Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Training Wheels.

This morning while on my way to fetch cat food and pay the water bill I caught most of Diane Rhem's interview with pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Dinnerstein is an accomplished pianist and writer who has taken to teaching children music using Bach as inspiration, she calls it "Bach-packing." One of the bits that stood out most for me was her explanation of how to create separate "voices" with the left and right hand on the piano, taking two different songs essentially and weaving them together to make a cohesive piece. The way she teaches children this idea is to ask half her classroom sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on a loop and the other half sings Row, Row, Row your Boat. As a relative dumb-dumb on how music really works, it's was as surprising to me as it was to these kids hearing how well the combo works. One of the callers during the interview joked about how he couldn't convince his hands to play different tunes which is why he now plays the saxophone. It's a riveting interview and you can check it out here. She explains that everyone has a dominant hand and teaching even seasoned adults how to bolster their secondary hand can expose a vulnerability that can be devastating to morale'.

When I was in third grade or so my folks realized I had some balance issues. I guess it stemmed from my inability to figure out how to ride a bicycle without training-wheels. While most of my neighborhood peers had it down several years before, I couldn't get it. This, paired with poor grades and a distractibility in the classroom at school, worried them. As fate would have it, a business called Sensory Systems Integration was renting the basement classrooms of our church during the week. I don't remember much about the technical side of their practice, but they ran all sorts of exciting tests on me trying to figure out where my brain was having its complications. I remember getting messy playing in shaving cream, sifting through a giant box of dried beans for pennies I was allowed to keep, pulling myself through obstacle courses on a little wheeled-block, looking at Rorschach test images, and swinging in a chair hanging in the center of the room. Along with christmas ornaments and other prominent knickknacks from my childhood, a few years ago my folks bequeathed the "Occupational Therapy Evaluation of Sensory Integration" official test results from 1988. It summarized my issues in cold, calculating language, that sort of hurts to read now, ultimately assessing I had a mild learning disability. But all I remember from that time is the fun I had trying to make my body do and feel things.

After this assessment, an occupational therapy plan was approved and the therapies I mention above took place, to get my mind syncing more with my body. I remember enjoying the hell out of therapy! Play in shaving cream? Sounds great! Every time I see it I envy the dude who jumps into a pool of caramel in some candy bar commercial on TV, sounds like a hoot! I think therapy lasted for 6 months or so and was discontinued in the summer after the therapists saw the progress they wanted to see.

Since first grade I had been playing "Dad's Club Softball" as well. Given my sensory complications...I had a pretty hard time with various facets of the game. Namely, all of them. In the spring of third grade, amidst the therapies, it was suggested I try playing softball left handed. My mom and sister were lefties and though I seemed to favor my right side, writing was the only advantage it concretely had, so it didn't seem like too much from left-field to try it. (you like that? left field...left handed...eh? come on!)
And so, as I had with my sister's jeans in the past (what, we were about the same size and it was the 80s), I borrowed her left-handed glove mid-season just to see how it'd feel. I don't remember much about the first game as a lefty up until the final inning. The opposing team was at bat with 2 outs, they were down 3 runs, and the big kid known for big hits was at bat, one giant hit and the game was over.
Like they did with all the scrubs in DCSB, I was in the outfield, right-field specifically. As Casey came to bat (probably not his name, but might should've been) all of us scrubs crapped our pants. Low and behold he hits a humdinger right in my direction, the game is over because, what, I'm going to catch it? Right. And wouldn't you know it, my skinny, lacking-in-musculature-according-to-the-test-results, right arm with a newly acquired left-hander glove worn for the first time, MADE THE CATCH! I didn't hear it, but my dad recounts the story with him yelling from the bleachers: "THAT'S MY BOY!!!" And for the first time my teammates pat me on the back for something.

