Sunday, May 31, 2015

Nothing New Under the Sun

On the list of ideas that aren't new is graphics depicting human development from infant to elder. Just Google it.

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Newness is the burden of youth. (Me)

I can remember having the illusion of originality.

I had it as a musician, a writer, a seminarian, a preacher: the sense that what I was doing was new, unique, never before created or experienced. This song I was writing was unlike anything ever composed before, this sermon was looking at this verse from a brand new angle, this editorial was revealing the truth that no one had ever put in words before, this paper was synthesizing theology and aesthetics as no thinker ever had. And as far as my own knowledge was concerned, I was right about these things: I had never encountered these ideas before. At times, the reception to what I had created supported my conviction in their excellence. Just as often, though, my professors or parishioners responded with suggestions that I might benefit from expanding my knowledge base. That brand new idea, hot off the forge of creativity? They'd heard it. Worse, they'd had enough time to live with it that they'd rejected it, long before I came up with it.

Being young, I naturally assumed these older voices were speaking conservatively, that they just weren't ready for the radical brilliance of my intellect. It didn't strike me--couldn't, in fact--that maybe, just maybe, if I'd read more, listened more, studied more, I'd realize that, as the Preacher writes in Ecclesiastes, there really is nothing new under the sun. Thousands of generations of humans have thought all these things, tested them, and rejected the unworkable ones.

Such wisdom is not, sadly, to be had during the hot years of youth. The wisdom of the Preacher comes only with experience. Parents of adult children learn the hard way that there are some things they just cannot teach the next generation: they must figure it out for themselves, and all their parents can do is stand back and watch them fail.

Do I sound pessimistic? I don't mean to. I'm writing from a growing sense, nurtured by two years teaching 500+ music students in a low-income school, that human beings, like all things that live, pass through stages in predictable patterns. Kindergartners arrive at school borderline feral, wild things in need of taming, unable to walk in a line or sit in a circle. First graders have usually mastered the basics of functioning in a school community, but are easily shattered by a harsh word from a peer. Second graders are obsessed with pecking orders, and injure themselves and each other trying to get to the front of a line. Third graders are enthusiastic about learning. Fourth graders are teacher pleasers. Fifth graders can't wait to get out of here. I paint these pictures with broad strokes knowing that there are exceptions, but knowing, too, that these are the conflicts I will see played out next year these age levels, but by different children than before.

The same process of developmental stages carries on throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I first encountered the notion of adult development in graduate school, and was stunned by the thought that I might still be going through stages in my golden years. There was never going to be a point at which I could relax, knowing I'd arrived, and there would be no more age-related transitions for me to experience. Everything I would go through had been experienced by others, and would go on being experienced, as long as homo sapiens continued to exist as a species.

Thus, I had to spend enough time behind the wheel for driving to become instinctual. I had to spend enough time in relationships for a break-up not to be the end of the world--and even as recently as eight years ago, it still felt like that to me--just as I had to lose a few jobs to develop the resiliency not to be shattered every time a potential employer told me they'd hired someone else. The newness of any experience had to wear off for me to attain master of whatever skills were involved.

All these lessons I've learned, all these stages I've passed through, I see others of my generation immersed in, as well. Looking ahead a decade, I can see what it'll be like for me to ease out of this work that consumes me now and into a life of less structure and more choice.

Human institutions follow the same patterns of development as human consciousness. I wrote recently about the cyclical nature of British democracy: Labour governments nationalize industries, Conservative governments privatize them, and the nation takes it in stride. American democracy has cycles of its own: the four year Presidential election cycle, the eight year cycle from idealistic new President through frustration with the reality of working with Congress to the lame duck who can do as he (or, eventually, she) pleases by executive fiat because there's no election left to fear, the ebb and flow of the middle ground of American voter sensibilities. It's all happened before, it'll all happen again. There's nothing new under the sun.

For all the cycling, there are shifts in wisdom that are unmistakably new: in all the recorded history of human civilization, same-gender marriage has never existed before as a government-sanctioned institution. In all the history of human life on earth, humans have not, until this era, possessed the technology both to induce and reverse climate change. At the same time, we are now on the verge of being able to colonize other worlds. 

These are things that are new under our sun, that may lead us to think that we really are at a moment of change unlike any that has ever existed. And truly, the experiences we are having now with technology are unique in human history.

And here's the rub: who's to say we're the first species to experience these things? For all we know, these steps toward transcending the boundaries of earthly existence may be a developmental stage that has been experienced by countless species across the universe.

And no, that's not a new idea, either. In fact, it's a staple of science fiction: the visitation of our planet by a superior mentor race of aliens here to nurture us through this stage in our existence just as they, in the same moment in their own history, were guided through their own transition millennia earlier.

Because there's nothing new under any of these suns. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, universe without end, amen.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Step inside the Wayback Machine

Mr. Peabody's WABAC machine was far more versatile than mine.

My Wayback Machine is stuck.

