El Gringoqueño

All a man needs out of life is a place to sit ‘n’ spit in the fire.

Mad World NewsAngry Mother Destroys Common Core by Writing This on Her Son’s Test

Mad World NewsAngry Mother Destroys Common Core by Writing This on Her Son’s Test.

Now, I think this is somewhat funny, and mock outrage is all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Just in case you want to take this seriously and get your panties in a bunch, read my rebuttal.

I’m not necessarily for these weird exercises (as I’ve gotten them with my kids, and they make me feel stupid), but I do think that being able to approach unfamiliar problems in different ways is a good learning tool.

It dawns on me that these sorts of things are ways in which to experience learning in a classroom that is decoupled from one’s previous education. For example, in a mixed ethnic and socioeconomic classroom you have kids who have previous experience with particular problems and the manner in which they are solved. They have parents who have given them a head start, so to speak – flash cards at home, reading at bedtime, camps, computers, etc. Others in the class may come from single parent households, lower economic strata, or have some sort of cultural obstacle when faced with the  “standard” pedagogy. They may not have had those experiences outside of school, like others in the classroom.

As a result of the standard exercises, those who are disadvantaged in that system come to believe they are not as smart as their peers, when in fact they are just not as educated. These new and abstract exercises, I believe, push boundaries of excellence in the classroom, while not necessarily disempowering those with advantage. The more educated kids will still have their experiences (no one is taking that away), but what you are doing is evening the playing field and not allowing the artificial inequity of society to intrude into the classroom learning environment.

The way we get to the right answer has changed so much in recent years. Even the tools we use to solve differential equations have changed. Mathematica anyone? The tools we use to accomplish tasks in this world are many and varied. Slide-rules used to be heavily used in engineering, but I doubt you’ll find anyone proficient these days. At one time, the slide-rule was the “right way” to solve the problem. We adapted and invented new tools, a new “right way” to get the answer.

If nature hates a monoculture, why have it in the classroom. Make the ways of learning as many and varied as there are little brains on this earth.

So I think that focusing on learning new and varied approaches, good and bad, creates an agility for learning that one might not get doing it the “right way,” especially when the “right way” may become obsolete in a few years.

The most important future skill is going to be:

Solve this problem which you have never seen before with tools that haven’t been invented yet.

She Wouldn’t Be Quiet

“I don’t know if I really liked her humor,” I said. “It’s not that I dislike her, but it seems to me that her humor was mean… or just not funny. I don’t know.”

“Me neither,” Laura replied, “her brand of humor did seem mean, self-deprecating. I don’t know, either, I’m not a terribly big fan of comics who put themselves or others down. But she was brave and strong and made her way in a tough world. And I think one thing that she had that was extraordinary, was that she wouldn’t be quiet. You know, in a man’s world, men want women who listen to them. Men want women with a sense of humor, but only so they can laugh at the man’s jokes. But Joan wouldn’t be quiet the way we wanted her to, nor tell jokes the way we wanted her to.”

“Oh my god, I think you have revealed an unpleasant truth about my gender, Laura. Did I not care for her humor because deep down I am uncomfortable with opinionated women… that what is more comfortable is a woman who knows her place? Wow, that’s a real revelation. I know I wouldn’t answer that way on a test question, but maybe what is comfortable, what seems right is a partial product of our male dominated society.” I thought about it for a bit, “You know what, I admire Joan more now. She made America think. She wouldn’t be quiet when America wished she would. Through her humor she could resist the pressure to be quiet by making people laugh and changed society for the better.”

“You know what? It makes even more sense that Johnny Carson banned her from his show for all those years. When she took her own show on CBS, he felt it was a personal betrayal, but I think his actions reveal it to be more than just a simple infidelity. Johnny Carson thought he owned her. He made her, gave her her first big chance, and felt that she was his. Instead of being happy for her continued success, hoping that she take flight and soar, he wanted to control her, possess her, and have her do his bidding. Ugh, it makes me so so sick. Johnny was a dick. I’m glad she succeeded without him and made her own way.”

