Sunday, March 29, 2015

Beautiful Funerals

I talk to my grandpa all the time.  Life is busy and there are lapses, but all over the landscape of my life there are markers, triggers that remind me to reach out and get back in touch.  Doughnut holes.  Baseball.  Firetrucks.  Laughter.  I rarely go very long without filling him in, and topics range from my family to the bleak outlook for the Phillies this year.  As a lifelong Cubs fan, he can understand my frustrations better than most.

Just the other day, while playing Go Fish with my two sons, I laughed with him about all the times he brazenly cheated me at cards while we sat with a box of White Hen Popems at his kitchen table.  He always feigned innocence, shocked indignation at my suggestion that he was cheating, before bursting into laughter.  I am sure he gets a kick out of seeing me do the same to my boys.

I have told him about the time my oldest son played with his fireman's hat, his wide eyed stare as I told him about his great-grandpa pulling people from burning buildings.  I have told him about what it is like watching my own parents with my kids, and the many similarities I see to my childhood visits with him.  I have relayed accounts of classes when my students have left me full of awe and inspiration, and my disgust with recent standardized tests.  I share with him all the moments when I am the father or husband or friend I aspire to be, and all the moments when I fall far short.

He died twenty-one years ago.  I was seventeen.

Now, at thirty-eight, two of my closest friends have buried a parent in the past year.  My wife's uncle just buried his wife this past Friday.  All three died too early.  All three have left an ocean of grief, and everyone involved must swim against the riptide of loss.  Over time all must make their way through the rough crashing surf, fight for footing on sodden and shifting sands, and eventually stand again on solid ground.  Everyone is trying, yet I have watched those I love get pulled under a few times since the storm began.  Sometimes they really struggle to get back to the surface, but they always do.  I am sure there are times when grief seems to be all there is in the face of their new and permanent absences.  It seems that way, but grief is not the whole story.

Some people say that their loved one has died.  Stopped living.  There are no positive connotations to the word death; it is a word that speaks of finality and absence.  In definitive and painful ways, that is accurate, yet I keep talking to my grandpa.  He influences my decisions, and listens to my fears.  He has an active role in my life.  After three funerals this year I can attest to the fact that there are positive qualities to the end of a life.  Beneath the tragedy of it all, there is beauty.  Beside the agony, there is affirmation of life itself.

Funerals are beautiful in the closeness they create between those trying to cope.  People who have been scattered by busy lives, families spread across the country, all come back together and re-connect.  The fabric of conversations, woven around stories of the person we are burying, help tie us back together.  There is something beautiful in such a stark reminder that our time here is short, and we must capitalize on every moment.  We embrace people we have not seen in months.  We tell everyone we value how much we love them.

For years, I always used some version of the word loss to talk about death.  That word made sense to me.  I had no real confidence in my understanding of what happened after people left this life, so in my eyes we had lost them.  I knew they were gone, but I did not know where.  Yet, here I am thirty-eight years old talking to my dead grandpa.  If I am doing that, I must believe he is somewhere; I must believe he is watching over me and my life.  He can't be totally lost if somehow I know where to find him every time I have something to say.

So, I have settled now on passed.  I believe that our loved ones have passed from this life to another place.  I hope it is as beautiful as imagination can make it.  Beyond that, they have passed so much on to the rest of us.  That is my consolation as I enter an age when death has become a reality.  As I have written before, we have a very limited number of days and there is no getting around the eventual end we all must face.

I did not know her well, but I see my friend's mom in her own laughter, in the boundless joy of her son who hug-tackles my own son whenever they see each other.  I see my friend's father in his own strongly held beliefs, his stubborn and admirable nature.  I think of his father when we share a beer, just like I did with his dad sitting in their backyard celebrating another of his grandkids' birthdays.  The other day my son ran around wearing a pirate hat from one of my wife's aunt's famous theme parties.  He spoke pirate and laughed hysterically and for a moment embodied her joyful spirit.

My thoughts are with all of them as they struggle with this change.  I wish those who have passed peace, and those who remain the solace of all that still remains with them.

Despite a cold start to the day, the sun is hot this afternoon and the air smells of spring.  Tulips are popping up and the landscape hints of green.  It is all beginning anew.  Tonight, when I go outside to get the coals going on the grill I will touch base again with my grandpa.  I want to tell him about the game of "Calvinball" my sons made up in the front yard today.  I want to tell him about the dinner I cooked for his daughter last night to celebrate her birthday.

