The Things You Take

Two weeks and one day ago, my girlfriend and I drove up to Whiskeytown Lake, a picturesque reservoir nestled in the outskirts of California’s Klamath Mountains, to look at the blazing flames and swirling smoke of a remote wildfire towering above the water and illuminating the night sky.  It was beautiful.

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The following day, we, with around 40,000 residents of Shasta and Trinity Counties,  evacuated the Carr Fire, which continues to burn to this day.

That morning, we didn’t think we needed to evacuate.  We had seen the fire the previous night.  It was distant and seemed harmless.  But we had not known until later that shortly after we left the banks of Whiskeytown, the winds shifted, and the fire exploded in size, headed straight for my girlfriend’s neighborhood.  The evacuation orders had not been given, but she packed up her house anyway to take her valuables to my place, across the Sacramento River, which seemed like it would definitely be out of harm’s way.

Then, that evening, the fire jumped the Sacramento River and all hell broke loose.  With ash raining down like a storm of black hail, emergency vehicles speeding down the roads to evacuate citizens and fight the encroaching blaze, and chaos gradually taking hold of an increasingly panicked city, we felt like we had about twenty minutes of a safe window to pack up and get out.  So we threw a bunch of things in our cars and left.

For the following several days, without any clear knowledge as to whether our homes survived, we thought about the things we had chosen to take and the things we had chosen to leave.  Some of it was determined by cost and replaceability.  Some of it was purely sentiment.  And some of it seemed completely arbitrary.  Yet, I decided to grab those arbitrary things, so there must be, somewhere deep down, a reason for doing so.

I found this to be an interesting exercise in self-reflection: what can you find out about yourself and your values by what you grab in an emergency?  Had we more time, surely we would’ve taken our entire homes in a U-Haul.  Had we less time (like the victims of the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County last year who were awoken in the middle of the night and told by emergency personnel to leave NOW), we wouldn’t have been able to take anything but our car keys and wallets.  We had just enough time to hoard, but we had to discriminate.  I have below a list of ten of the more interesting things I decided to save.  In times of crisis, we don’t wait around for things to make sense, but when the smoke clears, sense eventually appears.

     1. A single, whole onion.

This was perhaps the most baffling of the Saved.  But there was sense to it.  You see, that onion came out of my parents’ garden.  My dad has always been an avid gardener,  and my idyllic chilIMG_20180805_201510dhood memories are filled with moments strolling through that garden, picking and eating fruit off trees or tomatoes off the vine.  Even now, as I enter the deeper part of my adulthood, I continue to stroll through my parents’ garden to which my father continues to diligently tend, as a way of communing with the fabric of my past.

That onion was the last thing I had pulled from my parents’ garden.  I had never had a garden fresh onion before, and by God, not even the Carr Fire itself was going to stop me.

     2. A baseball glove.

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I never played sports growing up.  Actually, I played soccer, or as my family would like to tell it, I played at soccer.  I was the most useless person on the team for six years, picking dandelions and lazily sitting on the bench when the coach decided they had had enough of me lazily sitting on the field.

I think I might have been in my early twenties when my father threw his first football pass to me.  Typically, that’s supposed to happen in father-son relationships somewhere in the six to nine years old range.  But as I got older, my interest in sports increased.  It had only taken me two decades to realize they were fun, and by that time, it’s tragically hard to find an opportunity to play them.

My dad bought me a baseball glove for Christmas when I was about twenty-five.  I had asked for it on my Christmas list two decades too late.  Regardless, I was excited to finally have a baseball glove, and my parents would sometimes find the time to go to the school or step into the cul-de-sac and play catch with their son, perhaps to let me atone for all those Iconic Americana moments I never let them have when I was younger.

     3.  “There’s a Duck in my Coffee,” by “The Oatmeal.”

This is my favorite decoration I have ever purchased.  It combines three of my favorite things: ducks, coffee, and The Oatmeal Comics.

IMG_20180805_194645Look at it.  The coffee is black.  You can almost taste the roast with your eyes.  It’s poured into a porcelain cup, the way black coffee should be, as to not taste the paper.  I imagine the black coffee pouring over the whiteness of the porcelain, hot on my tongue, but not scalding.  It has hints of caramel and chocolate.

And the duck – not a care in the world.  There is no place that duck would rather be.  Considering my chronic anxiety and perpetual discontent with life, that duck is a role model of who I want to be, floating blissfully in a cup of coffee, not a care or worry in the world.

     4.  A map of Europe in 1724.

My uncle lived in Santa Rosa until his house burned down last year in the Tubbs Fire.  The authorities gave his community minutes to get out.  The fire destroyed everything.

My girlfriend and I returned to Redding recently to find our homes safe, although covered in ash.  When you come home to everything, it begins to feel ridiculous to think about the things you took, because thankfully it was all for naught.  We are lucky.  Some people came home to rubble.  Some people haven’t been able to come home yet at all.

It’s hard to fathom the idea of complete material loss.  Even in the worst moments of fear that I had lost my house, I knew I still had a car full of things with value and meaning.  My uncle doesn’t have to try hard to fathom that idea though, because he did lose everything.  Some fires don’t wait for you to pack a car.

