Foxy Mama's Blog

Stories, musings and ramblings from the front porch. Pull up a rocking chair and sit for a spell...


Thursday, February 24, 2005

The day I fell from grace...

For some reason I’ve recently remembered something which happened about 25 years ago. I was a Sunday school teacher, a youth group leader (where, incidentally, I was given the name Foxy Mama, a story for another time…), a choir member, a member of the area ecumenical council of churches, and a lay member of the Chaplaincy of the county prison. I was a bona fide volunteer… Following the old maxim of “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I didn’t know the meaning of the word “no.”

During that time I met a lot of people and had a variety of unique experiences and of those experiences, one particularly stands out in my memory. It was the day I fell from grace. I sometimes found myself supplying the pulpit of a sister church in a neighboring town as a lay minister while the search was on for a regular minister. Let me say up front that I am not an ordained minister nor even an unordained minister. I was not, nor am I now, a fundamentalist or overly religious at all. They were taking a very big chance indeed by asking the likes of me to fill in. I was probably comic relief for some warped minds.

When I agreed to to do it I was asked if I needed any help such as someone to read the scripture or deliver a prayer or anything like that. No, I was fine with doing the whole thing from beginning to end. I wanted to co-ordinate the readings, hymns, prayers, etc. with the subject of my sermon of the day. Continuity, don’t you know…. In my life I’ve found that it’s sometimes just as easy to do three things as it is to do one. Cooking, for instance, is sometimes more fun when preparing for a big dinner such as for a holiday or company dinner, than it is to do something small for only a person or two. After all, you still have to do it and the job can be more satisfying and creative when you are pressed to do more.

As with any project, the hardest thing is to get started and the second hardest thing is to know when the project is complete. With artistic endeavors that’s sometimes difficult to recognize. There’s always that temptation to add ‘just a little bit more’ and swamp the whole thing. With a church service you don’t usually have that problem as there is somewhat of a form to follow, a structure which has been in place for a long time and has definite beginnings and ends, usually based on a set time frame. One of the most important parts of that service is the sermon. It’s like having a centerpiece on the table around which you arrange everything else.

The sermon is usually around 20 minutes long and the first three minutes are the most crucial. In the first 3 minutes you need to establish the idea or subject you wish to speak about and it’s important to grab people’s attention in those initial minutes. If you haven’t, then they’re going to ‘zone out’ and miss the point you’re trying to make. A lot of quality naps have been taken because people failed to provide 'the hook.' The rest of the time is spent embellishing and giving examples and explaining the information you proffered in the beginning. Sound pretty easy? Don’t you believe it!

For one thing, you'll find yourself standing in front of a large group of people with diverse interests, of varying ages and temperaments and you have to talk about something they find relevant for 20 minutes. If you’ve done your job well in the beginning they will stay with you and listen and then hopefully, you will have given them something positive and concrete that they can take with them and use to make their lives more meaningful or so the premise is supposed to be. This can be a much larger responsibility than would appear at first glance. For instance, if people are really paying attention and looking to you for some sort of guidance and wisdom you’d better be darn sure you’re able to deliver that and when you’re standing there facing them on Sunday morning it is not the time to start thinking of that.

Suddenly you realize that something you say may profoundly affect another person’s life. Your facts have to be solid as you believe them to be, you have to be aware of various scenarios that they might encounter, your message has to be full of hope and last, but not least, there is a congregation full of people staring at you for a lo-ong time without saying or doing anything and you have absolutely no feedback from them! People generally wear straight faces while listening to a sermon and they don’t even smile unless you give them a darn good reason to. In fact, they’re usually more apt to frown.

Generally you face a sea of stoicism that can scare the bejesus out of you. Before you’ve even opened your mouth you’ve already considered that you just might have made a really bi-ig mistake to think that you’ve anything sufficiently valuable to say to these people and you’ve got t-w-e-n-t-y minutes to fill while they stare at you, having already given their hard earned cash into the collection plate just before “the main event.” If you’re anybody rational, you’re already thinking things like “holy crapola, why did I agree to do this anyway? What was I thinking? I must have been out of my tiny little mind to say I’d tackle this! I can’t possibly do this (!!) and how do I get out of here anyway? I wonder if they’ll lynch me?”