Twenty-one years and, as much as I miss him, he has not missed a thing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Phones Part II: No Place to Hide

When I was growing up, I got picked on a lot.  I mean, look at those clothes.  Yes, that is skin you are seeing through that mesh midriff. Not cool.  Not tough.

Kids started small, calling me Crater Face because of the marks left by chicken pocks, Strikeout King because I couldn't hit a baseball in Little League.  By junior high, performing arts had become my solution for a near total lack of athletic talent, and with that came harsher nicknames. Pussy. Fairy. Faggot.  I vividly remember sitting in a History class, mindlessly copying notes, when a kid one row over and one seat back started poking the butt of my jeans with a ruler.  "You like that?" he hissed, "You like that you little faggot?"

Like many typical bullies, the kids who went after me were relentless.  Like many typical kids who get teased, I was resilient.  I was also lucky.  I had no cell phone or computer, no Facebook or Twitter, Yik Yak or Burnbook.  This meant I could leave the torment at the final corner of my walk home, when I turned toward the safety of my neighborhood and my family.  At home, none of that could find me.

As a teacher today, I hear lots of stories from kids who are not as fortunate.  The most recent comes courtesy of a new app called Burnbook - a bit of social media meant to tap into adolescents' mean streaks.  According to the description on the App Store, this gem allows you to "join a community to anonymously post pictures and text."  You can "selectively blur parts of photos," it goes on,"to hide those not so flattering moments.  Save memorable moments to your device using the one-tap screenshot counter."  If you grew up in the age of cellphones, you know what all of that means.  If not, let me explain.

Keep in mind the app's name comes from the movie Mean Girls, in which teenage girls write hateful and hurtful things about their peers in what they call a "burnbook."  Most kids have seen that movie; they know exactly what to do with the new app.

For some kids, being able to "anonymously post pictures and text" means being able to publicly bully and humiliate other kids while hiding in the shadows themselves.  Behind an anonymous keyboard, these kids tap out the words they would never utter in public.  Blurring out those "not so flattering moments" means blurring your own face out of a compromising picture while still exposing someone else.  "Using the one-tap screenshot counter" means being able to instantly save to your phone the picture or text you see on the screen.  See a naked picture of a girl you know, maliciously posted by her angry ex-boyfriend, and in an instant it is yours to keep.  Forever.  Think about that in the hands of a mean-spirited kid.  Snap an embarrassing picture, and broadcast it everywhere.  Make a racist or homophobic joke and share it with the world.  All anonymously.

Read on to the rating provided by the App Store, and you will see that the app is rated 17+ for "Frequent/Intense Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use References; Frequent/Intense Profanity; Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity," just to name a few.  I had no idea those ratings were even there, and I bet there are a lot of parents who don't know either.  Burnbook is just one example, but similar things are happening on more mainstream social media like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter as well.  I see it in high school students, but think about all the elementary school kids with iPhones. 

It's not just calling you names between classes any more.  Secrets told to someone in confidence, or intimate moments shared in private, can become the next update on the phones of an entire student body in seconds.  Now, with cellphones always at the ready, bullies can call you fat right as you step out of your own shower, naked and insecure.  They scream their insults from your lap as you sit at your family's dinner table.  A little bird chirps hate from atop your pillow as you go to sleep, and is there waiting when you wake up.  Phones are the monsters from which some kids simply can't hide.

I believe social media can be a wonderful way for kids to feel connected to others and share their thoughts and observations about the world.  Kids tweet messages of kindness all the time, hilarious jokes, support for those struggling.  I also know the descent into hatred, cruelty, and humiliation can be a swift one.

This reinforces my belief that parents need to be meticulous in our supervision, and kids need to be transparent in their use.  It will help to talk about what to do if they come across stuff like this.  Kids need specific plans, because some of the media they see will be disturbing and adult in its most negative connotations.  It will help if we regularly review the content of our kids' phones, not behind their backs but with them, because they will know about the next new app, or the next humiliating post long before we do.   It involves listening carefully when they talk to us and reading up on the apps they are using.  It means watching over our kids as carefully in the online world as we do in the real one.  They need guidance amid a scary and ever shifting technological landscape.

There will always be bullies saying mean things to other kids.  Let's make it so there are places they can get away from it by limiting the use of phones.  If you saw someone threatening your daughter or telling her she is stupid and ugly, you would protect her.  If you witnessed someone harassing your son, you would not let that person into your home or invite him on a family trip.  When we don't talk about their online activity, when we allow phones at dinner tables and vacations, we risk doing just that.

