Friday, November 5, 2021

"A Walk-On Part in the War"

Many years ago, I was having a late-night discussion with a friend of mine about his twenty-something woes. He did have a tough life, mostly stemming from his parents' divorce. I don't know the details. I never asked. But I do know that he even refused to refer to his father as his father. He'd call him "the biological unit," or something like that. 

Anyway, I was listening to his problems; trying to be a good friend. It was a humid summer night and we'd just finished playing volleyball on a sand court that was a frequent gathering place for our group. Instead of driving home after the match, we sat there in the car and the conversation took late late-night summer route: meandering from topic to topic. Then, he started venting. 

I'm not sure how it happened, but, at some point, he hit me with an observation that I have heard many times since, and that, honestly, I'm a little weary of. He informed me that I had no right to complain about anything because I had a "perfect family."

Well, let's start with the fact that I don't, because no one does. Did (do) I have a great family? Yes. I can't deny that. My Mom and Dad were together and they loved each other (my dad died in 2013) and my sister and I were close with them, if not -- back then -- with each other. (Being separated in age by five years had an effect, I think -- the effect being, I found out years later, me basically ignoring her existence, which is something I still feel guilty about. It was not my intention, but it still was not cool. Ask her how that felt. Perfect? Probably not. So, there was that.) 

Yes, our house was kind of a hub for friends in my young adulthood. All of my friends loved my parents and my parents loved having my friends over for Mom's homemade -- okay, this part was perfect -- pizza and none of them ever felt weird sitting and watching movies, even if my parents hung out with us. My Mom was the kind of person who would invite anyone who was in the house within thirty minutes of the event to stay for dinner -- and people would stay, without hesitation, whether we were in middle school, high school or beyond. They felt welcomed.   

Here's the point where I disappoint you, maybe. I am a pretty open person on this blog, but some things are not for sharing. I realize that saying this puts me at risk of encouraging imaginations to see things as either worse or better than they were, life was never perfect. Sometimes, it downright stank. And my family and myself went through plenty of struggles. Some of them were kind of common and some of them were existentially awful. But I'm not going to share those things. Let it suffice to say that they were there and that neither you nor anyone else knows their extent, which might be a reason to withold over-optimistic positions on the perfection of my family life. 

Granted, we had love and closeness, which is the most important thing. This is what some observers most envy when they have been less fortunate, and I understand that. My sister and I had a foundation and a comfortable base of operations for our explorations of the world and ourselves. I realize many never had that. 

But, it really annoys me when people I know dismiss my family life as a fairytale, because the implication is that I couldn't imagine what it is like to struggle. I realize a lot of "street cred" comes out of having had a miserable childhood, but it is never a thing I have envied, so I'm not feeling guilty or underexperienced for not having been in that position. And I am not accusing people who see my youth as a fairytale of wanting that street cred either; I just want to make it clear that I'm not that shallow. I'm not wishing I had more conventional horror stories to tell, believe me. 

A severely dysfunctional family is not the norm, though I think some want to believe it is so in order to comfort themselves. It is a sad reality that parents can be physically and mentally abusive to the extreme, but it is just not the majority. People whose family life fits into those categories might certainly have seen my family life as a fairytale. I have, however, numerous friends and acquaintences whose families were plenty solid: parents together; close to each other for a lifetime; welcoming and open with their homes and generosity. As a teacher, I see tons of (from my point of view, anyway) solid families. I think people sometimes under-report the successes of the American family. 

None of these families, though, I'm sure, was or is an oasis of neverending joy. I don't want people to envy me and I don't want to try to convince anyone I've had it worse than they did. (So many people are constant players in the "Woe Is Me World Series...") But, to twist Roger Waters's words a tad, though I have never had a "leading role in the cage," I refuse to be denied credit for my "walk-on part in the war."

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Thoughts on Teachers and the Profession

My dad was a musician. Full-time. Never taught, never had a lame side-job. I'm always proud to tell people he managed to make a living in music all his life. Maybe because of this, my dad also carried that old "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" mentality. He was especially hard on musicians who taught. He said they were always the worst players. 

Who knows? I have known music teachers who couldn't play their way out of a wet paper bag, but I have known a few who could "shred." (I'm a part-time musician, too, as well as an English teacher.)

I became a teacher by accident. I studied literature as an undergrad, not because I wanted to teach, but because I wanted to learn about books and to become a better writer. I studied literature in grad school, for the same reason. When I was starting grad school, a friend asked me if I intended to teach. My response was (and I quote): "Eeeew. No."

