Gustine Unified: What Empty Buildings Teach


Alright, really quick. I'm hoping to get something up about script frenzy that's been mulling around in my head but it keeps getting bullied and knocked over by all the photography, family, and economy concerns. As such, I decided that I needed to start taking these things on rather than allow them to have their way with me. Yes, I even mean the economy.

Today, I sat down and started a letter to the Editor that I'm hoping to send off to several nearby papers. It's an important issue that is impacting my family but even some of you that follow the blog. While the letter is targeted at the Gustine Unified School District, the same symptoms are being reported across the country. On NPR this afternoon they even profiled the Kansas City school district that is closing half of their public schools. This school district has received over $2 billion and has state of the art everything, complete with olympic sized pool. Now they're going to try and sell the school sites in hopes to avoid bankruptcy.

What follows is the first draft of what I will be sending off to the papers. I'm possibly considering printing out a huge stack of them and taking my son on one of our walks through the town so we can leave them in all the mailboxes. This is that important. Feel free to post this elsewhere and pass it along if you think it might help your own ailing school district. If by chance you happen to fall within the reaches of Gustine Unified, please write your own letters to the editor and flood the papers with cries of dissent. And remember, board meetings are the second Wednesday of each month. I think it's time they start hearing from the people their decisions impact.

What Empty Buildings Teach

I have a unique perspective with regards to the education funding crisis in California. No, I’m not a politician, and while I am college-educated I am not a current student or teacher. However, I do come from family of teachers. That in itself is not all that unique even though it may soon be the way layoffs are going. What is unique is that up until about a year ago I worked as a journeyman carpenter for a company that only does government work. My job was to travel up and down the State installing learning aids - whiteboards, projector screens, tack board. Day in, day out, I visited school after school, rarely spending two consecutive days at the same job site.

I saw mighty old buildings fighting the good fight against the rigors of time, the kind we used to see in after school specials with grand halls lined with lockers. I saw schools like those I attended in the Valley, all spread out with portables scattered here and there. Then there were the great wonders of new construction springing up all over the state, brand new campuses that rivaled even the best of colleges in both size and scope.

These new buildings were filled with skylights, lofted ceilings, SMART boards that transfer the teacher’s writing from the board to the computer, marker boards that covered complete walls from the floor to a foot above my head, and amenities that most of us can only dream of having in our own homes. I’ve installed screens that should have been in movie theatres, put in mounts for projectors that by themselves cost more than the car I drive, and during all of this I was paid the same if not better wages than the college-educated teachers that would end up inheriting those classrooms. Or will they?

It seems we have the money to put up $5,000 SMART boards across the State but no money to show the teachers how to use them. We build multi-million dollar schools but can’t afford to keep on teachers to work in them. In Gustine Unified alone, next year, the class sizes are going to balloon to nearly 40 students per class. A quarter of the high school staff has been given pink slips this year, on top of the cuts made the year before.

And where do we place the blame? On the teachers who went to college for six plus years just so that they could be paid the same as an entry level carpenter putting up white boards? Perhaps it’s their fault for not figuring out how to get a $10,000 projector to teach the extra ten to twenty kids in their class for them.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a misallocation of funds by unelected officials who try to strong arm teachers into furlough days without providing budgetary information to them… people who push to build new schools but can’t find the money to fill them with teachers.

With these unelected officials running amuck, how do we stop them? Do we go to the Federal Government and look for change there? Maybe we try the State with its inability to pass a budget? Or perhaps we look to the people who appoint district superintendants, those five elected officials on the school board.

We have a choice: we can either choose to side with those men and women struggling to teach our children without the support of the district, or we can side with those who take our money to put up buildings in honor of their own egos, so that they can say, “Look at what I built when I was there.” In truth, those empty school buildings can teach us something but the question we have to ask ourselves is: is this a lesson we can afford to learn?

Cathartic Writing


I'm easing into writing tonight. It's writing group night and I'm actually at writing group and eating my chicken ceaser salad avec French bagget. While I've made it to a few over the last couple months, I don't think I've actually written at one, unless it was marketing stuff for the photography business. Getting back to writing after long gaps is always difficult but I'm finding it a bit easier this time around.

I think that's because I eased myself into it with fluff pieces. Well, they weren't really fluff per se, rather they had no purpose other than relieving stress. You see, my perception of part of my world, the real world, has been flipped on it's head. Actually, it has sort of been dropped on its head. That has left me . . . cranky.

I found myself wishing I could do whatever I wanted. If only I had demi-god status and could manipulate the whole of the space time continuum. Then I realized that I could. All I had to do was sit down and write.

