Monday, February 8, 2016

A Childhood that Feels Like Home

I try to give my sons the most complete picture of the human experience I possibly can. Often, I try to give them a sense of how the world has changed since I was a kid -- not so much in terms of "how much better" it was back then (it wasn't) but simply in terms of how simply different it was. I think it might be impossible for them to fully understand having known only what they know, the same way it was impossible for me to fully understand my parents' youthful years.

Recently, I posted this meme (I rarely post memes) on Facebook: 

My comment was this:

Yeah. I am. I just am. No judgement or curmudgeonly argument about how much better things were. No "golden age thinking." I really just am grateful for it.

As with many topics I address, this is not about saying what should be or to point out how horrible things are now. (They really are not horrible and I'll bet my kids look back fondly on their childhood days, some day...) It's just that I am what I said I am: grateful. 

I am grateful I had to wait for an entire year to see The Wizard of Oz on TV. I'm glad I had to be in front of that TV at a certain time on a certain night to see the Charlie Brown Christmas special, each year. I am glad I had to buy a record album and that, since it was one of the few I could afford, I listened to it until I had squeezed every drop of juice out of it while I saved for another. 

I am glad that, on Saturday mornings, I had to sit and wait until ten o'clock (for some reason, I had decided that was a good, polite time to calla house phone) to call a friend to play (I still remember my good friend George's number, even though I haven't seen him in decades) and I am glad I had to do it on a rotary phone in the kitchen and that I could not be contacted twenty-four hours a day on a cell phone. And I am glad that I met George at the baseball field on summer days and that we just waited for people to show up for a game; I'm glad that sometimes not enough people showed up and that, if "closing right field" was not enough, we wound up making forts in the woods instead, gloves left on the pitcher's mound, unmolested until it was dark and time to go home. 

I'm glad that when a teacher talked of China or of Ancient Egypt in class that the images she showed us in a filmstrip were not something we had already seen on our phones after a millisecond search; I'm glad our eyes went wide as we learned of places and cultures too far to see and too expensive to visit. 

I'm not glad that discrimination of those in the minority (socially or ethnically) was far more prevalent, but I am glad that my young mind could explore wonders and dreams instead of having been constantly bombarded by arguments over the rapidly shifting parameters and mores of social boundaries. Yes, protests happened and marches occurred and debates turned ugly, but I saw them in a two minute news spot; I wasn't standing always in the middle of them like a tree being choked with ivy. 

I am glad that girls were mysterious to me and that a kiss was a big deal. I'm happy that "waiting until marriage," although it didn't apply to most people, hadn't yet become a punchline. 

Most of all, I am glad I had time -- time to do nothing but lie in the grass or to draw pictures or to see what happened when I hit combinations of notes on the piano. I'm glad no one scheduled me into constant activity and that my parents did not have all-day electronic access to my grades and that they were only slightly involved in my school activities. 

Overall, I am glad that my past is a memory, dotted only with a few films and a few wrinkled photos and that it lives, more vividly, in stories told by voices that were there. 

There was quiet of the mind and of the ears. There was "boredom" and there was space.

There are many great things, now, but I am glad those great things were not there when I was a boy and when I was a young man. 

I am grateful for these things and no one can "argue" that away from me. It's not a prescription for everyone else; it's how I feel and what I prefer. It is good to have a childhood that feels like home. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The World a Stage; Our Kids the Clowns?

Boy, do we put pressure on our kids. We do it in a million ways, in terms of serious stuff, but we also do it "for fun." I just saw a video of numerous people announcing to thier kids that the mother was pregnant again. The results were kids getting upset -- crying, slamming things down, etc. Ha. Ha.

Why do we feel the need to come up with clever ways to do everything? Why do we "announce" things to our kids and record them on video? Why, most importantly, do we put our kids in the position of feeling pressured to act a certain way, under the scrutiny of a camera and/or of a huge group of family? Why are we surprised when this "overloads" them? More frighteningly, why are we amused by it?

And I don't see it as cute or funny. I never have seen embarrassing kids or putting them in an unfair position as entertaining. Not once did I ever laugh at my sons when a crowd of loving relatives thought it was appropriate to break in to hysterics when one of them said something "cute" in complete seriousness.

Everything is a show. Everything from asking a girl to the prom to "graduating" fifth grade has become an event of grandiose proportions. It's stupid.

I don't even remember how we told our older son that he was going to have a brother or sister. That's cool with me.

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Footprint in Time

Last week, we attended the "Night of the Arts" program at my sons' school. My boys are in the choir
and in the band and their performances, under the new music teacher, who is excellent, were outstanding. At the end of the night, though, a slight problem: the handle on my son's trumpet case had broken.

