Friday, April 21, 2017

A Letter to My Students

I don’t say it enough, but I care about you. Each of you. That’s why I’m here. It’s too much work to do it for the money, so there must be something else, and that’s it: I care about you. I want everyone to do well, feel safe, feel valued, be happy, find success.

This room is our space. It’s a safe space. It’s generally calm. Whether the door is literally open or shut, you are welcome here, whether it’s during your scheduled class time or not. I want you to use this space to your advantage. Leave your worries and troubles at the door, and do your best to be fully present. More and more often, that means not being distracted by your phone. (You knew this part was coming.) If you are in the middle of a crisis, it’s unlikely that you will be able to solve it and be present in the class at the same time. If it’s not fatal or contagious, it can wait.

Here’s what happens when you continue to deal with a crisis after you enter our classroom: You appear distracted, anxious, upset. I wonder what’s up. I ask you to put aside your phone--and your emotions, for a time. Giving or getting further information in the midst of this is rarely good. It doesn’t end well. I’ve seen emotions pass across your faces like four seasons in a second. That may surprise you. I observe more than grammar. This is make-or-break time: you will compose yourself, or things will escalate. It won’t end well. Students shut down or leave the room without permission. To do what? Solve the problem? Ask yourself: how many times has that actually happened?

Think about your teachers. What are they dealing with, what are they carrying? Here’s a partial list: concern for aging parents, their own children, their spouses or partners, their own aging bodies and minds, bills, finances, whether or not they are getting sick, their colleagues, that stuff that absolutely needs to get done before the day ends. Somehow we manage. I won’t call it wisdom. It’s simply practice at regulating our own emotions. We taught after 9/11, after any number of national school shootings, after the presidential election, and any number of other polarizing, controversial or upsetting events. It’s guaranteed that some of us are going through a dark night of the soul during block 1 while you are doing a warm-up. Our experience has shown us what we can and cannot control. Adulthood is constant negotiation between those two things. The sooner anyone realizes that, the better equipped he or she is.

Okay, so what? Well, this is the hidden curriculum. The stuff you learn that’s not listed in any syllabus or course overview. It’s in the novels and plays we read, once you decode them and read between the lines. Protagonists face conflicts. It’s how they face them that reveals character. You are writing your story right now. Every moment contains a choice. How will you face them? What later events in your own life are you foreshadowing right now?

Ask yourself: This thing that has me so upset--will it be important in an hour? A day? A year? Ten years? Or will it pass quickly like a spring shower? Think about the verb to weather.


It gets better. Sometimes it gets worse, then it gets better again. Remember that we are together on a mission to make sure that you get what you need, intellectually and otherwise. I care, and I will continue to care as long as I remember you.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Haiku

What we don’t see: on
the back of a cell phone, a
sky of brilliant stars.
(after Basho)



An idle day, on
the couch with cats, hum of the
refrigerator.



A week’s clothes tumble
in the dryer, and we read,
silent, together.



Hunger pain like
a pull inward, so familiar
it feels like family.



They say we are made
of stardust, but today I
simply feel burned out.



Cuts and scars are there
to see--what healing happens
where eyes can’t see?



Sleep scans the crackly
radio dial of dreams,
voices in static.



Undone homework--what
is that sound? It’s the teacher’s
head hitting the board.



Her life was a bad
first draft, ripe for revision’s
heavy, cutting pen.



the morning starts with
a cold razor to the skin--
this is called normal?


The man sits in his
tower of gold and mirrors--
windows warp what’s real.



On the hill, bare trees
stand like shocks of thinning hair--
a man’s late winter.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Los Vatos

Domingo drives, arm out
The window, tan olive skin
Against purple metal flake,
Riding low, blue exhaust notes
As the small block
Purrs and roars with
Stoplight rhythms.
Junior and Cesar jump in,
Screw-top bottle rattles
Belt buckles and key rings,
And someone turns
The music up,
Inky bass rumbles,
Bright horns, percussion
Sass back, and the
Sun sets west of Chico,
And they roll, these
Sons of poverty, heirs
To stubborn dirt, the car
A royal robe letting everyone
Know they have arrived.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Test Anxiety

Fill out your answer sheet
With a number-two pencil.
Make neat black circles.
Do not leave anything blank.
Make no stray marks.
Your exam will be machine scanned.
Raw scores will be recorded.


