Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Labor Day 2014

(fresh tomatoes in late-August)

About 10 years ago I decided that if a year was a week, August was my Sunday. I was sitting on the back stoop of my home on North Haven. The 3:45 ferry had departed, and I could hear the metallic purr of the diesel engines diminishing. The Thorofare between North Haven and Vinalhaven is the busiest spot in that sector of the Fox Islands, and in late August, the ferry removes more people from the island than the return trips disgorge. The cool and dry edges to the air evoke a sense summer waning. Light browns and golds emerge from the backlit leaves, and the air seems to be thinning. In those conditions, my school radar is on high alert.

Every teacher must have some variation of this feeling I suspect. For other adults, Sundays involve the biggest weekly edition of the newspaper. Some have Bloody Mary brunches and football afternoons. Still others go boating, hunting, hiking, skiing, surfing, gardening, while some spend hours involved with church. As an English teacher, my Sundays are filled with essay grading sessions, weekly prep and planning, and much awareness of time. If Garrison Keillor comes on Maine Public Broadcasting, that means it's noon. If I haven't started yet, that means I'll be working until 8. When the late boat pulls out, the sense that time is waning is even more powerful.

Every year, I wonder how I ended up in this position of measuring time against remaining homework. The few remaining days of August should be a time to savor the fruit of late-summer barbecues and long paddles on the river. Instead, they involve much hand-wringing over the upcoming academic year. Half read books, writing projects partially completed, stone walls un-mended, the dreams of personal endeavors are once again set aside for teacher work. In the pit of the stomach, there is something akin to a cocktail of nostalgia and anxiety. I wonder to myself, How did I get here?

Amazingly (to me), a major thread to the path of now occurred 20 years ago this past September. My then girlfriend and I were living together in Portland, OR. I had just started graduate school with the idea of becoming a certified English and Social Studies teacher. JG was adept at home renovating and all areas of gardening and art. Each in our own way, we longed for a simpler life, and we were struggling to find ways to express that longing. While I dreamed of living in towns like Port Orford, Bandon, Tillamook or Wheeler, all in Oregon, JG added Washington County Maine into the mix. Having envisioned that place myself, too, it was easy to agree to a road trip focused on Downeast Maine and JG's family land in Nova Scotia.

In the kinder, gentler rhythm of life I had come to know in the Willamette Valley, Fall classes didn't begin until September 29 or so. Trimesters, it seems, allow Portland State to actually be accurate when posting the annual schedule. (Each unit of trimester fit the season; the Fall, trimester, for example, began on the 29th of September and ended the second week of December.) We flew back well after Labor Day, visited our families in York County, Maine, borrowed a family junker and picked our way down the Maine coast toward Canada.

While years have erased the specific contour of the early part of that trip, a few places still stand out in bright relief. First, Lincolnville and Lincolnville Beach. We visited a couple we knew, there, helping them to pack and move. M had landed a job teaching in western Maine, and their coastal stint was up. Leaving them, we made sure to load up on supplies at the Belfast Co-op, and I had visions of Waldo County as Maine's hippie outpost, something which would fulfill life expectations which I had come to desire: organic food, quality coffee and beer, environmental sensibility. It's mere peripheral presence excited the senses in me which guided my life compass.

Other images which stand out come from driving through Harrington and Cherryfield, fairly isolated Washington County outposts. What struck, me, though was the low price of real estate and the vestigial elements of grand Victorian architecture. This was a place where one could be a teacher, raise a family and yet still afford to own a home. Oregon was rapidly Californicating, and a little voice inside me was saying that I had to commit or depart. Slacker indecision was not going to be treated kindly in the face of rapid gentrification. If I was going to be a broke teacher (foregone conclusion) in a rural area, it might as well be within driving distance to my East Coast family. Otherwise, I would only see them a few choice times a decade.

Somewhere near Cutler Bay in Washington County, we found a great campsite run by some by optimistic entrepreneurs. It overlooked a rough stretch of the Bold Coast, and I imaged evenings of distant surf and bell buoys and fog. I would be writing under dim light in a land of solitude that time forgot. Novels and poems would appear before my fingertips, inspired by the deep marrow of Maine experience. Family hovered somewhere on the periphery of this image, as did dew on balsam fir, crisp January snow and the smell of a freshly lit fire.

Much of this came true, and even more did not. When I ventured back to Maine, I did so (more or less) alone (it's complicated), but the landscape I had imagined was right outside my door in the Fox Islands. Cars were so rare after the late boat was put to bed in the pen that friends could identify each one without looking. "There goes Jimmy Mac." "Adam needs a muffler." "What's he doing out after eight?" What I didn't anticipate was that I would forget I had chosen this path. What I didn't anticipate was the soul crushing nature of genuine isolation as opposed to a more urban, chosen solitude. What I didn't anticipate was that work would subsume my consciousness and creative energy.

