Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Yellowing Pages

I used to escape from the loud house-full of happy Philadelphia-area Italians into my grandmother's basement. Down I would float down over stairs that were wearied over the years into a flexing, barely perceptible bounce by playing shoes and late-to-work shoes and furniture-moving shoes. Down, I'd go, into the deep smell of earth, books, boxes and gently musty air that floated cool between cinder-block borders broken only by thick block glass squares in rectangular rows that let in just enough light to color the basement into more of a secret world than a scary place.

My retreat spot lay over by the little book case filled with aging paperbacks standing at attention under the shoulder-to-shoulder pressure of each other. I'd sit on the carpet under rafters hung with aged and drying red peppers...but first, to re-inspect the weathered half-barrel that hung on the wall.

It look very much like this more famous book. 
I'd open the clasp on the front and it would swing open to reveal gold-rimmed shot glasses and Scotch glasses and tumblers in neat semicircular rows, each half-sunken into its wooden nest. Just a peep, to see the secrets inside and to hear  the echoes of parties that had been centered around it as my impossibly-young grandparents poured ice-tinkling drinks for guests whom I pictured to be composed of black and white movie flickers; the women trim and jaunty in their wide hats, like Lois Lane from the George Reeves Superman show; the men in double-breasted suits with hats cocked sideways. The laughter muffled itself as I pulled the sides of the barrel to; stopped as I fastened the clasp.

Below crouched the book case, itself, swirled in antique yellow, its outer frame planed into symmetrical undulations, little circles carved into the corners by the cabinetmaker's hand. Sitting Indian-style (it was okay to call it that, then) on the old, green, sculptured carpet, I could see the book I had left from our last trip to visit Grandmom here in Northeast Philly. I'd left a toothpick in it to mark my place. On the cover was a painting of four men in a life raft, sprawled and tumbling, mouths shaped into replica fear as they tumbled amid white-capped oil-painted waves.

I opened it and fell back into its story of four American pilots shot down over the Pacific -- this book written decades before I was born by someone nobody remembers -- whose name might not even have been what was written -- but who managed to crank out solid pulp fiction for a living. The characters wielded names like "Nick Andersen" and "Captain Buck Blake" and they talked about cigarettes and "dames" as they snagged sea turtles and drank their blood or after they'd paddled off a school of tiger sharks. You could almost see the aesthetic way their shirts frayed; how they fiction-burned, instead of suffering under the misery of bubbling skin and cracking lips. They endured heroically in that silver-screen way.

But I don't remember the story -- that one or any of the other dozens I read -- much. What I do remember is how I always noticed the way the pages were framed in yellowing age. I would wonder how many year that took to happen; how old you'd needed to be to own a book that had turned yellow... Then, in the low light, I'd sink back into the adventure, still aware of the darkening edges cupping the words like, hands full of water, on the page.

Now, unlike most grown-ups, each year I suffer that same, sad, downward tug at my heart as the school year stands only a tomorrow away from me. And as I wait, inhaling the coquettish scent of fall that teases the time for school, I then exhale and look at the book I am now re-reading; a book that hand-holds its reader barefoot through the grass of summer into the day before the stiff new shoes of September have to cage the toes: Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. And I feel the hearts of Douglas and Tom Spaulding as their summer of 1928 closes like my Grandmother's old barrel. I feel like a boy each year at this time, filled with the leaden resignation that the freedoms of July and August are soon to be no more.

But as I look at the pages, a book that I bought myself, brand new, I see what I once used to think the province of those born in the black-and-white days: alas, the pages are beginning to yellow. My own pages. And so, the words in my own little boy heart are cupped by the gentle but ever progressing yellow edges of time...

The bookshelf is mine, now, and it stands in my living room, filled with books of poetry. Some day, my sons will find Keats there. Or Sandburg or Heaney. But the men in the life raft have long since gone to dust.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

An Ent-at-Heart Speaks on Political Correctness

I am finally ready to say what I think of the idea of "political correctness." It has taken me decades to come to a conclusion. Entish of me, I know, but I am reluctant to speak before I am sure of not only what I feel, but of what I think.

