Sunday, January 26, 2014

Losing a Whole Person

Can you help me out? I seem to have misplaced someone. He shouldn't be too hard to find: he's about my height (maybe half an inch taller), has my face (only clean shaven) and a hairline a few inches lower than mine. His hair, which was once bright red, has darkened over the years, but is now starting to go gray. Other than that, he looks a lot like me. When last seen, he looked very much like the man in this picture:

Now here's the hard part: he's been missing for fourteen years.

By now, you've almost certainly realized I'm talking about myself. Fourteen years ago this month, I left the United Methodist ministry--though that's not quite the right word for it. It's more like I was pushed. The push was gentle, but it had been going on almost as long as I had been a minister. I can't entirely blame the church for pushing me, either: a good part of the pressure came from inside me, from the realization that this was not the right place for me.

I'm writing this essay because a friend of mine has also lost a whole person, though in her case, it's not just a career change (though she is, in fact, making just such a change this week). MaryAnn is a smart, funny, caring person I met four years ago when I began playing keyboard for Comedy Sportz. Her main job there is to run the screens, putting up jokes and images that add a running commentary to the improv being performed on the stage. She is incredibly fast with these gags, so much so that the audience is often left wondering if what they've been seeing was scripted, because how else could there be an image of an elephant on a bicycle up there just seconds after it came up in a scene? (I like to think people have the same idea about the music I inject into scenes, by the way.)

In fact, though, while MaryAnn does have a wealth of resources at her fingertips, everything that pops up on those screens has been found by her either on the hard disk or online, or made up on the spot. She's brilliant at this, and there are times when her work with the screens saves an otherwise weak show. She's at almost show, managing the house as well as running the screens, and to many in the troupe, she's a mother figure.

What I'm about to write, I do with MaryAnn's permission: she is also morbidly obese. But not as much as she was. In the last year, MaryAnn has lost a whole person, more than 163 pounds. She still has a long way to go, but the change has been remarkable. In the process, she has become a hero to everyone who knows her. She's writing about her experience in an excellent blog called Repairing Me, which I highly recommend to you.

Last week, MaryAnn began posting cryptic messages on Facebook about a change that was about to take place in her life. Apart from Comedy Sportz, MaryAnn has been doing upper level customer service phone work for a major corporation. That means she gets the complaint calls that have burned their way through the initial level of responders. By the time they get to her, these callers are often furious, abusive, profane. As MaryAnn points out in her most recent blog post, she understands that many of these people are using her company as a punching bag to address the hurt in their lives. That may make it possible for her to leave most of the abuse at work, but it can't take it all away. Just before Christmas, she took a call from a man who, when he realized she was not going to give her what he wanted, told her he hoped she was raped in the parking lot that evening after work.

That call was the impetus for MaryAnn to lose another whole person: the one who sat, day after day, listening to harsh invective, doing her best to calm these people and help them understand just why they couldn't get what they wanted out of the service that company provides. She does not fault either the customers or her employers, but it was time for a change. So almost as quickly as she can put together a slide for a CSz show, MaryAnn found a new job. She starts next week, and she's thrilled: it will use her wonderful skills in ways that don't leave her emotionally bludgeoned, and the employers will work with her to be sure she can continue working at CSz, as well.

I told MaryAnn she had inspired me to blog about her experience, and she told me I was welcome to write about her. And now I'm going to write about me, which is what this blog is all about.

The person I lost, the man in the picture above, was both younger and older than the person I am now. Physically, he was in great shape, preparing to run his fourth marathon. In every other way, though, he was coming to the end of his rope: in the middle of his second divorce; wrestling with his first wife over how much time he would be permitted to spend with his children; three months away from being told he was just not welcome at the church to which he was appointed as music minister; and spiritually adrift. He was worn down, burned out, with no hope, no future. He'd gone to the central Cascades for a personal retreat, and for nearly a week he divided his days between climbing mountains and participating in a spirituality seminar going on at the Suttle Lake United Methodist Camp. He didn't really come home from that retreat. In fact, I'm not sure he ever came down from the mountain he's sitting on in this picture.

Almost everything that man was has fallen away from me. My children grew up and moved to Idaho. My career in ministry ended. The divorce went through very quickly, leaving only minor scars compared to the first one. I had to give up marathoning in 2001 due to injuries. And as far as spirituality goes, I feel much more like I am myself than I have ever been, but to get there, I had to lose God.

(I've written a lot about that last piece, and will certainly write more in the future. God is a big thing to lose, and I'm not absolutely certain that God is permanently gone from my life. It's more like the God I once believed in--or told myself I believed in--has died, and I'm in the process of getting to know the far more complex, subtle, nuanced ground of being and becoming that really is both imminent and immanent in all things. And now I return you to our regularly scheduled blog.)

I look back to that man, and know that he got to that point the way most people do: when he was in his 20s, he fell into far too many things by believing, as most 20-somethings do, in the permanence of the perishable. He had a hard year of teaching, and couldn't face a lifetime of it, so he ran away to seminary, not realizing that the antidote to a bad year of teaching is more teaching, and that it only gets better when you do enough of it to know that it does get better. After a lonely first semester of seminary, he had his first real relationship, and after just a few months, could not imagine ever having another relationship, so he locked it in by proposing marriage--again not realizing that relationships come and go, and that having had a relationship gives ones skills to have another, and that the more experience one has being in relationship, the more mature and fulfilling a relationship can be. Both those decisions set him on a course to disappointment.

Of course, they also went into making me the man I am today. Had I stuck with teaching, had a allowed myself to fall in and out of love a few more times, or just waited on getting married until I'd had a few more seasons of relationship under my belt, I would not be who I am today. I would not have my children, I would not have the memories and experiences that have molded me, I would not have seen so many amazing places, I would not have learned enough about God to know that I needed a more honest spirituality, and I would absolutely not have any of the amazing people (including MaryAnn) in my life. I would probably have a different community, but I doubt it would be filled with such joy, humor, and passion. Most significantly, I would not have Amy, the "mountain wife" whose love infuses every moment with joy and peace.

One advantage of leaving teaching, then coming back to it, is that my career feels far newer than it would otherwise. There are teachers my age who are on the verge of retiring. I, on the other hand, am just finally finding my feet as a teacher. I've got about a decade under my belt. I'd like to do another fifteen, maybe twenty years.

I've also shed so many of the insecurities that locked me into that failed career and those failed marriages. As Amy and I look at our future together, and make plans for formalizing (though not legalizing) our relationship this summer, I am filled with hope and delight at what lies ahead. I'm in the second half of my life, and it looks and feels so much better than the first half.

What I'm saying, then, is I hope that guy at the top of the page stays lost.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bully Pulpit

I might be losing a lot of you with this, but I'm going to go ahead and say it: I hate bullying.

Still reading? Because I really needed to get that off my chest. I know it's an unpopular position, but we can't all be bully lovers now, can we?

If you read much of what I write, you probably know that I'm a Bill Maher fan. If you're not, because you think he can be a jerk, an asshole, reductionist, argumentative, confrontational, condescending--in sum, a bully, I completely get it. When he's engaged in bullying behavior, I don't care for it, not one bit. I don't like to see anyone, including bullies, being bullied; and now, I will not make allowances for him being a comedian, because I don't care for bully humor, no matter what the political persuasion of the comic.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I will point out that the commentaries that conclude every episode of Real Time with Bill Maher are some of the best op-ed pieces I see. (I say this as a political junkie whose favorite part of a newspaper or magazine has always been the opinion section.) They're succinct, clever, illustrated, humorous, and they make their points brilliantly. (I don't know how much of the content is actually written by Bill Maher, though I'm sure he, like any politician, dictates to his writers what the message will be.) On last night's show, the commentary was about bullying, and led up to this conclusion: "Bullying is not a masculine virtue. Standing up to bullies is." (Just to add one more parenthetical disclaimer, I'm not positive about the wording, but that's how I remember it being stated.)