Amazingly, I have hung on in this profession. In an article published in The Atlantic back in 2013, University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll "confirmed that anywhere between 40 and 50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years (that includes the nine and a half percent that leave before the end of their first year.)" Perhaps it was due to the fact that I was devoted to this vague dream my younger self had about my older self's life. Certainly, it was the only way I could cultivate daily conversations about topics which excite me, keep my hand in literature and live in an isolated, coastal community.

Twenty years later, I still scratch my head with wonder that things have worked out as they have. Of course, there is still the perennial anxiety of returning to school as August draws to a close. There is still some vestigial dream of those quiet, foggy nights filled with creative energy that I haven't quite found yet. There is still the yearning for some beatific quietude. But those scenes in Cherryfield and Harrington which excited my imagination are less than an hour away. The light is rich and splendid on the goldenrod and backlit blades of grass. And the crickets try to hang on well into October. Breathe, the world tells me. Breathe.

Labor Day weekend 2014

Teacher Self-Doubt

(Coupe du Doubte by Victor Brauner 1946)

The first principal I ever worked under, a man I thoroughly respect, once told me that he wanted educators on his staff who doubted themselves.  Why?  Rather than being full of themselves, entertaining notions such as, I know the absolute best way to approach X or Y, or Everything I do is great, he wanted people who were in a constant state of readjustment.  I understand and value that perspective, and no one likes to be around a know-it-all, right?  These days, though, for me, a little doubt can go a long, long way.

The funny thing with something like self-doubt is that it may not be outwardly evident.  I can think of many examples where someone’s self-doubt had morphed into an outward manifestation of seeming over-confidence or bossyness or snobbery.  All the while, the individual was processing a truckload of self-doubt and insecurity, internally.  It may manifest itself outwardly in myriad ways, but adolescents can smell it the way vultures smells carrion.  It is confusing: the supposed authority shot through with self-doubt and insecurity.  Students, sitting in class, “eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so” (Hamlet 3.2.84-6).

The promise, for students, is some degree of advancement.  The air, promise-crammed, for the English teacher, is that electric connection or ignition.  It is that moment when we step out of the driver’s seat and students gain control of the discourse, take it out for a drive.  It is when discussions of the text, activities and small group interactions, writing prompts, inspire deep connections which students would not have anticipated.  What happens, though, when doubt is lurking, and it rears its ugly head enough to seep through the room like a heavy mist?  What happens when students, promising students, lose faith or begin with no faith at all, in the teacher?  While a little self-doubt is good, self-corrective even, its presence can overwhelm at a moment’s notice.

Last week, when trying to understand why a student repeatedly sleeps in an honors class, I spoke with that individual.  I was given an answer like a slap in the face.  Already given over to self-doubt and a diminished sense of self-worth, the words devastated me.  

Me: “Why don’t you sleep in Mrs. XYZ’s Physics class?”

Student: “Because I respect her.”

It turns out that the entire process of the Socratic method, discussions about American literature, and attempts to help students improve their rhetorical skills through the exhausting process of providing feedback on multiple drafts of analysis essays, garners little to no respect.  Yes, more words were exchanged, civilly I might add.  They cut deeply, too, as none of them were favorable to me or my discipline.  

As an already insecure and slightly introverted person, such comments can come as a devastating blow. (Apologies to Carol Dweck, but when my emotions sag or even plummet based on derisive feedback, I don’t automatically assume it’s a result of my “fixed mindset.”)  Administration can criticize me all they like, and it does not hurt.  Their feedback is corrective and intended to help me improve my practice.  In many ways, administrative feedback is similar to the feedback I provide students on essays.  As a concerned educator, I really do want all students to engage, in some fashion, in my classroom.  “Like” is not what matters, to me.  Students do not have to like me (or even the material we are reading) to engage.  Stinging from the emotional slap, I thought about all the hurdles teachers face in maintaining any sort of dignity or self-confidence in our society.

Putting aside the sting, I actually did consider ways in which I could make my class more engaging for this individual.  Is the class interactive and dynamic enough?  What sort of balance is there between student-centered and teacher-centered practices?  Do students have a voice?  Are there plenty of opportunities to stretch or go beyond the basic curricular expectations?  Do I treat students with dignity and respect?  Do I actually have enough content knowledge?