But then, I was offered free tuition and $20,000 per year to teach writing. Clearly, the proverbial no-brainer. I had no idea what I was doing, but I tried my best and got better as I went along. In the process, I discovered that I liked teaching. Decades later, I am still doing it, on the high school level. 

Maybe because of all of this, when I was a department chair and I was interviewing potential new teachers, I would ask them: "What do you like more, teaching or studying literature?" I wanted them to say that it was the literature they liked most. It always seemed a little artificial when someone became a teacher because they had "always wanted to teach." It's not that there is anything wrong with's just that, in English for instance, I have known teachers who seem like they are in it for the summers off and who never seem to have read a book. I wouldn't want someone like that to teach my kids English. (Side note: In interviews, I would often ask a candidate what his or her favorite book was. If the answer was either not immediate or it became a resultant flood of books he or she could not decide between, I'd pretty much decide against that person.)

The thing is, though, I don't grant immediate reverence to my fellow teachers. I once saw a bumper sticker that said: "Honor Teachers." I wanted to take a Sharpie marker to it and put the word "Good" in the middle. Why? Because there is nothing more dis-honorable than a teacher who "phones it in" or who gets tenure and spends decades complaining in the faculty room and draining his kids of their love of learning. I have known tons of those. I have also often been dubiously entertained by those who declare "I'm a good teacher," as if the statement makes it so. (My gut is that those who say that are likely not to be very good.) 

I don't think one should get automatic kudos just for picking a profession. One needs to care and to work and to -- when it comes to teaching -- inspire. 

That said, I think many people outside the profession don't understand the challenge of teaching. (My dad: "They get summers off! They lead the life of a child...") If the job is done right, teaching is gruelling. There are a ton of jobs out there that are as tough as -- or tougher --  than teaching, but teaching offers particular challenges that few jobs do. Teachers have to put on five shows a day (on average). You know how worked up you get when you have to lead a meeting or prepare for a presentation once in a while? We do that numerous times every day to a decidedly unprofessional audience that isn't always inclined to sit nicely and let us do our thing. And we have to look happy and motivated when we're depressed, grieving, fighting cancer, etc. 

Clich├ęd as it may sound, there is also the idea that we are pretty much working seven days -- with grading, planning, etc. (I mean, the good ones.) Not only are we working seven days, but it's hard to feel "done" at the end of the day. Assessment is important, so we often work in the evenings, too. Even when there is not concrete work to do, the good ones are driving around and sitting on their living room couches thinking about how the day's lessons could have gone better.

The most difficult challenge is that we need to read the moods and deal with the mood swings of hundreds of kids each day -- engage in an exercise of emotional intelligence and play mental chess games to "get through" to each young person in our charge. And, the heartbreakingly moving thing about teaching young people is how much they need us. Each day, I face my students thinking: every one of these people is someone's child; I need to treat them as I'd want my boys to be treated. A self-imposed burden, but a heavy one, nonetheless. It does wear on you. 

In truth, by the time summer rolls in, we're pretty fried. But, heck yes, it is incredible to be able to look forward to two months of down time. Let's face it. Of course, that is, if we get it. I have worked summers, teaching or doing administrative stuff, for almost all of my career. Many of us do. And, then, there are others out there laying sod and serving sandwiches in the summers to make ends meet.

Among us, though, there are numerous teachers just surfing along; turning their profound moral mandate to help in the development of young minds into a game of figuring out how little work they can do and still garner the respect they think just being in the profession grants them. Having spent time as an administrator, I can assure you: there are tons of teachers out there like that, so they deserve your (or my dad's) most scathing criticism and they should be ashamed. (But we don't do shame anymore; at least, not in the United States.) It's not too strong a statement to say that those kinds of teachers disgust me. 

The ones who realize the depth of their responsibilty? Trust me. They work as hard or harder than you do, so just think twice about the blanket eyerolls and spat critiques of "summers off."

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

With or Without Lust?

I'll let you just react to this, before I get to my point. 

A few days ago, as I was driving home from work through a lovely and very old neighborhood (Haddonfield, NJ -- site of much Revolutionary War stuff and also the place in which the world's first "nearly complete" dinosaur skeleton was discovered [which is all irrelevant to my story]), I saw, on the sidewalk, a beautiful woman, probably in her late forties, casually dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, walking her dog in the dappled sunlight beneath the trees at the roadside. 

Being a gentleman of the ilk that has always been attracted to the beauty of a woman, I was looking in appreciation of said beauty, when she "caught" me. This all happened in a few seconds. I was driving; she turned to see who was passing; I was already looking at her.

Our eyes met... (Oh, stop. That's not where I'm going.) 

