Sunday, October 28, 2012
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.
“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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
Monday, October 15, 2012
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, it’s madness right? But knowing these things can help you enjoy the play a little better.