While it is valuable for me to question my own content knowledge and to want to further that knowledge, that will never be enough for students, parents and colleagues who see the pursuit of literary studies as being secondary, peripheral even, in a world demanding STEM skills.  A room full of advanced students prejudiced toward STEM academics has, at times, been tougher for me to engage and enliven than a class struggling with foundational literacy concerns.  Questioning the value of engaging close readings of poetry and prose, many might simply be trying to rack up an “honors” credit.  Yes, many are able to write a solid essay, with some help, and I am fortunate to have that opportunity.  However, maintaining dignity and self-confidence can be a long-term challenge.  The minute it slips, the wolves are ready.

Of course, this is a sheep in wolves’ clothing, right?  Busy, sometimes half-exhausted, multi-tasking, I have to always remind myself to breathe deeply and remember that things do have a way of working out.  Sure, I should doubt myself.  It is even healthy to doubt the practice of teaching Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Twain, Chopin, Cather, Wright, and others, to ask myself why.  It is equally important, though, to remember the value of art for art’s sake, expression for expression’s sake, the urge of the human condition.  It is important to remember that I am connecting to someone.

As if on cue, the next school day, a former student brought me brownies in gratitude for my having written a college recommendation.  I had forgotten all about it, honestly.  Then I remembered that several seniors, all of whom had passed through my Junior Honors class the previous year, asked for help on their college essays.  A little doubt can go a long way, and it is important to remember the successes.

(The STEM culture’s diminishment of the Humanities should be the topic of another entry.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Virtual Snow Days?

(photo courtesy of Bangor Daily News)

In the 2013-2014, our coastal Maine high school was in session until one week before July 4th.  Why?  We had a series of snow days as a result of a fairly persistent barrage of winter storms.  Now, it is only the first week in November, and I scratch my head over the possibility of being home for my third “snow day” in a row.  Technically, this is a power outage day as Emera Maine has not yet restored electricity to at least 15,000 customers three days after powerful winds, heavy snow and broken branches disrupted lines.  Meanwhile, exasperated teachers in our district are posting videos all over social media about holding remote, synchronous classes and providing more online learning.

Personally, I am supportive of this idea.  Who wouldn’t love to be able to face days without disruption?  Well, OK, maybe day 1 of a storm “event” could be forgiven.  It’s a bonus day, right?  This three day break came at the end of the 1st quarter.  Grades were completed, students all caught up, and teachers were ready to roll on new units of study.  For day one, sure, cocoa and books and candle light.  After that, let the asynchronous studies begin.*

Why asynchronous?  For one, I am not ready to be at home and “delivering” a lesson on a live webcam.  It seems fraught with potential problems.  Juggling 20 different Skype or Hangout plugins just doesn’t seem realistic.  Also, is it fair to deliver classroom content only to those students who have WiFi or internet at speeds high enough to do so?  What about the fact that in instances like our present one, the issue is power outage?  How could teachers be assured that students actually knew of the content being covered on a given day?

With prior planning, much could actually be accomplished without having to be online.  Humanities teachers can establish a syllabus of reading and short written responses which students can follow, regardless of technology needs.  We simply need to be flexible about deadlines, as students will be in various states of readiness when returning to school.  Perhaps such a syllabus and plan makes sense for the second and third quarters (or middle trimester) in Maine.  From the beginning of November to the end of March, students and teachers could know exactly what is being covered each day.  A few days without instruction would not be the end of the world.

Of course, this model requires student readiness.  They need to be committed to engaging classroom assignments outside of class.  Parents need to check in with students before and after heading out to work.  Do they know what they need to cover?  Did they cover it?  No, this will not work with science labs, studio arts which require particular materials and equipment, theater which requires rehearsal, sports and a host of other disciplines.  However, just because we cannot cover all areas does not mean that all areas should lose ground.

Though it may not come to a town near you, tomorrow, I suspect some form of asynchronous or online learning will be coming to a snow day near you within the decade.

* What is asynchronous learning? has a pretty good break down. It might be simplistic, but it gets the job done. Check it out.

The Toughcats at Fog

Every once in a while, we have to shake a leg and celebrate.  Sometimes, that's easier said than done.  It used to be a matter of deciding whether or not to go out or stay at home.  Living in Hancock County, Maine, that is not a simple thing.  When I saw the Toughcats had announced a show on a Friday night in Rockland's famous Fog Bar, I thought to myself, That's only two counties and 65 miles away!

Of course, a Friday evening after a long week of being a high school teacher can challenge the best of us.  On a warm September evening, the backyard and warm green grass beckon.  Why not simply lounge around and watch the sky transition colors until the mosquitoes come out?  Why not ice down some beer, make a fire in the grill and cook up some barbecue?  Well, why not pile in the car, and make the nearly 140 mile roundtrip trek to Rockland to boogie for a few hours?

We did.

