Tuesday, January 28, 2014

RIP Pete Seeger

An article I wrote in April 2012 about Pete Seeger was published in the Newton Tab in the weeks leading up to a Newton Family Singers Seeger-themed concert. It's no longer on the Tab website, and it seems appropriate to repost it here.

Reading it over, the article reads a bit like an obituary. Rest In Peace, Pete, and thanks for all the music!

Seeger continues to inspire

Pete Seeger turns 93 on May 3rd. He is known as a songwriter for writing songs as well-known as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn, Turn, Turn;” as an advocate of folk music for popularizing and adapting the songs of others, like “Oh When the Saints” and “Hine Ma Tov;” as a performer with The Weavers and in numerous solo recordings; and as the author of a number of books of songs and musical instruction. He is surely all of those things, but I think his primary influence has been as a music enthusiast, encouraging all of us to pick up an instrument, open our mouths and sing. Pete Seeger is probably indirectly responsible for about half the songs you’ve committed to memory and is directly responsible for your neighbors banding together to create the Newton Family Singers.

Where does a musical icon like Pete Seeger come from? It’s worth considering his family background: his mother Constance de Clyver Edson was a classical violinist and composer who taught at Julliard, his father Charles L Seeger was a composer and musicologist -- a room in Harvard’s music library is named in his honor. Charles’ second wife (Pete’s stepmother) was an avant-garde composer named Ruth Crawford and she and Charles helped Alan and John Lomax collect and transcribe traditional music from around the country and around the world. This musical upbringing had an effect on Pete as well as two half-siblings, Peggy and Mike, who had long musical careers of their own. (The legacy continues: two extended family members have joined the Newton Family Singers this year.)

Pete taught himself to play guitar and then learned songs from friends like Woody Guthrie and Huddy Ledbetter. With a few friends, he formed the Weavers and for years, as he has said, he played concerts to pay for all the time he spent playing union rallies and protests. His series of recordings for the Smithsonian called “American Favorite Ballads” is an encyclopedia of American vernacular music.

Given those accomplishments, where do I get the chutzpah to suggest that Pete Seeger’s greatest contribution has been to encourage others to sing? Well, from Pete himself. The desire to encourage and teach singing can be heard in the songs he wrote with his friends. “If I Had a Hammer” is a call for justice and freedom and love, but ultimately the most effective tool toward these ends is not the hammer or the bell but rather a song. And in his solo recording of “Wimoweh,” Seeger doesn’t perform the song, he teaches it; he introduces bass, tenor and soprano parts, so that his audience learns to sing together in harmony. Reading his memoir Where Have All the Flowers Gone, one can’t help but be struck by the way Seeger assumes the reader is also writing songs and leading sing-alongs and looking for advice in these endeavors.

And yes, Pete’s example is an inspiration for groups like the Newton Family Singers. We’re a group of men, women and children who enjoy singing harmonies and playing folk songs together. He’s also inspired one our group’s co-founders, Andy Rogovin, to write a tribute to Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The song benefits from a clever arrangement by Chris Eastburn, our guest musical director, who uses a medley of Seeger songs as an introduction: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “We Shall Overcome” (the latter was a union song called “We Will Overcome” until Pete made one change and introduced it to the Civil Rights movement).  “Pete and Woody taught us songs of freedom...” Rogovin’s song begins, and subsequent verses list other types of songs from that rich folk tradition, songs of hardship, and of laughter: “music of our children / rising in the air.”

It’s a reminder that not every song has to be about love or heartbreak. When former rock and roller and now folkie children’s music hero Dan Zanes was searching for songs to sing with his daughter, he thought of his old Seeger records. The Beatles are great, Zanes has said, but songs of romantic love aren’t emotionally appropriate for young kids. Seeger’s songs are those we learned in childhood and carry into our old age. As Rogovin writes: “Pete and Woody taught us songs of freedom / I hear them ringing in my ears / Can’t you hear them echo through the years?”

A few days after his birthday, on Sunday May 6 at the Memorial Spaulding School, the Newton Family Singers will be celebrating Pete Seeger’s life in the best way we can: picking up some instruments and joining each other in song. We hope you can join us!

