Saturday, March 29, 2014

Waterlogged Theology


This is not a review.

I haven't seen Noah, the just-released blockbuster about the Flood, nor do I plan to see it. Between previews and word-of-mouth, I'm 98% certain I'd spend the entire two hours and eighteen minutes critiquing both the liberties it takes with the Biblical narrative and the ways in which it chickens out on the real scandal at the heart of that story.

I've already written about that scandal, calling it "The Worst Story in the Bible," and I don't intend to repeat much of that argument here. What I do want to do is just zoom in on the key aspect of it, which Noah almost certainly glosses over, as does every popular interpretation of the story I've ever encountered. (Case in point, this: )

Simply put, the central character in the story of the Flood is not an old man with a big boat; it's the bloodthirsty God who, on a whim, destroys all life that won't fit on that boat. This is genocide on a cosmic scale. When the commander of the Death Star commits a similar atrocity in Star Wars: A New Hope, using the battle station's super laser to destroy the entire planet of Alderaan, there's no question but that the perpetrator is a cold-blooded mass murderer who should, and will, be judged and punished for what he has done. And yet, when God drowns an entire army in the Red Sea, causes the ground to open up and swallow misbehaving Israelites, strikes dead two early Christians who cheated on their tithe, or, in the visions of John of Patmos, promises to cast all unbelievers into a lake of eternal fire, Bible-believing Christians look the other way or, worse, embrace the violence as well-deserved.

But wait, there's more: natural disasters--hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, wildfires and, of course, floods--are typically ascribed to God, rather than nature, by people of even marginal faith. Churches pray for people to be spared from these "acts of God," give thanks to God for those who are spared, yet somehow manage to ignore the fact that the same God who spared Cousin Ralph must be responsible for drowning Mrs. Willoughby next door.

That's how churches have always handled the Flood, focusing on God's act of sparing Noah, his family, and their hastily gathered menagerie rather than on the massacre of every other land-dwelling creature. We give Noah toys to babies. I remember enjoying an ark play set when I was a toddler, and I gave one to my children, too. Praise be to God for sparing every person who escapes a natural disaster! And we just won't mention that, if God could save these people, God could also have stepped in and saved all the victims who didn't make it, perhaps by not letting that tornado happen in the first place.

Of course, this is not the world we live in. Nature is a harsh mistress, killing and sparing without regard to the righteousness of persons. It's natural to long for an explanation, to seek deeper meaning in random events of feast and famine, but that there is a longing for such meaning does not mean it is there to be found. And the meaning most often found--that there is a deity handing out blessings and curses based on clearly identifiable criteria--lays the groundwork for atrocity. Suppose a village on one side of a valley is destroyed by a mudslide, while others escape unscathed. It's tempting to think there must be something about the people of that village that brought this disaster upon them. Perhaps it's their faith: they worship a different incarnation of the deity than that favored by most of the rest of the inhabitants of the valley. Perhaps God was punishing them for their heretical faith. And look, there's an enclave of people practicing that heresy in our own village! For our own safety, we'd better do something about them, at the very least exile them from our community, before another disaster strikes, and some of our family is collateral damage.

This is the kind of thinking that has generated persecution from generation to generation throughout the history of the human race. In 2001, following the destruction of the World Trade Center by radical Islamists, Sikhs, adherents of an Indian religion completely unrelated to Islam, were targeted by American bigots simply for wearing turbans.

It strikes me that we may be hard-wired to explain tragedies in this way, just as we retain the fight-or-flight instincts of our ancestors long after such reactions ceased to lose their effectiveness for the modern risks we face. There was a time when finding spiritual meaning in tragedy made it more bearable, especially one the concept of appeasing God was added to the mix. If God can be coaxed into reversing a harsh judgment through sacrifices, then humans have gained some semblance of control over their situation. If, more than that, God occasionally sets someone aside for rescue from one of these righteous disasters, then God is much more than an all-powerful judge: God is savior.

This is a fundamentally insane notion. Being saved by God from a disaster caused by God, then worshiping God for the salvation, but never holding God accountable for the disaster, is nuts. And yet that is precisely how people of faith practice their religion in every part of the world.

Not all of them do, mind you;r but it takes considerably more effort to develop a nuanced theistic faith, to believe in a God who is all-loving but not all-powerful. And it's almost impossible to derive such a God simply from study of the Bible. There are inklings of such developments in Biblical theology--the prophets wrestling with the Exile, Paul struggling with questions of theodicy, sayings of Jesus that challenge simplistic notions of righteousness and divine reward--but as a whole, the book skews toward an omnipotent God and never really addresses the contradictions of ascribing infinite love to this same God. Of course, since it's more an anthology than a single piece of work, it doesn't really have to. The real problem is with those who insist on treating the book as if it always says what it means and means what it says, and every thing it says, however contradictory or abominable, is literally the word of God.

If I were to profess faith in a God, it could not be the God of the Flood, the Exodus, or any of the other great and terrible events depicted in the Bible. No, I'd be looking for a kinder, gentler, weaker God, one who could be trusted to listen, to comfort, to encourage. There are many, I expect, who worship this God, and find the basis for their faith in the Bible; but to do so, they must set aside large portions of the book.

If you are a theist, I encourage you to be a thoughtful believer, to acknowledge that your holy book is, first and last, a book; and to ask yourself which of the great works you attribute to God are truly compatible with your understanding of who God is.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Cloistered


It's a museum of medieval art, most of it religious, in a building cobbled together from pieces of ancient European monasteries. And it's located in Manhattan.

I've heard of The Cloisters before, but never understood what people were talking about. When they tried describing the place, I was skeptical: during my two years in Europe, I visited many authentically ancient churches, and church architecture remains one of my interests, even as I have left clergy life behind. When one has been to cathedrals in York, Dublin, Munich, and Rome, to name just a few I visited, even the oldest American churches feel juvenile.

But The Cloisters did not disappoint.

The organizers of this collection of pieces wisely chose specificity over broadness. Tapestries, altar pieces, reliquaries, stained glass, chalices, patens, tombs, prayer books: everything on display came from 12th to 15th century churches. In the paintings and sculptures, one can see European knowledge of the human form evolving toward the photo-realism of the Renaissance. The costumes worn by the subjects of these paintings are delightfully whimsical to modern eyes, suggesting fairy tales, kings and queens and knights in shining armor. The subject matter is often shocking: depictions of torture and martyrdom, dismemberments, and, of course, the wounds of Christ in bloody detail. Many of the pieces contain complex imagery stitched together like a "Where's Waldo" picture book. The presence of patrons in many of the pieces, rewarded for their largess with a blessing from St. Peter or a bird's eye view of the Annunciation, is a reminder that money has always played a role in both religion and art. Then there are the non sequiturs: apes assembling a table, or robbing a traveler of his possessions; an entire room of tapestries depicting a hunt for, and the eventual slaughter of, a unicorn; Bible stories illustrated with characters dressed as 13th century courtiers; an apostle standing at the foot of Mary's deathbed, blowing incense across the room to ease her passing. And, of course, there's the finery: a chalice, depicting the aforementioned seen of the traveler being attacked by apes, wrought in gold and enamel so fine it is hard to imagine how it could have been accomplished with the tools and techniques of a 14th century artisan; pocket psalters illuminated with images so small one almost needs a magnifying glass to appreciate their details.

