What connects us

Last winter, I was putting together a lesson plan in my office when a familiar melody suddenly floated in from the living room, where Ron was watching football on TV.

For the next 60 seconds, Ron and I saw the same series of Victorian drawings flash through our thoughts, in the same order, and while the music was playing in the middle of a 2012 afternoon, for us — and probably for every other American between the ages of 35 and 65 — it was 8 p.m. on a Thursday sometime in 1982.


State Farm was using the Cheers theme song in what may be the most arresting television commercial I have ever seen.

Ron sent me the link to a GQ article about Cheers tonight, and while I was reading it, he got on YouTube and pulled up that commercial.

Here is the power of pop culture: It connects us. It creates commonalities that tie members of a generation together, and in some cases, those commonalities tie one generation to the next.

You and I may think we have nothing in common, but if you were old enough to watch television between 1982 and 1993, you see the same series of images and remember (probably fondly) the same characters I do when you hear that first distinctive chord from the Cheers theme song. And if you remember Cheers, you and I probably have some other things in common, too. When we see a St. Louis Cardinals logo, the first thing we think of is probably a young shortstop doing an exuberant backflip onto the field at Busch Stadium, and when we sing the seventh-inning stretch at a baseball game, we probably hear Harry Caray’s voice. For us, Christopher Reeve will always be Superman, Soleil Moon-Frye will always be a precocious 7-year-old, and we will always remember where we were when the Challenger blew up.

For whatever reason, you and I were chosen to walk through this period in history together. Our paths may diverge wildly, but no matter where we go or what we do, we will be forever connected by our Pavlovian responses to little things like the Cheers theme song or the sound of a Speak ‘n’ Spell being turned on. (You heard it as soon as I said it, didn’t you?)

I find that fascinating … and oddly comforting.


What’s right with kids today

A couple of my former students were expressing disappointment with their generation today on Facebook. One young man was unhappy with his peers’ apparent inability or unwillingness to think critically, while a young woman was disgusted with what she perceived as a lack of compassion.

I can appreciate their frustration — Lord knows I had plenty of negative things to say about my own peers at that age — but as a teacher, I obviously had a little different perspective on things.

During four years in a tough, urban classroom full of tough, urban students, I learned that kids can be remarkably kind. For example: My kids elected a developmentally disabled prom king; started several anti-bullying initiatives, including a Gay-Straight Alliance; and used their own time and money to organize a candlelight vigil honoring two former students who had been killed in a car accident, even creating a special scrapbook for one boy’s mom.

At a more personal level, I will never forget the boy who stayed after class just to give me a hug the day I had Scout put to sleep, or the girl who caught me fighting back tears after a particularly discouraging faculty meeting and responded by writing me a sweet little letter that I still cherish to this day.

I also learned that given the opportunity, most kids can and will think critically about important issues. If they don’t, it’s probably because they’ve spent too much time being told to sit down and shut up.

A lot of teachers don’t like it when kids question authority. It’s too disruptive, and teenagers are cheeky enough as it is. But what I found with my semester-long activism unit was that when I taught the kids to question authority in a constructive, effective way — and then encouraged them to do it — the sky was the limit. (They were hell on the administration, but I think their stellar test scores more than compensated for their impertinence.)

Teenagers can be goofy and annoying and impulsive and obnoxious and exasperating. No doubt about it. But they can also be brilliant, thoughtful, kind, clever, determined, creative, articulate, open-minded, astute, curious, and compassionate — and that makes me very, very optimistic.


Free seeds

I wandered out to what passes for a garden in our backyard this evening and came in with about 30 dried okra pods. I spent a little while extracting the seeds and can report that I have approximately 20 times as much okra seed as I will ever be able to use in one season, with more on the way, so if anybody would like some, just leave a comment here with your name and address, and I’ll send you a packet. (Comments are held in moderation, so your address will not appear on the blog.)

Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure the variety I planted was Clemson spineless.

If anybody has seeds to trade, that’d be sweet, too.


Stolen voices

“Jesus beheld in Science the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals.”
— Mary Baker Eddy

The other night, Ron and I bought a copy of The Exorcist and watched it for the first time in 12 or 13 years. Something about it reminds me of The Little Mermaid.

Stay with me.

