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Jaime Escalante: RIP – The Art of Imparting Ganas

March 31st, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Jaime-Escalante


The best thing I can think to do to honor the remarkable Jaime Escalante
—and the other excellent teachers like him who give everything to the task of helping, cajoling, nagging, luring, wrestling, enchanting kids into the joy of learning—is to urge you to read Esmeralda Bermudez’ stellar article about Mr. Stand and Deliver in the last months and weeks of his life.

Here’s the opening:

There was a time in East Los Angeles when el maestro’s gruff voice bounced off his classroom walls. He roamed the aisles, he juggled oranges, he dressed in costumes, he punched the air; he called you names, he called your mom, he kicked you out, he lured you in; he danced, he boxed, he screamed, he whispered. He would do anything to get your attention.

“Ganas,” he would say. “That’s all you need. The desire to learn.”

Nearly three decades later, Jaime Escalante finds himself far from Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, the place that made him internationally famous for turning a generation of low-income students into calculus whizzes. Twenty-two years have passed since his classroom exploits were captured in the film “Stand and Deliver.

He is 79 and hunched in a wheelchair at a cancer treatment center in Reno. It is cold outside, and the snow-capped mountains that crown the city where his son brought him three weeks ago on a bed in the back of an old van remind him of his native Bolivia.

He can’t walk. He struggles to eat. Stomach acids have burned his vocal cords, reducing his voice to a whisper. The doctors who diagnosed his bladder cancer told him recently he has weeks — at best a few months — to live.

But don’t let the frail man fool you. The teacher is not done teaching. Behind his large square glasses, that intense, mischievous look that once persuaded students to believe in themselves still lives in his eyes. He smiles at nurses, flashes a thumbs up.

When asked about his former students – the engineers, lawyers, surgeons, administrators and teachers now spread across the country — he wastes no time. He steals a nearby pen and slowly, in capital letters that have now grown faint, begins to write in Spanish:

THEY UNDERSTOOD THE SIGNIFICANCE OF GANAS, THE GIANT STEP TO SUCCESS. I HAD MANY OPPORTUNITIES IN THIS COUNTRY, BUT THE BEST I FOUND IN EAST L.A. I AM PROUDEST OF MY BRILLIANT STUDENTS.

Here’s the rest.

And here is the LA Times obit.

Posted in Education, Obits | 40 Comments »

J. D. Salinger: January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010

January 28th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

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The work of J.D. Salinger has mattered enormously to a large number of people.
(If you are one of those people, I’d love to know how and why he has mattered to you.)

Last fall, when The Catcher in the Rye came up in the course of a discussion in my UC Irvine workshop, I was able to observe that newer generations were also not at all immune to Salinger’s magic.

Speaking personally, there aren’t a whole lot of books that have changed my life. Maybe one has to be at a certain, young-ish age for that alchemy to take place, I don’t know.

I am a maniacal reader of many kinds of texts and the list of books I love is long. However, the list of books that permanently shifted me on my emotional/spiritual/intellectual axis is very short, which is likely as it should be. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is one of the volumes on my very short list.

The cumulative effect of the book is what made the difference,
but there is one passage that particularly did the trick:

“I remember about the fifth time I ever went on ‘Wise Child.’ I subbed for Walt a few times when he was in a cast–remember when he was in that cast? Anyway, I started bitching one night before the broadcast. Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again–all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don’t think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and–I don’t know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense”

Franny was standing. She had taken her hand away from her face to hold the phone with two hands. “He told me, too,” she said into the phone. “He told me to be funny for the Fat Lady, once.” She released one hand from the phone and placed it, very briefly, on the crown of her head, then went back to holding the phone with both hands. “I didn’t ever picture her on a porch, but with very–you know–very thick legs, very veiny. I had her in an awful wicker chair. She had cancer, too, though, and she had the radio going full-blast all day! Mine did, too!”

“Yes. Yes. Yes. All right. Let me tell you something now, buddy. . . . Are you listening?”

Franny, looking extremely tense, nodded.

“I don’t care where an actor acts. It can be in summer stock, it can be over a radio, it can be over television, it can be in a goddam Broadway theatre, complete with the most fashionable, most well-fed, most sunburned-looking audience you can imagine. But I’ll tell you a terrible secret–Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know–listen to me, now–don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

For joy, apparently, it was all Franny could do to hold the phone, even with both hands.

Apart from Franny & Zooey, there are many passages from Salinger’s work that, for one reason or another, are engraved permanently on my soul and psyche. Among them are the following:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in American artists, Obits, writers and writing | 15 Comments »

Mary Travers 1936-2009: In the Wind

September 16th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

Yes, theirs was the safer version of Blowing in the Wind.

