Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dead Poets Redux

[NB: I have still not heard anything from Congressman Flores or his staff. (See previous blog entry.)]

It's 1990. I'm married, 34 years old, unemployed and unemployable. My PhD in musicology has not only failed to get me so much as a job interview for the previous three years; it has also made me "overqualified" for everything else. (As a friend who had sweated blood to get his PhD from Stanford was told by a professional employment counselor, "Get that PhD off your resumé! It would look better if you had spent time in jail than to have a PhD!")

So I have decided that since what I really love to do is teach, and since no college or university seems interested in hiring me, I will look into teaching high school instead. The first thing I realize is that I will never be able to teach music. That may be what my degree is in, but I have never taken instrumental methods, conducting or a single class in music education. Catching up on all that would take more time and money than I have available.

So one fine day that spring I went to the University of Southern California (known locally as the University of Spoiled Children) and took the National Teachers Exam in English. I read a lot, so I figured I might do OK. As it turned out, I did more than OK. I scored in the 97th percentile - meaning, presumably, that I know more about English literature and grammar than all but 3% of the people who are currently teaching the subject. A little over a year later, having taken several classes in education and done my stint as a student teacher, I became a credentialed high school English teacher in the state of California. In the meantime, I spent the 1990-1991 school year teaching part-time at a local private school that didn't require a teaching credential.

Happy ending? Decent compromise? Acceptable stopgap? You be the judge. I'm recounting the following events in response to a story I recently read in The New York Times about the way teachers in public schools are evaluated.

Foremost among the memories this story brought back is the following: I have been student-teaching in a public high school every afternoon for the past four months. The school year is now almost over, and the principal, whom I have met only once before, very briefly, has come to observe my class. Things go well. I am not a natural disciplinarian, but I have learned that I am most successful with this group of students when I give them a little slack - kind of like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, which came out a few years earlier. The students are not all using good posture as they sit at their uncomfortable desks, and one student is actually sitting on top of hers. These students, though, are not "acting out;" they are participating actively in the class discussion. The girl who is sitting on her desk is one with an attitude; I've long since learned that if I crack down on her, she will radiate hostility, but if I let her sit the way she wants, she will actually make meaningful, original contributions. It seems a small price to pay.

What kind of writeup did I get? "Stimulating teacher who still needs to work out some discipline issues?" (There were a few things they never taught me in the PhD program at Yale.)

Wrong. She hated my class, and told me so. In a very brief conference afterward, she let me know that she would not recommend me for a job teaching high school. In other words, on the basis of that single observation - of a class that I thought had gone well - she told me that I had wasted the previous year and a half of sitting in education classes and the many thousands of dollars I had paid to take them. I had gone from being an unemployable PhD to being an unemployable credentialed high school teacher.

Fortunately, the private school gave me a full-time contract the next year anyway. It wasn't my favorite job I've ever had, and now that I've taught college for two decades, I'd never voluntarily go back. I know I'm really not cut out to teach high school, but I gave it my best for a few years. That's how I know that the public school teacher's unions are not just a bunch of complainers out to protect a cushy system from which they have benefited. They know that the kind of "evaluation" on which merit pay, promotion and job security depend is arbitrary, rigid, impersonal, and rooted in meaningless checklists of student behaviors and "outcomes." ("Is Johnny texting under his desk?" "Did Jane get an above average score on her standardized tests, even though she is dyslexic and grew up in a poor inner-city home with an alcoholic single mother?") They know that this kind of evaluation kills effective teaching as surely as third period follows second.

Why would anybody want to teach under such a system? How much learning actually takes place in such classrooms? Do I see a hand in the back?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Calling Congressman Flores

Congressman Bill Flores, I want to talk to you.

I confess that I was not happy when you were elected to represent me in Congress last fall. I already have two Senators whom I never bother to contact about anything, since all my communications with either of them are read by staff members and answered with form letters explaining why they reject my point of view on issue X. I did, however, enjoy a constructive relationship with your predecessor, Congressman Chet Edwards.

Chet enjoyed the dubious distinction of representing what used to be described as the most conservative congressional district in the country to be held by a Democrat. He often cast votes I didn't agree with. However, he was a genuinely independent thinker who took the challenge of representing all of his constituents in Congress seriously. I got to know him a bit during last fall's campaign, hosting him at my house to speak to a group of progressive Democrats. He convinced most of us who were there that he is a sincere person of integrity who deserved our support.