What delighted me most was the occasional glimpse of how little things have changed in the centuries since these works were created. To illustrate, I give you this stained glass image of the Prodigal Hipster:


He may be dressed oddly by our standards--but then, isn't that the hallmark of the hipster? Clothing that makes middle-aged adults roll their eyes? The skinny genes, the ironically square glasses, the canvas shoes, the beanie, the tattoos and ear gauges and waxed mustaches and tall bicycles--all of it is there to prove they are who they are, independent of us oldsters. They are hip, living large, making their way in the world despite the brakes we might want to put on them, doing all they can to prove they are not conventional in any way. That is the essence of the story of the prodigal, the young man who demanded his inheritance while his father was still alive, then squandered it in the city before dragging his now starving self back home to seek mercy, and was rewarded instead with a lavish welcome-home feast. This prodigal has just acquired his inheritance, and clearly spent a chunk of it on the latest extravagant fashions before making his way downtown to a gambling den. Soon his money will be gone and, with it, the ridiculous hat and the fine robes and leggings. For now, though, he is utterly filled with confidence and hauteur. He is unbearably young.

Just as we all were, at one time.

So it has always been, so it will ever be. That's the message that keeps coming to me, whether it's working with elementary children, helping parent a 14-year-old, watching a college freshman find his way in Eugene, or reaching out across the miles to my 20-something adult children. Everything these young people experience, I once knew first-hand; and all their quirks, all the things they find exciting or irritating, and all the extreme reactions they have to them, I either remember experiencing or have seen played out by every other young person I have worked with or parented who was going through the same stage in life.

Someday, they will all experience what I am at this time: the gradual loss of vigor, the more prevalent soreness of recovery from exercise, the thinning and graying of hair, the cooling of youthful passion, and the emptying of the nest that brings not so much grief as melancholy.

"I was never that young," I'm tempted to say, looking at the stained glass prodigal hipster, gazing upon these young adults, adolescents, children.

"No," the voice of wisdom reminds me, quoting a movie my middle-aged brain can't remember the title of at this moment, "You were younger."

He Is Gone



Just like that, my two weeks are up.

Sean is mostly self-contained. There are logistical things he needs me to do: drive him to the AT&T Store to activate his new iPhone, book his travel, pay for most of his meals while he's with me. Apart from that, he entertains himself most of the time, which was especially important last week, as I worked 10-12 hour days. When I did have time with him, it was mostly spent in passive activities, watching TV or movies. We played cards with Amy and Sarah, and once we were in New Jersey, with Amy's mother, Helene. But by and large, Sean entertained himself, reading, Facebooking, and playing video games.

And then, this morning, we dropped him at LaGuardia, and he flew away.

I've been playing this empty nesting game for nineteen years, and always, no matter how long I've been with my kids, no matter how stressful it's been, how hard they've been working at making me look forward to their departure, once they leave, I ache. It's a cruel joke nature or God or whatever the hell it was that figured out our wiring played on us by creating this parent-child bond. We work so hard to prepare them for life, want desperately for them to be strong, confident, successful, independent; and then when they become those things, and set off to make their own way in the world, we hate it. If my mother's any indication, we never stop hating it, never stop worrying about them, whether they're in trouble, whether they're happy in their relationships, whether they can make ends meet, hold onto a job, recover from whatever injury or illness comes their way.

Sean called me when he got to his gate at LaGuardia, just as I'd asked him to. He called me when he landed in Denver, and again when he made it to his gate there. I expect he'll call me again when in lands in Salt Lake, maybe even when he catches his shuttle bus to Idaho Falls. He won't call because he needs to; he'll do it because he knows it'll make me feel better, knowing he's all right, and because it'll make me proud of him for negotiating a complicated itinerary.

And then I'll go back to my default mode, locking up my sadness and longing in a box until I can finally be reunited with one or both of my kids the next, all-too-short, time.

The Lullaby of Broadway


So much for the hip hooray and bally hoo.

It was a cold day, a windy day, a no-amount-of-cloth-covering-fingers-will-keep-them-from-freezing day. It was Thursday, and all our walking was brisk.We parked in a garage, walked to Times Square, then up Broadway to Central Park, spent a couple of hours being alternately awed by fossil skeletons and creeped out by more modern stuffed dead critters, and in the middle of that, I took a call from my sister-in-law Intaba, who is now living an hour north of Manhattan. She was excited at getting to see us, and was hoping to see a show with us. Her idea: lottery tickets. We thought we'd take a stab at the half-price ticket booth at Times Square first, though, so after filling up on pizza, we headed over there.

The line was long, and Amy volunteered to stand in it with Sarah. Sean and I walked over to the display of what shows were available and how much tickets were discounted. What followed was a half hour of three-way shuttle diplomacy, with me relaying what I'd learned from the ticket board with both Amy and Intaba, while also negotiating with Sean, whose tastes were not the same as ours. We finally settled on a list of shows and a maximum price we were willing to pay for tickets, then headed up onto the iconic red glass steps to huddle against the biting wind. Sarah joined us after awhile. Amy called to ask about several different shows--she was finally at the window--then stopped abruptly, leaving the connection live. I kept trying to talk to her for five minutes, realizing finally that she was walking up to join us. There was nothing: no shows with enough affordable tickets to accommodate all of this. I passed this information on to Intaba, who suggested we try for the lottery tickets at Wicked, a show we all agreed we wanted to see. We did so, putting all our names in the hat for $30 tickets, and meeting Intaba there, fresh off the train. Any name drawn during the lottery could buy two tickets at that price, cash only. That meant three of our names would have to be drawn. The moment of the lottery finally arrived, and my name was called. Unfortunately, mine was the only name in our group drawn, so I gave up my spot, and we headed downtown for dinner at an excellent Indian restaurant.

It was a frustrating experience, but consistent with most of my previous attempts at getting goods or services for significantly less than the retail price: either there's a catch that drives the price up, or what you get in the mail fails to deliver on its promise of being just as good, or by the time the auction has ended you find yourself having paid as much for a used item that may or may not work as well as the new one you forewent to "save" money, or...

The point is simple: it's very hard to get a genuinely good discount on anything of value. I have beat the system once in this regard, and it was a fluke: twelve years ago I saw a Citizen watch with a clearance tag on it at Sears during a 50% off lowest price marked sale, which made the final price around $25. The clerk was so astonished by the price that she called the manager over, who confirmed that a) the price marked was wrong, but b) Sears had a strict policy about honoring price tags, so yes, it was mine for $25. I still proudly wear that watch, marveling every time I put it on at the bargain it was.

Apart from that, almost every bargain I've ever found has turned out to be a disappointment. On the flip side, I've learned that, while I can't expect to pay a truly low price for a high quality item, I can't expect to privately sell my stuff for what it's supposed to be worth. If people don't want to pay $100 for a rare item of Star Trek memorabilia, I'm not going to sell it for that. It doesn't matter that this is the price it's supposed to go for according to reputable sources. Stuff is only worth what people will pay for it.

And apparently the stuff I'm willing to pay for doesn't get marked down by much, while the stuff I'm willing to part with can't be marked up unless I'm wearing a dealer's hat.

Econ 101 lesson aside, for all the frustration of trying to get into a show, it was a great day in New York; and really, how good would meeting up with Intaba have been if we spent most of our time sitting quietly in a theater?

Keep your bally hoo, Broadway. We had a find old time without it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

She Lifts Her Lamp

My first impression was that she's smaller than I expected.

There's a copy of Liberty's face in the museum. Here are Amy and Sarah posing with it:
It's still big, for a face; but when you stop to think what it represents, what this "new colossus" has meant to tens of millions of soon-to-be new Americans, you think maybe it should be a little bigger.

