Sunday, October 25, 2015

Music is the Medium

"There's only two kinds of music, good and bad."
I'm not sure who said that, but it's been attributed to many.  I rather like the story that Duke Ellington's father imparted it to a young, gifted, son.  Duke certainly got the message because he made so much of the former kind of music.
Most of us have our favorite genres.  A quick look at someone's playlist or Pandora radio stations will reveal much about the person.  For those who have stacks of tape cassettes, or boxes of vinyl records even more knowledge and experience shows through.  Case in Point:  I went to a popular breakfast place the other day only to be greeted by the voice of Blind Willie McTell.  A record was playing...a real record making circles under a needle arm.  Felt like I'd walked into a Texas roadhouse.  I think it even made the food taste better.  I may have been the only one in that room who knew the voice, or even cared, but the music was the medium in that moment.

I've always marveled at how advertisers use the music of our formative years to sell their products.  When the Pillsbury Doughboy showed up playing blues riffs on a harmonica, I used to tell my classes that someday they'll see him as a rapper trying to sell the same old puffy white dough.  Lots of laughs, but mark my words, it's coming when they reach the right demographic in a few years.
As we age, we seem to get frozen or at least locked in for awhile to certain music genres and/or artists.  Again, Pandora helps because if you create a Neil Young station, you'll get lots Crosby Stills and Nash along with those Beatle songs that remind you of when and where you were at a certain time in your life.
I hold on to the Blues.  I'm overjoyed when anyone today covers a classic artist, but truth be told, I'd rather listen to the originals.  I'm old enough to have seen many of the classic Blues performers in their hey days.  Some like me feel it our duty to keep the music alive, so we wear T shirts with Blues graphics, and listen and talk up the music whenever we can.
With every year I'd say I know less and less about current popular music.  Can't tell you how many Grammies anybody won and it takes a good cluster of years before I feel certain I can put a date on a particular song or band.  It's of little value to do so now.  But make no mistake, I care about and listen to new artists.  In my hometown of Portland, Or, I hear all manner of street performers.  Occasionally I'll feed the kitty because it takes guts and resilience to stand out there (often in rain) and sing your heart out.  Now and then it's painfully obvious the busker on the street has a past.  They're too good, they have complete mastery over a piano, a fiddle, or a guitar.  The have a voice!  But then we all do.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Right Deal

I planned on a two hour wait time while my truck was getting serviced this morning.  The Tacoma I drive is getting on in years and has reached the age when there are really no surprises, just unplanned for expenses.  That's why I spent almost 3 hours in the waiting room today.
I can do waiting time.  I read, check email, read some more, do a crossword puzzle and finally get some alone time to just think.  Sitting there with a dozen other people, all of whom drive newer vehicles, I'm sure, I make a little time to check out who is waiting along with me.  Today it was a few retired folks, and a tech wiz, who was plugged in to a few devices, and a couple of folks whose loud phone conversations informed everyone in the room that they had just returned from Canada or that they had no idea how much money was in their checking account.  Ordinary stuff.

And then there was that TV that flashed constantly while no one in particular watched.  With no volume on, most folks just ignored the high definition images constantly pulsating through the room.
After a bit, I noticed what the TV had to offer between 9:00 and 12:00.  Sure, soap operas and game shows, but with the sound off, they can appear very differently.  I spent a total of 10 minutes watching two 5 minute segments of two game shows...soundless.  No questions to answer, just estimate the price of an object or choose between this or that.  You know the shows, both hosted by former comedians who must be laughing to the bank at these steady gigs.  What comes across, more than anything, is that lots of 20-40 somethings come absolutely unglued at the prospect of winning consumer goods.  I took the role of an anthropologist, pretending I was from another universe and was examining data about this strange civilization.  These people, who would eventually assume the role of contestants, would adorn themselves in bizarre attire.  Not really costumes, but rather a blend of home-made outfits composed of inexpensive material and fuzzy, fluorescent, colors.  To this bunch add the svelte models with extended arms,  exhibiting the items up for grabs.  They wore tight-fitting frocks, mostly of primary colors.  They kept their least while on the air.
All this needed no sound to figure out what's going on.  This day, October 21st 2015 is supposedly called Back to the Future Day, in light of the movie that predicted what life in 2015 would be like.  They were right about a few things.  The people in these TV programs seem to value automobiles above all else.  They pause to touch them or stroke their smooth fenders, tops, curvy lines.  If they win, they convulse.  What must they have been fed before they entered the TV studio?  I wonder if their gaudy outfits will survive?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Time Out