It has four triggers, all of them popular songs from the second half of 1984: Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You," the Cars' "Drive," Chicago's "Hard Habit to Break," and Wham!s "Wake Me Up Before You Gogo." Just a few beats of any of those songs, and I'm transported back to the driver's seat of my first car. It's a brown 1978 Celica GT, and I've only owned it for two months. I'm heading home on I-84 to my apartment in LaGrande from the tiny hamlet of North Powder. I've been struggling with my first teaching job, finding the reality of junior high and high school music is nowhere near what I'd hoped it would be, though the elementary teaching shows promise. More than the students, I'm finding the principal/superintendent almost impossible to manage. I'll be out of this job in a few weeks; he'll last another year or two, then take his administrative ineptitude to another district.

It's a scary time for me: in this pre-internet world, I'm completely isolated, hundreds of miles and a long-distance call from family, in touch with my college friends only by mail. Everything I'm experiencing is new to me: apart from the car, I'm in my first apartment, my first job, belonging to a church by choice (rather than having my membership automatically moved along with my ministerial father) for the first time, buying my own groceries, purchasing my own color TV with my first (store) credit card--and also losing that first job, then having to figure out what to do with my life for the first time. And the soundtrack of this, my true coming-of-age, is those four songs, because I don't yet have a tape player in my car, there is only one radio station in LaGrande, and these songs are in constant rotation that fall. I have nothing else to listen to on the half-hour drive to and from North Powder. It's even on TV: there are only a dozen channels on cable, and when there's nothing else on, I occasionally spend a few minutes with just-launched MTV, which has few videos besides "Gogo" and "Drive" to show me. With all the lonely trauma I'm enduring, I find "Drive" soothing, and find inspiration in the "Choose Life" vibe of "Gogo." "I Just Called" and "Hard Habit," on the other hand, are just impossible to get away from.

With these four songs coming at me from every direction, I grow up. I learn more about being an adult during this four month span than in five years of college and grad school. The precedents I set for myself will see me through two divorces, two career changes, nearly losing a baby, job losses, defeats, failures, and much more. In LaGrande I learn to put the broken pieces of my life back together. And I do it to this soundtrack.

There are other songs I associate with watershed times in my life, but none of them is as connected with the calendar as these four. Even though they are, in many ways, of debatable quality--"I Just Called" is, without a doubt, the worst hit Stevie Wonder ever recorded--they are more significant to me than anything else to chart in the top 40, before or since.

I expect it's the same for you. And I'm curious. For once, I'm soliciting comments, either directly beneath this blog, or on Facebook, if you got here from there. What songs are your own personal Wayback Machine, and what time in your life do they send you to? Are you embarrassed by your response to them, or happy to embrace them? Let's get a thread going, and see what we can learn about each other.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Classically Curmudgeonly

Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions
Yes, it's come to this.

I remember the exact moment I turned into a classical curmudgeon.

The year was 1997, so I was 36. Young, you might think, for a curmudgeon, but bear with me. I had taken my second wife on a date to a concert of the Oregon Symphony. We sat down in our mid-priced seats on the main floor, beneath the balcony. I scanned the program notes, learning about the background of the soloist who would perform during the concerto, picked up a thing or two I hadn't known (despite spending most of my junior year at Willamette studying Beethoven) about the symphony that would conclude the concert, I allowed myself to relax into the familiar polychords of an orchestra warming up, applauded when the concert master walked onto the stage, felt my anticipation grow as the orchestra tuned, applauded as the conductor walked onto the stage, bowed, stepped onto the podium--all the rituals that put me in the right frame of mind to be at the receiving end of a performance of great music.

And then the conductor ruined it for me.

Instead of turning his back to us, raising his baton, and launching into the overture that was supposed to open the concert, he picked up a microphone and talked to us about what we were about to hear.

What the hell? We've got program notes. We can read. This is patronizing. It's shattering the fourth wall. Symphony concerts are supposed to be wordless. And now he's telling us about his personal experience of this piece. I'll have my own experience, thank you very much. What does he think this is, a freshman music appreciation class?

The orchestra/audience fourth wall was broken twice more during that concert. Driving home, I was in a dark mood. I shared my irritation with my wife, and she immediately took me to task. Sure, I had a music school education, but that almost certainly put me in a very small minority of those at the Schnitzer concert hall that night. And yes, there were notes in the program, but those notes were printed in small fonts, and the lighting was far from ideal for reading them, besides which they were written from the perspective of a music scholar rather than an amateur enthusiast. So what was the problem with a conductor informally introducing the music to the lay audience who filled the hall? Wasn't he doing exactly what I did every Sunday when I preached in the vernacular, without notes, to a congregation that wouldn't have understood any of the ivory tower theological words I was choosing not to use, anyway?