I first realized I wanted to climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty sometime in the early 1980s. It was before the statue was refurbished for its 1986 centenary, so the stairs were, apparently, wider than they are now, not the narrow double-helix that provides separate up and down routes. There was a PSA that depicted a middle-aged man laboring up an unidentified staircase, his kids egging him on, until finally he arrived, gasping, at the top. The camera zoomed out then to show that he was looking out of the windows in the crown. The message was to take one's blood pressure medicine, or watch one's cholesterol, or for God's sake to get some exercise, because one wants to be around for one's kids; but I just remember thinking, "Cool!" (I also remember wondering if I would look as beat as that guy did at the top of that set of stairs--this was before I started working out regularly--but that's another story. And the answer is no, I didn't find them all that challenging, yay me!)

The statue has always been an important symbol to me. Both sides of my father's family came to America in the late 1800s, but not late enough to pass through Ellis Island. My mother's family came to the United States by way of Canada, and were mostly Acadian--French-speakers whose arrival in the New World pre-dates the Mayflower. Even so, the sense of being a relative newcomer to this land has always been with me. My father's father was fluent in Swedish, my father's grandmother grew up speaking German, and my mother's father grew up speaking French, so one doesn't have to go that far back in my family tree to find Old Europe. And considering the French part of my ancestry got kicked out of its first New World home, as well, I've got ample reason to feel my heart star at the symbolism of placing a huge statue in New York harbor facing away from the city, toward Europe, whence came wave after wave of migrants seeking freedom.

Finally setting foot on Liberty Island, and listening to the first few minutes of the audio tour--I turned it off once we were inside the museum--I looked up at the back of her head and imagined what it was like to finish the long passage, to strain for the first glimpse of the torch beckoning me to my new home, to know that I had arrived in a land that welcomed me regardless of my social status, my ethnicity, my history.

I'm aware that the hospitality implied in that last remark was an ideal Americans frequently failed to embody. I know Asians and Africans had to endure generations of slavery and rejection before they could begin to enjoy the freedoms Europeans so quickly embraced. I know, too, that today it is migrants from the other New World, the America south of our own border, who face a far less liberal welcome than did their whiter predecessors.

But that's not the point. America is a dream, an ideal, a vision of liberty, justice, and equality, of democracy and opportunity and everything enlightened people have been aspiring to since the days of Ancient Greece. Often we have fallen short of those ideals, spectacularly at times, and there are horrors in our history fully as abominable as the persecution that drove Europeans to come here. And yet there has not been an exodus of Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans. or even, most recently, of Gay Americans. As narrow-minded and chauvinistic as we may be, we still stand for something that others want a piece of.

That's what this statue represents to me: America at its best, a dream that led people to abandon all that they had, to endure treacherous voyages in order to start over, almost penniless, in a strange place that, as likely as not, did not speak their language, did not recognize their customs, and teemed with alien creatures, a place with just a fraction of the millennia-rich culture they had taken for granted in the old country. There was no guarantee they would thrive in this new place, and in fact, many of them had to endure generations of hard labor so that their grandchildren might have a better life than they had known in their homelands. But here, at least, there was hope that they could worship as they chose, that they might find a place to live where they need not fear pogroms, where they could have a piece of land that was entirely theirs, not the property of some feudal lord who happened to be born into wealth. (Of course, much of that land was taken forcibly from the people who were already here; but as I said, this is about ideals, including those betrayed by reality.)

I gazed at the backside of Liberty, and I was moved. I climbed to the top with Amy, Sarah, and Sean, looked out from the crown across the water to Ellis Island, and felt this statue should be much, much bigger than it was. It meant so much more than could be contained in that ten-times-life-sized face. Then we climbed down from the crown, boarded the ferry, and traveled to Ellis Island, where Amy was able to find her great-grandmother's entry in 1916 in the official log book:

It said she was four feet, ten inches tall, that she came to be with her husband, who had sponsored her journey from Lodz, Russia, and that she was a Hebrew. She came to escape pogroms, Cossacks, and, just a year later, a revolution. She came and started a family. And now, almost a hundred years later, we found her in the data base.

My ancestors are not in there. They came earlier, though not that much earlier (except for the Acadians). But in that passage, Amy and I share an ancestral story, a story of starting over in a New World, a story of seeking freedom in a place different from any that had been known before. It's a story we have been living out in real time, in our relationship with each other. I think if we were to tell Lady Liberty about it, about how we both explored an undiscovered country after decades poking around in more familiar places, she'd smile, and lift her lamp a little higher for us:

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Not the Adventure We Signed Up For

Here's the view we were supposed to have, and did, for about half an hour (and no, I didn't take this, it's a stock image off the internet):
And here's the view we wound up with instead (also a stock image, but you get the idea):

How did this happen, you're wondering? How did our romantic New York getaway end up with us staying at the Saddle River Residence Inn, a 35 minute drive away from the view we originally paid for? The one word answer: AirBnB.

We booked the "Shangri-La on the Hudson" in January. It seemed perfect for the spring break adventure we planned for ourselves, Amy's daughter Sarah, and my son Sean. We'd spend all day Monday getting here, flying into LaGuardia, then driving a rental car to our apartment in West New York, New Jersey. Every night, we'd have that view at the top of the page. During the day, we'd travel into Manhattan for sight-seeing; at night, we'd dine at one of the many ethnic eateries within walking distance of the apartment, then go home to enjoy the view some more. Marty, our host, communicated with us several times, and seemed friendly, excited to meet us, eager to share his expertise of the area. We couldn't wait.

Two days before the trip, he called to tell us he'd upgraded us to a new apartment he'd just purchased on the same block. This one was also three bedroom, with a master suite upstairs and two bedrooms plus another bathroom downstairs. We'd be the first to stay in this apartment, which had all-new appliances, plus an even better view. He told me he'd looked at my profile and was excited to learn I was a music teacher. Perhaps I could give him some guitar tips.

Yesterday, we left home early for a birthday breakfast at Broder, a Scandinavian grill in the Clinton neighborhood, then headed out to the airport on the MAX. Everything was working smoothly: our first flight was a few minutes late taking off, but made up the time thanks to a good tailwind; we caught the connecting flight, in Chicago, boarding the moment we reached the gate; our checked bags appeared on the carousel within seconds of our arrival in the luggage area; the shuttle to the rental lot came a minute after we stepped onto the curb; and the car we rented easily met all our needs. Amy drove us through the Bronx and onto the top deck of the George Washington Bridge, then down the river bank the five miles to West New York, and after going around the block once, I had a call from Marty telling us there was a parking space right across the street from the apartment. We parked, shook his hands, and were led up the stairs to our home for the week. He showed us around, and we gaped at the view out the front window, were suitably impressed with the roominess of the kids' bedrooms--and then it all went to hell.

"The upstairs room will be ready tomorrow," he said.

"We paid for three bedrooms," said Amy.

"No, you paid for a two bedroom apartment, and you're getting it at a great price. You'd be paying $500 across the river."

"I just want to be clear about this," Amy continued. "The place we rented was listed as having three rooms..."

Marty didn't let her finish. "I want you all out of here tomorrow morning. Go find your own place. I'm canceling your stay here." He stormed down the stairs and out the door.

Just like that, we had nowhere to stay.

Amy got on her computer and her phone, while I called AirBnB. I was on hold a total of twenty minutes--the first call was dropped just as I finally made contact with an operator, so I had to start it all over again--and meanwhile I had a text from Marty confirming what he'd said, that we were to be out by 10 the next morning, because "Your friend (Amy) does not match our energy." Once I finally got through, AirBnB was great about the whole situation, assuring me we'd have a full refund, and they'd work with us to find another place--though as I told them, we were feeling pretty gunshy about another of their rentals. Meanwhile, Amy had found and reserved a suite at the Residence Inn in Saddle River, much farther from Manhattan but much closer to the nursing home where Amy's mother lives. We carried all our luggage back downstairs, loaded up the car, and finally settled into our room at 2 a.m.

