Sunday, November 30, 2014

'Tis the Season to Be Scroogey. Or not.



I'd like to believe I never really believed, but I know that's not the case.

Like any child raised on the American Christmas tradition, I lived for this holiday. I delighted in every church, Scout, or school-sponsored party that featured an adult volunteer dressed as Santa, doling out goody bags, their disappointing contents (mostly peanuts, maybe a candy cane or two mixed in) offset by the understanding that this was just a foretaste of something much greater to come. At night, long after I should have been asleep, I heard the crinkle of wrapping paper as my parents prepared for the big day. Decorating the tree, Christmas carol sing-alongs were highlights, watching Charlie Brown, the Grinch, and Rudolph on our black-and-white TV, counting down on an Advent calendar, filling my nose with the aromas of holiday baking, gorging myself on fudge and divinity, until finally the longest agonizing day of the year arrived: Christmas Eve. If we had school that day--and I occasionally did--there would be a class party to dilute the suspense, but everything that followed slowed time more than an interstellar wormhole. We went to church, of course, and I did enjoy those services: my mother playing the organ, my father singing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," the lowering of the lights, the lighting of candles as we all sang "Silent Night," stretching things out until we were finally on our way home. Beyond church, Christmas Eve had its own set of traditions: the hanging of stockings on our mother's secretary (we rarely had a fireplace to hang them over), the setting out of cookies and milk for Santa, and, when we were old enough to have begun understanding that giving was as much a part of Christmas as receiving, the setting of our gifts for the rest of the family under the tree. Finally it was bedtime, and if insomnia had been a problem earlier in the season, it was far worse now. The house would be filled with the aroma of my mother's coffee cake, a Christmas tradition she still follows (we'll go home with one wrapped in foil after the family party December 27), and again there would be the sounds of wrapping, delayed as long as my parents could afford, so much so that they often weren't in bed until two or three in the morning; but I'd always be awake long enough to hear it. Finally I'd get to sleep, usually to awake to the sound of my younger brothers sneaking out in the dark, oohing and aahing over the beauty of the gift-laden tree, then being chased back to bed by my father's angry voice--he might have only had an hour or two of sleep at that point--and if I did manage to get back to sleep, I'd be reawakened by the same sounds an hour or two later, this time accompanied by the bleary resignation of my parents to the inevitability of having to be up again. We'd rush out to the living room, then have to wait for our parents to settle in on the couch so that we could empty out our stockings in front of them. Then we were permitted one wrapped present before breakfast, after which the unwrapping orgy commenced.

There's not a lot of "Christ" in that Christmas memory. Perhaps that's one reason I stopped believing in the magic at a relatively young age. Another, I'm sure, is that at some point my parents gave up on the artifice of the Santa letter, and just let us put together Santa lists. We'd pore over the gift catalogs from Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and, in later years, J.C. Penney, looking for the best deals on the toys we wanted, struggling to keep them under the monetary limit set by our parents, struggling to strike the right balance between quality and quantity, ultimately compromising ourselves on both criteria. And in the end, most of what we picked for ourselves was disappointing: games that were never as fun in real life as they looked in the TV commercials, imported gadgets that didn't hold up to rough play, or cheap store-brand knock-offs that couldn't compare to the real thing. Over time, I came to embrace a concept introduced to me in the Peanuts comic strip: the "post-Christmas let-down." The real thing just didn't deliver on all the hope and promise.

Becoming a minister added another layer to my Scroogery: in addition to having joined Charlie Brown in his criticism of the commercialization of the holiday, it was now my job to defend it against capitalism. Advent was supposed to be a time of quiet preparation, not a premature celebration, and so I denied Christmas carols to my congregations, even as they were immersed in them everywhere else they went. I was rigid in my insistence that the gospel stories be kept separate--there would be no wise men in the church manger until Epiphany--and God forbid Santa be a part of any church celebration. Off the job, I was a hypocrite, obsessed with finding the right gifts for family, spouse, and children, decorating the house, doing everything I could to replicate that elusive comforting warmth of my childhood.

This internal warfare couldn't go on forever. In many ways, it was a manifestation of my larger struggle over being an agnostic in priest's clothing. In fact, I can trace my skepticism over all things mystical to one day in 1967 when I was poking around under my parents' bed, and discovered their Christmas hiding place. I was six years old, and I had just seen Santa without his beard. I maintained the fiction for myself for a few years--I even remember waking up at 3 a.m. on a Christmas morning in 1969, hearing the clock on the mantle chime, and thinking I heard Santa in the house--but by the time our Santa letters turned into order forms, my faith in the myth was long since dead.

That's the biggest reason I left the ministry. Doubting Santa was a catalyst to the cognitive awakening that decimated all my faith. Comingled scripture passages, misinterpreted theology, proof-texting, all the things people do to put a religious veneer on their own agendas, led me to the rotten core of Christianity: we try too hard to make religion be what we want it to be, rather than what it was meant to be from the beginning. We take the story of a homeless preacher, and turn it into pageantry, triumphalism, and exploitation. The moment of truth for me was the day I was finally able to say "Bah! Humbug!" not just to Christmas, but to the church.

And yet--there is so much about Christmas that is good. I do want to do things for the people I love. I want to see them, express my affection for them, give them something significant. I want them in my home, enjoying the (ironically cut down) symbol of life that is the evergreen tree, bedecked with the LED string of lights symbolizing light in the darkness, topped with the silvery crown of a star that beckons us to follow the pauper king. I want to sing songs of mystery and awe about the birth of that king, but also secular songs of cheer in a time of cold, dark bleakness. There are, in fact, excellent reasons, both sacred and secular, for valuing and observing this season.

So there is a tree in my living room. I will be teaching holiday songs to my students at school. I will be attending Christmas parties. I will wear a Santa hat on the last day of school. I will give gifts to my wife, my children, my parents, my brothers and sisters-in-law and nephews and nieces. I will say "Merry Christmas" to them without a hint of irony.

But I can guarantee this: you will not find me at the mall. I'll do my gift shopping online, visit Fred Meyer and Costco only for groceries, zap Christmas ads as I watch things on the DVR; and except for the party at my parents' house (where the gift orgy is a tradition that refuses to die), there will be no furious unwrapping of presents. The one gift I covet most for myself, and want most for those around me, is company. As the Grinch learned, the best part of Christmas happens when people come together not to shop, not to unwrap, but simply to be together, enjoying each other. It's not presents, but presence, that matters. Yes, I would have been sorely disappointed in a Christmas without wrapped gifts when I was a child, but then, I was almost always sorely disappointed by those gifts, anyway.

This is what Scrooge learned at the end of A Christmas Carol: that being present for others, and enjoying their company, really is the richest thing in this world. Can I hear a "Hallelujah?"

Friday, November 28, 2014

High Flying Congress



"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."--Mitch McConnell, October, 2010

If you've read my posts about teaching in the Reynolds School District, you've probably come across the term "high flyer." That's teacher talk for a student who is an exceptional child in ways that no parent wants his or child to be exceptional. The child may very well be bright, even gifted academically, and may not have any of the disabilities one normally associates with being on an Individualized Education Plan, but still is on the radar of every administrator and behavioral specialist of the school for one reason alone: he or she makes it hard for the rest of the class to learn.

High flyers are obstructionists. They interrupt the teacher without being called on, talk with neighbors while the teacher is lecturing, distract everyone around them. When they do raise their hands, it is to ask to use the bathroom, get a drink, go back to their desks for something they forgot. Told "No, class will be over in five minutes, wait until then," they become more persistent in asking for that extra privilege. Separated from whichever classmates they can't sit next too, they will have arguments across the room with them. Interrupt class to have a meeting about how to have more fun and learn more cool things, and every other child will have constructive ideas that, absent the high flyer, will make the next class wonderful; the high flyer will behave just as badly. Going to talk to the counselor or the principal is no help. Put on a behavior plan, the high flyer will decide that the cracker jack rewards for good behavior are just not as fulfilling as having an entire group of people enmeshed in his or her personal drama.

A week ago I had a class of fifth graders in the music room for a recorder class. Most classes with this particular group are extremely frustrating, as there are two high flyers who tend to dominate the class, much to the frustration of the other twenty students. Last Friday was different: one of the high flyers were absent. With him gone, the other high flyer was the best behaved I've seen her in the two years I've been teaching at this school. The class got more done in that one half hour than in the previous three weeks.

