Peace Trauma

I’ve finished a couple of books (the recently published Tribe and the years-old War) by Sebastian Junger, a former embedded war correspondent for Vanity Fair. He analyzes (among a LOT of other things) the experiences and psychology of war veterans and active-duty soldiers, using examples from which we can understand humanity in general. It’s really fascinating stuff. He synthesizes a lot of research from different fields while staying concise and accessible– judge that synthesis for yourself, of course; I don’t claim to be an expert– but a lot of his conclusions are worth considering.

He’s ruffled more than a few feathers over the last several years by implying that the spike in veteran PTSD cases is not ‘legitimate’ in the way we understand it. Beyond the small number of vets who ‘play the system,’ the greater problem (and I’m paraphrasing here) is our well-intentioned promotion of a victim mentality for many of these soldiers. In our deference to soldiers who have suffered war trauma, too often we create the idea that the combat veteran is permanently different from the rest of us in a way that’s broken them and requires a total “fixing.” We ‘understand’ that they can no longer fit in among ‘regular’ people. Thus we can inadvertently exacerbate the REAL problem many veterans have: not so much acute, devastating trauma as simply returning to a “normal” life among civilians.

I’m sure you can understand right away why that’s a pretty controversial thing to say– and I hope I’m getting it right in the summary. I certainly can’t speak for veterans and their experience overseas or how it affects them psychologically. Where this all gets fascinating for me is in Junger’s time embedded in places like the notorious Korengal Valley (Afghanistan) and his observations of the contrast between the combat service member’s community in places like that and our civilian communities here in America.

In the Korengal, the soldier’s life was reduced to a very short list of priorities, and each one of those priorities assumed life-or-death importance for both the individual and his comrades. Life was spartan: bland rations, filth, no human contact outside the outpost, no activities beyond watching, waiting, and patrolling. Small routines like carrying water and cleaning weapons were vital. Get heatstroke on patrol and not only are you in serous trouble, your small unit is badly compromised: they’re down a man and they have to get you out. A jammed gun not only leaves you helpless; you can’t cover your buddies, a serious matter in a war of counter-insurgency dominated by small maneuvers rather than big strategic operations. Stripped of choice and freedom and bound entirely to small choices on the group and individual level that daily make the difference between surviving and being killed; to the average person, it sounds terrible.

Except when you listen to many veterans who have lived that life, what you find is that they actually miss it. Junger observes this in his interviews frequently, and he’s hardly alone. I’ve observed this in other war memoirs across cultures, in podcasts, and in conversation. There is almost beautiful simplicity in a life in which each day is a fight for survival and the individual is part of a tightly-knit group that are all willing to die for each other. That’s another theme reaching across combat memoirs: that with time, the soldier fights not for his country or the cause anywhere near as much as his friends that are living it with him. It’s a deeply fraternal bond.

What makes books like War and Tribe so penetrating is the contrast they draw between that life and the one the average 21st century American civilian lives. In place of a small list of possible choices, each one imbued with fatal significance, is nearly unlimited choice, much of which is completely meaningless. Instead of a small handful of people held together by a sense of selfless brotherhood, we experience the “community” of modern America, in which you can have 1000 social media contacts that don’t amount to a single real friendship, or life in a city of 1 million people in which you somehow feel completely alone.

Tribe in particular deals with this void in which survival is mostly assured and no one has a life or death bond, as well as the erosion of ancient community ties and customs because of the lack of apparent need for them. Even as early as the 1700s, Junger points out, white colonial society had a problem noted by none other than Ben Franklin himself: despite the technological convenience, greater relative ease, and predictable, more peaceful life white colonial life offered, many people chose to run away to join the “savage” Indians. Life was harder and hardship was harsher, communities were smaller and more exposed…but tighter. When recaptured, these white citizens demonstrated a devastating level of trauma. Some never re-acclimated, even when their entry into a tribal community had come by kidnapping and bloodshed, like Cynthia Ann Parker. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to run back to her “home” tribe, Parker descended into depression and an untimely death.

Should we be thinking not only of war trauma, but the trauma of this American peace? So many of us grow up, move constantly to follow larger paychecks, separate from family, become removed from any traditional communal bond beyond, possibly, marriage– which fails at an absurdly high rate. We stare at thousands of distractions on tiny screens with every free minute we have. We enjoy the highest standard of living, even among our poor, that has ever been known in world history, by a long shot, and yet we aren’t even close to one of the happiest countries in the world. Drug addiction, suicide, and depression exist at high levels in a place the ancient Egyptians would have considered the home of the gods. I look around and see a culture in which so many problems of survival have been solved, but I know very few truly happy and content people.

