Saturday, February 28, 2015


"What strikes me as amazing, and right, and sane, was his capacity to share all that energy, that fire, with those around him, students and poets and friends. The only discernible principle I gathered from this kind of generosity seems to be this: to try to conserve one's energy for some later use, to try to teach as if one isn't quite there and has more important things to do, is a way to lose that energy completely, a way, quite simply, of betraying oneself."
-       Larry Levis:"Coming Home: Forty Essays on Phillip Levine"

“To teach as if one isn’t quite there.” What a line! That’s what often happens to teachers who think the lesson is in the curriculum. Even as a young college student trying out different philosophies of education, I was already saying things like “What you are teaching is yourself.” Of course, you need to work on lesson plans and curriculums and dazzling sequences that lead students from one understanding to the next, but ultimately you are sharing your way of perceiving and moving through the world. Some similarly inclined students will catch it, others will let it pass by, that’s just the way it works in the world. But all should at least be infected by the sincerity and authenticity of your passion prominently displayed and generously shared.

But of course, it’s easier to hide behind mere information because to wholly be yourself in front of a class is to be vulnerable. To open yourself up and publicly show your passion means you are exposed to the possibility of ridicule or apathy or kids whispering to their neighbor because they find talking about last night’s reality TV show more interesting than you. It can be brutal.

But the rewards are many. Below is an excerpt from a letter I received from a high school headmaster:

“Each year we ask our freshman students to share with us the name of a teacher who has been especially influential in his or her development. I congratulate you for being named by _____. She said, ‘Ever since I was three years old, Doug inspired me to become the musician I am today. Without the care and love he put into his teaching, my entire school experience would be different. I hope he understands the amazing impact he has had on my life and I thank him for that.’”

And then a note with from three 8th graders to go with their Valentine’s Day cookies:

“You have been our teacher since we were three and ever single one of those years instilled a deeper and deeper love of music in us. We’ve really begun to adore jazz after the curriculum this year and we love how you can make music history really interesting. You are a really fun and talented teacher. Thanks for being so cool!”

Well, if an 8th grader thinks you’re cool, it means you haven’t been cool and removed in your teaching. To be cool is to be hot, sharing your fire (see opening quote) with all your students.

Yesterday was my last day of school for a while— seven weeks of travel ahead teaching adults in Europe and Asia. I told my students how I’ll carry them with me wherever I go, brag about them, tell stories about them, share the music we’ve made. I know some part of them is thinking, “You’re leaving us? What the heck? Don’t you care?” And another part is saying, “Whatever. We’ll hardly notice you’re gone.” And both are true. I leave without guilt knowing they’ll be in the able hands of my two colleagues who also habitually give 150% of themselves and the kids will benefit from that. Part of the deal is to make yourself irreplaceable by doing things that no one else can do quite in the same way. And part is the stark reality that we’re all replaceable and life goes on just fine without us. All we can hope for is some echo of our presence and the more we give wholly of ourselves, the more we may be remembered. 

And of course, we don't do it for any future reward or cool Valentine's cards. We do it so as to not lose energy and betray ourselves.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Other Side of the Hyphen

“To straighten a stick, you first need to bend it the other way.” —Montaigne

The Constitution is a glorious piece of paper. It’s the Mission Statement of the first nation formed as an intentional community, one based on ideas rather than simply being born in the same place as others. And they’re powerful and noble ideas, are they not?

But ideas are mere winged butterflies flying hither and yon until given feet by practice. The radical notion that all are created equal and endowed with the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness was penned by Founding Fathers who owned slaves, lived on land taken from native people’s and whose wives couldn’t vote. Through some peculiar defect in the human psyche, they couldn’t wholly see the contradiction.

And so as the Statue of Liberty beckoned to huddled masses yearning to be free, those landing on the shore quickly learned that this need to validate oneself by being superior to the one next to you had not been eradicated by a mere ship voyage. The subsequent history of the United States can be read as those not given the freedom they were promised asking, begging, pleading, protesting, fighting for their inalienable rights with those in power resisting every step of the way to relinquish one inch of their unearned privilege. And so it continues through tomorrow’s headline.

One of the strategies for catching up to our promise was the creating of Black History month, an attempt to straighten the stick of injustice by revealing the numerous contributions African-Americans have made to the growth of our nation’s achievements. From peanuts to vaccines to traffic lights to the extraordinary accomplishments in music, sports, dance, theater, poetry, art and beyond, it was time for today’s school children and tomorrow’s citizens to learn who to admire and who to thank.

