Metallica and the Middle School Morning Commute

Listening to music in a moving car is one of life’s primary pleasures. The speakers surround you. You are encapsulated by sound. If the car is moving fast, all the better. You can melt into that sound. The boundaries of your body disappear and you are allowed to become the amalgam of your thoughts, feelings and sensation.

The music you choose is important. It sets the tone for the journey and colors your mood upon arrival. Always important, but perhaps never more important than the middle school morning commute.

For most of my daughter’s young life, I have been DJ, curating her musical experience with chauvinistic care, thoughtfully exposing her to the things she is supposed to love. She heard Beatles and Hendrix and They Might Be Giants with odd bits of classical, jazz and current pop tossed in. She soaks it all in and has taken my playlist as her playlist.

Now she is ten, and I let her assume the awesome responsibility of iPod selection. She dives in and out of her playlist. She grabs random tracks just because she likes the title. When we are out in public, say the grocery store or a restaurant, a song will occasionally reach out from the background and catch her attention. “What is this?” Tap Shazam. “Add this to my playlist.”

My daughter is getting her ears.

Every day for the past three weeks, my ten year old daughter has chosen Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” for the middle school morning commute. Understand my surprise and amusement.

Metallica is an incredible sound. Metallica is art, but I could not realize it when I was ten. When I was in middle school, music was tribal. The music you chose for your own defined you. I found the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I was nerdy and in my head a lot. I liked words and abstraction.

When I was a kid, Metallica belonged to the “hoods”. Those rough and rude, slightly scary smokers with the badass tee-shirts. They lived in their bodies. They weren’t “my people” and thus, Metallica was not for me.

I hope it is different now. I hope the ease with which we shuffle our playlists or stream across Spotify genres reflects the ease with which people of different backgrounds and experience blend their musical personalities. Perhaps music is no longer tribal.

As I grew older, I realized the Metallica listeners actually were my people. We were all people who formed deep, intense emotional connections to whatever sounds helped connect our inside selves to our outside. They just had cooler tee-shirts.

My daughter still dives through my iPod playlists. She still digs Beatles and Hendrix and TMBG. But she is finding her own tastes. She is curious about K Pop and hip hop. She likes video game music. She adores Melanie Martinez, an aesthetic I call “baby doll mope pop”. She is finding it on her own.

And so, “Master of Puppets” every morning for three weeks. I like to think it lifts her morning mood, cuts through the haze like a first cup of strong coffee. I imagine her bursting through the middle school doors with that intense, learning forward energy, feeling like a bad ass as she walks through the lockers, toward her people and her day.

That is the pleasure of music heard in a moving car, a pleasure you carry with you, felt most keenly during the middle school morning commute.

Middle School Band Holiday Concert, a Proud Parent’s Review

Miles Davis. Wynton Marsalis. Louis Armstrong. Great trumpet players, all. You know their work.

Less familiar, perhaps, the sonic stylings of Emersey Benson, 5th grade trumpet player for Robertsville Middle School band. You can be forgiven for not yet knowing the impressive oeuvre of this young talent. She started playing trumpet three months ago and made her triumphant stage debut on Thursday, November 30, 2017.


The evening was a rousing success. Dozens of eager young musicians crowded onto stage, some of them battling their first bout of stage fright. Others seemingly immune to prey of nerves. The palpable expectation of young musicians and parents alike radiated through the auditorium as our musicians warmed up, practicing their embouchure, clarifying their tone, moving together as one unit through a series of controlled aural blasts.

And then, show time. The band director introduced each section, one by one, letting each present a sample of their craft so the audience might better appreciate the contribution each instrument brings to the sonic weave. The trumpets were ascendant.

The 5th grade performance was crowned by two performances of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. The program listed the piece as “Star Search”, but we knew the song’s true title. The first take had trumpets playing medley. The second take had trumpets providing color. Both were solidly recognizable.

As any proud parent, I strained to hear the notes sail from Emersey’s horn but could not pull them apart from the other joyful sounds. That’s pretty much the point. Unless you are playing a solo, it is usually best not to stand out. Emersey’s trumpet melded with the rest, indiscernible, but I knew from her practice at home just days earlier that her playing was solid, steady and bright. All the notes in the right order at more or less the proper time.

