Thursday, May 29, 2014

Coming and going in Claremont

   This is my latest Claremont Courier column, published May 16.


       It wasn’t there. The building. It wasn’t there anymore. 
   The building had been there a few days earlier. Or was it the day before? Now, suddenly, all there was was a wall or two and a huge pile of rubble. It looked like there had been a catastrophic earthquake right at that spot. Or an instant, if messy, Greco-Roman ruin.
   There had been a fence around Ducey Gym - or what used to be called Ducey Gym - at Claremont McKenna College for quite some time, but it was still a shock a few weeks ago when, turning onto Sixth Street, I saw that the large gymnasium that had been there for decades was gone. Poof!
       No more. 
       History. A memory. A picture. 
   I knew that the lovely swimming pool at Scripps College where I spent hundreds of happy summer afternoons was also a memory and had been for many years, but it was still weird, if not a shock, when, not long before Ducey Gym disappeared, I ventured onto the northeast portion of the Scripps campus, made my way to where the pool used to be and found myself surrounded by attractive residential units. There was a small water fall, lending to a nice, resort-like vibe, but there was definitely no swimming pool there.     
   Not only did I know that the pool was long gone, I knew that another swimming pool had been built not far from the site, as part of an impressive athletic facility, with well-groomed fields and a handsome building. Still, seeing this all up close and that the old pool really wasn’t there was a jolt. 
   It was even more of a jolt when, a few years ago, I saw that the pool at Harvey Mudd College, where I also spent a fair amount of time (especially after the old Scripps pool was closed), was no longer there, replaced by a large building. I’m not even sure when it was gone - it seemed to happen overnight - and I still have a hard time not picturing it, rather than the building, there standing out along Twelfth (now Platt) Street. (Maybe this is because I grew up hearing my father talk about swimming there every day at noon, rain or shine, when he taught there.)
   Now the really remarkable thing is that, when I was a very young child, before going to the Harvey Mudd and old Scripps pools, my family would go swimming at a pool at C.M.C - which used to be where Ducey Gym (now) was. 
   On the same visit when I saw what was where the Scripps pool used to be, it was nice to see that, in another area of the campus, there is still the garden with the wall on which departing graduates have painted messages over the years. Some date back to the 1920's and 1930's.
   And it is nice to see that, even with the old pool not there and with the new housing units and the new athletic facilities, Scripps is still arguably the loveliest of the colleges in Claremont, with its gardens and courtyards and Mediterranean architecture. This isn’t to say that, as it is also nice to see, there are plenty of very pleasant spots on the other campuses. 
   The wall at Scripps with the class messages from the last 80 or so years is a reminder that the colleges are still here, still carrying out their noble mission, still a vital, integral part of Claremont. This weekend, with all the commencement exercises and speeches and proud parents and friends, with another group of students writing on the wall and leaving after spending a critical, enriching part of their lives here in Claremont, is likewise a reminder of this. 
   As the wall and the graduations show quite eloquently, this is the case even as Ducey Gym has been torn down, even as a major new science building (or complex?) is going up at Pomona College, even as much of the Harvey Mudd College campus is different. Even as dorms change, even as swimming pools and buildings disappear, even as there are areas of the campuses that are unrecognizable or are becoming unrecognizable, whether eventually or over a weekend, students keep coming, and students keep going, with their lives shaped and forever changed by their years here. 
   These changes tend to be for the better, as with nicer housing or with improved laboratories. No doubt they are a big part of why the students keep coming. No doubt they are a critical factor in the colleges’ mission and renown. 
   Whether or not they are for the best, these changes are sometimes not easy. I still miss the old Scripps pool with its cozy garden-like setting and mosaics and, as I said, can’t quite believe that the Harvey Mudd pool where my dad swam for decades is gone.
   Another change at the colleges which isn’t easy is the retirement of Leonard Pronko after teaching for an incredible 57 years - longer than my life - mostly in the theater department, at Pomona College. This surely isn’t a change for the better, but, as was noted at an event two weeks ago, there is great gratitude that he will still be in Claremont and still with an interest in the theater program at the colleges. 
   I wrote here in the fall that Mr. Pronko is all but a legend at Pomona College, if not in Claremont. He is best-known for his expertise in and direction of Kabuki productions. For most of my life here in Claremont, I have been aware of his work in the theater department, which began a few years after his arrival at Pomona and which also included many works by European playwrights such as Ibsen and Faydeau. That he will no longer be doing this is, I find, something of a jolt, strange and sad.
   But the celebration earlier this month was entirely appropriate, with Mr. Pronko, elegant and eloquent even as he said that demonstrating Kabuki “is too hard on my knees,” in joyful conversation with Thomas Leabhart, another longtime faculty member of the theater department, and Sam Gold, a 2011 Pomona College graduate who was taught and directed by Mr. Pronko and Mr. Leabhart and who has gone on to do theater work all over the world. It was another reminder of the comings and goings that are very much a part of the colleges’ ongoing, vital work. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

