20 December 2013

Three Existential Poems


The faces parade past,
Others of my species,
Each unique,
Never to be seen again.
And so it is with those who have lingered
For months or years at a stretch.
And then my true love, soul mate
Will disappear in the procession
Until finally, or perhaps penultimately,
I too leave behind the carriage that bore me
When my face was passed in the airport 


Dad, are you still down here?
Musty, dark, slow death through rust or rot
48 little plastic drawers labeled with impeccable capital letters
I open "COINS"
Overseas pocket change.
“Dad, I have coins like this too!
Shall I put them in?”
How you delight at this 7-year-old's question
One of many.
Paper shopping bags loaded with the contents of your file cabinets
How long can paper lay in this tomb
'Ere it rot?
Pieces of nautical projects
Remember when you first cut the fresh styrofoam blocks
Leaving scraps a-plenty for us to fashion with hacksaw
Into intricate battleships?
Each gun barrel a finishing nail
Another makes for a functional turret. . .

Mozart Buys Time

How could I have gone all these years without hearing the K 593 string quintet?
Had I been on my death bed and this omission were made known,
A tacet agreement between organs would hastily have been signed
To keep the body alert and functioning until this gourmet dish
Had been digested
At least as well as its brothers Ks 406, 515 and 516.

17 November 2013

November 2013 Reflection

Rule 1: Everything changes.
Rule 2: We suffer to the degree that we forget Rule 1.

It might appear that this is the last time I will feel free enough to compose my second newsletter of the year. Events since my last one, in March, have defied prediction. You may recall me reporting on being a student of Human Services and anticipating beginning an internship as a Chemical Dependency Professional. Yet I also wrote of hearing from a Catholic school principal who I felt so comfortable being around that I once again considered returning to the path I was on. . . Do I sell of all my music teacher texts or my Human Service ones? It is difficult to come across convincingly in an interview when you’re struggling to convince yourself it’s the right position for you. 

My priority shifted from finding a paid internship to finding paying work, whatever it may be. The applications I sent out—preparing applications constituted a full-time Summer job—netted interview requests from perhaps ten school districts before I heard from any addiction treatment centers. The closest call was a nearby private school, where I had five interviews (if you count the demo class I gave to their Summer camp children). It ended with them telling me I ran a close second to someone with International Baccalaureate experience. The process did, however, rekindle my desire for teaching music—as that particular school posited a new situation I felt I could succeed in. But I did not click with the schools that called me in after that, and apparently the feeling was mutual. 

Finally, I heard from a treatment center. My first interview with them did not end up with an offer; they had another applicant with professional experience. As my experience was zero, I couldn’t take it personally. But then someone in our parish who I had given as a reference—but who had been away and unreachable—gave them a call. As this man had worked for the same treatment center himself years ago, his word carried weight—and I shortly got a call offering me a position (the same or another I do not know). Problem was that this agency office was up in Seattle and I did not want to go that far in traffic. But I had seen their branch office also posting a CDPT position and I was able to use the offer from the first place as leverage to see the clinical director in the nearer location right away. As they were having a staff meeting there, she had everyone grill me and then took a vote. I averted my gaze. . . poof! I was in.

Except for Friday afternoons, my hours [11-8] are such that the drive time is 30 minutes. How well accepted I am as a rookie is evidenced by (we regularly use the abbreviation AEB in our assessments) the way every person there drops what he or she is doing to offer me help or answer my questions. Never is there an exasperated sigh or rolling of the eyes. And these are counselors who are rarely allotted sufficient time to get their own paperwork completed. Another revelation: this is not work you take home with you. I have been able to truly relax on weekends and not obsess about how to plan lessons so they will go better. Instead, I prepare guitar recitals for local audiences. 

The boss has been cheering me on, and after four weeks started me working with clients unsupervised. She is not someone you can keep anything secret from—dealing with addicts will do that—so when she asked, “So how’s your wife’s job search?” I had to let on to the fact that Monica has been courting a position in the Caribbean. I was feeling guilty about this possibility developing because it would take me away from the agency at a point where I had been given more than I could give back. (Although they wouldn’t have started paying my health benefits till 2/1/14). I had, after all, promised I would do my best to stick around. 

But the boss was not going to let me feel guilty about that, or about anything else for that matter. And this is where one of the most important lessons comes in. Not only have I been given a chance to develop competence in a whole new field—as counselor, group leader, record-keeper; not only have I been affirmed for being creative—counselors requesting that I do my guided meditations in their groups; I have been given an unequivocal vision of how I deserve to be treated by a supervisor. Most of the people I work alongside of are addicts in recovery and the clients are, of course, addicts we are steering towards recovery. People with good recovery understand that when they view themselves as a victim, rationalize acting out of anger or resentment, they are in relapse mode—resorting to a drink or a drug could easily be the next step. Likewise with believing that you are your own “higher power”, invulnerable. Maintaining a positive and humble attitude then becomes a matter of survival. 