It was, for me, an intensely emotional experience. I am learning to play piano but have never played in the company of other musicians. I love to see music played live. The coordination and self-discipline required to bring one instrument into concert with many others is beautiful. Every performance, no matter how small, is a conversation without words. I am always overcome, sometimes moved to tears.

I often feel most human in the company of musicians having their conversation. Each of them connected to one another in a unified band and the band, in turn, connected to the audience, which is now its own thing rather than a collection of people. Live performance welcomes individual people into human company. It is among the most powerful things people can do.

Thursday night’s performance was special. I felt the thing I felt when watching Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins or Wynton Marsalis perform at the Tennessee Theatre. The thing that moved through me Thursday night was the same thing that has moved through any of the Indigo Girls, U2, Tom Petty or Violent Femmes shows I’ve attended.

I can only hope my trumpet playing daughter and these young 5th grade musicians felt it too. I hope they will continue to develop their coordination and self-discipline no matter the level of talent each believes they individually possess.

I hope they recognize what they are doing together is art and that they keep mashing keys and pressing forward to recapture the transcendent experience of music so they might always know what it really is to be human.


A Writerly Person

My daughter is a writerly person. Which is to say, she has a facility with words. She can take several completely unrelated ideas and smash them together. She can take one really big idea and bust it up into tiny little pieces.

I love to see her at work. Sometimes organizing a movie script. Sometimes drawing out a comic book. Sometimes just sitting on the floor with her whiteboard and writing until she runs out of room. Then, erase and continue.

Tonight she was drafting her letter to the 4th grade teachers, explaining why, as a rising 4th grader, she would make a kick-ass safety patrol officer. Those are my words. Not hers.

Raising a writerly person is great fun. I get to see her worry over the proper word choice and puzzle over the clarity of this idea or that. She’s on a good track. I expect she will write her books before I do.

I am being careful not to praise her ability too greatly. People often make too much of talent. Fun to see her sit down and write a well-made paragraph easily and with joy. Better to see her save that draft, set it aside until tomorrow, reread, then change a few words. Kill a sentence or three. I encourage the writing but praise the rewriting. Better that she know now what it is taking me a lifetime to figure out. A thing isn’t written until it is completed, and a thing isn’t completed until it is rewritten.

Not Now. Daddy’s Reading.

I had a good Thanksgiving. One of the major pleasures of the long holiday weekend was the opportunity to read for several hours at one sitting on Saturday morning. That doesn’t happen too often. Between work, house and family, I usually read in short gasps these days. When I do read, I often find myself reaching for the kinds of things you read when your attention is frayed — blog posts, Twitter links, short articles. Nothing too taxing. The hard, long-form stuff gets pushed into my Instapaper account for later. Later never comes.

I am reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a 900+ page wrist-bender of a book. This is the kind of book the Kindle was made for – light weight, easy page turning, no book mark to misplace.

Still, as I was reading, a part of my mind was busy wondering what my daughter thinks I am doing when I read the Kindle. I grew up loving books because my parents love reading. My dad read books and newspaper. My mom read magazines. I saw them reading. I saw the book in my dad”s hands. I watched him work his way through the pages. When he finished, the book changed. I could keep track of how fast he read, how quickly he moved through the pages.

My daughter can’t do that. She loves to read, but I wonder if, somehow, the experience of seeing me read on a Kindle or an iPad or an iPhone deprives her of some essential element that seals that love for reading. The outside of the book never changes.

Worse, when reading on the iPad, how does she know I am reading a book and not watching a video or playing a game or surfing the web?

It comes down to gestures and demeanor, I suppose. The act of reading is essentially a meditative act. The outward signs of the internal activity are steady, intent focus. I’m sure she can tell the difference from when I am reading and when I am doing something else. I wonder if seeing me read on a multipurpose device, like the iPad, diminishes for her that sacred sense I picked up watching my dad read. Or, if there is a sacred sense, if the positive feelings around that act will transfer to the device in general more than to the hidden object of my actual attention.

It is a bit maddening to consider.

