Monday, September 30, 2013

Ain't Gonna Pray No More

As I wrote in June (see "Coercing God"), I have some problems with prayer. That entry was mostly about the ineffectiveness of the practice, the way in which it extorts favors from God, and in the process casts an unflattering light on the deity. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then suffering should cease to exist. If, on the other hand, God is all-powerful but only alleviates the suffering of those who pray or are prayed for, then God is a mercurial despot unworthy of praise. Since suffering is all around us, we can infer that God cannot be both all-powerful and all-loving; that, in fact, if there is any God at all, this deity either has limited power or has a cruel personality. In the face of such logic, one has to ask: whither prayer?

Sunday morning, the church where I have been playing the piano for three years (and for the next month, after which I'm letting go of that job, but that's a story for another blog post) had a lay-led service. The pastor was away for a conference, and rather than bring in an ordained guest preacher, he recruited three members of the congregation to speak on the theme, "In God we trust." All witnessed movingly, telling personal stories about their struggles with faith, and how those struggles taught them they can rely on God. I found the stories powerful and effective, moreso than many professional sermons I've heard in my life. I also cringed at the theology.

Now, before you go rushing to their defense, reminding me that these were not seminary-trained theologians, let me just say that the theology behind these messages can be found in many an ordained minister's Sunday sermon. And I would cringe just as much if I heard it from someone with a DMin (as I have, more than once). The message, for each of them, came down to this: God's in charge. Sometimes bad things happen to us or to the people we love for reasons only God knows. And God is there to comfort us after our loss.

I could see that all three of these speakers were absolutely sincere about what they were saying: that God doesn't give us anything we can't handle, and with God to hold our hand and hear our prayers, whatever has happened can be overcome. I was even a little envious of the faith they had in this God who, with one hand, would take away a woman's child, and with the other hand wipe away her tears. But as I said in the first paragraph, that's not a God I can believe in, however comforting that belief might be to some. That God is a psychopath. And pray to such a cruel deity? Really? "Dear God, please save this person, even though you took my little girl away from me when she had the same illness. And thanks for the lollipop."

The sermon at this church is followed by the offering and then a prayer time. People offer up prayer requests, usually someone they know who is ill or grieving, or something that's in the news that has them worried. The prayers, when they come, are handled with more finesse by the pastor than by a lay leader, but they come down to the same thing: "If it be your will, O God, grant that _____ may be healed of _____ and that _____ may overcome _____; and help our leaders to understand that _____..." And so on. It comes down to that power-love equation again: Does God have the power to do any of these things? And if so, does God love the world enough to go ahead and do them? And if so, does it really make sense for us to be asking God to do it? Wouldn't a loving and powerful God just do such things, whether or not anyone prayed for them? Would God reject a prayer, however worthwhile, that lacked fervency, or wasn't prayed by enough people? If so, what does that say about how much this God genuinely loves the world?

You may see by now where this is heading: I just don't see the point to prayers of petition. As a theologian, they make no sense. As a human being with a scientific approach to the world, my own experiments with prayers have had mixed results that could easily be explained away as coincidence. Sometimes my fervent prayer for a particular outcome appears to have been answered. At other times, the profundity of my yearning, fully channeled into prayer, has actually deepened the pain that ensued when those prayers were not answered.

But wait! What about prayer as communion with God, or the ineffable, or whatever else it is that brings deep meaning to one's life? The only way I can answer that is: got me there.

This rant is not about meditative prayer, in whatever form it brings tranquility and meaning to your life. It's about petitionary prayer, prayer for specific outcomes, and even prayer for God to just be present in another's life. I have concluded that such prayers are a waste of time and energy.

I will acknowledge that it is a good thing for a faith community to know what is weighing on its members' hearts, and to know the names of those in the community in need of care. Sharing such names during a service seems practical and helpful. I will also admit that prayerfully meditating as a group can work wonders for the unity of a community, and may even have healing power. Where I draw the line, though, is at asking God to do something: to go out and find the missing person, to step in and right the wrong, to heal the broken limb, to cure the terminal disease, to reconcile the estranged partners, to nudge the human resource department to grant the job to the fellow church member rather than some other equally- or better-qualified candidate.

Praying in that way implies things about God I'm just not willing to accept anymore. If believing in this kind of prayer is necessary in order to be a Christian, then I am no Christian. If it is necessary in order to be a theist, then I am at best an agnostic.

And yet, and yet, and yet...

There have been times in my life when I have prayed deeply for nothing but a sense that I am not alone in my suffering, that my loneliness is not the be-all and end-all of my existence; and at such times, I have found myself sinking into a sense of connection with whatever grounds my being and becoming. Some would call this God. I am of the opinion that to call it God is to ascribe to it the power-love conundrum, which is at best misguided and, at worst, self-abusive. I am through with asking God for outcomes. But I am not through with communion.
Gazing at the sunset-tinged reflection of Buck Mountain in the unnamed alpine lake where we pitched our tent on our last day in Wyoming, I felt my heart opening, felt my spirit blending with the wonders all around me. I felt, in a word, blessed. I felt intense gratitude for this blessing, and I offered up a two-word prayer to the Creator: "Thank you."

If I come back to theism, it will be for this reason, and no other: the love, the joy I experience in the world, in my fellow human beings, in the Cosmos, tells me that, for all the suffering around me, Creation is at its heart a good and wonderful thing, a thing to be enjoyed, celebrated, praised. It is far from perfect: the praying mantis is also a preying mantis, hunting down other insects and slaughtering them; and most of the natural world operates by the same principle. Everything dies, and even though in dying it becomes sustenance for that which goes on living, it dies, just the same.

So I will not pray for an end to dying. But I will share in communion with that which set the Cosmos in motion, and which empowers this crazy thing called life. Our world is harsh and cruel, and awesome and beautiful, all at once. And I am blessed to live in it.

Thank you, whatever you are.


Saturday, September 28, 2013

Could You Try to Keep It Down to, Like, Zero?

If you're like me in a particular way, and people know you're like me in that particular way, and they're on Facebook or Tumblr or any of the other social media sites that constantly generate and recycle memes, you've probably been shown this by someone you're close to:

And if you're like me, and you've always wondered about why loud eating noises or leaf blowers or the repetitive on-off whine of a computer charger or an idling diesel truck make it impossible after awhile to concentrate on anything BUT those noises, then perhaps you felt a sense of relief at reading this random--well, fact isn't really the word I'd put on it, since it's more of a speculation, and just looking misophonia up on Wikipedia got me links to four other syndromes/conditions/behavior patterns that explain this sensitivity to noises--and then went right back to struggling to ignore crunchy carrots, closing windows to shut out as much mower noise as you can, and obsessively unplugging gadgets that don't need to be making that charging noise.
Reading about misophonia, and then about hyperacusis, phonophobia, synesthesia, and sensory defensiveness, I did feel an immediate rush of identification, just as I do when I hear high-functioning people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome talk about their struggles to fit in, or people who suffer from clinical depression discuss the difficulty of motivating themselves, or friends going through divorce discuss how horrible things are with their soon-to-be exes. It's so comforting to realize I'm not crazy, that there are plenty of other people out there who feel exactly the same thing I do, and there's a word for it, and that word means...
Brain disorder.
Adjustment disorder (that's the catch-all diagnosis counselors submit to insurance companies for people just having a hard time with the trauma of day-to-day living).
So maybe it's not so comforting after all.
Some of these conditions are treatable. Talk therapy has worked wonders for me as I've survived two divorces and numerous other relationship rifts. I have friends and family members who've benefited immensely from psychotropic medications. Those high-functioning people who may or may not be on the autism spectrum have learned to interpret social cues to that extent that their syndromes may be undetectable to their acquaintances.
That's all well and good. And I've certainly had more than my share of talk therapy. I have the feeling my lifetime therapy bill--really, the bill to my insurance companies--could have purchased a small fleet of yachts. I've also had a lifelong project of teaching myself how to fit in and better enjoy the company of others, including strangers. But I am drawing a line, as you may have gathered by now, because there's something here that just makes me feel--prickly, like there's a carpet-cleaning truck just down the street that's been droning for the last four hours.
And here's what bugs me: this nation is obsessed with labeling. And now, without putting me tongue even slightly in my cheek, I'm going to label this obsession: capitalismitis.
Capitalismitis is the product of a free market service economy operating in an affluent country that has never adequately developed its safety net. The condition consists of a large number of consumers seeking assistance with their problems from a network of providers whose livelihood consists of serving the psychological needs of those consumers, who must in turn navigate a Gordian nightmare of bureaucracy to receive payment for their services, a bureaucracy which is dedicated to paying not one penny more than it is required to for said services lest its profits suffer. This calls for specificity: lists of drugs and therapies that are covered for specific conditions. Patients who do not fit the definitions for listed conditions are not covered. The result: no matter how legitimately miserable you may be about something horrible that has happened to you, it has to in some way match a condition on the list, or you will have to pay for your treatment out of pocket.
Just as a simple respiratory infection can give rise to bronchitis, capitalismitis can precipitate other phobias: insolvencitis, an anxiety condition brought on by impatient business offices demanding payment from patients while insurers are still debating how much will be covered; paradoxical telephonophobia, the result of being caught between customer service lines for both insurers and providers that claim to be putting you first, but are both obviously motivated by avoiding payment in the first case and maximizing it in the second; and fiduciary self-esteem reductionitis, a loss of confidence emanating from having one's personality labeled pathological in order to justify charging an insurer for a therapy session. Looking at that short list, I could probably come up with quite a few other "disorders" that deserve their own appendix in the DSM, and will probably be in their just as soon as big pharma can figure out how to monetize them.
What this rant is really coming to is the following conclusion: life can be hard. It's made harder for individuals when their unique qualities come up against aspects of our world to which they have trouble adjusting. Relationship traumas, health issues, employment difficulties--all of these things are hard to adjust to. The law of nature is adapt or die. The good news of our culture is our aversion to the second half of that law: by and large, we want people to adapt and keep living. The bad news is that we rely upon the market to assist in much of that adaptation, and the market has no problems with consigning people to death once their resources are used up, and they cease to be sources of profit.
I have some personality traits that are maladaptive, and I've benefited from teachers, pastors, therapists, friends, and family members who've helped me adapt. I've trained myself to tolerate eating noises, to close windows, shut doors, unplug devices and, when necessary, to politely ask people if they can find a way to reduce the volume of whatever it is that's keeping me from enjoying the moment. What I don't feel is the need to have a name for my condition. It's just who I am. I don't want to take any drugs to alter myself, nor do I want to spend hours of my life arguing with business offices and insurance companies about whether the right code was entered for whatever the hell it is I have to have in order to be able to talk to someone about what's troubling me.
Wow: this started in one place, and when to a very different place, before coming back to what I was thinking at the beginning. But I suppose that's just how essays work. And I'm okay with that. I'm okay with a lot of things right now, in fact: I unplugged the charger and shut the door to the room where "The Family Guy" was being watched, so the only background noise I'm dealing with at the moment is the wind and rain (which I rather like); there's no owie tag on the linen kimono I'm wearing as I write this; and I just heard some sounds from upstairs that make me think Amy will be down shortly, and we can have some coffee and chat. And there's a blog post in the can. Oh, and tonight I'll be at a party, exercising the social skills I've learned.
Brain disorder? Pshaw. This is who I am, and I'm very happy just being me.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


