Category Archives: insight

The Welcome at the Front Door

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From the time I was a young teacher until I was nearing retirement I would put on a tie before going to school.  And I hated ties.  I never tied them well.  They turned into Dilbert ties every time I turned around. But I wore them practically every day… except when we wore school uniforms and none of the official teacher shirts were made for wearing a tie.  So, why the heck did I spend so much of my career wearing ties I hated?

Well, it matters how you appear at the door at the start of each and every class.  What happens at the classroom door can make or break the entire teacher’s day.

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“Good morning, Jose! Are you ready to make an A today?”

“Good morning, Rita.  Your hair looks beautiful today.  Did you color it?”

“No, Mr. B. It’s the same color it’s always been.”

“You mean it wasn’t purple yesterday?”

“I have never had purple hair.”

“Oh, well, then, it must’ve been that beautiful smile today that made me notice.”

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You have to welcome them in if you want them to sit down and listen to all the wonderful boring things you have to teach them.  I was known for a while as the “teacher who makes us laugh”.  And that can be dangerous.  Principals tend to prefer the silent filling out of worksheets as far as classroom management goes.  But kids got better grades on State tests and wrote better essays for school when we could talk and laugh and entertain playfully creative ideas just as openly as we did the boring old facts and practice.

And, truthfully, if you don’t establish that classroom air at the front door, it never has enough oxygen in it to grow once life in the classroom gets started.

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I suspect that the afterlife in the real world, once students get there after their school years are over, would profit greatly from bosses who knew how to do the grin and greet at the front door every day.  I also suspect that real world bosses almost universally don’t know this particular teacher trick.

You gotta smile and say hello.  You gotta make them feel like they belong. You gotta shake that hand if they offer it, even though you know the only boys who have washed that hand in the last week are the ones who go into the restroom just to comb their hair, and then wash their hands immediately after.  And most of them never comb their hair either. (Oh, please, don’t let me think about the millions of microbes finding their way onto desks and pens and pencils… even the pencils they chew.)  And if you can tell a joke that makes them feel good and laugh, then the victory in the classroom war against ignorance is already on its way to being won.

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Filed under autobiography, education, humor, insight, Paffooney, teaching

The Sardonic Solliloquy

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The homeless man wandered onto center stage just as the spotlight went on.  He shaded his old eyes against the brightness and looked outward into the dark  theater.  It was probably some kind of mistake.

“Oh, so now it’s my turn to talk, eh?”

There was no response.

“Well, if you’re expecting something funny to come out of my mouth, good luck with that.  More than half of what I say that makes people laugh is the result of depression, ill health, and just plain ignorant stupidity.  And the other half of it is not meant to be funny, but is because I don’t always understand what I am saying.”

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There was an embarrassed chuckle somewhere in the darkness.

“I mean, you can’t expect too much from me. I’m a bum.  I have no money.  I have no job.  Not having any work to be bothered with is kinda good.  But the other thing kinda sucks.

And all the great comedians that used to stand on this stage and try to save the world through humor are dead now.  It’s true.  Robin Williams died recently.  George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, and Bill Cosby are all long gone.”

There was some nervous laughter in the theater.

“Oh, I know, Cosby only thinks he’s dead.  But he kinda killed the character delivering the wisdom in the form of observational comedy, didn’t he.”

 

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“But most of them old boys tried to come up here and tell you the truth.  And the truth was so absolutely unexpectedly wacky and way out of bounds that you just had to laugh.  And the more wicked the humor, the more you just laughed.  You didn’t do anything about the problems they talked about.  But you sure did laugh.”

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“It seems like the more they told you the truth and the more you just laughed about it, the more old and bitter they got.  Sardonic?  You know that word?  Not sardines, fools, but sardonic.   Bitterly humorous and sadly funny.  Seems like a lot of them old boys got more and more bitter, more and more depressed up to the end.  More and more sardonic.”

