Sunday, March 28, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.20: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 20

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Father

My father was born in 1934. His father died in 1936. For a while, he had a stepfather but that man and his mother said that they despised him. Before he finished first grade, he was homeless. Before he finished elementary school, his stepfather was dead. His uncle came to take him to Baltimore.

Since my father was disliked by his mother and mostly raised without his father, where did he get his ideas on parenting? In my twenties, I started to learn his family history, so I asked him.

"Mostly from psychology courses," was his answer.

I looked through his library for major influences, probably Skinner and Maslow with a lot of Jung and Freud as well. In the psychological literature of his age, I noticed there was an overabundance of diagnoses of hysteria. Doctors thought that many people had psycho-somatic illnesses. In such circumstances, it was natural for my father to believe the same thing. Psycho-somatic illnesses appeared to be a proven cause. He was convinced that, when I was four, my mind caused allergies. My bouts of congestive failure were the result of the power of suggestion.

There is a certain amount of truth to this. Attitude makes a surprising difference to recovery. Over the years, though, my father observed that my attitude couldn't solve my physical problems entirely. In fact, ignoring my asthma sent me to the hospital more than once. So he let the doctors and scientists convince him that differences in immune responses are physically, not simply products of the mind, and are dictated in large part by genetics.

He learned as he went. That was his secret in teaching and that was how he did it with parenting. It wasn't simply a matter of translating theory into practice. He had to notice when the books were wrong. What's more, I think he passed over important elements of parenting in his own self-assessment. When I became a parent myself, I could see where some of his ideas had to originate. So in reverse order of priority, I would say that his influences were:

3. His philosophy classes, psychology classes, and other reading (what he felt was most important)
2. My mother (although he never admitted it until later in life)
1. His uncle, Jack Light

My great-uncle Jack spent a career in the merchant marines before settling down in Baltimore. When I was five or six or seven, I didn't know much about him except that I loved and admired him. In my childish view of the world, he was the most wholesome person in it. At the age of six, I came to understand that Jack was the only one who could stop my grandmother and my father from fighting. No one else had that power.

I have vague memories of my father once or twice saying that he couldn't be like Uncle Jack or that he didn't know how Uncle Jack did it. Jack had been so calm and so sure of himself, strong but gentle. He had the implacable force of patience that comes with self-assurance.

Jack died when I was seven. I begged to go to his funeral. Maybe I cried my way into attendance. I'm not sure. If so, I expect that my father regretted taking me because I cried at the funeral, too. Then I cried after the funeral and on and off into the evening.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.19: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 19

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Second-Half Teaching

When we got back to Maryland, my father settled into his teaching career with a grace that surprised even him, I think. In his personal life, he could be awkward. He could be too skinny. Or too fat. Maybe sometimes he dressed like a professor. As a teacher, he transcended all that. Students returned to tell him so. Some of them came with their revelations in psychology or philosophy. Those are personal subjects, of course, so maybe no surprise. Former students returned to tell him how his math teaching had improved their lives, though, and that seemed more remarkable.

Some of that may have come from how his teaching burbled with philosophy. Math and philosophy relate closely, particularly in boolean math, analytics, and other types of formal logic. So my father could, and did, use math to promote critical thinking. Additionally, he was a fan of Polya's "How to Solve It." He could switch from the county-promoted method to, for instance, solving a problem backwards. He tried to help students ease up from their frustrations by adopting a carefree oh-well-let's-try-this attitude.

One student I dimly remember returned to say how my father had transformed his life through math. This was a young man who had dark hair, stood maybe five foot eleven, and who as a student had caused trouble all through calculus class. Almost every day, he would say "This is useless" or "I'll never use it," and every time, my father had to come up with a reply like, "Maybe," "Maybe not," "The smart students will probably use it," or "Humor me. Maybe you'll need to fill a half-cylinder tub with jello."

This student was bright but he was politically-minded and stubborn. At the University of Maryland, he changed majors from journalism to engineering. Somehow he had been inspired by the practicality of making tangible changes in the world. But then his engineering friends, some of the same friends who had changed majors with him, started failing calculus. He didn't. He realized that he was going to use the math he'd railed against for so long, that he was using it right then. What's more, he understood it. He could even help other students. After he passed his required calculus, he came back and told my father.

There are only a few students who return to see their former teachers. Throughout the 1970s, my father seemed to hear from some every year. Even in the early 1980s, the trend continued. Northwood High school closed in 1985, unfortunately. My father transferred to Poolesville. The school was close to home. They needed precisely his position. The student body was different, though.

Although Poolesville students did return, at times, to tell him how good a teacher he had been, the numbers never quite matched Northwood. It was a smaller school and more rural. Fewer students went off to college and of those who did, many never came back.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.18: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 18

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Tea, Shchi, Trapeze Artists, and Hula Hoops

The itinerary of our Soviet Union trip began in Leningrad, I think, but my memory is of it is poor. I was ten and suffering from eight hours of jet lag. At any rate, I think we took the train twice. On the map, that makes sense if we took the bus from the border to Leningrad, rode the train south to Moscow, and took a train back to Leningrad.

The first train ride was the one in which I discovered tea.

