Miscellany

Shifting Gears

Last week, I went on vacation. My family put 2000 miles on our new car, learning about the ways road tripping is different when people are sitting close enough that they can all touch each other. (Our mileage was great, though!) Only one of the trip’s six days did not feature at least three hours of driving as we shuffled first north, then south. Along the way, we took in a museum where a T-Rex shares a name with my son, a production of Cirque du Soleil’s new Avatar-inspired show, and an awful lot of corn fields. And family.

Some of the transitions from car to family visit to car were seamless. We arrived. The kids exploded out of the car. They ran amok (sometimes with cousins) while the adult-types prepared food and caught up. We ate hamburgers and, because the sweet corn is coming ripe, plenty of fresh corn. The weather was very not-Texas, which we appreciated.

A few times, the explosion of kids out of the car was too explosive. There was too much energy to sit, even with the relative novelty of eating out. It meant going outside and finding places in or near gas station parking lots where my son could run and jump and otherwise do activities to help him regulate his body.

And of course, many transitions were preceded by “are we there yet?” Variations on this were my daughter’s favorite, sometimes hours before we closed in on our various destinations. By the time “getting there” meant being home, we were 15 minutes into August.

So, end of summer break…are we there yet?

We must be getting close. Monday, my boss called me to discuss my class assignments for the upcoming year. Earlier in the summer, he’d said that, pending enrollment numbers, everybody would be teaching what they taught last year. The purpose of the principal’s phone call was to explain that some things had changed. (It almost always changes.) Last year, I taught English intervention (for students who have either already failed or are at risk of failing the end-of-course exams they must pass to graduate) and on-level English IV (for seniors who often think they’ve already finished high school). Last spring, intervention was full entirely of freshmen. It was…challenging (especially the section at the end of the day, which was almost entirely boys and almost entirely disinterested in anything academic by the time class started at 3:05). I had hoped that we’d hit numbers for the creative writing elective I was listed to teach. I’d also hoped, vaguely, to escape teaching intervention. (It has its benefits; I feel like it helps keep me honest as a teacher and really pushes my pedagogy. It just wears me out.) Neither happened.

This year—which for teachers in my district starts next week—I’ll still be teaching intervention. Instead of on-level seniors, though, I’ll have the Advanced Placement (registered trademark of the College Board) seniors. I’ll be inheriting my colleague’s summer assignment, which means hurriedly reading the assigned novel (thank you, grad school, for preparing me!). I need to pull a syllabus together, one detailed and tidy enough for the College Board to approve it. I need to shove the vague plans I had about rearranging the on-level English stuff to the back burner. I need to think about what worked with the intervention classes last year, particularly in the spring, that I can adapt to the different group of students I’ll have in the fall.

It’s a lot to get ready in the two and a half weeks before students show up. On the plus side, I won’t be waiting on HR to decide whether or not I exist. It’s another opportunity to improve my teaching, which is exciting. None of my classes should be huge. There’s a lot to like.

Earlier, I mentioned that we got a new car. It has a continuously variable transmission; there are no “gears” to shift between. My first car was a manual transmission. I’ve driven automatics since then, but even those train you to a pattern of shifts. You learn when you need to jam on the pedal to make the transmission downshift, when to let up a little to get the upshift. You listen to the patterns of the RPMs. The new car doesn’t do that. It has paddle shifters and a sport mode so you can pretend, if you want, but mostly the transmission just runs. The changes are gradual.

That’s how this summer has felt, and it’s a change I’ve been able to notice mostly because so many other pieces of my life are stable. As an undergrad (and before that), summers were summer. Whether it was a job or just a lot more ultimate, I had a sense that summer was different. Not all of the summers were lazy. Not all of them were good. They were, though, decisively not-school. During my masters, I took a fair number of summer seminars to grease the wheels on my dual degree. It still felt like a distinct season, though, because we had a lot of teachers pursuing masters degrees, because the rhythm of the day was different, because the weather was different.

