Joyful Noise [Unfinished]

Mostly I remember the sound, a violence, so many decibels and from so many directions that I didn’t hear it so much as feel it, thumping in my chest like a second heart, shaking me apart like a secondary nervous system. A roar, like a behemoth awakened to devour the world. I remember the sound, and I remember how it felt to stand there in its epicenter, drawn up straight in the face of cacophony, exhilaration pulsing through me. Straight and tall like a soldier, chin up and eyes narrowed with pride, defiant and ready to fly.

I remember seeing shadows, white and blue, at the edges of my peripheral vision, others alongside me, armed with gleaming metals.

I remember glancing to the side – with eyes only, my head locked at attention – in time to see the huge countdown clock tick down to exactly twenty-one minutes.

I remember holding on to Martin, white-knuckled… a split second of panic as my rational self doubted whether I’d remember which way to move when the whistle sounded… the visceral shock as muscle memory took over and, summoned, pivoted my body into unlikely angles, propelled me down the forty-yard line toward the riotous thousands, one faceless cog in a thundering machine.

* * *

August, the last year of the twentieth century. It is going to be hot, perhaps dangerously so, but it is not yet 8 A.M. and I am in the shade of a cave made of concrete: the underbelly of Bronco Stadium, home of the Smurf Turf. I’m on the unfashionable side, lined with moldy abandoned racquetball courts that have long since been carpeted in avocado and rust and turned into leak storage rooms – the unfashionable side, where they forewent the expense of urinals and instead went with a chipped, stained trough for the fellows. (There’s no mirror in the ladies room, but at least it has stalls that usually have doors.) The damp coolness of the nearby river has soaked into the concrete and is seeping through the thin fabric of my shorts into my butt cheeks. I know how hot it will be by afternoon, so I don’t complain about the chill.

Leaning against a cobwebby pillar, I take in the familiar orange signs and the striated ceiling. I’m under the student seats, the ones closest to the touchdown cannon and farthest from the better concession stands. The ground is polka-dotted with dark stains from gum and what I would like to pretend wasn’t chew. Grime is chiseled into the painted concrete and brickwork, and litter is trapped under the forgotten deltas of gravel behind the great curving staircases to the upper deck. It is an unlovely, echoing, cavernous place. My tennis shoes are newly broken in, tied snugly around my feet, and already blackened in places. My nose is full of the smell of summer and the beach – NO-AD sunscreen from the big cerulean bottle, 40 spf because I’m a British Isles-complected redhead with a dead grandfather. I am 400 miles from the ocean, in my favorite place in the entire world, about to do something that I would take less for granted if I could now speak across time and tell my nineteen year old self to appreciate it as much as it is worth.

* * *

A saxophone reed is made of bamboo, cut thin at one end and thinner at the other. It is the color of honey, and when you put it on your tongue it tastes slightly sweet, or perhaps a little salty – umami, I suppose, if you ask the Food Network. That’s if it’s new; if the reed is well-used, it will taste like the Kool-aid we shouldn’t have been drinking while playing, or of chapstick, or, eventually, like paper, like nothing at all. The reeds are porous, so that we can see light through them when we hold them up to the sun. We can squish bubbles of saliva through it with our tongues, which we do frequently with the made-up authority of believing that it will moisten the fibers more thoroughly than a simple soaking.

There are two schools of sax players. Ours are the reed suckers, not soakers; we stand around like smokers, laughing and gesticulating with slivers of wood bobbing in the corners of our mouths. Some of us cheat at reed-breaking, which is an Old West-sounding term for taking a stiff new reed and wearing down the hard fibers so that they vibrate and respond to your command. The correct way to do this is gradually, deliberately – long hours of sustained low notes – or through the use of tools and technical precision better suited to clarinet players (that is, using a reed knife to gently shave the reed’s surface down). The correct way to go about things, we’ve been told, is to purchase a $20 box of reeds and meticulously go through them, discarding the bulk of them in our hunt for the ideal tongue for our horn. This is what the clarinet players do, what the “serious” musicians do. But us? We’re no fusty licorice-stick playing parlor-dwellers. We’re tough, we’re sax wranglers, the sort who would rather learn the trumpet part by ear than memorize the less exciting sax part by rote, and so we hold down the reeds with our tongues and use our front bottom teeth to ravage them, whittling and scouring the surface, crushing the fine fibers, cutting the work of reed-breaking – and likely the reeds’ lifespans – down to practically nothing. It feels good, like an animal barring its fangs.

