If you follow my author page on Facebook, you already know today's quote of the day (and if you don't follow me, click that link and then click "Like"!). The quote, often misattributed to Frank Sinatra, goes as follows:
I feel bad for people who don't drink. When they get up in the morning, that's the best they'll feel all day.
Of course, it wasn't Sinatra who used this line in his act at the Sands Hotel, but my idol Dean Martin. "Dino" realized early in his career that fans seemed to love the notion that their entertainer was -- like many of them -- a little bit buzzed. It made them, as audience members, feel like they could relate to the man in front of them. It made them laugh when they saw someone with so much fame and fortune doing simple things like slipping and falling, spilling a drink, or hiccuping. Dino embedded the facade so intrinsically into his persona, that it's rare to see an image of him without a glass of some kind in his hand.
Interestingly, though, Dean Martin was not as big of a drinker as people would like to believe. His passion was actually golf. In fact, by the time he earned his fame in Las Vegas, he spent nearly every morning on the links, getting there at 6:00 am. Think about that for a second: if he was consistently awake before 6:00 and ready to hit the course by then, how could he have been such a lush?
According to his daughter Deana, who wrote the excellent biography entitled Memories Are Made of This, Dean perpetuated the myth that he was constantly drunk simply because he knew it entertained his fans. In actuality, he was relatively straight-laced. His drinking habits, on any given night, went as follows:
- a glass of wine while waiting backstage for his act to start
- a rocks glass filled with ginger ale for the first half of his act
- a "refill," where he would often drink a single shot of J&B on the rocks -- but only one
- ginger ale for the remainder of the act
- a glass of wine before bed, as he often slept alone in his hotel room watching Westerns
Sure, he loved his women, so there were obviously nights where some of those habits adapted to his fancies, but on the majority of nights in Vegas, Martin eschewed the party scene, and he found clever ways to side-step alcohol. In fact, he was famous for "disappearing" at parties. Sinatra often tried to beg him to stick around, but Dino would smile at a fellow party-goer, say, "Tell people you saw me here," and then duck out the back. After all, he needed to be up bright and early to golf.
Nevertheless, he maintained the facade of a heavy drinker until his later years, often remarking, "If you're drunk, don't drive. Don't even putt" or "I don't drink anymore. Now I just freeze it and eat it like a popsicle." He'd often stand on stage for nearly 30 seconds before saying anything, and when he finally spoke, he would blurt out, "How long have I been onstage?" And no matter how many times he went through this schtick, it always made the audience smile.
So on this St. Patrick's Day, I urge you to have a drink or two, but to remember that the most entertaining drunk of all time wasn't nearly as lit up as everyone thought. In other words, you don't need to get to that point either. Have a few, have a light buzz, and be silly.
You don't need alcohol to be drunk -- just ask any of Dino's fans.
Like most people in the same circumstances, when I first became a teacher I thought I was going to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I entered with the naive notion that, with a healthy dose of "cool" and the right mixture of "respect," my students would grow to love me, pay forward the respect to each other and back to me, and achieve their potential. I thought that with the right attitude, I could have saved Emilio in Dangerous Minds or had my students start their very own Dead Poets' Society.
Then I stood in front of a classroom.
It didn't take long for me to realize that those dreams were largely unrealistic. It's not that the end goals were outright unattainable, it's that inspiration and action are things that cannot be directed from the outside -- they must spawn from within.
After one year of having students tell me I played favorites, I was mean, and I didn't know what I was doing, I began to believe them. I studied for the LSAT, researched law schools, and thought, "Screw you guys, I'm going home."
But something tugged me back. I can't quite tell you what it was, but I knew that I couldn't leave teaching yet. So instead of entering Year Two with the same attitude, I altered my approach to that of survival.