It was, to the say the least, an inauspicious start to the vacation, and I was still feeling shell-shocked the next morning. "What just happened?" we kept asking each other. I hadn't seen anything in Amy's words that should have occasioned such a tantrum. All of Marty's reviews on AirBnB said he was a model host, friendly, helpful, generous to a fault, and prior to the sudden U-turn, there had been nothing in our communications to suggest otherwise. This wasn't just unprofessional behavior; it was erratic, unstable, unlike almost anything I'd ever experienced. The few people I've had dealings with who did something like this were acting out of a mental illness. Anytime I've been on the receiving end of it, it's left me feeling bruised and frightened. In this case, I had to add three more feelings to that list: anxiety at having to find another place to stay to salvage our vacation; fatigue at having to work it out after spending an entire day traveling; and deep disappointment at losing such a wonderful location just as we'd checked into it. One thing we were clear about as soon as Marty left: the hell with 10 a.m. We didn't want to spend another minute in his place.

This morning, we had a typical "continental" breakfast in the hotel dining room, then drove to the nursing home to visit Helene, took her out to lunch at the Kosher Nosh, and visited the cemetery where Amy's father and brothers are buried. Somewhere in there, I had a call from AirBnB confirming they would refund our money, pay the difference between our canceled stay and the hotel we wound up in, give us a $250 voucher for a future AirBnB, and blacklist Marty for his conduct. That left me feeling much better about the company, and I expect we will give them another try, perhaps the next time we go to Bend.

In the meantime: we're here. We're going to take the kids to the Statue of Liberty, to Central Park, and to one or two museums. We're going to eat New York bagels and pizza. We're going to spend some time with Amy's high school and college friends. And we're going to be in a show: ComedySportz New York. It will be a week to remember, with one more story to tell for years to come about the "Shangri-La" that Shangri-wasn't.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Second Class Subject


We've established by now that I teach in a gym. I've written a lot about the challenges of teaching music in this space: the horrible acoustics, the psychological urge so many children (especially the small ones) feel in that space to run and slide across the floor, the logistical difficulty of removing anything of value from the room every day at the end of school so that after-school and evening programs don't destroy expensive instruments. I've become inured to most of these problems, so much so that, should I ever find myself back in a normal classroom, a small room dedicated to music with drier acoustics and space for all my equipment, it won't feel like things have been put back to normal; no, much more than that, it'll be like stepping into paradise. I'll be wandering around in a daze for weeks, pinching myself at all the luxuries of teaching in a room like most of my colleagues take for granted.

Apart from all that, I was reminded this week in several ways of just how far music education is going to have to come before it reaches anything like the tenuous importance it had before the recession. For instance:

1) At Margaret Scott, one of the few perks I enjoyed was a video projector that lived in the gym. I used it to great advantage for the recorder curriculum I've developed, and was eager to put that in place at Hartley. Instead, I've been waiting two months for a projector. It's not that I can't do this with a white board and some dry erase markers; prior to this year, that's all I ever used! What rankles is that every other classroom in the school has one of these devices, and every teacher in the district is supposed to have one.

2) It took more than a month to get the keyboard out of storage in the portable that was once the music room (it was immediately taken over by the ELD department when music was cut back, meaning ELD now enjoys two classrooms to my...gym. I wonder why they don't want to teach in there?). I had to wait on every other project the custodian had on his docket. It kept getting bumped back, day after day, week after week, until finally I felt like I was becoming a nuisance to him. I've gotten by, but really: a music class without a piano?

3) Last week one of the first grade teachers asked me if it was okay if several of her students came in several minutes late because the SMART volunteers were reading to them, and couldn't be scheduled at any other time. I replied that this was seriously disruptive to the class, and that those students would have a hard time catching up with what their classmates had already learned unless I just started over when they came in. She said she'd try to reschedule the volunteers; however, later that day I received an email from the principal telling me SMART took priority over music, and I'd just have to live with it.

4) Continuing with the theme of just having to live with it, I lost the gym two mornings this week to activities that no one consulted me about: an assembly and career day. I was simply informed in the weekly schedule that these things would be happening. I was still expected to teach during those times. Fortunately I had lessons planned for those classes that lent themselves well to a portable solution--and, to be honest, it was far more tolerable teaching them in their home rooms than in the gym--but that will not always be the case. A lesson that's heavy on movement, or requires the use of Orff instruments, will just have to be scrapped if I can't have my usual space to teach it.

5) Ten days ago, our early release program time was a presentation by the architect preparing plans for the next bond measure. She talked about demolishing the portables to expand the parking lot and create a true bus lane for students, then adding on four classrooms to one of the wings--which is exactly what will be lost with the portables. Nowhere in the plans was there provision made for a music room.

Every day, I am reminded by students and teachers how much they've missed music, how glad they are to have it back, and how much they love what I'm doing. I hear some of the most ornery fourth and fifth graders practicing their recorders outdoors after school. I have children stop me in the hall to tell me how they sang a song I taught them to their parents. They wave eagerly to me whenever they see me.

And yet, so much was lost in those budget cuts. Losing a classroom is the biggest blow: once a federally mandated program has moved in, something as cuttable as music will not be reclaiming that space. And as much as I am becoming a part of this school's culture, they're used to not having me around. They didn't have me for the first semester. They hardly had any music at all last year. The counselor has been taking up the slack by taking his guitar around the school and singing with classes. In the minds of many, this may be enough. We can live without a music teacher if we have to, they've realized, just as long as we keep our prep time. If his lessons are disrupted by kids drifting in because even the most basic reading program takes priority over music, too bad: we still get our prep time. If he has to pack his lessons in a box and move from room to room to accommodate career day, we're sorry for the inconvenience, but don't mess with our prep time.

The scariest part of this is that it could be worse. I could be completely without a room of my own, having to work in classrooms all the time with whatever I can fit on a cart. Worse still, I could be without this job. And as much as I loved my adolescent students in Banks, it was half time and it wasn't primary. This is the job I belong in.

Knowing, then, that I'm lucky to have a full-time (for me--half-time for each of the schools I'm in) job, luckier still to have a space that is (mostly) my own to do it in, have I any grounds to complain?

What do you think? And this time, I'll be happy to see what you who've been patient enough to finish reading this have to say in the comments.

He Is Here


A week ago last night, my heart broke open.

Some context: since 2005, it takes many gallons of fuel and hours of travel for me to see either of my children. For the first few years after they were moved to Idaho Falls, I saw them fairly regularly, a few days at a time, about once a month. Then my daughter Sarah graduated from high school, and started having work commitments. I still saw Sean fairly often, and for extended periods at school vacations, but that, too, had to change, as he entered the work world last year. This means that, prior to last Friday, I hadn't seen him or Sarah since last August, when Amy and I drove 700 miles for a few hours with each of them.

This is the reality of my empty nest--and really, of all empty nests. Every parent has to, at some point, adjust to the departure of children as they set out to make their own way in the world. Granted, in recent years the length of their time living at home has, overall, been extended by our cruel economy, and granted, further, that my experience of an emptying nest began far earlier than most; but every parent who has ever lived has had to, in one way or another, release his or her grip on every child he or she conceived.

