Hey, gang, I'm working on a webzine called "Statement," and this site, derekleif.org, is really going to become a sort of shell that houses that webzine for a while. Click anywhere here to go to it.
Without getting too cryptic: I've come up with this way to make a website almost entirely out of Google Docs, and it's starting to look kind of awesome. This in spite of the fact that, in order to look even remotely decent on a phone, I needed to format all the Google docs a weird way.
But the cool thing is, okay, it's a Google Doc, but every doc is a web page. And that means that I can update a webpage composed of Google Docs incredibly fast, and add new content in less than a minute.
I'm just having fun with this so bear with me. Check out the link. It will be strange, because you'll be traveling through Google Docs and PDFs in which the links work on desktop and laptop browsers, but not always on phones.
So this is the creative endeavor that I'm doing I'm not doing when I'm not my day job. Because "Statement" is in Google Doc format, I can update it constantly, and I will do that with every weekly issue. I'm hoping that there will be more stuff there every time you check it.
Thank you. That is all.
"Greedo shot first, Winston. Greedo has always shot first."
Bassets view the sea differently from other dogs.
Whereas other dogs think about the surface of the water, Bassets think about the bottom of it.
Basset bones are dense. So dense, in fact, that whereas other dogs can frolic in the water and paddle around, Bassets will immediately sink to the bottom.
When I see Bassets cautiously wade into the water, I often think that they wish that they had diving helmets. Then, they could stand at the seas’s bottom, and look up at the dogs playing far above
I have never had children until now.
Even as I write this, I can see the understandable sneer on the face of any parent. Oh please, they seem to be saying. I’m comparing having dogs to having children? I have no idea. There is nothing that comes anywhere near raising a child.
And believe me, I know that. Having worked with children and young adults for more than a quarter century, I so often think of all the work and care that a good parent must devote to raising a good child. As I have said to many parents, I can think of nothing more difficult and demanding than raising a child.
With that said, though, I ask that I may offer the following, with, once again, the provision that nothing comes remotely close to raising children:
Raising puppies comes closest.
Time and again, as I’ve been navigating this world, I’ll notice something about looking after these two creatures (that would be Opus on the left, and Trixie on the right) and then share this observation with a person who’s raised children (that would be a parent). And so often, when I discuss it, the person will relate some story about their son and/or daughter that not only makes me think I’m learning some empathy, but reminds me that whatever it is that I’m complaining about, the stakes, for a parent of genuine human children, are exponentially higher.
Take, for instance, the first time that I learned one of the first rules of puppies: never, ever, leave them alone.
I learned this when I let Opus and Trixie loose in the living room after taking them for a post meal walk (and by the way, this will be part of another blog entry, but for, just this: it’s unimaginable many times it is necessary to take a puppy for a walk each day). Because the dogs were safely in the living room (we’d installed one of those gate things that fits into a doorway and prevents a small creature, human or otherwise, from leaving the room). I sat down in the dining room (where I write), and checked a few things on my laptop.
It was at this point that I came to know a feeling that every parent knows, at least the ones with whom I’ve spoken. It is that dreamy feeling that comes after having fulfilled a particular responsibility with a young creature, for at this point, it is easy to enter a realm of magical thinking. In this realm, fulfilling that responsibility--walking them, in this case--meant that they were now all taken care of, and that I could leave them as if they were a washer/dryer.
This lasted a warm, fuzzy four minutes or so, at which point I heard the two of them running around, and suddenly remembered that the puppies, though walked, had four legs, and sets of jaws.
I caught them making confetti out of a roll of paper towels. The paper towels, by the way, are there to clean up whatever messes they make as we housetrain them. Unlike cats, dogs cannot take themselves to the bathroom.
This will happen again (and again), I’m sure. And each time, it does, I will think, as I always do: how much higher the stakes are when this happens between a parent and their children.
Again, I can hear the exhausted exclamations from (understandably) exasperated parents: please. Is it only now that it has occurred to me that every moment of a good parent’s existence involves always thinking about their child, putting thoughts and concerns about themselves last?
To which I’m afraid I answer: yeah. I’m so sorry that I didn’t see this before, but yeah.
