Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so"

Now's the time during which all of my social media friends start posting about their year. A lot are already summing it up as a horrid one as a result of celebrity deaths. Some just had crappy years; others, not bad one. I haven't heard any really good reflections on the year.

For some reason, summing up a year has never worked for me. I am not saying it is bad or wrong to do so -- just that it has never been something I am inclined to do. And thinking about evaluating my year sort of makes me feel a little squirmy, if I'm being honest.

I think of bad events as bad events, but isolated ones. A year is an artificial construct of the human need to organize its existence. Maybe this is all just another manifestation of my often-visited concept of the real versus the unreal; the idea that there is so much that we see as hard reality that is just plain phony. A "year" is just bookends on the shelf. We just happen to place it between 365-day cycles. It could have been anything in terms of parameters... What's real is the death of a loved one; what's fake is that he died on a "Tuesday." It seems really -- at the lest -- unhelpful to call a whole 365-day cycle "bad" because within the same span in which one's car was "totaled."

Contrary to what I said above, maybe it is bad. It's really a kind of pessimism to label a year as bad because it contained a few -- or even a lot of -- bad events. Yeah...see? I was trying to be nice, but I think it is bad.

I think my other "problem" might be that I have always naturally done what a lot of people seem to have a hard time with. I really seem to "live in the moment." (Sometimes, this can be a problem...but that is another post.) For me, though, benchmarks have never really meant much. New Year's Eve means nothing to me. Graduations have always been something to get over with. I knew, sitting on the football field of Eastern High School in 1986, that I would be no different of a person the next day than I was before... There really is -- cliche, though it may be -- only now.

David Bowie, Gene Wilder, the all-of-a-sudden-beloved Alan Rickman and, now, George Michael were not killed by 2016 -- they just happened to die within the artificial frame created by humans.

So, no, it wasn't a bad year. Not to me. I'm sorry we lost those people -- especially Gene Wilder. But I just can't make it work out to a post about how mad I am at 2016. It's like blaming the shoe box for the shoes' fit.

As I looked up who died in 2016 for this piece, I saw an article for The Mirror: "Why have so many celebrities died in 2016?" Are people really reading stuff like that for "answers"?

Each of the people we lost is bigger than a calendar with inked borders, so let's not reduce them to some superstitious cause. We might as well go back to blaming fairies for stuff.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Pleasant Medicines

What we all need to do is find pleasant medicines. This is a little north of the whole idea of a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down. The things that are good for us can be pleasant.

People have found this, but very few talk about it. Devoted runners, for instance, almost always love running. Some athletes are forced to run for their sports, but runners do it out of love for the process.

But I hate running.

I also hate lifting weights. And most other forms of physical exertion. So, not pleasant medicines.

I was inspired to write this as I finished my last sip of cold green tea a few moments ago. I brew it each week and I drink it throughout my work day. Since I started this, my weight loss per week (something I have been working hard on) has doubled. The health benefits of green tea are almost universally supported by research. And I like it. Pleasant medicine.

I have also been practicing yoga. It is making me stronger and more flexible. I could get stronger and more flexible in a million unpleasant ways, but yoga actually feels good when I am doing it. I look forward to it each day. I have never looked forward to any form of exercise. WhemI was an athlete, it was just something that came with the territory, as it were. I did it because I was forced to.

Can't we all find pleasant things to do that make us more healthy? I sure can't be easy, because it took me forty-nine years to latch on to a mere two "pleasant medicines." But I intend to look for more ways to do things that are good for me that I actually enjoy.

Everyone talks about healthful living as if it is a burden. It really does not have to be. But, as I find with most things, you need to be philosophical about it to be happy and consistent.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Bigger Than Trump

So here we are. President Donald Trump.

I am tremendously surprised. Never thought it would happen. But I am certainly not going to contribute to the over-dramatics.

It's no secret I don't like the man. He is, as far as I am concerned, a horrible role model for our country and for our kids. But that does not matter anymore. It has not, for awhile. Bill Clinton was up to all kinds of inappropriate hoo-ha in the oval office, and it didn't put an dent in his presidency or his legacy.

I still think The President of the United States should be a gentleman/lady, but I am in the minority.

I haven't had to think about that much, because our last eight years have seen a true gentleman in office. Many disagree with his actions and policies, but it would be hard to say he was not the consummate gentleman.

There are those who argue that it does not matter; that a worm can, in fact, be a good president (which, at this point, I certainly hope is true). But I still have a problem with the fact that my countrymen elected a man who refers to grabbing women "by the p--." And, no, this is not standard locker-room talk. This is misogyny. If you disagree, you are like Trump.

All that aside, I think we all need to calm down. We have spent months as ants under the proverbial sun-focusing magnifying glass.

We have a system of checks and balances. Trump will not become a dictator.

True -- it has happened in the past. But, in the past, the governments in question have not been as brilliantly conceived as ours. I still have profound faith in the work of the Founding Fathers. Their foresight will hold things together. I have never had less respect for a president, but I do not believe he will be allowed to run rampant.

The pendulum is at the top of its rightward swing. It will, as it always has, go back and find itself in an equally ridiculous leftward place and everywhere in-between, over and over, even after we are all long-gone.

But, most importantly, I would appeal to everyone's innate ability to perform a lost art: transcendence. Life is so much bigger than politics. Yes, I know -- politics in the hands of evil people can lead to the end of life or even to life-in-death. When it gets to that level, we fight. Before it gets to that level, we should fight with pens and protests, but, in the end, we still have something much bigger than laws and court rulings and unfair taxes. We have lives.

One human soul, "like gold to airy thinness beat," stretches wider and farther than politics, elections, government or the whole stretch of human history. Real change will come when we harness that; not when we strap ourselves into a flawed system and then complain about where it takes us and then argue about it on Facebook.

But, in the meantime, the morning after the election...