I was suitably chastened by this lecture. She was right on every count. I knew that symphony concerts had been hemorrhaging attendees for decades. I'd experienced it myself in college: my freshman year at Willamette, there were two orchestras with full seasons of concerts performed in Smith Auditorium. Two years later, the Salem Symphony folded, and now it was only the Oregon Symphony performing four times a year for Salemites. There has always been an uneasy tug-of-war between the efforts of serious musical organizations to enrich their audiences and the desire of those same audiences to be entertained. Critics have looked with disdain on the intrusion of popular elements into serious music, while audiences have turned away from orchestras that programmed works too strenuous for their untrained ears. In response, orchestras began in the 1800s to tailor programming to different audiences. The Boston Pops orchestra--a pared-down version of the Boston Symphony--began performing concerts of light classics just four years after the founding of the BSO. My first experiences of classical music were PBS-televised Boston Pops concerts, with Arthur Fiedler's long white locks rocking out to arrangements of Beatles tunes, interspersed with Gershwin, movie soundtracks, and the William Tell Overture.

For all the concessions they make, pops concerts still draw an older clientele to the concert hall. When younger audiences rock, they do it to actual rock music, not toned-down string-infused arrangements of their favorites. This has led symphony organizations to create series of special concerts with performers who need no orchestral backup, as well as concerts that go beyond the tried-and-true pops format in gimmicky ways. Consider the flyer I received in the mail last week, soliciting subscriptions in the 2015/16 "Oregon Symphony Presents" series. Of the eighteen concerts in this series, four are "popcorn concerts," during which the soundtrack of a movie is played, live, while the movie is projected over the orchestra; three are holiday-themed pops concerts (Gospel Christmas, "Classical Christmas," and New Year's Celebration); three feature guest performers from the world of popular music; one features "The Tenors," singing a standard pops concert program; one features classical comedians; three are performances at which the symphony won't even be present; and, yes, one is a Pokemon concert featuring music from the world of video gaming. Only two concerts in this schedule fit the standard orchestra format of symphonies, overtures, and concertos. 

This is not, of course, the symphony's season in its entirety. There is also a classical series of concerts. The "Oregon Symphony Presents" series is clearly aimed at supporting these bedrock concerts by bringing in audiences who would never, otherwise, darken the Schnitz's doors. Financially, these concerts make the classical series possible. And culturally, they inoculate audiences to the very experience of being at a symphony concert, bringing them into an auditorium decorated for more serious music than can be heard in a stadium.

I understand all this. It makes hard, cold sense to me. And yet, I can't help feeling nostalgic for those days when I would to present my $2.00 student ticket at an Oregon Symphony concert in old Smith Auditorium, peer at the program notes in the inadequate light, struggle to get comfortable in one of those cramped thirty-year-old seats, and then plunge into two hours of music I had never, at that point, heard before. There was adventure to be had in those concerts. The conductor was not holding my hand, telling me what to listen for, waxing rhapsodic about what this or that piece of music meant to him personally. It was just me and the music. Some of it left me cold, some of it challenged my sensibilities, and some of it changed my life.

And Pikachu never took the stage.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Slavery, Universal Healthcare, and a Very Naughty Senator

This bad boy needs a time out.

Yes, he really said it.

I saw a quote on Facebook yesterday that left me speechless. The statement was so insane that I couldn't even begin to form a response to it. Senator Rand Paul had, during a Senate committee hearing, equated the concept of a right to healthcare with slavery:

With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.
Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services — do you have a right to plumbing? Do you have a right to water? Do you have right to food? — you’re basically saying you believe in slavery.
I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to health care. You have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you?That’s ultimately what the right to free health care would be. (thinkprogress.org)

I was so stunned by what I was reading that I had to make sure this wasn't being made up, taken out of context, cherry-picked, doctored (see what I did there?) to turn something far less outlandish into such a steaming heap of idiocy. So I googled the words "Rand Paul Right to Healthcare Slavery," and found this video of him saying it. The context was a hearing on a bill by Bernie Sanders to create a single payer health care system (the kind enjoyed by most other first world nations) for the United States, rather than the crazy quilt of regulated private insurers under which we currently suffer. The statement has been embraced by right-wing websites, while leaving progressive bloggers and news sources almost as speechless as I still am when I attempt to formulate words to respond to it.

Even now, sitting on the couch trying to write a blog about it, I keep coming up against how patently crazy this formulation is. In now way is anyone proposing universal healthcare intending that anyone associated with the health industry should be treated as the ancestors of his constituents once treated Africans, forcing them to leave their homes and work for free. (Yeah, I went there, Mr. Senator from a slave state.)

To be fair, I have to acknowledge that Rand Paul has a history of extemporaneously saying nutty things when the microphones are on. That's true of many public figures, though most of them do it accidentally. Senator Paul drops these sputter-inducing bombshells in the context of making speeches. A politician with Presidential aspirations ought to know better. A President thinking out loud during a speech could start a war.

The most skilled, most experienced political figures choose their words carefully. That's why President Obama so rarely makes use of the soaring rhetoric that made him such an inspirational campaigner prior to 2009: when a policy maker says something off the cuff, it can have implications for the entire nation. Sometimes those remarks are a watershed for progress, as when Vice President Joe Biden's remarks about same-sex marriage triggered the great thaw in American attitudes toward this basic right. At other times, however, they can lead to heightened security measures being taken by hostile nations.