Even for all her insensitive jokes and gaffs, the world was a better place for having had Joan Rivers in it.


Go little Bumblebee GO!


Every day when I go out to check my zucchini for fruit, this big noisy bumblebee comes abuzz buzzing over. He sounds like an Army helicopter. I don’t know if he’s angry or what, but he buzzes me every day. A couple of days ago, I finally saw him crawling in and out of the flowers, and now I have some fruit. Great work little guy!


Another. If I remember correctly these things grow to edible size in a day or so. Can’t wait.


Lots and lots of fruit are growing all over these tomato plants which are nearly 6 feet tall. Two cherry tomatoes and one beefsteak.


This is one of Laura’s favorite things. After a delicious batch of French press coffee, we get these interesting designs in the grounds. You almost hate to wash the cup, they look so cool.

I am Michael Brown

I remember when you came to my school. Your shoes were so shiny, and they squeaked when you walked. Your uniform was neat and crisp with its badges and buttons. Your belt shone too. It was so reflective, and it had all these little cases and buckles. I wondered what they were for. Secret compartments were cool. The walky talkie squawked intermittently in unintelligible codes. You towered over us. And your dog was so big, his ears straight up in the air as he sat there still as a statue.

We were seated on the floor, but we all straightened our backs to get a better look as we said in unison, “Good morning, Officer Jones.”

You talked to us about your job, how you like to help people, how you wanted to stop the bad guys, that you were there to help us if we ever needed it. You told some funny stories, and you let us pet your dog. I was a little scared at first, but his hair was soft and he looked at us with sensitive brown eyes. I remember thinking how impressive you and your dog were. I wanted to help people too. I wanted to be like you and have a dog like you and stop bad people too.

As with all things, though, I grew up. When I turned 18, I was 6’4″ and no longer held those illusions of elementary school. I had not thought about your visit to my classroom in years, having long since changed my interests. Sometimes I felt silly for wanting to be a police officer. It’s as with all my peers, white and black. We all go through that phase, don’t we? I want to be a fire fighter. I want to be a police officer. We all want to help. In our innocence, that’s what first-responders represent. But I now no longer entertain those notions.

I am what people perceive me to be, a large black man and for those who don’t know me, maybe I look scary. I still feel like that third grader inside, though. I still would like to pet that dog, and I would still like to stop bad people from doing bad things.

When did I become the bad person, Officer Jones?

Religión, la Familia y el Cerdo

Yesterday was the 25th of July, el Día de la Constitución en Puerto Rico (Constitution Day). It is a big holiday very much like the 4th of July in the US. We began it going to the funeral mass of, get this, the brother of the husband of the sister of Laura’s father.  You get that? It all boils down to el hermano del querido tío Benny. I call him Tío Benny too. We always gravitate towards each other during family functions and end up talking compost and farming and whatnot. I’ve learned a lot from him. So when we heard his brother had died, it was a given that we would be there.

This is how Puerto Rico is. Cousins removed – cousins of cousins, cousins through marriage… they’re all primos and we all celebrate and share together. I sometimes feel like an outsider, but still, I appreciate watching and pretending. I suppose it’s as close as this gringo can get.

The funeral mass was held for Pedro Alberto, a local school director and beloved character in the town of Guayama in the southeast of Puerto Rico. The mass was packed, the homely strange, and the words spoken few, but everyone was there, extended relatives from all branches. My wife’s parents were there. We were there with our four children.

As is my usual manner, I contemplated my place in the assembly, the upsides and the downsides. On the general downside of having a huge interconnected family, we attend a lot of funerals. There are so many extended relatives, you just can’t help but be called upon to go and show support. It’s not pleasant, certainly. Who wants to face their own mortality, be reminded of it regularly. Can’t we all pretend that life just goes on forever?

For the kids too, do we really want them to be here? Is it too hard? I don’t think it is, in fact, I think it’s good for them.  It is probably good to be exposed early, to get to know pain and mourning and the loss of a loved one, because it will find them later in life, and they should be accustomed to the process. “Javier, this is the mass for Tio Benny’s brother. I’m sure he misses him. You would be so sad if you lost one of your brothers, no?” Yes, he said, and I know he appreciates his brothers. They all hugged each other and gave each other kisses. Such cariño; it brought a tears to my eyes.

