Thursday, November 12, 2015


            Twenty years ago this fall I started my first year of college. In the dorm room next to mine there lived another freshman, let’s call him Rick. Rick was a pugnacious kind of guy, short and muscular, a wrestler in high school. He could be charming when he wanted to, but he also had a tendency to cross into the territory of the obnoxious windbag. He wasn’t really sure what he was doing in college – I think he was planning to major in business - and I always imagined him eventually washing out and winding up selling cars or vacuum cleaners or insurance.
            What I remember most clearly about Rick is that he loved to talk politics. He was the first real, hardline conservative I ever met, an acolyte of Rush Limbaugh when Rush’s act was still confined to AM radio. Rick would poke and prod at almost anyone in an attempt to get them into a political discussion then overwhelm with a bull rush of numbers, policy positions, and odes to the greatness of Ronald Reagan. If you weren’t prepared for it, he could leave you speechless. He’d answer every half-hearted objection to the free market’s distortion of everyday life or uneasy defense of the role government in giving people a chance to succeed with a torrent of sneering counters that came so quickly it was hard to single out any one crack to push back against. He knew the contour of the ideological positions on both sides and dared you to match yours against his.
            The thing was, however, I never felt like Rick actually cared that much about the ideas themselves. Where I was inclined to take a position and chew on it some, tweaking the possibilities, looking for ways to make one group’s ideas work toward the goals of another, Rick wasn’t looking to actually solve a problem. He was looking for the confrontation that could be created by the problem. What Rick really wanted was the fight. He wanted to draw you in, punch you down, and walk away smirking. He wanted the power that came with winning. He liked politics for the sport of it and taking up a position on the angry right allowed him to come out firing at just about anyone.
            When I see Donald Trump on the campaign trail, I can’t help but think about Rick’s approach to politics. Trump is showman, not a politician. His ideas about tax policy, immigration, social issues, and various other topics often lack any cohesive logic, are impossible to implement, or are just plain incoherent. He doesn’t have any allegiance to the broader goals of the Republican Party nor does he have a fine-tuned vision for what the future of America should look like. (I think a Trump presidency would ultimately be a giant money grab for those who have the right connections. He would actually make worse the very thing people are looking for him to change.)
            What he does have is a fighting attitude. His appeal to voters is mostly based on the idea that as a rich guy he isn’t owned by anyone but himself and that gives him the freedom to say what he really thinks. To prove this, he plays a sensationalist game. He’s aggressive, mean, and rude. He’s a classic bully stomping around the playground calling other kids names, making fun of their clothes, and stealing their balls from them. He picks fights because he knows the other candidates are not prepared to face his aggressiveness. He can overwhelm them without having to know anything more than his chosen lines. It’s Rick’s playbook writ large.
            And because of that, I can’t decide whether Rick would love Trump or hate him. Trump is essentially playing Rick’s game on a national scale. As a candidate Trump is the rhetorical spawn of Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the like - conservative personalities who have built up identities where attitude is much more important than thoughtfulness. Their political strategies are based on taking the frustrations many people feel in their daily lives and giving those people targets - liberals, women, gays, immigrants - for expressing that anger. They seek to create an emotional blowtorch and keep feeding it with whatever they think will generate more heat. It’s what drew Rick into political discussions in the first place.
            But I wonder if Rick’s own sense of righteousness doesn’t go kick in when he actually listens to what Trump says. It’s so far off from the lines Rick used to spout that I wonder if Rick feels a disjuncture. Trump’s tone sounds right, but the policies Trump proposes don’t. Does this bother Rick? Does it prick his instinct to chomp down on anything that doesn’t align perfectly with his own? I don’t know. The answer to that question, I think, will go a long way to determining how far Trump will go in his presidential campaign.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Singing in the Choir

