25 July 2014


During the last 30 hours
people have told me I am
smart    awesome   generous   a good teacher
patient   kind   funny  right    wonderful
talented   and     highly educated


I wish people wouldn't do that. 

When you say "Alex, you're so generous" 
your words create more space between us  -- 
 you're over there 
describing me 
and I'm over here 
standing on a little pedastal
and I can't see you because of the spotlight in my eyes.

But when you say "I appreciate you sitting with me for the last two hours
and listening to that horrible story about my sister
I was so mad I felt sick and I really needed someone to listen to me
I feel a lot better now"

We're closer
I can see you better than I could before we sat together
And you can probably see me better, too
Maybe I'm starting to look like a friend to you

We're making progress


“LUCY” 2012, ALBERTO MARIA COLOMBO,
Sometimes -- (actually....a lot of the time)

flattery feels like pity 
 Are you saying those words because you think I need to hear them?

 or subterfuge     What's not being said so that you can say something nice? Is there something deep or scary or intimate or sacriligious or....that's not being said?

or manipulation

Maybe you're feeling unappreciated. You think that maybe if you pay me a compliment I'll pay you one? "Alex, you're a true artiste"..........."oh but you're the only one sensitive enough to appreciate my work..."
If you're thinking "I'll never say anything nice to Alex again"
you misunderstand the fine point. 
I want to know you. Please don't describe me to myself:  tell me who you are and how you're doing.

And if you're thinking "But I don't like to talk about myself..."

well,

just say that. 

If I say, 

Thank you. You're so kind. You're a true friend..."

you know what I think of you -- at least in this moment. You have my opinion and a label:   "True Friend." 

but

if I say 

"Thank you. This has been a rotten day and I really didn't feel like cooking tonight. This little pot pie is right on time..."

you can still be sure that you've extended a kindness (if there was any doubt) but we're standing on level ground with each other AND you "felt" me because I let you see that I "felt" you, that my life was impacted by you. 


 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

I may be warming up to writing 

The Transformative Artist's Manifesto










 






21 July 2014

The Brazilian Palette

In the past week, my Brazil Fund balance reached $2500, the snag with the Passport Office over my name change was resolved, I Skype-d with Meg (a friend who spent a good part of last year in Brazil) and learned some important new information about the place, passed the "2000 new words" mark in my Portuguese language program and I made the acquaintance of a native Brazilian who has agreed to meet me on Skype for conversation practice.

Excited. Scared. Amazed -- that after all these years of latent desire, it's beginning to look like this thing is gonna happen. I am going to Brazil.

The tortured history of race relations in the U.S. has been a spectral presence my whole life. Is it like this everywhere? I have wondered. Growing up in a small town northern town where less than 10% of the population were people of color, I often wondered what effect demographic density might have on the social climate:  if "we" were in the majority, would race-based social tension be diminished? Would I feel 'at home'?

My perspective and impression, after living in Boston, Louisville, Colorado Springs and Boulder, San Francisco Bay Area, New Orleans and now Holly Springs, MS (to name a few sites of sojourn) is that New Orleans stands out as a place where a) people who look like me are in the majority, b) race is neither swept under the carpet nor placed at the center of focus, and c) I felt at home in my skin.

Throughout this essential but unscientific traveling survey, I have believed in my deepest heart that race is not the primary issue; but in this country, for a variety of reasons, most people are hard-pressed to consider issues of class and psychology in their discussions and analysis of the American situation. In an essay entitled "The Elephant in our Room" at the HyperAllergic website, Aram Saroyan quotes James Baldwin:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.
Though I grew up in a town where Blacks were a literal minority, the darkest clouds and most
debilitating injuries I sustained were not the result of racism -- at least not overtly. The discrimination, insult and neglect I experienced stemmed from human ignorance, greed, fear, etc. Sometimes the perpetrators were "white" and sometimes they were "black." While the ostensible basis for black peers taunting me with terms like "Uncle Tom" or "blackie" is race, I believe their behavior was mostly a reflection of their feelings of inadequacy and a multitude of psychosocial deprivations.

I allow that the race-based social dysfunction of the U.S. impacts such behavior but given that not all American children behave in this way, it seems clear that there is more than race at issue here. It is the resistance and failure to address the "more" that is most appalling and frustrating for me.

