Friday, November 5, 2021

"A Walk-On Part in the War"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Thoughts on Teachers and the Profession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

With or Without Lust?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

I Want a Funeral

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

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

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

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

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

Call me grim. (I'll wait.) 

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

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Vinyl Word

I couldn't resist the title. Sorry. 

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

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

(Too much coffee this morning. Mea culpa.) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now get out there and spin stuff. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Eulogy for Nuanced Thinking

Nuance is pretty much dead. On social media, it's so dead that I have recently decided to stop being satirical. People -- even people I think are pretty smart -- just don't seem to see it anymore. Over the past few years, things that I said with shades of blue and tan and green have been stolen from me by the groupthinkers and turned into explosions of bright yellow and, now, any reference to my nuanced ideas are seen as another voice in agreement with the screaming binary crowds. (Heck, I might as well mix metaphors. There are no rules anymore, right?)

(Swift is turning in his grave right now.) 

For instance, I have long criticized the fact that "science is the new religion." You can find posts about it here, going back to 2010. Then, along came the climate-change deniers and, counter to it, the "trust the science" movement. Now, on one side stand those who ignore science and, on the other, are those who blindly follow anything a scientist says -- who treat science as a depository of incontrovertible fact and see lab coated rsearchers as vestment-clad priests and priestesses of truth. So, if I question science, even after doing considerable reading on it, I must be seen as one side by a fool and by the other as one of their own. 

Fake news? Good old Mr. Trump killed that one. Again, for years, I complained about misleading and outright phony news. Now that he, in his inimitably oafish and cro-magnon-like way has appropriated the phrase, if one complains about the news with its biases and clickbaits, one is seen as a conservative who is only doing what the former president did: trying to kill news he does not agree with. 

I have also written about "wokeness," ridiculing it as a complete paradox: people claim to be "woke" -- which should be a state of the highest level of the achievement of rationality -- when, in fact, all they are really doing is subscribing to a pre-written script. But the conservatives killed that, by making it a slur and a joke. Worse, if one doesn't like that phrase, it will be assumed he is a racist. (God forbid someone call a Black man a "thug." Shame -- another very good word dies...)

I have also long pointed out the need to help our kids to be a little tougher; to allow them to believe in their own strength and ability to get through diversity. Then, along came things like meme of the eighteen-year-old lad storming the beach at Normandy alongside a picture of a "millenial" young man with tattos and stretched earlobes, wearing a pink tank-top and a tutu.  (See how much kids have changed!) Now, if I wrestle with the idea of weakness in our kids, I am pretty much percieved as calling them "snowflakes," which I certainly am not. But nuance, schmuance. You're with us or against us. 

For the love of all that is holy (oh, wait, I must be a religious nut for using that phrase and religion is 100% horrible... forgive me, angry masses...), I can't even express an English teacher's concern for the use of the word "they" as a singular pronoun without being implicitly accused of not caring if young trans people commit suicide. I made the mistake of pointing out this awful bit of writing from a local news Instagram: 

From Channel 6 News: "Singer Demi Levato has revealed they are non-binary and are changing their pronouns, telling fans they are 'proud' to make the change after a lot of self-reflective work."

My light-hearted quip that "telling fans that they are proud" is confusing and asking trans people to just invent themselves a new pronoun was met with questions about my concern for the well-being of others. I pointed out, on the thread, that "one begins to feel that if one ctiticizes a small thing about marginalized people that one is bound to be accused of dismissing them as humans." I've even been told that my assertion that the truth about a police incident between white officers and Black suspects or traffic stop subjects is not the important thing: one should always be on the side of the cop or the side of the Black citizen. 

How is that a remotely sane attitude? How does change happen with this idea?

So, and I mean this proverbially: don't put your arm around me. I don't want to be on your team. Teams are the reason people can't or don't think anymore. If you agree with me when I sound liberal, it doesn't mean I am a liberal and if I express a conservative view, it doesn't mean I am a conservative. 

I suppose the fools have always been louder than the thinkers. The problem is, there has never been a free and deafening megaphone like the Internet. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Waiting Room Thoughts: Marriage

The other day, I had to bring my wife to the hospital for surgery. This is usually way more difficult (emotionally) for me than it is for her. As a nurse, she is at home in the hospital and her familiarity with procedures and the overall atmosphere makes her sort of nonchalant about the whole process. (She's home and doing very well now.) 

Me? They say: "We have your phone number. The surgery will take about two hours. You can go home or to a Starbuck's and we will call you when it is done. She'll be in recovery for an hour anyway." Nope. Ain't happening. 