When it comes to learning names, I don't.

That's not entirely true. I do pick up names when I interact with people regularly in contexts in which their names are used. That's how I've picked up names of everyone at Comedy Sportz: whenever they play, their names are announced throughout the show.

Church is another matter. I've worked in a lot of church settings, and even managed to learn everyone's name in a few of them. A few. One or two. In most cases, I only learn the names of those with whom I interact frequently. In my current church job, there are only a half a dozen names I can pin on people with any certainty, and only because they're introduced every Sunday when they make announcements.

Fortunately the piano player doesn't have to call people by name very often. If the pastor doesn't know people's names, that's a whole other thing, and it can get ugly. And if it's a teacher--well, you try getting a kid's attention with "Hey, you in the striped shirt!"

In church settings, I've occasionally been rescued by nametags. Many churches are now crafting durable nametags for all their regulars to wear on Sunday mornings as a sign of hospitality: no one's a stranger here. And the first day of school, I do see many students wearing nametags. Unfortunately, that's just the first day.

My name-amnesia is not unusual for someone in my profession. In the elementary world, teachers of both music and PE often have hundreds of students to deal with for short periods of time. I see my students twice a week, for thirty minutes each time. In a year's time, I'd probably have about a hundred names down. In my current position, I've only got until February: then I change schools, and it starts all over again.

One experience I've had in many places is learning the names of certain outstanding students right from the start. Sadly, these names tend not to belong to the best-behaved, brightest, or sweetest children. No, it's the kids who can't sit still, who are always getting up in someone else's business, abusing instruments, blurting out whatever's on their mind, tantruming because they didn't get the red rhythm sticks (and no amount of "You git what you git and you don't throw a fit" will get these darlings to accept the green sticks), responding to behavioral expectations with defiance--these are the children whose names I am already learning far better than I would like. There's nothing like writing a referral to burn a name into my memory.

I wish it was otherwise. I'm trying to make it otherwise. I want to be able to call more children by name. I start every year with name games, building sound pieces from the rhythms in each child's name. We'll continue mining this resource for at least another week, until my voice has recovered enough to begin vocal exploration, and even then, we'll probably continue playing them. Over time, I do pick up more names this way.

One of the liabilities in my current school is just how creative their parents have been in naming them. In Banks, I could count on every other boy being named Jacob. Margaret Scott is a school with a fantastically diverse population, and I'm dealing with Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, Samoan, and African-American names. Many of these names are beautiful, with exotic rhythms that add wonderful flavors to our name games. They're also far enough outside my experience that I will have to hear and use them over and over before I really learn them.

Sadly, I won't get "over and over." Except with those outstanding behavior issues.

Why don't I take roll? Wouldn't that help? There are two answers to that question: 1) It wouldn't help. I've tried it before, and those names pass right through my brain. 2) I've only got 30 minutes with these kids, twice a week. 5 minutes taking the attendance of a class of 35 reduces that to 25 minutes. They'll learn more if I just let it go.

Don't worry, it's not all "Hello Kitty hoody! Put that down!" I introduce every name game with the truth: there are lots of them, and just one of me, and while I want to learn their names, I'm not going to succeed. Please be kind to me when I ask you for the tenth time what your name is, or ask you what that person's name is so I can call to him or her to STOP DOING THAT! And they're good about it. It's also helpful that I'm working to minimize the use of speech in all my classes, doing as much as I can by example.

Yesterday and today, I brought classes into the gym where I teach in a procession, moving at a certain tempo, shifting from stomping to tiptoe, jumping back, stepping forward, playing rhythms on my body, gesturing for them to watch me, then echo, and most of them ate it up. "What's he going to do next?" is like catnip for these children. Keeping the lesson mysterious, I hold their interest, and I don't have to use my voice.

It didn't work on all of them, unfortunately. The outstanding students will always be outstanding. More attention for me meant less attention for them. Sometimes peer pressure moderated their desire to act out, but not always. I had to get close to some of them to whisper (because that's all my voice can do right now) that they were not ever again to wrestle, shove, or otherwise endanger themselves and others during music. Even without using their names, this seems to get through.

But it would be far better if I could use their names, if I could simple catch their eye, say "Jordan! Here, now!" And better still if I could say, "Nicely done, Emily! That was beautiful, Simon!"

Because there is nothing quite as lovely as the sound of your own name being spoken affirmatively and affectionately.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Assuming I'm well enough to get out of bed tomorrow morning, I will spend the day teaching music without the use of my voice.

It's not that I have no voice at all; I can speak (croak) well enough to be understood. Ask me to repeat myself, though, and you'll find me pointing at my throat and shaking my head. The best I can do right now is whisper, and even that takes an effort. I've also got the sniffles and a persistent cough, not to mention a slight headache, but none of that is severe enough to keep me home. The two days I missed last week have already set me back too much. So tomorrow, barring a fever, I will get up at 5 and drive to school, where I will teach seven half-hour music classes without using my voice.

Sounds (ha!) ridiculous, doesn't it? And it certainly feels ridiculous. But I've done it before. I've taught general music, preached sermons, even led choir rehearsals with laryngitis. Every time I get a cold, it eventually moves to my chest, which means coughing, which means laryngitis. Teaching in a new school, with hundreds of new students, means exposure to a host of microbes I've not previously encountered, so this is probably just the first of many bouts of voicelessness I'll be facing this year.

How does one teach music without using the voice? Some might think that instrumental music can be taught voicelessly, but when I'm conducting an ensemble, I sing more than I speak, modeling everything I want my players to do to improve their performance. I also have a habit of singing along as I conduct, which is not a good thing, especially during quiet passages. Of course, I'm no longer band directing, so that can go back to not being an issue--except when I'm leading a choir, which I'll start doing soon in my new assignment (though not until I'm over the laryngitis!).

Elementary music is both instrumental and vocal, and at the same time neither, at least not at this stage, as I'm in a school that has had hardly any music for years. There's not a need to rehearse pieces yet, as we won't be preparing for a performance for several more months. Most of what I've been doing for the last two weeks (when I haven't been out--I missed three days between wrapping things up in Banks and coming down with this cold) has been an introduction to rhythm, using both body and instrumental percussion. I was going to begin vocal exploration later this week, but instead I'll be drawing out the rhythm work with drum circles.

Teaching voicelessly is an Orff trick I coveted from my first introductory POSA workshop. At that event, I found myself in a drum circle led by a master teacher who led us in creating a complex improvised composition without ever using her voice. I was hooked within minutes. I've just introduced my students to percussion instruments--in fact, most of the classes I'll see tomorrow haven't even had that introductory lesson--so this could be dicey. I could end the day with a splitting headache. Or I could blow a lot of little minds.