I don’t worry so much about my daughter. She already loves books, both paper and virtual. I read in both formats often, so she knows books as objects are important to me. Still, I wonder in how many households will the love of reading become confused or conflated with the love of a specific device. In other words, will the tablet or eReader become fetishized in the same way that books are fetishized?

I had a terrific morning reading last Saturday. I read for a few hours, then played with my daughter, then read some more. Back and forth. Several times, she asked if I was ready to play.

“Not now. Daddy’s reading.” These aren’t words I say very often. Maybe I should say them more often. They are significant words which I think she will remember.

No worries. She didn’t feel neglected. “Okay,” she told me. “I’ll just grab a book and we can read together in our minds.” This was her way of saying we could each read our own books together in silence. I do believe this remains one of the main joys of human experience — the feeling that comes from sitting together in silence, enjoying one another’s company while swallowed up in the delicious isolation of your own books. It is a part of what makes libraries so comforting.

We spent the best part of our Saturday morning this way, she and I. I was reading my Kindle. She was reading a print book. We were reading together in our minds. I’m pretty sure everything is going to be okay.


I don’t do boredom.

My 5 year old daughter is growing up ridiculously well-entertained. She has shelves of books, puzzles and games. She deftly navigates Netflix and DirectTV menus.  She loves Temple Run, Sims and Angry Birds Star Wars on the iPad. She has become a MarioKart master.

Over the recent Christmas break, we fell into some bad habits. We watched too much TV, played too much MarioKart and washed it all down with iPad. We also read books, made up stories, played outside and did other stuff, but Netflix and MarioKart were central features in our three weeks off together.

She got in trouble yesterday — bedtime defiance issues — and lost her Wii privileges. Loss of Wii is a double-hit because it means no Netflix as well as no MarioKart. Losing Wii access is the surest way to capture my daughter’s attention.

Today, a day spent Wii-free, she complained once of boredom. “I’m bored,” she told me. I don’t think this was strictly true. In fact, I think her boredom was feigned to provoke me. It works.

I hate hearing my daughter say she is bored. I hate hearing adults say they are bored. I don’t really understand what boredom feels like. I don’t do boredom. I do frustration, confusion, laziness, tiredness and exhaustion all the time, but I don’t do boredom.

Boredom  happens when a person is utterly uncomfortable or unfamiliar with their own mind. Boredom happens when the room is quiet and a person runs out of thoughts to fill the silence.

Boredom, as it happens, is also a gift. Boredom forces the mind to pay attention. Boredom is a an empty state. Boredom is often a clever disguise for creative resistance. Boredom is the time our mind takes to assimilate new ideas in the absense of incoming stimuli.

My daughter is only five. Maybe she is bored. Maybe she is not. Impossible to say. I know I cannot tolerate willful boredom. Read a book. Make up a story. Sing a song. The mind is always moving. There is no such thing as actually sitting still.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney Princesses

My wife and I are the kind of parents who think too much. For years we worried that Disney merchandise, especially the Disney Princess line, would corrupt our child. Disney Princesses, we believed, would exploit our daughter’s faith in hope and happiness and pervert her inner purities toward commercial consumerism, damaged imagination and general stupidity.

We held this line, more or less, for 5 years. Then, the Disney Store had a sale on Disney Princess dolls. We were shopping for nieces and nephews and were lured over by the hugely discounted dolls. Our daughter loves the stories and the dolls are way more interesting than standard Barbie fare. First, we picked up Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. Rapunzel’s hair was outrageously soft and we had never seen a wicked stepmother doll before.

Then, Belle and the Beast. Belle likes books and the Beast has a removable head that transforms into the Handsome Prince. Then, we picked up Snow White because her dress is a lovely shade of blue and Prince Philip because he has a great cape and looks very princely.

There it was. In one fell swoop and $60, we abandoned our principled stance against the Disney Prince machine. We took them home, wrapped them and waited for the stupidity to set in.

