Teach, Breathe, Relax

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My wife, Judy, gets worried about me when I come home after teaching a rough class. My reddened face tells her that my blood pressure is elevated once again. She speaks to me in a quiet voice suitable for calming an angry dog and steers the conversation toward topics having nothing to do with teaching.

Lately I’ve been encountering students who do not listen to instructions, fail to understand instructions but do not ask questions, cherry pick one part of the instructions while ignoring the rest, and who do random things unrelated to the assignment even after getting further instruction and clarification.  This occurs after I’ve shown them examples of correctly finished drawings and done demonstrations of techniques.  I’ve sometimes had to sketch the beginning steps on their drawings to get the basics established.

They think that I’m odd and damaged when I show signs of irritation and frustration after they self-sabotage their work by further acts of blind incomprehension or bored indifference. One student cannot follow any verbal instruction.  I told him last Saturday to start a tonal painting by working from dark tones to light tones.  He responded, “Okay, light to dark.”  This was the third or fourth instance of communication failure between us within a few minutes.  “No,” I pleaded, “dark to light!”

The other night a student nodded along when I gave her instruction, and then proceeded to do the opposite of what I had told her.  She advised the women next to her to follow suite, and I had to deal with a minor insurrection.  She began to do the assignment correctly after I gave her a series of increasingly curt orders.  I relaxed as the class began to go as planned, and she asked me if I felt better.  She spoke to me in a patronizing tone as if illness had been the cause of my irritability. I suffered a relapse when I growled in response, “Don’t worry about how I’m feeling.”

I’ve been talking with Judy about all this and have realized a few insights about teaching and my frustration:  1. I get a sense of personal satisfaction when a student learns something–I’ve made a difference; 2. my classroom is a place where I feel in control; 3. I put a lot of effort into preparing and presenting a class.  When students fail to learn my sense of satisfaction disappears.  When students react randomly to my directions I get anxious because I feel like I’m losing control.  When my efforts are ignored I feel disrespected and unappreciated.

I realize that it’s a fool’s game to rely on others for self-worth.  I can only do my best and let the results come in as they may. Getting churned up over a weak group of students is pointless.

A few months back I tried the technique of watching my breath during times of stress.  If I slowed down and paid attention to air passing in and out of my nostrils I had a chance to relax and reset my emotions.  Recently I read a passage from Yogananda where he advises his devotees to keep their calm throughout the day, and to watch for the instances when they fail.  He says that progress can be judged by how well we live in peace with our surroundings.

And that sounds like a good goal to me.  If my focus is on maintaining a sense of peace and calm while I teach, and not so much on ego driven ambitions (control, accomplishment, praise), I might be a lot more effective…I need a tattoo on the back of my drawing hand that says, “Teach, breathe, relax.”  And on the other it could read, “Keep the calm.”

A Poet Wore Black

My friend Kathy wore black on the day after Ronald Reagan’s first presidential victory in 1980.  She told me that she intended to dress like a widow until she no longer felt the need to mourn a political world gone mad.

Kathy was an English major at the University of Dayton.  She wrote poetry and frequently used the words “bone” and “ash” in her free verse to give her writing an air of grim melancholy.  She lived by herself in an off campus apartment and kept her rooms dim by blocking light from the windows with sheets hung from curtain rods.  She cleaned and aired only when the smell of dirty clothes, sour milk and stale cigarette smoke overwhelmed her.  It took a lot to overwhelm her.

I had a crush on her, nonetheless.  I had spent three years dating Midwestern girls who expected me to conform to their middle class expectations, and Kathy presented a bohemian alternative.  But she remained steadfast in her resistance to my overt and covert maneuvers.  Instead she favored the company of Sheila, a fellow English major who glared at me with narrowed eyes whenever I spoke to Kathy.

Two days after Reagan’s election I came across Kathy smoking a cigarette as she sat on the steps of the student union by a statue of JFK.  She squinted through the smoke and coldly studied me.  She knew that I was a Dayton native and once asked me if the world ended for me just beyond the city limits.  She believed that the locals suffered from the delusion that nothing worth knowing existed outside of Dayton.  She coughed and ran a hand through her tangled hair as she continued to appraise me.  She finally said, “You wanna come to a meeting with me?”

“What meeting?” I asked.

“Reps from the Communist Party are giving a talk here at noon.”

“Okay,” I said.  I was glad to be given a chance to prove that I wasn’t a rube and to spend time with her.

