To Test Or Not To Test

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The powers that be, the federal government, the state government, school district superintendents, local school boards and administrators tell us that our students must be tested.  Why must they be tested?  They tell us our students must be tested so that data in the form of scores and percentages can be published, so that schools can be ranked and rated, so that students can be ranked and rated, and ultimately, so that the community knows how our schools are doing. Without tests, how could anyone ever know how our schools are doing?  We certainly can’t trust schools to monitor themselves or teachers to monitor themselves, can we? We can’t trust families and parents to make meaningful judgments about how their own schools are doing and how their young people are doing within them.  I mean, we can’t expect people to actually visit schools and look inside to see what’s happening there, can we? So we must test.

How should I test thee? Let me count the tests. This year in the school house where I have taught now for 27 years, our freshmen have to take the short STAR Reader test three times in their 9th grade, giving up about an hour and a half of instruction. Our sophomores have to sit for the PSAT, which takes the entire student body out of classes for a whole school day.  Our juniors have to sit for three new (and completely mysterious) standardized tests in Reading, Writing, and Math, all three of which take two full 87 minute class periods, but aren’t timed, which means they could take longer, in total, perhaps as many as 9 class periods. Our IB students as seniors take a variety of tests in the spring, taking them out of classes sometimes for as much as a full week.  Too much testing? I wish our parents in Milwaukie were as pro-active as these in the other Milwaukee, or even in my neighboring Portland School District, where parents are actively seeking to opt their students out of any mandatory standardized test taking.

I admire this movement tremendously. As far as I know, there is not a hint of it in my school district. No parents have opted their kids out of testing. I’m guessing that, if parents have developed any kind of antipathy towards these tests, they don’t know that it’s even in the realm of possibility to excuse their kids from taking them.  It seems to me like this should be an essential right, as the parents in our community, as taxpayers and as the primary customers of public education, should have some say in what’s happening there. But let’s take a look at some of the issues involved:

Why would parents want to opt their children out? Here’s a short list: Standardized tests take time away from classroom teaching and learning. The tests are disconnected from classroom curriculum. The content of the tests is not known to teachers beforehand, and even if it was, teachers and parents alike are suspect of schools becoming test preparation factories. These tests are designed by corporations for a profit, corporations that are far outside the realm of the day-to-day workings of the classroom and the communities in which those classrooms operate.  Someone’s making a boatload of money in this time of budget crisis and school funding shortages. Very few if any classroom teachers have an active role in the content or structure of these tests. The tests are inherently unfair, are often culturally biased and favor students from high socio-economic backgrounds.  The tests are high stakes, sometimes graduation itself depends on it. They stress out children.  They stress teachers out. In the case of the new Smarter Balanced tests being piloted here in Oregon for the first time ever, the tests are dependent on computer technology at a level far beyond what our schools are equipped to provide.  In my school, during those few weeks of the testing window, ALL of our technology will be tied up for those tests and completely unavailable for any other classroom use. Additionally, the interface of the test, the way students navigate and work their way through, is unwieldy and confusing. It gave many teachers who attempted a sample test a headache, figuratively and literally speaking.  Many teachers attempting to take the test were so frustrated with the interface that they could not, or would not complete the test.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, high stakes standardized tests take the humanity and compassion completely out of the educational experience and process: they treat students like widgets, they make the ridiculous assumption that all students can be ready for the same kind of work  at the same time, they absolutely and dangerously ignore the science of developmental psychology and best practice educational pedagogy.  That list turned out not to be so short after all.  It’s actually kind of a long list.

Provided they were just not ignorant of the above, or trusting of the system, or proponents of standardized testing–provided that they did feel this kind of distrust of these tests, why would parents continue to allow their kids to take them? My guess? They are afraid. They are afraid of having their kid singled out in any way, perhaps afraid of people misconstruing an ethical and philosophical choice as insecurity about their child’s ability or skills. They are afraid, if indeed the stakes are high, what kind of negative ripple effect refusing to allow their kid to be tested might have on their child’s future. Or they may be so confident in their child’s propensity to do well on these kinds of assessments that they just allow it to slide. Why not? What harm could it do, if the kid is a natural born test taker, to spend some time testing and raising the stats of their school? And, if the kid’s not taking a test while all the other kids are taking a test, what will he or she do with all that time? This last thing is only a question of logistics and will, the logistics to facilitate an alternative, more educationally sound experience, and the will to put it into motion, whether it be in the schoolhouse or at home.

