On Community

On a recent vacation, I was driving in Denver and saw out of the corner of my eye the passenger window coming down at a busy intersection. My friend Bob rolls down the window and has a bill crumpled in his hand. He yells out at a gritty, ragged homeless man who is seated but now trying to get on his feet, “How ya doin’? Don’t get up…here, I’ll throw it too you.” And he tosses a crumpled bill at the man’s feet. Bob rolls up the window and I said, “What did you throw?” Bob replies, “A $100 bill.” I told Bob, “You went to heaven and hell in one sentence.”

Bob meets homeless folks on vacation while I take a more vocational tack. My laptop is nearby, the cell phone rings continuously, and texts chime like streaming points in a Bally pinball game. Even within the slower cadence of vacation, the fourth commandment of the Decalogue is being trampled beneath the virtuous feet of vocation.

According to David Brooks writing for the New York Times in an article titled, The Great Affluence Fallacy, “Antisthenes, a Greek cynic philosopher, is cited as one of the first to equate effort with goodness and virtue. He coined the original workaholic paradigm. Antisthenes,

  • Had no feeling for celebration.
  • Was a-musical.
  • Felt no responsiveness to Eros (he said he “would like to kill Aphrodite”)

Mr. Brooks goes on to say, “Leisure does not mean what it once meant. The word leisure came from a Greek word translated into Latin as the word we now use for school. We have lost the meaning of leisure in our rush to perfect our work.”

What’s replaced our traditional idea of leisure is vocation. Our vacations are mild repetitions of our vocations.

Flying back from Denver to Tulsa I glanced over and noticed that Karen was reading a historical book of Summit county Colorado which includes Breckenridge, Silverthorne, and Frisco. Karen is practicing the way of classical leisure, slowing down long enough to learn about the places that we visit.

My daughter and her husband live in the Lohi section of Denver. They are house sitting for a young lady who is spending several months in India training in yoga. They maintain the row style shotgun duplex with a backyard a bit larger than a ping-pong table, in return for lodging and they are also surrogate parents to a couple of rescue dogs, Sunny, a small wispy female, and Trout, a spunky young male. Twice a day, the dogs are walked, and when the leash is in hand and the door knob turns, they growl and turn on each other in a flurry of fur as they engage in a little WWF dog fighting.

Lohi (lower highlands) is an eclectic neighborhood with top shelf restaurants like Root Down, Spuntino, Linger, and the Gallop Cafe. Around the corner is the American Cultures Kombucha Taproom where we enjoyed a sampler of teas with names like Happy Leaf and Rowdy Mermaid. There is a sense here of what John Denver sang about nearly 50 years ago, the Rocky Mountain high of friends sitting around a campfire looking at the Perseid meteor showers on a moonless, cloudless night.

There are churches next to funky bistros and many used bookstores in this lovely old neighborhood with a history going back to the Arapahoe, Shoshones, and Utes, living along the banks of the Platte River hundreds of years ago. Living in the Highlands today is like living atop an archaeological tel, the geography is littered with events and names and people and places.

After the Arapahoe and Shoshone and Utes, the Italians and German and Latinos came. The old churches, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Patrick’s, are beautiful and have absolutely no parking. You park on the street, as best you can. I became adept at parallel parking a Chevy Suburban in this neighborhood which should qualify me for a CDL. There are layers upon layers of history here, new layers added each generation. Now, this neighborhood is experiencing gentrification and is a mixture of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life  and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with a splash of Sixties tie dye and Nineties grunge.

David Brooks writes about the challenges facing young adults like my daughter and son-in-law. He says, “A few years ago, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis came out with a song called “Can’t Hold Us,” which contained the couplet: “We came here to live life like nobody was watching/I got my city right behind me, if I fall, they got me.” In the first line they want complete autonomy; in the second, complete community. But, of course, you can’t really have both in pure form. This is transformational, but not new. I am unique and yet like everyone else. I am free and yet I still belong. Young folks today are heading, it seems, in the direction of community and neighborhood hospitality, rather than national identity or the borderless digital world.”

Mr. Brooks quotes Sebastian Junger’s book, “Tribe”, which raises the possibility that our culture is built on a fundamental error about what makes people happy and fulfilled. Junger writes about the American Indian and about how they were more communal. “They would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.” Mr. Brooks goes on to say, “Our institutions can offer only service — not care — for care is the freely given commitment from the heart of one to another…Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, perhaps people are actually about to change and immerse themselves in local communities.”