Traditionally, this happened after a child had matured at least to adolescence, but for most divorced parents, it happens sooner. I had barely adjusted to having children when I had to learn how not to be around them for large blocks of time. Sarah was 5, Sean was 2, and suddenly I was seeing them by appointment. My first real bachelor home was chosen with them in mind. I had very little furniture, almost all of it purchased for the house: a futon for the living room in which I also slept, a cheap dinette for the kitchen, a computer desk, and bunk beds for the children. When they were with me, I would read to each of them at bed time, tuck them in, and try to get myself to sleep. Almost every night, I would awaken in the week dark hours of the morning, and wracked by grief, would spend an hour or two sobbing before I could get back to sleep. Two or three hours later, with the house still dark, I would become aware of a small presence climbing up on the futon with me: Sean, always an early riser. We'd snuggle for a few minutes, and then I'd pop a video in for him, and he'd sit on the end of the bed watching it. I had just a few, and I rotated through them: Mickey Mouse as The Prince and the Pauper, The Lion King, and some Winnie the Pooh. The video would start, I'd go back to sleep, and the next thing I knew, I was hearing the closing credits: time to put in another one.

Those early morning snuggle and video sessions did more to keep me sane than anything else that happened as my world collapsed. I learned more in those first six months of involuntary singleness than in my decade of higher education. The most important lesson was this: hug them while you have them, then let them go.

My parenting life from 1995 to the present has been a continuous course in Empty Nesting, each year bringing new lessons. When Idaho came, it was the practicum. A year ago, I graduated from the program, and now I see my children like a true empty nester: far too little.

I've known other empty nesters whose identities were built on the grief of separation. I've also seen how my parents have taken it in stride, missing us, but accepting from the beginning that their place in our lives had to change once we reached adulthood. I have no way of knowing what it was like for them in the 1980s, as their household began to shrink--I was, after all, the first to leave, and not around to see the impact on them as it happened. My mother has told me that letting me go to Illinois, then Texas, then England was hard for her, but that she knew it wasn't her decision anymore where I lived. I just know they were always glad to see me, and that, while they were sad to see me go, they didn't cling. This is the approach I've taken to my own emptying nest, starting at the very beginning, from the first time I dropped my children off with their mother and drove away, tamping down the tears before they could form.

It was often difficult. There was a period in the early 2000s when I would pick Sean up from his mother's house for a Cub Scout meeting, bring him back to the same house, and tuck him in there, only to have him dissolve into sobs that I now had to leave. Then came dropping them off in Idaho for the first time--I drove them there, with the help of my brother David, and after saying goodbye, could not have made the trip back without him, torn apart as I was. Putting them on planes was a different challenge: Sean would often be in tears, often take a great deal of coaxing from me to get on the plane, which was especially a challenge the time I left him at the gate, then had Sarah call me as I was getting back in my car to tell me he wouldn't board, and I had to talk him through it by phone.

I got through all that. They grew up. Now I mainly communicate with them through phone calls and text messages. I have learned to contain my longing as all empty nesters do, stuffing it in a box. I've got so good at it that I can fool myself at times to thinking it's not there.

And then, a week ago, I parked my car at the airport and went in to wait for Sean to come off the plane.

I wasn't sure how I'd feel. This may be the longest we've been apart. I walked anxiously as the travelers streamed out of the concourse, hundreds of them, meeting up with friends and family, shaking hands, embracing, quickly disappearing from the waiting area as the next wave hit. And then I saw him, taller than most, his red hair (so much like mine once was) unkempt, striding toward the exit chute, and my heart broke open, just as it is at this moment as I write this, because my little boy was home.

I've worked all week, seen him only in the evenings, and he's been fine with that. He is is own person, entertaining himself all day long, happy to see me and spend whatever time he can with me, happy, as well, to go back to his books and movies and video games when I go to bed. This is as it should be. Monday he'll fly with us to New York City for a few days of vacation. Next Friday he'll be returning to Idaho. I'll do my best to enjoy our time together this week, and not to get caught up with anticipatory grief in the impending goodbye, but I now there will be some sadness. And then I'll move on, hoping I can see him, and see Sarah, but knowing it may be many more months before that happens.

Because that's what it is to be an alumnus of Empty Nest U.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

RIP Fred Phelps


Just to be clear: he was a horrible man.

Fred Phelps was the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, a tiny Kansas congregation whose notoriety astronomically exceeded their relevance. For decades, Westboro Baptists traveled across the United States picketing Gay Pride parades, welcoming congregations, military funerals, any event or organization that, in the twisted theology of their pastor, promoted treating gay men and lesbians like human beings. This was, quite literally, hate speech, with the word "hate" ascribed to God's feelings toward whichever epithet Phelps preferred for persons whose orientation differed from his own.

Toward the end of his life, Phelps was excommunicated by his church. I have no idea why. I have read that he was estranged from his son, Fred Jr., for more than thirty years. He lived to be 84, long enough to see the beginning of the end for his cherished cause of religion-infused bigotry, as a growing avalanche of states legalize same-sex marriage.

The religious right is going to miss Fred Phelps, but not for the reasons you might think. For decades, Phelps provided cover for bigots who disguise their hatred as piety. "He's a terrible extremist," they could say. "God doesn't hate homosexuals, he loves them! He just wants them to stop sinning."

And therein lies the rub, because the difference between this high-minded homophobia and the sign-waving hatred of Westboro is cosmetic. Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Assembly of God Pentecostals et al hold a belief virtually identical to those of Fred Phelps: homosexuality is a choice, a willful act committed by sinful humans that is a perversion of God's plan for human relations and reproduction, and the only right way for homosexuals to be accepted by the church and society is to turn away from their sinful behavior. They may not picket, their web sites may not be filled with hate speech, but they are cut from the same cloth.

Without Fred Phelps to kick around, the hypocrisy of clothing bigotry in "love" becomes more obvious to the rest of us. "I'm just not ready for gay people to get married" can be seen as grounded in ignorance and prejudice rather than caution. The religious exemption so many bigots are seeking this year is revealed for what it is: Westboro without its "God hates fags" signs.

In fact, Fred Phelps has done us a service, showing up the well-dressed bigots for what they are: just a few steps removed from hate-mongering clowns. The same service was provided for racism by the Ku Klux Klan, and for antisemitism by the Nazis. Take any philosophy to an extreme and you will find a Fred Phelps there, espousing that philosophy in language that is just a heightened version of its more generally accepted lesser versions.

This is the point at which I get uncomfortable. I've been in a few peace marches, and in every one, I found myself disturbed by the presence of young anarchists, people who could not be content to quietly walk through town, but insisted on pushing buttons, burning effigies, getting in the faces of admirably composed policemen and trying to get themselves arrested. I found this behavior excessive, attention-grabbing, and wondered if it actually had anything to do with the cause we were promoting with our otherwise well-mannered demonstration. How does screaming at a public servant further the cause of pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan? How does violence against property and, occasionally, people make a statement for equal rights?

I tell myself that the presence of these anarchists had more to do with the liberal approach of the march organizers whose preference was not to turn anyone away, however questionable their tactics. It's an admirable principle. I hope it's true. But I wonder.

I wrote recently about the tolerance spectrum, a framework I developed for classifying different levels of acceptance or rejection of otherness. What if, I wonder, it's more a loop than a spectrum? What if anarchism and fascism are just different sides of the same coin? The tactics employed by Westboro bear a startling similarity to those of the anarchists who so irritated me. Both strike me as pitiful efforts at getting on TV through bad behavior, nothing more, in the end, than creating one's own private reality show.

For my part, I genuinely believe that any religion claiming truth must demonstrate that at its heart it promotes the greatest good for the greatest number, and that their can be no ambiguity about how its adherents are to act in the face of diversity: embrace it, affirm it, celebrate it. To the extent that religion rejects others, it ceases to be true, rendering itself, instead, a vehicle for justifying innate prejudice.

