. If this is an indication of our new director’s leadership style, we’re in for a rocky ride.

UPDATE: I just got a third copy of the certified letter. I guess they really want me to know they’re serious.

UPDATE 2: I went down to the school board meeting to ask politely to have my transfer rescinded. When I got there, three of my colleagues were already there. They read a letter which many of the staff at Edna Brewer had signed. I was so grateful. Perhaps there is hope — apparently many of the transfers have been rescinded over the past couple of days.

22 August 2012, 07:20 — Mark —

A Modest Proposal for the Improvement of Public Education

I was sitting with a few other teachers a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing the difficulties of finding common ground in the conversation about how to best educate the children of our country. A big part of the problem, we agreed, is the vilification of anyone who has a different idea than yours.

“Corporate reformers” are despised by teacher unions and Diane Ravitch. Michelle Rhee hates teacher’s unions. Charter schools are criticized for siphoning public dollars into a kind of quasi private system that cherry picks better behaved public school students. Teach For America is perceived as undermining the whole system by bringing in inexperienced teachers who will flee their classrooms after two years in search of high paying positions as lawyers and consultants. Politicians point to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top as their contribution to making education better, while most serious observers agree that these initiatives are unlikely to address any of the causal issues of educational inequity.

I’m not sure public schools are really as bad as some critics say. Neither, however, are they as good as they could be. So how do we find common ground?

A primary problem with public education in America is that it has become so organizationally complex. The essential contract between student and teacher is no longer at the core of our system. In trying to rid our schools of “bad” teachers we’ve become zealots for accountability. But in our preoccupation with standardized testing, we may not be holding teachers accountable to the right metrics. Standardized tests may not be the best predictors of long term success. We seem to have lost sight of one of the most the most important things we know about teaching: that “people learn from people they love.” (Quoting from David Brooks’ TED Talk.)

If the best predictor of a student’s success in school (and life?) is the child’s relationship with his or her teacher, why don’t we prioritize school budgets to maximize that relationship? The perceived economy of scale that comes with the creation of large, comprehensive schools is offset by the redistribution of resources to central administration. This, of course, is necessary if the whole system is predicated on the idea that teachers cannot provide a quality education without the accountability of standardized testing and significant administrative oversight. Small schools are not a panacea, either, at least not within a system that still features a massive administrative structure.

“Cut out the middleman” is a mantra for economy and efficiency in business. Middlemen add complexity and complexity has significant cost. Public education is a stronghold for middlemen. In California, the average school district spends about 60% of its budget on direct classroom costs. Oakland Unified has typically spent less — in 2009-2010 it spent 54% on direct classroom costs. 46% of the budget for education in Oakland is going to middlemen. Can’t we do better?

There must be a simple alternative to the complexity of administratively top-heavy public school systems. If we want to prioritize the student outcomes and accomplish meaningful education reform, we need to start by streamlining the school district’s central administration. We need to rid our districts of the cruft of multiple layers of bureaucracy, and create a system that maximizes the relationship between teachers, students, and their families.

What I proposed to the teachers I was chatting with a couple of weeks ago was a this: When a student is 6 years old, he or she is paired with a teacher who will guide her/him for the next 12 years. Each teacher will have a cohort of 12 students. The teacher’s salary and the class’s expenses are drawn from $10,000 or so allocated per student per year. In Oakland that would leave about $1,000 per student per year for central administration. A teacher’s salary and benefits would be around 60% of the cohort’s budget. The rest would be used for class activities and resources (computers, books, trips, etc.). Classes might occasionally meet at a “school” but much of the real estate currently dedicated to our school factories could be sold or redesigned for other community benefit. A teaching career might consist of two cycles of teaching, or 24 years.

Most around the table were initially skeptical. And certainly the system is not without it’s challenges. Comments ranged from “this is what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about,” to, “that will never happen.” But such a design could start as a small pilot with relatively little risk. The Brightworks school in San Francisco (a private enterprise) is already doing something like this. Oakland could start tomorrow with a pilot of three or four teachers and 36 or 48 students and just see how it works. Teachers would be freed of the constraints of the factory schedule that currently drives instruction. Families who chose this program would be free to opt out of the state’s standardized testing system in favor of the holistic approach that would naturally evolve within such a system.

