Friday, February 27, 2015


Once, a bully chased me around the neighborhood. He was older and he was bigger than I was.

It was twilight and I needed to get home when the streetlights came on. Somehow that worried me just as much as what he might do to me.

I was carrying a plastic "briefcase" that my dad had given me. I think it was full of toys and probably drawings of Star Trek scenes. It never occurred to me, as I was running and crying, to drop it -- which is good, because, thinking I had evaded the bully, I hid up against a friend's house under a pine tree. It would either be a great hiding spot or it was "a corner."

It was a corner.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rocco vs. The Moronic Teacher

Behold: me. Look upon my might and despair. I am He-Who-Achieves. I am a reader of books. I am an Internet philosopher. I went to college -- longer than most people do. I have sat at Whitman's grave and at his Crystal Spring composing lines. I have made pilgrimage to Grasmere, for I have learned to see into the life of things -- to read and to respond with insight; to apply both soul and mind to unfurling the sublime work of the great writers. I know them, and they will know me when we meet in the Great Beyond and we shall have tea and biscuits and we will converse about how much smarter I was than everyone around me. Even The Bard will give me that gentle little chin-punch of fatherly approval as I enter through the White Gates and greet him -- and call him "thou" -- for I have known his Truths; felt them in my heart more deeply than anyone ever did. I am an authority in my field. I'm gosh-danged legendary in my own estimation...

...which is why it is nice, sometimes, to be reminded that I am and always will be, a complete moron.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Oklahoma Wants to Change the Programm(ing) of Its Students

So, Oklahoma politicians want to ban AP US History. This a blatant attempt at thought-policing and its bold-faced, out-loud attempt at changing the "program" of our kids' thinking is evidence that we live in a pre-Orwellian world.

For those who might not know, AP courses (advanced placement) are college-level courses taught to the best high school students. If these students score a certain number on the tests, they may be offered college credit in the university of their choice. I happen to teach AP English Literature and Composition and I am also the AP coordinator for my school, so I know something of the challenge-level and rigmarole of the program. 

One of the things that people seem not to care about is that these courses are designed also to foster critical thinking and perception in the students who take them. They are meant to teach kids to think well. But, typical to modern American thought, all anyone seems to care about are practical results: credit for college; higher GPA points... (Don't get me started... Wait...I already got me started... Never mind.) 

Now, it's about "patriotism." All of a sudden, we care about more than grades and college discounts and class rank. "All of a sudden," of course, when the "wrong" political or social perspectives might be getting fostered because, well...think of how that might change voting results!

Not a fan of memes, in general,
but -- how much of this is true? 
Those who seek to ban the course have decided to do so because they claim the new guidelines are not patriotic enough and that they dwell more on the negatives in the country's past than on the positives. The conservative opposers of the course have leaned upon what I am always suspicious of as a crutch meant to carry a prejudiced limp: no mention of King or Rosa Parks. (Too many truly prejudiced people speak too highly of those two, if you ask me. Those two are the historical equivalent of "I have a lot of black friends.") In fairness, they also oppose the fact that the Founding Fathers get no mention, along with the Declaration, the Constritution and the Emancipation Proclamation. 

As the College Board responded, however, what the Oklahoma politicians are responding to are guidelines -- guidelines -- put out by AP for teachers which are meant to help those teachers to prepare the students for success on the test. That's it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Offer it up!"

I don't think this is St. Theresa, but you get the point.
It's easy to trash religion as a negative force in the world. If you look at the headlines, it is a negative force. If you look at the historical headlines, even, it is a negative force. But those who were raised in sane religions with love and peace at their foundations know that religion can be profound, comforting and spiritually (go figure...) uplifting.

For instance, there is this Catholic thing we Catholics do. I'm not sure if it is prevalent in other Christian faiths, and I -- a public school kid -- didn't hear it much until I started teaching in a Catholic school. I have recently found out that the idea is often attributed to St. Theresa of Avila:

"Whatever you do, offer it up to God and pray that it may be for His honor and glory."

She uses it in the broader sense, of course. Hers is a prescription for living for God, first, but I find Catholics tend to use it more as a mitigation of and to make meaning out of suffering, either minor or major.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dear Grandmom (Mont Alto, 1986)

A series of mental trails, today, have lead me to a memory; one I feel a decent amount of shame about. It's a bittersweet shame, made up of the sweetness of how loved I was and of the shame of having been a young, egocentric kid (like all kids) whose intrinsic sense of honesty often led him to believe that people were literal in what they said; or that, even if they actually were being literal, that I had no obligation to give them any more than they asked for...