And that’s really where you get religion just as surely as Paul did on the road to Damascus. Suddenly you’re praying like you’ve never prayed before, saying things like “Oh Lord, deliver me…. Now, please. I can’t possibly do this. If you want this to be done, you’re going to have to do it. Now, please. You can use me Lord but please don’t make me have to do this by myself. You do it! Yeah, that’s it! Just blank me out and you go out and do it. Please, now.” This is where you really get in touch with yourself and boy are you a mess! You’re a quivering mass of uncertainty and dread mixed with a profound sense of failure even before you start!

And then you look out amongst all those unsmiling but expectant faces and see…your dad sitting out there with your brother (gulp!), waiting to see how you’ll conduct yourself. And they've driven a long way to sit out there on that hard pew bench to stare at you and… Oh boy! You find yourself thinking things like “That’s it. If I manage to get out of here without any serious damage to me or anyone else, I’m going to drive myself right down to the nearest psychiatric ward and get myself committed because I clearly am not in my right mind or I would never have put myself in this position in the first place.”

Of course this all goes away after you deliver your first couple of sentences but it sure is intense for a few minutes. And it doesn’t help if the church you’re serving has a pulpit with 3 very small and steep steps leading up to the gallows, I mean lecturn, and you’re wearing new bifocal glasses and unaccustomed high heels. Combined with a sudden and severe case of nerves these things can turn an already distressing scenario into a lethal situation almost instantaneously. Steps like those just lay in wait for vulnerable bunglers like you. If you’d only been paying attention you’d have heard their warning snarls…

So I began my ascent and then I stumbled and slid right off the steep, narrow little steps landing with a thud but fortunately not in a heap. I guess Somebody Up There took pity on me and I made a slight last minute recovery. It was not a graceful maneuver but at least I was saved. Yes folks, I was saved on the way to ruin. I was…uh…delivered unto the path of atonement. I survived. I did the thing and got through the rest of the service and shook hands at the end with people who said very nice things to me and even asked how I was, did I hurt my ankle or anything? “Just my pride,” I said. And all was well that ended well, except…

By the time I drove back to my own little town and opened the door into the safety of my modest little home the phone was already ringing! “Hello?” There was raucous laughter on the other end of the wire. "So, I heard you fell off the pulpit in Harmony this morning..!" Good news travels fast.

Bad news travels faster…


Sunday, February 20, 2005

Atomic structure and ignorance...

While Foxy catches up on all the stuff that accumulated during her involuntary time off she is providing me an opportunity to bore you further with some of my thoughts.

On Monday I will have the pleasure of describing to a class of non-science majors the structure of atoms. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Chemistry possesses a definiteness that leaves little room for interpretation. The structure of atoms is not like the influence of western culture on the indigenous people of Central America. You can’t finesse an answer on an exam and hope for partial credit. We’ve all done that and you know it. I recall writing an analysis of a story I never read based solely on the title and getting a passing grade. Perhaps I can best explain the difference by saying that most subjects are qualitative with concepts explainable in general terms whereas chemistry is quantitative. Chemical concepts are based on physical laws represented by mathematical expressions. That’s probably why so many people avoid chemistry.

The conventional approach taken by textbook authors involves a long and tedious historical perspective that presents several different atomic models all of which have been discarded. My favorite explanation is the one where Lord Kelvin describes the atom as being like a plum pudding. What 18 to 20 year old students can relate to plum pudding? Should the author modernize the statement and say the atom is like chocolate chip ice cream? I say, what’s the point? The model is completely wrong and belongs in a history of science course.

Forty years ago everything in this course would have been taught in high school chemistry and back then one had to pass chemistry in order to gain entry into college. Now it seems you can avoid all of the sciences and even limit yourself to a single year of algebra in high school without seriously handicapping yourself. If you can afford the tuition you have met all the requirements.