I never visited my uncle’s house very often growing up, but when his wife, the mother of his children, was diagnosed with ALS, our family found time to visit more often.  In his house, he had a large map of Europe circa 1600 hanging from the wall.  I loved that map, and when I’d visit, I’d spend a lot of time just looking at it.

IMG_20180805_194004.jpgYou see, it was an old map of Europe in my grandfather’s house that got me interested in European history when I was younger.  Each nation has a story.  Each border has a conflict.  When you look at how maps shift, you’re looking at how civilizations clashed, how people moved, and how ideas changed the geography of humankind.  This map led to many of my academic pursuits today, and my uncle’s map hearkened back to it.

And then, in flames, it was gone.

My mom, knowing how much I liked that map, found this map of Europe in 1724 at an antique shop and gave it to me as a gift.  It doesn’t just call back to my own scholarly development, it’s not just a relic of my mother’s sentimental thoughtfulness, it stands as a tribute to my uncle and his lost sanctuary.  A link, no matter how tenuous, is still a link.

My uncle has admirably found the strength to move on and start fresh.  This is a new era for him.  It has been inspiring to see the City of Santa Rosa rise from the ashes.  I trust Redding will do the same.

     5. Portraits of my mother’s dog.

When my mom was my age, and when I was born, she had an Irish Setter.  It was our family dog, and while I don’t remember it well, she remembers it very fondly.  We have had different dogs since then, but part of her heart always yearns for her old Irish Setter, so she decided to get another one, not necessarily to replace the irreplaceable, but perhaps as throwback at the very least.  A reboot.

But of course you can’t replace a dog.  Molly, the new Irish Setter, was obstinate and untrainable.  As a puppy, I hated her.  Like all puppies, she was annoying and destructive.  She didn’t play in a way that made sense to us humans, and between bursts of energy, she was a limp noodle who lay comatose on the sofa.

She was, however, completely non-aggressive, sweet, and loving.  And she still is.

She also has epilepsy, liver disease, arthritis, and dementia.

IMG_20180805_194635In 2014, I moved back to my parents’ place after Grad School, and slowly began to decay, emotionally and psychologically.  My parents are loving, and home was comforting, but returning home is a blow to the personal narrative that life moves forward, and that the past nine years hadn’t been just a dreamy waste of nonsense and futility.

Molly is the creature that kept me stable.  We formed a friendship that got me through some of my hardest months.  There’s not much else to say.  We’ve all had pets.  We share a bond only possible between human and dog.  Calling a dog a best friend doesn’t quite capture it.  She’s my dog friend.

My girlfriend, in a wonderful gesture, decided to paint and draw for me these portraits of Molly.  It meant a lot for me to see her appreciate my connection to that dog, and it warmed me to see her reach into an old hobby to demonstrate that appreciation.  As all adults seem to intuitively know, between work and television, old hobbies are the first to go.   There was no way I was going to leave them behind in a fire.

We don’t know how much longer Molly has in her, but in me, she has my lifetime.

     6. Pet pictures.

This needs no explanation.  See above.

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     7. Alcohol.

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I don’t really know what possessed me to grab this mixed six-pack of unrelated beers, but I did.  It would have been one thing if they were expensive, or barrel-aged, or some sort of fancy limited edition microbrew signed by the brewmasters.  But no, they were just some local cans and a couple bottles of German Lager.

Although, the German lager I had bought in Texas upon visiting Austin for one of my best friend’s wedding.  It was a lager I had tried for the first time months before, when my girlfriend and I took a trip out to Austin to visit them, celebrating their engagement.  I found the lager to be delightfully flavorful, but still crisp and refreshing.  Wholeheartedly recommended.

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The scotch, however, unlike most of this list, is oddly monetary.  Sure, there is sentiment behind the scotch – some were gifts – but on the whole, if you’re calculating value, that picture is $300 alone.  There’s no way I’m gonna get drunk enough to spend that much on scotch again.

     8. An assortment of garish Hawaiian shirts.

I don’t know when it started or how, but there was a time in my life I loved wearing Hawaiian shirts.  This time lasted for the better part of my late teenage years into my mid-twenties.  The only reason I stopped was because I don’t want them to fade in the wash.  Also, I concede, I look better in other clothing.IMG_20180809_140747.jpg

In the midst of my phase, I would tell people, “My shirts are interesting so I don’t have to be.”  I was later informed by a girlfriend at the time that I should probably light my Hawaiian shirts on fire and opt for the trendier, fashionable look of wearing plain button-downs with rolled up sleeves, preferably with little doohickies on the shoulders – a fashion that really tells people, “I know how to dress, and also I have doohickies on my shoulders.”

She was well-intentioned.  She wanted me to look better.  She wanted me to make better first impressions.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But these shirts were my style!  They were my identity!

I don’t wear them often, but hell if I’m going to let them die in a fire.  Take that, fashion!

     9. A single rubber ducky.

I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but you’re reading a blog written by someone who calls himself “Doctor Quack.”  Spoiler alert: I might like ducks.  In fact, liking ducks is a rather well-known part of my real life identity.  Truth be told, I’m not too obsessed with ducks, I just like them, but don’t let my apartment fool you, because I probably have no less than one hundred duck-related items in it, from duck blankets to duck bag clips and even duck push pins for my duck poster.