Perhaps returning war fighters feel very acutely what many of us feel in a subtle way– what does any of this great stuff matter if we don’t truly, absolutely have EACH OTHER with us in the confusion of life? Maybe they have to experience in an intensely personal way what we “normal” people slowly, impersonally, and almost imperceptibly lost over many generations. Perhaps the traumatic experiences of war can teach us about something we’ve been missing in peace.

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Ode to Texas

Texas.

I can remember the first impression Texas made on me as a teenager who’d spent his entire life in New Jersey. As I walked out of the airport, the heat struck me immediately—shocking for a March day, I thought. On my first car ride, I peered out the window and took note of how sun-blasted everything looked.  Shorter trees than I was used to seemed permanently twisted by that sun. The grass looked wispy and parched. Dust and haze stuck out to me in an unappealing way. My knowledge of Texas culture was usual for someone from my region: cattle and early entry into the Confederacy were the focal points. It was not, to my mind, a good first impression.

I left after one year, only to return later for graduate school. I left again, for good I thought, in 2006. Little did I know that life and career would change in ways I had never thought possible and take me to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2009. It was only after a couple of curious road trips down to Austin that I began to think I had not left Texas for good. Lured back over time through memories of good things only half-appreciated in my former life and good plans made with good people, I returned in 2012. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Lone Star State and its story were destined to leave quite an imprint.

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I’m reflecting on it now because once more the good life is taking me somewhere else (for good?) and the slow drip of everything I had absorbed as a converted Texan is missing. There will be great new stories and adventures of course, but they won’t have the unique smell of burning post oak as I line up, whiskey bottle in hand, for some brisket done the correct Central Texas way on a late morning. Some other states have fine BBQ, but when they bother with brisket, it’s usually a dry afterthought—a counterpoint to pig. Only in Texas does brisket occupy the proud number one spot where it belongs, rubbed and smoked so precisely that sauce is not necessary. Only in Texas is someone a fool for thinking sauce is necessary. Real brisket cooks can prove that wrong, and Texans line up to get the results—crisp, salt-and-pepper outer “bark” and juicy meat bursting with smoke flavor underneath. That whiskey: distilled here in the hot limestone Hill Country from Panhandle corn or blue corn, it has a fire and depth to it that I can’t find anywhere else.

Aside from flavors, I’ll miss the massive possibilities in the terrain. Close to the Sabine River, humidity, lushness and alligators remind me of the Deep South. I’ve rolled through miles of flat nothingness and forbidding little towns in the Panhandle. I’ll think of Central Texas and the Hill Country, with its limestone and stands of dark or faded green live oaks (stunted-looking no more to me) spreading themselves out over years in landscape dotted with small, old German towns and quiet hamlets. Most of all, I’ll remember Far West Texas (not Midland or Lubbock—the REAL deal, beyond the Pecos River), opening up like an old John Ford movie into huge landscapes with crested buttes, making a traveler feel like an infinitesimal stranger “in an antique land” as Shelley wrote. Strange colors shift and change in that land through sunrise and the sunset that gives way to an explosion of stars in total silence. Thousands of feet up out there, small mountain streams riffle along to refresh the tired hiker, wondering maybe that less than a day ago, he was walking the streets of Austin an 8 hour car ride away in the same state.

I’ll miss Austin, sinking though it is under the weight of its trendy status. The heart is still there: in some of its simple, great food, in the music that exists in out-of-the-way places many blocks from the puking college students and flashy people throwing money around. The heart is in the genuine artists, the old hippies who run craft operations, and for me, most of all, in the endearing local DJs for one of the country’s last pure classical music stations. Jeffrey Blair and Sarah Schneider, with their quirky, reassuring, and whole-heartedly nerdy voices welcomed me to Austin with their radio programs in 2003. I’ll miss being able to connect with those programs whenever I liked on my morning commute. I’ll miss camping with my buddy Jourdan out in the quiet of the hills, miles from Blanco. I’ll miss the silence of Marfa’s crumbling streets early in the morning, an unusual dusting of snow on the ground, a cold northern wind blowing the clouds off the distant West Texas mountains.

 

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That feeling of space, distance, and solitude—other places in the country have it, but few have the otherworldly and wild presence of Texas, quietly imposing on the visitor the idea that mankind here is the tolerated guest rather than the conqueror. A run through the history of the Lone Star state confirms this impression. What we call ‘civilization’ struggled to maintain itself for a long time. The Spanish hacienda system withered on the vine here. Restless adventurers from the canebrakes of Appalachia—no tame place in the past by any standard, felt at home here when they arrived. The ruthless and creative Bowies, hard-drinking and hard-fighting Tom Green, frontier legend Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston, troubled adopted son of the Cherokee,–all were drawn to Texas before the end of their famous lives. The Comanche arrived here and went from being a despised minor people to the most feared and brutal tribe in the West. Reconstruction quickly and sadly foundered here as Texas proved nearly ungovernable. William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the hardest cases to ever serve the U.S. Army, said during his tenure as military governor of Reconstruction Texas that if he owned both Texas and Hell, he’d “rent out Texas and live in Hell.” Crockett, by contrast, called the fierce beauty of Texas in the 1830s his “paradise.”

