Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume I, Letter A

IMG_2250 I have often thought of my record collection, now mostly a compact disc collection, supplemented by the occasional download and maybe 100 vinyl LPs, as a kind of musical autobiography. Listening to records for me has always had the same kind of effect as looking through a photo album, or reading old journal entries. The music contains vivid imagery and memories of nearly my entire existence so far on this planet. Only in my earliest years, up through about the 2nd or 3rd grade, are my memories not infused with music. Even then I know, and I bet I’ll discover more explicitly, I was surrounded by the music of my older siblings. At any rate, by now, 50 years young, I have amassed quite a collection, most of which gets listened to on very rare occasions, favoring, as I do, the most recent musical acquisitions over my old favorites.  Thus, I have decided, since I now have a kind of chill listening area in the basement close to the music cd library, to jettison the iTunes mind hive for awhile and listen to at least one cd by every artist in the collection from A to Z.

So much music has been neglected. I don’t blame iTunes entirely, because, in truth, I think the iPod technology has allowed me, through the mighty powers of the shuffle, to listen to more of my music then I did before.  But so much of my collection in compact discs has not been digitized and catalogued on to the hard drive, so a lot of it is languishing on the shelves in the basement studio.  So I embark this evening on this project.  It’s ambitious.  I don’t know if I have the stomach (or the time) to finish, but that’s not stopping me. I guess I have to convince myself that there’s a good reason to keep and store all of this music–and that this music, since I have it still, must be somehow meaningful to me.  As I listen, I’ll post some thoughts about how each artist has made an impact on my life–or not.  Maybe this might be a good opportunity to conduct some late winter, early spring musical purges.

If I actually accomplish this task in the way I’ve envisioned it here, this blog post might end up somewhat book-lengthy, and no blogger on the planet in his or her right mind would submit readers to these kinds of shenanigans.  So I propose to do one letter at a time.  Even this, it seems to me, may be pushing the limit, and I may discover that each letter may need multiple entries. Oh well, here goes: Volume I, Letter A.

First up:  ABBA, “Mas Oro.”  A bit of an embarrassing first stop, this is music from my late childhood and early adolescence, heard on the radio a billion times right before I became a serious young music consumer, but influential, no doubt, with it’s indelible pop orchestrations and sweet harmonies and lyrics that could really tug at you if you let them, and as a grade-schooler, a sensitive little boy suffering perhaps from one or two of my very first experiences in “love,” I was all over it.  I only added Abba into my collection as an adult, feeling that any serious pop music collection could simply not do without it. I must have been 10 years old when I first heard these songs.

AC/DC, “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It.” In the same way I discovered Cheap Trick when they opened for Kiss, I discovered AC/DC when they opened up for Cheap Trick.  I didn’t really have a concept of hard rock or metal; I mistakenly identified these Aussie rockers as a punk band. Without the staying power for me as some of my other teenage idols, this, AC/DC’s first live album, is the only record of theirs I decided to buy on compact disc to replace all the vinyl AC/DC records I lost when I sold the whole kit and caboodle in a  lust for little silver plastic things that everyone was claiming as a far superior medium in the mid 80’s.  At any rate, I love the sizzle of this record.  The energy is palpable. I was jumping up and down with glee.  I lost my hat. And I remembered, when my parents were out, thrashing about the living room with my air guitar, a Wilson tennis racket.

Adam and the Ants, “Prince Charming.” It’s 1981. I’m a sophomore in high school, one of two or three kids in my entire suburban neighborhood listening to punk and new wave music. I start dating (crazy to think) the girl who would become, only five years later (also crazy to think), my wife. This may have been my first (and last) musical conquest—forcing her to listen to and appreciate all that jungle drumming, yodeling, swashbuckling, theatrical, gun-toting, new romanticizing, Native American and Mexican music appropriating Antmusic. It was “our” album that year. It’s a nutty, infectious record, uncharacteristic of 80’s production stink. I gotta say, it holds up. I don’t think Adam Ant has done anything since that is as good.

Nichole Arden, “Under the Skin.” I’m only four artists into the collection and I find a record for which I know nothing about. I didn’t buy this disc. Someone gave it to me, I’m sure, but I don’t know who and I don’t know why. I have no memories or associations with it whatsoever. It’s 2001, the year my band Here Comes Everybody was on the “Astronauts” tour, and maybe we wandered into her territory and somehow came upon this record. The woman on the cover, Nichole, I assume, is lovely, ghostly, and mysterious. I like her. Let’s listen: It’s groovy folk rock, venturing into heavier territory, nicely executed, beautifully sung, smart words, strong musicianship, high production value, but pretty pedestrian, no surprises. I likely listened to it once and put it away, a photo in the photo album of people and places I don’t recognize, but good enough not to toss.