IMG_20180805_202127.jpgPeople have been giving me duck-related items since I was in the third grade, when I had a pet duck.  Over twenty years later, I’m still receiving duck gifts.  It hit a peak over a year ago when I hosted a family in my apartment for several months.  The kids, knowing I had an affinity for ducks and also knowing I really didn’t need any more duck paraphernalia, took it upon themselves to play a long and drawn-out prank.  They began hiding, one by one, ducks in my house.

At first, it was discreet.  A rubber duck would show up in the bathroom, unaccounted for.  Then it was a duck stuffed animal on the bookshelf.  Before I knew it, all my bag clips were replaced with duck bag clips.  My soap dish was a duck soap dish.  My normal push pins were replaced with duck push pins.  I even wound up with a duck loofa.

Sentiment aside, I needed to save at least one duck from this era.  Just in case the house burned down, I needed that duck to tell the future repopulating ducks of this glorious duck golden age, so that the Age of the Duck may continue in the lore of the next generation of household ducks.

    10.  My grandfather’s violin.

I don’t know if my grandfather played violin.  I know none of his kids played violin, and none of my siblings play violin.  And yet, at some point as my grandfather was dying, my brother and I received an old violin, and we were told it was his.

IMG_20180809_145522.jpgMy brother and I have traded off possession of the violin.  Neither of us are violinists, and yet we’re both drawn to it enough to ask each other for it from time to time.  It just so happens that eventually I became a music teacher, and so it was due time for me to learn violin.  That is when I laid claim to it, and in a way it became mine.

The violin is a rather curious connection to my grandfather’s past because we had never known him to be a musician.  He was a business magnate in real estate, and functioned as a strong patriarch of the family.  We called him “Big Al,” and his three favorite things were family, business, and Crown Royal.  Cal Bears and the US Marine Corps might be on that list too.

I have no further explanation on the violin.  It remains somewhat of a mystery as to whether or not he actually played it, or whether or not it was actually his or just in his possession.  Sometimes I’d like to think he had that quiet, sentimental side only exposed during times of musical practice, or that the violin is some sort of heirloom descended from our Ashkenazi Jewish roots.  Regardless, it’s a symbol of the enigma, the myth of the man who carried my surname.


There were other things too: bank statements, my passport, and other such things of varying degrees of importance.  But these ten things struck me as fascinating to myself.  I’d love it if it didn’t take a crisis to understand value, but alas, we are only human.  Like a forest, every so often, we need to burn a little lest we explode in catastrophe.

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Again.  We are lucky.  We have our homes, and when the ash settles, it’ll be too easy to forget the value beneath the dollar.  But each item in a household does have a memory, an association, and a meaning beyond which we, the onlooker, can perceive.  We can learn a lot about ourselves by which things we risk time to save, and for those who were unable to save anything, you have my deepest sympathies.  You have already learned more about yourself than I ever hope to need to about myself.  May you embrace the freedom to start anew.

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Loose Thread

In my earlier years, I would have considered myself a thinker, as I’m sure most other young people do coming into this world.

I was intrigued by abstractions and insight, and, assuming I had a thing or two to share, I pursued creation: writing (blogging), composing, and opining when the time seemed right.  I believed there were two types of people: creators and consumers.  Consumers were the cogs of society and creators were those who turned them.  It was my noble honor and duty to see myself as a creator, to perceive myself as somehow existing outside of the rotating gears that I sought to serve so derisively with whatever thoughts a twenty-something boy believes are valuable to others.

As someone who saw myself as being apart from the Machine, I embraced a sort of tabula rasa philosophy for my identity: we are blank slates, and any identifiers we latch onto limit the infinite possible identities we may enjoy.  I tried to avoid being defined, as though definition would somehow threaten the potential of who I could become.  I never joined clubs, I would never get tattoos or bumper stickers, and I avoided shirts with brands or ideas printed on them.  If I had to say something about myself, I would give people some nonsense like, “I like ducks,” which is true, but hardly gives them a tool with which they could chisel away at my precious block of identity marble.

In high school, I was a member of the gamer crowd, but I refused to become a gamer.  As a musician in college, I avoided socializing with other musicians.  I most enjoyed the company of other outsiders — not non-conformists, mind you.  After all, as deliberately lost as I was, I still continued to wear pants and keep my own hair color.  Such is the depth of my denial about who I was(n’t): I didn’t even want to identify with those who refuse to conform.

I remained willfully oblivious to fashion and popular culture.  When I was in high school, I once asked a group of people, “Who are the Lakers?” I legitimately did not know.  It was 2002 and they had just won three straight NBA Titles.

It was lonely being obstinately removed.  Even with good friends and kindred spirits.

Then after a series of unfortunate events, I had to find a career.  The dream of composition wasn’t working, odd jobs weren’t paying the bills, idle thoughts seemed to lose their insight, and it was due time I work towards something tangible and sustainable.

I went into teaching.  I haven’t had an abstract thought since.

