Archive for November, 2009

In storytelling workshops with teachers, I regularly ask them to tell a story about a teacher that had an influence on them. This leads to a discussion about what makes a good teacher, and opens up the door for them to talk about their work in a narrative way. It also emphasizes a notion I mentioned in an earlier blog – the “structure” of teaching is not a political one, but rather an unbroken line through centuries of teachers who influenced people who then became teachers themselves.

What comes out of those teacher stories in the exercise is always interesting. It is usually a story about some kindness offered, or some revealing act on the part of the teacher – something that shows them as a person.

I was doing this exercise last month for a school district in California. When we got back together I asked, “How many of your memories with those teachers had to do with the curriculum?” I looked around. No one spoke, no one raised their hand.

Finally, one of the older teachers said, “It never has anything to do with the curriculum.”

Everyone in the room nodded.

I’ve heard this response before and it makes my point in the workshop that it’s the culture of a classroom or a school that really encourages learning to take place. A kindness given to a student, or a story told, gives them courage to take a chance on learning something, knowing they’ll be supported. It may even encourage them to become a teacher. (Aaagh! Not that!) Without that culture, the best curriculum in the world is going to have problems. Some kids will learn under almost any conditions, but many others, especially ones at risk, are never going to get anywhere without those moments of kindness.

I have in my mind a thought about this. “Love is in between.” It’s not the part you notice, or the time curriculum developers think about. But kindness or openness really acts like mortar in a brick building. You have all these bricks you’re using to construct the building, but something needs to hold them together. We don’t notice the mortar, we notice the bricks. But it’s the mortar, the binding agent, in between the bricks that helps the bricks do their job.

Okay enough metaphor. You get my point, I hope. The kindness, the stories, and the building of community seem like small things, and they certainly are in a formal evaluation of what was learned.

But no mortar, no building.


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I had just finished swimming at my local Y and was standing in the locker room, talking to someone, when a guy came in the door with a bolt cutter. He wasn’t the custodian (Joe the custodian, and I’m not kidding), but I figured I knew why he was there.

Some guys put a combination lock on a day locker and leave their clothes in there for weeks – they haven’t paid rental on the half lockers you’re allowed to rent, and just figure they can squat in the big lockers, like they’re moving into some abandoned building in Loisaida. Every month or so, Joe leaves a warning on the locker for a couple of days, then snips off the lock and puts whatever’s inside in the lost and found. Like I said, it wasn’t Joe, but I figured it was the law coming to get its due.

“Uh oh,” I said, “Looks like someone is in trouble.” I smiled, expecting him to laugh.

He didn’t.

“Yeah,” he said. He held out a newspaper clipping and I took it. Before I could see what it was about, he said, “My dad died, and I have to take the things out of his locker.”

Oh jeez.

“Oh, man,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

He nodded and walked off to find his father’s locker. “It’s locker ninety-eight,” he said.

“It’s down that way,” I pointed.

I was still holding the newspaper clipping. It was his father’s obituary. He had obviously used it as his passport into the Y he did not belong to, and now he was holding it like a memory. He gave it to me because he needed someone to know about his father.

What could I do but stand there and read it?

Married fifty three years. Air force veteran. Five kids. Fourteen grandchildren. He enjoyed the sun on him while he drank his morning coffee. He loved his friends. The names of all his children and grandchildren.

For sixty seconds, I stood there reading through the story about his father. Such a small thing, but all I could really do.

He was wrestling with the lock and the boltcutter. Unlike Joe the custodian, I doubt if he had ever used it.

“It’s beautiful, what it says about him,” I said. “Did you write it?”

He nodded. He was still struggling with the lock.

“Do you want some help?” I asked.

“Sure, thanks,” he said.

So I held the lock while he cut it. He pulled on the latch and looked in the little locker that held his father’s soap and towel and razor. Some aftershave.

Very carefully arranged, waiting for his next trip to the gym.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He nodded. “Thanks,” he said.

I gave him back the obituary. He held it carefully in his hand.

