Monday, April 30, 2007

Family Values

Listen to almost any political speech--it'll come up soon--"family values." This became an incessant mantra in the late 20th century, and it’s so far a mainstay of the 21st--all candidates, all parties, every issue, every election. "I'm fighting for families," runs the claim, implying that some evil government somewhere is plotting against the American family. But just what are these "family values”?

The term is vague; no one ever lists "The Family Values." Context isn't helpful either. People throw around this term primarily to mean "those people who think just the way I do," but groups with opposing views also use the term. When not used to justify self-righteous piety, "family values" allows ad hominem attacks on straw man positions. Gay couples, single moms, political parties, education policies, tax cut proposals--all are guilty at one time or another of opposing "family values." The term is also disingenuous; 20% of Americans are single--are they unrepresented? Or are they part of the evil plot to destroy "family values”?

Actually, this context does indicate some meaning for the term. "Family values" seems to mean "it's just that simple." Of course, nothing is ever "just that simple”; social, economic, cultural, historical and several other issues are certainly never "just that simple," so a vague term like "family values" is quite useful for ignoring that reality. Don't worry--everything's fine. Now that's certainly a "family value." But everything isn't fine. There's war and poverty and human rights abuses and starvation and unemployment and difficult ethics questions to answer. But not in the land of "family values."

"Family values," then, means essentially the life of a twelve year old. Parents are all-knowing, life is fun, problems are simple and easily solved, just like on TV where beautiful people interact with each other to address problems always solved in 30 minutes. Everything at twelve has one, easy answer. Teenage confusion and the struggle toward maturity are unimaginable yet. It's good to be twelve. "Family values" is a way to pretend to be twelve again. "Family values" as a return to age twelve fantasy means an escape from responsibility. Don’t worry about anything that happens. Someone else is to blame. Go back to sleep now. You're excused from thinking today--you've got a note from your mom.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Apathy is a Learned Response

When I was a child, I noticed much more courtesy than people display today. Consider, for example, driving. School buses used to pull over when a few cars trailed behind. With only some exception, not today. “Hey, I’m doing my job. You’ll all just have to wait” is the apparent message. Or, consider farm tractors. My recollection of rural life includes farmers always driving to the side when a car approached. Not now. Some happily oblivious daydreamer plugs along at 10 mph, blocking traffic completely for a few miles on the way to the fields. Construction crews have also changed, replacing concern for the normal flow of commuter traffic with concern only for the construction job--travelers beware. Often several lanes are blocked for weeks although no one actually does any work there.

The change in driving habits is reflected elsewhere. Store clerks look up from their paperwork--or personal phone call--with annoyance aimed at the inconsiderate patron trying to give the business money. Newspaper deliveries often land in the mud, since apparently anywhere on the customer’s ground is close enough. Workers are even annoyed at customers for the workers’ mistakes--one sub shop, informed I had asked for Russian dressing, not mayonnaise, simply added a layer of Russian to the already thick coating of mayonnaise.

Where does this disregard for others originate? It’s taught, albeit unintentionally. “Why doesn’t my teenager respect authority, even mine?” you wonder, while speeding along at 75 mph in defiance of the law. “The government takes too much of my money as it is,” you lament as you fudge the numbers on your tax return to yield a more favorable, if dishonest, outcome. Even promises to the closest people in our lives seem to mean little, since half of U.S. marriages end in divorce. Television, society, the Internet or whatever scapegoat du jour isn’t the problem. No need to leave the comfort of your home.

So when commentators today note that political apathy appears to continually grow, I’m not at all surprised. I remember my parents and teachers speaking of leaders with respect. even though they often disagreed with those leaders. Today’s parents and teachers much more often mention leaders in glaringly disparaging tones. They are quick to attack, but they’re uninterested in the specifics of all those boring political topics like war, poverty, inadequate health care, unemployment and social justice. Sure, they’ll try and cover themselves with proclamations that the candidates for public office are all the same, that the ballot offers a poor selection, but those complaints never seem to spur participation in selection of those candidates. Judging is so much easier.

