Happy Advent

How I’m doing

Well, the new oncologist seems to feel that I’m doing about as well as anyone could be compared with how I started. His description of my condition a year ago was hair raising.

Now, for those who know what “PSA” means, my current PSA was so low that it could not be accurately measured. The most recent CAT scan shows that the tumors are even a little bit smaller than they were last summer when the chemo therapy had just finished.  This is because of my daily testosterone blockers. He said my condition would be stable for maybe a few months, or maybe five years, or maybe ten years. It’s hard to predict.

There are some symptoms that continue because of the treatment – mainly fatigue, muscle pains, and joint pains, and some others whose description I’ll mercifully spare you from.  So I’m not likely to be going out to night-time concerts nor walking as far as I used to. He does want to check out these additional symptoms  with an MRI when I come back to Portland for Christmas and New Year’s.

These days, the most prominent pain that I’m nursing is a broken heart. Having decided to be vulnerable and open, well, that’s the risk, isn’t it?  And I don’t think that  testosterone blockers are going to help the situation, either.  Meanwhile I think I have a tremendous amount to devote to any sort of relationship. The mystery for me is why some don’t see it. (sigh)

Happy Advent

Advent is a sort of “countdown to Christmas.”  It’s a season that encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas, plus the days in between them. So if Christmas is the coming of God then Advent is a season of hope, a season that looks forward to light and life.

This year, in the Western tradition, Advent begins on Sunday, November 27 (the day I plan to return to California) and it’s celebrated until Saturday December 24. (before then, I plan to be back in Portland). Churches may present readings or prayers on the four Sundays, or on every day of the season. Also there are a huge number of ancillary activities, such as setting up Christmas Trees, stringing lights and displaying other decorations. All of these different advent traditions are meant to bring God to mind.

Literary Lessons

Concerning my tendency towards serial jokes, some have said that I’m just using humor to block out unpleasant or stressful situations. But I think it’s actually just a way to more thoroughly process information. This would explain why it’s so compelling for me — if I don’t make the joke, I won’t capture the entire meaning. Does anybody else – who’s not a standup comic – do the same thing?

One of my best friends recently told me that when she reads the Psalms (ancient Biblical poetry) God speaks to her through them. In contrast, in my life, God has usually spoken to me through events, which can be a bit rougher to deal with than reading a book.  For instance, the way this cancer was discovered leads me to think there’s a divine message there. I suppose that at least part of that message is “Get moving — time’s a’wasting!!”  So I’ve been taking some time to tell many of my old friends how much I care for them, how much I love them.  I wish I’d learned these lessons in vulnerability  (or been in a position to learn them) many years ago.  I would have avoided hurting some friends if I had.

Still Living in the Past

When I taught school at Schafer Park School. I took my class camping for a week at Point Reyes every spring. Several parents would come along as chaperons. This took some gumption on my part because one never knows what might happen. In fact, on my very first trip, one of the students was rehearsing a skit in the Quonset hut at left when he rolled off a couch onto the ground and broke his arm. One of the parents drove him to a hospital.

Luckily, over the years, my chaperons included folks like Gus Wright, Paige Adza, Karen Cauble, Kathy Amaral, Diane Evitt, Jim Lorts, Sylvia Boyd, Chuck Walker, Jeff & Judy Cook, Phil Arzino, Garry Horrocks, Dana Richardson, Fernando Lopez, Richard Wong, Isabel Souto, Deisy Bates, Robin Lewis, and many others, and especially, Kay Frye. (and by the way I love all of them) who worked and chaperoned to make the camping trips feasible.

I often use one of those trips, the third year’s, as evidence of God’s interventions in my life and in the lives of  people around me, solving problems that no one could do by themselves.

The Mosquito Eaters

The class was  extremely difficult to work with that year, mainly because of a small group of students who intimidated the rest, I’ll change the names of those five kids, even though they are all over forty years old by now.  They totally debunked the myth that “gifted and talented” students are all sweet, compliant nerds who just love homework.

Most of their bullying activities took place outside of class at recess. As I learned later, they had dubbed their gang the “mosquito eaters.” The name came from the name  of a teacher whom they continually disparaged  – Ms. Kido. The gang leader was Barry – a handsome kid with curly hair. His lieutenant was Cameron – a short dark-haired kid who usually wore a scowl below his shifty eyes. Waverly and Pearl were two girls with smirks of cattyness.  Finally, Riley was a follower, a goof-ball with a 1950’s hair cut. He wouldn’t be behaving badly if not for the bad examples of the other four.