The commies, a man and two women wearing gray and black coats, set up a card table in the square near the art building.  They had stacks of pamphlets and flyers at their elbows and looked as grim and determined as revolutionaries should.  The man spoke for twenty minutes and told us that capitalism was doomed and that our lives were exercises in folly until we genuflected before the teachings of Karl Marx.  He didn’t offer any evidence for the imminent downfall of the American system and failed to mention Stalin’s legacy of horror.  I asked him if Reagan worried him.  I knew that the president elect had testified against fellow actors during the McCarthy witch hunt era and had fought against unions in Hollywood.  The communist didn’t hesitate to answer and told me that one American president was much like another.  Reagan was no different than Carter.  I didn’t challenge him.  I thought, “Why argue with a fanatic?”

Kathy went to England during Christmas break.  I saw her at the beginning of the next semester.  She no longer wore black and looked almost cheerful.  I invited myself over to her apartment that evening, and we sat in her living room and drank wine.  I asked her to tell me all about her trip.  She hesitated for a long moment, closed her eyes and said, “I’ll tell you one thing, but I want to keep the rest of my experiences for myself.”  It appeared that anything revealed would lose its magic power to inspire her, and she was only willing to give me a scrap.

I no longer remember what she said–maybe she visited Charles Dickens’ home and saw his writing desk.  But I do recall that a little door closed in my mind as I listened to the rise and fall of her voice.  I made my excuses a few minutes later and left.

During that semester I no longer sought her out.  And whenever I ran into her outside a classroom I nodded a hello but said little.  I no longer considered her much of a friend or had any desire to pursue a romance.

A few years later I ran into an acquaintance who had known both of us at UD.  Pat knew that I had been interested in Kathy and told me that she was still in town.  I was surprised as she had vowed that she would never become trapped in Dayton like so many graduates of the University.  The town was a narrow minded, cultural wasteland that would do nothing to nourish her poetry.  Pat went on to say that Kathy worked at a bar in the Oregon District, a trendy strip of night clubs on the southeast side of downtown Dayton.  She dressed in gypsy skirts, wore a head scarf and did Tarot card readings for the well heeled patrons.  He waited for me to ask for the name of the bar, but I just started to laugh.

 

A Lack of Privacy

I rented an apartment in 1981 with two friends.  It was on the second floor of an old Victorian wood frame house in east Dayton.  I had just dropped out of college and worked at Godfather’s Pizza to support myself.  Dave was a college friend who moved out for a number of awkward reasons after a few months.  My remaining roommate Jack had worked with me at the restaurant.  Now he attended a nursing school at nearby Miami Valley Hospital.

The neighborhood featured a run down cluster of tightly packed houses with dirt patch back yards often patrolled by underfed Dobermans and German Shepherds.  Anything nice left in view of the folks around us eventually disappeared.  Someone had spray painted graffiti on the stained brick wall of an old warehouse a few blocks down the street.  The writer shared the following two thoughts:  “Society is a carnivorous flower.” and “Help!  I’m trapped in Dayton!”.

Our street had a lot of rentals occupied by nursing students, and the dump next door housed a few of Jack’s classmates on the second floor.  One night Patty, Jack’s girlfriend, came over, and the three of us worked on a spaghetti dinner.  Jack was exhausted and fell asleep with his head on his forearms at the kitchen table.  Patty and I were friends, and we told stories and laughed as we drank wine, stirred the sauce and boiled pasta.  We woke Jack up when everything was ready, and the three of us had a pleasant meal.  A few days later Jack took me aside and wanted to know what had happened while he was asleep on the night of our dinner with Patty.  He explained, after I asserted that I had not made a move on his girlfriend, that the nursing students next door had watched me and Patty through the kitchen windows “having a real good time” while he slumbered on.  I had always been straight with Jack, and he believed me when I told him that I was not gunning for Patty.  I took note, however, that a window facing west could be a source of gossip passed around the nursing program.

About six months later the tables turned.  A warm spring forced our neighbors to open their windows, and I overheard a loud argument among the spies next door:

“Mary!  Your boyfriend stole from us.  He broke in and took garble garble garble.”

“Ronnie wouldn’t do that!   He loves me!”

“Oh for God’s sake, Mary.  He’s a druggy.  Of course he broke in.”

“He didn’t break in.  He has a key.”

“You gave him a key?!”

“Why not?  He’s my boyfriend and he loves me!”

“Jesus Christ!  You’re going to go over there and get our things back.”

“I can’t accuse him of stealing.  And like I said, he wouldn’t do that.”

“Well if you won’t do it we will.”

“No, no.  You don’t understand!”

“Oh, we understand.  And if we can’t get our things back you owe us some money.”

(Incoherent wailing followed by slamming doors.)