Hearing Simone Dinnerstein playing Bach's "inventions and sinfonias" with battling "voices" tit-for-tatting each other on the piano in perfect harmony blows my mind. Imagine the synapses that must be happening in the brain to get the body to do such things! I can only dream of playing an instrument that well. As well, I can only dream of having the ambition to try and play an instrument that well. But that's another topic for another day. I feel like a pretty self-aware person, but I still wonder if these sensory issues play out in ways I'm unaware. Their spectre haunted me for a moment my first semester in college when I flunked a Psych. 101 test. Graciously, my folks talked me into using a tutor and I got past it. These days I tend to see it as a lack of effort and improper understanding of consequences, but that may be some denial on my part. I got through the rest of school just fine after that and hit my best stride in my last year. Perhaps I just needed to feel failure. Luckily, through it all, I'm a pretty sweet bike-rider and whenever the topic of ambidexterity comes up, I'm able to say "well, i'm not properly ambidextrous, but I play baseball and anything with swinging left handed" followed by my best Goofy "Ah-Hilllt" laugh. Who knows where I'd be or what I'd be doing without that shaving-cream...

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Canvasing time and space..."

I can still see it so clearly, 2 words written permanently into my mind on the blackboard in the basement: Chronos and Kairos. My dad had given a lesson at "children's time" that previous Sunday about these words. Chronos is Greek for time and implied simply the time that passes around a clock. But Kairos, Kairos is the meat here. It loosely translates to the times of our lives and this is the word that made Dad grin and well-up just explaining it to us. All of the experiences that we deem major-life-moments are Kairos.

In lyric-writing I've repeatedly used, or alluded to, the phrase "time and space." It's even become a stupid little quip I utter when someone is reminiscing: "time and space, man...time and space." It's those moments when the mind's eye can picture perfectly who we were, who we were with, where we were, and what we were there for. Kairos exists in the sites, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels of the time and space we're in.

In 2003 I moved from Grand Rapids to St. Louis, Missouri, simply because I could. I scored a job and moved with one car-load into a studio apartment in The Loop. I was a Teacher-Assistant at a school for "adjudicated youths" (court ordered because of bad behavior) in a "secure" facility (magnets locked all the doors), and we had padded rooms to hold kids when they'd violently act out. Before the school year started I was trained on how to properly restrain and physically disable kids when they posed a threat to themselves or others. I don't want to say they could smell my fear, but certainly they could sense my naivete. My love of extreme music, vegan-straight-edge lifestyle, and general unfamiliarity with all things pop-culture baffled them, which should've given me some sort of advantage, but really just made me feel disconnected from their world. As the lone, young white guy on staff I was often a focal point of ranting and raving when these children lost control and tumbled down their behavioral rabbit-holes. One particular time, I remember being encircled by staff who were trying to talk this older kid down as he spit his rage at me. As he called me every name in the book and threatened me up and down, I had to sit in silence in order to prevent escalation. It was demoralizing, but I was patted on the back for doing the right thing in that moment. But I think that was a turning point where I realized I didn't want to be a Teacher-Assistant much longer. During the summer program we received notice that that boy died in a car crash fleeing police. And I have a pit in my stomach because I can't remember his name.

It was a grueling experience that I cut short to follow greener pastures after a year, but boy do I remember so much of that year: the ring from my first Nokia cell phone, the florescent gas station light across the street that never went off, the sounds and smells of rush-hour traffic clogging up the intersection at Skinker and Delmar, the sound of coffee beans grinding at Meshuggah's coffee shop, the excitement I felt browsing used CDs in Vintage Vinyl record store, the taste of apple-cinnamon pop-tarts - specially delivered to our room because they were vegan, the vision of 6-feet-200-pound Lavon sleeping on his desk immediately upon arrival every day, Tremaine covering up some mischief in his devious smile with beaming braces, sweet Josh's poor acne covered nose (he was my favorite), Ms. Kim standing in the doorway beckoning a student in her ever-so-Delores-Umbridge sort of way, tossing frisbees at shattering-against-the-wall speed after school with Coach in the gym, seeing The Passion of the Christ in the theater and quickly regretting that choice, discovering the Vietnamese market sold "mock-duck" and making my version of tuna-fish out of it, being sonically-floored by Modern Life is War at the Lemp Arts Space, napping after work and waking up at midnight to realize I just had to go back to sleep, running through the adult playground they call the City Museum, staring up at the great Arch in downtown, and I could go on...and on. These moments are so clear in my mind.

One of the major focuses of the program at the school was good decision making; trying to get the kids to think about what they were doing as they were doing it and convincing them to choose a better behavior. It sounds like TV crime shows, but we'd often say "you don't have to do this," unfortunately, most of the time it was too late. The behavioral pattern was already in play and they'd already determined there was no turning back. I was 23 and felt out of step with the world, and most days, at least at work, I felt the shiver of survival in some way or another. My stint in St. Louis was a minuscule blip on my life's radar, but it was such a vital time.