Today’s citizens aren’t discourteous or apathetic; they’re doing exactly what their elders taught them to do. What society needs instead is for those younger citizens to rebel--to reject their upbringing and do the right thing by taking an active, thoughtful, responsible role in the world. Maybe they can teach their elders a thing or two.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cats and Birds

I was sitting on my futon (I work on the floor), typing away, while my older cat, Kira, eight years old, lay comfortably purring across my lap, when suddenly she leapt up so fast I didn’t even see the move, body stretched out, hanging from her front claws imbedded in the screen, her tail four feet higher than where she had been resting a moment ago. A bird had alighted for a second outside the window.

We think of cats as chasing mice, but cats will sometimes calmly ignore mice—not so birds. Cats immediately go ballistic over birds. My one year old cat, Tawny, gets up in the morning to sit in the kitchen window to visually track the robins, sparrows, goldfinches and red-winded blackbirds from tree to post to grass to tree., ignoring his breakfast to do so—the same breakfast these cats usually start lobbying for by 6 a.m.

Dogs, at least the ones I’ve had, find birds fascinating, but not to such an insane degree. Sasha, a shepherd mix, liked to run toward groups of ducks or geese just to force them to fly—then she’d sit down to watch. Shanti, my husky mix, loves to chase birds (and she’s fast enough to do it), gets excited when she accidentally flushes a pheasant or a quail, and will successfully hunt fowl if allowed to do so (she isn’t), but none of that comes close to the insanity that prevails when a cat sees a bird.

Twice, a while back, a bird managed to fly inside my home. Both times, the cats immediately went nuts. Cats, thus motivated, can travel at the speed of light, jumping instantaneously the length and height of a room. As quickly as those sparrows flew from one room to another, the cats flew just as fast, oblivious to my protestations. In both cases, I was able to catch the birds with a blanket in an hour or so, releasing them safely, but both cases were also quite an ordeal.

One spring, a pair of sparrows nested on my porch, directly across my front door, settling on the broad side of a 2 x 4 just under the slanting roof. The parents flew in and out from time to time, reacting to my coming and going, and then made regular trips, perching on the ledge while four large beaks suddenly appeared, opened 180 degrees, ready for the treat, disappearing again just as quickly as the adults flew out for more food.

Eventually, four rolly-poly chicks ventured out of the nest, onto the ledge, spread over between twelve and eighteen inches. That is, until the May weather abruptly turned cold, when the four chicks were huddled together, in a straight line, as closely as possible, less than half a foot across, looking like comic actors in a silent movie. Then, abruptly, one day they had all flown the nest, leaving the porch in peace.

And my orange tiger, Neko, spent virtually every moment of that six week nesting experience perched perfectly still on the counter, staring intently at the nest through the front door’s narrow window.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Igg, Ogg, and the Creation of Taxes

“Igg? I’m tired of all this huntin’ and gatherin’.”

Igg looked at Ogg. “Me too,” he sighed.

“So what say,” Ogg continued, “We raise all these plants and animals ourselves? No more rushin’ around!”

“Now that’s a plan!” agreed Igg. And so agriculture began.

Wisely, Igg and Ogg weren’t quick to quit hunting and gathering, since at first they were largely unsuccessful. They realized eventually that timing played a crucial role.

“Igg? How are we gonna know when exactly to plant?” asked Ogg.

“Hmmm...I know a guy who can read the stars to calculate the seasons...” suggested Igg.

The ancient astronomer got the job, under the title of Priest.

Igg and Ogg prospered, encouraging others to follow their example. All the Priest’s friends got jobs, creating organized religion.

One day, Igg and Ogg toured their plantation along the riverbank and noticed a disturbing trend--less and less water reached their crops. Taking a walk upstream, they soon saw why: many new converts to agriculture were diverting the river’s water to irrigate their crops. When questioned, these new farmers invariably replied, “We have to make a living too!”

On the way back downstream, Igg and Ogg talked to several other farmers who also complained about the dwindling water supply. Consequently, Igg and Ogg organized a meeting of all the riverside crop growers. After considerable debate, the farming community realized that water rights must be controlled by a central authority, thus creating law, government, and bureaucracy. Civilization was born.

