Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Warning - RANT ALERT

Not my favorite way to enjoy music: Spend seventy-five dollars of hard-earned money. Park miles away from the event. Walk in a crowd surrounded by other lemmings through dusty heat. Walk past overpriced concessions selling stuff that isn't good for anyone. Look out for drunks who have been at said event since morning, drinking. Be frisked, poked, prodded, examined for substances and metal containers that might contain food or alcohol that they would rather you purchased from said overpriced concessions. Find your expensive seat - a plastic stadium chair attached to hundreds (thousands) of other plastic stadium chairs. Sit in it for an hour waiting for music.

I have to take a break from ranting to rave about the warm up band, Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their old-timey music was fun and really did warm up the crowd with sing-alongs and dancing beats and creative instrumentation. A kazoo solo! Who knew? And I got a great idea. Instead of looking for a stand-up bass to buy, I now realize, because of the woman who played "bass" in this group, that a cello could do it, too. Smaller, less expensive, and able to produce beautiful deep bass tones needed to anchor old-timey musical numbers.

As they finished, more people came to find their seats. All of humanity pushes past us to get to their seats, which are all, inexplicably, inside our row. When I mention all of humanity, I really mean the ones who never learned restraint or politeness. Also, did I mention that they are really drunk?

I can tell from the first note of the warm up band that it is a good thing I brought my ear plugs. The brights are very bright, and they hurt my sensitive ears. Not so the masses, many of whom want it all louder, so they add to the din with their own hooting and hollering. Not a problem in a smaller venue. I can hoot and hollar about music with the best of them, but multiply my loud voice by thousands! Not good.

But my most difficult revelation about this type of huge concert comes when Dave Matthews actually comes out on the stage with his band to play. As I sit there in my $75 seat, I watch, seated and astonished, as everyone stands up and stays standing for the entire concert, almost three hours. I could see the stage before, while the warm up band was playing. I could use the little binoculars to study someone's fingerpicking, to realize that the banjo player was a girl, etc. Now? Not so much. Not at all. I cannot see anything of the concert, except for the margin of the light show that has everyone hypnotized.

I am a person who loves lights and color, sparkly things in general, and the light show that goes with the DMB music is spectacularly colorful and sparkly with fancy laser effects. But I don't get to listen to the DMB music because I cannot stand up for three hours. In fact, I don't want to stand up for even one song. That's not how I enjoy music. I can't study the musicians, close my eyes to savor some fancy licks, watch how DM moves on the stage, or anything I would do at an old-school concert (think symphony orchestra or coffee house or the village green or recital).

The people who are used to this sort of concert behavior enjoy the music by moving and dancing in their little space - when the f&#*heads who are leaving their seats and coming back and leaving their seats and coming back aren't interrupting their enjoyment! These constant travelers treat this time as if they are in their living rooms watching a C movie. Oh, it's not so good right now, let's go make popcorn or buy some overpriced hot dog and soda - behavior I would expect at a ball game, which has lots of long boring stretches in between exciting plays. But it is not a living room filled with people who know them and love them and forgive their fat asses and bad manners, it's a row of plastic stadium seats filled with people who did not pay $75 to have their enjoyment of the show interrupted constantly. Filled with people like me who really want to sink into the music.

Sinking into the music is not a possibility in a venue this big. Forgive me for being critical, Dave, but if I played music as good as yours, I would want people to really be able to enjoy it. I play music that might be half as good, and I still want people to really enjoy it. I would play smaller venues. I would tell my agent, yes, Morty, or Sol, or Gus, I know we could make a bazillion dollars every week if I play these huge places, but I really want folks to sink into my music, taste it with their pores. I want them to be able to, nay, be asked to sit down while I play, unless they want to gather on the side to dance, or better yet buy a less expensive spot at the concert that doesn't involve a seat at all. I've already made lots on my recordings, so let's lighten up on the huge venues. And insist that people sit so everyone can see.

