Maybe Not So Predictable

It's been a year since I wrote about my Top 8, so I was surprised to discover the other day that almost all of them have changed:

  • Gmail: Still number one. No matter how much I try to hold it at bay, it's always the first and last thing I see on the computer . . . and I'm on the computer a lot!
  • The American Conservative: My friend Rod is so prolific I can't subscribe to his feed, but I do check the site at least once a day. 
  • Google Reader: This is where I get my other blog fix-es. Just about all of them are personal friends, but I do enjoy a few places to lurk as well. (Don't click there unless you want to become a permanent lurker too!)
  • Yelp: I discovered this site last winter we didn't have a kitchen and ate out several times a day. I quickly climbed to Elite status and now enjoy free fun outings from time to time, as well as obsessively chronicling my trips to area restaurants. (You can review anything on Yelp, but for my sanity's sake I've limited it to eating establishments!)
  • Amazon: Despite having read this fantastically depressing memoir about the side effects of quick-ship policies, I cannot wean myself off this giant e-tailer. It drew me in with a free Prime membership for a year, then offered me half-price for another year: basically, whatever I want is at my doorstep within 48 hours, and often in 24. Plus, free movies and TV shows to supplement Netflix' more meager offerings (we eventually cut off our DVD membership, but continue to watch instant movies from time to time.)
  • SquareSpace: I'm a dedicated convert, and we're actually in the process of moving to the new platform, which is totally different, in a much better way. Stay tuned for the facelift.
  • Rosetta Stone: Frantically trying to finish the program before school starts, or at least get further than halfway! I really have enjoyed the method and have a couple of ideas for integrating its philosophy into my classroom. 
  • The New York Times: I might grouse (and I do!) about the unabashedly liberal bias and paid-only availability, but the fact remains that, perhaps because it's so large, its articles are better-written and more diverse than almost anywhere else. Which reminds me that there's still a handful of pieces I want to share with you before I return to the Paris series. Here we go!

Poor Pianos

Right around the time I decided to end (at least temporarily) my piano-teaching career, I read one of the saddest stories ever written:

The Knabe baby grand did a cartwheel and landed on its back, legs poking into the air. A Lester upright thudded onto its side with a final groan of strings, a death-rattling chord. After 10 pianos were dumped, a small yellow loader with a claw in front scuttled in like a vicious beetle, crushing keyboards, soundboards and cases into a pile.

The site, a trash-transfer station in this town 20 miles north of Philadelphia, is just one place where pianos go to die. This kind of scene has become increasingly common.

The value of used pianos, especially uprights, has plummeted in recent years. So instead of selling them to a neighbor, donating them to a church or just passing them along to a relative, owners are far more likely to discard them, technicians, movers and dealers say. Piano movers are making regular runs to the dump, becoming adept at dismantling instruments, selling parts to artists, even burning them for firewood.

“We bust them up with a sledgehammer,” said Jeffrey Harrington, the owner of Harrington Moving & Storage in Maplewood, N.J.

It really does say something about our society that we're unable to find a use for these instruments. In the age of digital music, aspiring singers can play accompaniment tracks they've downloaded online and record themselves on vocals; fewer people need to know how to read the notes. In churches, they've moved to rock bands and recordings. 

Saddest of all? The late-night singalong jams that were such an important part of my childhood are less and less common. We used to pride ourselves on remembering all the words to American Pie; now when we get together to make music, everyone pulls out a phone and Googles the lyrics. 

I'd love to see someone step up to organize donations to low-income families, schools, churches and anyone else who wants one. It seems like we should be able to work that out.  Right?!

Da Capo al Fine

Ten years ago this fall, I got a call from an acquaintance who was in college, planning to take a semester abroad. She had been moonlighting as a piano teacher to pay the bills and had about two dozen students who needed a teacher to cover her six-month absence. Was I interested?

Let's see. I had zero experience and was already holding down another part-time job. I had not studied piano myself in years. I was newly engaged with a huge wedding to plan. And I needed to finish my senior thesis and take comprehensive exams in order to graduate in the spring.

So of course, I said, "Sure!"

I didn't know the first thing about teaching, but found that it came quite naturally. Later, after some classroom experience, I realized that piano lessons had been the best possible introduction to the profession: one student at a time, in an activity they had chosen, with a parent close by to provide backup discipline. There were problems, of course, most of them administrative: parents forgot about lessons, didn't enforce practice and neglected to pay me, while students contributed orneriness and fatigue at exactly the wrong times. But these were rare compared to the hours spent learning and having fun with an instrument that seems designed to bring people together.