That's what I'm hoping will happen. I'll lay out the instruments, alternating wood-metal-shaker-scraper-skin, so that every student has one. I'll use large gestures, counting on my years of conducting to give me the body language necessary for the task. I may not even put on my microphone (I've got a room amplification system so I don't have to raise my voice). I'll lead each class into a circle, pass out the instruments, and begin offering up rhythms for them to play. We'll experiment with dynamics, contrast, texture, polyrhythms, and whatever else catches my fancy--and theirs.

It's possible this won't work at all, and I'll finish the day with my head on my desk, promising myself never to try that again. But I don't think that will happen. I think there will be some magic tomorrow, and the students will leave the gym enchanted by what they've done, and asking for it again. There's nothing like the group mind of a drum circle to turn people on to music--especially if they're hungry for it, as these kids are.

As for me: I will have saved my voice. Much more than that, I will have reminded myself that music can be taught with the body, the face, the hands, that the voice, essential as it is to the making of music, can occasionally be set aside in favor of other means of communication.

Wish me luck.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bliss Point

Did I mention I like Star Trek?

Welcome to Sisko's Creole Kitchen, an establishment that epitomizes the economics of the 24th century, when technological innovations work hand-in-hand with fully enlightened attitudes toward work and leisure to liberate human beings from wage slavery. People are no longer locked into drudgery by the need to earn a living wage, for all essential human needs are provided by society. Money is a dim memory, as anything one wants or needs can be instantly replicated. Individuals are freed up to follow their true vocations, whether that means enlisting in Star Fleet to explore the galaxy or opening a five-star restaurant in New Orleans.

This doesn't mean that anyone can just do exactly what he or she wants. Joseph Sisko, I assume, prefers serving authentic dishes made from scratch, rather than replicated to identical perfection, which means someone still has to catch the crabs for his kitchen, and someone else has to cook it. I expect there's the same climb up the culinary ladder one would find in any 21st century restaurant, just as in Starfleet one must ascend the ranks through education, experience, and merit. And if Joseph Sisko mismanages his restaurant, and the food quality goes down, then demand will go down with it. Much of what keeps our contemporary economy ticking, then, is still in place; the only thing missing is the survival imperative. If Sisko's goes out of business, his staff will have to find work elsewhere, his patrons will have to find another restaurant to meet their Creole needs, but no one will starve or be evicted.

It sounds utopian, pie-in-the-sky, idealistic, naïve. We're so accustomed to the profit motive that the very idea of a society that functions without it is discordant. The Communist experiments of the 20th century all failed, after all: collective farms underproduced, five-year-plans never adequately predicted demand, and the only thing that kept China from going under was the reintroduction of competition to the economy. Even on the micro scale, barter economies assume both supply and demand.

And yet, isn't this what we're preparing our young people for with career education? We give them interest inventories and aptitude batteries, point them toward work that meets both their passion and their talent, usually with little regard for whether there is a genuine demand for that work. Ideally, every person should be able to find personal satisfaction in a profession for which he or she is both suited and equipped. It may start humbly--mechanics pumping gas, chefs flipping hamburgers, sound engineers sweeping up the studio--but there should be a climbable ladder leading to vocational actualization.

Sadly, that is where our world and the world of Star Trek part company. Vital work that individuals find fulfilling is subject to market whims, and menial work can be a plateau that never leads to anything but working poverty.

Case in point: I worked diligently toward a career in music education, and found work doing it in the mid-1980s, then again in the last decade when I came back to it--only to have it pulled out from under me as a collapsing real estate market dragged down every other part of the American economy. When people lose jobs, their taxes shrink; with a smaller tax base, the government can't afford to pay for vital services, including education; with less funding from the government, school boards cut budgets, eliminating positions deemed nonessential, increasing class sizes, laying off teachers. Laid off teachers can no longer contribute to the demand economy, which means reduced markets, more lay-offs, even less of a tax base, a seemingly endless cycle of cutting.

Eventually, the economy comes back, and bit by bit, the social infrastructure is reconstructed. I'm now fully employed as an elementary music teacher, but I had to wait four years for this job to finally arrive. I've continued to be active in the Portland Orff Schulwerk Association, and completed both my second and third levels of certification in this approach, during those lean years when I was cobbling together an income from unemployment, private lessons, a church job, performing, and part-time secondary music teaching. It was rewarding work, and it paid the bills, but it wasn't what I was called to do.

The proof of this is how I feel today: trapped on the couch, writing this blog post, my compromised immune system keeping me from where I really want to be, back at that school, teaching those children. I've been preparing myself for this job for a decade, and I can't wait to get back to it. Working at Banks High School for the last two years, I rarely begrudged a day at work, but it never thrilled me the way heading over to Scott Elementary does. The US economy permitting, I will joyously continue doing this work until I retire, sometime between 2026 and 2030--or, if someone has invented a longevity treatment, long after that.

If it weren't for the need to pay bills, have health insurance, and put money in my pension, I would do this work for free. That's the ideal vocation: I am so strongly called to do this that I'd gladly do it without compensation. That's the utopian world of Star Trek. I've found my professional bliss.

I'm lucky in this--or I'm finally finding the reward for working so hard toward it. For the last four years as I continued going to Orff workshops, I was seeing college students, music education majors, fresh-faced, eager to enter this field. It was tempting to take them aside and tell them they should play it safe with a second major, make sure they had something to fall back on when they graduated and found all the elementary music jobs gone. At the same time, I heard from my still-employed colleagues about how their positions had been consolidated, how some of them were seeing over a thousand students. One had his position given to a laid-off high school teacher with seniority, but was able to fall back on a classroom endorsement and stay in his school, teaching first grade. It's been a dark time for my profession, and even though the clouds are lifting, I doubt that it will be the last.

A news story shared by one of my Facebook friends, a former minister like myself, reminded me that it is not just education that felt the sting of the recession. United Methodism, faced with ever-shrinking numbers and income, is finally considering dismantling one of its signature features: the itinerant appointment system. Churches too small to afford their own full-time pastors, or even to share a pastor with another church, are eager to employ lay pastors, retired pastors, even volunteers who will do the work for less or even no compensation. I knew such a pastor during my career: a retired industrial chemist who received a part-time salary, but would gladly have done the work for free. If resources permit, I see no reason why such appointments should not be encouraged. If bliss can be found in service, and one's material needs are already met, then by all means find that bliss.

Sadly, most of us are in no position to practice our vocations for free. We're one check away from insolvency, and that's before we even think about putting more money away for retirement.

So I will count my blessings that I can continue to follow my bliss, and be compensated for doing so, looking forward to the time when everyone can be like Joseph Sisko, able to pursue their vocations without giving a second thought to how they're going to pay off their student loans, buy a house, put their kids through college, or prepare for retirement; because an enlightened society has got all that stuff covered.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Stage Delight

"You're so calm. I wish I could be that way."

I had just presented a quick, concentrated lesson to other music teachers at Orff 101, the annual introductory workshop put on by the Portland Orff Schulwerk Association, of which I am now vice president. Every member of the board presents at this event, and from what I saw of the others, we were all confident, prepared, and at ease.

Except apparently we weren't. Though I should qualify that statement: I was, in fact, at ease, but one of my colleagues was not. I'm sure she's fine in a classroom, and her lesson was masterfully presented; but from what she told me, she was inwardly extremely nervous, probably from delivering her lesson to adults, rather than children.

I'm an introvert. Introverts are supposed to shy from microphones, stages, podia, lecterns. We don't like to raise our voices, because we don't like to hear our voices. Public speaking, teaching, performing should tie us in knots of nervousness and fear. If we appear calm doing these things, it should be an act.

Except it wasn't: I was every bit as calm and centered as I appeared. That's the exact opposite of my extraverted colleague, who, for all her apparent confidence, was a bundle of nerves when she presented.

"How do you do it?" you're asking yourself. "What magic pill are you taking? And where can I get some?"

I wish I could bottle up this answer and offer it to you. It might prove lucrative. But in fact, it's too simple to keep secret, and too difficult to be popular. In fact, it's already been trademarked by someone else. It's a three-word truism: Just do it. Though when it comes to performing, I have to take it a step further: don't just do it. Be it. Just be it.

I started just doing it when I was in junior high, and my father put me behind a microphone to lead litanies and read scripture lessons in the Methodist church he pastored. I knew I was a good reader--I'd been reading to my little brothers since I was 5--and this just seemed a logical extension of that. Why would I not be confident doing something I'd never had anything but praise for?

And then it was time to go off book. I took one quarter of drama in high school, playing the role of a king in a children's play that we staged twice. I also joined DeMolay, the Masonic youth organization which stresses public speaking in the same way Scouting stresses outdoor skills, and had to learn and perform from memory long portions of the DeMolay ritual, including a dramatization of the martyrdom of our namesake, Jacques DeMolay. (I was cast as the Master Inquisitor, and got to chew the scenery.) From these experiences, I learned to click into a performance set, setting aside my nerves and just being in the part. Had I been dramatically inclined, I probably could have made a life of this, because there was something really wonderful about not just doing a part, but being that part.