It didn’t happen. I unboxed the 6 dolls the day after Christmas, expecting the immediate onsite of trite story arch — true love, magical kisses and happy ever afters. Instead, my daughter picked up the 6 dolls and launched into a 30 minute, improvised musical about Rapunzel’s co-dependent conflict with her wicked “mother”, wrestling to balance her own need for adventure against the knowledge that leaving the tower would devastate her already emotionally crippled mother forever. The other characters intervened to fuse a  fantastically complex mashup of fairy tales that served as foils against the Rapunzel/Gothel storyline to show other ways of being mother/daughter.

It was a powerful, mature mini-opera sung in more or less rhymed couplets. I tried to record it to share with the world but my daughter forbade cameras during her performance.

I was powerfully amazed and powerfully humbled. I should not have been surprised. My daughter is creative and can’t help but make stories from the objects around her.

Disney dolls are not totems. They have no power beyond the power that is lent to them through story. I knew this but had somehow forgotten. Toys have no power until they are brought to life through story. With a sufficiently strong imagination, all objects become playthings and the story is everywhere.


There Are No Words

There are no words to explain what happened today in Newtown, Connecticut. There is no consolation to give the parents of gone children.

There is no rule to govern why it was some other person’s child and not mine. There is no way to measure how much future genius, energy and insight was lost.

I am angry. I am baffled. I am scared.

This happened. This can happen again.

And yet, I must send my daughter out into the world. She needs to be in the world. The world needs her to be in it.

And so I am working with impermanence. I am working with fear. I return to these like a mantra: attachment and impermanence; impermanence and fear.

I am not a prayerful person and yet I wrap my whole life up in one single prayer. That I can help things become bigger rather than smaller. That I can help open spaces rather than close them.

My entire life wrapped up in one single prayer that has no words, only action. Constantly working to make the world a place where we can be awake and alive. Constantly working to make the world a place where we can live.

Fairy Tale Fact Check: Do Dreams Really Come True?

A few nights ago, my daughter and I read the Disney storybook version of Cinderella for bedtime. Cinderella is one of her favorite Disney stories and we read the storybook on a pretty routine basis. We got through all the usual stuff – cruel stepmother, bratty stepsisters, endless chores and a party for which Cinderella has nothing suitable to wear. Fairy godmother shows up and temporarily fixes things with a killer dress, fancy hairstyle and some new shoes. Oh yeah, and she turns Cinderella’s only friends in the world into work horses.

That’s all fine. Cinderella gets to the party, dances with the prince and accidentally breaks curfew. She rushes home in a panic, leaving behind the prince who has fallen completely in love with her based on a few dances and exactly zero conversations. He is so smitten that he sends a servant out to find a woman with the same shoe size so he can marry that person. The shoe, of course, fits Cinderella so the prince is happy to marry her. We never learn what she thinks of the prince. Presumably, he is a good match. He is, after all, handsome. Being Disney, he is probably charming. Also, he appreciates nice shoes. Not a complete recipe for happiness but certainly an improvement on her current situation.

And so the story resolves with the very practical solution. Cinderella marries the prince to get out of her bad family situation, and they live happily ever after.

At the end of the story, my daughter says, “Dad, is it really true that if you wish hard enough your dreams will always come true?”

I resisted the urge to explain that plenty of girls besides Cinderella have used sudden, unplanned marriage as a way of getting out of bad situations and found that it didn’t really help them all that much. But, that wasn’t what she was asking and that isn’t really the moral of the story.

My daughter is five. I am always giving her advice for when she is twenty.

I struggled around for a bit and finally came up with this: “I believe that the things we want most in life can happen if we are patient; work very, very hard; understand our talents and use them appropriately.”

She considered this for a moment, shrugged and said, “I mean, can you be a princess and marry a handsome prince?”

It was my turn to consider, my turn to shrug. And then, the fatherly wisdom of last resort, “Maybe. Go to sleep.”


My Prius ran out of gas

My Prius ran out of gas today, and I got stuck on the side of the road. Let’s put aside the too obvious irony of a hybrid running out of fossil fuel for a moment. This post isn’t about irony. This post is about embarrassment.

This was pretty much the most embarrassing thing that has happened to me in a long time. Embarrassing because my wife, daughter and friend were all trapped in the car with me. Embarrassing because I had just intentionally driven past a gas station a few minutes earlier. Embarrassing because the Add Fuel message had been coming up on the dash display for the past two days.