* * *

Line the reed up perfectly on the mouthpiece, centered side to side with a symmetrical millimeter or two or black rubber showing past the tip. Strap on the little brass buckle, called a ligature, and tighten it around the reed just so – you know how much is the perfect amount without even thinking about it. If it is the year 2000, you have been doing this practically every day for the past nine years. It is as automatic to you as putting on glasses, tying a shoe, buttoning a shirt. By this point, Martin – that’s what you call your horn, because it’s a 1930s Martin alto saxophone, which means the name is engraved an inch tall on the bell – has already been hanging around your neck, a familiarly unbalanced dead weight suspended by a padded length of orange webbing. You have a nicer neck strap called a Neotech, so branded because it is made of Neoprene and some sort of stretchy cord that better distributes the not insignificant weight on your neck and shoulders. (For years after you stop playing, you will have upper-back trouble with Martin’s name all over it.) You could use the Neotech, but marching is a military sort of thing, and there is no room, in your mind, for stretch and slack in your ensemble. Not, of course, that an orange neck strap is precisely uniform… but at least when you tighten it to a precise degree you know that it will stay there. Currently the strap is adjusted so that the sax body makes a perfect elbow rest; you are leaning, in effect, on yourself, in some physics-exalting counterbalance.

Ah, Martin. Perhaps your first love, that. You have told a story about deciding to play saxophone after hearing a busker wail plaintive blues riffs over an indigo-dark Breckenridge alley, but that was afterward, after you’d already committed yourself, inspired by Dick Parry sax breaks, a passing comment by your grandmother, and – most pivotally – a Sesame Street segment where they went into a factory and showed sheets of brass being shaped into saxophone bodies, complete with honking sound effects. You will find that two-minute video clip online, nearly thirty years after it first aired, and spend half an hour digging through archival websites to solve the mystery of how you  have such a clear memory of watching it if you were only two at the time. (It turns out that they reused the Saxophone Factory clip in an episode a month before your ninth birthday.)

Martin came from under-bed storage in a Denver guest room where he’d rested for years after the death of his most recent partner, until your parents went to a yard sale and joked that what they were really looking for was a saxophone, only to be overheard by the widow who, until that moment, had forgotten Martin even existed. She’d pulled out the caramel case and popped the dark brass latches, revealing Martin reclined in a bed of plush ruby velvet, worn smooth around the edges, and rich with the smell of oils, old leather, disintegrating papers. He’d been lying there for several years, and had been an antique long before you were born. Like cheese or wine, a good musical instrument can ripen and richen with age; once the mildewed leather pads had been replaced, and the musty case aired out, Martin turned out to be a real find, a real treasure. Three hundred bucks, and about that again in initial repairs. Priceless. Of course, that had been the summer after fifth grade, and it would be some time before you could convince Martin to sing with any voice other than that of an outraged goose.

Years later, the curve of Martin’s body at the thumb rest, where the right thumb acts as a fulcrum, fits to your palm as if custom built. The arch of the bell tucks perfectly into the crook of your arm. Of course, it is you who grew around Martin, and not the other way around. Your fingers have learned to slip instantly into the hollowed spots in the mother-of-pearl button keys; your left pinky curls around the low B-flat key as it always has, even though it is technically incorrect and has carved a crease into the digit. Your right index finger rocks up to the palm keys and bounces on them like a racer bouncing on tiptoe before the starting gun, hearing the friendly click of machinery as levers respond to your touch. In a way, you have been assimilated: half flesh, half brass. It will be years before you first hear the term “steampunk,” but surely it was invented by a diehard saxophonist.

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Love is a Verb?

Following is my irreverent writing journal response to the host’s request that we listen to and write about John Mayer’s new song, “Love is a Verb.” With apologies to fans of Mr. Mayer and to the hosts, who intended it to be a very nice and thought-provoking writing prompt.