There’s an upside too, more in line with my previous post about beauty and pain. Life is beauty and pain. Living is painful, but life is beautiful. A funeral mass is the acknowledgement of that duality. There is relief for the dead; the long journey is over. There will be no more tears to cry, no more pain to endure. You are dead, you finished your work. For the living, the frailties of the departed loved one become less important as time passes, until la vida is purely sanctified and beautiful.

This mass, this ritual is the coming together to process and find acceptance, to deal with the passing and in the end to say, “It’s all good.”

When it was over, I was tired, but at peace. I thought it fitting that we celebrated this Constitution day doing something important, something that I feel is the best part of the Puerto Rican culture, la familia.

We have passed from religion, to family, and now we finish with another typical and important part of Puerto Rican culture. I will leave it here so that we end on a light note with our bellies full and smiles on our faces.

We stopped in Guavate and ate lechón, slow cooked pig on a spit, with rice and gandules, mofongo, amarillos, yuca y morcilla.

From family and religion to the tasty pig, it doesn’t get more typical than that.

Diplomat Javier

“Hey Daddy, what is this song saying?”

“I don’t know, Javier. It sounds nice, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually listened to the words.”

“I don’t like this song.”

“Is it saying something bad?” I asked, thinking perhaps he had picked up on some offensive lyrics or something.

“No, it’s just that this guy’s voice is weird. It sounds like he doesn’t have good breath control.”

I laughed. “Javier, you would know better than I. Your choir training makes you a subject matter expert.”

Javier grinned.

“But I think he is singing that way on purpose. I don’t think he can’t sing well, it’s just that he is going for the effect.”

“Well, it sounds bad. I don’t like it.”

I explained that perhaps his affected style was to convey an intimacy with the audience, a lack of polish to engage, to not set himself apart from those appreciating the song. It wasn’t a beautiful performance, I agreed, but there was something I liked about it. It hit me like a slow jam around the camp fire with friends. It did bring me in close and didn’t chase me away with vocal acrobatics.

“So Javier, you’re right, probably, but it’s hard to say who is right and wrong when it’s a question of why a person likes a song or not. Your opinion is probably as valid as mine. I like the song. You don’t. Who is wrong? Sometimes that’s the problem when people argue about things like this. We’re having a good discussion, but just saying it’s bad, probably isn’t the best way to talk about it.”

Javier furrowed his brow. I could see that he was calculating a response. He always pauses before he says something profound.

“Daddy, this guy is doing a good job of singing badly.”


I Do Notice You

It’s the little things, suddenly spending lots of time with mom, deleted photos, inspirational memes about new hope, new challenges, new directions. I know those posts are for you.

I hit “like” on a picture with the children.

Maybe it’s a job change, a move. There are the inevitable appliance purchases, selfies, lost weight.

I pick through it. I notice it. I read between the lines and I think I can see what has happened. I don’t know why it has happened, but I see you. We’re no more than acquaintances at this point, perhaps dear friends in the past, but I don’t know if you’d feel comfortable with me intruding to offer a kind word. I don’t know how “out” you want to be.  Besides, I could be wrong about everything.

I hit “like” on a new outfit.

I remind myself that nothing on social media is accidental. Much like a scripted crime thriller, everything has a purpose. You are vague for a reason. Everything is deliberately done, even what old photos remain. Besides, your closest friends probably already know, don’t they. I am not one of those.

I hit “like” on a “hang in there” comment.

No Where to Go

I arrived at the Plaza de Armas late on Monday, a bit after the noon hour, thoroughly drenched from the inside out, woozy from the heat, and probably a bit dehydrated. It was a miserable ride, but I made it. I leaned my bike against a tree and fell into one of the park benches, elbows on my knees. I caught my breath and decided to eat my lunch at that moment and relax in the breeze in the shade of the trees. I took a sip of cold water and greeted the folks around me. Buenas tardes.