I love my students, and I have great empathy for the drama in the high flyers' home lives that makes their school behavior so challenging. Even so, I have to admit my job would be much more fun if this handful of students stayed home more often. And that brings me to Congress.

Earlier this morning, as I was writing my Thanksgiving post, I had an insight into the personality of the modern Republican Party, especially as it is manifested in Congress: they are a party of high flyers.

In this metaphor, Barack Obama is the teacher, and the electorate is the school administration (the office, the principal, the counselor)--though it also has to serve a dual function as the students. In this model, Teacher Obama has many cool and wonderful things to explore, and most of the class is eager to learn. We're very interested in universal health care, immigration reform, economic stimulus, minimizing American military intervention in the world, reversing climate change, investing in green technology, and above all else, creating an atmosphere of cooperation not just in Washington, but throughout our nation. We want to learn these things, and we know the President could teach them to us, if only given the chance.

Unfortunately, there is a disproportionately noisy minority in the classroom who don't care about learning. They want class to be all about them. They don't like admitting the teacher is really in charge. They don't know exactly what they'd do if they were, themselves, in charge; in fact, describe the ideals of the teacher to them without mentioning his name, and they'd probably go for most of them. As soon as they hear that these things come from him, though, they reject them loudly, rudely, and effectively.

They never let up, either. They refuse to make any concessions. They will not accept that there will be time to visit the bathroom after class, and will not stop asking to go until the teacher gives in. Once he does, they seize on that fact and are even more persistent in their next dilatory demand. Asked politely to step aside for a moment and just let the poor man have a chance to speak and they shout down that request.

The teacher would love to send the high flyers to the office. Unfortunately, the office is only open for one day every other year, and even then, the teacher is at the mercy of whoever happens to show up. In a leap year, the office is far more likely to be occupied by administrators sympathetic to the majority of students who want to learn. In other years, though, the administrators are themselves high flyers, and not only send the problem students back to the classroom undisciplined, but add to their numbers.

What is the teacher to do? He could hold class meetings, trying to get a dialogue going about how to have more productive classes, but the people most needing to participate in those meetings would always have the same response: "Give us what we want and we'll behave." 

In essence, the high flyers will just go on holding the class hostage until they get what they want. Since giving them what they want means going back on all his ideals, the teacher has to go on saying no. It's an impasse. Denied the right of expelling the high flyers from class, the teacher has no options left: he turns class over to the high flyers, retreats to the teacher's lounge and, to mix metaphors, puts the inmates in charge of the asylum.

Except he's more responsible than that. He came here to teach, and by God, he's going to do it. It does mean giving up on teaching to the entire student population--but then, the high flyers weren't going to start listening anytime soon, anyway. So now he reaches out to those he knows will hear him, and just ignores the high flyers. His lessons shift from being cooperative learning experiences to being lectures, which is fine for the majority, who just want to hear those words. This infuriates the high flyers, of course, who cannot be happy unless everyone, including the teacher, is giving them full undivided attention.

And to that, and all the hurt feelings being whined about by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner now that President Obama has finally decided to use his executive powers rather than try to work with those who refuse to work with him: go to hell, go directly to hell, do not pass go, and do not collect the votes you need to sustain your tantrum past 2016. The next time you're in the office, the principal is going to give you a lecture that will singe your ear-hair and send you to your corner in tears; and with the rest of the good kids in the class, I will be cheering.

Wait and See (A Midlife Thanksgiving Meditation)

 
Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.“Wait and see,” the farmer replied.The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.“Wait and see,” replied the old man.The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.“Wait and see,” answered the farmer.The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.“Wait and see,” said the farmer.

Across America, families will gather around tables laden with comfort food and share their gratitude for events of the last year. My family will be no exception: there will be seventeen of us today at An-di-Fan (the House of Peace), a craftsman home on Baker Street in McMinnville, Oregon, purchased by my grandmother in 1945 and transferred upon her death in 1988 to my parents who have lived in it ever since. We call it An-di-Fan because my grandparents, during their missionary years in Shanghai, took that as their Chinese name.

That name has become something of an ideal for me to ascribe to, especially when I consider how well my grandmother personified it. No matter how great the obstacles in her life, Colena Michael Anderson personified the evangelical cliche of maintaining an "attitude of gratitude." Every day of her 97 years was both a blessing and a preparation for the greater joy to come once she left this earth, and was reunited with those who preceded her in death. Her tranquility was shared with those who met her, as well: however stressful or frightening my own life might be, I knew I could experience peace in my grandmother's presence.

As I've entered into middle age, I have more and more sought to cultivate this same sense of balance in myself, accepting life as it is, knowing that every moment, however difficult, contains seeds of a future that can be either blessing or curse. I've looked for the good, sought to minimize the impact of the bad, and find myself happier overall.

This blog has been about the tao of life, and my quest to find blessings in the midst of frustrations and defeats. The last year has presented me with many such issues, both local and global. I've vented my spleen at the many challenges of teaching in a poor district, while celebrating the rewards of working with children whose poverty seems to make them more open to the gifts I bring to the classroom. I've ranted about the the broken electoral system that permits a small minority of cranky oldsters living in rural states to wield inordinate influence over the partisan makeup of Congress. I've shared the difficulties and wonders of traveling to the Third World, the screw-ups and surprises of attending an Orff conference in Nashville, the things I regret about my younger self and the things I realize can only be known with maturity. As often as possible, I've striven to be balanced, whether ranting, raving, or just meditating.

Which brings me, finally, to Thanksgiving. Everything I've experienced in the past year, whether personal, local, regional, or global, has contained within it both chaos and sublimity. What follows is not a comprehensive list; rather, it will be a few examples, and you'll just have to trust me that (previous sentence) everything contains the same spectrum of potentiality.

Take school. At the beginning of 2014, I was almost halfway through my year teaching in the gymnasiums of schools in neighborhoods distinguished by poverty. The size and acoustics of that environment ultimately defeated me from teaching a comprehensive musical curriculum, and the prospect of another year in such a setting led me to look for work in other districts throughout the summer. At the same time, though, my stubborn insistence on being as successful as I could be, on getting as much musical education into these children as I could, made me a far stronger teacher and a more confident man. Coming back in September to a far better teaching space, I was able to take command of that classroom as never before. In many ways, I feel as if I've come into my own as a music educator; at 53, I'm finally in the prime of my career. I owe that to my hard first year in Reynolds.

Continuing with school, but dovetailing with my home life, Amy and I got married and bought our house this summer. With the two weeks I spent in Ghana consuming me from the moment I left school (a day early) to the first week of July, there wasn't much time this summer to catch my breath. The down time I had was mostly spent preparing for these big events, including planning our honeymoon, and applying for jobs in Beaverton. It was only as we were signing for the house the week before I returned to school that I learned our mortgage application would have been denied if I'd changed jobs. A complicated, stressful transition--from renter to homeowner--would have become far more complicated and extended, as we now had to either go through the process once more or, even worse, found a different, probably much more expensive, home to rent and moved into it. "Wait and see," said the old farmer.

Let's expand it out to the political realm. I've been deeply frustrated by the whimsical nature of the American electorate. Polls show that a sizable majority of Americans favor the policies of the Democratic party, and yet the people who turn out to vote are the cranky but active demographic I belong to: white American men over the age of 50. For some reason, most of my people are fed up with the social contract, refuse to listen to reason, and love to express their ignorance with their votes. That's how we have rewarded four years of Republican obstructionism with an even more empowered Congress of dunderheads whose entire agenda can be summed up in Mitch McConnell's 2010 wish to make Barack Obama a one-term president--a goal his party has, in many ways, accomplished, blocking so many of his initiatives that the White House might as well have been vacant for the last four years. It's infuriating to an idealist like me who believes in the push-and-pull of the balance of powers. At the same time, though, I can see the last four years as something like my year in the gym, toughening our President and convincing him the time has come to use all the powers of his office he has previously held in reserve to govern despite, rather than along with, Congress. Perhaps the next two years, coupled with the productive first two years of his first term, will add up to a great one term Presidency, and we can just forget about the ways in which the Republicans have acted like those one or two high flyers in every class who keep the rest of the kids from learning. (Wow--there's an insight I'll have to give its own post!) "The election results are a horrible catastrophe!" "Wait and see," said the old farmer.

"Wait and see" is no call to complacency, but an acceptance that any judgment about the overall impact of an event is premature. Only in retrospect can we begin to assess the successes and failures of our lives. The tragedy of Michael Brown's shooting may be the catalyst for this country to finally address its congenital racism. Two more years of Republican tantrums may finally teach the American electorate to reject the Grand Obstructionist Party. Having both our names on a mortgage is, I am realizing, as great a bond as any marriage contract. And taking "wait and see" as my personal credo makes the rest of my life far more fulfilling than all the anxieties and passions of my youth.