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“I mean,  Carlin was calling you stupid right to your face at the end.  And you just laughed it off.”

The theater had grown eerily silent.

“But it ain’t all bad, is it?  I mean, at least you all can still laugh.  Only smart people get the jokes.  The ones Carlin moaned about were laughing because everybody else was laughing.  Those weren’t the ones we were talking to.  There’s still life out there somewhere.  Maybe intelligent life.  Maybe aliens ain’t located any intelligent life on Earth yet, but they’re still trying, ain’t they?”

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“You shoulda listened more carefully to what they were saying.  Life and love and laughter were bound up in their words.”

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“So I guess what I’m really saying is… just because I happened to get a rare chance to say it to you all… learn to listen better.  The voices are quiet now.  But the words are still there. And laughing at them is still a good thing.  But remember, you need to hear them too.”

The theater suddenly filled with the roar of a standing ovation.  The old man bowed.  And this was ironic because… the theater had always been empty.  No one at all was there now.

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Filed under comedians, humor, insight, poetry, quotes, strange and wonderful ideas about life, surrealism, Uncategorized, wisdom, word games

Dealing With Downers

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“If it weren’t fer bad luck, I’d have no luck at all… Gloom!  Despair! And Agony on Me!”  I often think of that old Hee-Haw! song when bad luck continues to pile up on me in waves… err… waves of bad luck crest over me in piles… or some other gol’ danged mixed

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Some of my tip money, artfully backlit so you might not notice they are all ones.

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After the tax man took all my spare change and dollars I didn’t have to spare, we woke up Monday morning to the Princess still down with flu and me with no more doctor-bill money.  Fortunately there are a few things I can still do about it.  I mean besides eat chocolate and play with dolls.

I have been able to earn extra money by driving for Uber.  I have been mostly delivering meals for restaurants who use Uber Eats, but I have also delivered folks to the airport, taken non-car-owners to work, and occasionally delivered drinkers to liquor stores. (You wouldn’t believe some of the rationalizations and excuses and made-up stories I have heard from people who regret being sober.)  This last week I made $102 on 11 fares plus the cash you can see in my hand.  It may not seem like a lot to you, but for someone who feels sick 95% of the time, it is miraculously helpful to have a job that won’t fire you if you are repeatedly too sick to work.  And I don’t drive if there’s any hint of not being well enough.  I can’t afford an accident caused for any reason.  And you get to talk to people.  Most of them just want to quietly ride and look at their phones.  But some of them ask me questions and strike up story-telling liars’ duels.   (Yes, I know I don’t have to lie to come up with a funny story about being a teacher, but lying, especially exaggerating, is a required part of a teacher’s job.  And that goes for any other kind of story-teller too, so they lie to me more than I lie to them.)  Three straight weeks I have made $100 or more a week.  (Not a lie OR an exaggeration). And that helps.

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I had some necessary yard work to do where the pool used to be.  I had thistles growing that needed to be cut down.  So I pitched in and got that done… in the nude.  Be glad I didn’t take any pictures of me doing the actual work.  Thistle cutting naked?  I am not a nudist in order to offend people.  It was just a way of working off stress without working up a sweat.  It was a cool morning.  And the yard in question is in the middle of the city, but fenced in on all sides.  And no one can see in without climbing the outside of the fence or locating an un-patched hole.  That would be their bad, not mine.

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And of course, I have been working on my humor writing.  What other excuse is there for the last paragraph?  And I just published a humor novel, Superchicken, and started working on publishing another, The Bicycle-Wheel Genius.

There are many more ways to heal the mind of dark depression than you might imagine.  Of course, I did also buy chocolate covered peanuts again, and played with dolls again this morning.  Old nudist fools with their Cirque du Soleil clown noses rarely learn new tricks.