Because what I was writing was for me and me alone, I could not only do whatever I wanted but I could write however I wanted. Typos, stumbles, bumbles, not setting things up, jumping around to whatever I wanted to write rather than trying to keep things contiguous. It was great. I even found myself thinking silly things like, “If I go to bed early I can get up before the little one and do some writing.”

If you find yourself in the same spot, if you've been hibernating all winter like I have, then you might want to give the cathartic writing a shot. Have a character who just so happens to be built just like you, with the same hair color, same mannerisms, same . . . everything, walk into work and give the boss what for. Have them orchestrate the demise of that annoying cheerleader in the next row over. I wouldn't suggest keeping names the same, and I definitely wouldn't do anything way over the edge just in case something does happen to your characters FOIL and the cops find your little story. But definitely have fun with it. I think that if you do, you'll realize why you were writing in the first place and get back on the path you were on before all the rules knocked you off of it.

Now, I have to try and steer that forward momentum towards one of my WIPs. So, here I go. I'm going to find a picture to put up with this post and then navigate away.

What did you DO?!


Thought I'd quickly post about the peasant's new clothes before I go to bed. You see, I was putting up a post at our photography blog tonight and realized that it was in desperate need of a makeover. That got me to looking around for a new theme for it that I rather like (although the top picture needs to be replace, but all in due time). And of course that got me to looking at all the other cool themes they had available. 

I've always wanted a three column theme, but could never find one that I liked. Tonight I decided to look again. Something like 15 pages into my search I happened upon this one and loved it. Anyone who really knows me will tell you, "this is Dave." Total eastern wisdom tree hugger stuff going on here . . . and it's all in green. :o) 

Anyway, this layout appears to have more room to play around in, and frankly, all of those buttons and gizmos that I painstakingly programmed by hand weren't really being used as far as I know, so I decided to let go of my attachment to them. If you want to know what's been keeping me away from writing here, check out the photography blog. Things have been going really well on that end. Also, I'm gearing up to send Spark off to Writers of the Future. Deadline is the 31st, so I'll be getting it off the first of the week. 

Your Writing Secret Santa

Who Keeps You Going?

“My wife.” “My family.” “The Crit Nazis.” “An angry little voice inside my head named Sergio Velasquez of Pompedore.” These are common answers to the title question. And we often give thanks to these people around this time of the year. I know that Sergio was very happy that I mentioned him over Thanksgiving dinner prayer. But I also think that there are other people in our lives that deserve thanks for keeping us going and we don't often acknowledge them.

I'm not about to chastise you about service members or the Red Cross or something like that. I'm talking about people who don't even intend to help you out. They're just being themselves and for some reason that's all it takes. Something about their presence in your life, no matter how small, helps your inner voice to sing, “What I do really does matter.”

For my wife it would be the one in a hundred former student that chimes in on Facebook to say, “I used to love it when you'd read to us. That was my favorite time of class.” For you it's someone different, maybe a waiter at your favorite restaurant that knows your order by heart. Could be that manager in another department that makes sure to stop and tell you what a good job she thinks you're doing.

For the past few weeks my unknown motivators have been a couple of high school students. We'll call them David and Heather. Back when I was just about to let this entire blog thing die altogether, my wife stopped to ask me about it.

“So what's going on with the blog?”

“Eh, I'm not worried about it. If I feel inspired I might post something, but at this point I'm pretty much burnt out.”

She gave me that sad look as though she was witnessing a dream die in front of her. “That's too bad. My students asked me about it the other day.”

I looked up from my laptop. “Your students? Why would they ask you about it?”

“Some of them enjoy reading it and they wanted to know why you hadn't been on in a while.”

A few days later I took our son into school with me so that my wife could take pictures of a play. Heather happened to be in it, and Aiden loved Heather. He'd run across the stage to where she was standing on the ground below and jump off into her arms only to have me follow him all the way around to guide him up the stairs and then do it all over again.

At one point, while the little guy was distracted, she mentioned that she enjoyed reading what I put up here and said that she missed my posts.  

Honestly, that was all that it took. A couple of inquiries from David and Heather was all that I needed to get that little voice inside my head to sing again.

So here's a great big thank you to you guys for sticking with me. I think that everyone reading this should go out an thank their secret inspiration, that person or persons who keep you going without their knowing it. Tis the season after all.   

You Are Beautiful

Here's another writerly thought from the vacation of television viewing. On one of the days we were in Denver over break (what? I didn't tell you we went to Denver? Well of course I didn't. Do you know how many loonies are out there waiting for a public broadcast about when a person is not going to be home for an extended period of time? Sheesh.) my sister-in-law had a marathon of some fashion show on. It was some makeover show where two totally obnoxious people, a gay guy and a fashionista, makeover a woman and throw out all of her clothes while they make fun of her for not dressing like they do. It's really rather disgusting.  