But the melodic harmonies that Mary Travers sang with Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow, in the group Peter, Paul and Mary, were, for many newly-minted music lovers of the era, the gateway drug that led inexorably and happily to a deeper and edgier world beyond them.

Peter, Paul and Mary were also were the real deal. They didn’t just sing protest songs from a protected distance, they showed up. The passion that bled through Mary Traver’s voice was authentic.

“We’ve learned that it will take more than one generation to bring about change,” Mary once said. “The fight for civil rights has developed into a broader concern for human rights, and that encompasses a great many people and countries. Those of us who live in a democracy have a responsibility to be the voice for those whose voices are stilled.”

RIP, lovely Mary Travers.


Posted in American artists, Obits | 10 Comments »

Larry Gelbart: 1928-2009

September 12th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon



He was wonderfully, deliciously funny, prodigiously gifted
and had a heart the size of Wyoming.

I only knew Larry Gelbert a tiny bit. He hosted several events for PEN USA when I was on the board and helped us out at other times whenever we asked and he was able.

I’m glad I got to know him at all.

When certain people die it feels as if that they take with them some crucial bit of light from the world. Larry Gelbart is one of those people. But in his case, through his work and his personal relationships, he left behind him so very much more light than his death could ever take away.

The above is a lovely interview—informative and chatty— that also features clips
from some of his creations: M.A.S.H, Tootsie, Oh, God! and Blame it On Rio.

(NOTE: The clips are at the very beginning, so if you want to see them without listening to the rest of the interview, you can do so easily. Yet for lovers of writing and lovers of movies, give it a listen when you have a minute. Just go about your business and let the conversation drift over you. You’ll find it’s more than worth your time. I promise.)

Here’s a short but good tribute to Gelbart by Bob Simon on NPR.

Posted in American artists, Obits, writers and writing | 1 Comment »

Mary Ridgway: Queen of Eastside Probation

March 15th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

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I have an Op Ed remembrance of my friend LA County Supervising Deputy Probation Officer Mary Ridgway in Sunday’s LA Times.

If you read it, I think you’ll find she is more than worth your attention. Here’s a chunk of the essay to get you started:

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Mary Ridgway taught me to shoot.

She was a county juvenile probation officer working the East Los Angeles gang unit. I was a gun phobic. “It’ll get you over it,” she said. She was right. Blasting away for a couple of hours with a 9mm blew me through my fears handily.

Ridgway did whatever she thought would work.

When she died of fast-moving liver cancer early on the morning of Feb. 21,
the young men and women, now grown, whose lives Mary Ridgway had changed started calling to express their shock and grief. “I’d be dead if it weren’t for Ridgway,” many said. Even the hard cases.

“She was absolutely the most significant presence in the county in terms of gangs and the juvenile justice system,” Deputy City Atty. Peter Shutan told me last week. “When it came to gangs, she was the one we all went to for guidance. She talked to officers about how to be a constructive presence. Even during a raid.”

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I first got to know Ridgway in the early 1990s, when I had just started reporting about gangs. Every Friday at 5 p.m. she held a meeting in the cafeteria of the Dolores Mission School, where 25 of the 70 or so adolescent probationers then in her charge were required to show their faces. The kids, nearly all of them gangsters, sat at Formica-topped tables waiting for her to call their names. One at a time, she would signal them over to a corner, where they’d report to her how they’d been doing during the week. Had they missed school? Days on the job? At the end of each conference, Ridgway would counsel, encourage, admonish, cajole, inspire and lecture the kid as to how he or she might get on track and grab for the good life she insisted they could have.

Despite her empathy for her charges, Ridgway was tough.
She incarcerated kids without blinking whenever she deemed it necessary. At times, bleeding hearts like me thought she was too quick to “violate” this or that homeboy — violate being law enforcement jargon for sending kids to Eastlake Juvenile Hall or a county probation camp if they transgressed the terms of their probation.

“When she locked me up, I usually needed it,” one of her long-ago probationers told me on the phone. He began to cry and repeated the familiar mantra: “I’d probably be dead if it weren’t for Ridgway.”

If she did violate a probationer, she also showed up in court for the kid, whether it was required or not. She sat at the front, where the young man or woman would be sure to see her. “Often she would be the only one who did show up,” said John Tuchek, one of her partners on the Eastside gang unit. “There would be no family. Nobody. But she wanted her kids to know that somebody was there for them.”