New Jersey governor Chris Christie has been in the spotlight lately over the closure of several lanes on the George Washington Bridge as, apparently, political payback to the mayor of Fort Lee, NJ, who refrained from endorsing the governor's bid for reelection. This scandal has led to a flurry of other public officials coming out with stories of Christie's rough treatment of them. Some conservative commentators have defended such tactics as being "muscular" or "masculine," and exactly what's needed in our present gridlocked political state.

Bill Maher went on to point out how nutty this redefinition of masculine virtues is by demonstrating how top bully Rush Limbaugh sleeps in a bedroom so rococo it puts Versailles to shame, asking if George W. Bush never having second thoughts about Iraq is a practice that commends itself to future presidents, and pointing out that Chris Christie is nobody's idea of a "muscular" individual. I delighted in much of these zingers--who doesn't like seeing a bully put in his place with a joke?--but the last one gave me pause.

Yes, it's ironic that masculine, muscular bully Chris Christie is obese, but there's no news there. Most late night jokes about him are fat jokes. But here's the rub: as someone who has heard his share of fat jokes, I can say, from the heart, that they hurt; and if I had any violent inclinations, I might be tempted to channel that hurt into throwing my weight around as, yes, a bully.

In fact, I was far too timid a soul to fight back with my body, and had been well-taught by my pacifist father that forgiving those who persecute me was far better revenge. ("Heaping hot coals on their head" is the metaphor the Apostle Paul uses for forgiveness, in fact [Romans 12:20, quoting Proverbs 25:21-22].) The only fighting back I did was as editorial page editor of my high school newspaper, when I published a series of letters to the editor along with my own rebuttals that castigated them for their poor spelling and grammar. If, by any chance, you who read this were one of those letter writers: I am truly sorry. That was petty of me, and extremely bad form.

The dynamic of that moment in my adolescent life taught me something: give a bullying victim some power, and he or she may well become a bully. I have no idea whether Chris Christie had this same weight problem as a child, but Bill Maher and his late-night ilk are unlikely to be the first people ever to make an issue of his size. I have the same speculation about Rush Limbaugh.

And now to the truth in Maher's aphorism: true masculinity lies in confronting bullies, not becoming one. I hope you were listening to yourself say that, Bill. There's plenty to criticize Chris Christie for that has nothing to do with his waistline; and given that your show is intended to be a forum for political, rather than scatological, debate, I'd rather you stuck to that kind of commentary. It might just make it possible for Chris Christie to tune you in, rather than out.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Making Musical Medicine Palatable

Bad boy classical violinist Nigel Kennedy.

The popularization of classical music has been going on for a very long time. I remember watching a Leonard Bernstein children's concert on PBS when I was in junior high. Bernstein was talking about Beethoven's sixth symphony, and trying to remove the associations his audience had with the imagery of Fantasia. Since I had never seen Disney's early foray into producing animated images to accompany classical music, I had no idea what Bernstein was talking about--though his effort to make this lovely piece of pastoral music interesting to a young audience was well-intentioned, and I stayed tuned in to listen to the performance.

Serious music has always had a hard time finding an audience. Music historians are fond of talking about how Mozart and Beethoven were the rock stars of their day, but they exaggerate the popularity of these great musicians. Mozart died in poverty, and Beethoven had to sell the same compositions to multiple publishers to stay out of poverty. Performances by either could generate large audiences, but the most popular music was that which was made in dance halls and living rooms: simple, danceable, singable, and easily performed by untrained musicians.

Understanding this, serious composers often created more accessible works: suites of dance music, program music, incidental music for theatrical productions, variations on folk songs--all of which were viewed in a utilitarian light as something to pay the rent and free up the composer to write more rewarding, but less lucrative, serious works. Today, many of these composers are only known for their lighter pieces, works that would someday appear on albums like this:


Or this:

Some composers created vast quantities of music, much of it magnificent, only to have their entire careers reduced to single pieces that made it into the pops repertoire. Some examples: Opera giant Rossini, known for the overture to William Tell; Mozart for the first movement of his divertimento Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; Beethoven for the first four notes of his fifth symphony; Tchaikovsky for the final moments of the 1812 Overture--and the list could go on; and that's just a few of the great composers whose names might strike a chord with some non-musicians. These compilation albums feature plenty of pieces by composers whose names don't get mentioned at all, but who were fortunate enough to find advertising posterity but writing something like the Canon in D (Pachelbel), Peer Gynt (Grieg) or The Light Brigade (von Suppe). Some composers, seeing the writing on the wall, concentrated on music guaranteed to be popular: the waltzing Strausses, march king John Philip Sousa.

As the album covers above demonstrate, though, many people view classical music as the auditory equivalent of brussels sprouts: very likely good for you, but extremely unpleasant to the palate. Getting even the tiniest hints of classical music in their ears meant dressing it up with a beat. Enter the jazz-classical arrangements of the big band era and, for my generation, disco classics:




That last expression of the popularization movement--a series of records with successive fragments of familiar works, all set to the monotonous downbeat of a disco drum--was the final stop in the evolution of classical music into soundbites. The next generation of popularizers starred British violinist Nigel Kennedy, who introduced a muscular, video-influenced version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons that, for all its excesses, leaves the music essentially untouched. Holding onto that same desire to perform entire works, rather than melodic snippets, but simultaneously pouring new wine into old skins were two gospel versions of Handel's Messiah:


The first of these was far more successful, and remains one of my favorite r & b albums; the second seems more like an easy listening version of the music, gussying it up with a beat and some gospel vocal stylings. To continue the dietary analogy, it's like taking an unpleasant but nutritious vegetable and smothering it with cheese sauce.

All of these recordings, and their precursor, the pops concert, seek to make classical music tolerable to the majority of the population, who associate it with tuxedos, tails, large-breasted sopranos with wide vibratos, and an overwhelming sense of seriousness; but the classical world is hardly alone in its penchant for taking itself seriously. Think bebop. Think emo. Think any pop hit of the last decade that's in a minor key.

But seriously: to really appreciate classical music, one has to take the time to listen to it in a way that few people listen to music: attentively, presently, profoundly. You've got to let it into your brain, let it crowd out all the distractions, the thoughts and feelings and ideas that can turn this primarily instrumental music into nothing more than background noise. Attend to it, and the complex simplicity of it will blow you away. If it's really good, it can do that without a beat, without Fantasia style visuals, without a story line. But only if you'll give it a chance. Only if you'll let that unappetizing-looking spoonful into your aural tastebuds, and hold it there long enough to find out what it really tastes like.

Who knows? You might just become a sprout-lover.

The Death of Great Art

Requiem: Classical Music in America Is Dead (Slate Magazine)
(Click on the picture to see the article in Slate that prompted this blog post.)

"When will this ever end?"

That's how I felt sitting through my first live classical performance. I was a freshman in high school, and my parents had obtained tickets to a recital by Van Cliburn, one of the greatest American pianists of the mid-twentieth century. I can't remember if either of them was there (it would've been a natural for my mother, herself a classically trained pianist who almost went to Julliard), or if any of my brothers was there with me (and please, bros, if you were and you remember, chime in in the comments); all I really remember is I wished I'd brought a book to read, though even at that age I knew it would've been considered rude.

My fourteen-year-old musical skills (trumpet and piano) were unremarkable, and my exposure at that point in my life to classical music was limited to watching The Boston Pops on PBS, and wishing they'd play less light classics and more show tunes. For a piece of music to excite me, it had to have a recognizable melody, preferably in a minor mode, and some kind of driving rhythm. I did not yet care for rock music, had yet to be exposed to jazz. Considering my parents' musical gifts (my father, though lacking my mother's training, was an accomplished musician in his own right), the most striking thing about my musical upbringing was how little music there was in our home, so I really hadn't heard much of my mother's meager record collection.

In sum, I was bored.