Let me tell you about the case, and the trumpet it contains. When I was in middle school, my father, who made his living as an arranger and a trumpet player, decided to buy himself a new horn. He went with a Bach Stradivarius "'73 Lightweight." It was an very expensive instrument; today, to give you an idea, the trumpet lists for around $4,000 to $5000.

My dad played it for awhile, but decided, in the end, that he liked his Yamaha horn better and he went back to that one. So, when it came time for me to start playing trumpet in the school band, he handed me the Stradivarius and said, "Just be careful with it." I have to say, deserving of it or not, I played it for quite a few years, and not a dent.

My son received the treasured (and expensive) family heirloom with the same instructions, and he is also doing well with it.

When the case handles broke, I went to look online for a replacement case. The case my father had (a Bach case), in an updated form, costs $300, so I decided to simply look for replacement handles. I found them and ordered them, so, problem solved.

Before I ordered, though, I wanted to measure the broken handle. For this, I needed to take it off of the case. As I unbuckled the ends, I had to pause. That handle had also been a replacement for the original one. It struck me pretty hard: the last pair of hands to buckle that handle onto the case had been my dad's.

He's gone now, but, that small thing he did remained done until that moment. A moment, from the past, overlooked and, in the grand scheme, unimportant was preserved. That moment in which he simply fixed that case was preserved as long as that handle remained buckled. A silly thing, isn't it? But it always seems to be those things are the most profound evidence of a person's existence -- things from the everyday that endure like footprints in time.

It feels a little like I brushed my dad's hand when I took that handle off -- like we touched each other, if only in the most brief and ethereal way.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Teaching Literature: The Light and the Wind

It is heartbreaking to teach literature sometimes. Very rewarding, but often heartbreaking. I teach a lower-level group of high school juniors this year -- nice bunch of kids and many of them way smarter than their work habits show. We are studying American literature and, believe it or not, I insist on teaching them Moby Dick. How do you study the foundations of American lit. without Melville's greatest work?

No, I don't have them read the while book. (I didn't read it until grad school.) We read selections and we watch the movie with Patrick Stewart as Ahab. It is a pretty good Cliff's Notes version that manages to keep many of the themes intact; it also remains faithful to a lot of the book's dialogue. And, the kids like it.

What's heartbreaking is teaching sections like the St. Elmo's fire scene and being (every time) chilled to the bone by the profundity of it; being ignited with my own internal fire of appreciation for the lofty heights that the human animal can achieve in seeing Melville's brilliance in action.

How do you teach that? How do you impart the soul-deep fulfillment -- the actual "high" -- that rises up in you when, for instance, Mr. Starbuck, brought to his lowest of lows, seeing Captain Ahab posing with the aid of a natural phenomenon like static electricity as a God figure, utters the phrase, "Forbear, old man -- God has turned his back on thee. This light is not thine. This light is not thine..."

Literature and music have always been to me as is wind to Coleridge's Aeolian harp; the strings vibrate into feelings of wonder and beauty. Forgive the purple prose, else can one say these things? No wonder the Romantics were poets.

I know it is probably something one can't teach; the strings are either there or they are not, I suppose. I just wish.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

All the World is a Stage, Until...

As a boy, I knew, for sure, what I wanted to be.

As a young man, I began to feel an internal wrestling match: What I wanted to be versus what I wanted to be perceived as. 

We could very well want to be something because we want to impress people. There are doctors who live for the wonders of medicine; who deeply feel a calling to help others. But I am sure there are also doctors who wanted to be doctors so that they could be seen as doctors.

Sometimes we want to be a thing because that thing is respected or because it carries with it the trappings of "image" that we covet, but if that thing is not what we truly want to be -- or, more accurately, to do -- can we be happy? 

I actually never had any dreams of being a teacher. It sort of happened by accident; however, I love teaching. I always wanted to be a full-time musician, but when I started doing it, I realized I loved music too much to enslave it. I sure did like the idea, though, of telling people "I am a musician" when they asked what I did for a living. 

I had a friend who was, as a profession, "a writer." I felt some jealousy about this. Why, I don't know, because he wrote medical texts, and I would rather rub my face on stucco than write about medicine. Or, rather, I do know: I was tempted by the desire to be able to tell people "I am a writer." Like, really. Like, for a living. 

Well, I am a writer and a musician and, now, it is enough to know that...and to just do it. It's sad that we need to make life decisions when we are young -- when we still feel as if leaving the house is like stepping onto a stage. All hail happy accidents.