Sunday, August 24, 2014

Last weekend I drove 34 miles to the Laemmle Theater in Pasadena because that was the closest theater showing the documentary Alive Inside. I'd heard about the film on NPR, and I knew from the clips and blurbs I saw and read online that I would love it. I did.

Here's the basic premise of the film: Provide era-specific music to dementia patients, then sit back and enjoy the miraculous result.

More specifically: Social worker Dan Cohen (upon whom I now have a pretty serious fan-girl crush), in doing volunteer work with the elderly and Alzheimer's patients, wanted to find a way to connect with those who seemed lost inside themselves. He recognized music as a powerful, evocative force which is universal in its appeal. So he filled up some iPods with music from specific decades, purchased a few sets of headphones, then invited a filmmaker to come along and document his attempt to reacquaint patients with the music of their childhood.

To say the resulting footage is profoundly moving would be an understatement. I knew this film would make me cry; the soundtrack of my own life includes all the pieces I have sung in church, in weddings, in funerals, at sporting events, in the shower, on horseback, on my bike, on a mountaintop, in my classroom and a thousand other places. My mama was a singer as was my sister, and my last good memories of my father before he died center around him singing—even as his life ebbed slowly away. But oh my lord, I first began to tear up just seconds into the movie. One minute past that, tears were streaming down my cheeks. Click here to see the story of Henry.

Dan Cohen's foundation, Music & Memory, is dedicated to bringing music to individuals with Alzheimer's and other dementias. What Cohen and others have found is that music stimulates memory in a positive and healthy way, and that it is far more effectual than medications and other traditional therapies for reaching dementia patients who have previously been unresponsive to treatment. Cohen devotes his time and energy to raising funds through Music & Memory in order to offer iPods and headphones to nursing homes across the country.

Alive Inside is an intensely personal film which depicts human kindness and tenderness in its most raw and authentic form. I came away changed, determined to spend a bit more time with my guitar—and also determined to try to help Cohen's vision reach fruition.

Find this movie and go watch it—even if it means a bit of a drive to get there. Then go hug your grandma (if she's still around). Then go to Music & Memory and make a donation. Then—and only then—sit down with your family and sing a few of your favorite songs. Because you still can.

Here's a link to a beautifully done trailer for the film. It's two minutes long but you may need multiple tissues to get through it:  Alive Inside trailer

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Letter to Myself as a First Year Teacher

There is a video online of teachers reading letters they've written to themselves as first year teachers. I found their words touching, amusing, inspirational and powerful. So I decided to try to write my own. It has taken me all summer long to finish, but here it is:

Dear thirty-five-year-old Kay,
On this first day, you're thinking you might be too old to begin teaching. I'm looking at you from this vantage point of sixty, and I'm laughing.
I also see that you are proud and thrilled to be teaching in this brand new classroom with white boards which you are thinking are so cool and high tech, but girl, just wait. Somebody out there is working on this thing called a Smart Board. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
You should know that your carefully crafted yet coded lecture on this first day of school about not allowing "hate speech" in your classroom will become far more bold as time goes on and far less necessary. The time will come—yes, within your lifetime—when your LGBT students will be safely out and no longer in need of your protection.
You do not know this yet, but the kids who are about to swagger through the door, looking at you sideways and pretending disinterest, are actually watching every move you make, hearing every word you utter and weighing it, making judgments from the first seconds in your room as to whether you are trustworthy and kind or someone to be feared. Yes, they will seem puffed up, but they are really just frightened little bear cubs, standing on their hind legs, trying to appear large and intimidating. Inside they fear being called out and embarrassed by you or their classmates. Your first duty always is to help them feel safe. But don't be afraid to look them in the eye; for good or for bad, there is power in every word you say to them.
This year, you will make friends with the school librarian who will later be the best teacher-bud you will ever have. Hold onto this friendship as if it were the holy grail. Donna will keep you sane through all the craziness, anger, laughter and tears that is heading your way like a speeding locomotive.
At the end of the school year, take a picture of each class and keep those photos in an album in your room. You'll want to pull them out and reminisce over them when your former students stop by. And they will stop by.
Warning: Next year you'll have a student named Tabitha J. You will ask Miss J. no less than fifty times in 180 days to "Please step outside" so you can reiterate a lecture you're sick of giving and she's sick of hearing about how to behave appropriately in a classroom. She will be the bane of your work time existence for the entire year. Just wait. Eight years later, on a quiet afternoon, the phone will ring in your classroom, and it will be Miss J., calling to let you know she is now a college student working toward the goal of being a teacher "just like you" and to thank you for never giving up on her, thus beginning a legacy of naughty kids who will return, year after year, to thank you for caring about them as individuals despite their dismal grades in your class.
Your experience with Miss J. will also introduce you to one of the few aspects of your job you genuinely dislike, which is dealing with self-absorbed, unreasonable, ignorant parents. You should know now that throughout the whole of your career, you will be cussed out and threatened far more by parents than you will be by kids. When that happens, just let it go. Head for the gym or go for a run or walk the dogs, and as the sun goes down, let the conversation disappear into the wind.
Oh, and that advice your university professor gave you about never hugging the kids? Throw that out the window. When they need a hug, hug them. But be prepared; they will break your heart with stories of family tragedy. There will be a boy whose father shot his mother and then shot himself—in front of the boy. Don't worry about teaching him anything. Just love him. Seven years later you will hear your name called in a parking lot and there he will be, this boy who battled all the demons a boy can face in high school, smiling and hugging you and telling you that he is in his third year of college now, looking forward to finishing his degree.
So don't worry. Your heart will be broken often and just as often it will be mended by the daily laughter and love that will fill your classroom from top to bottom, more so with every year that you teach. Because with every year, you will love them more. In fact, there will come a day—September 11, 2001, to be precise—when you will begin to tell all your students every day that you love them.
Be ready to learn. Because yes, going into this gig, you've already raised four kids of your own, and you've got heaps of fancy book smarts. But your students will teach you volumes every year in every subject from fairness to fashion, including which music you "should" listen to. And they'll be right.
Despite your best efforts, you're going to make mistakes, just as you did with your own kids. When you do, forgive yourself quickly. Self-evaluation is great. Self-criticism is toxic. Be a role model; apologize when necessary, then move on.
Don't forget what your mentor, Dr. Hubert, told you about teaching: Learn to pat yourself on the back, because administration will have no idea what a great job you're doing in your classroom. But don't worry; the kids know, and they will always make you feel appreciated.
Most important of all, never get swept up in the current tide of educational trend. Rather be guided in your teaching by the beacon of warmest light, which is the love in your heart.
Oh—remember what you're mama said, too: Stand up straight. And lose those girlie shoes with heels; you'll be walking miles every day just around your own classroom.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Fisher King

In 1991, I was one year into a separation from the man I used to introduce as "the most wonderful man in the world," working slowly toward an amicable but irreparably wounding divorce. I've rarely felt so alone in the world.

Somehow I saw a trailer for a movie with Robin Williams called The Fisher King. Williams had won my heart years before with his brilliant stand-up routines and as the goofhead alien in Mork & Mindy, then in his more dramatic roles in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and Awakenings. Especially in the latter film, it was possible to see a depth of pain in Williams that was well-masked by his comedy, and that shared human condition resonated with my soul.

The premise of The Fisher King is this: The sanity of Williams' character, "Parry," has become unmoored after the senseless shooting of his beloved wife by a madman. Once "normal," he now lives in a homeless encampment, struggling daily against the dark force that threatens constantly to overtake him while simultaneously he extends charity, warmth and kindness to others.