The ensuing six years had their ups and downs. I grew a lot as a teacher and as a man. I learned how not to handle more circumstances than how TO handle many. But as I grew more and more passionate about my job and my students, I also grew more and more STRESSED, which made me more and more ANXIOUS, which ultimately resulted in a pretty severe depression. I realized that only a handful of my students were living up to the expectations I had set, and I was unwilling to let those who fell short off the hook.
Worst of all? Since I hadn't met my quota of saving all students, I considered myself one who fell short. I was a failure.
A lot of things happened between the moment I admitted this to myself and the moment I'm writing this blog, but the main one was my decision to turn my PASSION into COMPASSION. I realized that my goals to have students succeed was more for the ego gratification I would get through my students' success.
Today I received yet another heartfelt e-mail from one of my freshman students at UCSD. I'd venture to say that nearly 40% of my students have expressed outward thanks to me this semester, either through e-mails, thank you cards, or -- in one instance -- a red apple on the last day of class. This is not meant to be boastful, but rather to point out that something I'm doing seems much better -- and that's the only foundational change I made.
I decided to teach students about perspective in addition to writing. I gave them the sense of agency and accountability. When students e-mailed me with excuses for late papers, I opted for, "I understand. Things happen. Do the best you can" instead of the standard, "No late work accepted." When they came to ask how they could get an A on the next paper, I switched to, "Don't worry about the A. Let's work on improving your writing, the grades will happen" instead of "Read the rubric."
I noticed how jaded a lot of professors become after several semesters of teaching basic composition, and I thought there was no hope for me. I still realize I may end up jaded after another couple of years, but right now I've grown to love the process of watching kids struggle to find their way with the written word. For some reason, they actually seem to enjoy the bumps once they get to the end of the semester.
Oddly enough -- despite the criticisms of some peers that I was being soft -- I began to notice my actions had a counterintuitive effect. Now that the class felt LESS "do or die," students began prioritizing it. In the past two years, I have only had one instance of academic dishonesty, zero confrontations with students, and my average grade still rests comfortably in the high C to C+ range. In other words, my compassion for my students -- in addition to the accountability I demand of them -- has led to far greater success than any hard rules previously had.
And best of all? Many of the correspondences I received from students mentioned how their "outlook" had changed after my class. Several expressed that they had found more effective ways of managing stress. A few even told me they had become less fearful and anxious.
When I went through my dark times with depression, all I wanted was for someone to show me the way out. I realized at some point near the end that it is much easier to stay out than to get out. My goal became to help anyone within my power to do so. With compassion, I do my best to serve that purpose -- even though my class is writing. Interestingly enough, I think the end result has made EVERYTHING better.
After taking the day off from my Inspiration Thursday post, I wanted to think of a topic that somehow related to my "day off." Perspective, something that is rather similar to last Friday's post, jumped out at me.
Yesterday was a long, difficult day for me. It involved an early morning shift at Starbucks, an afternoon class at UCSD, and a series of papers to grade in the evening. All day long, I kept looking for a window to write about inspiration before I realized: I simply wasn't inspired to write yesterday. Of course I was inspired by a series of events: two students asking me to write them letters of recommendation, one paper that I read blowing me away with insight, a conversation with my cousin that brought me back some remembrances of comedy from my past… But sitting to write a blog felt like a chore rather than a pleasure.
At first, I caught myself "guilting." In other words, I told myself, "You said you were going to commit to writing a blog daily! Don't fall to the temptation!" And that almost worked. I almost cranked out some real shit for you folks.
But then perspective set in. My promise to myself was about committing to the craft of writing -- not being a robot. Since I have made this promise, I have written a little bit every single day. Even yesterday, though I did not write a blog, I outlined a story. In short, looking at the big picture, taking a day off did not have a negative effect whatsoever.
This is similar to so much we do in life. In friendships, we fall short of our own expectations sometimes. In love, we fall victim to mindlessness in our interactions. In work, we half-ass a task. But if we maintain the proper perspective, we might see that -- over the long-term -- these slip-ups are natural. They are what make us human.