Of course, you proceeded to beat him in the November election. This was probably foreordained. I don't think it was possible for anybody with a D after his or her name to win anything in the toxic atmosphere that prevailed here last fall. It is very discouraging, though, to know that I now have two senators, a congressman, a state senator, a state representative and a governor all of whom I disagree with on every single issue. There is something in the principle of democratic government that at least tries to pretend that every citizen has a voice.

In fact, I did find a very effective way to exercise that voice this spring. I joined a large and well organized group of professional colleagues and students in successfully opposing a bill that everybody had assumed would pass this year: the one allowing concealed weapons permit holders to bring their guns into buildings on college and university campuses in Texas.

So I am not exactly feeling ignored - or ignorable - at the moment. That fact makes your failure to respond to my persistent overtures since your election to Congress all the more discouraging. I wrote to you shortly after the November election to let you know that I spoke for the large number of liberal Democrats in your district for whom even Chet Edwards was far too conservative, although we had learned to live with him and respect him. I told you that I sincerely hoped that you, like Chet, would take seriously the mission of representing all of your constituents, not just those who agree with you politically. I told you that if I did not get a response to my letter, I would know the answer. I wrote again a few weeks later, just to make it clear that I was not eager to close off communications with you.

I did eventually hear from your field representative Will Flores, who assured me that you were indeed interested in hearing from all your constituents and asking me which issues I considered most important. I immediately wrote back to say that, as an educator, I was deeply concerned about possible cuts to education funding, and that I would be glad to organize a group of educators to speak to you about this subject. I never heard back.

Then last night I found a message from you in my voice mail. It seems to have resulted from what is generally known as a "robo-call." You were calling, you said, to see if I agreed with your efforts to cut government spending. Taking the question in good faith, I called your congressional office right back, leaving a long message explaining why I do not support those efforts. I also emailed Mr. Will Flores and reminded him that he had not responded to my message of last November. I am posting this publicly since I now want my efforts to contact you to become a matter of record. If I continue to be ignored by you and your staff, I will know - and so will the dozens of people who read this blog regularly (I can't claim a mass readership, but it is what it is) - that you are really not interested in hearing my voice, or those of the thousands of other liberal Democrats whom you theoretically represent in Congress.

We vote.

Robin Wallace
700 Candlelight Dr.
Woodway, TX 76712

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The survival quiz

Comparing the number of hits I have received on my last three blog posts has got me asking some questions. I blogged nearly two weeks ago about opera simulcasts, and my post was quickly read by dozens of people. I blogged later that week on the meaning of the resurrection of Christ, and dozens more read what I had to say. I blogged earlier this week on climate change, and hardly anybody read it.

Clearly, this issue matters a lot more to me than it does to many others, even among my Facebook friends, who all receive a link to each now blog post. Therefore, I've put together a little quiz to clarify what I believe are the issues at stake. Think about how you might respond to the following options.

I would be willing to:

a) Pay slightly higher prices for energy.
b) Pay significantly higher prices for energy.
c) Pay significantly higher prices for energy and use much less of it.
d) Pay drastically higher prices for energy and accept major reductions to my standard of living and my personal autonomy.

In order to:

a) Leave behind a healthier world for my children and grandchildren.
b) Keep my children and grandchildren from suffering significant discomfort.
c) Prevent my children and grandchildren from having to cope with ecological catastrophe.
d) Prevent my life expectancy from being drastically shortened, and my children and grandchildren, should I be lucky enough to have them, from having to live in an unimaginably horrible world in which hunger, starvation and suffering are much greater than anything people have faced in recorded history.

Now, my guess is that most people, even among those who are aware of climate change and believe it is happening, think the choice they face is best represented by a) on both lists. Furthermore, I suspect that many (I won't venture to say how many) would not be willing to choose a) on the first list in order to bring about a) on the second list. That seems to be human nature: We get what we can and leave it to others to clean up the mess.