During one of the episodes my brother chimed in with how he thought that all of them women were unattractive. His reasoning was that just about every one of them cried during their makeover and that to him was an ugly thing. He likes strong women who are sure of themselves and don't need clothing to feel important or worthy.

What troubled me about this was that my brother, the big NRA, Ron Paul, motorcycle mechanic, who I love, is not really all that in tune with the feminine psyche. While women will always be an enigma to me, I do seem to understand them a bit more than most men (even if I try not to let on like I do). Growing up in a divorced home where all I wanted for my mom was to find true love, I bent my will to trying to become the perfect man for some woman someday. I'd horde my mother's issues of Glamour and Cosmo. I'm sure that others in the family thought I was doing it for the pictures of the gorgeous models when in truth what I was doing was reading all of the articles pertaining to men and what women wanted. After many years of teenage research, all of them spent bumbling through failed interactions with women, I discovered some truths. The first truth is that you shouldn't believe what you read in women's magazines. Often times a woman's expressed desire does not match with what she takes action on. Years later I would finally understand why.

What my brother was seeing as a weakness, and even a rarity in women was in fact quite the opposite. Hell, it's not even confined to women, we're all that insecure. It's just that these fashionistas and their producers have found a way to break down the walls of defense so that they can get tears on film. What my brother doesn't seem to get is that almost all women feel that way. They struggle with weight, apply makeup, shave, spend thousands on clothing, work on posture, mannerisms, all the things that he would think are silly plague women from the time they are little girls. That's why Twilight even for as bad a production as it is, has captured the minds of so many women.

Here you have a girl who is insecure, unsure of herself, not the prettiest, or smartest, or most loved and then suddenly one day it all changes. In steps a man who sees her for her inner beauty, who loves her unfailingly, willing to give up everything to be with her and will even “wait” for her.

It struck me as rather sad that so many men don't get it. Heck, our entire culture doesn't seem to get it even though half of it is suffering from it. It has inspired me to delve into it more in my writing. Strong female protagonists are fun and sexy, but unless we show how they struggle with what all women struggle with, and possibly suggest ways for them to get past it, we are doing a disservice to our readers, to truth.

And just in case you're a guy out there or a tough as nails woman in denial, I'll add a note from the photography world that I happened upon. While I was researching posing women for glamour shots, I happened upon a female photographer whose profession it has been to take glamour and fashion shots of gorgeous women for over a decade noted that the most difficult part of her job is simply this: getting her model to believe that she's beautiful because even the most gorgeous women in the world don't believe it.

Photo two is from Cheryl McLaughlin, titled: My Insecurities.

Mythbusters Sub Plots

Part of every holiday seems to find my family sitting in front of a television for some part of the day. It's especially intriguing for me since, as I've said before, we don't have a television. This year, out in Denver at my sister and brother-in-law's place, the remote found its way into my brother's hands. That meant a full day of The Mythbuster's marathon.  

Other than the sheer amusement of watching my conspiracy theorizing father and brother agree with everything that the show said until they got to the moon landing conspiracy theory debunking, “Notice they don't let you see that picture very long?” “Like we're supposed to trust them when they're going off of NASA information.” (This was a very good lesson in people believing what they want to believe). I found a very good lesson for writing tucked into how the show was laid out.

The earlier versions of the show had the two myth busting goofballs finding a myth and going through the entire process of debunking it. For the most part you got one myth from start to finish. In the more recent version of the show they've added three young sidekicks who debunk myths related to the major myth that the two pros take on.

While I found myself getting tired of the process involved with debunking the major myth the “sub” myths keep me hanging around for just another fifteen minutes. Before I knew it we were in the final segment and by that time I might as well stick around for the finale.

When I finally tore myself away from the television, . . . okay, so it was my wife who tore me away with the announcement that dinner was ready, I came away with a realization: the “sub” myths served as sub-plots. You know, those smaller problems that writers sprinkle throughout the story that all relate to the main plot but that can be solved all along the way. They keep us reading. They're the “V” payoff that I was talking about last week.

These sub-plots should all be related to the main plot. They build on each other. Some of them work to get us a little closer to the truth, while others work to put our characters further in peril. They sort of work in tandem. They appear to be pulling in opposite directions, yet they are both working to advance the story. Were all of the sub-plots positive there'd be no tension. If they were all downfalls our spirit would be crushed and we'd simply stop reading.

And there's my t.v. Inspired writing thought.