That, I believe, is the greatest gift my grandparents bequeathed to our family: that our very name means embracing both the chaos and promise in every event, and in that acceptance, making every place we lay our heads a House of An.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson, Lord, Ferguson



He was barely more than a child.

Michael Brown was 18, just days from starting technical college. He'd been in trouble, off and on, throughout his short life. He played pranks. He shoplifted. He roughhoused. And a few weeks before he was shot to death by a police officer for jaywalking, he had a religious experienced inspired by seeing the sun break through the clouds over Ferguson.

He was barely more than a child.

Most of my teaching experience has been with elementary aged children, but I've had a few years in middle school and high school settings, enough to see the continuity of development across the age spectrum. The earnestness and enthusiasm of the very young grows into the passion of young adulthood; at the same time, the seeds of prankishness and irony can be manifested as early as kindergarten. Teenagers, I've learned, are just big kids: passionate, sensitive, fixated on inconsequentials, worried about their friends and families, narcissistic, generous, sweet, innocent, everything I see in my small students, coupled with a larger vocabulary, a broader knowledge base, and full-sized bodies. Acting on their immature impulses, they are often unaware of just how irritating or frightening they can be coming out of someone who is six feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds.

Michael Brown was all of that, and black. Officer Darren Wilson, on the other hand, was a white cop policing a black neighborhood when he saw two teenagers strolling down the middle of the street like gang lords. He challenged them, there was some kind of scuffle, and in the end, six bullets went into an unarmed teenager, ending his life.

Protests began that night. The police department cracked down with urban assault vehicles, tear gas, and riot gear. The protests became riots. The national guard had to take over policing for a time. A grand jury was assembled to weigh the evidence against Darren Wilson, and Monday, chose not to indict him. More protests and rioting ensued, including the burning of several buildings in downtown Ferguson.

Opinions on what happened, who was to blame, what it tells us about American justice, how the grand jury system is broken, and more aspects of this situation than I can list can be found with a simple Google search of "Michael Brown," "Ferguson," or "Darren Wilson." It's not my intention to add another analysis to this chorus. I don't feel qualified to render an opinion on the grand jury's decision, on the toothless civil rights law, on the state of race relations in greater St. Louis, on the militarization of American police forces, or any of the other issues this tragedy raises. My aim in this essay is, rather, to look at the tragedy of a young person being called for acting his age.

I see it in my classroom every day: children testing limits, seeing how much they can get away with, pushing against boundaries, trying out new behaviors, telling jokes, teasing each other--all part of growing up. Some go too far, and it's my job to get them back on the acceptable side of the boundary. There's rarely any malice apparent in this kind of play, and most children are quick to change what they're doing when reprimanded by an adult. If it weren't for the disruption, I'd find much of what they're doing charming, amusing, even cute.

As they get bigger, it becomes less cute, but the motivation is still the same: learning how to behave. Maturation brings more reasons for adjustment: larger bodies, sexual development, hormonal mood swings. The longing for approval, on the other hand, is a constant, though the object of that longing changes over time, shifting from adults to peers.

One day in my high school band job in Banks, I was eating lunch in my office. Students were allowed to eat lunch in the band room, and as I relaxed in the office, I sometimes overheard their conversations. One day I became aware of a phone call being made that seemed somehow off: the student making the call had affected a "nerdy" voice, and was asking questions of a customer service representative. Finally I got it: he was making a crank call, to the great amusement of his peers. I walked out of my office, and the call ended abruptly, every teen in the room suddenly blushing. "I'd rather not hear any more calls like that being made in my classroom," I told him. And I didn't: if he made anymore, it was out in the hall.

Pranks like this are the natural extension of the silly behaviors I see in my elementary music room every day. Michael Brown was the same age as the student making that call in the band room at Banks. Just before he was shot, he and his friends had engaged in some aggressive behavior at a convenience store, possibly shop-lifting a box of cigars. After this bit of petty misbehavior, they were walking in the middle of the street, laughing and playing like teens around the world. If they'd run into anyone other than a police officer, there probably would have been scowls, maybe a cross word. No adults would have to get out of their way, as adults know enough to stay on the sidewalk. Cars coming down the street would slow to avoid them, the drivers most likely shaking their heads, perhaps calling an obscenity out the window. The boys might have returned the gestures and words, but at worst, the driver would have experienced some inconvenience.

But that's not what happened. The boys encountered a police car, and one of them died because of it.

This is the tragedy: a boy was murdered in cold blood not by a criminal, but by an officer of the law, just as he was on the verge of graduating to a career path that could have kept him out of trouble long enough for him to outgrow the recklessness that all children engage in to some extent. The racial side to the tragedy is that, had he been a white teenager, he might have received a tongue-lashing from the officer, but would still be alive. Being black, though, Michael Brown never had the chance to blushingly step back up on the sidewalk, hot tears of embarrassment running down his cheeks, humiliated but still alive.

This story has been told too many times. The authorities whose job it is to protect and defend seem best able to perform this function in privileged suburbs like the one where I live. In Beaverton, children can be encouraged to seek help from a police officer. In inner city and suburban neighborhoods of color, on the other hand, children are taught to treat police like rattlesnakes: stay away from them, and if you catch their attention, please, for God's sake, don't give them any reason at all to find you threatening.

Those are my thoughts, then: no diagnosis, no prescription, just sadness. I will end with the one note of hope I can find in this tragedy: as demonstrations spread across the United States, it appears the communities that have most suffered from police violence have finally had enough. If the rest of us add our voices, perhaps together we can demand that police in every community remake themselves, dismantling the paramilitary structures that have proliferated since 9/11, forswearing the racism that is integral to their self-perception, and embracing the words that define their highest calling: officers of the peace.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

All My Idols Are Losers

Bill Cosby

I grew up on Bill Cosby.

After I Spy, but before Fat Albert, Bill Cosby had his own sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, which ran from 1969-1971. He played a PE teacher. I can't remember any other particulars about the show, but I do remember my eight-year-old self having a warm feeling for its star. When he appeared on The Electric Company, a PBS show for graduates of Sesame Street, I was already beyond its demographic, but still enjoyed seeing him there. When he took his Fat Albert stories to Saturday morning TV, I tried not to miss an episode; and my favorite moments were when the show would break away from the animated story to hear some whimsical wisdom from live-action Bill. As an adult, I roared with laughter at his comedy albums, and The Cosby Show came out at just the right time for a young father starting a family. Once that show left the air, and as Cosby matured into his senior years, I stopped following him; but seeing a still from The Cosby Show still stirs feelings of warmth in me.

There were many things I loved about Bill Cosby. He was a brilliant storyteller, and as a preacher, I took inspiration from him and his white counterpart in the craft, Garrison Keillor. I appreciated the way his work consistently, gently, and humorously opened up African-American culture to white small town boys like me. And most of all, I couldn't help loving his fatherly TV persona, a man who willingly shares power with his wife and presides over a large family with a firm but gentle hand. There was so much to love about this man.

But then, a few years ago, I began seeing stories about the seamy underbelly of Cosby's career. There were allegations that he had drugged and raped a series of women throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. The number of women making these claims has grown to a dozen, and while Cosby has officially denied that any of these incidents occurred, I am finding it harder and harder to believe him.

And just like that, another idol bites the dust.

This has been happening to me repeatedly throughout my adulthood. As a teenager and young adult, I had great respect for a pastor named Bill Walker. Walker's preaching was reminiscent of Cosby's storytelling. Out of the pulpit, he projected profound compassion, and radiated empathy. He climbed through the ranks of the Methodist ministry, becoming a superintendent, running for (but not winning) bishop, and finally settling into a large (for Oregon) church pastorate, from which he retired in 1991. He died soon after, the official cause of death being cancer. In the fall of 1992, the bishop called a meeting of all pastors in the Portland area, at which he revealed that Walker had not, in fact, died of cancer, but rather of AIDS, contracted from the double life he had led having casual gay sex with strangers. That was not all: a growing tide of young men began coming forward after he died, saying they had been molested by him when they were teenagers. Finally, his wife, who preceded him in death, had not died of cancer, but of AIDS that he had given her.

Bill Walker and First United Methodist Church of Eugene, the last congregation he served.

