Empowerment through Language...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I Have Always Adored Signage

The other morning I decided to initiate the practice of daily writing prompts. I had to look something up in the fabulous collection of writing exercises compiled by Behn and Twichell, The Practice of Poetry the day before. I have referenced particular exercises in the book many times and I have it as a recommendation to teachers but I have not approached it as a writer in a long time and certainly not a daily practice. So I decided to go through it and endeavor to complete each exercise while maintaining a daily discipline.

The first exercise in the book is from Ann Lauterbach, called "First Words." Here is the result of that morning's response, quoted verbatim, no edits, just out of the brain:

I remember that I was thrilled to be learning to read. I was barely 5 years old and it made sense to me - the decoding process. The letters were sound symbols and I was deciphering those legends to make patterns that translated into thought and understanding. It was incredible.

I was driving with Daddy out Teall Avenue from the Rugby Apartments in his little maroon bubble of a 1960 vintage Saab with the gray scratchy wool covered bucket seats. I loved my dad. My mom had married him when I was 4 and it was so much fun to have a dad who laughed and hugged, so completely different from the austere, demanding chisel of stone my mother had divorced. So we were off somewhere together, just the two of us in the little bubble car, turning from Teall Avenue onto the cut-over street towards GM Circle when I saw approximately five words on a billboard that opened up to my young mind like a treasure chest. I read them out loud like a chant. Daddy was so surprised. So was I...and thrilled. I understood that something was very different in my life. I had discovered a form of freedom I had never known. It was so marvelous. I tried another billboard, the names of businesses on the buildings we passed. I don't know if he was being driven nuts by my verbal outbursts or if he was amused. Perhaps he was somewhat overwhelmed by bearing witness to this unfolding miracle that the capacity of my brain was expressing. He was very new to fatherhood, having now an infant and a child ready for kindergarten at the same time. I bet he felt overwhelmed by it all.

I also figure that his love was so strong that the fear was overridden by joy for the family he now had, the family to which he was responsible. One small reward, driving with a curly headed laughing girl blurting out the words of each billboard like they were scripture...and this was his alone to witness.

My father would be 85 years old this August 22nd, were he still with us. Vladimir Popoff was a man of simple needs and tremendous intellect. He was also very funny, deeply loving, and totally honest. I am honored to carry his name and to have been his daughter.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm So Confused

What the heck? I don't know how it happened that I had one full, lovely picture of Walter Cronkite, then it disappeared, then I found another and now I have not one, but two, half pictures of the man. Sorry to you, the readers, for this. It is as weird as the Declaration of Independence link that you have to click on but I can see the full pic. I am just not that technologically advanced and will have to keep to my own photos. Please don't give up on me. hahahaha

Thanks Uncle Walter

There is no escaping the fact that I am a Baby Boomer. I have had the privilege of living through the entire age of rock 'n' roll because of my chronology. I have borne witness to so much crucial history and countless marvelous discoveries in my 55 years. Through so many of my formative and young adult years, the sonorous tones of Walter Cronkite informed me. Walter did not just deliver the news with integrity, clarity of thought and language, and confidence, he encouraged us to think.

In this time when so much of the media on both sides of the divide are based in shouting each other down with opinions, the role of the journalist is slipping into the void. We lose award-winning journalists from regional and local papers that are struggling. The major papers are folding. We are left with USA Today, "news" generated days in advance and delivered at hotel doors throughout America.

Chris Matthews screams his opinions and he feels it is his right to interrupt if he doesn't care for what the other person is saying. Rush Limbaugh is just a hateful man profiteering on the fears of those who somehow cannot do the work to think of any side other than their own limited knowledge and belief system.

Walter Cronkite was the person for whom "news anchor" was coined and it became a title, a role, a responsibility. He was articulate yet spoke in a plain language that instilled trust. He set a standard and he changed history in some ways. Do the research yourself if you don't remember. Thank goodness we still have Jim Lehrer, Barbara Walters, and some like them, those journalists who not only recorded, even made history, but those who exhibit temperance and a resolve for clarity and objectivity. But they are an aging, dying breed and the field of journalism is gasping for air.