One time when I was outside with them off the leash,I turned my head for a moment, and lost sight of Opus. For the thirty seconds it took me to find him (he was in our front yard, as he often is), I could not help but think: he may be lost, and this is all my fault.
For the most part though, my thoughts are more of this vein: really, what is the worst that can happen if I leave a dog unattended in my house? There are a limited number of places that I’m leaving them, and the amount of trouble that they can get into is mild at best. I mean, okay, they can chew on wires, but even there, I’ve sprayed some bitter tasting stuff that the pet store sells on the wires, and this pretty much takes care of it. And the rest of the time, particularly when they’re in the outside world, they’re on a leash.
Children are not on a leash. Though there are gates to confine them to a certain part of the house, they are, on the whole, far more free range. Furthermore, having a bigger brain and opposable thumbs, they are capable of getting into far more trouble.
One of my friends told me about a time he was in the kitchen with his son. He was cooking. He was watching his son.
He turned his head for a moment. His son stuck his hand on top of a lit oven burner. For a little while, his hand had the imprint of the cover to the burner (there was no scar, fortunately).
I can’t imagine how I would have felt had such a thing happened to me. It wouldn’t have mattered that I made a mistake any human could make, that of turning my back on a small child for even an instant. No, for me, at that point, my conclusion would have been that as a parent, I was a total failure, and that it was only a matter of time before Child Protective Services looked into this matter.
Parents tell me they pretty much felt this way every day during the first several years of their child’s life.
There is much more that I can talk about, but for now: I really do think that for someone who’s never had children, experiences with a puppy, when a person relates them, can cause a parent to nod, smile, and say “okay, let me tell you a story…”
More to come. And many more pictures, because I want to show you many more pictures. That’s another thing that parents of babies do that I now get.
I want to show everybody pictures of these two. Be kind.
19 OCTOBER, 2019-MY LIFE AT THE MOMENT: AN EMAIL TO MY DAD ABOUT AN INTERESTING POINT MY FRIEND JOSH FOSTER MADE ABOUT DONALD TRUMP
Note: a few days ago I sent my father a copy of the letter that Donald Trump sent to Turkish President Recep Erdogen--a letter that Erdogen reportedly threw in the trash--which was as follows:
THE WHITE HOUSE
October 9, 2019
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
President of the Republic of Turkey
Dear Mr. President:
Let's work out a good deal! You don't want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don't want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will. I've already given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson.
I have worked hard to solve some of your problems. Don't let the world down. You can make a great deal. General Mazloum is willing to negotiate with you, and he is willing to make concessions that they would never have made in the past. I am confidentially enclosing a copy of his letter to me, just received.
History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!
I will call you later.
...to this, my father, with his talent for brevity, replied:
I hope you'll recall what I said last year. The man is dangerous to this country. he is without a doubt the most stupid being on this planet. Or may brilliantly evil. He has no regard for this country. He is only concerned with his fat self. by the end of the upcoming week, I hope the Democrats have sufficient evidence for impeachment. We'll see. The corruption 45 has visited on this nation defies description. Love ya meeses to pieces.
...yes, he did indeed write "meeses to pieces."
And believe it or not, it actually figures into my reply:
Josh Foster, a good friend of mine from UMASS with whom I've reconnected on Facebook, offered an interesting theory:
Besides being sociopathic--that is, having no moral or ethical sense--he shows all the signs of having a serious learning disability.
Think about it: he doesn't read, his vocabulary is limited, and he has had to compensate with what seems to be a complete lack of academic acumen with the sort of glib, populist style that makes his approach work crowds in the basest way. At his military school, he was horrible in academics (remember that he paid to have all his school academic records suppressed), but apparently excellent in non-academic matters, such as military discipline (in other words, he did fine when someone gave him easy to learn, simple orders that he could master, and then execute in lockstep). This would also explain his fondness for authoritarian leaders.
It also makes sense, because if you think about it, Fred Trump was apparently exactly the sort of father who would be a nightmare for a person such as this. No doubt, if Trump indeed has a learning disability, his father, as opposed to viewing him as a son he loved unconditionally and therefore accepted as who he was (which would have led the way for his overcoming or adapting to his disability), no doubt viewed him as "damaged goods," and probably sent him to military school with the idea that such a place "would toughen up that stupid kid of mine."