That may sound strange because my grandmother served me unsweetened tea every day, sometimes for months on end. I never liked it. That was partly because I compared it to sugary cola. The tea tasted bitter by contrast. Even if I added sugar, it remained bland. Sometimes, on a hot evening after chasing fireflies for two hours, tea seemed really good anyway, but only for a moment. The brew in Russia tasted different and I had no idea why.

When I returned to the United States, I tried to figure it out. I read the labels on the tea. I found that my mother used instant tea mix, which in some ways wasn't much like tea at all. My grandmother brewed hers from Lipton tea bags that said 'orange pekoe.' That was the bitter, sour taste. Back on the train to Moscow, I drank from a cup that was hot. The liquid swirled darkly like smoke and tasted like a campfire you'd enjoy lying down in so that you could surround yourself with the smell. The service came with communist party sugar cubes. (Each cube was individually wrapped, either in red with a gold hammer and sickle, or in black with a red or gold star.)

The first sip of the dark brew did it. I wanted more. As it turned out, I ordered tea at every restaurant on the tour. I didn't even need to do that. The Russians served tea on every time regardless of what I said. On a few occasions, the waiters seemed amused by how much I loved it.

Soviet food was never very good although we probably ate some of Russia's or Siberia's best produce at the time. The highlight, for me, was the shchi, which is cabbage soup. That came with nearly every meal and it varied from delightful to half-hearted but more often it was on the delightful side. I could trust it when I couldn't trust anything else, not the meat, the peas (seven per plate), not even the onions (once or twice cooked dark to try to hide spoilage).

My father, for his part, had expected bad food. But he hadn't expected to wait on lines for everything that wasn't part of the tour. He tried buying candies and ice cream. Each time, it was a struggle. Even when he was amused by the non-American-ness of it (gosh, here I am standing in a line out on the street to by a mystery item from a box), he couldn't help feeling bewildered.

The entertainment was equally foreign to him. The Soviets had almost no western-block tourists before us, so they reached deeply into their bag of tricks. We saw almost every State-approved, patriotic act there was. First, we listened to balalaika strummers; and they were virtuosos. After the next statue visit, we piled into a huge auditorium made for operas and watched the Soviet military kick dancing. To our hosts, the dance was clearly high art, as worthy of praise as paintings, poetry, symphonies, or ballet. Better, it gave glory to the revolution, as the dancers showed us their skills while in uniform.

Back and forth we went between museums or monuments and the performances. We saw a swimsuit girl with a hula hoop; she did acrobatics. We watched a magician with an assistant who handed him hula hoops. We went to the circus one evening, which had a high-wire act, trapeze artists who were easily my favorites of the tour, and a dancing bear with a hula hoop. Later, we saw lesser balalaika players, an amatuerish magician, and a pair of out-of-shape schoolgirls, again with hula hoops.

"I guess they really like hula hoops," my father said eventually.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.17: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 17

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Soviet Way

As a ten year old on a twelve hour flight that left me, after a three our bus ride, eight hours off my usual sleep schedule, I don't think it's remarkable that I was only conscious part-time during the first days of the trip. The weirdness of my body trying to sleep in the afternoon, my motion sickness on the bus, and the loudness of the teenagers around me made parts of the tour impossible. I couldn't stare at a second or third Lenin statue in a row without wobbling.

Technically, my father and the high school students kept me awake. That was only my body, though. My brain went on its own dream-addled trip full of golden hands, concrete slabs, and cloudless skies.

Once, on the first day on our tour, I came alert long enough for the most beautiful girl on the bus to tell me I could sleep on her lap.

"Your hair is so soft," she said as she patted my head. A moment later, she turned to the girl next to her. "Did you feel this little boy's hair? You should feel it."

A couple of her friends joined in, messing and combing my hair. My unconscious and conscious selves got together for a moment and decided this was just fine. I snuggled in next to her. She smelled terrific. Later, in an extended moment of consciousness, she talked with me long enough to discover that I didn't know what the Mickey Mouse Club was - that it had gone off the air. I'd never seen it.

"How can you not know the club?" she exclaimed. She led her friends in singing the theme song, a surrealistic joy in my state of mind. One of the young men in the seat across from her made a comment about Annette Funicello that I didn't understand. I still don't really remember the words but I understand now why the mention got a reaction from the other teenagers. At the time, it was just another mystery. Older kids are aliens when you're ten. Teens seemed far beyond my comprehension, more so than adults.

When I did start to wake up towards the end of the second day, I noticed how communism in practice was different than in the propaganda. We got a tour of the Communist Party headquarters in Leningrad. The party leaders occupied the palace of a former Tzar. We got to see ordinary people standing in lines everywhere for fruit or bread. Not the party leaders. They had everything they wanted.

I had read Animal Farm by George Orwell in the year before. (My father's library was an odd place in which to grow up. Animal Farm was one of the shortest, easiest volumes in it.) This felt very much like the communal farm gone wrong. At one point, I scowled about Communist Party leaders getting into a limousine. My father, standing nearby me as usual, seemed to know exactly what I was thinking.

"All animals are equal," he said, "but some are more equal than others.”

"They're doing it right in front of us!" I stomped my foot like Snowball outraged by the betrayal of the revolution. The party leaders weren't even embarrassed by their hypocrisy.

"That was something I was glad you could see for yourself," he told me later.