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While I was attending the Mind-Life conference in Washington D.C., I seemed different even to myself. Even though I spent hours in an auditorium seat listening or half-listening to scientists and educators discuss the possibilities of cultivating compassion, attention, and emotional regulation, I still felt rejuvenated. Somehow, all the talk about how other people could be happy was making me happy.

This was most apparent to me in the hour after I would leave the sessions. At 4:30 PM each day 1500 of us would file out of the auditorium and into the bright D.C. sunlight — the days were unseasonably warm that week and I spent one lunch hour basking in the warm of an 80 degree day. As I blinked in the bright light, I headed north on 17th street towards my hotel. The world looked different than it had that morning at 8 AM when I had walked to the conference. Colors seemed brighter, and I seemed more attentive to other human beings and objects. I stopped and noticed things that I would have walked right by before.

On the first day, as I walked leisurely back to the hotel, I noticed a man leaning against the wrought iron railing that surrounded a park statute. On other days, I might have seen that, but I might not have seen what I saw next. His had was stretched outwards to the grass, and I saw a squirrel walk towards him, place his tiny squirrel hands around the man’s finger, and bite a peanut. And, without hesitation, without my usual shyness, I stopped and said, “Do you feed them all the time?”

“Oh, sure.” He reached down into a black knapsack. “They come to me all the time.” He leaned forward and another squirrel rushed towards him, grabbed a peanut, and headed to a grassy patch at the base of statue. “The young ones won’t come to you, because they’re afraid of people. But the old ones come up all the time. If you’re afraid though, they won’t come to you.” And he held out a peanut to me. “Go ahead.”

I took one, kneeled down towards the grass, and held it out. A squirrel rushed towards me, and I felt his tiny paws with their tiny individual fingers grasp my finger, while he put the peanut in his mouth. I gave a small shriek. “Squirrel hands!” They have such tiny fingers, and I could feel each one as if it was my own. I stayed for another 15 minutes or so while we handed out peanuts and watched the squirrels shell them and eat the peanuts, or run to bury them in patches of grass. I introduced myself to the man, gave him my name, he gave me his, and we shook hands. As I walked away, and wished him a good day, he shouted back to him, “Hey! This one is saying ‘good-bye’.” And sure enough there was a female squirrel on her hind legs, paws in the air. I realized, soon after, she was really begging for another peanut.

That was the life at the conference, and then there’s the one I live now. The one that finds me typing this on my computer in a dark office early in the morning. There’s that life. The life where dishes are dirty in the sink, where dust collects forlornly in the corners of the apartment, and where a student drowses in the back of the classroom, his head leaning on the whiteboard, his mouth open slightly. There’s that life: flawed, imperfect, annoying. In Constitution Hall, where we sat for last week’s conference, even the most optimistic teacher and scientist could often think, “Compassion is all fine and good, but what does this mean for what I really do?”

And as I sit here, another stack of papers beside me, and another afternoon of teaching ahead of me, I wonder the same thing. “What does this all really mean?”

In the end, I have no answers. Sometimes I think that the classes feel slightly different if only because I am slightly different, because I have had a few days away thinking, plotting, about how others (and I?) could be happier. In class, the usual events occur. The students respond with wisecracks, the teachers bemoan the students, and the days have turned grey and cold.

I cannot say now that today will be magical, like feeding peanuts to squirrels, but I also cannot say that it will be inevitably flawed. I cannot that that they or I are definitely doomed to despair, regret, unhappiness. And, if that is all that I have received — the doubt in the faith that all the world is doomed to tragedy — then I have received more than enough.

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dalai lamaIt is not in keeping for me to write about non-drumming topics on ChickDrummer. It wouldn’t make sense given the title of the blog. But in limiting the topics, I limit describing all the factors that go into my understanding of drumming and music.  One of the influences in life and in music is my meditation practice.  I have been a meditator since 2001 and I “taught” myself some basic principles of meditation from The Dummies Guide.  Over the years, I have read and meditated more, and this week I am in Washington D.C. attending a conference titled “Educating the World Citizen for the 21st Century.” Panelists include neuroscientists, educators, and contemplatives and H.H. Dalai Lama.   For 6 hours a day for two days, I and about 1500 others have been hearing discussions about science, spirituality, and education.