In the research I'm conducting in preparation for my trip to Brazil, I have encountered the criticism that Brazil is reluctant to face the race-based inequities and injustices in Brazilian society. So far I've only heard this criticism from American observers and their Brazilian colleagues. I empathize with the critique with reservation:  might there be some advantage to pursuing a social justice movement that is NOT based on skin color? What if the focus of a campaign for social changed is fixed on healing the hatred and despair in the hearts and minds of all people -- the elite and the dispossessed, the old and the young, the blue eyes/brown eyes/green eyes and all the skin tones and hair colors and body types of the community? What does the New Day look like then?



15 July 2014

Out in the Long Grass of Grown-Up

This is Week 7 of a "situation" with one of my piano students. I'm losing sleep over this. It doesn't spring directly from the piano study but it most certainly impinges. Here's the play-by-play:

WEEK 1:  Mom writes a check for music tuition that bounces. I contact her to let her know it bounced and that I was assessed a fee at my bank. She says she'll bring a good check round that evening but doesn't actually drop it in my box until three days later. There's no communication between the night I expect the check and the evening it actually arrives.

WEEK 3:  Student arrives 15 minutes late for her lesson. No apology or explanation from Mom or student.

WEEK 4:  Five minutes past the scheduled time for the lesson, Mom calls to say that she is out of town and her daughter is at the house of friends (just down the street from my house) without her music books and....  I said 'no problem,' I'll drive over, pick up the student, swing by their house to retrieve music books and bring her back to my place for lesson. Mom says thanks.

WEEK 5:  First lesson of the new month. Policy states tuition is due at the first lesson. Student does not appear for lesson. There is no communication before or after the lesson. I wait. One hour after the scheduled time, I leave VM and text message on Mom's cell and drop her a note on FB. No response.

WEEK 6:  I telephone the day before the lesson to ask if I should expect the student at her regular time (I've heard nothing from Mom since the call in WEEK 4.). The student (who is, by the way, 7 years old) answers Mom's cell phone, checks with Mom after she hears my question and comes back with "Yes, Mom says I'll be there tomorrow." The whole family is in Memphis shopping for the other daughter's birthday party so Mom "can't come to the phone."

Dad delivers daughter two minutes early for her lesson the next day. No tuition check. I walk out to the car after the lesson to inquire but "I'm just the chauffeur" he tells me. He says he'll deliver my message to Mom and they'll bring a check by later that evening. They did not bring a check later that evening.

WEEK 7:  Today is 7 days later...still no check...still no communication from Mom or Dad. I have decided without reservation that I will NOT call today to see if she's coming tomorrow.

Will she show up tomorrow?  If she shows up without tuition do I teach the lesson anyway? Is that unfair to the paying students or irrelevant? Or do I welcome her in and pass the time making cookies or sharing coloring books and crayons? What if she shows up with partial tuition? Do I even show up tomorrow or am I away when she arrives?

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

 As I said, I'm losing sleep over this. Somewhat groggy this morning, I grabbed a washcloth and stepped into the shower. Afterward, I noticed that the washcloth and the towel were the same color and was surprised how forcefully this noticing reverberated in my psyche. Really grabbed my attention:  I was suddenly wide awake. And smiling. Got a good feeling from the color coordination.

And considered for the first time the significance of matching towel sets. For some people. Historically, I could care less. Any matching that happens in my linen closet is purely coincidental but it occurred to me that matching towel sets -- and socks and shoes and etc. -- might be extremely comforting for some people in a world where so much doesn't match or make sense. I considered the easy amusement the towel and washcloth brought me -- compared with the sleepless night I suffered as a result of the "situation" with my piano student. 

Next door, a man with a noisy leaf blower is meticulously clearing the driveway of fallen leaves. It is July but it rained last night so there are a few leaves to clear but not nearly enough, in my mind. to make a difference or be worth the noise and effort. 

I think again about the comfort to be taken from clearing and matching what we can find to clear and match in this crazy world. Making order from the reigning chaos.

I think about the advancing complexity of growing up. For the first many years of life, when I was
confronted with a confusing situation, I just cried my heart out and moved on. I hid from scary things and rolled on the floor laughing when something funny happened. I was drawn to pretty things and reached out to touch them.

Life happened right next to my skin and visceral response was immediate and unambiguous. With maturity came the need to mediate experience, to analyze events and my feelings about them and to decide whether/how much/how to express those feelings, how much to let other people see me without "personality makeup".

Though it has crossed my mind, I have rejected storming over to Mom's house, banging on the door and screaming "What the fuck?!" as an acceptable response to the piano "situation." Though I
registered an impulse to cry and stomp my foot and yell "Stop it!" when leaf-blower man commenced his work, I rejected that reaction and chose instead to close the window and have a cup of coffee.