She smiled at me and I smiled at her. We shared a smile -- as I see it -- between Gen X-ers. The smile of a generation that was, I think, a bit more sexually comfortable than those that went before or came after. (I'm not saying everything was perfect with us; I don't have that kind of nostalgic lens, but, all things being equal, among healthy-minded Gen X-ers, we were pretty secure in our sexuality, by comparison.) 

Her smile was playful ("Haha -- I caught you looking"); my smile was a little sheepish ("E-heh...I uh..."). 

Her smile was a just a tiny bit flirtatious, with, maybe, a sprinkle of thanks, for the wordless compliment I was giving her: "I find you attractive." This phrase, contrary to popular belief, is not synonymous with: "You are an object to me." And the "compliment" goes no further than that appreciation and it was only a compliment because it was devoid of lasciviousness. 

I think of the Bible quotation, that a man "who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart." The key component is "to lust after her." It's not about the looking, but the kind of looking one is doing. The intent

My smile was playfully apologetic, but it carried -- I hope -- what I felt: a respectful appreciation of her beauty; a small, yet meaningful connection between two humans, rooted deeply within our ancient, natural programming.  

It's daunting to write things like this, because one misstep in wording and someone will find fault based on the standards of some variant of the modern movements regarding sexuality. I've always taught my sons that sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of, but it should be a private thing between intimately involved parties. So, to write about "attraction" can seem counter to that advice, but, I think people need to write about the grays of sexuality (and of everything else), because we are losing any sense of nuanced thinking about...everything. 

In the Age Without Subtlety, ironically, everyone is "okay with" everything except "the game of love" -- hence (dare I mention it?), the demise of Pepe LePew. Modesty is lost in both men and women. Prostitutes and porn stars are afforded the respect of being called "sex workers." Modern pop music lyrics refer to explicit acts of sexuality with demeaning atitudes with no social or economic consequences, but someone who glances at a woman because he finds her beautiful and who looks for no other reason -- and with no ulterior motive -- than to appreciate that beauty opens himself up to all sorts of criticism. 

Admittedly, it all stands on the edge of a knife, though, doesn't it? Shift the smile or perceive the smile just a bit off-center, and it becomes a leer and a leer is certainly an insult and a sign of lascivious intent...but for us two, it was, as the youngins are all saying, "all good." We made each other smile. That is what used to be the magic in the dynamics of the sexes -- the game of attraction was fun to play (as long -- and this is essential -- as the woman had the final say in the outcome). 

Speaking of the comfort of Gen X: yes, in case you are wondering, my wife will read this. But that does not matter, in the least. I already talked about this incident with her and we aleady had a philosophical conversation about it. She is neither threatened nor angry. She knows who I am. She knows I am loyal to her for life. And, under similar circumstances, she would have reacted just as this woman did. My wife appreciates being appreciated for her beauty, as well, and her day would have been brightened just a bit by the "compliment" of being respectfully "looked at" by a man. 

My final point? This, to me, was a healthy exchange -- however brief -- between two people in a similar mindset. I've gone past the point of wanting to tell people what to think, but I do wish the dynamics of the sexes these days wasn't so pre-loaded with paranoia. The safety and respect of women is paramount, but I wish raising awareness about this real issues in male predatory behavior didn't have to create immediate suspicion of the motivations of the every, kind-hearted but sexually healthy male in the world. 

Somewhere along the line, the game of love became a chess match. It's a little sad, that's all.  If you don't believe that this has happened, consider: I recently taught Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and some of my high school kids didn't like that the young men were in "mad pursuit" of the young women. 

They didn't see it, as Keats did, as "wild ecstasy." The best they could do was to call it "cringey."

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

I Want a Funeral

When I move on to join the invisible choir; when I kick the bucket and, then, quickly following thereupon, buy the farm, just to be sure I did things properly, I don't want a "Celebration of Life." I want a good, old-fashioned, tear-jerking, black-clad funeral. 

Have whatever you want for your loved ones. Call it what you want. I'm not judging you. These things are personal choices and no one can be told they are doing things "wrong" and I'm not trying to do that. It's just that, for me, I think the best thing to do when someone dies is to be somber and sad. We're wired to cry when we lose loved ones, and cry we should. 

I get it, though -- the whole "celebration of life" thing. A while ago, I lost a close friend. He was younger than I am and we lost him to an unseen heart ailment. He wasn't religious, so there was a remembrance...thing. I don't think anyone called it a "celebration of life" but we spent most of our time sharing funny stories. (He was the most obnoxious, irreverant, inappropriate, foppish oaf I have ever known, and I [and we all] loved him for all of that.) The whole thing was full of laughter with a sprinkling of tears. 