I arrived in Washington D.C. excited but exhausted by a recent mini-reunion of friends from high school who flew in for a weekend in Chicago. I cooked omelets and french toast (“more butter, anyone?”)  in a hotel suite and we ate, drank coffee, and strolled around the Lincoln Park Zoo.  That time with my high school friends, it turns out, was a perfect preamble to a conference on education.  The first day, in 2 sessions, panelists discussed the challenges of teaching young people.  And throughout the day, I could not help but remember myself as a teenager.  My time with my high school friends reminded me that late adolescence was confusing for me, just as it  is for my students. The first session outlined the questions the conference panelists will tackle.  What are the positive qualities that future citizens will need to respond to recent global challenges with compassion, wisdom, creativity, and skill?  How do educators meet these challenges? And how can recent developments in neuroscience help?

Unlike a typical conference in which there are dozens or hundreds of concurrent sessions in conference hotel rooms,   all 1500-2000 participants meet in Constitution Hall and listen to presentations by neuroscientists, contemplatives, and educators, who are then questioned by H.H. Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s critical intelligence has often been described, but we were able to witness it firsthand as he questioned Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist.  Recent research on the brain has discovered two things: 1) the brain is “plastic”  meaning it can respond to environmental factors and can change, and 2) the brain makes new cells to the last day of life — neurogenesis.  In education, then, the question is: how do we capitalize on the brain’s plasticity?  Davidson, in describing plasticity, offered research that suggested early intervention in the development of the brain is better, but it is never too late.   The Dalai Lama paused and then asked:  “Does this apply to dementia?”  Davidson replied, “That’s a very good question.”   The Dalai Lama asked a question so good that one scientist observed, “As usual, Your Holiness,  you have created a whole new field of research.”  The Dalai Lama’s question shows that he cannot only absorb scientific information readily, but he can move one step beyond and ask for the next possible application. His question is astute:  if the brain can make new cells to the day we die, can we exploit this to aid those who suffer from dementia? In the end, Davidson said that they did not know if it applies to dementia.  The reason being that studies are done with terminally ill patients with non-neurological diseases. They are injected with a chemical that can mark the new cells, and once they have died, the brains are studied. There is no way to study this in a non-invasive procedure.  My guess is that a bunch of scientists are now going to try.

A presentation by Ronald Dahl, a scientist, expanded upon Davidson’s as he suggested that not only is the brain plastic, but at certain ages there is “unique plasticity.”   Between the ages of 10 and 15, new interactions are being created by different mental systems. So, while puberty may be an emotionally and physically challenging time, it is also a time when motivation and passion are accelerated.  “The skills to use control, effort, and attention to keep goals a part of behavior are strong at this time,” said Dahl.  But this period between 10 and 15 also has many challenges; the body has entered puberty, but the prefront cortex has not fully developed so the necessary cognitive processes are not yet in place.  The brain is not mature just when we need reason to calm our troubled teenage souls.  “This is a precarious time,” said Dahl,”and increases in mortality have to do with this imbalance.” And that was one of the stunning statistics of this conference offered by Davidson.  When we compare the 10 year period before adolescence (ages 4-14) with the next ten years (15-25), there is a 300% increase in mortality.  The increase in deaths is attributed to factors such as violence, drug abuse, and drunk driving.  Translation:  being a puberty-driven teenager could kill you.

So, day one of this conference has brought some revelations.  Your brain will grow until you die.  You are not stuck in your life. And if you survived the high school years in one piece, you’ve won half the battle. In the end, this conference and the findings of researchers has everything to do with why I became a drummer at 37.  I and my brain needed the stimulation that drumming gave me. When I learned how to play a drumset, I built new neural pathways. It helped with depression, anxiety, and ennui.   I also became more physically dextrous. My right and my left foot can play different rooms: eighth notes on the right, quarter or whole notes on the left foot.  This desire to drum towards the end of a long tour of graduate school helped me complete my studies. I don’t think I could have finished my doctorate if I had not started drumming. My plastic brain made it possible.  Thank you, brain.