...love remained. Husbands and wives kissed each other goodbye. Music was beautiful as ever. Babies still smiled. And children woke up recharged by their dreams and hopes as they trudged with backpack-drooped shoulders through the crackling leaves. Dogs stretched as they did yesterday and cats cleaned themselves on window-ledges, as ever before. God sat, chin on one hand, smiling gently, waiting. 

What will we do now? Each of us? It is easy to vote. It is harder to do stuff to make things better.

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 you....it 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 them...like 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...

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Joy, Storms and Sadness

There's no perfect balance; no prescribed fulcrum for the teetering boards that all of us are. Is there? We're all different woods, different weights, different spans of length.

I feel so much and so deeply, sometimes, it is actually frightening to me. There is such beauty in some of the feeling -- like Emily Dickinson experiencing poetry, "feeling as if the top of [her] head were taken off" when she read a great poem; like the overwhelming "high" I feel when I hear a profound moment in music. Sometimes, though, the feelings come in cold waves. Sometimes, they are like weighted lines tied to all of the sinking things around us. Around me.

Friederick Carl Frieske
"Afternoon -- Yellow Room," 1910.
Yesterday, I just felt so sad all of a sudden, and it wasn't out of nowhere. (Which is good.) I could name all of the weights pulling at me. They were not my problems, though -- they were the problems of others; or, rather, the profound weight of my connections to others. My boys, one facing high school, starting; one having lost his first girlfriend and my connection to them pulling at me; my worries over whether I am teaching them right; being firm enough or to firm to guide them into manhood...

Part of is was the book I am reading, Dead Wake, by Erik Larson, about the sinking of the Lusitania -- the sepia visions of history; the great ship headed out of New York Harbor; my fellow humans, dead and gone, stepping aboard and nothing I could do about it -- no way to warn them and save them from the icy water that must close over their heads. The profound coincidence of a woman who survived the Titanic who, at the last minute, canceled her trip on Lusitania because of sickness...

But, it all mixes with beauty. And beauty is heavy, too. It pulls your eyes wide open; it fills you with warm, slightly detached weight, like a third Scotch: my wife's beauty, which is so much more than just a face and a body that it fills me with storms; my sweet, simple dog, eyeing me with a desire for nothing but my casual notice; the warmth of my house...all balanced with the idea that everything is transitory...

I want to feel... I really do. But sometimes, feeling is like adrenaline: after a day on the roller coasters, the rides are just exhausting bacause the tank is empty. And sometimes, feeling is a joy that terrifies. It always leaves me exhausted, though. And sometimes very sad.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why I Won't "Leave the Country" if "X" Gets Elected

My older son, Joe, is, as all young people must, finding his intellectual way into the world. He is extremely inquisitive, very philosophical and he is creative in ways that make me exceedingly proud. But, as a young man, he is, of course, apt to latch on to things he has heard that stir passion in him. The other day, he echoed the ubiquitous "If Trump wins, we should leave this country."

It just so happens that this was said two days ago as we were walking away from Sankaty Lighthouse in 'Sconset, on Nantucket. Only a few minutes earlier, we had passed "Footlight," the home where my favorite writer, John Steinbeck, had written East of Eden. I had completely forgotten he had written the book on Nantucket until the tour guide pointed out the house. Of course, my heart leaped with delight and I quickly took a blurred picture as we drove past...

...but only a few minutes later, there was my son talking about "leaving the country." The proximity -- in not only inches and feet but in my heart -- to my most beloved writer caused a discordant resonance for me. My son had rung a bell that a thousand people a day ring...but this time, it sounded broken...it rattled, like I would imagine the cracked Liberty Bell would. And like the Liberty Bell (rung-again) would, it made me feel pride in a country with a deep history and with a roll-call of fine human beings who did things both great and unknown.

I saw Steinbeck, silhouetted in a window in Footlight and recording his self-doubt (someday they will figure out I am not as good as they say I am) in his journal as he wrote East of Eden. I saw Lincoln in dark meetings, his soft voice urging his cabinet to fight for the Union above all else. I saw a simple, courageous man from Philadelphia, in 1866, driving his family in a covered wagon, out past the Mississippi, to claim the land offered by the Homestead Act (an act that encouraged African Americans and single women to apply, by the way). I saw Aaron Copeland at the piano adding notes to his manuscript for "Appalachian Spring"; Elie Wiesel exorcising his demons at the typewriter; Dr. King, his tie slack, his eyes watering, pondering the next line of a famous speech. I saw boys from my generation playing dusty baseball on a weedy infield on a summer day just for the joy of it -- no thought of scholarships; no travel teams to keep up with; no pitching and hitting lessons on the schedule -- just playing until the light was too low, a prelude to the night's dreams of the big leagues. I thought of newly-married couples, with no money, making love because they had to; because love and family were a need, not a business proposition. I saw a line of heroes and inspirations: Leonard Slatkin with his baton; Barber penning the notes of his adagio; Mike Schmidt, confident and almost defiant at the plate; Vinnie Colaiuta in complete command the drumkit; my own father sitting center-chair in a big band with his magical silver trumpet; Dr. Robert Ryan, his voice cracking with emotion as he read Keats to our little graduate seminar class; my wife, Karen, exercising every single dark morning at 5:30, to stay strong; my sons growing into fine, sensitive and moral young men...

...I saw all of this as my son and I walked a gravel path under a hot blue sky, just after I heard the words: "leave this country." And it occurred to me: hell, no.

I told Joe that I am too proud of the real great people of this country to abandon it, either physically or mentally, just because of the behavior of high-profile creeps. I'll never give up hope for America. There are too many good people living good, just and sincere lives, who are the blood in the veins. The President is not the country. The loud-mouthed flag-wavers are not the country. The Tweeters and Facebookers who spend their time spreading their political agenda and un-researched claims are not the country.