The new village thrived at first, but some of the farmers failed to honor the water rights agreements. Igg and Ogg called another meeting, and soon enforcement of the law fell to the newly created police force. Further, to ensure the fairness of police enforcement, a new judicial system and penal code arose. The village rejoiced.

Unfortunately, so did the nomads in the mountains above the village. “Look!” they advised each other, “These people work all year and create all this food in one place, ready for the taking! Mount your horses!” And so they did, in a devastating raid. War had entered the world.

The village did not rejoice. “All our hard work! Our families will starve! We must protect ourselves!” Another village meeting instituted an army.

But Igg and Ogg had an additional concern. “The village has priests and governors and legislators and police and justices and lawyers and soldiers and commanders,” explained Igg, “But the village needs these people to commit so much time to their professions that they can no longer realistically take the time to raise their own food.” After a long silence, Ogg suggested,” Suppose each farmer raises a little more than needed for mere self-sufficiency? Then, the surplus could go to the professionals necessary for the security of the village.” Long debate followed, but necessity instituted the plan. Taxes had entered the world. And to help keep tax records, mathematics and writing soon followed.

Life was wonderful thereafter. People invented leisure time and explored human existence by creating and practicing various arts and sciences. People also continued to learn to work together, specializing in various trades, providing new products and professional services. Education strove to ensure and expand village life, thought, and culture. But, unfortunately, greed was not limited to the mountain nomads.

“It’s YOUR money!” proclaimed Ugg in his bid for village government. “Every year since this village started, more and more of your hard earned money goes toward supporting Big Government!”

Igg listened, confused. “But those taxes pay for the services necessary to run this village,” he countered.

“Wasteful spending! Tax and spend! Tax and spend!” continued Ugg.

“Shouldn’t we then trim the waste, if that’s so, rather than cut revenue?” asked Igg.

“You see,” explained the Priest, “Cutting taxes will actually increase government revenue.”

“So, if instead of tithing,” retorted Igg, “People only gave five percent, church revenue would increase?” The Priest kept quiet.

“Cutting taxes stimulates the economy!” shouted Ugg. “It creates jobs!”

“Given certain circumstances, I suppose that’s theoretically possible,” mused Igg, “But such a blanket proposition makes several unsupported assumptions. For example, won’t trimming spending also cost jobs? And doesn’t government spending ALSO enter the economy?”

Ogg had doubts too. “Cutting taxes means cutting services,” he explained, “Services we instituted with good reason. Important, necessary services.”

Ugg didn’t seem to hear. “This slow economy means we MUST cut taxes NOW! The more cuts, the more the stimulus! And private industry in this great village of ours can best provide services to our wonderful people!”

Igg turned to Ogg. “Does he mean that cutting all taxes would best benefit the village?”

Ogg considered. “Well...if not by taxes, the village would need to exploit natural resources, or consistently plunder other villages, or institute slaves to produce excess revenue.”

“And privatizing government services,” added Igg, “Would mean that police, justice, armed forces and so forth would only be for hire. Further, the large landowners would benefit most from lower taxes, at least in the short run, because only those families could afford education. Our village’s professional talents would atrophy.”

Ugg’s enthusiasm had now attracted quite an audience, drawn by promises of invading the mountains to conquer the nomads, cutting the forests to increase village resources, and asking all citizens to sacrifice for the good of the village in order to make tax cuts possible and to eliminate government interference in their affairs. Nationalism was born.

Igg and Ogg looked at each other once more, then turned and walked toward the forest, while it would still be possible to hunt and gather.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Excellence vs. Grades and Measurement

Quantitive analysis, useful though it be, is frequently problematic. Grades are an excellent example.

Imagine an airline, XYZ Airlines, advertising “Fly XYZ, where 9 out of ten planes land safely!” 90% -- an A minus! Pretty good, no? Or how about this: “Eat at Joe’s , where only 1 in 10 people get sick.” Imagine your favorite music. What would happen if the musicians played one of every 100 notes incorrectly? Get those bozos off the stage!

Suppose you buy a toaster. When you get it home, will you accept that it “mostly” makes toast? Or “eventually” makes toast? Probably not--if it doesn’t make perfect toast on demand, you’ll be back at the store with attitude. And when you’re there, will you care that they worked really hard on it? Or that they had a difficult week? I think not. Here’s the problem with clinging to grades, to numbers—yet people do.