I often wonder within moments if they'll be something I remember in years to come? Will they be as visceral as 2003? Will they turn out to be Kairos? And then I immediately scold myself for not allowing myself to be in that moment. The phrase itself, "the times of our lives," just sounds whimsical and makes me want to drift into memory-dreamscapes where all the light and fluffy things jump out and hug me. But without adversity perhaps those things wouldn't be as memorable. As I canvas the time and space of the "times of my life," luckily, for the most part, feelings of gratitude outweigh my sense of hardship. From the time Dad explained it to me I always felt Kairos celebrated the positive things in life, that must've been his natural take of it, thankfully, it rings true for me too.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Memories begetting memories.

Yesterday at work, zoning out while stocking frozen foods, as the satellite radio was pumping out Bon Jovi's "Bad Medicine" I started to wonder whether my coworker, who's in charge of ordering the frozen foods, had intentionally decided to start flipping the fish over to show the bottom-side label? Either he decided it was a good idea and is trying to enforce his preference, or it was just a naturally occurring thing that he conceded to because controlling what 80 other people do when they stock your section is a lesson in futility. The latter seemed more reasonable, having been the head-honcho in frozen prior, I knew this lesson well.

Either way, this pondering and my skepticism inspired Public Enemy's hit "Can't Truss' It!" to jump into my head.  My friend Scott and I used this song along with Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" in a mock radio show we had to put together in Music class in 7th grade. Imagining that music classroom I was immediately reminded of walking into it having just spilled chocolate milk on the crotch area of my white sweatpants at lunch time. I guess in 1991 it was okay to wear white sweatpants to school? Of course I remembered my embarrassment walking into that classroom, but could not remember exactly how the milk fiasco went down. In fact, I couldn't remember the cafeteria, where it took place, at all. I created a mental map of the school's hallways but couldn't remember the goddamn cafeteria, until suddenly, I had a vision of being punched in the arm just outside of the cafeteria!

As I remembered this I actually said "ha!" aloud, which turned several eyes in my direction. Middle school boys seemed to be absolutely enthralled by punching each other in the arms. I saw bouts where boys would just go back and forth trying to see how much they could take - a show of strength, tolerance, or something...something I lacked. I don't know if it was my elongated, gangly muscles, a simple lack thereof, or what, but every time someone hit me in the arm they'd hit the sweet spot that made me just want to cry. Candice sometimes hits me for fun and her knuckles (which I like to call "knife-knuckles," really, you have to see them) are like heat-seeking missiles to the crying spot. This made me think of a high-school buddy who reveled in the game Bloody-Knuckles. Easily the stupidest game I've ever been coaxed into playing. He was the best, two hits from him and most people were done, I think one made me call it quits. He and I are no longer friends. That bums me out.

Not a day passes where I don't wonder "why on earth did that pop into my mind?" Sometimes it makes perfect sense, like the above, a streamlined flow of one thought leading to memories begetting memories. Most times I have no clue.

I've thought about keeping a notebook on hand to write down the memories that come to me during the day, but then I don't. And then I wonder if writing them down would ruin the natural flow of the memories that would come, almost like manipulating my thoughts to conjure memories...but then, what if even thinking about this thought process changes things. And yet again, futility sets in.

I fear that these memories, the good, bad, random, ugly, will someday be lost. My father has a line that I'm pretty sure developed once my sister and I were out of the house, he says: "I'd forgotten that." We recount stories...and he inevitably says "I'd forgotten that," which is a bummer, especially when it seems like something I could never forget. It makes me wonder what memories are randomly shooting into his head. I think about asking him if he'll write down memories he has of his childhood, or his 20s, or the few years of marriage before my sister and I came along, or my toddler years, but then I don't. And that naturally leads me to think I should be documenting my time here too, especially while Franny is so young, so I can avoid saying "I'd forgotten that" in the future, but then I don't.

With a family history of dementia looming in the back of my mind, I wonder what I'll have to deal with as my parents progress into true senior-citizenship. What if they lose who they are? What if that's in my future too? I suppose for now it's best to keep asking these questions.