It took four years of music school to teach me to love listening to the classics, as opposed to playing them in the background while I read novels and wrote short stories. I took quickly to symphonic music, for which the soundtracks of John Williams were my gateway drug. Chamber music was a harder sell: it took four years of music theory and history to enable me to appreciate recitals. Once I had that knowledge, though, and could appreciate the nuances of individual performances, I grew to love this music, too.

The bottom line for me, though, is that I would never have learned to love great music if I had not been required to expose myself to it: thirty concerts a semester was the minimum when I was in music school. As far back as the early 1980s, it was understood that attending concerts was work, and that, college students being who they are, without a requirement, they just wouldn't go to that many of them. It was also understood that more is better, that this kind of music is an acquired taste, and the more one experiences it, the more one is likely to appreciate it for what it is. The requirement worked: as a freshman and sophomore, I took books to concerts and found a seat with enough light that I could study during the performance. By the time I was a junior, I was only taking out my studies during intermission. I was also watching entirely classical concerts on television (the Bernstein on Beethoven series in particular), enthralled by not just the music issuing from my black and white set's tinny speaker, but also the conductor's work at the podium.

I ushered at many of these concerts, partly to get in free to the symphony performances, but also because I enjoyed people watching. Apart from fellow music majors, most of the attendees were middle-aged and older. This continued to be the case once I'd graduated, and was attending concerts as an adult: I was typically one of the youngest people in the auditorium.

Three weeks ago, I took Amy to an Oregon Symphony concert. The first half of the concert was all pops: special guests singing solos, cheesy humor, some celebrities behind microphones solely because of name recognition. The second half of the concert was what had brought me there: a full performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a piece that is in my own personal top ten for greatest works ever composed. The performance felt anemic, though it still moved me. The orchestra performed competently, the soloists were strong, and the chorus was full-voiced. As a connoisseur of classical music, I was irked by all the gimmicks being used to pander to the baby boomers in the audience; but then, during intermission, I was acutely aware that, at 52, I was still one of the youngest people in the audience.

This is the point at which I acknowledge the truth in the Slate essay linked to above: the audience for classical music is dying. I must quickly add that it has, in fact, been dying for a very long time; as I noted earlier, those concerts I attended as a college student were mostly reaching older audiences back then in the early 1980s. I could reel off a host of reasons for this, including, as the article does, the state of music education in public schools, but I'll let you read them for yourself. The one reason I will cite is that which I opened with: to the inexperienced ear, classical music is boring. Why? Because it's high art, and it takes work to appreciate high art.

Consider whichever artistic medium you love best: literature, drama, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance; and then think about how much of an audience a great work in that medium actually has. Take, for instance, "Convergence" by Jackson Pollock:

It wasn't until the last decade that I was able to appreciate works like this. The abstraction of it is a distraction for me. And this is precisely why so much classical music is boring to the uninitiated: it's abstract, lacking in recognizable themes and references that can draw an uneducated listener in.

Another example: Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, a sprawling mess of a novel that took me a year to read, but was, I knew as I continued to wade through it, very much worth the effort. Finishing it, I wanted to hang up my pretensions to being a novelist. There was just no way I could ever aspire to something as perfectly conceived as this, and it's no wonder to me that Kesey is primarily known for just two novels (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest being the other): there's no way to top them. As fond as I am of declaring that Notion is my favorite novel, I am unlikely ever to read it again: it was just too much work for my untrained literary sensibilities. There were times when I wished Kesey's editor had suggested he rein in his sperminess, but I'm glad he did not: every word mattered.

There's an old joke about the emperor hearing Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and saying it was fine, but it had "too many notes," to which Mozart said it had exactly the right number of notes. They were both right: for a casual listener, there really are too many notes in any extended work of classical music, and the result is boredom. To the casual reader, there are too many words in Sometimes a Great Notion. To a casual viewer, there's too much paint on the canvas in "Convergence." It can be said for any great work: it takes training and effort to appreciate the entirety of an epic. Casual audiences lack the capacity.

Learning to love classical music, literary fiction, abstract painting, or any other high art involves training, in the same way that gaining the ability to run a marathon, bicycle a century, or swim a mile takes training. The challenge for those who seek to expand audiences, whether they are performing arts development directors, publishers, gallery curators, or the artists themselves, is to convince the general public that the training is worth it, that appreciating high art is well worth the time and effort.

I believe it is, but I'm already there. I've taken the time to learn to love this art, and have spent a good portion of my life savoring its beauty, letting it transform my spirit, heal my soul, work its magic on my heart. If you're not yet a lover of great art, I can't just ask you to "give it a try." As I said at the top, giving it a try is likely to turn you away from it: you'll be bored. What I will say is that the appreciation of great art is an ability well worth having, and that whichever medium you choose to focus on, appreciating it will expand your ability to appreciate other media, as well.

The gloomy prediction of the Slate piece is that there is precious little time remaining to convince the public of the value of great art; that it is just a matter of time until concert halls and museums are shuttered, demolished to make way for shopping malls and parking lots. I hope he's wrong. And because I know for sure I've used too many words now, I will leave it to you to decide how you'll keep art alive.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lion for God

The Rev. Willie B. Smith, 1928-2014

What a man he was.

John Schwiebert introduced me to Willie Smith in September, 2000. I'd been living at the Peace House for two months at that point, nursing my wounds over losing both a marriage and a career, unsure what direction to take in the days ahead. John knew that, apart from being a minister, I was a musician; in fact, my last six months as a pastor had been spent in music ministry, directing a choir and playing the piano when I wasn't engaged in other tasks. John knew that Willie Smith was looking for a pianist for The Church of the Good Shepherd, an independent African-American congregation he had founded six years before. I had an affinity for black worship and needed some income, so I agreed to meet with Willie, and was soon spending my Sunday mornings at his church.

Willie Smith was a striking man, tall, handsome, energetic, and utterly confident in the truth of what he had to say. He had served in the Air Force as a young man, then worked his way up through the ranks of the Postal Service to postmaster before retiring to Portland. He'd also been a minister in the AME Zion denomination for most of that time. Once in Portland, he became the first black president of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. He came to know John Schwiebert when it struck him that the church's position on homosexuality needed rethinking, and he was told that John could answer some questions for him. This led to a complete turnaround in his beliefs, and as with anything he believed, he embraced the cause of gay rights wholeheartedly, preaching frequently about it. In 1993, he left the Portland AME Zion church under a cloud of controversy, founding Good Shepherd a year later at the request of disaffected families from his form congregation.

Good Shepherd was created in Willie's image: an ecumenical, "inter-faith" church with a hard left agenda that was still utterly evangelical in style and proclamation. Everything I know about playing gospel music I learned in that church. I was also given the privilege of preaching once a month, and quickly came to appreciate what a difference it made to preach for a responsive congregation, however small it might be.

The greatest impact Willie had in me, though, came outside of those services. I arrived early on Sundays to work with the "Cathedral Choir" (rarely more than four singers) on whatever our special music would be. Then I'd have an hour to kill, most of which I spent in Willie's office, listening to his stories of growing up in Louisiana in the 1930s, of his struggle to wrest custody of his children from his first wife, of battling with over-privileged church superintendents and bishops. He had no respect for institutional church administrators, and commiserated about my own experiences with them. He urged me to step out, to seize life at a time when I was feeling small, victimized, incompetent. When my parents came to church to hear me preach, driving all the way up from McMinnville, he insisted that my father sit on the dais with him, and share in presiding over Communion. When my father celebrated his fiftieth anniversary of being ordained, he did so by preaching at Good Shepherd.

In 2005, I left Good Shepherd to take a much better-paying position in Vancouver. I lost touch with the congregation, though I still encountered Willie Smith from time to time. When my father was hospitalized, my mother asked me to call Willie to ask for prayers. A few years ago, I learned that Willie was to have brain surgery (when I told my mother, she worried that he might lose his hair). I visited him, and he seemed well, but toward the end, John tells me, he began to lose his ability to focus, and particularly to read. Two weeks ago, he suffered a massive heart attack, and died. Last week, I attended his funeral.

