Tuesday, October 30, 2012

As Halloween Approaches...!

Two seriously GREAT Halloween photos!  Above, just your average four lovable lads from Liverpool... hey, I thought those were mop heads, not pumpkin heads?

Here, a couple of Wild Things look over young Max on the New York Subway.  Those costumes are sweet! (Photos by ... anonymous?  Ok, as you wish)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

We're from Philly

That afternoon at Westminster I put on the headphones and listened to Jeremy Irons tells stories of the British Royals enshrined and enthroned and entombed within the abbey’s stone walls.  St. Edward the Confessor’s crest and William the Conqueror’s crown.  Coronations and wedding processions, baptisms, and stories of love no grave could hold.  Walking through the Abbey’s dark passageways and listening to Irons huff Marlboro's into the cassette, I got so sad and lowly thinking my death won’t be worth a plug nickel.
There was a family there which caught my eye.  A mother about my age with run down socks and busted umbrella that wouldn't shut, and her two teenage children.  The boy had a screw loose.  That’s one way of putting it.  A better way was to give him a name like “nut job” or “ants in his pants,” but it was definitely autism, and it made me feel a slight bit better about myself knowing I could make such a fast diagnosis.

He wore this veil over his head like a scarf hood and had these tranquil blue eyes that stared off  into nothing.  He was lean with bony fingers, probably seventeen at the latest.  One minute he was following along holding the end of his mother’s umbrella through the crowd, the next he was climbing the catacomb walls screeching like a drunk chimp.  His mother would pull at his pant legs and yank him down.  Stick a finger in his face and scold him into a silenced crumbled ball on the cobblestones, ripping up his brochure and dropping the tiny pieces in front of himself like falling snowflake stars.
The daughter appeared normal.  Tall and angular, stunning at first sight, with these long legs, perfect features, and black hair past her shoulders.  She was older than her brother, but kept poking him like an under-sibling, and demanded my attention as I followed her into Henry VII’s Lady Chapel.  Soon I discovered she was off her rocker too.
She had these nervous tics.  Spasm shakes and head twitches, and the habit of biting her nails, tearing off the cuticles to blood with her teeth, then putting fingers inside her nose to pick away at the dead skin.  At first I hoped it was only a scratch.  But then I saw the deep invading of her nostrils and I had to look away as over and over she picked at the inside of her nose with a blank expression on her face.  Nobody wants to see a beautiful woman picking her nose.  Nobody normal at least.
So I retired to the Poet’s Corner.  That’s really my favorite place to be in Westminster.  Here some of the greatest English writers are honored.  Chaucer.  Dickens.  Shakespeare.  As I was sitting there on a stone slab sketching the facial busts of the immortals, I felt the presence of someone sitting next to me and looked over to see the lean autistic boy, staring into my eyes.
“Thomas Hardy’s heart is buried in a churchyard in Dorset.”  He said blankly.  “Only his ashes are here.  Hardy was an atheist, that means he didn't believe in baby Jesus.”
I went on sketching the tip of Shakespeare’s beard as the boy continued.
“There’s a legend that when the surgeon cut out his heart it fell off the table and a cat ate it.  So they buried a pig’s instead.”
“Oh?’  Nervously scribbling, not looking up.
“Oliver Cromwell was buried here too, but years later they dug him up and hung his body outside until his head popped off.  Then they stuck that in the ground at a Chapel in Cambridge.”
Now I looked directly at the boy.  It was obvious he wasn’t leaving me alone.  “Okay, what else you got?”
The macabre lesson continued.
“Percy Bysshe Shelley was a British poet who drowned in the Gulf of Spezzia aboard the doomed schooner ‘The Ariel.’  His body washed ashore later and was burned.  They encased his heart in silver and presented it to his widow, Mary Shelley.  She wrote Frankenstein.”
By this time I had stopped sketching the statues of Poet’s Corner and began tracing the speaking boy.  “You sure know a lot of odd facts, kid?  Where’d you learn all this?”
The boy scratched the back of his head.  “My mom.” He answered.  “She shot my father in the face when he made the fists and wouldn’t stop hitting.”
I put the pencil down.
“She says lots of things.  She’s always talking.  About the boys back in the neighborhood who are all hands and her father’s whipping belt.”  He stammered, “I… I… I'm a good boy.  I listen a lot to what my mother says.”
Just then the mother appeared and took her son by the hand, “Who are you talking to?” she demanded.
I stood up.
“You!”  She pointed at me.  “What are you doing with my son?  You… dirty… dirty… man!”
“Look,” I explained, “I was minding my own business when your son, the future Freddy Kruger, sat down and started talking about severed heads and cutting out hearts and…”
The mother started screaming, banging her umbrella on the ground in the middle of Westminster Abbey.  “You did it…!  You… you… filthy beast.  You dirty pig face.”
I said again, “Lady, I didn’t do anything.  I’m a teacher. I would never…”
Men in security jackets had circled us, speaking into walkie-talkies.
“You dirty man.  You are a dirty… bad man!” 
She swung her umbrella and I caught it above my head.
“Listen,” I spoke calmly.  “I swear on the lives of my three daughters.  I’m not that guy.”
In an instant the woman’s face calmed and tranquility took hold.  The security officers were helping up the boy, who had rolled into a little ball on the floor, leading him to his sister who stood without blinking.  The mother too, a woman had her by the arm coaxing her away.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, staring into my eyes.  “It’s just, we’re from Philly.” 
As if I knew what that meant.
“Yes, and now you’re here.”  I said, even softer.
She nodded, followed her children toward the entrance of the tiny door, and I sat back down to my sketch pad and trimmed the tip of Shakespeare’s beard.  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Stranded on the Road with Ayn Rand's Anthem