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‘Paradise’ is not a word most people would use to describe Texas now. It certainly looks a lot different from how it looked in 1830. When the cattle ranchers were through ravaging it, the cedar invaded, the creeks receded, flash floods became more common, and erosion increased. I have often wished, like the great Texas writer John Graves, that I could have seen Texas in its full glory, when bison roamed west of the Escarpment, cedar had yet to choke the land, and the grass was still “balls-high to a Belgian” as the fictional Colonel in “The Son” remarked. I would have liked to stand in October twilight and see the sky over Fort Davis filled with birds and unblemished by the pollution just over the border in Piedras Negras.

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I’d love to see more than just the natural history, too; the human history has a grand and wild drama to it that makes me wish I could slip in as an unobtrusive stranger and interact for a brief time. I want to see the Comanche ride from Palo Duro Canyon (from a safe distance), in full gallop with those distinctive lance streamers and bison headdresses, and put a Texas Ranger company to shame with their horsemanship. I want to take a knife fighting lesson from Jim Bowie and warn him that the “lost” San Saba Mine was only a myth. I’d like to ride out west with Sul Ross, by all accounts a real gentleman, and ask him why he and his troops casually shot so many women and kids at Pease River. I know the Comanche were a brutal people, but I look into my own infant son’s eyes and I can’t imagine shooting anyone’s little kids. To see Charlie Goodnight’s trail, just once in its earliest days: heading north from the Big Bend when it was still possible to hear the howling of wolves, joining the cowboys at the Horsehead Crossing of the Pecos, and then all the way up the eastern border of the Rockies to Wyoming, where I could wash the filth off in the electric chill of the Wind River, keeping an eye on the horizon for Cheyenne raiders. To sleep under a perpetual carpet of non-light-polluted stars in the presence of those great mountains and truly be a small speck in an open, untamed range—ah, just once!

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Texas is a layered story like no other place I’ve been. To have lived as a very small part of it for a time changed my appreciation for many of the greater and lesser aspects of culture and the human story itself. To even the hardest of Appalachian frontiersmen in the early 19th century, Texas was ‘ultra’ in the real sense of the Latin root—‘out there,’ ‘on the other side.’ Huge, rugged, savage, mixed, deep, rich, beautiful, and tragic, the story of Texas and its culture is still very much ultra-American.  Until we meet again, Lone Star State!

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Thoughts on Teaching: “Guts” and “Pride” Are Not a Substitute for Fitness.

I was listening to the incomparable retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink talk about leadership recently, and one of the quotes he used has stuck with me for weeks. In the U.S. Marine Corps manual, “Leading Marines,” there is a large section devoted to the importance of training for the battlefield. Without the preparation of sustained physical and mental training, even the fiercest and most devoted Marine will be rendered ineffective, to paraphrase the manual. “Guts and pride are not a substitute for fitness.” I found myself unconsciously nodding my head in agreement as I splashed through a wet field on my own conditioning run– not because of its physical meaning but because  I immediately connected the practical value of that quote to what we do as teachers, especially in the field of high-poverty education.

A lot of us, after all, enter the profession and spend our first few years grossly unprepared and poorly trained, especially when we enter with a mission to change the trajectory of students in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. We hear certain cliches before we even sign up: kids in poverty need love, guidance, and understanding; they need to see the connection between what we have to teach them and their own lives; they need a cultural bridge to an appreciation for what college can do for them, etc. These things may be true (although I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that our students don’t have anybody already trying to do these things in their lives– it strikes me as paternalistic and classist), but they are also going to need a master of the teaching craft. Can we manage students? Can we establish consistent expectations and procedures? Are we experts of our content? These things take a long-term commitment to training and development. We can be as loving, understanding, and culturally relevant to the most challenging students as we like; we aren’t going to change the trajectory of many of them without this hard, long-term training and development. Guts and pride are not a substitute for fitness.