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Filed under battling depression, Depression, doll collecting, feeling sorry for myself, goofy thoughts, humor, insight

Adjusting the Light

I am tired of reproducing my artworks in a way that gives you nothing but glops of brownish gray. My scanner isn’t large enough to get most of my pictures converted into a crisp digital image. Too many shadows and streaks sneak through the cracks. So I have been experimenting with lighting and camera quality.
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This is my 300 watt bulb that I use for bounce lighting off the white bedroom ceiling. It effectively puts a low-glare patina of white light on an artwork that makes for a crisper photo.
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Here’s an old D&D picture of the Pyromancer and his cat-man friend taking an early morning magic carpet ride. It has a variety of primary colors and colored-pencil surfaces that easily reflect glare, so the softer bright lighting makes a more pleasant outcome.
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The real test comes from this graphite pencil drawing. Everything in this picture of Poppa Mouse coming home from work at the mouse post office is merely a shade of gray, no pure blacks or pure whites.
But as with anything in the world of making art, it is an on-going process, a work in progress. So I will continue to work at it.

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A Concert Performed For Nobody

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Back in my college days in the late 70’s I came back to the dorm one night late due to research until the library closed. In the entry hall to the dorms there was a piano. I had never seen anybody playing it. But as I got there, there was a student playing it. It was my nerd friend Kip, an engineering major. It was quiet, unassuming Kip. Kip who was so quiet, in fact, that I can’t even remember his last name, or what his voice sounded like. But he was playing the piano in an empty room with nobody listening. He was playing Scott Joplin’s composition “The Entertainer”. He had his back to me, totally lost in the music. He didn’t know I was there. And I… I was transfixed. I realized he was just practicing. But he knew the music right out his head, no sheet music on the piano in front of him. And he played like the ultimate virtuoso. And the music was so good it made my soul tingle.

It occurs to me that that single moment is, for me, a metaphor for my life. It is a concert played for nobody. I am competing only with myself. I am trying to please only myself. And if anybody is listening… I mean really listening… not just looking at the pictures and moving on, I don’t know it. And that is probably how it should be. This poor player is strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage. And when the concert ends… when the concert ends…? Applause is not likely. And applause is not needed. The music exists for its own sake. And the echoes of it are the fuel that powers the universe.

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Is Mickey Icky?


This post is about writer doubt. And Stephen King. Do those two things go together? If they don’t then Mickey is an awful writer and does not know how to do what he does. It would mean Mickey is icky.
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I used to think Stephen King was a totally over-rated writer. Back in the early eighties I read Carrie, King’s first novel, and got halfway through Firestarter, and had to give up. Partly because the book was overdue at the library, and also because I found the books mechanical and somewhat joyless in the writing. I thought he suffered greatly in comparison to writers I was in love with at the time like Ray Bradbury and Thomas Mann. I began to tell others that King was somewhat icky.
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But King was obviously also somewhat successful. He began to get his books made into movies and people who don’t read discovered the evil genius of a man who tells stories to scare them and laces them with a bit of real humanity, real human feeling, and love.
I saw it first in Stand by Me. That movie, starring young Wil Wheaton as the Steven King autobiographical character, really touched my heart and really made for me a deep psyche-to-psyche connection to somebody who wasn’t just a filmmaker, but somebody who was, at heart, a real human being, a real story-teller.

