Friday, August 28, 2015

The Problem We're Not Talking About

We don't teach to get rich.

No American teacher has ever taught with an eye toward luxury. Since public education was conceived by Thomas Jefferson, teaching has always been treated as a calling akin to the priesthood or the military: a servant profession that relies upon dedicated idealists whose primary reward is the work itself. Becoming a teacher in the nineteenth or early twentieth century was tantamount to taking a vow of poverty. Teachers were revered not just for the good work they did, but also for the sacrifices they made in order to do that work. The unionization of education helped bring teacher salaries up to a living wage, and to grant teachers pensions and health benefits (in fact, the first insurance companies were created precisely to make health care affordable to cash-strapped teachers), so that today, teachers can expect to live comfortable middle class lives, looking forward to secure retirements. But no one--not even administrators, the best paid professionals in the field--is getting rich on public education.

And yet, we teach. Our very existence challenges the fundamental principle of free market capitalism: that all humans are motivated first and foremost by profit.

Yet capitalism is the philosophy that drives American legislation. Until 1981, this was not a problem: both the executive and legislative branches of government viewed public education as a priority, whether at the national or state level.

Then came Ronald Reagan, and with him, the beginning of the end for well-funded public education.

Reagan was the vanguard of a revolt. Prior to Reagan, education was understood to be intrinsically valuable. Schools, like national parks, were a treasure to be guarded, maintained, equipped, and fully funded. Reagan brought a new philosophy to Washington: anything funded by the government must justify all its expenditures. There was fat to be trimmed. At the same time, capitalist values injected themselves into those expenditures: what value are we getting for our money? What's in it for us? It was no longer enough to teach students to be thinkers, to inspire them to explore the humanities, to enrich their lives with art and music. Anything that did not make America more competitive was called into question. Taxes and budgets were cut, again and again.

Thus began the practice of putting enrichment subjects on the chopping block, and forcing schools to do more with less. Class sizes grew, textbooks became outdated, facilities aged, teaching forces were reduced, subjects were eliminated. To this atmosphere of austerity was introduced, under the George W. Bush regime, the No Child Left Behind act: exhaustive standardized testing coupled with the expectation that schools would improve their test scores, with no accompanying influx of funding to help them achieve those improvements.

NCLB is no more. It was finally allowed to expire. But its principles remain strong within educational reform: school quality continues to be judged by test score, and schools are still expected to improve those scores with the resources they already have. Accustomed now to being starved of cash, that means scraping by.

This American Life recently aired "The Problem We All Live With," a two-part exploration of integration, the secret sauce that improves test performance for minority students better than any other school reform. The show compared the quality of education students were receiving in predominantly white suburban schools with that of inner city schools, and found the latter wanting across a spectrum of criteria. Given the chance to attend one of those suburban schools, inner city children's test scores rose significantly.

I'm a true believer in the importance of a diverse student population. I teach in one of the most diverse schools in Oregon, and I love it. Children who attend Margaret Scott are receiving an education they can't get in almost any other school outside my district: they are learning how to relate to human beings whose appearance, customs, language, and religion differ from their own. If there was a way of testing this part of their education, they'd be ahead of children in far wealthier districts.

That's not, of course, what testing is about. And under the testing regime that actually exists, Scott is failing, miserably. So badly that the school has received a substantial grant to improve those scores.

What the grant won't improve is the facilities. We're overcrowded to the point that when I return to the building next week, I'm not sure where I'll be teaching music. Every classroom is taken. Chances are good I'll have to teach in the gym again, while the half-time PE teacher will be teaching in the cafeteria. It's an impossible problem our new principal is faced with. The district passed a capital funds bond last year that will replace and expand several other buildings, but all Scott will receive from it is a security upgrade.

And that brings me back to the title of this essay. Since 1981, the problem with public education in the United States has come down to one thing: funding. There's just not enough of it. We're getting by with less than we need. At Scott, we need a bigger building to accommodate the influx of students from a new apartment complex that just opened. We need dedicated classrooms for specialists that don't shift around or cease to exist as the student population grows. We need more teachers so that class sizes don't go into the 30s. We need materials that are up-to-date, equipment that is not falling apart, after-school programs to help struggling students succeed.

All of these things cost money, and the only way to raise that money in Oregon (except for building improvements, which are the only things bonds can be used to pay for) is taxes. Riding the tax revolt wave kicked off by the Reagan era, Oregon's Measure 5, passed in 1990, slashed local property taxes and shifted the burden of school funding to the state legislature, which has been unwilling, session after session, to raise income taxes.