Realizing this, it occurred to me that what Rand Paul really needed during that hearing was someone to gently guide him to a corner of the room for a time out, a few minutes to cool his jets, then come back to the table when he was thinking clearly once more. Maybe then he wouldn't find himself in the uncomfortable position of putting supporters of universal healthcare like the Pope and Jesus in the same category as those antebellum Kentuckians I alluded to earlier.

Tellingly, my visceral response to reading the healthcare slavery remark was almost identical to how I felt during my last class on Friday. I was trying to teach a parachute movement activity to a first grade class, an activity that I had taught successfully to every other kindergarten through third grade class in the school, but I just couldn't get it started. The reason: a child who insisted on blurting out, as loudly as he could, whatever came to mind. This is nothing new where this child is concerned; he's been doing it since his first day of kindergarten. I can't send him away--unless he's endangering another child, I have to keep him in the room--so I put him in time out, something he resists just enough to break the flow of the lesson, but not enough to require me to call the office (a much more significant disruption in that lesson flow). He's out for a minute or two--more than that, and it's counter-productive, as he starts to act out quite loudly from wherever he's supposed to be calming down--and then he comes back for just long enough to lose it again. Most classes, the effect on the rest of the children is minimal, and I can get most of the lesson taught. Friday, though, he was in rare form, infecting more of his classmates every time he acted out, so that the entire class suffered and was ultimately incapable of learning the lesson. What this child needed was to be isolated from the entire class, and there was no way for me to do that.

The feeling it left me with--the sense of "Why am I even trying?"--was stirred up by Rand Paul's 2011 remarks on healthcare slavery. It's not that I think I should have any influence over the very junior senator from Kentucky. I know he doesn't read my blog; heck, I'm lucky if my posts get clicked two dozen times. It's that so many people buy his brand of libertarian paranoia, enough that he's on the shortlist for the Republican nomination for President. And this after six years of "debate" on healthcare. I put debate in quotes because it's felt more like a teacher trying to get the attention of a pack of ravenous feral toddlers than a rational discussion. But I think you get the picture: I'm not feeling sanguine about the prospects of that first grade class learning music, or this nation seeing its way to a sensible, streamlined universal healthcare system anytime soon, because sadly, as in the case of my school, there's nobody in the principal's office willing to ride herd on the bad boys who can't stop spewing toxic bullshit.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Still Not Team Hillary

News giving fiction a run for its money.

The parallels are manifold: a prominent southern "New Democrat" ascends to the Oval Office in large part through the advice and machinations of his brilliant Yankee wife. Their marriage is a constant dance of political realism, compromise, and genuine affection. There's an implicit understanding that she will remain in the back seat throughout his term, though he may occasionally grant her a more relevant role than is usually afforded first ladies. If she can only be patient enough, her day will come.

It was clear from the first episode of Netflix's House of Cards that, in adapting the BBC political melodrama for American audiences, the creators had elected to base the principal characters, Frank and Claire Underwood, on Bill and Hillary Clinton. While the corrupt, felonious, and ruthlessly pragmatic Underwoods frequently have me (and many a professional pundit) choking on the outlandishness of their schemes, they're utterly compatible with the conspiracy theories that Clinton-haters have been spinning since 1992. Is it plagiarism to turn a Rush Limbaugh rant into a TV series? Or just good stewardship of scandalous resources?

Whether you love it or loathe it, House of Cards resonates with a time when things got done in Washington through back-room deals. As questionable as the principles behind those deals may have been, they moved the country forward, turning the economy around, expanding civil rights, and laying the groundwork for post-Soviet globalism--all of which came crashing down within the first two years of George W. Bush taking office. Barack Obama's hard work has, again, recovered much of that lost ground, but only against the strenuous resistance of Congress. Many of suggested that he could have accomplished far more had he been willing, in his first days in office, to compromise some of his principles, to play the Clinton/Underwood game.

I'm skeptical of such prognostications. As nutty as the details of House of Cards may be--can anyone imagine that a vice president (or, in the BBC version, a minister of the government) could get away not just with conspiring to murder, but with committing the crime himself?--the title of the series is the truest description of every government that has ever existed, whether in a democracy or a totalitarian regime. Whenever new politicians come to the capital, eager to build something new, they must begin by dismantling whatever came before them. When I studied political science in college, the prime example of the policy pendulum was British parliamentary democracy: Labour governments nationalize utilities, Conservative governments privatize them. For a policy change to outlast the government that created it, it must be so indispensable, so tied to the interests of voters, that those who would overturn it put their very careers at risk by doing so. Everything else--the grand initiatives, the diplomatic breakthroughs, the very personality of the nation--is swept away whenever a new legislature and president come to town, to be replaced by another tenuous structure. The cycle is as certain as the rise and fall of our rose garden, the blooms of May promising a lovely June, a potentially  gorgeous July, perhaps a display that will last into November, but must eventually be cut back, ultimately to the bare stalks of February.

