An assignment from Natalie Goldberg from Old Friend from Far Away
“Tell me about someone who was a true teacher for you. Don’t be sentimental. Tell it straight and plain: Who was this person? Go. Ten minutes.”
I walked into class that first day to find a scruffy middle-aged man with a muddy English drawl, the translation of which was further complicated by a mouthful of questionably clean and crooked teeth. His name was Mr. Pugh. He had been teaching honors English in my high school for many years. Both my older brothers had him and I had heard stories when I was much younger.
He was unabashedly eccentric. He explained to us the first day of class that if he woke up in the morning and the same pair of pants was still sitting on the floor from the day before, he would simply put them on again. When you had to get close to him with a question or to hand in a paper you quickly realized that although he had lived in the US for many years, he had not fully embraced our love of daily hygeine.
I would have him as a teacher all year, first for Great Books and then for Advanced Composition. He did not “mentor” me in any traditional sense. He was not the kind of teacher who would throw you accolades and be a cheerleader. He was grumpy, sullen, and antagonistic. He preferred his class to be full of lively discourse bordering on arguments. He wanted people to feel challenged.
And not just about the content of the books we were reading, but on every day topics. It was 1978 and teachers and school administrators were finally figuring out that a good portion of the student body was high during the school day. Someone had been taken aside by another teacher and accused of being high in class. The discussion in Pugh’s class that day about the incident centered on whether a teacher was in a position to unequivocally say whether a student was under the influence or not.
Being the outspoken girl I tended to be, I was arguing quite vehemently that there was no way a teacher could really know if a student was high.
Pugh’s response was straightforward and sarcastic, “Meckling, we always know when you’re high.”
I’m indebted to Mr. Pugh for my love of the following writers: Albert Camus, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Shakespeare. I’m indebted to him for honing my writing skills enough that I never felt the sort of panic that many people feel when asked to write, leaving me with a skill that lead to my pursuit of an English degree in college. I’m indebted to him for telling me I am a writer, for taking me aside and explaining to me that there would be jobs for writers in the real world. And although my adolescent lack of confidence in this arena did not allow me to really believe him at the time, I am forever indebted to him for planting that thought in my head. Clearly it stayed with me.
Remember Jo Anne Worley from the Laugh-In comedy show in the sixties? If you’re under 50, you probably don’t remember her, unless you have older siblings and you remember them watching the show. Jo Anne Worley was the antithesis of Goldie Hawn’s dumb blonde pixie routine on Laugh-In. Jo Anne Worley was this loud gregarious brunette who laughed uproariously and every once in a while would suddenly emit an eardrum-breaking note in an exaggerated operatic voice. She was hilarious, much more of an actual comedienne than Goldie Hawn ever was.
As hard as I try to picture my piano teacher of 8 years who mentored me from budding 6-year-old, Fur Elise-playin’ amateur to adolescent lover of all rock-n-rollers who played the piano, as much as I appreciate now her constant nagging about my fingernails being too long and her continuous insistence that I play AT LEAST 4 or 5 hymns from our church’s hymnal every friggin’ week, every time I try to picture her face, all I see is Jo Anne Worley.
Actually, I take that back. What I really see when I try to picture Mrs. Sarah Raitch, piano teacher extraordinaire from my early childhood, is a face that’s a cross between Jo Anne Worley and Marlo Thomas in That Girl.
There are good reasons for these correlations. Number one, she wore her hair in a bouffant like Marlo Thomas in That Girl. Okay, it was the sixties, but I don’t think she changed that “do” from 1967 all the way through 1975. Plus, she was always expertly coiffed, not a hair out of place, make-up impeccable–albeit rather heavy–nails long and luxurious. She always looked like she was ready to go out. So that’s why Marlo Thomas.
As soon as I showed Mrs. Sarah Raitch that I could play the piano halfway decently, she assigned me 4 or 5 hymns each week as part of my practice. Then, when I was playing them for her at my weekly lesson, she would break out and start singing along as I played.
And I don’t mean she was quietly singing along beside me as I navigated my way through typically impossible chord inversions more suited for singers than piano players. I don’t mean she occasionally sang a line in between helping me find easier ways to play the bass in one hand and the chords in the other. Oh no, no, no! I mean she BELTED OUT THESE SONGS LIKE JO ANNE WORLEY SINGING THAT EXAGGERATED OPERATIC NOTE ON LAUGH-IN!
Ohhhhh yes! You heard me. She would sing in full operatic splendor while this little 8 or 10 or 12 year-old-girl tried my best to bang out the full repertoire of hymns she assigned to me week after week after week. She’d be smiling and singing along, and if I showed the slightest sign of hesitation, she’d yell “Keep playing!” just in case I didn’t understand exactly who this moment was about.
