Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On Master Composers and Lay Audiences

I started writing this over a month ago, then got distracted. Returning to it this week, I realized that I wasn't heading anywhere profound or original, but I went ahead and finished it anyway. If you're interested in "classical" music and our society's often shaky relationship with it, you might want to read both the original post and my response.

Rob Deemer is a contemporary American composer. Recently he wrote a piece for the New York Times that puts his life experiences in that most unusual of professions under the magnifying glass. It is well worth reading.

Toward the end, he sums up his predicament in three poignant sentences, which echo themes I've heard repeated and developed extensively in my field:

"One has to remember that composers are working in a field that emphasizes a limited and established repertory of historical works and in many areas lacks even the limited balance between old and new that the other arts are much better at promoting. They are also fighting a decades-old stereotype that assumes that all 'new music' will be aurally dissonant, conceptually confounding, and, most of all, frustrating to experience. These hurdles have accumulated over time to the point where an entire generation of composers is almost unknown to many professional musicians and audiences throughout the country."

I can confirm a lot of this from personal experience. When I started teaching at a state university in the early 80s (this was before the dry spell I wrote about in a recent post), most of my music majors - to say nothing of the non-majors I taught in "music appreciation" - profoundly hated 20th-century classical music. Their contempt for Arnold Schoenberg, in particular, dripped from their essays and comments in class.

By now, eleven years into the new century, that is changing. I still have quite a few students who have trouble with anything written after 1900, but the interest in hearing and performing contemporary classical music among Baylor students probably exceeds that which I encountered at Oberlin (always a non-conformist kind of place) as an undergraduate in the 70s. At least among the limited number of people who care about such things, "new music" is coming back to life in exciting ways.

The broader problem still remains, though. As Deemer suggests, not many people in what he regrettably calls the "lay public" could name a single important classical composer active in this country today. The same would not be true if I had written "important artist" or "important writer" in the previous sentence. The conclusion that today's classical composers just aren't that important is hard to avoid. After all, to be important, you have to be heard, and to be heard, you have to be noticed - noticed, that is, by someone outside of the small world to which classical musicians now belong.

Hence the problematic nature of the term "lay audience." As one of the comments on Deemer's article notes, this term plays into all the stereotypes that someone interested in the health of classical music might hope to avoid. The alternative to "lay," of course, is "clergy." Whenever the lay audience is invoked, the subtext is one in which classical musicians are performing a sacred rite and are perhaps obscured behind a symbolic altar. It doesn't help that many concert halls are still built to resemble churches, and that the stage is normally elevated so as to minimize contact between performers and congregants. People come to such surroundings to be edified by music that is comforting and familiar.

This point can be illustrated through the much-noted "film score paradox." Movie audiences with minimal musical training will accept - even welcome - a level of dissonance and other forms of musical modernism in a movie sound track that sophisticated concert audiences might find it hard to tolerate. What I think Deemer and others who share his concerns should conclude from this is that music doesn't work as a hairshirt. People who come to a concert expecting a religious experience want the compensation of beauty without having to confront the shock of the new.

So let's forget about speaking to the lay audience and accept the fact that music is often expected to be a form of story-telling. Many great composers have embraced this expectation, and only a few have fought against it. I don't doubt that Deemer would be more than happy to embrace it as well. First, though, that lay audience needs to come out of the trance and acknowledge that music can shock us, fill us with horror or at least genuine surprise, and also make us want to get up and dance before the Lord with all our might. The audiences for those other arts that Deemer mentions are certainly not afraid of these things. Why should concert audiences fear them?

Poscscript- Maybe they don't. When I was younger, I used to think that the audience for classical music was dying out. My evidence was the fact that when I went to concerts, the audience consisted mostly of people over 40 and college students. As the older people continued to age, I was afraid the college students wouldn't be able to keep up.

Now that I'm in my 50s, I note that audiences at classical concerts still seem to consist of people over 40 and college students. The audience isn't dying out. People just seem to want to hear classical music more when they're over 40. Now, though, the over-40s are baby boomers like me. Many of us grew up expecting to hear music in a more, shall we say, relaxed ambience. As we've gotten older, some of us have embraced music different from what we used to enjoy. Those 60s sound tracks, though, are still playing in our heads. Write for us, Rob.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Golden Oldies: Is Talent Overrated?