Instead, I majored in music, with the trumpet as my major instrument. And this is where I belly flopped into the stage fright pool.

The trumpet is not a shy instrument. Play it like a shy person, and you will suck, almost literally: You might as well be sucking the mildewed petroleum vapors that inhabit a brass instrument as blowing through it. Shy trumpet playing is painful to listen to: missed pitches, weak, flabby tone, no snap, no shine, no excitement. You can't even play sweetly unless you play with confidence. Trumpets are the loudest instruments in any ensemble, and they are meant to be played that way. They're not just called brass because of their metallurgic properties.

I was a shy trumpeter for my first decade. I lacked the confidence to shine, lacked the ego to take command, had a far too pessimistic sense of my abilities. And yet I was frequently section leader, mostly because, with my classical piano training, I could read and understand music better than anyone else in the band. This did not last into college, though: leadership there was based on ability, not knowledge, and even if it had been, I was surrounded by other music majors, no longer the smartest fish in the music pond.

I was also handicapped with a student instrument, the Bundy that had so delighted me when my parents bought it for me in 1972. By the time I was in college, the lacquer finish had begun to wear off, dents were proliferating, and the limitations of the instrument were holding me back. In 1981, after two years of college, I finally traded up to a Bach Stradivarius, a professional quality instrument I still play. My playing took off, but something was still lacking.

In the fall of 1981, I played a solo at a music convocation, a weekly concert all music majors were required to attend. I had worked on the piece for weeks, nailed it consistently in the practice room, but when I raised my trumpet to my lips and played the first note, I clammed. Clamming is like a 14-year-old with a changing voice going for a high note and dropping into baritone instead, and it's the nightmare of every brass player, but especially trumpeters. The rest of the performance was a slog: after missing that first note, I just couldn't find the sweet center of the part. When it was finally over, I felt like throwing my shiny new trumpet out a window.

What brought it on? Stage fright. However confident I'd been for all those years of public speaking, and even of playing my trumpet in church, this was the first time I'd soloed in front of my peers, and I was just plain frightened. The stress of the performance manifested itself physically in a tight throat, which kept me from nailing the relatively high notes of the piece I was playing. I wasn't making music. I was doing something hard and physical, and the effort of doing it was making me miserable.

Of course, I did not abandon the trumpet. Quite the contrary: the following spring, I passed my instrumental proficiency, and could have quite studying entirely, but continued for another year, performed a senior recital, and took a year of graduate lessons while I worked on my MS in music education. That year of graduate lessons, in turn, laid the groundwork for everything I've done since as a speaker and teacher.

His name was Ray Sasaki, and he didn't just teach technique: he tough philosophy. He believed the trumpet was a conduit, that the music started in the gut and passed through the instrument out to the audience. The sound should be a continuous wave from my lungs to the back wall of the performance hall. And as I was playing, I was to set my thoughts aside, be utterly present in the music, becoming the art. Performing on the trumpet, I learned, was exactly like that lesson I'd picked up in drama class: don't do it. Be it.

It changed my playing, but more importantly, it changed my life. I didn't stay with music education for long, going to seminary after just a year of teaching. Once there, though, I channeled my newfound performance persona into the most visible thing any pastor does: preaching. From the very beginning, I decided I would preach without notes or podium, making myself liturgically naked, with nothing between me and my congregation. I was blessed in my first student pastorate with a patient congregation who were happy to be my guinea pigs as I learned this style. A year of that and I was off to England, where I didn't clam once.

I continued preaching until 2000, when I left ministry. I went on preaching occasional sermons, but by 2003 my focus had shifted entirely to teaching, and it has now been at least two years since I preached a sermon. All my lessons are now delivered to students, and I'm utterly at ease with them. Doing the occasional model lesson for adults doesn't bother me at all: I just click into performance mode, and become the lesson.

There has been one exception to this: a few years ago, I tried my hand at open mike standup comedy. My first set, which was utterly improvised, was deceptively well-received--I was among friends who were, I think, just delighted to discover how comfortable I was at a microphone--enough so that I began working on material. But that material didn't bring laughter. I pared it down, threw in more jokes, more clever word play, went blue, but it was futile. I just wasn't funny in the way one has to be to do standup. My final performance as a standup was, perhaps ironically, at an Orff music education course, where I performed in the talent show. Many of my fellow students were non-native English speakers, but that doesn't completely account for the stony reception I received. The next day, a fellow student said, "You should just tell stories. Without the jokes. The story part was wonderful." During the performance, I felt like I was clamming just as badly as I had at that first music convocation. After it, I was kicking myself for doing something that really didn't fit. Music teachers love humor, but they're not so big on jokes.

Which is fine with me, because honestly, my favorite kind of humor is that which naturally emerges from a well-told story. It doesn't have to a Bible story (though I do love to tell them), nor does it have to be an excruciatingly personal story (though I do find those cathartic). Just so long as it's coming from inside me in a steady flow to an audience, whether that audience is kindergartners, teachers, or improvisers, I'm comfortable stepping out of my head, into my heart, and letting myself become the art I'm making.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Early Birds and Night Owls

Stupid body clock.

I'm not a sleep fan. Life seems far too short to spend such a large amount of it unconscious. I have so much to see, do, taste, touch, feel, and I don't accomplish any of that while I'm asleep. My body seems to understand this, and rarely permits me more than six hours of uninterrupted sleep. In fact, even when I get six hours of sleep in a night, it's usually with interruptions: I'm such a light sleeper that the gentle "ping" sound my phone makes when it gets an email is enough to jolt me awake, which then triggers my middle-aged need to visit the bathroom and, on the way back, have a sip of water.

This might seem ideal for a person who, as I said, wants to accomplish so much. And certainly there were times during the summer when I relished the opportunity to rise in the pre-dawn hours, take a run, have breakfast, and write a blog post before anyone else in the house was up. I haven't been a summer slug-a-bed since college. Don't miss it.

Here's the flip side, though: my body seems to need more sleep than it's getting, and if I don't get it during the night (which I never do), as energetic as my morning may be, I'm likely to need an afternoon nap to recharge. I may even have to take one as I'm writing this on a Sunday afternoon, though I did manage a rare seven hours of sleep last night. If my written thoughts seem to lose focus, come to an awkward halt, then pick up roughly where I left off, but apparently head in a different direction, it's because I had to set the laptop aside and close my eyes for a few minutes, breaking of stream of consciousness with some vivid unconscious work.

What's motivating this circadian reflection is my new job. I'm supposed to be at Margaret Scott School by 7 a.m., five days a week. To get on the highway by 6:30, and thus avoid the early rush, I have to be up by 5 a.m. Working back from that, if I'm not asleep by 11, I'm in the sub-six hour range, and I can expect my midafternoon drowsiness to kick in as I'm driving home from school. Not pleasant.

The obvious solution to this is that I should get to bed earlier. And I'm trying. But it's hard. I've never been an early sleeper. Any residual light is an issue, though now that fall is imminent that won't be a problem until late spring. Movement around the house by others can also make it difficult for me to get to sleep. Residual fatigue from the previous night's inadequate slumber can sometimes overcome this--it did last night--but not always. I sleep light.

Whoops. Just took a fifteen second power nap. Hope it works! Now where was I...?

For most of my relationship with Amy, I've been either unemployed or under-employed, and the work I've had has had an 8 a.m. start. If I was out the door by 7:35, I could make that without a problem. Most mornings, even when I've been working, I've been able to have breakfast with her before I leave, especially when the kids are here and need to have their lunches made. But Alex is gone now, and Sarah's school starts late enough that there's no need for Amy to be up before 7, and even if she was, it'd have to be well before 7 to see me at all. So I haven't been seeing her on school days until I get home. Oh, I slip in to kiss her sleeping forehead before I hit the road, but it's usually late afternoon before we can exchange any words face to face.

And I just remembered where I was headed with that short tangent: for most of the four years we've been together, I've kept late hours, rarely past midnight, but late just the same. I could do that and still be up at 6, especially when I was only working every other day. Our evening lives have, to a large extent, revolved around Comedy Sportz which, with shows ending at 10 (10:30 if we stay around for the after hours show) and workshops ending at 9:30, had us getting home late several times a week. No one wants to go straight to bed after a show, so we'd do something to wind down first, and before we knew it, it'd be midnight. And then there were the nights when someone said, "Hey, let's go out!" and before we knew it, we were getting back to the house at 1 a.m.

Those days are over for me, at least for the foreseeable future. Working every other day, I had enough energy to blast through those early wake-up times even after staying up past midnight. Not so now that I'm devoting nine to ten hours a day (counting the commute), five days a week, to teaching. My schedule at school isn't particularly heavy--six or seven half hour classes, a couple of light duties--and I love every minute of it, but it does drain me. I am, after all, an introvert, and as much as I love being in the performance space of a music class, as soon as I'm out of it, I need a solid chunk of time to recharge my social batteries. So I'm going to bed between 10 and 11 these nights, and hoping my phone doesn't chirp receipt of a spam message between then and 5 a.m., when I've set it to gently wake me with Miles Davis's "All Blues." (You should try it sometime. It's a very cool, soothing way to wake up.)