Over the years, I'd made many changes to the way my studio operated. Almost immediately, I transitioned into the Suzuki method, which I found infinitely simpler and more effective, though it made the process of parent education even more important. Then, when I took the classroom job, I moved my studio to my own house, which cut down on my travel time and my student load: those who were willing to come to me proved far more dedicated, so this was a good move. Along the way I educated myself whenever I could, squeezing in summer classes around vacations and seeking out mentors who could help me troubleshoot difficult situations.

Since taking that classroom job, though, my career has moved steadily in that direction. Last year, while I was finishing my graduate degree, I watched my poor piano studio dwindle down to almost nothing under a teacher who was fully present in the lessons, but fully absent before and afterward. Amazingly, they thrived, and for the first time ever I began and ended the year with all the same students (I really attribute this to our group lessons, which are now a permanent fixture.)

But I was right on the edge of being unable to handle them. So last spring, when the school offered me a full-time position along with a new class in another department, I knew it was time to say goodbye to this chapter in my life.

One by one, I broke the news to my families. Some were shocked, some sad, and one intuitive mother actually finished my sentence for me. We talked about moving on: a couple are going to transfer to my mom's studio, and at least one is ready to try a different instrument (so freeing, to see this as a success and not a failure!) Rob immediately began selling off the couches we'd kept for years as seating for students and their families; we're finding we like the extra space. I'm realizing I could attend Tuesday night Vespers for the first time in almost a decade. It's ending. It's good.

Here's the thing about endings, though: they always lead you to a new beginning of sorts. I'm hoping I will have time, now that grad school is behind me, to pick up my own books again. I look at the program from my senior recital and I wonder where the girl is who could play all those amazing pieces, who was confident in her ability to read and listen and express -- and how I could find her again. Maybe it's time I began looking.

I've always loved the musical term DC al Fine, which means, literally: go back to the beginning until you reach the end. Good advice for a Minuet. Good advice for life.

Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est La Meme Chose

Those French. Always eloquent, always pessimistic, and almost always right. Listen to this:

“It was all so enchanting at first,” muses our protagonist. “They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

When was this written? Last week? No, fifty years ago, by Ray Bradbury.

Most of all, Mr. Bradbury knew how the future would feel: louder, faster, stupider, meaner, increasingly inane and violent. Collective cultural amnesia, anhedonia, isolation. The hysterical censoriousness of political correctness. Teenagers killing one another for kicks. Grown-ups reading comic books. A postliterate populace. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” says the fire captain in “Fahrenheit,” written in 1953. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” Civilization drowned out and obliterated by electronic chatter. The book’s protagonist, Guy Montag, secretly trying to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes on a train, finally leaps up screaming, maddened by an incessant jingle for “Denham’s Dentifrice.” A man is arrested for walking on a residential street. Everyone locked indoors at night, immersed in the social lives of imaginary friends and families on TV, while the government bombs someone on the other side of the planet. Does any of this sound familiar?

No? How about these:

  • "Today is August 4, 2026," said a second voice from the kitchen ceiling, "in the city of Allendale, California." It repeated the date three times for memory's sake. "Today is Mr. Featherstone's birthday. Today is the anniversary of Tilita's marriage. Insurance is payable, as are the water, gas, and light bills." Somewhere in the walls, relays clicked, memory tapes glided under electric eyes. (There Will Come Soft Rains, 1950)
  • "I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them." (Fahrenheit 451, 1953)
  • "The more I see of the mess we've put ourselves in, the more it sickens me. We've been contemplating our mechanical, electronic navels for too long. My God, how we need a breath of honest air!" (The Veldt, 1950)
  • "There sat all the tired commuters with their wrist radios, talking to their wives, saying 'Now I'm at Forty-third, now I'm at Forty-fourth, here I am at Forty-ninth, now turning at Sixty-first." (The Murderer, 1953)

Bradbury was known for his aversion to technology, refusing to use computers or fly in planes. But, in this excellent homage to his life's work, Tim Kreider explains that Bradbury was more than just a troglodyte.