In The Exorcist, a hideous demon takes over the body of a young girl named Regan. In its confrontation with the priests brought in to cast it out, the demon pulls out all the stops: It snarls. It growls. It shakes Regan’s bed. It induces her to commit all sorts of repulsive acts. And perhaps most unsettlingly of all, it addresses one of the priests in the voice of his recently deceased mother.

In The Little Mermaid, a mermaid falls in love with a human prince and trades her voice to a conniving witch for the temporary use of a human body. If she can win the prince’s heart, she becomes human permanently; if she can’t, she becomes the witch’s prisoner. Predictably, the witch disguises herself as a human and uses the mermaid’s voice in an attempt to trick the prince into marrying her.

In both films, error speaks with a stolen voice, and its opponents can’t defeat it until they recognize the deception.

This is one of error’s favorite tricks. It might seduce you with an attractive voice. It might use a relative’s voice to paralyze you with guilt. Or it might commandeer a trusted mentor’s voice in an attempt to manipulate you.

Error does not care whose voice it steals. It has no shame, and it has no compunction about turning whatever (or whoever) happens to be handy into a weapon it can use to hurt you.

Both The Exorcist and The Little Mermaid make profound statements about the power of discernment. If the priests can’t see through the illusions that seem to be controlling Regan, she is lost — and humanity, perhaps, with her. Similarly, if the prince can’t see through the illusion that seems to be controlling the mermaid’s voice, then she, and he, and all of the ocean are lost.

In the real world, discernment is often the key to healing. It isn’t always easy to distinguish between a person and the error that seems to be gripping him, but it’s got to be done, or the patient is lost — and perhaps all of us with him.


Munchkin Tuesday: Little Professor

Raise your hand if you owned one of these as a child.

*Emily raises hand*

Raise your hand if you wish you still did.

*Emily raises hand again*

Raise your hand if you are pretty sure algebra scores would be a helluva lot higher if kids still had these instead of being handed calculators at age seven.

*Emily raises hand, waves it, jumps up and down in seat, stomps foot, grinds teeth, gives up, gets on eBay to find Little Professor for niece and nephews*

If there were an app to turn my iPhone into a Little Professor, you know I would be downloading it. Somebody needs to get on that, stat.


Simple pleasures

It’s been cool for a couple of weeks, so I think it’s safe at this point to say that summer is more or less over. I’m no fan of winter, but with the changing of the seasons, three small pleasures return:

1. It’s been cool enough for us to resume our tradition of taking Song and Riggy to the dog park on Sunday afternoons. After being cooped up in the house all summer, they’re really enjoying the change to get out and romp with the other dogs.

2. It’s cool enough for cappuccino in the evenings. I bought a new burr grinder several months ago but never put it to use because the weather was so hot, I just didn’t feel like messing with it. I cleared off a counter and set it up tonight. I didn’t have any good espresso on hand, but I rummaged around in the cabinets and found a bag of decaf house blend I’d picked up in Makanda last time I was home. It was stale, but I put it through the grinder anyway. Stale or not, Makanda Java tastes like home, and for me, cappuccino is always a multisensory experience anyway — one that exists in both the past and present tenses simultaneously. Depending on my mood, the time of year, and my surroundings, a cappuccino can conjure a skipped class, an icy morning in Carbondale, a laugh with a friend, a 20-year-old conversation about politics, a Gus Bode cartoon, a novel I never got around to writing, a text from a friend at a moment of crisis, a date in St. Louis’ Central West End, or any of a thousand other scraps of memory scrawled on paper napkins or scribbled on receipts and bank deposit slips and dropped down the rabbit-holes at the bottoms of purses that no longer exist, where they slipped through singularities and vanished, waiting to surface again at odd moments when the first shock of hot, bitter coffee penetrates the gentleness of foam and carries me into the past at the very moment I’m savoring the present.

Even bad coffee is usually a good experience.

3. Hoodie season is upon us. I didn’t really appreciate hoodies until I wore one to ward off the chill of San Francisco this spring and realized the cool suited me fine if it came with Beat poetry, an ocean breeze, and breakfast in a little coffeehouse two or three blocks from the Pacific. San Francisco is a long way from Oklahoma, but somehow it feels closer when I’m snuggled into a warm hoodie under a cool rain.

Hope you’re enjoying your evening, wherever you are.