I initially left United Methodism for personal and professional reasons, but in the years since I last stepped into a Methodist church, I have found a deeper disconnect between myself and the denomination that formed me. Methodism's inability to fully accept its gay members, and the constant refrain of "We have no choice" from superintendents, bishops, Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, church agencies and commissions and boards and any institutional structure within the church that could make a difference but chooses not to--and yes, they all have a choice--has convinced me the church is just a bigger, politer version of Westboro Baptist. Fred Phelps is alive and well, delighting in every church trial, every defrocked minister, every gay couple giving up on their church home and joining the UCC instead.

He'll cling to life just as long as bigots continue to claim a religious exemption, to mask their hatred with clerical collars and Bible readings. Only when churches have truly renounced his beliefs, have erased the hateful restrictions from their law books and sanctioned the pastors who continue to espouse them, and have turned to their gay members and atoned for all the centuries of prejudice, inviting them to come, study, be ordained, get married, be a full part of this church as you never could have before; only then will Fred Phelps finally rest in whatever semblance of peace a bitter angry bigot can find in the next world.

The sooner the better. I've really had quite enough of him.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

At Long Last, Courage

Sure took you long enough.

United Methodist bishops have been paying lip service to inclusiveness for decades. Many have played a convoluted game of pretending not to know some of the pastors they are appointing are gay or lesbian, despite knowing their same-sex partners well: just as long as the pastors don't officially come out, using precise language, to the Bishop or his or her representatives, the charade can go on, much to the disgust of the conservatives who crafted the church rules banning these persons from ministry.

It's harder to work around the restrictions on performing same-sex unions, whether they're legal marriages or liturgical commitment ceremonies with no legal standing. The Discipline prohibits any United Methodist minister from performing any kind of wedding for a same gender couple, and does so in language that cannot be worked around. The best a gay-marrying pastor can hope for is that word won't get back to the Bishop, that somehow this blessed event will stay a secret--hardly what the happy couple wants for themselves. Word does get out, though, and eventually it reaches the ears of right-wing Methodist activists who are all too happy to press charges. Faced with such a situation, and with no way to hide behind what the meaning of "is" is, even the most progressive-sounding Bishop in the denomination has consigned the pastors in question to church trials. The rubber meets the road when the Bishop's own appointment is on the line, as it is whenever he or she refuses to take the complaint seriously. The most righteous rhetoric in the world can't get past "I could lose my job!"--a risk every pastor performing a gay wedding has consciously embraced, but which has been asking too much of the office of Bishop.

Until now.

Last week, for the first time in the history of the denomination, a Bishop said "Enough!" and meant it. There was no hiding behind the Discipline, no carefully worded statement that sounded good at first read, but on further consideration could be seen to mean nothing. Bishop Martin McLee put an end to the trial of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a retired pastor and former dean of Yale University who had presided over his son's wedding to another man in 2012. Bishop McLee asked one thing only of Dr. Ogletree: that he participate in a dialogue about opening the church to true inclusiveness. He also announced that no minister under his jurisdiction would again be put on trial for presiding over a same-sex union.

I hope this is just the beginning, that McLee will be just the first of a growing avalanche of Bishops finally locating their spines and putting their power where only their words have been up to now. The groundswell among Methodist ministers has been growing for years: according to the New York Times, there are currently 1500 who have publicly declared their willingness to do what Dr. Ogletree did (and yes, as you may have previously read in this blog, I'm one of the 1500). The numbers have not given us strength, though, as many of us have been placed on trial for choosing principles over polity. A plurality of Bishops backing us up would lend so much strength to the movement.

I hope, but I have doubts. As gay marriage bans topple across the United States, state legislatures have been fighting back with discriminatory legislation in the name of "religious liberty": protecting the right of individuals to treat gay persons badly because they believe that is what God wants. This is, very sadly, where a majority of United Methodists continue to live on the theological spectrum. Knowing that, I have to wonder how long it will be before someone makes an example of Bishop McLee, prosecuting him for defying the church's right to treat gay people and gay sympathizers like criminals. Especially troubling is that the voting members of the General Conference, the quadrennial meeting that sets official church policy, is being dominated more and more by the church's growth in Africa, in countries that are putting in place vicious anti-gay laws that make the legislation proposed in Kansas, Arizona, and Idaho seem liberal.

If push comes to shove, and Bishop McLee faces a church trial, I see but one hope for the denomination: a Spartacus moment, with a cascade of Bishops from across the nation making identical statements, putting their own jobs on the line just as he has done. That could be the wake-up call, the moment that finally leads the church to take a hard look at itself and turn back from the abyss. What follows won't be pretty--I expect the church is headed for schism, one way or another--but what emerges afterward will be a far truer church, a church that can state with confidence that it welcomes all people, that its hearts, its minds, its doors truly are open, without fear of contradiction.

Methodism was my home for most of my life, and in many ways it nurtured me. As a Methodist, I learned to think critically about theology, scripture, tradition, and church life. The tools I gained as a Methodist are what ultimately led me to walk away from the church, as I came to see the hypocrisy at the heart of even my own beloved Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. Someday, I'd like to be able to visit once more and believe the high-minded words being spoken from the pulpit. Today, for the first time in years, I foster the hope that I might live to see that church reborn. Can I hear an "Amen"? All right.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Doing and Being


"Superman is what I can do. Clark is who I am."

It took Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman two years to get to the great reveal, when Lois Lane was confronted, by a time-traveling supervillain, with a truth she had been denying herself from the beginning: the dweeby co-worker she liked but could not love was the same man as the hunky hero she adored. Put in context, it's comic-book ridiculous; by itself, it's a profound insight that hit me like a Kryptonian punch in the gut. To add insult to injury, I watched this scene play out on TV as I was in the midst of an identity-shredding divorce.

The conundrum of doing versus being is as ancient as human thought: how much of me is in my actions? Am I what I do? To others, there is no other way to know me; and yet, to the extent that my actions are inconsistent with my self-concept, the me they know is not the me I know myself to be.

It's a conundrum for Clark Kent/Superman, too: Clark is a Midwestern nice guy, a deeply moral individual who is polite, unassuming, and appears to be honest in all things; and yet he consistently allows people to believe a fundamental falsehood about himself. As Superman, he stands for truth, justice, and the American way (and by "American way," I mean, without a touch of irony, liberty and justice for all people); and yet, once again, there is a central truth he withholds from everyone he meets. Whether in the business suit or the cape, he is never completely himself--unless, as he puts it in Lois & Clark, Superman is just something he does, a hobby, a persona he puts on like an actor, then leaves behind in the dressing room when he returns to his street clothes and his real life outside the theater.

There is much to be said for the latter frame of reference. As an introvert, I have often found myself putting on an identity for situations that call for me to be sociable, outgoing, gregarious. As a preacher, I often amazed congregations with how forthright I could be in the pulpit--and then befuddled them with how quiet, even terse, I could be shaking hands after the service. I remember one parishioner telling me, "It's like you're two different people."

Yes--and no. From the beginning, I viewed preaching as performance art. The real me--the Clark Kent me--is quiet, thoughtful, circumspect; the super me, on the other hand, could hold a congregation rapt for twenty minutes with moving stories and intriguing twists on Biblical texts. In fact, though, the super was always there. I never stopped thinking those things, and given a soapbox, would happily hold forth on them. But engaging an audience from a stage and engaging an individual one-on-one are two very different things. What was really happening here was that my congregation was making assumptions about what kind of person a narrative preacher must be, and those assumptions were baseless. Yes, I've known narrative preachers who were warm, friendly people in social settings, but I've also known some who were like me.