Alice in Chains, “Self Titled.” During the 1990s, I took to grunge hook, line, and sinker as the new new wave, the new punk, and I listened to “Dirt” over and over again–but I didn’t own it on cd; I made a pirate recording with my new DAT machine! I no longer have a DAT machine so I can no longer listen to “Dirt,” my favorite grunge record of all time, sadly, still not back in my collection. But I have this thing, the fourth record from the band, a record that does not figure hardly at all in my musical memory. Perhaps, I bought it too late, when I was over the nineties, onto other things. I put this baby into the player and the display immediately tells me the record clocks at 64:53. The nineties was the decade of the stupidly long record. I’m over that now, too. I’m not sure I’ll make it all the way through. Dark, dirty, minor, moody, melodic, almost medieval, groovy, but it’s no “Dirt.” The only tune that feels familiar to me is “Heaven Beside You,” an almost perfect Nirvana derivative. While it doesn’t ring very many bells, it’s undeniably good. The second band already in my collection of albums under “A” (that I know of) to have lost one of its members to drug or alcohol addiction. Presciently, the last tune on this record begins with a rendering of “Taps.”

Tori Amos, “Little Earthquakes.” It’s 1991, and before grunge kicks into full throttle, we discover its antithesis and epicenter, all at once, in this brave, edgy, beautiful singer songwriter piano player. I was still twenty-something, straight out of a lefty liberal arts college education, on the cusp of my budding new career as a high school English teacher, and thinking here was the Joni Mitchell of my generation, or at least, or more appropriately, Kate Bush 2.0. While we were still renting, climbing ourselves out of poverty, making new friends, charting new territory in every conceivable way, this record rocked our world. It’s been forever since I last spun this album. The production is decidedly eighties: big reverbs, huge drums, dramatic string arrangements. This was still a daring record, and seems so still to me tonight. “Silent All These Years,” I think, is a classic, and “Me and a Gun” is still absolutely terrifying.

Laurie Anderson, “Strange Angels.” Of all my records filed under the “A” category, I have the most Laurie Anderson titles of any other artist. I think I have almost everything she has done. I discover Laurie in the late eighties, see the concert film “Home of the Brave,” and I become a true convert. She does the things that most resonate with me as an emerging adult artist and music fan. She’s arty, she’s political, she’s visual, she’s literary, she’s funny, she’s bizarre, she’s experimental. But I followed the trajectory up to this particular album as her output began to resemble more and more something like actual pop music, and I completely dug it. Even though it’s her most accessible record, it’s unapologetically far from commercial, but nevertheless, hooky, smart, toe-tapping, funny, inventive, and spooky. Before I even spun this one, I knew the opening lines by heart: “They say that heaven is like t.v., a perfect little world that doesn’t really need you.” Yeah.

Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe, “Self Titled.” When is a Yes album not a Yes album? Or: When is a Yes album filed, not at the end of the alphabet, but at the beginning? When it’s titled “Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe” and is released in 1989. I am surprised how familiar this record is to me when I start to spin it. I must have listened to it a lot when it was new, for a few months at a time, maybe longer, before I filed it away for 25 years. I was newly married, newly employed, newly financially independent; I must have been feeling very progressive indeed.

Andrew Sisters, “Ultimate Legends.” This might have been a study record for my wife René as she prepared a couple of years ago to drum in the pit orchestra for a musical called The Andrew Brothers in which a trio of hapless Andrew Sister male roadies have to do the show dressed in drag when the real McCoys all get sick and can’t perform. Hilarity ensues. My parents may have listened to this music as teenagers or young adults. Dad, off to the Navy for service in WWII and then Korea, would certainly have heard this. I don’t know when I would have become aware of its existence—some music simply becomes so ubiquitously famous, one would have to be living under a rock not to hear it somewhere, some time, in some place or other.

Angel, “White Hot.” It’s 1975, and the country needs a response to Kiss, and so this band, instead of dressing up like clown-faced devils in black, dresses up as, well, angels. They’re lovely. Their music, decidedly macho, belies their feminine attire. Very confusing for an adolescent. But, from my vantage point, the musicianship and the songs were stronger than any Kiss album. But the production on “White Hot” in 1977 is almost identical to that of “Destroyer” and “Love Gun,”  the greatest Kiss albums ever. So they were the Angel yin to the Kiss yang and I loved them, saw them in concert, one of my first. Listening tonight there is much headbanging and fistpumping. A truly good, rocking, overlooked band, unfairly picked on by Frank Zappa.

Angel City, “Face To Face.” Maybe it was an Australian thing, but I mistook this hard rock outfit, in the same way I mistook AC/DC, as a punk band. Doc Neeson’s stage presence was more new wave than metal, manic, frenetic, but undeniably geeky, unlike most of the metal posers of the day. He was for a time my absolutely favorite front man and gave me tons of inspiration and material for air band performance after air band performance. Peers that didn’t know me well would remember my high school assembly antics posing as Doc Neeson more than they would remember anything else about me. The album still rocks. It’s a little pedestrian in the song department; there’s not much inventiveness here, but for Doc Neeson, in memory of Doc, and his indelible influence over my own stage persona, I would not part with it for the world.