A strange irony became apparent after I posted this on Facebook last summer. My friend Joel commented: "You also write well, Robin," to which I responded: "Thank you, Joel. Strangely, that's something I have always recognized that I have a talent for."

It's true. Music, which is the great love of my life, is also something I have struggled to master; that struggle is described below. Writing, on the other hand, is something that has always come naturally. Of course I practice my writing too - why else would I spend so much time blogging? I've written two books, edited two others, and produced many articles and reviews and innumerable ephemera. I never had to struggle with my writing, though, as I always did with music.

I do run into people who are convinced that "anybody can write." I've never heard someone say that "anybody can play a Beethoven sonata." Music is more abstract, and the cultivation of musical talent is thus, perhaps, more deliberate and more challenging than verbal expression. Most musicians I've spoken to since posting this seem to agree that they weren't born with special gifts, and have had to work harder than most people realize.

So I continue to be puzzled by this subject. If you're curious, read on.

My title question is inspired by a best-selling book by Geoff Colvin, which I will begin by confessing that I have not read. I have heard a lot, however, about Colvin’s basic idea, which has been promoted by enthusiastic followers, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become really good at anything. There are no child prodigies – there are just people, like Mozart, who got started on their hours at an alarmingly early age, and kept up under the demanding supervision of a stern parental taskmaster.

Colvin’s argument is directed primarily at businesspeople, but it obviously has great significance for the arts as well, so for me it has been the occasion for some autobiographical reflection. If that doesn’t scare you off, read on.

Like most musicians, and probably many others, I was regaled from an early age with two different kinds of stories, each of which had a point to make about talent. The first concerned the divinely gifted prodigies, like the aforementioned Mozart, who seemed to have been born with their mission in life already present, simply waiting to be worked up through growing maturity. The second concerned people who thought they were more gifted than they were, and either remained under that delusion or were at some point definitively disabused of it.

I always knew I was not in the former category, and really hoped I wouldn’t end up in the latter. While I was told as a young child that I had a gift for music, I really didn’t feel like it. OK, I was composing short piano pieces at age 7, and at 16 produced a setting of a Walt Whitman poem of which I am still proud. Nevertheless, I would go to music camp and hear other people play circles around me, and I just didn’t believe I was that good. I never, ever entertained the fantasy of majoring in music performance in college, in part because I realized that those who did had an unshakeable faith in their abilities that I couldn’t imagine ever possessing. And besides, I wanted to teach in the classroom, not hang out in a private studio all day. That was something I knew I was good at.

When I entered Oberlin, I aced the Basic Music Skills Exam, which exempted me from having to take any kind of ear training or musicianship courses. This meant, I realized intellectually, that I had a better ear (or at least a better trained one) than the vast majority of entering students at one of the nation’s leading conservatories. Nevertheless, I remained convinced that many of those people were much more talented than I was, and the evidence was what happened when they got on the stage in Warner Concert Hall.

However, I did have one thing going for me. Throughout high school, and for several years thereafter, I suffered from a strange affliction that made me invisible to girls – although not, unfortunately, them to me. This means that I was deprived of one of the main time-consuming preoccupations of the typical teenage male, while by no means spared the emotional needs that are hidden beneath the bravado of adolescent sexuality. And so I responded to both challenges by spending an enormous amount of time at the piano, gradually working up toward my 10,000 hours. Think of it as four hours a day, 6 days a week, for 10 years. I rarely actually practiced that much, so it took me a lot longer than 10 years to get there. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say I probably crossed the threshold in my early 30s. By then I had a PhD in musicology and was embarked on another 10-year effort: the search for a suitable job at which the skills about which I did feel confident could be put to good use.

In the meantime, though, something remarkable happened. At age 32, my first marriage (I’d apparently licked the invisibility problem several years earlier) collapsed, at exactly the same point that all possible job prospects vanished for the foreseeable future. For the first time in my life, I was nobody, had nobody and had nothing to look forward to. But boy, could I suddenly play the piano! I would sit down at the keyboard and rich, liquid notes would arise at the touch of my fingers. I would be seized by the spirit of a piece I was playing, and no conscious process seemed to intervene between the print on the page and what my fingers were doing on the keyboard. I would listen to myself in amazement, because I had never imagined I could play like that. It was an extraordinary charism: a pure gift of grace. Or it was my reward for putting in my 10,000 hours. Or – and here’s a truly strange idea – it was both.

