Monday, June 29, 2015

Blood, Mud and the Convergence of Fifties

Last week was the first week since 2010 in which I have not posted a single piece. The reasons for this are many, including a major storm that knocked out our home's power for five full days. Other factors range from a serious health scare to a band gig, outside, in a near-tornado while water ran under and around all of our electronic equipment. (Idyllic setting, though, on the banks of the Chesapeake, if we could see it through the deluge.)

The beautiful house at which we played in Maryland. 
Of course, everything is "worth it" if there are lessons to be learned; and, there are lessons to be learned from everything, so I suppose that means everything is "worth it." So, let's do this in order of lessons learned:

I. Weather is not kidding around. Take it seriously. 

Around six PM on Tuesday, last, my wife and I got tornado warnings on our phones. The message was: Take cover now. I was packed and ready to go to band practice, so I texted the guys (censored, in order to keep this blog family-friendly:

Me: Serious tornado warning. Take cover now. We worrying about this? 

Tony: Yeah, right. 

Two minutes later, after texts that some of the guys are on their way to practice already:

Jeff (on the road): Stay home. I'm stuck. No power anywhere. Stay home, I'm not f-ing around. 

Various other texts from everyone, then Jeff, again:

Jeff: I'm in a tornado.

Tony: It's here. 

Then the lights went out. For five days. Live power lines were everywhere in my neighborhood. We were some of the last people in our area to get power. The sound of the generators at our house and those of our neighbors nearly drove me to the brink.

This little guy came out of nowhere to lift our spirits
and he lifted mine as only a dog can do. 
II. Don't skip your blood pressure medicine. 

Before the storm, I'd started a curriculum workshop in various locations around South Jersey. I had re-ordered my meds on Sunday, but through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with all of the craziness, I had forgotten to pick the prescription up. No pun intended: there was a perfect storm of the blood that followed. Four days of conference breakfasts and lunches (all salty stuff; sandwiches, chips, etc.) after a month of bad meal choices, even on family time ("School's out! Let's celebrate!") added to the stress of the major storm all ran down to a moment, on Friday, when my son looked at me and said: "Dad --  you have blood in your eye." 

I looked. I did. I thought it was a broken blood vessel from a sneeze or something. I told him not to worry -- I was fine, but he texted my wife on the sly and told her. (She was at a friend's house working because we had no power. She's a former cardiac nurse.) 

Karen texted me back and suggested I go to the local pharmacy and have my pressure taken. She knew I had forgotten to renew my meds. I went. It was 150/100. (Normal is 120/70.) For the rest of the day, after taking the meds, it continued to drop, but I had to go play with the band at an outdoor party -- party number one for the the heat, under the sun of an uncovered stage that leaned severely to the left, which wrought havoc on the spines of everyone in the band. ("We have to make a note about this for future contracts," Jeff, the keyboard player, said.) 

III. There is a difference between being tired because of stuff on the outside and being messed up on the inside.

We played the first set. We came off. Jeff, the band's singer, approached me.

"You know I love you, right?" he said. "You know I am honest with you, right?"

"Yep," I said.

"That was," he went on, "The worst set you ever played since being in this band. Are you okay?"

I got a little defensive, but I knew he was right. I wasn't alright and I knew it. My concentration was all over the place, worried as I was, and I was feeling horrible. I did recover for the next two sets, but it took all I had. Breaking down the stuff that night, we had to use brute force instead of wheels because of the mud. As we were carrying stuff to the car, all I could keep thinking was: This is bad. I shouldn't really be doing this... It wasn't the usual post-gig exhaustion. Sometimes muscle fatigue can seep right into your soul.

IV. Joy sometimes overcomes mud. 

On Saturday morning, the band had to travel to Maryland from New jersey to play at a really nice house on the Chesapeake for a fiftieth birthday. This was supposed to be fun. Big payday; hotel rooms; the wives were even coming, some along for fun, one celebrating her fiftieth birthday and my wife and I celebrating our anniversary.

With the power out at home, my wife, Karen, had to stay home with the generator we'd bought to keep our food edible. Happy anniversary. So, okay, circumstances...