There just simply isn’t time for thinking anymore.  I’m a working man.  Abstract thoughts don’t put grades in the gradebook.  Abstract thoughts don’t show teenagers how to play scales on a trumpet.  Abstract thoughts don’t write emails to parents about their kids not putting away their phones when I ask them to.  They don’t buy groceries or cook dinner.  There’s a job to be done, and if I do it well, I can leave the abstract thinking to my students.

At first I resisted, desperately trying to cling onto some sort of mental independence.  I figured that society is designed to assimilate you, and if you resist, it has ways of making you submit to its will.  It forces you to stay busy – too busy to question it.  It gives you coffee to keep you working longer and gives you alcohol to accept the conditions of your labor.  It provides for you enemies to waste your energy fighting, and simple distractions to keep your mind off the things that matter.  And worst of all, it gives you descriptors and definitions so it can label you and more effectively market towards your assimilation.

If this sounds paranoid, it’s because it is.  But that’s what happens when your identity is challenged.  Perhaps it’s the futile struggle of an inflated ego against the dawning realization of it’s own insignificance in the face of something larger and more powerful than it.  Regardless, to this day, I do continue to believe the conspiracy, but I’m trying to love it.  Stockholm Syndrome, if you will.

Loving it begins with becoming resigned to accept identifiers.  Or maybe it’s maturity.  I don’t know anymore.

I am a teacher.  I’ve accepted that definition.  Put an apple on my desk.  Shower me with platitudes about the value of the work we do.  I’ll agree with you.  I have to.  It’s who I am now.

I am a man.  I’m okay with this.  I can talk sports.  I can also talk about sports being dumb, if you’re the kind of guy who hangs his hat on not knowing who’s in the Super Bowl.  Either way, we can shake hands, fist bump, high five, or whatever you’re into.

I am a musician.  I’ll appreciate a good guitar riff.  I’ll pretend to like jazz.  I’ll watch that Youtube video of a four year-old playing Rachmaninoff better than I can play Mary Had a Little Lamb.  I’ll try not to be jealous, but I will be.

Maybe being a consumer isn’t so bad.  Maybe it’s okay to be a part of this world.  Maybe it’s okay to love the Machine.  It’s more comfortable than fighting for uniqueness.  It’s definitely easier than creating, although, it’s still hard to accept myself slowly dissipating into the collective.  Sometimes I envy those who have never had great ambition – who have never suffered the delusion of or yearning for being exceptional.  Surely they are free from these growing pains.

I was never truly happy as a thinker anyway.  Self-righteous, maybe.  I felt good about my role and my perceived purpose, but I was lonely, and as time wore on, existential questions that seemed delightfully abstract in my early adulthood became uncomfortable and disheartening as I started to realize that my future was actually my present.  Wide-eyed wonder at the world was replaced by melancholy.  I’m sure many of us have gone through the same process.

Maybe the proverb, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” refers to the fact that those with the luxury of idly searching for meaning are inevitably going to stumble upon disillusionment and withdrawal, whereas those who keep their hands busy will be better equipped to participate healthily in their community.  To think is to disturb one’s inner peace, perhaps.

I think about why I was so hell-bent on being unique or an outsider or a “creator” or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes in my more passive moments, I agree to watch movies or television or something of the sort that connects me to people I love or a society I’ve struggled against being a part of.  I notice movies have a common value: to be exceptional is to be ideal.  It’s not just superheroes and sports flicks.  Romances exalt the exceptional courtship.  Horrors exalt the exceptional demise.  The protagonist is an outsider, a non-conformist.  They always stands out, breaking the rules and all convention.  They only fade back into society at their story’s conclusion, and only if they so choose.  The moral of the story is: strive for greatness.  Be unique.  It’s never: be unremarkable.  Assimilate.  Conform.

But maybe it should be.

For years my ego has made me miserable.  Fighting assimilation is exhausting.  History and culture work together to form an expansive fabric, a vast tapestry on the wall of the time.  I am thread in that tapestry.  You are a thread in that tapestry.  We should be so proud to be here to weave through our part in it.

Ah, but to be a loose thread.  It’s hard to shake off old values.

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Justice of Desire

Several months ago, a student of mine fell in love, as teenagers are apt to do every so often.  He thought he was doing everything right: writing songs for her, learning to play the ukulele for her, buying her stuff, flattering her, taking her on walks, and all sorts of things a young hopeless romantic assumes will build a case for his courtship.  For a time, she humored him, and then abruptly dumped him for the guy who had just moved in next door.  To this day, they watch endless television and giggle the hours away, with neither song nor ukulele serenading their union.

Never in my life have I witnessed someone cry as much as my heartbroken student.  For days out of months I would sit there in my classroom handing him tissues, listening to endless, “I love her!”s and “I would do anything for her!”s and “I would’ve died for her!”s and “What did I do wrong?!”s.  And all I could offer was, “I know, she knows, you know, and you did nothing wrong.”

How can I tell a young, hopeless romantic the horrible truth I have yet to truly learn myself? – No amount of wanting something makes it happen if it just wasn’t meant to be.  Just because you want it, even if you want it with every fiber of your soul, doesn’t mean you get to have it.

It seems like a matter of justice: to want something so much and to not get it, for in our stories, those who seek shall find, those who want shall receive, and those who persevere shall conquer.  I speak of beyond just love, but also of dreams.  Sadly, here in life, outside of our imaginations, desire is a comedy, and rejection, its punchline.