That is, as long as it suits them. When a management consultant team moves into the workplace and purports to measure performance, the employee response is generally “You can’t really measure what we do.” As Kenneth Blanchard puts it, “Well, if we can’t measure any difference, then why don’t we just eliminate it?” People get interested in measuring performance quickly.

On the other hand, all too often a “survey” or “study” is reduced to a questionnaire. Easy to collate data, yes, but such approaches, all to common, also amount to little more than leading questions. The form’s authors assume the position they’ll find, thereby dictating them. Thus, what should have been a learning experience becomes nothing more than self-affirment, not merely ignoring, but preventing all unforeseen views—and the messy, time-consuming process of collecting that information.

What’s the point of setting out to learn what you think you already know?

Excellence and its measurement don’t match.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Blaming the Media

Everything, seemingly, is the fault of the media. Every issue, some radio caller or talk show guest will exclaim “but the media this” and “well the media that.” The poplar conception is that the media shape our thoughts and opinions, practically dictating them, and controlling our behavior almost absolutely. The trouble, however, is the lack of an argument, even circumstantial. Instead, blaming the media replaces argument.

Consider, for example, the many students who claim the media force women to meet unrealistic standards, causing anorexia and bulimia—despite the noticeable lack of such women on the campus. If anything, claim the media cause obesity, since regular physical activity seems as rare as regular mental exercise. Nor do these students seem particularly oppressed by the mandate to be beautiful, attending class in their sweat pants, uncombed hair bundled atop their heads, not a trace of makeup.

Even the media buy into this nonsense, presenting such shows as “On the Media,” hiring ombudsmen, and taking pains to present “balanced” coverage in the face of continual accusations that “the media has a liberal bias.” Hmmm. Where to start?

First, as Don Hewitt accurately observes in “Mea Culpa? Not Mea!” – people complain about media bias not to right injustice, but rather because the reporting isn’t biased their way. This alone is troubling, since it potentially reduces all news to propaganda.

What is a liberal bias? The liberal arts, from their inception centuries ago, served to free the mind from blind, preconceived constraints, allowing open and thoughtful analysis—perhaps to re-embrace old ideas, perhaps to move to new ones, but always to carefully consider them first. To fight a liberal approach is to fight free thinking. Instead, the right wing has misconstrued “liberal” as “radical.”

And what of conservative bias? A conservative strives to keep conditions as they are, without change—fundamentally an unrealistic proposition, as change is inevitable. The Fox news network, Conservapedia—these serve not to present “fair and balanced coverage,” but to “balance” perceived bias by promoting right wing views. This is the antithesis of “news” and “balance,” and not even conservative—it’s reactionary.

Political factions will always want to control the media to promote their message and to shape the news, but they aren’t the major influence. The media follow public opinion, not vice versa. The audience rules. Why doesn’t the media report good news? First, they do, and second, people consume the bad news much more readily.

But finally, how can people who pay little attention to the media, to world affairs, to all that messy business of reality turn around and then claim they’re controlled by that media?

It’s a scapegoat, a replacement for thinking.


Monday, April 23, 2007


Sometimes I just ask a class: “How many of you have read this?” The response is often discouraging. While small groups are theoretically discussing the question of the day, I can clearly hear the incessant song of many a college student, bragging about how eNotes or some similar site or a Google/Yahoo search or Wikipedia etc. circumvented the arduous task of actually reading (at least they could learn to use And, of course, perhaps there’s a movie.

I can show ANY class why Shakespeare is so important—but not to a class that won’t read it. I love Internet sources, and I use them frequently, but I also know that the above sources are not going to offer much insight into the richness of themes in Shakespeare. Further, even if they did, students will gravitate toward what’s easiest and clearest—plot summaries, free essays (written by other students who also don’t get it) and so forth.