 "Today we have discovered the word that could not be said, "I."  -Ayn Rand, Anthem

Today as I was crossing through the desert, our bus broke down and we had to stand out in the dunes while the repair man came to hoist our massive Promethean vessel on its axis and examine the problem.
 "There is the banner in my hand.  And I wish I had the power to tell them that the despair of their hearts was not to be final, and their night was not without hope."  -Equality 7-2521, by Ayn Rand

Most of us were without water.  Famished after the day's work, we pulled up our coat collars and hunkered down in the windswept sand swirls.  No shade for miles, pondering our lot.  Men in trucks stopped.  Some gave rides back into town.  I decided to walk.  It wasn't far, a few miles.  My legs could use the work.
"Our dearest one.  Fear nothing of the forest.  There is no danger in solitude."  -Ayn Rand, Anthem

It's a strange person who steps out into nothingness to earn a buck.  Then, when finding himself stranded there, continues blindly on his adventurer's trail as if it will lead him home.  Why not just go back the way you came?  Why move further away to eventually return?  Why love the work so dearly it takes you to the edge of life and death?
"The shadows of leaves fall upon their arms, as they spread the branches apart, but their shoulders are in the sun."  -Ayn Rand, Anthem

As I trudged along, I thought about my daughters across the Indian Ocean at the water park, riding the carousel, watching cotton candy dissolve in their fingers, bouncing up and down and begging to be spun and dumped and shaken for sheer thrills.
 "We are one in all and all in one.  There are no men but only the great WE.  One, indivisible and forever."  -Ayn Rand, Anthem

I was also thinking about Ayn Rand, some newspaper article was throwing her name around with this politician and that... to the point where even a president had to make a narrow comment of her scope.  For the record, high school kids don't read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.  They may start it, but they're not finishing it.
 "My dearest one, it is not proper for men to be without names..."  -Ayn Rand, Anthem

How do I know this?  Because characters like Howard Roark and Dangy Taggart, John Gault and Hank Rearden, aren't for confused teenagers.  They're not for children playing hide in seek in the living room and checking under their bed for monsters in the dark.
"The sacred word:  EGO"  -Ayn Rand, Anthem

No.  They're for adults.  Serious adults, who want to live and know their life intimately, who want to destroy themselves so that they can evolve through time, and one doesn't even know this until they have walked through the desert with everything to lose.

