Welcome to the South

September 28, 2021

You may have noticed that there’s a boatload of fear and anger stirring up all our waters lately. Some of it’s reality-based and some not, but the personal emotional experience is sadly the same.

I confess I’m something of a political junkie.  I’ve always considered politics fascinating, though even as a spectator hobby, it’s not always good for my health.  Kind of like living in Arkansas and rooting for the Razorbacks.  An endless parade of hope and despair.

Still, I’m not inclined to change my stripes at this advanced age.

Woo Pig Sooie.

(Update, 9-28-21: Razorbacks have been kicking some Texas butt lately.)

But I have learned a few tricks for keeping my sanity up and my blood pressure down.  I realize I have an outlet unnatural to many people, but it certainly works for me: songwriting.

I’ve got a whole YouTube channel of ‘em.  The most recent inspiration took me way back to my roots.  It’s called “Welcome to the South.” The Link is at the bottom of this post.

I was raised in north Texas, with family roots flowing down from Arkansas and Tennessee.  When I was a kid, with unwarranted and unsupported comedic aspirations, I liked to think I did a swell imitation of a southern accent.  It wasn’t until I was well grown that I was able to see and admit that the hick southern accent was the real me.  Any other speech pattern remotely more polished was the real imitation.

I spent a lot of years living out West, and even more living in south Texas, which tilts much more toward south of the border than south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Ah, but it turns out the South is in my blood, my accent and my breeding.  And with too many recent political turns in the land of my birthright, I’ve been distressed, disturbed, depressed, alarmed…and inspired.

Welcome to the South.

Land of Steel Magnolias.  I was raised by one, and every woman of my mom’s circle was cast from the same foundry.

Our breed is marked by our knack for being properly put together for all occasions, and our freaking ability to survive any challenge or disaster you can name with a sweet, and unexpectedly sincere, smile. And a covered-dish casserole, of course.

Again, as a wannabe wit in my youth, I liked to examine the entrants in the beauty contests people in the South used to regard as sacrosanct.  To me, those runway beauties all had the same fascinating expressions.

Readers, you can practice this at home: form your mouth into the biggest, widest, most teeth-baring smile (but don’t be showing the gums, honey, don’t overdo it), while your eyes stay wide, avoiding any tell-tale crinkle lines (you don’t want to invite those crows’ feet, girls!).  Those wide-eyes never could quite hide the fear or desperation or steely cut-throat competitiveness lurking just within, any more than the pancake make-up and perky, taped-up bustline could.

I am pretty sure I would have had a far less ruthless opinion of beauty contestants if anyone had ever tapped me to be in one.

But no, I was just left to write my little songs.  Bless all y’all’s hearts.

But that patented southern smile.  Part of me loved it then and loves it now.  I’ve owned and employed that smile a million times. 

That smile got me way down the road in a number of situations that would have reduced the strongest man to tearful blubbering.

For the true Southern Woman, her life has gone something like this:

“How ya’ll doing?”  ask countless friends, co-workers, bystanders, frenemies.

“Why, we’re fine, just fine.  Fine and dandy!”

Cue The Smile.

When the truth was:

My husband’s foolin’ around on me…or has left me…or drank up another paycheck this week…or is beating up on me and will never leave

Or

My kid’s flunking out of school…or is on drugs… or hasn’t gotten in touch in ages…or has a disease that is breaking our hearts and bankrupting us in the bargain

Or

I’ve just up and left…that no-good husband…that job with the too-handsy boss…the schooling that would have gotten me some economic freedom, because my family didn’t like it.

Or

We’ve been eating Crisco on toast for a month since we both lost our jobs. Our insurance. Our house.

Or

The latest damn hurricane left our home sitting in 3 feet of nasty muck.

Or

The drought has forced us to declare bankruptcy and sell the farm that’s been in the family for 150 years.

You get the picture.

Cue the smile. If I can just put up a good face, it’ll all be okay.

I can get through it.

I’m fine!  Fine and dandy! How y’all doin’?  

(cue the subtle deflect-and-redirect).

I’m just fine! I can hold the whole dang mess together, wrangle the kids, keep the bill collector at bay, plot how to get my man back from the arms of that hussy, get mama to her weekly doctor visits, hold down my job, help with the PTA, lead the prayer circle, do the laundry, do the grocery shopping on a shoestring budget, check on grandpa at the nursing home, sort out the kids’ squabbles, carry one more baby, and in my spare time, try to save democracy.

Do not mess with this woman, ya’ll.  This good woman with the broad, sweet and believe-it-or-not sincere smile, and the barely disguised panic in her eyes.  

She’s the canary in the coal mine.

Are You an Old Lady?

May 10, 2021

“Are you an old lady?” asked my very serious and analytical four-year-old granddaughter during our recent visit.  She greeted me with the question first thing one morning, so I knew it had been on her mind since she woke.

“You bet!” I replied with a grin.  There are things worth claiming that come with that title. A sense of humor, for one, and an ability to see life from the Long View.

My life has always been a quest to understand the play between genders.  Not in the way of so many folks nowadays, now that we’ve begun to strip away the fairy tale of binary gender identity.  The idea of a society in which every human can freely express their true identity is mind-blowing.  That we are, even imperfectly, lurching toward such a society fills my heart with love.