But that's what we need. All the reforms in the world can't make the difference for our students that adequate funding will. It's not just about making education a priority again, because in our continued legislative climate of austerity, that means cutting Medicaid, public housing, emergency services. It's about revenue. We've got to raise more money if we're going to spend more money.

Simply put: to give our students the education they deserve, we, the taxpayers, are going to have to cough up more money.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Three years and two months.

That's how long I've lived at 6420 NW Starflower Drive.

That's a long time for me to have an address. In fact, it's a record for me: my previous record for holding one address as an adult was two years and ten months.

You may be thinking that's a horribly itinerant way to live. The saving grace, you may also be thinking, is that the word "adult" in that paragraph means I had a more stable childhood. And you'd be right for thinking that--but not a lot. The longest I lived anywhere before college was four years.

When I tell people this, their first response is typically "Army brat?" "Preacher's kid" is my reply. And that does explain all that moving around in my childhood, an average of every three years: my father was an American Baptist, and then a United Methodist, pastor. As an American Baptist, his job was subject to the whims of his church council and the personalities that ran it. After finding himself abruptly dismissed twice, the first time a few months before my birth, the second time a year after he'd had his second child, Dad found the mostly compatible theology and far superior job security of the Methodist pastorate appealing enough to make a denominational switch. While that did mean he never again had to worry about coming home to find a pink slip on the dining room table, it also meant he was now, by definition, a "traveling preacher," moving whenever his bishop decided it was time for a change.

Growing up like that, I learned not to get too attached to anything: not to schools, not to neighborhoods, not to Scout troops, not to friends. The only constants in my life were my family, my books, and my grandmother's house in McMinnville, Oregon. I became adept at the logistics of moving, organizing all my possessions, packing them efficiently, then unpacking them in whatever my new space was, quickly clearing out all the empty boxes and claiming the space for myself.

Those skills served me well through college, graduate school, and seminary, where the student lifestyle dictated frequent moves. By the time I finally--at 30--was living in houses of my own, I could almost do the packing and moving thing in my sleep.

That does not mean, by the way, that I wanted to move that much. I moved because I had to: because divorce, remarriage, re-divorce, employment, unemployment, getting and changing jobs meant moving. There were times when I moved to have better access to my children. There were other times when I moved to get away from a place that had become too oppressive.

But this house--this is special. When Amy and I moved into this house three years and two months ago, it was specifically so that we could have a place that was ours: not my place that Amy came to visit, not Amy's place that I moved into, but our place that we chose together, and made our own.

And by "made our own," I mean really our own. Two years after moving into this house, and just days after celebrating our marriage, we were told we would either have to move out or buy it. We wrestled with that choice for a few days, considering options, looking at other homes, and quickly came to the conclusion that it was time to put down deeper roots than a lease. So we don't just live in this house: we own it. Actually, we're in the decades-long process of paying for it, but that's neither here nor there. Here is where we are, and here is where we're staying.

So I've broken my adult address record. Another ten months, and I'll break my all-time record. Three more years, and I'll break my long-term relationship record. These records may seem arbitrary to you, but to me, a man who has spent his entire life changing homes, changing friends, changing lovers, they mean a lot.

In historical Methodism, when a circuit rider decided he'd had enough traveling, got married, and settled down, it was called "locating." Ten years ago, I changed my appointment status with the United Methodist Church to "honorable location": I was done being an itinerant preacher, ready to hold a normal job, finished with moving. It took me a few more years to find the relationship, the home, and the job that would make "location" my true status in life. Now that I'm there, it feels right. My soul is at rest in this house, my heart is full with the love of my wife, my family, my students, and there is no itch in me to relocate. Sitting on my couch, admiring the roses on the patio, knowing that Amy is working in her study upstairs, Sarah is out for a walk, and school will be starting up again in a few days, I am content, fulfilled, happy.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Equal Opportunity Outrage

GOP Debate
Just over half the Republican Presidential candidates.

In the end, will there be anyone left to vote for whomever survives the GOP presidential nomination race?

Donald Trump set the tone for the campaign with his vicious, unapologetic assault on immigrants. He started by slandering Mexican immigrants, and under criticism, doubled down to propose eliminating birthright citizenship, the crown jewel of post-Civil War Constitutional reforms. Following Mitt Romney's embarrassing defeat in 2012, the Republican Party did some deep navel-gazing. One of its conclusions was that the party had to start appealing to immigrants if it was to have any chance of ever winning the White House again. Trump's two-month tirade against immigrants is a brutish repudiation of that conclusion, and the speed with which so many of his opponents for the nomination jumped on the Constitution-scrapping bandwagon demonstrates the shallowness of the introspection.