The idea caught on and soon March was Women’s History month and September was Latin-American Heritage Month and May was Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month and you can see where this was going. But there simply aren’t enough months to hold all the other marginalized people in this country— Native-Americans, Gay and Lesbian Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans. You get the idea. And I imagine Chinese-Americans would want a separate lens shone on them and not be lumped with Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Cambodian-Americans and vice-versa. The Greek-American would have a different experience than the Anglo-American. Where does one draw the line? And shall we include Adopted-Americans, Dyslexic-Americans, Bald-Americans, Rural-Americans, Old-Americans? In short, if we bend the stick too far in the other direction, we just end up with another bent stick.

I made a suggestion some twenty years ago at my school to have an “Ethnic-American History Month.” Recognizing that part (but not all of our identity) comes from where we come from and honoring the wisdom of investigating and embracing our particular ancestors, all children would choose one slice of their given identity (many, if not all, of which were mixed), research a person or group of people who contributed to American culture and economy, often without recognition and educate each other to appreciate them in hindsight and hear their story. We never ended up trying this (nobody’s fault), but it’s still an idea worth considering. For the greater task is to include the great mix of notable and accomplished people in one subject simply called “American History” and not have to call special attention to them in a given month only, as if to say, “See? She did something important and she was a lesbian Latina-American!” The struggles she faced in her identity can come forth in conversation about the obstacles she faced, but framed in the context of a larger narrative.

That narrative, in short, is the other side of the hyphen, the –American that has helped narrow the gap between the Constitution’s promise and its delivery, that has enriched the culture, that has inspired a future generation. The history of exclusion must be courageously taught, but balanced with the hope of inclusion, the American dream of feeling valued and known and given chances to show who you are and what you can do. By leaning to the other side of the hyphen, we lean away from the separation of affinity groups (without wholly excluding them and recognizing their need) and toward the collective conversation of Americans working toward a common vision. The country is awash in division and some of it is understandable, the way we flock to be with “our own”, but none of it is healthy. The Bill O-Reilly pundits love to feed that demon, Obama’s bid for a unified Congress has purposefully been ignored, but at least in schools we can start to build citizens capable of conversations and holding two ideas together in the interest of our common goals and shared humanity. And if we don’t do it for noble ideals, we will certainly have to do it to face the ecological storm of consequences we have unleashed.

And finally, we will have to lean away from “American” altogether. Yes, begin from the foundation of what the word really means— that's always a worthy reflection. But then continue the conversations with the few hundred other nations and multiple ethnic, religious, cultural mixes on this diverse and complex planet.

At the end of Black History month, as we “lift every voice and sing” and honor the songwriter, let's keep enlarging the choir. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Welcoming the Other

Noticed the Academy Awards lately? The many award winners with accents, the films showing the humanity of the marginalized and dismissed, the acceptance speeches that go beyond “Hooray for me!” and reach out toward inclusion and social justice? From the slaves to the winners of 12 Years a Slave (I know, last year’s winner, but still), from the films about people shoved in the closet of shame to public pride and disclosure, from the people who picked needed grapes and cleaned houses yet shunned as illegal immigrants creating profound statements of and about art, the times they are a’changin’ and I for one say Amen! and Hooray!

The evolution of humanity’s humanity is hard to see sometimes in the face of Fox News, ISIS, the Tea Party, The Oklahoma proposed bill to not teach history that criticizes America, but did you read about same sex marriage in Alabama? Alabama! And the stirring speech by the Glory songwriters about the bridge in Selma that once served to crush people and their spirit being a metaphor for a new world. As Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And inclusion, I would add. Turing saves a few million lives with his work, but is deemed illegal and immoral by the ignorance and fear of his times. And now same sex marriage in Alabama. Alabama!

At the same time that all the traffic pattern is clearly going in the direction of shared humanity, there are the powerful forces of fear, hatred, narrow-mindedness, ignorance standing with their clubs and attack dogs on the other side of the bridge trying to turn it back. And because inclusion demands effort and courage and awakening the frontal lobes and opening the heart and expanding knowledge, it is more difficult than the default system of the lower brain that knows only fight or flight. George Wallace began his political career talking about good schools and good roads with three people at the town meeting listening. But the moment he started spewing racial hatred and white supremacy, he had a roaring crowd. (He repented about this near the end of his life.)

Consider: The entire universe, except for one small infinitesimal speck, is an “other” and so our life task is to engage in conversation with all the others and see how many we can hold on the same side of the line as us. Biology demands a certain initial distrust of the other— the lamb shall certainly not naively try to lie down with the lion— but once we sort that out, the rest is simply ignorant and fearful folks trying to create an identity through exclusion and vilification of the other, be it skin color, accent, gender, salary, age, the name of your god or gods and the people you choose to love. Once we get to know personally anyone on the “other” list— a nephew, a neighbor, a co-worker— it becomes more difficult to accept the slander. And thus, while affinity groups have their purpose and power, they fall short of what’s needed— ongoing conversation with the other until we find out shared humanity.

