Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
You know those quintessential kindergarten teachers you meet in picture books? They are always ready with a hug and a song, an endless supply of delightfully messy projects and deliciously nutritious snacks. They have a block area, a dress-up area, a big bucket of junk, and a welcoming lap. They have a reading corner crammed with colorful overstuffed pillows. They understand the importance of play. Mary Jo is one of those teachers, and then some. Her reading corner is a refinished antique claw foot bathtub which overflows with the comfiest pillows anyone’s ever snuggled into. That tub is where my daughters learned to love reading.
Because my girls attend a school with multi-age classrooms, their kindergarten teacher stayed with them for first and second grade as well. My daughters were born just over three years apart. Three years, three weeks, and two days to be exact. There isn’t any correct period of time between having children. Every age has its advantages and disadvantages, but the particular gap separating my daughters came with one unforeseen bonus. It allowed each of them to have the incomparable Mary Jo for three years straight. It presented me with six consecutive years to count my children’s blessings.
The result was six years of essential development in which my daughters built dynamic structures out of blocks, painted sensational pictures, created mysterious potions involving borax (mysterious because I am still not clear what borax is ever used for outside of potion-making), learned how to cooperate with others, and went on nature walks to discover the greatest joys in the simplest things. The ultimate result is that my girls love learning and, even in their relative advanced ages of twelve and nine, can’t wait to get to school every day.
Shortly after my youngest said her tearful goodbyes to Mary Jo at the end of second grade, she received a sweet letter from her teacher conveying beautiful wishes written personally for my daughter’s future, wishes which expressed knowledge of who my child is as no one else could have articulated. Truly touching sentiments which brought tears to my eyes that I will treasure forever.
Accompanying the letter was a newspaper article Mary Jo had found. It was about kids and summer time, how middle-class children today are formally scheduled for such a giant portion of their summer vacations – swim team, camps, classes on every subject under the sun. When they are home, they spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet and with video games instead of playing baseball in the sandlot. The author mourned the carefree days of her youth, playing in the street until nightfall and being allowed to get bored. This is a tricky issue.
I live in a large city but it is not just urban dwelling parents who worry about our children if we let them out of our sight. We know instinctively that they need to have the freedom to run and make their own mistakes and figure out the pecking order in the neighborhood. We also know that very real dangers may be lurking around the corner. I have a hard time allowing my children to walk the dog for more than a couple of blocks without taking a cellphone with them. That is not the world I grew up in, nor the one I want to live in.
I have rarely seen my children more happy than on a family vacation to Siesta Key, on Florida’s west coast. The beach was wide and mostly empty, of people and obstacles. We all loved time on the sands before sunset. My wife and I strolled and enjoyed the time to connect that only vacations can bring. Our girls ran wild for what seemed like miles. Naturally, or perhaps environmentally cautious, they would turn to check in once in a while, but essentially they had the freedom of the whole beach. It was a magical time and one we find hard to duplicate at home. The story serves as a good reminder to take more vacations, but also brings up an important question. How can we find a balance between protecting our kids and giving them space to grow up to become independent thinkers and adventurers?
A wise friend once told me that she thought it was important that children learn an essential lesson in life: how to be bored. The last time we moved house, while my wife and I were packing and organizing in the weeks leading up to the move, the kids got into the habit of watching more television than they were used to. From our point of view, it kept them quiet and out of the way. For them, it gave them some respite from the chaos.
After we moved to the new house, we didn’t get around to plugging in the TV for a few weeks. We were all busy creating our new spaces. Something else unexpected happened. My daughters re-discovered the joys of finding their way out of boredom without a television. They made a city out of moving boxes, they played cards together, they painted, they got to know the new kids in the neighborhood, they read books, they spent their time doing all the wholesome things we imagine kids did before the dawn of TV. When we eventually did connect the television, they were already in the habit of finding other things to do. They still don’t watch too often. They have discovered some child-friendly websites which keep their attention on the computer screen more than I would like, however they continue to create, to play, to read, and to run in the sprinklers.
In the summertime, my family tries to find a balance for the girls between camps, classes, and pure unadulterated downtime. Even I wouldn’t expect my children to entertain themselves for three whole months, time that was once set aside for them to help me bring in the harvest. However I do think they need to learn how to pull themselves up out of the well of boredom.
In the article that Mary Jo sent me, the author made a great point about how unstructured downtime allows the creative spirit to flow. Neale Donald Walsch makes the same point in his popular book Conversations with God. If we’re always busy, or spending our free time in front of a screen, how can we let the underlying seeds of our creativity begin to poke their heads into the light? Are we raising a generation devoid of poets, writers, actors and songwriters if we deny our children the space to find their way out of boredom?
As a part-time writer who has a full-time teaching job and a family, both of which require great chunks of my time, I struggle with these very questions. It’s not that I cannot make the time to write, but I find myself with very little downtime in which to simply cogitate, to let the ideas flow. If I structure my life so that I am continually busy, constantly keeping occupied by the list of things I have to do, I will never learn to find my way out of boredom. I will minimize the development of my creative abilities. The artist in me yearns for that kind of time. The responsible adult hates to give it up.
There is infinite wisdom in Robert Fulghum’s famous essay All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. One of his recommendations goes like this: “Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” I know Mary Jo agrees with this sentiment.
As teachers, she and I have talked about the difference between the work we are paid to do and the work done by our friends and relatives in the so-called ‘rat race’. My work was once dismissed by someone close to me who claimed that “those who can do, and those who can’t teach.” Baloney. Not only have I worked alongside incredibly talented teachers who could be outstanding artists, managers, engineers, and stockbrokers, I have personally trained former architects, lawyers, soldiers, and salespeople to become teachers. They wanted to contribute to the common good. The way Mary Jo describes it, those of us who teach may not be turning a profit, but we are affecting the future by molding young minds.
I know that Mary Jo has been instrumental in teaching my girls to live what Fulghum calls a balanced life. Under her guidance and tutelage, they learned some and thought some and drew some and painted some and sang some and danced some and played some and worked some every single day. They continue to do so. With the tragic cultural shift towards standardized testing and away from arts programs in our public schools, much of what Mary Jo teaches every day has been tossed by the wayside. It shouldn’t be. It is through the kind of learning that goes on in Mary Jo’s kindergarten, first, and second grade class that our collective future lies.
I want my children to know facts. I want them to know how to balance a checkbook, read the smallprint, speak a foreign language, and learn the lessons of history. I also want them to exist in the world as artists. I want them to create their way out of boredom, out of a problem, and out of the box. I want them to be independent thinkers and adventurers. I want them to work well with others, to find the joy in learning, and to love life.
I know that they have received an outstanding start at the hands of an unbelievably talented educator and friend. I am filled with awe and gratitude.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
My sixth grader is beginning her first science fair project. It’s a vast undertaking, a mammoth enterprise incorporating multiple pieces and parts. There are forms to fill out and permissions to procure. Her teacher has given her a substantial heap of instructions. Rubrics abound. She feels excited and ready for the job. Not me. It brings up all my insecurities.
Science teachers scare me. At our school, we have wonderful science teachers. All women. Delightful people. They are talented and engaging teachers; they behave in public; you could even invite them out to dinner and they wouldn’t embarrass you. But there is something that sets me on edge.
It may be that they are just way smarter than I. They know the periodic table by heart, they can discuss the intricate details of oxidation and photosynthesis, they are immune to disgusting smells, they know the difference between Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and they are comfortable handling creepy animals.
One of the science teachers at my school keeps two tree pythons in a large glass tank in her classroom. She actually lets her students touch these insidious creatures. The kids encourage the snakes to crawl around their waists and necks and they even bring them outside at recess. There is nothing worse than minding my own business, supervising kids at play, nursing my steaming cup of coffee, and thinking about how much more fun it would be to be lying on a beach in Mexico, when some irksome middle schooler ambushes me with a deadly reptile, forked tongue inquisitively probing my outer ear. I think the science teacher puts them up to it.
I was never very successful at science at school. I think it was an early sign of my unwillingness to follow rules. I was taught that science required me to stay within the lines. It bade me adhere to strict principles, abide by specific guidelines. It forced me to acknowledge that certain laws were not negotiable. The liberal artist in me couldn’t deal. I wanted to create, to experiment without a hypothesis, to throw a whole bunch of hydrochloric acid into the beaker and see what would happen. My English and history teachers loved me. I always failed science tests.