People not prone to addiction are not offered this exclusive choice. They can get by muddling along with acting like a victim and will frequently initiate interactions with others based in this role. How good can a friendship rooted in common victimization feel? Addicts cannot maintain pretense either; it’s too close to the denial they used in the past. As our boss says, “I wouldn’t be here if someone hadn't given me a chance.” We shouldn’t ever have to pretend to be something other than who we are.

Meanwhile, back in the Caribbean, Monica just visited Sint Maarten—“the smallest country in the Dutch Kingdom”—where she was hosted by the Catholic church. The latter is apparently offering us both employment in their school system as its sole full-time music teachers—actually I will be the only one because Monica would also be a part-time music minister in the parish. They have already invested in her hotel for 10 days and plane flight for the visit (certainly more than any prospective employer has done for most of us). Monica visited all the schools (eight, I think) where students sang for her songs learned from their classroom teachers. Our work will be cut out for us, as they have had no formal music instruction up to this point. The parish wants to invest in mallet instruments and textbooks, or whatever we believe will enhance the music program. They expect a three-year commitment. I have been exploring online about Caribbean music and traditions as well as digging into the textbook series referred to in my last newsletter that maybe I wasn’t so foolish in purchasing after all. I’m trying not to think about the fact that I could go snorkeling year-round as that just sends my head spinning. Monica even connected with the director of a treatment center there, who is expecting to hear from me after I arrive. We should be moving between Christmas and New Year’s—as the next semester begins 1/6/14. What will happen with our house here we don’t even know yet.

And so now I know the answer to the question “Am I an addiction counselor or a music educator”: YES.  Given supportive circumstances, I can succeed at either. In fact, each vocation makes me better at the other. Work did not find us in Puget Sound because we are apparently meant to work someplace else. AEB all of the above, to thrive I need an unconventional environment where gratitude runs high, where I don’t have to pretend to be anything I am not. To learn if that is what St. Martin island ends up offering, stay tuned.

10 October 2013

A Condolence

I’m not sure if it’s OK,
when most would be terse,
to offer my condolence
rendered in light verse
(which I am wont to offer
as birthday-cake oration).
But can this not also be
a time for celebration?
The rich life of a partner
so talented and true;
the times you had together;
the ways in which you grew.
And then there is the courage
in following your heart,
which brought your family closer
as opposed to hewn apart.
Or so it did appear
from this distant mountain top;
if messes had been made,
you were thoughtful with the mop.

How could we have fathomed
all the joy and pain
that we would come to know
since play-days at Newell Lane?
The many rites of passage,
Uncertain goals pursued,
while in the end what serves us best:
a deeper gratitude.

28 March 2013

Spring 2013 Reflection

Give Me a Sign

Life has thrown enough curves recently that my bi-annual newsletter has been inching towards being annual. In my missive of last July I pondered exiting the field of music education. I looked for signs. God, dwelling outside of space and time, tends not to leave things where I can find them easily. It is like fumbling for a match in a pitch-dark room that is both cluttered and unfamiliar. Here are three possible ones.
  1. Returning to a parking area at Pt. Defiance Park last August (Nagasaki Day, to be exact), Toby (corgi dog) and I noticed a pile of broken glass next to the car. It took a minute to realize this glass represented the remains of my side window. Although there were signs posted about not leaving valuables in your car, I had put my waist pack under the seat. Never having been robbed in this manner before, I simply had not pictured entry through a smashed window. My swimming bag was gone, my barely-working ipod, an AC converter. . . Of course, I thought to myself, he watched me from the woods put the waist pack under the seat and— after ascertaining there would be no witnesses to the glass-breaking— grabbed that first. A glance under the seat confirmed this inevitable scenario. It was not until weeks later, after hours and dollars spent canceling accounts, changing auto-debits, replacing ID, and choosing a new bag, that I came to a new understanding of the profound consequences of assumptions made under duress. For it was at this time I attempted to place the new bag under the same seat and found it blocked by something, concealed to the eye, filling in the crater under there: my intact waist pack. Unless the thief enjoys snorkeling, then, he got precious little—far less than it cost me (unlike MA, insurance in WA doesn't cover auto glass before the deductible). Too bad we couldn't have settled out of court. The other significant theme in this event was chemical dependence, which it seems likely this person was dealing with.
  2. I went for an interview on Vashon Island. Their elementary school needed a general music teacher and had an arsenal of instruments, including 25 little guitars. It seemed like I would be their ideal candidate; and it really was the only music job posted that I felt suited for. Of course, there was the downside of starting anew with 500 students and riding the $20 ferry every day. Even Leticia, the oldest of the Ugandan siblings living with us for four months (a family of nine, you may recall) said, "No, Dad," (that's really what they called me), "no one should have to cross water to work every day." (Hear that in a Ugandan accent). I resolved that if the school picked someone else it was time to seek another career.
  3. Looking through the job listings for human services, I noted two credentials that kept popping up: CDP and MSW. I knew something of the latter, as my mother obtained her MSW at Smith College in 1946; and also a friend I had spoken of in the last newsletter went for his after years in carpentry. So I met with a fellow parishioner who works in the UW-Tacoma social work degree program. . . three years of evening classes at a cost of many thousands and I wouldn't be able to enroll till fall 2013. There being a one-year program at Tacoma Community College to prepare for state CDP (Chemical Dependency Professional) certification, that I could begin in Fall of 2012, suggested the time had come to re-set my compass heading on this new course.
School and Community