What would be lost if your family set aside phone-free hours?  What text messages could not wait until the next day?  What tweets could not wait for the next time you needed a little bathroom reading?  What would happen if you did not update your status for a night, or a day, or an entire vacation?

What could be gained by putting your phones away?  I have written before about my own experience cutting down on phone use in an attempt to live more deliberately.  With our phones turned off, maybe we could talk about the punk who spews hate all over the playground and how to stand up to him.  Maybe we could talk about ways to practice kindness.  Maybe we can reclaim our homes as places where our kids can feel totally safe, where they can make their way through the awkwardness of youth and practice being themselves.  We can give them a place of sanctuary.  We can give them time for their imaginations to explore.  We can give them a space free from the pressures of what others think.

Everyday when I went home I could be the karate kid, without anyone making fun of that headband.  I could be the cool guy racing his car along the streets of my imagination.  I could throw on my favorite hat (yep, that one) and disappear into a good book.  I could totally be myself.

I was not cool, but I felt cool.  I was not tough, but I felt tough.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Phones, Part 1: Silent Students and Solitary Socialization

A couple of weeks ago, I ended my last period class about six minutes early.  I don't remember why I ended class early that day, but I remember it was sunny and bright in that classroom when I relinquished those few minutes right before the end of the school day.  As host to thirty seniors, I prepared for the deluge of sound, the voices I thought would fill the room.  There were prom dates and prom houses to sort out. College applications were in full swing, and some acceptance letters had begun to trickle in.  Athletes were preparing for games, and aspiring actors for the play.  There were parties to plan, relationships that had formed or ended that week, outfits to analyze, television shows to talk about.  After a full day of classes I was sure everyone was dying to kick back and talk.

What I got was silence.

I am not implying that they all whispered to each other with reserve, trying to keep their thoughts from drifting over to my desk and my ears.  I am not talking about polite conversation respectful of their neighbors' desires to hear themselves think.  I am talking about funereal silence.  Dead silence.  Pin-drop silence.

Almost immediately, the phones came out.  Soundlessly, and in total isolation, nearly everyone thumbed their way around screens while the seconds and then minutes ticked by.  I figured it must just be a common reaction of a smartphone generation: free time meant a quick check into Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Vine, before looking up and talking with friends and classmates about all the amazing things bouncing around inside of them, eighteen years old with the wide world waiting.  The remainder of the period went by and, with thirty high school seniors in a room, I don't think anyone uttered a single word. 

So finally, with about a minute left, I asked them.  I asked what they were looking at, why they were looking at it.  I got a list of the apps I expected but virtually no reasons explaining why they turned to phones rather than the person in the seat next to them.  "Did you find out anything important from any of it?"  No, they all agreed.  "Do you enjoy it?"  Not really, most of them conceded.

The paradox of anti-social social-networking. 

A lot of senior English is based on discussion, yet time and again our conversations have faltered and fizzled out.  I tried giving points for participation, calling on quiet students, pleading with them, sometimes forcing them to talk.  My students' hesitance to speak was a puzzle I could not solve. 

Then on our recent mid-year evaluation I asked a question about their involvement in class discussions.  To my surprise many of them spoke of apprehension and anxiety.  So many who remain quiet in class expressed a fear of being wrong, of failing to express their thoughts correctly, of being intimidated by speaking in front of other people.  "I am just really shy," they wrote.  "I am just not comfortable speaking in front of others."  There was a resignation in these responses that worried me, an acceptance that they are just not people who speak up.  I have a theory of why that might be. 

We are out of practice speaking to and with others. In line at the food store the other day I took a look around, and what I saw was weird isolation and silence just like my classroom that day.  Nearly everyone waiting in line was looking at or talking on a phone.  Even in situations when people do talk with each other - restaurants and family dinner tables, airplanes, locker rooms - people are more and more frequently dividing their attention.   We text between statements, read emails while nodding along to other peoples' stories.  We turn to our phones to fill every silence.

We are sacrificing a great deal in exchange for our voyeuristic forays into Facebook, and careful tracking of Kanye West's most recent tweets.  Simple conversation may be the greatest cost, the process of looking at people, speaking with them, and seeing in their faces acknowledgement of a shared experience.  Short, seemingly unimportant conversations are where we build the foundation of human interaction. 