Unfortunately, I believe, and am becoming increasingly convinced by recent weather events, that the true choice, especially if you are under 30, is between d) and d) on both lists. Yes, I do think it's that bad. That's why I'm frustrated beyond belief that most American politicians, including virtually everybody in one of our major political parties, will not even acknowledge that there is a problem.

I'm tagging this post with some significant labels to draw interest. We'll see if it works.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Innocents at home

"The earth doesn't care if you drive a hybrid." So proclaimed Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert Laughlin recently, in a line that was promptly picked up by George Will and has resonated widely among those who prefer to ignore environmental issues and inconvenient truths like what I recently dubbed "global weirding."

Interestingly, I agree. The earth really doesn't care what happens to it, and it will do perfectly well if most (or all) of the species currently living die out. The point that Will and others seem to miss (I won't presume to speak for Laughlin) is that our children and grandchildren will care. That's just one of the many reasons I drive a hybrid and buy electricity generated exclusively by the abundant Texas wind.

Let me dig deeper, though, because this really is an existential and even theological issue, and I want to make it clear where I stand, and where I believe others stand.

Human beings are unique. That is one of the central claims of most religions, even if they find very different ways of expressing it. Our place in the world - our uniquely fragmented, contentious relationship with the rest of creation - is, in a real sense, the issue on which everything else depends. That's why, as I've said several times before, our relationship to the environment is my number one moral issue.

The fact is, human beings are the only things in the universe capable of caring about what happens to the environment in which we live. Other species may reproduce at will and die out when the food supply is exhausted, or when predators grow too abundant. That's more or less how natural selection works. The earth, indeed, doesn't care. It also doesn't care if beautiful mountain vistas are distorted by earthquakes or worn down by erosion. It doesn't care if beautiful seacoast scenes are devastated by hurricanes. This is all in a day's work. Only people have a sense of beauty, and will mourn the loss of these things - if we survive to do so. This is our blessing and our curse. It is the seed of the divine that we bear within us. It is the shame we also bear for not being able to carry the burden.

Those who - correctly - point out that the earth doesn't care what happens to the environment just don't get this. They are the innocents among us: those who have not known sin. They cannot possibly share the horror that J. Robert Oppenheimer felt in quoting the Bhagavad Gita: "We are become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds."

So here is my response. Indeed the earth doesn't care. Whatever we do to the precious ecological balance that has allowed us to thrive and enjoy our brief lives of pain and beauty will be but a small blip - an unnoticed deviation - in the grand geological history of the world. It truly won't matter to anybody but us. However, since we are the ones whose glory and fragility are both exposed and challenged by the current environmental crisis, we should indeed care very much. We stand at one of the great dividing points in human history, in which both our limitations and the divine spark we bear within us are being exposed and tested as never before. Our response will have moral, theological, ethical, economic and cultural ramifications that will dwarf anything we have previously faced in our history. On all of these fronts, driving a hybrid is the very, very least that we can do.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In denial

I began my last post by saying that I intended to write about music for a change. I'm going to begin this one with an extended quote from the Irish writer Peter Rollins that I encountered this week, and that has been haunting me ever since. My thoughts on what Rollins has to say are intended as a followup to my Easter post from back in April. It's now almost Pentecost, so here goes.

"Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

"I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

"However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed."

What I love about this quote is how it interrogates our understanding of what it means to believe in something. I believe all kinds of things, usually because I have direct evidence that they are true. I believe that the sky is blue, or at least looks that way to most people. In case I forget, there's pretty direct evidence that I'm not mistaken about this. I believe that the sun will come back up tomorrow morning; even though it hasn't happened yet, the evidence for it is pretty strong, so it seems like a safe bet.

I also believe, as I said on Easter, that Jesus rose from the dead. I also said then that I didn't intend to spend any time defending this belief, which is contrary to all logic and counter-intuitive in the extreme. I do not receive daily evidence for it; in fact, I have never really received any evidence at all. Nevertheless, I'm now going to take up the challenge of defending it. As I do so, I can hear the echo of many people in the past who have told me that they believe in me. Those people did not, of course, mean that they believe I exist. They know I exist. What they meant was that they believed me to be up to some particular challenge that I was facing. Almost always, they turned out to be right.