She really was something, Mrs. Raitch. Truth is, I wouldn’t be the piano player I am without her. For instance, guess how easy it is for me to accompany a soloist. Duh. I started accompanying people at an early age. Besides accompanying her as she belted out hymns right into my left ear, I accompanied my older sister who played the flute at an assembly while we were still in elementary school. Later on I would accompany my younger sister, who played violin. Thanks to Mrs. Raitch, I understand what it is to back somebody up, how you have to follow them no matter what they do, how you have to keep the beat for them but still skip parts if they do and wait for them if they fall behind.
And those friggin’ scales and cadences she made me play over and over and over. Man I hated them . . .
But there again, I didn’t even know what such drills were doing for me at the time. It wasn’t til years later when I realized how easily I picked up pop tunes on the piano by ear that I had to credit Mrs. Raitch for having ingrained into my little brain the I, IV, V progressions for every major key signature and their relative minors. I literally didn’t even know what I was learning at the time. It was all so much by rote. And yet there it all is, this cache of rote learning that is there whenever I need it.
As the years progressed, I used the foundation of music theory Mrs. Raitch helped me acquire to build a better understanding of more complex pieces of classical music, as well as build on my understanding of popular music genres. And being the music teacher without a music degree, I have had to build my knowledge of music theory all on my own. But I couldn’t have done it without my diva piano teacher, Mrs. Raitch.
Nowadays, when my students obviously haven’t practiced their scales and cadences, I take the time to explain to them the value of scales and cadences. And even though sometimes they don’t immediately get the connection, I just keep talking anyway. My rationale is this: that eventually, they will either hear me and understand, or years from now, when they are playing one of their favorite songs out of a music songbook, it will suddenly dawn on them . . . oh yea, that’s just a I, IV, V progression in the key of E Flat Major. Now I get it! And hopefully, they will think of me fondly. Either that or they’ll picture me as some hilarious caricature of myself that I can’t even imagine right now.
So how in the world did I get here? I now have ten students. Half of them piano students, the other half voice students. And me, a music teacher with no music degree.
If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you know that I began playing the piano when I was about 6. I took classical piano lessons most of my childhood.
And I’ve been singing for longer than that. In fact, I think I’ve heard my mother retell a story in which she claims she never heard a peep out of me as a toddler until she heard me one day singing “Over the Rainbow.” This might be one of those stories that is more myth than truth, but it sure sounds good doesn’t it? And if you know me, you are not surprised by the tale, tall though it may be.
I think my first singing role was in Hansel and Gretel at the age of 4 or 5 when my older sister and I shared the role of Gretel–she played it one night and I played it the other. I was bitten hard by the theatre bug and pursued roles throughout my youth. Hal McCuen was the director of that children’s theatre project in Mansfield, Ohio. He was a driven thespian who inspired me and many others in more than one generation in that little burg, and I am grateful for having been one of his protege.
My first choir experience was in the junior choir at my church when I was in fourth grade. There, I learned that I am an alto and that I could sing harmony when most kids were too young to carry a tune while someone else sang something different right beside them. My sister and I held up the alto section together, in fact. There were probably twenty other kids singing soprano, and me and Sally and one other girl singing harmony . . . and being heard, mind you.
Our director for that little church choir of prepubescent was really fabulous. She was a very attentive and patient teacher, and an excellent director who could squeeze amazing subtlety out of a bunch of very young voices. I credit her with my being bitten by the choir bug and having spent the last thirty years participating in community choirs, symphony choruses, church choirs, and in choir leadership all my life. Mrs. Ransdell, I tip my glass to you, dear lady.
In high school I tried out for parts in practically every play our school put on. I played Abigail in The Crucible, the maid in The Miracle Worker, Snoopy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,and other roles I can barely now recall. I thank Bill Asher for generously casting me in things that gave me an opportunity to try to act and to sing. Bill was a bombastic thespian: every word he ever spoke and every move he ever made was played for the deaf audience member in the back row of the theatre. Bill helped me figure out that I might be more than just a ham, and that gave me the crazy idea that I might pursue theatre in college.
So off I went to college, spending two years pursuing a theatre degree doing mostly musical theatre. Kept singing, got some voice lessons, and got stronger. But I slowly began to see that a theatre degree was not the most practical route to take in college, so I switched to English.
Then in my third year, I met a merry little band of folks who I thankfully still count as my dear friends today. And this is when my musical education was renewed.
I was living with my girlfriend Cindy when, one day, two people came knocking on our door looking for her. She had met Jim and Kathy at the local diner where they discovered they might have some mutual musical interests. Specifically, they wanted to recruit us to come sing some choral music with them. Jim was the Music Director at the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. He sang bass, Kathy sang soprano. My voice was low enough to sing tenor, my girlfriend sang alto. Together we began working on Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, Bach’s chorales, Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. We became inseparable friends and collaborators.I learned so much from singing in a small intimate quartet. Being able to work more intensely with each other on our sound, being sensitive to one another, listening to each other, working hard to blend—there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t tell you that it was a magical time in our lives and that we have not captured the same feeling singing with anyone or any group since.
