Monday Earworm: Gerry Rafferty

Monday Earworm has returned! I don’t know about you, but I had a kinda tough September. Between work and school stress and a hip flexor injury, I’ve had a somewhat hectic time of things. But that’s okay! Because things are finally starting to feel a little less bonkers. So here! Have an earworm!

So today is my mom’s birthday. One song I always associate with my childhood is “Right Down the Line” by Gerry Raffery because I knew from a young age it was a song that was really special to my parents. They’re still going strong at 46 years of marriage (well, 46 years as of October 6th), and since I know my mom loves this song because it reminds her of my dad, and I’ve always loved this song because it reminds me of my parents’ happy marriage, well. If I were musically coordinated enough to play the piano and sing at the same time, this song would be high up on the list along with almost everything from Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes and Fiona Apple’s Tidal.

Here you go.

 

Monday Earworm: No Doubt

So last week at a faculty meeting, we all had a conversation about dominant versus subordinate social groups: to put it in extremely simple terms, we self-identified into a number of groups based on our identities that marked us as part of the dominant culture or targeted. For example, a person could identify as male (dominant) or female (targeted), as hetero (dominant) or LGBT (targeted), as middle- to upper-class or poor, as White or POC, Christian or Jewish/Muslim/Hindu, etc. You get the idea. And then we paired with one colleague and talked specifically about our own experiences, whatever we were comfortable with sharing. We were asked to discuss when we realized we were part of a particular group (dominant or subordinate) and then also when we realized how being part of that group would affect the way we were perceived or treated in society.

My conversation was with a male colleague from my department. He talked about being male, and I talked about being female. I realized that the moment I learned that I was female (and that this was different from being male) was when I was about six years old and my youngest sibling was born. My father and I were up at the hospital walking around the maternity ward, looking at the babies in the nursery. A nurse held one baby up in front of a large window, a boy who was naked. Dad pointed out the baby’s genitalia and explained that it marked that child as a boy, and that this was different from a girl’s body. I knew I was a girl, and now I knew on an intellectual level what the biological difference between the binary bodies was. I didn’t really think much else about it.

Then my colleague told me the moment he realized that being male meant he would be treated differently came along in his teaching career (at a different school from ours), when he heard a female colleague lament that her students weren’t showing her much respect, and he realized that if he’d made the same remarks to his students, their reaction would have been completely compliant. He recognized his male privilege in that moment.

The moment I realized I would be treated differently by society for being female had come when I was in second grade. We had to line up in our classrooms every day according to height, and dear reader, I am and have always been short. (Think Queen Victoria short. Literally.) And this was a sore point; I was teased about it for some inane reason on a regular basis. Anyway, we were lining up to go across campus to have our class picture taken, and for once I was not the shortest person in my class! There was one other person shorter than I, by almost an inch: my friend and neighbor and carpool buddy, P.J. Eubanks. And I proudly stood in front of him and smiled, giddy not to be the last person in line for the first time.

And our teacher, a generally kind older woman with short graying hair and a wardrobe full of floral print knee-length dresses, sauntered right over to us, frowned slightly, and moved P.J. to stand in front of me. When I began to ask why she’d done this, she explained that he was a boy and that it might make him feel bad to be the shortest person in the class. So she needed me to stand at the end of the line, as usual, so he wouldn’t get his feelings hurt. She straightened my position at the end of the line, smiled, and walked back to the front of the room to lead the class out the door. P.J. turned and grinned and shrugged, and I walked sullenly behind him all the way to the gym, my feathers crumpled in the knowledge that this was how it was going to be.

At least for a while.

When I told my colleague this story, he was appropriately bemused. He didn’t seem to find it any more important than P.J. had.

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me…

At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.

Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.

And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.

***

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.

When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.

And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.

And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.

One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:

“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”

“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

Things like that.

Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”

There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.

Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.

Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.

I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.

I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.

Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.

Monday Earworm: Rosemary Clooney

This past weekend my family and I visited San Antonio. It was a very quick trip — less than 48 hours — and we were seeing some friends and generally just avoiding Houston and the news cycle for a while. We love these little getaways, and this was our last one of the summer.