Few bands will make such a trek worthwhile, but the Toughcats are an exception.  Shake your booty infused Americana with nary a song exceeding four minutes, this band excels at juicing a crowd.  Many audience members who show up have seen them multiple times, anticipate the changes and can dance as if choreographed to fit the band's floor show.  That makes for an exciting reward after a dark drive.

Deep in the throws of a quiet exhaustion, feeling the cool of the night settle in on waves of Atlantic mist, imagine walking down a nearly deserted, Gilded Age street.  Rockland is mostly shuttered by 9 p.m. on a September evening.  Tires roll down the main street, streaking their way off to other destinations.  The few bars appear to be shuttered, featuring a few stragglers here and there, but the enormous plate glass windows to the Fog Bar don't belie the name: they run with condensation.

Opening the door, we were greeted with a blast of hot air, music and chatter.  Voices yammered away above the Toughcats signature sound.  Jake Greenlaw's shrieks and grunts and sharp cymbal thrashing punctuated his precise beats.  Joe Nelson's steel resonator licks thumped into the floor with the foot-stomping, rising here and there above the fray.  Colin Gulley's amplified banjo licks blistered away the trebly side of the conversation he and Joe so earnestly banter.

We throw around some banter to folks we rarely get to see these days (having moved a walloping 70 miles away), and we dance.  We dance.  Yes, we dance.  And when it ends, all too soon, we are flushed out into the quiet night.  The drive back to Ellsworth doesn't seem that long, especially with the energetic conversation on the way back.  Saturday, it's back to the books, and wouldn't you know, the yard was still waiting.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Weekend in Chicago (Epilogue to Summer 2014)

How's it goin' there everybody,
From Cork, New York, Dundalk, Gortahork and Glenamaddy.
Here we are in the County Clare
It's a long, long way from here to there.
There's the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher,
the Tulla and the Kilfenora,
Miko Russell, Doctor Bill,
Willy Clancy, Noel Hill.
Flutes and fiddles everywhere.
If it's music you want,
You should go to Clare.

Oh, Lisdoonvarna!
Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoonvarna!

Everybody needs a break,
Climb a mountain or jump in a lake.
Some head off to exotic places,
Others go to the Galway Races.
Mattie goes to the South of France,
Jim to the dogs, Peter to the dance.
A cousin of mine goes potholing,
A cousin of hers loves Joe Dolan.
Summer comes around each year,
We go there, and they come here.
Some jet off to . . . Frijiliana,
But I always go to Lisdoonvarna.
~Christy Moore “Lisdoonvarna”

The weekend of the Chicago Phish shows is difficult to capture.  For good reason, the lyrics to Christy Moore’s “Lisdoonvarna” spun around and around in my head.  Chitown was a city overflowing with music and festivals, food and drink, people from all over Illinois and nation, high spirits and summery.  Every neighborhood, it seemed, had some sort of block party celebration.  It’s as though that long winter finds release in the few peak weeks of July.

Besides Phish, there were two major concerts at Wrigley Field: Billy Joel on Friday night; Blake Shelton on Saturday night.  The Pitchfork Music Festival featured scores of acts including the likes of Beck, Speedy Ortiz, Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent, DJ Spinn and Grimes. On the smaller, neighborhood scale, there were events like the Clark St. Fair, Mackinac race, Sheffield Garden Walk, Taste of River North, Chinatown Fair, Blackhawks convention at the Hilton Chicago (featuring the Stanley Cup), and all sorts of other notables.  

The multitudes, they flocked in throngs
To hear the music and the songs.
Motorbikes and Hi-ace vans,
With bottles - barrels - flagons - cans.
Mighty craic. Loads of frolics,
Pioneers and alcoholics,
PLAC, SPUC and the FCA,
Free Nicky Kelly and the IRA.
Hairy chests and milk-white thighs,
mickey dodgers in disguise.
Mc Graths, O'Briens, Pippins, Coxs,
Massage parlours in horse boxes.
There's amhráns, bodhráns, amadáns,
Arab sheiks, Hindu Sikhs, Jesus freaks,
RTE are makin' tapes, takin' breaks and throwin' shapes.
This is heaven, this is hell.
Who cares? Who can tell?
(Anyone for the last few Choc Ices, now?)
~Christy Moore “Lisdoonvarna”

Coming from rural Maine, all of this seemed a bit overwhelming.  Staying with friends up in the lakefront neighborhood Roger’s Park, I was meeting people from every facet of my partner’s life, while friends of mine from childhood and graduate school were blended into the mix.  There were barbecues, bike rides, beach walks, late night laughter sessions and plenty of beers.  The Phish concerts, themselves, were wedged in between all of this mayhem, and it was difficult to make sense of it all.  Thus, in true travel fashion, I simply let go and allowed the events to unfold.