 

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The Eyes of a Teacher

Karen and I enjoy a good debate. Last Friday night, we sparred over the significance of eye contact with another human, or even our dog Abby, who when overwhelmed with too much eye contact will look away. We debated about whether looking someone in the eye is a sign of social dominance, friendliness, affirmation, or something else.

Karen argued that eye contact is generally a good thing and signifies that you are interested in the person you are looking at and in what that person is saying. If you look down or away from a person rather than meeting his or her gaze, you are considered to be distracted or uninterested. I countered that eye contact isn’t always a good thing. For instance, if my daughter is backpacking alone through the Balkan Mountains, she should not make eye contact with a man who would consider prolonged eye contact to be an advance toward intimacy or a bear who would consider a long stare as an invitation to dinner.

So, in some cultures and settings, it is considered more polite to have only brief eye contact, especially between people of different social registers, like a student and a teacher. But what do I know…I lost the debate.

The morning after I lost the debate, Karen was shopping for jalapeño jelly and veggies at the Farmer’s Market while making eye contact with everyone and she bumped into my kindergarten teacher, Mary Brock, her husband Leonard, and their daughter Dana.

Leonard Brock drove a school bus and remembers our children well, including Brandon, who was a very quiet lad. One day Leonard completed the after school bus route and he got up from his seat preparing to lock down the bus and noticed a blond head in the back. Brandon had fallen asleep. Leonard started up the bus and took Brandon home. Brandon apparently believed that he would get home eventually without asserting that right verbally. I can relate to my son sitting on a bus quietly going for a ride back to the bus barn because it’s probably what I would have done when I was five.

Karen and I marveled that Mary remembers one child among many after 52 years have passed. My memories at five-years old, of Mrs. Brock and that two room kindergarten in 1965, just a stones throw southwest of the old Limestone School, are remarkably few, and yet they are crystal clear.

I had a feeling like the world had suddenly become too big, like a big yellow bus I couldn’t get off and I was unable to look anyone in the eye for more than two seconds. The walk to school on Mission Drive was a pit bull obstacle course, although in hindsight, the dog I feared was a poodle with a Napoleon complex. Texas Instruments had not yet revolutionized calculators and I was still a year away from the fat pencil and Big Chief paper. So I performed complex math in my head, addition and subtraction, while diverting my gaze from anything that moved.

Brockmarykindergarten

Mary, Dana, and Leonard

One day I held up my hand for the first time. I said, “I know what 16 + 16 equals.” Mrs. Brock was perplexed and either didn’t know the answer or was stunned at my foray into full sentences and complex math so I said, “32,” and I sat back and stared at the cotton looping of my towel avoiding any further eye contact.

Karen mentioned to Mary, a blog post I wrote several years ago about Limestone School. Mary’s eyes twinkled and she said, “I remember your husband!” She told Karen, “He was quiet, shy, wouldn’t look me in the eye. But he was good at math!” 

kindergarten 1965

What is astounding is not that I remember any of that, but that Mary Brock remembers.

Would Mrs. Brock be surprised that the kid who was good at math is now an amateur poet?

Or did she already know, because that is what teachers do, help us become who we are? 

It’s the reason why teachers are so underpaid and yet so beloved.    

Karen came home and told me about their conversation and we marveled that we had just been talking about eye contact the previous evening. Mary Brock knew my five-year old identity well, and so I wrote this verse about how teachers help shape us into the selves that we do not yet own at that age, nor could we articulate our identity at that age. But we do have these moments hidden away that flash before us at times, moments that remind us how we got to be ourselves.                                          

One Plus One is 32

We were ring around the rosie kids

sitting on the floor indian style

doing math in our heads.

And if we were lucky we had a teacher

who drew from the well of fresh springs,

answers to questions never asked.

A teacher knows when our world is too big or too small,

and when we can’t seem to get off the bus,

because nobody else can see us,

lost in plain sight cradling the answer,

to a question we do not understand.

Our eyes meet, a hand raised,

a teacher knows, so we say it out loud.

We speak because she hears,

the peaceful and the angry

the lovely and the broken.

A teacher looks upon a child with unbroken gaze.

Her gaze is forever new in a child’s eyes,

 and she sees what others cannot,

that poetry is math

and math is poetry

and one plus one is 32.

“The highlights of my teaching career were my students, to see their eyes light up when they learned something – such as tying their shoes or whatever we were doing at the time – was such a reward. I wouldn’t change anything if I had my life to do over. I would be a teacher all over again.”  Mary Brock

In 1981, as an instructor at Limestone Elementary School, Mary Brock was named the Bartlesville Public School District’s first-ever Teacher of the Year. In 2011, she became part of the second class inducted into the Bartlesville Public School Foundation’s Educators Hall of Fame.