No, I didn’t change careers. I rebuilt my life, remarried, and finally found a job teaching music history. The demands of work and family took center stage, and I rarely had time to practice much, since that wasn’t what I was being paid to do. I still played when I could, but my fingers grew weak and my piano playing became a convenience: something I used to demonstrate in class while having absolutely no desire to go on stage. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. I did direct an Early Music Ensemble for seven years, in which I had the opportunity to play the role of the least self-assertive of musicians: the humble continuo player. I plunked away at the harpsichord while a succession of talented singers mastered 16th- and 17th-century vocal repertory under my experimental guidance. I learned to read off a continuo part, which is something that many very, very good pianists can’t do. I was pretty satisfied occupying a demanding role that didn’t call attention to itself.

I had always promised myself, though, that a time would come when I would try to take my piano playing seriously again. As I jokingly explained last February before giving my first solo piano recital in 25 years, I got a single genie-in-a-bottle wish on Valentine’s Day 2009, and it was for three extra hours a day over the next year to practice piano. When added to the hour or so a day I was already putting in, this gave me over 1200 hours that year. OK, maybe I’m stretching a bit, but I played that recital in February, by memory, and it was good. Not great, as I’m well aware, but good enough to cause an old friend who watched the videos I posted on Facebook to assure me that I have a real gift.

And that brings me back to my opening question. As most people know, a talent is a measure of coinage mentioned in the New Testament, in a parable that is often taken as an allegorical suggestion that God gifts different people in different degrees. But the story is actually about money and investment. Are we really born with talents of a more intangible kind, or does everything depend on sweat and hard work and proper motivation? I’m no closer to knowing the answer now than I ever was.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Courage under fire

Step by step, we plodded toward the falls. Barbara is "balance-challenged," so we chose a trail that was paved and relatively straight. The hike to Laurel Falls is less than a mile and a half each way, and I had made it many times before. It was probably the best choice among short hiking trails in the Smokies. There was a time when it was my children who would have had trouble making it to the top. Now my wife, minus both inner ears and part of her cerebellum, had to struggle heroically with herself. It's something she does every day, but not always so visibly. It hurt to watch her.

Barbara survived surgery for a malignant brain tumor at 23. Given 6 months to 3 years to live, she received a massive dose of radiation to extend her life expectancy. It had to be administered through her ears. When I first met her, she already had difficulty walking straight, and had slight hearing loss, particularly on the right, where the tumor was. Over time, her hearing got gradually worse.

Starting out, she used her cane as a balancing rod. She steadied herself sometimes gracefully, sometimes less so. Her pace was slow, so I lingered behind taking pictures and then raced to catch up. Other hikers hurried past her when they could; she kept her eyes focused on the trail, knowing that one misstep could send her sprawling.

One day in 2000, Barbara awoke and complained that her right ear felt stuffed up. Getting out of bed, she fell flat on her face on the floor. She could hear nothing out of that ear, and could barely stand up. The initial diagnosis was dropsy, and she was given diuretics to clear out her inner ear. When her hearing and balance didn't return, we made the first of several trips to Duke Medical Center (a four-hour drive from where we then lived) for second and third opinions.

As the trail rose, Barbara grew visibly more tired. She began using the cane as it was intended, holding it on her right—always her weaker side—to keep herself from falling. Her pace continued, slow but steady. My mother and her husband walked ahead with our children, as Barbara and I continued to lag behind.

After three or four visits to Duke (it all blends together now) we received a definitive diagnosis. A tiny blood vessel—the only one that feeds the inner ear—had undergone a spasm, cutting off circulation to the hair cells that are the root of our sense of hearing. Without a steady supply of oxygen, the hair cells quickly die. Barbara's were hopelessly gone. She would never hear out of that ear again. After a few months of therapy, though, she could now walk reasonably straight. We replaced the hearing aid that she had been wearing in her now useless right ear with one on the left.