My science teacher’s name in elementary boarding school was Mr. Parsons. He had one of those bushy mustaches which were so fetching back in the seventies. Mr. Parsons was a former policeman, a fact which clearly made him uniquely qualified to teach fourth grade chemistry. He used to hurl blackboard erasers at my head if I talked in class. The wooden kind. He was a sadistic son of a gun. Maybe this is why I didn’t learn very much science. I think Mr. Parsons was hired because the headmaster had a thing for his wife’s alabaster skin and winsome smile.
In high school, my chemistry teacher was Mr. Packard, he of the throbbingly large nose and the insipidly monotonous voice. Chemistry under his guidance only existed in formulas, never in action. I copied down pages upon pages of molecular formulas, but don’t recall touching any equipment with my hands.
Mr. Hinge taught physics. After one year, he gave it all up to become a priest. I never got the chance to ask him where he stood on evolution.
My biology teacher was Dr. Upshaw. While not a medical professional, he took it upon himself to perform exploratory examinations on all incoming freshmen. Why I am not quite sure, but one was trained not to ask such questions in English boarding schools. Dr. Upshaw was a prober and pronounced the letter “s” as “sh”. “Looshen your troushersh” is a phrase I will not readily forget.
But that is all in the past. Thirty years later, I am learning to become open-minded about science. My daughter and her lab partner are encouraged to think outside the box, to design their own experiments based on what they find interesting. They are conducting a study of whether exercise affects short-term memory. This is cool stuff. I’m hoping it will shed light on the fact that the longer I go between visits to the gym, the harder it is to find my car keys. I have been assuming that it was just age, but there may be method behind my madness.
The budding scientists are developing an excellent understanding of the scientific process which will set them in good stead as they discover the wider world. They are holding themselves accountable and having to keep excellent records, traits from which I could learn as tax day rolls around each year. They have to discuss their results and be open to the possibility that they might be wrong. Dr. Upshaw needed a strong dose of that. They also get to design a really eye-catching poster – with colorful accents, intriguing vocabulary, appealing pictures, and attractive graphs.
My daughter’s science teachers are doing amazing work. Science is teaching her to think for herself, to use her resources wisely, and to be inquisitive about her world. Where was that when I was in school?
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
On Tuesday November 25, the Denver Post published my essay 'Painting Pottery' under several headlines - all of which are more fun than my own! - "A dad fires up his inner artist", "Inner artist wins out over party pooper", and "Dad's feet of clay lead to pottery bliss". I have learned that there are people whose job it is just to write headlines. Thanks, guys! In addition, the folks at Ceramics in the City, the pottery studio where I had my breakthrough moment, were happy to be mentioned in the paper. They have linked both the Post essay and this blog on their website. I am pleased to be able to return the favor here.
It feels good to be getting out there. I am very grateful for my two families, Laura, Emma and Leah, and my Stanley BPS family, for being so excited for the publication and for all the amazing support.
The links to my Denver Post essay and Ceramics in the City appear at the bottom of this blog. Scroll down...
Friday, November 21, 2008
My friend Craig and I are different in many ways. I’m a dog owner. He doesn’t even have a hamster. He’s Jewish. I’m an intermittent agnostic. I’ve got a vehicle that can carry large items. He has a Volkswagen sedan. He’s got an unfortunate sense of timing. I’m more cautious. Random and fairly extraneous pieces of information, I am aware, but they all coalesced quite memorably this week.
Craig called me one day to ask if I could help him with an event he was hosting at his synagogue. His neighbor was lending him some long tables. Could he borrow my van and my time to help him haul the tables? “Absolutely,” I said, “I’ll be over after dinner tonight.” Even though I was feeling a little under the weather and my nose was congested, I was happy to help and glad for the opportunity to meet. I had some news about my writing career that I wanted to share with him.
After work, I drove home. While my daughters wrestled with homework and my wife concocted something delicious in the kitchen, I took the dog for our daily constitutional around the block. My dog’s name is Polo. He’s small, white, fluffy and very friendly. When you meet my dog, you understand that I have girls. My boss told me that I must be extremely comfortable in my manhood to be seen with a dog like this. Indubitably.
I live in an urban area. Both the city ordinance and the morality of being a responsible dog owner dictate that my jacket pocket is loaded with orange bags, the ones in which my newspaper is tossed upon my porch each morning. Polo and I walk. He pauses to deliver the unmentionables. I scoop, tie a knot in the bag. We walk on. There is an unwritten code of silence between us. I don’t question his choice of locale. He doesn’t ask why I am so eager to collect his contributions. Once or twice I have been caught unarmed, bagless. Fearful that I would be seen and reported by the neighborhood watchdogs, Polo and I scurry home, seize a bag, and return to the scene of the crime to remove the evidence, to eliminate his eliminations, so to speak.
I share this because, as Craig and I drove away from his neighbor’s garage with the tables, he started telling me how amused he was by an incident that he had witnessed a few minutes before. A dog was doing his business, smack dab in the middle of Craig’s front lawn when he pulled up to park. It was after nightfall. His headlights were on. Both dog and owner were caught in the glare. The owner quickly performed the scoop-and-tie maneuver and the pair went on their slightly shamefaced way.
Craig naturally got to wondering if the owner would have disposed of the goods if she hadn’t been surprised in the spotlight. Fancying himself somewhat of a post-enlightenment philosopher, Craig reflected on the further ramifications of the situation. If the owner was an inconsistent scooper, if she sometimes picked up and sometimes didn’t, what would the dog think? Would he feel rejection? Would he worry that some of his offerings might not pass muster? Might some of them not meet his owner’s exacting standards? Would it be possible for him to somehow fail or succeed, based on the scooping actions of his owner? As his listener and friend, I worried, truly agonized, about the kinds of things that Craig thought about in his spare time.
As one might expect, this line of conversation soon exhausted itself and I began to share my news with my friend. Craig is an excellent listener and a wonderful fan of my work. As I was relaying my good fortune, he seemed uncharacteristically distracted and inattentive. Something in the darkness was bothering him. “Excuse me just a minute, Steve,” he interrupted. He’s also very polite. “Do you mind if I turn on the light?”
“Of course,” I replied. Craig flipped the switch to reveal the biggest wad of dog excrement that could possibly cling to the underside of a shoe.
“Oh, shit!” he yelled out. And I couldn’t help but wonder, what would the dog think?
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Whether you voted for him or not, the election of Barack Obama is without question a watershed moment in the country’s history. Throughout the long months of the campaign, the so-called race factor was consistently downplayed. While African Americans registered and turned out to vote in record numbers, both the Obama campaign and prominent leaders in the black community were quick to stress that the candidate’s race was not and should not be a major issue.
Fast forward to the hours immediately following Obama’s victory. The mood among all his supporters was euphoric. The celebration in the black community in particular was ecstatic. African Americans danced in rapture in the streets. Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Jesse Jackson and Congressman John Lewis, wept openly. Oprah became, in her words, unleashed. Whoopi whooped and Maya Angelou expressed graceful thanks. There was an outpouring of emotion and grand proclamations of the immense significance of the election. A black man was coming to the White House.
On the weekend following the election, my local newspaper carried a story by Wil Haygood of the Washington Post. It touched on the history of blacks in the White House. In 1901, “President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, to meet with him at the White House. Roosevelt was careful not to announce the invitation, fearing a backlash, especially from Southerners.” Certain southerners found out and the response was swift and filled with hate.
According to Haygood, the first African American to work in the executive branch was E Frederick Morrow who was an administrative officer for special projects in the Eisenhower White House, appointed in 1955.
But someone had beaten him to it. Many blacks worked in non-political jobs in the White House. One of them was Eugene Allen who was hired as a butler in 1952. For $2,400 a year, Gene Allen polished silver and washed dishes. In the bowels of the President’s official residence, he plugged away at his menial job for thirty-four years. He felt proud to serve his country’s leaders.
Rewards came. Not only did Gene and his wife Helene shake the hand of every President he served, there was the special occasion in the mid-eighties when they were invited as guests to a state dinner. Nancy Reagan called Gene about the dinner, asked him how preparations were going, and then surprised him by inviting him and his wife, not to work, but to sit as their guests alongside world leaders. It was an honor they would never forget. Helene fondly remembered drinking champagne that night, champagne no doubt that her husband had stored.
Gene’s birthday was on the same day as Gerald Ford’s. When the Fords celebrated the President’s birthday, Betty always made sure Gene’s was mentioned as well. The Allens have fond memories of the Carters and the Kennedys. Through some of the darkest times in US history and through some of the best, Gene Allen was at work for his President. From the early fifties until the mid-eighties, there were some tough times being a black man carrying trays down the halls of power. Segregation, violence, protest marches and assassinations. Gene and Helene Allen saw it all.