I remember my college days – I engaged in a three-year pursuit of a colleague of mine, to no avail.  I thought, if I never give up, then fate will reward me for my loyalty, and over time, I fooled myself into believing it my right to be happy, to be fulfilled by this fruitless pursuit, and perhaps the longer I wait the better, without really considering the cold hard fact that maybe she just didn’t want me and never would.  That’s not how it works in the movies, if I am to believe myself to be the protagonist.  Desire always prevails.  I refused to believe it would end in empty loneliness.  Not after all I put into it for years on end.

I was a fool.  With no consideration as to the whims of the would-be lover, I believed in my right to be loved…

…and I was, albeit by other people for whom I did not care.  An endless circle of rejection and heartbreak – Comedy gold!

Perhaps I was the villain after all.

Tonight, years later, I am lonely.  I have been lonely for a long time, for nearly all of my twenties in fact.  And yet, I know of people who would fly halfway across the world to be with me, people who would write songs for me, just as I might write songs for someone else.  Some have cried for me, as I have cried for others, being to each other nothing more than unfortunate annoyances.  Where is the justice?

My Dear Student: We are not entitled to the affection of others just because we want it so badly.  We have no right to it, nor can we earn it.  Sure, we can put ourselves in a position to receive it, much like we can climb a mountain to best catch the wind, but that does not mean the wind must necessarily blow.  To think otherwise is to fail to understand that love requires enough empathy to know that at a point, effort is powerless to change the chaotic and often arbitrary weather of feeling.

Days ago, while looking around in frustration at those rivals who enjoy loving relationships, my student exclaimed to me: “I work so hard at this, I go to the ends of the earth, I try everything I can, and all these guys have to do is put their dick in their hand and tell a funny joke!”

It made me laugh, because looking around at Teenageland with all its senseless and seemingly arbitrary pairings, he’s right.  But he should not mistake it as a matter of justice, for perhaps that’s all some of them need right now: funny jokes and dicks in hand, with or without ukulele.  I cannot judge; to each their own.  We cannot create wind, nor can we change its direction.  We can only hope to catch it as it blows by.  Some of us are fortunate.

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Three Minutes as a Woman

When I moved to my current rustic, foothill town for work back in June, I had no friends and no family, so I did what any sensible twentysomething would do and joined a social dance group.  West Coast Swing on Wednesdays became my scene, and until my job started in August, it was the only thing that connected me with others in an otherwise bleak social environment.

I started as a timid, apologetic beginner, but as I danced more and more, I developed a certain confidence in my dancing ability that bled into other aspects of my life.  I felt better about my interactions with others, more physically present in the world, and more self-assured that, since as a dancer I might be worth something, so too as a person might I also have worth.  I began walking with my chest out instead of collapsed, my shoulders rolled back instead of trying to hide within myself, and I was no longer ashamed of my presence.  Dance posture, one could say.

I felt like a better man.  A quality man.

Then one of my dance friends, a strong woman and conscientious follow, an excellent physical communicator who never breaks a solid sense of connection while dancing, asked if I wanted to follow for once.  She was working on her lead, and I had never followed before, so why not?

For those of you who know little about social or ballroom dance, there is usually a lead (who is male) and a follow (who is female).  The lead leads the follow through the dance with the use of tension and body language, and the follow reacts and responds to the lead’s cues.  Leads don’t have to be men, and follows don’t have to be women, but traditionally this is how it is.

And so, for three minutes, I assumed a woman’s traditional role on the dance floor.

It was horrifying.

I’m not saying my friend was a bad lead.  For all I know, she was excellent.  But I do know I was a terrible follow.  My experiences as a woman for those three minutes on the dance floor were disturbing to say the least.  Any sense of self-assurance I felt that I was doing something right in this world was threatened.

For three minutes, I was being whipped around, pushed and tugged according to somebody else’s plan, trying my best to make it enjoyable for my partner, and yet completely clueless as to how to behave in such a way as to make it a fulfilling experience for anyone involved.  As far as my partner knew, she was leading me through an intuitive and pleasurable dance, and yet I was completely failing at my end of the bargain to respond in such a way that worked for either of us.  I was awful.

This is not only about my level of skill and experience.  Relinquishing any sense of control over the situation and putting myself at the mercy of others made me feel pathetic and emasculated.  I felt powerless.

And for a brief moment, I felt like I knew a little better what it is like to be a woman living in a society where they are often objectified, at the mercy of men who think they know better, a society whose rules are written by those oblivious to the challenges faced by a population trying desperately to secure a voice.  There I was: being pushed and pulled by someone else’s design with little else to do but smile and pretend to enjoy it lest I break down and embarrass myself or others.  Social dance is a microcosm of society.

Make no mistake: It wasn’t just the experience of being forced into submission.  It wasn’t just the psychological challenges of relinquishing control.  I can’t suddenly claim to understand what women go through in life using three minutes of dance.  My empathy, though well-intentioned, is foolish…

…It was that I had suddenly understood my own leading, my own traditionally masculine role, from a different and more honest perspective.  For months, I had been leading under the assumption that I knew what I was doing, and that my follows were enjoying it.  And now, from the other side, I knew this likely to be untrue.

