Some quesitons and answers …

Recently I had a great conversation with a long-time harmonica friend about the SPAH election. He shared his take on the tone of the campaign and the approach suggested by Warren and me. He said, “Your campaign statements … painted Winslow (via his association with current management) as a conservative stick-in-the-mud.” Winslow, is a nice man, he has done a great job with the entertainment, and it goes without saying he’s an accomplished player. With all due respect, his campaign motto speaks volumes about his management style, “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are now.”

On the surface that approach sounds sensible. Yet, that is exactly the policy that has led to a decline in membership and relevance to the harmonica community. It also bespeaks an aversion to risk that does the organization a disservice. Where would any of us be as musicians and human beings if we never ventured beyond “do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are now”?

Whoever runs SPAH for the next three years must have his feet planted firmly on the ground, but he should also be willing to try new things. He needs to have faith in his ability to reach beyond the organization’s grasp. Otherwise, we’ll stay just where we are.

Warren and I hope to build upon the foundation laid by the members and management teams of the last 50 years. We want to create a more transparent and financially secure SPAH that does more to accomplish its mission than hold an annual convention

This effort requires expending resources on membership development, creating mutually beneficial partnerships with industry stakeholders, and a capital drive program. Thus enriched, we’ll be in a position to make SPAH better than ever.

My friend suggested Warren and I “were willing to take large financial risks to expand SPAH’s reach, with references to all that money just sitting there in the bank.”

We have no intention of taking a hammer to the piggy bank. Our statements were more nuanced. Read SPAH’s BoD meeting minutes for the last four years and look at the tax returns which describe many of the organization’s business expenses. A pattern emerges. The current management team, of which Winslow is a member, has devoted neither money nor intellectual capital on membership development. They have likewise spent very little on infrastructure.

The SPAH convention has been successful for a long time. But it’s coasting on inertia. Unless we make a consistent effort to attract and retain members, it won’t be forever. Indeed correlating convention attendance with membership numbers over the last four years reveals interesting insights.

Without tangible membership benefits, convention locations are critical because  membership increases when the convention is held in areas with a strong local harmonica scene. Sacramento was case in point. Our membership numbers and convention attendance curves bulged. Why?  Primarily because there are a lot of harmonica players in California who could drive to the convention. To the best of my knowledge, Winslow has expressed no intentions of addressing this issue.

So yes, we might use some SPAH funds to pay for marketing efforts but as an adjunct to other strategies–not as step one. For example, there’s been a long standing practice to send many members on site inspections. When there, the organization treats  local club reps and themselves to dinner. This past year, we spent some $1,500[1. This number was originally misstated because I relied on my middle-aged memory instead of my notes. According to an email from Tom Stryker dated 11/10/2011, the expenses were as follows, “Winslow, $380.00 Airfare, Tom $380.00 Airfare, L.J. & Elizabeth  $300.00 Vehicle expense at gov. rate ($.75 per mile)”] on that program.

Site inspections aren’t really necessary any more. That work can be handled over the Internet and by phone. Trimming this expense will not affect the quality of the convention but will free up the funds for other programs like membership development. To the best of my knowledge, Winslow does not intend to discontinue that practice. Likewise, our conventions are only held in cities with local clubs. That model made sense when there were many more clubs. Now that practice limits our choices of cities and our ability to sustain growth.

My friend went on to say, given the apparent choice between, me and Winslow,  he said he, “Went with the stick-in-the-mud ;-)” It was both an honest answer, and in keeping with his gentle personality, a wry way of chiding me for some of my earlier campaign statements.

If all voters heard was the  “entrepreneurial vs. paralysis by analysis” trope, they missed the important points of our case.

Elections present a challenge to those who want to make a responsible choice, particularly in an organization like SPAH.  Most members are (rightfully) there for the party and do not care about the business end of the organization. Or as I like to say, few people want to know what goes into the sausage so long as it consistently tastes good. Therefore, emotions and friendships become the biggest factors in their decisions.

The SPAH election is not about whether the convention will “taste the same,” it will. It’s not about who is the better harmonica player or who has been around longer, or who has more friends or who “deserves” it.  It’s about deciding who will be the sausage chef, which is to say, who will do the  best job running the business and whose ideas, if executed, will most benefit the organization on the short and long term.

Chester Green Backstory

By profession, Chet was a lineman for the phone company. His leisure time was spent in compulsive industry that often involved hard physical labor. Whether it was tending to his nursery, fixing the cars, making repairs around the house, burying the phone and electric lines.

From the point of view of people of Jerry’s friends’ families who had only recently moved from tough working class neighborhoods in New York City, Chet seemed like a bit of an anachronism. He spanned the gap between rural and suburban Bayview. Through no intention of his own, Chet’s house found itself in in the middle hundreds of brand new houses. He maintained his home impeccably. He stood bolt upright and walked with determination and economy. He drove his vehicles for 200,000+ miles at time when most American cars were ready for the junk yard by 80,000. But of course he could because he maintained everything mechanical in his life scrupulously.