Stay tuned…day two of the conference is tomorrow.

Tomorrow I’m going to my first out-of-town gig with Short Punks.  I’ve written before about how I’m an unlikely musician.  About how I would rather be at home on the couch with a box of donuts, than at a show at 10 PM at night.  I’ve written about it more than once, because in many ways it’s my greatest challenge.  Overcoming the inertia of life to do something interesting with my life.

Tomorrow, I’m going out of town for a mere 20 hours, but I feel like I’ll be gone for a week and I wonder how I’ll cope. I wonder how I”ll manage without the morning meditation at the temple, or what I will do without my usual lunch of miso soup and rice, or how I will take a nap in the back of the van while Bob and Brian trade dialogue from Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galatica.

I’m an unlikely musician.  I’m a homebody, a book-lover, a cookbook collecter, and a writer.  I like quiet, silence, and cats that pad softly around the apartment looking for places to lie in the sun.  I’m a person who feels the richness of an empty afternoon.  I’m that kind of person, and I’m going to sit in a van for six hours with two guys, and wait a couple more hours before soundcheck, so that I can do a 45 minute set.    So, at moments like these I have to ask myself one question: what am I going for?

I’m going because there’s a feeling you can only get on stage, that is not reproducable anywhere else:  not in a bar as a customer, not in a classroom as  a teacher, not as a buddhist sitting in temple.  There  really is nothing  like the feeling of setting up your gear on a stage whether it’s the corner of a neighborhood saloon or a space along a cafe wall.  There really is nothing like the experience of communicating with others without words, of catching the ear of someone who wasn’t planning on listening.

So I’m going.  I’m going to ride in the backseat of a rented minivan, headphones on my head, listening to buddhist chants, and taking notes for my memoir.  I’m going to watch the flat, grassy landscape of the midwest pass by me like a green-brown sea while I wait for my 45 minutes in the dim sun of a Madison cafe.  I’m going to forget about missing miso soup and snack on apples, and listen to the odd snippet of conversation from Bob and Brian when they both realize at the same time that they watched Outer Limits as kids.  I’m going because despite how rich I find a quiet life, there’s something unmistakable about a noisy, messy, rocking one.

I jumped on a bandwagon recently and started watching and admiring an HBO series called Flight of the Conchords. The premise of the show is described succinctly on their website: “Bret and Jemaine have moved to New York in the hope of forging a successful music career. So far they’ve managed to find a manager (whose “other” job is at the New Zealand Consulate), one fan (a married obsessive) and one friend (who owns the local pawn shop) — but not much else.The premise is intended to create a humorous atmosphere, and if you’re not in a band, then it is hilarious. However, if you live a life even remotely like the Conchords’ then the show is less funny and more a tragic reminder of how pathetic a wanna-be-rockstars’ life really is.

Tthis “digi-folk duo” lives in a small, crappy New York apartment filled with music gear and they do lots of crappy gigs. In one episode, their “manager” (whose day job office sits in the same building as a business called “Asian Massage”) takes them on “tour” (notice how many quotation marks we’re using here?). Jemaine, one of the musicians, reads the contract outloud in the backseat of the manager’s car, and says, “It’s says here we’re going to have a tour bus.”

“This is the tour bus,” says the manager.

“This isn’t a tour bus.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“You’re only two people. What do you need a whole bus for?”

I have paraphrased the conversation, but the gist is the same. It was funny until Brian and realized that (we, a duo with a harmonica player) will no doubt be touring in our Nissan Sentra. This scene just reminded us of this fact, and what began as a funny show laughing at a the adventures of a pair of naive musicians, became a not-so-funny mirror or our own lives.

The scene, however, which really stopped us from laughing, occurs at their first gig in the tour. They’re playing the lounge of a airport motel. In the corner of the restaurant, they’re completing their set, and one of them says, “We’d really like to thank you for having us. We have CDs and t-shirts for sale.” Then the sound of one or two aimless claps resounding in an empty room. Brian and I sat quietly through the scene until I said, “God, that is so not funny.”