I was going through the motions, smiling and laughing, all while secretly hoping for it all to end.  This is no longer just about dance.

I, as a lead, am a reckless buffoon.  I, as a follow, am a deceitful manipulator.  I, as an observer, see myself as two people dancing, enjoying each other’s company, none the wiser.

How could I then go back to the role of a lead and be secure in knowing that what I’m doing is good for the follow, when as a follow, I now know that I might be terrible?

I stepped away from the dance with my confidence shaken, full of self-doubt, with just a hint of paranoia.  I couldn’t figure out why anyone has ever agreed to dance with me.  In fact, I couldn’t figure out why anybody dances at all, ever, especially women, if they are to be subjected to the misguided whimsies of strange men like myself.

If you go through life overcoming that unwelcome shred of doubt about your interactions with people, knowing consciously that they probably do enjoy your company as much as you do theirs, and yet carrying with you a suspicion that they are just placating you, pacifying you, tolerating you, but secretly wanting to get away from you, and then you find out through three minutes of a role reversal that your suspicions might be right?  That all of your intimate moments might have been a lie?  That every passionate moment of your life might have been a dance wherein the follow is patiently waiting to leave quietly lest they break your heart?  How do you rebuild the pathetic shambles of your once proud self?

I couldn’t dance for the rest of the night and went home early.  I still have a hard time going back.

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Teacher Gibberish

I underestimated how bizarre of a profession teaching would be.

Prior to this year, even though teaching was a consideration of mine since I was in high school, I was always mildly annoyed by how much teachers lamented being teachers, complaining of low pay or being under-appreciated or having to deal with terrible students and terrible parents while simultaneously proclaiming themselves to be the saviors and martyrs of society, lest we raise a generation of idiots.

Now that I am a teacher, I don’t know what to say, because I know if I start talking about teaching, if someone starts me down that meandering path, then I won’t be able to stop blabbering about it, often in terms of nonsense, because when the whole job is stirred up and spat out before me, it looks a little like gibberish.  Perhaps it’s best for my company if I just stay silent, but I am often unable to help myself.

So here is my gibberish:

We teachers are here because society decided we are not just valuable, but indispensable. Every child in the nation is required to have an education of some sort.  That’s what childhood is: a period in life where one can do little else but be forced to learn in state-mandated educational captivity.  This notion is fairly recent in the history of civilization and rather unprecedented, and yet today we take it with a grain of salt. Of course schools are necessary. Of course children need to be in schools. Of course we need teachers to teach them. Has it ever been any other way?

Whether the original rationale for public education be nation-building, economic prosperity, or public safety, who knows what it is anymore if none or all of the above? English-learning makes sense; we want people to communicate. Science makes sense, we want people to bail us out of our foolish mistakes with new discoveries or build new ways to make our lives lazier. But somehow I, as a music teacher, have to prove to the world that it is worth it to the taxpayer that my students can subdivide eighth notes or read a scale. Of course I know this is valuable, but what does Sacramento care? What does Washington care?

Music is often justified by how it enhances performances in other subjects, as if my best clarinet player is going to become a biologist because of Holst’s First Suite. Every time I hear about how math and music are conflated, I just about burst a blood vessel. Math and everything are conflated. That’s what math is. Counting in 6/8 doesn’t get you any closer to mastering Calculus.

Music is important because of the things that don’t make it math: expressivity, emotion, understanding teamwork, building friendships, and establishing human connection. If I got to rename my classes, I’d call Orchestra “Showing Up and Being Accountable.” I’d call Choir “Courage.” I’d call Band “Applied Emotions.” To me, music is little more than a vessel to bring out a broadened spectrum of emotion expression.  Through it, one learns responsibility, inner peace, the value of hard work, how to have fun, and so on and so forth. When I teach music, I teach catharsis.

And yet, being a teacher, especially at an underprivileged school, is really about none of that. Many of my students are from group homes, or foster care, or have fathers in prison or mothers chasing men in far away states. Some come from situations of abuse, or from parents who had them as teens themselves, who, unable to care for them, dropped them off with a reluctant aunt or grandparent. One of my students found out his estranged father died in the middle of my class. Another has a neighbor who raises my hackles because I’m legitimately afraid he’ll harm her if given the chance. Some cut. Some abuse drugs. Some just cry in the middle of class, for no reason to which I’m privy, but for perhaps all of the weight of existence on their shoulders.

Of course there are more.  The stories are endless.  They are all in good company.

I am not just a teacher. Perhaps being a teacher is the least important of my duties. I am a stable adult.  I am a role model.  If this dysfunction is how you come into this world, if this is what you see when you open your eyes to the light of existence, then you assume it’s normal.  It’s just how things are. It’s my job to say: “What you know of as normal doesn’t have to be.  You don’t have to be the vicious cycle.  You have the power to define what normal is for yourself, and it doesn’t have to be destructive.”

But I’m not just a role model either. I am also a confidant. I occupy a vague and ambiguous space between father figure and bureaucrat, between authority and friend, between avatar of the state and a fellow human being just trying to make it in this world.  And these roles are by no deed of my own, but are merely because society declared that I should exist, and so I do.