The rain poured most of the way down to Maryland, and when we got to the house, to set up, tornado warnings started rolling in. The rain came down harder; lightning flashed which made us stay far away from metal tent poles, which really didn't matter because we were walking in puddles running from those very poles. As the rain intensified, water started pouring in around the electronic equipment. Tarps came out and Tony started digging trenches to divert the water away from the band and down to the Chesapeake.
A muddy-feet-pic, shared by someone in the audience.

By the end of setup we were wet, tired and covered with mud. After a quick trip to the hotel to change and after a quick dinner, we went back to play. And play we did.

By the time we started, the grass had turned to mud and people danced barefoot in the muck, covered to their knees. But everyone had come for a party, some from very far away, and nothing would stop them from throwing their own mini Woodstock. (Kurt, the bass player, called it Bryan-stock, in honor of the gentleman whose birthday it was.) It was a great gig and the band played its collective butt off.

The musical night ended on a hilarious note, as a possibly-tipsy, rather attractive and completely muddy woman asked one of the wives where they were going after the party. When she was told, "Back to the hotel with the band," not knowing the ladies were the band's wives, she jested: "Oh -- is that an option?"

Not a very good picture, but it shows
the trampled, muddy "dance floor." 
V. There really is a difference between being tired because of the outside and being messed up on the inside.

Soggy, exhausted details, aside, the band broke down the equipment, trying to avoid the muck and mud, only to find out the the key to the truck that was pulling the trailer for our equipment, had gone missing. The meant another hard walk, carrying even the things that have wheels, over a swampy mess. From the end of the gig, at 11:30 until around 1:30 AM, we had to carry things to the singer's van and transport them to the trailer, which was about an eighth of a mile up the gravel road, and load things, one van load at a time, by the glow of an iPhone light.

As we moved things from van to trailer, I realized I was dog tired, as they say, but that it was a healthy kind of tired; not the insidious tired I had felt the night before.

"Well," I said to Jeff, as we unloaded the last of the stuff, "Look at the bright side. We're actually getting back to the hotel earlier than we'd get home after a normal gig." (We usually play until 1:30 or 2AM.) 

He had to agree. Later, Jeff said, "We must be crazy working this hard to play music."

I thought about that. We're not crazy. We're musicians. It's what we do.

I thought of my dad, who has been gone for going on two years. He was a lead trumpet player, the lead guitarist of his day; the hero of the band. At one point, he put down his horn, stepping aside, thinking he no longer had the stuff to sit in the center chair. After that , the decline began, slowly but surely, over a few decades. He'd put down who he was because keeping it going would have been a tremendous amount of work and he felt he didn't have it in him. An understandable choice, but one that, I think, eventually did him in.

It's not crazy. If there's a fire in your heart, you have to tend it. A lot of guys don't get the chance to make music, or they let it take a total back seat to everything. Sometimes doing what is inside you is worth a little tornado/electrocution risk. Sometimes it's worth the mud. It's good for a bunch of guys in and approaching their fifties to put aside talk of Metamucil, back pain and plantar fasciitis and rock out, tornadoes and blood pressure be damned. 

Oh, for the record, after we finished our ridiculous piecemeal load out to the distant trailer, the key was found, right where it was supposed to be, in Tony's backpack.

"In a few years, "Jeff said, "This will be that 'Hey -- you remember that Maryland gig?' story."

Indeed it will be. Or it already is. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Old Web and the New Web

The old web: It is an exquisite structure, stretching to points connected to solid surfaces. It is nearly invisible, except when hit properly by the light or when little, glistening globes of water travel its skeins before being burned off by sunlight. At its center, a single spider waits. And when she feels the vibration of a struggling creature who made a mistake, she travels outward, smothers it, and sucks out its life.

The new web: It is an exquisite structure, stretching to points unknown from one end of the world to another, connected to screens and keyboards and fingertips. It is invisible, except when screens light up and glow against information-hungry faces. At its edges (not the center, the edges, out in the invisible darkness) innumerable spiders wait. And when they feel the vibration of a struggling creature who made a mistake, they travel inward, smother him, and suck out his life.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Worthlessness of Fame

Roy Harris
Ever hear of the composer Roy Harris? How about Vincent Persichetti?