I can't cheat on weekends, either. Saturday morning I was awake at 5. I tried going back to sleep for over an hour, finally gave up and went running at 6:20. This morning was better: while my body clock did try to wake me at 5, I was able to get back to sleep for awhile, until that email alert popped me awake at 6:30.

For the most part, I enjoy the quiet early morning hours of the weekend, when I'm not hurrying to pack my lunch, have my breakfast, and get out the door by 6:15. I especially like it if I can still be here, on the couch, tapping out a blog post when I finally here stirring upstairs, and Amy comes down to pour herself a coffee and see me in my favorite part of the day.

Because if I have to choose, I'll take early mornings over late nights, every time. The darkling dawn is like a wrapped present, a box of surprises waiting to unfold, and the day ahead is a series of possibilities. I'll sip my coffee, read some news off my phone, think about what lies ahead: the lessons I'll teach, the exercise I'll take, the ways in which I'll make the most of the time I have with my loved ones. Some of what comes after will disappoint and infuriate; some will delight me by surpassing my highest hopes. Whatever comes, this early bird is up and ready for it.

So let me amend that opening statement: I commend you, body clock, for maximizing my productive time. Keep it up.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I feel a cat nap coming on.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Hole Is a Hole

These weapons are different.

That's the argument President Obama has used to justify intervening in Syria: chemical weapons cross a line. Go ahead and kill civilians with bullets, grenades, missiles, bombs, and as long as there's no chemical in there except explosives, we're good. Gas them, and we're no longer good.

It's an odd argument to make, but wholly consistent with the hypocrisy of international law in matters of war. The Chemical Weapons Convention was introduced in 1968 by an 18-nation coalition. Since then, 175 other nations have signed the treaty, though not all have ratified it. If Syria adds its name to the treaty, the total will be 194.

Chemical weapons are, without a doubt, horrible things. Slow, agonizing deaths by seizure and asphyxiation are crimes against humanity. There is no question about this.

The question for me lies in the fact that these weapons have been singled out for condemnation. Biological weapons have also been condemned for similar reasons. At the same time, though, explosive weapons and projectile weapons can be used with abandon. Cluster bombs, weapons that drop tiny grenades over a wide area and frequently maim children, are ignored by international law. Nuclear weapons, which, apart from the enormous death toll from the initial blast, have the potential to sicken entire populations for decades, condemning generations to deaths as ugly and painful as any gas attack, are completely legal.

Why, then, have chemical and biological weapons been singled out? Certainly not for their status as weapons of mass destruction; as already mentioned, nuclear weapons far exceed the capacity of any one chemical attack, and biological attacks have, up to now, been localized in scope. No, I think it comes down to one simple thing: they're unfair.

Chemical weapons kill indiscriminately. A soldier with a gun has to aim at a human being. A missile or bomb has to be sighted. Gas, on the other hand, just has to be released: open a valve, add a breeze, and anyone who has the bad luck to cross its path is doomed. During World War I, gas attacks killed and maimed thousands of soldiers. Defenses were soon developed--gas masks, protective garments--rendering chemical attacks ineffective, at best. Civilians have not tended to have such protection, and so gas has been used as a tool to terrorize and destroy populations that may be sympathetic to the cause of one's opponent. Nothing stirs up international condemnation like pictures of dead children, so it's been easy to rally international opposition to chemical weapons.

But here's the rub: famine has killed, and continues to kill, far more people in horrible ways than chemical weapons ever have or ever will. And guns, grenades, bombs, and missiles continue to exact enormous tolls on civilian populations wherever wars are fought. The outcry for such disasters never rises to the level of horror at the use of chemicals.

So back to our President: I agree with you, Mr. Obama, that the use of chemical weapons on civilians is abhorrent. But I disagree with your red line, because the use of munitions on those populations is, in my mind, just as damnable. I'll take it a step farther: watching civilians die of famine or curable disease is also damnable, and is often the result of economic sanctions--which then makes the country levying those sanctions also culpable in their deaths.

That puts the shoe on the other foot. In the Persian Gulf War and its sequel, the Bush II invasion of Iraq, thousands upon thousands of civilians lost their lives to attacks launched by the United States and its allies and to the chaos that followed those attacks. I could even go so far as to say there is far more blood on the White House for the last decade's campaigns than on whatever palace Bashar al-Assad lives in.

And as to that arbitrary distinction about chemical weapons: sometime in 1980, there was a forum at my dormitory, Lausanne Hall on the Willamette University campus, about nuclear disarmament. Or rather, about what was wrong with it. The guest speakers represented military expansion interests. Their one-note presentation insisted that more billions had to be poured into the American nuclear program to be sure that American missiles continued to be more powerful and accurate than their Soviet counterparts, because otherwise the USSR would blow us up. During the discussion after the presentation, I raised my hand and made this point: A hole is a hole. With weapons this size, does it really matter that their hole is ten feet closer to its target than ours? I don't remember what answer they had for my question--it was probably dismissed as naïve and idealistic--but I think it's worth considering in this context.

A hole is a hole; or, rather, a giant crater is a giant crater. And in the case of Syrian civilians, a dead neighborhood is a dead neighborhood. Whether they died in a gas attack or a missile attacks, they're all still dead. If we're not going to intervene over missiles, it's arbitrary and hypocritical that we would over gas. If we really cared about those deaths, we would've been there a year ago.

I'm not advocating intervention, by the way. As I explained in my last post, I'm quite certain that a military "solution" will just result in more deaths, including those of our own young soldiers. The only way I can see to untie this Gordian knot is diplomacy, and it won't be pretty: we're going to have to let our least-trusted ally, Russia, do it, and it will almost certainly mean that the tyrant with the gas bombs keeps his job.

But a hole is a hole. Those civilians know this quite well. A hole made by their president looks exactly like a hole made by American forces trying to liberate them from that president.

And one more thing: the unfairness principle is a relic of just war theory. Just war theory posits that soldiers are like game pieces on a chess board. There are rules for how they may kill each other, and in the end, the side that kills the most wins fair and square. Unless that side cheats by gassing its opponents soldiers.

When it comes to killing young men and women who are fighting because they're too poor to have any other career option, or have been pressed into service by a ruthless dictator, fairness is a silly reason to condemn any weapon. What's most unfair is that these young people, many of them still teenagers, are fighting and dying in behalf of the senior citizens who are too hidebound to find a way to talk out their differences.

Shame on them. And shame on us, for letting them continue to send our sons and daughters to fight their battles for them.

Because a hole is a hole. And winning the war just makes you king of the hole. Way to go.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Impossible Choices