I know it's incredibly difficult to do this, what with him having done so much damage and spewing hateful, hateful things, but if I turn him into, say, one of my students, and try to find some humanity in him, I honestly see him a sad, sad person. I really do see him as a person where, if I were to have gotten through to him and had a one on one conversation with him after a class, he would have burst into tears, and talked about horrible, horrible experiences with his father saying that he was no good, that he was a waste of human life, and that his father was ashamed to have him as a son.
This would also explain why he's so desperate to win people's approval, and why he needs, so badly, to believe that huge crowds of people come to see him. Having no sense of self-worth can create a void in someone that they desperately need to fill with others giving them the love that they never got when they were young...and therefore don't have for themselves. This would also explain why he needs to surround himself with expensive things, and why he so needs to put his name on everything. Having those obscene accoutrements of wealth and privilege--the buildings with his name, the gold toilet, the trophy wife--allows him to say to the world "hey...I'm worth something. Really. I'm worth something. Don't you see I'm worth something?"
Again, I know that attempting to have compassion for such a person can make any self-respecting person roll his eyes. Dick Cheney (okay, maybe not self respecting, but...) after all, said "while conservatives want to deal with terrorists, liberals want to analyze them." And my response to that, though, was always: well, why not both? Yes, when they grow up and become monsters, we need to deal with them, but it's important to remember that they all were children, and that only a select few--the truly sick--come out of the womb as monsters.
And even here, just about every time, in almost every case, true sociopathy traces itself to some horrible trauma suffered at an incredibly young age, perhaps as early as six months. Perhaps Fred abused him as a baby...perhaps even sexually. It's really not out of the realm of possibility.
In other words, someone, something, usually made them who they were.
If you remember the film "Manhunter," there's a telling moment that honestly reminds me of Trump. As Will Graham is "saddling up" to confront Dollarhyde, the murderer, Jack Crawford (Denis Farina's character) says something to the effect of "it almost sounds as if you feel sorry for him." And Graham says something to the effect of "yeah, I do. He started out as a kid. He was probably a sweet kid. Then someone did horrible things to him, and turned him into the sick, twisted psychopath that he is now. And now he have to take him down."
Again, about trying to understand all this as opposed to merely being enraged by it: I'm reminded of that line in the Netflix show "Mindhunter" that we watch, which is about the establishment of the FBI Criminal Psychology Department, and shows two men solving crimes by talking to serial killers: "In order to catch crazy, you have to know crazy."
By the way, getting back to the whole military thing, Trump's love of all of that--the authoritarian regimes, the glorification of Stalinist/Hitleresesque military parades--reminds me of something you said about the military in general: they take care of you, and give you a sense of self worth.
"They clothe you, they feed you, they tell you what to do, they give you approval they give you these really neat things that you wear on your lapels...it's everything a child wants," you once said.
Also, when I think of the affection Trump has for military parades, I'm reminded of the way you said you felt when you were a ROTC Wing Commander, and had hundreds of guys saluting you, and how, when you then went into The Air Force as a lieutenant, you felt a rush when 40 year old enlisted men saluted you. Of course, for you, having been raised with love, it was the sort of thing you could walk away from, hence your decision to rejoin civilian life.
At the same time, though, imagine someone who didn't get that love. For them, those salutes are the only thing close to love and approval that they get, and consequently, they can't do without it. It brings new meaning to those people who say "I love The Corps." For some of these people, the "love" of their superiors and the "love" of the organization may be the only thing resembling familial love that they've ever received, and that they will ever receive.
This also explains, by the way, why people such as Trump react so savagely not just to humor, but to pity, even sympathy. Of course, the humor part is easy to explain--at the core of many bullies is a deeply insecure person who can often be reduced to tears by mental bullying--but the pity part (and here I mean genuine empathy of the "Oh, my God, you went through hell" variety, as opposed to the vindictive "you're a little man, not in size, but in stature" variety) is a bit more complicated.
