8/29/10

Seger's Midnight Reflections


I wrote this a while back, originally intending it as an article for my self-published column which morphed into this blog. But I think this essay has seen its final edit. Seger just wrenches my heart out.  Plus I love his use of the word "unencumbered" in "Like a Rock." Enjoy. 


Seger’s Midnight Reflections

When you ask a group of mixed company their opinions about Bob Seger, you elicit a variety of reactions. Some toss him in the rubbish bin of Americana machismo, writing him off as a commercialized hit machine, a sell-out whose main quest is accumulating wealth.  For proof, just look to Chevrolet’s advertising campaign using “Like a Rock,” as the soundtrack and Metallica’s uninventive cover of “Turn the Page.” 

Others might appreciate the depth and variety of his music, which ranges from hard-driving rock and roll standards like “Old Time Rock'n'Roll” and “C’est La Vie,” to his lyrical 70’s ballads like “Mainstreet” and “We’ve Got Tonight,” to evocative praises of youth in America like “Against the Wind” and “Night Moves.”

However, most people tend to overlook one of Seger’s greatest assets: his lyricism. Now I know what you’re saying: “What? Seger has lyricism? You’re shittin’ me, right?” But I shit you not. Seger is a master lyricist, especially when handling longings of the human spirit, remembrances wrought by moonlight, and moments when visions of the past come crashing into his protagonist's mind.

Take “Night Moves” for example. After establishing those three compelling chords and launching into some romantic recollecting, Seger says in a hushed musical moment, “Woke last night to the sound of thunder / How far off, I sat and wondered / Started humming a song from 1962 / Ain’t it funny how the night moves.” The distant thunder pierces the composition like a siren, becoming an inescapable reminder of the good times Seger's narrator now relives only through memory. The thunder represents the brevity of youth clapping loud and strong, sounding out over the land, then fading slowly and inexorably back into the darkness. The night becomes a time in which one remembers, feels weaker and less able. The light fades and only memories remain. 

In “Like a Rock,” a slow song dripping with melancholy, Seger's speaker details his life as a young man “sweatin’ in the sun.” He depicts his former youth as strong and purposeful, idolizing his past self with a wistful yearning to inhabit that spirited body once again. But the narrator, growing weaker and more uncertain with each passing year, can only relive those past glories in memories wrought by the darkness: “And sometimes late at night / When I bathe in the firelight / The moon comes callin’ a ghostly white / And I recall / I recall.” In this song, the recollection inspired by firelight and the ghostly moon serves as the profound dilemma, recalling a tortuous but somehow soothing image of an idealized past. With “I recall,” the vocals rise, the drums roll, the chorus kicks in, and the listener remembers something of their own selves, something the rigors and perils of time stole from them along the way. Recollecting becomes profundity, the stuff of subjective reality, in Seger’s lyrical universe. 

Seger’s best moments of lyricism lie in the ephemerality of youth, the lusting after those days of strength and beauty, and the yearning to be young again. He renders our souls in the darkest hours of the night, the wind, rain and thunder sounding outside the window, as we long for a distant past in which we lived and loved and felt alive. We realize, in these moments of midnight reflection, that we can never live so vigorously, so deliberately again. To Seger, our younger selves inhabit a space of possibility and enchantment; those memories portray a world with more color, fullness, vigor, and vibrancy than present or future.  And only when we’ve burned through our youths can we appreciate those fleeting moments of strength and beauty, of will and courage, of risk-taking and pure loving. Those days of possibility, of pliability, pass us by, leaving behind a pervading sense of nostalgia.

Check out the lyrics to “The Fire Inside,” a song about a woman on the prowl looking for love and sex in the flashy world of neon and disco. After she succeeds in her quest for love between the sheets, a subtle and indefinable feeling of aching and remorse overtakes her spirit. The narrator says,

Then you walk to the window and stare at the moon
Riding high and lonesome through a starlit sky.
And it comes to you how it all slips away
Youth and beauty are gone one day
No matter what you dream or feel or say
It ends in dust and disarray.