Me, lower right, blue shirt, white sleeves. 1986.
Probably not thinking about Grandmom. 
I went to college at Penn State's Mont Alto campus, during my freshman year. It was a small campus of no more than 800 students. The setting was rustic and beautiful and it was all nestled against a "mountain." In the 1800's it had been a forestry school and, in fact, there were still forestry majors there, all flanneled up and bearded.

There were some older dormitories and some newer ones, all built between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The little building in which we got our mail was tiny -- maybe the size of your living room. Every few days I would go down there and check for letters. Pre-email, the box usually contained nothing but campus life memos: pizza party here; don't put your bikes there; stop calling the pizza place and ordering fries to be delivered to the chapel... I'd get a few real letters, but nothing consistent.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Lifetime in a Week; A Week in a Lifetime

About a month-and-a-half ago, I decided to change things. At the time, I wrote about the Rocky movie series and its impact on me. I also wrote about a desire, as a result, partly, of those films and their message, to finish life strong. And even though I just wrote to question the validity of advertising one's efforts of improvement, I'll let the (extremely uninteresting ) cat out of the bag about my own efforts, if only to point our a metaphoric philosophy that hit me this morning.

After the moment referred to in the first link above (in which Rocky's son expresses his admiration for his father, who proves himself old, yet strong) I decided I needed to do something I have never done outside of my sports days: exercise -- in order to be stronger as I approach 50. There are many other things I should do, but walking every morning, at 5:30 AM, is the start I have made.

I like it, for a few reasons. I am enjoying the solitude of my quiet neighborhood and I do feel much changed, physically, in terms of my diminished aches and pains and my increased energy. The only problem is, musician that I am, I am a creature of the night. Always have been. Left to my own choice, I would be awake until four AM, not waking up at five. I can be quoted as having said, many times, that the only thing I absolutely hate about my life is that I have to get up early.

I despise it. So what do I do? I start getting up an hour earlier than I really have to in order to walk. It's all part of "hitting back" at life, Rocky style.

But this morning, when the alarm rang, it was one of those moments of: "No. It cannot possibly be time to get up...I just closed my eyes to sleep." I felt like a stone. The kind of stone that doesn't feel like anything but weight. (What the hell am I talking about?)

Just this once, I thought. Just this once, I'll skip the walk.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Enlightenment of Imbalance

Every day, I am surrounded by people who build black and white answers out of the bricks of a multicolored world.

Each day, I meet people who would boil the ocean in an attempt to eliminate the salt.

Everywhere, I hear the voices of those who would reverse-engineer the human spirit as if its nature were no different than that of a wheelbarrow.

Always, I sit among people who stare at the popcorn through entire movies; who talk out loud when the actors are silent, because the rest -- the images, the music -- means nothing to them.

I watch them gather facts and put them into a curio cabinet in their minds, thinking they will be complete when it is full.

I hear them brag about their complete independence to those from whom they seek approval.

They are all so sure about their own personal perspectives; they are all so busy, busy, busy, which makes them important, for sure.

When they feel beautiful, they document in a picture and share; when they feel lonely, they say things that will endear them to crowds.

And I all I want is to knock them sideways, a little, so that they teeter on the balance beam, if only for a minute -- not to force them to walk on my beam; just to make them wobble, because it is in that moment that Truth flashes like a bulb in the dark, leaving behind its fading image in the eyes, leaving its everlasting impression on the hungry spirit but disappearing from the heart, which after all, is just a muscle.

Monday, February 9, 2015

On Guiltlessly Refusing to Support NPR

I listen to NPR (National Public Radio) on my drive into work, sometimes. I listen to a show called Fresh Air on the way home sometimes, too. I grew up watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers -- both public TV shows. That is the extent of publicly funded broadcasting in my life.

Of late, over the past few years, I have been subjected to fundraising campaigns on the radio from our local station. They ask for money. When these come on, I usually guiltlessly change the channel. I say "guiltlessly" because I feel absolutely no obligation to donate to public radio. I suppose I just don't find it important enough. So sue me. If I am going to donate money, it is going to be to cancer research for children or to a local "soup kitchen" for the poor or to an arts fund. NPR is low on my list.