Postscript:  For you that have inquired, I took down the previous blog post entitled "Daring Life" because they slice by the neck here with swords for such words.  I'll live to fight another day.  Keep walking through the desert, everybody!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Tranny of Trafalgar

 London was a blur of red phone booths, Union Jack umbrella stands, Double-Decker buses, twisted sites, luxury brownstones, famous birthplaces, and shouting matches in pubs.  Hung out in the doorway watching rain pellets drop and hunched down in theater back rows for musicals and performances in awe.  Got stuck in a Gay Pride parade in SoHo and sat out the melee staring out the window at the freaks on display.  Laid my head against the glass and paid the cabbie to keep driving, took the city by storm.
 Spoke to a nice couple from Manchester about our elections.  They said Obama didn't deserve us... which threw me as I had no idea what they meant.  This was the same week David Cameron left his daughter in a pub by mistake.  Chatted with an elderly man along Savile Row who spoke of wool and silk as if it were his master.  Laid all my coins upon a West End booth table and was given a crash course in Pound Sterling by an incomprehensible and vile self-anointed Hooligan from Devonshire who learned me in "quid" and "pence" and mocked me when I inquired about the "shilling," muttering, "Na 'ince da days of Charlie Dickens 'ave I gentleman ha two of them bobs in 'is pocket."
 It rained mostly, and when it rains in London nothing stops so you go underground.  London is a place full of tunnels and turn arounds, dim lit pubs and ornate lobbies.  It never stops.  It never ends.  It's not like New York which can suffocate you just before opening into the most brilliant of human moments.  Not like Shanghai or Tokyo whose sites and sounds send alarms and shivers up your spine.  No, London breathes and is always new.
One of the best moments I had running around the city was in Trafalgar Square.  A man approached me wearing heavy eye shadow and lipstick, his dress badly torn and handbag tattered in the rain.  He noticed me standing in the doorway and asked for a cigarette, but when I explained I didn't smoke his eyes lit up.  "A yank are ya?  I adore Americans."
I stood there grinning.  "Don't get too smug 'if yaself." His effeminate voice dropped.  "You yanks are last weeks nickers.  It's the year of the Londoner." He clicked his heels together.  "Now sod off!"  He winked and stepped out into the rain leaving me with a devilish grin.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Great Green Eyed Nellie Bly

"I want to go around the world!" – Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days

I have this list of children's books I'm working through with my daughters.  It's a magical list full of time travel wardrobes and talking bears, walking forests and masked marauding French revolutionaries.  People ask me all the time, "What's a good book for my kid?"  And I say... "What do you want your children to love?"
“One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand-satchel until dire necessity compels the exercise of all one's ingenuity to reduce everything to the smallest possible compass.” –Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days

A lot of these books are old, really old.  There's one about a treasure map and a black dot that kills, another about the call of the northern wild, another of King Solomon's mines and still another about a lost world that time forgot.
“Small wonder the American girl is fearless.”  -Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days

There's shipwrecks and the French Foreign Legion, kidnappings and families living in trees. Such a marvelous world these old adventure stories lay in wait for my young daughter's minds.
“The London correspondent sat next to Jules Verne. With a smile on her soft rosy lips, Mme. Verne sat nursing the cat which she stroked methodically with a dainty, white hand, while her luminous black eyes moved alternately between her husband and myself.”  -Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days

Of course, not all the books have to be about adventure.  One such book I will proudly read to my young girls is Nellie Bly's Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.
“I wonder if the people of Calais ever saw the moon and stars.”  -Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days