But my own journey, shaped way too much by the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies of my youth, has certainly been more traditionally binary, propelled by attraction to, and curiosity about, The Other. It’s taken me into and out of a series of serious relationships, and culminated with the rather unexpected achievement of actually Getting It Right.  In my Old Ladyhood.

I’ve done some pretty serious intellectual exploring along the way, culminating with writing a sci-fi based novel – my attempt to examine archetypes on both sides, and create a female character based on an entirely different model of The Feminine.  Having served its purpose in reaching a readership of maybe half a dozen (well, mainly me…), it now gathers virtual dust out in the loneliest reaches of the internet.

All of which is the set-up to explain just why I was so moved and intrigued by a series of three seemingly unrelated interactions with masculine figures on a recent trip to Chicago. 

The first took place in an Uber. Two mornings in a row, we took an Uber into downtown Chicago from our hotel in the suburbs near the analytical four-year-old and her quite dignified two-year-old sister.  By pure coincidence, we had the same driver, Andre, both mornings. The ride was over half an hour, plenty of time to chat about all the topics one does with an Uber driver.  Andre was in his fifties, a life-long Chicago resident and a man of substance and good nature.  We were well-acquainted that second morning by the time he dropped us off at our rainy destination.  My partner reached toward the front seat to shake hands.  From directly behind the driver’s seat, I did the same.

And Andre kissed my hand.  As gallantly and elegantly and respectfully as the finest knight of old might have done.  I was totally surprised, and surprisingly moved.

Interaction number two.  We always search out art galleries on our travels, and the final day in Chicago led us to a diverse neighborhood where a number of emerging artists had galleries.  In one of those, I came across a photo that has haunted me ever since.  It is a portrait of a young Hispanic man, exquisitely beautiful, with dark eyes gazing directly at the lens. He is bare-chested but for a white lace garment that covers his arms and shoulders, and he fingers a locket on a long chain.

His expression takes my breath away.  So much comes through that dark-eyed gaze.  His utter state of rightness, in that feminine wrapping he was meant to wear, born to wear, as lovely as the most alluring young woman could be, knowing his true self belongs in that virginal yet sensuous white lace.

And yet, too, there is an almost unbearable sorrow, the part of him that is so fully, totally, aware of the eyes of the world, the world that would look and say “what’s wrong with this picture?”.  When the beauty of the picture so precisely lies in the unquestionable and stunningly beautiful rightness of this young man.

And finally, interaction number three.  Coming home, there are few good opportunities for rest stops once you head south out of Branson toward Fayetteville.  Your best option is the convenience store in Alpena, Arkansas, which you’re probably picturing pretty accurately. But I can attest that it’s clean and the clerks are friendly, and never try to bust an Old Lady who’s not there to buy anything, but is hell-bent on getting to the restroom without delay.

I reached the door at the same moment as a young man who could only have been a local.  The next day I would see in the paper a picture of another man, arrested for meth dealing.  The young man who held the door for me there in Alpena looked much, much worse.  Haggard, hollowed out, his eyes were downcast, unable to meet mine.

And yet he stood aside and held the door for an old lady with surprising grace, and the kind of respect and good manners that told me that somehow, sometime, he once had a mother, or grandmother, maybe, who taught that boy right.

I try to always acknowledge good manners, and so smiled and said a heartfelt, “Thank you, sir!”  Was it just my imagination that a stranger’s – an old lady’s – few words of kindness and respect somehow went straight to his drug-ravaged heart, striking some forgotten memory of self-worth buried beneath the hopelessness and shame?

This week has since brought me back to live rehearsals with my three spectacular women bandmates, making music together for the first time in 14 months, a joy beyond measure.  I’m also tiptoeing toward a new project that is all about producing a female anthem of mine called She Will Sing Us Home. I navigate the world in this female body – this “old lady’s” body, and continue to be awed by the parade of humanity that marches by me every day.

Sometimes I find it’s best not to try to stuff experience into that small box labelled “Conclusions!”  This week feels that way.  

Males.  Females.  And everybody in between.  Every heart has a story to tell, if we just listen.

Christmas – This Year & Last

December 11, 2020

On Sunday, September 9, 2001, I flew home from a conference in San Diego to my then-home in San Antonio.  Everything about that day’s travel was just…weird.  My original flight got cancelled, and they re-routed me, way over-shooting Texas to connect through Atlanta.  About midnight, I staggered through the Atlanta airport, in a state of disembodied fatigue, boarding my last plane to get home.  I remember trying repeatedly to shove my carry-on bag into the overhead compartment, but it just wouldn’t fit, which was blowing my mind, because it always fit overhead bins.  My foggy brain couldn’t compute why this plane seemed to have shrunk, even though, at that moment it wasn’t questioning that in some Twilight Zone world, it actually HAD.

The plane, I finally figured out, was one of those ¾ sized ones we saw much more of in in the years to follow, but in 2001, they were rare enough to fool me into a jet-lagged brain-fry.