Animal Logic, “Self-Titled.” I was heart-broken when the Police split up, but given the enigmatic and goofy Klark Kent project and the truly inspired collaboration with Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway for the Rumble Fish film, I was excited about what my favorite drummer, Stewart Copeland, might be up to next.  It’s 1989 and here we have Stewart Copeland and bass genius Stanley Clarke with a singer named Deborah Holland.  Another cd in the collection that I haven’t listened to in 25 years.  It’s immediately familiar, so much so that I can practically sing along–especially with the choruses, hooky, clever, poppy.  Stewart’s drums are louder here than they ever were on a Police record, Stanley Clarke’s bass work is phenomenal, and Deborah has kind of a Martha Davis thing going on.  The record rocks pretty hard, is full of really strong songwriting, but lacks the adventurousness that I was hoping for from Copeland.  I forgive him.  I don’t know how many rock records he drummed on after the Police; I totally lost track of him, it seems. But this is one, and it’s a good one–even though it might be another 25 years before it spins again.

Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine.” Oh my gawd.  I don’t care how eccentric or weird or how unpredictable she is as a live performer, her recordings are nothing short of marvels, every single one, and this one in particular, a masterpiece, I think.  Her lyrics are raw and honest, her vocal performances almost completely free of any kind of studio wizardry, and her bands, or the musicians that help her flesh out her records, invariably stellar and inspired.  This record is perhaps my favorite Fiona record and I might even go so far as to say that out of all the compact discs in the A section, this one might be the greatest.  There’s never a dull moment.  That 50 minutes felt like 25.  And when this record came out, my son was on the way.  He was born in November and I’m guessing that I listened to “Extraordinary Machine” through most of the pregnancy–and a lot. For some reason, though, this music  does not stir memories of these months, of these specific experiences–rather  the music stands on its own, outside time, outside my experience, as something inviolate and pure. Weird.

The Apples in Stereo, “New Magnetic Wonder.”  The most contemporary thing in my entire A section.  This record was released in 2007. What a beautiful mess. It’s undeniably some of the happiest music you’ll find in the psychedelic, lo-fi, anthemic nerdy pop, alternative rock vein.  24 tracks over a little more than 50 minutes, there’s plenty of snippets, lovely little non-sequiter instrumentals in the middle of all of this Beatle-Byrd-esqe-Robyn-Hitchcockian melodic pop. I remember listening to this record in the 16 foot Airstream in my first year with it.  It was a good soundtrack to those years when I was happier than I had been in a long, long time, and happier than I have likely been since. So it’s good to listen to it now, and a good reminder, despite this particular song’s commercial abuses, that “the world is made of energy/and the world is electricity/and the world is made of energy/and there’s a light inside of you/and there’s a light inside of me.” Amen. Maybe one of the coolest records of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The Association, “The Greatest Hits.” I was only four years old when this greatest hits compilation came out, but I don’t know how early in my life I would have been listening to it.  I guess it would depend on when my older sister Janet would have been allowing me to spin records on the little portable suitcase turntable she kept in her bedroom.  Probably later, two years, three years, no matter. It would have been before I was ten, and I would have my sister to thank for introducing me to good pop music: The Association, The Monkees, and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits. She likely has no idea how much in debt I am to her for allowing me into her musical world.  “Cherish,” “Never My Love,” “Along Comes Mary,” and “Windy,” would have indelible influence over my pop instincts. There’s a lot of really goofy things on this record, however.  All of it painfully earnest and serious.  It’s funny looking at youtube videos of these guys: in between their very earnest and serious tunes, their banter was irreverent and comedic. I had no idea. But listening closely now, there are clues–in particular, “Time For Livin,'” which may have found safe haven on an XTC record. No wonder I remembered liking them enough as a child to buy the cd as an adult.

Audioslave, “Self-Titled.” The lead singer from the recently defunct Soundgarden joins forces with with the remaining members of Rage Against the  Machine. What could be better, right? Well, with this, the last compact disc in my A collection, we’ll see.  I have, before spinning this disc, absolutely no memory of this music released in 2002, maybe for good reason, and maybe having nothing to do with the quality of this band or this music.  Let’s see: As expected, impeccably performed, groove-laden, crunchy, angular, and unlike the Rage music, containing something like melody, but nothing as hooky and memorable as the last Soundgarden record.  In fact, as good as it is, for whatever reason, it is fairly unremarkable, difficult to remember, lacking any sustaining hooks and memorable moments.  I suspect that this may be as much if not more my fault as it is Audioslave’s fault.  I did not give this record the attention it deserved, perhaps, as it fell on the precipice of an enduring personal crisis that would not lift for another couple of years. But listening with new ears, remembering almost nothing from it, it seems now fairly skippable, although not without illuminating or inspiring moments.