I've also known pastors, some good in the pulpit, some good in the social hall, some good in every possible scenario, who turned out to be scoundrels: political manipulators, embezzlers, abusers, liars, cheats, sexual predators. The inspiring preacher, the caring pastor, the person everyone loved, was hiding something hideous underneath. It's as if Superman's secret identity was Hannibal Lecter.

It's this disconnect between practice and identity that led me to write this essay. To get back to the moment I first heard "Superman is what I can do, Clark is who I am," I was in the first stages of redefining myself. For eight years, I had been, first and foremost, a husband and father. Preaching was something I did; family man was who I was. In fact, I had confused those verbs, associated doing with being in ways that were, ultimately, harmful to me and those I loved. Raising and nurturing a family is a job. I had worked hard at keeping my performance of these tasks consistent with who I am, with my core principles and beliefs, my identity as one who seeks to do what's right in all situations; but in the last years of the marriage, there had been an unraveling. I began compromising my beliefs in a desperate attempt to keep a dying marriage together. The more it came apart, the harder I fought to hold onto it. And when it finally ended, it was as if I had been stripped of my powers. I could no longer fly, chase down speeding bullets, overpower locomotives. There was nothing left of me but weak, wimpy, timid Clark Kent; and unlike Superman, I had never nurtured my Clark enough to be happy with that.

In time, I put myself back together, and started work on a new, improved identity--but not enough. I rushed into a second marriage, and slipped right back into the same old compromises that hadn't worked for me the first time. They didn't work any better this time around, and after two and a half years, I was again single.

This time I was also out of a job. Now the real work began, as I tried to find a way to use my powers that was, at last, consistent with who I was. It took time, but eventually I found my way into the classroom, became an Orff practitioner, and most recently, discovered Love & Logic. Now when I enter the gymnasium to teach music, when I return home to Amy, when I visit with my children or my parents, everything I do is in harmony with who I am. There is no disconnect between my doing and my being.

And who, you may ask, is the real Mark Elam Anderson? After all these years of building up, breaking down, rebuilding, breaking down again, rebuilding yet again, over and over, I think I've finally figured it out: I am, always have been, always intend to be, an honest man with a big heart. I haven't been successful in this identity--there have been times when I lied to myself, withheld important information from people I loved, closed myself off from people who needed me to care--but at root, it's me.

When Clark says to Lois that Superman is a thing he does, but Clark is who he is, he implies something wonderful: Superman is not just a strong man. He's a good man. With his powers, he could easily rule humanity. Instead, he serves it. He doesn't get that from the cape. He gets it from Clark.

We all have powers. The temptation is to use them to exploit, to victimize, to avenge, to aggrandize. Embracing our inner Clark, though, we can put those powers in the service of the betterment of the people around us and the world we live in.

May all your doing and being be harmonious; and may you be truly super.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Child's Play


Play is the work of children--Albert Adler, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Carl Orff?

It's been attributed to many luminaries. I associate it most with Montessori and Orff, educators whose philosophy centered on the idea that there is no better way to learn than through play.

Walk through an elementary school anywhere in the United States, and you'll see this philosophy being played out. Children learn math through colorful manipulatives, play word games to improve their reading and writing skills, do puzzles to master facts in science and history. This was not always the case: when Montessori introduced her playful hands-on method, most formal education was lecture and memorization. Teachers were severe, misbehaving children were routinely spanked, and the old cliche of the dunce in the corner could be found in many a classroom.

Harsh methods for a harsh time: children were still seen as resources, employable on farms and in factories, and education was for the privileged. Few graduated from junior high, let alone high school.

Starting with the Victorian Era, things began to change. Childhood began to be seen as a phase of life separate from adulthood, a time for nurture and intellectual development. It was no longer enough to simply teach a boy manners, then hand him on to an apprenticeship as soon as one could be found; and while girls were still taught the necessary skills for child-rearing and housekeeping, they, too, were seen to benefit from learning to read. The founders of the United States viewed free public education as a necessary foundation for the growth of the new nation, though it would be more than a century before their humanistic ideals began to color the methods used in public school classrooms.

There was not much play in any of the classrooms I experienced as a child. Neither New Hampshire nor Idaho was a hotbed for educational innovation, and though the Filer (Idaho) Elementary School had a cutting-edge open design, the potential of those big open rooms was usually defeated by partitions that cut them into normal-sized classrooms--though the noise level from the other classes was such that we had to be even quieter than if we'd been in a traditional school building. We learned by studying books, listening to lectures, and reciting facts until they were memorized.

It came as a shock, then, when, for two years, I experienced Montessori education through a stepchild enrolled in a Montessori preschool. I visited his classroom frequently, and was amazed by the industrious of the children, all of them engaged in hands-on activities--and was told this approach was used throughout the primary grades. There had been little talk of play in my own teacher training, so this was news to me.

I reentered full-time music teaching in 2003 with very little knowledge of elementary methods. I had the canned curriculum already in my classroom: colorful student books, CDs packed with songs coordinated with those books, and a teacher's guide loaded with activities. Many of those activities, sadly, revolved around sitting in chairs, following along in the books, while listening to the CDs. Occasionally, children would be able to get up and move around the room, experiment for all-to-brief a time with some instruments, even play a game; but mostly the curriculum centered on keeping them in the chairs with the books and CDs. That's how I taught for two years.

And then I found Orff.

Carl Orff may not have said anything exactly like "the work of the children is play," but he clearly understood that play is far and away the best way to teach music. Improvisation, dance, games, singing, playing--children in an Orff classroom are never chained to their books; in fact, there are no text books for the Orff approach. In retrospect, it seems to me that much of the impetus for those books in the canned curricula I used was self-perpetuating: if activities didn't revolve around the books, how could the publisher justify selling so many of them? To equip an Orff classroom, one purchases items that will be used to make music and to enhance movement: instruments, scarves, game pieces of one kind or another.

And the children love it. I see this every day: they come into music, see what I have set out for them, and gasp in delight. They can't wait to get their hands on the drums, triangles, xylophones, scarves, Boomwhackers. Every day for the last month, I have had 4th and 5th graders asking me when the recorders will arrive (the answer, finally, is "next week"). They want to play. They may or may not know that this is how they will learn music. They just want to do it.

I remember seeing a photograph of Jean Piaget in my educational psychology textbook "doing what he loved: observing a child." Piaget was a developmental psychologist, a scientist who studied how children become adults. I looked at that photograph and found it endearing, but didn't fully understand it. I raised two children of my own to adolescence, and still didn't get it.

Nine years after being introduced to Carl Orff, I think I finally do.

I finally understand why my kindergartners are so physically busy, why they clump and hug and wrestle and tattle and impulsively do exactly what they've been told not to: they're doing their work. It is the job of a kindergartner to explore the world through play.

I understand why, early in the year, first graders still have some of that kinder business going, but as the year progresses, can learn more abstractly. I understand why second graders can do more complex things, and will listen longer to what I have to say, while retaining much of that innocence and cuddliness. I understand why third graders, really coming into the full blush of kid-ness, are also starting to experiment with social games of affinity and rejection. I understand why fourth graders, more than any other age, begin the year worshiping teachers, though some will, by the end of the year, be already manifesting the sass of early pubescent independence, and why fifth graders can be so difficult. It's all a matter of development: how old they are, what's happening to them hormonally, which parts of their brains are growing new connections.

