So Educated

13006659_10207655307715016_836786050096044019_nI read online that Spike Lee was having people over because Prince had died.  I found my way over and there were a bunch of people standing around, slowly closing the street like an artery plaquing.  People had cameras, there were trucks with satellites on them, and one big light.  I had kind of thought we would get to go inside some place.  I had wondered if people would stand around and not dance, which would be awful.  I stood next to a parked car, took out my book, and angled it to read it by streetlight while I waited for something to happen.  Cars stopped trying to come through.

People in New York City, God bless them, will stand around waiting for something to happen almost indefinitely, they will wait in lines that to other people would appear not only offensive but hopeless, there are likely people in many locations in New York City all waiting together for something to happen they have forgotten what it was, but they are waiting and touching their cell phones tap tap like they might be setting their phasers to stun, before they had cell phones they had newspapers and baggies of carrot sticks.

On the platform a woman starting talking loudly, “I’m on the G train platform, and they are harassing me.”  The boys were black and the woman was white.  The boys ran along down the platform.  “Oh, get over it!” one yelled, she said, “They threw something at me!” One of the boys said, “It was just an oatmeal cookie.”

I didn’t know whether to look at the woman sympathetically, or follow the kids and tell them to stop acting the fool, or not on the subway platform, that makes people especially, come on, older white ladies, nervous.  They could have been from my school, but I didn’t know them.

The opposite story the next morning, while I stood at the restaurant window waiting for coffee, a woman walking by screeched with surprise, I looked over, everyone in the restaurant looked over, and she said, “It’s okay, my sister just got engaged!”


A kid said, “I hate Jews,” and I spent the rest of the hour drawing cartoons explaining that there were so many kinds of Jewish people he couldn’t possibly hate them all.  “But they’re such bad drivers!” he said.

A kid said, “We used to do work, miss, but we don’t have to, here, it doesn’t matter, we still pass.  They don’t care about us, they just need the graduation rate high enough they get to keep their jobs.”

“Nothing’s gonna change if you don’t do something!” one kid yelled at another, their yelling argument prevented me from showing the documentary on environmental issues, and I was frustrated, I had to breathe deep before the next class came in, they could have had a better discussion and they are so loud.  They watched it the next day instead.

A kid said, “I want a panda.  I feel like pandas never take any damage.”

“What are the three kinds of Jewish people we discussed yesterday?” I asked the next morning.  Hasidic (curls on happy face), orthodox (the little hat on happy face), reform (just a happy face).  


I stood by the parked car until music came on.  People cheered and danced.

I wasn’t sure it should all be so joyful, either, when music came on, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today/Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today,” it felt great to be in Brooklyn at with Brooklyn royalty, he presiding from top of the stoop next to his space, to hear Prince all Biblical, he and I share this eschatological interest: “We could all die any day.”

I hated that there were so many cell phones, up and photographing us all, is it impossible to be anywhere now, I took two photos, and then my phone was dead anyway, so I didn’t have to even wonder if I should be somewhere else.  I would have taken one more, of Mr. Lee dancing a little.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, we could all die any day.

To dance, as much as you can with your bags and your stuff and the room you have between everyone else, to not wonder too hard what is this, dancing and yelling because someone is dead, and the work was great, it made people happy and feel bigger, people leave what they leave, they leave something.  Everyone was beautifully behaved except four kids who push/ran through us and the crowd reprimanded them gently.

A little kid on top of a car, leaning this way and that.  A lady had an umbrella with images of Prince all around.  “Open it!” someone said, someone who didn’t get a photo.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today,” the version of the song looped again, “Parties weren’t meant to last,” they did not play my favorite, “We will see a plague and a river of blood, there will be a new city with the streets of gold, young so educated they never grow old.”

Today I asked a few students about who died, and one of them said, “I thought it was, you know, Prince,” their classmate by that name.  “Oh, God, no,” I said.

“Spike Lee had a street party,” I said, “Who’s Spike Lee?” a kid said.

“Oh, my God,” I said, but another kid answered, thank God, so I didn’t have to.




When I was zipping through a practice exam to use with my students, I slowed way down to read Ralph Ellison.  I don’t really know anything about him.  I’ve never read Invisible Man.  Strange as it seemed, I was enjoying reading a passage on a test.  I immediately went back and ordered it from Amazon, which is, strictly speaking, not permitted in my budget.

This morning there was a tow truck in my driveway.  My neighbor had pulled his moving truck up on the lawn, and it was stuck.  I wandered over, both to ask the driver to move the truck, and to see the spectacle, and to comfort my neighbor.  He had offered to introduce me to his cousin, who was helping him move.  His cousin is near my age, and apparently rich as King Midas.  When I approached my neighbor, his cousin was standing a ways off, shirtless and angrily smoking a cigar in the spring sunlight.  His chest hair was the same color as the cigar.  “We’re a little frustrated at this point,” my neighbor said.

The Ellison book arrived.  Along with the New Yorker and Smithsonian.  They were all waiting in my black mailbox, despondent.  I had forgotten about them.  The first piece in the book is the one I had already read from.  It’s about living with the noise of other artists.  Ellison is trying to write, and a singer lives above him, and drunks sing around him in the alleys, and he’s trying to fucking think straight.  He buys a record player and blasts arias and spirituals at top volume, in a war with his neighbor.