I suspect the skepticism of those teachers who I was chatting with may be a common reaction to such a plan. Many would question the scalability of such a system, and I suspect that it might be difficult to find teachers willing to take a risk on such a program. But nibbling at the edges of our current system seems unlikely to produce significant impact on problems like our current dropout rates or on disproportionate discipline or placement in special education.

I don’t think public schools are a lost cause. Many children are able to succeed in school and the existing process serves them well. But should we be satisfied with a system that only serves some children? We have an obligation to serve all.

14 August 2012, 20:26 — Mark —

Keeping Track

Fair warning: This post is a geeky riff about data and technology.

I just came back to Oakland from a stint in Southern California where I worked for a few weeks at the Teach For America Los Angeles Institute as the Director of Data and Assessments. It was an interesting experience. I should say right off the bat that I am fascinated by the process of keeping track of things. So this job, keeping track of student data gathered during the 5 week summer school session, was really fun for me. (Not without its frustrations, of course — the tool we used to track data was in the early development stage and had a few kinks and quirks.)

When I got home, my attention turned to the process of getting ready for the coming school year, and I started to think about how I am going to mine the data in our school district’s centralized database and cross-reference that data with the information in special education database to find the names of the students who will be my responsibility in the coming year. OUSD, you see, keeps track of students in separate databases. These applications were made by different developers, using different data schema, and using different database systems, so they don’t speak to each other. The process of finding my students requires a lot of typing, clicking, hunting, and guessing.

I know that our information technology and special education departments are aware of the problem, but it seems to be an issue that just hasn’t captured the imagination of anyone who is in a position to actually solve the problem. Quite reasonably, my access to the databases is limited — no one wants a special education teacher poking around in the database with tools that could potentially make a mess of the data. So what’s a guy to do?

I’m at a fork in the road. Part of me wants to forge ahead, stop worrying about things outside my locus-of-control, and just do the best work I can in the classroom. But part of me wants to dig in and solve the data problem. Not everything we need to know to do good work with students requires a well designed student information system, but having such a system is crucial. And having a bad system reflects on how little value we place on having an accurate picture of the students in our schools.

At Edna Brewer I need to use three separate tools to track student information, none of which interact with the others. Teachers use the district’s central system for taking roll, tracking discipline, and recording grades. Because we also print paper progress reports for each student every week, we use a second system for entering progress data which is then printed every Wednesday. Naturally, the data in the progress report system is not automatically entered into the main grade book. And I manage a couple dozen IEPs using a third system. Much of the information about each student is duplicated in those three databases, so if a family moves or changes phone numbers the data needs to be updated three times. (Guess how often that actually happens.)
There are a couple of other pieces of software I use for my own personal record keeping, since none of the mandated systems does a great job of handling the data I want to track.

Data management is hard. Building elegant solutions is not easy. But that’s what is so alluring. I’m not an expert database designer, and I am surely not the worlds greatest application developer, but I have a few years experience working in the application design space. My passion for problem solving is heating up, and I’m weighing the impact I can have as a teacher in the classroom against the impact I might have if I utilize my design skills to make a streamlined and meaningful interface to school’s student information systems.

I believe a well designed system is a reflection of the institution that deploys it. OUSD has many fronts on which to demonstrate its commitment to improving her student’s education environment. A well designed student information system is not enough, but it’s a piece.

10 August 2012, 16:42 — Mark —

Riding BART With My Dad

onboard bart

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time. I’m a big fan of BART, the Bay Area’s rapid transit system — I appreciate how convenient and economical it is for us to get to San Francisco to visit our son, fly out of SFO, or go to a show or dinner in the West Bay. [Aside: When my parents, my brother and sisters and I first moved to Oakland in the late 1960s we became friends with Harre Demoro a transportation aficionado and reporter. Through Harre and his connections we got to ride on the prototype BART trains before the system opened. When the Transbay Tube was first completed, he took a group of us on a short walking tour of the Oakland terminus of the tunnel. Harre’s passion instilled in me a love of trains and public transportation that continues to this day. My decision to make a four-day, cross country rail adventure back in 2010 grew from the seeds Harre planted in the 60s and 70s.]