The Greens in the Eyes of the New Comers

The Greens led the life to which the Levys, Kupczeks, Scabelli-Gugliermos, and Colellas aspired. To most of the newly transplanted city dwellers who were the offspring of recent immigrants, the Greens represented the perfect suburban still life. Dad worked, mom cared for the kids, the house was maintained to perfection, meals were on the table at the exactly the same time every day, the kids were happy, and did fairly well in school. Jerry was already shaping up into a modestly good athlete. The girls belonged to the Brownies and Girl Scouts. But most importantly, the Green family had roots in the community. Their family had lived in Bayview for the last three generations–one generation before most of the city folks’ forbearers had even left their respective European countries.

They seemed to posses that sense of fitting in, of having a place in the world, of being connected. Families like the Levys, Kupczeks and Colellas were from “The City” and before that from unpronounceable municipalities throughout Europe so they felt in a state of transition–sort of like a plant growing in the air, reaching and hungering for soil in which to grab root. City living for immigrants proved to be a purgatorial existence. People had the resources to get out of their home countries and that was it. They settled in New York by default and bided their time until they could find jobs, save money, and move out. Unfortunately for most, temporary became permanent but they impressed upon their children the imperative of moving out to the suburbs or the country. The eagerness of the newly transplanted suburbanites to root themselves in the community made them seem grasping to the firmly established.

Most people who live in cities don’t buy their homes in the city; they don’t really settle in a community for any great length of time. Rather ghettos or slums become a way-station for social climbing ethnic groups causing neighborhoods to change in composition from one generation to the next. What was an Irish neighborhood in the late 1800s became an Italian neighborhood at the turn of the century became a Jewish neighborhood in the thirties, became a black or Puerto Rican neighborhood in the sixties.Nonetheless, he didn’t sleep well on Saturday night. The blood oath disturbed him. No one had ever admonished him against swearing oaths but there was something about the symbolism, not to mention the words which made him feel uneasy.

Blasting Gophers

Sunday morning November 1, 1970. I’ve decided to cut this from the main narrative of Hunter’s Moon because I think the story demands focus on Art Drinkwater, Joe and Joey, and the Levys. –BJC

In his waking life, rationalization and denial came easily to Jerry because he tended to live in the moment. Yesterday’s mistakes were yesterday’s worries. He fell asleep Saturday night to “They probably put out the fire before anything bad happened.”

In the still hours between midnight and sunrise, Jerry dreamed of sitting around a circle in Chris Levy’s fort dressed in flowing white robes. The walls glowed red and black instead of their usual green and white. He saw himself and his friends slicing huge gashes into their bodies then pouring the blood into a a mason jar. They all stood and watched Joey mix everyone’s blood into one container and then pass it around, urging them to drink deeply. The dream’s imagery took on the lurid appearance of a black and white horror movie. Long shadows fell across the floors at harsh angles. His  friends’ features took on a sardonic affect.

Moments after drinking the blood, his body purged its fluids and waste. He watched them vaporize before touching the ground. The world deconstructed and regenerated itself before his eyes. Fascination overcame his fear. Objects devolved into shape and color, metamorphosed into texture and value, and regenerated themselves first into mathematical representations of form and then three dimensional objects. Jerry marveled at the converging lines in the hooch’s interior; at the irregular forms of his friends arranged in a circle within the hallowed rectangle, occupying the surrounding space, forming an object for which he had no name; at the curves of Joey’s face–the spherical eyes, the way his nose protruded from his brow, then drooped towards the ground, curving up at the last possible moment. For a fleeting instant, everything made sense. He saw his place in the universe as a singular being with no boundaries between himself and infinity, essential to its strength and integrity. The previous night’s vision faded into the the dark.  The group emerged as foremost. He resolved to keep the secret. No matter how hard people questioned him about Saturday night’s adventures at Dill’s house, no matter who it was, he knew he had to protect his friends.

Jerry woke to the sound of his mother calling his name from the kitchen on Sunday morning, “Hurry up and get dressed. Everyone else is waiting.”

The Greens followed the same Sunday routine week in and week out. Jenny and Chester woke up around six in the morning and had sex. They roused the kids around seven and prepared for church. Both quickly showered after which Chester went out to the mail box, retrieved the Sunday paper. He sat in the parlor reading his Newsday until  Jenny announced breakfast. The family sat down to a big meal pancakes, bacon & sausage, orange juice, coffee, and milk.

A few hours later everyone changed out of their Sunday clothes and  Chester, accompanied by his son Jerry, went to the backyard and walked the property insuring that all was in order.