I'm not endorsing laziness. I'm also not suggesting you should be apathetic about the mistakes you make. Rather, I'm saying that any time you fail to live up to your expectations; any time you stop short of the greatness you seek; any time you tell yourself you should have done this or that… step back and look at the situation with perspective. Is your trajectory still trending where you desire?
Someone once told me that an airplane flying from California to Hawaii is actually off-course for 98% of the trip. It either goes above or below its intended tack. However, the destination ends up on point. This is the same with life. As long as we're moving in the general direction that we seek, there will be times when we fly above or below our ideal trajectory.
Knowing that we will eventually land on the right runway, we need not worry.
As my loyal followers may know -- all three of you, for now -- I've been trying to establish a sort of theme for each day of the week. Wednesday has, for the last month, been "What I'm Reading Wednesday." The hope, of course, is that I can guide anyone who stumbles across this blog to some new good literature and that, through open discourse, readers can open my mind. Surprisingly, it's already added a few things to my list.
The reason I am so late in bringing you this week's edition is because I have been READING ALL DAY. What, you ask? For the first time, I'm reading something I won't necessarily recommend:
Oh, it's not that they're bad. In fact, I had a compelling one about the rhetorical strategies utilized by Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal that appealed to his intended audience during the 18th century in Ireland (and, sadly, since I am a nerd, that was not sarcasm -- the paper rocked). However, reading similar arguments over and over truly deadens your mind for more fruitful reading.
So in terms of "pleasure" reading, here is what I was able to gravitate toward today:
- One more section of Don't Worry, Be Grumpy by Ajahn Brahm (highly recommend)
- The final chapters of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (assigned reading for my class, but I love it -- so it's pleasure)
- Inspirational quotes!
On days when I feel that I do not have the time to breathe, quotes often ease my mind. I try to share them on my author page which, if you have not already, you should "like" on Facebook. Hopefully I will get back to substantial reading next week, when three of my classes expire, but until then…
What are you reading?
I was all set to write a blog analyzing a famous photograph of the Rat Pack before I decided to save that one for a rainy day. In a week when my attention needs to be focused on grading papers, I figured I'd instead try to create a discussion about the best standards and classic jazz tunes to create a playlist! Please, in the comments, chime in with your favorites. If enough people participate, I can create a Spotify playlist and share it...
I'll get us started:
"Everybody Loves Somebody" by Dean Martin
"I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" by Dean Martin (with Chris Botti on sax in the new version)
"Standing on the Corner" by Dean Martin
"I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" by Tommy Dorsey
"Stardust" by Nat King Cole
"It's Impossible" by Perry Como
"So In Love" by Cole Porter
"Dream a Little Dream of Me" by Ella Fitzgerald
(passing the baton)
Field of Dreams is not a baseball movie. It has baseball in it, but if you've ever watched the film in its entirety, you would see that baseball is a backdrop to a film about faith, passion, and pursuit of dreams. Just because baseball is in it does not make it a "baseball movie."
This weekend, I was fortunate to have a wonderful soul help me look over 18 timed writing assessments, scoring each and giving brief end notes. Not only did this make my work load far more manageable (52 other papers), but it also reinforced a concern I often have about writing -- and about communication in general. The #1 comment my colleague left regarding papers that weren't up to the task was some variation of: Is this really what this reading is about?
In other words, YOU ARE MISSING THE POINT.
Missing the point is an epidemic in communication. People are given messages to comprehend and, somehow, focus on the wrong parts more often than they ought to. Why has it become so difficult to focus on the bigger picture of a text, a comment, or a story? Why do people get lost among the details? I'd like to blame it on attention span, on technology, on those young whippersnappers and their doggone rock 'n roll -- because it's so fun to do that -- but then I would be missing the point.
This problem isn't new. It's been around long before the internet, when people saw Ray Kinsella and compared him to Crash Davis. Heck, it's been around much longer than that.
My theory is that is stems from FEAR. Everything does.