My dad loves to ride BART, and I suspect he was infected by Harre’s passion, too. Dad also likes to remind us (nearly every time we enter the system) that one of his parishioners at First Lutheran Church was an engineer who helped design BART. After my siblings and I abandoned our childhood nest, my parents packed up and moved to New York City where they lived for almost 20 years. They lived in Washington Heights, very close to the NYC Subway system’s revered A Train. Because of dad’s late-in-life battle with the long term effects of polio, his dependence on a wheelchair made it difficult to navigate the pre-ADA New York Subways. So when they moved back to Oakland a few years ago, he was delighted to be living in a community that took accessibility seriously. He rides the bus on in his wheelchair, gleefully sharing his opinion about the best routes to take to get to IKEA or Piedmont Avenue from our Adams Point neighborhood. He and my mom still fly around the world to pursue their eclectic interests, and they almost always prefer to book flights out of SFO due to the easy access via BART.

A few weeks ago Anna and my folks and I decided to take BART to Zina’s gallery opening at Adobe Books in the Mission district. We set out on foot, dad in his chair, for the 20 minute stroll/roll to the train. The elevator to the 19th Street station is located on Broadway, tucked into an alcove between to The Community Bank of the Bay and Selix tuxedos. The elevator drops you at the mezzanine level of the station, where a passenger in a wheel chair needs to enter the station to process his/her ticket, then exit again to get in a different elevator to the platform. The elevator to the train platform is outside the paid area of the station on the mezzanine level, so for visitors to Oakland—or any first time user of BART, it would be easy to inadvertently get on the train without  "paying*" to enter the system. Dad is experienced, so he knows he needs to take this extra step. He wonders why BART doesn’t install a ticket reader in the elevator so that disabled riders don’t need to make this extra loop through the turnstiles before proceeding to the platform?

dad and anna Once our tickets are processed (on the honor system) we drop to the train platform and wait for our ride to the City. Getting on and off a train in a chair is pretty easy, and every car has a space where wheelchair-bound riders can jockey with bicycles for a spot near the door. In our several excursions with dad on BART we have never encountered a cyclist who wasn’t extremely polite and accommodating, always moving to make room for this endearing, talkative man in his chair.

When we arrive at the 16th and Mission station we get off the train, and the longest part of our hike within the station begins. Inexplicably, the elevator for disabled riders is at the opposite end of the platform. We pad the length of the station to reach the elevator and ride upstairs to the mezzanine level, only to find that the exit turnstiles are at the other end of the station. To top it off, the elevator from the station to the street is located halfway back down the length of the station towards the end from which we walked to go through the turnstiles. I kid dad about the fact that the parishioner who attended his church didn’t think through the location of elevators when they designed the system. Why on earth, I wonder, did they set up the station so that a passenger with mobility issues who enters the system at 19th Street in Oakland and exits at 16th and Mission needs to travel the full length of the station two-and-a-half times, just to get from the platform to the street? (That added nearly 7 tenths of a mile to our round trip that night.)

That’s not the only station where this situation occurs. When traveling from 19th Street to the Coliseum station (Anna and my folks and I rode BART to an A’s game a few weeks ago) we encountered the same situation. We got on the front of the train where the elevator dropped us at 19th Street, only to find that we needed to navigate the full length of the significantly narrower platform at the Coliseum station to get to street level. (Because the platform is narrow, navigation in a wheelchair is difficult because the clearance between various structures and the yellow safety stripe at the edge of the platform is very limited, especially when there are people waiting for trains.) Again, the elevator drops one outside the paid area of the station, so we needed to take our tickets back to the station agent to get them processed. There’s a non-functioning ticket reader set up halfway between the elevator and the agent’s booth at the station where a disabled passenger could presumably process a ticket, but it wasn’t working when we were there. And its placement is downright odd: if BART can set up a random reader for this purpose, why didn’t they put it next to the elevator where it would be readily accessible to the people who needed it, rather than in the middle of a crowded area where it’s not easy to find?

BART is an appealing system, and in comparison to some older systems, very accessible to the elderly and those with mobility challenges. There are some quirks that make accessibility less than ideal. Solving some of the bigger problems (the odd placement of the elevators) may be too expensive and require extensive retrofits to be feasible. But there are a few things that might be easily solved, like putting ticket readers in the elevators that are outside the system. In November we have a chance to elect some bright, progressive BART directors who will consider some of these issues. (Go Rebecca!)


  • BART passengers actually pay when leaving the system, but a ticket must be processed upon entry so the system can determine the appropriate fare. back ^

28 May 2012, 12:12 — Mark —

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