We are the country. "We the people" -- the ones going to work for others or for themselves; the ones cutting grass on Saturday; the ones trying to get better at golf or music or writing or dancing or fishing or at just being people; the ones who are trying to teach their kids to be good men and women; the ones who have no time for politics and angry online arguments; the ones who would rather read a book than a meme; the ones who walk their dogs, rain or shine; the ones who stand comically in bathrooms with their spouses, brushing their teeth before bed -- we are the ones who make this country what it is.

No politician; no president, good or bad, can take that away from us or "bring it back" to us. I understand how those in charge can change our circumstances, but they don't shape our American-ness.

I have very little respect for many politicians, but they are just some of the many pimples on the beautiful face of a great country. Yeah, the Liberty Bell is cracked. It has to be. It tells the truth in its silent sound.

My son's response? "Good point, dad. Can we get lunch soon?"

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Doubt and the Human Spirit

I realize that, most of the time, when I write things with the purpose of changing people's minds, that I will fail. Those who like what I have to say will praise me; those who don't will generally ignore me. I'm just not very influential.

But, at the same time, if I didn't want to have an effect, I would just keep my writing bound to a journal. Why put it up online? Why publish? Clearly, I want (need?) to affect people in some way.

If my hopes are too high, I am bound for disappointment. (And they are always too high.) In a way, now that I think about it, having really high hopes as a writer pretty much amounts to narcissism. To hope is to assume that I have something worthwhile to say. Who, exactly, do I think I am?

I think, though, that I have found a realistic, non-conceited, practical goal as a writer -- as a teacher, even. I think a worthy goal is to just try to make people less sure of themselves; to make them doubt their hardened concepts...

It seems to me that doubt, to the human spirit, is as water to the plant.

Too many people are too sure of themselves. Only two results can come of two groups of people who are completely sure of themselves: dangerous clashes or turned backs.

But I'm tired. Whatever the reason for having tried so hard to affect people -- vanity or altruism -- it has made me very tired. I feel like like Jem, after having seen the racism in his town. He says this to, Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird:

"Scout, I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time... it's because he wants to stay inside."

I'd better either shut up about things and go all Boo Radley or keep my expectations low. At the very least, "affects" and "effects" aside, maybe I could just introduce a little beauty, from time to time, in a very, very ugly world. The human spirit can be such a light. Just lift away the shade and it can chase off a deed-dark forest full of demons...

But the shade does need to be lifted. Another worthy goal. I hope. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Beauty on the Boardwalk

My family made a quick trip to the Jersey shore a few weeks ago. While we were there, I saw a beautiful display of human goodness. It wasn't what you think -- not some kind of gesture of charity; nothing about old ladies crossing busy streets; not a hero jumping in to the fracas to defend a lady in distress. This was more about three teenaged kids who sort of just...stood there.

My boys were using the restroom on the boardwalk and I was waiting outside and there were three early teens in front of me -- maybe fifteen -- a boy and two girls. The boy was skinny and shirtless, with blond/brown hair and two earrings; a handsome young man who did a lot of smiling. One of the girls was blonde -- his sister, maybe? -- and she wore a white cover-up over her bathing suit. The other girls had dark hair in a ponytail. and she wore a pink cover-up. They were either close friends or cousins. They had that blend of closeness and comfort.

The girls were as beautiful as the boy was handsome. Youth almost always equals beauty, but these kids were attractive enough to have had "attitudes" about it. Somehow, though, their smiles seemed to negate any possibility of narcissism. They were not too cool to smile, as many young people seem to be.

They were approached by an Asian boy wearing one of those string backpacks and his friend, a Irish-looking lad, who a wore a matching pack. The packs had crosses on them.

"Hi," said the Asian kid to the three teens. "Can I ask you a question?"

I don't know how it goes around the rest of the world, but in New Jersey, on the boardwalk, that pretty much means you are about to be accosted by a Christian on a mission. I'm a man of faith, but of a faith that is based on private meditation and private prayer. I shy away from flagrant displays of faith. Flagrant displays of faith strike me, I might add, as fundamentally wrong...maybe not wrong for everyone but truly against what feels right for me.

As a kid, I used to figure out ways to freak these teen crusaders for Jesus out. I'd tell them I worshiped Beelzebub or that I was a warlock or that I was a gay Zoroastrian who dabbled in voodoo on the weekends. Sometimes I would flat-out tell them to get out of my face; I had my own Catholic faith and didn't need to be them telling me it was not good enough. (Back in my teen days, a friend of mine once did all the work by saying, "Go away. You people are more annoying than burlap underwear." [Which, I think you will agree, would be pretty darned annoying.])

But these three happy teens were better than I ever was.

"Can I ask you a question," the Asian kid said.

"Just a few minutes," the Irish kid said.

"Sure," the blonde girl said. Her friends smiled.

"It's like a quiz," the Christian lad said. "Number one. On a scale of one to ten, how curious would you say you are about knowing God?

"Um," the girl said, biting her lower lip in earnest thought. "Ten, I guess."

"Ten," said the other two.

"Oh...okay. Great," said the quizzing boy, obviously surprised by these nice kids in a day strung with kids like me. "Great. So, then, on a scale of one to ten, how much would you say God loves you?"

"Oh...that's def'nly a ten," said the skinny boy, his forehead creasing a bit with concentration. The girls nodded, smiling with sincere eyes. "Ten."

This went on for about three minutes and they answered question after question in the same way. The Christian boys handed them some brochures and left the three friends in peace. What I expected next were rolling eyes and crumpling brochures. Surely these kids were just being polite. They'd start making fun of the two boys as soon as they were out of sight.

But, no. You could tell from their conversation that these kids were not particularly religious, but they showed no sign of disdain. The girls had nowhere to put their brochures, and one of them said, "I don't just want to throw it out..." The boy offered to put them in his backpack (his had no cross on it) and they did and the three walked off to enjoy the rest of their day.

