An Ode to Cows and Airplanes

CES.  The Center for Enriched Studies.  Los Angeles’s first magnet school, founded in 1977.  I was there.  And so was John Otterness.

On the first day, after everyone arrived by bus from various far corners of the Los Angeles metropolis, we all assembled in a large auditorium.  Time to meet the faculty of our new, fledgling school, an experiment in voluntary integration.  The principal, Dave Peha, beamed as he introduced his teachers.  He thought they were all terrific and that we’d love each of them.  I was 12 at the time, in 7th grade, excited, hopeful.  I’d get to go from class to class, not sit in one room with one teacher all day. I felt all grown up.

It was in this setting that I first saw John Otterness.  I can’t remember if he said something quirky or maybe just looked quirky.  I just remember thinking, this guy seems pretty cool.  I longed to be in his class.  I hoped, hoped, hoped I got into one of Mr. Otterness’s math classes.  He looked like fun.

When it came time to go to class, though, I was assigned to someone else for math.  Fiddlesticks.

The teacher I was assigned to seemed a gentle soul, but all I can remember about him was that he thought it weird that some people went around their houses barefoot.  We all went barefoot at home.  I still go barefoot when I’m at home.  Nice guy, but not the right guy.  Perhaps he wasn’t the right fit for the hippy-dippy nerd haven that was CES, because he didn’t even last through the first semester, I don’t think.  After he departed, I was placed in rm. 227 for Algebra with John Otterness.  Yes!

Soon afterwards, my suspicions of John being a character were confirmed.  I was sitting in the school’s office, awaiting permission to go home early.  I wasn’t feeling well.  Mr. Otterness came in and asked me why was I there.  “Hay fever,” I told him, with continuous sniffles to prove it.  He looked at me quizzically and said with a straight face, “Hay fever?  There’s no hay around here, Gar!”  That was my first lesson on how to be a character, and get away with it.  I laughed through my sneezing.

Convention did not sit well with John Otterness.  Sure, we used a textbook in class, but that was merely a touchstone, not a bible.  If something did not make sense, he never fell back to the “it’s in the book” trope.  He would look for alternative forms of explanation.  Thus, the x’s and y’s of algebraic equations became cows and airplanes.  You can’t add two cows and three airplanes and call it five something else, he told us.  You still have two cows and three airplanes.  2x + 3y ≠ 5xy or whatever.

I don’t know if he knew it at the time, but a meme was born.  We talked about cows on airplanes.  Cows flying airplanes.  Airplanes on farms.  The equations came alive with bovines and flying machines.  And the cows and airplanes became a running theme for decades to come.

Even into the Facebook age:

John: Taking ride in the nose of a WWII B-17 after my bypass. Out of Torrance, CA airport – over Palos Verdes – out to catalina and back up the main channel over the Bridge to the airport – wonderful!

Me: But what about the cows, John!!??

John:  They are safe and secure – grazing below. Rest assured, nothing was done to harm a good metaphor!

More non-convention: The Flat Earth.  He professed to be a member of the Flat Earth Society.  Columbus, to his mind, was greatly overrated.  Flatness was in.  No matter what challenges we threw at him to prove the spherical nature of things, he maintained that nope, the Earth was flat and that was that.  I remember we once looked out the window and saw the moon, hanging in the sky in a strangely smog-free day.  We pointed out how spherical it was.  Nope, flat.

It was a challenge, of course, but I wouldn’t figure that out until many years later.  The real lesson:  Don’t just accept things by rote.  Think about things.  Challenge dogma.  Don’t blindly accept.  Prove and rationalize.  If after vigorous thought-experiments the world indeed came out a sphere, then so be it.  So, to be a character, a little off from everyone else, one has to think critically.  That was a good lesson.

As I said, we were a school of nerds.  The harsher elements, thug wannabes and the like, did not populate CES.  But we were young and probably a bit hyper at times.  John had a special relaxation technique, guided imagery, to calm the class and prepare us for learning.  He had us close our eyes and he would narrate us through various scenes.  They usually involved obstacles that had to be overcome, weights that burdened us, steep hills to climb.  As we went through our journey, though, the burdens lessened.  We passed off the weights to others, who helped to carry the load.  Then it didn’t seem so bad.  Once relaxed by some guided imagery, we felt mentally settled in our seats, ready to tackle more equations littered with cows and airplanes.

I remember leading a writing class at a retreat about 10 years ago.  I started it with some guided imagery, to help everyone get into a writing mood.

At the time I took classes with John, I thought I would become an astronomer.  I saw myself getting married (to a woman (!)) and buying a house in the foothills below Mt. Wilson, my own large reflector telescope in the back of the house at my beck and call.  Didn’t happen.  None of it.  (Though my partner did buy me a lovely 4” reflector for my birthday many years ago.)  In the end, it didn’t matter that I did not follow John’s lead into the sciences.  I learned much more than math in those classes and during lunch and recess breaks hanging out in his classroom.  John liked history.  I first learned about the Wobblies and The Weavers from him, and his colleague Jeff.  He talked about the Red Scare and the black lists.  He also played a mean banjo.  One lunch break, he played with Jeff, who strummed a mean guitar.  They sounded awesome.  I’m still mad at them for never doing a repeat performance.