Yet, I am neither father nor friend.  At 3:00, I wave goodbye.  I go home to my apartment, cook myself a meal, check Facebook, and await the next day when I can fulfill key learning objectives based on California State Standard 2.4 and counsel someone through their breakup, or their crumbling home life, or a death in the family, or whatever else decides to get thrown at them that day. Music is a tool, life is the learning objective, and teaching life is more about listening and empathy than anything.

And quite frankly, I need my students just as much as my students may need me.  Perhaps even more so, for when they are outside of my classroom, they have other classrooms and other teachers, or they have their friends, or some sort of family life.  I, as a new teacher, am struggling to figure out how to navigate this day to day existence, still without any idea as to how someone working as a teacher could also raise a family, or spend time with friends, or date, or even have hobbies.  At this point, my students are my social life, although they can’t truly be so, for they are first and foremost my students, my professional associates, and my interactions with them can only remain within that context.  At the end of each weekday, I can ignore this social disconnect as I unwind from exhaustion and enjoy the relative silence of my apartment, feeling good about whatever impact I have and whatever my students might have achieved that day.  But on Saturday afternoons, the specter of loneliness begins to rear its ugly head once again.

Anyway, I imagine, like most forms of social work, or any career I suppose, you can talk about it all you want, but nobody is truly going to understand it unless they’ve been there. So why bother?

So when someone asks how teaching is going, I often say, “It’s exhausting, but I enjoy it,” or “It’s a mixed-bag,” or “I’m still getting used to it.” But those are just empty mouth noises, a replacement for a loss of words, or at least a whole lot of gibberish.

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Moments with Trees

As I sat on my porch this evening watching a rare torrential downpour fall on my town, I momentarily connected with the oak tree twenty feet in front of me, standing majestically over the manicured yard, surely too enjoying the rain.

Hello, Tree.  We are none too different, for we both enjoy rain.

The tree said nothing, as trees are apt to do.

You were planted here, Tree, by no choice of your own.  But alas here you reside.  This is your home.  I, too, was planted here.  One might say, unlike you, I moved of my own free will, but perhaps that will was an illusion.  Like you, I was planted here by a series of chance circumstances beyond my control.  And here we are, staring at each other, sharing the same thunderhead.

Again, the tree said nothing.

You are my closest neighbor, Tree.

It occurred to me then that the tree would not mind if I moved away, and yet I would be deeply saddened if the tree were cut down.

So then who is the more powerful?  The tree, at whose mercy I am, or I, to which the tree is indifferent?

Surely Man is greater than Tree.  I could always cut the tree down, but the tree could do little to harm me, at least intentionally.  And yet, if such were to occur, perhaps I would kneel, sobbing, clutching the tree’s dismembered branches, as if a crime of unforgivable passion had unfolded, cold sap draining from its lifeless limbs onto my guilty fingers, screaming, “Oh Lord, have mercy!”s and, “What have I done?!”s and so on and so forth until my neighbors come out confused and my landlady calls the police on a tenant gone mad.

And yet, if this tree lost a branch whilst I stood beneath it, and the branch happened to strike me in the head and break my neck?  The tree would feel nothing.

And so, Tree, in the timeless war between love and power, though armed with the weapons of cold indifference, who is mightier: the passionate or the disinterested?

The tree did not respond.

I felt cold, so I went inside.  The rain continued without me.  I have dishes to do and a carpet to vacuum.  There is no longer time for petty squabbles with unsavory neighbors.

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Blind Men in a Dog World

If dogs had national parks, they would be for scents, not sights.  They would be everywhere, ever-changing and often fleeting monuments to all the world’s odors.  The dog-president and dog-congress would upgrade every being, living or dead, to national park status, and every day would celebrate free admission to the country’s greatest natural treasures.

Puppies would eagerly ask their families when they could revisit Dirty Hole in the Neighbor’s Yard and roll around in it for perhaps four or five minutes (backyard permits required), and maybe, just maybe visit Dead Squirrel at Curbside later on vacation.  The Department of the Interior would set up billboards every five feet: “Stunning Amazing Wonders, four feet ahead!  …and behind!  …and to the left and right!  …oh my god they’re everywhere, the world is amazing!”  And of course, souvenir park passports would be locked in the depths of every dog’s mind, instantly stamped at no cost.

Educational roadside exhibits would read: “On June 28th, 2016, Bill Johnson dropped an ice cream cone on this street corner.  The sticky residue continues to froth in the sun, a staggering ten days later!”  Brochures would describe the scent profile of First and Main Hydrant: 4% rust, 10% toddler snot, 22% pee from large breed male dogs (dating back generations), and so on and so forth. Dog park rangers would give tours of Sally Smith’s crotch, particularly when she exits the gym, for that is when her scent is the most pungent. Mythology would arise, as told by campfire beneath the stars: “They say that the native cats still claw at the carcass of the hawk every full moon, keeping its scent fresh as if run over just yesterday.”

Of course, every dog would sleep satisfied knowing that the nation’s greatest treasure is the one deep within their own butthole.