The church was packed. John Schwiebert delivered the sermon, and I read the scripture. I was warmly welcomed by Good Shepherd members who remembered me, including some who had been children when last they saw me but were now full-grown adults. The service was filled with joy and humor, as befitted a send-off for such a man as Willie Smith. After the service, over dinner, many wondered if they would see me again. I was evasive in my responses.

The truth is that church, even independent progressive church, is an uncomfortable fit for me. It's not just the institution that gives me pause: it's the beliefs. I can't say I believe these things anymore. And yet, as I read the scriptures at that service, I found resonance in the words, and I could believe, for one day, that this man really did come from, and was now returning to, a God who is active, loving, involved.

God speed, Willie Smith.

Sicko


So much for the holiday.

Our plan was to spend the weekend at a condo in Sunriver, driving up to Mt. Bachelor for cross-country skiing and/or snow-shoeing. That didn't happen. Oh, we drove to Sunriver Friday night, as planned; but by Saturday morning, it was obvious to both of us that I shouldn't be outside in the cold dry air, exerting myself on the trails. My chest was full of mucous and what voice I had was a hoarse whisper that was too painful and frustrating to attempt except in emergencies. So we packed up and drove all the way home. The end of January is nearly here, and we have not yet been to the snow.

Frequent colds are part of my job. During the four years I was away from elementary music, I'd almost forgotten this. I took hardly any sick days during my two years of half-time high school teaching, and I don't think I missed any days the year before that when I was 0.1 FTE at a Portland middle school, so it had almost slipped my mind. Now, however, I'm on my third full-blown cold of the school year, and it's a doozy. That's the price of being in a new school with nearly five hundred students. And here's a bonus: in less than two weeks, I'll be starting at yet another school, as I swap with a PE teacher. That's a whole new biosphere with its own set of viruses to colonize my respiratory tract.

Almost every cold I've had has, eventually, robbed me of my voice. I'll have a few days of congestion, think I'm over it, head back to school--and then, in the middle of the day, find that I suddenly can't summon the falsetto I need to model a melody for primary voices. From there it's just a matter of time until I'm literally speechless, relying on mime, a notepad, and occasional whispers to convey messages.

It killed the weekend, and now it's taking a bite out of my last week with kids at Margaret Scott School. I'm home today, my speaking voice just starting to come back (it's a croak right now, and I can't speak with any volume at all), still days away from being able to sing. It means I've got time to blog, but apart from that, I'll be having cabin fever by the end of the day.

As far as being a patient goes, I'm not very demanding of my partner. For most of my adult life, I've had to take care of myself whenever I got sick. If there is one area in which I may become a burden, it's my mood. On a beautiful day like today, it aggravates me no end that I can't be out on a running trail (or, Saturday, a ski trail), or that I'm not at school spending time with children who will soon leave my life for at least eight months (possibly a year if, as my principal hopes, we switch next year's schedule so I don't come back to Scott until February), if not, as in the case of fifth graders, permanently. Not having a voice creates even greater frustration: I have to repeat myself more often to be heard, each time taking far more energy than when I'm well; and not having any modulation at all, being utterly unable to sing, is like losing a limb. I'm just not a whole person.

So here I am. There's nothing profound that I'm trying to say here. I'm just frustrated, venting in a public way. My apologies.

Take That, Liberals!


This showed up on my Facebook feed this morning, liked by a friend who has a decidedly conservative bent. It's a Youtube of a teenager delivering testimony to a state legislative committee as they consider a gun control bill. Here's the headline attached to it by conservativepost.com: "It only took this 15-year-old 3 minutes to silence all liberals in the room." Apart from what I'm about to say concerning this clip, there's no way to verify whether anyone was silenced, as there's no video of their reaction, if any, by the committee. I encourage you to take a look at it yourself. Here's the link:

Listening to the clip, I had just one reaction, over and over again: really? This is supposed to blow me away? This is supposed to silence me with its stunning logic, brilliant rhetoric, moving delivery? What I heard was boilerplate: a list of talking points, every one of them easily refutable. The one thing she has going for her is just the sheer quantity of arguments. Addressing them would take far more than three minutes--which explains why (if it's even true--as I said, we don't get to hear what came next) there was silence in the room after she finished. If I was chairing the hearing, I'd probably tell her, "Thank you for your testimony. Next?"

I'm writing about this today not to make a point-by-point response, but to highlight a common tactic I see being employed by the right wing: the cluster bomb. I first became aware of the tactic in 1993, when I attended a "town meeting" hosted by the Oregon Citizens Alliance just outside Estacada, a small town in Clackamas County where I was a United Methodist minister. (For those of you who weren't keyed into Oregon politics in the 1990s, the OCA was an anti-gay-rights lobby that prefigured the Tea Party, but was far less successful.) The meeting was supposed to be a forum on an initiative that would prevent the city from including homosexuality as a protected status in its charter. The Estacada Citizens for Fairness, a human dignity group my church belonged to, came out in force, outnumbering OCA attendees at the meeting by about two to one. That didn't keep OCA head Lon Mabon from brilliantly manipulating the agenda. His strategy: everyone will get to speak, but I get to go first, and you have to wait until I'm done.

He want on for quite awhile, reeling off a long list of insinuations and meaningless statistics before pulling out his secret weapon: a copy of Daddy's Roommate, a children's book about a family headed by a gay couple that, Mabon alleged, would find its way into Estacada school libraries unless this charter amendment were passed. Of course, the amendment had nothing to do with public school policies, but that was utterly irrelevant to his real goal: to reduce the opposition to sputtering. He largely succeeded, too: most of the Citizens for Fairness in attendance were far too upset by what they'd heard, too overwhelmed by offensive nonsense, to mount any kind of response.

That's what I see in this young woman's three minute address: a blast of illogical bomblets meant to evoke visceral reactions. Each is deserving of a measured response, but the time and energy required to make that response could be far better employed in other ways.

This may seem heartless to you. She's so young, so serious, so earnest. I have to admit to smiling as I heard her deliver her speech because I remember being that young, being so convinced that simply reeling off all my excellent points would be all it took to convince my opponent of the rightness of my argument, and result in a Damascene conversion. I remember writing editorials along these lines for my high school newspaper, and delivering speeches like this in Youth Legislature and Model UN. I also remember teachers smiling, shaking their heads, and pointing out that I really needed to pick just one argument, research it thoroughly, and then, if it still held up, I might have something convincing. Hopefully that's what happened when (if?) she submitted her speech to her speech teacher or debate team adviser. Considering the plaudits she's getting from the conservative press, though, such critiques are likely to fall on deaf ears.

And that's the frustrating thing for me. The headline on this clip summarizes all that is wrong with debate in our country, and the reason we can't get any kind of workable legislation passed: we never reason with each other. My personal inclination is to blame it on the right--and certainly my OCA illustration bears that out--but I'm well aware of voices on the left that engage in the same cluster bomb strategy (Real Time with Bill Maher, my favorite political program, is a case in point). The passion of the argumentative drowns out the logic of the reasonable. The air is filled with angry voices shouting past each other who care nothing for what is being said, just that it is a disagreement, and best be countered with noise.

If you've read any of my posts, you know that I'm a long form writer. I write until I have nothing more to say about an issue, and even then, after I've hit the "publish" button, I worry that I'm leaving something out. I know that this puts me in TLDR (Too Long, Didn't Read) territory, but I can't help myself, because (and this is one of my core beliefs) everything is more complicated than it first seems. There are no simple solutions. Firearm policy in the United States is a hydra with so many heads it will take far more than three minutes of talking points to resolve it, however earnestly delivered.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

D(ev)ystopia

Don't get me wrong: I love technology.

My first memory of loving technology was my twelfth birthday. That day I unwrapped probably the best present my parents ever gave me: a Kodak Instamatic camera. The year was 1973, and for its day, this camera was a masterpiece of design. Film came in a cartridge that popped in easily. Flash photography was accomplished by snapping a cube on the top of the camera. I'm not certain on this point, but I believe it was completely mechanical, no battery required. It looked like this:
And it took pictures like this:
So yes, forty years before Instagram, all my pictures had that square grainy badly-exposed look that the kids are now using technology to create.