The Sound of Silence

“You are awfully quiet, are you ok?” That question was asked of me often in my youth. I replied aloud, “Yes, I’m fine,” while I silently thought, “You sure talk a lot, are you ok?” God forgive my bias toward quiet people.

I do embrace my introversion though, because I had quiet mentors in my life who were not afraid to gather themselves in a single point of consciousness instead of being dispersed everywhere into a cloud of chatter and unimagined extroversion.

My Grandpa Taylor was a quiet man. He once served on the school board in the Timber Hill area of Northeast Oklahoma. It was during a pie supper to raise funds for the school that a local drunk of majestic proportions continually disrupted the pie auction to the point that things were getting very awkward. Grandpa walked over to the drunken man who towered over him (Grandpa was 5’6″), took him by the arm, whispered in his ear, and led him away. My Dad was a boy at the time and said it was much later in life before he thought to ask his Dad what he had said to the disruptive drunk. Grandpa Ross simply said to the man, “Don’t you think I should take you home?”

I’m a little taller than Grandpa, but we talk about the same amount. As needed, when spoken too, or if there is an awkward silence that needs piercing.

Mostly though, I’m content not only in silence, but aloneness. I enjoy hiking far from the city and cross country driving with nobody controlling the radio but me. Those are the moments that I can play music that I wouldn’t let my own children hear, the indulgent songs that speak to the corners of the heart that are not often visited.

I love some of those songs the way I love my wife’s cinnamon rolls. Amazing taste but then I feel heavy and can’t get the tune out of my head the rest of the day.

Which songs imprint the deeper indulgences of my mind? Jungleland by Springsteen, Lyin Eyes by the Eagles, Lola by the Kinks, and Sound of Silence. This is not a proud confession, but an honest one. Lord heal me of my musical afflictions.

Imagine the opening scene of The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman returning from college to his parents home as Paul Simon sings Feelin’ Groovy. It doesn’t work. It must be Sound of Silence. Hoffman is on a people mover at the LA airport moving inexorably into a joyless future as Simon and Garfunkel sing,

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

I love the Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel but after it fades, there is no middle ground…I’m curing my aloneness by either moving to Patagonia or doing co-ed Zumba to Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. 

Paul Simon stated that the song was written in his bathroom, where he turned off the lights to better concentrate. “The main thing about playing the guitar, though, was that I was able to sit by myself and play and dream. And I was always happy doing that. I used to go off in the bathroom, because the bathroom had tiles, so it was a slight echo chamber. I’d turn on the faucet so that water would run (I like that sound, it’s very soothing to me) and I’d play. In the dark. ‘Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again’.”  Garfunkel once summed up the song’s meaning as “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly internationally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”

I’ve noticed that when I’m alone, my silence is loud. My mind races and I juggle thoughts like a drunk chasing a balloon along a steep cliff. Is there another silence that opens the mind to a deeper level of calm? When is silence therapeutic and when is it neurotic?

We live in a world that honors the loud and obnoxious while stigmatizing the quiet and alone. So, in honor of a quiet man, my Grandpa Ross, here are five perspectives on silence from Max Linsky’s piece in Slate magazine, Silence, to make us think before we speak.

J.D. Salinger: The Man in the Glass House
Ron Rosenbaum • Esquire • June 1997   A pilgrimage to Salinger’s New Hampshire home

“Just being here, at the bottom of the driveway, just beyond the verge of the property line, feels like a trespass of some kind. This is not just private property. It is the property of the most private man in America, perhaps the last private person in America. The silence surrounding this place is not just any silence. It is the work of a lifetime. It is the work of renunciation and determination and expensive litigation. It is a silence of self-exile, cunning, and contemplation. In its own powerful, invisible way, the silence is in itself an eloquent work of art. It is the Great Wall of Silence J.D. Salinger has built around himself.
“It is not a passive silence, it’s a palpable, provocative silence. It’s the kind of silence people make pilgrimages to witness, to challenge. It’s a silence we both respect and resent, a lure and a reproof. Something draws us to it, makes us interrogate it, test it.”

Solitude and Leadership
William Deresiewicz • American Scholar • April 2010
A speech on the value of being alone with your thoughts, delivered to the plebe class at West Point

“You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Concentration means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?”