Ted Cruz has downplayed the immigration issue, perhaps to keep his own sketchy citizenship out of the spotlight. Instead, he's decided the GOP can do without the gay vote, pushing a homophobic agenda that lionizes bigots, portraying them as victims of religious oppression. While the greater GOP field is being much more cautious in its pronouncements on same-gender marriage, there's little doubt that there are many of the Tea Party persuasion who'd rather take on city hall than serve gay customers in their businesses, or admit that granting gay couples equal civil rights is simply the right thing to do; so Cruz is hardly the only candidate in the field likely to be courting the homophobe vote, at the expense of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and open-minded straight votes.

Do they think they can win without gay or immigrant votes. Who's next to be jettisoned from the GOP bandwagon?

How about women of color? Ben Carson glibly claims that rape and incest victims can routinely reverse any traumatic pregnancies with a morning-after pill at the emergency room just down the street. This is his justification for closing women's health clinics, in an effort to make abortion nearly impossible for anyone but the wealthy to obtain.

Maybe Republicans can do just fine without the black women's vote. After all, that's just a small percentage of the overall electorate. But what about not just black women, but all women? The Republican presidential field is unified in its disdain for social security, a program that benefits women far more than men--especially retired women, those most likely to vote Republican. And, of course, Donald Trump has managed to alienate far more than retired women with his boorish remarks--putting the rest of the field in the unenviable position of being to the right of a man most American women find repugnant.

What's going on here? Does any of these candidates realistically think he--or, if one includes Carly Fiorina, she--has any chance of becoming President at the expense of such huge portions of the electorate?

I suspect that what we're seeing is a cynical, brutal bid for the lowest common denominator, the bigoted, reactionary Republican base who can be counted on to vote for whomever the ultimate nominee is, but who also turn out in much larger numbers for primaries and caucuses than do the mainstream of the Republican party (which may also, inexplicably, still contain some members of all the groups mentioned earlier in this essay). These candidates have to win that hard-right base in order to take the nomination. The dilemma for them is that the disproportionate influence of this base on primaries is severely diluted in general elections, so the ultimate GOP nominee has to count on two things: that enough voters will have forgotten the outrageous remarks he (maybe she) made to secure the nomination; and that those who haven't forgotten will inexplicably decide not to vote.

Before you dismiss the strategy as hypocritical and doomed, consider this: in 1988, George HW Bush won the Presidency with a campaign that unapologetically spurned voters of color by associating his opponent, Michael Dukakis, with an African-American murderer. Twenty years before that, Richard Nixon won election by appealing to racists terrified of integrated schools and housing. Donald Trump has spoken about a new "silent majority" (Nixon's term for voters too embarrassed to admit their xenophobia and racism, but willing to vote their intolerant consciences). So it's not deja vu; these patterns really are repeating themselves.

What the strategy fails to acknowledge, however, is that any success it enjoys will be limited to the extreme. The majority of Republican voters are elderly and white. Their generation is beginning to vanish. Rising to take their place are Millennials, young adults raised with the internet. And unlike the forgetful elephants of the mainstream GOP, the internet never forgets. Every group of people targeted by Republican Presidential candidates is embraced by Millennials, who see no reason to reject persons of color, persons of foreign origin, persons with same-gender orientation, persons who are female. When November 2016 arrives, all the outrage these candidates have evoked will still be in the air, kept current by the far savvier Democratic nominee, available at the click of a mouse or the tap of a finger on a touch screen. "Blood coming out of her wherever" will be all those Millennials need to know about the Grand. OLD. Party.

The eventual GOP nominee has been self-inflicting this death of a thousand cuts. The question for the party now is this: once the election is over, will their be any Republicans left?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Blow Chart

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

The year was 1981, and we had just gotten out of a jazz ensemble rehearsal. That year, jazz rehearsals had been scheduled at noon, which meant by the time we got out, it was too late for me to have lunch in my dorm, which only served it until 1:00. That meant eating on the east side of campus, where the kitchen stayed open until 1:30. While I missed eating with my friends, I was able to forge relationships with two of my fellow jazzers, whose names now escape me, and through them, to gain some insights into Greek culture.

During this particular lunch, the usual topics of conversation--courses, professors, whatever charts we'd been working on during rehearsal, trumpet technique--never emerged, because my two bandmates launched into a pissing match over their drinking exploits; more to the point, with the messy aftermaths of said exploits.

And that's when one of them described the Blow Chart hanging in the common room of his frat house.

