Lightly Going (Tribute to Mr. Engberg - My High School History Teacher)

Mr. Engberg failed to teach me American History.

This failure was not his fault: In 1987 when I took his junior year-level US History course, I was a mediocre student with a well-established habit of not applying myself. He did his best, and I did not.

Despite my laziness and preoccupation with all things teenager, we navigated the curriculum throughout the school year (with him encouraging me to study more, work harder, and me not really doing either) right up until he convinced me to go on the yearly trip to the Yosemite Institute. Two of my closest friends and most of my classmates were going, so I succumbed to the totality of the pressure and went.

As I’ve gotten older (and I mean a lot older) it’s become progressively more difficult to describe exactly how that one week in the Yosemite Valley impacted me—transformed me—and significantly altered the trajectory of my life.

(Quick aside: I’m not sure about the rest of you, but the trajectory of my life looks less like a straight, ever-elevating line and more like a half-masticated spaghetti noodle thrown against the wall by a crazed yet god-like toddler.)

Anyway, I’ve become jealous, protective, hoarder-y of the few memories I still have of the Yosemite experience, and words fail worse and worse with each attempt to capture why that trip was so important, so vital, so essential. I’m not going to bother.

Expressing gratitude is another matter. I never got to say ‘thank you’ to Mr. Engberg. Not in the way or ways that matter. And the fact that I won’t ever be able to communicate this as an adult and in person to him is a tragic missed opportunity.

Mr. Engberg, I know it’s too late, but here it is:

Thank you for seeing me.

Thank you for hearing me.

Thank you for insisting that I had worth and value and something to contribute to this world.

Thank you for giving me the wonder of trees and mountains and streams.

Thank you for showing me—cliché though it may be—that life has no through-line, no destination, only the switch-back journey and those few precious trail-markers we occasionally find to guide our way.

Thank you for informing me that VWs are as awesome to drive as they are traumatizing to maintain.

Thank you for modeling for me that it is our connection to our friends, to our families, that inspire our actions and our service.

Thank you for being a part of my life.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. 

Mr. Engberg, you did what only the best teachers do: you provided a learning opportunity that finally got through to me. An opportunity that revealed a vast, complicated and beautiful world, and my place within that world.

I am forever grateful to you for this. And with the glaring exception of junior-year American History, I am and will always be your student.

Taking on the Chops: Even the Best Reinvent Their Craft

Procrastinating earlier this week, I watched Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage which is a 2010 documentary about the Canadian rock band Rush (perhaps obviously).

For those few of you who either know me or who read this blog, I’m a drummer (mediocre, most definitely, but I identify as one nonetheless). Every drummer has to deal with the dominance of certain players who shaped the role and pushed the boundaries of what a rock drummer can play.

Neil Peart is one of those drummers whose legacy and whose playing you have to acknowledge. Now, I’m not a chops (technically proficient/precise) drummer by either temperament or practice, so it was never a question of me imitating or emulating Peart. But there are basics that every drummer can learn—should learn—from the masters (and with apologies to the ever-humble Peart, he is a master).

At the top of his game, but following a poor showing at a Buddy Rich tribute concert, Peart reinvented his playing by studying under renowned jazz drummer Freddie Gruber.

What was revelatory was that Gruber didn’t teach—didn’t have to teach—Peart how to play; he focused instead on body movement, feel, and the ‘dance’ of the body when it synchs up with the song and the other players.

That Peart, who could have just kept performing in the same manner as he had been and done just fine for himself, took the risk to challenge his preconceptions and his habits and his playing—his very identity as a player—is an amazing testament to the resiliency of art and to the resiliency of the artist.

Stringing Together the Pieces

Part of my mindfulness training has seen me bringing together aspects of my life that I have often held as separate.

The most difficult act of inclusion has been uniting my job with my creative endeavors. In those initial floundering years post-college, I very actively and forcefully separated the two so that my job was a miserable march to earn a paycheck while my creative endeavors—writing! music!—were held as sacrosanct activities.

I suffered for forcing this separation. My personal life was unfulfilled (he wrote, summarizing multiple agonizing years of failed relationships in a mere phrase), and in retrospect, I know that my art wasn’t exactly flourishing.

The act of separating is more subtle these days, but I still do it unconsciously - even as the lines between work-self and artist-self are blurring because of how I work (at home or on the road), whom I live with (wife and children), and more self-awareness.*

To live my best life (as the kids say), I recognize that not only do I need to bring my presence to that life, no matter what it is I’m doing, but I also need to be who I am in all of those areas, which requires acceptance and confidence. Hence, I suppose, the word ‘practice’ that often cabooses the term ‘mindfulness.’

*It’s not easy.

Time Passages

I’m a child of the 1970s, so as life events transpire, songs from that era will pop into my head - hence the title of the blog.

(The song is by Al Stewart for the poor souls who did not grow up in that era.)

Anyway, my eldest son ‘graduated’ from elementary school and begins middle school in the fall. My youngest son is transferring to an arts-focused elementary school in the fall, and like that, we are done with a neighborhood school and community that we’ve been a part of for six years.

I’m certain that all parents go through this to varying degrees, but as a parent of two premature children who at various times had health struggles and showed signs of not being on par with the development levels of their peers, moving through these common milestones is, well, remarkable.

They are growing, evolving, thriving.

I credit the attention and care that my wife has given them; her efforts—her labor and her love—have done more for my children than anything or anyone else.

That’s remarkable, too.

Happy Birthday House, Home

This weekend my wife, children and I are celebrating our house’s 100th birthday.

Ours is no grand or palatial home, but a humble bungalow we have heard was built for the cherry orchard workers in what used to be the fruit-tree strewn hills of Northeast Portland.

There was the unfortunate 1970s era remodel, which added a bedroom at the back as well as a build-out of the attic space into two more rooms. Based on evidence and stories from neighbors, including a random visitor who used to live in the house as a child, the remodel was needed to accommodate the many children who once lived here.

My wife and I have lived her for fifteen years, and we are grateful for the home and for those who lived within these walls before we did. Thank you, house. Happy birthday.