The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Michael Finkel • Men’s Journal • August 2012   A trip to India for total silence

“These are my final words: ‘Why a camp chair?’ I speak them to a man named Wade. Wade from Minnesota. I’m in line behind him, waiting to enter the Dhamma Giri meditation center, in the quiet hill country of western India, for the official start of the 10-day course. Wade tells me that this is his second course and that he learned a valuable lesson from the first. ‘I’m so glad I have this,’ he says, indicating the small folding camp chair tucked under his arm. I utter my last question. It’s never answered. One of the volunteers approaches, puts a finger to his lips, and the silence begins. Not just silence. I have— we all have—signed a pledge to observe what’s called “noble silence.” This means no speaking, no gestures, no eye contact. ‘You must live here,’ we’re told, ‘as if you’re completely alone.’ There is also no exercise permitted, except walking. No cellphones. No computers. No radios. No pens or paper. No books, pamphlets, or magazines. Nothing at all to read. There will be only two simple vegetarian meals a day. My suitcase, with my phone and laptop, is locked away in the meditation center’s office. I have just a day bag, with a couple of toiletries, a med kit, and a single change of clothes. I’m wearing sandals and sweatpants and a loose T-shirt.”

Searching for Silence
Alex Ross • The New Yorker • October 2010   John Cage’s   Art of noise

“On August 29, 1952, David Tudor walked onto the stage of the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock, New York, sat down at the piano, and, for four and a half minutes, made no sound. He was performing ‘4’33”,’ a conceptual work by John Cage. It has been called the ‘silent piece,’ but its purpose is to make people listen. ‘There’s no such thing as silence,’ Cage said, recalling the première. ‘You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.’ Indeed, some listeners didn’t care for the experiment, although they saved their loudest protests for the question-and-answer session afterward. Someone reportedly hollered, ‘Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!’ Even Cage’s mother had her doubts. At a subsequent performance, she asked the composer Earle Brown, ‘Now, Earle, don’t you think that John has gone too far this time?’
“This past July, the pianist Pedja Muzijevic included ‘4’33” ’ in a recital at Maverick, which is in a patch of woods a couple of miles outside Woodstock. I went up for the day, wanting to experience the piece in its native habitat. The hall, made primarily of oak and pine, is rough-hewn and barnlike. On pleasant summer evenings, the doors are left open, so that patrons can listen from benches outside. Muzijevic, mindful of the natural setting, chose not to use a mechanical timepiece; instead, he counted off the seconds in his head. Technology intruded all the same, in the form of a car stereo from somewhere nearby. A solitary bird in the trees struggled to compete with the thumping bass. After a couple of minutes, the stereo receded. There was no wind and no rain. The audience stayed perfectly still. For about a minute, we sat in deep, full silence. Muzijevic broke the spell savagely, with a blast of Wagner: Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from ‘Tristan und Isolde.’ Someone might as well have started up a chainsaw. I might not have been the only listener who wished that the music of the forest had gone on a little longer.

The Unspeakable Odyssey of the Motionless Boy
Joshua Foer • Esquire • October 2008

Silent since a car accident nine years before, Erik Ramsey prepares to speak again. “When Erik thinks about puckering his mouth into an o or stretching his lips into an e, a unique pattern of neurons fires—even though his body doesn’t respond. It’s like flicking switches that connect to a burned-out bulb. The electrode implant picks up the noisy firing signals of about fifty different neurons, amplifies them, and transmits them across Erik’s skull to two small receivers glued to shaved spots on the crown of his head. Those receivers then feed the signal into a computer, which uses a sophisticated algorithm to compare the pattern of neural firings to a library of patterns Kennedy recorded earlier. It takes about fifty milliseconds for the computer to figure out what Erik is trying to say and translate those thoughts into sound. “This is the hardest work Erik does all week, and after three hours he’s fading. Despite the dissolved Provigil capsule that he ingested through his feeding tube at the beginning of the session, his eyes are starting to close. Kennedy promises him that if he can do one more round of testing, he’ll play the Headbangers Ball CD, one of Erik’s favorites. This seems to re-energize him. He tries uh-ih again, and this time guides the cursor precisely from hut to hit. The deep Southern drawl that fills the room is actually a digitized sampling of Eddie’s voice. Nobody would ever mistake these simple vowel sounds for language, but they’re just the first steps. This fall, a new decoder that Guenther is developing will allow Erik to form consonants as well. The goal: full sentences within five years.”

And finally, one verse of many in Holy Scriptures that speak to a quiet soul:

Proverbs 10:19-21   The more talk, the less truth; the wise measure their words. The speech of a good person is worth waiting for; the blabber of the wicked is worthless. The talk of a good person is rich fare for many, but chatterboxes die of an empty heart.