The celebratory feel continued all the way to Northerly Island.  After what Phish had accomplished the previous weekend, the Chicago stop was a victory lap of sorts.  Much like the Randall’s setting, there was little chance for a lot scene to emerge, and phans mostly walked down the museum campus peninsula south to the music venue.  Those who didn’t walk were taking advantage of the few parking spaces or bicycle powered rickshaws which deposited passengers mere yards from the main gates.

As an out-of-towner, I was marveling at the oceanic lake and the wide open spaces Midwesterners seem to enjoy.  Each bar, restaurant, apartment, house, park seemed to extend well beyond the norm to which my New England sensibilities are accustomed.  The music venue, too, was larger than life.  Staring north to the Chicago skyline as a stage backdrop, the lake looms to starboard.  Back on the lawn for Friday and Sunday nights’ shows, my impression was that there was ample room to move.

One of my favorite aspects of a festival or festival-like space is the festival scale sound.  Yes, there is room to move and groove, but the delay towers combined with an enormous array of speakers allows for deep bass, a bottom which digs into the earth below the feet and rattles inner chest cavities.  Chicago had this and then some.  At the Friday night show, a generous portion of first set songs–twelve, to be exact–helped them dial the sound, too.  We enjoyed the grass beneath our feet, the sky overhead, and the company of old friends.  What more could we ask?

The Golden Age second set opener reaffirmed my feelings that this is a Golden Age, and the Mango Song and Wombat made me smile.  We were in the zone, no doubt, and radiating bliss, making connections with phans 25 years younger.  What a blessing it is to stitch the generations.  I spoke to a young phan who had lived in my home state of Maine and was en route to Colorado via the home state of Illinois, and we boogied together with ease.  What is age, anyway?  Here, in this occasional community, we are all on the same page together.

Saturday and Sunday were devoted, primarily, to Roger’s Park and dear friends.  It was wonderful to be hosted in such a fun town, and my only twinge of sorrow came with the “Stop the Killing” posters and the lurking threat of random violence.  It made me think that everyone could benefit from an infusion of the positive dance party vibe.  99% of Chicago seems to be on board with that mindset, and that other, violent 1% can really put a damper on things.  Nevertheless, biking around a city, hanging on a dear friend’s back porch and eating farmer’s market tomatoes never seemed as natural as it did that weekend.

Perhaps it was this social aspect of the Chitown visit that stood out the most.  It only served to enhance the entire musical experience.  Sunday, after a barbecue where various social networks were merging over Baggo, beers, brats and lovingly marinated flank steak, the concert seemed an extension of the loquacious Chicago block party.  Having lost my peeps for the second set, I was able to meet a variety of pholks game to boogie on.  And it is this aspect of music and occasional community which sticks with me.  It is the “social bonding on a larger scale, among members of a social group” (Bicknell 106).  

It is the loss of self into a collective joy.  Yes, we will return to our own corners and cabinets soon enough.  In those few collective moments, though, we can speak without words.  We can dance our emotions.  Why not extend The Wedge?  "Take the highway to the Great Divide. . . ."  We can celebrate just being together.  It is difficult to let go, too, and end up in that space.  Standing on the lawn of Northerly Island that Sunday, where one song flowed into the next, when the peaks came in waves, everything was right with the world.  I watched the mast lights of anchored sailboats dance knowing that I would meet my posse again.  We would have time, and I couldn’t help but think of Joy (though they didn’t play it), “This is your song, too.”

Randall's Island 4: The Sunday Show

The third day at Randall’s Island was part endurance and part breakthrough to the runner’s high.  Desperate for a blister solution, I followed Matt’s advice and reassembled the soles of my feet with duct tape.  Stepping gingerly, we made our way over to Williamsburg just before the kickoff of the World Cup final: Germany and Argentina.  Everywhere, bars were crowded with screaming fans slopping shandies and light summer ales over the brims of their cups.  We ducked in to watch the game, mingling with groovy locals and Phish phans alike.  In Williamsburg, can one tell the difference anyway?

The seamlessness of the scenes between Williamsburg and Randall’s was disrupted only by a very disappointing cab ride.  As Matt said, “We brought a pile of money out to Randall’s and burned it.”  Ouch.  It was our third day and our third way of approaching the island.  (The ferry was, by far, the best.)  And it was a Sunday show, for sure, from the minute we arrived.  The scene was obviously quieter, nary a line for any services in the venue, plenty of room to dance.

In fact, if there is anything of merit to comment on about this particular day, it is the ritual of dance.  We found our spot by the delay tower once again.  On the approach, we were more than pleased to begin the groove with Sand.  I was excited to hear Winterqueen, another new song I enjoy, while Reba and Birds of a Feather just kept it rolling.  What battered feet?  The pain that had dogged me all day was nonexistent as I swayed and gyrated to the beat.