Shakespeare used to write about a time when things were "out of joint."  When the music of the spheres was out of tune and the concord of the heavens was discord.  This is that time of year.  Some would say when the moon is in Scorpio while others simply feel that it's all another version of what goes around, comes back...comes around...or represents the myth of the eternal return.  In any case, we seem to be in such a time these days.  It's raining inches and inches in one part of the country while the drought persists in the other.  It's 100 degrees in L.A. with November on the horizon.  Trappers in Alaska can't get to their lines because there has been very little snow for the past couple of years, and this year the Yankees were one and done and the Chicago Cubs have dispatched the Cardinals, perhaps the best team in baseball, and have a chance at the World Series.  Out of joint or simple just time?  Any real baseball fan has got to be smiling right now.  It's been over 100 years since the Cubs were in the World Series.  This is a just once in my lifetime precipice they are on.  As a Giants fan, my mantra this year is "Wait till last year."  Having 3 Series appearances in the last 5 years is more than I ever could expect.  Therefore, it follows that rooting for the Cubs now is a no-brainer.  I noticed that the Cubs uniform has the number 14 on it.  Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, the humble, talented, All-star who's baseball card we all wanted and whose career was stellar never got a shot at the World Series.  His number and spirit will be with this team and yet another powerful force to reckon with in this extraordinary time.

Watching the Cubs fans last night, I noticed how they  waited patiently for the last out to celebrate.  They've been near the top of the mountain too many times to rely on anything but facts.
But this just could be the year.  Forget winning the series, just getting there is the real victory...perhaps.
I'm reminded of a pair of brothers who used to hang out at the racetrack.  Transplanted New Yorkers, they were perhaps the loudest and physically repulsive human beings I ever came across.  Every now and then when the most improbable horse would win at box car odds one of them would yell, "Every dog has his day."  Politically incorrect...yes...bad use of the word dog...perhaps, but the message was clear, don't ever give up on anyone because it all comes around eventually.  Oh, and did I mention that this is the year that Yogi Berra left us.  "It ain't over till it's over, and it ain't over yet."

Friday, October 9, 2015

Postcard to a Beginning Teacher

I was asked recently by a former colleague to share some thoughts on the work/life balance for teachers.  My colleague is teaching in the school of education at UC Berkeley and originally asked me to be part of a panel discussion.  I wold have loved to do it but my work in Portland makes that impossible for now.  We settled on some written thoughts she could share with her students.  Those appear below.  Because I seemed to explore other pursuits while teaching 33 consecutive years I guess I had a reputation of figuring it all out.  Hardly.  I invite comments from other teachers, especially beginning teachers because I know full well that it's intensely personal and the job will take over your life if you let it.  Here's my postcard:

Teaching is all consuming.  Most of us in the profession could work 16 hour days is we allowed ourselves to do so.  For morning people, like me, it is self-defeating and unproductive to keep at it when I should let go to rest or simply lighten up.  It took a while to learn that, but everyone finds their own balance after a decade or so.  
In my 33 years, I learned to recognize where and when to move away from the classroom and put some time/energy into other things.  Of course, back in the early 70s, when I began, the technology we enjoy today wasn’t around and simple things like showing a video/film or obtaining copies of a short story or other textual resources required much more time and effort.  Sometimes, if you wanted to use a particular short story, you had to type it completely.  The masters lasted only one semester, and that was it.  No saving it on a disk or in a computer file. But I know, from continuing to work with beginning teachers as a supervisor and mentor, the all consumptive quality of teaching is very much alive and well today.
As we all know, for beginning teachers, this obsession with your classroom, your students, your curriculum, even your choice of career, can have serious consequences.  Relationships suffer, personalities have been know to change, frustration and anger need to be dealt with, sometimes daily, and the predictable cycles from anticipation to depression are very much true realities that all teachers face.  As the cliche goes. "choose your battles" or as my wife, Katie, likes to say, “Is it a 2 or a 10?”  Sometimes it seems like there are only 10s.