These kids struck me as so heart-breakingly nice that it made me well up a bit. There was no cynicism; there was no judgment; there was no stereotypical teenaged role-playing; no air of intellectual superiority.

As a teacher of high school students, I often find myself noticing the best in humanity. Sure, I get frustrated, but, in the end, I find that working with kids makes me feel better about the future. These three moved me with their sincerity, their openness and their manners. They were beautiful humans.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Thoughts on Gun Control, Part 2: The Line

In our last exciting episode, we dealt with the idea that the Second Amendment might need rethinking, based on the change in weapons and circumstances. In this sense, we agreed with probably the most insightful of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson, who thought that, "with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times." Therefore, we are not slinging poo at the revered and sacred big cheeses of the Revolution for thinking their buildings might need a little renovation...

My readers might disagree with that notion, and, of course, they are free to. But we all might consider one thing: that we certainly all agree that there are certain weapons we would not want in the hands of any particular private citizen...a nuclear bomb, for instance.

Somewhere between this...
Right? Should my neighbor be able to rig his house with a nuclear explosive that would go off if someone were to trip a wire near the front door? Of course not, right? Too many people could die.

What about a setup that would protect his loved ones and property in the form of a series of pipes in the front lawn that would pump VX nerve gas into the air in the event of an intruder? Of course not -- too many could die.

What about those who have to travel city streets alone at night? Should it be legal to carry a flame thrower for self-defense? Ridiculous, right? The whole city could burn down.

This only all goes to prove that we all agree that there should be limits on the ways in which we can protect ourselves. Anyone who thinks that we should be allowed to defend ourselves in the ways listed above is an idiot. I say this with confidence, because I believe that any idiot who would disagree with me here is someone I would rather stop reading my blog.

So, carrying things further, in modern times, we have a vast variety of guns and rifles and other assorted personal weapons that range vastly in their ability to inflict damage on the enemy. I am not a gun expert, so I am not going to propose the specific "line" at which we should cut off John Q. Public from his self-defense. I just want it to be clear that any rational being would agree that we do need to draw some line when it comes to what sort of weapons we should allow the average person to own, at least when we expand to weapons of mass destruction or to ones that could cause the death of too many, especially the innocent.

Is it ridiculous to draw a line? -- to say how much firepower is too much firepower, even in the hands of a law-abiding citizen?  I don't think so.

I do believe that average citizen should have access to guns, but I think the kind of guns does need to be limited. I'm not sure at what level I think this should be done, to be honest with you -- probably somewhere between a shotgun and short of a Gatling gun in a second floor bedroom window seems right to me -- but it is as worthy of consideration as it would be with any weapon. The absurd examples above serve only to prove the point that, at some level, the ways in which we defend ourselves needs to be limited.

It is ludicrous and dangerous to suggest that guns be outlawed altogether. The last thing we need is a country in which the government has all the guns and the people have none; bad idea, and the Founding Fathers agreed.

It could be argued that if we don't have the best firepower, we could never mount a revolution, at need. I disagree with that -- the Patriots in the 1770s were outgunned, but they found a way. It seems illogical to me to prepare for something as unlikely (but, admittedly, possible) as a revolution by arming ourselves to an extent that, in the process of waiting for this possible new revolution, we make it easier for lunatic after lunatic to mount widescale attacks on random groups and killing hundreds if not thousands. Since 1966, alone, 869 people have been killed in mass shootings, and there has not been one revolution. Mass shootings are a pressing problem. (I know, I know -- the weapons in these killings have ranged from handguns to rifles to machine guns...that's why we need to think it over -- which ones does it make the most sense to keep off of the streets? Not all of them, for sure. I want to remain clear about that.)

But for heaven's sake, people, please stop arguing that "making things illegal won't stop them from happening." I can point to about two-hundred memes to this effect that have made me drastically angry. Making rape illegal has not stopped it from happening, but no one is proposing that we should just lift the laws off of the books because making laws has not solved the problem...

So, the question becomes whether limiting the kinds of gun we can own is a violation of the amendment's idea that the right to have guns "shall not be infringed." (In my previous piece, you can see, I hope, that when it comes to variety of weapons, the writers of the amendment could not have had "limitation" in mind, so it becomes a non-issue).

When the law limits the kinds of weapons we are allowed to have, it is not precluding the ownership of guns, in general. In this way, I don't see regulation of what is legal and what is not legal to own as a conflict with the amendment.

That said, I will be so bold as to submit a revision of the Second Amendment and to present it cloudward to Mr. Jefferson, for his consideration:

Protection of self and family being a fundamental right of every human, the right the people to keep and bear arms within a reasonable scope with respect to the safety of the citizenry at large, shall not be infringed. 

Sure, that leaves a big question mark in the air: What does "within a reasonable scope" mean? That's what judges and government representatives are for: to argue about and to decide these things. It won't be an easy road, but I think we should keep up the tug-of-war of the legal and governmental processes.

....and this?
It also shifts from the keeping of a free state to personal safety, eliminating the Militia piece, But I think most people are more focused on personal safety these days and if everryone is allowed to have a weapon, a militia could still be formed at need, so it works out in the end.

In the end, I just want us all to agree that limitations on the weapons the average citizen can own is a good idea when it comes to nukes and nerve agents; that limiting works from the top down. I just want us to discuss the line. Why would it stop at the most powerful and destructive hand-held weapon ever made? If it shouldn't (and it shouldn't) then the debate is over what is safe enough, but still lethal enough to offer personal defense. And let's argue about that and keep adjusting and adjusting and adjusting, as time goes on, as Thomas Jefferson knew we would need to do.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Thoughts on Gun Control, Part 1: Underestimating the Founding Fathers

In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, one of the characters, Boromir, looks at "the one ring" -- a magical ring with the power to destroy the entire world -- and he says:

"Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing?"