Back in 1890, Nellie Bly was an intrepid journalist in New York, muckraker, travel writer, and pioneer of women's issues.  She was fearless, full of wit, grace, and goodwill, and found admiration everywhere she went winning hearts and inspiring others with her style and sensibility.
“The balmy air, soft as a rose leaf, and just as sweet, air such as one dreams about but seldom finds; standing there alone among strange people, on strange waters, I thought how sweet life is!”  -Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days 

She is perhaps best known for taking up the Jules Verne challenge of attempting to travel around the world in less than eighty days after the fictitious record set by character Phileas Fogg, which is another of the great children's books you will ever find.
“Occasionally we would have a dance on deck to the worst music it has ever been my misfortune to hear. The members of the band also washed the dishes…”  -Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days

So... Ms. Bly, the great green-eyed beauty (serious google time, her adorable nose alone will knock your socks off) sets out by steamer ship with but one handbag and a passport, all alone across the Atlantic, with nothing but her wits and the kindness of strangers to guide her.
“When we returned to the ship we found Jews there, selling ostrich eggs and plumes, shells, fruit, spears of sword-fish, and such things. In the water, on one side of the boat, were numbers of men, Somali boys, they called them, who were giving an exhibition of wonderful diving and swimming.”  -Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days

During the next two and a half months she becomes one of the most famous women in the world.
“Lovers were not plentiful on the Oriental, there were so few passengers. The "Spanish minister" had an eye for beauty and a heart for romance, though he led a most quiet life on shipboard, and was the very essence of gallantry.”  -Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days

But that doesn't concern me, fame is nothing, and I can't name that many "famous" people I'd wish to have more than a cup of coffee with...
“While the Oceanic was waiting for the quarantine doctor, some men came out on a tug to take me ashore. There was no time for farewells. The monkey was taken on the tug with me, …Just as the tug steamed off the quarantine doctor called to me that he had forgotten to examine my tongue… so I stuck it out…”  -Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days 

No, what truly stands out with Bly is her sheer literary grace and a writing style that simultaneously delights, informs, endears, and comforts.  She is a throwback to a different age of womanhood. The time of a "Lady."  And believe me, ladies are in short supply these days.  I pray my daughters will grow up to be such intrepid travelers as well, but with a little bit of Nellie Bly always in their blood.
(The following pictures were taken by SungJoo at Pomosa Temple in Busan, South Korea while on holiday last week.  Thanks for these great pics.  What a fun time!)

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Life and Adventures of David Crockett

“And seeking no ornament or coloring for a plain, simple tale of truth, I throw aside all hypocritical and fawning apologies, and. According to my own maxim, just ‘go ahead.’” -Davy Crockett

Before I ever counted Jack Kerouac or Dean Moriarty as blood brother kin, and still as yet before Tom and Huck became winks in my eye, there was the life and adventures of David Crockett.  

“I pitched out from the bushes and set on him like a wild cat. I scratched his face all to a flitter jig, and soon made him cry out for quarters.” -David Crockett

Buckskin jersey long rifle toting, whiskey slug swilling, bear shooting, Indian killing, rapid riding, King of the Wild Frontier.  Growing up as I did with Disney forming my early memories in the 1970’s, I knew any kid worth his salt worshiped Davy Crockett.

“I moved on with a light heart and my five dollars jingling in my pocket…” -David Crockett

I still have my old coonskin cap from Disneyland somewhere in my parent’s basement.  I used to put that on and carry an old tree branch smoothed down with a hunting knife as a rifle into the woods, checking for paw prints and renegade savages to trade with or blow all to hell.

“This brought them to a halt, and about this moment the Indians fired on them, and came rushing forth like a cloud of Egyptian locusts, and screaming like all the young devils had been turned loose.” -David Crockett

The thing was, Davy Crockett wasn’t a gunslinger.  No Showdown at the OK-Corral or quick draw outside a saloon over a card game gone cross-eyed.  No, Crockett was a frontiersman and a marksman, known for traversing hundreds of miles rugged territory through Tennessee and Kentucky.  Yet in all the legends about this man (even the Disney song where he “killed him a bear when he was only three), Crockett’s truest aim was in his literary prowess, where he hits his mark every time.