Besides those glorious years expanding my classical singing repertoire, my friendship with Jim gave me the gift I had wanted as a child and been discouraged from pursuing. That gift—playing the organ. I had expressed interest in playing the organ to my piano teacher as I was growing up and her response had been, “You don’t want to learn that thing. Nobody plays that anymore.” Unfortunately, I never mentioned it to my mother or anyone else at that time.
But I had always loved listening to the pipe organ at church and now I had a dear friend who played it beautifully and loved it. Jim helped me wrap my mind around teaching myself to play the organ and, with his guidance and encouragement, I dove in with both feet, literally. I’ve never thought of myself as anything more than a “hack” at the organ since I am mostly self-taught, but I learned to play well enough to land the Music Director’s job in Florida, so I guess I did okay. Furthermore, being able to play music with both your hands and your feet at the same time is probably the coolest thing ever. Thank you, Jim. You inspired me then and I am happy to still call you friend.
Those years spent playing and singing with close friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Kent, Ohio set the stage for the next 30 years of singing in choirs, playing in churches, directing choirs, singing in a jazz ensemble, playing in a folk group, and teaching other people piano and voice in the hopes of passing on the love of making music to others.
So when potential students or students’ parents ask me what qualifies me to teach, I tell them, “a lifetime of playing piano and singing and a belief that being able to make music is the most valuable, spiritual, and inspiring gift you can give to yourself or your kids.”
I am blessed to be able to have a hand in that process in anyone’s life. And I am incredibly grateful for the teachers I have had all through the years that helped me improve my techniques, inspired me, and helped me foster, cherish, and never forget the gift of music in my own life.
When I first went to Block Island to work in the summer of 1982, I rented a room from a woman who owned what used to be an old hotel that had been cut up into small dorm-like rooms. Carrie and her husband rented the rooms to kids who came out to work for the summer. No kitchens, shared bathrooms, but at least it was a bed to sleep on.
I didn’t stay in the room long, but it’s a small island and I kept in contact with Carrie over the years I summered there. By the summer of 1986, Carrie and her husband were running a bicycle, moped and car rental business. When a friend of mine who was visiting decided to stay for the summer, the decision was facilitated by Carrie who gave her a job and a place to stay for the summer.
Carrie is, to me, a larger than life character. She is incredibly generous, kind, smart, fun, and very driven. She plays piano and is the primary piano teacher on the island with over 40 students. In addition, she is always running at least two small businesses, being a house mom to her summer workers, principal organist/pianist for the largest church on the island and accompanist for the island’s community choir.
By 1987, I had already spent part of a winter on the island: I joined the community choir, attended Scottish country dancing sessions, and lived with and cooked for the island’s 94-year-old matriarch. As I became more a part of that small community, I was getting to know Carrie and other islanders more intimately.
It wasn’t long before Carrie found out I played piano. Carrie practically pounced on that little tidbit of information and asked me to come play a four-handed piece with her. I had spent some time teaching myself to play organ while I was in college, and had played some piano at the U.U. Church in Kent, Ohio, where I went to school, but I had not done a lot of piano performing outside of that.
And the truth is, I had never played four-handed piano pieces with anyone. When I first sat down with her, I was like, “No way! I don’t know if I can read two treble clefs at the same time.”
Carrie was undaunted, “Of course you can. You’ll pick right up on it.” Carrie has this way about her that challenges you in a way that expresses absolutely NO DOUBT about your abilities or hers. Suddenly you are whisked into this world in which all things are possible and we simply barrel ahead through whatever challenge lies before us.
So we played Dvorjak’s Slavonic Dances, Gottschalk’s La Gallina, Faure’s Dolly Suite. And we prepared them for her recitals. Oh yes, that little dickens had ulterior motives all along. We were always preparing something for her student recitals so she could end the recitals with a bang. All I can say is, I never knew what hit me. I was challenging my abilities in ways I hadn’t in years. And having a ball doing it.
I learned so much playing with Carrie. She’s a very strong piano player with very strong hands, like her personality. The only formal lesson I have had in years was when she invited her piano instructor, a piano professor from Brown University, out to the island to critique us and give us a lesson on one of our 4-handed pieces. The content of that lesson still informs my playing even now, and that was 25 years ago.
Long about 1989, the time came for me to leave Block Island. My mate and I had decided to move to Florida. I was looking for work in the Fort Myers area where an old friend could put me up until I got an apartment. I was getting the Fort Myers newspaper delivered to me on the island, and lo and behold, one Sunday there was a classified advertisement for a Music Director at the Unitarian Universalist Church there. I had already been associated with the U.U.s while in college at Kent State. My friend, Jim was the music director at the U.U. Fellowship there. I had performed with him, singing in a quartet, playing piano in ensembles, singing in his small choir and learning to play the organ in the warmth of that fellowship.
And by the time I was conducting this job search in order to move to Fort Myers, I had performed organ and piano in various places on Block Island, filling in as organist or pianist at the other smaller churches on the island, accompanying soloists for charitable performances, playing in chamber ensembles, as well as continuing to sing in the community choir.
The advertisement was for a Music Director, someone who would play organ for the hymns, play other music as needed for the service on piano or organ, and direct a small choir.