I didn’t take summer seminars during my doctoral work. They weren’t part of the program. I took care of my kids. I squeezed in research trips. I wrote. The research trips have been replaced by professional development, but those other things have continued. My school year lines up imperfectly with the kids’, so there were some hazy patches at the beginning of the summer, with another coming up when I go back for inservice next week. There have been trips and camps and many visits to the library. Not once did I have a sense that things had slowed down. They must have, though, because I can feel them speeding up again now, even without a noticeable shift in gears.

Continuously variable transmission, indeed.

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Reflections in the Rearview Mirror

I remember the day that, as an undergraduate, I realized I could not do everything. I had committed myself to the same kind of activity load that I’d had at UWC. For a semester, it was fine—my first semester at Macalester was lightweight, especially since I wasn’t adjusting to living away from home. Second semester, I had some harder classes, and I collapsed. I spent a day in my dorm room, sometimes sleeping, sometimes crying, knowing I had to quit at least one thing but unable to reconcile myself to—as I saw it—being a quitter.

In between naps, I pored through my yearbooks. At AC, we wrote a lot in the yearbooks, especially our second year. We tried to wrap all the intensity of those two years into our words, knowing that we would soon be scattering literally all over the world (and in the days before social media, that meant even more). That February day in Minnesota, I needed those memories. It wasn’t just to remind myself that I had friends. I needed to read all of the good things people wrote about me (although one of my fellow U.S. students wrote, thoughtfully, about how I was a terrible cynic and ought to respect my country more). I needed to believe that some of those things, maybe most of those things, were true. I was good at things. People liked me.

I needed the past to validate my present, to reassure me that my travails would pass, just as they had there. (I’d had a similar break while in Wales, one that remained the worst I’d had until I was wrestling with leaving academia.) It worked, mostly. I ended my brief career as a sportswriter for the Mac Weekly. I stopped taking on new activities. I started going out with my first real girlfriend.

[–*–]

Earlier this week, my first band director died. Skip Bicknese didn’t bat an eye when my mom, a little confused herself, took me to the band room moments after I’d informed the counselor at my soon-to-be middle school that I wanted to do in band in seventh grade. Mr. B and I talked a little about what I wanted to play. He taught me, minutes after walking into the band room, the basics of buzzing and showed me my first fingering chart. My braces saw to it that I didn’t remain a horn player for long, but I am pretty sure I was a band nerd by that October.

There’s no doubt I was by the time I reached high school. I’d been playing baritone horn for a while. Mr. B invited me to come try the jazz band (which met before school) on valve trombone. Valve trombones are abominations, and I decided I’d better learn to play a proper trombone even as I was falling in love with third and fourth trombone parts and going to all the home basketball games. (The jazz band was also the pep band.) When Mr. B left after my freshman year, I was bummed, but I’d learned enough that, along with other band students, I helped stand up to his replacement (who was terrible and only lasted a year himself).

When I read that Skip had died, I cried. He introduced me to music as practice. I’m not sure he was endlessly patient, but he was endlessly enthusiastic, which made up for it. He told terrible jokes. He laughed at the terrible jokes his students told. He wrote our marching band arrangements and a good chunk of our pep band music. I suspect looking at photocopies of those low-resolution printouts planted the seed that I could create music myself. I know that Mr. B’s love for music and for his students propelled me and many others into music as a lifelong effort. I didn’t think of him when I smiled to hear Rite of Spring on the radio last week, but I should have. I wouldn’t have gotten to Stravinsky (never mind LaMonte Young or Meredith Monk) without the Bicknese arrangement of “American Band.”

[–*–]

Last night, I took my curling printout of Ghosts of the Old City to a coffee shop. I brought a pen, too. That was it. I sat down, and I read the whole draft. I went through it last summer, but had to job hunt instead of starting rewrites in earnest. I spent NaNo 2015 working on the sequel. I hadn’t forgotten the novel, but I didn’t remember it well enough to dive straight back into rewrites.