Holy crap!  Only being able to commit a few late evenings here and there, getting through the A section of my cd library took me three weeks.  At this rate, this could go on for a very, very long time.  And I have no idea if any of this is interesting to a single soul, or if it is singularly a self indulgent exercise for an audience of one.  It was fun to do. It was somewhat revealing: in the A section alone I found a little mini-history of myself and a  microcosm of my musical tastebuds.  The B section looms large, is easily twice as musically voluminous, covers every decade of my life and then some, includes many of my most influential heroes, will be, if I can muster up the courage and the time, a grand adventure.

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February 8, 2015 · 11:00 am

Mindfulness in 2015: Day #17

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After just now almost putting a pot of hot coffee into the refrigerator, I decide to spend a few minutes reflecting on how my Mindfulness Project for 2015 is coming along. To begin with, I just tried to put a hot pot of coffee into the refrigerator. That did not strike me as being especially mindful.  But on second thought, I didn’t follow through.  I said to myself, I am putting a hot pot of coffee into the refrigerator–and then, lo and behold, I stopped myself from doing it.

Mindful drinking, where alcohol is concerned, did not go as planned in the first few days of the new year, but did result in a dry seven days afterwards, just to see if it could be done.  The good news: it can be done.

I have taken to a morning ritual of vitamin meditation.  I sit at the dining room table, most often on weekdays about 10 or 15 minutes before my son and my wife emerge from the bedrooms to get ready for the day.  I’m alone, in soft light, with my juice, my cup of coffee, my bowl of cereal, and an assortment of gummy vitamins.  I close my eyes, take my vitamins one at a time, and concentrate on my chewing. I say to myself, this vitamin C is preventing scurvy; this calcium is good for my bones; this vitamin D is making up for the heavy rain in Portland; this B12 is working to make me more energetic;  this multi-vitamin is multi-tasking on behalf of my general well-being.  Chewing and breathing, I know I will have a good day.

I’ve been mindful about driving to work: every day I drive to work I am mindful about the fact that I am not biking or walking.

I’ve been mindful about how behind I am with the grading of student work: I breathe and calm myself, knowing that one way or another here at the end of the semester, it will get done (or it won’t get done), but ultimately, no one will get hurt.  I will not work a 70 hour week and my students will forgive me for that. In the same realm, I am mindful about how absolutely lucky I am to be working this year with IB Seniors, and what a joy they have been, and how incredibly impressive they were on their oral exams, and what a great gift it is to have the luxury of sitting down with each of them for 20 solid minutes while they speak their minds about literature.  As much as I wax and wax about the difficulties I face in public education, these experiences–no, not just these–most all experiences I have with kids inside the classroom are rich and infinitely interesting. I am mindful that it’s not them and it’s not me.  It’s something else–mostly having to do with numbers, numbers of students, numbers of minutes, numbers of factors outside my control influencing my charges, numbers of new assessments and responsibilities, the never-ending and ever increasing number of expectations that we will do more with less.

I have been mindful about my creative work: every day that I don’t do anything creative I recognize this fact, try not to beat myself up, and think ahead about how to carve out the appropriate time for writing and music.

And finally, I have been mindful that too much of my time I am looking at a screen.  Between email, huffington post, face plant, and videos of cute kittens, my attention is constantly tugged at and pulled in various directions.  So now, I’m going to sit in the dark with a glass of something and listen to some music as my wife and son sit upstairs watching episode after episode of Once Upon A Time.

 

 

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Filed under Education, Self Reflection, Teaching, Writing and Reading

Mindfulness in 2015: A Silver Bullet Resolution

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For Christmas this year, we bought our nine year old son the latest kid’s  book from Thich Nhat Hanh, Is Nothing Something? Kids’ Questions and Zen Answers about Life, Death, Family, Friendship, and Everything in Between.  While the boy has expressed not even a little bit of interest in diving into The Biggest Questions answered by arguably the most important Buddhist on the planet, I have read it all the way through several times. It’s not my first experience with Thich Nhat Hanh, I have a healthy collection of his work, but it is my first Thich Nhat Hanh experience with children as a target audience, ironically, because it has engaged me significantly more than it has my son.

I woke up today at 4:00 in the morning and my new year’s resolution came to me, in part, I think, because of my interaction over the last few days with this particular book for children.  It struck me that, as I understand it, the Zen practice of Mindfulness is the silver bullet of resolutions because everything I would hope to accomplish this year in terms of productivity, health, sanity, relationships, improvement of any sort, could be accomplished through a more intentional, deliberate mindfulness practice.

I resolve in 2015 to be more mindful.

It is alarmingly straight forward and simple.  But I’d like to reflect here about a few key areas where I think mindfulness practice would impact my life–and what it might look like in actuality.

But first, from Thich Nhat Hanh, here is the answer to the central question, what is mindfulness:

Mindfulness is energy.  This energy helps us enjoy what is happening right now.  Mindful energy can bring us a lot of joy.  It helps us suffer less and learn from our suffering.  A good way to get some mindful energy is to close your eyes and breathe easily.  Just pay attention to your breath.  If you can enjoy your in-breath and out-breath, you are creating mindful energy.