Three things strike me about this--first, the tremendously low value placed on reading. By implication, this means low valuation of other thoughts and ideas. One college freshman, who came to see me for help about his grade, even explained that he literally couldn’t read the required material, since he hadn’t read anything since 3rd grade (he just got the gist of the material from class sessions, and until my class, he was even quite proud of this). Second, speed tops the values list—the less time, the better, and content be damned. In his novel “Straight Man” (a book I actually read), Richard Russo quotes H. L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there’s a simple solution—and it’s always wrong.” Third, the sheer arrogance is astounding—students feel they have better insight than the entire recorded history of thought. College committees worked to design programs that include courses apparently useless. Professors outline courses with no point. But students know better than anyone (ironic that they then pay money to attend the college, no?), so they blow off all that unnecessary reading bullshit.

Students who do grow to understand complain that high school does not prepare them adequately for college. This problem encompasses a number of issues, but I like to point out that college students are legal voters, and THEY help elect the school boards, THEY vote on school budgets. Hell, they can even RUN for school board! If things aren’t good—change them!

Of course, playing the victim and wondering why someone doesn’t do something is easier.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Cat's Eye

When my neighbors gave me one of their orange tiger kittens, I could only think of Cat, the poor feline temporarily abandoned by Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edward’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (until George Peppard comes to the rescue). Thinking also of Mickey Rooney’s role as Holly Golightly’s Japanese upstairs neighbor, I named my new addition “Neko,” Japanese for “cat.”

Neko was a wonderful cat (he died a few years ago), but he was prone to eye infections. Further, although he was generally sweet, he hated being treated, hated going to the vet, hated riding in the car on the way to the vet, and was large enough and strong enough to make his feelings clear.

The vet can’t simply prescribe eye ointment, since first the eye must be stained to rule out a scratch (in which case steroid ointments are contraindicated). So, the routine starts with stuffing said cat into a carrier, driving the 15 minutes to the vet with the cat yowling, probably vomiting, certainly drooling enough to rival any dog. An hour later, the vet hands over the medication, with helpful instructions.

“First, wrap the cat in a towel” to keep it still and preserve your flesh. Uh-huh. See, vets have a practical joker side. They’re in the office, laughing right now at all those poor souls striving to wrap a cat in a towel. Cats have no collarbone, allowing them to move in ways unthinkable to you and me. Further, they’re quick and stressed under the circumstances. You can’t call in a vet tech to help you. Towel indeed.

So, move on to more direct means. I like to sit cross-legged, wrapped carefully around the cat, trying to control it with one hand while manipulating the medication with the other. Does this method work well? No. But it’s all I have.

Once the cat is secured and calm—well, OK, relatively secured and calm—proceed with the directions on the ointment tube: hold open the cat’s eyelids with one hand and squeeze out a small line of ointment, dropping it into the cat’s eye. No, really. They’re apparently serious.

What they don’t say is “repeat multiple times.” First, “calmness” in a trapped cat lasts a few seconds at best. Yeah yeah yeah, calmly talk to your cat in a soothing voice, but your cat still knows it’s trapped, and doesn’t like it. Imagine.

Well, still, this IS your cat, and like me, probably, after repeated tries, you’ll successfully squeeze out a line of ointment as it slowly stretches from the tube to the surface of the eye.

Then, just as the ointment is about to touch the eye, the cat jerks away (at the last possible second).

Go back and repeat these steps multiple times. Monitor your blood pressure. [Incidentally, if small children are about, remove them from the scene, since you’re bound to spout profanity sooner or later, given the growing number of deep scratches from your cat’s claws.]

Eventually, just when you think the exercise pointless, a small amount of ointment will reach your cat’s eye. Yes, the cat will still jerk away, but at this point, you’ll think, “Close enough, damn it!” and proceed to massage the ointment over the eye by closing the eyelids. Continue this until your cat escapes again and you exclaim, “Fine. Go then.” Use the remaining ointment (which contains antibiotics) to treat your many wounds.

Repeat the next day. Sound like fun?

Seriously, I shared the idea for this post with one of my vets, Dr. Kolb, who, aside from a wonderful sense of humor (and asking me to send it), suggested I include the following. I think you’ll appreciate it, as did I.

While visiting a client with an equine patient, this eye ointment issue came up. “When I approach the horse with a tube,” Dr. Kolb’s client explained, “he freaks out and jumps away. So I just put some ointment on my finger and treat him that way—he’s used to me.” This set off a light bulb for Dr. Kolb, and he approved. I tried it with Neko. Success!