My grandmother was from there, so I spent a lot of time as a child traveling to SA on the weekends, and it’s a city my family and I really love.

For some reason, this song sticks in my mind with SA. Not only because it kept coming magically up on my iPod while we were driving, but because I link it in my memory with my great-grandmother’s house there. This style of music was a big part of my childhood, too; when I was growing up I would listen to KQUE with my dad or grandfather, especially Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.” If I had come to such a radio personality now, as an adult, I can’t imagine I would have any patience for him, but when I was a child, I was entertained by his anecdotes. And I have always loved Big Band.

Rosemary Clooney reportedly never liked her novelty songs; she hated singing them. But they allowed her to get to the more meaningful stuff, since doing these for her producer meant she could also sing things that mattered to her.

Sorry, Rosemary, but as silly as this song is, I can’t let it go.

 

Poem-A-Day: Lee Herrick

Today is my daughter’s birthday. We have an official teenager in the house now. It’s pretty exciting to watch her grow, as it always has been, but particularly because she is growing into an outspoken young woman, finding peace in herself every now and then and finding purpose in positive activism. She’s aware of the world and knows what she would do to fix the problems with it.

She is utterly baffled by the nonsense around us.

She’s an amazing artist — watch for her Etsy shop this summer, my friends — and she has marched in more protests than I have. She believes in her causes, and they are some very fine causes: women’s rights/human rights, gun reform, climate change correction, anti-bullying campaigns, LGBTQ rights. She stands up for what matters to her, even in her classes sometimes, where she’s not the most popular kid but wow, she knows how to speak her truth.

One day maybe I’ll tell you about how, at the March For Our Lives last month, she posed for a picture with the police chief and led a group of kids in a chant of “Am I next?” until it became just a little too hard to bear.

Anyway, I’m not focusing on those things today, but instead just on my awesome kid and how much I love her and how adorable it is when she video chats with her sweet friends and we have to tell her it’s time to hang up and she rolls her eyes and says yeah okay and we tell her friends good night and they tell us good night and she hangs up and I marvel at how tall she has grown this year and how long her hair has gotten and how incredible and baffling it is that she likes to style it like mine sometimes.

And if I’m honest, I’m also focusing a little bit on the occasional kindness of the random world: on this poem, and how it came to me.

Last year, when I was curating my April series here, I went looking for poems about birthdays and found “How to Spend a Birthday” by Lee Herrick on the Poetry Foundation website. I looked him up and asked if I could use this poem for my series on my daughter’s birthday. I explained that her father’s last name is Herrick, too, and that he grew up not too far from where this poet lives. Not the same family, as far as we can tell, but hey, what a coincidence.

He didn’t get my message in time for me to use it then, but when he did, he was so gracious and said I could, so I saved it for today. The poem is from This Many Miles of Desire (2007).

***

“How to Spend a Birthday”

Light a match. Watch the blue part
                                                             flare like a shocked piñata
                                            from the beating
                                            into the sky,
                                                             watch how fast thin
wood burns & turns toward the skin,
the olive-orange skin of your thumb
                                                             & let it burn, too.
Light a fire. Drown out the singing cats.
Let the drunken mariachis blaze their way,
streaking like crazed hyenas
over a brown hill, just underneath
a perfect birthday moon.

***

Lee Herrick is the author of Scar and Flower, forthcoming from Word Poetry Press in January 2019. He is the author of two previous books of poems, Gardening Secrets of the Dead (WordTech Editions, 2012) and This Many Miles from Desire (WordTech Editions, 2007). He is a Fresno Poet Laureate Emeritus (2015-2017) and his poems have been published widely in literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks including The Bloomsbury Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, The Normal School, The Poetry Foundation online, From the Fishouse online, ZZYZYVA, Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley, 2nd edition, The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems from the San Francisco Bay Watershed, One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form, and Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice, among others.​ He currently serves on the leadership team of The Adoption Museum Project.