Even wearing my rose color glasses won’t erase the fact that today’s high school graduates are totally unprepared for what should be college level work. I believe the expression is 'dumbing down.' And don’t think this is limited to math and science. The average college freshman is so ignorant it borders on astounding.

I ask my students to fill out a questionaire during our first meeting, mostly to get some idea of what math and science they have taken before, but I throw in a couple of unrelated questions just for fun. For example I learned that out of about 30 students only one knew that Colorado was directly north of New Mexico. I find this difficult to fathom since I can draw from memory a reasonably accurate map of the United States naming every state and even naming most of the capitols correctly. Times have changed.

Now imagine these clueless students filing into Ward Churchill’s class and listening to him spout an endless stream of anti-American propaganda for fifty minutes or so every day. Can you visualize their 'deer in the headlights' stare while they think to themselves, “I didn’t know that”? Soon a semi-cohesive thought is generated by a few misfiring brain cells and they begin to accept what he says without question and become miniature walking Ward Churchills spreading his hatred and joining the ranks of those who Vladimir Lenin called the useful idiots.

I leave my politics outside of the classroom. I like to think most professors in the sciences do the same. I wish I could say the same for other disciplines. But if you look at the names of some of the available courses you see that many of them have been created for the express purpose of advancing a particular ideology. Go to some university websites and look at what is offered and then decide for yourself what ideology I am talking about. I’m not going to tell you.

But I digress. I’m still no further along figuring out how I’m going to present atomic structure. I would like to assume that students already know that matter is made up of tiny invisible particles called atoms but I can’t. Nor can I assume that almost everyone knows that opposite charges attract one another and like charges repel one another.

So where do I start. I suppose I could practice my lecture on my dog and see how he responds. I know he will give me about the same feedback I usually get from my class. Well, actually more since he will wag his tail and probably try to lick whatever exposed skin is available at that moment. None of my students have ever licked my kneecaps.

Seriously though, my current students are a pretty good bunch and even attend classes. I interpret that as a good sign. Sleeping in class is a common problem especially during evening classes but hasn’t been a problem this semester except once. But it wasn’t serious because one of the students woke me up. Gotcha again.

In order to properly discuss the structure of an atom one must understand the nature of light or as we scientists say, electromagnetic radiation. Light presents a dual nature (sort of like a tiny invisible politician). The light behaved like a wave before it behaved like a particle. We also talk about concepts such as wavelength, frequency, energy, refraction, diffraction, and the photoelectric effect. If you don’t know what I’m talking about don’t feel bad; my students don’t either.

This course requires that I teach about atomic orbitals. In a way this part of the course looks like a sort of quantum mechanics lite. So I merrily explain how s-orbitals are spherical and p-orbitals have lobes. And all of this is easily explained through the use of a few quantum numbers. Naturally if you have your periodic table you will always know if you are dealing with s-orbitals or p-orbitals. You got that? Good, because s and p orbitals form hydrids which have the character of both. And that’s why so many molecules are tetrahedral, except February which has 28 days. Wow, it’s a lucky thing that the electons in any given suborbital have opposite spins.

By now you are all wishing you were taking my class. I promise you will probably not have to learn about wavefunctions.


Monday, February 14, 2005

Thoughts from a guest blogging husband...

Dear wife Foxy has been feeling a bit under the weather the past few days and asked me to guest blog for her. Giving me access to her blog audience, especially when I am operating on a severe sleep deficit, shows a distinct lack of judgement, sort of like when she agreed to marry me.

Anyway, since I teach at a college part time I might as well talk about a college related matter. How about free speech and this Ward Churchill clown who equates 9/11 victims with Nazis like Adolph Eichmann? What’s that all about? I can see how this is going to play out on all the left leaning campuses. Students and faculty will rally and Ward Churchill will become a victim being oppressed by right wing extremists. Our freedom of speech is at stake.