Slowly, over the decades, they saw a few more African Americans creep into the influential inner circles, culminating in Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice’s consecutive appointments as Secretary of State. In Haygood’s words, “the butler remembers seeing both Powell and Rice in the Oval Office. He was serving refreshments. He couldn't help notice that blacks were moving closer to the center of power, closer than he could ever have dreamed. He'd tell Helene how proud it made him feel.”
And now this man. Obama. More than twenty years after Gene Allen stacked away his last wine glass, he and Helene were on the verge of seeing an African American man ascend to the highest office in the land. Some said he’d be the most powerful man on earth. Interviewed for the Washington Post, their excitement was palpable. Now in their late eighties, Gene and Helene prepared to get dressed up on Election Day and cast their vote for one of their own. How proud that would make them feel.
The day before that momentous day, Helene had a morning doctor’s appointment. Gene rolled over in bed to wake up his wife. She did not respond. He walked over to her side, but still she would not wake. After sixty-five years, the marriage had come to an end. On Election Day, Gene voted alone.
Helene never made it. But I know that, somewhere up there, this woman, who had shaken the hand of eight Presidents, knows who won. She knows that the baton has been passed to a new man, an African American man. There is a black man in the White House. For Gene and Helene Allen and for me, how proud it makes us feel.
Thanks to Wil Haygood. His article A Butler Well Served by This Election appeared in the Washington Post on 11/07/08 and is the inspiration for this story. Post photographer Kevin Clark’s photo of Gene and Helene appears here.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Family members, celebrities, teachers, historical figures, community leaders.
For me, growing up in southern England in the 1970s, my heroes were the stars of the Arsenal football team as they made their historic title runs – Brady, Macdonald, and others. Action shot posters covered my bedroom walls. In my early twenties, as college opened my eyes politically, I read voraciously the works of those fighting apartheid: Gordimer, Woods, Coetzee, Malan, Mphahlele, Paton. I met a couple of them – Donald Woods when he came to speak at my university and Es’kia Mphahlele when I taught his grandsons in Denver. I remember celebrating the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 as I had celebrated a few months before the last-minute goal for Arsenal which brought home the English championship. As we grow and change, so do our heroes.
I recently had the great honor of meeting my latest hero. A gentle and wise man in his seventies, he looks a lot like the Father Christmas of my childhood. He is blessed with a full head of white hair, a downy beard, a portly profile, a warm smile, and a bountiful heart. A storyteller, a gifted writer who describes the world as I wish to see it. For him it is a place of goodness and laughter, and generosity of spirit. He is quite possibly the single most influential voice in my own writing.
Robert Fulghum may still be best known for the essay that propelled him into the public eye - All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It remains a wonderful philosophy by which to live. He has since written eight best-selling books. A former cowboy, minister, and teacher, Fulghum now divides his time between Moab, Utah, Seattle, Washington, and the Greek island of Crete. Lucky fellow.
He also travels for speaking engagements where, last month in Lakewood, Colorado, I was fortunate to hear him reflect on his latest musings, share some wonderful new stories, and re-tell some old favorites. I especially enjoyed the one about Norman, the little boy who single-mindedly decided he was going to be the pig in the play of Cinderella. His wise and experienced teacher allowed him free reign and Norman stole the show. During the course of the evening, Fulghum had his listeners laughing and crying; he snapped a photograph of the audience – to inspire him during the lonely moments of the writing life; he even had us singing the words to Itsy Bitsy Spider to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth. A delightful couple of hours.
Most memorable and inspiring was the opportunity to meet the author following his talk. The usual line of book buyers and autograph seekers formed in the back of the hall. I too joined the line. I had no clue what to say to the man who was expecting to sign a copy of his latest book. What could I say to someone I knew so well, through his reflective writing, yet not at all?
As the line in front of me got progressively shorter, I had a brief moment of star-struck panic. I am a sensible, even-keeled schoolteacher in my early forties. Fulghum is a self-described old geezer, a moderately well-known author who writes about the everyday. This was not the latest pop sensation confronted by hordes of adoring fans. I wondered about buying one of his books to give myself a prop, something to talk with him about, but I owned all the titles for sale that night. Now second in line, I worried that I would be speechless, or worse, mumble something inane.
My turn came. The author reached out to sign the book I hadn’t bought. He looked up at me. “I’m Steve,” I said, as calmly as I could. “Nice to meet you, Mr Fulghum.”
“Nice to meet you too, Steve,” the baritone voice of wisdom responded. Well, that didn’t buy me a lot of thinking time. A pause, enough time to tell my hero the only thing that really mattered. “Thank you.” I briefly told him that I was a teacher and a director of children’s theater, that I too had encouraged my own Normans to find their place in the limelight. And I thanked him for his incredible body of work and for being the writer with the most influence over my recent commitment to write and my decision to publish my work online.
Fulghum’s response? He reached his hand over the desk to shake my hand, to thank me for doing what I do, for inspiring children, and for pursuing my art. I was honored and touched by his gesture and his words. The renowned author, who had just spoken to hundreds, whose books have sold in the millions, wanted to shake my hand? It was the response of a humble and gracious man.
Mr Fulghum, I hope you have an opportunity to read this one day. You made my day and gave me further encouragement to follow my passion. For that, you are my hero.
Painting of Robert Fulghum by Dimitris Katsigiannis from www.robertfulghum.com
Monday, October 27, 2008
I am coming to understand something that wise people have known for eons. It is our responsibility to make our intentions clear to ourselves and to put them out to the universe. In turn, the universe moves to help us reach our goals. In mysterious ways, it brings the right people to us at the right time. With no perceived effort, the path is revealed and answers become clear.
I have been writing with intention for only a few months. With a couple of exceptions, my essays have been a closely guarded secret. However I am beginning to consider myself a writer and I now know that I want my writing to reach a wider audience.
It is Monday. Last Friday I took a leap. Without knowing how it would be received I created this blog. On Saturday I let my friends in on the secret. On Sunday, I received many positive comments and one suggestion from a friend that I send my work to a features editor at the Denver Post. On Monday, today, I was asked to submit a piece of writing to the paper. There are no promises to publish, and I have to cut my work to size, but I am over the moon.
I have faith that the things that are meant to be will happen. To my readers, thank you for your support and encouragement.
Friday, October 24, 2008
I’m what you call a part-time sports fan. I don’t subscribe to cable TV. My weekends are not given over to endless football games. My entertainment dollars are more often spent at the bookstore or the theater, than at an arena. The wretched excess and ridiculous salaries of professional sports appall me. Yet I do spend time watching the Olympic Games every couple of years and I do enjoy the occasional baseball game.
I moved to America, to Denver, just before the Colorado Rockies were born. The baseball team, not the mountain range. As I was immersing myself in my new home and a new culture, the city of Denver was being introduced to professional baseball. And I was swept along in the excitement. Everybody was a fan. The stadium was sold out for every game for years. The team broke every attendance record in the books. It was a fun time to be a casual fan. Go to a game, sit in the sunshine, eat hotdogs, and cheer, surrounded by 50,000 of your closest friends.
However, like all new toys, the luster wore off, the results never quite lived up to the promise, and the city turned its attention to other matters. Not me however. I still went to my handful of games a year, listened on the radio every night while washing the dishes, and checked in with the box scores in the morning paper.
It was on one of these forays into the sports pages in the spring of 2008, that a short paragraph, parked in a corner of an interior page, caught my eye. There was a small picture and the following headline accompanied by a few words: “Good sportsmanship carries the day” (Denver Post 5/1/2008)
I like headlines like that. Such a refreshing change from the usual doom and gloom. I read on. In a women’s college softball game between the universities of Western Oregon and Central Washington, senior right-fielder Sara Tucholsky, hit a home run. As she made her turn at first base, she failed to touch the base. Turning to make a second attempt at touching it, she twisted her knee, fell to the ground, and was clearly unable to complete a tour of all the bases, a requirement to score the home run.
How could an experienced college player fail to complete such a basic task, I asked myself. After a little research, I discovered that Sara Tucholsky was not one of the stars on her team. Over her entire college career, she was a .153 hitter. Most players would get kicked off their team for such ineptitude. Over the last four years, Sara had a hit every six and a half times she came to the plate. That’s like you or me showing up to work for half the days we are supposed to. She had never hit a home run, not once, not in a game, not even in practice.
And here, in her last season, she finally muscled the ball over the outfield fence. Not only that, two of her Western Oregon teammates were on base in front of her, meaning this was a three-run homer, a dinger of monumental proportions which would give her team the lead in the game and ruin the last chance the Central Washington team had of winning the conference and making the playoffs. Sara Tucholsky was so surprised at herself, so ecstatic at watching the ball sail over the fence, that she failed to touch first base.