In order to remain rational, we have to define not only what "political correctness" is but what it is not. (Which is hard, because, what the hell does that phrase mean, anyway? -- "politically correct"? It really is doublespeak in the truest sense. It's horrible, linguistically.)

Edward Hopper
At any rate, political correctness is not some system that is in place with a head office, a list of bylaws and delineated consequences. Yet, people seem to see it this way. It is not an active governmental program designed to suppress free speech. Yet, people seem to see it this way.

Political correctness is a concept. And like many other artificial social constructs, it wants to be seen as a structure of stone and steel; as something real. In the end, it is no more than an idea. Ideas are important, of course -- maybe the most important force in the world, but an idea that is seen as a rulebook, when it is not, is, at best, imperfect, at worst a virus (for good or ill, depending on your view) in the program that is the collective consciousness of a culture.

Generally, PC seeks to define what is okay to say and what is not. It is not about choosing what to say based on your values and emotional intelligence, it is about prescribing what is allowable to say. Not that there are any teeth in it, mind is just an idea. 

That is what we do with language in 2016. We depersonalize and we prescribe. We move things away from personal responsibility and into some hazy entity of a program we ought to follow -- that we wind up feeling pressured into following; in this case, a program that does not exist in any official sense; a program in which broken rules have no tangible consequences.

The problem is that the more we depersonalize, the more we become empty rule-followers; the spirit is no longer behind the actions; the actions are performed just out of a vague sense that the rules simply must be followed. Don't think; do or do not. Sounds a lot like what people criticize religion for. (Though, at least in terms of Christianity, one glance at the Adam and Eve story will clearly tell you that a blind following of the rules is not what God wants...He wants voluntary good behavior, or He never would have made it a choice.) 

What was wrong with "having manners"? Think of the difference between parents and grandparents telling their beloved children what is polite and people following a list of politically correct terms. Think of the difference in tone between "having manners" and "being politically correct."

My wife and I ate brunch at a great restaurant in Philly, two days ago, but we had a waiter who depersonalized everything. Some waiters say, "I'll be taking care of you." He said "I will be your server." When he asked how he meal was, he didn't say, "I am glad you liked it." He said, "I'm glad it was enjoyable." Everything he said kept us at arms' length. A week earlier, we had had a waitress who was such a warm and witty sweetheart, that a stark contrast was all the more vivid... We engaged with her in our dining experience, but this guy basically just put the plates down for us: the difference between human interaction and mechanical action. He was doing his job; she was being friendly, for her pleasure and for ours.

To paraphrase George Carlin -- who was referencing Vietnam vets -- if we still called the condition soldiers suffer after battle "shell-shock" and hadn't changed it to "post-traumatic stress disorder," the soldiers might have gotten the help they needed faster. Plain language is more personal; a more poetic phrase -- an onomatopoetic one like "shell-shock" -- is no+t just for the brain, it is for the heart. It begs for engagement and shared feelings. 

In the process of depersonalizing, we weaken the connection of our intentions to our words and to our actions -- and to each other. Once we lose the connection between words and sincerity, the action that follows them becomes a simple laying down of the plates; there is no shared humanity. 

As a teacher, for instance, I never have made (and never will make) a student apologize for having done something. What good is an apology that is not meant? I will ask a student if he thinks he wants to apologize. And often they do. A forced apology, however, is worthless -- an empty action. 

So, instead of giving people a list of things that are "politically correct" to say, what is wrong with stressing manners? Be nice. Treat others with respect. Old fashioned, I know. But so is sitting on the front porch and talking to neighbors on a summer night. 

One argument in favor of political correctness is that one group gets to decide what they would like to hear or to be called. But long before political correctness existed, people told me, as a child, what was polite and not polite to say -- people I respected taught me to be respectful; that every human deserves some respect for being a human. Sure, it is the lowest level of respect, but it amounts to human decency. It is simple respect for life. (Hell, I even have respect for trees.) 