As we neared the top, Barbara nearly fell, and from that point she clung steadily to my arm with her free left hand. She was growing increasingly tired, not from physical exertion, but from the effort of remaining steady on her feet. She warned me that she might not be able to make it all the way to the top. The sound of the falls was now audible, and I knew we didn't have much further to go. I tried to reassure her.

As we were preparing to move to Texas to accept my new job at Baylor, Barbara suddenly lost the hearing in her left ear as well. It happened without warning, on the morning of the very day we were planning to travel to Waco to look for a house. Knowing now what was happening, I rushed her to the emergency room, where she endured the first of a series of excruciatingly painful cortisone injections directly into her inner ear. If there was going to be any chance of salvaging her hearing, we were told, we would know within a few weeks.

As we drew near to the falls, I could tell that Barbara was struggling not to break down. I also knew what an enormous sense of accomplishment she would have if she made it to the top, so I gently urged her on. When we finally reached the falls, surrounded by running children and adults snapping pictures, she sat down on the one and only bench and burst into sobs—sobs that she had been holding back, as I well knew, for at least the last ten minutes.

Of course the hearing didn't return, and less than two months later Barbara and I had to move halfway across the country, into a new community where she knew nobody. She was profoundy deaf, and I was amazed that she could stand up at all, but she worked at regaining her balance with grim determination.

After she calmed down, Barbara was glad, as I knew she would be, that she had persevered to the top. We had a pleasant picnic lunch, watched the falls for a while, took some pictures ourselves, and started down as thunder rumbled in the distance. My daughter Jennifer supported Barbara all the way this time, as she positively barreled back to the parking lot, leaving the rest of us in the remote distance. (Ironically, this is how she keeps her balance on a downgrade.)

That fall, Barbara received a cochlear implant in her left ear, and a year later another one on the right. She gradually recovered a modicum of hearing, although she will never be able to hear well again. She can no longer sing in a choir, enjoy a concert, hear a public talk or participate in a group discussion. We are profoundly grateful that she can hear at all. Most people, aware as they are of how she struggles in this regard, never even think of the balance issue and how much it costs her.

Returning to our timeshare, Barbara slept for an hour and a half. I assured her that she had shown extraordinary courage, and set an example our children would remember—one of many as, day after day, she, we and they struggle with two profound disabilities that are barely visible to the outside world. I hurt for her, but I also rejoice with her. Each day will bring its own new challenges, and we will be prepared to deal with them as best we may.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Golden Oldies: "Sin Boldly"

I shared this as a Facebook note last summer while the Gulf oil spill was still occupying a lot of attention. The good news is that the Gulf of Mexico seems to be doing better than anybody expected back then. The President's recent EPA ruling on increasing automobile gas mileage is also encouraging. That's the kind of thing we're going to have to do a lot more of if we're going to get this crisis under control.

The bad news is that the petro-chemical industry is now attempting to do something so brazenly awful that, should they succeed, it will be, in the words of scientist James Hanson, "essentially game over for the climate."

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas, is the environmentalist's ultimate nightmare. Simply extracting the oil from the sands requires so much energy that the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere will be triple that produced by burning oil that is drilled. The pipeline itself could create a huge spill right in the middle of America's heartland, and has the potential to contaminate the vast natural reserve of water known as the Ogalalla Aquifer. This project could be so disastrous that huge protests are planned in Washington later this month, and leading environmentalists like Bill McKibben are preparing to engage in civil disobedience to stop it.

Is this phenomenal man-made disaster really going to happen? Once again, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that whether to build it is entirely President Obama's decision. He doesn't have to compromise with anybody. The bad news is that he's under enormous pressure from the same people who brought us the recent near-default and credit downgrade. You can guess what they want this time.

If you care about the future of the planet—or even if you're just mad about their callous disregard for everybody else's financial well-beingplease call the president and tell him he doesn't have to give in this time. 202-456-1111. Otherwise, you may be looking back nostalgically some day at the early 21st century, when the climate was still relatively normal.

Pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo

"Sin boldly, but trust and rejoice even more boldly in Christ." This famous advice from Martin Luther is often wildly misunderstood, especially when the second part of the quote is omitted. What Brother Martin meant, as I understand it, is that there comes a point when you know you are doing all you can, but your efforts are still insufficient. That's when you have to cut yourself some slack and discover the saving power of grace.