They didn’t beat anybody up, they rarely even cut in line. But they wielded subtle put-downs like little dirt bombs, slipping them (metaphorically) into their victims’ minds. Gradually they convinced the rest of the class that they (the mosquito eaters) were the cool cats,  the classy ones with style, who even listened to records by the Beastie Boys, while the rest of the class was a bunch of loser nerds and dweebs who probably listened to the Beatles.

The thought of taking these kids to camp, and living with this little gang in close quarters for five days, sixty miles from the school, set my heart to despairing.

I  explained the situation (not using the kids’ names) to members of my prayer group at church. Meanwhile, planning continued for the camp.

The Solution

And then one day, Pearl came up to me during class. “Mr. Mac,” she said. “I can’t go camping this year.”My ears perked up. Camp had been scheduled for the week after spring vacation. Could this juxtaposition be the problem? It was.

Pearl said, “My cousin’s getting married in Oklahoma. The whole family’s going over there for two weeks.”  Well! This was news. I breathed a bit easier about how camp would go, though.

And then the next week, Waverly came up to me in class.  “Mr. Mac” she said. “I can’t go camping this year.”  What a shame! Why not? Waverly said, “My cousin’s getting married in Korea! the whole family’s going over there for three weeks.” I breathed even easier – now there were two fewer little gang members to deal with at camp.

Then, a week later, Barry brought a knife to school. He probably wasn’t going to do anything with it, except flash it around at recess to show that he was more cool than anybody else on the playground. Well, one of my students took courage and told the principal about it. Barry was brought down to the school office where it was determined that he did indeed have a knife, which was confiscated.  He was promptly suspended for a few days. But you know what? Kids who have been suspended can’t attend overnight field trips. Barry would spend that week by himself in another teacher’s classroom.

Riley and Cameron were the only ones left. Then Cameron got into some minor altercation with a student. I phoned his father about it after school. This would be a conversation that the two of us had had many times. He sighed and said, “Mr. MacFarlane,  I don’t know if Cameron has told you, but we moved to another city a couple months ago. We’ve been driving him back to Schafer Park School every day because he likes your class so much.  But we finally  gave him an ultimatum. Either he stop all these little screw-ups, or we’d send him to the normal neighborhood school for our area. He won’t be returning to Schafer Park after spring vacation.”

Cameron’s father had volunteered to bring some food for the camp. I was afraid he might forget or disregard it after the week-long vacation. But bring it he did on the day we left.   He was a man of his word.

Nobody else in the class would be missing camp that year. And now the only little gang member left was Riley.  But he was just a goof ball. I wasn’t worried about his behavior in the absence of his bad role models.

The Camp

The camp lasted five days. On the first day, it was a somber group of students who gathered at Pt. Reyes’s Clem Miller Education Center. By the next day, minus the mosquito eaters the mood had noticeably lifted . The many parent chaperons, as well as our student teacher, also proved to be good models, lifting the mood. but it was mostly the students themselves who accomplished the heavy emotional lifting. And every day, the group healed further, and eventually, even Riley had gotten “with it.”

The following week, the students who showed up for school that Monday was a group transformed through their positive experiences.   Barry was waiting, but the students took him in hand. They gave him no power over their self esteem. They ignored his insults. The following week, Waverley returned from Oklahoma and then received the same treatment.  A week later, Pearl returned from Korea and joined in the newly-positive atmosphere. And the positive vibes maintained themselves right through to the end of the year. Even Barry finished the year positively, transformed through their good example.

Many years later, Pearl stopped by Schafer Park School to visit her old teacher. She told me that ours was her favorite class ever.  It was gratifying to hear. Her positive memories were the product of the class itself as much as it may have been my own influence. It gave me faith that the other class members, including Barry and Cameron, had come out of the episode with a positivity that would last.

As for me, the message was that God would keep me in mind. It’s a message that I received at school many times over the years.

The requisite elephant video

Turns out that elephants love to chase antelopes

And Adam Neely posted one of his typically thoughtful essay- this one on music copyright.