12 July 2012

Summer 2012 Reflection

It has gotten to be time (for my own sake as much as for anyone else’s) to write another reflection. As before, I will endeavor to keep this odd mix of insights, minutiae and travel log engaging for most readers. Invariably, some ideas come out less profound on paper than they seemed in the brain, while others gain depth through that process. I begin as I wait for the next Cape Cod bus in Boston's South Station bus terminal (the bus I thought I'd be taking could not fit the last 20 of us queued at the gate) — hoping to get enough paragraphs down to give the piece the momentum it needs to see completion. My sister just dropped me here on her way back to Brooklyn; Monica will be waiting for me at her sister's in Barnstable.

Traveling Companions

Our trip began on June 26 at 6:30 AM, with a cab taking us from our house (where we left Nat, Toby, and the family of nine Ugandans) to Tacoma Dome station, where we boarded the bus to Seatac, where we went through security and flew to San Francisco, where we changed terminals (and went through security) before flying to JFK. This indirect itinerary was the best deal we could come up with by the time we got around to booking. From there, following my sister's instructions, we took a series of trains to her neighborhood stop — each station adding yet one more generation of blackened chewing gum train platform inlays — where Nancy walked us to her door at around 1:30 AM EST (a mere 10:30 PM to us).
We took in Brooklyn and Manhattan's lower east side — my brother's territory these past 30 years — for three days. We were pleasantly surprised by well-tended garden sanctuaries one could step into from the busy street — both in the space behind Nancy's brownstone and in the courtyard to Leann's new co-op. (Leann is partner to my brother, Jon). We enjoyed a barbecue with all my living family members (including my mother, Nancy's husband, Tom, and daughter, Lucia — a year since we've all been together) in the latter location. There we also chatted with the co-op managers about such things as the little Chinese fish pool dug into the garden (the two large fish hibernate under the ice through winter) and a recent event they had in common with Jon where long disbanded lower east side bands were re-united. Back in his old apartment we watched Jon assemble his own brand (Blackstone Appliance) of guitar distortion pedals and demo his various hybrid guitar projects. We witnessed a comic intercepting of a shipment of pedal components involving friends of Jon's who'd followed us from Tompkins Sq Park seating themselves inside the UPS truck between avenues B and C to await the driver's return. Meanwhile, the driver had traveled on foot back to Jon's building between avenues A and B, and was shortly to call him on his cellphone. She laughed that it was not uncommon for her to have to evict people from her parked truck, particularly during rain showers.
We caught the Fung Wah (still $15) to Boston. After following the footsteps of generations of New Englanders who have given up hope that a direct connection between South Station and North Station will be built within their lifetimes, we waited with other anxious commuters for the posting of a track number for a 45-minute-late train to Rockport, where we were finally greeted by my mother in her car.

Learning from Stories

There were, of course, events along the way to justify these transport travails, some being the original motivators in undertaking this 21st century journey and some not. Folly Cove is still one of the most beautiful places on earth, particularly with Mom's flowers still adding color to the vista. I suspect that with every family visit I am seeking data on why I'm the way I am. My mother facilitated that process through her own project — which involves, as she approaches her 87th birthday, reminiscing about and archiving family history. In a precursor, last winter she recorded (on her ipad) hours of video interview with journalist Vin McClellen (she'd kept in touch with him since he rented a cabin next door the summer of '75) before cancer took him — a project I helped her finish that was much appreciated by his family members. So last week, she had a pocket recorder going as she recounted her stories for Nancy and I (Nancy "interviewing") before switching to being my interviewer. I developed more forgiveness for my own difficulty focusing on tasks outside my areas of interest when I heard stories illustrating how the same had been true of both my parents. We're never far from our past at our parents house (and I became even more intensely engaged with the place by giving it a thorough cleaning); but I was already steeping in it through having scanned hundreds of family slides before leaving Tacoma (brought back with me a year, or perhaps two, earlier). Seen through the lens of my father's camera, the alternating closeness and isolation of childhood is recalled in faded 'chrome' (Koda-, Ecta-, Agfa-). If curious, you may view them in my Facebook albums.

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to . . ."