I have been thinking a lot about this in the context of our increasingly obvious environmental crisis, which this summer's gulf oil spill and record-shattering temperatures have dramatized for those with eyes to see. The environment has long been my number one moral issue. Notice that I said moral and not political, because I don't see it as a political cause—although if it were it would of course be a conservative one. During this long, hot summer, though, I have been tempted to despair about the world in which my children and students will be living out the rest of their lives. Where, I wonder, is the will to take this challenge seriously? Where is the grace to redeem the inadequacies of what we are currently doing or, mostly, not doing?

Here are some of the things I myself am doing to fight the carbon addiction that threatens my children's future:

• Buying my electricity from Green Mountain Energy, which uses only renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric.

• Mowing my lawn with a rechargeable electric mower.

• Driving a hybrid car that averages well over 40 mpg.

• Using the most energy-efficient appliances I can find.

• Recycling extensively.

• Using canvas grocery bags whenever possible.

• Eating no beef whatsoever, and less and less meat of any kind.

• Buying local produce when it's available.

Now here are some of the things I wish I could do, and the reasons why, for the time being, I have decided to "sin boldly" instead:

• Walk to work. (I can't afford to send my kids to a private school.)

• Take public transportation. (It's almost nonexistent in Texas.)

• Install solar panels on my house. (I can't afford it.)

• Grow all my own food. (I don't have sufficient space, and my gardening skills are dismal.)

• Travel less. (No single close relative outside of my immediate family lives less than a thousand miles from me.)

• Go vegan. (Maybe someday—yeah, I know how wimpy that sounds.)

And here are some things I've come to realize this summer:

• The government isn't going to do anything about this problem. Honest, good-faith efforts have been made, and they've been crushed by the behemoth of petro-chemical self-interest.

• Therefore, it is up to us, working together, to be the body of Christ in protecting the sacredness of Creation, against which our sins rise like an abomination in the nostrils of God. (If that metaphor doesn't work for you, supply your own.)

Each note I've written recently has been targeted to a specific audience, and this one is written expressly for my former students, who will be living in this world an average of 20 to 30 years longer than I will, and will be sharing the experience with my children. I can't possibly tag all of you, but you know who you are. As I've said before, I try not to write about politics on Facebook (although I've sinned boldly in that regard a couple of times too recently). So I repeat: this has nothing to do with politics, as we normally understand it. I am simply telling you that lone individuals, working on their own, will not be able to head off what is shaping up to be the greatest man-made disaster in history. As Bill McKibben, a self-described mild-mannered Methodist Sunday School teacher, recently wrote, we must act together with the moral courage of the brave people who began the Civil Rights movement in the hostile ground of the 50's south, and we must build the momentum to shame our leaders into doing what we cannot do ourselves. Only then will I be able to pecca fortiter with the fide and gaude that there exists the grace to make up for all of our manifest failures, past, present and future.

That's my sermon for the beginning of the school year. It's also the most important lesson I will ever teach, and I'm giving it to you for free. Go therefore, and make a world in which boldness shames sin into submission.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Golden Oldies: Late Beethoven/Late Chopin

Music is my favorite way to communicate, and my favorite thing to communicate about. That's why I've occasionally abandoned politics, religion and the written word on this blog and posted videos of myself playing the piano instead. To me, it's all of a piece with the things I write, and it seems to me that after a month of turmoil, it's more important for us to listen to great music than ever. Hence the present post, on which I am sharing three videos that I've posted on Facebook, two that I've posted here before, and one entirely new one. (I know that should make six, but there's some overlap, because ... oh, never mind.) The links to YouTube are all unlisted, not public, but please feel free to share them with anyone who you think might enjoy them.

I have always been particularly drawn to the late music of great composers. The works written toward the end of a creative person's life often convey particular depth and range of expression, and may serve to sum up that person's life work as well. The classic example is J. S. Bach's The Art of Fugue. My love for late works extends to such diverse music as Mozart's The Magic Flute, Haydn's The Creation, Beethoven's last five string quartets, Verdi's Otello, Brahms's intermezzi for piano, Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and even Schoenberg's Trio for Strings.

