March 25th, 2012 :: Reading Days
Recently someone asked me what I had been reading. I almost bit her head off, citing immediately a long list of trials and tribulations that stand in the way between me and the next good book. And, while it is true that the days of pleasure reading are rare, that isn’t the whole story. I do read. Every single day.
Sometimes I read the dreaded measurement texts or the dry research papers that are the bread and butter of a graduate degree in Ed Psych (When in doubt, assign another research paper to be read. I am convinced that this is the pedagogical theory that my professors live and breathe by.) But in the last few years, I have sharpened my skills at skimming, and let go forever my guilt at simply not reading huge sections of these papers and texts. After all, I reason, I don’t understand 90% of the numbers anyway. Thank goodness for the summary located at the end of these published papers. I should consider incorporating the summary feature into this blog. Some of you out there might appreciate it.
Every morning I start the day with my cup of coffee and my stack of books on Zen practices and gardening. A Year at North Hill by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd is lovely, in every way. The Writer in the Garden (edited by Jane Garmey) has proven to be another inspiration. Writers as various as Vita Sackville-West and Michael Pollan have contributed to this collection of short essays on all things gardening. Just this morning, I finished The Buddha in the Classroom by Donna Quesada, an interesting take on both Zen Buddhism and teaching. There is nothing like a little Zen thought and a few helpful hints about what I should do with my unruly patch of mint to make me ready to face the day. This, I must admit, does count as reading.
In fact, while we were in Portland in January, roaming the aisles at Powell’s bookstore, I jotted down lists of books I was interested in. Back at home, I reserved a whole bounty of these titles, forgetting that the public library did not work like Netflix. This was not a queue of books I was requesting, that would appear to me one at a time, the next book arriving when the previous one had been read and returned. Nope. That isn’t how the public library runs the reserved list, although they should. (Admittedly, I should have known better, but I had never reserved so many books in one sitting.) Instead, what happened, of course, is that I got an e-mail announcing that I had a dozen books waiting for me all at the same time. The ride back from the library that day was harrowing, with me trying to balance all these books in my three bicycle baskets. Matt thought this was hysterical, my miscalculation of the library queue, and exactly what I deserved since I still suspiciously eye his lightweight Kindle and, to this day, refuse to admit that I was wrong to carry a coffee table book through France that one trip many years ago.
Anyway. I read all those books, I’ll have you know.
Here are the highlights:
My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. This is a Civil War novel about a woman who wants to be a surgeon. Engaging and interesting.
My Own Country by Abraham Verghese. Another book by the same author, Cutting for Stone, was the best book I read last year. Verghese is a doctor, and this is a memoir about his work with AIDS patients in Tennessee during the 1980’s. Very sad and thought-provoking. It will stay with you, long after you have finished reading.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. I am the last person on the planet to read this book. Even if you hate orchids or flowers of any kind, it is worth reading for the other-worldly descriptions of the swamplands of Florida.
Better by Atul Gawande. Another writer/physician, Gawande writes articles about the art of being a doctor for The New Yorker. This book appears to be about becoming a better doctor, but it is really about becoming a better human being. I especially loved the afterward: “Suggestions for Becoming a Positive Deviant.” Every teacher, every musician, every human being, should read it.
And for those of us with limited time and attention spans, two short story collections to recommend:
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy. I was first attracted to the contrariness of the title, but these are great stories with interesting characters. The theme reflected in the title is woven through each story, that idea that there is tension and conflict in every decision or choice we make.
The Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble. This collection of stories spans her writing career of 50 years. Each story provides a glimpse into the inner workings of a character, often with a surprising insights and understanding.
Wishing you stolen moments on the couch or in your favorite overstuffed chair, drink in hand, reading.
March 18th, 2012 :: Reading Days
You are the bottom line, my love, the net
that catches me each time I take a leap
toward an absolute that isn't there
but appears dispersed in the relative:
warm supper waiting when I get in late,
my folded long johns on the laundry stack,
the covers on my side turned sweetly down
when I finally head upstairs from work
that couldn't wait till morning, the love note
tucked in my suitcase for my night away.