I walked out, feeling embarrassed and horrible, blindsided by what had just happened.

But not as horrible and blindsided as he felt.

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Brother Blue - holy fool

When I was a sophomore in college in 1974, my roommate came back to the room one night and said, “You won’t believe this guy I saw. He told stories. For over an hour! He’s all dressed in blue. He was like a jazz musician. You would have loved him. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He was right. I would have loved him, and I did, eventually. And he was right – I never had seen anything like it. Four years later I was living in Cambridge when I saw Brother Blue for the first time, doing his street gig at Harvard Square. I knew it had to be the same person my friend described. Who else could it have been?

Blue (Hugh Morgan Hill) died last week after a very long, wonderful, and unique life. For those unfamiliar with Blue, you can find out more about him here – http://www.brotherblue.com.

My friend and mentor Benny Reehl told me when I started performing “Don’t be the best, be the only”. Blue was the living example of that advice – to say he was a storyteller is a feeble stab at putting someone in a box when there are no boxes, no words, that quite fit who he was. I kind of pride myself for living a slightly abnormal life – but compared to Blue, I’m just a little Establishment drone. With Ruth there to make sure he didn’t float away, he lived the bravest of lives, saying again and again what he thought was most important.

That is not to say it was always what people wanted to hear, or that it always made sense to everyone around him (me included). Blue, to me, was the embodiment of the holy fool – a mantle he joyfully accepted. Fools are not always welcome and sometimes inappropriate. THAT’S THEIR JOB!. They can make people nervous. Presenters and festival promoters approached him with some trepidation. As someone who has worn the presenter hat, I remember worrying about what Blue was going to do. I learned to relax and stop worrying about what others felt, and instead paid attention to how I felt – his work was a Rorschach test for how you viewed the world, and people regularly failed to adjust. Just because he was supposed to be on stage at two pm didn’t mean he would be. You hired Blue to be present, not to have him do what you wanted. Sometimes he went on and on. Sometimes he spoke for only a minute. Sometimes he added to what another performer was doing. Uninvited. To be in Blue’s presence was a reminder that the world is full of possibilities, many of which had not yet occurred to you.

In the end, Blue’s message was about love, and that is an awkward and problematical message for this troubled world. As far as that goes, we can remember Blue as a performer, but it may be as a listener, an audience, that he reached people the deepest and most movingly. Blue always sat in the front row . You knew he was there. Everyone in the audience knew he was there. He nodded. He sighed. He shook his head in agreement. When you were bombing, he was there to go down with you, denying your failure and finding the good. And inevitably, after the performance, he would stand and offer his heartfelt appreciation for what the performer had done.

I think, in a way, Blue had a reverse charisma – some performers and public figures make everybody feel that they have a special relationship with the performer – each audience member knows that celebrity in a special way. That is a rare thing – I think of Springsteen having that effect, and I think Obama had that effect during last year’s campaign. “I know him in a way no one else does.”

Blue’s act of knowing was different from that. I was never exactly sure who Blue was, but I had the feeling (and I think others did too) that Blue looked at me, listened to me, and knew who I really was – so much so that it was hard at times to talk to him – I was almost embarrassed by the good he saw in me.

How many people can you say that about?

Blue was crazy. Good crazy. Something I want to be when I grow up. We’ll miss him, and need to make sure there’s room for the good crazy in this world that so sorely needs it.

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I travel a lot and eat alone by myself too often. When you get to a certain point of time on the road, you start looking for what you know. All too often, this devolves into some chain restaurant that’s at least predictable (Chili’s, Applebees, whatever). It’s pretty boring after awhile. So I try to eat local. The problem with local is, unless you get a great recommendation, it can be pretty uneven.

But it’s still worth the effort. I was reminded of this last week when I was in Gardnerville, Nevada, driving around at supper time, looking at a full array of national chains. I didn’t want one more Oriental chicken salad. There was a Thai restaurant – usually a pretty good choice. But it was a choice I’d made a half dozen times in the last two weeks. Thai is local, I guess, but I wanted something else.