The past remains fixed. There is nothing I can do to affect the faces in the photos. I can only "change the things I can" in the present — which may end up being documented in future photos and memories. While we may ask God to grant us the courage to change, we often don't have a say in the matter. The returns for my job at a Catholic school were diminishing over the course of my second year there: the 56-mile-each-way commute (and the resultant nomadic existence), ten levels of lesson preparation aspiring to meet state standards, all the extra-curriculars, and a supervisor whose priorities differed from my own. Even though it would not have been good self-care for me to return for another year, loyalty and financial fear would have sent me back had my contract been renewed. God therefore saw to it that it was not.

Into the great wide open
Under the skies of blue
Into the great wide open
A rebel without a clue

Though this refrain of Tom Petty’s pops into mind, I hope it does not describe my status down to the last detail. Now comes the time to examine whether it makes sense for me to continue in music education, or if I should instead find myself a "day job" — one with fewer stressful components — that leaves me with more free attention to make the music of my choosing when I get home. I think of Mitch Cohen, for example, who got his MSW late in life and built a successful therapy practice. I always rationalized that I was contributing to peace in the world by teaching music, which I viewed as teaching self-actualization. People with outlets for artistic expression, I reasoned since my undergraduate days, were less likely to act out of greed or turn to white-collar crime — those forces crippling our society and planet. Educational institutions, however — for some of the same reasons they fall short of meeting the needs of all students — may also be unable to make the best use of my time or talents. In contemplating further alternatives to working for someone while also serving humankind, I think of Ken, an actor, who with his wife, an opera singer, runs The Green Cat B&B in Poulsbo, WA — where we were blessed to have a rejuvenating Memorial Day get-away.

The journey’s the only thing you want to do.

I know I’ve quoted that Ann Reed line before in this series; it returns like a mantra. Right now I want mostly to practice Bach and organize my digital recordings library (iTunes). Monica jests that I should just go find a job in a music library. Students and staff gave me gift cards for both iTunes and Amazon. I don’t just sit on something like that and wait for a rainy day when I might need to buy an umbrella; I can’t rest till the credit is down to zero— where it got mostly through the addition of new downloads to my music library. Some items had been on my “wish list” for years (since abandoning my cassette collection, often recorded from borrowed LPs): Rubinstein playing Chopin Ballades, Brendel playing Mozart concerti, John McLaughlin live with Paco de Luca and Al DiMeola. . . and some were recent discoveries: Australian Christian rock from the Hillsong mega-church, a DVD of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, the singer-songwriter quartet Bryndle (of which Karla Bonoff was a member; their delightful first album being available in CD format only), the epic benefit: Occupy this Album . . . to name a few. Sometimes I just want to treat myself to an album I had, or always wanted, as a teen. (Judging from how retailers market to boomers I am apparently not the only one). Then there are the bargains in historic classical recordings sold at Amazon! . . . 


Unless we’ve sequestered ourselves, we are probably all overwhelmed by all that is available online. I struggle daily to overcome addictive behaviors — obsessive researching and acquiring of recordings, for example — that may hold me back from being all I can be. I empathize with the confusion of those who eat compulsively — food being something we truly need to survive — as experiencing music is also essential to my survival. When does it move from nourishment to escapism? (A “First World problem,” as Noah likes to say). It may well be that all the recordings I’m collecting will connect to a syllabus for a college or high school course I get to teach.
We just saw (on Cape Cod, the final visitation of our trip) Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love with Monica’s sister Bea and husband Jeff. I noticed the same actor that played the hapless office worker — who mysteriously becomes a celebrity — also played the lead in Life is Beautiful. (Let’s look online for his name. . . Roberto Begnini. . . and try not to get side-tracked reading about him!) I bring this up because in the latter film, there was a German officer, who the main character, Guido, waits upon in a cafĂ© — cunningly persuading the former to order the very lunch left behind by another customer. Guido and the officer (here I have only my memory to go on, as this character is not mentioned in any of the online synopses) had a puzzle game they would seek solutions for. Later in the concentration camp, Guido finds himself waiting on this same officer and hopes to use the connection to aid his family’s escape. His hopes are dashed when it becomes clear that the German, in response to the horrors around him, has lost his sanity and perseverates perpetually on the same puzzle game — a haunting image of how I do not want to end up!