The one who self-professed to know how to handle his money and his wife, was sitting behind me, there with his cane. He was by himself today. There was another man in front of me, who was very loud. He spoke as if through a bullhorn and with a strange accent. I think Cuban, but I can’t be sure. To his left was a woman recounting the tale of her dear friend who was enamorada, in love, with some man. “I told her, be careful. He is not what you think he is, but she is in love.” She carried on a bit, she is this, she is her friend, she is that, “and I told her, be careful, but she does not heed me, because she is in love.” She repeated this punctuation no less than three times. I desperately wanted to know more. Who was this woman? Who was this man, fascinated I was by gossiping tales of the love lives of the 70+ set. I am a gossip whore – sue me.

But I never got to find out, as the first drops fell big and fat on the hot concrete. Just a few at first, and I continued eating my sandwich, unmoved. I was already soaked from sweat anyway. El cubano and his woman friend got up, held newspapers over their heads and dashed for shelter. She excused herself and was gone, but el cubano moved under an awning to wait it out. The one behind me who handled his wife and money simply sat.

Then the rain came in buckets, an aguacero, and the plaza was now inundated. I decided that it was time to move, and grabbed my bike and sought shelter in front of the old alcaldia (the mayor’s office). From my vantage point across the plaza, I watched the one who handled his wife and money stand up as if to move, but he didn’t. He remained there, bent a bit, resting on his cane. He shuffled six inches to one side, then six inches back, half turned, frozen. Do I go, do I stay? Is it worth the effort? It was decided, and he remained motionless beneath the downpour. I thought that maybe I should bring him an umbrella next time I come by. That would be nice, I thought. He could manage his wife and his money, but perhaps he needed some help staying dry.

After a few minutes the rain slowed to a trickle, and the people emerged from their shelters, old folks shuffling back to their haunts, the tourists moving along in their chatty little groups, looking up, taking pictures. El cubano came back to his bench, and the one who got drenched, turned from where he stood, wiped it of the puddles of water, and sat back down, his pants thoroughly soaked.

From Our Ongoing Discussions About the Nature of Art

What is art? Laura and I have been discussing this subject passionately for the past twenty-something years. I can’t say we’ve arrived at any firm conclusions, but let me throw one more log on the fire right here.

We were visiting the Art Museum here in Puerto Rico a few months ago and I found myself in front of this painting. Here’s the best image I could find with the artist, Francisco Rodón.


So I walked up a winding staircase and came upon this huge painting of Luis Muñoz Marin, first elected governor of Puerto Rico in the Puerto Rico Art Museum. I was moved. It was beautiful, exquisite, composition, colors, impactful. First there came a slight choke, then full on tears running down my face. This is silly, I thought. What is wrong with me? Am I having a stroke or something. Sheesh, get a grip, Jim. I wiped my eyes and tried to focus on the details of the portrait, the rivulets of color flowing and gathering in little pools and the patchwork of earthen colors, like seen from high above, farmland, the very face of Puerto Rico. I peered into the tired eyes of Marin. I have done so much. I have seen so much. I am tired. I wish I could have done more, but I am old now. There is pain in the painting, palpable pain. But it is beautiful too, compelling. I could not tear my eyes away as I experienced the entirety of Puerto Rican 20th century history.

I didn’t try to dissect it in that moment. I couldn’t, a mess I was, overcome with what poured out like a tidal wave. It was all I could do to just stay afloat for the ride and try not to drown. It wasn’t until a few months later, reflecting on the experience, and after attempting to explain it others, that it hit me.

This piece is beauty and pain. The best art, like life, is beauty and pain.

To contrast: too beautiful, too pretty, too sweet; it’s a simple gumdrop, a sugary treat bursting in your mouth and gone. Shallow sentimentality doesn’t stay with you, does it? It won’t nourish you. At best it’s a way to mark time, a momentary distraction. Here we have majestic paintings of mountains, beautiful morning lit scenes leading to a little brook, and some pretty flowers. It’s nice, and matches the drapes too. Would that work its way into your soul?