“I know,” Brian said. “That happens to us all the time.”

And indeed it does. We’ll be completing a set at a nearly empty bar, but I will still declare cheerfully into the mike: “Thanks for coming everyone! We have free CDs and pins!” And just like in the show, I hear solitary claps echo through the room. The same scenario is funny in the TV show, but is depressing in real life. The myth of the musicians’ life is hardly ever explored, but what I like about this particular show is that they don’t embellish their lives. It is pretty funny to hear them thank everyone for coming to the show, when the joke is that the audience is there because they’re waiting for a flight out of there.

Brian tells this story (possibly apocryphal) about Eddie Van Halen watching This is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary about a rock band. In Brian’s story Eddie Van Halen had to leave the screening because it wasn’t funny. “It was just too real,” said Brian. We have a similar response watching Flight of the Conchords. What should be hilarious scenes about lonely gigs, strange fans, and band drama (one member “quits the band” weekly) for us seems like a sobering Oprah episode on something like identify theft: “this could be you”. And like an Oprah viewer, we recognize ourselves. “Hey, you have that synthesizer!” I’ll shout when it appears in the background of the band’s apartment. Or, “God that happened to us,” Brian will say of the Conchords’ Open Mic gig when the announcer (in the episode, Daryll Hall) used the wrong name to introduce the band: “The Flutes of the Commodores.”

That was the other thing that shocked us: the band’s name is like our band name. Flight of the Conchords sounds a lot like Short Punks in Love. It makes me wonder if we’re not some unrevealed joke. Two mid-thirties to early-forties musicans have day jobs as community college teachers while they pursue a rock-n-roll career in Chicago. Actually, that does sound pretty good. If HBO only knew about us.

I teach for a living (not drum, alas), and the first 2 weeks of December is our rush period.  Students come at all hours of the day, dropping off papers, begging for extensions, and excusing absences.  And it’s 8:30 PM and I’m waiting for an errant student to finish a make-up final exam.

In this brief moment of waiting I realized that my blog missed me.  It’s weird, isn’t it?  This space has developed a personality in my head as if it was a person I should be talking to — or, would rather be talking to.  So, what have I wanted to tell you in the weeks since my last post?

  • Our cat has cancer.  I know… I forgot to mention.  He was diagnosed during the first week of orientation, I have barely had time to think about it until now. 
  • Short Punks has a gig on Saturday and I haven’t picked up a drumstick in months
  • I filed my dissertation and was cleared to graduate
  • It’s 22 degrees in Chicago
  • Oh yeah, and they arrested our Governor (big surprise)

There was a list in my head of really cool stuff I wanted to write about and you know what, this isn’t it.

I guess what I want to remind myself was that I need to open some space for the drumming and the writing.  This is my new challenge  — creating that space for the things I was doing before I began full-time teaching.

I’ve got a job — a real job. The kind you have to show up at or they look really unhappy with you.  Oh wait, that’s all jobs.

In this real world of employment I have discovered that there isn’t any time for “the stuff I really want to do.”  Like this blog.  I think about this blog a lot.  I take notes for it.  I take pictures.  And yet, I never write the posts.  Why?  I’m too tired most of the time from reading student papers and commuting.  And for the first time in a long time, I spent hours vegging in front of the TV.  The remote in one hand, and a bowl of food in the other.  Whole days evaporated in front of the TV.

But, today is a new day, and I’m going to try a new approach:  speed posting.  I have a 40 minute break between classes.  I eat for 20 minues, and now, I’m going to try to write a post in the remaning 20 minutes.  Okay, I have ten minutes left.

What do I want to write?  What do I want to say here that I can read later and remember?

It’s snowing.  I have to pee.

Brian and I are two years overdue in producing our third CD. The “blame” for this goes back and forth between the two of us all the time:

Chickdrumer: If you weren’t so fussy about recording we would have done it by now.

Brian: Me? May I remind you that you were writing your dissertation all summer?

Chickdrummer: I said I would take a weekend off to do it.

Brian: Oh yeah… when?

Chickdrummer: Don’t blame this on me. At least, I wanted to record live at Swing State just to get some live versions down before we forget them.