Us computer nerds had a field day when John got a Radio Shack TRS-80 in his classroom.  I had learned some rudimentary programming the summer before going to CES.  That summer, we did FORTRAN IV with batch cards and BASIC on a telex-like machine that we hooked up to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s mainframe computer via a cradle modem.  This was back in the day when there was such a thing as “computer time” and it was very expensive. I think we could use the LAUSD machine only 15 minutes a week.  So imagine how thrilled we were to have a real, honest-to-God computer in the freaking classroom!  No batch cards!  No cradle modem!  No computer time!  Hours of unlimited hacking!  John helped to sharpen my BASIC skills and let us have at it.  “Beware of GIGO,” he said.  “If you put garbage in, you’re going to get garbage out.”  Sophisticated idiots, computers.  We had a hacking good time those lunch hours.

It was a very sad day when, after two years, John announced that he was leaving CES and in fact leaving the LA area.  Never a man to stay idle or take it slow – note the Facebook exchange above – he felt something call him to Washington state, and that’s where he lived for a while, on a lovely island which likely featured more cows than airplanes.  We stayed in touch via the mail.  But my lunch hours and math classes would never be the same again.

Dave Peha, the founding principal of CES, also liked to stay on the move and conquer new worlds.  After many years at CES, he decided to move on to a new magnet school, the Downtown Business Magnet High School.  It was set up near downtown LA, sharing a building with the school district’s television station, KLCS.  DBM, as it became known, had, among other things, state-of-the-art computer equipment, including brand new IBM Word Processors, the ones with the ginormous 8” floppy disks.  And it had a minicomputer, the legendary HP-3000.  It sat in its own soundproofed room where its tape drive could hum and purr in peace.  Students accessed it via terminals set up in an adjacent space.  Dave wanted a touch-notch person to run this computer heaven, so he turned to John and lured him back to LA and to the faculty of DBM.

I never went to DBM – my sister did – but it was just great having John around again.  It was around this time that I met and became friends with his sons, in particular Kjell.  We’d hang out at DBM hacking code, or more likely playing computer games.  Mystery Mansion was a favorite, a word-based adventure game.  Myst, without the pretty graphics.  After one of our Mystery Mansion marathons, John took us out to dinner, to a little Japanese place where Kjell and I ate his wallet into bad health.  I still ate meat in those days, so I had my first helping of squid and calamari.

John – and Dave – allowed me to come to DBM after hours even after I entered college, so that I could type up my writing assignments on one of the IBMs.  I got pretty good at the clunky thing.  So good, in fact, that the skill helped me to land my first good gig as a student employee: a secretary at the UCLA School of Law.  They, too, used IBM Word Processors.  Thus, John helped launch my career working at UC law schools.

We always stayed in touch, even after I moved to Oakland.  When I finally came out, it really wasn’t an issue or a thing of any sort.  It was just part of a continuum.  He got to meet my other half a couple of times at brunch when he came up to the Bay Area to visit one of his sons or take a group of students to see UC Berkeley.  I remember on one such visit John introduced me to one of his classes.  “Gar was in my class back . . .”  And that’s when I interrupted him.  “John,” I said, “these kids weren’t even born when I was in your class!”

He taught to the end, working well past normal retirement age.  He thought to the end, even as his body succumbed to Parkinson’s disease.  The last time I saw John, in a hospital bed, he still radiated as he had in class all those years ago, eager to talk, eager to exchange ideas, eager to listen.  As with most great teachers, he learned along with his students.  He listened to us.  I remember seeing a copy of the New York Review of Books on the side table of his hospital room.  Yep.  Still thinking critically.

He sent me one last message, in March of this year, for my birthday.  I was quite moved, because I knew that typing was a challenge for him.  Live Long and Prosper, he said.  He described conversation as a game of charades and characterized his outlook on life as alternating between Dylan Thomas (Do not go gently into that good night), the song “Life is a Carnival,” and Alan Watts Zen Philosophy.  “Keeps me thinking!!” he wrote.

The last words of the message were:


John hated doing report cards and letter grades.  He preferred a more holistic approach to evaluations, but was constricted by the rules of the school board, even at hippy-dippy CES.  He often wrote on folks’ report cards, “Nice to have in class and the universe!”  He also liked the word “neat.”  Everything was neat.

Yes.  Yes, indeed, John.  How wonderful the universe is for your having traveled through it for a spell.  Disease may have done its dirty work, but you remain a lasting impression and pretty darn neat, too.  Your essence will be felt by all who knew you and loved you for a long time to come.

Farewell, my friend, farewell.

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.


An Ode to Cows and Airplanes — 10 Comments

  1. I’m finding this post a couple of years late, but its timing couldn’t be more perfect. I lost an uncle yesterday who’d met Otter a few times. They were kindred spirits.

    Thanks for writing such a NEAT piece about a great man.

    Fatemeh, ’92

  2. I didn’t see this in 2013, but I so enjoyed reading it now, Gar. Mr. Otterness was my first math teacher at LACES (or in our old parlance, “CESLA”) in 1977. He as such a joy. He completely turned me to math, to programming and to thinking outside the box. I remember programming on that TRS-80 and often think of Mr. Otterness when I program today. I appreciate these memories. Thank you.

    Zacky Rozio

  3. Pingback: Learning While Muslim: The Shameful Arrest of Ahmed Mohamed - the gar spot

  4. Those that have done great things in life will be remembered for all eternity.

    Thank you, Mr. John Otterness.

    DBM C/O 1997

  5. Gar,

    I absolutely love this post, an accurate summary (if that’s even possible) of who John Otterness was and will continue to be. I will miss him terribly, but knowing he lives on in everyone’s memories makes it all a little better. Those were fun times at DBM, and long weekends working on Yearbooks, LOL!!

    DBM, c/o 1989

  6. Thank you! Although I never had Mr. Otterness, your piece captured the spirit of many great teachers I had at CES.

    Sabrina Judge forwarded this to me. I read it to my husband who remarked on its beauty.

    Melissa Casey

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