But, it's weird. I find a strange sense of open-endedness in his loss. That's the best I can describe it. Of course, I'm not the important one here. As long as his family got what they needed from the day, that's all that matters. 

In the end, I think I want a little more gloom at my funeral: people standing in the rain in sunglasses, looking all pale and drawn; distraught loved-ones having to be pulled away from my coffin so it can be lowered into the ground; a priest who intones like Max von Sydow; low, slow-rolling thunder; Barber's "Adagio for Strings" running through everyone's heads; one of my sons, kneeling under a rising crane shot as the rain falls, yelling "Why!? WHAAAYYY!!??" up to the deaf,  leaden heavens... That kind of thing. 

Call me grim. (I'll wait.) 

My biggest loss, ever, has been my dad. We had a traditional, Catholic funeral. I wrote this and read it, tearfully, at times, and there were many tears because of it. We only moved away from long-standing tradition in two ways. First, there was no open coffin; he had said, many times in his life, that he did not want that, so that was non-negotiable. Second, he was cremated. I have a small regret about this. When I visit his grave, I really don't feel like I am visiting "him." To have known he was under that headstone in his physical form (at least in my memory) would have been comforting to me. Ashes don't feel the same. 

In the end, all of tthese post-death procedures are for the living. My dad, being dead, doesn't care about any of this; neither does my friend. In the end, I want my family to do what they want -- whatever they need. But I strongly urge them to consider going about things in the way things have been gone about for centuries: tears, gloom and black clothing. Somehow, we decided, at some point, as a human collective, that this is what we needed. There must be a reason for that...

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Vinyl Word

I couldn't resist the title. Sorry. 

So, records... Old-fashioned, 33 RPM, vinyl records...

Don't run away -- this is not going to be an audiophile post, I promise. I'm not a fan of most 'Philes, to be honest with you. I am a fan of the Phillies, but not of the 'Philes, just to keep things straight. 

(Too much coffee this morning. Mea culpa.) 

Anyway, records. I like them. I just patched up the old stereo system with a new amplifier -- which gets used mostly for watching movies in 5.1 surround. (Surround just makes movies so much cooler. The first fight scene in the not-bad Gibson movie, The Patriot, will sell you on the merits of surround sound, if you are not already a believer.)

But, having gotten a turntable a few years ago, I have been rebuilding a record collection. 

There is a camp that argues for the merits of "analog" sound (records and tape), versus "digital" (CDs and MP3s) but, as a musician who works primarily in the digital world, I see the merits of both. (I do think, however, that one can hear a major difference between MP3s and streaming, as opposed to CDs or records. Too much to go into, here.)

This is not about sound quality, though; it's about the experience of listening to a record. 

When I decide to listen to an vinyl album, I have to put it on the turntable, drop the needle and sit back to listen. There is no easy "pausing" and there is no skipping of tracks without standing up, walking across the room and lifting the needle -- after which, one has to find the notch between tracks and carefully put the needle down in the right spot, which is usually a question of trial and error, laced with stifled profanities. (The other day, listening to Sting's The Soul Cages, I actually sat through "St. Agnes and the Burning Train." Who does that?) 

With a record, one commits to the act of listening with attention in a way one doesn't with playlists. And, halfway through, one needs to flip the record over. This, to me, is a refocusing of attention and an awakening of the body: standing up re-awakens the brain, which is why I sometimes tell my classes, mid-session, to stand up and then sit down again. 

And we can't forget the fact that albums were created as songs grouped together around a central idea or theme or vibe, in the past -- or, at the very least, were written during the same timespan and, so, share similarities, if only as a result of the songwriters' preferences or artistic development at the time. This is a completely different experience than setting the phone on "shuffle." (Around the time of the inception of the iPod, I had a young student tell me he listened to new albums on "shuffle" so he never got tired of the order. But the order was chosen for a reason...or, used to be.)

Undeniably, there is an element of nostalgia for a guy my age in listening to actual records: the large-scale cover art; the liner notes; the lyrics. But, listeing to a record used to be an active process, whereas now music has become more of a background thing for most people. 

I like the connection and the committment of listening to a record. And, yes, sitting between loudspeakers that are moving actual air and hearing sounds generated from a needle traveling through actual grooves in actual material must, in some way, make a difference. 

In case you are wondering, no: I never understood why people were nostalgic about the cracks, pops and jumps. They still suck. Which is why I highly recommend re-releases on 180 gram vinyl. 

Now get out there and spin stuff.