  • Sub-plots work to keep the reader involved.
  • They should be both positive and negative.
  • Above all they work to move the story forward.
  • Always relate them to the main plot.

Oh, and one last thing that just occurred to me: deeper meaning. These little successes and failures should also reveal something about our characters. While sub-plots are hard enough to deal with as it is, this last one really raises the bar and can often leave a writer with quite a headache. It's not going to be painfully obvious, “I will no longer trust white tailed weevils!” It'll be more like that story worthy problem that rides underneath the surface that the pro doesn't quite get until the end. They're small steps to getting to that resolution.

Transparent Evil

During Thanksgiving break, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” played on the Disney channel. In my youth I enjoyed the book, but now that I'm older I have a strong distaste for it. I'm not one for overt Christian allegory as it is, but I realized while watching the Aslan death scene that there was something more to it than that. It's the same in LOTR, and probably part of the reason I've migrated away from that kind of storytelling in general. I strongly dislike the definition of evil in these stories.

It's not simply the cookie cutter mold of evil that we so often get. You know, the flat characters who do as their author tells them so as to move the story along. What I truly dislike is the entire depiction of this evil. It's obvious, clearly defined, and serves as more of a disservice to those that the writer is trying to warn with his cautionary tale.

Wardrobe is a perfect example. Evil is obvious. It is the feminine that seeks power, the twisted black horn that drives into Aslan, it wears black armor, snarls and bites, it speaks with a silvery tongue, lies to get what it wants, its weapons are crooked and rusty. Good, on the other hand, battles with gleaming steal, wears white cowboy hats and rides a shimmering steed. It is the patriarchy guided by truth and justice. The feminine is allowed to exist only in so far as it stays within the confines set up for it. While Good is not forced to follow rules but instead chooses to, it can rewrite them in order to win the day.

How lopsided and one dimensional can you get? I mean think about it, when Good brings the dead back to life we sing “He has arisen,” but when Evil does we curse them as the damned. How easy would it be to make a case for bringing the dead back to life? Yet no one ever does. When the Witch demands justice as set forth by the laws written by Aslan himself, she is made out to be wicked; and yet, if the roles were reversed we'd cheer the good guy for “outwitting” his enemy.

I guess my main problem with it all is simply this: it doesn't inspire thought. These stories aren't meant to facilitate discussion, they're designed to give instructions. They paint things in Black and White even though life is so much more complicated than that. Granted, at the very beginning Jadis starts out as somewhat kind to our gullible son of Adam, but really anyone watching is sitting thinking, “No, you big idiot, don't do it.”

I'm Stereo Typing


Just finished the dog kennel here at the house. The fencing has been up for a year, but I've been trying to find the time to pour cement around the bottom because the dogs are notorious diggers. Matter of fact, the strip across the bottom doesn't even keep them in, they dig under that as well. So, I also had to create a border of discarded cement chunks from demolishing old things around the property along he entirety of the inner perimeter.

They're still trying to dig out. But at least they're failing now, and I was able to take them off of their runner cables and let them play together, the mamma and her two boys. It was nice to see them play, but it also made me a little sad.

Siska, the little black menace that has been banished to live in the back with my folks, would have loved to be playing too. Unfortunately, she likes to get into terribly viscous fights with the other dogs, mainly Mihka, our loyal and lovable brown lab.

Siska, like Mihka, was a stray that I took in. She's a little black runt that looks like a lab but is way too short. The vet marveled at her tongue when I took her to get shots long long ago. It has a black spot on it, which baffled him because that is supposedly a hallmark of a Chow, but she looks nothing like one. I, on the other hand, have always thought she was mixed with a Pit because of what she looks like when she gets into a fight.

Now, a couple of weeks ago we were at a friend's for dinner and he was telling me about a stray dog that he had to have put down because the shelter wouldn't take it. You see, it had a black spot on its tongue indicating that it was part Chow. Apparently, Chow's are known for being a jealous dog and become very attached to their owners.

A little bell went off in my head. “Maybe that's what's wrong with Siska.” Siska is totally loveable, she'll roll over on her back and let just about anybody rub her, but as soon as you start petting another dog or playing with another dog she turns mean. And that got me to thinking about writing. I thought about how you can do that with a lot of animals. You don't pick crows to use as homing pigeons, nor do you try and convince a poodle to be a sled dog. Certain “breeds” are wired specific ways.  

That led me to thinking about humans. If we were to say something like “blacks are better at basketball,” it would be considered extremely racist. Yet in fantasy literature we have dwarves that mine, gnomes that invent, elves that convene with nature and so on. There seems to be no thought to how that could be considered racist.