I do remember Walter Cronkite as a daily element of the family life. I remember firsthand so many of the seminal clips they are broadcasting this weekend. I remember hearing Walter's voice comment from every home in the greater Westcott neighborhood of Syracuse, New York, as I walked with my boyfriend, my first love, through the thick evening air of July 20, 1969. It was otherworldly and we knew our world would never be the same.

Blessed be, Mr. Cronkite, and thank you.

That's the way it is, July 19, 2009.

p.s. Thanks to whomever took this photo. I use it with good intention, although I do not know your name to give credit. I found it on Wikipedia. I appreciate that it was there and I respectfully include it here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Lost Art of Penmanship - More Thoughts Regarding the Obvious

It is something to consider: how so many people struggle to handle a pen or pencil. Also, how atrocious so many people's handwriting is. Lastly, think about how many people really dislike writing.

I have found in my 10 years of working with all ages of writers and students that some of the frustration is that the mind works so much more quickly than the hand. The translation of thought to written word on the page is arduous for many. Slowing down the creative process to accommodate the mechanics of pen to paper is counterproductive. Add to that the basic sense of inadequacy so many people feel as writers and they are discouraged.

One way I have discovered to maintain engagement and cooperation in school settings is to get students to computers rather early in the writing process. There are many reasons for this:

1) students love computers and are used to them (at least if they are under 45);
2) they need the computer skills to survive in the 21st century and some students have limited access so school is the place where they can hone their abilities;
3) often those with attention issues will stay focused more readily; and/or
4) it is a change from the standard day, a treat of sorts, which also buys me a certain level of appreciation (a plus factor from my perspective).

This has been evidenced time and time again. I sometimes run up against the problem of not enough computers to accommodate the number of students or too many other classes reserving the computer lab so we have to plan accordingly but I want to get students to keyboards quickly. When I do, we see more productivity and creativity, as well as more willingness to complete the assignment.

I also see that I do not have to watch awkward hands hold pens and pencils in challenging positions or listen to whining. That is certainly worth it!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Rock & Roll: Making an Argument for the Value of Performances in Schools

This one is the most basic: performances in schools or bus trips for performance-based artistic experiences does give the opportunity to teach audience skills and etiquette, sometimes the only real opportunity children receive.

Why do I even comment on this? Simple! I have become so soured on attending live musical performances, a passion that I have held since I was a child and attended my first concerts, both classical and pop. I went to my first Dick Clark Caravan of Stars concert when I was 10, and just before that, I caught a glimpse of a Leslie Gore show at what was then the Lowe's Theater in downtown Syracuse (now our fabulous Landmark Theater) when my mom needed to meet up with a local deejay for some publicity matters for her local community theater company. I was hooked.

I became hooked on music at an early age. I love telling students that the best part of being my age is that, at 55, I have lived through the entire age of Rock & Roll and I continue that path now. I received my first radio for my fifth birthday, a gift from my birth father. I slept with a transistor under my pillow in my tweens. I got a record player for my 45s and a subscription to the Columbia Record Club when I was approximately 11, again from my birth father. These two gifts were the most treasured gifts I ever received from him, true indicators that in some way he did understand me. It may have been better if he helped me pay for more of my club selections but that is all water under the bridge now.

I have gone to more concerts than I can count. In elementary school we also came to school dressed in our finest once a year to board a bus and head downtown to the Onondaga County War Memorial for the annual series of school concerts by the young Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Karl Kritz. It was heavenly, especially since I was also enamored of the Sunday youth concerts on TV conducted and narrated by Leonard Bernstein. I had an incredible crush on him. But I also had crushes on Pat Boone when I was 5, Ray Charles when I was 8, and Peter Noone when I was 10. I have always had eclectic tastes.

Once the live music bug bit me, I was insatiable. Concerts at the War Memorial, the opening of Jabberwocky at Syracuse University when I was in middle school, S.U.'s Manley Field House, the State Fair Arena, concerts in parks, bands on the fraternity porches every home football game, music was everywhere and my babysitting money went towards buying records and listening to music live.

I have continued that passion throughout my adult life as well. I often can connect with the disengaged Rock & Roll kids in class by their tribute Tshirts, especially if they are wearing an artist who I have seen live. Better still if that artist is dead. I have seen some of the greats and that is a terrific point of connection and engagement with students.

