Musical Monday vol. 10: two days early! with content! (Lullabye)

I had a marvelous birthday on Friday! Me and Dave went downtown and got, respectively, a library card and a current state ID. Then, in the evening, Mom and sisters came in from the suburbs, bearing good cheer and birthday cards. Also Dave and sisters and I were treated with a ride to and tickets for--courtesy of Mom--the Babes With Blades production of Macbeth, which kicked all kinds of behind. (And front, too, in some of the excellent fight scenes.)

For all that, the thing I'm most excited about from my birthday is the following song. I may have gotten the energy and verve to compose it from my good birthday excitement, but its direct inspiration comes from a much more quotable source. Namely, The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross, a book about 20th century classical music:

"Maurice Ravel nearly died around the same time. The tiny-framed composer should have been barred from military service, but, enraged by the bombing of Reims, he enlisted as a truck driver. By the spring of 1916 Ravel was deployed just behind the front lines and witnessed the ghastly aftermath of the Battle of Verdun. He often had to weave back and forth on pockmarked roads as shells fell all around him. Once he found himself in an abandoned town on a sunny day, walking through the empty, silent streets. 'I don't believe I will ever experience a more profound or stranger emotion than this sort of mute terror,' he wrote. Another time he entered an abandoned château, found a fine Erard piano, and sat down to play some Chopin." ~ p. 102

I resolved to write a poem about it, copied it down in my notebook, even read the passage aloud to everyone in the car on the way back from the play. They agreed it was a very poetic image. But instead, it came out as a song! This is the first thing I've ever written in 6/8 time and I'm pretty excited about it, for that and a number of other reasons. (Little note: the accent on "double" is on the first syllable, and also on the first syllable in "piano." This is to preserve the triplet, and the lines kinda sound weird if you put them in the normal spot. But trust me, it sounds good when sung. Oh, and "generals" is pronounced "gen'rals" so it's only two syllables. Gack, I know, it's cheating. XD So sue me.)

Enough intro. Here's the lyrics! :)

[Ravel at the war (Lullabye)] 5/29/09

the road is staccato and rubble
it rains flame and trouble
bent double I struggle to steer
even far from the front lines
my feet beat double time
down hot empty streets where there's no one to hear

but I'll play you
a lullabye, lullabye, lullabye
your streets can't weep
but my instrument, instrument, instrument
knows how to cry

the prophets of frenzy
have bombed this town empty
soon generals will send me to where they've moved on
this abandoned château
with its lone piano
wakes something in my soul I was certain was gone

so I'll play you
a lullabye, lullabye, lullabye
they betrayed you
but I brought you some music
I don't think it knows how to lie

these notes seem so small and pathetic
when tyrranous rhetoric's
backed up by poison and shells
may the fallen sleep sweet
may we always defeat
those who'd burn down the world when it's too soon to tell

don't call it weak
a lullabye, lullabye, lullabye
the dead can't speak
but my instrument can
and while it's in my hands, so can I
so can I
so can I

A response to Pleiotropy re: homeschooling

This post started out as a comment on Pleiotropy's recent blogpost, The homeschooling trap. However, Blogger apparently doesn't like comments that run longer than 4,096 characters (I think that was the number), so I'm posting it here. Head over to Pleiotropy and read his post if you want some background!

His post is primarily about homeschooling, but one of the main underlying issues is teaching kids creation vs. evolution. I don't feel, myself, that that really ought to be the main issue (information content and quality are two different matters, as I'll get into later in the post) but it's the one where debaters on all sides have the strongest opinions.

I invite comments and discussion! But because this is an issue where people have very strong feelings, and because I (hope I still) have readers who practice what they preach on both of them, there might actually be a discussion. We are all here on the blogosphere because we are intelligent people who a) know how to read and write, and b) like doing both of those things for the fun of them. It is my hope that any discussion that happens here will be fun for everyone involved! If I have unfairly characterized or insulted anybody, please let me know, as this was not my intent.


For me the biggest struggle moving from homeschool to school away from home wasn't even the socialization factor. It was the routine. Since my mom was teaching just me, my older sister and my younger sister, that meant that whatever I was learning, I was the only one learning it. And I would study it as long as I needed to do so. Which meant in my case whipping through the reading, vocabulary and history parts and dragging painfully through the math and science parts.