Realizing her mistake, she made a quick turn, felt something in her knee pop, and crumbled to the dirt. Her first base coach couldn’t help her because softball rules state that if her coach touched her she would be out. In pain and humiliation, she crawled back to first base.
Her head coach ran from the dugout to confer with the umpires. The rules were clear. Sara would not get the home run unless she touched all four bases. She could not be helped by her coaches or teammates, and if they substituted a runner for her, she would only be credited for a single, for the one base she had reached. Her coach did not know what to do. In one of her last games, Sara Tucholsky had hit a home run, was finally the star of the show, and she was sitting in agony in one corner of the diamond.
Into the picture comes Central Washington first basewoman Mallory Holtman. Mallory was everything that Sara wasn’t. The big star on her team, the all-time home run hitter in the Great Northwestern Athletic Conference, the player with the most to gain by her team winning the championship. Mallory knew exactly how to solve the situation successfully.
She checked in with the umpire and inquired whether they was anything in the rules about an opposing player helping an injured home run hitter around the bases. There wasn’t. Putting aside her team’s playoff aspirations, Mallory Holtman, along with shortstop Liz Wallace, picked up the Western Oregon hero and carried her to second base. By the time they got there, they were laughing. Mallory asked Sara which leg was injured; told it was the right one, she and Wallace gently lowered Sara down so she could touch the bag with her left leg.
Moving on to third, the whole crowd was roaring. Players and coaches from both teams were standing in support. Rounding third, and heading for home, the applause was immense. Players and spectators were in tears. The five foot two Sara Tucholsky, clad in red and white, being carried to her ultimate goal, the only time she was ever going to reach it in her life, by the kindness and compassion of her opponents. She touched home plate to a thunderous ovation, tears streaming down her cheeks. When asked later about missing the playoffs, Holtman, the star who already had all the home runs, said, “In the end, it is not about winning and losing so much. It was about this girl. She hit it over the fence and was in pain and she deserved a home run.” Amen to that.
Mallory Holtman deserves a place in the annals of sports history. Who won or lost this game may not be remembered. What will be remembered is the grace and willingness one person showed in helping another in need, a magnanimous heart reaching out in selfless concern for another. This act will keep Mallory Holtmans’ place in the sun.
A few months later, I was reminded again of this story. I was at home watching the Games of the XXIX Olympiad from Beijing. The Olympics Games are the epitome of good sportsmanship. Or at least they used to be, before big money got involved. In 1908, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, wrote the creed of the Olympic Games: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
In the first part of the twentieth century, true amateurs matched strength, skill and wits against each other in good-natured competition and retired to the bar afterwards to share stories and a beer. Try telling that to the athletes of today, where a gold medal can lead to seven figure endorsements and the multi-millionaires of the professional leagues around the world are in it to win, and to pad their pockets. Corporate sponsorship and network ratings are king. Winning is paramount, along with getting one’s face on a box of cereal.
Enter Dara Torres, an American swimmer from Beverly Hills, California. Dara is no ordinary member of the U.S. swim team. This is her fifth Olympics. She has medaled in her previous four. The mother of a two year-old, at age 41, AGE FORTY ONE!, she is warming up for her last day of racing.
Now I know all about 41; I am uniquely qualified to tell you what 41 looks like and feels like. I can even tell you what it means to be a 41 year old swimmer. I turned 41 about twelve weeks ago, a couple of months after Dara Torres. I eat a respectable diet and exercise in the pool fairly regularly. But my back hurts, my hair is abandoning me at an ever-increasing rate, chopping wood for the fire does a number on my shoulder, I snore, I have occasionally been known to drool on my pillow, and my doctor checks things in places he never did before. When I do swim, and I try to get in a decent number of laps of the pool a few times a week, it is taking me longer, with greater need for breaks. Bottom line, I am fatalistically resigned to the fact that I am no longer twenty and my body wants me to slow down.
Dara, she is competing on the world’s brightest stage with women less than half her age, in the flower of their youth, with girls who were not born when she first dived into Olympic waters. In fact, she was competing in her third Olympic Games in the year that one of her present-day opponents, an Australian, was born. And, in truth, this could have been her seventh summer games. She began her Olympic career in Los Angeles in 1984 with a gold medal. She continued in Seoul in 1988 (a silver and a bronze), Barcelona in 1992 (gold), missed Atlanta in 1996, was a five-time medalist in Sydney in 2000, and then did not participate in Athens in 2004. At the ripe old age of 33 in Sydney, she could have been forgiven for hanging up her goggles. But now here she is, eight years later, in China’s capital city, going for her eleventh and twelfth Olympic medals – in the span of less than an hour.
With one silver medal from a team relay race already under her belt in these Beijing Olympics, she is now emerging poolside to go for individual gold in the 50 meter freestyle race.
50 meter freestyle. That’s the shortest race there is, the one which requires the most power. The winner has to explode off the blocks and hurtle herself down the pool with no regard to those in the next lanes. Pure energy and speed. The eight contestants emerge knowing that Dara Torres qualified with the fastest time. They are intensely focused. They are silent, determined, one objective in mind: winning. They are concerned about no one but themselves and the goal they have worked a lifetime to achieve. They take their places by the starting blocks when Torres leaves her station and walks to the side of the pool. What is going on? This is peculiar to say the least, and certainly unprecedented. Approaching one of the race officials, Dara is requesting a delay of the race.
One of the swimmers, Therese Alshammar from Sweden, has not come out to the pool deck with the other competitors. Dara is informing the judge that the racer’s super-thin, new-age swimsuit ripped while she was warming up. She is back in the changing room desperately trying to change into a new suit and take her place in the race. Would it be possible to hold off the race for a couple of minutes to allow the Swede to participate? With a worldwide TV audience and a tight schedule, the answer is unclear. But the experienced American, one of the most decorated athletes in Olympic history, persists. She does not take her position on the starting block until all eight finalists are present and ready.
It is one thing at my daughter’s school field day, to make sure everyone is ready to take their marks and get set. Usually the teachers are the ones who notice and hold up the race. But this was a top contestant at the highest peak of international competition, in the gold medal final of the Olympic Games, making sure that everyone was included. It is not the winning that counts, but the taking part. And Dara Torres was going to make darned sure that everyone took part.
As for the race, Torres did not win gold. She took silver, beaten by the smallest of margins: one one-hundredth of a second. Upon seeing the results, her face broke into the most beautiful smile. She had done her best, beaten her personal fastest time and the Olympic record to boot. Her comment following the race? “I’m totally thrilled. I realized I shouldn’t have filed my nails last night. But it’s my best time ever. As much as I wanted to win, I’m very happy I got the silver”.
Alshammar was thrilled too. Thrilled to participate, thrilled that a 41 year-old mother, a medal favorite, an experienced competitor who was supposed to be focusing on herself and her own race, was looking out for others.
The other American swimmer in the final, nineteen years Torres’ junior, was quoted as saying: “To put things in perspective, she (Dara) was talking about childbirth in the ready room. She thought swimming was tough, but childbirth was harder.” Twenty minutes after collecting her silver medal on the podium, Dara Torres was back in the pool helping her teammates to another silver medal in the 4 x 100m medley relay, her third silver medal in the Beijing games. After the closing ceremony, she noted that some of the other swimmers were going to Bali or backpacking to Paris. They asked her what she was doing. “Well, I leave here at 10:30 Tuesday night and Wednesday I’m taking my daughter to school and I have a list of school supplies to buy.”
My guess is that that is one lucky little girl. She has a mother she can look up to. Not for all her accolades and medals, but because she is teaching her to share, to be empathetic and compassionate to others, and to enjoy and value participation over winning. Just like Mallory Holtman, she has been taught the lesson that being a good sport counts for more than being good at sports. We can all learn from this spirit.
I wonder if it’s not a coincidence that these stories are about women. If male athletes at the college or Olympic level had been present under the same circumstances, would the results have been the same? The caring male in me wants to think that they would be, but somehow I just doubt it. Would Sara Tucholsky, playing in a men’s baseball game, have been left at first base? Would Dara Torres, in a men’s event, have ignored the missing swimmer and kept her focus on herself? Probably. Women are competitive athletes, just like men, but they are also more likely to keep one eye out for their fellow athletes and to keep compassion in their hearts.