Once again, the moon, the stars, and the darkness of the night instill a sense of emptiness within the song’s main character. In this universe, the setting of the sun signals a loss of youth and innocence, and the moonrise signals a weakening of the spirit. In the nighttime inhabitants of Seger’s lyrical motifs feel their deepest pangs of hunger and regret, of remorse for the death of the person they used to be, of nostalgia for all that person stood for. The stormy, tumultuous nighttime parallels the tumult of the human spirit.

For Seger, midnight remembrances always recall a spirit of American innocence, a time before night fell on our youth. You can find these themes throughout his catalog. We cannot appreciate those years of pure potential until we’ve burned them up, until we've taken those days of vigor and tenacity while the sun shines bright upon us for granted. Our youths provide infinite achievability and beautiful bodies fit for that task.  But before long, the sun will set and the moon will rise. We’ll find ourselves awake one night unable to sleep, gazing out the bedroom window and staring at the moonlight, hearing thunder clap in the distance, wondering where the days have gone, and thinking of the things that might have been.

Eulogy for my Father

My father, Thomas Frank Haney, passed away April 14, 2010. My brother and I eulogized him at his memorial. As I do, I drafted dad's eulogy, made an outline for when I delivered it, and then converted that outline into essay format. I hope posting it here helps spread dad's memory and convey the kind of positive and gentle person he was. So here it is:


A Eulogy for my Father, Thomas Frank Haney

To start, I want to say how nice it is to see everyone here today, even though we’ve been brought together by these difficult circumstances. I was more than a little shocked when I heard the news last week, but I know my father’s gone to a better place.

My father was the youngest of five children, and each sibling had at least five children of their own, children who in turn birthed more and more children. That makes for a very large family. Unfortunately, this seems to bring us to a lot of funerals along the way. However, I feel so fortunate to be part of such a huge web of support as we share our memories and our grief in these times.

Over the last week, many of my cousins have recalled to me their fondest memories of my father. Each one knew him in a slightly different way, and spent time with him in different parts of the country. For the last month I’ve been living in NorCal, in an area where my father lived in his early thirties with Cousin Terry. Terry has a lot of hilarious stories about that era with my father, stories that you might want to ask him about in a different setting. But when I got there last month, I called dad to check in, of course. I told him where I was staying, and in the typical fashion of my father, he said, “Oh yeah. I lived up there once. I liked it about as much as anywhere else I’ve lived.”

But that’s what you could expect from dad. He never missed an opportunity for an adventure. And he was contented as long as he had a stove to cook on and family nearby.

Cooking opened up many doors for my father. He used to say that you can find work anywhere in the world if you know how to cook—everyone’s got to eat. But cooking provided more than just employment for him. He possessed an almost-legendary passion for the culinary arts. I remember spending Saturday mornings with him watching the cooking shows of Paul Prudhome, Burt Wolf, and, his favorite, Julia Childs. He was always learning about food. Friends would beg to spend the night at my house knowing we’d be eating something good for dinner, and in the morning we’d be treated to dad’s famous French toast, topped with maple syrup, bananas, strawberries, a dusting of powdered sugar, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The perfect breakfast for a 10-year old. Sweet and savory.

We were always eager to eat dad’s cooking, and two Thanksgivings ago we suggested that he use his skills to make the family a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings. It didn’t take much cajoling. Of course, he was excited to do it. He mulled it over—or cogitated on it, as he liked to say—planned a menu, and spent two days and who-knows-how-many-hours preparing the meal over at my mom’s house. That Thanksgiving was grand, with tender turkey, scrumptious stuffing, home-made cranberry sauce, mixed vegetables, gravy, mashed potatoes, and all the rest of it. And when we thanked him for all the work he put in, he shrugged it off saying, “For me, it’s a labor of love.”

He must’ve felt very lucky to have used his passion for and gift with food to build a career. He worked at many fine restaurants all throughout the country and excelled at every one, even opening up his own restaurant, Chef Haney’s CafĂ©. But I’ll always remember him best as the Director of Food Service Ministries at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Orlando. As a young boy running around that huge church I always felt so proud, when I saw the way the people there just adored him, to be my daddy’s son. He was generous, even charitable, and treated all the staff and members with the same genuine kindness and respect. The people there raved about the way he managed that kitchen and his pleasant and gracious personality.