Much speculation has been given over to the transportational, “trance state,” power of music, and for me, it cannot be separated from dance.  Much of the release I can feel in a given show can come from my approach to it.  On the one hand, I can take the Dylan approach and simply watch the river flow.  That’s my critical mind, the way I approached the first show in Mansfield.  On the other hand, I can jump in and float downstream or even kick to accelerate the pace.  By the time Possum came around, I was a caricature of Mr. Natural, taking advantage of the ample elbow room in our area to cut a deep, circuitous path, arms flailing, heels kicking up dust.

Continuing in the same vein, the second set found me acting more as marionette controlled by the band than independent-thinking-autonomous critic.  The amorphic goo that followed Chalk Dust Torture is just the sort of jamming I relish.  However, one can appreciate this in a variety of ways.  The detached, analytical critic version of myself, the hypersensitive deconstructionist, was not in the house.  Rather, it was the dervish version, exorcising whatever demons I had accumulated throughout the previous year, openly exhilarated, surrendering “to the flow.”

Is there some Phrygian code which indicates to a listener, like me, that it is time to kick into the Dionysian mode, losing all sense of self, time and space?  According to Bicknell, Aristotle understood music “as something to be understood, not as a stimulus which automatically causes a response.  Listeners who fail to recognize the Phrygian mode, or who do not grasp the association between the mode and Dionysian worship, will not be affected” (84).  Yet, as with all things set and setting related, it depends on my mode and what I bring to the day.  My critical brain was off, and the danceathon was on!

Light, always one of my favorites, simply brought the boogie energy higher. White strobes, glaring sounds, a sense of gradual elevation, this song always brings me to a reflective and ecstatic place far away when it is executed well.  This version was quite satisfying, and there was nothing left to do but breathe in the environment.  What stopped me in my tracks, though, was the transition into Tweezer. This had been my show “prediction” for the day, and it snapped me out of my previous state. The voice of reason stepped in, slowing my dance, reminding me to take in the enormous scene as it was rapidly nearing a close.

Later, as we made our to the ferry during the encore, I marveled at how such things can still happen to me.  The dance opens the heart at any age.  I have been transported, and there is a letting down which will follow, inevitably.  It is that “reentry” my sister once described.  Fortunately, summer was still in full swing.

(Thanks to fromtheacquarium for some excellent auds. Check out YouTube for other footage.)

Randall's Island 3: The Saturday Show

After a great brunch with family, I actually opted to put my feet up for a while.  One week of New York trekking was reminding me that I had not packed the appropriate footwear.  Oh well, no matter.  It was a good excuse to rest my over-stimulated mind, body and soul.  Besides, the next thing we knew it was four o’clock and time to be heading to the ferry.

On East 34th Street, we found our ferry berth and pier, ready with tickets in hand.  Having lived on a Maine island for over 10 years, I have a deep understanding of how one can already be “on island” without having left the ferry terminal.  The entire community surrounding you is heading to the same place, and it becomes more than an occasional community in that regard.  This was a celebratory ride.  Indeed, it may have been one of the highlights of the day.

Vuvuzelas, odd whoops, cheers and giggles, the repeated “Have your tickets out and ready!” all provided the giddy soundtrack for boarding the ferry.  On the water, a cool breeze only fed the anticipation.  A little dude in a faux Sioux headdress bounded around from spot to spot, stopping only to holler, “Whooooooo!” as loudly as his larynx would allow.  Every jolt of other vessel’s wakes resonated through the hull as a gong would, and each side-to lurch and roll elicited laughter and smiles.  Strangers bumped into strangers, only to shrug their shoulders and say, “Sorry, man.”  The occasional community ensured, though, that we were not strangers, entirely.  We all had some form of insight into the same secret knowledge.  This being a Saturday combined with the energy of the ferry, we could immediately tell that this was the fiesta of the three-day run.

(image courtesy of NY Public Library)

Unlike Friday, the audience stretched more than three quarters the way back on the lawn.  It was crowded, well before show time, and we returned to the spot behind the delay towers.  While some might take that to be an obstructed area, for us, it served as a great staging area.  We were able to meet up with some friends from New Jersey, and suddenly we were a group of eight and growing.  Many hijinks ensued, and the overall feeling was that of a family reunion piled on top of a family reunion.

Musically, I was glad for the eclectic first set.  It included many songs which agree with my significant other’s sensibilities.  She is not necessarily a fan of the open ended jam–be it Coltrane, Grateful Dead, Garcia Band or Phish.  Eight out of the twelve songs in that first set qualify as some of her favorites.  This was great because I could see her react with joy, and we could celebrate and dance together.  One of the challenges of this set, for me, was that the flow of foot traffic never slowed.  People could not seem to find their way to their spots, or they were just milling about for the spectacle of it all.  As a result, the crowd vibe was unsettled. (Saturday shows.)