A few weeks later a house on the other side had a loud party.  I heard some glass breaking and went to a window on the east side of our apartment to investigate.  I looked down at the gap between the buildings and saw two men standing with their backs turned to me.  A broken bottle was shattered next to a scruffy man wearing a torn army jacket.  The other guy still held onto his bottle and took an occasional pull.  They were pissing up against the side of the party house.  One man slurred to the other, “Were you in ‘Nam?”  The other guy said, “Oh man, I can’t talk about that.”

 

 

 

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Happy Hitler Puppy Song

I’ve recently been reading Sri Aurobindo.  He teaches that in the supracosmic state there are no binary oppositions, no contradictions.  Right and wrong, love and hate, truth and falsehood no longer stand in contrast to each other, no longer mutually define their qualities in antithetical tandems.  I decided to experiment with that thought, given that we are being told that we live in a “post fact” world, and combined images of innocence and evil into a charcoal drawing entitled, “Happy Hitler Puppy Song”.

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The song below accompanies the picture.  Its tune is bright and bouncy like a kid’s toy ad  from the mid 60s.

Happy Hitler Puppy Song, sing it when all things go wrong. 

Your dreams are dead, your future’s gone. 

Happy Hitler Puppy Song.

 

It started up in Queens in a small genetics lab.

They sang it to a beagle, a Schnauzer and a Lab.

It really started growing in a Dachshund culture tube.

Now he’s got a will of iron and he’ll wag his tail for you, wag his tail for you.

 

Happy Hitler Puppy Song, sing loud, sing it strong.

We’re so far right we can’t be wrong.

Happy Hitler Puppy Song.

 

You’ve got to have this puppy, no matter what your views (Arftung!).

Your life is really crappy, and you’ve nothing left to lose.

He sometimes snarls and lunges, and barks and bites and chews,

but he’s always sweet and cheerful when Brite Bark’s yipping news, Brite Bark’s yipping news.

 

Happy Hitler Puppy Song, sing it when all things go wrong.

Your dreams are dead, your future’s gone.

Happy Hitler Puppy Song, Happy Hitler Puppy Song.

 

Have a supracosmic day (if you can).

Teachers’ Disease: The Scourge Refusing to Remain Silent

 

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No one warned us about this malady when we were children, but we were exposed to it every day.  I remained largely blind to its insidious effects even when I was an undergrad in college.  I should have realized that an American Art History professor was a sufferer of Teacher’s Blathering Disease (TBD).   She droned on after one of her students fainted in front of her and never bothered to help while another student caught the stricken man and propped him up in his seat.  The professor simply couldn’t stop herself from making one more point, one more appeasement to her anxiety to be heard and understood.  Or perhaps the sound of her voice had become so sweetly intoxicating that she simply could not cut off the flow.

Years later when my children started to attend grade school I noticed another symptom of TBD:  a kindergarten teacher at a school gathering could not distinguish between students and parents.  Her daily communication with five year olds had created habituated neural pathways that rendered her incapable of complex speech.   She talked to us adults slowly…with…simple…words…that she carefully spaced so that we had time to comprehend their meaning.  She used big, enthusiastic gestures and facial expressions even when talking about mundane topics (REMEMBER to bring in BOXES of TISSUES and extra PENCILS!!!).  She repeated herself several times as if concerned that her audience couldn’t remember and follow simple instructions:  “The Thanksgiving Holiday starts on Wednesday, not Thursday, next week.  So don’t bring your kids to school on Wednesday…or Thursday or Friday.  No one will be here on any of those days, you know, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.  Have a happy holiday next week on Wednesday, Thurs–”  (The principal led the poor woman away at that point.  The kiddie chorus jumped in and sang about a Thanksgiving turkey who wanted to live so that he could achieve his dream of learning how to fly.)

And I encountered a variant of TBD mostly found in the retired professor host population:  the need to be the most knowledgeable person in the room.  I attended a church in a university town that was lousy with white bearded coots who suffered from an insatiable desire to impress any victim who came within earshot.  And they didn’t rant just about subjects in which they had been trained.  They could bloviate about sundry topics while basing their arguments on hearsay they had just read in the local paper.  A few catch phrases and some unfiltered facts were all they needed to construct a tower of biased opinions held upright by the will to assert their intellectual dominance.  A correction by an actual expert in the field being discussed did not humble the blowhards into silence.  They would simply bend the discussion away from the damaging point or question the breadth and authenticity of the expert’s knowledge.

The sad thing is that TBD sufferers rarely know that they have a disease.  They remain blissfully  unaware that they have cleared out a room or drained all the joyful energy from a gathering.  They even follow after their victims as they flee out the door.  They want to give the desperate escapees a few thoughts to take with them.