The thing is, my mom did a damn good job of teaching me. Leaving aside for the moment the God-shaped orientation of the curriculum itself, she is a smart lady who taught me how to read and write and spell and do math. And my dad was a smart man who, though he wasn't our primary, everyday educator, encouraged all his daughters to think critically and ask questions and to love the encyclopedia (in the pre-Google era) and the dictionary. My parents read to us. They talked about stuff with us and liked it when we asked questions. Us getting a good education was really important to them.

So for me, for the most part, homeschooling meant I got lots of one-on-one, personal tutoring from my mom. And got used to being able to learn as quickly as I wanted if a subject came easily to me, or stay on a unit or do extra work if I had trouble "getting it". The structured pace of school away from home, having to sit still in a desk instead of doing my homework in my room or on the back porch, not being able to provide 50% of the conversation for every lesson, was even more excruciating than trying to socialize with my peers.

I went to Sunday School. I played with kids on my block. Our homeschooling families group went on field trips together. It isn't like I was totally isolated in a nuclear family bubble with zero outside contact. The transition wasn't from non-socialization to full socialization. It was from one kind of daily routine to another kind of daily routine.

So what if I had to re-learn all that history and science without the pro-Christian bias when I went to high school (or, if you prefer, re-learn it all with the anti-Christian bias)? The material itself was never the problem for me, only the social consequences. I said evolution wasn't true once in freshman biology, because it was what everyone my whole life had always told me. (Except Dad, who secretly believed in evolution, but had stayed pretty vague on the subject when I was younger.) And the result was comparable than the time I said "Who's Kurt Cobain?" Except this time the teacher was exasperated with me, and not just my fellow students.

Cultural indoctrination occurs on many simultaneous levels. Expected common knowledge is only the most superficial of these. Behaviors, values, emotional display levels, taboos, and subtle group-hierarchy signaling methods are much more difficult to learn. All cultures indoctrinate: this is how culture functions. Members of a group learn to share common habits, norms, and social signals so that they may interact with one another with a maximum of understanding and a minimum of stress. This is why transitioning between two different cultures causes "culture shock"--a myrad of things one learned to take for granted must be re-learned and placed in a new context.

Going from a private, Christian school to a public, secular high school is a massive dose of culture shock. Going from being homeschooled to attending a school away from home is a massive disruption of habit and procedure. I do think that having to deal with both of these stressors at once would be terrifying for any young person. If I have a problem with homeschooling, that's it. However, going to high school is inherently terrifying, and I think that many young people probably could deal with the extra changes, given the right emotional support etc. I think it would be very possible for a parent or parents to help cushion the shock for their kids, provided they are in a position to do so.

But I think it is oversimplifying the matter to urge parents not to homeschool because it indoctrinates their children into a culture and belief set in which the parents themselves are heavily invested. THAT IS WHY THEY DO IT. They believe that indoctrination as such is not wrong, so long as it is done in service of what they earnestly believe to be the truth. And as I mentioned earlier, when one is a member of a culture, so a certain extent indoctrination must occur! You believe (and, having deconverted and given the evidence another look, I also believe) that evolution is the way things happened. They don't. They believe evolution is a dangerous lie that makes people more likely to be amoral and unhappy. They don't want their kids to be amoral and unhappy. They are willing to do whatever it takes to protect them from this fate.

And it is not, primarily, access to the information itself that poses a problem, as they see it. It is the attitude towards that information, learned in a cultural context. When a person has an attitude, an opinion, a belief, about an important subject, the attitude they possess is a primary signifier of the group to which they belong.

Saying that homeschoolers are likely to be more ignorant presumes that the parents doing the homeschooling are generally unfit to teach. Some aren't fit to teach--but many are, especially the types of basic information that gradeschoolers need to learn. "Ignorant" in the sense of not having been given access to science texts with evolution in them, I will grant you. In the very narrow sense of not having been provided with otherwise generally available information on a particular subject.

But this ignorance is easy enough to overcome later in life so long as the person is able to read, learn, hear, and speak. Triply so if they have any love of learning. Human beings, however they are raised, have an insatiable curiosity, especially when it comes to forbidden things. And those of us raised inside the evangelical bubble all know perfectly well that vast troves of information were being kept from us "for our own good." To a young person this is fascinating, frustrating and in short, a dare.