 

In Prague last summer, I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of a good-natured soul, a sharp-witted optimist, a master pianist and composer from Israel.  This young man was also blind, although not entirely.  He could make out light, darkness, and color, but struggled with any sort of definition.  We often needed to help him walk outside, lest he trip over a curb or walk in front of a tram, and it was always a pleasure to be in his company.

Yet while walking in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, about what else could we talk but beauty?

Oh, can you make out that cathedral?
Yes, perhaps.
It is beautiful isn’t it?
Yes, very beautiful.
There is the Vltava; can you make out its sapphire shimmer as it weaves by the pillars of the stone bridges?
Oh yes, I think I can, it’s very nice.

And what we see as ripples of water pushing against garden-like embankments with people picnicking beneath an Old World cityscape, he sees as a cloud of blue meeting a cloud of green with a cloud of red hovering somewhere above a cloud of gray.

Among us internationals was a beautiful Russian woman of astonishing talent and pure heart.  She spent every day at his side, helping him across the city, up staircases, and into and out of restaurants.  As our time together drew to a close, we dined in an underground pub with live folk musicians performing at the end of an otherwise crowded dinner hall.  She asked him to dance.

Nobody was dancing.  There wasn’t a dance floor.  This was an act of courage.  And clearly, he was not a dancer.

But they danced the night away, her guiding him away from chairs and walls and guests and occasionally the musicians themselves, and the whole restaurant looked on jealously as the clumsy blind man danced with the most beautiful woman in the room.

But to him, she must’ve looked not unlike everybody else: a blur, a cloud of flesh and clothes, some more colorful than others, but none too distinct.  His lack of sight allowed him to experience other beautiful traits of hers: her attentiveness to his needs, the feeling of her hand touching his arm guiding him to where he needed to be, the comforting sound of her voice, the smell of her hair, the feel of her breath, and other such things [that perhaps sound kinda creepy to a sighted person, but surely we are missing out on the whole experience a human being has to offer by relying solely on sight.  After all, do we not have five senses?].


 

What would the Grand Canyon be to a blind man?

Not too long ago, I sat atop my favorite oaken knoll looking out over the San Francisco Bay, and I thought about how beautiful I found this place of respite and meditation.  The golden grasses waved waist-high with the wind, and gnarled oaks dotted the landscape until, towards the West and South, it morphed into a forest littered with redwood groves, and to the East, it infiltrated the suburbs down to the bayshore (and beyond, the stark brown Diablo Range to the horizon, sometimes green with the winter rains).  To the North, one could barely see San Francisco and Oakland, and a series of bridges connecting the two opposing halves of an otherwise unwieldy metropolis.

And to a blind man, it all means nothing.  So I closed my eyes.

I could hear the surrounding birds chirping, interrupting the sounds of crickets, cicadas, flies, and whatever other insects help weave the fabric of sound which engulfs us.  There was an electric hum, cars drove by, wind blew, and people chattered in the distance.

And to a deaf man, it all means nothing.  So I stopped listening.

I felt the cool wind against my skin. It was crisp, dry, and refreshing.  The sun was warm against half of my face, but my skin soon felt as though it were burning.  My feet pressed in my shoes on uneven ground.  I felt a tree, and the bark was rough.

And if I were numb?

It smells like dirt.  Maybe some horse manure.  It surely tastes like something inedible.

And without taste and smell, it becomes nothing.


 

As we come up in this world, we evaluate it according to our senses, for what other choice do we have?

We desire to revere beauty, to praise fine cuisine, to spend good money on massages, silk and satin, mud bathes, and music, and to surround ourselves with a collection of handcrafted candles.  These things are good because our senses declare it to be so, but why do we accept our senses as an objective truth?

I would like to think that most conflict in this world is a matter of aesthetic differences.  You displease me because you prefer spicy vegetables, whereas I prefer mild dairy products.  You displease me because your preferred music involves steel guitar, whereas my preferred music involves electric guitar.  Your culture displeases my culture because your culture wears baseball caps, whereas my culture wears scarves.  Your nation displeases my nation because it speaks with a language that contains too many consonants and our nation prefers a higher ratio of vowels.

But if we take away our senses, we stand as nothing more than pillars of a mysterious, indescribably dark consciousness, lost and alone.  Our ability to perceive beauty is what allows us to also be offended by our differences.  Disgust and disdain are mere side-effects of having the gift and pleasure of perception.  Let us not speak too ill of them.

I do not find comfort in knowing that the beauty of my little oaken knoll is not universal.  My senses are the only truth I have.

There has to be something beyond what we can perceive, something beyond what our five measly and superficial senses can evaluate.  Whether this be God or Cosmic Energy or some sort of ethereal resonance shared between all things, I don’t know, but I wish I could devote my life to its revelation, or rather devote whatever life is left beyond the daily distractions of work, sports, cartoons, food, shelter, health, and other such trivial matters.  Perhaps these distractions are designed to keep us away from pursuing what might be such uncomfortable truths.

But no.  I insist: we must seek to find something valuable in us, in our surroundings, in our existence beyond what our senses can perceive.  I refuse to believe that this which I can touch and taste and see is all there is, that with us so too vanishes the world as we deem fit to cherish.  Perhaps this is the pursuit of divinity, of spirituality, or meaning, or purpose, or love, or peace, or something for which we do not yet nor should have words.

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