And here's "Pete and Woody" by Andrew Rogovin, performed by the Newton Family Singers:

Friday, January 24, 2014

What I learned from Twitter following the Sudanese Hug

A week or so ago, the Boston Globe Magazine published an essay I wrote about the "Sudanese Hug," a greeting I learned while visiting that nation.

There was a great response to the piece and I felt like I've been learning on the fly how to navigate social media (especially Twitter) as a freelance writer and personal essayist so I'm writing down some notes to remind myself of stuff I could do next time, and perhaps as a service to others.

First of all, it probably shouldn't be a surprise, but I learned there is a large Sudanese diaspora. And many of them speak English, and naturally they are tracking news about Sudan. Only the Globe knows how many people accessed the article (and from where) but through Twitter I was able to see a number of retweets (RTs) from Sudanese, from NGOs with an interest in Sudan, and from journalists in Sudan and East Africa.

While the language difference (predominantly Arabic) would seem to be a barrier to reaching a Sudanese audience, I think the smaller English speaking Sudanese audience has more of an incentive to follow all things "Sudan" on a social network like Twitter. In contrast, I would not expect as many people in an English speaking country with the same population as Sudan (about 35 million) -- say Canada -- to monitor social networks for references to their home. (I could be wrong; Canadians can be very patriotic.)

This may be obvious, too, but people like good news. While there is an audience of people looking for news on Sudan, it must be refreshing for them to read something complimentary and not about war or tragedy. In fact, the editor who bought my essay has mentioned to me more than once that too often her submission pile is filled with sad stories about death or heartbreak and she appreciates seeing, and being able to publish, a more positive balance.

Following an essay can be difficult. I used bit.ly to shorten the link (http://b.globe.com/1j3uIDy) and then I can see how many click throughs come through "my" link. (I put "my" in quotes because anyone else can use the same link, but bit.ly keeps it on a page for me to reference.)

What I found, too, was that the article was getting tweeted elsewhere, from the Boston Globe, and from various readers. I was able to track this somewhat by copying the URL that the essay lived on and searching for that address on Twitter, results here. (Note that this method finds both the direct URL and my bit.ly shortened version.) I was able to then "favorite" any mentions and engage with those who liked the article.

And now I can spend more time searching on Twitter for links to previous articles...

... I'm back.

That was disappointing. Clearly, if you want your work to surf Twitter, you've got to do it yourself. On the bright side, here's an opportunity to start a new round of tweets with old articles.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Huffington Post

Brain, Child Magazine originally published my essay on hugging my tween son (why he needs it and how I screwed it up), and now, through a partnership, the essay has been reprinted in the Huffington Post HuffPost Parents section here.

Nice to see the story continues to resonate with readers.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Sudanese Hug

What's more than a handshake and less than a hug? The Sudanese have the answer.

From the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine (1/12/14):

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you the Sudanese hug.
While working on an archeological excavation in northern Sudan, I was fascinated by a form of greeting I had never seen before. Two men would each clap his right hand down on the other’s left shoulder. They might pat each other’s shoulder a few times while smiling and exchanging greetings. And then the arms would drop and the men would shake hands.
Curious about this custom, I asked the dig director about it. He told me it was the “Sudanese hug,” and he suggested I ask Mahmoud, the Sudanese government representative who minded our excavation, to explain it. Mahmoud had spent time at academic conferences in Europe and was aware that the Sudanese hug was unfamiliar to most foreigners.
“When you greet a friend,” he explained, “and maybe you are not family, so you do not want to hug him, but you are not just business acquaintances, so you want to show more affection, then you do the Sudanese hug.”
This was a revelation.

Monday, January 06, 2014

An Open Letter to Jack Cheng (from Jack Cheng to all other Jack Chengs)

Dear Jack Chengs,

I’m not currently looking for a software job in Southern California. Are you? If so, you may want to redirect that Monster job search listing to your own e-mail.

Jack Cheng in the Midwest, please thank your friends for all the invitations to church potlucks. I will be unable to attend. Similarly to the Jack Cheng in Hong Kong -- if I can’t make it 1000 miles to the Midwest, you know I won’t make it to Kowloon! Jack Chengs are a pious group; God bless us.

