24 December 2011

Christmas verse for Mom

As much as we would like to think
we're setting our own course,
unseen hands hold fast the bridle
of our trusting, unseen horse.
For that same hand that giveth us
the latest techno powers
taketh away what once absorbed 
corresponding unclocked hours.
What, one may ask, did we once do;
how did we flex our mind?
What forest paths did we explore;
what wonders did we find?
And would we recognize the brains we used
before our first P.C.?
Were we blessed or were we cursed
with inefficiency?
Whichever the case, I must profess
what I do know to be true:
Of all the families I could have been in
I'm glad mine was with you.

Gloucester MA

25 November 2011

Autumn 2011 Reflection

Summer, pt 1
New/Old Guitar
Summer, pt 2
Summer, pt 3
Commute & Work
Goodbye, Pepe
Blessings Counted
All Summer it was my hope to write a personal newsletter before the school year hit, but the opportunity did not present itself in time. Still rooted in the past — when we weren't in such a hurry and wrote long literary letters — I prefer to send out one substantive piece. In my hectic life, this requires perseverance. So I resolved to use my bus commute to tap it out with thumbs on my iPod; but I encountered setbacks.
A student (the largest of my 7th graders) knocked the iPod off a music stand and stepped on it in one impulsive and unconscious gesture. I suppose one could describe my music room — which reflects imaginative attempts to meet the needs of students at 11 levels— as a minefield of instruments, gear and cables; and I frequently do not spell out clear directions (such as seem to come more easily to my colleagues) that anticipate all possible scenarios. While I was able to replace the glass screen, the iPod could not regain its full vigor. It thereby came to pass that I could rationalize buying an iPad. Now I can type with my fingers — though the virtual keyboard poses a challenge for long right-hand nails. I was able to transfer the paragraphs I had hen-pecked on the ipod onto this new device. I had added another two weeks' worth of editing and adding to this epistle when I decided to update the iPad to the latest OS, allowing for automatic backup of files to "the cloud". The downside to having access to online resources such as this is that the online resources have access to you. I had to go through Monica's laptop to perform the update (as mine still has the same OS it came with five years ago) and so the first thing Apple does — because I'm logged in as Monica and not Jeffry — is to erase all the apps and data belonging to me! [Retrieving the apps was no problem, but the data was lost]. 
Another inhibiting factor in putting out another reflection is the questioning of my own motivation in doing so. Is it merely a narcissistic need to hear my own talk? In my second year as the music teacher at St Thomas More School (Lynnwood, WA), I've been trying, at least, to grow more humble and more aware of that which people do not need to hear. Yet, the appreciation some of you have expressed of my past reflections suggests they may have contributed something to your lives. Harvey Jackins once said that the most interesting thing to the human intelligence is another human intelligence. I hope that whatever I write below — intelligent or not — is at least interesting.
Summer, pt 1
So while I can still vaguely recall the scent, I'll begin with a review of our summer — which begins and ends on Orcas Is. In early June, we bore proud witness to Noah's graduation ceremony from the Oasis program at Orcas High School in Eastsound, where he has lived for the past year. (For an album of related photos, see facebook photo album). We stayed at the Beach Haven Resort, where he has been working, and enjoyed long sunsets over the Sound. Noah was to be taking off to Hawaii (inspired by the Orcas community, he has been moving in a "back to the land" direction), but has instead headed the other direction to join the Wall St protest. 
Monica and I joined an RC (Re-evaluation Counseling) class, a form of peer counseling that we had each been involved with at various points in our lives. Although we had to miss three class meetings due to our vacation trip, it was both fun and growthful. We have continued with an expanded group now into the Fall. 
Once I was done with school commitments, Monica and I (thanks to an early morning ride from Father Jim) flew to Boston and were met by my mother at Logan. Our hometown was put "on the map" by The Perfect Storm, much as our international airport was by 9/11. As the three of us emerged on the top of the parking garage, I was reminded that most of the country does not have an arid Puget Sound climate bestowed upon it. But soon we were swimming in Folly Cove, where we were blessed to have a reasonable water temperature over the two weeks of our stay. 