Why do I share this story?  Because less than 48 hours later, a cosmic, karmic wave hit, as the Twin Towers came down and changed our world forever. And I had the uncanny sense that the event had been rippling out in time, backward as well as forward, disturbing the matrix as far ahead as that Sunday of my very odd travels.

Which leads me up to 2020.  Can you actually sense big events as they make their way over the horizon?  To me, 2020 spilled backward into Christmas 2019.  Much more than this year, Christmas 2020, the holiday season of 2019 felt as if it had an underpinning of impending doom.  Christmas projects, at least for me, were wrapped in as much tension as joy.

Which led me to write a Christmas song as a personal expression of the stress and struggle that permeated my senses, while searching for the underlying Love that I knew was there.

Then 2020 hit.  If nothing else, my year at home focused me on artistic projects, and, as this holiday season approached, I had the idea to “do something” with the Christmas song from last year that seems to capture this year even more accurately.

There was a certain irony, in that a big stressor last year was that I was trying to produce a “major” video project, “How the Grinch Stole Pawpa and Cece’s Christmas Gifts”, otherwise known as “11 minutes of your life you’ll never get back”.  Technology fought me at every step, and I ended up crashing the software, and the project with it.  I’m sorry to say I did not handle that period with grace.

This year, armed with new, better software, I managed to crash that, too.  But there are Christmas Miracles, otherwise known as the Apple Help Desk.  This year was a triumph of avoiding emotional meltdowns.  Thank you, Santa!

I hope you enjoy the new video, and the song, “Christmas This Year”, written last year, and my gift to everyone who weathered This Year.  May 2021 bring a new song for us all.

And now, for the BONUS ROUND: There are 8 very familiar Christmas carols musically referenced in this arrangement. A couple are pretty subtle. How many can you find? (see below for the answers, but don’t peek ’til you’ve given it a listen or two!)

Christmas songs within the song:

  1. Good King Wenceslas
  2. Away in a Manger
  3. Twelve Days of Christmas
  4. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  5. Joy to the World
  6. Jingle Bells
  7. Silent Night
  8. Little Drummer Boy

Wartime Wedding

November 14, 2020

Today, November 14, 2020, marks the 78th anniversary of my parents’ wedding.  I always like to recall the story they told, partly because it has wonderful cinematic elements to it, and partly because I know it echoes so many other wartime marriages.

Dad, like most of his peers, had gone into the military after Pearl Harbor. He chose the Army-Air Force, having always wanted to fly.  His eyesight would keep him from piloting, though he seems to have wangled every opportunity he could to get airborne any way he could.

He was stationed in Blythe, a small town smack in the middle of nowhere in the southern California desert. Years later, on one of our family vacations when we were kids, Dad made a point of going back to find the little cottage where they lived as newlyweds.  When they lived there,  it was pretty modest, but new and clean and probably not bad for a young officer.  When we saw it, circa 1962, my brother and I privately pronounced it a dump.  It had not weathered well. The desert seemed to have been slowly reclaiming it since the ‘40’s.  I recall being curious at how my parents seemed to view that dump with such different, nostalgic, even romantic eyes.

Mom and Dad had met in college on a blind date.  Their courtship played out as they finished school, got jobs, and then, of course, the war took Dad into the military.  Not until recent years, cleaning out Mom’s house, and going through a cache of her old letters, did I learn that, while Dad was the fellow who won her heart, there was competition. That competition – according to Mom’s other correspondent  – apparently continued to a point remarkably close to when she boarded that troop train in Texas, headed for her chosen future husband in California. Judging from the other guy’s impassioned letters, it didn’t appear that Mom let either suitor become aware of the other.  Such are the ways we learn that our parents were real people with their very own complicated lives.

But Dad, who Mom always admired as a “snappy dresser” (he wore white knickers to their first blind date, which may have sealed the deal from the get go for Mom), was who she set out to meet.  The trip, in the height of the war, was almost 24 hours, on a crowded troop train. I suspect Mom may have attracted yet more admirers during the journey, being an pretty young woman with an aura of excitement from a wedding moving closer by the mile.  But she was also a Depression era farm girl, who had never ventured further than a few summer car trips to Tennessee.  What an adventure that must have been.

The trip was long and slow.  Dad had planned everything out. He brought another couple with him to the train station, some two hours from Blythe, as I recall, as chaperones and perhaps moral support, Dad likely not being too much more worldly than Mom. The man was a fellow officer, and he and his wife lived in the apartment next to Dad’s. The plan was for Mom to arrive mid-day.  The four of them would then go to the Justice of the Peace and Mom and Dad would get married, with the other couple as witnesses.  No honeymoon. Dad had to be on duty the next day.

But the troop train blew that plan up.  It arrived not mid-day, but well past midnight.  As Mom told it, the train was so long that, when the engine stopped at the small desert station, the car she’d been in was “a mile” out.  The conductor took her bags and set them out in the sand.  It was pitch-dark, except for the small glimmer of light coming from the distant station.  

And there stands Mom, this 22-year-old, who’d traveled halfway across the country to marry a man she likely hadn’t even seen in months.  As she stood uncertainly, engulfed by the unknown, she looked toward the light and gradually spotted a long, tall figure coming toward her, silhouetted against the dim lights of the station, striding through the sand to meet her. 