By the way, Dr. Kolb was wonderful during the last few difficult months of Neko’s life. Thank you Doctor.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Harry Potter and the Banning of Books

A few years ago, I left a summer Jazz Fest around 11:30 p.m., and realizing I could just reach the Barnes & Noble superstore before it closed at midnight, I set off to purchase a CD.

I had forgotten about the release of J. K. Rowling’s “Order of the Phoenix.” Every square foot of that superstore was packed with costumed children and their parents. As I made my way back to the music section, I observed child after child, regardless of the section of the store, sitting and reading, pulling other books from the shelves, sitting and reading more—all patiently waiting for the midnight release of their new Harry Potter book.

I found my CD and made my way to the counter. “Hello,” I joked with the clerk. “I’m not here to buy the new Harry Potter.” “Oh—so you’re the one!” he joked back. I paid for my CD and headed home.

“Damn,” I thought. “Anyone who can get hundreds of children to read, especially such a long book, has MY respect.” And the next day, largely out of curiosity, I bought all five of the then available books. When book six became available, I ordered it through Amazon (I remembered all those people in the superstore), and I’ll soon order book seven, due for release this July. They’re wonderfully written (with perhaps the exception of some dragging parts in book five) and well conceived—not a poor reading choice at all, despite the mumblings of a few educators here and there.

In elementary school, my classmates and I regularly received small catalogs of books we could purchase for a dime, a quarter, later thirty-five cents—and I did, saving my allowance to buy every book about dogs I could find. When I had exhausted their supply, my mother pointed out that the local library would lend me books for free. I hopped on my bike and got a library card. When I had exhausted the canine offerings in the children’s section, the librarian suggested another book: “Call of the Wild.” “White Fang” was next. When I finished Jack London, she suggested branching out to other animals: “The Jungle Book.” “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” was next, and I was off on a journey to discover this fascinating world that stretched from the Alaskan tundra to the jungles of India. Soon, raiding the adult contemporary paperback rack, reading Saul Bellow and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., I realized this was also a world of ideas, and included non-fiction works. I didn’t always understand them, but I knew that my reading would improve, that the journey was worth the effort—all because of dogs and a mongoose. Today, I’m fascinated with the language itself—especially Joyce.

But others don’t see Harry Potter in this light. J. K. Rowling’s website notes that Harry Potter books are again among the most commonly banned books. I’ve heard people complain about them, claiming that witchcraft is an affront to Christianity (I wonder if they also ban “Macbeth”). “Alice in Wonderland” is also commonly banned, since animals talk, in defiance of God’s creation. Somebody isn’t grasping the concept of fiction. What are these people afraid of? That children will start performing magic? Or listen to talking animals? Or are these people simply threatened that the real world is a world of ideas, a world contradictory to such a narrow, restrictive view of existence.

The Bible itself contradicts such fundamentalist foolishness. Consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12: 4-12:

"Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ."

Seems Paul believes in magic—or just maybe, unlike fundamentalists, he doesn’t see God as impotent, drifting if they don’t rush to his defense. Or, perhaps Paul is actually a disciple of Christ, turning the other check, spreading love and understanding—and new ideas. Paul gets it.

First, though, he needed to be dramatically knocked off his horse—even though he had thought he was doing the right thing.

Fundamentalists need to go riding. Christianity is about inclusion.

Some reading and thinking might help too.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Hardening of the Categories

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. As the principal bassoonist, that certainly gives me lots of work to do, especially when "full time musician" hasn’t been my day job for quite a while. However, as this piece is one of the stalwarts of the bassoon canon, all those hours in the practice room over all those years kick in, even the subtlest and strictest of points. This is my turf, where I belong.

Or not. The second bassoonist is bored, sloppy, without nuance (or the ability to play anything resembling soft). The musicians are talking incessantly, socializing instead of paying attention to this challenging piece. Regional orchestras lack funds, so we have just three rehearsals to put together this performance. Time’s a-wasting, but this apparently bothers no one else—performing well isn’t the point for many of them. Nor, it seems, for the conductor.