Churchill has a perfect right to say mean and stupid things just like David Duke does. So what if he hates our capitalistic society; there are lots of socialists on campuses. What makes Churchill different, if you believe the latest news stories, is that apparently he is equally comfortable hanging out with the likes of Muammar Qadhafi, the infamous leader of Libya who besides supporting terrorism, apparently is considered by Churchill as a guy who can provide support. Furthermore, Churchill seems to be supportive of radical Islam’s striking accomplishment on 9/11. Now since Qadhafi is a right wing dictator, radical Islam is hardcore religious right, and Churchill is a type liberal, one is forced to conclude that Ward Churchill’s root ideology is nothing more than hating America…be it from the left, the right, or anywhere in between.

I hate the idea of having a nut like this influencing young impressionable minds but getting rid of him on account of his views is a lose/lose situation. Happily, I now see that Churchill’s scholarly writings are coming under attack by his peers because references he cites in his works appear to not existent. In plain speaking this means that rather than exhaustively researching a topic he merely makes up stuff. In academia nothing is worse than intellectual dishonesty. If Churchill is making up anti-American history to teach to students then he should be fired from his job and get a job at CBS News where honesty isn’t valued as much.


Tuesday, February 01, 2005

You're listening to...

It has been a few years since I was on the radio but some of the remnants of the experience remain. I still have “bad segue” nightmares occasionally and wake in a cold sweat. I still have to remind myself that it’s okay to just sit and relax and enjoy listening to the whole album of whatever I want instead of the onus of having to get on to the next selection and make decisions about it. Such a joy not to have to report my “play” and think about the hundreds of little things that good DJs, music directors and radio personalities have to worry about. It’s nice to go out to a concert or performance and not have to think about networking or angles and just enjoy it and then go on my merry way.

I do still find myself thinking about interesting folks to interview and planning programs though. I guess that doesn’t ever go away. I suppose that’s why I’ve taken to blogging like I have. It helps to fill that ‘connection to others’ void that occurred when I left the radio life behind. I confess that I do still think of all that and miss it a little bit, even though life is a lot calmer now and definitely more my own to plan and live.

I used to get between 45 and 100 emails a day just on radio related stuff and everybody wanted a reply. The phone rang constantly, even in the late hours. Again, somebody wanting something. Blurbs for press kits, reviews, interviews, referrals, gigging information in our area, you name it… I get tired just remembering it. There was never a dull moment, but it was fun and I never had to wonder what to do with a day. The days spent themselves in a whirlwind of activity and communication. And creativity. There was definitely a lot of creativity involved.

I did all my own programming, except for the classical program, which Dear Husband formatted, but I put the show on. I was responsible for all 15 hours of my 4 programs on-air time as well as the prep, which was never ending. On-air, I not only did the programs but I had to gather and read all the news and weather and what-not, as well as answer telephones (thank goodness we didn’t have “live feed”), train others when necessary (ugh), set up the performance studio for guests, let them in, show them what was what, and do sound checks, all while putting on the show as usual. The performance studio was adjacent to the on-air studio and we stared at each other through a reinforced glass window. There was no audio link to the other studio so it meant that I had to run back and forth literally until we went “live” together. Good exercise… It kept the blood flowing through the veins.

Although we had an engineer, he was only there sporadically to do maintenance and installation and had nothing whatever to do with programming. It was strictly a solo gig for me and when college wasn’t in session it meant that sometimes I’d be the only, or practically only, person in the enormous building. Kind of scary later on in the evening. The building was kept locked during a lot of those times so it meant that in addition to all the other stuff, if someone needed to get in, they called up on the squawkbox and I had to go through to the other end of the building and down all four flights to let them in and then back up before I needed to go “on” again. Pshew!