When we put our phones away we open ourselves to eye contact and a quick hello from strangers which leads to conversations about the weather or the Phillies or something just as trivial.  The content of the conversations is not important, but the connection is.  There is a basic kinship with those around us.  These quick chance encounters reinforce how much we all have in common, build a sense of community, encourage a concern for the rest of society.  Last week, picking up pizza in a snow storm, I talked with two other guys about the seemingly permanent winter.  We laughed together and shook our heads together.  We acknowledged each other with eye-contact and attention.  "Take care," one guy said as he walked back out into the world.  There is meaning in that.

I teach kids on the verge of adulthood, and inside of them there are untold depths of emotion, belief, insight, and aspiration.  But, I am afraid they are losing the ability to express what roams around inside them in any way other than texts and tweets.  I worry that they have spent so much time looking at phones, and so little time engaged in informal conversation that they have lost a necessary skill or at least gotten really rusty.  Like tigers in a zoo, their thoughts pace back and forth inside the cage so accustomed to imprisonment that they no longer yearn for escape, happy now with a more limited life.

So.  I reject the claims that attempt to explain away their silence.  I don't care that speaking makes them uncomfortable.  I don't care that they blush when they speak, or stutter, or that their thoughts come out in a muddled mess when they voice them.  I don't care that many aspire to enter a field of study or a career path that they think does not require speaking in front of others.  What I care about is what they have to say, and the absolute obligation to say it. 

I want my students to speak in front of others in their daily lives of classrooms and practice fields, dances and dinner tables.  I want them to look people in the eye and voice what they think, because conversation can expand horizons.  I want kids to vocally support those they believe are doing the right thing, and openly oppose those doing wrong.  I want them to say hello to strangers simply because they are people.  Bonds are formed through friendly greetings, discussions, and debates.  People are defined by what they have to say and when they choose to say it. 

This is a war, and we must all become foot soldiers.  We must all show kids growing up in this brave new world the importance of simple face-to-face conversation. We all need to lift our eyes from our phones and examine the world around us, engage others in our communal effort to make sense of this world.  Demonstrate the power of a voice by standing up to a racist or homophobic joke, saying with force and eloquence why it is not funny.  Empower our kids to vocalize what their limits are when someone tries to push them into uncomfortable situations.  Share the stories of moments you felt joy or sadness, and see in the eyes of others that they have felt that way too. See how similar we all are.  Connect, instead of just being connected.

Spring is coming, and some day soon with a warm breeze blowing in through our classroom windows I am going to give those seniors a few minutes.  Those minutes will be both a gift and a challenge, a break and an exercise in humanity.  I hope they take it.  I hope they fight the compulsion to pull out a phone and instead look someone in the eyes.  I hope they talk about prom, their excitement and apprehension at leaving this place at the end of the year, their dreams and aspirations.  Or just about the weather. 

I hope their voices fight each other to be heard.  I hope the sound is deafening and drowns out the silence.  I hope it spills out the window and into the spring air sending notice to the world that they are here, they have something to say, and they will be heard. 


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pond Hockey

Pond hockey is a simple game.  Wait for the lake to freeze, find a bunch of guys willing to put on ice hockey skates, buy some Advil and a bunch of extra pucks for all the shots we will miss, and play.  Those of you who have played know what I am talking about.  For those who don't, I am talking about a slip in time that lets you be a kid again.  I am talking about the reality of time travel. 

The excitement surrounding pond hockey begins early in the day, the first time one of us goes out and measures the ice.  Drill in hand we drive the bit into the frozen surface of the lake hoping like children that it won't give too soon, that we will feel at least four inches of resistance before hitting water.  We are dying to send out the text telling everyone that the ice is thick enough to skate, that the game is on. 

Once the news is out, we feel ourselves getting more and more distracted as the day goes on, maybe cutting corners on some task at work or reading a bedtime story a bit more quickly than usual.  By the time we are sitting on the ice lacing up skates, we are bursting with the same enthusiasm we see in the kids we are now raising, the ones we are out on the ice with most of the time.  Through a series of very cold winters, our sons and daughters have come to love the ice just as we do.  But these are the games reserved just for us. 

When we arrive, we race through the snow with our sticks and skates in hand, slipping our way down the icy path.  We are a ragtag bunch in sweatshirts and sweatpants, the occasional hockey jersey of some player traded away long ago.  We adjust the straps on our shin guards, holding them on our legs with a few turns of hockey tape, the Velcro worn out years ago.  We blow on our fingers as we try to lace up our skates in single digit temperatures.  It feels just like it did when we were teenagers and before.  We do everything quickly, not to beat the cold but to get out onto the ice that much more quickly.  When we first stride out and start skating around with a puck, we are transported.  Time shifts backwards, and we are kids again. 