I’ve seen too many teachers learn this the hard way. They come into the game excited and ready to make a difference. They are kind to students and mindful of the challenges they face in life, model excitement about college, and spend many hours planning activities that are relevant and interesting. Yet by February, their bright smiles have been replaced with a look I can only describe as shell-shock from the psychological beatings they’ve been taking. Despite the full heart and the 12-hour days with planning, they are struggling for minutes of their students’ engagement and ounces of their respect. After a few years of experiencing this crushing failure, their spirit breaks and they quit (or maneuver themselves out of the classroom and into administration, taking their failed methods and naive idealism with them– a disaster of an entirely different order and the subject for a different blog). Nobody should give up on the emotionally important work of building real relationships with kids, but there are some practical matters that need to be addressed at the same time, otherwise (and I’ve seen this many times) the new teacher will ultimately resent and give up on those relationships out of self-preservation in their experience of failure.

New teachers need a lot of committed coaching, and they need to respond to that coaching. Teaching is an art and a science, requiring multiple skill sets for success. It defies belief that anybody new to a classroom would only get observed two or three times per year. New teachers may try hard to self-reflect on why their lessons are not succeeding, but there are so many variables to managing a classroom every day that attempting to do that as a rookie is impossibly hard. Observations should be followed up by frequent return observations, focused on ONE skill in which the teacher can measurably improve. Trust needs to be built between new teachers and their administrators (i.e, the teachers need to know observation is not a bad thing and nobody is looking to fire them), and new teachers should approach the job with enough humility to know that there are skills in building a classroom culture that need to be learned and refined on the job: skills they don’t already have.

New teachers also need a realistic attitude, especially in high-need schools. You are not going to change the world in one year, two years, five years, or even ten years. If you try really hard, you might truly shift things for a few students in your first year and if you play your cards right, you might also model a few things that your students remember years down the line, when they ‘click’ better. After you get the basics, you can add more skills and refine them. Like any great art: jiu jitsu, chess, metalwork, the number of skills you can learn is nearly infinite and the number of situations in which you will have different ways to use those skills is definitely infinite. This reality should be embraced. We have too many people coming into this profession who want to be black belts, grand masters, or making fine katanas in their first year. As with anything else, new teachers need to turn off the Hollywood movies (most movies about teaching in high-poverty schools, even the ones based on “true” stories, are horseshit) and prepare for the long haul. No one should be imagining how accomplished they are going to feel at the end of year one. We should be imagining how much better we will be in ten years– at which point we will only discover another level of even more complex skills to learn and refine. How to plan, how to execute, how to use data to drive instruction, how to relate best to your kids given what you bring to the table, even how to effectively use every foot of space on the wall of your class to help create the culture you want to see: I could be in this game for 25 years and not master it all.

New teachers need to make themselves content experts. Ideally, we should be able to answer any question from a student with answer that does justice to the depth and complexity of whatever it is we teach, and can be related with passion. I remember being told once that somebody was teaching “Othello” and they felt pretty good about it after ‘getting through the SparkNotes.’

Dude. You are trying to build a bridge between teenagers and one of the greatest writers of all time and you are skimming over SparkNotes? Fuck you! Shakespeare is the man. You need to know the vocabulary, the double meanings, the poetry and metaphor in what he writes. That’s why he’s a legend. If you can’t shed some light on the layers of Shakespeare to teenagers, they are going to think he’s an incomprehensible, old-timey bore. Make it happen! I can’t tell you how many non-experts get into my profession not knowing a whole lot about their subject (which is ok) and not even trying to deepen their knowledge (NOT ok). Your students need to know that in your subject, you are the kung fu master at the top of the mountain. If we want them to imagine what college-level knowledge and preparation is like, we need to model it. This might not be possible in the beginning, but can be done over time. The more students perceive that you are only revealing the first layer to them in the deep and rich field of your awesome subject, the better. If you haven’t even mastered that first layer yourself, you can’t possibly do this for them.

Finally, new teachers need a manual for classroom management, which is a skill completely apart from relationship-building, content, attitude, and planning. Ideally, this would be something the school leader has presented that aligns with that leader’s vision for the culture of the school. The school leader would know what things to emphasize and what he/she is looking for in the management of classrooms school-wide. In the absence of that vision, however, I like the book “Teach Like a Champion.” I’m not saying it’s perfect, and it’s unfortunately landed right in the middle of the controversy between supporters of charter school education and their critics in traditional public education. But early in our careers, we so often struggle with knowing what the many individual skills are, and how to refine them. TLAC breaks classroom management  and other aspects of teaching down into many specific skills, with suggestions on how to reflect and check yourself for improvement. In the firestorm that often envelops us in our first years of teaching, especially in a very challenging school, when it can be so hard to know how to get better, TLAC is a useful, hands-on guide, and I’ve seen bits of its training work magic in every one of my 8 years teaching, for both myself and colleagues.