As humans, we have a tendency to label everything we encounter so that we can put it into an understandable context. Why else would a group of doctors call something "Generalized Anxiety Disorder"? Because those suffering from anxiety did not feel comfortable unless their condition was validated. Similarly, it's difficult to tell people that Field of Dreams is a movie about a son who regrets his final interaction with his late father and desperately seeks to do what is right, based on his limited understanding of faith in himself and in the world. It's a heck of a lot easier to say, "It's a baseball movie."
This fear of being on the outside of understanding leads to such oversimplification of "main ideas." My students had an essay that gave a highly nuanced view of why people ought to omit certain truths from others. The general consensus on the thesis: Lying is okay. While close, to be sure, it is not the same thing.
This reminds me of one other instance from the past week. I had the good fortune of seeing a John Mulaney show in San Diego. Mulaney told a hilarious anecdote about a time he was heckled in Murfreesboro, TN. The story culminated in "the best heckle he's ever heard." He went on to make jokes about the name of the city, claiming it sounded like it had been named by a dying Civil War general who must have had a mouth full of mashed potatoes as he mumbled, "Murfreesboro." (Put it on the sign! said his grandson. Exactly as Pappy said it!) My girlfriend nearly died laughing.
I did, too -- especially when I read this critique of Mulaney's bit the next day. The poor sap who writes the article takes offense to many innocuous elements of the comic's tale, ranging from Mulaney's inability to pronounce the town correctly to the fact that, according to his archives, Mulaney may never have actually played in his town. In other words, this columnist is MISSING THE POINT.
Mulaney does not tell this anecdote to criticize the city in any meaningful way. (In fact, he makes the heckler sound articulate and thoroughly philosophical.) He simply points to a town on a map that looks like a "mouthful," and relates an anecdote to accommodate his stand-up comedy routine. It's hyperbole. It's exaggeration. And it's funny.
Maybe Mulaney saw it on a map when he was touring in Nashville and thought, "Here's an ironic idea." If he had written the same Civil War general joke about Nashville, it simply wouldn't have been funny. I'm sure no offense was intended to the fine denizens of Murfreesboro.
Yet this man writes a passionate article defending Murfreesboro and the pride of its residents. He even wastes ink clarifying the actual etymology of the name (because if Mulaney had told his audience, "The town is named after a deceased general named Murfree," they would have rolled down the aisles laughing). He then criticizes Mulaney for a failed sitcom and implies that the disrespect he showed to Murfreesboro will come back to bite him. Touring nationally and (I'm sure) still writing for many comedians and shows, Mulaney doesn't exactly need the endorsement of a town in central Tennessee with fewer than 100,000 citizens. Plus, he's a comedian -- not a member of the census bureau. His goal is humor, not minutia.
I don't have a major philosophical point in this blog. Not this time. All I can say is this: People, spend a little time thinking about the "big idea." You're losing points on essays and you're missing chances to laugh. Exercise the muscle in your head. At most, you can become wise enough to truly grasp the depth of most conversations happening around you. At the very least, you won't lose energy taking offense when someone calls you a San Diegoan instead of a San Diegan.
Life, it seems to me, is a series of relatively random occurrences that befall us one after the other. Sure, there are ways to enhance the probability of an outcome (exercising and eating healthy give a better chance to avoid heart disease, smoking promotes the likelihood of lung cancer developing, for instance), but these desirable, and conversely, undesirable outcomes ultimately happen indiscriminately. Some of the healthiest people ever, folks who haven't even inhaled one puff of smoke in their lives, get cancer of the lungs; some crotchety, old alcoholics are pushing 100. It is just the way of things.
But what we, as humans, tend to do is attached value assessments where they do not belong. When someone becomes ill, we automatically bemoan, "How sad." When someone stumbles upon sudden wealth, we all exclaim, "How lucky!" (Unless we hate the person, I suppose. Then we just say, "Why not me?") But the fact is that we are never sure in the moment if something truly is sad, happy, or anything in between. Things just are.