The second set was to be a little more of what I find enjoyable at a show, and it proved to mesh well with our whole group.  The jammy and danceable suite of songs scratched many a yen, and we were happy.  Then came another special moment for me.  Winding down the Ghost jam, as usual, I had no idea where this band was going.  When the opening riff to Wingsuit clicked in, once again I shuddered in recognition.  This is another new favorite of mine, and I will stand by that no matter how many of the online cognoscente see it as a throw away or “energy suck.”

It is difficult to explain why a song will grab me this way.  Jeanette Bicknell summarizes research that suggests music which causes such recognition, the “chill response,” needs to be bittersweet.  Furthermore, “music that is familiar to the listener is more likely than unfamiliar music to elicit strong responses” (65).  The recently released Fuego was one of two complete recordings on my Kindle as I traveled in late-June and early-July, and I was deeply familiar with every note.  That, however, is only half the story.

While Nietzsche and Schopenhauer may have argued that lyrical content can be sublimated into the music itself, I feast on lyrical content as a part of the bargain. Wingsuit contains lyrics that I have been coming to terms with for years.  Losing people close to me, losing things that I hold dear, there is a Zen-like refrain which I find to be a haunting reminder of mortality: “Nothing lasts, nothing stays, / caught in this procession / of unchanging days.” The tedium of our one dimensional, Marcusian reality hurts all the more when things we love are gone.  “What’s new is old. / What’s old is gone. / You’re pushed up to the edge / so put your wingsuit on.”  Again, as with many of the newer songs, I find a message of the only time being now.  

This sentiment is as cliché a concept as ever captured in Basho’s best haiku about impermanence.  The notions are as cliché as Shakespeare detailing the ravages of time in his sonnets.  However, the longer we live, the heavier those “clichéd” concepts weigh on us.  There is very little time to continue the work or the goals we intended, “pushed up to the edge.”  When the exalting lyrics come – “And gliding away, / you glide where you chose. / There’s nothing to say, / and nothing to lose” – it all makes sense to me.  It is time to create your own path.

One cannot plan when the lightning will strike.  When it does, I am grateful, and I am often being reminded of the “things are true that I forget.”  And I relish those moments when “I feel the feeling I forgot.”

(Thanks again to fromtheaquarium for the great audience recording.)

Randall's Island 2: The Friday Show

(image courtesy of Ephemeral New York)

The walk in was surprisingly bucolic, despite the gritty, under-the-overpass lot. Large deciduous trees lined the small festival bowl, and it was apparent that we would be dancing on grass. Yes! The lines were minimal, and the staff seemed half amused and half pleased by the easy going crowd. No hassles. Perhaps our favorite touch was the sign, “Welcome to Our Joy,” which hung above the entrance. A wave of contentment washed over us, and we sauntered in search of the day’s poster.

Let me just stop for a moment to emphasize that I prefer a summer festival site over most any other concert venue.  Spaces are wide and open, allowing for people to mix and mingle. While waiting for a tasty selection of Sixpoint beers, we chatted it up with our latest edition of the occasional community. Drabinski would have been pleased to see the late-40s early-50s guys that we are chatting with our newfound 20-something compatriots. Rather than the repressed, one-dimensional subway rides of hours before, we were open, wide open, to new community.  As Drabinski writes, “Occasional communities open this one-dimensional space with the human voice.”

Amazingly, we didn’t even complain that we were in line for beer from the opening chords of “Moma Dance” all the way through the “555.”  It was opening day, and the island needed to adjust.  We alternately chatted and danced.  The “Bathtub Gin,” aside from being a scorcher, was an occasion for everyone waiting on line to boogie, shimmy, shake hands and nod with understanding.  There was no anxiety or over eagerness: most of us were in for the three day gamut.  What a nice way to take the pressure off of a single show.

Once loaded for bear, we ambled our way toward the stage.  The crowd was loose and free flowing.  We were able to see the East River and the buildings beyond from any point, really, and the stage was accessible.  We settled on a piece of land by the Mike’s side delay towers, the ones closer in.  There would be no one obstructing us, and we could stash accoutrements in the penned area around the electronics.  Not only that, but the sound was great, and there was plenty of room to dance.

My first deep elation of the night came not from a particular song. Instead, it came from that moment during “Rift” when we found our spot, began grooving loosely, looking around at the sights and the facing blue of the humid sky. I had come in with no expectations, and the setting was sweeping me away, the totality of it all.  No, it was not the Gorge or Red Rocks.  Yes, it was an island, transformed.  Flanked on one side by Hell’s Gate and the entrance to the Long Island Sound, it was the site of some of the gnarliest sailing I’d ever done on one of my life’s big adventures. In my head, despite “Sample” and “The Wedge,” I was singing, “It’s TODAY!”