I too suffer from this disease, but have become aware of my condition.  I use simple words, repeat myself, and suck the air out of a room when my need to dominate a social gathering takes over.  I can hear myself rattling on, interrupting others, saying the same damn thing over and over with slight variations in the hope that the latest iteration will capture the fine distinction in meaning that hovers in my mind.  I suffer from the delusion that its elusive elegance must be communicated at all costs.

But I am in recovery.  I will never truly kick my teachers’ disease habit, but hope to learn how to live a productive life that will do less harm to myself and others.  Teacher’s Blathering Anonymous tells us that we are powerless over our addiction and must surrender our thoughts and speech to a higher power.  Now, with God’s help, I am able to fight the urge to babble and can wait patiently while someone else speaks.  Now I can use three syllable words and give my audience time to figure out their significance for themselves.  Now I can go days at a time without hunting down victims and forcing them to listen to me rave on about how I would solve the crisis in Syria or broaden the economic base of Central Florida.  And I can spend time alone and simply keep my mouth shut.

The temptations are still there, of course, and I still suffer occasional relapses.  But the improvement has been real and the rewards great.  My children visit me again.  My wife no longer talks about taking separate vacations.  The neighbors no longer cringe and flee when I happen to meet them at the mailbox.

And I am able to finish an essay without summing up and restating points I have already adequately explained.

You’re welcome.

Dog Quest 2017

 

Animal, Dog, Pet, Puppy, Cute, CanineNext Dog????

Our dog Sammi died in the fall of 2003.  As a black, white and tan rat terrier she was eight pounds of guile, cunning and nervous agitation.  When she ran down the street her legs moved so fast they blurred.  The neighborhood kids called her “The Hover Dog”.

At times her terrier level of anxious energy was too much for me, and I swore a few days after I buried her in our back yard that I’d never get another dog.  But my daughter and her fiance’ visited over Christmas with their two pups, and my wife Judy and I found ourselves talking about the possibility of getting one.  Our house seems large and empty after our visitors leave, and we feel an urge to fill up the open spaces with an active presence.  And Judy and I are somewhat tied to staying close at home.  We have spells when direct contact with friends and family is limited, and we feel a need for extra companionship.

My sister had an Australian Shepherd the last few years of her life when she suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Charlie was an intelligent, very loyal mid sized dog.  He was a consistently hopeful and cheerful presence.  However he was extremely protective of Carla and would butt anyone with his nose who came too near to her.  Once he got me in the side of the neck when I attempted to arrange Carla’s feet on the foot rests of her motorized chair.  And my Dad had bruises up and down his forearms from similarly misguided interventions.  Judy has vertigo and sometimes walks with difficulty, and while I liked Charlie a lot I don’t want to get a dog who protects her from me.

Our search is complicated by our allergies to dog dander, so Judy is looking up hypoallergenic breeds.  We’re discovering that most of these are expensive.  And we want a more mellow dog, but one not too large and dull witted like a Lab.  We may have to find a mixed breed mutt to suit our needs.  And we’ll probably have to wait until after our daughter gets married in May to get serious about finding a dog.  We don’t want to deal with new routines and dog training while planning a wedding.

On Sunday we went to Central Park in downtown Winter Park.  Judy wanted to see something beside the insides of our house and our yard.  We sat in the shade and watched a squirrel digging up nuts, toddlers chased by parents, a guy making balloon animals for children, and two lovers kissing and caressing on a blanket.  And we saw dogs, dogs, dogs.  We commented on the size, shape and personalities of the ones we saw, and I turned to Judy and said, “It really does sound like we’re getting a dog.”  And I thought about all the happy possibilities.

 

The Right Thing

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Sarah Kunkel closed the blinds and pulled back the sheets on her double bed.  She sat down by the pillows, took a damp hand cloth from a bowl on her night stand and lay down.  She gently pressed the cloth to her forehead and closed her eyes.

Her migraine rested like a sleeping porcupine on the right side of her head, but sent out sharp quills to probe the back of her eyes every minute or so.  Sarah felt as though her head would eventually split in two when the malevolent creature woke up and clawed again at the tender connections inside her brain.  She hummed a lullaby in the hope that she might fall asleep.  Her mother sang it to her when she was a sick little girl, and it had worked like magic.  But Sarah stopped when the vibrations on her lips became vibrations in her skull.  Pulsations of dull pain already thudded in time with her heartbeat, and she couldn’t bear adding another rhythm to the mix.