Here’s what worked for me.  I have no silver bullets, just a description of how I managed to attempt the balance for 30 years.  After about 7-8 years, I had an “Is that all there is” moment.  To be sure, teaching remained my passion, and I felt some success and dare I say, pure joy on occasion.  All the romantic notions of teaching are gone by then and that makes some of the better days stand out even more.  I was fortunate to be working in a dynamic social science department as well as an English department loaded with consummate professionals that kept me challenged and growing.  Both departments were collaborative and filled with colleagues who also became life-long friends.  Still I wanted to do other things.  I thought about a sabbatical to travel or do research, but I never wanted to leave the classroom bad enough, I guess.  I had other interests that I wanted to develop, and my epiphany came when I realized I could do both: teach and pursue other interests.  That’s when I became conscious of time management.  Throughout the last 25 years of my career, I managed to produce two radio oral/musical history documentaries on American subcultures that fascinated me, (1979-84) Hobos and rail-riders and horse racetrack culture) act and play harmonica in a stage production about the life of Woody Guthrie, ( 1980-85) and finally, work as a correspondent for a national Thoroughbred horse magazine (The Bloodhorse 1985-2005) I did about 8-10 short articles a year along with various major feature pieces/personality profiles over the years.  Much of the time devoted to these endeavors involved weekends and summers, but not exclusively.  Some summers were spent doing BAWP activities or pursuing other education opportunities like a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer seminar on 4 Southern Women writers in New Orleans. (pre Katrina)  Enough about me!  Here’s what helped me keep the balance.  
I set priorities. One easy way to do this is to make lists. Beneath a large clip on my roll book was always an index card with an updated list. It really does help to write things down.  Even the act of making a list helps gain control over everything you need to do on a daily basis. While in the classroom, my lesson plans, organization and preparation always came first.  While teaching multiple English 3 Honors classes my paper load was enormous, but I would not allow myself to get too far behind because I held tight to some daily time to grade papers and keep plans and resources up to date and available.  Obsessive, yes, but that’s what worked for me.  There were two times that were sacred for me.  Between 4 and 6, on afternoons with no meetings, I’d plant myself in a coffee house and read essays or grade papers for my psychology classes.  Just making a dent in the stacks is crucial.  I found that if I could keep this a routine, by the time I came home, I already had something done and I could  listen actively to my wife discuss her day, indulge myself in a quiet dinner,  or catch up on world news/pop culture (both are vital for teachers) and perhaps some junk TV to just escape.  While writing for the horse magazine I’d often have a 24 hour deadline.  So, I began weekends by getting up fairly early (6:30 on Sat. but never on Sunday) getting some laundry done, grade a few papers while at a coffeeshop and then by 10:00 just stop and don’t think about school until Sunday afternoon.  Often, I’d make sure handouts, books and other things needed for Monday were in place before I left on Friday afternoon.  Most teachers do that normally, so it was no big deal.  
Again, when you have my kind of obsessive personality along with the need to put time in with other passions, it can conflict with personal relationships.  Granted I did not have children of my own, but there was a 4 year period in my life when my significant other was a woman with a 6 year old son, so I did assume all the responsibilities of a step-parent on occasion.  That’s no substitute for having children of your own, but I  did experience how important it is to compartmentalize and prioritize and just plain sacrifice your own interests and spend quality time with your family, whatever form that may take.  
To conclude, let me offer some general advice.  Acknowledge that being a full-time teacher will consume you if you let it.  There is never enough time, there is never enough you can do for students, you will rarely, if ever get caught up on anything, but there are things you can do about that. Try not to do anything school-related on Saturday.  Just one day a week that is yours alone can work wonders.  Try to set an evening time, i.e.. 9:00 pm when you don’t do any school work. I learned from a Norwegian educator who once did some research at El Cerrito HS that American teachers feel they have to grade everything.  She told me that in Norway, students might complete 3 assignments and choose one for grading.  I found that helped reduce the massive paper load and enabled me to feel more in control of my classes and ultimately my life.  I also placed more value on formative assessments and self-assessments by students when possible.  These are the kinds of things many young teachers feel pressure about doing because of the current test culture affecting morale.  They are, however, strategies that are useful, productive, and valid and ought to be explored through collaboration with colleagues. 