This whole breathing advice sounds like what people do when they meditate, and clearly, mindfulness can be practiced through meditation–and I have for a long time been engaged in a tentative and awkward dance with meditation. Introduced to me for the first time perhaps fifteen years ago, I have often flirted with it, but never become a regular practitioner. I find this strange; it has for all of this time had an enormous appeal to me, in part, I think, because whenever I have had an experience of it, I have felt afterwards the incredible gift of it, almost a new man, rejuvenated, refreshed, calm. Perhaps, and stupidly (because my experience tells me something different), I and others resist meditation practice because it seems on the surface like a whole bunch of work.  Let’s hear from Thich Nhat Hanh one more time, in response to the question, what is meditation and why do people do it:

To meditate is to concentrate and look inward.  You can sit down to meditate but you can also meditate while walking to school, lying in the grass, or resting on your bed at night.  If you are quiet and enjoying your in-breath and out-breath, you’re practicing meditation.  If you know how to smile beautifully and without effort, then you know how to meditate. It’s not difficult.

If I ask you why you eat ice cream, you say, “Because I like it.” Meditation is the same.  I do it because I like it.  To meditate is to have fun.

I can think of not a single argument against this, against the various and absolutely easy way it is to find opportunities to meditate, or even against this bold and seemingly counter-intuitive comparison between meditating and eating ice cream. Okay, here’s a resolution revision:

I resolve in 2015 to be more mindful and to find opportunities daily for meditation practice.  And to conclude, I want to make a short list of areas in my life where mindfulness may become particularly handy.

To begin with, here on New Year’s Eve day, I hope to engage this evening in some mindful drinking.  Even though I made myself laugh out loud there a little bit, that’s not a joke.  I believe the central problem that myself and a billion others have with alcohol is that we do not imbibe mindfully.  What does mindful drinking look like? It means, perhaps, being more intentional and purposeful, more conscious about why we drink and about how much we drink.  My mindfulness drinking goal for the year would be to drink better booze and less of it. And never to find myself muddled to the extent that I cannot appreciate and be thankful for the art and craft of a fine brew, whatever that brew might be. I use the term brew loosely: Tonight, it’s brandy, by the way.

With more seriousness, mindfulness practice will help me with stress, professionally and personally.  This year at the school house has been more difficult than very many other years in memory, and the resident nine year old never ceases to come up with new ways to exasperate his parents at home. Mindful breathing will help me deal with the stress and the anger that often occurs when things are not going well in the classroom, or when my dear, beloved son’s behavior goes spiraling southward.

Finally, mindfulness practice will help me do less handwringing about the creative work I feel I should be doing, or the kind and volume of the reading and writing I want to get done, or the better human being I aspire to be, or the more effective super teacher I feel so much pressure to become, through a kind of acceptance and celebration of where I am and who I am in the moment, a concept called sankalpa introduced to me by fellow blogger Yoga Mom.  She writes:

in this relaxed state,
we listen,
and discover
our heartfelt desires
A sankalpa
proclaims this:
I am that 
which I am seeking.
I can relax
as I awaken
to my true nature.

Mindfulness practice and daily meditation might help us finally realize that whatever it is that we desire and hope for the new year, we are already there. Amen, sister. Or Namaste. Or Happy Mindful New Year to you and yours.

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I Resolve to Resolve for 2015

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To resolve or not to resolve: that is the question. In December of the year 2012, I made the following remarks in a blog entry entitled, “Of Resolutions.”  It was one of an entire series of entries all taking a cue in their titles from the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who titled nearly all of his essays “Of” something or another.  At any rate, at the time, “of” or with resolutions, I was having a rough go:

I’m having some difficulty this year thinking of a suitable resolution. Maybe I will resolve this year to make no resolutions. Isn’t it true that people, on the whole, do things they really want to do, achieve the things they really want to achieve, and those things they don’t want to do or achieve, even if they’re really good for them, don’t get done–whether a resolution is made or not? Maybe deep down I don’t want to drink less, eat less, lose weight, or be nice. And most of the things I might resolve to do in 2013 (write more, finish the draft of the new novel, read more, record more, stress less, meditate)–these things just might happen anyway. But perhaps, even when a resolution is not kept, in part or in full, there is still some value in resolving to do something in the new year. Just saying the words–especially in earshot of someone who might notice or care–might be worth doing.