The two Beethoven piano sonatas I'm sharing stand on either side of what scholars (like me) recognize as the transition from the middle to the late period of his entire creative output. The sonata in E minor, Op. 90, written around the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1814, was supposedly described by Beethoven as "a contest between the head and the heart." He surely did not mean anything as simple as that the first movement represents the head and the second movement (there are only two) the heart. The first movement alone has plenty of both.

The second movement, meanwhile, is one of the greatest melodic statements ever produced by a composer who, for whatever reason, is often not considered a great melodist.

I only show my hands here because I was dressed kind of funny when I recorded this over the fourth of July weekend, nearly six months after the first movement. Both are played on my own piano, a 1911 Steinway O with unique rosewood casing which, obviously, is 100 years old this year. I inherited it from my grandmother, who lived in Vermont and claimed that "Rudy Serkin" used to play it. Obviously it's getting increasingly out of tune. Craig Waldrop, where are you?

The sonata in A major, Op. 101, is the first of the "last five," a distinguished group that also includes Opp. 106, 109, 110 and 111. It was written only two years later than Op. 90, though, with no other sonatas intervening. The first movement, which is the only one I have recorded so far, is one of the most movingly intimate pieces ever written. I shared it on Facebook after the Gabrielle Giffords tragedy in the hopes that it would provide solace in a way that words could not.

Chopin's last two nocturnes have nearly always been my favorites (at least after I got over a youthful infatuation with the posthumous one in E minor). In them, the lyrical intimacy of the earlier nocturnes is augmented by a richness of inner counterpoint and a crazy extravagance of ornamentation that is nevertheless absolutely essential. The next two videos were recorded at a formal recital I played last year at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Waco, Texas. The piano is an Estonia that the church purchased back in 2008, after I and several other pianists found that it compared more than favorably with comparably priced Mason and Hamlins. The music is memorized, the piano is in tune, and there is an audience. Please enjoy.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Golden Oldies: In memory of Tyler Clementi

A new school year is about to begin, and with it I very much fear that we will see a new round of highly publicized bullying incidents. I am re-sharing this note I posted on Facebook last fall for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, there must not be any more Tyler Clementis. Period.

I also want to add a few things that I didn't say last year. The response to this note was overwhelming. It came from people I've known for a long time, as well as from more recent acquaintances, colleagues and students. It frequently brought tears to my eyes.

Then, in a bitter irony, several people later used it against me by accusing me of being a bully myself through my political comments on Facebook. This was one of the reasons I decided to take my most significant political writing here instead.

Someone who could make such a comparison, though, has no idea of what real bullying is. To underscore this point, let me confess that I didn't completely come clean last year about the results of my own experiences. I didn't really heal in college. In fact, things just got worse and worse for nearly a decade. I had internalized so much self-hatred as a result of being bullied and humiliated throughout school that hardly a day passed during that time when I didn't think about doing what Tyler Clementi did. At the most basic level, I simply didn't believe that I deserved to live.

Recovering from that wasn't a simple process, and it didn't happen automatically. It required a level of courage and determination that most people are never called upon to display, and a willingness to face down, acknowledge and fully own a level of pain that was literally capable of killing me. It also required something more intangible: the grace of God. The ongoing confrontation with the remnants of my brutal past has led me from the atheism of my upbringing to the deep faith of my mature adulthood.

So here's what a bully is. It's not someone who has strong opinions and expresses them. It's not someone who calls out his opponents for their hypocrisies. It's not someone who thinks that the absurdity of certain ideas and opinions held by others makes them occasionally laughable. It's someone who regards his victims as contemptible, and has no appreciation for their humanity. It's someone who seeks to destroy rather than to compromise. It's someone so trapped by insecurity and hatred that he instinctively lashes out at others while making no effort to understand them.

That said, here's my note on Tyler Clementi.

The real bullying started at a YMCA camp I attended for two weeks the summer after 5th grade. Prior to that I had been used to being mildly ridiculed by classmates who didn’t understand my shyness, lack of interest in sports, and general awkwardness. At that camp, though, the hitting, kicking and vicious verbal taunting began in earnest. Everywhere I went—and we slept in cabins with at least a dozen boys per room—I was brutalized physically and humiliated verbally. I have never been happier in my life when a two-week period was finally over.