Whatever way you choose, training is key. Getting better is key. Practical feedback, one-step-at-a-time improvement, and long-term commitment for long-term goals are key. Just like in the world of physical fitness, ideals and belief in yourself are just a starting point; they are not going to get you a win, a medal, a championship, or a battlefield victory. Guts and pride are not a substitute for fitness.

 

Required Reading: “Forgotten Soldier”

I am currently reading “Forgotten Soldier,” by Guy Sajer, a half-German Alsatian who served as an infantryman in the German Army during the last three years of World War Two on the Eastern Front. I’m about halfway through, and let me tell you, I’ve seen enough. For those of you who do not know, the struggle between Germany and Russia in Eastern Europe was the largest and most devastating military conflict in history. For perspective, in its conflict with both Germany and Japan, The United States suffered a total of about 437,000 combat deaths. It’s a staggering number and should never be discounted, but the Soviet Union, in its struggle with Germany, suffered over ten million military deaths. That excludes wounded and the vast number of its civilians killed (also over ten million).

Ten. Million.

That is an insane number of soldiers KIA in a single war. The scope of the brutality in the Eastern Front is literally impossible to imagine. Sajer captures as much as he can through the eyes of a teenage enlisted man and it is some of the most unrelentingly grim stuff I have ever read: mud, filth, frostbite, dust, spattered guts, deafening noise, shellshock, devastated cities, crying, pants-pissing, putrefying corpses, and senseless, profitless slaughter. The Germans suffered a few million military casualties of their own and one can see how.

It is neither glorious, uplifting, regretful, redemptive, nor anything a lot of people would expect a war narrative to be.  Situated where I am in the story now, the winter of 1943-1944, I know the history of the events  and what Mr. Sajer is trying to do well enough that it will only get worse before it comes to a halt in 1945. So why continue to look into the abyss?

For one thing, I feel like I owe it to him. Sajer hints repeatedly at his bitterness over his (and his comrades) fighting for so long and so bravely on the losing side of such a conflict. They had to suffer not only defeat after all their heroism and sacrifice in standing by each other, but also oblivion: history has cast them indelibly as villains. There were no parades, no awards, no monuments, and no commendations to provide some measure of redress for everything they endured. This seems sad, because in “Forgotten Soldier,” Sajer and his companions were no Nazi ideologues, SS fanatics, or concentration camp guards. They were literally a bunch of kids who had no idea what they were getting into. He refers more than once to a sense of duty to tell the story and capture what it felt like, because he feared no one would remember the perspective of men like him (and his dead friends) otherwise. Who would remember? That resonates with me.

I have long felt it was my lot to remember the forgotten or misunderstood warriors: the thousands of slain Chechen nationalists, mislabeled ‘terrorists’ by the world, and their families blown to shreds by indiscriminate Russian carpet-bombing; the poorer Crusaders, driven half-mad by thirst, hunger and two years of deprivation, outside the walls of Jerusalem in 1099; the moldering bones of the Roman Nineteenth Legion in some deep German forest, victims of their own commander’s arrogance and the decadence of a civilization that took its own superiority for granted.

Because of course, they weren’t ALL ‘bad guys:’ not even the infantrymen of the troops Adolf Hitler sent to war. The ‘enemy’ never is. And this is why I think a lot of other people owe it to Sajer to read the story as well, even if they don’t feel my natural inclination to do so. People who would send their countrymen to war, any war,  for a cause they believe is just, would do well to remember what’s truly waiting for them. That isn’t a call for pacifism, which I think is unrealistic given some of the evils that show themselves in the world (Hitler’s menace being one of the greatest), but rather a call to remember what Sajer depicts: whatever the cause or its justification, war is most often fought by regular people, standing by their comrades, for whom combat has formed a unique bond. At a human level, the sacrifices made by these people are beyond the comprehension of most folks.

I remember when I picked this book up to see if I thought it might be worth a read, I opened to a random page and caught Sajer’s description, with full horror, of German Tiger tanks rolling over a trench full of Russian soldiers, and his realization that human remnants were ground into the tank treads. It seized me immediately. I think of those tank treads every time I hear some politician in a suit talk about bombing, or some person I know talk about ‘boots on the ground’ in some foreign country. Nietschze warned us about gazing too long into the abyss, for then it also gazes back into us– we become monsters when we look too long on monstrosity and are desensitized. Maybe some of our leaders and citizens over the years have failed to look long enough. Guy Sajer’s sixteen year old Alsatian grunt is worth following for every page, as a reminder of war’s true face, whatever side of history we might be on.