Love is a verb, according to John Mayer, despite the fact that he goes on to use it as a noun (“when you show me love,” etc.) and that’s true, obviously, because conceptual love is about as useful as hypothetical pizza. The purest everyday example of love-as-verb is your dog, right? When your dog is so excited to see you, just wants to be near you, not only for his comfort but for yours, when he’ll follow you cheerfully just because you are his and he is yours. But I’m not convinced that’s what this song is about. An old friend of mine once said that all music falls into two categories: pirate songs, and love songs. I’m gonna give you a hint right now and let you know that Johnny boy is a scurvy dog. This song is all about Mr. Mayer wanting to get laid, which is of course what all of his songs are about. Horny sonuvabitch, and manipulative, too — we’re all, “Aw, how romantic,” when really all he’s saying is, “that’s great that you say you love me, but would you please shut up and get naked already?”

Seaworthy

I have a tendency to think in metaphor. Today, when asked what qualities an effective administrator (i.e., principal) should have, the word seaworthy sprang to mind and lips.

“Seaworthy?” asked the man with the dry erase marker.

“Seaworthy,” I repeated. “A good administrator needs to be even-keeled — he or she needs to keep balanced even when the waters get rough. He [I defaulted to the masculine pronoun at this point because I had a particular male administrator in mind] shouldn’t go off the deep end or get capsized or bogged down in the mire. He needs to have an anchor, a fundamental set of beliefs that center him and hold him steady. He needs to be buoyant. He needs to move forward and to know which winds to choose to steer him — and he needs to be able to navigate by a diverse set of tools, from the niftiest newest data all the way down to simple conversations with his colleagues.”

Sometimes it is fun to be an English teacher.

What qualities do you look for in a terrific administrator?

End of the Dock on Payette Lake, 6:30 AM

In these bodies we will live;
In these bodies we will die.
Where you invest your love
You invest your life.

from “Awake My Soul,” Mumford & Sons

Music and silence — the kind of silence that is noisy with water lapping and bird call. Like Emily I’ve grown comfortable with my own company.

I wonder what Emily would have listened to if she’d had an iPod. Or is that a paradox — would music like this have existed if Dickinson hadn’t already done her thing? Would she have grown comfortable in the company of Pink Floyd and Mumford & Sons? Would she have found that they were, at times, all she needed — that rock and roll could save, or at least soothe, her soul?

The word of the day is defiance. I reject the idea that these scars are permanent.

Theologically speaking, I do not believe that music alone can save your mortal soul. But I do believe there are angels in the architecture, so to speak. I believe that some chords pleased the Lord, hallelujah, and that the Scriptures are not diminished by the stereo — or at least, not all stations.

My music is defiant. It is not always noisily defiant, although much of it pulses with aggression. Take “After the Storm,” for example, from the same album as “Awake My Soul.” I think sometimes I get more holiness from the songs on that album than I do in a month of sermons. “After the Storm” never gets aggressive or crazy, but can you feel the tension? Can you feel the strength?

I am stronger than this. I am defiant. This will not define me. I am stronger.

18 Truths and a Lie

Spiders don’t scare me
but I fear the sea
and also big fish
but I am compelled to the ocean
like Renfield. Before I was two
I fought a dachshund for a sweet roll
and lost. The doctor was three sheets
to the wind when he stitched up
my face. To this day
I have a debilitating fear
of breakfast pastry.
I’m allergic to wool and cashmere.
I used to have no fear
except bridges; my eyes can’t tell
if I’m two feet up or twenty
but I wanted to fly helicopters
for the Coast Guard. Last night
I dreamed I wedged in too tight
while spelunking, which is a silly word
for a way to bury yourself and die.
Today two love songs made me cry.
Today my father-in-law got out of jail.
My church wants me to preach.
I used to say I’d never teach.
Sometimes I don’t know what to do.
None of these things are untrue.

Remember

This is what you need to know:
It is okay.
It is okay to doubt,
to fear, to worry,
to lose sleep over things you can’t change.
It is okay to turn your back
and walk away
or to curl up and close up
and say no — no more, not now.
It is okay to cry.
It is okay to feel alone among friends
and so damned crowded
alone in your own head.
It is okay to stop.
It is okay to feel anger
when you know you should feel love.
It is okay
because
you are going to be okay
and then
you can breathe again.

Ishy

Today we read a children’s book called Ish, by Peter Reynolds, about a young boy who is an artist…ish. “Ish” is one of the best suffixes out there, and the book – which was fabulous, by the way – got me to thinking. I free-wrote a response after reading, and then went back to it some time later and responded to myself. The original writing is in bold and my responses are in regular face.