In Bach we trust

I actually get paid to perform this Sunday in a Presbyterian church service here in Tacoma. On a break from St Leo’s, we worshiped there last month, curious about their focus on music; they have three marimba ensembles and a Jazz/Blues Vespers. There being three instrumental music slots to fill this Sunday, I chose divvy up Bach’s Prelude, Fugue & Allegro. I believe it was four years ago that I wrote in this series about returning to this piece, inspired by an article on its religious symbolism. Being in 3 movements might in itself suggest the Trinity, but each contain further elements — in common with certain of Bach’s vocal works where the topic is obvious — that correlate to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in order of movements. Happily, I’m able to give more to this (along with most every other piece) on the Knatt-Hasselbacher guitar that I wrote of here last year.
We also visited Urban Grace Church, where we heard a trio of music ministers performing the affecting song “To the Ends of the Earth” (not to be confused with the psalm). It was from inquiring about the source of the song that I first learned of Hillsong Church.

Trip Home

Ambivalent as I am about where to call “home”, at the end of two weeks we did indeed need to return to Tacoma so at least Monica could resume her job. The return trip was farcical enough to merit recounting here. Bea drives us to the bus to Logan, so it was a lot simpler getting to the airport than getting from it to Rockport. But that is where simplicity ends. Our itinerary has us scheduled for not two, but three flights, the first being back to NY. Having a window seat, I am enraptured by the Cape and Islands panning slowly below us. With five hours to kill before flying to Dallas, we are happy to come across a “Mastercard Lounge” that offers couches and free wi-fi to those who can flash a Mastercard. There it occurs to me to book an airport shuttle from Seatac to our house for 11 that evening. (I do it with a Visa Card, by the way). On the next plane, we realize that Monica had not been issued a boarding pass for our next flight to Seattle. Our worries about whether there will be time for us to straighten that out in between flights are superseded by the pilot’s announcement that our plane is stuck circling Dallas and cannot land due to bad weather. We have to land in Oklahoma City, refuel, wait for clearance and return to Dallas. Of course, no specific information about our connecting flight is offered, apart from a blanket reassurance that since other planes also cannot land in Dallas, we may expect that nearly all connecting flights will be waiting for us. It was only after we finally squeeze off we learn from an American (Airline, that is) agent that our flight left half an hour before, and that he cannot promise to get us on to the next one. Monica has a baffling way of growing cheerier as circumstances grow drearier. Did I marry the right woman or what? Still lacking supper, we manage to find something to eat and await our fate at the hands of the agent. He and a female agent cheerlessly scan their monitors and speak in low tones on corded phone handsets. “First class now boarding. . . group 1 . . . group 2 . . . groups 3 and 4,” now remaining standing are our competition of perhaps a dozen for the few remaining seats. Confusing announcements about the plane being full do not give us much to hope for. Apparently what they mean, however, is that it will be full by the time the stand-bys (what are status is now reduced to) have boarded, as one-by-one most of us are called. We even have two seats together! In the meantime I called the airport shuttle and was told that the last van would leave at 1:20 AM. We race out to the designated lot at 1:15 to find a deserted van parked there. Then Monica figures out, on her way to the bathroom, that there is a man (the driver, it turns out) staffing the shuttle desk inside — who does not have record of our reservation. He will drive us, fortunately, but we have to wait for another passenger who is late coming off his plane. It is then I notice a man-made cascade gurgling near the lot and spend a few meditative minutes imagining I am in the New Hampshire woods. The other passenger has also been subject to a storm-related delay in Texas. As we all finally ride south, my watch alarm goes off, astounding us that 24 hours have passed since we woke up to leave from Bea and Jeff’s.

Turn and face the strange

We return to a house still occupied by the Ugandan family. (You may view photos of them in my facebook albums). Somehow (I guess we don’t need to know the reason for everything) they got themselves a car since we left; but I guess they can’t drive it legally yet, as no one has been using it. A St Leo’s family gave laptops to the three oldest children in our absence as well — so the macbook I gave them has been passed down to Brenda (14). They should be moving into “transitional” (2-year) housing soon. As much as I’d like our house to ourselves again, I’ll miss having them here. The children all call me Dad; part of me feels like I should just drop everything and do Dad things with them. I was just teaching the 3-year-old, Barbara, to take apart a door lock — not that she gave me any choice about her being involved at every stage of the process. I’ve been telling myself I’ll re-commence my job search once I get this epistle sent off; naturally, I’d much rather keep writing and editing than “face the strange.” I’ve resisted even setting my watch to Pacific time. My investment in the Re-evaluation Counseling community here gives me people to call on for emotional support. I’m going to need a lot of it, along with prayer (mine and that of others for me), to keep from getting sunk by anxiety over the future. I want to look back on this period as one when every beautiful day was enjoyed.

Peace, Jeffry