What happened next took me by total surprise.  For the second time, I heard Mike Gordon riff the opening lines to “Waiting All Night.”  It is a song with which I have a complicated, almost reluctant, relationship.  It is pop the way Marvin Gaye is pop.  Staring at the river, the skyline of upper Manhattan, the puffs of cloud deepening the summer evening hue, I experienced a shudder of chills. It reminded me of the first time I ever heard “Dirt.”  Something deeply familiar and yet displacing swirled through me.  As quickly as it came, it went, leaving me elated and open to the rest of the show.

Was this an experience of the sublime?  I should probably not even give this much thought, but I can’t help but consider it to be a moment of deep recognition (re + cognizant).  As Jeanette Bicknell writes in Why Music Moves Us, “Sublime or emotionally strong responses can be arranged along a continuum, ranging from momentary chills or thrills to longer-duration, transcendent, even ‘out-of-body’ experiences.  They also may include feelings of deep yet quiet awe” (58).  Interestingly, I had been in a deep and quiet awe mode, taking in the whole scene, when “Waiting All Night” elicited the chills.  It hit my sweet spot, so to speak.

From that moment forward, the night was pure celebration.  I was elated to groove on my first “Steam,” and the song fit the sticky, NYC night.  “DWD”-> “Golden Age” resonated with me because for days I had been thinking, This is the golden age.  Nietzsche was right: the longing for a golden past is inherently a fallacy.  “The only time is now!”  We inched forward, FOB.  A woman, concerned for her mother’s blanket space, tried to shoo us away.  Later, she came back to apologize after noticing how we took up less room than stick puppets lifting their arms in an even line.

Even the walk home, back over the 103rd St. bridge, seemed somehow celebratory.  By the time we found the Dive Bar on 96th and Amsterdam, we were already sated.  There were two more shows to come.

(Thanks to fromtheaquarium for the excellent recording!)

Randall's Island 1: the Preamble

In John Drabinski’s article, “The Everyday Miracle of the Occasional Community,” he writes about the magic that was the Grateful Dead parking lot. It was a freewheeling marketplace which pulled one out of the Marcusean one-dimensionality of our soul-deadening modernity. Compared to his one hour commute where he silently bumps into the same people every day without recognition, the random Deadheads he meets in show lots ooze community, togetherness and an organic complexity not found in the “everyday.” When Phish played Randall’s Island on the weekend preceding Bastille Day, recently, Drabinski’s experiential truth was in force on many levels.

My sister, years ago, often described the weeks after Dead tour as “reentry.” Those weeks could be bumpy, to say the least. One of the nicer aspects of Phish 3.0, however, the post-breakup version, is that these transitions never seem quite as extreme as they once did. The shift into and out of the scene, for me, can be fairly seamless. For starters, I had been visiting with family in Brooklyn for the week preceding Randall’s, and the city was beginning to feel like home, again. Coney Island, parks along the East River, Governor’s Island; these day trips with my niece and nephew reinvigorated my long standing love for all things Big Apple.

By the time my partner, her sister and brother-in-law, Matt, showed up to the city on Friday, it was Phish time, and I was in the NYC “zone.” I was mastering the art of ignoring people in public spaces and in public transportation (not the norm in rural Maine). I could zip from one transportation line to another without becoming irritated by waiting. And I had accrued a wide array of blisters on my feet after scores of miles pounding the pavement. In that state of mind, Matt and I grabbed a cab across town to East 102nd St.

Once we began to climb the 103rd St. bridge ramp, it was clear that we were entering the Phish zone. However, along the way, New York families and other picnickers lounged on Randall’s Island’s green spaces as if in some updated Seurat painting. Ferries full of heads steamed upriver toward the concert venue, and small clusters of phans waved from shore to boat and back again. We had no idea what sort of venue was in store, but already the city was being transformed. We, too, were headed to a picnic at “La Grande Jatte,” yet judging by the smiles and knowing glances of the phans around us, it was to be no ordinary fête.

After passing the spooky Manhattan Psychiatric Center (sorry, poisoned by Adrian Lynde’s 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder) and crossing the little Hell’s Gate Bridge, we found ourselves in a tiny parking lot that was trying its darnedest to be Shakedown St. That, however, did not stop us from running into familiar faces (who shall not be named), old phriends who turn up at the most venerated of gatherings. The occasional community transition had begun walking upriver, and the crummy lot completed the circuit.  It was not long before high fives, hugs and conversations morphed into us checking the hour. Show time.