I loved having guests in the studio though and hardly had a show without at least one. I’ve mentioned before that I enjoyed giving my guests time to chat and relax and very seldom, unless totally necessary, had quick in and outs. The interviews were completely extemporaneous. Surprised the heck out of some of my guests. They were used to being shuffled in and out of a lot of places very quickly (sometimes, they told me, they were even scripted, as on NPR) and many of them expressed surprise that I actually listened to what they said. Well, yeah…why else would I do it? They seemed to have a good time and I know I sure did, although being on the radio ended up costing me money, since I tried to be professional about it, and it sure didn’t make me any. But then, that’s why I had the freedom to do it the way I did. Non-commercial radio station…

When a well known performer died or when there was a special reason or desire for doing so, I put together memorial shows or retrospectives, sometimes a couple of hours worth and sometimes with very little lead time. Managed to pull it off though… Sometimes I’d put together an historically oriented program such as a Kurt Weill program or one on Astor Piazzolla’s Tangos or circus music or an 8 hour program of Irish music on St. Patrick’s Day which had started out to be only a 2-3 hour gig, or an impromptu 10 hour overnight “Blues-a-thon” or something nifty like that.

And it all evolved from one nervous middle-aged woman taking a chance and saying “yes” to an offer of being trained for the college radio station and who, expecting nothing more than a couple of hours of pleasure from playing some music for whomever might possibly be listening, finally found out what she wanted to do when she grew up. Little did I know how it would evolve or where it would end up. I haven’t been on the air for about 4 ½ years now but people are still recognizing my voice in public or on the telephone. It means I have to behave myself. ~;^) I had never guessed that there were that many people out there listening or even caring. I went to a local restaurant not too long ago and the hostess seating us called me by name (I didn’t know who she was) and she said she recognized my voice and missed my program. “Which one(?)” I asked, since I’d had four (all different). “All of them” she said. Cool beans!

Although I interviewed a large number of non-musical guests as well, here are some of the musical guests I interviewed and who performed live in the studio (sometimes on several different occasions), except where specifically indicated as telephone interviews (telephone interviews were recorded from my home):