The Perfection of Saturday Morning

I rise early. It may be Saturday, but I still enjoy being up before the sun. On these cooler mornings, I can open the windows and enjoy the quiet: no buzzing air conditioners or rolling tires at this hour. There’s a puff of refreshing breeze, the faint sound of moving air, and the low twittering and chirping of birds. I take a minute to stand by the open window and enjoy that sound, reminding myself again that I want to get to know all of the local birds by their call, the way I’m getting to know my neighborhood trees by bark and leaf.

Time for coffee. I always take a moment just to open the bag and smell the beans. Fresh coffee beans have a potent vibrancy that I would swear is already making me more alert before they are even ground. The lively rattle of beans dropping into the hopper, and then there’s thirty or so seconds of the only jarring and unpleasant part of my little ritual: the grinder shattering the stillness with its obnoxiously loud motor. I’ve thought about a hand grinder just to circumvent these thirty seconds on Saturday morning. Absurd, I tell myself. They’re expensive and they don’t grind as evenly. I won’t do it. All the same, there’s something about the electric grinder in that moment that feels like turning on a leafblower during a church service.

Church: as I set up my little Hario V60 pot with the funnel top for the beans, filter, and water, I recall once more how “chalice-like” the shape is, and imagine the old priests in places like medieval France, quietly raising theirs in prayer on a similar morning. Moldering stone, stained glass shot through with early sun, bell-rope waiting to be pulled– all pure fancy, of course, but it’s what my brain has done in quiet moments since I was a little kid. Connect with the past, or some kind of story, or both at once.

I wait for my kettle water to boil and sniff the ground beans. That’s where you can really get a feel for the kind of bean and the skill of the roaster. It puts a smile on my face every time I get a new bag. Amazing, I think, that simple coffee beans can have so many different scents when they are fresh from the grinder, depending on where they came from and who roasted them. In an instant, I am aware: of the vast, incredible variety of the climate and soils in even the small subset of places where it is possible to grow good coffee in the world, of the limitless nuances in human skill that prepare them for me and so many other people, and of the little red lines going all over the global map in different directions to bring me this handful of ground coffee beans.

Every sound is magnified. While this is unfortunate in the case of the grinder, it’s a pleasant part of waiting for the water. The gradual rise in the intensity of the roil as the kettle slowly gets to temprature, then the drop-off telling me to look for the steam escaping the holes in the lid: I’m getting to the apex of my little ritual, and it’s time for full concentration and precision. I wet the filter, drop the ground coffee in, and begin pouring in a thin, deliberate spiral, evenly over the coffee. Wait for the first “bloom” to die down, pour again, wait about ten seconds, pour again. Steady on the wrist movement: if you tilt back too much as you spiral, you’ll miss grinds, tilt forward a hair too much and the pour is too aggressive, gushing all over one section of beans.

I get asked sometimes: does any of this REALLY matter? Does it taste THAT much better than coffee from a simple drip pot? Unspoken: do you have to get THIS fucking precious about morning coffee? The short answer: no. I can sit down and enjoy much simpler drip coffee. I choose not to, in part because it does taste better, but there’s more. The journey, the ritual, the total absorption in the effort to make something that’s truly yours: these things impart something extra and genuinely spiritual.

Up until the last drips of coffee are pouring through the funnel into the pot, kettle set down, silence has once again stolen over my clean little kitchen. At this moment, bacon has already been set to cast iron and is beginning to lightly sizzle. However bacon turns out once its done, I can always be assured of two joys in the making of it: the blaze of savory smell and the buildup in sound to the full-blown, merry crackling that tells you its nearly finished. Even the leftover grease is a gift, destined as a base for future chili pots and braises.

It’s around this time that I inwardly smile and listen for the first sounds of my lady: the ruffle of sheets from two rooms away, and the familiar pattern of her footfalls as my soon-to-be hug gets better from the anticipation. Or maybe it’s different: she’s heard the grinder or smells the bacon, knows I’m up, knows she’s too tired to rise yet, but it’s still time for ‘good morning.’ In that case, as soon as my kitchen noise dies down, I’ll faintly hear my favorite word in the background: “Honey.” It’s neither a question nor command, but I go to give that hug myself.

Excitement: what will we talk about today? What will we do? Inevitably, hours will pass by without a minute’s realization, to the muted, happy sounds of conversation, gossip, jokes, classical music, scrambled eggs, the pop of the toaster, and dreaming about the future out loud. We’ve got the whole weekend to spend together as we like, and the whole morning to figure it out. In a way, however the day, the weekend, or the rest of life unfolds, it’s going to have a tough time matching the vibrant potential we can both feel in this long, slow morning, free from the pressure or demands of day-to-day stuff.

Our little house and the life we’ve built together offers me plenty for which I’m grateful on any given day, but Saturday morning has a special purity about it that’s tough to beat. Cheers, folks.