I have to stay in the waiting room. Something feels wrong about being farther away from her than necessary during a major operation. So, I spent three-and-a-half hours (she took longer than usual) pacing, watching awful morning TV programming (why are soap operas lighted so minimally?) and absently reading a Star Wars book that a student had given to me. ("You HAVE to read this Mr. Mat. It's great." Any decent teacher knows that this means I really did have to read it. Fortunately, the dude who wrote it is, at least, a pro; the book is what my favorite professor used to call "chewing gum for the brain" -- not a bad time-killer, in the end.)

It's always an emotional moment, sending one's loved one back into surgery, especially now, at the tail end of COVID, when one is not allowed into the pre-op room. (For my wife, it's "Meh. It's surgery." For me, it's, "Things happen. Anaesthesia is dangerous. People get infections...")  I always feel a quick, strong rush of emotion after she is gone. As I sit down, I usually reflexively say an "Our Father" to myself because, while I have never really been the religiously demonstrative type, I have always been faithful. It's at that point that I am generally able to pull myself together. And fret...with some modicum of dignity. 

Sitting in waiting rooms does lead one to think, though. And think, I did. 

We were the first ones there, arriving at six in the morning, so I watched husband after husband bring his wife in. I saw at least five long, affectionate, embraces goodbye. I heard accompanying, whispered, I-love-yous. I saw the husbands sit (they didn't want to leave, either) and wring their proverbial hands, staring uninterestedly at morning talk shows. They cared, as I did. They were in love, as I am. They were married these women, in the truest sense of the word: joined together, body and soul, and the breaking of that connection hurt. Daily life might not do it, but risk (or, at least, perceived risk) brings out the bond. 

Of course, these five husbands and myself are only anecdotal evidence (only a sample of the massive population of the world) but it raised a question: If these randomly-gathered people and myself are so clearly in love after so many years, how real is the media portrayal of the decline of marriage?

TV and Internet are dangerous windows. They are, in the end, a tiny portal of information, filtered through a tiny representative portion of the world's population, represented by the producers, writers, presenters, etc. They are the gatekeepers of information. They don't represent the collective voice of the world, at all. And neither do we six husbands represent all of the husbands in the world, but a quick, random sample might just imply that marriage and love are okay and they, the media, who have always favored the grim over the optimistic, might just be forcing a tainted characterization. 

If fifty percent of marriages fail, it doesn't mean the other fifty percent are not good, real, good-old-fashioned bonds, right? There is a lot of love out there. Maybe it's not so dire. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The New Glass Menagerie

My sons are good young men. I am immensely proud of what they have become. And, I am especially proud of how they weathered the COVID storm. My younger son had to do half-online high school and my older son had to start college online. They performed admirably and with grace. 

But, a few weeks ago, my younger son sort of reflexively said that his circumstances (being really busy -- new job, school play, etc) was "affecting his mental health." I quickly pointed out that being miserable and overwhelmed is not a decline of mental health; it is a natural reaction to a difficult situation. He was quick to acknowledge it and it was obvious that he understood that the lingo of the day had simply crept into his statement. 

I mentioned, to him, a bit by our favorite comedian, Sebastian Maniscalco. Maniscalco talks about people going to therapy for depression and about his father's reaction: "I've been depressed for thirty years." This gets big laughs, but it is a comic implication that the older generation didn't run to therapist when things got tough -- they "dealt with it."

Of course, we don't want to take this philosophy too far, right? We want to outgrow the foolish bravado of not seeking help when we need it. But, as in all things, we need to seek balance. 

I think we are turning the world into a kind of glass menagerie. We are creating people who feel as if they could shatter at any time; who think that being sad is a sign of trouble; that being taken surprise by emotion is always a dangerous situation. 

The other day, I was listening to a radio program and they were doing a piece on young men who had fallen into prostitution. They introduced the piece by warning the audience that some of the details in the story might be "disturbing." My first thought is: how could it not be disturbing? Isn't that idea implicit in the anounced subject. My second though what if it is disturbing? Is the listener going to shatter to pieces?


I often find myself, here and elsewhere, lamenting the complete inability of humanity to seem to be able to ever do anything but the extreme. If one listens to the chatter about mental health, one might assume, if you will forgive another literary reference, that we live in a world full of Roderick Ushers. 

Can't we teach our kids and others to be strong when they can and to seek help when they need it? I believe this is the intention of mental health professionals and the media, but I can't help think that it is recieved as: "Seek help, because you can't handle pressure alone." Somehow, in the minds of the many, I thihnk it just becomes a constant stream of rominders that one simply is not strong enough to make it without reliance on others. 