Nat has been attending TCC for some time now, but I had little familiarity with the place myself. Soon I came to wonder if half the city doesn’t study there. In my master's program at NEC, classmates as old as I were rare. But here I am a decade later finding that fellow boomers are nearly as numerous as those college-aged. I've yet to meet one with a Master's, though. In fact, most of my contemporaries here never went to college—if they ever finished high school. In spite of our class and racial differences we have in common that we haven't been able to find a decent job of late. Those of us in the Human Services program additionally have in common a desire to help others. 
In order to commit to this program, I had to forego what would otherwise have been my most likely source of income: substitute teaching—as classes are all scheduled to take place during school hours. I thank Monica for having faith that the adventure would be worth the risk. I have ended up being asked to sub on Saturdays for a guitar teacher at a community music school and have picked up a couple of students at home; every little bit helps. It feels odd to think how guitar students seemed to fall from the sky back in the 80s; one year found me giving 56 lessons a week to a relatively privileged segment of society. But what befitted the past apparently does not befit the present (as Obama reminded Romney regarding battleships).

Last Fall also marked the beginning of my connection with DASH Center for the Arts, now celebrating its 10th year offering performing arts classes on a pay-as-able basis to the (mostly African-American) Hilltop area of Tacoma. After being inspired by one of their hip-hop dance performances, I walked in and met their founding director, Candi. Soon I was teaching a small guitar class. Rather than take the small pay offered, it came to feel more appropriate to volunteer my services. Artistic collaboration and community connection is what I seek, after all; and I'm happy that Candi has recently organized a performance that facilitates this. The photo was shot by the Tacoma Weekly of those of us who happened to be there that day (click to view entire image).

A Quest for My People

Between DASH and TCC, then, I am connecting with segments of society I was, growing up, mostly separated from. I began experiencing symptoms of this separation at age six, when we moved from the fishing town of Gloucester to the Cranbrook campus in Michigan. It was my dad’s first teaching job. The materialism I encountered there was confusing; I couldn’t seem to fit in. George Romney [that name keeps coming up!] was governor, and even though his son, Mitt, was seven years older than me I vaguely recall being introduced to him in the Dining Hall.

Most of my past pursuits—music-making, Central America solidarity, Re-evaluation Counseling, school teaching, worship, and so on—found me in the company of other middle-class whites. Now I am being offered opportunities to rectify that. I’m realizing that I don’t have to fit in to belong; I don't need to pretend my roots are anything other than what they were. My authenticity comes in being fully who I’ve become. Whether my classmate or future client, you don’t need me to have gone through the same stuff you’ve gone through to place your faith and trust that you can be helped by my experience, hope and strength (three words commonly voiced together in 12-step work). My new black or raised-poor friends grew up around less pretense than I; they know how to make you feel at home. I grew up around more intellectual stimulation than they; I know how to validate your thinking. We need each other. We complement each other. World change can result from our work together.

New Tricks for the Old Dog

In addition to these interactions (the interpersonal)—and the fascinating information on brain chemistry, human behavior and society—the Human Services program requires self-reflection and encourages a deeper awareness of who we are individually (the intrapersonal). I thought I knew all about me already. Surely after all the workshops, classes and sessions I’ve participated in I’m not going to be significantly enlightened by a community college curriculum. Again, every assumption is best questioned. Introspection is at the core of the curriculum, not only to help us determine if this is the right field for us, but to understand better how to foster introspection in clients. This is a refreshing contrast to past situations when I could not challenge the dysfunction I perceived around me. My preconceptions of how to counsel addicts would have been pretty off-base had I only my past experience to go on. After we watched a video on the Motivational Interviewing style of counseling, I asked the professor, Jim, “how can the counselor have shown so much restraint in the face of the client’s insistence that if it weren’t for ‘this one problem’ (his employer referring him for treatment) his life would be fine. The counselor responded empathetically, ‘So you feel you’re being singled out and treated unfairly, and so on’ whereas my response would have been more confrontational—something like, ‘One problem?’” We both laughed heartily when Jim prophesied, “I want you to hear my voice in your ear saying, ‘Jeffry, don’t go there!’” Just coming to know this man is worth the price of admission.