I think much the same thing when I look at the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America -- that loftiest of lofty American documents... All we get is this; the amendment in its entirety:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Is it not a strange fate that this little sentence has one group in their country at the throats of another? Yet, there it is. 

Short as it is, it is not without difficulties. People latch onto the idea that "the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed." What they ignore (often for the purpose of creating the sentence in their own image) is that the word "infringed" can have two shades of meaning. One can read this section of the amendment as either: 1) no one shall take away the right of people to own guns or, 2) no one shall limit or encroach upon ownership of guns in any way (i.e. not even limiting the kinds of guns owned).

Either way, people need to be allowed, according to the amendment, to own guns. That's clear.

The problem is that the second part could be interpreted to mean that there should be no limit on the kinds of guns owned. I would argue, though, that this is not something that could have been on the minds of the Founding Fathers. During the whole of the 18th century, the only firearms available were blunderbusses, pistols, muskets and rifles. The fastest of the fast could manage three shorts per minute with a musket, which needed the completion of a twenty-some-step process. In other words, there was no limiting of firepower to be done, unless done to minute and inconsequential differences. There was pretty much one kind of weapon available to the average American citizen: a pistol, musket or rifle that could fire very limited projectiles.

Therefore, I don't think it was possible that they were using the word "infringed" to mean "limited". What they meant was that no one shall stop the people from owning the available guns. Which guns they would own is not an issue, as it is today, so basing any pro-gun, modern arguments on the lack of limitation in this 18th century document is invalid. 

I'm going a step further than most who argue that "they didn't mean automatic weapons" by saying, they simply could not have even meant weapons of more than their contemporary limited shot capacity. (And as far as firepower, even if the average person bought himself a cannon, he still could not pull off the  kind of carnage of our modern mass murderers. In short, if guns were not limited, the American of 1787 [the year of the Constitution] it would neither have decreased nor increased the average American's ability to defend himself. 

Working backward, there is also still the issue of the reason the Second Amendment gives for the need of citizens to bear arms: the maintaining of "a well-regulated Militia." The writers of the Constitution were not even necessarily addressing personal protection with the amendment; they were referring to the ability of a state (or the State?) to fight for its own freedom, as the Revolutionaries had done, against oppression. 

The militias had figured heavily into the Revolution. The Founding Fathers were thinking of keeping us safe from mistreatment by government when they drafted the Second Amendment. This is tricky.

Today, the legality of militias varies from state to state. In some, they are illegal; in others, they are allowed, but carefully regulated. But a militia implies that the states might have to fight against...what? Other states? Didn't 600,000 people die in the Civil War to keep the states unified? If it is against governmental oppression that we establish militias, then...o.k. But is that really what gun advocates are really fighting for? I don't think so, except in isolated cases... In short, I think the militia part of the amendment is not a relevant point anymore.

What? "How can I say that," you ask? The Constitution should be inviolate? -- unchanged? Strangely, Thomas Jefferson did not think so. He thought that sometimes things need to change as the world around us (and inside us) changes. In my opinion, we need to rethink the Second Amendment -- not spit in its face, but consider what its modern equivalent is. We should be able to defend ourselves, but, at what cost (more of that in Part 2)? Anyway, Jefferson is pretty clear, here:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

So, no more trumpeting about disrespect for the Founding Fathers' views. The biggest disrespect we can show them is to underestimate their vision. One of the "new truths" we have to live with today is that, within a few minutes, someone can go from the gun shop into a crowded place and kill dozens of innocent people with one gun. Jefferson would want that problem dealt with, I think. Let's not insult him further. He saw this coming. He was anything but barbarous. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Ocean is Closed

A quick note: 

It always sort of bothers me when a blogger opens up a post with, "Sorry it has been so long since I have posted..." but I find myself in that position. I have been a three-a-week poster for years and, lately, over the course of this year, I have slowed a bit. Part of the reason for this is that things have been rather crazy in my everyday and professional life -- not tragic, not sad, just...crazy. The other reason is that my writer's brain (my composer's brain has never interfeared with Hats and Rabbits) has shifted back into fiction ideas and plans for a novel that I have high (artistic) hopes for. 

That said, I will not be abandoning this blog -- as I have sort of done over the last few months, but I will be shifting into posting only on Wednesdays... Here's the first one...

Karen and I took a last-minute (post-funeral [may my 92-year-old great aunt rest in peace]) trip to the Jersey shore yesterday. A couple of slices of pizza...some ice cream...a walk on the beach and back home before the boys were home from school. A nice day. Not a thing happened to shake my writerly tree, until...

On one level, this is pretty funny. They are going to close the ocean? The whole of the Atlantic, apparently, will be shut down for lack of lifeguards. This is going to wreak havoc on shipping and trade. How are the fish to react to this? I picture entire schools of aquatic creatures leaning up against underwater poles, flipping yo-yos and absently biting their non-existent fingernails from 5:30PM to 10AM. (FIN-gernails?)

On another level, this is symptomatic, as most things are, of deeper sociological issues. Can you imagine the casual sense of Big Brotherness it takes to approve a sign that purports to close the ocean? -- not the beach, but the ocean?

Some professor of sociology or anthropology ought to spend this summer on the boardwalk and watch people read that sign. The ones who either laugh at its absurdity or who are angered by its absurd grandiosity; by its outrageous sense of municipal importance, can be weighed against those who simply say, "Ah, well. We can't go in; the ocean is closed; rules are rules."

The ratio of one group to the other will be a reliable indication as to whether we have any chance of avoiding becoming an enslaved, governmentally-controlled society.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sports and Reality

I like baseball. This is no secret. My team loyalty is to the Philadelphia Phillies, because, I was born in Philly and I live in South Jersey.