It turns out that this last thing is true, that there is indeed some value in making a resolution, especially for the New Year. I’m pretty sure I learned this from the following illustrated talk by Dr. Mike Evans. Check it out.  It’s worth it:

Steve Errey, a “confidence coach” writing for Lifehack.org, says, forget about it. He says that New Years resolutions fail for a few simple reasons. 1. They’re often about what you think you should be doing rather than about what you want to do.  And everybody knows doing what you think you should is no good while doing what you want is infinitely better. 2. Resolutions are like goals, and goals are dumb because they take you out of the present and make you feel guilty or ashamed; you need or want something that you don’t currently have and that inspires self loathing. 3. There’s no motivation or commitment toward achieving the goal. Most of the resolutions we make are meaningless to us and that’s why they fail.  And 4. New Years is just a bad time to make a resolution. Apparently, Errey thinks there are better times in the year to make resolutions. He concludes, thusly:

So forget about making New Years Resolutions. Living a full life isn’t about making some woolly, half-hearted decisions that don’t really mean anything. That’s not what truly confident people do.

Instead, make confident choices based on what really matters to you, and jump in with both feet.

This guy is a confidence coach. I don’t think I want this Errey fellow coaching my confidence. Even though it sounds like on the eve of 2013 I was saying essentially the same thing, that people end up achieving the things they really want to achieve because they, essentially, just “jump in with both feet.”  But I think I was wrong about that, and that he’s wrong about that; and he’s wrong, I guess, not because it’s bad advice, but because it’s unreasonable, unrealistic advice.  Sure, jump in with both feet.  Sure, make confident choices.  Sure. Sure. Sure. Easier said than done, pal, because people are afraid, they lack sufficient courage, and they have enjoyable bad habits that are difficult to break. I know there are things about which I am afraid, things I’d like to do for which I lack sufficient courage, and a whole slew of bad habits that I enjoy a great deal. It’s terribly difficult to overcome these obstacles, and a resolution, while not a silver bullet, might help out just a tad.

In the twilight hours of 2012, my thinking ran mostly along the same lines as this Steve Errey confidence coach guy, but I think at the dusk of 2014, I’m back to Dr. Mike Evans, who I think is a more effective confidence coach: choose small goals and small wins over big lofty ones; go for facilitation over sheer motivation; and practice self monitoring (reflectiveness) over self control. Be the plumber or the carpenter and come prepared with some tools. Set up some low hanging fruit each day. All right. I can get behind low hanging fruit. So this year, I conclude that I resolve to resolve. I will make a resolution about something. I will choose something important but attainable. I will create some system whereby I will facilitate improvement over time.  I will be reflective about my progress for good or ill rather than going for self control over my impulses or habits. I will hang some fruit. Low. And before New Years Eve, I will make public my resolution. Cheers, all. Hope you had a happy holiday and best wishes for an awesome New Year full of resolve.

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I’m Turning 50!

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Oh fuck. I’m turning 50. Beginning with the expletive that seems most fitting for the occasion, I begin this project of reflecting on just what this whole thing means to me, how it feels, how I’m coping, if I’m coping, what might be learned as I crest the top of the hill and begin to dance or skip or speed or skid or trip or tumble down the other side. And the whole purpose is to be conscious of these things. 50 is super-fast approaching. It’s almost exactly somewhat less than two days from the day I begin this writing. So let the consciousness begin, please, and in a hurry.

First, perhaps, a meditation on why it matters: what’s so special about 50? It can’t be all that different from the years immediately preceding or the ones after. It won’t, perhaps, feel any different than my current 49 year-old status or my future 52 year-old status. So who cares? Apparently, humans put a great deal of stalk in even numbers, especially those that begin a new decade, you know, the usual suspects, 20, 30, 40, and then this mother. Why we do this, I’m not entirely certain. But each of these big numbers divisible by ten mark out, I suppose, at least psychologically speaking, a new beginning, a new era, a new opportunity, new expectations, and conversely, new fears, new kinds of dread, and lots of hand wringing and teeth gnashing. At 50, in particular, we can be pretty certain that we are more than half way through. Depending, of course, on some randomly wild concoction between pure dumb luck and taking good care, we have this new clarity, this new knowledge that our days are now officially numbered. Maybe that’s why 50, more so than any other significant birthdays before it, feels–weighty.

The good news is that I am not afraid of dying.  I mean, I’d rather not.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m in no hurry.  I’m just not afraid of it.  If there is fear, and I freely admit that, yes, indeed, there is plenty of fear, it’s not about the end but about the time spent between now and then.  Have I made sufficient good use of a life?  Have I accomplished the shit I set out to do? Why haven’t I written more? Why are there so many great books I’ve not read? Why haven’t I found success as a writer or a musician? Should I stop rocking out in the basement and making records? Why am I still growing my hair? Why haven’t I figured out yet how to be the educator I’d like to be? Why am I not the father I hoped I would be, or the husband? How can I possibly afford to retire in four years time? Why haven’t I been sufficiently naughty? Or sufficiently good? I guess, at 50, there emerges a persistent and nagging perception that I have fallen short of nearly all of my ideals.