I don't want my sons to swallow their misery. I don't want them to be stoic and incommunicative. But I do want them to be strong enough to deal with stress and high levels of difficulty. What I don't want is for them to feel like any breeze of sadness is going to blow them off of the shelf to shatter on the floor. 

We're not good at balance, though -- this society of ours -- and I think it always comes down to one thing: too much work. Why tread water in the center of the pool when one can just cling to an edge?

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

On Following Dreams

I have recently seen a few people post a question on social media: "What would your career be today, if you had followed your childhood dream?"

If I'm being honest, or if we're really talking childhood, when I was seven, I wanted to be a construction worker. I dug the utility toolbelts, I think. Other than that, I find this question a symptom of an unhealthy paradigm. 

I have followed all of the things that I have loved since my youth and I have never stopped. It was always about stories and music for me. Did I dream about being a high school English teacher and writing a blog? No. Did I dream about playing drums in bars? No. Did I dream about writing music for music libraries? No. 

My dreams were more lofty. I wanted to be Sting or John Williams. I wanted to be the next Tolkien. So far, it hasn't happened. But, "so far" is the key phrase. Between you and me, I don't think any of these things will happen, but I can say "so far," because...I followed my childhood dreams and I still do. Could I still get that call from Spielberg? Probably not, but if my chances are 0% if I don't keep writing and releasing music, they are at least .00001% if I do. 

I'm not sure when it happens to people; when they put aside the things that bring them joy and replace them with what they think will bring them maturity. It's probably because of all the well-meaning types trying to convince them that there are easier ways to make a living -- more secure fields; more reliably lucrative fields. Comfort is a real temptation. 

But there is also this: Would I be a traitor to my dreams if I had decided to be a lawyer who writes music and prose on the side? I think you can argue two things: I'd still be "following my childhood dreams" and I'd also probably have a much nicer studio. 

As usual, the question is an oversimplification. What does it mean to have "followed your childhood dreams"? It means a million things. But let's not ridicule those dreams by pretending the best thing we could have done was to have moved on from them and let's not drown them in the tears of nostalgia and lamentation for our lost youthful energy.  

It's always been important that little me be proud of big me. I once saw a picture of myself as a toddler and the only thing I could think was: "Did I let that little guy down, or would he be proud." I think he'd know I did the best I could, at least. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Kind of Man I Want To Be

I know. It's a cheesy title. But it is necessary. We're not allowed to have opinions about others anymore. That's labeled as "judgmental." So, I'm not allowed to say what I believe is "proper manly behavior," because that implies things that we are no longer allowed to believe, like, for instance, that there is a difference between men and women or that, in fact, there is a such thing as "man" and "woman" at all. 

But I have a sense of what it means, for me, to be "a man." I'm not saying you need to be like this or that anyone else needs to care what I think. If you define being a man as standing in a field with a with a propeller beanie on your head and hitting 600 baked potatoes a day off of a tee, have at it. For me, though, there is a combo of stuff that I have seen and respected in men who have influenced me over the years and those things have guided me to where I am today, whether the Interweb groupthinkers like it or not. 


"Big boys don't cry," some used to say. "Sure they do," people of good sense responded. "Well, they don't cry in front of others," some said. "Well, it all depends," people of good sense responded. 

While my dad was a fan of the John Wayne brand of machismo, he was also a composer. I watched him unashamedly break into tears while listening to Ravel. I saw him wipe tears away during powerful emotional scenes in movies. When my grandfather (his dad) died, I can still see the image of him standing in the twilight-dark kitchen, looking out the window, drinking a glass of milk. His face looked wet. He didn't hide it, but he didn't bawl in front of his son. He didn't sensitivity-signal. 

That's the kind of man I want to be. 


Back to The Duke: He's been credited as having said that courage is not about not being afraid; it's about getting "into the saddle" even when you are scared out of your mind. Sometimes it's about putting youself last. 

My wife and I have been watching a pretty good show called Longmire. Walt Longmire is a real "throwback" kind of sheriff in Wyoming; cowboy hat, the works. In a recent episode, he decided to go on foot, up a mountain, alone, after a snowcat vehicle full of armed convicts who were holding an FBI agent hostage. When he was told he was crazy for doing this, he said, "If I was a hostage, I'd want to know someone was coming after me." 

That's the kind of man I want to be. 


I treat women with deference; I treat them differently than I treat men, in some ways. I respect them, even though I go out of my way to hold doors for them. (I know that seems impossible, since all of the suspicions point to the fact that this is just cog in the wheel of an insidious plan to keep women feeling as if they need men, but bear with me.) Sure, I hold doors for dudes, but, I might throw the door open wide behind me so they can easily catch it and then say "thanks man" on the way through, but I'd never do that to a lady. I'd stand there and let her go through. 