Fill out your pencil sheet
With answer number two
Circle neat black makes
Do not blank anything. Leave.
Make no marks strays.
Your scan machine will be examined
Recorded scores will be raw


Pencil sheet fill out
#2 answer
Black makes circles neat
Leave. Do not blank.
Stray marks no make
Examine your scan machine
Answer raw records


Answer, out
Black, blank
#2 stray
Scan scan scan
Raw circle
Do not blank
Leave
Leave

Leave

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Haiku

Jesus died for your 
sins, and the dinosaurs died
for your gasoline.

Less light falls today,
an early bed, a chance to
turn in, turn inward.

Seats for seven, but
six are empty—the car’s solace
for the sole driver.

Men in suits talk tough,
thousands of miles from the
soldier on fire.

War is not fought from
a chair; countries are not led
from the battlefield.

Don’t imitate me—
It’s like an echo, always
coming in second. 

The annoying fly—
I’d let you live if you stayed
slightly out of reach.

In the museum, 
a girl sits, trying for the
most charming selfie. 

They put on ears, tails—
It’s nothing new, this human 
worship of felines.

The cat kneads the soft
blanket, remembers happy
times with his mama.


Monday, November 23, 2015

November haiku

I just stepped outside 
under the nearly-full moon. 
It smells like winter.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Practice, Rehearse, Repeat

The snow is falling, visible in the cone of light from the streetlight. I am passing underneath, in a long coat, hat and scarf, carrying my clarinet in its rectangular case. I am walking from, not to, a music rehearsal. I am warm, thanks to my clothing, but in my soul also. I have just experienced a shared musical experience, a closeness in which I felt at ease, involving many individuals making an increasingly unified sound as we follow the score and the conductor.

We are all in grade school, and the instruments have not been in our hands for long. We are simultaneously working on breath control, counting, and reading the language of music on the printed page. Our conductor has tremendous patience, but he too was here once.

I am alone and content as I walk up my street, maybe humming a bit of one of our pieces. I’ve left behind the room with the brilliant wooden floors and the warm heat, knowing I’ll be back, as the ritual of individual practice and group rehearsal continues.

I’ve carried this scene in my head for years. I don’t know if it happened exactly like this, but it is real—as real as anything. It makes more sense to me now, and it is a window into my personality. I’m an introvert who enjoys social situations. Just as important, however, is the down time, the alone time—socializing takes my energy, and the recharge is essential.

Music is solitary and social. It is communication on another level, going beyond spoken language. It’s solace, comfort, challenge, frustration, reward, affirmation—and may it always be so. Music teaches me many things: how to count and be aware of rhythm, in everything from my steps to my heart; dynamics—when to be loud, when to be quiet; when to play, and when to rest.  Music forges friendships that sustain.

The frequent scene now is a furnished basement. There are four adults, and the occasional grade-school spectator. There is no conductor, just our small ensemble, all around the same age, playing music broadly described as “rock.” I place my hands now on the bird’s-eye maple neck of an electric guitar. The music is in my mind, not on a page, so I may close my eyes. The boy under the streetlight is there, too.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Interviewing the Critic in My Head