“Fame is like a shaved pig with a greased tail, and it is only after it has slipped through the hands of some thousands, that some fellow, by mere chance, holds on to it.” -David Crocket

The Autobiography of David Crocket is a truly brilliant read.  He recounts his life beginning with his father arriving from Ireland and moving west into Indian territory and there opening a traveler’s inn.  There young Davy learned the ways of the wild, until the age of 12 when he was basically “sold” to a traveling cattleman and forced to walk over 400 miles toward Baltimore only to miraculously find his way home many years later.

“We pursued them until we got near the house, when we saw a squaw sitting in the door, and she placed her feet against the bow she had in her hand, and then took an arrow, and, raising her feet, she drew with all her might, and let fly at us, and she killed a man… his death so enraged us that she was fired on, and had at least twenty balls blown through her. This was the first man I ever saw killed with a bow and arrow. We now shot them like dogs…” -David Crocket

Crockett’s life is full of such wonderful tales all told in his own genius and humorous wit.  How as a marching soldier on the trail of Creek Indians he scaled a thirty foot tree to catch a squirrel he’d shot for supper, or how he bested all suitors and won the hand of the Quaker’s daughter in marriage.  

“I am at liberty to vote as my conscience and judgment dictates to be right, without the yoke of any party on me…” -David Crockett

But what I really love about Crockett, beside’s being such a hero of my boyish dreams, was his funny sayings.  Mark Twain said of Crockett’s own voice, “He writes with a sort of genius for telling tales in the vernacular…”  Quotes like: “If a fellow is born to be hung, he will never be drowned,” and “she was ugly as a stone fence,”  or “like the Negro’s rabbit, good either way,” and “Salting the cow to catch the calf.”  

“Pop, Pop, Pop, Bom, Bom, Bom, throughout the day. No time for memorandums now. Go ahead! Liberty and independence…” -David Crockett’s Last journal entry at Alamo

Everybody knows Crockett's story.  He became a lieutenant in the army and then a Justice of the Peace in the Missouri Territory.  Later a congressmen and could have become president if not for a backbone and inability to play politics (that and his scathing hatred for Andrew Jackson), and of course, his last stand against Santa Anna at the Alamo.  But for me, this young boy growing up in the forests of Oregon, I think of Crockett as an early definer of American cool.  Way before Huck lit out for the territories or Keroauc split west, there was Davy Crockett.  That and a coonskin cap was all I ever needed.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Are you strong enough to be my man?

“Nothing’s true and nothing’s right, so let me be alone tonight. Cause you can’t change the way I am.” -Crow, Strong Enough

It was nine o'clock, my sleeves rolled up, necktie tucked into my shirt over the button.  I'm stacking desks and pulling in chairs.  Picking garbage off the floor and tacking posters back on the wall.  Back of my neck caked in dried sweat.  Day was over.  Time for the long bus ride home through the desert.
“I have a face I cannot show. I make the rules up as I go. It’s try and love me if you can.” -Crow, Strong Enough

Then this song came on the radio.  Just me alone in the classroom cleaning up after all these students have left, kicking over chairs, tossing their cigarette butts and trash on the floor, racing away in their cars toward the faraway lights.  Now I'm alone, listening to this song in an empty room thousands of miles from home.
“When I’ve show you that I just don’t care, when I’m throwing punches in the air. When I’m broke down and I can’t stand.” –Crow, Strong Enough

I haven't seen my daughters in almost fifty days.  Just marking off days on a calendar and keeping my head low.  I know many of you are asking me when I will post pictures about the life here, about the Arabian desert and my students and some of the funny and insane adventures I'm having.
“Lie to me, I promise I’ll believe.” -Crow, Strong Enough