(For the record, South Jersey might as well be a different country than North Jersey. I have never, in my life, just so you know, heard anyone say "Joisey" except for people in other states who hear I am from Jersey and then declare, "Ah! Joisey!" I'm not sure they even do that up north, to be honest with you.)

Me, outside Fenway last weekend.
Ted, over my shoulder. 
Anyhoo, as I say, I am a Phillies fan. But, I like baseball, all-around. I love its history and its atmosphere. Its my favorite sport. And because I like the sport, I have no problem wearing my Boston Red Sox cap from time to time.

Why a Red Sox cap? Bacause they are my favorite American League team, probably because Ted Williams, the greatest hitter the game ever knew, in my not-so-humble, played for them. And he is probably my favorite because I used to listen to my dad's stories about having seen him play... And, to be honest with you, I really like the "B" on the Sox cap. And I like blue. There are probably other reasons, but this is a blog and I weant to get to the point before you drop in to F-reading...

Before I do, though, I want to point out that I also like the caps of Detroit, the Mets, the Yankees, the Cardinals and even the Nationals and I would not mind having one of each of theirs, too. And some others. Because I like baseball and caps.

When I was in the great city of Boston last week, a guy form New York saw my Sox cap and started ribbing me because the Yanks had beaten them the day before. When I laughed and then told him I was actually a Phillies fan, for real, the smile melted off of his face like cake icing under a blowtorch and he herded his kids up and shuffled them away from me. You'd have thought I was a Nazi wearing a Jewish star... The man could not comprehend that I would wear a cap of a team I didn't follow exclusively...

I also have a Virginia Tech sweatshirt. I think someone left it in my dorm room in 1987 after a party -- my dorm room at Penn State. I never went to Virginia Tech and never really cared one way or another about it, but the sweatshirt is thick and cozy and has a great hood for cold weather and it is so well made that I wear it to this day. The thing's like thirty years old and good as new...

One day I was wearing that sweatshirt and a guy, with the most sincere smile, high-fived me and said, "Go Hokies!" I thought he was insane. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what a Hokie was. "Virginia Tech!" he said. "Go Hokies!" (I had had no idea the Hokie was their mascot and I had to look it up again, just now.) When I explained to him that I went to Penn State, he nearly wept. I suppose he deeply regretted our all-too-brief bond...

I feel like it never used to be like this. When I was a kid, kids who loved sports would get T-shirts of various teams; you'd have an NFL blanket with all the teams on it... Better still, you would go to a Phillies game in your regular clothes. It wasn't a sea of red caps and Phillies togs. Being at the game seemed to been enough to show you supported your team; the need to be seen seeing your team and to be eye-checked by the rest of the gang seemed not to exist...

It occurs to me that this shift might be a symptom of our collective mental state as a society when it comes to our complete inability have real discourse or to see things from various perspetives. This nearly obsessive compulsion to "pick a side" in sports is kind of a microcosm of our penchant for compartmentalized thinking; our love of labels (liberal or conservative); our intolerance for those who stray from the prescribed patterns of thought.

Anyway, my wife got me a new Red Sox cap this weekend and I might just wear it to the next Phillies game. I am only exaggerating a little when I say that I might be risking my own life by doing this. And it would be no exaggeration at all to say I am risking my life if I wore the cap of the opposing team. Which, of course, is not okay.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book and Phone

Out of nowhere and all of a sudden, I carry my cell phone with me wherever I go. For years, I had a "flip phone" that I managed to leave at home 90% of the time. (My wife will vouch for this.) Now I have a smart phone that I rarely forget to bring with me.

We can chalk this up to an old dog learning a new trick; to the gradual cementing of a new paradigm inside his fuzzy sub-consciousness. Or, we can see it as a need for entertainment that is always right at hand.

Gottfriefd Schalcken
For me, that entertainment usually amounts to a "Words with Friends" game or an exploration of the Interwebs for new and nifty musical equipment -- so, good, edifying things (right?) -- but it is entertainment, nonetheless. I'll give myself a little credit by saying that when I am waiting in line to pick up the boys after a school activity, my phone often sits by me as I watch parents in car after car hunched over their tiny screens like glowing, new-age penitents. But, I still have the thing with me everywhere I go...

So, knowing, now, that it is possible to carry a thing with me out into the world all of the time without any real effort and inconvenience, I decided I am going to try something new. I'm going to start bringing whatever book I am reading with me wherever I go. 

I never did this on a regular basis because I thought is was inconvenient. But, how much worse is it that carrying a cell phone? So, when the other parents are flipping through Facebook, I will be flipping through Steinbeck. Yeah, the phone will be there, but the book will be "metal more attractive" to a guy who lives in the world by necessity but who is always looking for ways to be not of the world. (And, in the end, I will still get the text about picking up milk...) 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Why Do We Know Not "Seems"?

Granted, I am unusually attached to words and perhaps over-sensitive to their fine shades when they're piled against one another in various shapes, but, it seems to me that we could change the nature of argument if everyone would open their statements of opinion with the phrase: "It seems to me..." (See what I did there?)

Hamlet, doing her Yorick
monlologue. Not what it seems, eh?
But, think about it: everything is about how is "seems" to us. Hamlet may "know not 'seems'," but the rest of us do. And if something "seems" a certain way to us, the implication is that it is an at-the-moment kind of thing. There is an unspoken admission that the speaker could actually be wrong.

Normally, I instruct my writing students to argue with a tone of absolute confidence; to leave out "I feel" and "I think." And I still believe that is important. These days, however, we might just need to allow some doubt in to our arguments for the sake of avoiding the literal and metaphoric fisticuffs that dominate the modern agumentative stage.

If the point of argument is not simply to win the argument, but to arrive at the truth, there is good reason to allow for shifts based on the perspective of how things "seem" to others...

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Benefits of Getting Punched in the Face

A former student of mine (thanks, Andrew) posted this meme yesterday and it rang so true for me that I had to share it. It is probably not what you expect, but here it is:

I can't say I have ever seen a truer idea and I truly believe that being punched in the face really served a purpose for me.