Ajahn Brahm, a wonderful Buddhist monk who I have written about before, once wrote a book called Good? Bad? Who Knows? While the title of the book seems almost self-explanatory, he broaches the very issue I bring to light: why do we think certain things are expressly "bad" while others are automatically "good"?
Here's an anecdote to illustrate my point:
A man wins first prize in a raffle -- a brand new Ferrari. "How lucky!" say his friends. "My, it is so good that you've won that new car!"
"Is it?" the man replies.
Two days later, he picks up the keys to his new vehicle and begins driving it home to his lovely house on a hill over the ocean in San Diego. About three miles away from his home, a drunk driver speeds through a red light and t-bones the Ferrari, driver side. The man is rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
By the time he awakens in his hospital bed, his friends and family surround him, exclaiming: "How awful! Oh, what bad luck! This is so terrible for you!"
"Is it?" the man replies.
That night, as he lay peacefully asleep in the hospital around 2 am, a heavy gust of wind hits the hillside under the man's house at just the perfect angle to erode a foundation beneath the structure. The house tumbles down the cliff, into the sea. Had he never been in the car accident, where would he have been at that moment? "How lucky!" they all say. "This is so good!"
To which he, of course, replies, "Is it?"
That anecdote is one of my favorite illustrations of Ajahn Brahm's basic thesis of Good? Bad? Who Knows? In our search to make sense of everything, we attach an arbitrary meaning to events without knowing the end of the story.
What if you get cancer? Is that automatically bad? It may serve as something that strengthens your fortitude, that allows you to inspire others… or maybe not. But if it did, would that be bad? Even if someone dies of an illness, there is a bright spot somewhere. Perhaps they have left a legacy of love or memories for those around them, something that may not have come to the surface in the same way had the "bad" event not happened. There's simply no way to know.
We never truly know if something is good or bad until long after it happens.
So the next time something good or bad happens, rather than letting the knee-jerk reaction affect your mood, take some time to be like the man in the story. When someone tells you how amazing or horrific your something may be, look them in the eye and ask a simple question:
Seeing how it is National Book Day, for today’s inspiration, I figured I’d stick with something close to my heart: reading.
Those of you who know me well know that one of my favorite sentiments growing up came from the all-time hits leader in Major League Baseball, Pete Rose, who once said he didn’t like to read because it was bad for his batting eye. Oh, that laugh that I used to give after quoting that to teachers, friends, and even my parents as a child. It gave me a sense of justification for slacking off: if Pete Rose did it, why can’t I?
Then something happened. I realized it didn’t really matter how good or bad my batting eye was – I wasn’t a good hitter anyway.
Around the time I had that realization, I was taking a class in college called The Contemporary Novel, with Dr. Coleen Grissom. Among the many novels assigned for that semester were Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore. In less than a semester, I couldn’t care less about the strike zone anymore – my eyes had found a new place to zone in.
The dystopian landscape of Oryx and Crake, the brilliant illustrations of an emotionless life, the dehumanizing effects of corporate science… All of these things lit a fire under me. Then, when I felt compelled to take on all the injustices of the modern world, I got swept off my feet with the silly tale of an angel who misunderstands God and accidentally brings a bunch of zombies back from the dead for Christmas. Between my newfound ambition to save the world and my realization that the written word could elicit belly laughs, I undertook a new task: writing my own fiction.
There have been so many things that inspired me over the years, but reading is one that surprised me. I never thought it was “for me.” Much like every other situation in my life, though, I thought I knew more about myself than I actually did.
Thanks Margaret Atwood, Christopher Moore, and Dr. Grissom for holding up the mirror so that I could see myself clearly.
Please add more comments to my threads, folks! It will help with a few things. First (and selfishly), it looks good for page hits. But more importantly, my friends, family, and any random followers likely have a lot of good ideas and suggestions that can create a community discourse. Lord knows I do not represent the world with my views and my reading habits, so I'd love to hear what anyone who peruses this site may be reading!