And Thank YOU!  All of my friends and family members who continue to write to me, who are a constant source of goodness.  I know I have sent so many of you ranting, frothing, dreadful letters... I have unloaded on so many of you with frustration and fear and exhaustion coupled with exuberance and fantastic tales... and all of you have sent me such sweet correspondence back. You've reminded me that there are other places in the world waiting... and I will return to them, a much stronger man.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Know Your Whores and Royals: It’s Shakespeare Sumptuary Law Time at the Globe Theater Tour in London

“From the statues of Henry 8th and Queen Mary… None shall wear any silk of the color purple, cloth of gold, nor fur of sables, but only the King, Queen, King’s mother, children… and those of the Garter, purple in mantles only…” -British Sumptuary Laws

Okay… for all of you who don’t know this by now… half of being a good teacher means being curious about stuff most people this is boring and mundane. Let’s face it, your best teachers were also the kids who almost flunked out of school: the daydreamers, the backrow wasteoids, the social outcast rejects… yeah, those people grew up and are raising your kids.
Nice, huh?
“Velvet in gowns, coats or other garments, fur of leopards, except men of the degrees mentioned, baron’s sons, knights and gentlemen…” -British Sumptuary Laws

Now, I wasn't really a social reject, but I certainly fell into the daydreamer category. Long hours were spent in high school just staring at posters on the wall or thinking about the hairs on the head of the kid in front of me… one day it was a forest I hoped to enter and fight a dragon, another the long braids of a maiden high atop a tower in need of rescue… okay, maybe I was a bit of a wasteoid after all.
“Caps, hats, hatbands and garters… except gentlemen attending upon the Queens privy chamber or in the office of cupbearer, esquire for the body, ushers, or of the stables…” -British Sumptuary Laws

But one thing I loved was books. And so when I became a literature teacher, it wasn’t just teaching great novels like Of Mice and Men or The Sun Also Rises, it was also about following my own curiosity toward the eras those books were penned and learning everything I could about them to bring back to class. That’s another rule about great teachers, they never stop learning and making it new.
“Satin, damask, camlet or taffeta in gown… except men that may dispend 100 pounds by the year…” -British Sumptuary Laws

One such subject was Sumptuary Laws. These are basically laws on the books that regulate habits of consumption that restrain luxury or extravagance and help to create social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and accessories. Sounds lame, huh? No, actually, it’s amazing to study.
Here’s some background.
“Hat, bonnet, girdle, scabbards of swords, daggers, shoes of velvet are the apparel of knights…” -British Sumptuary Laws

One of the first sumptuary laws was a Greek code in the 7th century that said, “No free woman should be allowed any more than one maid to follow her, unless she was drunk.” She was also, “not to wear jewels of gold at night or an embroidered robe unless she was a professed and public prostitute.” (This comes from the studies of Montaigne).
How totally silly is that?
Rome had her laws as well, known as Sumptuariae Leges… which stated, “ordinary male citizens were allowed to wear toga virilis only upon reaching the age of a political majority,” and they were not allowed to wear silk or detail their clothing with stripes as per social rank.
Once again, prostitutes in Ancient Rome were to wear flame-colored togas and in the 13th century in Marseilles, a striped cloak, in England, a striped hood, and over time every group from Jews to Muslims were mandated to wear certain clothes like tassels over the arm or specific finery.
“None shall wear spurs, swords, rapiers, daggers, buckles or girdles… in ordinary office while attending the Queen’s majesty in person…” -British Sumptuary Laws

Now… you don’t even want to get me started on the Church! Wow, those guys had dress codes down pat… but how about the fashion forward French. Well, between 1629 and 1633 Louis the 13th, ever the conscious fellow, prohibited anyone but princes from wearing gold embroidered caps, shirts, collars, and cubs with puffs, slashes, and bunches of ribbon. He wanted them all to himself.
“As for women, no fur except for duchessess… cloth of gold, silver, silk or embroidered with gold or silver or pear…” -British Sumptuary Laws

Yeah, it’s madness right? But knowing these things can help you enjoy the play a little better.