It’s odd to think that I wrote the first part of Ghosts three years ago, before I’d even considered moving to Texas. There’s not a lot of that early vision left, and where it shows it mostly needs to go away—I still read parts and think “that’s so NaNo.” There were times when I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s the glory and the curse of NaNo, especially for a first-timer. I had to find my story.

The draft had not miraculously improved itself while it sat on my desk. The opening is still mostly good. The following section, the one that leads up to the turn, is still muddy as hell. I noticed a few problems with continuity that I hadn’t noted down before. There’s still not enough Zahra in the first half of the book.

There’s good stuff there, though, which was gratifying to see. There are pieces of music I wrote that I can hardly stand anymore, stories and poems that I look at and wonder “how could I have thought this was insight?” Ghosts has good bones. There were moments that I wanted to cry. I still like the ending. There were characters I wanted to know more about, and guess what? I’m the writer. I can know more about them. I can help you know more about them.

Reading back through that draft was what I needed, not just to remind myself of what was in it, but that I’m a writer. Blog posts are writing, but they’re not the same. They’ve worn me down a bit over the course of the summer, especially because I haven’t had much inspiration to write about writing. Now, I think I can get back to that.

[–*–]

Three different moments, but these were all moments that the past, my past, buoyed my present. It isn’t always about morale, or about loss, or about learning from past mistakes. Sometimes we just have to remember where we came from, remember who we are. The terrible news of this summer makes it easy to drown in the now. We act in the moment, but we should not forget that we bring our past decisions, good and bad, with us. We bring our teachers, our friends, our work. Don’t forget that.

Doing Better than Distraction

Sometimes, a flood of thoughts is worse for writing than not being able to come up with any. This has been one of those weeks. Even last week’s Nicking from Novels, about a book that I truly enjoyed reading, seemed…trivial. There has been so much happening in the world, so much happening at home. Some of it has just been busy-ness: events, appointments, getting ductwork replaced so the air conditioner conditions all of the house’s air. More of the flood has come from the ugliness of the news. I’ve seen calls for armed revolt just because a politician didn’t get indicted. I’ve seen somebody write “White people can’t speak our mind in this country anymore” in support of a comparison of Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan.

And all of that leaves out what actually happened: people were killed with bullets and with bombs, in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas and Baghdad. Riot police looking like stormtroopers hauling in women in summer dresses. Protesters throwing rocks and rebar and fireworks at police on I-94. Blood.

People killed people, and our media and our conversations immediately folded them into the narratives of presidential politics and culture war. Instead of “why did this happen?”, we so often frame the question as “whose fault is this?” (The cops’ for being racist, the victims’ for being uncooperative, the protesters’ for inciting violence…)

Look, the world doesn’t need another white dude to hurl a cri de coeur out into the world wide ether. It needs people—it needs us—to engage with one another and with institutions to make change happen.

It needs “how can I help?” to mean more than “how can I help without inconveniencing myself?” I think that’s what it has often meant for me: my answers amounted to “keep being a good person.” That helps! It is better to be a good person than a selfish person, better to practice empathy in our daily lives and try to understand our neighbors. I’ve written about this each of the past two summers. In 2015 it was Paris and Syria and Chicago and Chennai. In 2014 it was Ferguson and Ukraine and Gaza. For too many people, nothing has changed since then.

If we really want things to be better for our fellow humans, we need not just to be good people, but to be better people. We have to work. Listening can be work, but I think a lot of us have listened enough. We need to keep listening, always, but we have to understand that change worth having is change worth making sacrifices for. That can be money for bail funds or time for protests or toner for letters to your representatives or the work to actually run for office yourself. It needs to be voting, too, and trying to understand the local politics that the big media instruments aren’t shouting about.

It means resisting distraction, even when that seems to be the primary mission of the machines through which we route our lives.