What Would Michael Jarmer Do? Ay, there’s the rub. I have all of the above concerns. Now that I am a father of a nine year old, I will soon have an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. I wonder, even, if my child has already taken a standardized test and I did not know about it?! At any rate, when the time comes, or comes again, can I do it?  Will I excuse my kid from taking standardized tests?  And what will be the fallout? Is there such a thing as a good test, and might the test be better, more useful or meaningful by the time my young man is of testing age? For example, even though I mentioned it in my testing catalog above, I have little or no problem with the tests my IB students take as seniors–for a couple of reasons.  One, I think these tests are about as authentic as a test can be and I feel that they actually attempt to measure what I’ve been teaching.  Two, seniors are big kids, they can handle it, and perhaps most importantly, they’ve chosen to take it. I can’t say that about any other standardized test I am familiar with, especially this Smarter Balanced assessment. So check back with me in a while.  I’ll have to find out when my son’s first experience with a standardized test is scheduled–and then steal myself to make the right call. To test or not to test, that is the question.

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Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume II, Letter B

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Herein you’ll find volume two of a written record of the experience of attempting to listen to at least one compact disc from every artist represented in my collection. I think I’m crazy and I don’t know how long I can maintain or persist in this folly. I managed in two weeks and about 3,000 words to get through the A section. The B section, as I have said, proves a daunting task to say the least, as, for some reason, I have acquired an uncharacteristically vast collection of music produced by bands or artists whose names begin with the letter B, many of which have provided me with the most important music of my life. So, here’s a start, but no conclusion, to the second musical letter in the alphabet.

Burt Bacharach, “The Best Of Burt Bacharach, 20th Century Masters.” I think these tunes are permanently etched on the consciousness of any American human being that was listening to music in the 60s and early 70s. This particular record, though, is a collection of original Bacharach recordings of these classic tunes, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again,” “Do You Know the Way to San José,” et al, and not the ones popularized and made into megahits by a half a dozen different artists covering his tunes in later years. No matter. These are mostly instrumental versions of these tunes, but they still give off that same vibe, that same irresistible and almost indescribable Bacharach thing, a thing I wouldn’t fully appreciate until his collaboration with Elvis Costello in the 90’s, which, btw, totally blew my mind, and came to me during a period of intense inner work and transformation, some toward the good, some not so much toward the good. If Bacharach is anything, he’s bittersweet.

The Bad Plus, “Give.” Hey, it’s a jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums) that plays like a rock band and occasionally, at least once on every album, does some whacked out cover tune of a grunge classic, a disco tune, or a hard rock anthem. As silly as that sounds, over the last decade or so I have found these guys kind of irresistible. This record may have been my first acquisition of The Bad Plus. They do rock like no other jazz trio has, I think. And it is indeed jazz and not fusion, it seems to me. Why do I say that? Here’s an attempt: There’s upright bass, almost always. The piano is doing things that jazz piano players do. But the drums? This drummer, Dave King, is nuts, out of control, is no jazz drummer, mind blowingly good and wildly eccentric. He rocks the jazz, rather than fuses the rock and the jazz, which, I think, is what the fusion is supposed to do. I don’t think this makes a lot of sense, but neither often does The Bad Plus. P.S. The covers on this record of The Pixies’ “Velouria,” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” will both melt your face off, as they did mine.

Barenaked Ladies, “Born on a Pirate Ship.” A kind of guilty pleasure, I have to admit, because I have always found these guys infinitely charming, smart, talented, all of that, but I have not ever taken them seriously in the way that I have other bands doing a similar kind of thing stylistically. They’re too clean cut, too earnest, not edgy enough, but simultaneously, super engaging. This record is, perhaps, more adventurous than most of what would follow. I would stop listening altogether after the “Stunt” record. I think I have one of my student teachers to thank for turning me on to these guys in the late nineties. This young woman, like this band, had goodness written all over her. And sincerity. It’s a rare quality and enviable in people and in bands, especially when they are successful.

The Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds.” This is a different kind of guilty pleasure: guilty, because I didn’t encounter this record as a fully blown album until I was an adult, even though these tunes, a few of them huge radio hits, surrounded my childhood. Given my older sister’s propensity for great pop music, and through her my first and lasting encounter the with the “Sgt. Pepper” album, for which “Pet Sounds” was a likely inspiration, I’m surprised this album was not in her collection. Listening to the mono version, because, apparently, that’s what you do, I’m thinking, yeah, this is clearly a beautiful, inspired record (it ain’t no surf music), but ain’t no “Sgt. Pepper” either.