Finally, because it is vital for teachers to share some of their personal lives with students, you must maintain that life, explore other interests, take a few risks and put some time and energy into passions you may have neglected.  You’ll be doing something great for your own mental health and have plenty to share with students as you build those important relationships.  When you get particularly angry or frustrated, remember that both teachers and students have tremendous resiliency.  Get back on the horse right away and do what you know you were born to do.  Final thought, don’t let anyone tell you that you might be burning out.  People used to ask me if I felt burn out when I expressed anger or frustration or even outrage at some of the things teachers are asked to do or the loss of autonomy that often comes down from on high…it’s possible to be just as passionate and caring in the classroom while feeling all the emotions that come with the complexity of teaching today.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Body Politic

After all the initial reactions to the regularity of mass shootings in this country, the comments seem to divide themselves into categories.  It's the gun's mental illness, it's it entire history and totality of violence in this country's past, it's our lack of adequate health care, it's all these things, it's none of these things.
Some folks don't like the pressure put on mental health acknowledging that mentally ill people are no more violent than anyone else.  Others want to regulate guns while some think that arming teachers will be just the ticket.  It seems to me that teachers will not carry least most of them.  I'm sure some already do, but then there is a wide variety of personality types in the profession in case you hadn't noticed.

I favor the gun obsession argument.  Chickens do come home to roost.  Think about how much exposure a typical citizen in this culture has to violence.  It's revered.  It has enormous arenas built to celebrate might.  And those are just the healthy responses!
What also seems to bubble to the surface are the profiles of these shooters.  There are so many similarities with the depressed, disaffected, isolated, alienated 20 something that it seems we could predict some of these paroxysms before they take more innocent lives.  What pains and continues to mystify me is how some of these folks have so many guns in their homes.  In the recent Oregon shooting there were 6 guns on site attribute to the shooter and another 7 more found at his home.  All legal, of course.
In the wake of all this, I've been reading what I consider to be the most powerful and insightful book about race, violence, fear and anger born and bred in America.  Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me  should be required reading.  In fact, that's what Toni Morrison urges in the blurbs on the cover.  What Coates does, that seems to be the singular quality of this book, is set the fear and anger in it's accurate historical context.  There are powerful reasons that people don't feel comfortable talking about these things.  Coates' book is in the form of a letter to his 15 year old son.  Aside from being the familiar father-son talk necessary for African American men, he sheaths his ideas in the form of threats to the body.  You must realize that there are forces out there who are trying to take your body from you.  These forces feel entitled and emboldened in doing so.  The similarities to what many innocent students feel in this moment in time are inescapably glaring.

Friday, October 2, 2015


The postal clerk hands me a sheet of Maya Angelou stamps.  We both hear his radio.  Breaking news tells us of the latest school shooting.  This time in our state.  This time only a few hours down the Interstate.  This time more people reported dead than usual.
The postal clerk is hardly empathetic.
"Criminals will always get guns," he spits at me.
Any gun control will just keep the good people from their right to own guns."
I don't respond; just take the stamps and walk away.
We don't see eye to eye.  In fact I can't begin to fathom how he sees this issue.
But we both know the drill.  Deflections cobbled from "mental illness" a twisted version of the 2nd Amendment, or anything that fits the bill.

These folks want to kill terrorists.  Their lens is clouded because they hardly realize thousands more have been killed by our home grown variety than by any from another country, culture, religion, or organized group.
We've perfected the lone wolf.  The depressed kid that often lives at home with his mother.  The one that can easily obtain an assault rifle.  He poses with his long gun.  He paints his social media efforts with plenty of images...plenty of convoluted thoughts, yet maintains the aura of surprise.
Our politicians have no will.  No backbone.  No huevos.  That adds up to no ethics.  Like my friend selling stamps, they've all gone postal in a rather strange way.
All of these impotent ideas under one flag today at half staff