What about the writers Robert Nathan and John Cheever? Don Delillo?

Or...some TV pesonalities? Like...say, Hal Linden or Carroll O'Connor ("Who's she?") or David Ogden Stiers or Marion Ross? Loretta Swit?

There is a good chance someone my age or older might recognize some of these names, but I'd bet big money anyone younger than I am would pretty much be in the dark about these people who reached pretty big heights in their respective careers.

After only -- what? -- three or four decades, many of these names that used to be often on the tongues of their respective colleagues and of the public are, at best, occasionally Googled to jog the old memory (as I had to do with Hal Linden).

These were people who made a mark on their fields -- the tier under the legends, who disappear more quickly than the legends, also, are destined to do, some day. (Many of my high school students don't know who John Wayne is. Still more couldn't name a single movie he was in. None of them have any memory of the show M*A*S*H. Most have never heard of Alfred Hitchcock.)

If it were not for school and annoying teachers like me, the kids would not recognize names like Twain and Steinbeck.

Even the more current people, like Toni Morrison -- still alive and still writing and still brilliant -- are not common knowledge.(Delillo is still writing. Does your teenaged daughter know who he is? Does your forty-year-old neighbor? Do you? He's won a Pulitzer.)

So what's the point of rising on the ladder? What's the point of fame? I write and Toni Morrison writes. I compose and Alexander Desplat (I know -- who's he?) composes. In a few decades, none of us will be remembered, however high we climb.

There are just too many people, now, and too much information saturation for us to have Shakespeares or DaVincis in 500 years.

The thing is, we do what we do because we love it. In the end, time will wipe us all out like a sandstorm over a Saharan city. Fame is worthless in the long run. What's worth something is doing the thing. And I just did. And I will do it again on Friday -- whether anyone reads or not.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Paint Me Byronic

(Every once in awhile, I crank out  a poem. I just found this one while cleaning up my computer.)

I want to be a poet.
I want to write lines that make people think
That I am a wispy-haired, baggy-sleeved genius
Who ponders deep in deep woods and in dandelion meadows
And then snap-traps spontaneous epiphanies in meter and rhyme --
And who sees things about life hidden in things like sailing dandelion spores
That no one else senses.
But I’m not (though I am).
I’m just a guy who takes out the trash
And then writes somber “lines” about it:
“Lines Composed Over a Reeking Tub of Refuse.”
Still – I’m okay with that.
One can’t help it if one is surrounded by trash –
One still has to write.

If you want, though, you can still paint me Byronic.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Catharsis and Desperation

Sexual contact is a human need.

The expression of emotion is a human need.

Sexual need is both physical and psychological.

The need to express emotion can take physical form.

Some sexual need is driven by deeper psychological factors, like the need to bolster self-esteem: the person who "sleeps around, " regardless of propriety or circumstance.

Needing to -- regardless of propriety or circumstance -- express one's feeling to others can be driven by the need to bolster self esteem, too: the person who simply has to say what he or she feels.

In both, there is catharsis of a kind (which is the valid reason for either engaging or expressing): having sex wipes away desire, for a while, at least. "Getting things off of one's chest" can make one feel better, for awhile.

But both approaches can be, depending on the individual, nothing more than a desperate attempt to prove one's worth to one's self (often at the expense of others).

In excess, both actions can erase future interpersonal paths.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Lowest Form of Human

Call me judgmental, but, in my not-so-humble opinion, the lowest form of human is the YouTube commenter. And a lower subset of that lowest form of human is the YouTube commenter who comments on drum and drumming videos. I felt you should be aware of my feelings on this issue.

But what really crumbles my crackers (and not into the chowder, but right onto the dirty diner table) is people who feel compelled to respond to things with superficial comparisons or connections that are devoid of any cleverness -- nay, of any need to have been said at all... These are comments formed in a teensy little brain and submitted by someone who was no doubt mouth-breathing as he clicked "submit." These comments are always irrelevant to the post or video. They're like yelling out: "I love potatoes!" in the middle of a conversation about theology.