In another class, we each did a presentation explaining our “box”—where we depict on the outside the parts of ourselves we show to the world, the parts we show people close to us on the inside, and the parts we try to hide on the bottom of the box. We were also to incorporate what we had concluded about our learning and personality styles based upon inventory questionnaires completed—a process through which I unexpectedly gained new insights regarding my interactions with others and my responses to situations. Presentations by my classmates ranged from apathetic to profound. With what some of them have been through it’s a miracle that they were here to tell about it. It brought home to me that I had been led to the ideal place to learn about human services, among those who not only have been recipients of services but who have overcome enormous odds.

My box was designed to hold CDs, which I filled with jewel cases (I don’t know why they are referred as that, rather than CD cases) inserted with images my classmates would be able to see across the room. Typically, I planned too many of them and had to abridge my remarks on the fly to not overstep the time limit. This forced me to look at who was present and discern what I most wanted them to hear. In one jewel case I had paired Archbishop Romero with JFK. I asked the class which two things these men had in common. One answer I sought was voiced, “They were both Catholic.” I supplied as the other, “They both died at the hands of the power elite they stood up to.” I had known for a while that I wanted to say this here, but it took some reflection for me to understand why it indeed fit an assignment about me and was not merely an excuse for pontification. I followed with something like this: “I was nine years old when someone walked into our fourth-grade classroom with the news of his murder. What I feel inside me now is the rage of a boy that age who was beat up on the playground by a bully well-connected enough to receive no consequences. I don’t feel the grace of Christ’s forgiveness here, but human rage—about the death of JFK and all the heinous acts committed by humans against humans. I have come to the conclusion that the only place I can channel it is in the doing of good works.”

I did a paper on music and dance interventions in addiction treatment, so I’ll be looking for chances to work those into whatever work I may get in the field—including training other counselors in their use. If nothing else, my program of study has gotten my brain working in new ways—proven to postpone neurological aging—through growing of new dendrites.

A Spanner in the Works

Just when I thought my course was plotted, I got an email from the principal at a Catholic school, asking if I would consider becoming their music teacher this Fall. Remember, I swore off teaching school music last August. I have let my professional association memberships lapse and didn’t think I was still even registered in the Archdiocese job applicant database. I’d been wondering what to do with the used textbook series that had seemed so foolish to purchase shortly before my last job was terminated. I have, however, missed doing music with children, especially leading them at Mass. I had turned down his same half-time position when it was offered to me in 2010, opting instead for full-time status 56 miles north—both positions involved nearly the same number of classes to be taught. But after two years of trying to make things work at the latter, I could appreciate—on my recent visit—what this local school has to offer: a relaxed 36-year-old male principal (also brought into the faith by his wife) who came on recently and values creative expression; a music program focused on preparing a parish mass every Friday with no pretense of meeting state standards for arts education (the only classroom instruments I saw were some hand percussion); a strong singing tradition; a 7-8 grade select choir but no 7-8 grade General Music; a large Latino population (I’ve missed los niños I taught in Lynn, MA) with strong parental involvement; the same benefits package. The principal also said he’d been “blissing out” on my Bach online, a sign to me I would be valued for my gifts. It is possible I could do this job without interrupting my CDP track, so long as I can schedule my internship to be half-time around it (and have energy left for it). My last school experience left me regarding myself as not properly cast (both sculpturally and theatrically) for teaching music in an institution. But here I was again making assumptions, drawing conclusions based on what I’ve experienced. Perhaps I can do this work, after all, in the right place for the right boss. Rather than a bona fide music educator, I could think of myself as the director of a very large children’s church choir—although I could at least train them in sight-singing, continue the tradition of recorders in grade 5, and of course dance. But I can’t get ahead of myself as I haven’t yet been through the entire process and been re-offered the job. Stay tuned for a report.

Signing Off

I’ve been taking advantage of the break between quarters to turn this out. In spite of all my editing, I know it to be imperfect in numerous ways. After wrestling with APA format for school work, I’ve enjoyed getting back to writing in a style idiomatic to me, punctuating by my own rules. I hope someday to bring that same sense of mission to writing music again. I wish you all a blessed Spring.

04 March 2013

Another birthday for Monica

To Monica

When we look back on this time
What shall we remember?
Where we lived? Who we knew?
The électronic embers?

Which wás it worried us the most?
Will it even matter? 
The struggle to retain our wits
Mid électronic chatter? 

Whén I look back from time hence
There wíll be some regrets:
Hours passed in pointless tasks,
Indulgence in upsets.

But the hóurs that bring truest joy
I’ll most want to accrue
Are thóse spent with the ones I love,
In particular with you!