Metal Monday: Heavy Metal “Fans” are Garbage

In these crazy days, when so much calamity can be live-streamed directly from anywhere in the world, it’s unlikely anybody will make the time to read about the state of ‘metal’ music. Fortunately, I don’t give two shits and I’m going to write about it anyway. One of my favorite bands is recording an album and the bulk of their genre’s supporters is banding together to let them know how displeased they are– and it’s a big part of why that genre is a dying art.

The genre is ‘heavy metal'(as coined by some radio dude trying to describe the sound of it a long time ago- like heavy metal falling from the sky) and the band is Sepultura. Sepultura made a name for themselves over 25 years ago as a band that pushed the boundaries of aggressive music. Hailing from Brazil, they evolved from a founding powerhouse in the death metal genre into something unique, incorporating tribal elements, groove drumming, unique guitar riffs, and a sense for pressing social and ‘rebel’ issues in their lyrics. Their charismatic front man, Max Cavalera, seemed to embody what they were about, with his emotional but accessible delivery, his mastery of several languages, and even his heavily-accented, guttural English.

Then, in 1996, he had a falling out with the rest of the band, including his brother. He made it a very public, messy divorce, and left the band permanently. Lots of people (including myself) were pretty bummed out. What would come next?

The band continued with a new front man (who moved to Brazil to learn Portuguese and totally commit), and surprisingly, continued to evolve. They pushed boundaries with each new album, experimenting with different elements musically and lyrically. They made a stripped-down, powerful protest record. They wrote a concept album inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and another one inspired by “A Clockwork Orange,” which fully explored the issues of choice and its inseparability from true morality. Not all of it worked, but one thing was for sure: Sepultura never grew canned or stale in their sound.

Naturally, their resurgence was celebrated, right? Wrong! Many of their former fans refused to accept that the band could exist without its former front man. Many of them refused to even listen to the new material: “No Max= no Sepultura” was a common thread. And it still is. Their guitarist gets asked all the time about the possibility of a reunion. Dude, it’s been TWENTY YEARS since they split up. TWENTY. YEARS. Get over it! Get a life! Listen to something new! Are you the same person you were twenty years ago? It’s pathetic.

Max Cavalera has long-since become a washed-up has-been. He founded a new band called “Soulfly,” in which guest appearances from other artists and riffs from other guitarists have been the center of attention. His band members are in constant flux because he is apparently extremely difficult to work with. Even his supporters admit that his live performances are not anything close to what they were. Yet if Sepultura’s guitarist and main songwriter, Andreas Kisser, ever wants a big paycheck again, he’s probably going to have to screw his awesome and dedicated front man, Derrick Green, and reunite to play a bunch of songs that haven’t had real chemistry to them for 25 years. It’s sad, man.

‘Metal’ fans are garbage. Every genre has their reactionaries, of course, but as metal becomes less and less relevant, its reactionaries cling to nostalgia harder than ever. You see it on “news” sites, where absolutely nobody ‘up-and-coming’ is getting any press, and you see it when you go to shows, where puffy, aging 40 year olds in denim jackets and long hair (interrupted with bald spots) stand around chanting for thirty year old songs we’ve all heard thirty million times. Fear Factory just did a tour in which they played their seminal “Demanufacture” album from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong, I love that album, and it really grabbed a hold of me…in 1994. The concept of a whole album set is really cool, but when asked why the band did it, their front man Burton C. Bell explained (in quite passive-aggressive fashion) that “fans aren’t really interested in anything new.” Bitch move, but amen, dude.

Metal music began and was supposed to continue as music on the edge and the outlet for extreme thoughts and exhilaration. In times like now, when so much is changing so rapidly, it should be an expanding art form. Kids should be attracted to its rock roots and its simple, garage elements. Instead, screamo and other image-obsessed garbage stole that audience. There’s a metal influence to what my students hear, but at its roots, a lot of it is lifeless and conformist. Cold production, screaming vocals alternated with pop choruses, polished, studio-heavy sound, and loads of triggered percussion– it’s loud, but it doesn’t have identity or soul.

Metal needs a true resurgence, both as a return to garage rock and as an art with which musicians can experiment, and we can’t keep mistaking history for relevance. I read Slayer moved over 50,000 copies of their latest (and definitely NOT greatest) in the first week– massive numbers for a metal album, and the best of their career! The interest is there. Why are we waiting around? Metallica is recording a new album? Who gives a shit?! Metallica has released one album in the last thirteen years! Is there anything less relevant to extreme music than James Hetfield’s leathery, alcoholic old face? Than Lars Ulrich tracking shitty, fragmented drum takes in between rounds on his private golf course? It drives me nuts that Torture Division, a really great death metal band that kept pushing the envelope, had to throw in the towel for lack of funds, while people are basically standing around waiting to give Metallica their money.