One of my uncles is an audiophile, collects turntables and exquisitely designed Japanese needles that will transmit sound with the delicate touch of one rabbit hair.  He has often been stopped at a Japanese airport to have a needle inspected more closely.  I would think it a weapon, myself.  They come in odd-looking little clear plastic boxes.  Once he sat me in the “sweet spot” in his listening room and played us a piece with a pizzacato bass.  I closed my eyes, and I would have sworn I could taste the rosin that sticks to every stringed instrument after being in clouds of it rubbed lovingly on bows.  I could feel the glossiness of the thin wood of a stringed instrument, and the lightness of its body, which is so scary, like holding an infant.

How do things touch each other?  Physically, proximity, neighbors.  Physically, as a copy of Living With Music by Ralph Ellison is plopped in my mailbox, from Spokane, Washington, inscribed with the black ink notes of a stranger: “One moment inspires many that’s great like Herb Hancock quote about conversation.”  Sometimes remotely, like a bass far from me in time and space, living in my ears anyway, in the top floor of a house on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas.  And sometimes across years and genders and races from Ellison to me: “Those who know their native culture and love it unchauvinistically are never lost when encountering the unfamiliar.”


Everyone was as still for Bach as they were bouncy for Al Green.  As rabidly as I’d danced to the Jackson 5 Saturday night, I sat still for Bach on Sunday. I closed my eyes, even.

Pop music goes forward, neatly, in a way you expect, and it reinforces what you want and where you thought you were going.  The mass does this, too.  There will be peace with you.  There will be holy, holy, holy.  There will be body of Christ.  You’re never going to walk in there and hear them switch it up.

Bach goes in circles.  He starts going in circles, and then winds up when he feels like it.  I wondered about his world.  The state, the organization of things, was choppier then.  But your social world was so much more regimented.  You generally became who you were born to be.  I wasn’t born to be anyone, in particular.

I watched “Peggy Sue Got Married” between concerts.  It goes in circles, and it goes forward, neatly, in the way you expect.  I’m 34, not quite as old as Peggy, but I felt her astonishment at walking into her childhood home.  I dream of mine, often.

Time travel movies ask: what could be changed, but how different would things really be?  Sure, McFly can punch Biff, but he’s still your dad, and he loves you, and he’s just as weak and strong as dads are.  It doesn’t really matter that he’s more chipper in the revised 1985.

Peggy has to go back to understand her husband.  To understand meant-to-be.  That’s the pop song part.  That’s what you expect.  How else can you regard the significant people in your life, but as meant to be?  Anything less would be frightening.  Time travel stories require both forward meant-to-be and circles.

There is no big decision in my past that I can imagine making differently.  Maybe I’m too young.  All I can agree with Peggy about is: you love who you love, the way that you love them, and there’s no redirecting it.  You love grasping, or openly, or nervously, or bitterly, wishing he was someone else or that you were, loving against good sense, or only in mind, or mostly in body.  And there just isn’t much to be done about it.  That is what happens, and it’s best, I think, to go with it more than you fight it.

There were violins playing Bach today.  I used to play.  I remember people joking about having a circular bow, so that we wouldn’t need to worry about bowstrokes anymore.  In the orchestra, the motion of your bows is decided, and then everyone’s supposed to go that way.  It’s not part of the music—it just looks better.  If you had a circular bow, you’d just go around and around.


Without gooey, wet music, nonfiction can get dry and flaky.  Its author may also become too fact-heavy, which feels sort of like having eaten too much white rice.  Tonight I read a survival strategy of a favorite writer: listen to opera when you write nonfiction.  Makes sense.

They’re cranking out the same goddamn “La Boheme,” the same garrets and the same snow, and the same songs that every ear would identify as “opera.”  Art also doesn’t care about doing the same old thing.  Classical music is especially brilliant this way– so conservative– that no one opens the program and complains that Bach has been done before.  This assures us all: “Play it again, Sam.”

And the waste!  While modern playwrights arrange their productions for as few as one or one-half people, to save money, to ensure their productions, at the opera house, they got a couple dozen musicians, fake snow, animals, all those costumes and wigs, football fields of velvet, specially woven carpets.  What a beautiful waste.  Lights burning late into the night.  Even the audience, wasting their livers with gin at intermission.  Gorgeous waste.  Luckily, rich people love it.  Opera advises, “Throw that on!  Cut that up!  Don’t worry about it, why not?  We’ve got more!”

Opera is for when you are older.  I knew this, and reserved my interest for after thirty.  Before you are thirty, your friends provide you with the sexy histrionics that you crave.  After thirty, you shuck off these people, or you develop a drug problem.  The thrill of the drama wears dull, and it’s much better to let people in operas fall desperately in love, fight their demons and their parents and their fates.  It’s not immature to let your heart bleed for them– in fact, it’s as mature as white hair and pearls.

You can go home satisfied with their beautiful dream, and not have to take them out for breakfast the next day.  There’s nothing worse than tragic people over perfectly fried eggs.  Opera believes that getting older is getting deeper, because opera knows that older people may be less showy out of ease, not fear.  They still have music swelling in their soundtracks.  They just don’t always have to drink jell-o shots or skinny dip to start up the string section.  Their string sections are more obedient.

So I put on the “Butterfly,” and it rolled and puffed and pitter-patted and I didn’t understand a word of it.  For verbal types– all reassuring steadiness and romantic lavishness aside– the blurriness may be the best part.