Anderson Consulting once had an ad featuring a lion with its paw on a ball of yarn: “Are your skills being underused?” This seems a common occurence; we belong and not, so we (and our abilities) are accepted and not. I teach at my college because of my work, and my students respond best when I’m straightforward, but I can easily get into trouble if I’m not careful to hold back—and that restraint handcuffs the work. [Colleges like to see themselves as bastions for free, critical thinking, but really they want you to do that original thinking within the guidelines of the traditional thinking.] I live in the country because I love it, even raising lumber, fruit, nuts and berries on my land (I grew up with farming), but I also have to balance this with living in a very conservative, small town where living in the country means riding ATVs/snowmobiles and driving pickups, not hiking, cross-country skiing and driving a Toyota Yaris. And at the end of the Tchaikovsky rehearsal, the concert master walked outside, took one glance at a strikingly beautiful crescent/planet conjunction and said “Oh, look at the moon,” immediately looked away, went to his car and drove off—the same moon I stared at for several minutes.

I’ve always been struck by this curious mix of interests, abilities, and accomplishments. People determined to act become musicians. Serious musicians become famous actors—and district attorneys and writing professors. A steamboat captain becomes a major author, even drawing his pen name from his previous profession—Mark Twain. The movie adaptation of Twain’s "Roughing It" ends with “Life is what happens when you’re doing something else” (which several web sites attribute to John Lennon—take your pick). Indeed.

Yet, instead of appreciating the richness of our many talents, we like to specialize. A cardiologist who prescribes medication with constipation as a side effect walks away—another doctor must prescribe the needed laxative. And academics distain “jacks of all trades,” ignoring that this describes the most interesting, successful people in field after field—renaissance people. Absolutely, specialization is useful, important, and often necessary. But we embrace it to the exclusion of all else, allowing us to put everyone in the appropriate box with the appropriate label—hardening of the categories.

Years ago, one reporter noted that retailers had trouble deciding where to put Paul Winter’s albums—the jazz bin? New Age? World Music? Paul Winter responded, “I don’t care where they put them, as long as people can find them.”

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be hanging out with Paul.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Creative Dissonance

Dissonance. I like the word.

My colleague used it today as I described changes to my thinking about teaching my fall courses. “You’ve always been a good teacher,” she noted, “but there’s a dissonance,” referring to a mismatch between my nature and my approach. I know. I’ve felt it for quite some time.

My students feel it too. I’ve noticed that when I’m just blunt, frankly expressing my thoughts about their work, students blossom. Not intimidated in the least, even though I’m then at my most forceful, they simply accept and respond positively, thoughtfully, even creatively—rather than the resistance or timidity they can too often exhibit otherwise. I believe here they see me as truly genuine.

This week, some former students presented their work in one of my courses at a conference. They noted challenges, difficulties, discouraging tasks—and then urged their fellow students to follow the same path and take the course. Other students, current students, definitely not my best students, registered for my advanced writing courses, saying “Yeah, there’s a lot of writing, but you hardly notice it,” and “It’s kind of fun.” Interesting. And late today, a community leader contacted me about the “real world” writing my classes produce—referred enthusiastically by one of my students. I think I may have been looking in the wrong direction.

Years ago, a Toronto pianist gave me a book as a thank you gift that outlined the theory of Creative Tension, the idea that dissonance between where we are and where we want to be motivates creative action. Again, interesting. Sufi musician Hazrat Inayat Khan describes people as tones, some harmonious, some dissonant—for example, C and B are dissonant notes, but adding E and G produces a poignant, relaxing chord. Yet again, interesting.

I think we’re on to something. Viva la dissonance.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Snow Day

Beware the ides of April, I guess.

After yesterday's freak snow storm, I took one look at my car and realized I'd be stuck for hours. I called campus, cancelled classes, made coffee, and set out to shovel the eighteen inches of wet, heavy snow (not to mention what the snow plow had left). I managed to clear enough snow to open the car door, start it, and crank up the radio for company while shoveling.

I typically listen to NPR, and soon the news broke about the shootings at Virginia Tech. What's to be said?

