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Last year I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a young filmmaker named Hannah Jayanti for a documentary about the book The Phantom Tollbooth, in celebration of it being published fifty years ago. After the interview, Hannah asked if I’d write a song for the film and I was even happier to do that. The film’s premier is October 6 at the New Yorker Festival. (Norton Juster, the author, and the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, will be there for the screening.  I’ll be there, too. ) For fans of the book (and even those unfamiliar with it) it’s a delightful and insightful look at the creative process and the story behind Milo and his tollbooth.

Here’s part of my interview:

And here’s a link to the song. My pal, whistler extraordinaire Andy Offut Irwin does the whistling:

Some of you know that The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic piece of children’s literature – and it’s a classic and timeless because of its very singular and quirky nature.  Milo is a boy thoroughly bored with life and not seeing the point in much of anything. Feiffer’s initial illustrations of Milo show someone not dissimilar to the character in Munch’s “The Scream”. Passing through a tollbooth that mysteriously shows up in his apartment one afternoon, Milo embarks on a quest into a different world, and discovers a reason for being, or perhaps finds that just being is reason enough. The story is filled with language play, strange characters, and philosophical observations that most adults can’t imagine children would enjoy.

Most adults.

Most adults think…

You could begin a lot of sentences with that phrase, and hardly any of them would be complimentary to people over twenty-one years of age. Somehow, adults forget how children think. Perhaps because children have no power, they have little responsibility, and adults equate consciousness and perception with responsibility, forgetting the years and years they themselves spent as children, observing and trying to make sense of things. By the time children get to nine or ten years of age, they have become philosophers of a feral sort. Children, at the mercy of their seniors, have a lot of time to muse and consider and try and understand, more than we do as adults.

Which is what The Phantom Toolbooth is about – trying to make sense of a world in which adults don’t seem to be listening or paying attention.

Most adults doubted that children would like the book. But they have. My friend Carmen Deedy says it’s easier to publish a good book than a great one, and time has proved detractors wrong. Rereading it last year, I was struck by the depth of what it had to say, and the playfulness with which it was said.

If you like the book, you can give it some support on the Facebook fan page here.

And if you’re in New York, I’ll see you there.

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I had a busy and interesting week last week. I went to a workshop with Nick Rabkin, an arts educator who speaks eloquently about the importance of arts in the schools. You can check out one of his columns here. Then I presented at the Fall Forum of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) in Providence. I love what CES is doing, and it’s a comfort to me to know there are educators who are really thinking through what makes a good school.

I’m no fan of No Child Left Behind, nor of Race to the Top. I’ve been in schools a long time and seen a lot of things, and I don’t think these programs are much of an answer. They don’t really frame the question right. This of course, deserves a longer discussion, and I’ll post more. But for now, I want to post a song I wrote a year or so ago about testing. It’s not on any recording and I don’t know if it will be. And this is just me and guitar. I wrote it after listening to one teacher after another lament the effect of high stakes teaching on their work. LIke I said, Race to the Top doesn’t really shift the focus much from No Child Left Behind. Testing has its place, but it’s no answer. And like I say in the song, it sure isn’t teaching.

Here’s the song. Hope you like it:

Click here – The Ballad of Janice Miller

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

There’s a point of no returning

There’s a point where something breaks

There’s a point where someone’s taken as much as they can take

There’s a point comes when you know that what you’re doing’s wrong

That’s the point where you say no and refuse to go along

My name is Janice Miller, a teacher’s who I am

I’ve never made much trouble, I’ve done the best I can

There’s a million more like me out there, I can’t speak for the rest

But I’m sick of what we’re doing, so I won’t give this test

©2012 Bill Harley and Round River Music (BMI)

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Keith Munslow and I drove down to New York last week to be on the radio with Mindy Thomas (well, okay, she was in Washington, and we were in New York). On the way we talked about songwriting and made a list of things we’ve learned over the years. It’s not complete at all, and in no particular order, but here are a few.

1. Do it any way you can – like my mom used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”, and I’ll use any approach that might work. Someone speaks a line that sounds good, or has a deeper significance, and that might be what the song is built on. My song “I Wanna Play” came from an insistent third grader who wanted in on the playground game. Or not a spoken line, but an idea you want to talk about or story you want to tell. Or a melodic line – some little bit of melody you find yourself humming. Or just a rhythm track. Paul Simon said that with “Graceland” he approached songwriting in a completely different way than he ever had, using rhythms instead of melody or chord progressions. I figure a good songwriter has all those tricks in his/her bag.