Whoa.  That sounds terrible.  But wait, says my better devil, you’re only 50!  And look at you!  You’re still walking around completely upright, riding a bike, playing the drums, influencing young minds mostly for good, improving your craft as a teacher even at the cusp of being able to walk away, raising a strapping young lad, raking the leaves, making new friends, writing poems and blogging, thinking dirty thoughts. You don’t look a day over 40.  And there is much hope, says my better devil,  for the future, even though there is perhaps more behind than ahead. All those things you’re disappointed about not having done, once you retire you can just knock them all back one right after the other.

And then, finally, in this mostly one sided conversation with my better devil, I have to butt in.  Look here, I say.  I understand that it’s folly to imagine all of the things I’ll be able to do when some distant or not so distant moment arrives that supposedly frees up all of this time for reading, writing, being, relating, and thinking. Tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. Herein, perhaps, lies the greatest fear and the biggest challenge to all of us half centenarians. We can’t be waiting and longing for a retirement that may by some freak accident (or devious design) never occur. We can’t be pining for the future to give us more leisure time to do the things we want to do. We can’t be yearning for any time better than the moment we have right now.  The challenge is to have the commitment and the courage not to wait; the difficulty is in doing the best I can do right this minute, tomorrow maybe, and to release into the ether the self doubt and regret about falling short; the trick, as it has always been, but now ever more urgently, is to live the life I want as I am living it. And what Rilke has said and Thoreau has said and countless other sage voices from antiquity right up to yesterday have said about living in the present moment–it’s all true, right, and correct, easy to say, but really, super, extraordinarily difficult to do.  As I turn 50 this week and move, I hope, gracefully into this next stage of my life, I endeavor to do what Henry David Thoreau urged us to do some 160 years ago, to advance confidently in the direction of our dreams, to live the life we have imagined in each day–somehow–and thereby “meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” especially in those common hours when anxiety about becoming an old guy of 50 is most tenaciously tugging.

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School House Rock ‘n’ Sock

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Almost two months ago now, in the throes and excitement and the optimism of a new school year, I found myself writing with my students and posting the results as blog entries here on the Michael Jarmer blog page. I was a happy camper then. Those were truly salad days in September. Fast forward to November 11, two days ago, I make the following post on the social media network I fondly call Face Plant:

On this Veteran’s Day holiday I put in 6 hours toward grading papers and I’m nowhere close to being done. The only relief today was the time I spent uncontrollably laughing at a student’s use of the word “ballstastically” in her otherwise lovely paper about the joys of reading. Ballstastic, indeed.

This to point out, yes, the wonderful discovery of a new inappropriate word, but also to illustrate how impossible it has become to do my job in the time allotted me to do it in the context of the work week. I haven’t posted this on Face Plant, but let’s just pretend, shall we:

On this Thursday, November 13, I called in sick in order to grade papers.  It turned out to be a snow day.  No school.  No snow, either, but that’s no matter; somewhere in our district, up in the hills, perhaps, it was dangerous to drive a school bus or a car, and they closed down the district.  At any rate, I spent another 6 hours grading papers today and I’m nowhere close to being done.  This is not ballstastic.  Not at all.  I have decided that something has to be good to be ballstastic.  Not good.  Or, as Orwell put it in 1984, doubleplusungood.

The good news is that I only have about 90 papers yet to read, papers that I’ve been sitting on for weeks.  Listen, I tried to stagger the work.  One set of the reading journals I call “logs” came in, and then another, and then another, and then three more other sets of logs, all staggered, by the way.  But by the time I got to the bottom of the log jam, the papers started to roll in.  One set, then another set, and then four more sets, all staggered, but all coming in before I am able to vanquish the logs.  Meanwhile, during my preparation period in the context of the work day, there’s this thing called planning to be done: what am I going to do with kids for 87 minutes in six total sections of three different classes?  So, when and where will all of this grading get done, Mr. Smarty-pants?  Why, at home, of course, on my own time.

But here’s a thing you should probably know about me, and maybe you do if you’ve been hanging around the blog for any length of time.  I am one of those teachers who has become, out of necessity and survival, unwilling to work a 60 hour work week. I am often unwilling to work a 50 hour work week.  This means I have made certain compromises over the years as my class sizes and other responsibilities kept growing. I never stopped assigning work because the work, I’ve always believed, is good work. But I stopped giving detailed responses. I stopped reading student writing closely.  I dipped in and out.  I checked for a few choice things to give them feedback on, such as, this thesis is unclear, or wow, I don’t see any text evidence, or boy, you need to work on your spelling, or, hey, you can’t do that with a comma.  And sometimes I did what I am only slightly ashamed to call “fake grading.” In essence, I’d say to a student, “you’ve done this thing.  It appears that you have followed the instructions.  Doing the work, in and of itself, was a good, instructive experience for you. 100%.”  I became aggressively protective of my time at home as a husband, a dad, a writer, and a musician.  Teaching is not my life.  It is a significant part of my life that I don’t think I would trade for any other career, but it is not the only thing I live for.