Think of that part in "Good Will Hunting" where Will's therapist, Sean (Robin Williams) is looking over his case file, and sees all the gruesome photographs of Will's abuse. This, or course, leads to that classic "it's not your fault" moment, and it's important to remember that before Will breaks down in tears, he gets violent. It's truly as if Sean is finally getting to the core of things, something so painful, so horrible, that it's agonizing to confront.
And unfortunately, most people just can't face that pain. It's just too horrible. They cover it up with rage and money, and it slowly hollows them out.
I know I'm sounding like Dr. Phil here, but it just explains so much, even the sad, pathetic correspondence with Erdogen, which, let's face it, reads like the sad, semi-literate scribblings of a second grader. When we strip all of it away, we see, at the core, a truly sad, fat little boy, sitting on the stoop and crying because his father abused him yet again an unloved person, probably abused as a child...and now, because of that abuse, we're paying the price for it.
Thankfully, there are people in world raised with unconditional love, which in turn fosters an inner strength, and consequently, leads to the creation of a deeply compassionate and empathetic person. And it is from this love and kindness that I draw hope. Yes, he has done horrible damage, but he still has not crushed the incredible kindness and decency that we saw in Obama, and, I think, see in Warren, and, yes, in Sanders, and, yes again, in Biden.
It's easy to think that this is The End of Times. At the same time, I draw faith from that moment, in "Watchmen," when Adrian Veidt says "I did it. I brought it to an end," and Dr. Manhattan smiles sagely and says: "Nothing ever ends, Adrian."
Or to put it another way: even if Houston wins, there's always next year.
Love you, man.
October 12th, 2019-MY LIFE AT THE MOMENT: INTRODUCING THE SONG "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND" TO A GROUP OF FIVE YEAR-OLDS
I’ve always said that if I can bring home five good minutes from my job each day, I’m happy. Just five minutes where something happened where I was happy, and felt as if I was doing something worthwhile.
I got about thirty minutes last Wednesday. And in fact, it was probably thirty of the best minutes I’ve had at any job, ever.
It goes like this: part of my job involves teaching kindergarteners and first graders computers. As a specials teacher--that’s what they call the folks at my school who are either not elementary school classroom teachers or the folks in the upper grades who teacher English, Social Studies, Math, and Science (there’s also phys ed, art, World Cultures, library, and music)--I get fifty minutes every other week with these kids. Fifty minutes is just way too much time to expect a kindergarten or first grade student to continuously sit in front of a computer, so I looked for something else I could do at the beginning of the period.
So I started teaching basic songs to myself on my four-string tenor guitar (which, with the way I’ve tuned it, is basically a steel string baritone ukulele) that I could play for the kids for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of class. I began with simple ankle-hugger faire, such as “The Wheels on the Bus,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” I have since moved on to teaching myself songs such as “The Garden Song (Inch by Inch),” and “The Erie Canal.”
I’ve also been listening to the music of Dan Zanes. Zanes was the lead singer of The Del Fuegos back in the 1980s. For the uninitiated, The Del Fuegos were a garage style Boston-based band that achieved critical acclaim in the 1980s. When the band broke up, Zanes settled down and started a family.
Then, when he was shopping for songs for his child, he was disheartened to find that most of the music was saccharine and, frankly, bad. So Zanes began a second career as a performer of children’s songs. He has since produced a number of albums that combine catchy original songs with lovely interpretations of classic numbers, many of them with such guest artists as Lou Reed, Amy Mann, and Suzanne Vega.
Here's Dan Zanes, with the help of Suzanne Vega, doing a rendition of "Erie Canal:"
Anyway, I started teaching myself some of these songs for my classes (they’ve been a big hit), and I thought about how, at our school, 8:00 to 8:30 is sort of an extended homeroom before classes begin that we call “morning meeting.” I offered to come into the classes of the kindergarten teachers and play on Wednesday mornings, as I have a free first period on that day, which gives me the time to prepare to teach my classes. All of the teachers rebuffed my overtures, except for one, Kim..
“You’re welcome to come to my class anytime,” she said.