As for me, I have begun reading Don't Worry, Be Grumpy by the inimitable Ajahn Brahm, a Theravadan Buddhist monk located in Perth, Australia. It is a BEAUTIFUL collection of 108 amusing anecdotes that show the world through his perspective. I highly recommend it.
Perhaps even more wonderful is how I got it: my good friend Renee Swindle attended a retreat featuring Ajahn Brahm, met him, meditated with him, bought the book for me, and had him sign it! I'm a lucky man to know such wonderful people.
And for those who do not know Renee, please visit www.reneeswindlebooks.com and check out her catalogue. She's a wonderful author and an even better human. I urge you to read one (or all) of her books!
*I urge you to click the links and listen along as you're reading. It will help set the mood!
Often in discussions about why jazz standards and other “old” music is better than modern music, I cite the fact that the values are more evidently wholesome. The lyrics of Cole Porter tend to be more intellectual and clever than that of, say, Li’l Wayne. I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground with that claim.
There was an article a few years ago that I read which hypothesized that the reason for this could be linguistic more than anything else. I wish I had the link still, but it essentially said the use of the word “you” had decreased significantly between the 1960s and modern music, while the use of the word “I” had shot up exponentially. In other words, our own songwriters have leaned more toward focusing on themselves than ot the objects of their affection.
However, another beautiful thing about music from the past is the subtle ways in which they managed to show morbidity and darkness. Rather than slamming on a set of drums and screaming or whining with an acoustic accompaniment, the geniuses from this time period were able to take on subjects that were not always “pleasant” and do one of two things: 1) make them pleasant or 2) trick you into thinking they are harmless.
A few examples:
1. “Save the Last Dance For Me,” written by Doc Pomus
You can dance—any dance with the guy
Who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight
You can smile—every smile for the man
Who held your hand ‘neath the pale moon light
But don’t forget who’s taking you home
And in whose arms you’re going to be
So, Darling, save the last dance for me
Few people realize this song was written about Pomus himself, a man afflicted with polio. As you probably know, polio is a disease that often leads to a disabled condition and the inability to walk – or to dance. Pomus composed the lyrics to this song in honor of his own wedding day, when he wanted his wife to have as much fun dancing and cavorting as possible – with the knowledge that the “last dance” would be for him.
Unlike a modern song that might overtly point to the irony or the conflict in order to elicit emotion, Pomus never even mentions the truth. He leaves the focus on the woman he loves, rather than on his own personal circumstances…
2. “Artificial Flowers,” sung by Bobby Darin
Alone in the world was poor little Anne
As sweet a young child as you’d find.
Her parents had gone to their final reward
Leaving their baby behind.
This poor little child was only nine years of age
When mother and dad went away
Still she bravely worked at the one thing she knew
To earn her few pennies a day.
She made artificial flowers, artificial flowers
Flowers for ladies of fashion to wear
She made artificial flowers, artificial flowers
Fashioned from Annie’s despair.
(let’s catch up a few verses later)
They found little Annie all covered with ice
Still clutching her poor frozen shears.
Amidst all the blossoms she fashioned by hand
And watered with all her young tears.
This is a song about an orphaned girl who makes shitty artificial flowers that earn her "pennies" in order to survive. She makes them out of her own goddamn despair. That’s not sad enough for you? Well how about we have her freeze to death at the end, still holding the damn tool and flowers that are drenched in her own tears? That enough?
The irony here is that the song bounces, swings, and dances its way along at a fast-paced, merry beat. If you heard Peanuts-adult-style mumbling, you may think this was one of the happiest songs ever. It’s about a homeless child who freezes to death. Thanks for the uplifting subject matter, Bobby.
There are many other examples, I’m sure, but these two stood out to me as excellent evidence that earlier composers and artists were simply less concerned with infusing themselves into everything and, instead, letting the music be clever enough for them.
Any other songs you can think of that are similar? Post them in the comments!
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