Back on the Horse

This morning, I managed to start the day with yoga. I’ve used a basic sun salute sequence as my athletic warm-up for years. That does not, unfortunately, mean that my body fell automatically into the right rhythm this morning. I tweaked my knee running warm-up laps at frisbee practice a few months ago, which threw me out of that attempt to get back into shape. This morning, my back didn’t want to loosen up. Tendinitis poked my knee. It was all a little harder than when I did the same things yesterday.

I’m probably more out of practice writing blog posts. I started drafting a few different posts over the spring semester, but the only one that I finished is more personal than I want to put up right now. I’ve been writing, but mostly recreationally. Sitting at the keyboard this morning, I feel a little creaky.

It’s also a little like the moment you get a message or social media request from somebody you haven’t spoken to in years. How do you catch up? “A lot of stuff has happened in the last fifteen years. Fifteen years ago, I was… Fourteeen years ago…” You can’t do that. You hit the high points. Right now, I’m glad my blog isn’t really a diary because, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to catch you up on the last six months of my life.

I can catch you up on the posts I wanted to write. I have about a hundred words of my Song of the Year post for 2015. I have a post that, a little presciently, begins “Writing is putting one word after another. Being a writer is putting words on the page after a long day of work or a short night of sleep.” By that standard, I have not really been much of a writer for the past few months.

But I’m back! I’m working the kinks out, re-reading drafts of Ghosts of the Old City, catching up with all the UI changes on WordPress, usw. I’m reading novels I’m not teaching. My plan is to write three or four posts a week, but only to post two. This hypothetical “buffer” will do bufferish things when school prep starts back up in August.

Big plans this summer, too: getting Ghosts out to beta readers. I’ll be tidying up the collection of my #postac posts and compiling them (with commentary) into an ebook. There are so many things I want to read, so many novels I want to nick from.

Yoga this morning was a little harder than it was yesterday. This post is more disjointed than I’d like, a little rough, a little strained. It’s not smooth or clever. But it’s here. Before you can ride (like the wind!), you have to get back on the horse.

More to come!

Boulez, Looking Back, Looking Forward

I woke up yesterday morning to early posts of Pierre Boulez obituaries. He was nearly 91, a venerable master of his craft and a giant of 20th-century music. Boulez was brilliant—I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. Still, I’ve never cared much for his music. For a time, pieces like Le marteau sans maître represented everything I disliked about being a graduate student in composition. (I appreciate the music better these days, but it’s not something I go out of my way to hear.) I dismissed Boulez as a polemicist, both in the music he wrote and what he wrote about music (in part because as a composition student you don’t hear much about it beyond the infamous “Schoenberg is dead”).

That began to change when it became clear Boulez’s work as music director of the New York Philharmonic would need to feature prominently in my dissertation. He was the counterbalance to “Downtown” composers going “Uptown”—his Prospective Encounters series did something of the opposite. The geographical and musical tension—and the power dynamics that lay beneath it—were the foundation for my research. Without Boulez, my dissertation might have been just another ramble through the youth of minimalism.

It’s been odd to read and hear Boulez stories in the last few days. He eventually made peace with parts of the establishment that he had spent his youth railing against. Especially as a conductor, his reputation blossomed after 1977, the year he left New York (and my dissertation). The remembrances I’ve seen today are colored by his years at IRCAM and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Journalists and friends alike have written about his warmth, his humor, his willingness to take time to talk about his craft.

That’s a mighty contrast to the image of Boulez painted on his arrival in New York. Then, he was the chilly demagogue arriving suddenly from France (only months after saying he would not take the New York Philharmonic job if it was offered), a man who inspired angry letters to the Times, some of them from American composers he’d directly or indirectly insulted. The New York Times published a long piece in 1973 titled “The Iceberg Conducteth.” Philharmonic players spoke anonymously to reporters about how Boulez couldn’t “perform.” (He had the misfortune to succeed the often lax, grandiose Leonard Bernstein at the Phil.) When he departed for IRCAM in 1977, critics tended to damn with faint praise, with Harold Schonberg’s complaint typical: “Going to his concerts was like taking a pill. It was good for you, but not an event you looked forward to with great anticipation.”