What I remember most about that first camera was the smell of it, particularly of the film cartridge when I tore open the bag it came in. There was something exciting about that chemical tang that filled my nostrils with the promise of technological magic. That smell, which came with every Instamatic film cartridge I used for the next eleven years, always promised excitement, though it did not always deliver. The photographs I took with that camera and its successor, a pocket Instamatic with telephoto, rarely came close to capturing the image in my mind's eye; and even graduating to an SLR in 1983 did little to change that, though digital photography has brought me much closer to that ideal. But one thing that has never yet failed to excite me is the smell of new technology.

Electronic devices have their own smell, distilled, I imagine, from plastic packaging mingled with circuitry. Unpacking stereo components, calculators, computers, televisions, VCRs, DVD players, cell phones--all of these things stimulate my senses and give me a tiny adrenaline rush. Getting into a newish car does the same thing. That smell speaks to me of cool new things I will be able to do by pushing buttons, turning knobs, aiming remotes, touching screens. I never get tired of it.

What has given me pause lately, however, is that maybe, just maybe, I've become a tad too connected. When I started my new job in September, I was presented with an iPad, which quickly supplanted my iPhone as my favorite device for reading news, completing crosswords, doing research on the internet, and, yes, playing games. (I also use it for its stated purposes of looking up students in the database, reading professional ebooks, and projecting slides for my classes, of course.) A couple of months ago, my school desktop computer was upgraded to a brand new iMac. Last week, I upgraded my phone to a 5S. I continue to use my laptop, an Acer I bought in 2010, for blogging and managing my music and picture libraries. I also use an antiquate iPod Classic I bought in 2007 to play music for my classes at school, though I will probably just turn my old 4S into an iPod Touch to streamline searching once Amazon sends it back to me (it was deemed "unacceptable" for their buy-back program). There are times, both at school and at home, when I am using (counting the iPhone) three computers simultaneously--and, if at home, watching television while I do it.

So: am I in tech heaven, or what?

The answer to that question is "what."

It's too much. I'm too connected. Hiking in both the Olympics and the Tetons last summer, it was refreshing to lose my 4G connection, and be unable to maintain my crossword streak. The only thing I could use devices for in those places was photography. That didn't keep me from wallowing in the tech as soon as we got out of either one of them, uploading pictures to Facebook, blogging, catching up on crosswords (though the streak was permanently broken), etc. But I am aware that, here in Portland, I am entirely too networked, too connected to technology. There are so many choices on the DirecTV receiver, on Netflix, at Amazon. Opportunities are wondrous: Amy and I were able, between last night and this morning, to research and book a Spring Break trip to New York City after researching dozens of flight and accommodation choices, making decisions far better-informed than we could have with the help of a travel agent. I can buy exactly the gear I need for our next expedition, getting the best price possible, thanks to Amazon and REIoutlet.com. Using the library's web site, I was able on Friday to put a hold on a music book I need for my next gig, saving me $30. We can find movie times for multiple theaters, make traffic-based decisions on routes into town, check weather for vacation destinations, keep in touch with hundreds of family members, friends, and acquaintances, all in seconds.

And still, it's too much.

I spend far too much time on these labor-saving devices: too many hours shopping around, skimming through mundane status updates, scanning headlines on Slate.com, doing crosswords on two different devices using different log-ins so I can artificially jigger my completion times (and yes, it does feel like cheating, but it's very cool to be near the top of the Masters list with all the other cheaters). All this activity keeps me from fully engaging in reading, writing, watching, and most importantly, interacting. I'm not alone in having this problem: it's not uncommon for everyone in the living room to have devices in their hands while we are ostensibly watching TV together. Thankfully, that doesn't happen during Uno games--not yet, anyway.

This growing awareness is teaching me that there is a thin line between Utopia and Dystopia. The ideal of being completely connected to the world, of having the total sum of human knowledge at one's beck and call, of having instant access to everything, comes at a price. However convenient, however magical, however realistic our virtual connections may be, they are ultimately illusory and unfulfilling. A world consisting solely of virtual pleasures might thrill and delight for a day or two, but it would be just a matter of time until we became aware of how empty it really was.

When I am teaching, I am utterly engaged with the children in my class. It's a total focus that permits no distractions. My phone my vibrate in my pocket, but I usually don't feel it. I turn to the iPad only to change the image I am projecting; other than that, all of me is wrapped up in interaction with the 25-35 students surrounding me.

This is the engagement I long for with all the people who matter to me. It is also the engagement that is impossible if I have a device in my line of sight. Admittedly, it doesn't take lovely-smelling electronics to create such a distraction: back in the days of newsprint, I disengaged from others easily with the Oregonian, National Geographic, or whatever novel I immersed myself in. But those were single distractions, and they remained the same when I put them down. Letting go of my iPhone, my iPad, my laptop, I run the risk of missing something. Perversely, keeping up on everything I might miss online means missing what's right in front of my nose.

So put down that phone, that tablet, that notebook. Take a step back from the world of pixels, and lay hold of the world of atoms. Engage. Let those gadgets be your servants. Tell 'em who's boss. And live.

Monday, January 13, 2014

What Will I See Today?


Check out the horn-rims on those guys.

The year was 1975, the place, the First United Methodist Church of Emmett, Idaho. I was in the eighth grade. My father, who was also my pastor, was proudly pinning my God and Country badge on my Scout uniform. He was 48; I was 14. I had just discovered girls, though it would be another nine years before I finally went on a date with one. The boundaries of my world were the walls of a decrepit middle school, a brand-new public library, a tiny manufactured home that was the parsonage, and this church. The parsonage was eventually sold (presumably so the pastor could live in something with room for a family), the school relocated when a new high school made the old high school building available, and the church was eventually torn down, with the congregation buying to a former Church of Christ as they, too, moved to a larger facility. Only the library is as I remember it--though now it is doubtless showing the wear and tear of its forty years. Last summer I drove through Emmett, showing the town to Amy, and was amazed at both the familiarity and foreignness of the place to me.

I'm sure a large part of that strangeness came from changes in me. Apart from when I put on my Scout uniform and took on a leadership role, my identity was primarily that of a victim. We arrived in Emmett in 1972 and remained there for three years. From almost the first day of sixth grade, I was bullied as I had never been before. In fact, I was coming off my best year of school: fifth grade had been magical for me, a year that gave me confidence as a student and a young person, with some solid friendships. Had we stayed in Filer, I would probably have built on that. Instead, I found myself in a school that singled me out as a foreigner, a Gentile in a land of Mormons, a chubby bookish kid with thick glasses whose pacifist father could be counted on to mete out, at worst, a stern rebuke to anyone who followed his son home from school spitting on him all the way--assuming the perpetrator could ever be identified. Many times, my tormentors were boys whose names I simply didn't know, and they were smart enough to vanish before a teacher or parent could catch sight of what they were doing to me.

It's no wonder, then, that I came out of Emmett feeling every bit a victim. High school in Oregon was liberating in many ways, but I never managed to make close friends there, even though there were a number of peers I hung out with at lunch and in class who, I'm sure, would have been happy to spend time with me outside of school hours. Somehow, I just couldn't make the leap; and I have to admit to feeling some envy for the solid friendships I witness Amy's and my kids having.

As wonderful as it was to get out of Emmett, the changes that really made a difference for me were related to those glasses. A large part of my sense of inadequacy was looking in the mirror and seeing the nerd look back at me. My junior year of high school, I finally got rid of the horn-rims and got my first pair of wire-frames. Looking at pictures of myself with the new glasses, I know I still have a nerdish aspect:
And, of course, the glasses inhibited me from the one pursuit which, above all others, was to make a new man of me: running. But I'll get back to that in a paragraph or two.