However, I didn't spend my day thinking about what's wrong with the world. Slowly shoveling the heavy snow, laboriously walking each load to the bank, I remembered a few months back when day after day of lake effect snow buried the county. The snow blower my dad gave me when he sold his house wouldn't start, and I was forced to shovel day after day, for hours, until my muscles could barely tolerate lifting the shovel, and the banks towered over me--and that's just clearing an area to park by the road.

Barely able to move, sore and exhausted in those back to back days of endless storms, I looked at the sea of snow yet to be crossed. I needn't have worried. A stranger stopped, surveyed the expanse, and set about plowing it back. When I could free my car, I moved it, and he pushed back every bank as far into my trees as possible. The next day, as I was buried again, a neighbor drove up in his loader (we live in the county, so houses aren't close), cleared the new snow, and went down my 200 foot driveway as far as he could, lifting the now four feet of snow and moving it to the line of trees. The next day after that, the neighbor on the other side (again, quite a distance) walked his snow blower over, cleared my parking area, then cleared a path down the rest of the driveway as far as possible. And the following day, someone else (with a different size plow) cleared my place while I was at work.

As I shoveled yesterday, I saw the signs of their work and remembered their spontaneous kindness. I thought about all the times over the years I've had road side trouble, or got stuck, waiting for someone to stop and help. Someone always did. I never doubted it--I just assumed. That's what people do.

The world is still a wonderful place.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Calls for a Chicken Parm

As usual, my day had dragged on longer than I expected, and late in the afternoon, doing laundry at the laundromat, I still hadn't eaten.

Although I should be eating fruits and vegetables, avoiding salt, I figured "What the hell" and headed across the street for the New York Pizza shop. This calls for a chicken parm.

The pizzeria is staffed primarily with college students, mostly men, and they have never excelled at customer service. This time, I stood at the unmanned counter, waiting for quite a few minutes, with no results, although I could hear voices from the kitchen. Finally I leaned over the counter and saw three college age kids standing in a circle, talking. One of them caught my eye for a fraction of a second and quickly turned to pretend he hadn't. I waited some more, still with no results. I thought about leaving, but I was hungry, and in a small town, options are limited.

Then I had an idea. Looking around, I found a flyer with a menu and a phone number. While the few customers in the booths watched with interest, I reached for the phone on the counter and dialed the number. One of the guys in the back room came flying out when it rang, picking up another phone on the second ring. "New York Pizza--can I help you?"

"Yes," I replied, standing just four feet away. "I'd like to order a chicken parm." He hurriedly hung up the phone and took my order, while the gentleman in the booth to my right laughed his ass off.

About fifteen minutes later, as I enjoyed my parm while reading the newspaper, the boss arrived. He's a medium height, early middle age Italian man, quiet and reserved. He moves with the sure but understated mastery of someone who has done something for years and years. He rarely speaks, and then just a few words of instruction, unheard to anyone else. He seems like a nice enough guy, but I've never seen him smile. He seems detached, yet not disinterested either.

The place was all business now, the staff bustling about. It's usually this way--not friendly, but not cold either. Turnover seems high, probably not surprising given a staff of mostly college students. The walls feature photos of Italy and presumably family, giving a touch of warmth immediately dispelled by the stark decor and the not too dirty, not particularly clean balance common in the booths. The staff rarely talks to customers, even to acknowledge them. They don't smile either. The food is good, and consistent, but not extraordinary to the point that customers would seek it out. Phone orders clearly get priority. I wonder if the boss checks in by phone sometimes.


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Welcome to my blog!

Greetings all,

For quite some time, I've agonized that, while outspoken, I color everything I say and write depending on the company or forum in which I find myself--in my community, on my campus, on a given discussion board and so forth.

Consequently, after long thought, I created this blog to write what I really think, honestly and without censureship.

One major obstacle to this for me has been that I don't like to write anonymously--I'd rather sign my name and stand behind my claims and observations. However, I've finally had to admit to myself that I live in circles where I just can't do that and be open, bold, and experimental in my writing and ideas. So, I've caved and created this space.

Rest assured I will still write as if I were signing my real name, and I trust visitors who comment will do the same.

A space where I can write, think, and share freely can only lead to growth. I hope you feel the same way. Please join the conversation--I truly want your thoughts too.

A newly freed Writer.