Saturday, February 25, 2012

Uncommon Talent - the Gift of Gabe Vasquez

Gabe Vasquez does not comprehend how uncommonly talented he is. I believe he knows he's talented, but I don't think he understands how his particular brand of talent is extremely rare - at least in Iowa and, really, most other parts of the world.

While Gabe is a college student by day, he is an artist all the time, for it isn't possible to abandon artistic abilities, either willingly or on a whim. An artist is who a person is, not what he or she creates.
Gabe is an artist; his muse speaks through graffiti art. Gabe can see an image in his mind and then spray a spectrum of hues on a wall to bring his vision to life. Vivid, vibrant, intense, captivating.

I had heard of Gabe before but did not meet him until tonight. I listened as he told about coming from El Paso to Waldorf College as a business major and how - after a few semesters - he realized he needed to change majors. I heard him acknowledge that painting is his passion, and I sensed that he is never happier than when he has a can of spray paint in his can, bringing a small, rough sketch to life in super-sized proportions.

A wrestler, Gabe is familiar with the struggle of pinning a human to a mat. The give and take of those matches is shaped by pairing competitors of similar weight. However, when facing an unadorned wall that awaits transformation, Gabe's struggle is his alone. The give and take occurs inside himself. Only he can bring forth what is held in his mind. Only he can chose the colors and then wave strokes of brilliance into patterns, effectively pinning paint to the wall.

I hope Gabe doesn't end up in a career directly tied to any major he receives at college. After he earns his degree, I hope Gabe finds a way to follow his passion - to create art with the capacity to transform lives. If that's what happens, his college days will have been well spent.

Thanks, Mark Newcom, for teaching in a way that makes this kind of learning possible. I learned a lot tonight. I can only imagine the other lessons happening along the way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Ticket to All-State

My youngest son, Skye, is beginning to understand something I learned three decades prior. There’s a system to cracking the system, and it isn’t easy to learn.

One week ago, after yet another long week of waiting, he found out he still has not earned a ticket to All-State Speech. And this time it had felt so close. His group mime coach and fellow performers felt it. We felt it too – his parents, his aunt and his maternal grandparents. (The last three relatives are even seasoned speech judges.)

But on February 12 he learned for certain: He would not go to the 2012 All-State Performances – the apex of accomplishment for a large group speech season that is four months in the making. He has also never made it to All-State as an individual contestant despite having earned his way to state contest in more than one speech category in multiple years.

Unfortunately, All-State Music auditions have not brought such fortune, either. Skye, who has an intriguingly appealing voice, has gained vocal depth and dexterity every year but has not been selected for the All-State Chorus three years running. I hope he gives it one more try this Fall. If he misses then, too, he will have matched my own record of musical misses: 4 years but never picked.

In the face of this most recent speech contest rejection, I offered perspective: He has substantially outpaced my meager number of trips to state contests - two. Skye, in contrast, has always made it through districts and onto state – always – and he achieved resounding success as a freshman while I never knew I had thespian muscles until my junior year.

But I am aware the perspective I offer him also comes with a caveat. I got to All-State my first time out of the gate and even helped bring home the state’s highest honor: a critic’s choice banner for one-act play. Yet I would never have competed if not for Mrs. Diane Johnston, or DJ, as we students called her. DJ was my sophomore English teacher and our school’s drama coach. She had chased All-State honors for many decades, and during my junior year, she invited me and seven other students to perform an unconventional piece called “America Hurrah.” She is the reason I learned what it means to catch lightning in a bottle.

While our group competed in the one-act category, the selection was part choral reading and part mime with our acting abilities holding the thing together. We didn't have a set, and we didn’t wear costumes but color-coded ensembles – either a black top with white pants or white top with black pants. Plus, rather than a story with a beginning, middle and end, the play was a set of individuals scenes that required one of us to take center stage while the other seven served as a supportive ensemble of characters or, in some scenes, furniture and props. All eight of us were on stage at all times, moving from one of our characters or roles into the next without ever dropping one of our assigned personas. My favorite supportive role was being part of a system of telephone wires that was transmitting signals across the stage; my second favorite was being a fish out of water.