Jack Cheng, you may want to clarify your e-mail address with any companies you are working for or consulting with. I’m happy to look over your Powerpoint presentations but I always feel a little bad when I get to the footnote that says all the information is confidential.

To my (second) favorite Jack Cheng, the designer and writer in Brooklyn who writes about tea and the slow web and had a successful Kickstarter campaign for his novel. Congrats! I’m sorry if my own attempts to build a writing career has confused Googlers trying to find you. You got the domain name; good on you. Also, you may want to get in touch with the Geekdad blog -- they have some nice messages for you.

I don’t know about the rest of you Jack Chengs, but I’m trying to reduce my material impulses. (Okay, I’ll admit I just bought a new acoustic guitar and I didn’t NEED it, but man, it’s sweet. It’s a L’Arrivee from Vancouver, the same brand [not the same model] that Commander Hadfield played in the International Space Station. Have you seen his “Space Oddity” video? Are you space geeks like me?)

Oh, sorry, I got sidetracked. Where was I? Trying to buy less. For that reason, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t sign me up for all those store newsletters. You know what I’m talking about -- Sears, sporting goods stores, car dealerships. I’m earning mad bonus points at Barnes and Noble even though I hardly ever shop there. Jack Cheng, I apologize for using your $5 B&N coupon but it was on my phone and they took it. You’d do the same, wouldn’t you?

I have to say, I’m oddly happy to see all the fitness newsletters; I didn’t think Jack Chengs were a particularly athletic lot. But we try! Am I right?

You may be wondering how it is that I got the awesome Gmail address. Well, my cousin Wilson works at Google and he invited me when Gmail was still in beta. Pretty cool, right? But it seems like there is some jealousy or just plain confusion on the part of the rest of you. It’s time now to just face the facts: I got the address and you didn’t. Don’t hate the player, bros.

Try Hotmail.


Jack Cheng

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Succeeding When You're Supposed to Fail: Book review and summary

I just finished reading Succeeding When You're Supposed To Fail: The 6 Enduring Principles of High Achievement by Rom Brafman. So much of it deals with issues of parenting and teaching non-traditional students (which I do at the Clemente Course), that I thought I would take some time to summarize the book for myself and others. I italicize my editorial comments below.

First of all, I should note that Brafman is a psychologist -- this is not a reported non-fiction book.

Second, the full title of the book is important. While the skills and mindsets discussed are useful for anyone, the focus here is on people who face adversity and how they overcome those obstacles to succeed. Brafman tells of a discussion with a Stanford admissions officer who weighs a 3.5 average from an underprivileged neighborhood school more highly than a 4.0 from a wealthy suburban school. This makes sense -- the first student has some sort of character traits that helped him or her succeed (when expected to fail); the second student may have the same characteristics, but then again, they might not.

So: who are the people who succeed in adverse circumstances? Brafman calls them "tunnellers" because they have a way of boring through all the obstacles in their way. Tunnelers are regular people who have strong personality traits, and Brafman claims that they share six particular traits.

1. Tunnelers take responsibility for their circumstances.

This is not to say that they don't recognize injustice in the world or that others may have contributed to problems. However, tunnelers recognize their contribution to their situation and realize that they are the only ones who can help dig themselves out of problems.

Note that this is very different from "happiness studies" where an appreciation for luck, or God, or the contributions of others are said to result in a happier state of mind. Tunnelers realize that they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, although, as we'll see, not totally alone.

2. Tunnelers make meaning

Tunnelers are following their passions and pursuing their dreams. They don't work this hard without an end in mind. Brafman uses zookeepers as an example. Shoveling animal dung may seem demeaning to some, but many zookeepers are college graduates who feel privileged to do their work despite the low pay. Sounds a bit like teaching some days...

How do we maximize meaning? A few ways: i. surround yourself with meaningfulness (family, volunteer work, a career that is your calling, ii. continue to seek, asking yourself, what can I do to life my life to the fullest? (this is more common in Asian cultures but we can learn to recognize the search for meaning as meaningful in itself), iii. find a community to discuss your passions with (they can agree or not, so long as they take your interests seriously).

This is veering into Aristotle territory. What is the proper function of a human being? How can you be your best self? Brafman is saying that even asking that question -- being a philosopher! -- is part of the answer.