I was not a Clinton fan in the 1990s. The President's gift for empathy, his brilliance at "feeling the pain" of whomever he was talking to, seemed much more skillful than genuine to my introvert sensibilities. In 1996, Ed Paup, newly appointed Bishop of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, came to my small rural church to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Watching him work the room, the only word I could use to describe him was "Clintonesque." It didn't surprise me at all when Clinton's presidency was nearly undone by a sex scandal--or when, fifteen years later, Ed Paup resigned for similar reasons. Those who are just too smooth, too good at making everyone in the room feel personally touched, sometimes have a hard time knowing where to draw the line on that personal touching.

I'm not a Clinton fan now, either, but for different reasons. Hillary Clinton is not her husband. It's not easy for her to convince strangers that she cares about them, and at times she can seem brittle. You might think that, given my suspicion of the too-smooth political operator, I would find myself drawn to Hillary's difficulty with seeming likable, a problem I shared with her during all my years in the ministry. If that's all there was to it, I'd have no problem joining Team Hillary.

Unfortunately, I've seen another side to this Clinton that bothers me far more. Last June, Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. During the interview, Clinton insisted that her opinion on marriage equality had not changed over the years. Terry Gross questioned her on this, and pressed the issue, suggesting that Clinton had been allowing the polls to dictate her public opinions. This led Clinton to engage in some slippery legalistic parsing of the English language. I was listening to this interview while on a run in Ghana, and when I got to that part, I stopped in my tracks and shouted "Bullshit!" This was a Clintonesque "definition of 'is'" moment, and it infuriated me.

I realize this is simple political pragmatism: nobody wants to vote for a politician who admits to being guided by polls rather than principles. And yet, holding opinions that are unpopular is death to a campaign. It's understandable that, at a time when state after state was passing constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, even a senator from New York had to choose her words carefully if she wanted to serve a second term, or move on to a national office. Admitting now that that's what she was doing, calculating her statements to offend the least number of voters, would reveal her for what she is: a politician like all the rest. But that's the game we play, the house of cards every person elected to political office is constantly building.

The most skilled of politicians do it with such aplomb that we never suspect the compassionate, gregarious Bill Clinton exterior masks a cold, calculating Frank Underwood heart; but then, in real life we're not privy to the fourth-wall-breaking asides that interrupt every episode of House of Cards. It would be wonderful if, in the midst of that Fresh Air interview, we could've been a fly on the inside of Hillary Clinton's wall of political composure, knowing what she was really thinking about that question.

But we're not. And that's why I can never be a wholehearted supporter of any politician or, even more than that, why, as much as I love analyzing the world of politics (during the first season of The West Wing, I couldn't help thinking that Sam Seaborn had my dream job), I wouldn't last long in that world. It's why the ministry was ultimately the wrong place for me: to appease a demanding congregation, a pastor has to make far too many compromises to his or her own identity and principles.

Now don't get me wrong. I fully intend to vote for Hillary Clinton. I know she'll move this nation in the direction of progress, and that whatever Republican finally winds up competing with her will do the opposite. But that would be just as true of Frank Underwood, if he was running.

And if she loses? Let's just hope Obama used enough glue constructing his house of cards that it can't just be blown away by whatever gasbag takes his place.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Brand Disloyalty

Sorry, guys, but I'm just not that into you.

"This is not a marketing call. We'd just like to ask you a few questions about your recent cancellation of your AT&T account."

"Okay, I'm game. Fire away."

For the next fifteen minutes, I answered mostly multiple choice, some yes-or-no, and a very few open-ended questions about a decision I made last fall, but didn't implement until May 2: the end of a thirteen-year relationship. AT&T had been my cell provider since 2002, when I decided to reactivate my teaching license and spend a year subbing while I figured out what to do with my life. To maximize my classroom days, I needed to be reachable wherever I might be and, more importantly, I needed to be able to constantly call in to the automated "Subfinder" systems of the dozen or more districts I was registered with, picking up whatever job I could find. That meant having a cell phone with all those numbers on speed dial, so that even when I was on the job, I could call during my breaks. My system worked: even though I didn't start subbing until November, I logged more than 100 days in the 2002-3 school year, enough to qualify me for a step on the salary scale once I began teaching full-time.

I stuck with AT&T as long as I did because, as is the case for most Americans, I found myself locked into rolling contracts. Once I started providing cell phones for my kids, upgrading them as birthday presents, the thought of breaking any of those three out-of-sync contracts was just too expensive to consider. This despite the poor service I experienced almost every time I called in to protest a charge. Some of those service calls had me on hold for an hour or more, but the price of punishing this megacorporation for its shoddy service was still too steep. And then there were the iPhones: only AT&T offered them at first, and I quickly became attached to mine. Eventually, AT&T allowed me to do away with my contract, though now it had me on a payment plan for two iPhone 5s which might as well have been a contract: to sever the relationship would have meant paying off the phone in full, at a cost even more extreme than that of the old contract-breaking penalty.