Most recently Chet Green’s had a gopher problem. During the summer of 1970 his backyard had turned into a grid work of gopher tunnels and dying plants. His vegetable garden and flower beds and his grass all suffered mightily. He tried everything short of dynamite but nothing worked. Not the humane traps nor the inhumane traps. He tried flooding the tunnels. Then he tried poison. But they were too smart to eat the tainted food. In an act of desperation one Sunday morning in mid-September he went out and put a handful of carrots near one of the tunnel’s entrances and waited patiently behind a tree with his pump action 20 Gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot.

“It’s me our you gopher,” said Chet wearing a determined look. The little guy popped out of his hole and cautiously nibbled the food. Bam! Gopher parts lay scattered about the bait.  Thereafter, Chet made it a point of going out a few times a week armed with his shotgun and whatever vegetables he could find in the refrigerator. The varmints could not resist the allure of a free meal. “Ah, but there are no free lunches my furry litter friends,” Chet would laugh as he waited for yet another critter to have its last meal. Sunday, the day of the Lord, saw no pause in the war.

“C’mon son,” said Chet. “It’s time to blast some gophers.”

Jerry giggled dryly with anticipation while his father left the table to retrieve his gun from the basement weapon cache. He was an avid hunter and a Lt. Colonel in the National Guard. He kept shotguns of various gauges, several hunting rifles, an M14 carbine, and  assorted pistols.  After a few moments he emerged from the basement door with a pump action 20 Gauge shotgun and a box of shells, “Here son,” said Chet, proffering both to the boy. “Load’er up and let’s get going. Mind where you point that thing.”

A look of excitement blossomed on his face as he grabbed the weapon and stepped out onto their breezeway, a concrete walk connecting the house with the garage and covered with a roof. Jerry loved everything to do with guns: holding them, loading them, firing them. But, having been an adolescent himself and understanding the fascination young boys had with guns, Chet double secured his weapons by keeping them in a gun safe in a locked room down in the basement. Only he knew the combination. Only he had the key.

Jenny wanted nothing to do with the guns and wouldn’t take the key nor would she learn the combination. “That’s your thing Chet,” she’d say. Throughout the entire gopher ordeal, Jenny busied her self around the house doing her best to ignore the entire affair. The traps and poison bait were bad enough. But, “Shooting off that gun.” Many of the old timers remembered the the not-too-distant past when all of the surrounding area was woodland. They were every bit as likely to solve their gopher problem in a like manner. So long as the shot didn’t wander over to their property, they would be content to put up with a few cracks of the gun. The new people, that was another question.

Blasting gophers was but one of the chores on the day’s agenda. Chet maintained a  winning nursery in his backyard complete with a greenhouse where he kept both tropical plants and also where he grew the seedlings and so on that he planted in the spring. He spent all day Saturday the 31st winterizing the backyard: that is, wrapping tree trunks in burlap, building wind/snow barriers for various bushes and shrubs, and so on.

When the father joined the son on the breezeway, they looked like a study of the much discussed generation gap. Jerry sported a mess of coarse blond hair parted in the middle. He wore a brightly colored polyester shirt with extra big collars, hip-hugging bluejeans held up by a big-buckled garrison belt and a pair of Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars on his feet.  In contrast, the shotgun wielding elder Green wore his greying blond hair in a crew cut. A flannel shirt hung on his narrow shoulders and heavy khaki pants clung to his waste. Well worn work boots covered his feet.

Too all appearances, Chester Green was a stereotypic ’60s Republican, Vietnam war supporter, America love it or leave it type. He was a hard working man about 5’10” tall. Up until the early ’70s, he wore black plastic framed “safety” glasses–circa 1955–which hid the way his eyes set in his face as well as the fairly high cheek bones. His ears were big and floppy and his lips long and thick. He wasn’t particularly muscular but a lifetime of physical labor gave his slight frame a solid appearance. When he was in his twenties, he was very thin. Married life and prosperity added a few layers to his waist line and in his face, which but for extra pounds, would’ve looked cadaverous.

Unlike his new neighbors, who commuted to New York City every day, he spent time with his son and taught him how to hunt and fish and how to fix things around the home. He was a great provider. He served in the Korean war as an enlisted man and worked his way up to Lt. Colonel in the National Guard, which was as much a beer drinking fraternity as a military outfit. They drilled once a month out east on the Island and drank the nights away.

But his experiences in the Korean war along with another 18 years in the service of his country taught him to value family and hard work above all else. Those were the things that sustained life. Petty disagreements over politics or dress were precisely that–insignificant. Not that he liked the way his son dressed or wore his hair but understood their impermanence whereas bitter arguments over haircuts and presentable clothes lasted a lifetime. All things considered, he opted for pragmatism.

The two walked north from the breezeway and headed toward the middle of the yard. “I found another entrance near the oak tree cluster,” said Chet. “C’mon son. Put the food where I showed you and we’ll wait. The little varmints’ll be out looking for a free meal before you know it.”