I'm almost done with this rant. I haven't lit into the smokers who fill the air with cigarette smoke that begins on the outskirts of the seats but invariably drifts over to infest us and our clothing and our lungs with second hand smoke. I haven't really discussed, too much, how a new generation of music-lovers expects special effects, other than music, at every presentation. We all roared with delight when the guitar player for the Carolina Chocolate Drops stood up during their last song and clogged and twirled his guitar like a  majorette or a ninja. Yes, motion and color and interesting outfits - these all add to the performance, but they shouldn't be necessary and expected. Unless of course you spend way too much money for a ticket. Then I guess strobe lasers would be a given. Also a given? Pounding on said plastic stadium chairs and chanting to force musicians to do your bidding (play another song even when they are finished, play an oldie, tell a joke, I don't know). 

But what I really need to mention here is how often this experience reminded me of a middle school assembly, at the beginning of the year before pre-teens have been admonished about assembly behavior. The music is not the object; it is the rest of the experience, of being away from the classroom (or work week), with one's friends (and their dramas - you would be amazed at the conversations I overheard to while I was purportedly at a music concert well underway), engaging in illicit behavior because it is too difficult to police. Security guards were everywhere, but to my mind they were policing the wrong bad behaviors. The point of the expensive ticket, the point of it all, the music? It seems lost in a carefully constructed culture of disbehavior.

DMB, true to what I had been led to expect, played two or three more songs after they declared an end, but it took so long for them to come back out. The drummer had time to toss all his drum sticks into the crowd. They played the oldies, stuff even I knew, which was cool. Then it was over and this entire crowd, which had dribbled in slowly during the day, had to be corralled and led out. Again, the river of lemmings filled the earth. Then a river of cars had to be shifted from one parking lot to many highways. It took almost as long as the warm up band played to get us all out of there.

Not for me, the expensive ticket for a huge arena. Give me the small music festival or the coffee house or even a music club where I can sit and watch and savor, get up and go to a dancing place, or even right up by the stage to watch a guitarist float around the neck with nimble fingers. Musicians are real people then, not images flickering on screens for backlighting and visual entertainment. The only time I could see Dave's face was when they projected a camera view on the space behind the band for decoration, I guess. If I had been in the lawn seats, I could have seen that more. 

Musicians are real people, and I like to experience music like a real person, not like a lemming or a bit of seaweed in the Sargasso Sea. I like to sit or stand or dance or smoke or drink to music, but by agreement with all the other listeners, not at their expense.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I've been thinking about this...

Yesterday I did some baking and a special cooking project for dinner. I haven't allowed myself to bake as often during the last six months unless it was specifically for my husband or for some event; I enjoy my slow, steady weight loss too much to jeopardize it with treats. Which means I love trying on clothes from my own closet and finding that they no longer fit. I was leafing through a magazine we scarfed up from somewhere (buy a magazine? Never!), though, and found a four ingredient cookie recipe. Peanut butter, brown sugar, an egg, and baking soda. Peanut butter, just ground peanuts in a jar, the natural kind, with no other ingredients, is a staple in this establishment. A source of protein with an oil that is one of the healthiest, it is a great dip for celery sticks or apple slices, and it's a treat on Ezekiel bread toast with a drizzle of honey. I don't get many treats these days, so, yes, that is a treat for me. I also like a little Nutella on a spoon then dipped into peanut butter. Mmm.

Now I know you're wondering, what is up with Starwatcher? This is her education blog, not a cooking/baking blog. Please bear with me and I'll make the connection, I promise.

So I combined the four ingredients, the only really bad one being the 3/4 cup of brown sugar, ran the mixer through it for a bit, and popped out little single teaspoons of thick dough onto parchment paper and baked those little buttons for ten minutes. They came out like the peanut butter cookies I so love, but lighter, a little crisper, but not much, and way healthier. No wheat flour, no butter or other animal fats, not that much refined sugar, and my husband and I both agree that I could probably cut back on the brown sugar. For the one large egg, I used two of my dear hens' bantam eggs, free-range, which have less cholesterol than hens-in-a-cage eggs. Wow. I ate a bunch of those little suckers after they had cooled. Light. Delicious. 

Not only that, but they got me thinking of ways to use other ingredients that I know are healthy, like banana and oatmeal, to produce other healthy variations. This is new for me, to think about alterations to a recipe. Somehow, though, that mutation continued later in the day. I had taken a couple of large chicken breasts out of the freezer for dinner, and decided to stuff them with a stuffing that I have invented, after seeing how easy it is to make stuffing from mayo and grated cheese. I think I got that idea from some recipe blog on-line, but I have been changing it up by adding shredded spinach or carrots, or both, and substituting some Greek yogurt for part of the mayo (most of it, actually). Last night I sliced out the breasts and pounded them a little, to make it easier to stuff them, and added sliced almonds to the spinach, mayo, yogurt, and parmesan. 