Today, I watched a video from a drum shop that I like, in which a fine player is demonstrating a beautiful Pearl "piccolo snare drum." (As the name suggests, this is a snare that is shallow and smaller than the usual snare.) There were a few comments, and I happened to see one that said: "Is it the late nineties again?"

[Pause for me to smash things; sweep books off of shelves; spike potted plants; kick over end-tables; elbow-smash a few windows; rip open a throw-pillow with my teeth and consider kicking the dog.]

Very clever. Ho-ho-ho. It is to laugh. Piccolo snares were popular in the late nineties. Kudos on knowing that. How about a discussion of how nice and unusually warm this particular maple drum sounds? Hm? How about discussing the drum and not making your pathetic attempt at proving you can see connections? -- that you know your drum history? Do you also walk up to people who are reading in the park and say, "What are we, in a library?" and walk away chuckling to yourself?

You know what? No. I'm not going to try to expand this into other people. It is always musicians; usually drummers. I'll be watching a tremendous performance by, say Bernard Purdie, shot in the eighties, and some doorstop will inevitably comment, "Dude -- is that Bill Cosby?"

Because he is black? Because he is wearing a colorful sweater? Good job of completely missing the sublime depth of the man's rhythmic concept; good job hiking through glorious countryside while watching your feet; good job putting your egocentric need to speak before your own personal education. Good job of perpetuating your sub-mediocrity.

And for what? To see you name in a list of comments.

[Stands still in middle of room full of broken furniture breathing savagely; calms down; sheepishly picks up a capsized lamp. Picks up book; looks at author picture; speaks in cartoonishly stupid voice:]

"The Sun Also Rises? Dude, I didn't know Santa wrote books..."


Monday, June 8, 2015

Swingers on the Parenhood Pendulum

God forbid that we, as a human race, should maintain anything close to a rational and un-affected perspective on anything, or that everyone's perspective not be dangling on the end of a pendulum...

It all started with people gently reminding married couples not to "lose the romance" when they have kids; to remember one's self during the selfless years and through the selfless instincts of parenthood. Very good advice. But I have seen this to the extreme when, in a conversation about education with a friend, he said that the idea that "family comes first" is one of the worst things that has happened to our society.

Not everyone is as extreme as this, but I have noticed a lot of articles that now lean away from "leave some time for yourself" and toward "you are more important than your kids." This is bad.

When one has kids, one needs to put them first. The job one signs up for is to prepare kids for the world in which they live. Doing this requires attention to that child that supersedes one's attention to one's self. (This, of course, does not imply that parents should sacrifice the essentials -- we're no good to our kids if we are dead.)

People like my friend would argue that, in the old days, parents were less focused on their kids and it was better for society as a whole. I would argue, however, that parents focused on different aspect of parenthood, but they still focused on their kids. The ancient hunter trained his kids to hunt; the farmer taught them how to bring in the crops; that warrior taught his sons to fight... All of these parents were preparing their kids for the world they would need to enter. In this way, we are the same as they were: we are to prepare our kids to. someday, function in the outside world without our help.

Parents, in modern times, are preparing their kids to venture out into a raging tempest of varied moralities and ideas and beliefs all driven by a raging, constant flow of information, both good and bad. We are preparing their kids to find their way through a world that offers them innumerable choices of ways in which to live their lives. It's no longer a question of eking out daily survival or of passing down the village blacksmith shop. Preparing modern kids for a modern world requires us to be constant teachers, in terms of helping our kids learn how to deal with myriad uncertainties. This means we need to watch our children; to interpret how they deal with a playground confrontation; to instruct them on manners and mores; to help shape them into sane, rational creatures who make good decisions and follow societally beneficial paths.

My paternal counterpart in the Celtic tribe focused on preparing his sons to defend against the neighboring tribe's attempt at a cattle raid, but he still focused on his son. He needed his son to be fierce, strong and relentless. This was focus on family -- just a different kind of family. It was an internal focus that resulted in a benefit to the tribal society. In strengthening the family, many have said, we strengthen the society -- in this case, things become quite literal.