Then in 6th grade I began to realize that the camp hadn’t been a fluke; it was a small foretaste of what my increasingly hormone-driven classmates had in store for me back at home. The sheer weight of that reality was confirmed when I moved on to 7th grade and junior high. Suddenly I was spending the day not just with the kids I had known all along, but with others who had never seen me before, and apparently pegged me immediately as someone to torment. For at least the next two years, my school days were a constant litany of unending physical brutality, loud and obnoxious verbal taunts, and indescribable, soul-crippling humiliation.

I remember, in particular, one time that two boys snuck up on me and put an electric cord around my neck. For the next minute or two, they literally held my life in their hands.

Where, you may wonder, were the school authorities during all this? The answer: willfully oblivious. All they noticed was that my grades had gone into the toilet—not surprising considering what I was having to cope with. I received many sober-faced lectures about how I was not living up to my potential, and they were so deeply disappointed in me. My attempts to assert myself were beaten back. When I decided to stand up for myself and run for student council president in 8th grade, the faculty blackballed me. When I begged for a bigger part in a theatrical production my English class was doing (I had been given a non-speaking part, no doubt because I was seen as too timid to speak), the teacher didn’t even give it a second’s thought before saying no.

By high school the physical abuse had largely stopped, but the verbal taunts continued. My only hope of escape was to make a clean start in college, and I deliberately applied only to colleges so far away that I was unlikely to know more than a handful of other people—who would, of course, be geeks like myself. College was the great hope, the great promise. I would finally be able to reinvent myself without having to answer to the habitual assumptions of those who had known me all my life. And although the transition was still rocky, it ultimately panned out. By my early 30s I no longer flinched instinctively at any sudden movement or noise in my vicinity. I now realize, of course, that what I was suffering from was post-traumatic stress disorder. At that time, there was no such diagnosis, and so there wasn’t really any help. Fortunately, though, I went to a good college, and it truly was different. I began to heal.

Rutgers is a good college too, which is why I was particularly disturbed at what happened there to Tyler Clementi. Tyler was a fellow musician, and of course he bore the added, incomparable burden of being gay. (Point of information: At no point in my life did anybody ever try to persuade me to “become” gay. At no point was I ever tempted. It’s not a choice.) I can only imagine the torment and humiliation he suffered in middle school and high school, and the amount of hope he must have invested in the expectation that college would be different. If he was at all like me, this had been the only sliver of hope he had been able to hold out that his life could ever improve, and he held onto it like the very promise of salvation. Thus, the shattering of that illusion—the realization that his college classmates were going to treat him exactly the same way he had been treated all his life so far—must have been as harsh as death. I understand that Tyler died when that happened, and not when he completed the process by jumping off the George Washington bridge.

I’m writing this because, like Ellen Degeneres, I can’t keep silent. When I watched her video last night (which I posted on my Facebook profile), I wept uncontrollably. I sincerely hope that this incident will prompt a national soul-searching on a truly significant level. We live in an age in which some of our most celebrated media personalities are bullies of the most blatant and horrendous kind; in which those who are in any way “different” are increasingly not just made fun of but demonized and legislated against; in which people are routinely “flamed” in electronic media by people they have never met but who seem eager to assume the worst about them.

Last week I finally got around to watching the Clint Eastwood film “Gran Torino.” It ends with an incredibly powerful scene in which Eastwood’s character offers himself as a sacrifice in order to save the Hmong boy he has befriended and his family from a vicious gang. If you’ve seen the film, you know that Walt Kowalski, whom Eastwood portrays, is not a likeable guy. What happens in the movie is worked out of him grudgingly, and he is driven by guilt over what he did in the Korean war more than 50 years earlier.

Tyler Clementi, by comparison, was a young innocent. His senseless death atoned for nothing. It’s the rest of us that need to search our souls: search them with all the brutal honesty we’ve got and not rest satisfied until we bring those wounds into the open so they begin, however tentatively, to heal. Time to get busy.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Golden Oldies: The town hall meeting

I'll be on vacation for most of the month of August, and I've decided to use my blog to re-share some of my old Facebook notes. This one, written nearly two years ago after a disillusioning town hall meeting with my former Congressman, Chet Edwards, was my first venture there into political turf. (Ted Kennedy had just died, hence the comment on brain tumors.) It received very positive reactions when I shared it on Facebook, but it also began the process that led to my decision, early this year, that extended political statements need to go somewhere else, because they are Not Ready for Facebook—or because some of my Facebook friends are not ready for them.