Still, I resent the compromises I’ve had to make and have sort of bitterly come to the conclusion that the job a teacher absolutely should be doing, the job that I would really love to be doing, is next to impossible in the current climate–with massive class sizes and common core, with data-driven, student-growth teacher goals and site councils, with standardized tests and the consistent and obscenely absurd underfunding of schools–impossible.

So why am I now spending 12 extra hours over two days away from the school house with a promise of another 6 or 8 tomorrow?  That’s a really good question. What’s changed? I’m teaching freshmen for the first time in many years and many of them can’t write.  That’s part of it. I want them all to be capable of entering  IB English as juniors if they want to, and even if they don’t, I want them to have the skills. That’s part of it.  I’m trying proficiency grading with freshmen. This means that if a student’s work doesn’t meet standards, rather than slapping a D on it, end of story, instead the teacher asks the student to do it again. And again. And again. This takes longer. A lot longer. This is also part of the story.

But this might be the chief inspiration toward this madness. I’m partnering  with a couple of professionals who are much more hard core than I am–and I both love them and hate them for this.  Both, earlier in their profession than I am, both, idealistic and compassionate, both, stupendously positive forces for young people, but both suffering tremendously under this same load. It’s stupid and it’s my problem, but I can’t NOT do what they’re doing. I’m going to say the first part of this sentence over again: it’s stupid and it’s my problem. It’s both the blessing and the curse of refusing to teach in isolation like some of my colleagues continue to do.  It’s good work we’re doing and we’re proud of it, but it is absolutely, positively unsustainable.

People of Earth, citizens of Oregon and of these United States of America.  Stop pretending that simply raising the bar will achieve great results. Stop comparing apples to oranges by pretending the United States is remotely like Finland. Stop beating up on educators and walk instead a mile in their shoes.  Please sit down with 200 pieces of writing from 200 different teenagers and in less than 5 or 10 minutes per student try to give each of them meaningful feedback in writing as opposed to circling numbers on a rubric.  And don’t say you’re serious about or that you support education until you have figured out a way to create a work environment for educators that either provides the resources and time on the job to do that job, or that pays teachers for a 60 hour work week. Otherwise School House Rock becomes School House Rock ‘n’ Sock–which is nowhere close to ballstastic, but rather, doubleplusungood.

 

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Filed under Education, Self Reflection, Teaching

#140: I Was Raised By. . .

Another mentor text, this time the one we used with our freshmen, to inspire poetry about who or what we credit for “raising” us.  The wonderful thing about using a mentor text, learning explicitly the moves of a writer we admire, is that all the 14 year olds end up writing these lively, effective poems.  Theirs are likely as good as mine.  Here’s the video of Kelly Norman Ellis performing her poem, “Raised by Women,”  followed by my attempt at following the mentor text.

I Was Raised By . . .

(After Kelly Norman Ellis)

I was raised by Mom and Dad,
easy going with me (but not for my older siblings),
music listening, affection giving,
martini drinking, catholic practicing,
church going, money saving, penny pinching,
state park camping, trailer pulling, swimming pool
building, garden planting, perfume and after-shave wearing,
square dancing, forgiving, loving kind of Mom and Dad.

I was raised by older brothers and a sister,
8-track tape popping, reel to reel spinning,
turntable turning, drive-in working,
hallway fighting, irresponsible under-age
drinking, kidney dialysis machine fixing,
marrying too soon, having kids too soon
and divorcing, Jesus finding, Bible-thumping,
Precision Castparts working forever,
heating and cooling installation
kind of older brothers and a sister.

I was raised by music,
drumming on tables, my big sister’s records,
my brothers’ records, the Beatles and the Monkees
in one room blasting, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix
in the other, the pop and the rock in the same house,
inhabiting my musical skin, forging my tastebuds.
I was raised by my first record, “Captain Fantastic,”
my first stereo system, a hand-me-down from brother #2,
full blast home alone lip syncing with a tennis racket,
my first band jamming at the house,
neighbors yelling the line from “Joe’s Garage,”
“Turn it down!  Don’t you boys know any nice songs?!”
kind of rock and roll music. 

I was not raised by books at first, but
by television, monster family showing,
combined family living, night stalking,
creature featuring, witch marrying,
50’s diner hopping, and space traveling
kind of television.

I was raised by teachers,
novel reading, chalkboard scribbling,
overhead projecting, big hearted,
mostly generous and well meaning
“You have a gift for writing”
kind of teachers.

And finally, almost adult,
the life of the word finally adopted
and raised me, at first mostly men,
Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Wordsworth,
Coleridge, Milton, Orwell, Joyce, Beckett,
Ellison, Twain, Vonnegut, Barthelme,
and then my literary mothers, Atwood,
Robinson, Walker, Morrison, Oliver;
all these widening my perspective kind of writers
after the teachers and television and the music
and the family, I was raised, brought up finally by the word.

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Filed under Literature, Music, Parenting, Poetry, Teaching, Writing and Reading