I know, I know...some people don't have that kind of guidance. So what? Let's work more on developing values than on creating lists. Let's offer parenting theory courses in high schools. Let's bring our kids back to church. Whatever it takes to focus on values and the concept of respect for our fellow humans. If you roll your eyes at this, then, yes, you're right; it's too late, I guess. If you consider it possible, there's hope.

If our child-rearing concept is to collapse, then, what's wrong with sorting things out through people's reaction  to what we say? What's wrong with hearing, "Hey, could you not call me that?" For that matter, how about a nice brawl over an insult. Someone has to learn something from that, in the end.

Once, in class I taught at Rutgers, we were discussing the term "African American," which I was defending, and a black man in the class sat in the back shaking his head. I asked him what he wanted to say and he declared that he hated the term African American, because, although he is black, he was not of African descent. He preferred "black". See, I had to engage with him to find that out. This conversation hurt no one and now at least 25 people knew what he preferred. No bloody noses; 100% real human interaction; point made.

People defend political correctness and people call it the great plague of free speech. But I think that those who call it the plague of free speech are almost seeing it as something that is concrete. What that makes is a kind of gaseous cloud of language-bullying. It floats over our heads and we bow to its gloomy weight. Political correctness is only as powerful as we make it and we make it too powerful.

Manners. We need manners. We need to interact more as if we live on the same planet. Right now, political correctness is the teacher holding two kids by the backs of their collars three minutes after fisticuffs on the playground and forcing them to be friends again. If that teacher would just talk to human beings...they might actually wind up seeing how silly their conflict was; they might even walk out of the room arm-in-arm.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Real Beauty

Each morning, this summer, as I drive into school -- somewhere around 8:30, when the sun is at its most golden -- I see true beauty.

All business, in shorts and T-shirts, there goes a father, mother and son. All three of them are overweight, the son's round physique a perfect miniature of the father's, his hair just as sunrise red. The mother's hair sits high in an all-business bun.

They're there for a reason, make no mistake. They are out there to get in shape. They walk briskly and with purpose, each the others' most important person in some way. Each encouraging the other to keep going; to get healthy; to work off the weight. The son seems determined, even if he would prefer to be playing Minecraft, and he inevitably trails a bit behind with a stick (sword? light saber? bow?) in hand. The mother holds the father's hand -- or, rather, she holds gracefully, coquettishly, onto his outside two fingers. The mother walks a nearly imperceptible four inches ahead of her husband; they are side-by-side as a husband and wife should be, but she is leading -- she is the one who wakes her favorite lads up each morning and says, "Come on -- get your sneaks on."

Every day, without fail, they breathe in the leaf-dappled summer scents and take advantage of the slow-motion summer clock and incrementally work at changing their lives, step after step. It chokes me up every time.

There's no saccharine, greeting-card, joyful, everyone-in-white-on-the-beach false moment-capturing, here . There's sweat and inconvenience and sacrifice in their walk and in their posture. There's some inner-thought distance. But there's committment and total comfort of company. There's an "us-against the-world-ness." There's teamwork that no artificial team could ever approach. And, of course, there's love.

Is there anything, on Earth, more beautiful than a family?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Hot Thought

It was 94 degrees in these parts on last Friday night, the last time I looked -- which was about 11:30 at night. I had to play three sets on the drums in a club whose air-conditioning was definitely feeling the strain of a long heat wave. Between the struggles of the machine and the door to my right -- that opened and closed repeatedly onto the outdoor deck to let in belches of oven-hot air -- it must have been 85 degrees in the bar.

Needless to say, by the end of the night, I was rather damp with perspiration. (We play three sets of just about non-stop music every night. No time for the weary drummer to rest. No need to give me any sympathy -- the band does not, God bless them.)