Still, I wanted out. I had somehow been talked into giving up the unlimited data I had enjoyed since acquiring my first iPhone, and while I wasn't using much, Sean had no access to the internet apart from his phone. I found myself paying for overages almost every month. The final straw was a blunder on my part: I changed banks last fall, and the one electronic payment I forgot to change was AT&T. Rather than call my number to let me know the payment had been rejected, AT&T called a dormant line--Sarah had switched to a different company a year earlier, and I was only holding onto that line, which was still on a contract, to avoid an early cancellation penalty--and sent text messages to Sean, who didn't know what to do with them. Then they turned off the account. If Sean hadn't messaged me through Facebook at a coffee shop--we still had wi-fi-- I wouldn't have realized our phone service was off until after school. I called at lunchtime on a land line, and learned that my oversight was going to cost me $80 in reconnection penalties.

I tried talking them down, working my way up the customer service chain, but AT&T wouldn't budge. I told the customer service superviser I finally reached that I'd been a loyal customer for twelve years, and that that ought to count for something. I asked him why simply flipping a switch to turn my line back on should cost $50 (the other $30 was an NSF penalty, and I wasn't protesting it). He said they were holding me responsible for my mistake. I reminded him that AT&T had blown it with notifying me about the mistake. He patiently refused to use any discretion. All right, I told him, I'll be switching to T-Mobile at the first opportunity. As far as I could tell, he didn't care.

And that's what I told the survey person during those few times when she asked open-ended questions: my experience of the inflexility of this huge corporation had cost them any loyalty I might have had. Two days after I learned that T-Mobile was now buying people out of not just their contracts, but out of whatever they still owed on their phone payment plans, I was in the Boise T-Mobile store with Sean, initiating the switch. We've got new phones now, unlimited data, and my phone bill promises to be about $40 less a month.

There was a time when I bought the line that some brands are better than others. I always brushed with Colgate. I preferred Coke to Pepsi, McDonalds to Burger King, Toyota and Honda to any other car company. It's how I was raised: my parents' generation believed in brand loyalty, and we always had Colgate and Zest in the bathroom, Joy in the kitchen, and, I'm sure, many other brands I just don't remember. It never occurred to us to buy the other brands, and we only purchased generics when there was a budget crunch. Our brands were just better. Why switch when we were already using the best?

Then I went to college and took Economics 101, and learned about price discrimination. I was shocked by what I was hearing from Professor Hanson: the store-brand toothpaste was made in the same plant as the Colgate I'd been using for so many years. In fact, it was the same toothpaste, just packaged in a less attractive tube. How could the corporation justify selling the same product for two different prices? Simple: they were going after both the aflluent, full-price-paying consumers and the more frugal generic-price-paying misers as well. No, they didn't make as much profit selling the lower priced stuff, but they still made more than they would if they'd just ignored those customers. And that's when I decided that I was done buying brand name products unless they were on sale at loss-leader prices, and would cost me less than generics.

That's how I've been ever since. I have no brand loyalty. I'm a marketer's worst nightmare: packaging means nothing to me, sales pitches get nowhere with me, even the cleverest of ads won't get me to pony up a little extra for whatever they're selling. Oh, I do still favor some products over others: I'm a dedicated iPhone user, and I'd rather drive an Accord than almost any other car--except that the necessity of changing cars in a hurry put me in a Hyundai three and a half years ago, and now that it's paid for, I'm planning to keep driving it until it falls apart, which will probably not be for a very long time as, surprise! Hyundais are now just as reliable as Hondas, more proof that brand loyalty is a fool's virtue.

Time to put this blog to bed and head upstairs, where I will take some Walgreens cold medicine, brush my teeth with Kirkland (Costco) toothpaste, and climb between my Target sheets. Sweet dreams.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Leadfoot

Gotcha!

I got my first and, for 28 years, only speeding ticket in 1987.

I was student pastor of a small United Methodist Church in rural southern Illinois called (I'm not making this up) Seed Chapel. I had just learned that one of my parishioners had suffered a heart attack and been taken by ambulance all the way from Oblong to Urbana, as Crawford County's only hospital couldn't begin to address his needs. For the first time in my shortish career, I had an urgent mission: to drive to Urbana and do all the things ministers do when they make a hospital call. It's almost a hundred miles from Oblong to Urbana--the same distance as between Portland and Eugene--so I had a big day ahead of me, and I was eager to get started. I left Oblong faster than I realized, accelerating to 40 while still in the 30 mph zone. A police car passed me headed the other direction. Its lights went on almost immediately, it executed a quick u-turn, and came up behind me. I pulled over, admitted I was driving to fast, and was told by the officer I could either pay the ticket now or go to jail. Yes, that's really what he said. I didn't have the cash for the $50 ticket, so he followed me back into town to the bank where I made an ATM withdrawal and paid him. My name appeared in the local newspaper along with all the other misdemeanors on the police blotter, and my church had a good laugh about it the following Sunday. "Why didn't you tell him you were going to the hospital?" they asked me. "He would've let you off." All I could say is that it never occurred to me because he had me dead to rights: I was ignoring the speed zone, and it just didn't feel right to take advantage of my pastoral identity to get away with breaking the law.

In the 28 years since then, I've been pulled over several times. Humility and my status as an increasingly middle-aged white male have probably been the main reasons I've received only warnings on these occasions, none of which really seems fair to me: I've deserved those tickets. Either I've knowingly been driving over the speed limit, or my car's six cylinder engine has been feeling its oats and I've been lulled by the smoothness of the ride into going faster than I realized. And probably the longer I got away with it, the easier it was to convince myself it wasn't going to happen again.