I finally ditched glasses altogether about five months after this photo was taken, switching to my first set of contact lenses. I remember gaping at everything I could see with those tiny bits of plastic floating over my corneas, most of them things I could see quite well through my glasses--but not if I looked up! When I rolled my eyes up to the top of a tree without moving my head, I could still see every leaf. Contacts never fogged up, never obstructed my view with fingerprints or dust, and (once I finally had a pair that fit) were at no risk of falling off when I exercised. Best of all, they left my face unobstructed. For the first time in my life, I did not have to look like a nerd.

I saw many things through my contact lenses: mountains, valleys, stars, cathedrals, skyscrapers, sunsets, forests and, eventually, women with whom I fell in love. But there were limits to what I could see: contacts wore out, had to be replaced, and were so expensive that, without vision insurance, I usually hung onto them longer than I should, even as protein deposits and small nicks and tears in them made them uncomfortable. I had to take them out every night for cleaning and disinfection. If I was going to be up late, I would have to, at some point, switch to glasses. I'm fairly sure I saw both my children for the first time through the glasses I'm wearing in that birthday picture, since both were delivered after all-night labors. There was also the risk of having a lens come out when I wasn't home and not having a backup plan. Even once the price came down and I was able to change lenses monthly instead of annually, they were a hassle.

But running--oh, how wonderful running was with contacts! I would not have run seven marathons in glasses--or ever run at all, to be honest. Backpacking, too, would have been most unpleasant in glasses. A few weeks ago, I hiked in Forest Park wearing my glasses, as I was prepping my eyes for laser surgery. It was tolerable, but after 31 years in contacts, I was painfully aware of how much I was missing whenever my eyes looked up but the lenses stayed put.

Ten days ago, I went through with something I had been contemplating for decades, and had my corneas sculpted by lasers to refocus images directly on my retinas, instead of somewhere in front of them. It is the best $3500 I have ever spent, or probably ever will spend.

Today I went out for my longest run since the surgery, 54 minutes. I'm not sure of the mileage--as I near my 53rd birthday, I'm running more for time than distance--but I can say I got more bang for my effort than I've had in months, possibly years. Seeing suburbia with my own eyes, rather than mediated through lenses, made it all seem new, fresh, more real. As I returned home, the sun was setting behind me, the shadows lengthening, the clouds coloring. There was nothing spectacular on this run--nothing that can even begin to compare to the wonders I've beheld through contact lenses--but somehow seeing it without contacts made tract homes seem like stately manors, powerlines like monoliths, Springville Road like the Appian Way. It was all new, fresh, startlingly present to me.

I begin each day now in awe that (once the light is on, of course!) I can see the bathroom counter, see myself in the mirror, see the shower head without first putting in contacts. I prepare my breakfast seeing the coffee grinder, the toaster oven, the dishwasher, the refrigerator, all with my own eyes. Just before I leave for work, I head upstairs to brush my teeth and, most wonderfully of all, to see Amy, fast asleep, by the light coming from the hallway, with my own eyes. I kiss her gently, ease the door shut, and set out for a day of visual adventures. I have no illusions about my nerdiness--I can quote Star Trek episodes--but I feel wonderfully empowered by the removal of those lenses, and the gift of seeing everything, for the first time, with my own eyes.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Agnostic Design


Another area of fuzzy thinking out there is the movement called Intelligent Design. It asserts that somethings are too marvelous or too intricate to explain. The contention is that these things defy common scientific accounts for cause and effect, and so they’re ascribed to an intelligent, purposeful designer...So let’s start a movement called Stupid Design, and we’ll see where that takes us. For example, what’s going on with your appendix? It’s much better at killing you than it is at anything else. That’s definitely a stupid design. What about your pinky toenail? You can barely put nail polish on it; there’s no real estate there. how about bad breath, or the fact that you breathe and drink through the same hole in your body, causing some fraction of us to choke to death every year? And here’s my last one. Ready? Down there between our legs, it’s like an entertainment complex system in the middle of a sewage system. Who designed that?— Neil DeGrasse Tyson 
The East Coast is just emerging from Polar Vortex weather that drove temperatures lower than many people have ever experienced them. As has happened with every cold snap for the last decade, climate change nay-sayers burst out of the woodwork like worms crossing the sidewalk after a rainstorm: "Look! Snow! I knew global warming was a lie!" This seasonal stupidity triggered the standard response from science bloggers: "Yes, that's called winter. Meanwhile Australia is having its hottest summer ever. Look at the trend in temperatures, and you'll see it's upward."

I went running this morning at 7 a.m. (It's Saturday, so I got to sleep in a couple of hours), and experienced gusts of warm air that tempted me to remove my vest. The climate change haters have conveniently ignored not just Australia, but the Pacific Northwest, where trees are already budding, birds have never left, and it feels like our actual winter lasted for a week in early December. I can't necessarily peg this to climate change--winters here have, in my 38 years of calling Oregon home, always been mild, with the occasional freeze being the exception rather than the rule. I'm used to spring being solidly in place by February. It does feel to me, though, that there has been a definite creep to the onset of the thaw, and I can't recall ever feeling it this early.

But that's all anecdotal--and that's the point of this blog post. My individual experience of shrinking winters going back to the 1970s may personally confirm the preponderance of opinion flowing my may from the scientific community, but it does not constitute any kind of hard science on my part. I haven't kept records, haven't compared them with older records, haven't offered my conclusions to others for peer review. I just know that when I hear or read a story about what's happening to global temperatures, I find myself nodding, as it confirms my own impression. If it did not, I'd shrug my shoulders and say something like, "Not in my experience, but it's not like I've done any kind of research to confirm that my experience is applicable to this finding." (It should be noted that I do, from time to time, make anecdotal arguments, especially when evangelized by a fad diet believer on her most recent scientific reason for not eating grain [You're blaming it for Alzheimer's now? Explain to me why my diabetic mother has all her faculties!], but that's a subject for another post.)

As I ran this morning, I listened to one of my favorite NPR programs, On the Media. The lead story was about climate change deniers and their annual roll-out of the claim that winter weather trumps science. The entire program was devoted to this theme, including a discussion of the fact that evolution denial is up 10% among Republicans. This was attributed to the elephant party focusing more comprehensively on a particular demographic: conservative evangelicals, people who are far more likely to look at the Bible as a collection of facts than a record of beliefs. At some point, the discussion moved on to "Intelligent Design," the spin that Creationists have put on their argument to make it more palatable to policy-makers and the general public. There's room in the Intelligent Design camp for religious evolutionists; after all, who's to say God hasn't been using evolution as the tool for gradually creating our wonderful world?

I have a lot of sympathy for this last idea, though I certainly don't want it appearing in public school textbooks. I've visited some of the most beautiful structures ever to be built by human beings, have been immersed in music, art, and literature that moved me to tears, but never have I encountered anything as beautiful as this:

For those of you not acquainted with my passion for Utahan national parks, this is the Delicate Arch, a natural monolith millions of years in the making. Visiting Utah, as I have done as often as I can since my first big trip in 1995, I have seen the geological history of this continent laid out before me in rock formations that put to shame anything humans have ever cobbled together from marble, concrete, steel, and glass. It's tempting to imagine an infinitely patient sculptor at work in these sandstone masterpieces; and honestly, I can't say that there is not, in fact, some kind of divine purpose behind them. Unlike Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I lack the certainty of conviction that the less-than-intelligently-designed features of my world (breathing through a tube that is frequently clogged with mucous, for instance) are proof to the contrary.

What I will say is that this world is filled with truth and beauty; that interacting with both children and adults suggests to me anecdotally that, whether or not there is a Creator, we are somehow engineered for altruism; that appreciating both nature and science (and right now, I cannot begin to express how wonderful it is to have had my eyes resculpted by lasers) need not mean ruling out a spiritual purpose for everything; that we can no more prove the absence of God than we can prove God's existence; that all any of us can say for certainty is what each of us has experienced in this life, this world, this universe; and that all of this together moves me to one single response:

Thank you. Whatever you are, whoever you are, even if you aren't: Thank you.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

My Naked Eyes


They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52)
I was six when I put on my first pair of glasses. My mother loves to tell the story of my reaction, how I immediately began pointing out details in the world around me that I apparently had not realized even existed. How long this had been going on is hard to say, but I do remember having a similar experience at 21, when I first wore contact lenses, and was in awe of the fact that I could look up with my eyes, and not have the world disappear into blurriness as it would when I looked over the top rim of my glasses.