On the same occasion, the Village Voice’s Leighton Kerner wrote: “They blew it. The New York Philharmonic blew it. The audiences blew it. The critics blew it. The musicians’ union blew it. And Pierre Boulez blew it.” The title of that piece, though, was “Boulez, the Philharmonic, and What Might Have Been.” Kerner recognized what I eventually came to understand over the course of my research: that Boulez had tried to make a real change in what the Philharmonic meant, what new music meant to New York audiences (and American audiences more generally). I remember being shocked, a year or so into the project, finding myself defending Boulez (whose music I’ve never liked) over Bernstein (who wrote some of my favorite works) in casual conversation. I was defending him not in terms of composition or conducting, but in terms of what he had done to make new music matter to people. Bernstein’s goals always seemed more general to me, more content to leverage existing institutions and practices in the same way that systems had always been worked.

Pierre Boulez tried to change that…and did. The programming changes he made in New York didn’t really survive his departure, but that doesn’t make them meaningless. (It also says nothing about his subsequent work at IRCAM and elsewhere.) I can’t agree with all of his ideas about music, but I admire the conviction with which he pursued putting them into practice.

This all happened the week I bring in the hard copy of my dissertation to wave at my English IV classes. We’re doing research projects and some of my seniors are freaking out because five to eight pages is the most they’ve ever been asked to write. When I show them 392 pages of body text, a nine-page bibliography, and another 20-ish pages of appendices and front material, they look at me like I’m showing them a picture of myself on the moon or riding a narwhal or BASE-jumping off an erupting volcano. It just doesn’t compute. (Incidentally, they did not have nearly the same freak out about my NaNo victory.) With the dissertation at my desk, I was able to reread work that seems surprisingly distant just three years after I finished it.

Skimming through it and reading what I had written about Boulez, I realized something: I want students to share the experience I had with him. It’s not that I want them to go look at 40-year-old newspaper articles or read obituaries about a Frenchman whose music they’re unlikely ever to hear. I want them to have that experience of learning something that changes their thinking. Those old newspapers and concert programs and interviews changed the way I thought about Boulez. Writing a dissertation changed the way I thought about a lot of things. Research matters.

That, I think, is an opinion I can happily share with the late maestro.

What Can I Do? Redux

Fifteen months ago, I wrote a post titled “What Can I Do?” about Ferguson, Syria, the Ukraine, depression, and trying to make a difference in the world. In the time since that post, the U.S. has experienced nearly 400 mass shootings. Last week, activists (humans!) protesting police brutality in my old Minneapolis neighborhood were shot by white supremacists. Chicago’s police superintendent just resigned over a cover-up of a shooting that has led to murder charges. The U.K. just voted to bomb Syria. France has increased bombing in Syria in the wake of a terrorist murder spree in Paris. U.S. presidential candidates talk glibly about shutting down mosques. There’s a climate conference happening in Paris that, like its predecessors, seems doomed to handwringing and little meaningful action.

Excuse the profanity, but: things fucking suck right now.

That doesn’t mean everything sucks, nor do things suck for everybody. There are a lot of us who are insulated from the direct effects of catastrophe. I’m in an exurban district this year. My students worry about the local cops giving them traffic tickets, not shooting them. I like my job. My personal problems have become, mostly, typical American middle class ones. Hell, I’ve even gotten work under enough control to be blogging again.

This insulation from the direct effect of crisis makes it all too easy for outrage fatigue to set in—especially when social media is filled with people shouting about the (often imaginary) things they’re angry about, or about the things they want you to be angry about. It’s easy to turn media—social and otherwise—off for a while and think instead about what you want for diner, or when you’re going to get the car in for an oil change, or how to get your kids to do their homework. That’s a perfectly human response.