It says the obvious the old clichés
I wouldn't want my friends to know we use
for love. And god forbid my enemies
should get hold of these endearments,
so banal, I would lose my readers' trust
if someone published them under my name.
But still as I write mine (with smiley face)
and slip it under the pillow on your side,
or when I read yours in a hotel room
I feel more moved than by a Rilke poem.
or a Tolstoy novel or a Shakespeare play.
My love grows stronger with the tried and true
if it comes from you. More and more as we age
and the golden boys peer out of the magazines
with their sultry looks and their arched brows,
I am so relieved I'm not an ingénue
searching for you at parties, singles bars.
I have you, waving when my plane gets in,
curling your body in the shape of mine,
my love, my number one, my bottom line.
from The Woman I Kept to Myself
March 11th, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
I have too many open loops these days.
In “Getting Things Done,” a book aimed at improving productivity and efficiency in the workplace, David Allen refers to “open loops” as any task that takes up mental space and is in some way unfinished and needs attention. These things, he says, distract us and rob us of our creativity and focus.
That would be about a hundred things around here, all demanding space in my ever-decreasing mental capacity.
First, there are the predictable things: the teaching, the performing, the rehearsals. I played a house concert with Jerome, the other half of the JimGreer Duo, in January, which included the Weber Trio, a gem of a piece. We—Jerome, Christian (cellist) and I--are repeating that delightful work on a concert in a few weeks.
But before that gig rolls around, I must learn Fred Hersch’s 24 Variations on a Bach Chorale (the Lenten hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”). This is a demanding piece, some variations rivaling Chopin Etudes technically. Mr Hersch clearly has large hands. I don’t.
However, working on this piece in preparation for several upcoming concerts is a rewarding way to practice Lent, to observe this religious season of reflection and austerity. While I rarely attend church anymore, my worldview is still shaped by the Christian calendar. Or at least the notion that Fat Tuesday involves pancakes.
Thanks to an inconvenient and unavoidable graduate school schedule, I was forced to schedule six days of teaching every week this semester. That would be SIX days. Let me tell you, friends, it is the sixth day that will kick your butt. Especially when the seventh day includes performances or performance classes, thereby giving you not a single day off before another week begins. I’m dying here.
Speaking of performance classes, the older kids (the Chopin Class) recently held their long anticipated iPod party, which they earned from points acquired by their one-week pieces. IPod parties are evenings where, after an abbreviated performance class, they each bring one song of their choice to share, complete with the infamous 5 Fun Facts about the artists or genre. Their song, I assured them, could be anything. “But no, ‘Parental Restrictions’, right?” one kid asked. (They know and use this term?) At our recent iPod party, we heard an elephant orchestra from Thailand, some screeching Scottish pop song, a 1970’s electronic piece, a Celtic ballad. Such a surprising eclectic mix. I am always fascinated to learn what the kids are listening to these days.
As we chatted over the backdrop of bad popular music and cupcakes (the cupcakes, at least, rocked), we discussed the terms required to earn the next iPod party. I threw out some number of total points needed, a number that I can’t even recall now. I did this, I must confess, completely without forethought or consideration. Apparently, when the calculations were computed, it was an outrageously large number. Or so the kids complained, whining that it would be “like a year” before they could accumulate that many points. Yeah, that’s the idea, kids. I need at least a year before I am ready to subject myself to more Russian rap songs.
On the other hand, yesterday Ryan (of the “that cat is adorable” fame) came into his lesson announcing that he had just started a book and already he loved it so much. “It is my favorite book in the whole world!” (This kid speaks entirely in italics. Matt and I have decided he is the seven year-old version of Chris, the Rob Lowe character from “Parks and Recreation”.)
“What is the book?” I asked him. “Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” he said, his freckled face glowing. Glowing, I tell you. It was enough, almost, to forgive his older sisters and their bad choices in screechy pop music.
Open loops, all these things.
And then there is graduate school, the demonic cause of my killer schedule this semester. Last November, I enrolled in my final six hours of my master’s degree in Educational Psychology (the final six! The end so near….) only to learn, come the first day of class in January, that one of the courses was cancelled. I was annoyed for about five minutes until I realized that this would mean I wouldn’t have to take comps this semester after all. This, I decided, was a gift from the gods.