Still, as I said in a previous post, I did not major in music in college. So I’m thinking to myself, I’m probably not qualified to take this position. Yes, I’ve played in churches, accompanied plenty of folks, and I have sung in countless choirs, small ensembles, and as a soloist my entire life. Still, I thought, what qualifies me to be a Music Director in a church?
I took the question to Carrie (thankfully!). You can guess what Carrie’s answer was.
“Of course you can do this, Maggie!”
“But I’ve never actually directed a choir before,” I said in my self-depracating-ness
“So?! Oh, there’s nothing to it. I’m doing it at the Old Harbor Church. If I can do it you can do it. And I don’t have an accompanist; I do it while I’m playing the piano. You can do it.”
This is why I love this woman.
So, I made a tape (yes, it’s when we still had cassette tapes) of myself playing organ and piano and sent it off to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers. And after a couple of telephone conversations with a congregation member and the minister, I landed the job.
I think there are people with gifts so great, energy so powerful, faith so magnanimous, who are so fully engaged in a forward motion in their own lives that they literally propel whoever comes into contact with them forward also. Carrie is one of those people. I am very thankful to have her as a friend. And this was not the only time in my life that she helped propel me through my own self-doubt. More on that next time.
I’m sitting at the computer, writing and listening to Keith Jarrett on Pandora. Keith Jarrett is a jazz pianist who has a unique style and voice (he sometimes can be heard audibly scatting while he’s playing even though he is not a singer). His style varies from contemporary jazz to traditional to avante garde improvisational with a mesmerizing or hypnotic quality at times. Check him out doing Autumn Leaves at the Blue Note: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io1o1Hwpo8Y
One of the first guys I dated in college, a music student by the name of Kevin, turned me on to Keith Jarrett. Kevin and I met when he approached me in the lobby of my dorm where I was playing the grand piano that sat there. Kevin was mean and self-centered and was probably bipolar, like so many of the people I attract like a magnet. We dated only a couple times, but my appreciation for Keith Jarrett has continued through the years.
I love the piano. I have played it all my life. I love to listen to piano music. I particularly admire jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Diana Krall. But I have an undying appreciation of all accomplished piano players and will listen to piano music any time. When a pop singer hits the scene whose main instrument is piano, I tend to have a special affinity for him or her, Ben Folds, Alicia Keyes, Bruce Hornsby, Ingrid Michaelson, Nora Jones. God bless Pandora, because I can listen to any pianist I want day or night.
I am not half as accomplished at piano as some of these folks and I did not major in music in college. Still, it is my beloved avocation. I have played piano professionally, accompanied soloists, played in ensembles, and I have taught piano to adults and children.
I have my mother to thank for this. I grew up in a house where it was simply understood that you would learn to play an instrument, and taking piano was mandatory before you could move on to any other. Out of five siblings, I’m the only one who stuck with piano as my primary instrument.
I was having lunch with my mom yesterday and she told the man I’m dating this story: I was only 7 or 8 years old and had not been taking piano for very long and I performed Fur Elise at my piano recital to the amazement of everyone in the audience since I was such a young girl and a relatively new piano student.
Having an aging parent is such a blessing (my mom is a spry 83), because they possess this big trunk of secrets and memories. And all the wealth and richness of their lives and of your own life comes percolating out of them when you least expect it. Like that short little vignette of my life as a young piano student.
I suddenly remembered how driven I was to learn that piece, Fur Elise. I just loved it so much, I wanted to be it. It never occurred to me that I might not have enough knowledge as a young piano student to play it. The thought never crossed my mind. And even though I was a typical student who complained about having to practice all the time, practicing this piece didn’t feel like practice. I just decided I was going to play this piece and did. It was exhilarating. Of course I could only play the first movement, but learning that piece made me feel like I had flown to the moon and back.
I haven’t changed all that much from that driven, giddy little piano student. I still get a hold of a piece and don’t’ let go. Of course, some of the pieces I pick up take a hell of a lot longer to master. And many of them I never master. I’ll play Clair de Lune my whole life and never play it worth a crap. The arpeggios in the middle really hang me up. I’ve been playing Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata for years. I play a sloppy first movement and a halfway decent second movement, but can’t bring myself to try the third, knowing how fast it’s supposed to go.
Last year I learned the Prelude from Grieg’s In Holberg’s Time, a Suite in Antique Style. I’m still having a little trouble with a couple of places in it, and I will probably never play it up to speed. But when my dear friend, Carrie, told me one of her high school piano students was playing it, I got a little competitive and decided I had to learn it. It’s been a year and I’m still working on it. Maybe I’ll move on to the other movements, maybe not. The joy is in the work!
Even when I am playing piano by ear, finding a popular piece that I like to sing and figuring out an accompaniment so that I can sing it without the record, I still operate in the same way I did those many years ago when I learned Fur Elise. In these cases, when it’s an Ingrid Michaelson song, or a Dolly Parton song, or a Patti Griffin song, or a Cheryl Wheeler song, I usually sit down at the piano with the recording nearby and work out the entire song in one sitting, repeating it over and over and over so I don’t forget it. Then I know it’s in there (my pea-sized brain) and I can pull it out any time I want.