“The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” Which is more valuable – winning or caring? In the game of life, that’s an easy one.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
In 1991, Steve Martin starred in one of my favorite movies, L.A. Story. It has become a classic comedy both for its bungled romance and its parody of Los Angeles. The main character is introduced to the joys of colonics by a spinning spokesmodel called SanDeE. He is told by a British journalist, in a tone that only the English possess, that his offer to take her on a tour of L.A. culture would take just fifteen minutes.
The film might best be remembered for its talking road sign. Martin’s character is lost in career and love. The flashing sign on the side of the Santa Monica Freeway gives him guidance and direction. At first cryptic, the sign realizes it has to be direct to get through to this guy and it does not mince words: “Kiss her, you fool!”
I recently experienced a talking road sign of my own.
A few blocks from my house, there is a church. Nothing particularly beautiful about it. Lackluster architecture. red brick, a little landscaping, but mostly parking lot outside. And a rectangular white sign where they announce the times of worship and occasionally post a line from scripture for the drivers passing by. I am not a church-goer and I’m generally not big on Bible verses. So I tend to ignore the sign even though I drive past the church several times a week. I don’t turn a philosophical blind eye. I just have other things on my mind.
I had had a bad week. I was tired and cranky. I was feeling uninspired by work and was beginning to consider a career change. It had been a poor month financially. My kids were needing more of me than I had to give and my marriage was in one of those places where we were bringing out the worst in each other, instead of the best. I was seeing my life as a glass half empty, taking my anger and frustration out on those I love. I was mean and miserable. I didn’t want to see anyone or do anything. I was one big clu mp of gloom and ill temper.
The worst of it was that I was fully aware of how I was behaving around my family and why. I knew I was hurting those I loved. They weren’t liking me very much at the moment and I didn’t care. Not only was I wallowing in anger and self-pity, I was ignoring the skills I had learned to get myself out of such a place. I knew I was capable of making better choices. I didn’t want to and I didn’t care.
I met a wise old teacher once who told me to shake off my old patterns with the following delightful command: “If the horse is dead, get off!” In the present moment, the lifeless steed of my irritability was patently not serving me well, but it felt comfortable in a twisted sort of way.
And then I passed the sign outside the church. Of course, it did not really talk, but it spoke to me as clearly as if it had. In big bold capital letters, a quotation from the Dalai Lama – this must have been a cool kind of church – “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
The words hit me with crushing force. This is what had been sorely lacking in my life for the past week and I was dying. I had shown no love and compassion to anyone. As a direct result, I had not received any in return and I was on a downward spiral into darkness.
I may well have passed that exact sign before and never noticed it. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The sign broke down all my difficult issues and presented me with an easy and simple solution. Show love, kindness and compassion to others and things will start looking up. It is essential to who we all are at our core. If I did not feel like showing compassion at any given moment, I made up my mind to fake it until it felt right. When my children wanted something from me, I became loving. When my co-workers needled me, I showed compassion. When my wife began a conversation with me, I was kind and attentive. It really was that simple.
The immediate effect in my life, in my heart, in my family, was astounding. Such a simple choice, a new way of looking at the same old things, and I was able to create transformation at will. The sign was physically in the church parking lot but it also came from within. It did not flash or have a mind of its own like the one on the side of the freeway, but it spoke to me when I was receptive to it. I listened and I am grateful.
In my teaching, I believe in using all the resources at my disposal. I know I don’t have all the answers, so I seek out those who do. The Denver area is full of interesting places and people who can bring new insight to my classes.
We have museums and libraries galore as well as amazing outdoor venues. My students and I have been inside mines dating back to the gold rush. We’ve visited restaurants, banks and international grocery stores. We’ve hiked in the woods and howled at the wolves at the zoo. We have scrambled up ancient rock formations and taken in the theater. We’ve ridden a steam train and argued in the state Supreme Court. We have even taken a tour of the giant Coors brewery in Golden. No shortage of parent volunteers came along on that one.
However my favorite field trip may well be the place we visit the most. Next to my school is a shopping center and beyond that a place called The Village at Lowry. An unusual three-story building shaped in the form of an X. At last count it is the home of about hundred men and women aged seventy to ninety-eight, “a senior retirement community.” When I was growing up, it would have been called an old folks’ home. Visiting there is a delight.
For years now, my students and I have made the trek across the grocery store parking lot to the Village. Every school year, we parade our Halloween costumes, we sing, we create craft projects, and we play Bingo. Fifth graders don’t understand the meaning of competition until they’ve played a few rounds of Bingo with the residents of the Village. The seniors play for cash, fifty cents a win, and the kids play for candy, though I strongly suspect under-the-table wheeling and dealing.
My favorite time at the Village is “Story Collection Day.” It happens when we are studying our state’s history. The students begin the year by discovering their own families’ state history. They interview moms, dads, aunts, or grandparents about when their family first arrived in Colorado, how they got here, why they came, and so on.
After the kids have had a chance to practice on people familiar to them, we wander across to the Village to unearth some more stories. Some of the seniors have only moved to Colorado recently, usually to be close to a family member. Many were born in other places but have lived a long and full life here. And a few have long family histories in Colorado.
My students and I prepare a few questions ahead of time with which they can begin to explore, but they are strongly encouraged not to stick exclusively to those questions. Use them as a starting place, the beginning of the trail. Know that you will have no idea of which paths lie ahead. Be prepared to follow any of them. It will be an adventure and you won’t know where you’re going to end up until you arrive.
The residents show up in droves. A far bigger turn-out than Bingo. They are eager to talk, to share the tales of their lives and I wonder how many times they get an opportunity to talk about themselves. Many say that their families are so busy, they just don’t have enough time to visit them as often as they would like. Here was a willing audience of eager young faces, armed with clipboards and a fascination for good stories. Game on.
Mary is short and plump. Her gray hair is cut in a bob. She greets the children with a warm and infectious smile. Her sky blue sweatshirt reflects the gleam in her eye. My students are amazed to learn of her nine children, twenty-seven grandchildren, and seventeen great-grandchildren. They are all in town, except for one in the next state. She knows how lucky she is. She launches into an amazing story; “My great-grandmother was the first white person born in El Paso county. She was born in a covered wagon, yes she was. But her mother, my great-great-grandmother, took sick after she was born and died a couple of weeks later. Her father knew enough to know he couldn’t take care of the baby himself and he sold her for fifty dollars to another family. Fifty dollars.”
Mary’s husband, Harold, sits next to her. Tall and lean, more reserved as he eyes the students through his outsized glasses, he talks about his days in the Navy. Born in Missouri eighty-four years ago, he regales the kids with tales of bugs as big as horses, and how he loves the dry air of the high plains. “Not so good for ocean, though!”
Bob is losing his sight but still doesn’t miss his weekly poker game. Sometimes he arrives in the community room a couple of hours early, sometimes a few days. Poker is only on Tuesday afternoons. Bob was in the Air Force but he chose to describe the reasons he came to Colorado. He grew up in Virginia but his family came out on vacation to a dude ranch. He still remembers the names of the horses he rode all those years ago, Silver and Shadow. He loved the mountains so much, he brought his own family to Colorado to live and bought horses for his two young girls. “I just love them mountains,” he says. One of those young girls is a parent in my class.
Ethel is a sprightly ninety-eight, “the oldest broad in the place,” she claims and we believe her. Soft-spoken, the third grader asking about her stories has to lean all the way across the table to hear her. The image of the young girl making such strong eye contact with a dear old lady ninety years her senior, and holding it for thirty minutes or more, will be with me forever. Ethel grew up poor in Chicago and followed her older sister out west when the older girl got a teaching job at eighteen. Ethel still misses her sister greatly.
Jimmy is a character. Resplendent in his baseball cap, he loves to tease the children. It turns out Jimmy was a semi-professional entertainer. During WWII, he kept up morale in his troop with his song and dance routines. Later on, he flew into Vegas on the weekends for regular gigs, a means to supplement his income from his day job as a farm machinery salesman. The kids adore him. It also turns out that Jimmy lost his wife of sixty years a few weeks ago. The staff tells me how hard life is for him. I admire the valiant face he puts on for the kids and it is easy to see the small pocket of joy he finds in sharing his stories.
Oral history is alive and well. The children return to school passionate about the stories they’ve heard. They fall over themselves to share with each other the amazing events of their new friends’ lives. They are beginning to understand that they have stories of their own, worthy of sharing. Their stories may not end up on the front pages or in the history books but they are bound to bring joy to themselves and others. They are worth listening to.
Addendum: a couple of weeks after this story took place, my class and I returned to the Village for Halloween. The kids were in costume but the residents were not. With one exception - Jimmy. At eighty-two, he had on a blond wig and pink jumpsuit with a sign around his neck: Miss America 1910. A character indeed.