Jerry complied with his father’s instruction and they withdrew upwind from the hole and sat down on a pair of webbed folding chairs. “Now don’t move and don’t make a sound,” said the elder Green. A short while later, as Chet predicted, a gopher popped his head out of the hole and quickly scanned the perimeter. Not sensing any danger it bound over to its last meal. BAM. Click. BAM. Chet let off two rounds and watched the gopher transform into red mist. Jerry let out a whoop, “Got ’em!”

Satisfied that he was ahead in the Gopher War, Chet, handed the weapon to his son and said, “Take this to basement and give it a thorough cleaning. Rest it on the bench when you’re done. “He watched his son pass through the kitchen door and turned toward an arrangement of azaleas around which he’d set up a burlap wind/snow barrier.

SPAH on Video

The SPAH convention is a singular and amazing experience. Those who have not attended can scarcely imagine what it’s like to be in a hotel full of harmonica players who make music from the early morning to the wee hours of the night. One can pack a life time of memories into a few days. Since not everyone can attend, enjoy these videos posted on YouTube by attendees.

Good Situation Bad, Bad Situation Good

Students build their success upon a foundation comprised of environment, curriculum, effective classroom teachers and personal motivation. Family and culture are given ingredients, the others variables.

Effective teachers work with the variables. We help students master the curriculum by modeling enthusiasm for the subject, nurturing their natural curiosity and creating an environment that rewards good work habits and creative thinking.

Natural selection in the traditional academic ecosystem favors students’ ability to sit in a seat all day long and receive knowledge. Most teachers and students focus on test taking and grades. Performance research strongly suggests emphasis on grades and data-driven evaluation does not equip students for success in college or in the workplace. Most high schools send their kids to college able to take tests but without the tools for creative problem solving.

Work ethic and constructive failure are the tools necessary for lasting success. The apocryphal myth about the light bulb comes to mind. Edison is supposed to have conducted over a 1,000 experiments before finally succeeding. When asked about the failures he said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.”

The moral of the story is failures are teachers not the last word on a subject. Life rewards consistent and persistent individuals, qualities which can be taught and nurtured. Evidence for this exists in the stories we tell about successful people and in modern research of people like research psychologist Roy Baumeister, “Self-control.,” he writes, “Proved to be a better predictor of college grades than students IQ or SAT scores.” (LOSING CONTROL, Baumeister and Tice )

Work ethic is synonymous with self-control. It’s the practice of showing up every day prepared to work and sticking with a task until it’s done. There’s nothing natural about choosing an English composition over playing a video game or hanging out with friends or pushing beyond the first solution that comes to mind.

Here lies the nexus between personal responsibility and teaching. Teachers, who create an environment that rewards consistency and creativity over test scores and regurgitation, help their students develop work and thinking habits that will serve them for a lifetime.

How students are held accountable makes all the difference. For example, my daughter is a sophomore at King Philip High School. Her English teachers writing assignments intended to teach “the writing process.” They teach various brainstorming techniques, show students how to outline; they require students to write multiple drafts, they incorporate peer editing into their pedagogy and they allow students to rewrite their papers to improve the grade. On the surface that paradigm seems fair and roughly approximates the way writers work.

Peeling back the layers reveals serious pitfalls. Prewriting, outlining, and rough drafts are graded for style and grammar instead of effort and improvement. Failing the interim work guarantees an F for the whole project regardless of the quality of the finished product. Likewise, rewrites, though required in failed papers, cannot raise the grade to passing. The terms brainstorming and rough drafts loses their meaning when teachers grade the workproduct rather than the work-process.

Writers cannot produce genuinely creative work well when they have to worry about being evaluated for anything but effort and improvement during the pre-writing and rough draft phases. According to another apocryphal story—this one about the creators of the Looney Tunes cartoons—the writers met for weekly brainstorming sessions. They had only one rule. No one was allowed to say anything negative. This encouraged everyone to turn off both personal and group censors. Often non-sequiturs and outrageous statements led to productive ideas.

Rough drafts followed consensus. Critical editing led to the finished product, until finally Elmer Fudd stalked across the screen lisping, “Qwiet. I’m hunting wabbits” as Bugs Bunny snuck up from behind, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “What’s up Doc?”

To be sure there are objective impediments to a grading model that rewards effort and improvement as well as the finished product. But anything less undermines the lessons taught by the process paradigm.

The preferable rubric gives full marks for demonstrable effort during the pre-writing and rough draft phases. It also rewards improvement through the drafting phase. Finally second chances should be meaningful. Why would anyone put in a final effort if he or she could not ultimately achieve a satisfactory result?

Developing good work habits and durable problem solving skills are far more important than things like spelling, MLA formatting, and whether they know literature and grammar jargon. This area is where teachers can have the most meaningful impact.