"Anything war can do, peace can do better." --Desmond Tutu
How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but the light bulb really has to want to change. --old joke
I woke up to it.
I was living in the Peace House on September 11, 2001. I awoke, as I did every morning in those days, to OPB. It was around 6 a.m. Pacific time, and the first plane must have just struck, because the story went something like this: "We're receiving reports that an airplane may have collided with one of the World Trade Center towers." It didn't take long for more detailed news to hit the airwaves, and then the second plane struck the second tower, I turned on my television, and watched the towers collapse.
Morning prayers were solemn, frightened; none of us knew what to make of it. In the days that followed, I found myself sinking into a deep melancholy. The world had just changed in a horrible way. One morning I was driving on Fremont, heading toward the bridge, and came across a car being tailgated by someone who was blasting his horn. I think the driver of the front car must have looked like an Arab.
I ran in my final marathon less than two weeks after September 11. I saw runners carrying flags, which I found moving, but the one who really caught my attention was wearing a sign that read, "Give the Hague a Chance."
I embraced that sentiment wholeheartedly, believing that the last thing we should do is what we actually wound up doing: invading two countries, overturning two governments, and launching two civil wars. The death toll from not giving the Hague a chance, and treating it as a matter of law enforcement rather than turning it into a war, numbers in the hundreds of thousands now, and it's still not over. Iraq is sinking back into chaos, and Afghanistan has never fully emerged from it.
Both those invasions were launched under the guise of just war theory, though neither truly fits the definition. Just war is a series of principles, developed in the age of chivalry, for using violence in a measured, intentional way to accomplish positive ends. For war to be just, the theory goes, there must be just cause: repelling or preventing an invasion, putting down a hegemonistic regime before it does anymore damage, coming to the aid of an ally who has been attacked. Casualties between armies should have a rough equity, and civilian casualties must be minimized.
It's the last standard that is all too often forgotten. The first Persian Gulf War resulted in an enormous imbalance of military casualties, something like 200 to 1 between Iraqi and coalition forces. For all the smart bombing technology, civilian casualties were high, especially in the aftermath as Iraq's ruined infrastructure and post-war rebellion led to thousands of deaths. Calling that war "just" was an oxymoron.
Calling the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq is even more absurd. Taking out the strong men in both countries resulted in a decade-long bloodbath that is still being waged. American troops have again and again proven inadequate to taking the place of the deposed regimes, and the weak governments installed in their places have been incapable of getting these countries out of the woods and back on the straight and narrow.
It's been costly for Americans, too. Every Sunday at Parkrose UCC, the church where I play piano, there is a moment to honor fallen soldiers. For every name that is read, a penny is placed in a large bowl. Since I began playing there in early 2010, there have been only a handful of Sundays without any names. There are now thousands of pennies in that bowl, as far more soldiers have now died than civilians in the plane crashes of 9/11.
And now, twelve years later, knowing how vengeance turned a tragedy into a global disaster, and just as our troops are finally beginning to pull out of that disaster, we contemplate turning our weapons on another country in the middle East.
There is no question that what is happening in Syria is an abomination. Thousands are dying, and not just from chemical weapons. Conventional weapons have killed far more innocents than poison gas. The suffering will continue as long as the dictator is in power and the opposition is funded by foreign powers opposed to his rule. In the light of such mayhem, how can the United States of America stay clear? How can we turn our backs on such horror?
I don't have answers. This is not that kind of essay. What I have is a profound sense of just how impossible these decisions are for the elected leaders of our nation and its allies. There are no easy answers, and even the hard answers offer little in the way of hope.
Depose Assad, and Al Qaida takes his place. Punish him with bombs, and not only will civilians die, but he will cling all the more tightly to his power. Arm his opponents, and we actually arm the people who destroyed the World Trade Center, for the opposition is teeming with Al Aida operatives, funded by Iran, and should it take power, it will most likely regress Syria to an Islamist state with far fewer freedoms for women. At the same time, Assad is a monster who would rather kill thousands of his own people than give up power.
There are no easy answers here, just as there were none after 9/11, though I still believe the world would be a far better place if the advice of that fellow marathoner had been taken: give the Hague a chance. Turn it over to an international arbiter, pursue it as a matter of international law, and keep the military out of it; and for God's sake get off the obsession with Iraq, which didn't have anything to do with it in the first place.
Of course, that advice was not taken. Cooler heads were silenced, and hundreds of thousands of innocents paid the price.
Today, at least, the cooler heads seem to be dominating the discussion, both here and abroad. Nobody wants this to turn into an invasion. The problem, of course, is that the world is still generations away from an effective global government. Sovereignty is still too precious for the UN to be able to do anything, and NATO is understandably shying from involvement after what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So our President, and our world, are stuck here, without any good options for ending the suffering. Except for this one, which is probably the hardest of all:
Take a look at the quote at the top of the page. Not the one about the light bulb; that comes later. Desmond Tutu's quote about peace doing things better than war greeted me daily when I lived at the Peace House, mounted in a small frame in the downstairs bathroom. Whenever I have told people I am a pacifist, and that I believe just war theory is full of bullet holes, they have come back with something along the lines of "What about Hitler?"
And it's a good point. What, indeed, about Hitler? One might also ask, along those lines, What about Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Hirohito? What about all the military dictators throughout the ages who imposed their will on other nations through force of arms? Surely none of these megalomaniacs could have been countered without a show of military strength.
In fact, though, the answer lies in the first two names: though Stalin died in office, his regime eventually collapsed under its own weight without any frontal assault by military forces. The same is true of Mao, whose nation has evolved more and more away from its totalitarian roots. Neither Russia nor China is a model democracy, and both have committed acts of genocide on their own people that make Assad's gas attacks seem minuscule. Had there been a war, though, had the West launched a nuclear assault--for nothing else could have come close to countering the enormous military might of either nation--the death toll would have been in the tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions, not to mention the destruction of much of the Western World in the same way. Détente kept us from invading each other, and in the end, the normal movements of politics and social evolution changed both countries.
The pacifist realist answer to the perennial question of what to do with dictators is simple: engage them. Keep talking to them. Coax them toward liberalizing their regimes. Smooth the way for them to be brought down by their own people. It's a hard, hard thing to stay engaged when so many are dying horrible deaths, but the alternative is far worse. We know what happens when we send in the troops: many more die, and we're stuck with the mess. It's not easy getting a dictator to step down. These light bulbs don't want to change. But change they must, for the alternative for them is to be shattered by their opponents.
Change is coming to Syria. It will not come at the end of an American bayonet. Stay engaged, though, and it may come with the help of an American handshake.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bye Bye Braves

Coda, outro, final cadence, fermata, cut-off: I'm out.
Last days with students always have a bittersweet quality. Students are children on loan, young people I have the privilege (usually), responsibility (always), or obligation (rarely) to work with, nurturing their development into musically literate human beings. I take this responsibility very seriously, and I never take the privilege for granted. Two years of layoff, followed by two years of only half-time employment, have taught me just how fragile is my hold on this vocation.
I came to Banks hoping it would be the final stop on my vocational pilgrimage. It was a promising setting: an elementary school with a dedicated music room that had been designed by a music teacher, separated from the classroom wing, connected to the stage; and then a PTO that jumped at the chance to purchase, in just two years, enough Orff instruments for a class of 30. Add to that a rapidly growing children's choir, and I couldn't have asked for a better position.
And then it all went away.
I was about halfway through my second year when I began to feel the rumblings: the economy was collapsing, people were losing their homes, their livelihoods, their pensions. We had a new president who had campaigned on hope, and had a generous stimulus plan to inject money and jobs back into the economy, to invest in schools just as they were being threatened with cutbacks. But he couldn't sell the whole thing. And in Oregon, perhaps more than anywhere else, that meant schools bearing the brunt of the recession.
I held out hope to the very end of the year that somehow I wouldn't be "riffed" (for Reduction in Force), only getting confirmation on my last day that, for all the public outcry about cutting music and the teacher outcry that their students should be doing something besides recess during their planning time, my position was gone, as was that of the secondary choir director. Only the band director was left. I packed up my room, mothballing the Orff instruments, and drove away from Banks, doubting I would ever be back.
The first year of layoff was hard. There was nothing for me but unemployment. It helped--I never missed a rent check, made my car payments, and with the help of the Peace House, kept my pantry stocked--but I had entirely too much time on my hands. I spent much of that time with Amy, spent some of it honing my skills as a soloist, took on a few private students, began playing for Comedy Sportz, rewrote my novel, began playing for a big band, then a garage band. Overall, though, I had too much time on my hands. The second year, I picked up a 0.1 FTE band directing job in Portland, expanded my private student base, began playing for Parkrose UCC. I also took two summer Orff courses, bringing my certification up to Level III. By the end of the second year, I was beginning to get interviews, though none panned out.
And then Banks made another cut: the remaining job was now 0.5 FTE. The band director brushed the Banks dust from his shoes and found a full-time job elsewhere, and with the help of the OEA reminding the administration I was still under contract, Banks hired me back to teach band and choir.
The first year was rough. There were many hard feelings about the loss of a popular band director, and his replacement by an older man with a far less gregarious personality. Seniors, in particular, found me a hard pill to swallow: they'd ended the previous year by marching in the Grand Floral Parade. What did I have to offer? Gradually, the grumbling faded, and I detected a growing, if grudging, respect. Younger students, especially those (junior high and freshmen) who remembered me from my elementary days, were more open to what I had to offer. But I had much to learn. In many ways, it was like starting teaching all over again: I had never run a secondary program, and there was no user's manual to help me figure it out.
Much about teaching has to be learned on the job. There were hard lessons my first year. My second year was smoother, though it had challenges of its own. By the end of the year, I felt like I had finally hit my stride, and when I came back, I would settle comfortably into this job, enjoying my growing relationship with students who had now known me for longer than any previous students in my teaching career.
That didn't keep me from looking for full-time elementary work, though. I had half a dozen interviews this summer, roaming about the Portland area, and while none of them bore fruit, the principals who called to share the disappointing news with me were always positive about what a strong candidate I was. Finally, just over a week before in-service week, I got the call from Reynolds, which then became two interviews that caused me to have to take the bus to Ashland, and then to miss the final performance of Trek in the Park. And they were utterly worth it, because as of today, I am a full-time elementary music teacher in the Reynolds School District.
Today was my last day with Banks. I showed my successor around, got her set up with email and keys, introduced her to students, let her watch me teach for two periods, then went around shaking a few hands and collecting my final release letter from the district office. It wasn't easy, and not because I had to teach. I hadn't expected to have to teach three hours of model lessons, but I improvised them just fine. No, what was hardest about it was the goodbyes.
I've had more than my share of goodbyes over the years. Moving around, working in ministry and education, there have been a lot of people who've mattered to me, and to whom I've mattered, that had to be left behind. At times I have felt like Mary Poppins, sitting up in the clouds catching one last glimpse of the children whose lives she's transformed before moving on to her next assignment. I do care about them, all of them, but saying goodbye is part of the job. I'm there to ready them for a life without me, to equip them with skills they can use as they grow into singers and players and appreciators of music.
I understand and accept this truth, as does every educator I know. These children are on loan to us for a time, until we hand them on their next teacher, back to their parents, or release them into the world. Saying a proper goodbye, one that is both heartfelt and reserved, is essential to that ultimate transition away from us and to someone else.
Ministry prepared me for this as no other profession could have. Growing up a preacher's kid, I developed a sense of the importance of clean breaks, and I lived that out as a pastor. Once I left a church, my contact with my former parishioners was minimal. And don't forget funerals. Performing a memorial service for someone I've cared about is the ultimate test of being simultaneously sincerely engaged and professional distant.
I'm good at goodbyes, then. But they can still hurt. The hardest moment today came at the end of my time with the high school band. With an eye on the clock, I decided to finish our all-too-brief time together by playing the Banks fight song. We ran through it several times, stopping to work the more difficult passages with the two freshman trumpet players. As the time ticked away, I felt a growing ache in my throat, the anticipatory grief of watching these young people walk out through the door for the last time. And then they left. I managed to keep it in--at most, I got misty--but it wasn't easy.
I saw a few of them later that afternoon, as I was introducing the new band director to the elementary school staff, showing her where the equipment is in that building in case she needs to borrow some. Three of my favorites were in the office there, perhaps reporting to do some community service. I waved, they smiled, and I left.
Bye bye.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be OOPS!