As for my turn at center stage, I played a woman lost on 14th Street. Others in our cast were featured in scenes about a political candidate, a physical trainer, a telephone operator, a woman at a party, and three others I no longer remember. I’m not even confident the individual scenes shared a unifying theme. Our one-act play was that unconventional.

The fact that we were named the best in the state of Iowa that year – 1981 – vindicated DJ’s daring choice. Either that or the judge, feeling conflicted about what she had witnessed, had nobly chosen to embrace its bizarre experience. How we attained that title does not matter. It was ours and forever will be.

That was my introduction to the world of high school speech competitions, and nothing ever matched that accomplishment. During my remaining 15-months of high school, I enjoyed a handful of other pinnacle moments, yet that experience was unmatched. It wasn’t better than other experiences in a quantifiable way other than the title and accompanying banner that our school got to hang for one year. Yet it forever will be incomparable.

The eight of us in that one-act play – four juniors and four seniors – had become an ensemble. We had learned to be spatially aware of one another, moving to fill holes as quickly as they were created. We had spoken with precision timing, too, picking up cues like the sweeping minute hand of a fine Swiss timepiece. I remember concluding our piece in Des Moines that day, knowing that we could not have performed it better; we all felt the same.

That’s what I hope for Skye: an experience he regards as incomparable because it lets him know he is capable of more than he suspected. And I hope he gets the chance to work with a team of individuals who others not only point to as outstanding but are awarded for their work with a banner or trophy or trinket that publicly affirms what they have believed all along. They are the best.

Life is not measured in number of awards won. I know that; Skye knows that. Everyone knows that, right? Life doesn’t even ensure that those who are the best will be the ones going home with the awards. Judging is subjective; and when groups are being judged, weak performers can either bring a whole group down or get swept along to victory with the team. That’s just the way awards get awarded.

But I have a feeling that every Golden Globe or Grammy or Emmy or Tony or Academy Award winner agrees that those shiny trinkets can certainly brighten a person’s outlook. I am pretty sure All-State honorees feel the same.

If at the end of his high school career such an honor should continue to elude him, Skye won’t crumble. Neither will the hundreds of thousands of other high schoolers in our fine state who have and will graduate without the boasting rights to such an honor. In fact, maybe they are the more fortunate ones. Perhaps they live with a forward-leaning perspective that fixes their pinnacle moment securely in the future, while early award winners fight the anxiety of what-can-I-do-to-top-myself-now. This is certain: Once the entrapments of adulthood take hold, awards ceremonies and public recognitions of excellence are rare. The manufactured glory of high school is not easily reproduced.

I admire Skye. I admire his creativity, his tenacity, his charity and his ability. In so many ways, he is a coveted award, just not one I did anything to earn. He is incredible, and he is my son; I am certain I could not have done any better.

Skye is the best Skye he can be. Bravo! Encore! Encore!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Valentine

Today I shared the story of my storybook romance. They listened kindly as I told how my eyes met his across a grand piano during our first rehearsal as singing waiters. How it was my 20th birthday, and I spent the next few days thinking about the boy from Waterloo with the brilliant smile – the one whose last name I could not remember. I just knew he was Mark, the kind, smiley guy who – unlike the other seven of us – attended a different college.

Who made the first move, they asked?

I’m not really sure, I answered.

They didn’t believe me, so I continue to tell our tale. They could decide.

Sometime that fall he began bussing my tables. Then he asked if I would take the drink orders for his tables because he found it morally reprehensible. I agreed, but not without challenging him.

“Isn’t that hypocritical?” I asked. “You agreed to take a job that you are not actually doing. I am doing it for you at your request. How does that make it better?”

He was a singing waiter, I reminded him. A job that was 50 percent music and 50 percent customer service. Our octet shared gratuities, and we wanted the income from his bar tabs too. I didn't drink alcohol either, but I kept taking the drink orders. It was my job. He kept bussing my tables. He thought I flirted with all the male singers but him. I thought I was joking around, and that he didn’t joke.