Twenty-four hours ago, Dr. Howard Straub reminded me of these experiences as he told me what to expect when I went into the LASIK lab. Knowing how extreme my myopia was, he said, "Your world is about to change. For the first time since you were--what, five, six?--you'll be seeing it with your naked eyes. It'll be like that moment you first put on glasses and realized that trees have leaves." He then described the procedure to me, and minutes later, I was on my back, watching a light show, catching a whiff of corneal tissue being precisely burned away, and then it was done. My vision is not perfect--it will take my eyes about three months to fully heal and adjust--but this afternoon, when I go in for my 24 hour checkup, I'll symbolically drop my glasses in the donation bin at the clinic, so someone somewhere with eyes as bad as mine were, but lacking the insurance and income to pay for such powerful glasses, can see once more.

It occurred to me yesterday that, while I still have those glasses, I should try taking a picture partially through them, to have a record of what the world has looked like for me. Using my iPhone, I was partially successful. As you can see above, the clear world ends at the rim of the lens. What you can't see, because my phone's optics, even focused on the lens, are still far better than my eyes were, is how incredibly blurry the world was for me beyond that horizon. The contact lens correction for my right eye--the stronger one--was 8.50. Without glasses, I would not be able to see the largest letter on an eye chart. I was functionally blind.

Perhaps that is why stories of blind people making their way in the world have always appealed to me. I remember reading a children's novel, probably when I was in the fourth grade, about a boy losing his sight in a fireworks accident, then being introduced to a seeing-eye dog. Then there was the amazing life of Helen Keller. And, of course, Jesus healing the blind.

There are two stories of healing blind men that appeal to me. The first comes from John 9, in which Jesus heals a man born blind. A comedy of manners then ensues, meant to demonstrate how the truly blind are the Pharisees for not acknowledging that Jesus is the Messiah. The anti-Judaism in the text leaves me cold. I much prefer the story of Bartimaeus, quoted above, from the gospel after which I was named, Mark. I love how assertive the blind beggar is in his request, even as the crowd tries to get him to shut up, and how quickly they change their tune when Jesus says to bring the man to him. Jesus then asks a question that, while it may seem obvious, is really quite perceptive: "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man has not, after all, asked to be healed; he's asked for mercy, which could mean many other things. Finally, I love it that, when the healing takes place, Jesus refuses to take credit for it: "Your faith has made you well." All of this is such a contrast to John's ret-conning of the story, in which Jesus knows and proclaims himself Messiah, and welcomes the worship of the blind man, while casting aspersions on the Pharisees for not recognizing his Lordship. Mark's Jesus has not come to rule the world, but to show common people what power they already possess to make it better.

Let's be clear: my faith had nothing to do with my new eyes. I have modern medical technology to thank for that--and also a significant outlay of cash. The healing of Bartimaeus has more in common with what my cast-off glasses will do for some disadvantaged, functionally blind person in the Third World. I am fortunate to have a full-time job, plus a nice cushion of free-lance income, to pay for this luxury; and to live at a time when the technology exists to do this. For that matter, I'm fortunate to live in a time when technology exists to provide my eyes with any correction at all. The soft contact lenses I wore for the last 31 years didn't exist prior to 1971. I'm not sure how long eyeglasses that could correct severe myopia have been in existence, but I do remember how heavy and ugly the glasses I replaced with contacts in 1982 were.

So luck has played a large part in my ability to see at all, and this morning, I am filled with gratitude for it. I'm also in a slight bit of shock that I can type this blog, look up and see the details of the pictures on the walls, see the smile on Amy's face (and the feigned horror she expresses at my bloodshot, still-recovering-from-surgery eyes), all as clearly as I could with contact lenses, with nothing in front of my eyes. It's magical, miraculous, marvelous.

I'm feeling a powerful urge to get out and re-see all the wonders I've previously had mediated to me by lenses of glass and plastic. For now, though, it will suffice to just revel in what I can see here at home. As the song says,

I see trees of green, 
red roses too. 
I see them bloom, 
for me and you. 
And I think to myself,
what a wonderful world. 

I see skies of blue, 
And clouds of white. 
The bright blessed day, 
The dark sacred night. 
And I think to myself, 
What a wonderful world. 

The colors of the rainbow, 
So pretty in the sky. 
Are also on the faces, 
Of people going by, 
I see friends shaking hands. 
Saying, "How do you do?" 
They're really saying, 
"I love you". 

I hear babies cry, 
I watch them grow, 
They'll learn much more, 
Than I'll ever know. 
And I think to myself, 
What a wonderful world.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy Arbitrary Moment in Time! And an Announcement.

Counting down to the New Year has got to be one of the silliest things our culture does.

Our world is artificially segmented into time zones, which cause the entire planet to function as a 24-hour clock, the hours clicking along from zone to zone as if the planet was rotating like the ticking second hand on the 60 Minutes watch. In fact, the planet rotates smoothly, its orientation to the sun shifting constantly. To experience it in real time, one has to be watching a sunset or, much better, a total eclipse of the sun. Instead, we rely on devices to tell us what numbers go with any given moment in time. Once a year, those numbers click over to a new year. The fact that our Julian calendar new year comes a week after the winter solstice, and has no relationship whatsoever to planting or harvest cycles, just underlines the arbitrariness of celebrating a shift of digits in the naming of the year.

And yet we celebrate with great abandon. Two nights ago, Amy and I attended a concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall that featured performances by a number of Portland celebrities, some of whom could actually sing quite well, and concluded with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a work that is in my top five all-time favorite pieces of music. As the inevitable standing ovation (it's Portland, after all) began to peter out, the orchestra kicked into a brief encore, playing "Auld Lang Syne," and balloons tumbled from the ceiling. It was fun, festive, and frivolous, just as an end-of-the-year gala should be. Last night, the actual New Year's Eve, we performed in a show at ComedySportz, then attended a party that featured eating, drinking, socializing, and the game "Cards Against Humanity." We somehow managed to stay awake until midnight, shot off some small fireworks, and drove home.

It's always struck me as odd that we lend so much significance to this artificial phenomenon. The media I read are crowded with lists of best/worst of 2013 and predictions for 2014. Critics, pundits, internet curators become more list-obsessed as the trumped-up year-end draws near. Some of it, I'm sure, is post-Christmas hype: that holiday ends so abruptly that there's still plenty of pent-up energy longing for release. There's also the lame duckiness of the last week of the year. Except for shopping malls crammed with the recipients of gifts eager to cash in their pre-Christmas value and apply it to a marked-down clearance item, both public and private sectors take a deep breath and coast until the first Monday after New Year's.

I'm sitting on the couch in our living room. The tree has been stripped of lights and ornaments, and now lies forlornly on the patio, awaiting its recycling this weekend by a local Scout troop. Alex has taken Amy out to lunch, and Sarah is at her father's house, so I have the place to myself. I've already blogged once this morning, and yet I feel drawn back to the keyboard. As arbitrary as this date feels to me, I am being sucked into the year end/beginning punditry vortex.

2013 was a year of huge transitions. I went from half-time band director in a rural district to full-time general music teacher in a district that has a more urban population than any other in the Portland area. Alex went to college. My children grew more deeply into adulthood, with jobs and responsibilities that came them away for even longer periods of time. Amy and I took our first steps into backpacking, and found the wilderness opening up for us as it never had before. Time and health issues have cut back on our exercise since September, though, and I'm carrying an extra ten pounds as a result--though honestly, I could stand to lose thirty.