Without all this music running around in my head, I fear I would be very lonely and bored. Thanks, mom, for making me take piano lessons. Sorry I complained so much about practicing.
Of the many gifts I received from my father, this little snippet, “this too shall pass,” has helped me through what I thought were the worst times of my life. There were instances when my dad would say this line and I’d think, geez dad, how callous of you. Can’t you empathize for me in an unhealthy way just once and wallow with me in whatever ridiculous negativity I have dug for myself? Can’t you for once say to me, honey I can’t believe the universe has dealt you such a low blow. You deserve so much better than this and it’s only a matter of time before the entire world understands what riches you deserve.
Nope, my dad was not one for blowin’ smoke. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great dad. He’d help in whatever way he could. He’d give you a place to stay if you needed it, he’d pay your rent if you ran out of money. For cryin’ out loud, he paid college tuition for five kids to go to college, a feat no one on our middle class income could do any more.
But did he tell you you were the most beautiful person in the world and that everything would be perfect for you because you deserve at least that? No way.
See, my dad was a post-WWII, G.I. Bill educated electrical engineer. For those of you out there who were raised by engineers, you understand the significance of this statement. Some of these men are WWII vets, but my dad was a little younger than that. He served in the Navy on the tail end of the Korean War.
But many of the same rules apply. Somewhere between a rough childhood rearing by a strict dad, service in the armed forces, and the school of engineering at Purdue, my dad learned what he knew about being a man and a father. That included learning to do what the post 70s era of self-help refers to as compartmentalizing. To some, he may have done this to a fault, showing little emotion to his kids unless he was getting angry. By today’s standards this seems harsh, particularly in this era of helicopter parents who shepherd their kids as though they are lost sheep up until the moment they cut the umbilical cord as they drop them off at their first year of college (I know, I know, way too many metaphors in that one sentence). Conversely, my dad was the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” generation, confident that if we all keep our noses to the grindstone and work hard, we can do anything. The “sink or swim” type of life coaches. “Get in there kid, you can do it. Quit yer whinin’,” were their mantras.
You may have had one of these fathers. Some of my friends and I who were raised by engineers of that generation joke around that we need a support group we have lovingly dubbed ACOE (Adult Children of Engineers). But all joking aside, even with all his faults—and they all have them—I received many, many gifts from my father. My fearlessness, my ability to compartmentalize (although I gotta thank mom for some of that too), my math skills, my love of female jazz vocalists, my wandering eye (oops, I said I wasn’t gonna kiss and tell in this blog), my understanding that life is not fair, and the mantra “this too shall pass.”
For a man who was basically a devout atheist, who did not subscribe to any religion and did not once even mention the word God in my presence, his continual reference to the idea that “this too shall pass” showed him, in my opinion, to be a man of great faith. And this gift is the one I am most thankful for. This gift has taught me that regardless of how bad things seem today, things will get better. That even though I am incredibly depressed and cannot see my way out of this mess, that something will change and it will not turn out as badly as I think.
Faith in yourself as a person, as a father, as an engineer, as an entrepreneur, as a golfer, faith in the physical world that has some rules and logic guaranteed to continue to be true tomorrow the same way they are true today, faith that the sun will again come up, regardless of how shitty today was, faith that the friends you have today will still be your friends tomorrow, faith that your family loves you. These things are the essence of a life of faith to me, regardless of whether we ever put a label on it, divine or otherwise.
I am thinking of my niece today. She has just lost her father. She is 10 years old. Our family are gathered around her to hold her up emotionally and physically in the same way we did for one another just 9 years ago when my father passed. We shed a lot of tears in the days after my dad died. And we did what we could to honor his memory and give him a good sending off. We told stories about times we shared, looked at lots of pictures, wrote down our memories, held each other, laughed and cried. We will join my niece to honor her dad in the same way.
And we will continue to help her hold her father dearly in her heart and be mindful of all the gifts she received from him. And they are many.
As time goes by, the sadness will begin to fade. And even though she will become suddenly overwhelmed with grief when she least expects it, this too shall pass. And the love and understanding of the gifts she has received will take the place of the sadness, giving way to gratitude, and, hopefully, a life of great faith.
I’ve had a rougher time in the last year than I’ve had in a long time. Life brings unexpected changes and often when we are not prepared for them. I was not prepared for my relationship of ten years to disintegrate, but it did. I was not prepared to lose my job and spend two months in a sheer panic until I found another one, but it happened. I was not prepared to be overwhelmed with feelings for someone new at the ripe ole age of fifty, but I was.
Now, a full year after I set out to write 50 blogs in 50 weeks in my 50th year, I have lost the new job I thought was so great, and I am questioning the romantic feelings I have because I rushed into something out of habit and did not let it blossom naturally.