In not-so-extreme terms, the father who owned a shoe repair shop in 1915 focused on fixing shoes, bringing in money and, perhaps, training his kids to repair shoes in order to keep the business going... This was still focus on family.

Our parental jobs, today, are more complex but no less vital. If we turn out kids who are lost and ineffectual in the world, we have failed. We need to focus on them until they are ready to leave and stand on their own.

What people need to do, though, is to stop giving themselves up completely for their kids. I have known and still know parents who give up every free moment by going to kids' games and various other activities. This is the opposite side of the pendulum swing from my friend's perspective. Cheering at a game, however, is no substitute for talking and spending real time together... I

In the end, our kids can be our focus without completely erasing their parents' lives. By sometimes not focusing on my kids, I give them an opportunity to understand that everyone deserves his own space. I also give them an opportunity to watch me in action and to learn from that.

When I leave a comfy house on a winter's night to go play with the band, my boys see that their father is continuing with his passion and that he is willing to work hard to pursue it -- something I want them do do for themselves. When I say "not now" to one of my sons because I am reading a good book, it shows them how important books are...etc. How can they learn by my example if I'm always following them around? How can they watch me do stuff if I never do stuff? -- if all I do is watch them do stuff and criticise them for how they did stuff?

But, when my sons truly need me, I forget myself -- I drop all consideration of what I might rather be doing...

My kids might displace my personal time, but they certainly won't erase it, because, when they grow up and move on, where will I be? If, on life's personal journey from point A to point Z, I had stopped at, like, J when my first son was born, how am I going to, after my boys move out, make it through K-Z? Given the choice, though, I'd rather croak at W than live through Z knowing I turned out a couple of ill-adjusted, self-centered, entitled boy/men.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Hydrodynamics of Love

As I was sitting at graduation and looking at our kids about to step off into the world outside high school -- not the "real world;" we all live in the "real world," even in kindergarten* -- a thought occurred to me. I pretty accurately recalled it on Facebook last night:

Love runs into available channels, like water does. To argue that there is more value to pouring it into one place than into another is sort of a defiance of hydrodynamics.

What got me thinking this is that, as I looked at the graduating students, I realized I feel differently at graduation at this point in my life than I did when I started teaching in my small school nearly two decades ago. It is always bittersweet to see our kids go: at once, a measurable educational accomplishment and a loss. Our school is small, with graduating classes of under 100, so we know them all, whether we teach them or not. And when we teach them, we know them well. They truly become "our kids." 

But, as I said, something is different, now. I used to feel more of a gut-wrench, driving home on graduation night. I used to linger a little longer outside to say goodbye the kids. Now, although I still feel sad as they go, I have an easier time of it. I feel no need to hold on. I can sleep just fine if I didn't say good bye, face-to-face, to all of them. 

This is because, I think, my love runs into different channels, today; channels I chose to dig, myself. Today, I drive home away from my school kids toward my real kids. At twenty-eight, more of my affection ran in the direction of my students. Now, the deepest channel runs toward my kids. One still runs toward the students, but, it just doesn't compare to the one that runs toward my sons. The "student channel" used to have less competition; there were less channels pulling the water away from was more full, then. 

But, here's the thing: it is fruitless to argue, as some people do, that one needs to have kids in order to experience the deepest of loves; that one is cheating one's self of a full heart if one does not start a family. I think we either choose how deep to dig channels, whatever direction they run, or we find ourselves surprised by how deep one of them runs. 

I think people have, each, a certain capacity for love; think of it as a reservoir with a certain amount of water. If a channel is dug away from the reservoir, the water flows in that direction. The love simply needs somewhere to go. The intensity of the love (the strength of the flow) doesn't come only from the thing or person to whom it is directed, but from the size of the reservoir and the depth of the channel. The water doesn't run out, it just flows where we allow it to; or, according to the channels we have dug, either on purpose or by accident. (By "accident" I mean, say, the stray animal we picked up and fell in love with; the cause we accidentally discovered and poured out heart into...) 