Getting out of limbo was messier than I'd hoped.

To be fair, it's almost miraculous that this didn't turn into a colossal cluster cuss. Having a final interview in Reynolds the day before I was supposed to report for in-service in Banks, not even knowing the result until lunch time on that in-service day, then figuring out how to do justice to my first days in Reynolds without completely abandoning my Banks students was just the tip of this transitional iceberg. I knew it was creating a headache for the Banks administration, and if there's one thing I hate doing, it's making life harder for others.

I've never wanted to be a bother. I don't like leaving a mess for anyone. I police my campsites not just for my litter, but for those of previous campers. I put the lid down on the toilet. I put my dishes in the dishwasher rather than the sink. I would bus my own dishes at restaurants if it was allowed--and if it didn't mean taking someone else's livelihood.

That's the key to this dilemma I so often face: the self-perceived inconvenience I cause other people is frequently part of their job, something they are paid to take care of, or a service they gladly perform and even enjoying doing because they (gulp) care about me.

Here's a story to illustrate: twice when I was in high school, I needed to have a costume made for me. One of those costumes was a dashiki shirt that was the uniform for our jazz ensemble; the other was a king's robe and scepter for a children's play I was in. Both times, when the teacher told us what we needed to have done, I said I would need someone else to do the sewing.

I knew at the time that every one of my classmates would have this work done by his or her mother--or, in a few cases (all girls), would do it herself. (It was the 1970s, and few boys yet knew how to do these things.) Why didn't it occur to me to ask my mother to do it? Was she not a seamstress? Would she have refused the work? No on both counts, and I knew that to be the case. My mother has been making clothing since she was a child, and is exceptionally gifted at doing so. In fact, I frequently and proudly wore a red wool jacket she had made for my Scout patches, so it's not that she couldn't, or wouldn't.

It's that I didn't want to be a bother to her.

Philomath High School was a good place for me, the best situation I'd been in as a student and child. It nurtured me and was the incubator for all I became artistically and intellectually. It was different for my parents, though: Philomath, the church, was probably my father's most difficult appointment, the one that led him to question his calling, the one that, more than any, he would rather not have had--but that he held onto a year longer than he had to so that I could graduate from Philomath High School.

It was an argumentative church, a church that earned a reputation for chewing up its pastors, a former United Brethren church that had never reconciled itself to being United Methodist, a church that had a sort of parallel congregation meeting during Sunday School, then leaving before the worship service. There was a contingent in this church that opposed everything my father tried to do. The parsonage was next door to the church, something we hadn't had to deal with since I was 8, and which created a fishbowl effect for our family. And there were now seven of us--my youngest brother was born just three weeks into my freshman year at PHS--and just one bathroom.

If you're thinking this sounds like a recipe for stress, you're absolutely right. There was plenty of tension in our family, and at times it exploded. My father was struggling all week long to keep his head above water, trying to get this unappreciative congregation to accept him and us, to just give us a chance, and to do that, he was away from the house far more than he normally would have been. This left my mother to single-parent her brood, tending to boys who ran the gamut from diapers to hormones. She had her hands full. After two and a half years of this stress, waiting through dinner after dinner for my father to come home from his other church, up the side of Mary's Peak on a winding and icy road, wondering if he'd make it back or run into a tree, lying awake late into the night hearing my parents' whispered, intense conversations, shrinking from the rare but frightening explosions, doing everything I could to make things easier for my parents, to not be a bother to them in any way, I concluded I should take the initiative to have someone else make my dashiki and my robe. The last thing my mother needed, I decided, was sewing projects.

And I was wrong. Because the one thing, above all others, that my mother lived for was making things for her husband and her sons. It was never a bother to her. She still does it, to the extent that her arthritic hands permit, sewing, crocheting, embroidering for her husband, sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren.

Lest you worry about my high school dilemma, my mother somehow found out about both those sewing projects, was hurt that I hadn't known she'd want to do them herself, let me know she was hurt, then took them over. Somewhere in the things I still store in my parents' attic is that dashiki shirt. The king's robe she converted, after the play, to a bathrobe, and I used it for ten years, wearing it to the showers in college, grad school, and seminary.

Back to the limbo incident: for the past two weeks, I've struggled to hold these two jobs in balance, not knowing when my replacement would be hired, not wanting to make the stress on either set of administrators any more difficult than it already is, trying as much as possible to do justice to both positions. This worked reasonably well during in-service, though I still missed some important meetings in Reynolds. And once school started up in Banks, I was able to be there both Tuesday and Wednesday, first for freshman orientation, then for the first day of school. Thursday was a B day, so I was able to be at Margaret Scott (my Reynolds assignment) for the first day there. My principal at Margaret Scott, and the district administrators I'm dealing with, have been clear with me that they accept responsibility for the lateness of the hiring, will be happy to have me in my classroom whenever they can, but accept Banks's claim on my time until I'm replaced. I just needed to tell them when they'd need a substitute.

That's where the problem set in. All day Thursday I was hoping I'd learn that Banks (which interviewed candidates on Wednesday) would have someone in place Friday, so that I could continue with my full time work at Margaret Scott uninterrupted. I finished my student contact time Thursday without hearing anything, and finally called over to Banks to find out where things stood. At 3:00, I learned I'd be needed for Friday. That just happens to be the time that every staff member in the building was madly hunting for a first grader who'd not been in line for parent pickup. At 3:15, she was found on a bus--the wrong bus--and it looped back to the school to hand her over to her parents.

That's when I finally had a window of opportunity to tell the Scott (I'm tired of typing "Margaret") secretary that I would need a sub for Friday, and had been unable to get myself into the system. She handed me off to the ESD subfinder people, with whom I left a phone message, and left for the day.

And now I faced a quandary: they weren't calling me back, and I had a piano lesson to get to. I'd heard their office closed at 4 p.m. I drove across town, getting off the highway just before 4, left a message about my situation, drove to that lesson, and then my phone finally rang. It was the sub desk telling me I couldn't request a sub for Reynolds because I was still on contract with Banks, and recommending I get a sub for Banks instead.

That's what I did, but I lost sleep over it. It didn't seem right: I'd promised to be in Banks for another day, the kids at Banks were counting on me, and now it felt like I was gaming the system. I was happy to drive back to Scott the next morning, but plagued all the way there with this ethical struggle. Knowing I had placed a burden on the Banks administrators, I wanted to please them as much as I could, fulfilling their requests, sticking to my every-other day schedule, until I was genuinely released from that contract. I got to Scott on time, opened the front door with my key card, and let in a sub who'd arrived at the same time I did: the one the secretary went ahead and requested at 6 a.m. They had it all taken care of. I could've gone to Banks, after all.

So there it is: in trying to do right by everyone, I made a mess. And meanwhile the situation I was trying to resolve took care of itself.

I stayed at Scott yesterday. They found that sub something else to do. I met more of my new students, had a wonderful time with most of them, and fretted only a little about letting down the Banks principal and students who'd been expecting to see me. Later in the day, I received an email from Banks, confirming that my replacement had been hired, and asking that I give them one day (Tuesday) to show her the ropes, after which I'd be free and clear. I shared this with my Scott principal and secretary, giving them plenty of advance notice that a sub will be needed for that day, and that with me still unable to request one, it's in their hands. So it's all working out.

And meanwhile, I'm again left in awe of the simple fact that people are willing, even eager, to do things for me, to clean up after me, to make my life easier, that I don't have to figure it all out by myself. It's a discovery that never ceases to amaze and surprise me.

And the word for that discovery is grace.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Limbo Master

Full disclosure: I have never limboed. But I do know a thing or two about being in limbo.