It seems this fraternity had a contest for which brother vomited the most times in the semester, for which he was awarded some kind of ironic prize--a statuette of a toilet, perhaps--and this young man was at the top of the rankings, thanks in large part to his frat house's infamous "green punch," a cocktail of lime Kool-Aid and Everclear.

Let's put this in perspective: I had an extremely sheltered childhood. My parents had both grown up Baptist tee-totalers, and had passed that value on to their children. In high school, I naturally gravitated to a group of friends who, as far as I knew, shared that belief in abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. In college, my circle of friends were similarly quite cautious about those substances, though a few of them did some mild experimentation with punch at parties. These guys I was having lunch with were my first exposure to the phenomenon of drunk-bragging, and I was appalled. It utterly changed my opinion of both of them. I never shared this with them, but they were now debased in my mind's eye. I continued eating lunch with them (there was nowhere else to eat at that hour), but every time we'd sit down I'd be hoping and praying the topic would not turn to hearty partying; and when, the following year, the jazz rehearsal was moved to late afternoon, I was relieved.

If you know me now, you know I've lightened up in my attitude toward alcohol and other substances--but only up to a point. Yes, I enjoy beer and wine, and even the occasional cocktail. But I don't care for intoxication, either in myself or in other people. When people drink to the point of major impairment, I find them difficult to be around. When they drink to the point of vomiting or, worse, blacking out, my automatic conclusion is that they've got a drinking problem, and need to be in a program.

But wait, you say, weren't those bandmates young adults, barely of drinking age, possibly even under age? You're right. They were. And while knowing that does partially absolve them from the irresponsibility of making a game out of alcohol poisoning, it also indicts another, silent abettor to their behavior: Willamette University, and, by extension, every other residential college or university in the United States where faculty and staff look the other way as students drink themselves to the point of illness, unconsciousness, and, all too often, death.

Why am I writing about this now? Because I came across this blog post by Glennon Doyle Melton. In it, she writes about returning to her alma mater, James Madison University, for a speaking engagement, and finding herself flashing back on her own drunken history there and, terrifyingly, the utter silence of the staff members she turned to, seeking help. She writes about how common her behavior was--in her sorority, all the girls were asked to please flush after vomiting, and to try not to get arrested so often--and yet no-one in an advisory role offered to get her, or any of her peers, the help they obviously needed, to provide them with anything approaching guidance on safe, responsible behavior. As I read her memories of that time, I was reminded of one of my brothers, not as fortunate as me in his freshman dorm assignment at Oregon State, who wound up with a roommate who vomited in bed several times a week.

When we send our children to college, we expect there will be some semblance of supervision. We hope that the resident assistants, head residents, deans, counselors, professors, and coaches will be keeping an eye on them, watching for signs of crisis, serving as role models, referring them to appropriate care when the great adventure becomes too much for them. Unfortunately, at least in my experience of both college and graduate school (which, I must admit, I have not had since 1991), that just wasn't there. Yes, if I needed to talk to someone, there were people I could go to who would help me sort out whatever was weighing on me. But most of the time, apart from when I was in class, what supervision there was came from people my own age.

I suspect that, at least in my college days, this was because people just didn't know how much the brains of these semi-adults still had to experience. It's now accepted that the human brain doesn't become fully adult until the mid-20s, which helps explain why one of my grad school mentors, Charles Leonhard, would only teach grad students because, in his experience, something "magical" happens with the awarding of a college degree. Not a high school diploma: we're talking about something that happens 4-6 years later for most.

And yet, the people with the most experience working with these young adults have traditionally been the least engaged in supervising and mentoring them through the experiences that will most shape their lives outside the workplace. It wasn't just my bandmates who engaged in risky behavior. I remember the editor of the college newspaper being the girlfriend of a physics professor who was at least thirty years her senior. When he retired, he was universally lauded by the university community. Then there was the law student who washed out in his first semester, attempted suicide, and continued to live on campus for months after giving up, without any intervention coming from the law faculty.

We like to think that college is a place that will nurture our children through the transition from living at home to being on their own, and for many, it does serve this purpose. All too often, though, it's a roll of the dice: if they don't find a supportive group of friends as I did, or seek help from the right people when they're struggling, there's a good chance they won't make it. College, it turns out, is not so much a wading pool for beginning swimmers as a cliff dive into shark-infested waters with no lifeguard on duty.