Metal fans should have been supporting the evolution of the art over a decade ago, so the new kids had something awesome to grab onto and carry. When the art evolved beyond Black Sabbath, that’s exactly what happened. Instead, starting in the late 90s, they put their fingers in their ears, cried over their Max Cavalera posters, and let rap rock, nu metal, and screamo happen. Now, the kids are buying Skillet albums. Ugh.

Project Legion Update #1: Smoking Meat

Last month, I undertook a multi-pronged project to master some basic skills I had been looking to learn, and set a physical base from which to expand a few of my other goals. As a schoolteacher with a few weeks of break time in front of me, I thought it would be a good way to get started on some stuff before my two greatest projects: fatherhood and the process of continuing to improve as a teacher, got fully underway next month. My intention was to write about this process, reflecting on how much progress I made and how sustainable it was.

I have five main goals as a part of this project:

#1: Produce an authentic, ‘better-than-backyard-bullshit’ piece of Texas-style smoked brisket, equivalent to brisket at a quality BBQ establishment.DEADLINE: October 12th

#2: Produce a “thumbs-up, I’d definitely eat that again” loaf of home-made bread. DEADLINE: November 27th

#3: Produce a good-looking piece of wall art for the garage gym. DEADLINE: August 10th

#4:Produce a full ‘Scope and Sequence’ for a year long 8th Grade History Course, with the first two units complete. DEADLINE: August 10th

#5: Be able to complete 40 straight, four-count flutter kick repetitions, 25 straight pull-ups, 100 straight pushups, a 120 pound “Rolling Thunder” deadlift, a 50 pound “Blockbuster Pinch Grip Block”  lift, and a 10 mile run in 80 minutes under a 40 pound backpack load. DEADLINE: December 18th

On the whole, I am making progress, although I’ve experienced some slow-down and inertia on a few of my items. I’d like to focus today on goal #1.

Not long after I wrote my piece, one of my principal difficulties in meeting my goal here was the acquisition of a real smoker. With a baby on the way and my awesome wife already on board with funding several of my other interests this year (such as my garage gym!), I couldn’t simply go out and buy a good smoker. I resolved to learn the basics on a shitty one, and lo and behold: one appeared for free! My neighbor was about to put his (a basic cheap offset smoker) at the curb, in favor of a new Weber grill.

When he offered it to me, I enthusiastically agreed. After I wheeled the thing into my backyard, however, a few challenges became apparent, above and beyond the cheapness and poor heat retention of the smoker itself. It was covered in rust and filled with old grease and ash, and needed some modification to how it pulled smoke and told temperature. I made a visit to Home Depot after consulting Aaron Franklin’s excellent BBQ book for the material to modify the smoker and I felt reasonably confident that elbow grease would take care of the grease, ash and rust.

I was mostly correct, but a large problem soon presented itself: when I cleaned out the ash and old grease, I found that the part of the cook chamber bottom nearest to the firebox had rusted out to the length and width of about 14 by 2 inches. Ugh. This is bad. Franklin warns not to let ash sit in your cooker, nor to rinse it out with water when you decide to clean it, because it rapidly accelerates the rusting process. My neighbor had done both and left the smoker uncovered, so even though it was not “old” in years, plenty of damage had already been done.

This was an easy point to lament my lack of a lot of basic hand skills. If I knew the first thing about metals and metalworking, I’ll bet I could have had this problem solved in a heartbeat. The internet was not terribly helpful either. There was a lot of advice, most of it irrelevant to my specific problem, or offering a solution that required skills I don’t have. I resolved to ask folks at Home Depot for help. Hold the laughter, folks. Let’s just say I made three more separate trips to Home Depot, got two well-meaning contradictory suggestions, both of which only proved the ignorance of the suggestors, and am now holding a useless piece of galvanized sheet metal (when exposed to heat, galvanized metal produces poisonous fumes).

What I need now is essentially a piece of non-galvanized sheet metal that will bend to the contours of my cook chamber. The chief problem here is one of airflow– I don’t want a hole in my cook chamber because that will pull cooler air into it and ruin the meat temperature and smoking environment. So basically I just need to cover the hole with something that won’t melt when exposed to high heat. I have a metal-working store (hopefully helpfully) suggested to me by one gal at Home Depot that I will explore on Monday.

CHANCES OF MAKING DEADLINE ON GOAL #1: At this point, not sure. I’m at least a week or two behind where I wanted to be, and this one is deceptive. It’s one of the most far-off goal times, so if I’m not careful, it can be all-too-easy to get complacent and not hit the ‘waypoints’ I need to hit to achieve it.