This image still brings tears to my eyes, every time I picture it.

Of course, the wedding plans were shot.  The obliging couple Dad had brought with him had been sleeping in the car. They drove back to Blythe in the wee hours, arriving just in time for Dad to spruce up and report for duty. Was Mom able to get some sleep while she waited, or was she too keyed up?  That detail I don’t think she ever shared.

Then, finally, that afternoon they found a judge and managed to tie the knot. And that knot remained tied for just over 50 years, until Dad reported for Higher Duty in January of 1993.

Happy Anniversary, Joe & Cecelia.

“Own a Lib” Operator’s Manual

August 16, 2020

The Original Own a Lib Corporation

Congratulations!  You have realized your dream of Owning a Lib! Others may spend all their waking hours looking for cool put-downs of Liberals to re-post on social media, attempting to rhetorically “own” their enemies. Not you, discriminating Purchaser!  Nosirree. Not for you the empty tit for tat online exchange. You have plunked down cold hard cash for the actual purchase of your very own Lib.  The Original Own a Lib Corporation salutes your Bold Decision. Rest assured, whatever price you paid, our Guaranteed Authentic Lib is a true bargain. With proper care and feeding your Lib is sure to bring you years of smug satisfaction.

In order to enjoy your Lib to the fullest, please read the following Guidelines:

Section ONE:  Get To Know Your Lib

At first glance, your Lib may look disappointingly human.  The Original Own a Lib Corporation Complaints Department has received a number of calls from Purchasers who expected their Product (“The Lib”) to come equipped with horns or other satanic regalia. As the Premier collector and distributor of Libs worldwide, The Original Own a Lib Corporation can assure you that your Lib was collected directly from its natural habitat (Starbucks) and sold in its pristine natural condition. You may be able to locate horns on a secondary market, but they are not included in your purchase, and are not part of the mechanical functioning of your Lib. The Original Own a Lib Corporation is not responsible for any malfunction due to the use of unauthorized secondary market products.

A few complaints have been registered when purchasers say their Lib looks disturbing like a favorite neighbor. The Original Own a Lib Corporation is not responsible for any resemblance of their Product to actual persons, living or dead.

A number of complainants have stated that their recently purchased Lib demonstrates a high level of tolerance, resulting in Owner discomfort, particularly in matters of race and gender.The Original Own a Lib Corporation would like to remind such purchasers: caveat emptor.  You should have been aware of what you were purchasing.  Descriptions on Amazon were clearly written by our Legal Department.  No returns will be accepted based on “excessively” High Tolerance Tendencies in your Lib.  Because of natural variation between models, you may, however, choose to return your Lib and receive credit toward another model.  Owner will, of course, be responsible for any and all additional Shipping and Processing Fees incurred.

Section TWO: Care and Feeding of your Lib

Many purchasers have (without bothering to read The Manual, we might add) simply fed their Lib a normal diet of fast food and Fox News. Recent internet “research”, based on Gay Conversion Therapy, suggests that you can, indeed, politically convert your Lib using this diet. The Original Own a Lib Corporation is aware of, but is advised to legally disavow, this research, which was, in full disclosure, paid for by our founder. Our Legal Department requires us to warn you that such a diet is unproven as a conversion tool, and may actually induce malfunction. The Original Own a Lib Corporation reminds Owner that you purchased this product for its annoyance value.  Any conversion attempts may lead to a lessening of satisfaction with The Product, for which  The Original Own a Lib Corporation is NOT responsible.

DISCLAIMER: The Original Own a Lib Corporation categorically denies ANY accusations that ANY of our Libs have caused damage in ANY way to their Owners.  Our hand-shanghaied Libs are meticulously chosen and subjected to rigorous lab testing prior to sale.  Our Lab Libs are proven to remain peaceful in the face of relentless verbal abuse and/or ridicule.  Another internet “study” (full disclosure, this study was sponsored by our Founder’s son), has “proven” that Libs respond to their owners with consistent respect (if not downright awe), and gratitude for the gift of being owned. 

In certain cases, Product (“The Lib”) has been accused of causing a diminishment of Anger and Hostility in Owner.  The Original Own a Lib Corporation categorically denies any such causation. Owner is solely responsible for Owner’s Attitude.

CAUTION: If Product should spontaneously burst into any rendition of “Kumbayah”, Owner should NOT, under any circumstances, join in.  Doing so may cause irreparable attitude change.  The Original Own a Lib Corporation is not responsible for spontaneous attitude change of any kind.

DISCLAIMER: The Original Own a Lib Corporation categorically denies ANY implication that our sales to repeat customers IN ANY WAY condones or contributes to ANY deliberate plan or Conspiracy to entirely eradicate Libs by facilitating  the purchase of multiple Libs with intent to deliberately cause their malfunction and/or extinction.

NOTE TO CUSTOMERS: The Original Own a Lib Corporation assures our customers that the supply of Libs is not endangered in any way, and is, in disturbing fact, growing at a rate faster than demand.  We appreciate repeat Customers.  Ask us about our Bulk Rates.

Seccion TRES:  CUIDADO!  Sorry, don’t know how that Spanish snuck in there!

Update: Fernando has been fired.