Hillary Clinton has been pushing college reforms that will lower costs and place restrictions on predatory loan companies. I've got no problem with that. I just wish it went deeper. I'd like to see our colleges become not just institutions, but communities of learning, and not just about academics, but life itself. If our young people are fortunate enough to find the guidance and support they need, they can be transformed by the college experience into confident, passionate, productive adults. If not, it may take them years to recover from what happens to them during those years. If these things happened to them while they were in public schools, there would be investigations, disciplinary hearings, firings, perhaps even jail time for the asleep-at-the-wheel teachers and administrators. In college, it's par for the course.

It's time college professionals became, like public school professionals, social workers as well as educators. It's the right thing to do for the education of our students: they learn better when they're healthy, sober, and safe. More than that, it's the human thing to do, making sure that, unlike Glennon Doyle Melton, our future alumni and alumnae can look back on their college years with nostalgia and pride.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Morally Straight Becomes Less Narrow

The Scouts beat the Methodists.

On July 18, the Scout Executive announced that the policy forbidding gay adults from serving as Cub and Boy Scout leaders had been revoked. Chartering organizations still have final say in whom is qualified to lead a pack or troop, meaning churches may continue to discriminate, but the national organization no longer ties the hands of those sponsors who seek to remove sexual orientation from their lists of qualifications.

Putting the decision in local hands was not enough for a number of churches, who promptly disavowed their association with Scouting. The radical religious right will continue to bury its head in the sand of denial even as it goes on blindly lashing out at people whose identity is itself sinful by their definition. Consequently, evangelicalism continues its slide deeper into irrelevance. By the time Millennials are fully in charge of this nation's government and other institutions, conservative Christians will be little more than a fringe movement.

This is the issue that caused me to separate myself from both Scouting and the church that was my spiritual home for most of my life. While I never mailed my Eagle badge to the Scout Executive--as thousands of my peers did in mournful, but futile, protest--I stopped being a Scout leader the day my son announced he was fed up with Scout meetings. His was not a conservative troop--had any of the other assistant scoutmasters been gay, I expect he or she would've been treated with the same respect I always experienced--but just as conservative churches are now rejecting any association with the national organization over its new, more open policy, I finally couldn't continue to associate with the homophobia it embraced in the early 2000s. This mirrored by gradual drift from United Methodism: I was a member of the most radically inclusive congregation I am aware of existing in the entire denomination, but over the years, the never-ending rejection of my gay sisters and brothers by the greater Connexion finally wore me down. As with Scouting, I never completely gave up hope--unlike a number of my peers in the Methodist ministry, I did not burn my certificate of ordination, and continue to have the status of "honorably located"--but I just can't be comfortable calling myself Methodist.

With the Supreme Court's same-gender marriage decision, I felt the advance of equity on orientation issues snowballing. It seemed like all the institutions that have refused to acknowledge the full humanity of these persons must eventually knuckle under, especially as the young adults who are now maturing into leadership in them are overwhelmingly supportive of full inclusion, and that seems to have been the case with Scouting. Part of "being prepared" is the pragmatic understanding that conditions change: no matter how sunny it is at the beginning of a hike, one packs rain gear; when taking a day hike on a mountain, one packs emergency shelter; and so on. Cultural conditions have changed now to the extent that maintaining a policy of discrimination is no longer tenable. If Scouting was going to be a national organization truly representative of, and serving, a broad spectrum of American youth, it had to reflect that spectrum in its leadership.

The history of Methodism in America has, like Scouting, been one of pragmatism. Separated from America by an ocean, John Wesley took it upon himself to ordain circuit riders and commission "general superintendents" of the American church, knowing that, without such revisions of the traditional understanding of ordination, there would soon be no Methodists in the colonies. Empowered by Wesley's actions, American Methodists engaged in their own reinvention of the church, turning those superintendents into bishops, liberating circuit riders from the need to attend seminary by creating a course of study (hence the familiar image of the circuit rider reading a book as he travels between charges), commissioning yet-to-be-ordained preachers to preside over the sacraments, and finally giving circuit riders the right to locate--settle down--once they were married. This spirit of pragmatic reinvention continued well into the twentieth century. Unfortunately, beginning in the 1970s, United Methodism began to ossify. Bishops became politicians and technocrats rather than prophetic spiritual leaders, conservative elements within the church demanded adherence to what they considered orthodox doctrine, and the megachurches of the South became the tail that wagged the dog. More recently, the growth of United Methodism in Africa, among Methodists who learned Christianity from homophobic American missionaries (many of them not even Methodist), has fueled the fires of continued discrimination and outright hostility.