After I'd broken down the drums and loaded them into the car -- it was, like, 1:30 am by then; it had maybe dropped to a cozy 88 degrees outside -- I went back in to "dummy check" for stuff left behind and I bumped into one of our regular followers; a really nice guy, a little younger than us with a bald head and a quick smile.

The not-so-old old guys. 
"Man," he said, looking me over. "I think you're sweating a little."

I laughed and he laughed. "You're way too old to be working this hard," he said.

I told him that I had just had a serious conversation, that night, with my fourteen-year-old son about his becoming my "roadie" when he starts driving.

The plan is that, when he gets behind the wheel in a couple of years, I'd pay him part of my nightly salary to set up and break down the drums. It would be a great part-time job for him during high school.

Logic aside, it was another chance for me, philosophically, to wrap my head around this getting-older business; this dance one has to do on the fuzzy floor between accepting age and fighting its detrimental effects. I'm only 48, for the love of Pete. But part of it is about learning to let our loved ones help us as the years pile up There is no shame in letting the vehicles of our virtual immortality (our sons and daughters) prop us up from to time, the way we did as they leared to do....hell...everything.

Machismo wants to brag about having walked uphill (both ways), barefoot and over broken glass to school but the wise man is just proud of having learned once he got there. I plan to play the drums until my arms fall of, but if I can put off that unfortunate day of limb-shedding for many years by harnessing the youthful energy and strength of my boys, why not? Will the audience watch me play a 32nd note fill around the kit and say, with a snort, "Well, yeah, that was fast, and he is, like, 86 years old, but I hear his son sets up the drums for him..."? Of course not.

We all should try to age with grace. We all want to keep our dignity. What we have to convince ourselves of is that our dignity does not suffer when we walk through our elder days under the gentle support of those who love us too much to judge us for -- for lack of a better term -- having to "repay" the gifts of strength and guidance we once gave them.

Anyway, I have to set up my own drums for at least two more years. And, no, Kurt the bass player, I will not use a smaller kit. (Okay -- maybe a little macho conviction is good...)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Analog Man

I got a new watch the other day. It's an automatic watch -- the kind that winds itself through the motion of your arm through the day. You move; things spin; it winds.

I am not sure why I like watches so much. I'm not a jewelry or clothing kind of guy. It might be echoes in my DNA of the grandfather I never met, Joseph Tancredi, a watchmaker from Philadelphia. (He also made timers on bombs for WWII.) He died when my mom was way too young to lose a father...

Maybe there is enough of him in me, though, that I have an affinity for the things. I'm not rich, so I can't really afford to own more than one or two, but I like having one.

The one I got, as I say, is an "automatic," or self-winding watch. The finest watch I have ever had, but not so fine by the standards of the real collectors.

I've never wanted anything digital, even when I was a kid and the hideous -- but strangely seductive -- calculator watches came out. I want to see hands and Roman numerals. I want to hear a tick. In this particular watch, there are small views into the workings. You can see some of the jewels and a spring and some working cogs (or sprockets -- never was sure of the difference, ever since Spacely Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs from The Jetsons first raised the question when I was a boy).

The other day I watched a video about care of automatic watches, because, when I get something new, I feel about a week of a real need to know all there is to know about it. I have even been reading about the history of Bulova, the company that made the watch...

At any rate, the guy in the video said something compelling:

"The beauty of having an automatic watch is that at some point human hands have had to come in contact with it to balance it, to regulate it and to get it to run... It's when that craftsman, that watchmaker, assembles that movement and breathes life into it that it gains, well, kind of a soul."

Yeah, man, I'm all in. I was an analog kid; I'll not turn into a digital man. You can have your Apple Watch with its perfect time. I'll set my watch daily and think about craftsman and the springs and the sprockets and the hundred tiny parts that move each other like tangible harmony; none of them virtual; none of them holographic.

The digital men can sit bolt-upright or slide out of their plastic and metal chairs, sterilized and cool. I'll be reclining in the crook of an old tree, a mile away from my phone if you need me, aware of the time but way more concerned with how it passes than whether it is flawless...