(This post is getting the Tuesdays tag because, like other Tuesdays posts, it deals with issues of social structure. The irony of the fact that today is Friday is not lost on me!)

True Story Thursday vol. 7: navigation fail; then, navigation success!

Last Tuesday I attempted to attend an open mic here in the city. The previous week I hadn't gone, due to having a terrible cold. Dave was still extremely sick last week, so I went alone. I thought I remembered the route well enough: take the train thus far, then take the bus to the appropriate street. What I didn't realize was that two completely different buses pull in at that train station, one heading north-south, the other heading east-west. Last Tuesday, I took the wrong one. I rode for several miles, guitar wedged awkwardly between my knees, hopeful but nervous. Increasingly more nervous, as street after street went by and the neighborhoods become less and less recognizable.

When I finally realized I was going the wrong way, I took the same bus back in the opposite direction, thinking that had been the problem. But looking out again at block after block of unfamiliar buildings, I knew somehow I was still going the wrong way. By this time it was about an hour after the event was supposed to have begun, and I gave up. Got off the bus, walked into a local Burger King and got myself some food.

I was so angry with myself I could barely have spoken, if there'd been anyone around to talk to. So I sat at a table in the Burger King and started to write in my Anatomy of Trust notebook, which in a pinch doubles as a "random thoughts" journal if I'm stranded without other sources of blank paper. Part of what I wrote was:

I chose to get fixed on trust and personality because I believe, believe now and believed then, that those were the avenues by which the things I feared arrived at me. [...] I could understand the people well enough to get by. But I knew I'd never be free from the things I feared until I understood the relationships.
And still self-sabotaging after all these years.
What does it mean when I get myself lost?
Only when I'm on the way to do something I really want and which will be really good for me. Only then.
Here I sit in a damn Burger King, miles from the pub, because it seemed my visual memories of having made a bus & train trek there once before were sufficient.
Relationships that scare me?
How about my relationship with me?

Getting around in Chicago is, in fact, a pretty straightforward endeavor. The whole city is laid out on a grid with the occasional diagonal street for ease of navigation. Madison is zero north and south, State is zero east and west, and address numbers increase in every direction as one travels away from those axes. Every major intersection is labeled with the address of each street, and every minor intersection with the names of both streets. The only way you can get lost is by forgetting where you're going, or by not knowing where you are--whether you're north or south, east or west.

The interior of the mind is a little more fluid, though. Any understanding we have of ourselves is framed in the form of a story, a story arc. "First this happened to me; I became like this because of it" or "I did this in that situation, and discovered that this was a part of me." Ursula LeGuin once wrote that the fantasy story reflects the journey into the self; the language of fantasy is the symbolic language understood by the unconscious. There is no grid. There are no streets with numbers, no buses that declare which direction they're going and their ultimate destinations in a soothing recorded voice every time they pull up to a stop. Just a story, with as much exposition and character development as you're able to pack into the limitations of the frame.

After my experience of navigation fail I was pretty upset. I cried on Dave's shoulder a bit when I got home. He hugged me, made me tea, and told me not to be so hard on myself. It was still tough for me to calm down. The navigation fail itself wasn't so bad; all I lost was a few hours of my time, time which could have been much better spent, and the cost of some bus fare. What scared me was the self-sabotage. I've worked hard to break that habit, to re-train all the parts of myself that depended on it. Clearly that work is not finished. But it was frustrating and infuriating to me, because I do feel like I've made a lot of progress. I even have lots of nifty aphorisms and catchphrases to encourage myself when confronted with an unpleasant personality-construction problem. There's that wise saying by the late Douglas Adams, "The more something is designed never to break, the more difficult it is to get at when you need to repair it." Or my personal favorite of the catchphrases I've come up with: "If you feel stupid, it means you just got smarter." That one's my motto.

But what I'm trying to do, in seeking out local open mics, finding opportunities to play my songs in front of new people, is something new for me. The goal is to get out of my existing comfort zone and into the larger world. One small step in a very positive direction. Whatever fearful, pessimistic parts of me are tied into those old bad habits, perceived that this act is the thin edge of a wedge. There's creative work kept secret, and then there's creative work brought to the attention of others. Once I gain the confidence to step out in front of an audience, to make a small little place for myself in my local musical community, who knows where it might end? It's a categorical shift, from singing in my apartment to singing in a local bar. So once the shift is made, once I'm comfortable in front of a small, casual, local audience, whatever hard work and effort is required to get a bigger audience is only a matter of degree. At least, that's the way I perceive it--so by the same measure, that's the way my unconscious fears perceive it.