I see in retrospect that I should have stuck to what my instincts told me to do one year ago—to take time to reflect on my life thus far, reflect on how I have become the person I am in an effort to mindfully move toward my future with purpose and intent rather than fumbling in panic for the next adventure, the next job, the next lover.
If I was one of those people that believes in “destiny” or the idea that the universe is trying to tell me something, I’d say that the universe tried to tell me something and when it found I wasn’t listening, it stuck its big foot out while I was running down the steps just to watch me trip and fall so it could laugh at me.
But I am not so easily discouraged. I will begin again. This time not making any promises, not setting myself up for failure. Just declaring that I will take the time I need to reflect. That is, until I become distracted by the next shiny object.
I spent last night visiting with an old friend from Block Island, RI. She and her mate are friends and former bosses, two of the best bosses I’ve ever had, in fact. When the person I’m working for works hard and doesn’t ask me to do anything she wouldn’t do herself, it makes me want to work as hard as I can for her. Some people might call that a work ethic. I think it ends up being more about human relationships than it is about the work. I hate to disappoint people I like or admire, so in an employment situation, that makes me want to work hard. And it doesn’t matter so much what I am doing. For the right person, I will scrub toilets and floors and enjoy it.
I wasn’t always a hard worker. My first job was at a Thom McCann shoe store. I have no clue why I thought that, at the age of 16, working at a retail shoe store was a good idea. I had no particular interest in shoes at that time (she said as she looked down at her new blue suede cowboy boots; I guess I grew into that girlie fetish). Nor did I have any particular interest in retail sales. I had turned 16 and in my house, when you turned 16, you got a job so you could have your own money to spend on undoubtedly nefarious activities you were unable to spend your parents’ money on.
I was not employed at the shoe store for long. I wasn’t particularly fond of helping people try on shoes, nor did I take the time to learn the convoluted numbering and storage system in the crowded back hallways where the shoes were stored. In fact, I found myself avoiding the back hallways of the shoe store altogether. The manager and assistant manager were snorting black beauties in the back office all the time and I simply could not keep up with that sort of lifestyle at the age of 16.
Then my sister and her boyfriend, Steve, devised a plan to get me a job at the local record store where Steve worked. This seemed like the perfect job for me. As a child of the seventies, I loved music. We were driving to concerts in Columbus and Cleveland all the time, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Todd Rundgren, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, David Bowie. So working at a record store seemed like it would be a great fit. We’d stand around, smoke cigarettes and listen to records, right?
To my surprise, they actually wanted me to work. Sort records, file new records, re-order records, re-sort records when customers didn’t put them back where they were supposed to go. But such great demands were cutting into my smoke time and my ability to hang out with my friends. I didn’t last long at the record store either.
I did not yet know how to work. Sure I had worked in my mother’s home, as a housemaid, chambermaid, bathroom scrubber, dishwasher, and occasional gardener. And I did those things, slightly grudgingly, because my mother cared about them more than I did. I don’t think I really learned to work until I went to work in my father’s factory.
You might think that working for my father would be a cakewalk. Ahhh, she’s the boss’s daughter, she’ll get away with anything. With my dad, the opposite was true. He made sure you understood that his expectations of you were higher than for those of his other employees. You weren’t going to embarrass him by being the spoiled rotten boss’s kid.
My father owned a small manufacturing plant that made a variety of non-metallic parts, mainly for the then thriving Ohio automotive and appliance industries. I first went to work there the summer after my junior year, at age 17. Since I was not yet 18, I could not operate the punch presses, so I worked on various assembly jobs. My father’s employees were mostly women doing assembly and operating punch presses, with a couple men to cut and move material around and fix the equipment.
One particular job I had to do was putting a small bit of metal screen around a fibrous white donut-shaped piece that would eventually go into a catalytic converter. This job was piece work for the women in the shop. The more you could produce, the more you were paid. The job was done in pairs and your work was measured with that of your other team member to record your final numbers and determine your pay at the end of the day. All the other women in the shop had been doing this for years, and had certain expectations and a healthy competition about how much they could produce in a day. Two things weighed heavy on me: first, I’m the boss’s daughter and if I didn’t work my ass off, he’d be pissed. Second, these women needed to make money and I’d be mortified if my teammate made less money because I couldn’t produce. I worked my butt off to get up to speed, and it had absolutely nothing to do with how much money I would make at the end of the day.
More than a year later, I headed to college, and the second job I found—the first one was in a fast food joint and I was obviously not fast food material—was in a family owned coffee shop where the father, mother and son prepared and served breakfast and coffee to hundreds of college students. They were close-knit, hard-working, and anal retentive about how to do every little task in the place and I was determined not to be embarrassed so I hustled and learned how to get along. Again, it was more about relationships than about the money I was making, which was only enough to keep me in tea, cigarettes and an occasional beer.