Soon he began driving me home after work, and we began discussing issues important to us. I wanted to know why he believed women couldn’t be pastors, and he wanted to know why I thought I could claim to be a child of God.

I wondered if he would attend a dance with me.

He wondered if I would attend church with him.

During a break at one of our special Christmas shows, we sat at a table drinking coffee. I told him I was in love with his voice (it’s all I yet dared to love). He wondered privately if I had considered loving the rest of him too.

After our New Year’s Eve dinner show, he drove me to his home to spend the night, waiting for a snowstorm to pass. We talked by his fireplace until 4 a.m., his little brother a tired chaperone on the couch. I watched him carry his sleeping brother upstairs, helping him into bed. Then I watched him ready his own bedroom for me. Later, unaware only three hours had passed, I wandered downstairs to keep his father company as he mopped their kitchen floor. It was 7 a.m.; no one else was awake.

“Good morning.” I announced myself to his father, the owner of the house.

“Well, hello. Have a seat in our dining room while I finish in here. Can I get you a cup of coffee and some toast?”

“Umm, sure.”

We shared the smallest of small talk. But then I wanted to know: “If you don’t mind my asking, why are you mopping the floor at 7 a.m. on New Year’s Day?”

“Well,” he started slowly, pensively. “I promised Carolyn Ann I would mop the kitchen floor, and I thought it would be good to start my year off right.”

Ah, I thought. This Mark, this 6-foot boy with the beautiful smile, comes from very good stock.

The next week I was attending classes at my college again, but he was waiting for classes to begin at his. On Thursday of that first week of the year, I stood beside my Lutheran campus pastor, fulfilling my duties as the chapel cantor. The first time I looked into the congregation from behind the altar I saw him – a Southern Baptist boy – sitting in a row near the front. His hymnal was open, and he was following the service as best he could. Afterward he met me in the hallway with two questions: Do you have time before your next class? (Yes) What is this thing about the holy uterus, does it have something to do with Mary? (Laughter.)

"Holy Eucharist, you mean?" His embarrassment. Our commitment to continue figuring each other out.

There had been no kissing. There still wouldn’t be. Just more talks – debates really – about God, life, salvation, churches, families. We lacked agreement on many things, but we shared something more that surpassed all else. We laughed together. Joyfully. Had fun together. Willingly. We cared about things together. Deeply. We questioned things. Sincerely.

And then Valentine’s Day. A dozen roses delivered with a card that read: “Friends are friends forever.” I knew how the phrase should end. He sang it every night that we worked at the restaurant. This time it was for me.

One day later another of our dinner shows. The day after that a dance, a Mardi Gras Dance. And he danced, this Baptist boy. He was surprised I was surprised he would. I was surprised when he left the dance floor because a song with "questionable lyrics" was playing. But then the music slowed. We returned to the dance floor. He pulled me close. Tight. And REO Speedwagon described the predicament we faced. We couldn’t fight the feelings any more, or remember what we had started fighting them for. He made sure his eyes found mine as the song played. They locked on and didn’t let go even as the song ended.

We walked off the floor together, closer than hand-in-hand. Later his lips found mine – finally – and we said good night in the stairwell of my dormitory, only hours away from morning.

What had we done? What had begun?

I could not have known then but I certainly know now – 27 years later. That night I began to share my days more fully with my soul’s partner. Someone I could trust with my life. My love.

He is my Valentine.
I am forever his.
He is forever mine.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Mark. I love you.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Life Isn't Fair

I learned that life wasn’t fair long ago.

Inequity. Injustice. Inconsistency. The motley brooding lot of them.

Beyond the typical childhood inequities of “she has more than me” or “the boys got to be first yesterday,” my first big enlightenment about injustice (aka, life is unfair) came in elementary – 5th grade to be exact – in a talent show. The judges, three teachers chosen for this Solomonic task, decided to flip a coin to determine first and second places. Evidently I lost the toss.