2014 will be kicking off in a big way for me on Friday when I have laser surgery to correct my lifelong myopia, as I wrote this morning. Beyond that, I am looking hopefully toward having my contract with Reynolds renewed by the end of January, at which point I'll be transitioning to a different school in the district, with 500 new children to meet and teach. Amy and I may be traveling at spring break, perhaps to New Jersey, though we've not yet looked seriously at the idea. We will be backpacking as much as we can this summer, though where remains to be seen. (Amy would like to see Saguaro cactus, though I think the places those grow will be too hot for us to backpack in July or August, when we'll be able to get there.) When I was in Denver for the AOSA conference, I learned of a continuing education opportunity that will have me traveling to Ghana for two weeks to learn drumming and engage in a cultural exchange--assuming I can get the financing together.

All of that is thrilling, but there's one huge thing I want to share here involving Amy. You don't have to talk to either of us long to realize we're both marriage skeptics: been there, did that, have the scars to show for it. We have, however, been together for nearly five years, a non-marriage record for both of us. We are deeply committed to each other, enough so that we are beginning to do retirement planning. I've never felt this deep a partnership with anyone, a love-bond so strong that I am always aware of it, no matter how far apart me may be physically.

Love like this demands public acknowledgement. So we're going to have a ceremony. We're calling it a Not Marriage. There will be rings, but nothing to sign. There will be a gathering, but not in a church or chapel. There will be vows. There will be witnesses, and some of them will likely be strangers. There may be singing. There will be a party.

The where of this is important: our lives together have to a great extent been defined by our adventures outdoors. One of the first places we hiked was Dog Mountain, a minor peak in the Columbia River Gorge, on the Washington side. It's a tough hike: there's a ridiculously steep trail up the south, river side of the mountain; and a gentler, but also longer, trail up the north side. Our plan is to climb the mountain together, with any friends and family able to join us, and have a ceremony at the summit. Those who cannot will be welcome at the party afterward, which will be much closer to sea level.

The when of it is harder to pin down at this time. Due to the unpredictability of June weather, and my likely trip to Ghana, the not-wedding will probably be no earlier than July. We'll shop around some dates to see what works best for the people we most want to join us. If you're reading this, you're invited.

To conclude for today: 2013 has been a good year for me. 2014 is looking to be even better, though I think it is more of a continuous extension of what has taken plus up to now. In the words of one of my favorite folk songs: I know where I'm going, and I know who's going with me. I know who I love, and my dear knows who I'll (not) marry.

A New Set of Eyes

Yikes!

I wanted something somewhat goofy for this selfie, because I am, in fact, feeling odd about what happens in about 48 hours: lasers will reshape my corneas, and for the first time since I was six years old, I will be able to see the world without corrective lenses.

Unless you knew me in my youth, chances are you've never seen me in my glasses. I got my first set of contacts in 1982, when I was 21, and since then, I've rarely worn glasses in public. I have this week in preparation for Friday morning's LASIK procedure, and it's got me feeling slightly nostalgic for the bad old days when looking up (and over the rim) meant not seeing anything clearly. Only slightly, though; there are many things about both glasses and contact lenses I will not miss in the least.

Let's start with blindness, which I define not as the absence of vision, but the inability to function visually in the world. I can see without my glasses, but what I see is distorted to the extent that I have to feel my way around the house when I'm not wearing them. Without glasses, I cannot drive, ride a bicycle, or even walk in an unfamiliar place without risking injury. I can usually tell what objects are, but that's mostly because of a lifetime of storing information about them while wearing glasses or contacts: my brain compares the general outline and color of of what I'm looking at with previously viewed objects, and draws a conclusion. Looking over the top of my glasses at the Christmas tree in our living room, the conical shape plus the fuzzy colored light dots tell me what it is. If I'd never seen one before, I wouldn't know it was a tree.

If you've got normal vision, or are only mildly near-sighted, you've got no idea what I'm talking about. Apart from setting a zoom lens to macros and then looking at distant objects, it's really not possible to simulate my degree of myopia. That means you take for granted the ability to see things at a distance greater than a few inches. I can't afford to. If I forget where I put my glasses before I stepped into the shower and there's nobody else home, I have to grope my way around the room until I stumble upon them.

Contact lenses were incredibly liberating when I first began to wear them. It was 1982, and there was a new kind of lens called "extended wear." Supposedly one could wear these lenses for an entire month without ever having to take them out. It would be almost like having normal vision! I remember waking up the first night I had my contacts in, and gaping at how clear my bedroom was. It was magical.

It was also a lie. It turned out my eyes were not suited for extended wear lenses, and I was far from alone in this regard. I nearly ruined my vision with them, as they cut off oxygen to my corneas, causing small blood vessels to begin growing into them, a condition that could have eventually left me genuinely blind. I switched to daily wear lenses, and have been using them for 31 years.

Contact lenses simulate normal vision, but they do so at a cost. There is the literal expense of the lenses and the solutions needed to clean and disinfect them every night, but that's just the beginning. There is a convenience factor that non-wearers don't realize, but which I have just taken in stride over the years. Every night, I have to take my contacts out and put them in a cleaning solution, where they have to soak for at least six hours. I have to be careful to put the vial in which they soak in a place where it won't tip over--it uses an effervescent solution, which means it has to have a small vent in the cap, so if it falls on its side, the solution leaks out--and keep it warm enough to be sure all the hydrogen peroxide in the solution is neutralized by the time I put them back in. If I don't follow these rules--if it's been less than six hours, if the solution was in too cool a place, or if the neutralizing disk in the vial has run out of oomph and needs to be replaced--putting my contacts back in is like squirting peroxide in my eyes.

That's just the cleaning issue. Here's another that normally sighted people never have to deal with: get a speck of dust or an eyelash under a contact lens, and the irritation can be excruciating. There are techniques for shifting the lens around and using it to shovel the offending particle away, but these don't always work. Sometimes the only answer is to take the lens out and rinse it--something that can be impossible to do if one is driving, skiing, bicycling, backpacking, or any of the other active things I do. It also means having a bottle of saline handy and, if one is paying attention to proper lens hygiene, washing the hands before touching the lens; and really, once it's out for rinsing purposes, it's not supposed to go back in until it's been disinfected (six hours), but nobody I know follows that rule. It's a wonder we don't all get pink eye. (Which is another situation necessitating wearing glasses instead of contacts.)

This is how I've lived since 1967, when I got my first set of glasses. It was summer, I was about to start first grade, and it was clear that I wasn't seeing well. When I put on that first pair of horn-rimmed glasses, I was in awe at how much clearer the world became, how much more I could see; so it's very likely I'd been having vision issues for quite some time before that. I had the same sense of wonder when I rode the bus home with my first pair of contacts: there was so much more to see now, a world that didn't go blurry on the periphery when I allowed my eyes to look past the edges of my glasses.

I expect it's going to be much like that after Friday morning. For the first time since those few months in 1982 when I was turning my eyes into a failed optometry experiment, I will be able to focus at night. I'll be able to get out of bed and wander around the house without first groping for my glasses, or just groping in general. I expect I'll be in awe over what I can see.

That awe is not going to go away, either. One thing I've never been able to see is an unobstructed night sky. Camping in the high desert on a summer night, sleeping without a tent, I've only been able to see the stars through glasses. That will change this summer. I can barely wait.

There is one thing I'll be giving up, something that's almost a superpower for me, the only benefit to myopia: macrovision. With my contacts out and my glasses off, my focal point is approximately one inch in front of my eyes. This has come in handy for doing close work, like threading a needle or constructing dollhouse furniture. But I'm not called on to do that kind of work often, and a pair of reading glasses will compensate more than adequately for the loss of this ability. In fact, it'll be refreshing to put lenses on to see something up close, rather than have that be the only time I take them off.

It probably won't make much difference to anyone's perception of me. As I said at the beginning, there are few people alive who remember me wearing glasses, and most of those people have had much longer to get used to me wearing contacts instead. But for me, it will be like I've stopped out into a whole new world.

I can hardly wait.