We also made pilgrimage to a variety of personal shrines over that fortnight. Borrowing Mom's car, we went to Western Mass, where I lived in two periods of my life. I narrowed the possible goals down to taking a walk with Julia (my first spouse) and to swim in the Green River (which runs by her neighborhood). Julia and her husband Bob hosted us graciously for lunch and led us walking up a wooded road — which reminded us that the rest of the country is not bestowed with the mosquito-free summers we have around Puget Sound. We thoroughly enjoyed their easy-going company, then proceeded on our own to park near the covered bridge (which I hope survived Hurricane Irene) and negotiate the fast-running water below. I particularly savored the tall pines lining the road -- which, like the climate, seem to have a softer quality than their counterparts in the NW. As I drove, Monica read aloud excitedly (via her 3G iphone) from a proposed amendment to the constitution, posted by Spirituality and Practice, that seeks to end corporate take-over of our once-democratic society.  We found ourselves supper at Green Fields Market -- staffed by young people who didn't recognize the name of the manager (Apple) with whom I sat on the Board back in the days when the Greenfield Food Coop moved into what had been J. C. Penny's and adopted its new name. We then decided to route ourselves through Framingham and visit with Sonia Maneri (widow of saxophonist Joe Maneri). Joe and Sonia, as the boys' godparents, had been a great support to Monica during her first marriage. 
After a few more days in Folly Cove, we journeyed to Calumet with Monica's sister, Alex, and a young woman (a great traveling companion whose parents emigrated from Cuba) who works on staff in Alex's group home. Camp Calumet, which Monica introduced me to and where I subsequently worked, lies along the shore of Lake Ossipee in NH. It is an accessible and welcoming place -- a sort of Brigadoon -- that never fails to buoy Alex's (wheelchair-bound) spirits. 
Our next event was the Family Reunion, involving all living relatives on my mother's side, that had been some months in planning. 25 of us convened in Folly Cove for a day and a half of hanging out, badminton, singing and so forth. I didn't have our camera, but on facebook I posted photos my mother shot along with a few taken by my phone. I'm blessed to have an extended family both fun and engaging to be around. It turned out not to be necessary to avoid political discussions. During this week we also had a lively time introducing old friends Anne (a Lutheran pastor) and Carla (newly ordained, non-denominational) — see facebook photo album
Next we took public transport (train-subway-bus) down to Cape Cod to spend 3 days with Monica's sister Bea and her husband Jeffrey. He designed their new home -- a work of art in itself -- on land once belonging to Monica's parents. Having revived his interest in guitar playing during the past year, Jeffrey had purchased  a couple of quality steel-strings that even a classical player could make music on. I much enjoyed my time with them and walks bordering the estuaries and marshes. Returning to Boston, we took the green line out to the MFA (Museum of Fine Arts), having read of free admission for the day. Crossing Huntington Ave we were caught in a downpour (a deluge unknown to northwesterners) that drenched us to the skin before we could reach the museum portal. We couldn't escape Tacoma icon Dale Chihuly as his glassworks were the featured exhibit. We then made our way to Chinatown, to hook up with Bea/Jeffrey's daughter (our niece, that is) Julie. 
I believe this was the time when the subway door shut between us -- for I'd heard the train pulling in downstairs as we passed through the turnstile and momentarily forgot that my wife may not react with the same urban instinct. The subway stations remained sweltering long after the gale had cooled the streets; and it seemed like a long wait at the Boylston street one -- which retains the dilapidated state I recall from childhood -- before the next E-train rolled through with Monica on it. Julie and her boyfriend are renting the top floor of a warehouse —delightfully bohemian. 
New/Old Guitar
All this while, anticipation was mounting to be reunited with my old Frank Hasselbacher guitar that Tom Knatt had been rebuilding on-and-off over the past two years. I had destroyed the top in 2007 at Chelsea High School; it's hard to imagine a more blatant divine comment on the suitability of that work situation for me. But it would take till now for me to understand how thoroughly this accident would be worked for the good. Tom succeeded in meeting a deadline (of two days before our departure from New England) and proved himself a wizard at refashioning what had been an ordinary instrument into an extraordinary one. For one, the original was never a proper fit for my hands -- having a 66 cm string length (the standard is 65, but I didn't know that when Frank sold it to me in 1981) and a neck that seemed a good shape at first, but proved fatiguing in the long run. Tom built a new top, bridge and fingerboard. By making the latter uncustomarily thick, he was able to re-shape the neck more ergonomically -- based on his measurement of my left hand. The sonority seems both brighter and deeper than in the guitar's earlier incarnation. But what makes this a life-changer is that my left arm has an entirely new experience in playing. Pieces I didn't have the stamina to get through -- and I mean on any guitar I've tried -- began to roll off my fingertips almost like the arm playing belonged to someone else. I used to settle for lower tension strings -- and a less-than-robust sound as a result -- to limit fatigue in my left forearm and soreness in the fingertips. But on this instrument, I can use high-tension strings with confidence.