That's why I think it's worth taking some time to think about whether most American Christians really do believe in the resurrection of Christ. Many would say that it means they are completely, 100% convinced that on that first Easter Sunday, the tomb was empty because Jesus had come back to life. Being able to believe this is sometimes even held up as a test of orthodoxy. In terms of the analogies I gave earlier, though, this would be equivalent to my saying that I believe a dog can turn into a salamander, and that the reason for this is that some people writing 2000 years ago described having seen this happen. If I can only convince myself that they were right, then I get to join an exclusive club that offers me an ironclad promise that, at some future date, my dog will turn into a salamander as well. (Of course, I don't have a dog, so I'd have to get one first.)

I don't mean to be frivolous in making this comparison. What it exposes is exactly what is so extraordinary about believing in the resurrection of Christ. It is not simply an assent to the idea that, against all logic, somebody came back to life 2000 years ago and then mysteriously disappeared again, ascending into a "heaven" that we now know consists mainly of empty, oxygen-less space in which human life could not possibly survive. It is an assent to the idea that when Jesus said "the kingdom of God is at hand," he was saying something that was true, and still is true today. [Thanks, Hugh Hollowell,, accessed June 10 2011) for making this connection.]

So, for me to believe in the resurrection means the same as it would mean for somebody to believe in me. It means I believe what Jesus himself said he believed, and asked others to believe. It means I believe that the world's conflicts can be solved without war or violence. It means I believe that looking out for my own interest is a fool's errand, and that others need my help far more. It means I believe that trusting a system based on human nature - say, capitalism or free market economics - to solve the world's intractable problems betrays a huge lack of imagination and moral courage. It means I believe that acting decisively to save God's physical creation, on which our very life defends, is not only possible but morally imperative. It means I believe God is calling us to believe all these things and more.

It also means - and I'll have to say this bluntly - that those who do not believe all those things do not believe in the resurrection of Christ. They don't believe that when he said "the kingdom of God is at hand," he was talking about something real that was worth dying for, and hence worth living for as well.

This Sunday is Pentecost. May the spirit move our weak, unfaithful world toward belief in the central, decisive tenet of the Christian faith. We really don't have much more time to waste.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Wild Ride

This is my first blog post since my surgery two weeks ago. That means a couple of things. First, I'm now feeling good enough to sit at my computer and write (Applause, please!). Second, I've been giving some thought to "branching out," and have decided to claim my professional privilege as a musicologist and write about music in this space. This decision was only partially prompted by a current discussion on the American Musicological Society listserve about the putative failure of musical academics to communicate with the public.

A few weeks ago - after turning in my grades but before going under the knife - I attended the live simulcast of Wagner's Die Walküre from the Metropolitan Opera. Let me begin with a confession: Although the local Hollywood Jewel 16 theater has been brave enough to show these screenings for the past few years, this was the first time I had attended one. I had been hearing so much, though, about Robert Lepage's new high-tech production of The Ring of the Nibelungs that I had resolved months earlier I would not miss this showing for any reason. I even persuaded my son Jeremy to come along, by the simple expedient of not telling him in advance how long it was going to be. (It's a good thing, too; here in CST, the broadcast began at 11:00 am and, with a 40-minute technical delay at the beginning, lasted until after 5:00.)

Let me first assure those who have never see a live opera in a movie theater before that it was - different, but surprisingly exciting. Before the show began, we had scans of the theater, which seemed strangely underpopulated compared to Saturday matinees I can remember attending. Shortly before the delayed start (caused apparently by a computer malfunction in the elaborate stage machinery), we had a pep talk by Placido Domingo, and then got to watch a closeup of James Levine as, seated before the orchestra due to ongoing back problems, he drew his baton through an almost savage arc to prepare the downbeat of each successive act. From this point on, neither conductor nor orchestra was seen again until the final chord.