But it was more complicated than that; his objections were not so much reactionary or political as they were aesthetic. He hated ugliness, noise and vulgarity. He opposed the kind of technology that deadened imagination, the modernity that would trash the past, the kind of intellectualism that tried to centrifuge out awe and beauty. 

I've been a Bradbury fan since reading The Illustrated Man in high school, but I only read his masterpiece a few years ago. He was such an inspiration, for his strong work ethic and idyllic family life as much as for his uncannily prophetic writing. I only hope that, as a society, we can start to take some of his lessons to heart.

In Other News

As an ironic follow-up to my last post, you might find it amusing to hear that I join Twitter about three months ago — and have discovered I actually like it.  I’m sure there’s just as much timewasting potential here as on other social media sites, but the brief format means you have to get right to the point, making it easier to sift through the chaff and ponder the kernels.

Besides using it to promote my freelance work (the real reason I joined: employer pressure) I’ve enjoyed reading links and thoughts from some of my favorite food writers, restaurants and friends.  I have no trouble leaving the site after 5 or 10 minutes, every few days, which I wish I could say about Front Porch Republic or The New York Times, where I enjoy teleological meditations and niche pieces: I get my bread-and-butter news weekly from, well, The Week, reading a little every evening from the old-fashioned paper copy that lives on my nightstand.

So, if 140-character blips are your thing, you can read mine at BaltimoreBites.  (It’s a joke.)  

(Sort of.)

Reach Out and Tweet Someone

Rarely have I read such an articulate, insightful and disturbing status report about the human race:

We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.

I see this behavior all the time, especially in adults. I hate it. Often I want to ask the person, “Why are you here? To interact with me, or to check your e-mail?”

And yet, I am certain I am guilty of the same behaviors. Being blessed with a husband who loves to drive, I often use my time in the car to communicate with clients and friends, sending messages and playing my single iPhone vice. In the guise of taking notes, I can read the news on my phone during boring meetings; I have noticed that I no longer sketch chair backs and light fixtures in the margins of my agendas, and honestly, I kind of miss that last connection to years spent with a pencil glued to my hand.

Later, the author continues:

We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship. Always-on/always-on-you devices provide three powerful fantasies: that we will always be heard; that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; and that we never have to be alone. Indeed our new devices have turned being alone into a problem that can be solved.

The great irony of this: I love being alone. In fact, most days I find myself working at the computer and thinking, “If I can just get this finished, I’ll go work in the garden / start dinner / read a book on the front porch.” And suddenly, after work with distractions all day it’s time for bed.  Or, more likely, way past time for bed. So, for me at least, it’s a matter of control. How can I keep these (innovative, useful, efficient) devices at a life-enhancing, and not a life-encompassing, level? I’d love to know how other people are handling it.

A Great Case for Homeschooling

David Walbert is awfully convincing:

Homeschooling is nearly always portrayed as a flight from something: bad influences, secular curriculum, bullying, drugs, violence, or simply a broken system. It’s made out to be merely an individual decision, defended (necessarily) by recourse to individual rights, a choice to exempt oneself from obligations to community for the good of one’s own children. But that seems to me exactly backwards. In fact, the homeschooling I’ve seen has produced children farless likely than the average American to see themselves as autonomous individuals, each the center of his or her own universe. Freed from the constraints of institutions, homeschooling is an opportunity to lay the foundations of community.

I’ve seen this among many of my friends who belong to homeschool groups, both formal and informal.  It’s nice to see kids making the most of unstructured time — which is really what childhood is supposed to be all about, remember?!

A Certain Kind of Laughter

In his Preface to “The Order of Things,” Foucault writes of his laughter upon reading about something at once disturbing and hilarious: a Chinese encyclopedia that categorizes animals into (among others) “those that belong to the Emperor,” “those that tremble as if they were mad,” and “those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush.”

This laughter eventually inspires his own seminal work, “The Order of Things,” in which he attempts to make a little more sense of the science of taxonomy. It is the laughter, though, that I will always remember. His laughter expresses bitterness, insecurity, even horror, and helps him find control over a situation that seems ridiculous and inescapable.

It is for this reason that, in the wake of the recently-discovered child abuse tragedy in State College, I turn to The Onion:

After former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky was charged Saturday with multiple counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corruption of minors, indecent assault, and unlawful contact with minors, the national sports media sought out his victims this week to ask if they were worried about Joe Paterno’s legacy and how their molestations might affect the recently fired head coach’s place in the history books.