Brian: That would have sounded like crap.

Chickdrummer: It would have been something.

Brian: Yeah, crap.

If this goes on for a while we then manage to blame our jobs, our families, the economy, and our cat, Ben, whose emergency hairball surgery last month cost $3000 and ate up the entire recording budget.

And then we don’t talk about it for a while. Brian starts looking at Craigslist for other bands, and I started planning a novel, and in our heads we “give up” on Short Punks.

Then something out of the blue happens. For instance, we might be sitting in the car listening to the radio, and Sound Opinions with Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis might be on and they might play a track of say, Little Richard, and they might talk about how well recorded the drums are and we might not turn it off and we might listen and one of us might say: “That’s how we should do our CD.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Brian might say.

And I might add: “Why don’t we just do it like that? One room mike. No drum mikes. No Pro-tools.”

And Brian will agree. Then he’ll mention a Chicago recording studio famous for that.

And I might say, “Yeah, let’s do it.”

And then we get out of the car, and all of sudden, walking down Kedzie Ave to get Lebanese food, Short Punks will be back together again, planning, thinking about the ‘what next.’

If I could really describe what being in a band with your partner/spouse could be like, it’s like that. Spontaneous, simple moments when we agree, when we find the chord change at the right time, when we know what our “sound” is, when we being in band is mostly easy and not always hard. If I were to describe this in words that are concrete, I would say playing in a band with Brian is as easy as realizing that we both want falafel for lunch.

I’m a working stiff now. In the last two months I self-ejected myself from the uncomfortable, stiff little womb I call “graduate school” and managed to complete a languishing dissertation, defend it, and start a new job.

Insta-presto! You’re a grown-up. I have an office now and a desk and a password to “log on” (to what? I want to know) and I commute and I work late and I am really really tired.

The last few months have been a whirlwind and it is only now in the quiet of an empty building that I have the moment to reflect on what got me here…if I can remember.

What do I remember?

I remember rising at 5 am to attend morning meditation, and then breakfast with the temple residents and then to a cafe or a library to read or write. I remember the moments of utter desperation when one thought roiled in my brain: “you will never finish in time.” The grad school clock had wound down on me and like those desperate I-just-want-to-make-it-perfect students I see in my own classes, I was still scribbling away while a proctor tapped his desk with a pencil and looked at his watch. I was writing against some intractable clock with a stubborn second hand.

I remember walking home from the cafe in the warm summer night passing happy dogs and dog-owners enjoying the late, balmy evenings. I remember wishing I was them.

I remember the 8 hour marathon when Brian and I sat at the kitchen table editing and revising the last draft the night before it was due.

I remember not sleeping, lying in bed, eyes open, writing in my head.

I remember paperwork that “gave me permission” to defend lost in the quagmire of the university. I remember worrying if it would come down to this: a form misplaced.

I remember proofreading the dissertation in an Amish cafe in Florida, sun beating down on me while I sat in the window.

I remember ice tea. Gallons of it. Drunk at all hours.

And what do I not remember?

I don’t remember:

The defense.

The topic of the dissertation itself.

What I did to celebrate when I passed.

What I did yesterday.

What I will do tomorrow.

The world has seemed to whirl around me like a hurricane in the last few months, and in brief moments I feel I am in the eye of this storm, watching the water, the houses, the boats, the Tinman, the dogs circle around me. From there, it all seems clear: this is life. In other moments, like the ones marked “today” I swirled in the storm with the cats and the dogs and the trees, wondering when it would stop, when I would come to rest, to sit still breathing heavily amongst the wreckage. The ability to stop, to slow the swirling hurricane seems beyond me now, and I wait for the storm to slow itself.

Of course, we in Short Punks have watched the mock-documentary, Spinal Tap, eight million times. And like most musicians, we can quote choice lines from the movie whenever we encounter the same situation in our every day gigging life. For example, Brian can say onstage, “my amp goes to eleven,” and 90 percent of the crowd chuckles knowingly. Or, in a club backstage we can ask for bread that matches the size of the cold cut and know we all know the joke. [And right now, if you aren’t getting any of this because you haven’t seen Spinal Tap, then you need to GO RENT IT RIGHT NOW.] So, of course, when the time came for Short Punks to follow a Puppet Show as an opening act we were thrilled.