Sure, I fought as a kid in playground scraps, but, once, I was driving to school on a rainy morning and -- I don't remember why -- I had to hit the brakes, hard, almost slamming into the car in front of me. Apparently that angered a guy behind me, who followed me in to the school parking lot and punched me in right in the jaw as I got out of my car.

He connected pretty well. It really didn't hurt. More importantly, it did no damage either to my heart or my body.

I wish I could tell you about how I knocked him out, but he was back in his car and gone before I knew (literally) what his me.

Take the metaphor where you will, but it happened to me a few other times in my life and, for me, it serves as a reminder that even the most violent things are not necessarily as bad as they seem. After all, what sounds worse than "getting punched in the face"?

I have often thought about that punch when facing challenges and this meme reminded me of that.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Blogger, Chris Matarazzo, Goes Stark-Raving Mad (Guest Post by Nick Smedley)

This just in: Moronic jackass of an entitled twit UNC college student starts petition to have Villanova basketball victory over UNC overturned due to what he alleges was bad officiating.

When asked for comment, little-known blogger Chris Matarazzo responded by saying, "Fllrt. Grrr. I can't.... How can?  The... GAAAHHH!"

We had to turn to his wife for a coherent answer, as Chris proceeded to gnaw on one of the legs of his living room couch...

Said Karen, "A lot of times, I think Chris ought to put more of his true feelings into his blog posts, because, here in the living room, he flips out about stuff, but he always says that no one wants to hear an all-out rant except the people who already agree with it, so there is no real point...no mind-changing going on. But I really feel some of his passion gets lost in translation to his blog posts. Sometimes the posts are just too darned polite. But this...this just sort of cracked him, I think. Like, everything he has been holding inside...just...kaplooey!"

At this point, Matarazzo had ceased his gnawing and was lying on the floor panting from his exertions with little chips of wood in the corners of his mouth. He was muttering: "Everything...they want it all the way they want it... Everybody wants the outcome they WAAAAANNNT..."

Before you could say "Jack's your uncle," Matarazzo began slamming his head against a glass table, upon which his wife, clearly having had to deal with this sort of meltdown before, placed a small cushion. We carried on the interview with her, with the dull thud of Matarazzo's head softly thumping time in the background. (At one point, a white dog walked into the room, sniffed at Matarazzo, and then walked away with a quiet whimper.)

"You see," Mrs. Matarazzo said, "Chris has been slowly falling apart. I think it all started a few years ago when a parent called the school in which he works and said, 'I pay tuition and a D+ is not an acceptable grade.' My husband offered to change the grade to an A for a fee of $500 and the parent said, 'You can't do that...' and Chris responded, 'I know I can't. That's my point.'"

"Sure," Mrs. Matarazzo went on, "He won the battle that day, but ever since, it's like all he sees is people demanding that every little condition of their existence be made to their specifications." She stopped to tenderly pat Matarazzo on the head as he sat, cross-legged, on the floor, ripping out the fringe of the pillow with his teeth. "It's sad, what it did to him. Here is a guy who used to argue against instant replay in sports, saying that human error and even arguments with the umpires were part of the fun of the game...and now...this..."

At this point, Matarazzo jumped up, screamed "INSTANT REPLAY!? AHHHHHHH!!!!!" and he ran out of his living room, crashed through the sliding glass doors of his dining room and disappeared into the woods behind his house.

Mrs. Matarazzo shrugged. "He'll be back in a few days, the poor thing. Then he will probably write some balanced, well-reasoned blog post about how people need to begin to accept that they can't have everything the way they want it. If you will excuse me, I have to turn on backyard speakers. He won't ever come back unless he hears Ravel wafting through the trees..."

Nick Smedley, reporting from Southern New Jersey.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A Brick and Fog

For all my trumpeting about thought over emotion; for all my belief that even the lowest lows can be reasoned through if one has prepared himself enough as a thinker to deal with them, I am afraid there is little defense against the surprise collapse of what has always seemed a given truth in one's life.

I suppose this can apply as early as that moment when we get the true story behind various holiday-associated supernaturalities and then into our more mature years when previously dear beliefs give way to circumstances. For example, that job we have dreamt of since the age of twelve turns out to be nothing like we imagined; or, our faith beliefs are shattered by some event; or, what we thought about people, in general -- say, the belief that most people are kind at heart -- gets proven (at least for us, personally) wrong.

These are big examples. But the more insidious shift happens on a smaller, more "viral" level. In these cases, we are not talking about a tectonic drift in philosophical belief or of theological understanding, but in a tiny thing that the thinker has never even though to doubt; it has just been a brick in the foundation of his life, down there, under the house of his body and soul, doing its job, silently, even invisibly. A small, but integral part of that which defines his existence. 

If circumstances, then, wind up exposing that brick and if a good dusting-off of the brick shows all is not as it seemed, the impact of this is one that is not expected. Maybe the brick gets put back into its place, but it is replaced in the consciousness by the nagging idea that it is cracked. Not enough to bring the house down, but enough to raise questions as to whether the house is what it has always seemed to be. 

All of this vague metaphor calls for a real example. Imagine you have a best friend who has, for years, supported you and encouraged your abilities as, say, a real-estate agent, but then you find out that he really believes you are not very good at what you do. It's not the fact that he doesn't think you are good that is the problem; it's the fact that what you thought was a brick in the foundation of your relationship -- maybe for decades -- is not quite what it seemed. If what you saw as mutual respect was an unconscious element of your relationship's definition, now, you are face with the fact that you have been wrong -- maybe for a day, but maybe for decades. 