You may well imagine that all I've wanted to do, since picking the guitar up from Tom's Groton lutherie, is sit under a tree and play it. And there's more: owing to its having been a 66 cm, the 12th fret ends up to the left of the bout -- as opposed to lining up with it. This makes it a bit easier to reach the higher frets; one can just about barre XII. Tom also put in a 20th fret -- that high C in Chopin's Em Prelude. Although I'd been doing all my amplified guitar work (church, school, the occasional gig) on the La Patrie cut-away classical I'd purchased in the wake of the Chelsea accident, I soon began to see that I would want a direct out for the Hasselbacher-Knatt. This is more to capitalize on its superior playability than its sound, as a pickup tends to make most guitars sound alike. I settled on a transducer by Schatten that I could install myself. It resembles a viola bridge and is mounted inside the guitar with double sided tape; a preamp is built into the endpin jack that is phantom powered just as condenser mics are: through the cable. I was particularly excited by this last innovation, obviating the need for batteries or a direct box. 
Not only did the guitar want to play all the old repertoire; it demanded something new! A piece I once had on a Segovia record echoed hauntingly in my brain. I found the audio file on my MacBook, encoded from a cassette I had owned before divesture (of vinyl and acetate) and relocation (from MA) titled Castellana by Torroba. A search online credits no piece by that name to the Spanish composer, Segovia's contemporary. Torroba did write Suite Castellana; but this piece is not from there. Eventually I realized that it was an expanded version of the miniature originally known as Burgalesa — though Segovia was playing in E what Torroba published in F#. It appears that Segovia inserted his own cadenza for this, his final album (Reveries, 1977). I imagine that, after a career of performing it as his final encore, he became bothered by the piece's brevity and therefore decided to leave the world a more substantive version. Perhaps it was his way of not going "gentle into that good night". Naturally enough, the piece made me think of my college guitar teacher, Phil de Fremery —who made transcriptions of Segovia recordings that were eventually published by Berben. It was easy enough to find his email address and he was immediately back in touch. No, he didn't know about Castellana; and he offered a few suggestions on transcribing it that flashed me back to being 19 years old again in his Mt Holyoke teaching studio. When I sent him the result he replied: now when you perform people will ask "How did he get his hands on THAT?" 
I also made an arrangement of Bach's First Cello Suite. I'd long been playing the Prelude to it (merging a few arrangements I'd seen over the years), but had not been previously motivated to make the rest of this charming suite my own. An appropriate counterpoint suggested itself easily; perhaps I've just become more practical due to the time constraints now placed upon me. Of the venues I performed at during my first year here, my favorite was the Antique Sandwich Co, only a few blocks from our house. Whether it is vanity or being otherwise preoccupied, I waited for them to call me; and after a year and a half, the classical music coordinator there finally did. With only a couple days' notice, only St Leo's people knew. The other members — in what turned out to be another appreciative audience — either come there every Sunday afternoon or perhaps came to hear the performer I'd been called in to replace. We made it a benefit for the Ugandan refugees we are planning to host (see below) and thereby raised $475. They booked me again for 2/26. I get appreciated regularly for playing from my repertoire at St Leo’s. Even though I don’t have much practice time, I feel that this guitar has made me a better player than at any time before.
Summer, pt 2
Before our departure from Folly Cove, we enjoyed a day with Willie Sordillo, who I'd invited up from Framingham (as I was regretting not having managed a visit to him when we were down there the previous week). Another gorgeous day, swim and substantive conversation on the rocks with this dear old friend from Nicaragua days, my wife and my mother — summer at its best. 