Section THREE:  CAUTION!  There.  That’s better.

Your new Lib is guaranteed to bring you years of enjoyment as a handy target for your superior put-downs, and clear evidence that you have “won”.  You will be the envy of all your MAGAA* friends!

However, settlements of recent litigation require The Original Own a Lib Corporation to issue the following WARNING(S):

The Original Own a Lib Corporation is NOT RESPONSIBLE for damage done to your Lib through Owner’s neglect, operator error, or failure to properly maintain said Product according to minimal standards as defined by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.  

The Original Own a Lib Corporation is NOT responsible for any civil or criminal charges that may be brought against Owner as a result of Owner’s mistreatment of Product (“The Lib”) as described in the preceding paragraph above.  

The Original Own a Lib Corporation is required to inform Owner that your Lib can only thrive under the same conditions (adequate health care, clean air and water, universal access to equal justice, and a functioning Democracy) that sustain and support Owner.  All assertions to the contrary have been debunked on Snopes.com. 

*Make America Great Again…Again

liberal

Pronunciation /ˈlib(ə)rəl/ /ˈlɪb(ə)rəl/ 

ADJECTIVE

  • 1Willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.

‘they have more liberal views toward marriage and divorce than some people’

  1. 1.1(in a political context) favoring policies that are socially progressive and promote social welfare.

Often contrasted with conservative (sense 2 of the adjective)

‘she is under attack from the right wing for making her own liberal political views known’

Into the Woods & All Wet

January 2, 2015

January 2, 2015

Hola, amigos. I’m back.

Today’s topic: the new movie Into the Woods.

Seen it? Whaddaya think?

I wanted to like this film. Love Meryl Streep. Like Emily Blunt a lot. Have an old-lady thing for Chris Pine. Stephen Sondheim knows his music. Must be a winner, right?

Not so much. And it took me a while to figure out why it didn’t work. Spoiler alert: I’m half-revealing some endings further along.

Let’s zig-zag here a bit. I’m flashing back to a dinner party many years ago. Most of us were having a fine time exchanging lines from Seinfeld. That sitcom did more to add canny catch phrases to the American vernacular than any show since Laugh-in (Well, the ‘old-lady thing’ about Chris Pine already tipped you to my generation, didn’t it?).

Only one guest was mum until finally someone thoughtfully attempted to include her in the conversation.

“I think they’re all despicable people,” she said emphatically.

Well, duh.

The comedy of Seinfeld hinged on that very despicable-ness. What made it funny was that their neuroses, shallowness, superficiality, self-consciousness and fears so uncomfortably mirrored our own. They put a face on human failings. We laughed because we realized, deep down, that we’re all flawed, in ways we really would prefer that no one else saw. And yes, the fact that Jerry, George, Elaine & Kramer were so much more (comically) flawed than the rest of us made us laugh not just out of identification but …relief.

So. Into the Woods.

Not exactly a children’s look at fairy tales, but then, the Original Grimm’s Fairy Tales were scary, dark and weird.

In this newest version (not entirely new, of course, it originated on Broadway), characters are motivated by fear, greed, escapism, fantasy, illusion, shallowness. Mean for the sake of Mean. Neither Good nor Bad comes off pure.

Although the lyrics are stunningly deft.

Really, they’re all despicable people. But not in a good way.

We know these stories: Jack & the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, etc. We know Wicked Witches, though Meryl, as always makes hers the New Definitive of Wicked Witches. Take any of these stories individually, it has a clear, if dark, plot. Lessons are either learned (happy endings) or not learned (bad things happen). But mashing so many fairy tales into one, you end up with a cast of familiar characters all running around, bouncing from noble to cravenly, heroic to inept, and frankly, by the end, the only death you care about was the one that served no moral or plot purpose. That death cued up the small band of survivors at the end, none of whom has shown a) initial strength or b) any positive transformation. It’s the bleak conclusion that we’re simply sneaking out of the theater to avoid watching their further mishaps.

We watched Seinfeld to see the gang struggle (and generally fail) as they navigated a wide range of awkward social situations. We saw the consequences coming from a mile off – even when someone astonishingly managed to sidestep getting what they deserved.

In Into the Woods, people do stuff, stuff happens to them, or doesn’t, then does again, Love doesn’t triumph, and I can’t even remember now where that baby came from. And yeah, sometimes people die, it’s always tough in Fairy Tale Land, but there’s generally some cause and effect in play. That’s the purpose of fairy tales.

Not so in this Woods. Even Meryl, bless her heart: She’s Bad. Then she’s kinda good. Then she loses the bad & gets gorgeous. Then, for some reason she gets to throw a last Bad Hissy Fit. Stupendous performance. But someone tell me again…. Why?

Fear & Loathing in the Teachers’ Lounge

April 15, 2013

            http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/13/opinion/teachers-will-we-ever-learn.html?ref=education

 An opinion piece in yesterday’s NYT reminded me of something:  after 40 years, talk of teacher education makes me want to scream.

  So I think I will.

 Full disclosure:  I was a “teacher educator”.  Before that, I was a teacher.

 It may not be any coincidence that I am now a recovering academic, writer and composer.  But that’s another essay.