At every stage, the play figures prominently in what I must do with them to teach effectively. All ages will learn syncopation for better from a playground game like "Old Man Mosey" than from me writing rhythms on a board. Kinders will barely be able to put their hands together; fifth graders will be able to stomp and clap complex rhythms, whether or not they've had prior musical education.

Understanding development made it much easier for me to spend 2011-13 teaching at a junior/senior high school. It makes it much easier for me to handle misbehavior when I can put it in a psychological context, and know that I've seen it before, I'll see it again, and it's completely natural. My job is to help my students channel that hormonal energy in ways that still make learning possible for themselves and their peers.

Finally, when I can see all this in a developmental context, I can enjoy it so much more. Of course the kinders are squirrely when they come in the gym, and want to slide their bottoms on the smooth floor. Of course the older boys want to throw themselves against the wall, jump for the basketball nets. Of course the third grade girls want to clump, hang onto their friends, rather than spread out for a movement activity. Of course I will have to convince the fifth graders that it's okay to move, smile, and even laugh during music, that they don't have to be too cool for school. This is just how they are at this age, and like Jean Piaget, I can observe it and enjoy it, even as I'm doing my best to transcend it with my teaching.

I wish I'd understand all this while I had my own children around. It would've made so much of it so much easier. I could have enjoyed them for who they were, what they were experiencing as they grew, and better helped them understand it for themselves. Most important, I could have played with them more than I did, and found it endlessly fascinating, the laboratory in which they learned how to become themselves, the unique and wonderful individuals they grew to be.

That is the lesson that keeps on teaching, my friends, for the development doesn't stop at eighteen. It never stops. Nor does the play. Last night I went to the gym for a weight-lifting class called Body Pump. Over the course of an hour, I worked every muscle in my body through a series of choreographed routines, all set to popular music. It's hard work and fun all \at once.

The best reward for me, though, is discovering, as I settle into my skin as a music teacher, that play is not just the work of my young students: it's my work, too. And I love it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Floor Time Confessional


One of my students just became a grandfather to two toddlers.

This tells you two things: first, I have a private student who is a mature adult; and second, his first grandchildren have arrived by way of adoption. I'm proud of the progress this student has made, starting piano lessons two years ago at retirement, forcing his brain to rewire itself in ways that are far easier when it is young and pliable, pushing himself as the concepts and skills come slowly; and I celebrate every milestone he achieves. I can only hope that, ten or so years from now when I reach his age, I am even partially as gung ho about teaching myself new skills.

One "skill" this student just acquired, that has come quite naturally for him, in fact, is the ability to play with these little boys who are suddenly part of his life. As he shared with me yesterday what joy he is experiencing being down on the floor with them, letting them climb all over him, playing the repetitive games small children so enjoy, he remarked wistfully that he had missed doing that with his own children. He just wasn't around them enough when they were small, and even when he was, he had other things on his mind. This resonated with me in ways that are both wonderful and painful: I've been there, too.

Don't get me wrong; I did play with my children when they were small, and I was blessed with much more time to do this than most parents of my generation. When my daughter was born, I shared one full-time position with her mother, and we rarely had to call on sitters. This continued through her second year, as we returned to seminary and, again, were able to tag-team parenting time.

But something else happened during that second year: Sarah wanted more attention than either of us could provide.

She had every right to such attention. She was a baby, after all. There was no way should could understand why I had to spend so much time with that second-generation McIntosh, working for hour upon hour on the final papers that would get me my degree. She had toys and videos to entertain her, but these were cold comfort next to the distracted father at the desk. I know I was not on the floor enough with her for that final year in Dallas.

Nor was I available enough for her third year, or the year that followed, as she was joined by a little brother. The world of a full-time minister was not as accommodating to early childhood parenting as I had thought it would be; and honestly, how could it be? Children demand, and deserve, the attention of their parents. They can't just tag along to a hospital or nursing home. When they're with their parents, there is simply no ignoring them, no way to sideline them until the visit or meeting is complete, the sermon written, the ritual performed. They want what they want when they want it: now.

For the last two years of my marriage, I worked part-time, partially from home, and had more time around my children. Even so, I was frequently distracted by the difficulties of hanging onto my job--my unfitness for ministry had become apparent to my superintendent, who was going to great lengths to pressure me into resigning--and the growing awareness that the marriage was in trouble. In the years that followed, I was often in the position to have extended time with my children, and I could have spent that at play with them, whether it was staging an Old West adventure with Sean's Playmobile toys, reenacting a scene from The Little Mermaid with Sarah's dolls, or sitting through yet another game of Chutes and Ladders. Instead, I urged them to play in their rooms by themselves or, I am deeply ashamed to admit, sat them down in front of the TV and plugged them into the electronic babysitter. By the time I realized how much of their childhood I was missing, it was over.

The most embarrassing thing I have to confess here is this: for all those years, the biggest obstacle to me bonding with my children through play was that I found it boring. I took myself far too seriously, and would not allow myself to have fun playing the simple repetitive games toddlers use to learn about the world. I did enjoy reading to them, especially at bedtime, and never minded re-reading their favorite books, and I continued reading to them well into adolescence. But play? That's kid stuff.

I say this not just with embarrassment, but deep regret, and it extends much farther back than just my own children. As a teenager, I frequently was placed in charge of my younger brothers, including David, the youngest. Particularly on Sundays, I would volunteer to watch David during church--he was a preschooler at the time--in the hope that I could just take him home and watch TV or read a novel while he played in his room (the Philomath parsonage was just a few hundred feet from the church). To my chagrin, he often preferred riding his tricycle around the parking lot, and no amount of coaxing could get him to give up outdoor play in favor of going inside.

I call this a confessional because all these examples of being bored or impatient with the entirely appropriate play-focus of children under my care exemplifies my own spiritual sickness during those years. Whether it was in the playroom or the forest, I was incapable of being present in the moment, always living for higher cognition, for better understanding of the world of politics and culture, for fiction that helped me escape the disappointments of my present and put myself in an imagined future that was far more exciting. There was a focal disconnect between my self and the world in which I existed, the people with whom I lived; and my soul was at risk.

This was true for all the years I was in ministry. It was not until I returned to education, had been teaching for three years, and finally discovered the Orff Schulwerk approach to music education that I began to understand how much I had missed. For the first time, I was down on the floor with children, playing games, singing songs, getting a window into their worldview. Through their eyes, I saw what I had been missing, and it shattered me: play was not, as I had for so long thought, childish, simple-minded, unproductive, boring. Quite the contrary: play was, as Maria Montessori put it and Carl Orff confirmed it, the work of children. Being in their moment was and is an incredible privilege, a gift that has informed every other aspect of my life. On mountaintops and ski trails, on runs in the park, at meals both sophisticated and mundane, in concert halls and listening through headphones, simply sitting on a couch with my beloved, I am more present than I have ever been able to be; and embracing that moment, however still or active it may be, I am more fully myself than I ever was as I looked at my watch, wishing playtime could end so I could get on with reading the editorial page.

Teaching saved my soul. The children I teach make every work day a deeply spiritual experience. Improv, as well, is a spiritual exercise, a discipline of clearing my mind of everything but the flow of a scene, finding precisely the right music at my fingertips to guide it, ride with it, help all of us to get home together.

To my children, and to my youngest brother, I do need to say this: Sarah, Sean, David--I am so very sorry I was not down on the floor with you more than I was, that I did not drop everything to play with you whenever you wanted it, that I begrudged some of our time together. I regret every offer of playtime I ever turned down. I wish I could get them back. And even though I cannot, I do have this request for you, if it's not too late: the next time we are together, would you like to play?

With love and gratitude to all the children, past, present, and future, in my life,
Mark