Cereal was created to help curb masturbation. My son got in trouble for saying so in school.

OK, I know most teens—and my teen no less than others—can get kind of giggly at the mention of sex. It’s annoying, for sure. And I know teachers struggle from day to day to maintain control of their classrooms. Usually, I don’t encourage my kids to bring up subjects like masturbation in class. But yesterday something happen that underscore for me one of the real problems of our education system. Quite frankly, it really ticks me off. So I’ma gonna speak out.Stuff you need to know first: My son is 15 and in the 8th grade. He was in the foster system for a long time and came to live with us when he was 12. We adopted him a little more than a year ago. For as long as we’ve known him he’s taken a fistful of pills twice a day to help him meter his profound behavior problems. I don’t like it, no one likes it, but that’s how it is. He has had a really tough time over the years. If it’s a medical condition with an acronym and it’s related to behavior, he’s got it and takes a pill for it. I won’t go into detail right now, but suffice it to say that he’s had it harder than any kid should have had it.

He spends a good bit of his day in a behavior classroom at school. He’s done well at times and had more classes out with the general student population only to screw up again and get pulled back into the behavior classroom. And the teachers who have worked with him have been really great. He’s gotten in fights. He’s stolen things from teachers, he’s told them to fuck off…it’s a long list…but they have continued to work with him and for that I’m grateful.

Yesterday he was in FCS class. Don’t ask me what FCS means. I’ve asked him several times and every time he’s told me I forget because the acronym is so bland an meaningless I slips out of my head like oil. For those of you from my generation, it’s basically Home Economics, as far as I can tell.

I guess they were somehow talking about foods yesterday and cereal in particular. Coleton pipes up with the humorous factoid that cereal was in part created as a larger anti-masturbation therapy by the Kellogg Brothers. I told him this. Now, he didn’t have all the facts at his fingertips and I’ll stipulate that he probably did it to get a giggle, but the result of his comments was a reprimand and being marked down on his behavior report for the day.

My problem is this: Coleton has behavior problems, yes. But he also has learning challenges, not least of which he’s behind most students in achievement and his test scores show it. He acts out and seeks attention because he’s uncomfortable and embarrassed. He’s older than everyone else in the 8th grade, but he’s below grade level in almost every subject.

His comment in class yesterday was an opportunity for his teachers. Instead if marking him down for behavior (or maybe in addition to) the teacher could have dug deeper into Coleton’s comment, found the kernel of truth in it and provided the whole class with a chance to learn some real history in context and turn the whole thing into a positive for all the students, but especially Coleton. He could really use a few moments where he can feel like he adds to the conversation.

The behavior kids have a very specific day-to-day. Kids walk around all day getting checks on point sheets to prove they didn’t act out in each class. At the end of the day, they fill out a DCS Report (again, I have no clue what DCS stands for). The DCS details all the good and bad for the child that day. The parents sign the form and the whole process repeats. I’ve often thought that “DCS Report” was way too close to the “TPS Report” from the film Office Space. They overall utility seems about the same. I understand the purpose of the system. It helps kids like Coleton learn to be accountable for their behaviors. But used without interrogation or awareness, they’re just another tool the schools are using to beat kids into submission.

Was it OK for Coleton to mention masturbation in class? I say yes. Should he have done so in a mature way? Again, yes. Did he do that? Probably not. But here’s the thing: the likelihood of Coleton making it through high school successfully at this point seem very slim. That he shared any information above and beyond the stultifying curriculum should have garnered two responses. One, if he shared it to get attention, he should have been redirected. But two, he should have also been encouraged for participating and the information should have been interrogated and explored. That’s how students learn. That’s how teachers teach.

I have nothing but respect for teachers, especially the ones who have to work with Coleton, but in this case he was the victim of a failure to educate. He had something to offer, no matter how misguided, and he got his hand slapped for it. It makes me wonder are we educating our kids to be compliant and to only offer the pre-ordained correct answers, or are we truly seeking to create inquisitive life-long learners? The job if the teacher is a hard one, but it also requires heightened vigilance. When teachers lose their curiosity and courage, students learn a lesson we don’t intend to teach.

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9/11: The Smell

I don’t like to think about 9/11, especially not on 9/11. Nothing about my life has been the same since that day. I can see it clearly 14 years later as a demarcation point, where my life ceased to be what I thought it was going to be, what I hoped it might be and slowly became–something else.

I don’t say that it became a bad something else. I have a beautiful family that I might not have had if not for the events of that day and the days immediately after. Everything was going great on 9/11. My band had made a new record that folks seemed to like. We’d been on tour a couple times that year and on 9/12 we were going to head out again to share some dates with Brent Best’s band Slobberbone.

I walked out of the subway that morning looking for my uptown bus, late for work, as usual. There was a woman screaming. I could hear her from the stairwell and when I emerged, she was running south, with a toddler in an umbrella stroller. The whole things looked desperate, precarious. She was hysterical and the child didn’t look safe. That’s what I thought as I watched her pass. I saw a plume of smoke rising above the buildings to the southwest. The plume was large enough that I thought there was a fire somewhere close, maybe a few blocks away, 12th and 2nd Ave, maybe. I got on the bus.

When I got to the office I entered through the mailroom, as I usually did. I never remembered my keycard. Bruce the mailroom manager told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. Not long before a baseball player had slammed into a building in a plane. Or did that happen after? I can’t recall. Another unfortunate accident, but the day goes on.