Like almost everyone else in that room, I had no idea why we had been called together until the bishop stepped into the pulpit and said Bill Walker's name. The moment he did, something in me knew what followed was going to be horrible, and I began to weep.

This was not my first experience of having an idol torn from my heart. Beverly Sawyer, dean of student life at my seminary, funny, empathetic, creative, intelligent, and a brilliant storyteller (do you see a pattern?), had a hidden life of which I had not an inkling until, while on internship, I learned that she had gone into the seminary chapel's pulpit drunk. Rather than seek help, she left her position at SMU and returned to her native Arkansas. Two years later, she was killed in a crosswalk. Learning first of her fall from grace and then of her death wounded me deeply.

I have one other fallen idol to add to this roll call: President Bill Clinton. When, in January 1998, he appeared on national television to insist he had not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, I believed him. I kept believing him for many months, until finally the Starr report came out, and there could be no longer any doubt that Clinton had parsed the meaning of "sexual relations" to a fare-thee-well. I had been naive to trust his adamant denial. Seeing how he had twisted the English language to conceal his own misdeeds, I now accepted that the pre-election stories of "Slick Willy" were also true, that he had been serially adulterous. Why should I ever trust another politician?


However adamantly he may have denied it, we now know just where Bill Clinton's finger has been.

So it has gone with every idol I've ever had: their feet are clay, their stories are false, their promises are made to be broken. Look up to anyone trustingly enough, and you will find yourself horribly disappointed.

Somewhere in a box in my parents' attic is Bev Sawyer's book of prayers, Singer of Seasons. There was a time when I used that book as a devotional; but I haven't opened it in decades. There are pictures in one of my photo albums of Bill Walker from his time as chaplain of a camp I counseled; I haven't looked at them in almost as long. Nowadays when Bill Clinton speaks, there are still plenty of fawning political junkies hanging on his every word; I, however, have no time for the man, and while I will vote for his wife should she be the Democratic nominee for President, I'm not looking forward to having him back in the White House in any capacity.

And Bill Cosby? That one is still fresh and raw. I see that the rerun network, TV Land, has pulled The Cosby Show, and while I haven't watched an episode since it left prime time, I feel intensely sad about this. That series did so much good, not just for race relations, but for feminism, for children with dyslexia, for parents, for Black colleges, for so very many good causes. And now I see that there was a rot at its core.

Almost two thousand years ago, the early church was faced with a dilemma: a bishop had been anathematized for preaching heresy. The question arose immediately: what about all those hundreds of people he had baptized? Did the baptism count, or were they still lost souls? And had those of them who had already died gone to hell for having been baptized by a heretic? The church council handling the controversy arrived at a pastoral solution that made everyone breathe easier: baptism is a sacrament of God, and regardless of what cleric presides over the ceremony, it is actually God who performs the rite. Every baptism, then, is valid, and all those who had been baptized by the rogue bishop were just as sanctified as anyone else.

There has to be a way to accept the good works done by corrupt human beings. Bill Cosby has done so much good over the course of his life. However horrible the crimes of his younger self against women may have been, his work in the media have changed thousands, perhaps millions, of lives for the better. Bill Clinton's work in the public sphere has done so much good for the world that it almost compensates for his open fly and slippery lips. Almost.

And Bill Walker and Bev Sawyer? However broken, however flawed they may have been, they had a powerful impact on my young adulthood. That their inner demons drove them to tragic ends and, Walker's case, turned him into a monster does not belie the good they did for me.

I understand all of this intellectually. I just wish I could believe it. I wish I could turn on a Cosby rerun right now and delight in the lessons he delivers with humor and wisdom. But I can't. I just can't look at the man's face and not see a serial rapist whose frat boy morality wreaked havoc on the lives of young women for at least a decade. Maybe someday that'll change; but until then, I am finished with Fat Albert, The Chicken Heart that Ate Chicago, and Cliff Huxtable.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

None, Done, Just No Fun


I live in the None Zone.

That's a label church leaders have been using for the Pacific Northwest since the 1990s, when I was, myself, a United Methodist minister. Here in the upper left corner of the United States, most people when asked which religion or denomination they belong to reply "none of the above." Organized religion--and I'm not just talking about Christianity here--has never been able to establish a toehold on this part of the country. It's rare for any of our halls of worship to have problems seating everyone during services.

I've speculated on the reason for this a number of times, and I'm not going to devote much more space to it today. Church is just a hard sell for people who have better things to do with a Sunday morning than sitting in a pew hearing a preacher expound on an ancient text. Today, though, I came across another category for the unchurched, one that resonates with me even more than "none": "done."

I encountered it through a link a friend shared on Facebook. In his essay, "The Rise of the Dones," Tom Schultz writes about a new problem facing churches with dwindling memberships. This time it's not recruiting, it's attrition: midlife parishioners, many of them active in lay leadership, are simply walking away from church. They've heard the same sermon too many times, cycled through too many positions on the church council, kicked their kids out of bed to drag them to Sunday School too many times. One Sunday morning, it just hits them: I could be taking my family to brunch. I could be hiking in Forest Park. I could be sleeping in (though that one's not going to appeal to me). I could spend the weekend in a cabin on Mt. Hood. I could do so many other things that are less work and more fun, and more meaningful to me than going to church. So they're done.

This wasn't a major problem in any of the churches I served, though it happened occasionally to me. Usually I didn't become aware of it until it was time for nominations. The committee would know the perfect job for a certain person, and I'd call him or her up, say, "How would you like to chair the education committee?" and hear, "You know, I'd rather not have a position this year." And then the family would disappear. As I said, though, this didn't happen often, mostly, I expect, because the churches I served had older memberships. The Greatest Generation saw church as a natural responsibility, like inoculations, voting, or paying taxes, and just did it, happily serving in every office they were volunteered for right up until they moved into nursing facilities. Even then, there were few things that brought them more joy than having one of their adult children or a friend bring them to church.

One thing that drove me away from ministry, though, was that church was so obviously designed for that generation, rather than mine. I spent most of my short career leading worship services that would have put me to sleep. That's how it had to be: a pastor serves the congregation he or she is appointed to, the people who are filling the pews, not the ones who are absent. These are the people whose tithes pay the pastor's salary, whose votes on church committees decide which programs a church will have, and whose opinions dictate to a large extent how a pastor plans and presents the most public face of the congregation, its Sunday service. I squeezed in as many contemporary hymns as I could, but there was no getting around how much happier my parishioners were when they got to sing their favorites. My job, I came to realize, was not to take a church into the next generation, but rather to hold its hand as it drifted off to its final rest.

That generation is now mostly gone from church leadership. In its place are Baby Boomers, the post-World War Two generation whose passion fueled the modern era. They grew up on rock and roll, and their music choices reflect that. It's now acceptable to clap (on 2 and 4, of course) to worship songs with a light rock feel, to have guitars and drums in the sanctuary, and to applaud throughout the service. That lightening up, though, was a long time coming, long enough that by the time it arrived, most boomers were already done with the antiquated ways their parents worshiped. For those who remained, the "praise music" they prefer is, itself, a turn-off to their children, so the already thinned ranks of the boomers have led to an even poorer showing of Generation X--not to mention their own children, the Millennials. The church is going out with a whimper.

Once I left ministry, I continued working in churches, participating in the Metanoia Peace Community, playing piano and directing choirs for an African-American church, a United Methodist church, and finally a United Church of Christ. In all these settings, I found worship styles dominated by the mid-lifers, the adult leaders in their 40s and 50s. They were looking for music that reflected their preferences, rather than those of their parents, and mostly succeeding. By the time they had remade worship, though, the style they preferred had become a musical cliche, and their children wanted little or none of it.

This ongoing cycle of always being "so last generation" is one of the main reasons the laity pastors most want to see in leadership, the adults just hitting midlife with all the competence and confidence that comes from having come into their own as members of society, but who are not yet looking toward retirement, are vanishing from the pews. Gifted with internet literacy, they're much quicker to figure out why church just isn't as rewarding as it should be. They're done, and they're not coming back.

Toward the end of my own ministry, I was hitting this point for myself. I'd preached the same sermons too many times. I wanted to say challenging things, but increasingly, that meant pushing the message onto the bleeding edge of theology. Every week, I was working with difficult texts, questioning authorship, digging into verses that revealed uncomfortable beliefs about God, exposing the seamy underbelly of church history, seeing how far I could push a radical progressive agenda in a congregation of moderate traditionalists. It was more than they could take, and I knew it, and acted accordingly, unconsciously at first but, as the end drew near, more and more finding I just wasn't motivated to perform the basic acts of ministry. I was done, and I needed to leave. The church and I came to that realization simultaneously. The only church home I could have after that--Metanoia--was a place that routinely experimented with all those edgy ideas I had craved. Once it disbanded, I was completely done. And I've not been back.