And then, three weeks ago, a robot caught me. Twice.

I've known about photo radar for many years. I've seen many a red-light-runner get flashed by the cameras at busy intersections in Portland. What I hadn't known about was the portable photo radar Beaverton has taken to moving around town. One morning while it was still dark at 6:20 AM--my usual commuting time--I was zooming down a stretch of 143rd that has a posted limit of 40. The light on Cornell was green, always a pleasant surprise, and I zipped around the corner, cruising past the dark and empty edifice of Sunset High School, in the parking lot of which was a photo radar van. There was a bright flash. I glanced at my speedometer-44--then up at the speed limit sign I was passing--30--and allowed myself to hope it was just an equipment test.

Two days later, I was heading down Cedar Hills Boulevard, on my way to a workout at the Beaverton 24-Hour Fitness, when I passed another van. This time I was traveling at 42 in a 35 zone. Again, I hoped nothing would come of it, or perhaps that it was the car in front of me that had been tagged (though the light flashed several times after I passed the van, as well--a lucrative day for the Beaverton Police Department).

For a week, I crossed my fingers, started breathing easier. And then came the first letter, which contained photos of my car, my face plainly visible, and my license plate, as well as a $160 fine. Two days later, the second letter came, and again, there was no pretending that was not my car or my face in those pictures. This fine was $110.

I paid them both. Oh, I sent in letters of explanation, throwing myself on the mercy of the traffic court, hoping the fines might be reduced. But it never occurred to me to question either of these tickets, or the unfairness of a mobile robo radar. I had this coming. So did the other drivers who were tagged that second day. People drive too fast, endangering pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers. It's the job of the police to slow us down. Clearly the friendly warnings of the cops who pulled me over weren't doing the trick (though once given one, I was always far more careful about my speed on the stretch of road where I'd been warned--just not anywhere else). Never knowing where I might be caught by a robot is a whole other matter, and it's got me paying attention to speed limits all over the metropolitan area.

My professional ethics are not happy with this. Fear of punishment is the most extrinsic of motivations. And it's not as if I have no empathy for those endangered by my speedy traveling preferences: I've shaken my fist at many a reckless driver who almost clipped my bicycle or forced my running feet into a ditch, and I've had plenty of aggressive speedsters ride my bumper. The words I most often yell at rude drivers are "Slow down!" Why should it be any different for me when I'm behind the wheel?

That's the main reason I'm not grumbling about the unfairness of my robo-tickets. They're a wakeup call for me--as will be their likely impact on my car insurance. I've complained for many years about drivers who hazardously pass me on a busy highway, only to have me end up right behind them at the next stoplight. Is the half second of travel time you just saved really worth endangering all our lives? Of course not. Nor are the few seconds I saved on my commute by coming around that corner so fast. If driving the speed limit means a longer commute, then I need to leave the house earlier.

The judge may yet take pity on me, and issue a partial refund for the $270 I mailed in last week. If he or she does, I'll be happy to put the money back in my checking account. If not, I'm not complaining. After all, I had it coming.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Children Left Behind



Every class has at least one.

Some of them have perpetual chips on their shoulders. They bristle at every perceived offense, whether it comes from a peer or the teacher. "Bristle" isn't the right word, because often the bristling turns into an explosion: shouting, a tirade that cannot be turned off no matter what the likely consequence will be. At times, the shouting may give way to outright violence: hitting, kicking, battery with some convenient object. In the music room, those objects are mallets and xylophone bars; in regular classrooms, they may include pencils. The eruption can only be stilled when the child leaves the room, hopefully voluntarily, but sometimes only with the help of a staff member summoned with an emergency call to the office.

Some of them are simply curious. They wander around the room, picking up and manipulating anything that catches their eye, and nothing short of restraints will still them from this activity. Again, consequences are useless: the drum must be hit, the recorder blown, the keyboard turned on and played.

At the other end of the spectrum are the moody ones: withdrawn, their faces clouded with sadness or with weepy anger. They refuse to participate, communicating only by snapping at anyone who tries to draw them out. They may hide under tables, sit in corners, curl up in a sitting or supine fetal position. If they're wearing hoodies, they may cinch up the hood around their heads until there's only a small air hole.

And then there are the mischief makers. Share an expectation with the class, and these children will knowingly, intentionally, blatantly defy it. The more the teacher emphasizes the rule, the more attractive its violation. Their misbehavior spans both the material and the interpersonal realms: remove them from the peers they will not leave alone, and they turn immediately to playing with forbidden objects. Whatever or whoever they are interacting with, the goal is simply to disrupt.

As any teacher can tell you, there's at least one in every class. Chances are, that one is an amalgam of all these types, manifesting a constant cycle of fury, depression, withdrawal, hyperactivity, and mischief. Some can be wooed with simply extrinsic behavior plans: earning points toward rewards with a clipboard, agreeing to swap good behavior for a cherished leadership role in the classroom. The hardest cases, though, don't respond to such superficial strategies. Something is deeply, traumatically broken inside these children, and mainstreaming is a detriment to both their education and that of their peers.