Then after my second year of college, I headed to Block Island for the summer. And in my second summer on Block Island, I worked for Diane. Diane was running the airport diner and she had this bright idea that I could learn to be a short order cook. So I did that, and I lived in the little apartment above her garage for the summer. What I learned from Diane is immeasurable and I am proud to still call her friend after all these years. In those days, when her son Nathaniel was 4 years old and she was raising him by herself, she was running the airport restaurant, tending a huge vegetable garden, making soup every day for the restaurant, caring for her aging mother, and still finding time to go to the beach and teach me what eating fresh fish is really about.
Maybe it was the fact that I was slinging hash in the mornings and laying on the beach in the afternoon. Maybe it was the fact that I lived in this enchanting garage apartment where I had to carry in bottled water and shower down the street at the marina. Maybe it was the fact that I discovered that a piece of swordfish caught wild in the morning and broiled that afternoon could melt in your mouth like a good piece of prime rib. But I felt like Diane had been the shepherd of one of the most magical summers of my life. She was giving and tireless and I’d have done anything for her.
I’m thinking a lot about those days because I am sitting at Diane’s kitchen table looking out on a sunny day on Block Island, taking a brief vacation before I begin a new job in a week. Likewise, Diane and Donn are getting ready to start yet another new restaurant venture. I told them, if I hadn’t already found a job, I would have been happy to stay and help them open the new place. In fact, I believe I said “I would love nothing more than to let you guys work me like a dog.” I’ve always said that it’s important to me that I work for someone who shares my core values, someone who values the people who work for her, someone who wouldn’t ask you to do something she wouldn’t do herself. Someone with a generous spirit who is motivated to work is someone I will always want to work tirelessly for. If that’s what you wanna call a work ethic, I guess I acquired that somewhere along the way.
Today I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of Ohio’s unionized state workers, teachers, firefighters, and F.O.P. members as we listened to the introduction of S.B. 5 by one of its co-sponsors, a bill that seeks to completely eliminate collective bargaining in the state of Ohio. Our numbers—which some estimate to be as much as 1500—filled the chambers of the Senate Hearing room at Ohio’s Statehouse, overflowing into the hallways, packing the atrium, and filling several secondary hearing rooms into which they had to pipe the audio of the hearing’s proceedings so the multitude of concerned workers could hear every word uttered in the hearing.
For those who may not know it, last year’s Ohio election mirrored many others in the country, turning over many state offices previously held by Democrats into the hands of Republicans. And as one of their first orders of business, the now Republican majority seeks to bust the state workers’ union and every other union in the public sector in this state with the sole intention of disarming the unions in order to take back the White House in 2012.
Needless to say, having two union teachers in the family and two family members that work directly for a union, I stand with my union brothers and sisters for their right to have a place at the table to collectively bargain their work contracts with the State of Ohio.
But my support for the right of workers to bargain collectively is not something I came upon late in life, or even as a young adult. I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade when the teachers in my school district went out on strike. It was during this strike that I learned about the right of workers to organize.
I got the sense from my mother that some kids’ parents were very upset about the strike. Many had vowed to cross the picket line and teach in order to keep the schools from shutting down. I don’t remember who’s mother taught our sixth grade class, but my mother crossed the picket line to teach first grade, and my younger sister had to endure the trauma of having her mother for a teacher.
What I remember most about that week is recess. During recess, a handful of other students and I walked around the perimeter of the school (the picket line) with Mr. “E.”, which was our nickname for the gym teacher, Mr. Elias.
Mr. E. gave us an education I have never forgotten. He talked to us about fair wages for teachers. He talked about the personal hardship involved in being on strike, not just for him but for others he knew that had families and were now on strike. He talked candidly and openly, not lecturing, not proselytizing, not angry. He answered our questions and then signaled when it was time for us to go back into the school. And with his answers, I began to understand that working people sometimes had to fight in order to be treated fairly.
Other similar thoughts started to occur to me around the same age. I had been placed in the “gifted” program in both 5th and 6th grade. In each of those grades, we had three classrooms of kids. One out of the three classrooms in each grade was designated as “gifted.” The majority of the kids in each of those classes came from our school, but in each class there were two or three kids who were bused in from other elementary schools on the north end of town. I knew it was not possible that out of all those schools on the north end of town, there were only a handful of kids who were as smart as the 50 of us that came from my school to fill those two classrooms.
And it started to register with me that the schools north of us were in poorer school districts. My elementary school sat squarely in between poorer neighborhoods and more affluent neighborhoods to the south, which most assuredly had their own “gifted” classrooms. But the schools on the north end didn’t have gifted classrooms. And even in my young mind, I knew that it simply was not possible that these two girls—for their were only two girls in my 6th grade class that came from other schools—were the only smart kids in 6th grade at their schools. And why exactly wouldn’t they have their own “gifted” class at their schools?
I began to ask questions that lead me to understand that school funding in our state was (and still is) dependent upon property taxes and that the property taxes in poorer school districts simply wouldn’t afford those schools the same advantages that we had.