The Bears, “Self-Titled.” From 1987, the first disc in the collection that is a pirated copy of somebody else’s album. I don’t have too many of these, surprisingly. When we were kids we copied records from everyone and their dog onto our cassette recorders, and for some reason, when the collection turned toward digital, I insisted on buying most every one of my acquisitions. I’m spinning this thing—and as cool as it is—I remember none of it; I might be listening to the record for the first time, which goes to show, it seems to me, that we value the things (especially art things), that we pay for! This is really great pop music from a band that features one of the most inventive guitar players in rock, Adrian Belew. In this regard, perhaps, he has the honor of showing up twice in my collection under the same place in the alphabet. I’ve got all kinds of Adrian Belew. And here’s this thing I’ve never heard, or at least don’t remember that I’ve heard—what a nice surprise.

The Beatles. How do you decide, when you’ve got the whole catalogue in your collection, which record to spin from The Beatles? There’s a part of me that wants to spin every single one in chronological order because they’re all that good and they’re all that important. I realize, if I did that, the B section of my music library would go on forever. Should I listen to the one that had the most personal impact on me, or should I listen to one equally loved but late discovered? Should I ask facebook friends for help? Okay, did that. We’ll see what happens: Early on it’s a facebook tie between “The White Album” and “Abbey Road.” But for now, if I had to pick just one damn album by The Beatles, I would have to choose the one that was my first, the one that had the most early influence on my musical brain, the one that I sat in my sister’s bedroom on the floor spinning over and over again on her little portable suitcase turntable, the first album for which I committed to memory every single little word and to this day still remember. It has to be The Beatles, “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It turns out, though, that I could not stop at just one. There may be only a handful of groups or artists in my entire collection of which I will not be able to choose just one; The Beatles are the first. So I also spin “The White Album” and “Revolver,” in that order.

Beck, “Midnite Vultures.” I’ve got to say, I loved the 90’s. It was a transformative decade for me, a time of enormous growth, youthful energy coupled with the benefits of an adulthood on an upward and forward trajectory in almost every sense. I established myself in a profession, I earned an MFA in creative writing, I finished my first novel, and I discovered a meditative practice, and all the while I was rocking harder than I ever had. This Beck record comes as maybe one of the last and maybe most  important records of the decade, 1999. It’s brilliant, fun, absurd, absolutely infectious, groovy and geeky, all at once. Nicotine and Gravy. Debra, I want to get with ya, and your sister. Oh baby. And I just have to say right here in this space how proud I am of Beck for winning a Grammy this year, and in his modesty and humility and good humor, without even trying, for making Kanye West look like a tool.

The Bee Gees, “Greatest Hits.” In 1979 it became the fashion to hate disco and everything associated with it, so I was dismissive about the Bee Gees of the “Saturday Night Fever” phenomena and pretty much failed to make the connection between those tunes and the earlier hits, in particular, “Blame It On Broadway” and “Jive Talking,” which to me tonight, sound absolutely and totally hip. Rocking. Got the whole family dancing for a few minutes. This is a two-disc collection of almost 40 tunes. I can’t quite make myself spin the second disc—not at all because I couldn’t stomach those disco era tunes, but because there are so many B’s and a limited amount of time. “If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody, baby.” There’s a good line. Perhaps, this music, more than any other music of this era, has my puberty written all over it. Ick. That didn’t sound right.

Beirut, “The Flying Club Cup.” It’s the 21st century and a lot of pop music is beginning to sound like it was made a long time ago. This American band almost defies description. Are they a big band? A marching band? It’s worldy (new word alert), but from which part of the world? France? South America? New Orleans? I don’t have a good enough handle on these things to make a firm determination. What I do know is that it’s at once fresh and classic sounding, familiar and strange. But the bottom line is that there are stellar performances here and good tunes, strong lyrics, inventive and sophisticated, beautiful singing. And horns. And accordions. What sounds like a percussion section as opposed to a drum set player.

Adrian Belew, “Mr. Music Head.” Bringing the 80’s to a close, here’s a whacky record from a whacky guitarist for a whacky 20 something pop music fan with a serious progressive leaning. I think I first discovered Adrian Belew’s madcap guitar and vocal work on King Crimson’s classic “Discipline” album and I was hooked. This, his fourth solo album, more pop than progressive, is sometimes silly, irreverent, and sentimental. It’s still cool. Great record for painting—which is the thing I was doing while I listened today.