In the Clemente Course, students are self-selected to a certain extent. If they want to take the course, they are looking to improve themselves and they are asking questions of themselves. As course directors and teachers, we work on fostering the communities that develop, creating a peer group that is responsive to each individuals queries. Many students tell me how much they appreciate other individuals in the class as role models, as friendly competitors, and as moral support.

3. Unwavering commitment

To accomplish their goals, tunnelers have a deeply rooted sense that they are meant to achieve. Obstacles become challenges to overcome. The most important personality trait in this regard is emotional stability. They do not allow themselves to be rocked hard by negative events, but carry on with equanimity.

I've found this to be a challenge in Clemente Courses. Many people sign up, still unsure how deep their commitment to the program is. Many people have underlying emotional issues that make dealing with problems difficult. The best thing we can do is to create classrooms full of mutual support, remind students of the ultimate goal (perhaps through stories of alumni success), and model calm behavior.

4. Temperament

This builds on the idea of emotional stability: even-tempered disposition is often a characteristic of successful people. They are clear on their goals, but they don't overreact to setbacks. Brafman's example: if you get a traffic ticket, does it ruin your day or week? or do you decide you can learn from this and move on?

5. Humor

A sense of humor is prevalent among those who succeed despite negative circumstances. What's the mechanism? Humor helps alleviate anxiety. Humor is also culturally dependent and having a good sense of humor is indicative of emotional intelligence. Different types of humor are culturally relevant; for example, among a group of male police officers in a study, teasing put-downs are often a way to include someone into a group, but that same behavior might feel demeaning in another context.

6. Satellites

A satellite is someone who has unconditional positive regard for another person. This does not mean they do not criticize or give difficult advice, but that the subject knows that the satellite always has his or her best interests at heart. Examples include mentors in the Big Brother Big Sister program -- there is no requirements to be a Big Brother expect to spend a certain amount of time with your little brother; even so, kids with Big Brothers or Sisters show marked improvement in school and in other areas.

This is basically our job as course directors. If the students feel that someone is looking out for them, this is a huge step towards their eventual success in the Clemente Course and beyond. As I was writing this, I just got an e-mail from a student: "You guys are such supportive professors." The idea of a stranger being so supportive is new for a lot of Clemente students and this is often the setback that students report when entering a local college -- the professors didn't give the same kind of support. It's not about writing centers or guidance counsellors, it's about the general feeling that the teachers care about their prospects in life. If we want our students to succeed post-Clemente, one key may be to find people at local colleges to be satellites -- to point out the campus resources, but also to just be a steady, positive influence.

Brafman has a final short paragraph where he suggests ways to put these ideas into practice. He breaks it down based on the person you are trying to help.

Yourself: Focus on how you can change a bad situation, find meaning, stay calm, stay the course, give yourself a break when setbacks occur, use humor, look for satellites (mentors), allow yourself to become inspired. When you've successfully tunneled through an issue, remind yourself of your success.

Employees (or students): Listen to their input, press further when they are passionate about a subject, be a good coach, model good calm behavior, think of them as family, help them see their own strengths, give positive feedback.

Children: Give them choices, follow through on their interests, know when to quit vs. persevere, model good behavior, laugh together, communicate love and respect, encourage them to take risks and challenge themselves, let them know you're there for them, let them know you are part of a team, treat them as a friend -- "supportive, critical when necessary, but always unconditionally loyal."

Overall, the book is a quick, easy read with lots of illuminating anecdotes that help the reader remember these concepts, and at less than 200 pages, Brafman gets to the important points quickly and doesn't pad out the page count. Highly recommended for teachers and parents.



Saturday, November 09, 2013

Even Tween Boys Need Hugs

My latest essay published by Brain, Child Magazine is about why my 10 year old son needs hugs and how I screwed that up:
My 10-year-old son can be a train wreck. 
I know it’s not his fault. His limbs are growing faster than he knows, and his brain is all over the place, from the world of Minecraft to the Marvel Comics Superhero Universe to the Greek gods of the Percy Jackson-verse. Still, excuses aside, he’s simply not that cognizant of his own body. 
When he walks down the hall, I cringe, worried that he’ll knock over framed photos hanging on the walls.

Read more here.