She began to feel blessed sleep descend upon her ten minutes later.  The few remaining unaffected corners of her mind rejoiced as her limbs grew heavy and her breath began to slow.  She saw a vista open up before her of mountains topped with glaciers and Alpine meadows filled with flowers.  She took a deep breath and smelled roses and newly mown grass, honeysuckle and lilacs.  A figure clothed in dazzling white robes walked toward her.

But then the door to the bedroom opened a crack.  A shaft of light from the hall pierced the darkness.  The door swung in, and a man stood in the doorway but didn’t come into the room.  His back lit silhouette looked familiar.  But he wouldn’t dare, would he?  Not again?

The silhouette spoke in a low rumbly voice.  It was Jeff, of course, but she couldn’t quite make out his words.

“Oh for God’s sake, Jeff!  Close the door and a leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’ve got a migraine?”

“Mumble, mumble, mumble.”  He stood there and faltered his apologies.  She couldn’t take it.  He had visited every single night since that horrible day last week when their marriage had fallen and shattered into a thousand splinters of betrayal.  Now the shards were embedded inside her skull, and his visits just pushed them in deeper.

“Jeff!” she screamed and regretted it instantly.  A bloody tsunami swelled in the back of her head and raced forward to tear at the roots of her nerves.  She held her head, moaned and nearly passed out…If only she could pass out she’d praise the gods forever…When she was able to speak again she said, “Come closer so that I can hear you.  You’re killing me.  Tell me what you want and go away.”

He shuffled into the room with his head down and sat near the foot of the bed.  She pulled her hand away when he took it, but he persisted.  She was too weak to fight him.  He leaned closer and whispered, “I did the right thing.”

“I know what you did,” said Sarah.

“Please listen,” whispered Jeff.

“You cheated on me.  That was the wrong thing, stupid.  You can’t talk your way around that.  It’s over and done.  You can’t take it back,” said Sarah.

“I slept with Rhonda, but I did the right thing.”

“Rot in hell, Jeff.  And please, please go away.  Why are you torturing me?  What did I do to you to make you so cruel?”

“You don’t know the whole story,” Jeff insisted.

“What?  You’re going to tell me that it was just a mistake?  She came on to you and you felt sorry for her?  She told the cops that you were the one who wouldn’t leave her alone.”

“I didn’t feel sorry for her.  I just wanted her,” admitted Jeff.

“I see.  Now we’re being honest.  At long last we’re being honest,” said Sarah.

“I didn’t come in here to apologize for the affair.  I know that you’re never going to forgive me for that, and I don’t expect you to,” said Jeff.

“So?”

“I just want you to know that I didn’t want to leave you.  That was never my intention,” said Jeff.

“Bullshit.  The moment you went to bed with her was the moment you left me,” said Sarah.

Jeff released her hand and turned away.  Over his shoulder he said, “You’re not angry because of the affair.  You’re angry because I’m leaving.”

“Shut up Jeff.  Go away.  Make me happy and leave.”

“Not until I tell you the whole story.  I promise I’ll go away and never return after I say what I have to say,” said Jeff.

“That’s a deal, but keep it short.  My head’s about to explode.”

“Rhonda’s husband George interrupted us last Tuesday.  We heard the car pull up, and I managed to run out the back door.  But he saw my wallet on the floor by the bed.  It fell out when I grabbed my pants.  I heard him roar, ‘Whose wallet is this?!’  She screamed.  I crept up to the bedroom window and saw him slap her.  Then he punched her in the stomach and she fell down on the floor.  She tried to crawl away from him on hands and knees, but he kicked her in the ribs.”

“Stop it stop it stop it!  I don’t want to hear any of this!” wailed Sarah.

“I did the right thing,” said Jeff.  “I went back inside and fought with George.  Rhonda got away.”

“Well good for you.  You did the right thing.  You’re my hero.  Are we finished here?”

“Yes, Sarah.  I’m finished.”

He got up off the bed and walked to the door without looking back.  The light from the hall blinded her, and she closed her eyes.  When she opened them again the door was shut and he was gone.

Sarah woke up early the next morning, and the migraine had retreated.  She snapped on a lamp by her bed and saw the wedding photo of her and Jeff framed in gold on top of her dresser.  It was surrounded by an arrangement of white flowers.  She trudged over to the dresser, pried off the cardboard backing and took out the picture.  She stared at it intently for a few seconds and came to a decision:  she tore it in half to separate her image from his and tossed young, still faithful Jeff into the trash can at her feet.

The scrap landed on a thick piece of cream colored paper scrolled with black leaves and flowers.  Beneath the header was a reproduction of a photo of Jeff taken a few months ago when he and Sarah celebrated their twentieth anniversary.  Beneath that a script of heavy gothic letters read, “In memoriam:  Jeffrey Kunkel, beloved son and husband.”