It does not make the problems go away. Really, this is privilege in a nutshell: the ability to choose when to care about crises, to decide whether or not you want to be affected by them.

My old neighbors don’t get that choice.

Syrian civilians don’t get that choice.

Victims of the flooding in Chennai don’t get that choice.

By all means, turn off social media. I had to for a few weeks. But turn if off knowing that changing the channel doesn’t change the problem.

I wrote, back in August of 2014, about choosing hope, that hope is the opposite of despair and depression. What I ask you to do, what I tell myself to do, is this: choose hope. Choose hope every time. Don’t choose to hope that somebody else solves the problem. When you make choices in how to spend your time, in how to treat the people around you, choose hope.

Speak, in the hope that your words will be heard, knowing that words left unsaid never will be.

Act, in the hope that you can make a difference, even though you can’t see the future.

The Nineties were awash in the slogan “think globally, act locally.” As the internet has flattened the media landscape and our sense of the world, it’s worth remembering that. We don’t have a magic wand. We can, as a global community, share our despair, share our concerns, share even our hope. When we act, though, we have to do it locally. That can mean lobbying your elected representatives. That can mean volunteering. It can be something as simple as talking to your neighbors—you know, the ones with the weird flags on their porch.

We will never be able to bomb an idea. As satisfying as fantasies of wiping out the extremism of Daesh or of making police officers into perfect instruments of peace-keeping may be, they’re still fantasies. We can get our world a little closer to those fantasies with the dozens of decisions we make every day, those times when we choose fear or apathy or hope. I ask you, from my tiny internet pulpit, to choose hope.

How can you do that? Look around. See where the people in your community are hurting, and do what you can to help. Neil Gaiman said, of writing, you put one word after another. It is that easy, and that hard. Choosing hope is the same: it is that easy, and it is that hard.

Red Shift Blues

I spent July reminding myself that it’s a lull in everything school related. It’s the one month that administrators and district staff get (partially) off. Jobs don’t get posted. Interviews don’t happen. The summer stretches crazily, which is not a good thing when you’re angling to be employed well before summer ends.

August started, and suddenly jobs were up to apply for. I’d had no traction earlier in the summer—some good interviews in early June, some terrible ones in late June, and nothing in July. Then, in the space of a week, I had three interviews and invitations to two more.  Before I could get to the last two interviews, I had an offer to accept.

Naturally, there were paperwork snafus—a mis-clicked button meant my recommendation didn’t get filed right away. I spent two days in anxious back and forth with the school and the district’s HR department. Wednesday morning I got a call about doing paperwork Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday afternoon my principal called asking if I could be at work the next morning. Just like that, summer was over.

Life kept speeding up—I spent most of the pre-student inservice days trying to sort out my existence with the district, especially my electronic existence. My electronic existence was at least as important as my physical existence, as I needed it to access everything from the building to the gradebook to the e-mails telling me which things I should have already done. Many of the complications stemmed from that “D.J.” part of my name. Let it suffice to say that I am not especially sanguine about changing my name when I got married.

I had an extra prep added the Thursday before those students arrived in my classroom. I had students before I had gradebook access. I didn’t have an ID badge. Still, the show went on. I introduced myself seven times in one day. I rehearsed three syllabi (two of which were effectively shredded by the end of the first month). I assigned things and graded things and listened to the groans when my seniors realized they still have to work even though there isn’t a high stakes test at the end of the year. I planned and improvised.

My kids started school the same week. Through late August and September, everything sped up. The acceleration went in every direction at once, a life-encompassing red shift. Weekday obligations pushed activities and basic househould maintenance into the weekends. Nights were the only thing not getting longer (though they were still getting faster).

…and now the first 400 words of this post have been sitting on my drafting board for two months. I’m going to throw them up on the blog because, at this point, why not. There are more substantive posts coming, on writing sequels, on NaNo 2015, on the despair of looking backward to despair… Walking Ledges is awake now. Welcome back.