After they were parceled out to juvenile hall or to camp, Ridgway would visit them. When a kid got out, she was there as well — to take him or her golfing, to an art museum, or to try to smooth things with a drug-addicted mother or, in one case, to take a probationer’s a smart little sister, who was beginning to slide in a worrisome direction, shopping for a desperately wanted prom dress.

She once talked me into driving an angry homeboy to LAX
, where I put him on a plane to stay with relatives in Texas who were not overjoyed to see him. He had been targeted by other gangs, and she feared he would not live out the weekend. He called me collect from prison after hearing of her death. “I guess you could say she saved my life,” he said.

Because she accorded kids respect — she tried never to handcuff them when she made an arrest — young lawbreakers (and their sisters and brothers and mothers) often told Ridgway things they told no one else, making her an unparalleled repository of street intelligence. “Other cops thought I had the greatest informants,” said an officer who worked on one of the LAPD’s since-disbanded anti-gang CRASH units. “The truth was, I just had Ridgway.”

A blond ex-sorority girl from UCLA, Ridgway wanted to be an FBI agent,
but she came of age in the 1960s, when J. Edgar Hoover still excluded women and minorities. So after graduation, she taught for a year in South L.A., then got a job in juvenile probation in 1966. She landed in East L.A. in 1987 and stayed for the next 32 years.

Ridgway was by no means perfect
. Her desk was a mess of staggering proportions. She never wore a seat belt because it might crease her linen or silk dresses.

In addition to the kids in her charge, she loved jazz, her two nieces, green Corvettes and good jewelry. The latter she regularly misplaced at inopportune moments, most famously on an early morning probation raid in the mid-1990s. The team of Kevlar-clad cops had finished searching the house in question when Ridgway discovered the absence of her favorite jade brooch. Convinced she’d lost it during the raid, she persuaded the team to go back in and search the house again. Without protest, the heavily armed, highly trained police officers dutifully turned things upside down to locate a pale green pin she later found at home.

Just to be clear: Ridgway was law enforcement, not a social worker. She had her limits. Certain kids, she decided, were beyond saving. We disagreed on several such cases. Some of those young men made it. One is serving 126 years in Pelican Bay State Prison…..

********************************************************************************************************

You’ll find the rest here.

Posted in Gangs, juvenile justice, Obits | 3 Comments »

Remembering LAPD Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner – UPDATED

March 1st, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

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UPDATE: Details regarding the services for Chief Garner may be found at the end of the post.

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LAPD’s Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner collapsed
and died Sunday in his home. He was 53. Garner was the second highest ranking Black officer in the LAPD. (Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger ranks the highest.) It is, as yet, unclear what caused Garner’s death, although friends suspect a heart attack.

His death is a shock and loss to both the department and the various communities he policed in his nearly 32 years of wearing the badge of the Los Angeles Police Department.

When Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner took over as the head of South Bureau of the LAPD in March of 2008, it meant that he was suddenly in charge of policing one of the most complicated, vibrant, but too often dangerous pieces of real estate in America.

Yet Garner grew up in the South L.A. neighborhood he came to command, and he embraced the challenge of doing all he could for its residents.

I met and observed Garner in several contexts during his year on the job, and noticed that he quickly gained respect in areas of town that were not generally predisposed to feel warm and cozy toward the police.

Garner was a “beacon of reform and change within the LAPD,” Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, told the City News Service.

“He’s one of a handful of Blacks at the L.A.P.D. that I credit with helping change my perspective on the police department,” writes Jasmyne Cannick on her blog. (That’s Cannick in the snap with Garner below) “It’s a sad day for Los Angeles.”
garner-and-cannick.jpg

The respect from Hutchinson, Cannick and others was granted for good reason. Garner made a point of reaching beyond the classic role of policing to think of new and creative ways that law enforcement could better protect and serve. He made a point of showing up frequently at the community forums that the Roundtable holds every week.

And last year Garner came up with an idea called The Urban Assistance Initiative, that was designed to help people who were coming out of prison transition to a legal and productive life. This voluntary parolee reentry program, which was launched this past January with the help of some community-based organizations in the Crenshaw area, is to help with employment, life skills training and educational opportunities, as well as such basics as clothing, housing, substance abuse treatment and long-term psychological family counseling.

Both growing up and during his experience as a police officer, Garner had seen too many men and women get stuck in the revolving door of repeated incarceration, and hoped the initiative would pioneer a replicable model that would help the thousands who are paroled into LA’s communities every year (making Los Angeles home to the largest parolee population in the nation) get off the recidivism merry go round and into productive lives.