I am leaning now toward being here tomorrow, whether my student shows or not. She likes the various sounds my digital piano can make. If she shows up, maybe I'll just let her play with the instrument for the hour while I clean the bathroom or play backgammon online. She's a sweet kid. I don't know what's up with her Mom but my gut feeling toward her daughter is affectionate. Maybe I'll just go with that.

We do what we can. Find our enjoyment where we can. Make sense of what we can. And let go the rest.


14 July 2014

The Way of the Cross

I drove to Nashville this weekend and was struck by how many crosses I saw. Searching for images to accompany this post, I found the image above on the website of an artist who collects and creates crosses. His name is Theodore Prescott and the pages at his site devoted to crosses are worth a look.

I didn't pull over and take pictures but I've found some online examples of some of what I saw driving MS 7-N to TN 18-N to SR 70E to I-40 E. (Note, far fewer crosses spotted after hitting the Interstate.)
I saw trios of crosses -- sometimes painted white; sometimes rough hewn wood; sometimes all the same height and sometimes with the center cross taller than the two flanking it.

I saw crosses on front lawns and church lawns and business lawns. Crosses atop churches and barns. Crosses painted on the sides of barns and businesses; and posters bearing crosses in the front windows of shops and gas stations.

There were crosses three times my height and tiny little crosses covered with flowers at the edge of the road.

I saw crosses made of wood, plastic, iron, plaster, concrete, stained glass and scrap metal.

I saw crosses with inscriptions. And crosses draped in white, red, blue, burlap and pale green fabric. Hanging from one cross, in front of a real estate office, were two banners that looked like family crests -- one bearing the silhouette of a lion standing on hind legs and the other with a somewhat angry-looking eagle with wings spread wide. There was a tiny "JESUS" sign at the foot of it, white letters on a green background. 


The large glass cross that was the front window for a Missionary Baptist church was noteworthy for its unusual proportions (see this site -- or one of the several others -- for the "correct" proportions):  the top of the vertical piece was less than a third as long as the bottom.

Not surprisingly, once I started noticing crosses, they were everywhere:  hanging from chains around people's necks and rear view mirrors, adorning the corners of stickers on bathroom walls, sitting on dashboards and pasted to bumpers.

Sunday night I remembered that the cross was also the centerpiece for Ku Klux Klan campaigns. I didn't see any burning crosses on this trip.

The only other symbol I can think of at present that rivals the ubiquitous character of the cross is the heart. The two are also alike in that they mean so many different things that they are almost meaningless. How does this relate to their popularity:  are they popular symbols because they can mean everything/nothing or have they lost their specific meanings through overuse?



12 July 2014

A Hard Week

[Robert] Schumann went to Vienna in 1838, intending to take up his residence permanently in the city where Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, and many other great musicians had lived. ...he hoped above all to improve his artistic and financial situation to overcome Friedrich Wieck's opposition to his marriage with [Wieck's daughter] Clara.
Clara shared [his] ideas and approved of the plan which, however, proved unsuccessful. The Viennese people did not understand his music and innumerable obstacles arose...  "I shall never get along with these people," he wrote despairingly to his friend... He complained that it was impossible to find among the local musicians one who was "a whole man, capable of understanding Shakespeare and Jean Paul Richter".
Harold Bauer, Editor. 
From the Preface to the Schirmer's Library of Musial Classics, Vol. 99 (copyright 1946) edition of Robert Schumann's 'Faschingsschwank aus Wien' (Op. 26)

It was the line "I shall never get along with these people" that jumped out at me and landed with a painful empathetic 'click' this morning. Yes, I might write the same words (or similar words; "I shall never understand these people" might be a more accurate expression) today to a friend, nearly two centuries later about the people in this place 5,000 miles west of Vienna.