2. Carry a notebook, because you’ll forget.

3.For Pete’s sake, don’t edit yourself before you’ve started. Tell the little voice in you that says you’re an idiot to go away while working on the song. Yes, your idea is a stupid one. So what? The heart of creativity is about wandering around in a non-juried space where you’re allowed to make connections or leaps of logic that don’t apparently make sense. If your critical mind is hanging around when you start, you’ll never get started. Tell it to shut up.

4. Create more than you think you’ll need – you can edit later. I usually write seven or eight verses of a song, then come back to three or four, sometimes combining. I read somewhere Dylan would write way too many verses, because he couldn’t help himself. So volume counts. And then….

5. Editing does have a place, and like they say, you’ll have to kill your babies. I often have a verse or phrase that I absolutely love, but it doesn’t fit in with the song. If I keep it it’s just an indulgence.

6.A lot of creative work gets done when you’re doing something else – approaching something obliquely often opens up a new avenue (again, the small minded internal critic isn’t paying attention). My friend Jon Campbell, a great songwriter, says he keeps the radio off in his car and makes up a lot of songs while he’s driving. He figures out the chords later. Folding laundry. Walking the dog. And of course, the shower, where I am often a genius, if I can remember what I was thinking when I get out.

7. The rhythm of a line is at least as important as any rhyming going on. When I work with songwriters, I often find them struggling with the line scanning – and it HAS to scan well, so it can sing well. Alliteration helps with making a good line to sing, too. So don’t ignore the awkward phrase that’s hard to get out of your mouth – you’ve got to fix it.

8. Stand on someone else’s shoulders. All songwriters refer back to other songs and songwriters in their work. Like Woody Guthrie said, “He stole from me, I stole from everyone.” And Elvis Costello, one of our best, regularly cops styles, hooks, and rhythms from other people’s songs. So try on someone else’s hat. I went to see Ray Davies last month in Chicago, and I was very struck by his chameleon-like abilities as a songwriter – this is a Stones song, this is a Beatles song, this song borrows from Brian Wilson, this is a disco song. Of course, they’re all his songs. One of my better moments as a songwriter was taking a lando rhythm from Afro-Peruvian music and wedding it to a chord progression from Marshall Crenshaw. The lyrics made it a list song, something I learned from Gershwin and Porter – “Everything is Music” is mine, but I used everything I had.

Just a bunch of ideas – what are yours?

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Last week, the Rhode Island Committee on the Humanities gave me their Lifetime Achievement Award. I was deeply honored to receive it, and it also really gave me pause – it wasn’t something I expected, and like many people, I have a healthily developed impostor syndrome which immediately made itself known to me. Receiving the award made me think about what I was doing and what the humanities are. Below is the short acceptance speech I gave.

There is an active discussion now about the place of the humanities in society. Stanley Fish wrote a blog piece for the NY Times just about that this past week – it touches on many parts of what I said.

Here’s my talk:

Thanks very much. Thanks to all of you for coming. I give my thanks to the Committee on the Humanities for this honor – to Mary Kim Arnold, to Shea’la, to SueEllen, to Mary Lee Partington and the members of the board.
And of course, my thanks, most of all to my wife and work partner, Debbie Block –my anchor and compass. What I present as an artist is really a shared vision of the way we would like the world to be – those of you who know me, know that it is just not me up here. Who knows what I would be doing without her – certainly not this.

I am still a little concerned about what to do after I get a lifetime achievement award. Now what? I didn’t know that I was finished, nor that I was even eligible. What I am left with is to continue my work and try and show I deserved it. When I look out on this room, I see many out there who are at least as or even more deserving of this recognition – many others have had a deep and lasting effect on the culture of Rhode Island.

Getting this award – totally unexpected, and really a joy – has led me to think about boundaries and borders. People who study systems know that it is at the edges – the borders and boundaries – that the most interesting things occur. A border or boundary is where there is the greatest expression of life. Who would know more about borders and boundaries than Rhode Islanders? The whole state is a border. In giving me this award, the Committee has shown a willingness to extend borders and boundaries in at least three ways.