I love my 2007 Prius. It gets 45 to 48 miles per gallon, drives great and is very comfortable. I also love my Prius because the dash display provides real-time analytics. I’m a sucker  for charts, bar graphs and real-time data calculation. While driving, my Prius shows a bar graph of the average estimated fuel consumption. This is a bar that escalates up to 100 MPG from 0 MPG. The more you coast, the more the electric motor carries the car and the lower the fuel consumption, which means higher gas mileage. Every five minutes a new plot point appears on the elapsed drive time chart that shows the average gas consumption over the life of the trip. At the bottom of these lovely graphs, is a real-time numeric average of miles per gallon over the life of the trip or the tank of gas. I generally set this to reflect the average fuel consumption for the current tank of gas. Like I said, 45 to 48 miles per gallon.

When I fill up, I zero the gas mileage calculation and also the odometer reading for Trip A. I reserve Trip B for mileage between oil changes. The 2007 Prius has an 11.9 gallon gas tank.

Generally when I start the car on a low tank of gas, the Add Fuel message appears and then disappears. This occurred on Friday. I didn’t worry about it right away because I can drive many miles on just a little gas. No worries.

When my gas indicator gets low, I do a little math. I glance at the average gas mileage for the current tank of gas, then multiply by 10. Then, I add the average gas mileage to that number to get the number of miles I should get from an 11 gallon tank. I subtract the miles showing on the odometer from the estimated miles for 11 gallons of gas to figure my zone of safety.

Today, when I passed the gas station on the way into town, I estimated an additional 15 miles before getting close to Actual Empty. I thought I would do my town a favor and give them the sales tax on my fuel purchase.

My car slowed down, sputtered and stopped about five miles past the last gas station. I was completely baffled. My math was good. I should have had at least another 10 miles or more before needing to fill up. Math doesn’t matter when you are stuck on the side of road. Or maybe math matters more than you care to admit when you are stuck on the side of the road. In either case, I called my mom-in-law to stop by the house to get the gas can, then deliver the mercy gallon we needed to get to the gas station.

Rather than wait on the side of the road, my friend and I decided to push the car to a parking lot not far away. As often happens, while pushing the car, a couple of other guys stopped by to help push. We got the car to the parking lot easily enough. The guys offered a spare gallon of gas from their emergency tank but we already had help coming so we declined.

They laughed a little about pushing the hybrid, climbed into their big, fuel-thirsty pickup and drove off.

My mom-in-law showed up pretty quick, we gassed up and drove to the gas station for a complete fill. No harm done and no real danger.

I learned few valuable lessons.

First, the Prius actually holds 11.9 gallons but you only get to use a little less than 10 gallons of that because a certain amount of gas gets caught in the fuel filter and fuel lines.

Also, my five-year-old daughter enjoys the opportunity to lecture me about the importance of paying attention to the messages on my car display:

Finally, I can see that the major lesson here is one of choosing where to place your attention. I was, after all, paying very close attention to the graphs, charts and numbers on my dash and was using an overly complex, sophisticated system to determine when I needed to refuel. Math is powerful, but when your car display tells you to Add Fuel, it isn’t time to argue. Best to keep some things simple. Sometimes, you should just receive the message, say thank you and fill up.

The Best Part of My Day

I worked a 10 1/2 hour day today. It was a long day but also a good day.

I visited the Occupational Therapy Assisting program student mobile app presentations. This was the culminating moment in our semester-long work toward using iPads in the college classroom.

I received a nice compliment and words of encouragement from a colleague I respect very much.

I got home to a great dinner with my wife and daughter and then snuggled up with daughter on the couch to watch Johnny Test.

All good things, but the absolute best part of my day happened 20 minutes ago when my 5 year old daughter said, “Dad, I’m feeling very proud of myself. I’m growing up and learning lots of new things.”

Life is busy, noisy and chaotic at the edges. There is purpose in the center. Sometimes you have to find it. Sometimes it finds you.

For a future-oriented person like me, there is no better contribution to be made than being a dad and an educator.