So I came into her class two weeks ago, and the result was the picture at the beginning of this post. The kids treated me like a rock star.
That, of course, was a great thirty-minute part of my day, but the best thirty minutes came last Wednesday.
I had taught myself “This Land is Your Land,” and after playing the basic stuff last Wednesday, I said “okay, now I’m going to play a song that I’m sure you all know.”
I gave the title, and a large number of students looked at me blankly.
And I thought: wait. Of course a lot of them have never heard of this song. They’re five.
It just sort of feels as if we were all born knowing that song. There’s just something about “This Land is Your Land” that’s so iconic, such a part of what we know, that it’s actually easy to forget that there was a time in all our lives that we didn’t know it.. And considering that so many of my students have parents from all over the world, it’s even more likely that they didn’t hear that song in their household.
This led to a genuinely profound feeling: of all the people in the world, I was going to be the one who turned these kids on to “This Land is Your Land.” Me. If they liked this song, for the rest of their lives, when they talked about it, they would say “oh, yeah...one of my teachers, Mr. Leif, turned me on to that song when I was in kindergarten.”
So I played the first line a couple of times and taught them to sing along to it, and then the second, third and fourth. Then I played the song for real.
Of course they sung with uncertainty, but after we came around to the chorus the third time, a number of them were singing. It was pretty sweet.
Then, another realization came over me.
I teach in a school that’s diverse in a big way. There are kids with parents from African countries (a lot from Ghana and Kenya), Asian countries (Lowell, Massachusetts, where I teach, has one of the largest Cambodian populations in the country), and Spanish-speaking countries (a lot are from The Dominican Republic). So here were kids with parents from all over the world, and they were singing “This Land is Your Land.”
And I thought about the current political situation, and how there is so much talk about how people who come from other places are terrible people who are coming here to do terrible things. And here were the children of those people, smiling and singing their hearts out. Then I thought about how Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” as an angry retort to the jingoistic “God Bless America,” made popular by Kate Smith, which he couldn’t stand (and recent news stories about some of Kate Smith's other recordings show that her earlier work was very much in accord with many of the current political sentiments of today).
And all those lyrics that I’ve been singing all my life took on such a profound meaning as I say these kids joyously singing them. Honest. Though I’d always liked the lyrics, I’d never had such a deep feeling of the truth of them.
Last Tuesday, the day before what would be the little session where I introduced Kim’s students to “This Land is Your Land,” I had asked Kim if I could stop by on Wednesday morning.
“Derek,” she said with a smile, “let me just make this clear so that you don’t have to keep asking: you’re always welcome in my class on Wednesday mornings. I don’t know why the other teachers don’t take you up on your offer, but as long as they’re not going to do that, it means that I have something great going on in my class every Wednesday mornings. Just come in.”
I will, Kim. I will.
25 July 2019 (Thursday) - My Life at The Moment: Playing my Beloved Vorson Electric Ukulele with Baritone Tuning
Jeez, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything.
I’m afraid it’s just going to be that way for a while. Long stretches of nothing, followed by a furtive entry that I dash off in a few minutes. That’s just the way my life is at the moment.
So much of my headspace involves teaching. Last week I went to a Code.Org workshop, which gave me all these ideas for teaching coding to my middle school students. I’d already attended the workshop that involved teaching to the younger grades, and now I have to nail down lesson plans for all this stuff.
In addition to this, my big brother passed away suddenly at the end of May, and it became immediately obvious that my father needed to live closer to me. So I spent the end of June and a good part of July helping him pack up his house down on Long Island (he rented, fortunately, so he could pull up stakes quickly) and move everything up here to Massachusetts. Now he’s a two-minute drive from where I live, and we’re checking out a Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway tonight.
When I have a free minute I mess around with my electric ukulele (you read that right). I restrung it from G-C-E-A (standard soprano tuning) to D-G-B-A (baritone ukulele tuning), so now I basically have this tiny instrument that sounds like a wailing electric guitar.
“That’s so you,” said my friend Avery.
Yes, I guess it is.
I picked up a cheap tripod so that I could start recording myself playing songs. I will then upload these to YouTube. Perhaps a dozen people will watch them, if that.