Julie Adams (of Mountain Stage) ~ Terri Allard ~ Antara ~ Jeff Baker ~ Don Baldini (bass player, studio musician, faculty, jazz musician, symphony orchestra bassist) ~ Chris Bauman ~ Richard Berman ~ Lou & Peter Berryman ~ Kurt Bessette ~ Leonardo Biciunas ~ Hubert Bird (composer, faculty) ~ Tony Bird (a rare studio appearance) ~ Rachel Bissex ~ Brendan Carey Block, fiddler ~ Richard Block (BCB’s father & guitarist) ~ Chuck Brodsky ~ Josh Brooks ~ Harry Bryan ~ Greg Cagno ~ Calico Harmony (trio) ~ Suzanne Campagne (of Hart Rouge and sister-in-law of Connie Kaldor), Pierce Campbell, John Carmen, Ceol Eire (Celtic group) ~ Tom Chapin (live recorded interview in theater dressing room) ~ Clandestine (Celtic group) ~ Douglas Clegg ~ Close Enough (dulcimer duo) ~ Paul Cohen (world class classical cellist) ~ Adar Cohen, guitarist ~ Lui Collins ~ Don Conoscenti ~ Liza Constable ~ Dave’s True Story (duo) ~ Julian Dawson ~ Kris Delmhorst ~ Paul Del Nero ~ Ben Demerath ~ Francis Doughty, guitarist ~ Duo Live Oak (Medieval music duo) ~ Cliff Eberhardt ~ Dana Edelman ~ Mark Erelli ~ Bela Fleck, banjoist (telephone) ~ Gideon Freudmann, cellist ~ Fuzzy Logic (duo) ~ Annie Gallup ~ Mary Gauthier ~ Rose Gerber ~ Paul Geremia (Blues) ~ Ed Gerhard, guitarist ~ Vance Gilbert ~ Julie Gold (Grammy Award songwriter, pianist) ~ Antigone Goni (classical guitarist, faculty at Juilliard – telephone) ~ John Gorka (telephone) ~ Granite Grass (BG Band) ~ Gary Green, harmonica player ~ Bob Halperin (Blues) ~ Ronan Hardiman (Composer; composed Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance - telephone from Dublin) ~ Jim Henry ~ Nat Hewitt, fiddler ~ Deborah Holland ~ Tom Horsky ~ Ky Hote ~ Mark Humphreys ~ Bonnie Insull, (flute, faculty) ~ Alouette Iselin ~ Michael Johnathon ~ Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson (Grammy Award, Blues) ~ Justina & Joyce (duo) ~ Connie Kaldor (Juno-award winner, which is the Canadian equivalent of the the Grammy award) ~ Peter Keane (Blues) ~ Wendy Keith ~ Dave Keller ~ Jody Kessler ~ Kevin Sysyn Band (Blues band) ~ Jonathan Klate ~ Jess Klein ~ Katrina Landon ~ Patty Larkin (telephone) ~ Christine Lavin (mini-view in dressing room) Bonnie Leigh (dulcimer, guitar) ~ Bernice Lewis ~ Jose Lezcano, (classical guitarist, composer, faculty) ~ Barbara London ~ Lonesome Brothers (duo) ~ Jim MacDougall (piano) ~ Erin MacKeown ~ Terry MacNamara ~ Tommy Makem (Irish tenor, actor, author) ~ Bob Malone (pianist, s/s, blues) ~ Tom Mank ~ Ted Mann (classical guitarist, composer, faculty) ~ Jeff Martell ~ Lisa McCormick ~ Suzanne McGettigan ~ Lori McKenna ~ Andrew McKnight ~ Don McLean (Grammy Award winner ‘American Pie’, ‘Vincent’, etc. – telephone) ~ Michael McNevin ~ Aine Minogue (Celtic harpist – telephone) ~ Stan Moeller & T.S. Baker (duo) ~ Dave Nachmanoff ~ Bob Norman ~ Bill Parsons ~ Ellis Paul (in green room before a performance) ~ John Perrault ~ PLM (trio) ~ Tom Prasada-Rao ~ Darryl Purpose ~ Warren Rasmussen ~ Ratsy ~ Harvey Reid (guitar, banjo, auto harp, s/s) ~ Ron Renninger ~ Del Rey (Blues) ~ Mark Reynolds ~ Jeff Rhone, flute ~ Paul Rishell & Annie Raines (Blues duo– telephone) ~ Susan Robertson ~ Dana Robinson ~ Sandy Ross ~ Mary Ann Rossoni ~ Rene Saffier ~ Barbara Saint John ~ Salamander Crossing (trio) ~ Maria Sangiolo ~ John Schindler ~ Eric Schwartz ~ Colleen Sexton ~ Shady Creek Bluegrass Band (band) ~ Linda Sharrar ~ Catherine Shaw (bagpiper) ~ Laura Siersema (pianist, s/s) ~ Martin Simpson ~ Sky Blues (Blues band) ~ Gabriella Snyder ~ Snyder & Rasmussen ~ Kevin So ~ Joe Stacey ~ Bill Staines ~ Eric Stumacher (classical pianist, conductor, Dir. Apple Hill Chamber Players) ~ Swift River (trio) ~ Barry & Holly Tashian ~ Louise Taylor ~ Harvey Tolman, fiddler ~ Artie Traum ~ Michael Veitch ~ Western Omelette (band) ~ Don White (telephone) ~ David Wilcox ~ Gary Winkler ~ Y'ALL (Duo) ~

I had a grand time! I never would have believed I could and would be on the radio for about 8 years, let alone talk with all these people in my life. Above are just the musical ones. There were many, many more, including Edie Adams (movie star, actress, singer, nightclub performer, author – telephone interview), a classically trained Shakespearean actor who looked a lot like Kenneth Brannagh and had this glorious, refined English accent and who was as charming as could be, choreographers, actors & actresses, theater directors, independent filmmakers, members of our community such as Red Cross director, Humane Society people, librarians, a psychiatrist, Social Services people, other radio people, faculty, geologists, engineers, volunteers and others, of all kinds… Wow, it sure was fun. I think I’ll tell some stories in future posts…

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