But these days, I have found the live music experience sadly flawed and uncomfortable. This is not because the music is less exciting but because we, as a society, have lost the respect for the artists that entails a sense of etiquette. People are so used to music being the background of their lives that they carry on as if they are in their living rooms rather than in a performance venue. They cannot sit in their seats for a 90-minute performance. Even more annoying - they cannot shut up!

Now, music and theatrical performances are no longer the $3.50 that my ticket to the Who or Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Jefferson Airplane once cost either. I have to make a calculated decision when I buy a ticket to see a performance I am interested in because it could be the difference between paying a bill or an evening of entertainment.

I have had several occasions in the past few years during which I have been so distracted from the experience I have paid for by rude, self-absorbed audience members that I have asked them to please restrain themselves. I believe that I am polite in my request but still obviously annoyed. The irony is that, in each of these instances that I have advocated for myself, I have been shunned and even tormented by these same rude individuals who decide that I am encroaching on their rights. It is absurd.

It happened again last night. I went with a friend to the Turning Stone Casino Showroom to see Zappa Plays Zappa. I spent the whole day in anticipation. We had great seats center stage one level up so Dweezel was at eye level as he fingered his guitar. A young couple came in with their beer cooler and sat in the two seats in front of us at the 8-top. And they talked throughout. Since the sound level was elevated, their talk was often shouting. They also took many turns getting up to pee, disrupting my friend and me and the people in the table next to ours each time. Then they talked more when they reunited at their seats.

At one point, the gentleman sitting across from us was about to blow. The young man in front of him, an obvious musician with a keen knowledge of the Zappa legacy, had his hand over his ear facing the chatty duo, the people behind were obviously agitated, and I was missing an incredible sax solo with the dialogue being shouted in front of me. "Excuse me..." The young man turned to me, stopped in mid-sentence, "What?" "I want to hear THAT..." pointing to the woman on stage. "WHAT?!" "You are talking LOUD."

He quieted down a bit but my friend reflected later that he sensed that the couple was annoyed with me, that I had been a "buzz kill" for their fun night out. Too bad. They were being a rude aspect of the experience and poor audience showing no respect for the talent on stage. And they were diminishing the quality of my investment.

This happens in movies as well. We are a self-centered society with our phones, our media, our false sense that everything depends on ourselves, nothing else is as important as our immediate needs. Our ring tones blasting in all environments, even the White House Press Room and church. We need a bit more Emily Post and we need to put kids on buses with expectations that they sit in their theater seats and truly listen. If they listen well and have the knowledge that will help them listen before they walk into the performance space, they will learn and they will enjoy. And maybe, when they are middle-aged, they will remember the day they dressed up and went to the symphony.

p.s. Thanks Dweezel! You carry the torch really well and you have put together a great band. I was outside of time and space, at least most of the time. Frank is dead. Long live Frank.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Finally Escaping the Imprint of Old School Discipline

I had a moment that caused me to gasp this morning as I encountered another obituary for a school mate. I graduated high school in 1971 and our class has lost somewhere between 15 and 20 members since that June. It is becoming more frequent. At the 30th reunion, as we paid tribute to the 11 who had passed, we recognized that this number would only increase from that point on. In fact, that reunion was one month before the fall of the Towers and the tragedy that was 9/11/01 for our nation and world. One of us passed just a day or so after of heart failure, I believe.

This passing was a challenging surprise. Let me step back to my 3rd or 4th grade year (not quite sure which anymore but I am inclined to say 3rd). It was a fall day, gray and damp. A boy who was in my class followed me past the street where he lived for several blocks, taunting and bullying. He threatened me and forced me into a back yard of a house on my route home, a long walk in itself. He forced me to kneel in the leaves. He was rough and it was the first time I had ever been accosted by another kid. I had long hair, nearly to my waist, curly and thick. He took my hair in his hands, wrapped it tight in his grip, placed his foot in my back and pulled as hard as he could over and over again. He had grabbed my arms too in forcing his will on me so I was hurting all over. I think I cried. I don't know why he stopped when he did but all I remember is that he stopped and left. I never knew why he did this. We had no beef, no conflict. I barely talked to him, hardly knew him. He just was a boy sitting in a desk on the other side of the room. I was stunned at the whole thing and deeply shaken, disturbed enough to cry myself the rest of the way home and tell my mother.