This is fine by me. I just want to have proof that I’m still creating things. Most of the time, I’ll film them in front of my garage.
Sometimes I’ll film them in exotic locations, such as the cemetery a block away from where I live (that would be Megan’s house). At the same time, I like the grungy feel of just recording these grainy videos in front of the garage door. My goal is not so much to have people listen to my music as have them see me playing this incredibly simple instrument and saying to themselves “hey, I could do that.”
Hmmm….maybe I’ll post a video today. Yeah. That’s a good idea.
Many times, these videos will feature me looking at a music stand, which contains the chords and lyrics to the song I’m singing. I always have a problem remembering the chord progressions and the lyrics. I’m hoping that someone watches it and says “hey…I don’t have any problem remembering chord progressions and lyrics. I could buy a Vorson electric ukulele, string it with electric guitar strings (use the four thickest strings, by the way), and play something a lot better than what he’s playing.’
To which I say: yes, that’s what I want you to do, particularly if you’re between the ages of, say, 13 and 25. Buy an electric uke and string it like a guitar that doesn’t have low E and A strings. In a week, you’ll know enough about how to play the electric uke to play simple, catchy songs. Then you can find a bassist and drummer, and start a band.
Anyway, all this writing about the electric ukulele is making me want to pick it up and play it. I’ll post something by this afternoon. That’s what I’ll do. Yeah.
So I sit here and write. At the moment, I can’t think of anything worth posting.
The words stumble out of me. They do not flow. They are choppy and lumpy.
When I write in the morning, I feel as if I’m writing on a sort of deadline. I want to post something, and I have until about 5:30, when I need to get ready for school.
I look for something to write about.
I check my email. There is something in there about “Avengers Endgame.” This makes me realize that I have practically fallen off the earth when it comes to pop culture.
Yes, I am aware that “Avengers Endgame” is a big deal. Yesterday I watched a news story about how some people went to a marathon of all the previous Marvel films before watching this one. It amounted to 56 hours of viewing. The movie theater provided showers outside for anyone who needed one, along with yoga instruction, presumably during the Eric Bana version of “The Hulk,” which wasn’t that great.
Okay, so I wasn’t completely in the dark with the Marvel thing.
I do, however, always feel as if I fell behind in the whole comic thing, and never really got a chance to catch up. There are whole swaths of characters in these films I don’t know at all. When I’ve seen a couple of them, people around me have started applauding when characters turn up unexpectedly, especially during the end credits.
At school, I struggle with mixed feeling about the game “Fortnite.” On one hand, some of my students are thrilled that I loaded it onto my phone, and some were talking to me with more enthusiasm than I’d ever seen. On the other hand, it’s a fiercely addictive game with disconcerting violence, and some of the students playing this game are as young as eight years old.
I’m going to check it out this weekend, but I’m already expecting that, surprisingly, I’m going to be bored with it. Okay, I get it...100 players roam around a landscape, finding weapons and supplies so that they can pick each other off. This just doesn’t seem that exciting to me.
It also seems way too complicated for my tastes. Most video games these days require, it seems, more effort to learn them than I expended learning to edit audio and video. So I think to myself: I can spend time creating things, or I can spend time running around in a virtual world, virtually killing people.
Yet I do want to play this game, just to see what all the fuss is about. If there are big issues and concerns with it, I want to be able to discuss those these things as someone who’s familiar with the location of them.
I’ve just checked out the game on my phone. It just seems like a chore to learn how to play it. It is difficult for me to imagine this being any fun.
At the present, I would much rather write blog entries, stories, and songs.
Maybe I’m just not cut out to be all that much into video games. I had an X Box for a while, and loved “Skyrim” and “Resident Evil.” At the same time, I found “Halo” and “Bioshock” kind of boring.
Maybe I’m just not made for these times. I mean, I do love pinball, particularly the newfangled machines that Stern and Jersey Jack are turning out. They, too, are incredibly complicated, with computer chips creating a complex series of tasks in which I find myself occasionally scoring millions of points for unwittingly doing something right.
For now, though, when it comes to video games, I’d just rather learn to play major and minor seventh chords on my guitar.