            Pip likes to sing. Within two weeks of entering kindergarten, he was performing “This Land is My Land” every chance he got. When the big winter show came along, he put the songs on a loop in his head and constantly brought verses to the dinner table. In the springtime, Eva cobbled together a soundtrack of the 1980’s pop songs in that year’s end of the year show and we belted out “I Just Called to Say ’I Love You’” and “Beat It” whenever we went anywhere in the car.
Interestingly to me, this attraction to singing wasn’t something he talked about in specific terms. He didn’t consciously identify himself as being good at singing and didn’t look to show it off as something he knew a lot about. He just enjoyed doing it and gravitated towards doing more when opportunities arose. He tried out for solo parts when he could and when he didn’t get them, he didn’t go on to something else. He kept coming back and trying again. Last spring, when the school did an arts evening and invited kids who were interested to perform a short piece of music, Pip signed up. He sang God Bless America and did so with a sweet joy that made me smile.
            Back at the end of September a note came home from Pip’s music teacher at school. She and her husband are the conductors for the music program at one of the churches in town, and the note invited Pip to audition for the boys’ choir if he was interested. We like the music teacher – she is one of those people who manages to be serious without being mean – and were willing to let Pip check things out. A strong musical education isn’t one of the priorities we had for our children, but we liked the idea of Pip working in a situation where excellence was expected and performances were taken seriously. For his part, he was very interested in seeing what it was all about though it was hard to separate the privilege of being invited from a true interest in the choir itself.
             So a week ago he went to a trial practice. It was a full one, starting at 4:30 and running past 7:00 with a short break for dinner in between. It was a full exposure to the grind of a choir practice and when I picked him up, he was ecstatic. He talked about the numbering system for following the music and the psalm the choir was working on for that Sunday. Then we took him back on Friday for another practice, and he came out happy once again. There was this whole new world of symbols and structures for him to absorb. He spent the weekend asking what a perfect fourth meant and what were the differences between major and minor scales. He was ready to keep going back as much as he could.

            I’m glad he’s excited. Performing music is one of humanity’s more life-affirming acts. It requires concentration, finely detailed workmanship, and persistence in the face of failure. It can bring one a special awareness of the world’s myriad contours and emotional striations. Plus, it’s expressive, energetic, and fun to turn one’s body into an instrument of beautiful sound.
            With all that said, I’m not yet completely onboard with Pip doing choir. For one thing, we’re suddenly trying to insert a three-to-four-time-a-week activity into an established schedule of eating, sleeping, doing homework, and playing that has been working quite well for us. Meals are getting out of whack. Schoolwork and play expectations are not properly aligned. We are ferrying him back and forth a lot while trying to figure out what to do during the time in between. While there is nothing extraordinary about all of this in the grand scheme of things, I just wasn’t ready for it yet. I’d had the idea that we’d gradually ease into a busier schedule as Pip moved into middle school, and I don’t like having that timeline blown to smithereens.
            But, more importantly, there is a growing up moment here for Pip that makes me irredeemably and irrevocably sad. For almost nine years, Pip has been a constant presence in my life. We did little situps together when he was an infant. We watched construction equipment demolish and rebuild a school when he was two. I wrote a large chunk of my dissertation with him sleeping in my lap. I mowed the yard with him on my back. I taught him to read. I taught him to ride a bike. When Polly was a baby we entertained her together with stories and stuffed animals and silly games. All three of us went on runs together, me pushing a double stroller while Pip and Polly pointed out wildlife along the way.
After kindergarten started, our time together was reduced, but we still have time to run around outside, play ball-tag and hide-and-seek. Pip kicks balls around as I rake the leaves or the two of them will play with the hose while I wash the car. The shouts, giggles, thumps, and whirls of Pip and Polly’s play is the soundtrack of my working life.
Now suddenly I’m losing another large chunk of the time we have left together. On Wednesday and Fridays now it’s come in from school, have a snack, do some homework and then go back out the door. When Pip gets back he eats dinner and goes to bed. Sunday mornings will be much the same.
            And what makes me even sadder is that he’s doing it without me. One of the things I loved about having him do soccer is that I could be there with him, coaching and playing. My favorite moments from soccer were always the ones where we had a few minutes together to kick the ball or shoot before everyone else arrived or after everyone else left. Choir doesn’t allow me to do that. I have to drop him off and pick him up. I have to watch from out in the audience and let someone else have the joy of helping him learn. I don’t like it. He’s my kid. Ava and I worked hard to get him to be the kind of person we want to spend time with and now that time is getting siphoned off by other people. It’s the way life works, but it still sucks.

            Now, I know that just as with school, we’ll get used to the new patterns and find new joys within what Pip learns and does. (In fact, it’s happening already. On Saturday morning while Polly went to gymnastics, Pip sat down at the piano and played for fun. Then we played some short duets together. He was focused on the rhythms and cognizant of the various markings in the music in a way he had not been a week before. It was a really wonderful hour.) But for all the good things about school – and there are lots of them – I’m still tempted from time to time to pull both kids out and teach them at home. At this point it isn’t even about the speed or efficiency with which they could learn. I’d do it to grab as much working time with them as I can. I like this time in our lives together, and I can see it slipping away. Choir practice is only a symptom of a much larger pathology.