And that’s the way he lived his life. Whether at work, with family, or in the community, my father showed that he respected others and cared about their well-being. He jumped at the chance to help a family member in need. Whether it was Uncle Bill in the last stages of his life, my brother Greg when he tore his ACL, or Cousin Kelly when she needed someone to help clear out her attic, dad loved to help his family, to take on a project and make himself useful.

And any time you spoke to him, you had his undivided attention. He would listen intently, look toward the sky a little bit and cogitate for a moment, and when he spoke again, you could expect insight, encouragement, and understanding to come your way. He had a warm, gentle soul; it shone through his eyes. They were placid and compassionate. They called to mind the proverb about still waters, as they were calm and serene, but you could tell they ran very, very deep.

And I know from our conversations that he had very profound ruminations about life. He read the bible, and he believed in Jesus Christ.

He also had an amazing memory, always willing to recall stories about his life and those of our relatives. I would marvel at the way he could explain the dynamics of a political landscape, including characters, dates and events, from any era he lived through.

It’s sad that we won’t be able to build any more memories with dad, but I’ll always cherish the ones I have, like how he loved to bowl and the pointers he gave to me on the lanes. How he introduced me to golf, using a saw to cut down an old set for me when I was little. How he loved to go camping with the family, catching, cleaning, and cooking our dinner there on the coast. He was so fond of those trips that, as he requested, we’ll be scattering his ashes in the Banana River.

I’ll remember his signature mustache, and the one day he shaved it off before we went to the Disney theme park. We thought we had lost him in the crowd before we realized that the non-mustachioed man standing next to us was, in fact, our own father. I’ll remember how he glowed and chuckled when people said he looked like Tom Selleck, and his frequent impersonations of Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront. The time at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. when we couldn’t help but laugh when dad stood in front of a painting and said, “If that’s not a Monet, I don’t know what is.” The way he loved his family and especially loved spending time with his boys.

Now, no one can doubt that my father had some ups and downs in his life. Like anybody, he went through some tumultuous times. But in his final years my father had made a commitment to improve his well-being, in body, mind and soul, a commitment, I believe, born from the sense of a larger purpose, of a profound guidance, of a desire to truly connect with his deepest self. Through our talks, and through the actions he took in his life, I could tell my father had come to a place of great peace and contentment. His life ended on a positive note—he had made peace with the world, and I know that in peace he will rest.

My Teaching Philosophy: Let the Garden Grow

This is the teaching philosophy the First Year Composition program at FSU required me to compose, summer 2010, in preparation for teaching ENC 1101 in the fall. I borrowed the gardening metaphor from a book we read in Editing Essentials at Rollins, Getting the Words Right, by Theodore A. Rees Cheney, a book that I still refer to as my primary style guide. I think the analogy works really well in regards to teaching composition.

My Teaching Philosophy: Let the Garden Grow

Educators and theorists view the teaching of composition in many ways: as a process of self-exploration, perhaps, or as a transfer of knowledge and know-how from teacher to student, or even as an austere discipline aimed at rendering sentence, paragraph, and essay. I tend to see it as a practice in gardening. When composing, writers become those gardeners who, rolling up and their sleeves and reaching for their shovels, go to work in the wilderness of language. The products of writing, the journals, reflections and essays, become the emerging foliage, the budding flowers, which need careful trimming and attention to grow verdant and fruitful. The processes of writing, the drafting, workshopping, editing, and revising, become the tools—spades, gloves, and shovels; and the mediums in which we plant our ideas become the soil supporting our gardens as they grow. Teachers, given the privileged position of visiting gardener, work to improve the methods of their student writers. They give advice on which rhetorical and grammatical devices, which tools and fertilizers, would improve the quality of the student-garden. In the end, both teacher and student work to produce a powerful written voice and a method for cultivating that voice in the future. My teaching philosophy involves responding to student’s writing in a sensitive, productive manner, always availing myself to new techniques for composition, and encouraging students to grow and maintain their gardens of learning as they go forward in their lives.