United Methodism has lost its spirit of pragmatic innovation and flexibility. Conservatives dictate doctrine to the rest of the church, and bureaucratic habits prevent progressives from protesting in any but token ways. Fear of losing appointments, or of facing church trials, keeps both the clergy and episcopacy from performing marriages and ordinations they may personally believe are right and good, but know to be chargeable offenses under the Discipline; or, perhaps worse, of sanctioning such acts by pretending not to know the sexual identity of the persons involved. "If your heart is as my heart, then take my hand," Wesley's famous aphorism of ecumenism, now has a footnote: "Just please don't mention what you do with your genitals, or I'll have to slap that hand away."

United Methodist congregations sponsor more than 10,000 Scouting units. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Scouts could literally scout the way to full inclusion within the denomination? Nothing could make me happier than to see the church following in the footsteps of the bright young people it hosts, embracing the gay men and women who want so badly to be able to serve openly.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Cool, Yes; Miraculous, No

Muggles don't get it.

By muggles, I'm referring to people who, while not themselves part of the improv or music worlds, nonetheless are appreciators of those worlds. The more enthusiastic ones can be called "fans," the obsessed ones "nerds" or "geeks," but all of them, from the utterly dedicated down to the mildly intrigued, constitute a group best characterized as "the audience."

As the audience, they do utterly get that what they're experiencing is cool. That is to say, they're witnessing performers do something powerful, entertaining, deeply moving, something that resonates deep within the observer; and they're seeing it appear to be effortless. Seeing it happen, feeling awe at how polished it appears to be, how seamless are the transitions from one part to another, they cannot help but think there is something magical about what is happening on stage or, barring the supernatural, at least a sign of great talent.

An essay like this would be incomplete without examples, so here we go:

I'm a fan of Radio Lab, an NPR program and podcast that explores the outer and inner dimensions of human exploration in moving and often hilarious ways. From time to time, the hosts of Radio Lab devote a portion of a program to improvisers, demonstrating their own awe of performing artists who work without a script or score. Whether musical or comedic, these performers are clearly skilled at what they do, whether it's creating a Shakespeare play from scratch or using a single cello to create a lush web of ostinati that wash the ears and mind in a warm musical bath. What makes me chuckle, though, is the wonder in Robert Krulwich's voice as he describes what these performers are doing: starting with a single thread, one suggestion, and transforming it into an entire world.

Another example from the world of muggledom, in this case, newscasters: in 2005, Oprah Winfrey hosted a sort of summit for gospel singers, the centerpiece of which was a "gospel brunch" during which a microphone was handed around and one after another of these performers built on what had gone before while the backup band played a standard gospel chord progression. This link is a news story about the event during which the music is frequently interrupted by interviews with performers--and I have no problem with what they're saying--and interjections by awestruck newscasters about how not one note we're hearing was rehearsed. There are also some jokes made at the expense of the white celebrities in attendance, including one saying how terrified he was that the microphone would be handed to him.

One more: this video has been going around the internet virally for at least a year. It's of an elementary school mallet ensemble (xylophones, metallophones, glockenspiels, and at least one vibraphone) performing an arrangement of "Immigrant Song," a Led Zeppelin standard. The children play well enough, though their flat affect makes the video hard to watch after awhile. What gets me in this case is the accompanying comments by Joe Terzeon, an administrator for He's utterly ignorant about everything he's writing about, calling all the instruments xylophones, believing "percussion" only refers to shakers and drums, and associating elementary music education solely with shrieking recorder concerts. Worse, he leaps to the conclusion that these kids are exceptionally talented.

Before I launch into myth-busting mode, I feel the need to assert that I have nothing against audiences holding performers in awe. A brilliant performance deserves a standing ovation, and being awe-struck by a performance is an experience every audience should have.

I do have an issue, though, with the notion of talent.

A quick disclaimer: yes, there are people who are born with some native ability to do things more easily than others. For my part, I never had a problem with expressing myself on paper: English has always come easily for me.

Some of you will be surprised that I made that statement about writing, rather than music, because (apart from this blog) you primarily know me as a musician or music educator. But here's the thing: I wasn't born a musician or teacher. I wasn't born a writer, for that matter, either. I became a writer, a musician, and a teacher through practice, and, in the case of the latter two, through studying at the feet of great musicians and teachers.

How much practice, you wonder? Years. Decades. A lifetime.