Where did this cooking maverick come from, this violator of recipes?

I have some idea about this. 

I now have some time. I've been cooking more since I stopped playing out in a band (which can take up a lot of time), studying and finishing coursework for my doctorate (which sucks the life out of one) and searching for the love of my life (which also takes up a lot of time, doesn't it?). I can actually devote several hours, on some nights, to trying out a new recipe, or altering an old one so that it fits our new eating habits limiting animal fats and avoiding white foods except for cauliflower.

I also have a chance to get feedback from someone who loves me and will be gentle in his pronouncements. If the stuffed chicken breasts dry out a bit, he will eat them anyway, but make sure that I hear of it so I can spray them with a bit of olive oil during the less-than-an-hour of baking time. That is the kind of constructive critique that I need and can work from to improve a recipe. He and I are working together to eat healthier, so we value each other's feedback, as he is working on developing recipes for the blended vegetable drinks he makes in his Nutri-bullet. And yes, we do recommend these powerful blenders ($99 at Target) and the spinach- or kale- or collard green-based drinks that can be made in them. Can you say, testimonial?

A third factor that allows me to develop my cooking skills at this point in my life is choice. When I go in the kitchen to cook or bake, it is almost completely a matter of choice. We could go on with the same recipes we've been using, if I were not moved to try something new. My husband is perfectly willing to cook on nights when I don't have time or inclination. But I have become passionate about making or finding recipes that are healthier, and I've found writers of cooking blogs who entice me with their prose.
These three factors, time, response, and choice or passion, were the guiding factors in my classroom, guided as I was by Nancie Atwell's description of a reading and writing workshop. They are not factors in most public school classrooms, and my eighth grade ELA classroom felt the squeeze down from externally-generated curricula, continuous flawed testing, and data-driven fanaticism.

I had thought a bit about this when I contemplated my own skills with numbers. I was a good student in high school and advanced through a calculus class offered to an elite group of seniors. One year of it was not enough; I had to take two more semesters during my freshman year of college, but I actually GOT calculus. All of that GETTING is lost now, lo, these many years later, but the discipline and wonder of numbers and systems of thought is not lost. It took me longer, but I loved what I was studying, somehow, and was willing to give it the extra time.

I had also thought about this with relation to music. As a child, I often picked strange and difficult pieces out of piano books available at my house, and took them to lessons to ask if I could work on them. My piano teacher wisely decided to help me with them, even though they didn't fit into the repertoire she usually chose for a student at my level (by repertoire, I mean curriculum). She used my own motivation and choice to advance my skills. My violin teacher also signed on to this approach when it became clear that I was bored with finger exercises and wanted to try some real music, by real old composers, playing duets with him or with another student. I showed my boredom by engaging in bad behavior: signing my mother's name to my practice slips. Luckily, he and my parents spent more time adjusting my lessons than they did on punishing me for forgery. I loved playing, and I still play my violin today. Not so well as I might, but it is enjoyable for me and for most of the people who hear it. Same goes for the piano and for the music I will never stop singing and playing - because I am passionate about choosing to work on it.

We, as teachers, often see students who have shut down, closing out the noise of public education out of boredom. They are not always our gifted students, who will sustain some form of interest (grade consciousness) long after their brain has rejected the content of our curricula. No, often they are students some might write off as ones who just aren't into school or learning. It is so easier to just let them drift away, and yet a curriculum of choice, with constant feedback and lots of time for experimentation could draw them back in to the joy of learning and the draw of civic engagement. We certainly need more engaged citizens. If only we could break free of this pseudo-scientific data-driven business-generated curricular obsessions controlled by those who have seldom set foot in a classroom with the intent to teach.

So, like the college admissions essay that asks the writer to connect Plato with Play-doh in 500 words or less, I have connected my recent culinary excursions back to my interests in education. As always, I must acknowledge that I stand on the shoulders of giants to develop these ideas, but I can't always specify which giants. I promise I will do better with that in my dissertation, but here in my blog, a more casual genre, such citation is not required.