Reflection on the events of July 2014, here at the near-midpoint, is both heartrending and confusing when I view them as personal affronts. Among the more provocative occurrences:
  • Piano students who, after paying a full month's tuition at their first lesson each month, forget to appear for successive lessons unless I call them by telephone a few minutes past their scheduled time.
  • Church-going "true believers" who cancel Sunday worship when the majority of their members are away visiting Disney World.
  • Neighbors who hire someone to mow only the part of their yard they can see from the windows of their house, leaving un-mowed the 400+-foot strip at the rear of their property that faces my house.
  • City leaders who schedule Fourth of July fireworks for 3 July because the pyro-technician's fee is lower.
  • Parents of a piano student who do not pay tuition at the first lesson, respond to multiple inquiries with unbroken silence but deliver their daughter (albeit 5 minutes late) for her next lesson--again without a tuition payment. When asked about it at the end of the lesson, Father says "I'm just the chauffeur but I'll tell G____ to call you." (Note:  Three days later still no call; still no payment.)
  • "Black" community members who complain in private about the appropriation of "black history" by "white" community members but make no mention of their disapproval during formal meetings and initiate no alternative project to reclaim "their" history.
  • City leaders who respond manually to email with "I'm not at home right now. I'll be out of town for another week. Please send this email to me again when I return."
In reality, none of this behavior is baffling or heartbreaking. I get it:  people will be people.

A primary objective every time I show up here and write is to see more clearly what I'm thinking. What I know in this moment -- that I did not know when I wrote the first lines -- is that what I'm struggling with (again) is the oppressive isolation of my present situation; the day in and day out of limited or no access to people who understand me and who I understand.

With each day I remain in Mississippi, I become more adept at solitary time-passing and hungrier for community and intimacy.



05 July 2014

Just Like Everybody Else

I have told the story here before of a day long ago... I was a tiny first grader sitting in a noisy elementary school cafeteria. As is probably true for many 5- and 6-year old children, first grade was a series of overwhelmingly strange and often frightening events, not the least of them being eating bad food with several hundred other people.

On the day in question, the regular teacher, Ms. Stoneburger (who I adored with a fervor verging on idolatry), was away and a substitute teacher had charge of us. Lunchtime with Ms. Stoneburger was like a storybook tea party; she sat at the head of the table, smiling and gracefully coaxing us toward gentility.

Not so with this crass replacement:  she did not sit. She paced the perimeter, a towering shadow above and behind us, alert for infractions of a code known only to her. Something in her smile made you want to cry or run away.

The emotional toll of the first-grade learning curve is forever etched on my psyche. Though I was well-equipped for the academic experience -- I knew how to read and write, for example; I knew how to sit still and obey; I knew my home address and telephone number -- I was morbidly unprepared for the social milieu of public school.

I had little experience playing with kids other than my three younger siblings:  we were not allowed neighborhood playmates at home and we were always held apart from other children at family or church gatherings.

At 5, I was younger by a year and smaller than most of my classmates. This differential translated into a variety of disadvantages on the playground, the setting for most of the unstructured, social education each day.

At some point, probably pretty early in the year, I landed on "watch Them and do what they do" as a strategy for navigating the uncertain waters of life in school. "Them" was probably anybody who seemed less afraid than I was.

So that day, in the cafeteria, when I observed the little girl across the table from me carefully tearing the brown edge from her bread-and-butter sandwich, I followed suit. When the substitute teacher noticed what I was doing, she pounced. I don't remember if she asked what I was doing or why I was doing it or if she just told me to stop. What I remember is my extreme mortification.

An early lesson about the dangers of following and trying to fit in.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin   Artist: Chris Rawlins
Discovering and making peace with how I am different and how I am just like everybody else has been an ongoing process. "Making peace" includes abandoning complaint about the differences, that "what is wrong with people!" attitude. An enigmatic, and perhaps ironic, commonality among humans is that we each "figure it out" in our own way. None of us is just like anybody else -- and that makes us just like everybody else. This basic truism informs whatever patience or empathy I muster for my fellow humans.

People may display what I deem monstrous or petty or foolish behavior. People do all kinds of things I would never do. And yet from their perspective or someone else's my behavior appears equally monstrous or petty or foolish. We each stand on different tracks. We exist in the same world but we don't see things exactly the same. We can't. We're standing on different tracks.

 One of the places where I learn this most often and most efficiently is in teaching. I share knowledge most effectively when I attempt to meet a student on their particular "track." They don't know what I know and they don't see what I see.  I start with "What do they know? How does the world look to them from where they stand?" The inquiry reveals priorities and symbols, learning styles, memories and beliefs, often quite different from mine; but these unique characteristics reveal the inroads I need to share with them what they have come to me to learn.

The regular albeit mysterious byproduct of this process is that I, the teacher, learn something. Including, how much I am like my students -- and how vastly different we are from each other.

And I experience, over and over, the miracle of transcending difference. Peaceful coexistence doesn't require that we all be just alike. (Thank goodness! since that's never gonna happen anyway.) I also don't believe it requires ignoring or pretending not to see our differences. ("Alex, I don't even notice that you're black," say well-meaning "white" friends.) We're missing a lot of the story when we interact with people as though they're just like us or we're just like them. We limit the possibilities and flatten the flavor of relationship when we avoid confronting our differences.