The Louisville Leopard Percussionists learned "Immigrant Song" from a teacher, and made it sound so polished by practicing it. They also have, I expect, benefited from being in a school that has had a consistent, thriving music program that starts in kindergarten. Some of them may have an extra spark of musical talent, but that's not how they've gone viral. It took years of practice to get there. They didn't pick up those mallets yesterday. For comparison purposes, here's a performance by a group of eighth graders (as well as three of their music teachers) from the San Francisco School's music program at the 2011 International Body Music Festival. These kids have benefited from a rich musical education that started in preschool. Yes, they can learn complex pieces like they're performing here very quickly, compared to children who've grown up in the hit-and-miss music education atmosphere common to public schools (my own being no exception); but given an environment like The San Francisco School, and a commitment to practice, I believe most children could do what they're doing here.

Now let's talk about the improvisers who appear on Radio Lab, and the gospel brunch performance that so astounded the ABC news people. As a piano improviser, I've been blessed to be part of ComedySportz, an improv troupe with locations around the United States. Playing for CSz, I've seen hundreds of performances, many of them good, some breathtaking and, unfortunately, quite a few of them not-so-great. The best improvisers do create stage magic, seeming to build a world from thin air. In fact, though, they're drawing upon thousands of hours of improv experience, characters and bits they've been honing for years, techniques for moving from one scene to another, for heightening the realism of even the most absurd moments and characters, and a willingness to commit immersively in the improv experience that comes only with practice. Again, there's probably some talent at the root of all this--and some individuals do come to improv much more easily than others--but most of what one is seeing on stage is the product of years of hard work.

That goes for the gospel singers on Oprah's lawn, too. These musicians have been immersed in gospel music and its cousin, gospel preaching, since infancy, and have devoted their lives to performing it. Handing the microphone around is as easy to these people as passing a baby around at a gathering of grandparents. Each takes off from where her predecessor left off, adds something to it, then hands it on to the next. Meanwhile, the band continues to vamp, working through the same chord progression over and over again. It's the same dynamic at work in a blues or jazz jam session.

Make no mistake, though: as the interviews demonstrate, those singers found it a powerful experience. That's been my own experience of being part of a great jam session, whether it's with fellow musicians or improvisers. The gestalt of it is a wonderful thing, whether you're contributing as an artist or watching it all from the auditorium. Skilled artists creating spontaneously together can generate powerful experiences.

What makes it work, though, is countless hours of woodshedding, by oneself and with one's peers. Talent really has very little to do with it, and none of it is magic.

What's most frustrating to me is that this topic never seems to come up when people talk about sports. Whether you're talking about Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, or the Williams sisters, it's understood that all these great athletes got that way through hard work that started when they were small. There may be talent there, but it's only a starting place. It takes years of sweat, bruises, blisters, injuries, and lost opportunities to do other things to become great at a sport.

That's just as true of the arts.

So sorry, muggles; as cool as what you're seeing may be, there's nothing magical about it. The performers who are blowing your mind got that way thanks to just one boring, unmagical thing:


So what's your excuse?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Age of Knowing...and Forgetting

I'm very proud of this.
Not so proud of this.

I've always been DIY--up to a point.

For most of my life, moving, house repairs, furniture assembly, yard work, auto maintenance, etc. have been things I did myself if I felt capable, got help with if I didn't (and could find the help), and only hired professionals for once those two avenues were exhausted--and only if I had the cash (or credit) on hand. When I was a pastor, that meant, often, that taking care of issues in my house was subject to the whim of the church trustees, which could often mean waiting a very long time. Leaving ministry meant it was now up to landlords and property managers to deal with home maintenance issues--and again, that could mean waiting a long time.

A year ago, I made a big change, and became a home owner. Now, if something isn't getting done, it's my own damn fault.* I do need to say that my income has improved to the point that I can afford to bring in a plumber, electrician, painter, handy-person, etc. to do the work most of the time; but that my income has not improved so much that I relish the thought. 

So, given the choice between paying someone to do something I can do myself, I'm still erring on the side of self-reliance. Luckily, another thing that's changed is that I'm feeling much more confidence in my ability to do things that frightened me just a few years ago.

Cases in point: I've replaced two switches in the kitchen/dining room myself, no electrician needed. Then, a month ago, the garbage disposal began to leak. It was the same age as the house (fifteen years), so I decided it was time to replace it. Younger me would've called in an expert, whether that was a church trustee with plumbing experience or an actual plumber. Older me, after purchasing the disposal unit, looked at the installation directions and said, "I can do this." So I did. And it works.

I followed these necessary projects up with an elective procedure. Ever since we moved into the house I've been irked by the ceiling fan in our bedroom. Aesthetically, it was just plain ugly. Worse, it made a loud humming noise when it was on--problematic on hot summer nights when we preferred an open window to running the air conditioning. A few months earlier, we'd replaced two ceiling fixtures in our living/dining area with the help of a handy-person. Looking at the directions, though, I decided this was, again, something I could do myself. So I did. And as you can see from the top picture, it works fine.