Rodón, could have done this painting much darker, austere desaturated colors, darker shadows, sunken eyes. He could have rendered the patches all angular and jagged. He could have scrawled some political slogan across the middle, an ugly reminder of tribalism in politics. He could have defaced it to “really get in your face.” He could have done so many things if all he wanted was to thrust pain and dissonance upon us, but he knew that there was beauty there too. He painted with such tenderness for Luis Muñoz Marin. Cariño. He made me see beauty in this old man after his life’s dedication, of the battles won and lost, of progress, of mistakes. It was worth doing, but it was hard.

Now, too painful, too cynical, and you risk losing yourself to despair. And suffering for suffering’s sake is a pointless exercise. It will find you, trust me.

Think about art, and if you are honest with yourself, you will find that it does need to be beautiful. It needs to be terribly beautiful, not pretty with little pastel sailboats hung over a couch, but terribly painfully beautiful. And it must challenge you, but not for the sake of shock alone. Art shouldn’t just throw shit in your face and say, see? that’s what shit smells like. Isn’t it shocking? Too cynical, and it loses its measure of humanity. Pain is real, and all people know it. We humans are acquainted with pain in all its varieties. Art should elevate the dialog of pain, not just use it like a cudgel. That is for the lazy and the shallow.  An artist’s job is to capture authenticity, and it takes a reverence and sincerity you can’t fake.


We Call it the Easter Dishwasher

Like most everything these days, home appliances come with printed circuit boards tucked away in various corners of their interiors. These control and logic boards rein over everything from the temperature, to water usage, cleanliness, etc, all to achieve an Energy Star rating.  They do the same job with as few resources as possible. The only problem is that you have to throw them out after a couple of years.

It turns out that the heat and humidity of tropics is murder on the electronic guts of modern appliances, ovens, dishwashers, refrigerators, washing machines. Sure, they’re more energy efficient, but then you have to get new ones every few years because the cost of repair is nearly the cost of the appliance as new. Sigh. How environmentally sound and efficient is that?

Anyway, so our dishwasher started acting up, first not draining properly. At first I thought it was clogged, but it turns out that the drain cycle was just not being triggered properly.  The cycle would not complete due to some control system problem. I took it apart, checked what I could check, studied the electrical circuit diagram, went online and found the part.  $150 but I couldn’t get it shipped to Puerto Rico without jumping through hoops. Sigh again.

After further reading however, the problem didn’t necessarily have to be isolated to the control board. It could be in the touch panel circuit.  Both together would be over $300 and that wouldn’t guarantee it would solve the problem. As a do-it-yourselfer I can’t guarantee my work. If I have misdiagnosed the problem, I eat the cost and try again.  To pay someone else with more knowledge to do it, I would have to chip in another $150-$200 for the work. Now we’re at nearly 80% of the cost of a new dishwasher.

So there I was, the thing wouldn’t drain, and now the touch panel was not working… lighting up in a strange configuration, only turning on and running if the delay wash button was pressed. Then one day it stopped working all together.

Time to get a new dishwasher. And off i went.

Perhaps it was the threat of being replaced. Maybe it had reflected on its life purpose, and got past its existential crisis, maybe it wanted us to reconnect with hand washing so as to appreciate it more. I don’t know, but that stupid dishwasher began to work again.  One day, I closed the door and heard the pump motor wind up and suck the dirty water from its bowels. “Well, will you look at that. Do you hear that, hon? This damn thing is draining!” On a hunch, I loaded it up and pushed the delay washer button, and was greeted with a one hour count down. I danced a jig in the kitchen.The boulder had been removed from the tomb, but I did not know what it meant yet.

For a week, we used the delay button to do the loads and things came out sparkling clean. The water drained. It’s a work around, but we can live with it. Then Laura came to me, “I pushed the wash button, and it started up!”

“Really?!” It was too much to believe, unreal, a complete resurrection.  I had to see it for myself.

Now the question is how long will we have it.  For how long will it walk with us, washing our dishes, freeing us from the hell that is hand washing? I suppose we should rejoice for whatever it decides to give, for it could be recalled at any time. Let’s hope it goes longer than 40 days.

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