Driving through the town, the sky darkening, my stomach grumbling, I saw a Basque restaurant – J.T. Basque Bar and Grille. Definitely local (a national chain of Basque restaurants? – not this time around on the planet) You can find them in small towns throughout the mountain West – those Basque shepherds showed up and stayed and are a pretty crusty lot. And they brought their food and culture with them. Hoping for the best, afraid of the worst, I pulled into the parking lot. When I peeked in the window, I saw people at a dozen tables. That’s a good sign for a small town – especially on a Monday night. Once you walk into a restaurant, it’s hard to walk out, but I needed to eat and was committed. I didn’t have a cowboy hat to pull down over my eyes (reminding me of a Gary Snyder poem), but I hitched up my pants and walked in.

If you don’t know about Basque restaurants, here’s the deal – it’s working people’s food, and there’s a lot of it. You pay a fixed price and they start to bring you plates of stuff. It’s all served family style, which means they put one big platter of food on the table after another and everyone serves themselves. If you need more, they’ll bring you some. Up until last week, I’d only eaten at Basque restaurants with large groups of people, and midway through the meal, there were about thirty plates of food on the table with no end in sight. Now it was just my lonesome.

It’s peasant food. Bean soup. Potatoes (lotsa potatoes). More beans. Some salad. Some rice dish with some kind of meat – like paella, I guess. And then, meat. Lamb. Or mutton (when was the last time you had mutton?) Or cowboy steaks. Or pork chops. I think maybe some kind of tripe or something unidentifiable. Some more potatoes, probably more beans and dessert, too.

Wine is included in the meal. It comes in an opened beer bottle. Hmm. Drawn from some cask in the basement. Cheap red wine and more where it came from, if you need it. I was reminded of a time when I was in Italy and bought wine from a corner store – the store owner filled a recycled two liter plastic Coke bottle from a cask with a nozzle from a gas pump. Shut the pump off at 10,000 lira, willya? We’re not talking Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild.

There at the Basque restaurant, I wanted to just sit at the bar so I could watch the football game, but if I was going to eat, I was directed to the dining room.

I was wondering if I was going to get the same family style service since it was just me. Maybe there would be small plates of everything.

Nope. The whole enchilada, so to speak.

Once I ordered the main course (sirloin steak – I skipped the lamb and mutton, and apologized to the vegetarian side of me that was offered the main course of vegetables) the plates started arriving. A whole tureen of bean soup. Really good bean soup, by the way. I stopped at two bowls. A platter of house salad. The recycled beer bottle of mountain wine. I looked around to see if there was anyone to share the food with, but they were all busy with their own cornucopia. The paella (or whatever Basques call it) was spicy and good – comfort food from the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula. I tried to save room for the steak, but I wouldn’t have eaten it all even if that was all I ordered. It was a big piece.
basque food
This isn’t me, but it sure looks like my table.

The music on the house system was Basque. Accordions and guitars and clear, impassioned, untrained, unprocessed voices. I had no idea what they were saying, and I loved it. Something about sheep, maybe?

I was somewhere else. This is Nevada? This is the good ol’ USA? I was at home somewhere else.

I say this because my favorite local restaurants are a couple of Portuguese places in East Providence, Rhode Island, close to home. It’s peasant food (a little more fish on the menu) with no pretense. Cheap Iberian wine. Open on Monday nights with fado music (Portuguese music of unrequited love) – when I go on those nights (or almost anytime) I’m the only one that doesn’t speak Portuguese. The waitress smiles and yells at me. I feel lucky to be there.

That’s what the Basque restaurant felt like to me. I asked the manager about the music playing, and he wrote down the names of the musicians – there were a lot of “x”’s in it. He said it’s usually busier, and someone often brings an accordion in – a customer – and wanders around the room singing. We talked for a while and he told me about the family that owned the place, and where he came from (LA – wouldn’t you know?).

I left full. And not so lonely.

Better than Applebee’s for sure.

Here’s to the Basques and local food. And wine in beer bottles.

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