Sundays, for me, are times for resting, contemplating, enjoying my loved ones, exercising my body, eating well, visiting my parents, writing, playing music--all activities that make this day a true Sabbath for me. In my opinion, that's what the Dones are seeking for themselves. There was a time when church provided many of these things, when it was especially relevant to those who filled the pews, taught the classes, staffed the committees; but that time was seventy years ago, and it's not coming back.

There are Millennials who are remaking church in their own image as something that is less institutional, more energetic, more relevant, attending services that feel more like rock concerts than anything even their hippest parents would consider doing on a Sunday. They're also having these services on Saturday nights, freeing up the day of rest for all the other things young people would rather do with a day off. It sounds vibrant, exciting--and not for me.

As I said, I'm done. I went there, did that with the first half of my life. For the rest, I'm going to use my Sabbath the way God intended, if Genesis 1 is to be believed: as a time to rest from my labors and enjoy all the beauty around me for the very good creation that it is.

Early Bird

This morning, I woke up at 4:30.

That's actually my normal wake-up time. I set my alarm for 5:00, but it's rare for it to ever go off. I've usually showered, shaved, dressed, and shut it down before it has a chance to play the first few bars of Oregon's "Aurora." My internal clock is a useful thing to have on school days, when it gets me out the door and on the road across town to East Portland before the 6:30 rush.

On weekends, though, it can be frustrating. Yesterday I lay in bed, snuggling with Amy, for 45 minutes before deciding, around 5:15, to just give in and get up. Today, though, I was able to get back to sleep, and this time it was Amy's 7:00 alarm that woke me up--a sound so rare to my ears it shocked me, as did the sunlight streaming through the window. I put the extra hours of sleep down to a light evening--we didn't get home from Comedy Sportz until 11:15, and probably weren't asleep until midnight.

For the most part, though, I can count on my body clock to have me not just awake, but out of bed by 5:00. What about summer, you ask? By the time school is out, the sun is rising so early that I couldn't stay asleep if I wanted to.

Waking up that early, you might think I'm in bed by 9:00, but you'd be wrong. I'm usually asleep by 11:00. Yes, I can do the math, too: I know that means I'm getting at most six hours of sleep, and that only when it's my alarm that wakes me. I appear not to need more than that, though, since I'm just naturally awake and alert by 5:00.

I do need a short afternoon nap most days--and by short, I mean less than five minutes. My subconscious seizes the opportunity to go instantly into REM sleep, where I have incredibly vivid dreams that seem to last for hours. Coming out of my nap, though, I find whatever song or news story I might have been listening to when I gave into the need to sleep is still playing.

I'm not sure how far back my early to rise habits go. As a teenager, I know that, given the chance, I often slept until noon during the summer--though usually I'd been up until 2:00 or 3:00 reading. The first time I can remember being really aware of an abnormal body clock was my mid-30s, when struggling with divorce, remarriage, redivorce, career change, and my son's epilepsy gave my mind so much to dwell on whenever I was awake. Being a light sleeper--a trait I share with my mother--also meant I was usually the one to pop out of bed when the baby needed changing or feeding in the middle of the night, so having small children in the house probably laid the groundwork for this trait starting when I was 28, and became a father.

I know that midlife brings a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night, usually coupled with a need for a quick trip to the bathroom, and this has been true for me, so chances are I'm not going to become a deep, late sleeper anytime soon.

To be honest, I wouldn't have it any other way. Early birding makes many things possible besides being on time for work. I can start my day without any sense of being rushed. If it's the weekend, I have time to enjoy breakfast, do a few chores, read a book, sometimes even write an entire blog post before anyone else is up. In the summer, if it's a running day, I can get in an entire workout--sometimes a long one--and be back in time to have breakfast with Amy. When I was in Ghana, I was out every morning on a run, much more tolerable at sunrise than it would have been later in the day.

I'm not in any hurry, then, to put an end to my early birding. As long as I'm working, it's too useful a habit to discard. Come retirement, I might be singing a different tune, but until then, I'm going to go on enjoying the quiet, the coffee, and the sunrise.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ice Day

If you lived in Portland in the early 2000s, you may have seen a bumper sticker with the legend "Bring Major League Baseball to Portland," and this logo:
The umbrella plays off Portland's reputation for rainfall, but does it in a distinctly un-Portland way. While our city does have plenty of rainy days, the precipitation is rarely of the drenching variety, and realizing that, Portlanders tend not to carry umbrellas. Yes, we'll wear water-resistant jackets (we also eschew true raincoats), but no bumbershoots for us, thank you very much. Carrying an umbrella on a typically misty Portland day almost guarantees  one to be an out-of-towner, in fact.

We're so inured to rain that it comes as a surprise how unprepared we are to drive in it. The first rainy day after a dry spell sees far more accidents on the highway than rainfolk should be having. Add a cold snap, and things become nightmarish; which is why freezing rain shuts this city down.

I was supposed to be at school for conferences yesterday, but given the way the rain sounded through the night (like tiny pieces of glass falling on pavement), I was hardly surprised when my phone chimed at 5 a.m. with the district closure message. Reynolds School District is on the east side of the Portland metro area, out of the shelter of the west hills and at the mouth of the windy Columbia River Gorge, which means it always gets the worst of whatever weather we're having. I understand Portland Public Schools didn't make its closure decision until much later, leaving many parents in the lurch. While running on a treadmill at the gym, I also saw on local news (which becomes absolutely fixated on any disruptive weather pattern we may be experiencing) that the conditions downtown were actually quite mild, hardly seeming to merit a citywide shutdown, and I certainly didn't experience any difficulties driving last night. I was fully prepared to be at school by 7 this morning, and was finishing my breakfast at 5:30 when the two-hour delay message hit my phone.

In fact, there's probably not much ice on the road even now, as I write this at 8 a.m. But "better safe than sorry" is a creed many Willamette Valley schools follow when it comes to winter weather. It's understandable that snow should shut things down--we get so little of it that our city governments just don't have enough plows, and with rarely more than a single snowfall in any given winter, most of us prefer chains to the much more costly snow tires--but if one is cautious, ice should not be such a problem. Particularly in Reynolds, a compact district of neighborhood schools, where most parents will only have to drive a few blocks to get to conferences, it's odd that we should be so cautious.

Of course, that doesn't take into account one other very important factor: most teachers and administrators live out of district.

I have a 35-minute commute from the west side. I know I'm far from typical--most teachers in my building live considerably closer--but I also know there are teachers, and even our principal, who are unwilling to venture from their higher elevation homes when there is snow or ice in their way. This is a sign of the economic disparity between Reynolds staff and students. If it were just up to the families we serve, I doubt that any of them would have missed conferences due to the weather. Most could probably walk. But knowing what I would have to face on my way in, I was relieved when the cancellation came through, and again relieved this morning that I could wait until the sun was up before getting on the road.

Not that I'm a careless driver in wet or icy conditions. Far from it. It's the others on the road that make me nervous. I expect that, more than anything else, is what drives the decisions on school closures: can most of our staff get safely to school today? Given the extent to which this city was shut down yesterday, I think they made the right call.

And now, just minutes from heading out the door, I've had another message from Reynolds: the district is closed for the day. Meanwhile, looking out the window to the patio, I can see all last night's ice melting as the sun hits it. Even so, I knew I had a treacherous drive ahead of me, especially on Sylvan Hill, where the the west hills and the trees on either side of the highway keep the highway in shadow for most of the morning. And in all honesty, being at school on a conference day just doesn't make much sense for a music teacher. We rarely see parents, who come to talk with their children's classroom teachers, then leave as soon as they're done conferencing. I would have put myself at risk just to sit at my desk for several hours, broken only by a trip to the staff room for the meal our principal provides.

But that's all moot now, because even though my neighborhood is thawing out, it's icy enough on the east side to call it. So let the wild thaw rumpus begin!

Monday, November 10, 2014

My City


Travel brings perspective.

I just got back from a music education conference in Nashville. All our sessions were held in the downtown conference center which, on in the inside, could have been located anywhere in the United States: a brown and beige interior, indirect lighting, no pictures, posters, or even room names to suggest we were just a block from the crackling honky tonk culture of Broadway. Had I attended every concert and meet & greet, and had I been staying in the adjoining hotel, eating my meals in its restaurant, I could've gone all four days without seeing any of the city.