What possessed one of those teachers to then tell my parents about the coin flip, and what possessed my parents to then tell 11-year-old me of it, I can only believe were attempts to make something that felt wrong a bit more right. I guess I was to feel some measure of consolation that first place had been but a 180° rotation of pocket change away.

I only felt worse. This information only proved that adults who I had trusted as possessing sound judgment had avoided a decision.

I would not have minded earning second place as much as I minded losing first place in a coin toss.

That was when I learned it was possible for one choice to be more wrong than another even if the intent of that choice had been to do the right thing.

A person who agrees to be a judge needs to judge. Criteria and guidelines are established for making the decision. Judges who use coin flips are not fit to judge.

That’s what I learned in 5th grade.

As I matured, other lessons about fairness came through athletics – obvious ones about questionable calls and subjective coaching choices – and through extra-curricular activities. For instance, in junior high I went from being a drama student who was given a leading role in a play in 8th grade by Mrs. Rowland to a curtain puller the following year, courtesy of her fresh-from-college substitute teacher. The apology that Mrs. Rowland felt compelled to tell me in person still warms my heart.

While on her maternity leave, she tracked me down one day when she had stopped at the school to check her mailbox. “Joy, I want you to know I disagree with how she chose to cast the play. I had you in mind for one of the leads, but I gave her the privilege of assigning parts and don’t feel I can override her decision. I am shocked, and I want you to know I am very sorry.”

I didn’t understand the substitute teacher’s choice, but I understood Mrs. Rowland’s choice. Given the circumstances, Mrs. Rowland’s commitment to stand by the substitute teacher’s decision only seemed fair. All I could do was chose my reaction: I became the best damn curtain puller North Junior High had ever had.

My parents’ employment as public school teachers and my father’s role as a coach gave me an innate appreciation for the delicate dance of fairness that educators regularly perform both in a classroom and on a playing the field. I knew teachers weren’t superhuman. I knew they had biases and played favorites even when trying not too. I also understood that getting assignments in on time and not talking in class helped you jockey into an inside track position. Yet I also knew that being too good at being good could backfire.

You see, I was savvy to one of education’s dirty little secrets: Some teachers and school administrators were simply grown-up mean girls or bully boys. As such, their perception of fairness and their application of its principles tipped at whim. Even for those titled “principal.” My only official reprimand in all my years in school came from such a misjudgment of character, and not that of our principal, but that of our school librarian. In response to his request for me to talk more quietly, I ever-so-sweetly asked him if he was having a bad day. He answered me with detention time. And I could tell when he was signing my detention slip that his day had grown exponentially better.

Always an optimist, I think I held out hope that one day – perhaps by the time I was a grown up myself – I wouldn’t be bothered by injustices and inequities anymore. Well, perhaps I would still be bothered by gross injustices, the kind capable of spurring civil rights movements, certainly, but not by the much smaller kind of inequities, the ones that feed the gristmill of small-town living.

I must not be grown up yet.

Today, I will be fulfilling commitments that I made after our family decided to not attend a state contest held four hours away in support of our youngest son who earned the right to be there. We made the difficult family decision, believing it was in the best interest of our oldest son who has special needs. But yesterday I learned the criterion upon which we had based our decision had been faulty. We were adhering to a policy that had been inequitably and inconsistently administered. It turns out we could have attended in support of our youngest son in a manner that accommodated the needs of our oldest son if we had known it was possible to follow the rules the way some other families were.

We found out about the discrepancy too late, and after too much unnecessary conflict. So where does that leave us? Left behind. Literally.

But life isn’t fair, is it?

Our youngest will ride on the bus to the event and ride on the bus back home – just like the school policy says. He will perform like the champion he is with other people cheering him on in our place. He’ll be fine.

Like me, he has had his share of what-the-heck-happened-there? moments too. Little ones similar to my talent show and curtain pulling episodes, plus the extraordinarily bigger one that all members of our family share. Having a child - nay a brother - with life altering disabilities skews the playing field for all of us, not the least of whom, Stross himself.

Today’s debacle is just a new lesson or reminder for us all.

Life isn’t fair. It never has been. It never will be. But that doesn’t mean the ride won’t be worth the fare.