Who are you?
I am your inner critic, that voice in your head. I often say things like “you're no good,” “you don't deserve to do well,” “it's not going to work out.”
How long have you been at it?
How long have you been alive? Forty-six years, although the first few years were rather slow. Things got busier when you started school, and interacted with other kids. That's really when you first started feeling different. That definitely opened the door for me, and gave me the opportunity to get going. Things like being an only child, being adopted, I can easily work with that stuff. It was easy to convince you that there were things wrong with you. You've given me lots of great material over the years. It's easy work, but also challenging at times. I like to keep old themes fresh.
What makes you happy?
Seeing you frown, hearing you sigh, knowing you'll give up. I feed off you.
You're telling me you're a parasite?
Oh no, no, not that. We are more, ah, symbiotic. There's no real separation.
Do you ever get bored?
Sure. How many times can I hear you say “I suck”? I thought you were good with words. Throw some synonyms up in here, bro. Then there are those times when you're really happy, like while riding your bike or playing music, or actually enjoying some intimacy. All these other committee members show up in your head. They are like annoying cheerleaders, and I can't compete with them.
What is your favorite time to work?
Oh, there's lots. When you're driving, when you're trying to fall asleep, when you first wake up. You start your day with me, not with your coffee.
What do you do when you're not criticizing me?
Research. I go back over your thoughts. I keep them very highly organized. I'm a bit anal-retentive, actually. If you're feeling good, I'll take the time to dig up some old stuff, things you may have forgotten, like when that sketchy guy yelled at you in the ShopRite parking lot. Remember that? You brushed aside his question. He called you an ignorant, arrogant m**********r?
I had forgotten about it until just now, thanks. Do you hate me?
No. We always hurt the ones we love. Without you, there is no me. I suppose a mental-health professional would call that co-dependent. Hey, we all have to eat.
What do you want from me?
Nothing but your time and attention.
What keeps you going?
Knowing that we've made it this far. It's fun to try to stay one step ahead of you. I like the challenge. I can't wait until your next date.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Optimist, definitely. Things are getting better all the time—except for you.
Nice try. I call shenanigans. I'm not taking that bait in the middle of an interview. Do you ever get lonely?
Oh, sure. But I like being alone. You're an introvert, and that carried over to me. There's a difference between lonely and alone.
What's the most personal thing you're willing to admit?
Sometimes I feel bad for you. I really do. But you're that shiny red button that says DO NOT PUSH. You make it easy. I can't have just one potato chip... it's like that.
Do you define yourself by what you do?
Didn't I answer that in the first question? Here's another thing you suck at.
If you couldn't do what you do, what else might you do well?
Well, I'm a disembodied entity, so I can't enjoy arts and crafts. I dunno, I guess I could do a lateral move to another part of your mind. A job is a job. Are the cheerleaders hiring?
Any plans to retire?
Nope. I'd be bored out of my—uh, your—mind.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Vows

I have agreed to the terms
I have been to the mountaintop
I have called you by name
I have done the deed
I have embraced

You have all of me
You have been waiting here
You have compassed this mountain
You have my hopes
You have eliminated the impossible

We have a savior
We have begun
We have come into this house
We have discovered moons
We have everything we need

I will survive
You will know
We will not be shaken

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Lost and Found

I'm lost in the glow of glittery things, yet no diamond.
     First known when lost!
I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all.
     What's left to lose?
Moments, their perfume lost, can't be found again.
     No, nothing's ever lost!
I have lost my back and forward. What do I do when lost?
     Stand still. The trees and bushes beside you are not lost.
(Space lost its vast dimensions and
drew comfortably around them.)

I finally lost my fear.
     Wherever you are is called here.
(She found and lit a last candle.)
     I found one of your poems today. I keep them all in an envelope.
I've seen you but I'm only now finding you.
(He found himself thinking of the green park a year ago.)
I found I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn't say any other way.
     I found you like a trinket in an old trunk.
(He found the answer down on his knees, found the great treasure standing all open.)
Free me from worry, that familiar pain, that trail lost and found.
(A clear head will find itself.)
     Wherever we are is called here. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Here, Now

He's in a wheelchair, bundled,
shoes with generous tread that
will go unused, and his voice
is slurred, as if coming from
a shell, the edges rounded off,
the sea's soft sibilance, and
I hear it resonate through
the chair's metal frame, as
he sweet-talks the willowy
rec therapist. Next, I feel
his weight, lean into the
handles to push him through
the parking lot, where he sees
the building's exterior for the
first time, and together,
we feel the spring breeze,
life again, blossoming trees.
Then we sit on a bench, eye level,
the familiar cadence of conversation
with his blue eyes bright, recalling
years of stories, each one opening
like a bud, new again--
and today is a seed opening,
another beginning, one that
will come to me, spirit willing,
a perennial memory, some spring
--or winter—far from now,
as sure as the warm air
and sun here, now.

A Letter to My Students

I don’t say it enough, but I care about you. Each of you. That’s why I’m here. It’s too much work to do it for the money, so there must be ...