ISH. A lot of the time I feel like I am writing poem-ish things, or memoir-ish things. A lot of times I think I am writing…ish.

Interesting, really. I mean, I seem to devote a lot of energy to trying to write fiction, but did I even mention fiction here? Not at all. Of course, I’m never entirely sure that my poems are really poems (man, the ghost of Trusky haunts me) or that I have anything to memoir-ize about, but when I write they seem to fall into those categories. Heck, even my fiction reads like someone else’s memoir.

I am fairly certain that I am a good-ish teacher and/or that I am pretty good at teaching-ish.

A pretty important distinction, actually. Maybe I teach at a fairly decent ability level… or maybe I am good at doing something that is almost, but not entirely, teaching. I have a lot of doubt about my competence and quality as an educator. I worry that I am faking it too often….

I do not believe that I can erase the “ish” of all that. There is a lot of not quite and a lot of faking it.

Hey, that’s what I just said.

I think I am healing…ish. I think I am hopeful…ish.

Yeah… sometimes it is hard to tell. There are good days and bad days, to be sure. I don’t really recognize this emotional landscape anymore. It is extremely ish.

I am not sure if I am academic-ish (or if I want to be) or artistic-ish (or if I can help that).

I’ve always been the academic one, and my sister has always been the artistic one, but as we grow older the lines blur… and when we talk about things like that whole dynamic thinking model stuff, I have to say to myself that I am artistic-ish rather than saying I am not artistic, especially given that that isn’t even true unless I try to compare myself to my sister.

I am thinking of being schoolish vs. rigorousish.

Say that five times quickly.

I am thinking about faith, and how mine is shatteredish, and how I really don’t know how to feel about that other than very ishy. If I could find the pause button, or skip ahead over this scratch in the CD, I might be able to come down on one side or the other of my ishiness….

Tell me about it, girlfriend.

Thinking About My Practice

I believe that teaching English is a secondary concern to the real business at hand — that is, loving students. Because I am never really sure what other love they’ll get once they leave my room. And because I love them, I know them (or maybe I’ve got that backwards). Knowing my students and (as much as possible) their worlds is the heart of what I do and what makes anything else possible.

I know or try to know my students as individuals, learners, groups, and a cultural community. You have to pay attention so that you can connect the dots between their unschool world and the work we do in the classroom. I didn’t need that when I was a kid, but for the most part I am not teaching me.

“Cultural sensitivity” is redundant when placed after “RESPECT” but it’s important to remember anyway when you teach in my town.

My students are parents, some of them. They’re youngest kids in a line of eight white bread suburban Mormons. They’re AP test-taking, pot-smoking jokers bound for Humboldt, and they’re brilliant young wannabe gang-bangers who get caught cheating on tests they easily could have aced. They’re ELL-program exits who shouldn’t have been, mainstreamed SpEd kids who shouldn’t be, closeted (and less so) LGBTQ kids, products of teen parents, survivors of homelessness, basketball stars who sleep in cars, eleventh grade college football scholarship winners who live on a classmate’s couch, young men whose clothes betray them when they lie about not smoking, young men who don’t bathe, young men with handprints bruised into their upper arms, or fingertips crushed while branding cattle, or a baby carrier on their forearm. They’re young ladies with provocative spring break tattoos, turquoise hair, Jonas Brothers t-shirts and suicide attempts, young ladies with toddlers at home, with dark shadows (or are they bruises?) under their eyes, young ladies who read the collected works of Ayn Rand in fourth quarter of what would have been their sophomore year if they hadn’t skipped a grade.

Teaching is a transitive verb that must take a direct object AND an indirect object. I teach [a great many things, of which English is perhaps the least significant] to these young citizens of Planet Earth. And if I forget or neglect who they are beyond a name and a number in a gradebook, then I might as well stay home and send in the robots.

In the Beginning

I am not a God; I do not create.
I stagnate. I am empty. The greatest
art comes from a place of pain, so
here, God damn it — here is my
pain, here is my rage and my drowning
sense of hopelessness, here are my
tears and smeared mascara and stiff
neck muscles and nightmares, all piled up
at my feet — make something of that!
Combine these elements and animate them
into a muddy golem of despair.