“The victim I spoke to, who was 12 years old when Sandusky first took advantage of him, looked very upset throughout the entire interview,” Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel said. “And when I asked whether he was concerned not just for how Joe Paterno would be remembered, but also for the football program’s ability to recover, he told me the interview was over and I should get out of his house.”

“Can you blame him, though?” Mandel added. “A coaching legend’s reputation hangs in the balance. I’m just as hurt and frustrated as he is.”

A more serious and logical summary of my personal opinion can be found in John Scalzi’s scathing and (justifiably) profane invective, certainly, but somehow I find The Onion’s story more compelling. Probably because it reassures me that there is a perverse humor in the reactions of the college community that have rendered me speechless with incredulity.

There is a certain kind of laughter that says, “This is funny precisely because it is not.” The Onion clearly established its ability to inspire that laughter with its first issue after the September 11 attacks: the three-word headline was succinct and incisive, echoing the thoughts of most of us. Holy ——ing ——.

I have heard many enlightened people say that sarcasm is poisonous, an unacceptable response in any situation; and indeed, its literal translation is “tearing of the flesh.” This is why I think it is perfectly appropriate for a situation this dark and ugly. At the very least, it could save you from tearing your own.

Two Sides of Social Justice

Yesterday I read an action research project by an inner-city Chicago teacher.  In a unit about social justice, she encouraged her class of twenty-five first and second-graders to think about fairness and compassion, and they responded accordingly:

If I were President I would tell the builders who build houses for rich people to build the homeless houses and I would give them food and a car.

If I were President I would take care of lots of people. People would have 3 day weekends. There would be no school for a week.

If I were President I would give money to school and help all the people in the world improve their schools.

If I were President I would make things good.  I would love the world and I would buy anything for kids and I would get people homes.

Part of me read these sentiments with a great deal of cynicism.  How sad that these children view government as a benevolent, even indulgent caretaker – that rather than giving people freedom to live their lives, they wanted the President to bestow material comfort upon them. 

The Occupy Wall Street seems, at its core, to have a similar idea: they want to stop the most successful people in society from continuing to be successful by spending their money on the foolish and hapless masses who have financially gotten in over their heads.  This (besides the pretentions of activism and the lack of hygiene and decorum) keeps me from being too enthusiastic about their mission and the press that’s glued to it.

So I was pretty shocked, later that evening, to read the following in the Psalms:

Why dost thou stand afar off, O Lord?
Why dost thou hide Thyself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor;
let them be caught in the schemes which they have devised.
For the wicked boasts of the desires of his heart,
and the man greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
In the pride of his countenance the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
His ways prosper at all times;
thy judgments are on high, out of his sight;
as for all his foes, he puffs at them.
He thinks in his heart, “I shall not be moved;
throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.”
His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
He sits in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the hapless,
he lurks in secret like a lion in his covert;
he lurks that he may seize the poor,
he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
The hapless is crushed, sinks down,
and falls by his might.
He thinks in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up Thy hand;
forget not the afflicted.

If God’s not too good to care for the poor, maybe we should think about doing the same.

The One Who Kept Me Going

Still cursing myself for stopping my New York Times subscription a month before the special Food & Drink and Education issues arrived (Full price? Me?!), I am also still working my way through the treasure trove of articles within — cobbled together as best I can from Twitter links and the Times Mobile app.

This piece, one of a growing sort of tapas-style journalism, was incredibly moving: in it, fifteen New Yorkers share brief meditations on their most influential teacher.  Here’s Wes Anderson, of Rushmore and Darjeeling fame:

He was nothing like our other teachers. For one thing, he was a man. The only man in the school who did not teach P.E. Also, he had a computer. I think he built it himself. His handwriting was neat but somehow exotic. He spoke briskly and seriously, and he pointed his finger at us a lot. It was immediately apparent that the range of his knowledge went far beyond anything we were ever going to touch on in class. He invented games for us. In the fall, we were each assigned countries that we represented in an international trade market. Wars were declared. Mineral deposits were discovered. Fortunes were made and lost. In the spring, he put up a poster on which he had pasted a hundred faces cut out of newspapers and magazines. All semester we searched for clues and slowly learned who they were, but he had to finally give us Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (This was in pre-algebra, by the way.)

The Visionary Professor may be a cliche, but it’s still an inspiring one.  I wish I were Mr. Burris — or, failing that, that he would come and teach me.