Turns out, it was more than a gift. It was actually a lifesaving tourniquet. The class I have been left with this semester is a required course on assessment and measurement. I wish I cared about assessment and all of its intricacies. But I don’t. What is worse is that I basically understand nothing. The class might as well be taught in Chinese for all that I’m comprehending. The course has a prerequisite requirement of introductory statistics, which I took (God help me) two years ago. I retained nothing. Nothing.
This has caused me great anxiety (see above for my track record in calculating anything beyond 4/4 time). At night, I am being haunted by stressful dreams in which I am in an ever-changing situation that is in some way threatening and I cannot do the task required fast enough to get out before it is too late. (What “too late” is, I don’t know.) Or I am late for something, and I just cannot get there (before the plane takes off, or the concert begins, or the train departs). Or I can’t learn something in time (like introductory statistics). Or I have forgotten something important, (like learning an entire recital worth of music). I wake from these repeated nightmares sweating. Clearly, every last one of them is a classic Type-A stress-induced dream. I’m blaming that damn class.
Another loop. Actually, that class might count as about ten loops.
And then there are the miscellaneous open loops: the presentation I am giving in NYC at a conference next month, the travel and registration details I need to attend to in order to be present at this conference, the ten books I am reading, the seasonal garden tasks that are beckoning, the random household chores necessary to keep food on the table and clothes on our back (Recently, Matt mentioned, very kindly, that he had no clean underwear and was down to his “I love Jesus” socks, which he generally avoids wearing. I snapped back that I had “just done laundry,” like two days before, which I swore was true, but then I had to acknowledge the mountain of clothes spilling out of the hamper, which was clear evidence that I was wrong. I have lost all sense of time, reeling as I am from loop to loop.)
This week I had another bad dream. I was teaching the Chopin performance class, and it was another iPod party. I went to the refrigerator to get the cupcakes, only to discover that I had forgotten to buy them. But instead of causing me stress, this oversight made me laugh. I laughed so hard I woke up.
I see this dream as an improvement. Maybe something, in spite of the hundreds of open loops, is started to shift and relax internally.
Meanwhile, the golden finches have found the feeders I have hung in the courtyard. While I teach, I keep watch out the window at the birds. The 200 bulbs my mother and I planted last fall are beginning to emerge from the ground, and the viburnum beyond the courtyard wall is threatening to burst into rosy bloom. I wait, stressed and anxious as I might be, while the season loops from one into another.
March 4th, 2012 :: Teaching Days
And then there are the one-week pieces.
Lucy would rather to do 10 one-week pieces than a single ear tune. This isn’t a reflection of her ability to pick out a fun folk song, but rather of her dislike of the task. It has gotten to the point where I now have to require her to e-mail me individual steps of the process throughout the week in order to guarantee that it will be done when she arrives at her lesson. The things we do to motivate our students. Or, if not motivate, at least threaten them into submission.
But I was talking about one-week pieces, not ear tunes. “One-week Pieces” (Or simply, “One-Week”, as in “Play me your ‘One-Week’.”) is the clever name for pieces the students must learn in one-week, sans help from me. The object is to get the music as close to performance-ready as they can. Then in the following lesson we score the performance from one to ten, much like an Olympic judging committee. I choose pieces that are generally close to sight-reading level, which ideally gives them an opportunity to spend the week not cramming notes and rhythms, but rather working at a higher artistic level. I expect students to think as musically as possible--dynamics, phrasing, balance, etc. --all of which gives me an opportunity to assess how well they can do these things without my guidance.
Students begin the assignment of one-week pieces when they hit mid-high school, one of those tangible milestones of joining the Chopin Performance Class, which is made up of mid-and-senior high students. Points are recorded for each student and then collected together to earn some kind of party or reward during a monthly performance class.
I’d like to take full credit for the idea of the one-week pieces, but truth is I stole the gist of the concept years ago from a source I can’t even remember anymore, which is how it rolls in the teaching world. Like the points for one-week pieces earned by the Chopin class, our pedagogical brilliance is somewhat collective is this field.