I don't know how I found time and opportunity to sneak off to sit in a theater alone and watch The Fisher King. I only remember coming away from it changed. Not healed, exactly, certainly not led from the darkness of the time into a lighter place, but having been handed a sword with which to do battle. In the film, Parry's madness is made manifest in the form of a fierce and fiery figure on horseback which appears whenever something triggers a memory of his wife. Each time, his fear overwhelms him—until he finally discovers what he needs to confront the ominous form.

Wandering, lost, through this very dark time, I had lost all my power, had allowed the heart wound to bring me to my knees. Watching this film and the powerful performances of both Robin Williams and Michael Jeter, I began to find my legs again.

The screenplay, written by Richard LaGravenese, reiterates the theme that there is a very, very fine line—a gossamer thread—between sanity and madness, one step from sunlight to shadow. In watching the film, I heard a voice calling, saw a light shining—albeit far off—which led me back toward the light. Twenty-three years later, I still stand, sword drawn in readiness to ward off the darkness that I know could come for me at any time.

Tragically, we have lost Robin Williams to that same shadow, that dark sadness which menaces anyone with a tender, open heart. Like his character in The Fisher King, he spent his life reaching out to others, even as his own demons taunted him. May he step now into eternal light and peace, and may we always remember his gift.

To watch a short clip of the movie which includes both Robin Williams and Michael Jeter, click here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Treasure hunt

It's trash day. I am awakened at 4:00a.m. by the piercing screech of metal grinding on metal. I don't need to look out the window. I know that the sound emanates from the rickety metal cart used by the wizened old man who roams the cul-de-sacs of my neighborhood every Monday night, gleaning treasure from the trash of others. Black trash bags, stuffed to capacity, hang off the sides of his cart like tumors on a skinny dog.

I rise, let my own well-fed dog out into the backyard, feed the cats, then wander out front to turn on the sprinkler. By now the little man, who does not quite reach five feet in stature, has made it around the cul-de-sac, and I wave to him as he crab walks past, dragging the heavy cart behind him. I never put my trash cans out at the curb until he is gone. It's not that I begrudge him my recyclables. I have witnessed him on many occasions tear open the kitchen trash bags in my neighbors' garbage cans, sifting through god-knows-what in search of an aluminum can, a plastic bottle, any small thing with re-sale value. I am not willing to share that level of intimacy with him.

And anyway, I save my plastic one-liter Evian bottles separately. (Yes, I spend the money for Evian. No, it doesn't taste the same as filtered tap water and no, water is not water. Ask a hydro-geologist. Don't get me started.) When I moved in a year and a half ago, Grumpy Bob next door asked me to save my plastic bottles for him after I caught him rifling through my trash cans. I told him I certainly would. And I have.

But this morning, I give them away. There is another scavenger who comes through the neighborhood on trash day. This one is a woman, as small and wrinkled as the old man. I want to say that she is old but when I see her up close, I realize we are probably about the same age. I am a vibrant, athletic sixty-year-old who will later walk her pampered dog around these cul-de-sacs at a brisk pace. Although the physical maladies are starting to pile up, I am confident that I will live another twenty or thirty years quite comfortably, thanks to the good health care provided by my good job which I obtained with my good education.

I wonder at the longevity of this woman, though, as I see her, like the little old man, tear open trash bags with her bare hands, scrounging through toxic waste to eke out a living. Some would find her labor disgusting. I find it humbling.

As I note the full apron she wears which covers the front of her shirt and her pants down to the knees, its floral pattern edged with old fashioned rick-rack, I am reminded of my grandmother whose first job upon coming to Los Angeles was as a dishwasher in a bar. Holding my Trader Joe's stamped paper bag filled with empty plastic bottles, I shuffle quickly across the street in the gray dawn light. I tell her good morning, offering the bag and asking, "Are you looking for bottles?" though I well know the answer.

"Sì," she says in Spanish, taking the bag. "Thank you!" in English, and her entire face glows with the brightness of her straight, white teeth. Her voice is warm with gratitude, and it resonates with me as I walk back across the street to enjoy another cup of tea before heading out to walk the dog.