Fortunately, that's not how I was disposed. I was staying off site, and got out of the building for lunch and dinner, as well as to see some live music. That taste of the city made me hungry for more, and I wish I could've spent another day or two experiencing it apart from the rigid conference schedule. The evening I spent in the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, in particular, left me wishing I knew of a place in Portland that featured high powered music in an intimate setting as it did. (There may be such a place, but I don't know of it--yet. Please enlighten me.) The liveliness of Broadway was appealing, too, something I've also encountered in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I didn't see any residential neighborhoods on this trip, but I'm sure they're lovely. If it weren't for the conservative Christianity oozing out of every nook and cranny, and the fact that most country music leaves me cold, I could imagine living in Nashville.

That's not unusual. Maybe it's the itinerant life I've led, changing my address dozens of times, having to quickly find something to like about new neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities. I can picture myself living just about anywhere. That's what makes what I'm about to say really significant: Portland is my city.

I think this every time I return from a trip. Is fascinated as I am by the places I visit, and the things they have to offer that I can't find at home, it never takes long to identify their shortcomings. In Nashville, apart from that evangelical edge, it was beer, coffee, and cuisine. The best coffee in town is Starbucks. Southern cooking and barbecue joints deliver just fine, but there were only two Asian restaurants I saw, and just two breweries I was aware of.

Now back to Stumptown, where our coffee culture rivals that of Seattle, a block of food carts can feature more menu diversity (and quality) than an entire Southern city, and we probably have more craft breweries than the entire Southern half of the USA.

I could now reel off a list of cities I've visited or lived in, along with all the ways they don't measure up to Portland, even as they have fine qualities of their own: Washington, Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, London, Edinburgh, Munich, Vienna, Rome--I've been enamored of, excited by all these places, imagined myself living in a townhouse here, a craftsman there, a flat, a loft, whatever would most suit life in a particular neighborhood or municipality; yet none of these places was My City. That distinction really does fall to Portland.

I could now rattle off a long list of what makes Portland wonderful--bike routes, Forest Park, breweries, food carts, restaurants, coffee shops, Powell's, dog parks, real neighborhoods, all those bridges, a downtown with a night life, mountains, rivers, beaches, desert, and fertile valley (and yes, proximity to all the major forms of natural landscapes counts)--in fact, I just did--but I'm not going to spend anymore time explaining why all these things are wonderful, or why they make Portland so special. Every city has a list like this; they're easy to find online. Lately I've been researching Tucson, where Amy and I will go for our winter vacation, and it's got its own long list of wonderful attributes. Rather than publish yet another annotated list of cool stuff, I'm going to zero in on something entirely different: breathing.

When Portlandia, the sketch show that lampoons Portland's liberal culture, first appeared, it began with a musical tour of the city that included this line: "Portland is where young people go to retire." There are many underemployed creative people in Portland. I know several of them, and I have been one for seven of the last fourteen years. I do see my underemployed friends struggle at times to make ends meet, but they always seem to manage, just as I did; and I rarely see them desperate, nor did I have any times of real panic. I knew that somehow, I would always make it through. I did have to move at times, spent three years living communally, and cobbled together my income from a variety of sources. And it all worked out. I didn't live in opulence, but I had enough, more than enough at times, and I was able to breathe.

In Portland, we know how to breathe. It's not just that our air is cleaner--and at times, thanks to the peculiarities of geography and climate, it's not--it's that we remember to inhale. There are plenty of breathless cities, places where one always has to hurry, whether on the road or the sidewalk, and any delay turns to rage. I commute as much as anyone I know, from Bethany to Gateway, 35-40 minutes when traffic is good, more when it is not. Along the way, I occasionally encounter someone who's in too much of a hurry, but I spend entire weeks without hearing a car horn blast. Walking in Manhattan, on the other hand, I don't think we had a car-horn free minute. There's just no point: we get there when we get there, and getting frustrated over a slow trip through the tunnel isn't going to make it any faster.

This is the spirit at the heart of "where young people go to retire." We're zen about things, accepting what comes our way. If it's a time of industry and income, fine. If not, then we've got more time to write that novel, learn to play the accordion, wade through that stack of books we acquired during our last trip to Powell's. I did plenty of job searching during my times of low employment, but I also wrote, performed, exercised, and even traveled. I kept breathing.

It ultimately comes down to a question of spirituality. Portland consistently makes the list of most unchurched cities in the United States, but that's a misleading distinction. When we say we're "spiritual, but not religious," it's not a cop-out, a more acceptable way of admitting we're too lazy to go to church. We're quite serious about spirituality, but we don't define it by membership in an institution. As a pastor, I didn't understand this, and had to choke back scoffs when widows would tell me their dead husband's church was the great outdoors. Once I was liberated from that profession, I came to know exactly what they were talking about: I found myself far more connected with the ground of my being when I was on a trail. Others find it in yoga, meditation, performing, cooking--anything that helps us experience our humanity in the core of our identities. Apart from outdoor exercise, I feel most deeply connected to my true self when I'm teaching music. My spirituality has come to be much less about what some religious leader says it should be, and much more about who I am.

Being your most honest and real self is the essence of most definitions of salvation or redemption that I've encountered, and in this sense, Portland may just be the most spiritual place in America. People come here to be themselves. The piercings, tattoos, beards, comfortable but distinctive clothing; the embrace of fringe politics; the pursuit of excellence in brew pubs, distilleries, espresso shops, food carts, ice cream parlors, bike shops, book stores, and on and on; all these things speak of individuals on a quest to be their own true, best selves, and to do it in the larger community of our city.

My City. Your City. Our City. That's Portland, my home.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Orff Central

2014 Conference Logo

This was my second year at Orff Central.

That’s not what we really call it. Its complete name is the AOSA National Professional Development Conference, but in the nine years I’ve known about Orff Schulwerk, my colleagues have all referred to it simply as conference. It’s an annual event that alternates between sides of the United States. Last year, my first, it was in Denver; this year was Nashville; next year will be San Diego; and the year after that, Atlantic City. Wherever it’s held, the real draw of the conference is the workshops, as veteran Orff practitioners condense their best ideas into 75-minute sessions. For those of us who serve on the boards of our local chapters, these workshops are like previews of what the presenters would have to offer at an all-day event. Last year I came away with just one name of a presenter I’d like to come to Portland. This year, there were two.

Even the less successful workshops provide useful ideas, and I’m coming back to Portland tomorrow with a briefcase full of them. I’ll be making major adjustments to my equipment order, shifting my focus to some items I’d never have considered before, but now see can make a huge difference in my classroom. More than that, two workshops in particular—one on teaching music to children on the autism spectrum, the other on teaching children of a different ethnicity from my own—have me rethinking many things about the way I present lessons, feeling even a bit chastened at some of the things that have frustrated me.

This was a better year for making connections, and feeling like I have friends here. Thanks to my trip to Ghana, I know a dozen more people at this conference. There are also more Oregonians in attendance, not to mention more people I recognize from courses I’ve taken in the past. I’ve felt more capable of relaxing and talking with strangers who aren’t as strange as they seemed a year ago, and I’ve taken more risks doing things that might embarrass me.

Overall, then, it’s been a good time for me. I’m coming home much more secure in my identity as an Orff teacher, feeling like I’m coming into my own in the leadership of my chapter and school district. Next year I’ll be here as president of the Oregon chapter, a distinction that puts me at a different stratum of participation, and I think I’ll be ready for it.

There have been frustrations, too, of course. Holding a music conference at a convention center means being in rooms without windows and acoustics that just aren’t favorable for either performances or community singing. The full schedule also makes it difficult to get out of the building and into this lovely city and, most frustratingly, the shuttle bus schedule to my hotel eliminates the possibility of staying out listening to live music. Add to this the cold one of my personal incubators (also known as students) gave me sometime last week, and it’s been an uncomfortable and inconvenient week in many ways.

Set that aside, though, because the heart of conference is actually not the workshops or the performances, but the solidarity with colleagues who actually know what I’m talking about. In my district, I’m really the only trained Orff teacher. When we have music teacher gatherings, we don’t really have much in common with each other apart from the administrative realities of our situations. They’ve got no idea what to do with their mallet instruments (though I’ll be doing my own mini-training for them in January), many of them use textbooks, and only one, the newest and youngest, really gets the Orff difference. Here in Nashville, though, I’m surrounded by hundreds of teachers who strive to create holistic communities of music that fulfill the Orff ideal. We can talk much more than method with each other: we can get to the heart of the Orff way.