Next stop: Louisville, KY, for the National Pastoral Musicians Convention. The main focus was, understandably, implementation of the new translation of the roman missal. The place was crawling with vendors of new Mass settings. Singing with 3000 other music ministers under one roof was spine-tingling. All the well-known post-Vatican II hymn composers seemed to be there; the St Louis Jesuits had their own concert/sing-along. John Foley accompanying his faltering, yet sweet, voice at the piano in "Song of Hope" was one of my highlights. It will also be hard to forget the heat and humidity out on the street. One night we witnessed, from the bar of our historic hotel, a storm so intense I expected the cars to be flipped over and washed away. Next morning the puddles had evaporated and the weather was back to exactly as it had been. I found some relief in a swim at the Louisville Y. 
At the airline's convenience, we returned via Dallas — the airport using a record amount of electricity to keep us from experiencing the record heat — where we found a meal and I practiced Bach on the new-old Knatt-Hasselbacher guitar. 
In August, the weather here was so sunny — no rain to speak of — that only hearty species remain green unless watered. I had to use a lot of it to keep the grass from turning brown. Kumar — an Indian who plays guitar with us at St Leo's and gives me weekly updates on his flower garden — suggested that if I had a close look at our Tacoma Utilities bill, I'd realize what we're paying for water and let the grass go. I can rationalize it, though, as being for the neighborhood children. We have watched them gathering across the street (from at least four families on the block) in a tiny yard that has not a blade of green on it. The most recent addition to this gang are two boys belonging to our closest abutters — who returned to their home here after living elsewhere — and the older one was outgoing enough to ask for permission to play in the yard. Being on a double lot, our yard is bigger than most. It has both a nice view of the sound, and is easily seen. Not only can we observe the children (sometimes up to 10 of them) from our picture window; their parents can glance out at them as well from their houses. After some trial and error, Monica made a rule of no 'swords' and no playing with our impulsive corgi. This last came in the wake of Toby swallowing one boy's sock. Where it went from there remained a mystery (not appearing on the vet's x-ray) until he vomited it up intact over a month later. While we have had friendly enough conversations with adult neighbors now and then, it is hosting the children that makes me feel part of a community. 
Monica and I have our work communities as well, which — as we both work for the Archdiocese of Seattle — double as our worship communities. Through St Leo's (Monica's church, where I play one Mass per week) we have opportunities to connect with the world community through such missions as The Lesotho Connection and Hearts for Zambia. Recently, a Ugandan refugee (who has been granted political asylum) sought help from St Leo's bringing his family here from their hiding place in Uganda. Monica and I agreed to offer our house for his family to stay in until they can find employment and their own housing. There being nine of them in all, ideally we would divvy them up with another parishioner. St Leo's will find extra beds and help get them set up in our space. The family is now waiting for visas. In the meantime, Monica has posted their names and ages on the fridge for us to memorize. Nat is looking forward to sharing both his basement space and his local knowledge with the teenagers — though he has understandable concerns about hot water. We've bought a second washer/dryer and are considering a tankless water heater. I've met the father a few times. Like other Africans born in 1961 (one may expect), his first name is Kennedy. (A friend told me of subsequent Kennedy namings the year Ted visited Africa. JFK continues to be one of my heroes — and I pray for the day when open discussion can take place in this country about the untouchables in high places who had him, RFK and MLK assassinated). Our Kennedy seems both gentle and hopeful — not qualities one might ordinarily expect from someone who has been subject to torture. Monica recently drove him around (as though already a family member) to apply for housing with Habitat for Humanity and for jobs that might earn him enough to qualify for that program. She succeeded in getting work for him at the same grocery Nat works at.
Summer, pt 3
But I digress; back to recounting the summer. I got myself down to American Lake for my August swims. Even when the public beach access point was over-populated, I always found lap swimming meditative (for most everyone else just flopped around in the shallow water). We also visited St Leo's friends with water access: Teresa down in Graham on a lake thick with lily pads, and Coleen out on the Peninsula where Puget Sound water warms up enough for swimming (but also provides habitat for some kind of stinging algae). These were also fun social gatherings with great food. 