As I begin to enter into these student-gardens, I’ll take care to tread lightly, not imposing my authority like one wields a machete, but nurturing what I find with gentle hands of support and care. I mustn’t be an unruly guest, stomping out nascent plants and ideas, and I mustn’t make so many changes to the writing that the work becomes my own, relegating students to the role of superintendent of a garden more mine than theirs. Students often recoil at too much criticism in the lines, margins, and endnotes of their papers, so I’ll strive to allow these ideas and experiments to grow freely, especially in early drafts, and assist them with trimming and shaping at the proper time. Often, the criticism we hand out in papers saturates the gardens like an insidious pesticide; we aim to help in large doses, but too much focus on errors and mistakes can damage the soil for seasons to come. Instead, I’ll try to be selective with the corrections I make on their drafts, but heavy-handed in praising their efforts. For praise from a teacher acts like fertilizer in student composition—you apply it to areas of positive growth and watch the writing flourish. In the same measure, making corrections is like pruning. Often, improving grammar and syntax is necessary to clarify meaning and lend validity to an argument, but too much of this trimming and hedging may whittle the paper down to nothing.

My goal is to bring students up, not chop them down. A good place for this encouragement and confidence building is in the conference setting. To continue the analogy, conferences are like consultations where student and teacher talk gardener-to-gardener, writer-to-writer, sharing methods, observations, and tricks of the trade. During these consultations, the teacher must allow students to speak as much as possible. After all, it’s their gardens we’re working in. Teachers should listen for reflections of the student’s methods, and encourage the student to compare their intentions to their results. But that jump from ideal to actual should be made by the student, not by the instructor. In theory, valuing the students as peers in the writing process should instill in them the confidence to be assertive with their essays. Peer workshops should operate in a similar way, with students consulting each other about clarity and confusion, logic and method, tips and tools. But these students should never discuss matters of grammar and syntax, as student-writers haven’t developed this sort of expertise, and often make incorrect corrections. Also, through exposure to each other’s writings, the students should improve on a set of reading skills applicable to their own writing. The teacher’s role is to oversee and encourage these healthy interactions within the classroom community, doling out knowledge in choice moments of learning.

Of course, the teacher oversees this process of learning, but must allow students to realize that the stylistic choices are their own. The student has to be in control of the writing, and realize that when teachers and peers comment on their papers, those comments are just suggestions. The writing process grants all authority to the writer, and this authorial ownership should stick with them throughout their lives, well beyond their academic careers. In our current democracy, this ownership and capacity for growth proves vital to entering debates and forums for societal improvement. Undoubtedly, we as teachers will never have perfected our methods as writers or educators; one must continuously tend to a garden or it will be overgrown and overrun by weeds. I hope to learn alongside my students as we develop a shared and communal expertise. Just as gardeners must always improve their methods, seek out better supplements for their greenery, and face new challenges with each passing season, teachers must realize that they’ll never come to a point of complete knowledge about composition. I’ll strive to relinquish the need to know everything about my craft for the sake of always learning something. Even though I bring with me the valuable tools of writing I’ve been given by previous teachers and experiences, I hope to never be closed off to the prospect of new learning.

Ideally, I would get as much out of my class as the students. As I hope to always seek ways to retool and strengthen my own written voice, students will find, going forward in their academic and professional lives, that they need a voice to exact the change they want from the world. This voice is the fruit of our labors, the product of our gardens, which is not terminal but regenerative. With each new season, each rhetorical situation, the student should have the power to begin the process anew, and every time produce a voice stronger and more assertive than the last. Our postmodern world is in constant flux, with technology bringing people closer together and information traveling at breakneck speeds. We realize more and more that universal standards of truth don’t really exist, but are redefined in every moment depending on an individual definition of right and wrong. We need to teach students to “learn how to learn,” to analyze and confront exigencies as they appear in the world, and use writing to bring about the changes they want to see. Our students possess the voices of the future; they are the gardeners whose task will be to prune and hone, or completely remodel, the society they’ve inherited. With the resource of written language, and the backing of a supportive community in our composition classrooms, students should have planted the seed of critical skills and witnessed the budding of confidence necessary to shape the world as they see fit.