That’s something I couldn’t really accomplish last year in Denver. I was still caught up in the first year blues, and I don’t just mean my first year at conference. Teaching elementary music after a four year gap, and having to do it in a gym with students who’d had no music education for almost as long as I’d been out of the field, was wiping me out. I came back to Oregon with ideas, but I needed much more.

This year, I really feel like I’ve come into my own as a teacher, and doing it the Orff way has become as natural for me as preaching once was. This is something that comes with experience and experiences. Workshops, levels trainings, and conference are all experiences that contribute to that overall sense of knowing who I am as a teacher, and knowing what to do in any given moment in my classroom. I wasn’t in this position in 2009, the year I was laid off, though I was on my way. Now, though, I feel like I’m entering my prime as a teacher.

With that came a sense of really belonging at this conference. I no longer feel like a novice in Orff circles. I'm nowhere near having enough experience to be a trainer, but I'm definitely part of the team. I know the language, have an ever-growing knowledge base of the best national and international masters, an ever-expanding circle of Orff friends, and feel comfortable giving advice to the true novices. The traditions of conference, this one time when an entire nation of Orff teachers comes together, are becoming my traditions, as well. I can sing "Viva la Musica" in three parts with the rest. I eagerly move out onto the dance floor, improvise recorder obligatos to gospel songs, recognize the national leaders of our organization, move around the exhibit hall coveting all manner of instruments and teaching aids that I know exactly what to do with.

This being Nashville, we finished our closing ceremony by singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” It was the perfect way to wrap it up, a room filled with the rich harmonies one finds whenever music teachers sing together, rejoicing in the time we’ve had, feeling a pang of sorrow that we’re parting again. It’s been good, being with my people. But it’s also going to be very good to get back to my classroom, with my students, and bring to them some of the magic I’ve soaked up here.


Though I really will miss these people. The biggest part of belonging is the sadness that comes with goodbye. "I will see you again," promises Kofi as he hugs me and does a full Ghanaian handshake with me, complete with snap. "Until next year," says Russel, and we try the same handshake, this time with no snap. "Maybe I'll see you on the streets of Portland," says Doug, who comes north frequently to visit his daughter and grandbaby. "See you in San Diego!" says Bea. And on it goes, one goodbye after another. To all of them, I have three words: viva la musica!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Scratch Piano



First the disclaimer: this is not about the scratches on my piano, prominent as they are. I’ll add a picture to this post when I’m home, so you’ll know what I’m talking about. I don’t know where they came from, I wish they weren’t there, and let’s move on.

Now comes the definition: “scratch piano” is a term I invented to describe what I do at the keyboard. I make big music out of small pieces. Sometimes what I have is a lead sheet, a musical skeleton with a melody and chord symbols (and, if there are any, lyrics). From that, I create my own arrangement of a piece, whether it’s a jazz standard, a Christmas carol, a gospel hymn, a folk song, a symphonic fragment, or something really esoteric. If this was the extent of what I do, I’d use the common term for it: faking. In fact, large collections of lead sheets are called “fake books,” and I have a huge library of them, enabling me to play gigs that call for music from many genres.

But I do more than that. I can also take fully-composed and arranged music—hymns, arrangements of popular songs that lack chord symbols, classical works—and generate my own versions of them, drawing out those elements I want, creating my own arrangement in real time. Much of what I did as a church keyboardist was this kind of thing, since my piano sight-reading skills are competent at best. I recently played a two-hour gig of ragtime music, and much of what I played was improvisations on the themes of Scott Joplin songs, drawn from a sheet music collection.

That’s still a kind of faking, though: playing a melody and making up a chordal accompaniment. The difference from regular faking is that I’m analyzing the chords myself, since there are no handy symbols attached to the music. What makes me a scratch pianist is what I do when I don’t have any music in front of me at all: improvising to a suggestion.

I didn’t invent this kind of playing. Far from it: there’s a scene in Amadeus in which Mozart improvises a series of variations on a theme in the style of several different composers, each offered up to him on the spot. Many of the great composers of the 1700s and 1800s were known for their keyboard improvisations, some of which they transcribed and published as fantasias. More recently, and locally, I’ve seen Knute Snortum create original improvisations that include silent physical performers in a show called Concerto for Piano and Mime. All the keyboardist has to work with is a title, revealed to him just seconds before he begins playing. The title consists of a noun and a verb drawn from lists solicited by a third person and never revealed to either the musician or the mimes. Ideally what results is a three-way improvisation, with the performers playing off each other both musically and physically, the music making offers to the mimes, and taking inspiration from their movements, as well. It’s like magic to watch, but in fact, it’s simple virtuosity.

“Simple,” of course, doesn’t begin to do this justice. I’ve been improvising at the piano since I was a baby, though my initial creations were, like any infant’s, nothing more than random cluster chords. I remember a moment when I was five, and had not yet begun piano lessons, when it first occurred to me to tell a story with the piano, creating the sounds of thunder, a villain, a princess, and a rescuing hero. “Thank you very much,” sang the princess at the end of the drama in the top octave of the piano. “You are very welcome,” sang the hero in a much lower register.

Taking piano lessons brought the improvisation to an abrupt halt. Learning piano, my mother was convinced, was all about literacy: reading the notes on the page and performing them perfectly at the keyboard. It was ten years before I began, once again, to experiment with learning songs from lead sheets and by ear, and to create my own music at the piano. It took me another twenty years to become really comfortable with playing entirely from lead sheets. As I did, I continued to create my own music from scratch, experimenting with melodies and harmonies to arrive at music that was pleasing to my ears. What finally freed me up to create at will was leaving the ministry and working as a church musician, rather than a preacher. Suddenly I was responsible for hymns, preludes, offertories, underscoring prayers and sermons, creating a mood for the service. Much of what I played was improvisations on hymns, but as time passed and I became more comfortable, I began making up my own music.

Enter ComedySportz, and the world of musical improv. For CSz’s short form games, I’m called upon to prompt improvisers to sing original songs, to underscore scene games, and, when I’m really lucky, to invent an opera or rock opera. It’s tremendously exciting, putting me in the Zone of absolute focus, my ears in full accord with my fingers and eyes, utterly present in the game being played on stage, finding the right moment to begin a song, coaxing the singer toward a chorus, a bridge, a coda. To the audience, it’s magic; to me, it’s tennis, chess, writing a novel, flying a jet plane. When it’s over, I often can’t tell you exactly what I did, other than to evaluate whether it worked or not.

It may seem odd to think of a short-form improv show as the culmination of my musical career, but in many ways, I feel as if this playing is what my entire life at the piano has prepared me for. That’s why I feel so honored to occasionally be called on to sit in at the keyboard for Knute.  Concerto is his bag, and he does it brilliantly. Getting to do it myself is like Leonard Bernstein’s big break, subbing at the last minute for Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic: I get to play with the big kids.
But let’s step away from that, and get back to the “scratch” in “scratch piano.” This is where I see myself headed as a performer, though I realize there’s not much market for it: taking audience suggestions and turning them into complete compositions. The raw materials for this playing are in my head, my heart, my hands, in the words of the suggestion, and in what happens between me and the audience. It’s a musical tightrope walk, playing without a net, thrilling, pleasurable, dangerous, wonderful.

At some point in that ragtime gig I mentioned earlier, I ran out of Joplin I could comfortably fake. I could've cycled back through that book; this was a party, and with people buzzing around and having loud conversations, I don't think any were paying enough attention to have noticed a rerun. But I hate repeating myself, so instead, I channeled the harmonies and rhythms I'd already been playing for an hour into something new, and began improvising in ragtime.

That's the point at which the "scratch" really takes off: making up something utterly new, on the spot. When I do this, I have to turn off my cognitive centers and let my subconscious run the show. I become almost a passive observer, feeling my way through whatever my fingers are knitting together from all the threads of music floating around in deep storage. The result can leave me breathless, astonished--or befuddled. Sometimes I make something transcendent. Other times I don't.

The reason my scratch piano playing can still be hit and miss, despite my years of experience, is that it's improv. Even the best improvisers have off shows. It's the nature of the beast. The more you do it, the less likely you are to stumble, but there's always a chance that you will, anyway.