What we did see was the singers from an intimate perspective that would have been impossible from even the best seat in the house. Sometimes, as when Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund shed a large amount of saliva onto the stage toward the end of the first act, it was clear that this constituted a rather bold experiment. It certainly helped that all of the singers looked the parts. Both Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel, as Wotan, sported about a four-day growth of facial hair that must have been calculated with the closeups in mind. As a result, Kaufmann looked like he had been wandering lost in a storm after a furious battle, while Terfel, with his metal eye-patch, was clearly his father, but not your father's Wotan (more on this later). Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde looked more than plausible as his twin sister. Deborah Voigt, as Brünnhilde, though, seemed almost slight for the role. This was a result of her decision to have gastric bypass surgery a few years ago - presumably due, at least in part, to the pressures of modern operatic staging, in which very heavy women are not as acceptable as they used to be. By contrast, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka was impressively large and imposing, as she sat nearly motionless on an ugly-looking horned chair and utterly nailed her 20-minute turn as the tedious, outraged voice of conventional morality. Unfortunately, the mighty sword Nothung, though highlighted by mysterious lighting effects, looked all too obviously like a cheap prop, just waiting for Wotan's spear - or anything else, for that matter - to shatter it to pieces.

The sound was surprisingly good for a movie theater, but it was not at all what you would experience in an opera house. The voices sounded amplified - not in a way that distorted them, though; it simply removed the thrill that one gets from hearing unmiked voices compete with Wagner's huge orchestration. That thrill - impossible to duplicate in a movie theater in any case - was replaced by the slightly lesser satisfaction of hearing every line carefully enunciated, with never a threat of being submerged in the wash of instrumental sound. Everything was audible, but the voices dominated. The experience of watching the singers, impossibly close up, deliver their lines before Lepage's constantly shifting scenery and projections thereon, the orchestra and audience unseen, was riveting. I have a sneaking suspicion Wagner would have approved.

That leads to my most surprising conclusion, and my main reason for writing this. I had grown accustomed to viewing Wagner as a great composer who was, at best, a passable dramatist. As such, he was able, more often than not, to redeem his impossibly long, needlessly repetitive scenes with stunning musical effects. Sometimes, as in the case of Parsifal, this problem is intensified further by the knowledge that he deliberately incorporated anti-Semitic ideology into the very substance of his plots. It has caused me untold soul-searching to realize that the shimmeringly beautiful music of Parsifal, which entranced me from the first time I heard it as few works of any kind have ever done, is coupled with a story that deals with the purging of foreign (read Jewish) influences from a church that needs to establish a purer, more refined identity. I try very hard to listen to the music and hope that it can somehow exist in its own sphere, unburdened by all that ideological baggage, and, as often as not, I fail.

So it was a revelation to see Die Walküre emerge, in this production, as a dramatic masterwork in which the elusive promise of human freedom, caught in tension with the inexorable, destructive impulses of the will, finally achieves an ecstatic, if limited, victory. This is why Bryn Terfel's heavy metal interpretation of Wotan was so crucial. Almost impossibly, the famously long monologue in the second act in which he explains how he mortgaged his freedom of choice in exchange for an elusive prize of power and control emerged as the dramatic center of the opera. This was only partly the result of the large, constantly changing single eye projected on the scenery while Terfel, his own eye covered by a chintzy but somehow disarming piece of chain mail, conveyed a deeply human anger that made his plight seem more than credible. It was Terfel's presence, and the musical conviction behind it, that made this scene transfixing.

As I've said, this was quite a trick. The Ride of the Vaylkries and Wotan's final dialogue with
Brünnhilde work dramatically in even mediocre performances. The first act is richly romantic, and you can ignore the incest if you realize that for a man to fall in love with his twin sister means discovering and embracing his anima - his feminine side - while recovering his father's sword signifies the completion of his identity. Siegmund emerges from the first act as fully human, while Wotan begins the second as a hen-pecked, indecisive, pathetic god whose weakness in creating an incestuous pair and bringing them together is immediately exposed by his archly proper consort. She is the archetypal figure here, and Wotan is simply the victim of what turns out to have been his thoroughly misguided belief that he could do something worthwhile with his existence. Everything he's ever created, he now realizes, is a piece of crap just like himself. He is tormented, torn, furious and betrayed by turns. All of this Terfel conveyed brilliantly.

The final farewell, then, in which he kisses away
Brünnhilde's "godhood," became manifestly an act of creation: the very thing that had been denied him up to this point. By delivering his favorite child unto human weakness and frailty, yet finding a way to protect her, Wotan became, simply, a human father, and she a human child. The catharsis for both of them in this final scene was truly the point and goal of this five-hour-long drama, not a minute of which seemed wasted. The musical greatness of this opera I had always understood. I think I now "get" its dramatic greatness as well.