 Jal Mehta, the opinionator of the NYT article, is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which, in the arena of academia makes his voice much louder than mine.  In this case, I agree with him, and was happy to see his words in such a large forum.

 Here’s the quote that grabbed me:

            “…In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States.”

  I remember when I first became a teacher.  I had visions of the Teachers’ Lounge, that mysterious and elite preserve, visions of  stimulating discussions about wide-ranging issues of the day, intellectual concepts discoursed upon, shared confessions of personal aspirations beyond the classroom.

 Instead, amidst the sticky, half-empty Dr. Pepper cans, and the lingering cigarette fumes, there lay a cloud of fatigue, frustration, and cynicism.  This wasn’t everyone of course, and the more awake of us learned which break times to avoid, those times when the hard-core, hard-boiled tended to gather and take over our dreary little retreat.

The turf was particularly disputed, of course, in schools where the only air conditioners were in the lounge or the front offices, leaving both students and teachers to sit listlessly in stifling, sweaty, South Texas classrooms.  Guerilla tactics were often used to secure floor fans.  There were days when my students and I were most synchronized in purpose watching huge bumblebees swoop loopily across the classroom.

 Ah, the good old days.

  But I digress.  As usual.

  Ever optimistic, I thought the answer lay in higher education, and I went back to school for my Masters’.  I worked as a graduate assistant for a professor who one day decided to treat me to coffee in the Faculty Club.

 Wow.  Faculty Club at a small but prestigious university.  Now that was surely where I would find the intellectual stimulation I so yearned for.  All those brilliant profs I’d admired while slouching in the anonymous center regions of crowded lecture halls – they would be there, wittily holding forth on all sorts of philosophical matters.

 The topic of the day turned out to be crabgrass.

And I was ejected (and my hosting prof chastised) for polluting the sacred grounds with a mere grad student.

 I have known some absolutely brilliant teachers.  One or two I taught with.  A few I had the privilege of preparing for their teaching careers.  Along the way, I swear to you, there were dozens of decent, hard-working craftsmen and –women.  The couple of weirdos and possible-pervs tended to stand out, but they were the minute minority.  I suspect the statistical breakdown is about the same in any group, and can be represented by the bell curve.

 So, here begins my rant for the day.  Teaching conditions – for most teachers – have greatly improved since I walked into my first classroom in the ‘70’s.  Air conditioning.  Telephones.

But – and Professor Mehta’s article reinforces me here – teaching is hard damn work, done in conditions that are still too often taxing, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. 

Not to mention that now, in addition to spending all those years acquiring mastery of academic disciplines, and the combined survival skills of psychiatry, diplomacy, long-distance running, mind-reading, sanitation, nurse and time management, now we seem to be trending toward the expectation that teachers should also come fully armed and prepared to blow away little Johnny, with cold, keen-eyed aim, if push comes to shove.  All in a day’s work.

Because little Johnny still can’t read, but he has easy access to automatic weapons. 

So where are our best and brightest?  Maybe they’re too smart to go for that crap.

 I tried, very hard, to push my teacher-education students, to get them to expand their imaginations, to breed curiosity into decent, well-meaning young (and not so young) people, who, for the most part, sincerely wanted to dedicate their lives to a helping profession.

But too many were themselves already products of a system that rewards plodders.  I used to tell my students, if you want your own students to learn, you have to model what it is to be a learner.  You have to constantly demonstrate curiosity about the world around you.

I also warned them: if you teach your students to question, the first thing they will question is… you. 

 That is the scary and exhilarating part of teaching.  For me it was the whole point: to pry open young minds, if only an inch at a time, to watch the thrilling and challenging spectacle of dormant minds sputtering or leaping into action.   It’s what kept me in the biz for 30 years.  It’s the only thing I miss.

Far easier to follow the curriculum guides and teach to the test. That’s what gets teachers rewarded these days.

Not hard to see why the best and brightest would be bright enough to flee from a career like that, where not only will they be overworked and poorly paid, but will be drowned in a sea of negative expectations and bureaucratic hamstringing from all sides.

 I loved teaching, loved prodding students out of their intellectual comfort zones, loved connecting with them, helping them understand complex concepts or develop the skills to work through problems in their lives.  My years at the college level in teacher education were the most enjoyable of a long career.   But my college students used to ask me, “don’t you ever think about going back into public school teaching?”

I (diplomatically) never answered them honestly back then, but my response hasn’t changed after many years out of the biz:  

 Hell, no.

 

 

As always, I invite my readers to visit my website  and my Youtube channel.

What Are Men Good For?

March 31, 2013

I’ll tell you this much, and of course I speak only for myself.  If you’ve got yourself a dead possum, a good man will pick up the deceased by its tail and drop him into the trash bag.  For this reason alone, I would plead the case for the masculine gender in any court in the land.

I had such good intentions.  I went out to survey the situation.  I located the proper tools for removal.   I had a very nice conversation with the huge turkey vulture whose lunch I was determined to steal away, apologizing for my intended rudeness.

There’s nothing like confronting a dead critter to remind you just where your personal limits lie.  I’m sure there are many women who are tougher about these things than I.  Come to think of it, I know several.   And I would be the last to want to fall back on old stereotypes.  I’m sure there are many men who would be at least as squeamish as I in such a situation.