Hit or miss though it may be, it's still what I love best about the piano. And I'd love to share it with you. If you're curious about what it means to be a "scratch pianist," sit me down at a keyboard, give me a noun and an adjective, and I'll be happy to show you.

So for all of you who’ve wondered what I mean when I say I’m a “scratch pianist”: give me a noun and an adjective, and I’ll show you.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Music City Muttering

You need to hear this guy play. Unfortunately, that means taking a trip to Nashville.

I’m not in a honky tonk tonight.

I’m in Nashville for a music educators conference, meeting at the downtown convention center just a block from Broadway and its row of live music venues, but the live music I’m hearing right now is several blocks away from that incubator of country talent. Rather, I took the advice of the concierge at the hotel by the convention center and made my way to the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, and as I write this, I’m soaking up some tasty blues. So it’s not the kind of music one comes to Nashville to hear, but it’s still live, and it’s several notches better than an establishment this seedy could hope to attract in most other American cities.

The surprising thing, though, is not that I’m hearing blues tonight; it’s that I had to skip out on the conference schedule to hear it.

In fact, as beautiful and tuneful as this city is, the only reason I’m seeing and hearing any of it is that I serendipitously had the graduate credit I’m earning for this conference cut in half, and suddenly found myself free to hear music of my choosing.

Earning two credits at an AOSA national conference is not easy. One has to be present for 24 hours of workshops and performances, and there are only 25 ½ in the schedule. Arriving at midnight yesterday, I missed out on the one hour in that evening’s program. Still not impossible, though I would not be able to miss any other scheduled event—except I’m staying at the conference’s overflow hotel, nine miles away, and the shuttle back there leaves a half hour before tonight and tomorrow night’s programs end. One has to be present for an entire event to receive credit, so that would leave me an hour and a half short. I went to the credit table to explain my predicament, and they told me I had no choice but to drop back to just one credit, requiring 15 rather than 24 hours.
I grumpily accepted the cold reality of the situation, fuming over that missed credit that would have put me one closer to the top education step on my district’s salary schedule. If only the conference hadn’t been scheduled this week, during the Country Music Awards, and a week before Reynolds’s conference week, I could’ve taken an earlier flight, could’ve stayed in the official conference hotel, could’ve cooped myself up in the conference center from the time I arrived until I shuttled back to the airport, never seeing the light of day but getting that full 24 hours and two credits. I stayed grumpy for about five minutes, then came to a decision: this heap of doodoo was a blessing in disguise.
I can earn those fifteen hours just by attending my regular workshop sessions. That means I’m free to leave the conference center, walk around town, have leisurely rather than rushed lunches and, best of all, hear some live music that is decidedly uneducational. Which is why, instead of sitting in a sterile conference room hearing an official one hour presentation about Nashville’s place in country music history, I’m here, having a much better time.

Don’t get me wrong, the performances at conference are wonderful, and tomorrow night I don’t want to miss the Fisk Jubilee Singers; but seriously, AOSA:  do you really expect me to go to a music conference in Music City without hearing any local music? You know this is what we all want to be doing, so clear an evening for us and let us out. We’ll be in a much better mood come Sunday morning when we climb on our planes, knowing we had the chance to hear some of what this city is all about.

Gotta go. The next set has begun, and these guys are oh so good.

Postscript: as good as those guys were, they were nothing compared to the six-piece band that came next. The Stacy Mitchhart Band may be the best blues ensemble I’ve ever heard. Mitchhart sings sly, knowing lyrics, then melts the room with awe-inspiring guitar solos, all performed with almost demonic glee. A consummate professional, he stripped off and replaced a broken string, even trimming off the excess, without missing a beat. I would gladly have stayed in that balcony seat for the entire show--and according to the bar calendar, it was supposed to last until 1 a.m.--but that was not to be.

The band started playing at 9:15. At 9:40, I sadly offered my chair to a young man who’d been standing behind me, and headed back to the convention center to catch the shuttle back to my hotel. The 10:00 shuttle is yet another way in which this conference has not been designed with Music City in mind, and I could tell every other person on the bus shared my frustration. Unfortunately, there’s not much any of us can do about it, other than to make note of it in our evaluations.


But wow. Those 25 minutes may turn out to be the highlight of this trip.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Suckiness of Midterms

Thanks, voters. Now we get to look at this guy's face even more.


Old people suck.

I am, at this point, talking about my own generation, as well as the one that came before. Last night’s election was dominated by two generational cohorts: 45-60, 60 and up. Demographically, these are the older voters, the ones who dominate midterm elections, and who are far more likely than the younger cohorts to vote Republican. These are the people who just displaced Democrats from Senate leadership. They also increased the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, returned Scott Brown to the governorship of Wisconsin, and overall made it a wonderful night for Karl Rove, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and anyone else proudly displaying an elephant logo on his or her lapel. All this despite Congress having the lowest approval rating in many generations, in huge part because of Republican obstructionism, and an economy in better shape than it has been in decades, in large part because of policies put in place by a Democratic President.

How did this happen? Why are so many people my age and older voting contrary to our best interests and the interests of our country? I don’t have an answer, just a furious explosive sense that old people suck when they vote. They really do.

Except it’s not just the old who made this happen. They had help. Just as eager as grey hairs were to cast their incredibly stupid votes, their children and grandchildren were utterly uninterested in coming out to counter those votes. Young adults are the most underwhelming segment of the vote in a midterm election. They just don’t seem to care, and the result is that those who should be sticking it to The Man are instead saying, “Okay, Man, do whatever you want to us. Strip our schools of funding, give huge tax cuts to your own generation, block us from having universal health care, treat this country like it belongs entirely to you, and we’ll lie down and take it.”

That’s right. Young people suck, too.

And yet—I kind of get it. And by “it,” I mean whatever it is that so turns younger voters off to the point that they just don’t care if creepy uncle Mitch is running the Senate, doing everything he can to take away the health care they just started enjoying thanks to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Barak Obama, no thanks to anyone on the right side of the aisle. Because, political junky that I am (and this is going all the way back to high school), I’m starting to get jaded about the whole damn thing.
It’s not the fault of Republicans, either. I’ve always found their pronouncements to be ridiculous, and if anything, they’ve just gone on confirming to me that they have nothing intelligent or reasonable to say about any policy involving compassion or just plain good sense. Lately, though, I’ve become aware of just how superficial and mechanical are the words of Democrats.

I started noticing it during a Fresh Air interview of Hilary Clinton. Terry Gross pointed out that the woman most likely to become President had flip-flopped on gay marriage, and wondered if she might admit to having been wrong. No, Clinton insisted, she wasn’t ever wrong, she wasn’t ever pandering, she wasn’t having it both ways, there was no contradiction at all, blah blah blah—she simply wouldn’t give a straight (no pun intended) answer, and seemed offended that she might be expected to tell the story of how she’d changed her mind; or, if she hadn’t in fact, then why she’d been so adamant about her original opinion on the issue, when it didn’t, in fact, reflect her actual view.

That was just the beginning of my growing disenchantment with Democratic politicians. In the next few months, I saw a number of them interviewed by Bill Maher, and found every one slipping facilely into talking point mode. Nancy Pelosi was the worst example of this tendency to set aside candor for the party laundry list, but I’ve also seen Elizabeth Warren do it, and then, last night on MSNBC, Cory Booker. Answering a question with talking points is like handing someone a brochure: there is no sense of the personal. I don’t know what any of these politicians actually believes, who he or she really is. We might as well be electing a party platform rather than a human being.

Republicans do it too, of course; but when they do, they rattle off garbage that I know is wrong. What galls me is when Democrats are laundry listing things I agree with, but doing it in a way that makes me almost skeptical of my own beliefs. The only politicians I haven’t seen do this lately have been independents. Bernie Sanders, proudly socialist senator from Vermont; Ralph Nader, always a stick in the eye of the polished politician; and I can’t think of another.

This, I suspect, is why young people are so turned off by politics: it’s become almost indistinguishable from infomercials. People who’ve grown up able to pick and choose the media they consume have no patience for laundry lists. They want candor, authenticity, presentations that are passionate but not slick, commentaries with the pauses taken out that build rapid-fire arguments that are irrefutable, and don’t play the empty game of point-counterpoint. It’s not about scoring points, it’s not about keeping your personal opinions hidden, it’s not about official party lines; it’s about authenticity. And that is a commodity that is increasingly hard to find in American politics.

Which is why the real reason for this embarrassing election result, as much as I might want to pin it on conservative older voters or apathetic younger voters, is simply this:


Politicians suck.