First – most obviously, to me at least – in giving the award to someone from Massachusetts, they have reached beyond the border of the state. Thirty years ago, Debbie and I moved to the Providence area, and didn’t pay attention to political districts. We still don’t – my car can drive itself to Providence and does so almost every day. And as many of you know, the history of Seekonk, where I live, is a little murky – were we part of Rhode Island once? Was East Providence part of Seekonk? We ourselves are not quite sure where we live. I offer my appreciation for your seeing beyond that political border.

Second – you have crossed the border and reached into the arts. I call myself an artist, although that is a name someone else gives – Martha Graham noted that it’s not our job to worry about whether we’re creating art, it’s our job to do our craft as well as we can and let someone else decide. I have never been able to distinguish my art from my vision of the way I think the world might be if we were to listen and act with greater intention and care. Much of my work is about the great question of how do free individuals live in community with each other. What underlies all of my work is the search for what we hold in common. As an artist, and a student of the humanities, it’s my job to try and make my audience look at the world in a different way. I am quite glad to use whatever tools I have to do that; story works for me, and so does song , but I see no real, solid boundary between the arts and the humanities. Apparently, the Committee is willing to cross that border, too.

Third- the Committee has willingly crossed the border from the adult world to reach into the world of childhood, where I have most firmly placed my work. I was early on influenced by Gandhi and King, and have had it in mind to give my voice to the voiceless. Children and their caretakers are my constituents. Many of you here know that people who choose to work with children often have their work devalued by those who think adult work is more important and of more substance. I, too am often challenged by the choice I have made, and can, in weaker moments, devalue it myself. By giving me this award, all of you here recognize that what happens to a child determines what happens to the world. I thank you for that.

Being given this award has caused me to think a lot about the humanities. It brings me to near speechlessness – (near!)– that the humanities today seem endangered – even elements in higher education perceive the humanities as having a dwindling importance .
It’s not surprising this has happened, I guess – especially as I look at the debate in education. In the movement to measure learning through more and more testing I see a parallel discussion – the tendency to value technical knowledge and “hard” facts over a kind of knowledge more difficult, in fact, sometimes impossible, to quantify.

But for all their “squishiness”, their inability to provide hard data, the humanities – arts and letters, the history of our time here on earth, the strivings and failings of humans – is the proper locus for the study of questions that are increasingly crucial to our life on this planet. They are questions that are hard, perhaps impossible, to answer definitively. As a storyteller, I understand that we are, in the end, contextual beings, creatures of time – our acts, our thoughts, our dreams, bear no meaning without what came before, and what they imply for the world that will follow – this is what we, as humans, as storytellers, do – we live in a context, and make sense of the world through our narrative, the telling of our stories. It is the job of the humanities to listen to these stories and to ask the questions that, as Rilke said, “have no answers”.
Questions like:
“What is the value of a human life?”
“What does it mean to live in community?”
“What is beautiful and elegant and why?”
“What is required of us?”
“What is, what should be, what might be, our relationship with the rest of life on this planet?
And of course, in the end, there is the question of how we should live our lives, and what does it mean to live a good life.
These are questions that must be asked every day. This is our calling – this is our charge – this is what those of us who live in the world of the humanities, should strive to do.
We are better when we ask these questions, and when we reach beyond the boundaries of what we know and who we are to make the circle bigger.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with Phillip and Phyllis Morrison in their house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Phillip Morrison was a Nobel Prize Physicist, at the center of the development of the atomic bomb. He gave the countdown at Los Alamos – an act, he told me, he had spent the rest of his life trying to make up for. He was completely delightful, quite clearly upon my first meeting with him a genius – a man of unending curiosity, who took delight in the workings of the world. At one point in the time we spent with each other, I proposed that the very nature of our understanding of time was changing and we were changing with it, as we divided it further and further, as things seemingly went faster and faster. I thought, in fact a scientist would understand and agree with me. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Our measure of time will always have to do with seconds. A second is how we measure our lives, because a second is one beat of the human heart. That’s the prism through which we look at the world. Always.”
Time in the end, will always be human for us. And the study of it will be our work – the study of the beating of the human heart.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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