But really, there’s toughness and there’s toughness, and sometimes those distinctions fall out along gender lines.

There’s been so much written lately about the ragged frontiers between the sexes, especially with the Steubenville case in the news drawing attention (regrettably, yet again) to rape and the skewed attitudes some boys apparently have toward it.

A very brief but fabulous video has apparently gone viral, the gist of which is: What do you do with a girl who’s passed out drunk?  You make her comfortable and cover her up.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=eZxv5WCWivM

There are a lot of points I could make here.  Girls, drinking yourself into a stupor is a bad idea.  Boys, wherever you got the idea that the weak or defenseless are fair game (no matter how poor their judgment), you’ve been wrongly advised.  Some of the people you’re listening to have betrayed your trust.

At a time when equality is advancing in so many ways, kids are still flailing around under the influence of a culture that perpetuates the weird idea that human beings come in only one gender – yours, whichever that may be.   All those other alien-but-attractive creatures out there belong to some “not quite really human” category, easy targets to be exploited, manipulated, or otherwise treated as if they exist solely as props in our own little play.

Here’s a newsflash: the hormones that can drive you to despicable, harmful actions, can also propel you toward humanity, even nobility.  The payoff’s better, and longer lasting.   And no messy consequences, like jail time.

So, I’m rooting for the men, and hoping the boys among us will find some better guides and guidance; that someone will take the time to personally illustrate to them that we really are all human.   And I’m aspiring to man up a little myself, the very next possum that comes along.

Relativity Tango

March 25, 2013

When I was in grad school, I stumbled onto an article about Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle. In case you’ve forgotten, Heisenberg was pointing out this sticky little physics problem: in trying to measure quantum particles, the presence of the observer (or more precisely his/her tools and procedures) affects the particle being observed.  In other words, it’s (so far) impossible to measure position and velocity of those little buggers because the observer’s presence will cause those qualities to be something different than they would be (we think) if the observer wasn’t there, observing.

The article, as I recall, was densely technical, but they started out with an emphatic statement as to how they were talking sub-atomic realities which had nothing to do with normal humans and no such comparisons, literal or metaphoric, should be drawn.

Now, I’m no physicist, only a mere social scientist, but I understood what they meant, which I might (very) loosely characterize as, “Now don’t all you regular folk get all excited and think that the whole quantum dance stops what it’s doing just because you showed up.  Stupid non-physicist humans, always thinking you’re so special…”

At first I was properly chastised, but on further thought, I decided those Heisenberg proponents were possibly a bit shortsighted themselves.   It certainly seems commonsensical, from a human point of view, that the presence of an observer affects those things being observed, whether those “things” are, so to speak, animal, vegetable or mineral.   And even though we’re talking here about sub-atomic particles, it’s also true, to the best of my understanding, anyway, that those particles aren’t dancing in some galaxy far, far away, but right here, inside me, inside you, inside everything around us.

Like all spectrums (spectra?), this one has two extremes: those huffy Heisenberg proponents on one end saying, “it’s sub-atomic particles, people.  Don’t you dare try to misappropriate our pure physics for some mushy, touchy-feely conclusions.”  On the other end, we have people like the author of “The Secret”, representing exactly that “human application”, the theory that we all have some vast power to command the forces of the universe with our very attention.  Such advocates claim that “it” is all within our grasp and if you’re not rolling in the dough (or the hay?) as much as you’d would like, you just haven’t believed hard enough.  So just practice those affirmations more, and oh, by the way, buy my book!

Is there any bridge between these polarities, some way of resolving or integrating these two extremes: the grumpy pure scientists who say the sub-atomic world can’t be said to affect us regular mortals, and the blindly chipper new-agers, with their equally emphatic mind-over-matter mantras?

Here’s my modest theory as to what might link those apparently non-overlapping circles, the funky quantum realms and our much more recalcitrant, uncooperative day-to-day world; one word –  discipline.

Sorry.  Not what you wanted to hear?

Yeah.  Discipline.  Commitment to the quest.  The development of a serious skill set that starts with actually opening the eyes rather than squinting them closed and constantly muttering, “I believe, I believe, I believe…”

Not to say we haven’t all been in that white-knuckled hanging-on-for-dear-life state from time to time.  Bless your heart if that’s where you are right now.

I’m just saying there really IS more ‘out there’ than meets the eye (you may take that cliché literally), which we all kind of know, because even the most unbelieving among us have had those moments you might brand as ‘numinous’, which means, according to Webster, “supernatural or mysterious”.

Which in turn really just means ‘not understandable, given our current observational and measurement capabilities’.   Think about it.  Magic has a limited shelf life.  Take my iPad.  A century ago it would have been totally magic.  Quite likely you would have been burned at the stake, just for checking your Twitter account.

Come to think of it, would that be so wrong?

But I digress.

These days Magic doesn’t so much go stale on the shelf, as it gets re-branded and re-packaged as Science Fiction.  Think of Captain Kirk in the ‘60’s with his super-cool flip-top communicator.

So pre-iPhone.  Thus Magic morphs into Science Fiction, which itself eventually becomes The New Reality, and the cycle starts all over again, in some other direction.