It didn’t take long to realize that it was more than an unfortunate accident. There was another plane. And one in DC. And one in Pennsylvania. My office was a couple blocks from the UN. Theresa’s was a couple blocks from the Empire State. I started considering scenarios, dirty bombs, more planes. There was a time when it seemed like any horrible thing could happen. Meanwhile, our bosses told us to stay put. No one could get phone calls out. It wasn’t clear what was happening, so we rolled TVs into the cubicle farm and watched.

One of the towers fell. A collective gasp. The other building fell and a sense of panic set in. The feeling of imminent danger had subsided, but panic was there in its place. And it wasn’t panic over what was happening or might happen. It was more like a slow cold knowledge that everything was different. There was no coming back from something like this.

People started leaving the office. I had been on the phone with Theresaseveral times and then I couldn’t get her anymore. And I thought about the Empire State, and those other planes in my head. I called and called and there was no answer. Finally, I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to leave, but I was scared. I had no idea what was out there.

It’s hard to explain the fear. I imagine it’s something like dementia. Nothing was as it should have been. Step out the confines of that building and anything could happen. But I had to go. My friend Gerry walked me. Thinking back on that act, it seems so strange, to have one grown man walk another a few city blocks to his wife’s office, but it’s one of the kindest acts anyone has ever blessed me with. So thank you, Mr. Schramm.

Theresa was fine. Walt, the guy who was playing bass for us on the impending tour, found his way uptown to us. Slowly, you could make cell phone calls again. People reconnected and the gauzy fabric of the reality we superimpose started to knit itself back together. We started walking home mid-afternoon. The streets were unlike a NYC I’ve known before or since. Everyone was stunned, damaged, in shock. It was going to be a long walk back to Brooklyn.

As we approached 14th St, there was a homeless guy in the middle of the street signing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister. and probably had been for a while. His voice was blown and he stood in the middle of 3rd Ave and just screamed the chorus over and over again. In my mind, our nation has been that guy ever since–damaged, a little crazy, confused, belligerent.

The subway was running somehow, for some reason. We piled onto an L train and left Manhattan alive. Walt was dusty. He had emerged from the subway that morning blocks away from the Trade Center just as the first tower fell. He had to outrun the wreckage, P bass in one hand and briefcase in the other. Walt was some kind of an IT guy freelancing in the financial district. He lived outside of Philly and took the train in a few times a week. He was going to leave with us on tour the next day. I can’t remember Walt’s last name.

That night I wanted to get drunk. Williamsburg was alive in the late afternoon. It was a beautiful September day. We walked down to the riverside and watched the dual plumes of smoke rise and then we went to Muggs Alehouse and ate and drank. Because we were alive.

The tour was cancelled. The band never recovered. My career as a musician never recovered either. It’s nothing compared to those who lost loved ones on that day. The people attached to the handbills advertising lost family members plastered on the plywood construction barriers outside hospitals, or anywhere else available in the weeks after the attack. I often think of the co-worker whose fiancé was a firefighter. He died in one of the towers. When he knew he wasn’t going to get out he called her office phone. She was probably out in the halls watching TV with the rest of us. He left her a voicemail that said goodbye and that he loved her. My boss bought a tape recorder and recorded it for her a week or so later.

Everyone has a story from that day. Everyone who lived in New York, everyone across the nation. But now, on this day I think about my day. I think about that woman who ran by me as I came out of the subway. Who did she lose? Or was her loved one OK? I think about Walt and feel bad that I cant remember his name. I think about that person I might have been; maybe I would have been the successful singer/songwriter I thought I was on the way to being, or maybe it would have fallen apart some other way. All that stuff is held together with spiderwebs. It just takes the slightest breeze.

But mostly–and this is what I want people to think of when they hashtag ‪#‎neverforget‬–what I think about is the smell. For weeks afterward the smell of the still-smoldering buildings was everywhere. It got so I knew the patterns of the wind currents on the east side of New York because of where I could smell the smell. In the mornings it was strong in Manhattan and I could smell it as I walked into the office. In the evenings the current shifted and I could smell it outside our apartment or on the street just before I went into the bar. It was the smell of burning plastic, something oily, a hint of woodsmoke, and somewhere in there, though I could never discern it specifically from the other scents, the tang of burning flesh, of those bodies never recovered. It was there in the city for weeks as the holes in the ground still burned like giant char pits.

There’s something important in that memory, something we’ve lost as the years have passed or the events of that day have been coopted for other uses. But I’ll #neverforget the smell. And the rest of us shouldn’t either.

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Puppet plays drums for Rush

Things I like about this video:

  1. Puppet plays Rush
  2. Puppet plays drums with traditional grip.
  3. Puppet drumset has working foot pedal.
  4. Puppet plays Rush.

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New Song Demo

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Bread…for you, Internet

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A short excerpt from my new novel, The Crack in the World

I’ve been working on this books since November of 2014. It’s in the second draft now. It’s a mystery, I guess. The main character’s Lyle, an Iraq vet and sheriff’s deputy in a small West Virginia town. He’s investigating the disappearance of a high school boy that’s very similar to the disappearance of his best friend two decades previous. In this scene, he’s on his way to his wife’s house to pick up his daughter for their weekly dinner out together.

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Record of the Day: Bob Dylan-Bringing it all back home

Dylan goes electric. I got my politics from Dylan.


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