God help us

   Just because something is a tradition doesn’t make it good. After all, slavery was a tradition. It has been a tradition to not let same-sex couples marry.
   Traditions can be downright bad, or they can at least hold us back. Unfortunately, the recent U.S Supreme Court ruling that government meetings can include specifically Christian prayers invoking not only God but “Our Lord Jesus Christ” allows such a tradition to continue. Indeed, in defending this position, Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, stated that such legislative prayer is deeply rooted in our history.
   The problem is that, as Justice Elena Kagan pointed out in her dissent, “our public institutions belongs no less to the Buddhist and Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian. And as the Los Angeles Times editorializes, although Kennedy insisted that the ruling doesn’t authorize prayers that “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities,” a “guest chaplain who prays in Jesus’ name at a town meeting doesn’t have to threaten non-Christians with hellfire to make them feel like outsiders.” Things get all the more tricky when a Hindu or a nonbeliever comes to a meeting to seek the aid of their elected representatives.
   Here’s another reason why the tradition of legislative prayers aren’t for the best: With a prayer being offered to seek “the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” conservatives can say that they don’t need to help the poor and disenfranchised because Jesus and God will.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Culture of crime

   Richard White Piquette was a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who worked in the Twin County Correctional Facility, the jail in downtown L.A.
   Then why did he, according to the Los Angeles Times recently, build an automatic assault rifle? In addition to manufacturing the Noveske Rifleworks N–4 .223-caliber rifle with an eight-inch barrel (never mind that federal law requires that the barrel be at least 16 inches), he possessed a shotgun that had been stolen from the Sheriff’s Department and three assault weapons banned in California. He has plead guilty to all of these.
   Excuse me if I’m being terribly naive, but I thought law enforcement officers were supposed to discourage and stop crime, not engage in crime. I thought peace officers were supposed to keep the peace, not disturb it.
   The L.A County Sheriff’s Department is well-known for such behavior by its officers and is under investigation by various agencies. Officers have been found to form tattooed cliques or gangs in the jails and beat inmates, harass and intimidate African-American and other minority tenants during Section 8 housing inspections in Lancaster and injure each other in a fight at the department’s Christmas party a few years ago. Piquette’s was the first plea agreement by one of 20 sheriff’s officials charged or indicted since December.
   Again, at the risk of being terribly naive, I ask, why is this even an issue? Why are police officers criminals? Police corruption is nothing new, for sure, but it is no less disturbing, no less alarming.
   Piquette’s attorney, Ronald Hedding, describes his client as “a good man” and, interestingly enough, adds that he believes that it is common practice for sheriff’s deputies to have weapons like the ones Piquette had. As if by way of explanation, he said, “A lot of these criminals are carrying these types of weapons on the streets.”
   Like that makes it all okay. Or are “these criminals” the officers?
    I once knew a guy who did a brief stint working for campus security at the colleges here in Claremont, and what he told me about the job really fits here. He said that the people working for the department, even though they were only pseudo officers, “really like putting on their black boots and acting tough.” He said they liked being tough, if not bad, and getting away with it.