I had a dream last week that I think bears on this subject. I was standing around on a sidewalk in a dingy neighborhood, part of a group of local people. Some of us smoked cigarettes, others spoke of inconsequential things in low tones. But we were all weighed down by fear: this neighborhood was ruled by some evil, authoritarian government, and anyone even suspected of opposing them would be dealt with severely. So instead of going anywhere or doing anything, we all just stood around hoping nothing bad would happen.

So, in my dream, I got mad. I started smacking myself in the forehead with the flat of my palm, the way you do when you realize you've done something incredibly stupid. The thought wasn't one I "thought out loud" to the point of putting it into words, but I felt as though I was in the wrong place, that this wasn't somewhere I was supposed to be.

After a goodly number of forehead smacks, the scene shifted. I was standing in an upstairs room in a large and run-down building. The walls and ceiling were black, not as though they'd been painted that way, but as though they were stained by years of accumulated soot and grime. Debris was scattered all over the floor. Now, in this part of the dream, I had telekinesis. I could move stuff around just by pointing at it and willing it to move. When I looked up at the ceiling I noticed an enormous rectangular vent shaft, like the kind that's connected to a furnace or fireplace to take out the hot air. But instead of leading outside the building, as other ventilation ducts I've seen always do, it curved around sharply. Just a few feet from the room's single, grimy window, it ended in a grille which pointed right back into the middle of the room. I poked around the inside of the ventilation duct with a little telekinetic force and realized that it was almost completely choked off. I was glad I didn't have to physically put my hand in there to clear it out. Who knows what spiky nasty bits were wedged in there along with the soot and ash? But still, it puzzled me, because even if I managed to clear out the vent shaft--an arduous task even with telekinesis!--it would still be blowing all that hot air and soot and ash right back inside the room.

Later on that week I had an appointment at my local mental health place, and found myself describing this dream to the doctor. (She's not my permanent therapist; I'm still in the intake and evaluation phase. Still, why pass up a perfectly good human sounding board?) And after I'd talked it out, it occured to me: "That's a pretty good image for what I do with my anger. Because I'm not too comfortable expressing or even feeling anger, except towards myself." It's still a problem whose solution I've yet to find.

But having a clear idea what the problem is can be helpful in finding ways to circumvent it, and get good stuff done anyway. Most psychological issues aren't things you can clear up easily or quickly. And while it's true that the mind, like the body, isn't exactly a machine, if you find out something isn't working the way it should, it's nice to know what it is so that you can avoid using it when possible. If your ankle's sprained, you try not to put your full weight on it. And if some part of your motivations are sprained, you try not to lean too hard on your own initiative in that area.

So this Tuesday I went out by myself again. But this time I was a half hour early, and armed with detailed directions. This time, I made it there.

And I had a wonderful time! There was a nice couple there, who'd also come to perform. They lent me a pair of maracas, so I got to accompany everybody who played as a miniature rhythm section. I got invited to two other open mics, and some guy gave me his phone number, saying "we should totally jam sometime." May have been not entirely musical in nature, but hey, at least I made an impression.

One of the open mics to which I was invited was on Thursday, at a small tavern on the south side. Navigation success again! And again someone came up to me and gave me their phone number. Only this time it was a lady, who talked with me for awhile about music and was very encouraging. One of the people from Tuesday night showed up, late in the evening, and I got to introduce him to a couple of the people I'd met. Even though it was my first time at that place, I was already starting to feel at home.

Best of all the guy running the Thursday night open mic came up to me as everyone was getting ready to leave, and told me he'd actually been recording the entire night. He said once he'd gotten a chance to chop up the sound file, he could email me mp3's of the songs I played. Once I get those, I will totally send them to y'all! And/or post them somewhere!

It reminds me of the kind of thing that always happens in fantasy stories.
Step one. Fall into perilous bog. Get covered in yucky mud and almost eaten by crocodile.
Step two. Find way to circumnavigate perilous bog.
Step three. Find hidden ruins which contain treasure.
Step four. Use treasure to buy things. Things you like!