As I continued to paint a wall in the basement, I took the opportunity to spin a couple more B records, but because I was painting, unable to take any notes, I listened to these two back to back and can only say a few things about both: Belly, “Star.” It’s 1993 and Tanya Donnely from Throwing Muses forms a new band, a rocking thing standing out in the early days of grunge as being particularly upbeat, melodic, and delicious.  A few tunes really hum along and I remember liking them, and continue liking them as I’m listening and painting, even though before putting this record on I would not have been able to sing you a single line even if I had a gun to my head.  A good record I totally forgot about–so how good could it be, right? Well. . .  And then comes Dan Bern, “Self-Titled,” from 1997.  Another anti-grunge record, this thing is full-on folk, guy with acoustic guitar, a Bob Dylan with a sense of humor.  And I’m not kidding about the Dylan thing–this guy sings almost like he’s doing an impersonation of Bob.  I respect Dylan, but was never a fan.  I bought this Dan Bern record, I remember, because the guy was political and he made me laugh.  Not a whole lot of staying power in my musical consciousness, though, but again, good painting music.

The Bird and the Bee, “Self-Titled.” From 2007, this record has the distinction of being the first pop album our young son, Emerson, really took a shine to, and at two years old, his first favorite record with a parental advisory sticker, the first record to which I remember him actually singing along. The duo of Inara George and Greg Kurstin created this sweet and hook-laden mash-up between electronica and melody driven pop—and it’s a beauty. Clever, inventive, difficult to forget, expertly performed and recorded—with some curse words thrown in. And I discover on this evening another gift of proceeding with this mad task of listening to all of these neglected cd’s languishing on shelves.  On a few occasions, especially if there’s a piece of information I need, like the date the record came out because the liner notes on the cd package are too damn small to read, I’ll do a little webby research to find out some stuff.  On this occasion, I discover that Greg Kurstin was in another one of my favorite 90’s bands, Geggy Tah, and things click for me that hadn’t clicked before!

Bjork, “Selmasongs.” The Icelandic mid-to-late-eighties band The Sugarcubes was a revelation to me.  On principal, I’ve followed Bjork’s musical solo career ever since.  It’s been a rough ride.  She’s a true genius, I think, and I admire her adventurous and experimental spirit.  It’s hit and miss, though, and I was disappointed in the sterile production and overuse of machines in her first two solo records after being so totally spoiled by the incredibly rocking skill of the drummer and the rest of the musicians from The Sugarcubes.  This record, however, the soundtrack to the terribly bleak film in which Bjork had the starring role, “Dancer In The Dark,” is tremendously powerful and frightening and beautiful.  I pulled this one out because I think it is my favorite Bjork record. It was a heart breaking film.  The music, too, is painful, but it’s difficult to listen to Bjork’s singing and unconventional arrangements without smiling, without feeling a little hopeful.

I realize, have realized for some time, even though I’ve been railing against the conclusion, that I cannot finish the B section of the music collection in one blog post.  So, knowing that I still have 19 more B artists to cover, I conclude tonight by listening to one more compact disc, the first album I bought by the Glasgow band Belle and Sebastian, the 2003 release, “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.” I feel kind of like a DJ.  I wish there was a way, a quick way, say, through telepathic communication, while my readers were reading this, to project album cover art and clips from songs and me doing funny dances interspersed amongst all these words, to truly make this a multimedia experience. Sorry. I didn’t do any of that. I’m going to shut up and listen to this record.  Afterwards, I’ll tell you about it.  Here goes:  I’ve been following Belle and Sebastian ever since I bought this record, but this first track, “Step Into My Office, Baby,” is still my absolutely favorite song ever by this band.  The subject matter is serious, delivered from the point of view of the bad guy, an office manager who is sexually harassing his female employees, but the tune itself is a romp, dramatic, cinematic, full of these lovely tempo changes and wonderful musical surprises, something this band doesn’t do very often. And after “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” the record evens out and becomes significantly less adventurous, but still a lovely listening experience.  “There’s something wrong with me. I’m a cuckoo.”  Indeed.  Good night.  Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead. Wish me luck on finishing up with the B’s.  Do you think, dear reader, that we will ever, in a thousand years, reach the letter Z?

 

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Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume I, Letter A

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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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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 stock 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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