Photo: two of my students, Jayda and Hannah with a resident of the Village. Photo by Eileen Umbaugh.
I was writing at a Starbucks store on a busy street corner, when my concentration was constantly interrupted by a loud voice. Strong East Coast accent, nasal, quick manner of speech, non-stop chatter, barely time for breathing. It was the kind of voice that gets under my skin when it comes from my wife’s wizened relatives.
It was the lady operating the cash register. Fifties, heavy-set, she never stopped talking. She knew everyone. If she didn’t, she soon did. She spent her time leaning on the counter making connected conversation with every single customer who came through the door. Some were clearly regulars. But among those who were not, business folks, moms, urban youth, no matter who, they invariably left with a dose of the barista’s sweet smile, folksy wisdom, and genuinely kind wishes for a wonderful day.
Here was one restaurant employee who was genuinely thrilled to see and hear from every single customer. They heard her stories, they engaged in her questions, they responded to her smile. With the greatest ease, she heard the issues of her customers’ days and they shared their news. Mid-conversation, she warmly greeted each new person in line and sent them off with a verbal hug along with their double espressos and caramel Macchiatos.
Like me, you’ve probably been in coffee shops where the energy impatiently pulses with the pressure to create and procure caffeine concoctions in great haste. At the corner of Alameda Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in Denver on a sunny Saturday in July, I met a wonderful lady who found immense joy in being the embodiment of happiness and warmth.
I was reminded of lessons I have learned that we create our lives by the choices we make, in our thoughts, in our words, in our judgments of ourselves and others. Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change. Choose positive thoughts, keep your attention on your intentions, and you will manifest goodness and joy for yourself.
On this particular Saturday, I had left the house under a storm of disagreement with my wife over something not desperately important. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I seem to forget that I can choose how I see things and I tend to view my life through clouded lenses. What a crabby old world! On days like that, it can be hard to remember the positives.
And then into my life, for one brief hour, came the lady from Starbucks. I think I heard her say she was leaving the store soon, possibly moving out of town.
Wherever you are, whatever you are up to, thank you for making my day. Thank you for your generosity of spirit and your infectious good will towards mankind. Thank you for helping me get back on track. Thank you for living in a space I aspire to occupy more often.
My daily java is supposed to give a jolt to my nervous system. In the coffee shop that day, I received a wonderful gift, a free ride further along the road to creating the world I want.
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!” – Goethe
One of my all-time favorite quotes. It came to mind recently as my family was planning a day out for my daughter’s birthday.
She was turning 11, a big deal. It’s a wonderful family tradition that whoever in the family is celebrating a birthday gets to pick the day out. For my 40th, it was test-driving a Mini Cooper and Indian food. My kind of fun.
She was struggling to come up with an idea that she thought we would all enjoy. Her top choice, skiing lessons for the four of us, would have been great fun, but became a victim of the post-holidays budgetary blues. She just wasn’t quite sure what to choose. So I, ever the helpful paternal figure, put forward a number of exciting alternatives: bowling, ropes course, swimming at a pool with one of those giant slides. The stuff of champions, a day devoted to getting the blood pumping and the muscles churning. “No, Daddy,” came the reply. The women in my family, aged 7, the last days of 10, and somewhere north of my age, had come up with a plan. We were going to spend the day painting pottery.
Now I pride myself on being the kind of dad who gets involved with anything and everything my daughters love. I attend dance recitals, I drive to horseback riding lessons, I sit for hours and help with piano practice. I’ve even been to one of these paint-your-own-pottery studios before. They frighten me. Shelf upon shelf of empty white vessels awaiting the vision, the splash of color, the deft stroke of the brush. Everything I don’t have.
Even the colors are out to trick you. They look a certain way when you disgorge them onto the palette. They appear completely different when you apply them to your gleaming white nut bowl or postage stamp dispenser. And then, four days later, when you return to pick up your piece after it has cooked in a kiln, the colors are something else again. What you thought was going to turn out crimson and daffodil is in fact now puce and ochre. Not what you had in mind.
But my oldest daughter was only turning eleven once and I am a trooper. This was her day and I could do this. My initial alarm subsided to crafty plotting. Rembrandt I am not. Painting without numbers was out of my league, but I did think of a way I could participate. I’d bring along my trusty laptop and practice my form of art. The girls would paint. And I would reflect, record the momentous day by crafting words, and occasionally help out with useful comments. “Yes, sweetie, those colors match perfectly.” Actually, I knew they would never ask my opinion on hue or tone. They long ago figured out that I have no clue about the difference between mauve and burgundy, but I would celebrate their work and enjoy my own.
Then, at the last minute, as we were preparing to leave, one of those really good parenting moments came to me. It happens once every so often. What kind of dad doesn’t fully participate in his daughter’s birthday fun? What kind of party pooper am I that I couldn’t set aside my ego for a few short hours and take a risk? The computer stayed home and I ventured forth, minivan full of family, to Ceramics in the City.
We arrived. There were squeals of delight. My older daughter picked out a framed mirror. On previous visits with friends, she had already completed the horse head piggy bank, the wacky penguin statuette, and the handy pot with the puppy on the lid. My youngest immediately fell in love with the snowman placard with “Let it Snow” in fancy lettering. My wife, already a pro at this paint-your-own lark, gravitated towards a truly complex mosaic project.
And me? Left wandering, staring at all those blank slates, wondering what on earth I was going to do? What shaped bowl would I pick? Did I actually need a bowl? What color would it be? What design? Could I design? Why is bisque, apparently the name for unfired clay, named after lobster soup? Would I still be pondering these questions when the creative womenfolk in my life were finished and out the door?
With internal tension rising, I did what I know helps – a few deep breaths and a prayer to the Lord God Almighty – helllllppppp! Then I remembered the words of Goethe. I also figured that if this didn’t kill me, it would make me stronger. Who was I to disappoint my only eldest child?
I opened my mind and came across a small oval bowl which I felt I could handle. Well, it’s not really oval but I’m not so hot on my exotic shapes either. I perused the three ring binder labeled ‘Ideas’ and came across some stencils. Perfect – I had been formally trained to stay within the lines. Armed with this new safety net, I poked my nose above the wall of comfort and began. I created – in a medium other than words. Slowly, bit by bit, the scary stuff evaporated and I began to relax. Have fun even.
I selected my colors, I designed a background, and took meticulous care over my final design and finish. I used purples and yellows and greens, smooth textures and rough. I painted a gorgeous butterfly and a happy little caterpillar. I scripted three words which I aspire to be: connected, trusting, passionate. I loved this project. I was in the zone. No one could stop me now. When I next looked up, my wife and daughters had washed their brushes, put on their coats and were heading for the door. Two hours had passed by. “I’m not finished,” I wailed. They were gracious enough to wait, but they were ready for tea.
The bowl now sits on my writing desk, a messenger from a place called risk and a monument to my own boldness and creativity.
My own photo.
There is an annual event at my school called the Arts Festival. It is not, as one may suspect, a visual smorgasbord of paintings and sculptures, but a living, breathing mass of the variously talented and genuinely motivated. Three concurrent stages of every kind of music, drama, comedy, dance, magic tricks - even science demonstrations. It involves a roving audience of more than 700 students, teachers, parents, and grandparents and a lot of noise.
The school tried a more sophisticated version once that showcased those who took violin lessons, who actually practiced their piano regularly, and demonstrated strong potential in their chosen field. It was a pageant of true talent, a salute to the few, and a nice exhibition. It was nothing like the Arts Festival.
The Arts Festival is a teeming throng of willing participants, a deferential shrine to the attitude of “I can”. In fact, the attitude is more than “I can”; it’s “I don’t really know if I can, but I really want to, I’m as sure as heck going to give it a shot and I don’t care what anyone thinks.” I love the Arts Festival.
I used to despise it. All I could focus on was the woefully under-rehearsed and an audience given free rein to wander between performance spaces. The result was chaos. Any student, from the youngest kindergartner to the most experienced eighth grader, could perform pretty much anything they wanted as long as it passed their teacher’s approval. They were assigned a stage and a time. The audience was advised not to get up and leave mid-performance, but often did. The upshot was an impatient crowd watching a collection of either painful or enjoyable performances, possibly both.
Then, a few years ago now, I came to understand something many people in my school community had known for a while. This wasn’t chaos. This was opportunity. A chance for anyone to strut their stuff, to wave their banner and claim their place among the artists.