We can't be ready for the fall of something that has seemed to be such a surety that we have never really consciously marked it. Afterward, the revised knowledge becomes like a fly buzzing around our heads and it can bring us down.Sure, we still can (and have to) think our way out of the dark, but, an element is added: we need to pick ourselves up because the unexpected nature of this tiny revelation has knocked us off of our feet. We need to get our balance again before reason can intervene. 

Going into work, for example, we expect that we may have the most awful day ever, and we can be ready to peer over the treetops of the dark forest of our day and say: "There is my home. I'll be there, soon, and this day will be behind me." We are ready to defend against that kind of bad mood. But the new idea we never see coming? Bam. Next thing you know, you're sitting up in the gloom and trying to shake the fuzz out of your head. And until that fuzz is gone, the real reasoning; the real navigation out of the fog cannot begin. It can be really hard to shake off that kind of a fog. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Superficial Extremes: A Consequence of Too Much Information

When too much information (the Internet) is presented to too many people (smart and stupid alike) the result is going to be that most people will understand only a fraction of what they see. The result of this, it seems to me, is that the less intelligent (and there are more of these than those who are more intelligent) are going to pick up the surface message and run with it. This results in superficial extremes of thought and action.

For instance, I was teaching a class about comparison and contrast writing the other day, and I showed two videos. One was of civilians respectfully and calmly resisting an invasion of their privacy by the police. In this video, the citizen who was stopped at a drunk-driving checkpoint refused to present ID, because he was neither suspected of nor observed in doing anything illegal. The officer let him go on his way without any fight.

The message here is that this person chose to "call BS" on the police and to hold his ground so that they did not violate his privacy. Apparently, he was within his rights, because the police let him go on his way.

So, if you put a few videos like this on the Internet, those without insight or without the necessary intelligence to see the real message are going to react with superficial extremes. Case in point: the second video I showed my class. in which a man is pulled over for doing 60MPH in a 35MPH zone. When asked for ID, he refuses, even after being told he was clocked at way over the speed limit. Through a series of events, starting with the driver rolling up his window and ending with him spitting on the police officer, the officer pulls him out of the car and tried to cuff him. As he is being subdued, the driver begins chanting. "I do not consent. I do not consent..."

In this guy's walnut of a brain, he had processed reasonable resistance to an invasion of privacy into the notion that the police may not detain or arrest anyone who does not want to be detained or arrested. All of the middle-ground has been bypassed. All questions of probable cause or lawful orders by the police have been graced over by this guy because he is not equipped to understand the real substance of the information he has been presented by reasonable, rights-conscious citizens. (And, also because he, too, want to be an Internet star.)

Take this all as a metaphor for any other number of concepts presented on the Internet, from the "science proves" posts to the "top ten reasons" articles to the analyses of reasons that millenials support Bernie Sanders. Those unequipped to deal with the information they are handed are going to go to superficial extremes of thought and action.

If "science proves" that coffee is good for you, you can bet legion of idiots will begin hooking up the intravenous, 24-hour drips within the span of five minutes.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Listen to My Stuff!

Basically, I just realized I could do this from my account on CD Baby... I mentioned my new CD some weeks ago. It is a collection of piano music, mostly impressionistic things -- stuff meant to capture my own version of "the American experience." As I say in the liner notes;

This is a collection of piano pieces that I have written over the last fifteen-ish years. The “American Sketches” were begun with the piece “Little Boy, Right Field,” which I improvised one summer evening after having biked past a Little League baseball game. It occurred to me, then, that my American compositional predecessors (no comparison of artistic worth implied) like Copeland, Hanson and GrofĂ© had tried to capture the more dramatic aspects of America: canyons, massive cities, mountains and rodeos and the like, but, inspired by the little fellow watching the butterflies in the most boring (and intrinsically insulting) of all children’s baseball positions, I thought it would be cool to capture impressions of a more intimate, everyday American experience; hence, the  suite of piano pieces that I call “sketches” were begun and slowly completed over the course  of a life that demands more from me than just composition. Some of these do move through cities to vast beaches, but most resonate in suburban streets and on summer porches. I hope these “sketches,” along with the other pieces in this collection, make you feel something.

So, just listen, if you want, but also feel (more than) free to download any and all tracks you wish. The actual CD is available at CD Baby and you can also download from iTunes and Amazon, but I'm not getting rich on this, so no guilt for just listening here. I hope you like what I am up to. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Three Random Things

Thing the first: 

I just listened to an interview with President Obama. It was a wide-ranging interview, but, of course, the questions made their way around to the controversy over the nomination of a replacement, on the Supreme court, for Antonin Scalia.

What I found interesting is that Obama felt compelled, based on questions from the interviewer, to defend the fact that he wants to nominate a white man for the job. He went on to defend his strength in appointing or nominating of women, minoritires and openly gay men and women... So, here we have the first black president and he finds himself in a positon of having to defend the choice a white man that he thinks is the best person for the job.

That one's got to give you pause. I am not sure if there is a machete sharp enough to cut through this jungle...

Thing the second: 

The other day I heard report on the radio. This one had to do with a movement to make "automatic brakes" standard equipment on cars. (These would be brakes that would apply themselves if the driver should happen to not be paying attention when an obstruction comes up.) An expert in the field said that automatic brakes bring us one step closer to self-driving cars.

I find it quite telling that, for decades, the dream of sci-fi writers and fans alike has been a time of flying cars but that the future's reality is going to be cars that drive themselves. We dream big: soaring through the air in cars that fly...but our true nature comes out in the end: cars that drive themselves. In the sociological rock-paper-scissors game, laziness smothers ambition as paper suffocates the rock.

Thing the third: 

I will blame a time of high stress for this, even as I confess it, but, the other day, I got angry at someone and called him (under my breath) an "arrogant castrato." I say this because I think I may legitimately lay claim to being the first person ever to use that particular phrase in English. Perhaps the experts at Oxford know better...

It has been a week of most frustrating proportions, but, it, like all things, comes to an end...