When I had kids, my love flowed in that direction, joining the channel that was already there for my wife and my music and the one we later dug by getting our beloved dog...and, joining the one for my students. I think we all need to (no news here) express our love according to our capacity both for love itself and for its expression. If there is only so much water in the reservoir, the water will fill the deepest channels before it goes to the shallow ones and, at some point, all the water is used up... Some channels run dry; some will run more shallow. 

How'd I do? I get the feeling I might have failed, here, in explaining this idea and that I over-stretched my metaphor to the point of ineffectiveness. Ah, whatever. No one reads this blog on Fridays anyway...

*I hate when people tell students about "the real word." Talk about invalidating their existence up until graduation; talk about teaching them that the only reality is in the mundane treadmill of the tax bill world... HATE IT!!! Grr. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Teaching Fear: PB&J and "Racism"

And, of course, it's on white bread.
I remember once telling a friend that someone we both knew well was "kind of a racist." Knowing that person to have been a good, friendly and sympathetic person, my friend said: "I can't believe he's racist -- prejudiced, maybe, but racist is too strong of a word..."

The friend who made that distinction was and still is strongly vocal against racism. He hates it deeply and has, occasionally, displayed this is pretty confrontational (and even violent) ways. But, still, he saw a distinction between racism and prejudice. Racism, he pointed out later in the conversation, is about hate and notions of racial superiority; prejudice is pre-judgement, based on stereotype.

This conversation happened decades ago. Since then, it seems the lines have been blurred or even erased.

Once, my younger son said something about having learned that Dr. King had spoken out against oppression of "black people." My older son said, "That's racist!" -- simply because his brother had said "black people." (Apparently, my son got the message that political incorrectness -- if indeed, "black people" is -- is the same as racism.)

This is what the tone of society's ideas about race has done.

I could go on about a number of things, including the continuing loss of cultural identities as a result; or, I could again write about the story of a black student of mine at Rutgers who wanted to be referred to as "black" and not African American, because his people had not come from Africa... But I won't.

I'll just reference this nonsense -- an article from a few years ago that a friend just posted. It's an article that tells about a principal who says there are "broader racial implications" that mean that a teacher should not use peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as an in-class example. As a result of some "equity training" the principal has recently received, she says:

“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” Gutierrez said.... “Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”

She's right on one level and wrong on another. She's right in that this is a teachable moment. It gives a good teacher an opportunity to expand the cultural knowledge all of his or her students by asking good questions. But to imply that it is "racist" to mention peanut butter and jelly because some kids don't eat it is just asinine. And to carry that kind of an attitude is to breed linguistic fear -- the kind of fear that lead my older son to call my younger son a racist for mentioning the works of Dr. King in what he had been, somehow, conditioned to believe was "the wrong way." 

I can't believe people don't see what a culture of fear we are creating. It's a culture of oppressive pseudo-sensitivity. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

"...and lose the name of action"?

If the act of suicide is beyond the control of the one who commits it; if, the brain chemistry and the level of general befuddlement (from whateve cause) is something the person in question simply had not the means to prevail against, how much benefit is there in making this clear to the public at large?

I will leave questions for you to either ponder alone or below, or in the hallowed halls of Facebook, because I am not committed to an answer. I have no answer, but I have that most blessed of growth-promoting problems: doubt; indecision. 

I understand wanting to remove a stigma from fallen folks like, say, Robin Williams and from loved ones who have taken their own lives. Still, is it better to downplay the helplessness and to place even a possibly incorrect level responsibility on the fallen person? -- maybe leave just a sprinkle of the blame that suicide once carried? 

Does the "raising of awareness" at any point become an inducement or even an excuse for self-destruction? If a suffering soul hears someone say that those who slid knife across wrist did so because they could not control their actions, might that same suffering soul falsely identify him or herself at "that point" and -- just perhaps -- more easily succumb to the temptation to end everything? 

Your thoughts on this particular question would be very welcome. As I said, I have not full conclusion in mind...