Indeed, even when we pull back and go in a SF route, we find readers going into an uproar when white authors don't portray black protagonists as “black.” Meanwhile there's a separate debate that says that defining certain things as being attributed to one race or another is actually racist. Or is it the limits that we put on people as defined by race?

I'm rather conflicted about it myself. I think that it is possible that we are all simply wired a certain way based on genetics. I believe that DNA can play a lot larger role in a person's life than we care to admit. I think that some people end up being more violent than others not simply because of how they were raised, but because of how they were bred. If breeders can pick out traits that are best suited for fighting dogs, why can't the same be said of a woman who had an abusive father going on to find an abusive husband of her own and having kids with him? Are we not taking those aggressive genes and combining them?  

The question is, where does that fit in to our writing? Do we avoid it and hope to somehow erase “stereotypes,” or do we simply accept that maybe stereotypes are more like genetic traits? After all, whether we care to admit it or not, we all stereotype. We do it all the time.

About a month after finding out the mysterious missing link in my own heritage, we took a trip up to visit my brother and sister-in-law. On our way to get a bite to eat I told him about my latest discovery about being an eighth black. He was just as dumbfounded as I was.

His wife's response? “No wonder you like girls with big butts.”

My response to her extremely insensitive, narrow-minded, racist stereotyping? “Hey, me too!”  

Monday Funny: Bruce Lee Beat Down


I love the outcome to this fight. 

When I was little, my big idol was Schwarzenegger, that was when I actually thought I could grow to be that size. I think that once I realized that I wouldn't grow past a certain point and forever be a scrawny guy, my idol turned to be Bruce Lee. :o) 

V Hit What Heroes Missed

'V' my saving grace.  

Thank the writer gods for 'V'. In all honesty, when I heard that the tv folks were planning another hackery of a classic because they couldn't come up with compelling new ideas, I threw up a little in my mouth. But after half a season of the silent self torture that is 'Heroes' and an abysmal start to 'Legend of the Seeker,' I find my self singing the praises of 'V.'

Actually, 'Seeker' wasn't that bad until they pulled that totally in fashion trick where just about anyone can be brought back to life. I looked past it when the sexy chicks in leather did it because really, how many people are those haters of all mankind going to revive? But now ANYONE can be brought back to life. Are you kidding me? I mean really.

Even for all of that night of the living dead crap, I still give them more props than I do 'Heroes.' The writers at 'Heroes' simply have no balls. They can't kill anyone, save for speedster girl. And that's probably because I thought she was insanely cute and the writers at 'Heroes' hate me. Of course I think Charlie is cute too, but then she's hidden in limbo someplace so she might as well be dead.

Now, I say all of this even after 'V' pulled the same “you never know who's really dead” bull by bringing back to life that FBI agent's V partner. And really, he's such a well known actor I can see them doing one of those, “Oooo, alien technology is so advanced that they can even revive people that they themselves have killed.” (Hence why Ryan had to leave ashes in place of the guy that he didn't really kill).

What I was so exited about in this last episode of 'V' was hope. Not Obamanized hope that is tossed into discussions when you don't want to talk about things like Bushified terrorism. No, I'm talking about real hope. The writers set us up for the oh so common never ending setback after setback, “How miserable can we make everyone involved, including the viewer, before we spring our witty and triumphant ending?” gag that absolutely everyone does these days.

Rather than totally knocking us to our knees, the writers reveal that the double agent is not only alive, but that he knows who has seen his true face and then they kill that S.O.B. (again). But they don't just kill him, they give us hope, because now we've got a man on the inside on the mother ship. “The fifth column says hello.”

The episode was a tit for tat one where every advance that the bad guy made, the good guys made one as well. We still have the sense that our good guys are in way over their heads, but they have a chance. It's not hopeless.

I think that writers often forget that these days. 'Heroes' is a prime example of that. There are never any real moments of hope. There's episode after episode of being pulled further into the pit in hopes building up the payoff at the end. If things look dire enough, then it makes what the good guys do all that more amazing, right? But I for one think that it makes for a miserable journey along the way.  

Sure, there's still room for that in writing. The trouble is, it seems like we're saturated in it right now.

Anyway, I'm just thankful that 'V' has outdone my low expectations and is saving me from from more “Silar's dead, but he's alive, but he's dead, no wait he's alive, ah you thought he was dead but he moved his 'dead' spot, no he's dead but his body is alive in one place and his consciousness in another, no wait he's vanished, no wait he's just shot David in the head and put him out of his misery.”  

Don't worry, I come back to life again in the final thirty seconds of the show.

Our lesson? Keep real hope alive in your story amidst all of the pitfalls you set up for your characters.