“This program is not designed for powder puffs or a lot of white-collar criminals but it is for hard core criminals, because we could fill it with white-collar offenders and have a huge success rate but the problem in our community would go unsolved,” Garner said when explaining the planned reentry program. “We have to develop a way to help young people stop committing these crimes and going to prison because they ultimately lose and their communities lose their potential.”

Read that paragraph again. It gives an excellent clue as to how much Los Angeles lost in losing the potential of Kenny Garner.

“I’m talking about a man who was loved, a commanding officer who was loved by his officers,” said Sergeant Ronnie Cato. “We called him Kenny G. His concept, his ideology was people first. He was able to balance people and their needs—putting people first and still fighting crime. We’ve lost one of our best.”

Sergeant Samuel Mark, who works in the South Traffic division told me the same thing on Sunday night.

“Everybody was overjoyed when he became Deputy Chief,” Mark said. “They loved him. He treated everybody like they were his equal, no matter their rank. He was a sweetheart of a man. Everybody’s in shock. Just in shock.”

************************************************************************************************************

UPDATE: THE SERVICES FOR CHIEF GARNER ARE AS FOLLOWS:

Viewing: Sunday, March 8th 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.. Crenshaw Christian Center – Faith Dome
7901 South Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, CA

Memorial Service: Monday, March 9th, 10:00 a.m.. Crenshaw Christian Center – Faith Dome

Internment: Immediately following the Memorial Service Rose Hills Cemetery, 3888 Workman Mill Road Whittier, CA

Posted in LAPD, Obits | 17 Comments »

The Utterly Irreplaceable Mary Ridgway

February 27th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

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Just a little before 1 a.m., last Saturday morning,
LA County Supervising Deputy Probation Officer Mary Ridgway died of liver cancer. She was 66 years old.

She had been a Los Angeles P.O. since September of 1966, spending most of her time working in East Los Angeles.

In the last four decades, she changed—and in many cases, saved—more lives than anyone can adequately count.

I first met Mary in early 1991 and, eighteen years later, I still consider her to be one of the most remarkable people I have ever known.

My assessment of her is shared by hundreds others—from law enforcement types to guys doing time in prison, and the range in between. Mary Ridgway is irreplaceable.

Her death has blown a great many people out on the trail, myself included.

I will have a full post about Mary either Monday morning, or Tuesday morning.

But, in the meantime, for those who need this information:

Services for Mary Ridgway will be held at Forest Lawn (off the 134) on Monday, March 2, at 11 a.m.

An event honoring Mary will follow the service at the Grace E. Simons Lodge, at 1025 Elysian Park Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90012, up near the old LAPD Academy

Posted in Gangs, law enforcement, Obits | 10 Comments »

UPDIKE 1932 – 2009: Rabbit At Rest

January 27th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

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A giant of literature. Although, along with Roth and Mailer, he has been one of the dominant forces in American letters for nearly a half century, he still wrote regularly for the New Yorker and described himself rather endearingly as a freelancer to David Ulin, when Ulin interviewed him onstage at UCLA last fall as part of the tour for his latest novel, The Widows of Eastwick.


On the other hand, in his 1998 essay about John Updike,
Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think, David Foster Wallace, who also describes the author as “the chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis the XIV,” wrote a long and wonderfully grumpy screed about, among other things, the similarity of all Updike’s protagonists. (Quoting the gifted dead about the gifted dead feels weirdly comforting rather than the reverse today. Go figure.)

It reads in part:

They tend to have the author’s astounding perceptual gifts; they think and speak in the same effortlessly lush, synesthetic way that Updike does. They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying…..and deeply alone, alone the way only an emotional solipsist can be alone. They never seem to belong to any sort of large unit or community or cause. Though usually family men, they never really love anybody—and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women. The world around them, as gorgeously as they see and describe it, tends to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions and desires inside the great self….

Yes, well. That pretty much sums up what has always bothered and attracted me about all of Updike’s work. And yet, and yet….one cannot help but love his incandescent sentences.

I am deeply saddened that there will be no more of them.

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William Pritchard, the author of Updike: America’s Man of Letters, has listed his picks of the six most essential Updike books in a column for the Boston Globe. (Pritchard cheats and lists the Rabbit books as one). If you’ve read none of them, get to it. Great sentences await you.

PS: The New Yorker is collecting writers’ reminiscences regarding Updike here and readers’ thoughts here.

The New York Times has a video conversation with Updike here.

Posted in American artists, American voices, Obits, writers and writing | 6 Comments »