My daughter had just turned six and was invited by a friend to read a poem together. This is the same daughter who had been known to go through life clinging to my trouser leg, who wouldn’t answer the questions of acquaintances we met on the street, and who certainly wouldn’t volunteer to raise a hand in class. She and her friend, a lass cut from bolder cloth, were assigned a spot on the smallest of the stages. At the appointed time, they stood up, two shy smirks across their faces, and began. Barely audible at first, they proceeded through the poem, gaining confidence as they went. What the audience soon cottoned on to was the fact that this poem had no end. Written as a circle, the final line fed back into the first. As the girls swept through the third or fourth revolution, they soon burst into great grins and laughter as they realized they had the audience as putty in their hands. Two cute kids in ponytails with no end in sight. This was a memorable beginning to my daughter’s career on the stage which she has been building for several years since. A defining moment indeed.
Now I understood. The Arts Festival, this disorderly and shambolic fiesta that I used to dread, had just given my little girl a place to unfurl her wings and feel success in public. It met her with support and appreciation. If we still had the old, more sophisticated, selective version, she would have sat among the onlookers wondering how those performers ever got so good, but perhaps never knowing how to reach those heights.
Since that moment, both my girls have seized the opportunity to appear at the Arts Festival. They sing, they dance, they tell jokes, you name it. I continue to be amazed each year as brave souls steal the spotlight for a minute or two and show us what they are made of: young ones appearing on stage for the very first time; seasoned teenagers performing outrageous dances in even more outrageous costumes at the exact time of life when they are supposed to be conforming to their peers. It is a marvelous spectacle of bravery and folly, virtuosos and novices, everyone who so desires showing that they can.
My most favorite Arts Festival moment occurred just this year and didn’t feature one of my own children. On the smallest stage, in a room that can hold forty people in a squeeze, a tiny child and her friend were preparing to perform. Dressed in a pretty pink dress, the younger one, the five year old daughter of a friend, looked adorable. Cherubic face, blond hair trussed immaculately, you could tell why, when a colleague wanted to appear at the school’s annual Halloween parade as Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, it was this little one whom he asked to be Cindy Lou Who. This girl was a perfect match.
However on this memorable occasion, Cindy Lou was not sure. She and her friend had signed up for their time slot. They had practiced. They knew the words and the moves, but the pressure of the big time was clearly overwhelming. Looking embarrassed, Cindy Lou turned to her friend, the older, wiser, six year old. From three rows back in the audience, I couldn’t hear the words they exchanged, but from the shaking of the head and the falling expression on the face, it wasn’t hard to ascertain that some serious second thoughts were in process. This little girl was not going to perform, not in front of this crowd, not anywhere that wasn’t in the privacy of her own bedroom. The crowd, her parents, other adults, some classmates and a smattering of older students waited patiently. The conversation on the stage wasn’t going well. Cindy Lou was adamant.
Her teacher, the loving, encouraging sort you would expect in a kindergarten teacher, scooted up to lend a persuasive hand. She encouraged, she cajoled, she might even have bribed for all I know, but to no avail. The little girl remained turned away from the audience, too shy to perform, too embarrassed to walk away. I could see her mother in the front row, at first torn between adding to the embarrassment by going up to rescue her precious bundle and staying back to see if her daughter would find the intestinal fortitude to continue. And then, in a moment of dazzling brilliance, mom found the perfect solution.
She whispered to her friend, sitting next to her, if she knew the words. For she, mom, wasn’t sure and Lord knows we didn’t need two red faces in one family. Thankfully mom’s friend did know the words – all of them. So did the little girl’s friend up on stage, the six-year old who also had not been sure of a way out. The two women in the front row began, gently and slowly, “Do your ears hang low?” The six year old and the kindergarten teacher joined in, “Do they wobble to and fro?” Cindy Lou turned around to see what was going on. A few more kids and adults in the front entered the fray, “Can you tie them in a knot?” A corner of a smile appeared on the little girl’s face. “Can you tie them in a bow?” The rest of the audience began to pick up the refrain. At this point a tiny five year old mouth may have started moving. “Can you throw them o'er your shoulder like a continental soldier?” Even the middle schoolers, kids in their early teens who normally wouldn’t be caught dead singing a song such as this, were moved to join in. And our little hero was definitely singing, “Do your ears hang low?”
Second verse. We now had a room full of people in full voice, “Do your ears hang high? Do they reach up to the sky?” Old and young alike were looking around catching the warm glow of recognition that this was something special. “Do they droop when they are wet? Do they stiffen when they're dry?” A few eyes moistened. Back on stage, the two girls were holding hands and facing the room. Mom and her friend wept in joy. “Can you semaphore your neighbor with a minimum of labor?” Many of us did not know all the words but we sang along merrily, repeating ourselves, making some of it up. It didn’t matter in the slightest. “Do your ears hang high?”
The song was over in a minute or two, but the fuzzy feeling will last a lifetime. The two girls hugged and the five year old ran into her mother’s arms. Mom’s friend snapped a picture but it will never capture the whole moment. The moment when a room full of people, aged two to eighty-two, but predominantly teens and tweens, came together in a spontaneous chorus of support and tenderness.
And I know that this would never have come to pass if it weren’t for the chaos and opportunity.
A few summers ago, I was strolling through the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver admiring the incredible talent on display. Artists from around the country exhibited the most wonderful creations. In particular I remember a painter who created a giant likeness of Bob Marley with his hands, in sync with Marley’s music. That same summer, I heard my friends Barbara and Paul play violin with the Colorado Chamber Players and saw my buddy and mentor, Jamie Horton, portray Uncle Vanya on the professional stage. Artists, all of them; and I was envious.
How were these people so talented and I was not? I have vivid memories of sitting in art class, at age eight or nine, and being told that my drawings were below par. I struggled through clarinet lessons and found it hard to tell whether the next note was higher or lower than the previous one. I couldn’t dance. My stories were boring. I was so shy I never dreamt of trying out for the school play. I was asked to be the prompter once but I fell asleep halfway through the show. Yet I knew which of my friends were artists - the singers, the painters, the actors, the piano players, the poets - and I admired them. There were a few things I was good at – I played fullback on the rugby team and I could conjugate French verbs with the best of them – but an artist I was not.
And then a funny thing happened. I moved 7,000 miles away from my home in England and found a place called the Stanley British Primary School. I watched the children. They painted pictures, glorious pictures. They sang and danced, all of them, every week. They played dress-up in their classrooms and put on plays for each other. They wrote amazing stories. They sewed and built and glued. And most importantly, they were celebrated.
Teachers created safe, warm and inviting spaces where art could flourish. Everybody’s work was up on the wall. Everybody’s. All students, kindergartners through fifth graders, got up on stage for the musicals. And if more than a few people wanted to be Peter Pan, or Annie, or Dorothy, then there were more than a few. Nobody was told they couldn’t do it, so everybody did. “Be yourself; take risks; explore; learn from your mistakes; create; turn it into something else; play; go for it!” These are the messages the children heard all those years ago and they are the same messages my own daughters hear at the school today. And my children create. They know they have the freedom to make art and music and dance, wonderfully.
And here’s the thing: I don’t even know if they have more or less talent than I did at their age. It doesn’t matter because they believe they have. That’s what matters. Sure, they have days when the painting or the building is not going to plan, days when they are their own worst critics. But I still believe in them. So does their mother and so do their teachers. My seven-year old has informed me that, when she grows up, she is going to be a book illustrator and author, a concert pianist, a horse trainer, a teacher, and an artist – all at the same time. And I say, “Why not?”
As for me, I once got to help out in one of those plays with seven Dorothys. The next year, I got to help out some more and I soon found myself directing short sketches. A passion for the theater was born. Now I adapt and direct plays for children and I have learned something about myself. I may still have two left feet, I still don’t know which note is higher, I still draw stick figures, but I am an artist. And I will never again fall asleep during the show.
Photo: yes, that's me - Halloween 2008. Photo by Ann Sartori.
Neale Donald Walsch’s well-known book Conversations with God came highly recommended. It is the emotionally uplifting, autobiographical account of a man who falls into despair. At the end of his tether, he angrily scrawls the question “What does it take to make life work?” He hears the voice of God, and promptly writes a book about the dialogue that ensues. The book became an instant bestseller and the author, once homeless and penniless, was rewarded with seven figures by a large publishing house.
“From a peaceful mind do great ideas flow.” This is a quotation from Walsch’s book that hangs on the wall of my writing space. I placed it there to remind me to fall silent every once in a while, to turn off the incessant voice inside which tells me I should be doing something else, and to devote some time each day to my writing. Sometimes I take heed.