Mommy was fierce when she was pissed. I take after her in that. Somehow she appeared at school the next day to talk to our principal, Elsie Plato, a stern woman who looked like she walked out of a Frank Capra film in her black sensible shoes. Mrs. Plato asked me in to tell my story. Then she brought this boy in to attest to his behavior. She demanded an apology from him, which is all I wanted from the experience. Then she forced me to sit there while she took out a hefty ruler, instructed the boy to place his hands on the desk, and she smashed his knuckles with the disciplinary tool.

Witnessing this punishment was as horrifying as the threat and fear of the previous day. This boy was in so much pain because I confessed. We never spoke again that I can remember until that 30th reunion.

I would see him as we were adults in community and I always had a pit in my stomach from the lingering memory of both of the violent experiences. It had been the first time I felt true threat from a male peer and, as I grew older, it seemed deeper than just being bullied. It was always a violation and I was afraid of him most of my life.

When I was 16, I experienced date rape and I never told anyone exactly what had happened. I could not stand the shame and I could not face being forced to witness another punishment, so I pushed the memory out of my head entirely. These events are somehow linked.

But in August of 2001, I saw this man who was a bully boy, I saw a man with his wife having a great time, just another classmate looking back and noticing that life was skirting past at an insanely rapid pace. He had a stable job. He had a home, a family, just an ordinary Joe. I lost my fear that evening as we all toasted each other and our lives, our differences, our bellies and graying pates.

Today, I read his obituary and tears are there for him once again, but in celebration of his life. A Navy man, a Viet Nam vet. A good father and husband, an admirable, reliable employee. He passed away at 56. How could that be? I wonder if he remembered? I wonder if he hated me? I wonder why he hurt me in the first place? I wonder if his knuckles ever healed properly? Or his child self's pride? I wonder what his parents did? I wonder how many people will carry his memory of the fine life he led as a man? I am sure to and I am no longer afraid or ashamed. I have offered a private prayer to his family mourning his unexpected death. I will make a contribution to the charity named by the family and give myself a moment of silence to remember my classmate fondly.

Friday, July 03, 2009

A Simple Declaration

Every year in celebration of the 4th of July, National Public Radio broadcasts a reading of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, each paragraph read by a different network correspondent. This blend of voices bringing life to this remarkable document is inspiring and poignant but I frequently miss parts of it as my daily activities interrupt or I wake after it has started and only hear a portion.

This morning I woke a bit before 7 a.m. to the second half of the reading on Morning Edition, my clock radio just beyond my pillows on the nightstand. I waited for the rebroadcast a couple of hours later and I tried to stream it from my NPR affiliate, WAER FM in Syracuse, only to encounter a typical technological glitch. So I scurried to a radio and, again, caught it midstream.

I had to confess to myself that it is ludicrous that I am a 55 year old American who has, until now, never read this crucial piece of writing in its entirety. Not only have I not taken the time, initiative, whatever, no teacher ever asked me to read it. How did that happen? Norman Lear, the entertainment mogul, owns an original draft as a citizen to preserve its intention and share with other citizens and I have never even read it - 30 some odd paragraphs upon which our entire nation rests.

So this morning, I went to the NPR web site, downloaded the reading and I followed along in print. Follow this link if you would like to do the same:

What I discovered was an astounding treatise, a magnificent vocabulary lesson, an appallingly racist view of the indigenous peoples from whom we seized this continent, and deep inspiration at the same time. Oxymoron in its greatest sense. I also more fully understand the politics and history that resulted in the drafting of this document and the formation of this nation. The same issues today in many ways as I watch MSNBC, listen to NPR, tune into PBS and ABC, and receive breaking news from CNN in my inbox.

I am news junkie, this is a fact. But I am also dreadfully uninformed. This I need to change. Today I took a step. I immersed myself in the Declaration and the language of Thomas Jefferson. I started thinking about a lesson plan. I consider all before me who staked everything so I have the ability to live my life as an independent artist and educator, and to those who protect those inalienable rights this day. Thank you all.