If it’s been a while since you saw Spinal Tap then here’s a scene refresher:

The band has hit new lows in bookings and the guitar player’s girl friend is managing the band. At their latest booking — a fairground — they approach the venue to see the name of the band on the marquee. In smaller letters, “Spinal Tap” sits atop the larger letters of “Puppet Show.” The visual joke: Spinal Tap opens for Puppet Show. The girlfriend then says: “If I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a hundred times. First, Puppet Show; then, Spinal Tap.”

In May, we did a show for the Burning Karma Kabaret at the local buddhist temple but, unlike Spinal Tap instead of being a career low, it was for us — no joke here — a career high. The room was filled with well-fed, happy buddhists who had just had a vegan feast. And the entertainment included traditional Mongolian music, singer-songerwriters, a puppet show, and Short Punks. We were last in the bill — not because we were featured — but because…well, we were running the sound, too. We were doing double-duty engineering the event and playing it as well, so everybody had to go on before us so that we could run the sound for the other acts. In any case, the result was that we followed a puppet show.

Of course, you’re thinking, a guy with sock puppets. And well, he kind of was that….but better. He was a guy with sock puppets who helped to found Red Moon Theater in Chicago — a premier puppet show with elaborating stagings. For us, however, it was the little box puppet stage and some cat puppets — but I’m telling you, it was awesome.

The Puppet Show

The Puppet Show

We came after the puppet show, and I got a tell you, he was a hard act to follow. He had a group of 6 year-olds gathered around him like a bunch of ‘tweens at a Miley Cyrus concert. But, Short Punks went on and we did our best to rock the house — you know, with acoustic instruments.

Short Punks at the Temple

Short Punks at the Temple

We did two songs: “Hard Luck Town” and “Twilight.” And I have to say the buddhists were a great crowd. They cheered enthusiastically and were responsive. I’ll take a bunch of buddhists as an audience any day.

I realized the other day that for the first time in a year I have not posted in a weeks.  This is not because nothing has happened but because I am finally (hallelujah!) completing a doctoral dissertation which is due …. um…. Monday.  So, I have been a little busy and not posting.  One person wondered about my absence and e-mailed to see if I was all right (Thanks, Lisa).  I’m fine — just writing other stuff.

If you have never pursued a Ph.d. then you may not know that a doctoral dissertation is the final requirement to complete before one can be awarded a doctorate.  It is usually a minimum of 200 pages, although some people have written two or three times that (Brian’s was 400 pages).  If I can make the 200 I’ll consider myself happy.  And what do we write about in these things? Whatever we decided we want to spend 6-8 years of our lives researching. I chose medieval saints lives from 13th century Italy.  Why?  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Six years later, I’m not so sure.  And what about these saints?  Well, I argue (yes, that’s the grad student word: “argue”) that images of blacks/blackness in the medieval saints lives are potentially racialized and reflect interactions with Africans long before the beginning of the slave trade.

Sounds fair, enough, right?  Took years to prove — if I have.  In any case, the last month or so I’ve been busily trying to fill in the research and complete writing this project which I began more than a few years ago. So, Chickdrummer has not been much in my mind.  Although that doesn’t mean we didn’t do gigs.  We had three:  a buddhist temple, an all-ages hookah lounge, and a wedding. I know, I know.  Those would have made great postings.  And they still will.  I took pictures.  I have stories to tell,  but unfortunately not right now…later  when I have finished the dissertation and hopefully, successfully defended it.  Oh yeah, that’s the other requirement.  I meet a committee of professors who question me on the dissertation and decide together whether I can legitimately be called “Doctor.”  Yes, that will be nail-biter.  I’ll let you know how it works out. If it doesn’t work out, at least I’ll have drumming.

So, check back or better yet, add me to your blog reader and I’ll let you know how it works out. The defense date is scheduled for August 12th — think good thoughts for me.

For more about the band, go to: www.shortpunksinlove.com

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