So 6th grade is a crucial time for a lot of reasons, I guess. It’s the year that I became aware of class issues even within the middle class, aware of how working people have to fight to be treated fairly, even if they are college-educated, and aware of how some kids will never have the advantages I have had, no matter how smart they are. My father had often defused us kids when we were complaining about this or that by saying “Who told you life was gonna be fair?” At age 11, I was beginning to understand exactly what that meant. And by the same token, I was beginning to understand that life was gonna be a little fairer to me than it would be to a lot of others.
My oldest brother, Jeff, ran away from home the first time when I was probably only 7 or 8 years old. He played guitar in a band and he played music in his room all the time. I don’t have great recollection of specific memories of my older brother at that age. What I have instead is a sense of comfort, awe, longing, and a sense that he was connected to something greater going on in the world that I was unable to comprehend fully.
Our house had two bedrooms on the second floor, one of which was intended to be the master bedroom boasting three walk-in closets and a bathroom. But at that age, my older sister and I were sharing the larger bedroom and Jeff had the room across the hall. I’m guessing the year was about 1967 or 68. My brother’s room had peace signs and pictures of the Beatles from the Let It Be album hanging on the walls.
What I remember most prior to his departure is going to sleep at night to the sound of his music. Whether he was playing guitar himself or playing records, there was always music playing at night as I went to sleep. Then one day he was gone. And the music stopped. And I couldn’t get to sleep without it.
I was very young. I had not experienced a loss. My father’s parents had both died by that time, but they did not live nearby and I had not been close to either of them.
And with 8 years between us, it’s not as if I was very close to my older brother. But when he left, I felt a big empty space that eventually became filled with longing.
Other memories around that time are more like sense memories than actual events.
I have a vague memory of my parents’ dread as they waited for Jeff’s draft number, and the slight sense of relief as they explained after receiving it that they had reason to believe he would be safe. I can remember that the older boy who lived across the street was drafted and how the news came back that he had refused to carry a gun in boot camp and so was told to go home. I remember thinking, well if that’s all you have to do to get out of going to war, that doesn’t seem too bad. I had no notion of what a dishonorable discharge might mean.
I began to romanticize the journey my brother must be on. I was drawn to any movie that romanticized the hippie way of life or running away from home or a road trip. Even if the story didn’t intend to romanticize the idea, I could look past a story of a troubled teen addicted to downers and see, instead, a triumphant story of a young person striking out on her own to discover the world on her own terms.
Meanwhile, my brother’s journey was far less glamorous than I let myself believe. Struggling with his own demons, and after a requisite west coast hitch-hiking journey, he settled down on “The Farm,” a born-again Christian community not far from our house run by a very kind man with five beautiful dark-haired daughters. Having accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, much to my mother’s dismay, he finished high school, continued playing music and went about his new life.
Lucky for me, he still looked like a hippie, with long scraggly hair and tunics, so I could continue to romanticize the role I had cast for him upon his departure. And I filled the empty space he left with a sense of longing—longing for adventure, for hitch-hiking, for discovering the rest of our country, for long hair, long flowing skirts, and the need to get away.
By the time I reached fifth grade, I found an old army shirt with the sleeves cut off that must have belonged to Jeff and wore it to school. Enduring ridicule for my fashion choice, I told the most popular girl in our class—a girl who regularly teased me even after she had invited me to her house for a sleepover—to “drop dead” loudly in front of the whole class, a move that was accompanied by sympathetic and admiring jeers from many classmates. I began to see that I was not going to lead a conventional life and I embraced the idea fully. Instead of feeling left out by the popular girls and ashamed to hang out with my second cousin, who was pretending to be a horse pretty much 24/7 at that age, I embraced my outsider status, reveled in being picked last for all team sports, and ran around the playground during recess with my second cousin, the horse.
Jeff still was a peripheral part of our lives. He had gone off to college to study music, was still one with Jesus, and soon brought home a girl he said he intended to marry. I was probably in seventh or eighth grade by then. His girlfriend was a buxom blonde with wild eyes and big full lips. She was loud, like us, and was a voice major in college. They kissed in ways my parents never had. They seemed very sure of themselves and full of the promise. I was infinitely interested in them, and they were willing to talk. I asked her about sex and she gave me frank and open answers to my questions. I asked them questions about their faith, not so much because of any spiritual needs or inclinations of my own, but because it was obviously very dear to them, and I wanted to be close to my older brother. Maybe I wanted to feel some of the things he must have experienced, what I assumed were the same things I was longing for, gain some sense of the adventures he must be having. Mostly, I wanted to feel that comforting feeling of being lulled to sleep by the sound of his guitar across the hall from my room.
It’s been many years since then. Jeff’s life has taken him many places, as has my own. Jeff and I have spent time getting to know one another through the years at various periods of our lives, whether here in Columbus, or in D.C., or on Block Island, or in upstate New York. He is as much a part of my family as the three other siblings I have. You might attribute my memory of it being otherwise during my youth to a combination of pre-pubescent angst and sibling adoration. But that wouldn’t be the whole story. For even now, we are not happy at family reunions until Jeff plays the guitar for us.