He has traveled throughout Latin America and Asia and has given readings throughout the United States. He was born in Daejeon, South Korea, adopted at ten months old, and raised in the East Bay and later, Central California. He lives with his daughter and wife in Fresno, California. He teaches at Fresno City College and in the MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College.

Monday Earworm: Bee-Gees and Pink Floyd

So Spring Break is over now, and re-entry after a holiday from school is always challenging. I’m frequently reminded of the day my mother took me to the parish school where I would be entering kindergarten (for the second time, at this new school, because the diocese didn’t think I was old enough for first grade). I stayed at that school all the way through eighth grade graduation, and their insistence that I start kindergarten with other children my age (despite my academic and intellectual abilities) was perhaps one of the few genuinely good administrative choices I ever witnessed there.

But I’m reminded of it because, that day she took me there to register me, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” had been playing on the radio in the car, and I remember singing the song’s chorus (the only part I could remember) over and over as we walked through the school building, and I kept misplacing the word “inspiration” for “education.” So I was singing, “We don’t need no inspiration…” And I asked my mom what inspiration meant, and she either didn’t or couldn’t really tell me.

I’m sure there are other deeper psychological reasons for my associating that song with the awfulness of my experience at that school, but I’ll leave that for another time.

This morning on the way to school, my kids and I cheerfully sang and danced along with the Bee-Gees’ “Staying Alive” on my iPod. (We are disco fans. They especially love it when I dance like John Travolta at the stop lights. Just the arms, of course, because, come on. No idea what the other motorists think. Not really sure I’m concerned about it, either.)

So in honor of how challenging it is to come back to school after a break longer than an ordinary weekend, I give you this. Enjoy.

 

12 Days of Earworm-Worthy Christmas Music

One of my Thanksgiving traditions, in place for as long as I can remember, is seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade on television. As a young adult, I would wrap Christmas presents while I watched it. Now that I have children and host the holiday at my house, I don’t catch the whole parade, but I do make sure it’s playing so my kids can see it if they want — Dear Husband is indifferent to this one — and so I can drift in and out of the room to take in snatches of it while I’m preparing dinner or getting the house ready for guests.

This year I happened to see Gwen Stefani performing “White Christmas” in celebration of her new Christmas album. I’ve always liked Stefani well enough: I liked a lot of the music she made with No Doubt and on her own, and I’m a fellow red lipstick devotee. It was a cute performance. Nothing spectacular, but the parade’s singing performances often aren’t, seeing as the artists are lip-synching in sometimes frigid weather and moving around on floats. But I was intrigued by the idea that she’d put out an album.

I don’t follow celebrity gossip all that much, but it has been tough the last year or so to go to the grocery store and not see Stefani’s personal drama splashed all over the checkout aisle. Apparently she’s with a country music singer now? And there’s some ugliness with his ex? I try not to get involved. Well, if I hadn’t known that before, just listening to the song previews of her new Christmas album — which did not list “White Christmas,” by the way — would have told me things had changed format.

The album is a mix of traditional and new, original songs. Just listening to thirty seconds of each song clued me in to a new twang in her voice on all the standards and a mention of God in just about every single new song. Ska this is not.

When I was a child, my younger siblings and I fought all the time. So much, in fact, that I’m not sure how we managed to become friends as adults, except that we all live in different cities. And when I began teaching and read my students’ essays about the good times they shared with their siblings and how they cared for and played with one another, I didn’t see how something like that was possible. It felt like my siblings and I had grown up as outliers.

But there was one utterly magical moment, during a December when we were all in grade school, that I hope I never forget. The three of us had gotten out of bed one night, just randomly and without consulting each other first, and all sat down in front of the huge, lit, decorated Christmas tree in the otherwise dark living room, and we just started singing “Silent Night.” To this day I have no idea how or why we started doing it, but there it was, just one perfect and peaceful moment. Then we all went back to bed. It’s the only time, I think, we ever did anything like that, and I have no idea whether our parents knew about it, since they neither interrupted the moment nor commented on it afterward.

But I like that song.