Once back from the East, however, I began putting as many hours as I could handle on mapping out my lesson plans for the year. I auditioned songs and lessons from all viable sources in my possession and, factoring in state standards and what I could recall from last year, came up with what seemed the most logical sequence for each grade level. Once the reality of the classroom set in, however, I found I needed twice the class time than I had naively allotted. One idea that does seem to be working out is turning the eighth grade into a handbell choir. The school has a set of bells that has not been fully utilized in years. When one of the large ones turned out to have become cracked (perhaps on my watch), I learned that our bells are of Dutch design that is no longer made and that the English bells — which are available for purchase — are sonically incompatible. This led me to connect up with Marlow Corwin, 91, who has kept alive the art of bell casting repair out in Iowa. I found that he and his wife of 63 years also had been featured in a PBS documentary about long happy marriages.
We took a long weekend, just before I had to report for staff in-service week, and returned to Orcas Is. We were graciously hosted at Orcas Oasis, perched high over Orcas Village on the south end of the island. Owners Bob and Barb rent out two spaces in their dream villa (which includes a lap pool and hot-tub-with-a-view). The suite we occupied had originally been built for their daughters. Bob is a retired engineering professor who shows a passion for, among a variety a pursuits, restoring tube radios. When I needed some white noise for sleeping, I simply dialed in-between stations on the one in our bedroom. Monica had wanted to make it part of my birthday present that we sail a boat; it just so happened that Bob is on the board of the West Sound Sailing Club! He showed us how to purchase a membership and reserve a boat online (he being the webmaster) and then met us down at the dock for an orientation on sailing the 'Ernie'. Satisfied we could crew on our own, he left us to navigate West Sound. The further out we tacked, the windier it became. Not having knotted the ends of the jib sheets, they both slipped through the blocks at one point and performed a 'rioting fandango' (my favorite phrase from The Sea and the Jungle) on the foredeck until I could wrestle them into an untangled state. Yet, when we returned to the dock, it was burning sun and no breeze as we labored at stuffing the sails into the nonsensically shaped bags. The night of my actual birthday we were back in Tacoma, and celebrated by hosting two fellow school-music teachers, Donna and David — who abetted me in realizing my summer goal of reading some through recorder trios. People always know how to treat you on your birthday; I fondly recall past birthdays of mine celebrated with people I never saw before or since.
Nat — my older step-son, the one that lives with us — also decided to join the protest on Wall St for a weekend. It's a long a trip for so short a time; but he wanted an adventure and couldn't take more time away from school (taking Math at Tacoma CC) and work (in the deli of a gourmet grocers). Noah, however, has been free to make Occupy Wall St his focus, spending over a month camped there as a self-appointed photojournalist. His photos are posted at noahsheppard.com, along with written reflections that may appear to resemble my own. I am reminded — as are many of you, I imagine — of protests I joined from my teens to my thirties: the Vietnam War, Seabrook, the Pledge of Resistance. I expect that most of us who joined brigades to Nicaragua hoped to learn as much about ourselves as we did about people down there. Through trial and error, we eventually find our own ways to promote the greater good. You hear talk about how this is the first generation or the second, perhaps we are the first — not “better off” than the previous one. But I think this generation is better off emotionally and spritually [we brought them up, after all!] Just compare our protest movements with the present one. I’m beginning to feel hope that the tide of “self” will ebb, leaving tidal pools of “we”.
Commute & Work
This newsletter could well be titled "My Life on I-5", except that I have yet to include any observations of the sights and humans along this highway on which I write between Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings. Monday mornings and Friday afternoons I must drive it by car — a 56-mile trip that I once made in 1:05, though it has also taken me as long as 3:30. (Tuesday and Thursday nights I stay over). It doesn't cease to amaze me how many of us are out here commuting to some workplace or other, how many buses and cars, and how many more cars there would be if it weren't for all these buses — destined for communities whose names I know only from the route marquees.