I have often found myself trapped in transition, not knowing what the future holds, desperate for resolution, stuck on a tritone that simply will not resolve. It's the waiting place, the most useless place a human can be, rendered all the more uncomfortable by a hefty dose of anxiety over what's on the other side. Waiting for the test results, waiting for the judge's verdict, waiting for the excrement to hit the ventilator, the other shoe to drop, the phone to ring--it's never pleasant, even when good news may be in the pipeline. When there's a strong chance of bad news, it's far worse.

It doesn't even have to be anticipated news that amps up the angst. When I was nine, I broke my right arm in a ridiculous accident involving a badminton bird, a slide, and a garden hose. My parents put my arm in a makeshift sling (which might have been made from my Cub Scout neckerchief) and rushed me to the emergency room--and then I sat on an examining table for what seemed like forever, while my pediatrician and some other guy talked football just outside the door. I didn't know what they'd tell me or do to me when they came through that door, and I didn't really care. I just wanted this to be over. Armchair psychologists take note: this may be why I've never taken the slightest interest in football prognostication.

That was my earliest memorable brush with limbo, but there were to be many more. The time I got caught cheating on my seventh grade biology test, and Mr. Riggs ripped the page from my desk, then left me to stew for several minutes before finally walking down the hall and coming back with another teacher to witness my paddling; the interval between casting ballots and receiving results when I ran for Master Councilor of my DeMolay chapter; the days I took off from my first semester of college so I could drive my mother and brothers to the hospital, where my father was undergoing a battery of tests to determine whether he'd had a stroke; sitting in the school board meeting room with my lawyer while the board met in closed session to decide whether to ratify the principal's decision to abruptly dismiss me from my first teaching job; sitting numbly at the dining room table after not bringing a newborn baby home, expecting the phone to ring to tell me he was gone; pacing the halls of the retreat center while the Board of Ordained Ministry decided whether to approve my application for elder's orders; trying not to dwell on the growing collapse of each of my marriages; waiting for decisions on custody studies--yes, I know this drill all too well.

There's a queasiness to this kind of waiting, an intuitive sense of impending doom, a growing inability to concentrate on anything but the direst conclusion to the crisis, the brainstorm of figuring out what life will look like in the aftermath, the appeals by others to just have something to eat, something to drink, "Are you all right?" Expressions of concern fall on deaf or, even worse, hyper-sensitive ears, triggering frustrated, even angry rejections. I don't want to eat or drink or watch TV or read the paper or do anything but just please God finally hear the news, because dwelling in limbo I'm in more agony than I could ever be from any result, however disappointing it might be.

That's the irony of this kind of anxiety: I know, profoundly, that I will survive the news. I will be initially shattered by it, and it will feel for a time like my world is coming to an end, but quickly, sometimes even instantly, I will begin picking up the shards of hope, reassembling them, figuring out how to move on, rebuild, or head off in a completely new direction. It is not, after all, the end of the world for me, though it may be the end of a stage of my life. I can survive any news. I am, after all, still here, despite the mountains of bad news I've had in the past.

So why the anxiety? Clearly it's something cognitive, something I do to myself, some inner choice I make not to be at peace with limbo, even though I know I will ultimately be at peace with the news I await so anxiously. I expect some of it comes from the mountain of bad results I've had, next to the molehill of good news. Even as I write that, I know it's not enough of an explanation, because it leaves out the phenomenon at the center of the experience: desire.

Whenever I am in limbo, I am wanting a particular result, wanting it intensely, with every fiber of my being. (True, there are times when I'm dreading something, but at those times there's still an alternative outcome I would much rather have.) I want it so much that not having it is eating me up, consuming my appetite for anything but that outcome. I want to win this election, want to get this job, want to hear that my parent or partner or child is going to be all right, want to know that my spouse and I are turning a corner and will overcome this conflict, want more than anything else for the waiting to be over so I can get to work on my new equilibrium. I want it so much that the not having is physically painful, a hole in my gut that only gets bigger when I try to feed it with food and drink.

In Buddhist philosophy, this wanting is called attachment, and it is the source of all human suffering. This is tricky, because in Western thought, we associate attachment with romance, eros, and while we're aware of its pitfalls, we generally consider it a positive thing. But attachment can also be defined as coveting, wanting someone or something to the point of acting abominably to get it, not caring after a time how many people are hurt or even killed in our quest to satisfy that hunger. This is, I believe, the root of human anxiety, the cause of the waiting sickness, the limbo-induced insanity that is so hard to overcome. If only we could take a positivist approach to the events in our lives, treat them in isolation from our desires, as simple happenings that will lead us to take actions, rather than investing so much of our souls in outcomes, we could avert suffering on a global scale.

That's the ideal I aspire to, cleansing attachment from my nature, and I am occasionally successful at it. The tattoo on my shoulder of the Chinese character An says it all: peace, tranquility, tao, just being utterly present in the moment, living it fully and completely and without any contamination by the undecipherable future. Once I've done all I can to achieve the outcome I desire, it's in everyone's best interests for me to step back and just be.

I'm in a temporary limbo now that could be extremely frustrating, even though I know what the eventual outcome will be. A week ago, I reported to Banks for the first day of inservice, still unsure what the result was going to be from my last-minute interviews in the Reynolds School District. One thing holding this up was a reference by one of the two principals I'd been working under, and I was able, just before school, to get her to make the phone call. And then I waited. For four hours. I knew the principal making the decision in Reynolds was, herself, leading an inservice that morning (one I'd hoped to report to), and had to consult with another principal prior to making the final call. I also knew that two other candidates had been interviews the day before, along with me. And I'd had four years of disappointing results from interviews, of never quite making the final cut. So I sat through presentations about the future of the district, healthcare plans, and other things that have already slipped away from my memory as no longer relevant. And then it was lunchtime.

I'd kept my phone in my hand all morning (ringer off, of course), hoping to have cause to quietly rush out of the cafeteria where we were meeting and take the call; but now, as I finally decided I'd better eat something, put together a sandwich, chips, potato salad, and cookies, then ate everything on my plate while telling whoever was sitting at the table with me how anxious I was and why, I began to finally let go of the attachment to that phone call--and was startled by the vibration as it finally came. I leapt from the table, hurrying across the room and answering the phone, breathless, to receive the result I'd hope for, but had talked myself out of ever getting: fulltime elementary music education.

I was over the moon. Rarely have I experienced the degree of joy I was feeling in that moment. After four years of getting by, making day, cobbling together an income from part-time and free-lance work, I was finally being hired to do the work I believe I am called to and have, in good faith of someday being again employed to do, earned full certification in. I went around the room delivering my good news to anyone I'd told about my anxiety, including the superintendent whose good reference may have sealed the deal.

And then he told me about sixty days.

I knew there was going to be some inconvenience for Banks. I'd had some worries that the timeline of such a late hire might cause me some contract issues, but had set them aside knowing I was being encouraged to find this work by the very superintendent who was now reminding me of the sixty day notice rule: for sixty days after my resignation, or until Banks finds a replacement, whichever comes first, I am still under contract, and must report to teach at the high school every other day.

A different anxiety flooded me now, that I would not be able to take this new job after all, but talking with my new principal allayed that fear: Reynolds knew it was creating a mess, hiring so late in the cycle, and was prepared to have me whenever it could. If that just means every other day until Banks finds a new band director, so be it.

So that's where I am now. I want very much to be fully in my new position, to say my goodbyes once and for all and move on. I want not to be dividing my attention, figuring out what to teach students who will ultimately have a different teacher with different priorities. And those goodbyes--oh, those goodbyes...

One of the hardest limbos for me to be in is the interval before someone drives away or gets on a plane. When my kids are here for a visit, or when I'm in Idaho Falls visiting them, the last day of the visit chews me up inside. I find the anticipation of goodbye slowly breaking my heart, and I have all the usual limbo symptoms: loss of appetite, inability to focus on anything but the impending departure. It's anticipatory grief. It's attachment. I know when I finally turn away from the departing loved one that I'll have a few moments of mistiness, and then I'll say, "Right! On on!" and move back into life without them.

The same thing happens to me as I'm nearing the end of my time at a school. I do get attached to students, and no matter what Buddha says, I think it's a good thing. My empathy and compassion are enhanced by it, as is my motivation to build human relationships with these children, to model for them what it's like to have an adult care for them in appropriate ways. Getting involved means that, when it's over, I will feel some heartbreak. Being in this interim means both my students and I will be aware of the impending change to a new teacher, but will not know when to expect it. I could be teaching on a Wednesday, planning for Friday, then find out after school that I won't need to do that, and there will go my final goodbye to students I've known for six years.

It's not exactly being caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, and it's certainly not that place between heaven and hell from which limbo gets its name. Banks has, for the most part, been a good place for me to teach; Reynolds, for all the good things I anticipate happening there, is a great unknown. I don't know what to expect of either situation. But I do know this: as with every other limbo I have found myself in, this will pass, and I will emerge to face my new life, no longer stuck in the middle.