Me, on the left; NPR on the right. 
So, when I change the channel to avoid listening to the same speech about how they need money delivered seven different ways in one "break" I do so without any shame whatsoever. Then, I shamelessly go back to listening. I will listen, in my occasional way, until NPR folds and then, with not a tear shed, I will move on to some other form of automotive diversion; a book on tape, perhaps.

But now, I think the powers-that-be at NPR have decided that the time is right to start trying to make me (and all listeners, I am forced to admit through my lens of maniacal egocentrism) feel guilty for not supporting them with donations. They have never done this before -- not in all the years I have been listening. Why now?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Just Do It: 2015

Often, I will hear an advertising slogan that I like or that I think is clever, but it is rare that one of them carries what I see as a really important philosophy. Years ago, however, when Nike started using "Just Do It," I was impressed. I always saw that as: "Don't make excuses or equivocate about why you can't -- just do it."

I like that. Just do it. It's both assertive and gentle -- can be seen either way. And you know an ad slogan is good if it can be shifted to fit the times. I've begun seeing it in a different light.

Rocky, with no one watching, no trainer, no fans, pre run. 
I feel like usuing the phrase with people I see on social media who set up accounts to show the world their fitness progress or their weight-loss achievements. People often do this to make themselves "accountable" by putting their struggle in the public eye. I don't mean to lambaste them, but only to point out the possibility that (big surprise, here, coming from me) looking inward might be better than looking outward, here.

A lot of it depends on knowing one's self, of course. If one is driven exclusively or most strongly by what others think of them, it just might work. But, for the rest of us, maybe we should "just do it" and not talk about it and not advertise it and not depend on the people around us for motivation. Maybe we would change the slogan: "Just Do It And Keep It To Yourself."

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Harper Lee's New Book

By now, everyone on the planet has heard that Harper Lee is about to publish her second novel (this July), 55 years after her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. This is great news for her devotees, who read it in middle school, bad news for any kid who had it crammed down his or her throat during middle school and hated it.

I only read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time a few years ago, well after the age of forty. How this happened, I don't know, but I am grateful that it did. In some ways, the book is wasted on people without enough life experience to truly appreciate it. Of course, it is also pretty accessible for kids and it serves as a great tool for teaching literary devices and character, but if one reads it in middle school, one should really go back to it, forget about the nuts and bolts of literary convention and enjoy it for its beauty.

I guess my only point in writing this is to encourage those who haven't read the classic to do so and to encourage those who only remember it from seventh or eighth grade to read it again, especially if they hated it then, in preparation for the new book.

...Mockingbird really is a wonderful work of art.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Wish For My Sons

Wisdom is not automatic, no matter what the old-timers might imply (or outwardly state) about themselves. Learnable moments appear and, sure, some lessons are hard to avoid learning. If one steps on button and a rock falls and hits one on the head, as a result, one learns not to step on that button again. Laboratory rats have learned similar lessons, though, so no glory there.

But real wisdom takes work and commitment to the quest. Inevitability, the "youth is wasted on the young" aphorism comes to mind, because once we acquire certain nuggets of wisdom, we want to share them with those who have not found them yet. Parents try earnestly to do this for their children.

Of course, the most important job of a parent is to teach his or her kids to think clearly and logically, not what to think. Still, the most important lessons we have learned carry with them certain truths. Although we know our kids must walk certain paths in order to truly understand, we hand them what might well be irrelevant trail maps, expecting them to truly know without ever putting their toes in the dirt.

William Blake's "mind forg'd manacles"
It's hard to resign to the ineffectual nature of this desire to teach. Can it really be that all of the wisdom the hard-working thinker acquires is useful only to himself? On one level, I like the idea; it affirms the importance of individuality. On the other hand, as a member of a social species, it makes it all seem like a bit of a waste -- not a total loss, but contrary to the sharing instinct I, and most of us, have.

For me, the things I have learned to see clearly are revelations that I want to share with my sons. If I could just get them to see how unimportant some things really are -- things that the world would convince them are essentials; if I could just take unnecessary burdens off of their shoulders that are doing nothing but adding difficulty to the already ridiculously challenging task of growing up; if I could just steer them away from the negative pulls of the social tides and away from the common practices that drive wedges between friends and that, although they might feel powerful, are actually impotent struggles for temporary and useless power that result in discord...