A word to all the folks with their shotguns raised and all the parts within ourselves that shut doors— join the march! The music is better, the people fascinating, its more fun to laugh and joke together than spew venom and the loving open heart beats the enclosed fortress of ignorance any day of the week. Why continue to create suffering and throw up all those Stop signs when the green light of inclusion so clearly urges us forward?

And if that’s not enough to convince you, consider this. Start getting to know and working with all the folks you once considered wholly other and you might just win an Oscar!

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Zadie Walk

I’m reading a fine book by someone I know (Dee Coulter) titled Original Mind: Uncovering Your Natural Brilliance. In an early chapter titled, “Reclaiming Our Earliest Mind,” Dee suggests taking a walk with a child between the ages of 2 and 5 and letting them be the leader. She notes:

“As you enter the child’s world on this walk, notice the nature of the objects and activity the child attends to, how long the child attends to these matters, and the observations and discoveries the child seems to make. Notice also, what it does to your tempo and mental activity when you enter the child’s world in this way.”

It was serendipitous that I read this just before visiting my 3-year old granddaughter Zadie. I had the supreme pleasure of a day with just her and me and off we went for a long walk to a nearby park. Zadie chose to walk at the beginning and I held her hand while pushing the stroller, ready when needed. We made it a half-a-block before the stooped at the grated sewer and commented on the two holes and tunnels below ground and started throwing little sticks and leaves down through the grate. Instead of insisting we keep moving to the “destination” of the playground, I relaxed into the Zen traveler’s mode “Wherever you go, there you are.” From there, we paused at just-blooming daffodils, picked off sprigs of rosemary and made a little game of who would see the next plum tree in bloom. She asked questions about the homeless man rummaging for bottles in the recycling bin “(What’s that man doing?”), made comments about the little construction project (“We can’t play in that dirt. Nooo.”), noted stars hanging in windows and a cat sitting on a fence. I showed her the buds and flowers on the magnolia tree, the first hint of leaves next to the leftover brown crinkled autumn leaves still hanging, talked about the abstract concept of Spring in a language she kind of got (“This flower’s still waking up. That one is really awake!”). She noticed the bark of dogs and caw of crows and I started to also.

One hour later, we had walked ten blocks.

It was time for her Cliff bar snack and she agreed to eat it in the stroller while I picked up the pace. I immediately thought of wheeling my Mom in her wheelchair, also outside to look at flowers. We think we are caretaking the very young and very old, but if we look at it correctly, we are apprenticing ourselves to their slower way of moving through this world and seeing beyond the names we give things to the sensuality of experience. How much time we spend stressed and cursing in rush-hour traffic because we're late for a meeting we didn't particularly want to go to in the first place. We would do well to follow the example of the toddler and the octogenarian.

On we went to the playground and the usual yee-hah! of swings and slides and see-saws.
Took the bus back and laid down for a nap. I slept. She didn’t. Tonight should be fun.

So it is Spring in my heart, with my old dormant flowers slowly awakening, remembering the pace the Nature intended. And it’s lovely.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How I Saved the Earth

I don’t mean to brag

I can’t help but feel how much better
                        the world would be if only
                                    everyone followed my example.

Take today.

I biked from 72nd and Burnside down to Portland’s Willamette River,
over the Morrison Bridge and to my daughter’s downtown office.

            And thus, subtracted vital carbon emissions
 from the too-high quotient of our energy equation.

I passed by the elevator and walked up the two flights to her office.

We lunched at the Lebanese restaurant, with their ceramic plates
            and glasses easy to wash
                        instead of the tempting Street Food vendors
with their paper and plastic take-out.

I bought used books at Powell’s and refused the bag,
tucking them into my backpack.

72-plus-gas-guzzling-free blocks awaited me for the return trip
and I needed fuel.

And so—pay attention here— at a not-to-be-named store,

I ordered iced coffee.
            Light ice.
                   No straw with accompanying paper wrapper.
No lid.  
Some Half-and-Half, but no swizzle stick.
Just swirl the cup around.
It works fine.

(Still I would have to throw away a plastic cup.
And though the ice was light, we are in a drought.

It’s a work-in-progress.)

I sat outside, in natural light,
slowly sipping no-straw-no-lid-light-ice coffee, while reading a Billy Collins
poetry book and thinking

   “I should write a poem like him.”