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Archive for August, 2009

Several years ago I was out on the road, performing at a festival far away from my home in Massachusetts. The sponsor asked me to do an early morning interview with a local radio personality to promote the upcoming shows. I’m always a little leery about those early morning DJs – their main job often seems to be to make themselves look funny at someone else’s expense. Usually, they have no idea what I’m about and I have to explain myself. But it’s my job, so I said yes.

“So,” the guy says after introducing me “you’re from Massachusetts.”

“Yep,” I said.

“How do you like your lowlife senator?” he asked. I heard the glee in his voice.

This was not about storytelling, or music, or my work, and I knew where he was headed. It was seven in the morning and I wasn’t in the mood. I felt blindsided. It’s not my job to talk about politics. Especially that early in the morning.

“Who do you mean?” I asked.

“You know,” he said, “Old fat Teddy.”

That was it.

“Look,” I said, “whatever you think of Ted Kennedy, he’s the only Senator in the whole United States Senate who seems to care one little bit about poor people. I’m proud he’s my Senator. Any other questions?”

It was a short interview. I doubt if I encouraged anyone to come see me. I was sorry for that, and I apologized to the sponsor.

Watching his funeral yesterday, and listening to what people said about him, I was struck, most of all, by the possibility of redemption in life, if someone is given the chance. Truth be told, over the years, I’ve had a hard time with Kennedy’s personal behavior – I loved what he was saying, but often hated what he was doing. He was, at times, impossible to defend. And if Ted Kennedy were you or me, he might well have not walked the streets.

Because of privilege, and surely because of support, Ted Kennedy escaped some of the consequences of his behavior and his demons. But because he was given that chance, somewhere along the way, he found what he was meant to do, and made a difference in many people’s lives. The things people are saying about him are not just the typical things people say about someone when they die. Even his “enemies” had to acknowledge his humanity and accomplishments. And his kindness.

Most impressive, I think, is that Kenendy found a way to communicate with people who were diametrically opposed to the things he wanted. Very few of us have the patience and fortitude to do that. I try, and often fail. But my failures are not public.

The lesson for me in all of this is that rather than look for retribution and punishment when someone has failed, and failed miserably, I wonder how we can look for what is good in the person who has failed. How do we speak to that part? What’s our job?

Kennedy changed, it seems. He righted his course. Who someone is at twenty-one, or thirty, or forty will not necessarily be who they are at fifty, or sixty, if they are given a chance. If they learn their lesson, they carry a humility and compassion with them that only failure can teach.

We could, rightfully, have thrown Kennedy out and never seen him again. But he stuck around. It’s good he did.

Of course, a good number of decent people may have wished he’d disappeared. That’s politics, though, I think.

Now, the challenge for me is what I would be saying if Kennedy’s politics weren’t pretty close to the way I see the world. That’s the lesson I have to learn from seeing who Kennedy became.

Like I said, I’m proud he was my Senator.

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Sarcasm Jar

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This is a cross-post from another blog I”m writing (??) at http://www.ptotoday.com. Stealing from myself, hmmm.

I know very well that children learn by example, but there are some times I would rather not be reminded of it.

When my sons were locked firmly in pre-adolescence, I noticed certain words creeping into their vocabulary I didn’t want to hear. Where did they get that stuff? They would say the words then look at me to see how I reacted. I said I didn’t like that language, and they shouldn’t use it in public places, even if the public place was camped in front of the television watching a movie in which the actors used the language I was objecting to.

It went on. It was a test of my authority. It lowered the level of discourse.

Civilization was at stake.

So I introduced the age-old institution of the potty-mouth jar. Or swear jar. You know what I mean – a jar in the kitchen that someone puts money in every time they break the rule. “It will cost you a quarter every time you use one of those words,” I said.

My children immediately made me define exactly which words I meant. “You know what I mean,” I said.

It was shortly after that that I made a startling discovery.

I didn’t realize I used those words, and when I did, I thought I was using those words only in the privacy of my own personal universe. Replacing plumbing fixtures, for instance – you would think that would be a private experience.

Not when you yell really loudly.

Or when I got cut off in traffic.

Or waited on the phone for forty minutes to talk to someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“Twenty-five cents, Dad,” my children gleefully announced.

“#%@!!!!#!” I said.

When I realized who was putting the most money in the jar, I cleaned up my act, declared victory, and retreated.

“No more swear jar,” I announced. “You’ve learned your lesson.”

And we all behaved reasonably well until they reached adolescence. Suddenly, it wasn’t language, it was attitude. Somewhere on their way to adulthood, my boys had become the most sarcastic beings on the face of the earth. Nothing escaped their cynical comments.

So I got a glass gallon jar and wrote on its side “Sarcasm Jar – 25 cents”
I introduced it at dinnertime.

“This will stop your sarcasm,” I said. “I’m serious. Every time someone’s sarcastic, they owe a quarter.”

“Dad,” my older son said, sincerity plastered across his face, “we’re not sarcastic.”

“Yeah, right,” I said.

“Twenty-five cents, Dad!” my younger son.

“That’s not fair!” I said. “You’re trying to make me sarcastic.”

“Dad, we would never do that,” the younger one said.

“Oh, sure!” I said.

“Twenty-five cents more!” the older one said.

“Like I’m going to pay,” I said.