Today I had a fourth grade class that behaved better than they have since changing teachers two months ago. The reason seemed clear to me: the two most troubled children were absent, and the other two were moderating their behavior. On the other hand, I had a fifth grade class that was hijacked by outrageously defiant behavior from a child who's never given me trouble before. I think the latter case was an exception--most likely, there's something going on at home that I don't know about--but in the former, when their classroom teacher came to pick them up, I saw by the smile on her face that she, too, was having a lovely day without those children in her room.

The Reynolds School District has a facility for children whose behavior is so violently disruptive that they cannot be mainstreamed. It's called Four Corners, and it has a staff-to-student ratio that is at least 1:1. Only the most extreme cases go to Four Corners for the simple reason that the district can't afford to expand the criteria. This means that students like the fourth grade girl who will not rest until she is sent to the office, where she'd rather be than in any educational activity, remain in classes where their behavior holds back the learning of all their peers. If it weren't for the 2-3% of students at Margaret Scott who are like her, I'd be much farther along with my music curriculum. I expect test scores would be up school-wide, as well.

But we do have them, more of them than I've encountered at any other school. I suspect poverty has a lot to do with that: as the administrator I work with on music budgeting told me, trauma is a part of the daily life of many of our students. In an ideal world, we'd be able to provide these kids with the support they--and their teachers--need: aids in the classroom, space in the school where they can "de-escalate" from the multiplicitous stimuli of crowded classrooms, raucous lunchrooms, hectic playgrounds, mental health specialists who can counsel them through the uncontrollable passions that so often end in referrals for them and injuries for their classmates.

As you know from the preceding paragraphs, though, I do not teach in an ideal world. Far from it: I'm lucky to be in a classroom that I share with a computer lab, the presence of which is forcing me for the last two months of the school year to teach afternoon classes in the gym while students occupy my space to take Smarter Balance tests. Next year, it will become even less ideal, as an influx of more children leads to more classes, I'm forced back into the gym full time, and PE is taught outdoors on nice days, in the cafeteria when there's rain, and in classrooms when the cafeteria's in use. There's just no room for these children to be pulled out of the activities they find unbearably stressful, and so both they and their classmates suffer.

You may think, at this point, that I'm discouraged, and to some extent, I am. I will readily admit that, when I learned today that one of the fourth grade high flyers who has been a constant thorn in my side will not be coming to music anymore, the feeling that overwhelmed me was relief. And then came the sadness: I really do want to teach music to all the students of this school, to win over those who don't like it, convince them that singing, playing, and dancing are some of the most wonderful things human beings can do. But I've lost this one, and I don't know if she'll ever come back. Her parents are simply fed up with the referrals, and can't think of anything that will make her behave, so they're giving up on her.

This doesn't happen often, though I hear teachers threaten it to students who often have trouble controlling their impulses when they're in the music room. I wish it didn't happen at all; but again, the child who is made to sit in the classroom doing homework rather than being in the music room has a history of derailing lessons, and I have to admit class is easier without him or her there.

Knowing that, feeling it, I quickly move to guilt, and to a sense that I've failed this child. But really, the failure, if there is any, is at a much higher level: this district has not given any of us the resources to truly individualize education, to be creative with the squirrely kids, the morose kids, the traumatized hiding-under-the-desk kids. And so all of us--high flyers, their classmates, and we their teachers--suffer.

Someday, I hope this will change. Perhaps artificial intelligence will progress to the point at which every child can have a constant companion in his or her pocket, an aide to turn to when reading the worksheet is too difficult, when the presence of a particular child at the next desk is more interesting than the lesson, when fidgety arms and legs cannot be contained. Where the Reynolds School District can't afford aides, it has certainly demonstrated it can find the funds for iPads and laptops. When every child has an app that can listen to all that's troubling and, more than that, diagnose a child's emotional condition, then maybe we'll finally have peace in the classroom, and start making up that huge achievement gap between our education system and that of almost every other democracy in the world.

In the meantime, all I can do is what our principal throws around a bit too liberally when asked about how to deal with a class that contains four or five high flyers: "Just love them." And I do. Some of my favorite children at this school have been struggling in the last few months, as I've documented again and again through referrals and "corral cards" (Minor referrals that go home with the child). I do love my students, even the most challenging ones, and I want every one of them to succeed in music, to become a lifelong musician.

I won't succeed at that. Oh, some of them will be inspired, others will outgrow their developmental issues, still others will finally experience stability in their parents' relationships or their home address. I've seen some children who were high flyers in 2013, or even just earlier this school year, clean up their acts in huge ways. Mostly, though, I've just got to keep loving them, and letting them know that I do through my presence wih them. And when you stop to think about it--how many of these behaviors are things over which the child has no control, that are most likely caused by something going wrong at home--perhaps you can begin to feel the empathy I do for them, even as they're derailing yet another lesson that could rock their worlds if they could just sit still for a minute.