Why? Not because I don't think she can hold the door, but because I don't think she should have to. What did she do to deserve this? Women, for me, have always represented an ideal that we power-hungry, chest-beating men would do better to imitate. Women have a strength of spirit we only wish we had and that we historically have pretended to have by shooting others by and making labyrinthine rule-systems. Women are the source of life, literally, and they are no less than the bedrock of civilization. 

Least I can do is let them go first through the door. That's the kind of man I want to be. 

"Head of the Household"

I don't want to boss my family around, but I want them to feel like they want to turn to me when things get hard. I want my boys and my wife to see me as a source of courage and strength; of rationality and reliability; of safety. I want to be the captain to whose ship all of the sailors want to be assigned, not the one who is just known for running a tight ship. 

Bringer of Balance

I want to be confident enough in my manliness to be able, occasionally, seek comfort from my wife when things overwhelm me. I have learned to ignore stupid machismo markers like "the man should always drive" and to, instead, focus on doing the things behind the scenes that keep my family happy and healthy --  to expect or desire exactly no credit for being a dad and a husband. As I once heard a mother say on a call in show, I want my children to "take me for granted." My thanks is their respect and healthy develpment, not attention for broadcast-actions of empty toughness. I don't want to spike the ball in the endzone, as if what I did was a big deal; I want to casually toss it to the ref as if I never broke a sweat. 

That's the kind of man I want to be. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Storming of the Cafeteria

He was a new teacher in his present school, but he had come from a very wealthy boarding school. Through a series of innocuous circumstances, he'd had to move jobs. To his disappointment, he found himself in a public school with students who were below the standards he was used to, both academically and in terms of social status. He didn't mind the's just that some of those kids were just not "fully civilized" as he'd said to his wife over dinner.

The first time he sat down for lunch in his new school, he was disgusted. He was used to real cooking. This food wasn’t fit for second-place State Fair pig, let alone human children and adults. But the lunch was free, so he picked around and tried to eat only the least horrible of horribles each day; each day walking the halls back to his classroom muttering things like “garbage heap” and “no respect" and “a starving pit bull would turn away from…”

One day, after having gagged his way through the worst of the meals so far, he came back from lunch in a rage. (His salad had actually been slimy...and, was that a gnat? He shuddered.) 

He glared, from under lowered eyebrows, at his students, who became afraid. What had they done? What was in store for them? They all liked him this new guy. He was “cool.” He never gave homework. He even cursed a little in class and had once let the “F-bomb” fly. They didn’t want him to be mad at them.

Then, he poured forth his feelings: For a full class period, forty-four minutes, he railed against the horrible quality of the cafeteria food. For the tax dollars the parents were paying, he argued, they should at least get to eat like human beings.

"If I were you," he said, "I would not accept this slop for another day! Why,” he pointed out, “should you get soggy fries and pink-slime hamburgers day after day? What does the administration take you for, fools? The principal is an idiot, the vice-principal is lazy and the whole administrative staff are dimwits. I also heard that they don't refrigerate their meat properly and that they keep sandwiches out over the weekend and serve them to us on Monday! Several teachers have said so. When you get down to lunch today, you need to make them change their ways! You are not idots. You are pigs at the trough! You've been brushed aside just so they can save a little money! Stand up for yourselves!"

"YEAH!" the kids responded. "YEAAAAH!!!" Fists were raised in the air; violent high-fives were given. The teacher's chest puffed out. 

They started stomping on the floor and chanting "No-more-slop! NO-MORE-SLOP!"

The bell rang, and they spewed out of the classroom door like white water from the dam, chanting. 

The supervisors in the hall were powerless to stop them or to calm them down.

In his classroom, our teacher opened a Thermos and poured out a good, strong cup of coffee, from home, sipped, sighing at the warmth and deliciousness.

When the kids breached the dining hall, they siezed the warming trays and dumped food on the floor. They whacked one of the lunch ladies on the temple with a big, metal spoon. Two boys urinated in the mashed potatoes. They toppled tables and spit on the lunchroom supervisors whom they'd forced into corners, all the while chanting: “NO-MORE-SLOP!”

When called to task by the school's administration, the teacher said: "I didn't tell them to do trash anything. I didn't say one word about destruction or violence. All I did was mention that the food here should be better. It was probably that Roderiguez kid who talked them all into it. He is a problem, that kid."

All of the kids involved were punished, thank goodness, for their monstrous behavior.

The teacher started bringing his lunch to school after that: delicious sandwiches made at a local gourmet delicatessen.