All my life, friends and family and others have hurled the exasperated question, "Why can't you be more like ___________?!" Time reveals that to be an undoubtedly hypothetical question. Who knows why we are each ourselves and not someone else? A more pertinent follow-up question is "Can you live with the reality that neither you nor I can ever be anyone but who we are?"

Doesn't mean we have to move in together but, for the forseeable future, we'll be sharing a planet. Can you work with that?










04 July 2014

I'm Sorry....Who are you?

So they apologized for the "secret psychological experiment" they ran on several hundred thousand Facebook users.

Which got me to thinking about apologies and forgiveness.

There's the apology your roommate makes after eating the last piece of quiche which you were actually saving for yourself. The two of you are standing in the kitchen about six feet away from each other. And you say, "Oh, that's OK. I'll get over it."

There's the apology you make when you show up 40 minutes late for your friend's wedding rehearsal. You dash into the church. You're panting (you sprinted from the parking lot). Your hair is standing all over your head and you feel like the worst friend ever, especially because you don't even have a good excuse. "God, I am soooooooo sorry. I just...." Your friend shoots a fiery look and tosses her head toward your assigned spot in line.

You are good friends. You've known each other a long time and been through some stuff together. You'll meet for lunch tomorrow like you always do on first Fridays and she'll forgive you. She'll give you some grief about "What is it with you?" but you'll laugh together before you leave the cafe and the whole thing will be a funny story before the year is up. You both know it's not the last time you'll pull a stunt like that.

In both cases, neither the apology or the forgiveness are much needed. Both parties recognized the "oops" when it happened, both wish it hadn't happened and neither will have difficulty recovering and moving on from the "injury" -- which is really too strong a word.

It works this way sometimes between intimate friends.

More serious strains pose complicated challenges to intimate friendship. Your friend steals money from you or betrays your confidence, for example. What if s/he doesn't offer an apology? Do you demand one?

What if s/he apologizes?  Is that enough? Can you pick up the pieces and move on?

The Facebook apology, however, doesn't concern a misstep between intimate friends. Headlines blare "Facebook Apologizes for Secret Experiment" but there is not, to my knowledge, a living person named "Facebook" so who actually apologized and for what and to whom?

An early report, published soon after news of the "secret experiment" broke, said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg offered "something of an apology."
“This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated,” Sandberg said during a meeting with potential advertisers in India... “And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”
The article (on the Time.com website) goes on to call Sandberg's remarks "a variant on the classic corporate non-apology: Sorry if we upset you." Apparently, Facebook, like the friend who came late to the wedding rehearsal above, has a history of pulling stunts that offend one or another million of their users. An article at the LA Times site lists some of the more notorious, including Facebook's deft non-apologetic apologies.
[The "non-apologetic apology" reminded me of Bill Clinton's non-apology about the Lewinsky "thing"....



I remember watching this live at the time. I'd forgotten he never actually apologizes in this speech. He evokes a sorta apologetic zeitgeist but never actually apologizes or asks forgiveness of anyone under the sound of his voice that night.]

When I hear people demanding that a corporate entity or  institution or club make a public apology

or complaining about the insincerity of a corporate apology

I feel like I've stumbled onto a Train to Crazyville. 

What would an acceptable apology even sound like? Does it require a face or is a well-written letter signed "Company Name" adequate? If a face is needed, should it be the COO or the CEO or the entire Board of Directors chanting mea culpa like a Greek chorus? 

Corporations are not intimate friends. We allow them to get pretty close to us but they aren't friends. I think attempting to assess or understand our relationships with/to/under/? corporate entities by the same standards that guide our relationships with humans is a mistake. 

I don't know completely or exactly what the standard should be, but parsing and scrutinizing the latest non-apologetic apology issued by someone we don't know who is acting as spokesperson for Acme Company for getting caught doing something they'll probably do again and have been doing for years behind those curtains so big we think they're the night sky? 

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

In 2005 I sat for a few days with Cindy Sheehan and a fluctuating number of other concerned Americans at Camp Casey--a fluid tent city erected at the gate to George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Cindy wanted to talk to then-President Bush about her son who was killed in the Iraq War. She sought an explanation or apology. Bush never visited the encampment while I was there but I understood the logic of whatever drove Cindy in those days. Something in her that believed apology and forgiveness require proximity.