“More!” they shrieked.

They were both in hysterics.

“Forget the sarcasm jar,” I said. “I hope you learned your lesson.”

“We learned from the best, Dad,” they both said.

Like I said, there’s some things of which I don’t want to be reminded. Like that my sons are smarter than me.

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Summer sunset - Joe's Pond, West Danville, VT

Summer sunset - Joe's Pond, West Danville, VT

Truth be told, I like summer best of all. Every season has its good points – we northerners defend the beauty and contrast of the other seasons, saying we would hate having it warm all year round, and I’m pretty sure we’re not just being defensive. I’d like to believe that, and choose to do so. But, regardless of my appreciation for spring, fall and winter, my compass is pointed towards June, July and August as the place I want to be.

It’s not that long a time, and early on in the season, part of me starts lamenting the days going by.

Last week at the storytelling workshop I held at Pendle Hill, one of the teachers said that summer was like a long weekend – June is Friday, July Saturday, and August Sunday. Everyone nodded – we all knew it was true. In June, you’re just happy it’s here, relieved to be free of the responsibility of the school or business cycle. July, like Saturday is the heart of it, and in August, as on Sunday, you’re already regretting the loss of the time off, looking ahead towards the things you have to get ready for the new week, or season.

So here we are in August. It’s finally hot – too hot to try and do too much – if you’re going for a bike ride, be done by eleven or wait until the late afternoon. I know it’s late summer, too, by the sounds – the crickets and cicadas are out in full force – in Pennsylvania last week,the locusts roared, their different pitched calls swirling around, shifting from one tree to another, like the curves of a sine wave, going in and out of phase, rising and falling. Lying in bed with the windows open, I felt like I was still eight years old.

It feels to me as if all the experiences I’ve had in summer are packed into one mythical summer – somehow, by magic, I was able to experience all those things in one short season – I hiked, biked, canoed, vacationed, watched the meteor showers, swam in lakes, rivers, and swimming pools, walked barefoot, drove across the country, read a dozen mysteries, had late dinners with friends, went to ball games – all in three months.

Summer isn’t a time, but a place.

Now, as summer winds down, I realize I haven’t done half of those things – summer has shrunk! But what I have done this summer gets thrown into the summer footlocker, adding to the mythical Summer, making every one to follow it seem even smaller and shorter.

There must be a word in some language – Yiddish, Portuguese, Swahili – for the longing for what you’re experiencing at the moment, knowing it won’t last. That’s what I feel like right now. Trying to hold on to this moment, this summer day, even as it’s slipping away.

Hmmm. I’m wondering about the wisdom of blog posts when I hear the clock ticking.

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I’ve never been very good at explaining myself when asked what I do. On airplanes, or at arts receptions, or standing in line at the checkout counter. “What do you do?” they ask. I’m a storyteller, I say. (Pretty weird!) Or a songwriter. Or an author. But not exactly any of those things. Whatever I answer, there’s usually some interest, and then they ask “Who do you perform/write/sing for?”

Then I take a breath.

“I work with kids,” I say.

Their response to my answer is a litmus test, of sorts. A noticeable few become excited, But often, when I say that, I get a polite nod and a general lessening of interest on the part of my conversational partner.

“That’s nice,” they say, “You must like children.”

I nod. I do, generally, like children

Then they go back to their magazine, or sauvignon blanc, or swiss chard. Sometimes it’s like I have the plague.

When that happens I often feel what many people who work with children, either as teachers, or day care providers, or maybe even pediatricians.

Nice work, but not very, um substantial, or weighty. Or important. I couldn’t find anything else to do.

While lip service is paid to “our future”, most work with children is devalued. It’s not serious enough – it’s what you do if you can’t cut it with adults. If you do it, you’re not as intellectually agile as someone who’s writing books, or songs for adults or teaching grad students. And your work is less important, too.

Oh well.

I usually enjoy saying, “I work with kids.” I’m proud of it. But honestly, the most dangerous, cutting voice of all the ones who deliver this subtle message is the one in my own head. Regardless of where I first heard it, I carry the message in myself, wondering if I’m doing this because I couldn’t succeed in some other world.

Thinking this way is a loser’s game, and I know it. Most of the people I know doing good work for children and families – as teachers, as writers, as counselors, as doctors – are continually challenging themselves to do the best work they can do. And many of them are working with children because they’ve consciously chosen to throw their lot in with the least, and in their hope for the future.

The adult world is, often, eminently disappointing. It’s in working with kids that we find a freedom of expression and immediacy we don’t experience with the older set. One of the things that has always struck me about those who work with young people is that they are offering their lives to the future – it’ not about them, it’s about the person they’re serving. And they probably won’t see the results of their work.

That’s a pretty mature approach to life, it seems to me. Pretty weighty, too. More weighty than, say, the approach of a derivative trader. Although those guys do wear ties.

The voice inside me questioning my work sometimes wins out, but I remember making my decision consciously about working with younger people and the ones around them. I could have traded bonds if I wanted, I guess. Well, maybe not.

Okay, sometimes when people ask, I don’t confess. I have a lot of different answers. Because I do work with all kinds of people – adults included.

But I may be at my best when I look whoever asks me square in the eye (even if it’s looking in the bathroom mirror) and say it.

“I work with kids.”

Whatever they think about my answer is their problem.

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