Back to my point.  Practitioners of any serious endeavor – yoga or meditation or tennis or cupcake baking – will tell you the real secret: the more you do anything, the better you get at it.

And the other piece of the puzzle is the willingness to get better; the –  how shall I put this? – humility to actually study and hold yourself up to some relatively universal standards that have stood the test of time.  Grumpy scientists take note: yes, that sounds a lot like the “scientific method”.

If there is a way for humans to tune in more closely to that quantum boogaloo, we have to start by admitting just how vast and numinous it really is.  There’s no aisle for this at Walgreens.

There are those out there who feel like wisdom really ought to be free, that it ought to fall in one’s lap, or maybe they’ll find someone who’ll just give it to them, if they ask.

A wise man knows what he knows – and how he came to know it.  A wise man also knows there’s always much, much more to know; that there’s always another horizon to move toward.

Only an idiot believes you really ought be able to see with your eyes closed, just because it’s just too darned much work to open them.

Laws of physics, man.  Laws of karma.  There may just be a point in the universe where everything simply is, all of it, all at the same time, some “place” we can – someday – get to, where there is no place, no time.  Quantum mechanics gives us a nice little hint of that ultimately mind-blowing “mystery”.

But from where we are now, shakily poised in our own weird era of impending mayhem and miracles, it’s still a step-by-step journey.  All you metaphysical couch potatoes out there: yep, the cosmic music actually is playing, but what’s it for, if you’re not ready to dance?

 

As always, I invite you to visit my website and my YouTube channel.

 

 

Can You Smell Me Now?

March 18, 2013

Unless I’m greatly mistaken, you can’t smell me, though at the moment I’m much more fragrant than I was after an hour of vigorous exercise earlier in the day.

Technology does not yet allow you olfactory access to random bloggers.

Does that matter?

Let’s put aside, for the moment, some of the creepier implications and talk about what we’re doing to the kids.  That’s the topic Pamela Paul raises in today’s NYT, in an opinion piece titled, “Reading, Writing and Video Games”.   Ms. Paul makes a point I agree with.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that she agrees with me; I’ve been making the point since I was in grad school studying instructional technology and she was a kid playing video games.

And no, I’m not going to yield to the temptation to wax geezerly (geezerish?) about the good old days of growing up with no video games, although –  argh! –  it’s so darned hard to resist.

Nevertheless.

The point – and I salute Ms. Paul for making it – is that there is a large contingent of folks pushing ever harder to integrate computers into schools for ever younger kids.  The computer contingent holds the opinion that computer-based learning is both better (than more traditional kinds, one assumes) and downright necessary, even for kindergarteners.

As best I can tell, there are two groups pushing to raise a new generation of iTots.  The first is, of course, the computer /software/ technology industry (I’m talking to you, Bill Gates).  No big surprise there.  What do you expect them to say?

The second – and I have some compassion for this group – is the parents, who, having found something that actually keeps the kids engaged, pretty much have to hope like hell that it actually IS good for them, because the alternative is just too unthinkable.

In the opposing camp, we have the overwhelming majority of people who actually know something about learning – the teaching community – and an equally overwhelming body of research about child development.  The topic is not new.  The facts have not changed.

But let’s not bog down in facts for the moment.  Let’s get sensory.

Humans still have five senses.  In case you’ve forgotten, these are: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.   These faculties come in really, really handy for living in the actual world.

I know, I know, virtual reality, smell-o-vision, all these technologies with their splashy promises and truly astounding advances.  I’m as dazzled as the rest of you, really, I am.

But let me put this to you in human terms.  Circuitry is not chemistry.   Your computer screen doesn’t hear the collective heartbeats of other people around you.  The best simulations in the world can’t factor in the infinite range of stimuli we all encounter every day:  the way your hands feel, clasped around a cold glass on a hot afternoon; how, even though they stopped making Twinkies, and you stopped eating them after the age of 10, you can still taste that impossibly spongy cake with that so-called “crème” filling, just reading these words, so much so you can still smell the school cafeteria that sold that delicious crap.

Or what about the woman who steps into the elevator and fills the closed space with her perfume, so that the scent lingers on your sleeve all day long?  Will that scent haunt you all day, distracting you with amorous imaginings so that you blow the big presentation?  Or will it make you annoyed and sneezy?

I remember something I learned a long time ago.  In education classes we used to talk about poor kids who were raised in so-called “deprived” environments, but a wise professor pointed this out:  all natural environments are rich with sensory stimuli.   The only deprivation lies with kids whose adults don’t take the time to point out the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and touchability of the real world around them.  If no one draws attention to those rich objects and inputs, children’s perceptions never get a chance to develop.  Their very intelligence is stunted by a lack of sensory stimulation.

And now we’re saying, “Oh, never mind, everything you need is on this little screen”?

Maybe one day soon there’ll be a scratch-and-sniff app for us bloggers.  Not only will you be able to smell me, but I can market my new perfume, a potent fragrance I’m concocting to capture the essence of what I’m feeling about all this.

I’m thinking of calling it “Appalled”.

Read Pamela Paul’s article HERE

As always, I invite you to visit my website and my YouTube channel.


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