Just now, for example, I committed to myself to write the first part of a chapter for a book I’m working on for teachers. A page or so into my writing, my mind started wandering, and I found myself throwing a chew toy for the puppy, reading blogs of some my favorite authors, throwing the laundry in the dryer, practicing for a performance piece which is fast approaching. Anything but the job at hand. My mind wandered away from teachers and towards Neale Donald. Not what I had intended, but an idea nonetheless.
Walsch’s story is so much more than a rags to riches memoir. It is more than the inspirational tale of a man who has found a connection to his Source. It combines the beating of unfathomable odds, the discovery of the true artist within, the power of the human spirit, and the mystery of the Divine.
It is hard for me to buy in completely to the concept of a large hairy man being awakened in the night by a kindly voice responding to the question he had scribbled the evening before on a legal pad. However I can accept the idea that all of us, as human beings, have a deep sense of love and belonging within, a wisdom that we have carried with us through the ages. If only we can train ourselves to sit still long enough to listen to it, we will be wiser and more connected to the Universe. Perhaps that is my current definition of God. I do believe that there is something more to our own creation than pure biological happenstance and that we continue to carry with us that same creative force.
There are many writers, artists of all kinds, who claim to be simple conduits for the creative voice inside of them, the voice which bursts forth with little or no effort from the artist. I have a friend, a songwriter, who, like Neale Donald Walsch, tells me that her music is not hers. It comes to her from a place within that is separate from her. An oxymoron, I realize, but I think I know what she means.
And that is why Walsch’ quotation is by my writing desk. Perhaps they are his words, or maybe they came to him from someone else, the benevolent voice in the darkness. But they serve as a constant reminder to me that my artistry is within me. I just have to be quiet long enough to let it out.
I often wonder about tradition. It is a comfortable blanket in which we wrap ourselves, savoring fond memories of times past and lost loved ones. It is a time for connection to the essence of who we are. It can also be a barrier to innovation and progress.
In my own family as I was growing up, Christmas was the season of both giving and ironclad invariability. I loved the warm cozy feeling of climbing onto my parents’ bed to open the presents tumbling out of my stocking. I also remember, years later, when my wife, a newly arrived outsider, dared to make a slight, ever so slight, modification to the Christmas dinner that had been passed down for generations. Twenty years later, my family has still not quite recovered.
I recently attended a Bat Mitzvah, an important ritual to mark the passage from girlhood into adulthood in Judaism, one of the world’s oldest religions. I felt blessed to be invited by of a former student, now a young teen, whose parents were kind enough to indicate that I had been a reasonably positive influence during their daughter’s formative years.
I was honored to be asked to read, in Hebrew, a blessing before she read from the Torah. I was initially alarmed at the thought of reciting in public in a mostly unfamiliar language. However, my beautiful wife, with forty-odd years of Jewish wisdom and custom behind her, served as an excellent coach and I managed to get through my few Hebrew sentences embarrassing neither myself nor the young adult in question.
A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a huge deal. I have been to a few in my time. Some are simple affairs with close family and friends, words of love and respect, with a light lunch to follow. Others are marked by lavish parties that surely cost ten times what my wife and I spent on our wedding. Bands, magicians, limousines, extravagant parting gifts for the guest list of hundreds, the works. All over the country, at this moment, twelve and thirteen year old Jewish boys and girls are hard at work studying the history and tradition of their people, practicing the portion of the Torah that they will have to chant before the assembled masses.
I find it quite fascinating that this pivotal occasion occurs at the exact moment in human development when young teens covet nothing more than not to be noticed, when boys’ voices squeak between octaves, when adolescents are trying on the wings of independence, when the last thing a thirteen year old wants is their mother gushing ad nauseam, in front of their eighth grade friends no less, about how special they are and how grown up they look.
For this is exactly what happens.
On this particular occasion, the mother began her address by stating that she had promised to her daughter that her comments would be “neither long nor cheesy”. She promptly amended her remarks, again assuring brevity, but stating, in not so many words, that a full load of Gorgonzola was coming right up. It was all the daughter could do not to roll her eyes. After all, Grandma had flown in from Florida and the Rabbi was standing right there,
Mom spouted effusively about her only daughter: the toddler years, the first day of kindergarten, lying in bed together reading stories, recent trips to the mall where the two of them, by the mother’s estimation, gadded about like teenage girls. The girl of the hour made it pretty clear, by her facial expression, that she had a different take on the whole business.
And then it was Dad’s turn. He took full advantage of his opportunity at the microphone, so proud of his precious bundle, in awe of the beautiful young lady in front of him. He was loaded with wise counsel for this next part of his daughter’s journey into womanhood. One particular gem had been passed down to him from his own grandfather. An Emersonian ideal, it had been reduced to the simple “Leave the campsite better than you found it!” Truly words to live by, though the wider significance seemed to be lost on the great-granddaughter.
I hope Dad had paid someone to record the events of the day. I know that this particular thirteen year old, fortunate to be so clearly loved and cherished by her family and friends, won’t remember everything spoken to her that day. I hope that she will look back to her time in the spotlight and come to understand fully the gifts presented to her during the time of her coming of age. Not the material goods, the menorahs and the iTunes gift cards, but the stories handed down by an adoring family for whom she represents life itself. I hope she will recall and contemplate the pearls of wisdom passed down in the proud tradition of her forebears. These are the moments of true living.
How many of us, outside the Jewish faith, have such an opportunity? Every family, every religion, has its traditions, the ways it celebrates the passages of time. I love the lines spoken by Tevye, the father in Fiddler on the Roof: “You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know. But it's a tradition.” We may not know where are own traditions come from, but they are important. They matter and they present opportunities for us to teach the next generation. Of course, the next generation may not be ready for the lessons, but as guiding adults, we can only hope that they will sink in with time. For time and experience have been such powerful teachers for us.
I left the Bat Mitzvah service that day thinking about my own children. We are not raising them in one particular faith. We are what some call an interfaith family, although the faith, mine in particular, is somewhat limited. My daughters may not have a formal opportunity to participate in a religious event which marks their arrival into adulthood. When they are thirteen years old, a few short years hence, they may be happy that we spare them the sheer embarrassment of being up on stage listening to their mother and I wax eloquent about how long it took to potty train them or their first swimming lesson. I do have quite a collection of stories, some with photographs to match. But they may also miss the chance for us to tell them, in the presence of the most important people in their lives, all that they have brought to us, the absolute joy and love in our hearts.
When my daughters were babies, their mother and I designed non-denominational Naming Ceremonies for each of them. We wrote them ourselves. We had the extended family, the candles, the gifts, the festive food. We spoke from the heart, as did their godparents and grandparents. We promised to raise them as best we know how, to love and cherish them for all of our lives. But they were a little preoccupied at the time with the things that are steadfastly important to the under-three-month crowd: sleeping, nursing, filling their diapers. They missed the message.
But in the years since, another tradition has been born. Like Tevye, I don’t really know how it got started. Must have just happened one day, and then another, and another. No pomp and ceremony of a Bat Mitzvah. No distant aunts and uncles or hoopla or kreplach. No dancing teens or rolling of the eyes. Something simple. Something that hasn’t cost a cent. Something filled with meaning and sincerity and love. It goes like this.
At night, in bed, after the lights are out. It is dark. It is quiet. The toil of the day is becoming a distant memory. The bedtime story is read and put aside. We talk. My wife and I alternate. I spend part of one evening with my older daughter, the next evening with my younger. We talk about her day and mine, the fun, the successes and the struggles. What happened in school, which friends were significant, and what they had for lunch. Sometimes we tell jokes and sometimes we sing.
Sometimes we’re just quiet. But most of all I tell my girls what they mean to me, how much I love them, and they tell me the same. It is a sacred time of talking and listening, opening up, and truly hearing one another. We even have our very own special words for saying goodnight. The same exact words, repeated every night for years now. I would not trade this time for the world.
Like all traditions, this one started out small and turned into a routine. Now it is an essential part of life, as important to my family as the candles on the Menorah or the penguin on top of our Christmas tree. Yes, the penguin’s also a family tradition, but a story for another day.
As adults, as parents, we cannot control tradition. We have no say in whether our values and customs will be carried forward by the next generation. But we can lay down the tracks and try to start the train rolling in a positive direction. Our children will, in all likelihood, veer off course for a while, but we hope we have given them enough to be able to get themselves back on track. And we don’t necessarily need a party or a public forum to hand down our wisdom. We do the little things. We teach them, we hold them, we love them, and we let them go. And that is a tradition I can live with.