Now, there were no skills involved in any of these projects that I didn't possess two decades ago. I've always been good at following directions, whether it was assembling a complex piece of Ikea furniture, cooking something from scratch, hooking up a stereo, or building a dollhouse for my daughter. What I lacked back then was confidence.

So what's different? Where did I get the confidence to engage in basic electrical wiring, replacing plumbing fixtures (I've also swapped out a bathroom tap in the last year), and the many other projects I'm likely to embark upon in the coming years?

There's a one word answer to that question: midlife.

I'm in my fifties now, and I'm finding, more and more, that I'm just impatient with my nervous, insecure younger self. When I think about how long I put up with things that didn't work, or how much money I (or the church trustees, or my landlord) had to sink into getting them to work, when they're things I probably could've fixed myself with a couple of hours' time, I feel like that kid (and by kid, I'm talking about me up to about the age of 49) needs a finger-wagging, brow-beating, shoulder-shaking, maybe even face-slapping wake-up call from my curmudgeonly present-day self.

Plus, it just feels good to stand back and admire a project completed.

Every time I do, I feel my father's approving presence beside me. I never knew Dad to bring in a professional to fix something in our house or on our car, even though he was always within his rights as a pastor to have the church do that work for him. He just knew how to do these things. Of course, he was 34 when I was born, in his 40s by the time I realized how many of these tasks he was doing, so it's possible he had his own extended apprenticeship, learning from the experts in each of his churches how to handle all those tasks himself.

But I'm getting away from my theme here: midlife is, to borrow from a Viagra campaign, "the age of knowing." And it's true: by the time one is at midlife, whatever age that may be, the cumulative knowledge acquired through experience begins to pay off in the confidence to do things oneself, rather than asking for help. Coupled with that confidence is the realization that self-reliance feels good, and the sense of accomplishment is worth whatever hassles are involved in getting a project to completion. Add to that the ghostly presence of a deceased father, and that's pure midlife satisfaction.

To which I must now add a hefty dose of humiliation.

Because the other thing that comes with midlife is absent-mindedness which, I'm learning the hard way, can be dangerous, even deadly.

I've always had issues with leaving things. I expect it's mostly been about how much I have going on in my head at any given moment. In the interests of efficiency, I'm always trying to combine tasks, stack them so as to minimize chore and errand time and maximize leisure time. This has, going back to my youth, often resulted in my leaving something vital behind: my keys, my wallet, the directions to where I'm going, a book needed for whatever event I'm in charge of, and, on two separate camping trips the same summer, my tent.

As I've gotten older, this has gotten worse. When I can, I compensate by creating lists on my phone (scraps of paper are far too easy to misplace). That helps with errands. What it doesn't help with is remembering the bike rack is attached to the trunk lid before I close it.

Yup. That's what happened to my forehead.


I did it the first time a couple of years ago. Amy and I were going to take a bike ride on Sauvie Island one Sunday after I got out of my church pianist job. I took the bikes to church with me, stashed them somewhere in the building, then remembered I'd left some music in the trunk. I went back to the car, opened the trunk, rooted around in there long enough to realize I'd apparently left the music at home and would have to get by without it, and slammed the lid down, completely forgetting the rack was still attached and putting a huge gash on my forehead. It didn't bleed too badly, and I was able to find an adhesive bandage for it, but the bruise hurt for over a week.

One would think I'd learned my lesson. One would be wrong.

A few days ago, with the first part of our three-part vacation (the Redwoods) complete, we stopped at a motel in Weaverville, California. We'd brought bikes along to keep ourselves in shape for the Bridge Pedal (this Sunday!). I'd chained those bikes to a post outside our motel room, and was getting luggage out of the trunk. Rather than remove the rack, then put it back on the following morning, I elected to leave it attached to the lid. I got the bags out, slammed down the lid, and put another gash in my forehead.

This one really bled.

I didn't go to the emergency room of the tiny hospital in Weaverville for stitches. We had plenty of bandages in our first aid kit. I wore them for three days (don't worry, I changed them daily), until the worst of the wounds scabbed over and stopped oozing. I also took pain relievers for several days, as bending over could, at times, be extremely unpleasant.

Mostly, I was just embarrassed.

That minute I saved by not taking the rack off? Really not worth it.

Next time, inefficient though it may be, the rack comes off.

If I remember.

*Technically, it's also Amy's fault, but this is my blog, not hers, so I'm hogging the blame. So there.