Now, the psyche I was connecting to may very well have been Rob Reiner, a gifted story-teller and film-maker. But it wasn’t the only King movie that reached me. The television mini-series made from It touched a lot more than just the fear centers of my brain as well. And people whose opinions I respect began telling me that the books The Dark Tower Trilogy and Misery were also amazing pieces of literature.
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So I picked up a copy of Hearts in Atlantis at Half-Price Books and began reading a Stephen King novel for the first time since the 80’s. MY HOLY GOD! King is not a little bit icky. He is so NOT ICKY that it makes Mickey sicky to have ever thought King was even a little bit icky! Here is a writer who loves to write. He whirls through pages with the writer’s equivalent of ballet moves, pirouettes of prose, grand jetés of character building, and thematic arabesque penchées on every side of the stage. I love what I have discovered in a writer I thought was somewhat icky. Growth and power, passion and precision, a real love of both the words and the story. He may not know what he is doing. But I know. And I love it.
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And so, while I have been editing the first novel I ever wrote, Superchicken, to make it ready for self-publishing, I have begun to ask myself the self-critical question, “Is Mickey really icky when he writes?” My first novel is full of winces and blunders and head-banging wonders that make me want to throw the whole thing out. But I can’t throw it out. It is the baby in the first bathwater that I ever drew from the tap. The answer to the questions of Micky ickiness have yet to be determined, and not by me. I guess I have to leave it up to you.

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A Mr. Holland Moment

Life is making music.  We hum, we sing to ourselves, movie music plays in our head as the soundtrack to our daily life. At least, it does if we stop for a moment and dare to listen.   We make music in many different ways.  Some play guitar.  Some are piano players.  And some of us are only player pianos.  Some of us make music by writing a themed paragraph like this one.  Others make an engine sing in the automotive shop.  Still others plant gardens and make flowers or tomatoes grow.  I chose teaching kids to read and write.  The music still swells in my ears four years after retiring.

The 1995 movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, is about a musician who thinks he is going to write a magnificent classical orchestra opus while teaching music at a public high school to bring in money and allow him time to compose and be with his young wife as they start a new family.

But teaching is not, of course, what he thought it was.  He has to learn the hard way that it is not an easy thing to open up the closed little clam shells that are the minds of students and put music in.  You have to learn who they are as people first.  You have to learn to care about what goes on in their lives, and how the world around them makes them feel… and react to what you have to teach.  Mr. Holland has to learn to pull them into music appreciation using rock and roll and music they like to listen to, teaching them to understand the sparkles and beats and elements that make it up and can be found in all music throughout their lives.  They can even begin to find those things in classical music, and appreciate why it has taken hold of our attention for centuries.

And teaching is not easy.  You have to make sacrifices.  Big dreams, such as a magnum opus called “An American Symphony”, have to be put on the shelf until later.  You have children, and you find that parenting isn’t easy either.  Mr. Holland’s son is deaf and can never actually hear the music that his father writes from the center of his soul.  And the issue of the importance of what you have to teach becomes something you have to fight for.  Budget cuts and lack of funding cripples teachers in every field, especially if you teach the arts.  Principals don’t often appreciate the value of the life lessons you have to give.  Being in high school band doesn’t get you a high paying job later.

But in the end, at the climax of the movie, the students all come back to honor Mr. Holland.  They provide a public performance of his magnum opus, his life’s work.  And the movie ends with a feeling that it was all worth it, because what he built was eternal, and will be there long after the last note of his music is completely forgotten.  It is in the lives and loves and memories of his students, and they will pass it on.

But this post isn’t a movie review.  This post is about my movie, my music.  I was a teacher in the same way Mr. Holland was.  I learned the same lessons about being a teacher as he did.  I had the same struggles to learn to reach kids.  And my Mr. Holland moment wasn’t anywhere near as big and as loud as Mr. Holland’s.  His was performed on a stage in front of the whole school and alumni.  His won Richard Dreyfus an Academy Award for Best Actor.  But his was only fictional.

Mine was real.  It happened in a portable building on the Naaman Forest High School campus.  The students and the teacher in the classroom next door threw a surprise party for me.  They made a lot of food to share, almost all of which I couldn’t eat because of diabetes.  And they told me how much they would miss me, and that they would never forget me.  And I had promised myself I would never cry about having to retire.  But I broke my promise.  In fact, I am crying now four years later.  But they are not tears of sadness.  My masterwork has now reached its last, bitter-sweet notes.  The crescendos have all faded.  But the music of our lives will still keep playing.  And not even death can silence it completely.

 

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