Since I wrote this, Chet Edwards has been defeated and national health care legislation has passed, albeit not in the form I would have liked to see. This week, though, it's become clear that the same loud, irrational, abusive people who dominated the town hall meeting have made their voices heard in Congress, and have brought democracy to its knees: hence my decision to re-share this story.

As a postscript: Jennifer will soon be starting her sophomore year at Baylor, where she is majoring in speech pathology. She was so disillusioned by the experience that she has nearly lost interest in politics. This week, however, she's been as mad as I have. As someone who teaches college students, I have strong hopes for her generation. They're going to have to rise to challenges that most of their elders have never imagined.

This Time It’s Personal

So Facebook is a social networking space: a locus for light interpersonal interaction and the occasional sharing of deep personal details with a few hundred semi-anonymous friends. I’ve come to terms with that, and with the additional limitations that come with my chosen position as a professor/mentor/role model. Thus, I generally do not avail myself of the option to share deeply. I’ve been tagged in several people’s “bucket lists,” and at some point shortly after putting an x next to “been on a blind date” I realize that discretion really compels me to keep most of these things to myself.

Or maybe it really is a generational thing. For a 53-year-old, I’m relatively high-functioning from a technological POV. I “get” Facebook. I just don’t necessarily share the casual assumption that the personal is political. You’ll notice that I have left “Political Views” and “Religious Views” blank on my profile. This doesn’t—trust me—mean that I don’t have any. I just don’t generally air them in this part of the cyber-universe, because of a perhaps overly prudish sense that this is not where they belong.

All of which is to say that if this note seems to hang up either a political or a religious position on the public laundry line for prurient eyes to gaze at, the motivation is neither political nor religious but, this time, so deeply personal that keeping it to myself feels like a betrayal.

The two photographs posted here were taken this morning while I was waiting to get into the “town hall” meeting held in the cavernous Waco Convention Center by Congressman Chet Edwards. I was attending with my daughter Jennifer, whose interest in current events has blossomed agreeably since she began a government class this past week.

My main reason for going, though, was that my wife Barbara couldn’t be there, since she wouldn’t have been able to hear, having gone completely deaf six years ago as a long-range result of cancer treatment in her early 20s. She has since received cochlear implants in both ears, which allow her to hear in most social situations but in few public ones. Each of these implants cost Blue Cross/Blue Shield close to $100,000. I have no complaints about the company or the service they have provided.

I am deeply aware, though, that Barbara is exactly the kind of person that any self-respecting insurance executive would be paid a bonus for booting off the rolls. If she were not married to me, her pre-existing condition would make her permanently, irremediably uninsurable, and she would still be consigned to the solitary confinement of profound deafness with none of the benefits of community that accrue to those who have grown up that way.

“Brain tumor” has been a buzzword this week, so yes, she had one, and she is living testimony to the ability of health insurance, responsibly administered, to save and to heal. Unlike those pictured here, she was very lucky: a fact of which I am deeply appreciative on a daily basis. At the same time, though, I am constantly haunted by a deep and unredeemed shame at the knowledge that not everyone would have been entitled to the same advantages that luck and matrimony have placed in her path.

Thus, I was disturbed, when the “town hall” finally began, to find out that the vast majority of those in attendance were far more interested in drowning out the Congressman with shouts and boos than in listening to what he had to say. This was not an illustration of the political process as it is supposed to work, when those with honest disagreements meet and talk and listen and consider and then resume their life together as a community. The luck of the draw did not give me a chance to speak, but for two hours I listened, and I left with a heavy heart and a sense that the two people pictured here were being thrown to the wolves without a hint of compunction or mutual responsibility.

Earlier this week I stated on Facebook that my daughter is a senior, and that I can scarcely believe she has grown up this quickly. This morning she must have grown up a bit more, and that knowledge is as bittersweet as it was before, as well as being, in Tennyson’s words, “wild with all regret.”