With that comes a recklessness most of us left behind years ago.  We skate hard despite the rust we are shaking off all over the ice.  There is no checking, but no shortage of friendly bumps.  One guy needs to get his knee drained after taking a hard fall a couple of weeks ago; it looks like a rotten grapefruit.  Naturally, he is postponing the procedure until the ice melts.  This same guy completes a thorough warm-up routine at home before heading out onto the ice to protect his hip replacement.  Another plays with a brace to protect his newly repaired quad tendon, a brace he recently bent in a game.  Everyone is sore, and bruised, and scraped.  I am pretty sure at least a couple of us have been concussed.  No one is the athlete he once was, but we play like we are teenagers again. 

There is little we won't do to make it so we can get a game.  We have used shovels, and brooms, and a particularly effective rubber squeegee to clear the ice between efforts.  We have run snow blowers across the frozen lake, and followed behind with hoses connected to hot water heaters and threaded through basement windows.  One guy took a bunch of PVC pipe and built a hand-held Zamboni that attaches to a hose to help spread the water more evenly.  We have been out there in groups, and pairs, and alone prepping the ice.  We have filled small cracks by hand with snow and water, packing down our patchwork with a puck.  We have poured bottles of water we should have been drinking into expansion cracks to fill the gaps.  Hoses have frozen.  Hands and feet have frozen.  Temperatures have been so cold that the water coming out of the hose froze in ripples on the ice before it could finish spreading out. 

We have rescheduled business meetings, dates with our wives, trips to the store.  We have postponed countless meals, and chores, and bedtimes.  We have played past the point of exhaustion and then called for a quick game to five.  We have played four-on-four with goalies, and one-on-one without any goals at all.  Six weeks of ice in a row this year, and I am not sure any of us really wants Spring to arrive. 

One guy, who owns a construction company, has brought out a set of diesel-powered highway lights the last couple of years.  After getting the kids to bed, we head out for another hour or two under the lights.  I can hear that diesel generator fire up and see the glow of the lights from my house down the road.  I don't think I can explain to someone who has not been there the sheer beauty of that scene, driving across the dam and seeing that pool of bright white light, the silvery sheen of fresh ice.  I have stood and stared at the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's David; I have seen the Mona Lisa.  They come close.

After a game, sitting on porch furniture pulled out atop the frozen lake, we share a few beers.  Despite storing them in coolers to insulate them against the arctic cold, we typically wind up sipping slushies as the post game chill descends.  The addition of drinks is the only thing that separates this from the pond hockey of our childhoods; the conversation is the same we had as kids.  It starts with verbal highlight reels: excited accounts of goals we scored, the perfect cross-ice pass, collective groans in response to the memory of the hardest falls.  We laugh about the open net shot sent sailing wide, or some penalty-worthy hack.  Listen to the words, the unbridled enthusiasm, and you are transported twenty or thirty years into the past.  We are just kids talking about a game. 

Eventually, with steam rising off of us and up into the frigid night air, the talk moves to our kids and our jobs, retirement savings and investments.  Huddled around an open fire, we make the transition back into adulthood.  Slowly we remember that our lives now include dependents and mortgages, ailing parents and daughters who date.  The frozen surface of our lake has hosted conversations about the tragedy of burying a parent, and the importance of realizing how little time we all have.  We have discussed the tricky balance of work and the rest of life.  We have voiced our hopes for the education of our children.  We have debated local politics, and lamented the gradual break down of our aging bodies.  Our conversations, sitting there after a game, become unequivocally adult.  We all have moments when we wonder how we became such grown-ups. 

That is the only time we remember how old we are, when the conversation turns to the responsibilities we all have.  The rest of the hours we spend preparing and playing we are time travelers, kids basking in the wonder of winter and the magic of water turned to ice. 

I know my neighbors better than I did before, or likely ever would have without the ice.  I have learned more about their jobs, their families, and their finances.  I have heard stories of some pretty rough times, and reflections about lives sailing along smoothly.  Hockey is like that.  Missed opportunities, cheap shots, and hard falls balanced against the smooth glide of a perfectly passed puck, the satisfying click of hitting another guy's blade, the celebration of a goal. 

The ice will melt this week, and Spring will slowly start to emerge.  Like a little kid, I will sulk a bit as I put away my skates.  But, like a little kid, I will look forward to next year and all the years to come.  Next year, when the lake freezes, men one year older will lace up and let the magic of pond hockey once again take us back to our youth.