The leg from Tacoma is traversed by buses in the 590 series — filing into Seattle like worker ants. From there I board a 511 to Lynnwood, a double bus of the end-to-end  inchworm variety. British-style double-deckers have recently been added to the fleet, competing with highway billboards for total advertising surface. We commuters have developed our own code of conduct, it would appear, in which most retreat into the private world enabled by the microchip and imaginings of Steve Jobs. These devices give control and choice in how we occupy ourselves, making life more complacent and predictable. It amazes me still that I can have my entire collection of music — representing decades of profound experiences and growth — available inside my headphones as I ride the bus or on my car speakers [via the mp3 CD changer] as I drive. While I miss being more serendipitous, I do appreciate the break from the unpredictable interactions that comprise a day at school. Every now and then I break through and start a conversation, such as when — after seeing the same woman boarding my 511 bus in both directions for nearly a year — I finally said Good Morning and asked about the work she commutes to. She works for the travel TV personality Rick Steeves and leads tours in Italy. Turns out she also comes up from Tacoma; but she takes the train from there to Seattle. I was glad to learn of the option [it is a nice train] though it makes the total trip a bit longer. Most times, though – apart from the offer of an initial greeting — I keep to myself. Now and then come those oddly intimate moments when a seat mate loses consciousness and leans into you.  Once — as I was heading for the exit — my seat mate smiled and handed me the beret I had bought mail order to replace the one I left on a bus last year. (I had to pay shipping three times before getting the size right).
My teaching job can be overwhelming, particularly when you factor in the distance with all the preps that I should, ideally, be doing. But I’m letting some of the perfection go — not that I could have ever attained it — to restore some balance to my life. The principal seems more confident in my ability to handle things, which eases my stress a good deal. I led a successful Thanksgiving Mass with the sixth grade as my choir. They were filled with spirit and Spirit — if I’m not simply projecting onto them what I felt in myself. In times such as these, the gratification clearly outweighs the aggravation. When I return, I’ll have to whip together the Immaculate Conception Mass [the first we do the new Missal for] followed one week later by the Christmas Concert. In Spring, a parent and I will co-direct Beauty and the Beast.
Goodbye, Pepe
A week ago today, we had Pepe put down. Diabetes had made the last five of his fifteen years an increasing struggle. He clearly liked moving to Washington as he became physically more active for a time, running up and down stairs even. But whenever I went away, he'd have a setback. As you may know, he'd been with me years before I met Monica; he didn't quite connect with other humans. While we were off having a great trip, he was home — even though his food and litterbox were being tended to — becoming more sedentary. It seems to be the conventional wisdom that when cats stop eating they're letting you know it's time to let go. He could still drag himself in and out the litter box. He would still purr when close by (though he hadn't been able to climb up into my lap for some time) and would extend his paw onto me, his characteristic gesture of connection. I finally got it — as Monica and I read through pet prayers and poems online — that he wanted to go while he still had that much dignity at least. I don't expect he understood what all my sobbing was about. He played an important role in my solitary period between marriages; and so his departure helps me leave those years behind.
Blessings Counted
I need to leave this narrative behind as well, to send it off in its less-than-perfect state for your perusal. Summer is by now a long time gone. We are already in the northwest winter: much rain, little light. I've booked my flight east for the week leading up to Christmas. (Monica cannot take the time off). There is one more story I’d like to relate. Yesterday, after Monica and I played the Thanksgiving Service at St Leo’s, I was approached by a tall African-American man, perhaps 30, in need of shelter. He asked if there was any volunteering he could do at the church in return for being in out of the cold and rain till the evening, when he hoped to sleep at a friend’s. Being Thanksgiving, he had no place to go, no library, etc. No one was going to keep the church open either. He seemed honest and considerate. Monica and I consulted breifly and then offered to bring him home with us until we could come up with a better option. R- told us he did have family in the area, but they would not help him. He’d moved here to live with a girlfriend, but they split up and got evicted at the same time. He’d lost his job in a warehouse. He kept shaking his head saying, “I can’t believe I got myself in this situation” and felt shame at having to ask strangers for help. I had to make a gluten-free pie before we went to W. Seattle to have Thanksgiving with my cousin’s family. We sat R- on the sofa. He declined offers of food [having gotten breakfast, at least, at St Leo’s]. He did still have a working cell phone. We took his number in case we got leads for a housing barter or employment. Monica came up with the idea of buying him movie tickets, so we could drop him off on our way to dinner. He picked a film online. And so, a couple hours later, we bid R- farewell at the Grand Cinema. He told us, “I wish there were more people like you in the world. Not many have done what you did for me today. God bless you!” And thank you, R-, for reminding us to pray for — and know — those less fortunate than us, to recognize the things we take for granted and to remember again that, in the end, we all are one.