Sunday, November 30, 2014

Oliver Twist, Singapore's Year of the Horse, and a Bait of Air

“Everybody knows the story of another experimental philosopher, who had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he got his one horse down to a straw a day and would most unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, just four-and-twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air.”  -Dickens, Oliver Twist

I suppose this year was dominated by three stories:  Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (our play was fantastic, the DVD just released) the musical GREASE, and Dickens' Oliver Twist!
“Some people are nobody’s enemies but their own.”  -Dickens, Oliver Twist

I had no idea that Oliver Twist would affect me so mightily.
“People like us don’t go out at night cause people like them see us for what we are.”  -Dickens, Oliver Twist

I had attempted teaching Dickens before:  A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations and even in honors classes it's difficult to force kids to read those books.  But Twist was different.  I enjoyed it as much as any book I've read or taught in years.  It was a feast.  The rich characters so poor in morality but mighty in catechism...I found myself reading passages aloud over and over and enjoying it so much.
“Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.” -Dickens, Oliver Twist

I know for many educators it's very challenging to break a new author or narrative into the dusty canon of books they use so brilliantly (and often lethargically) to their students as if we're so starved that we sustain ourselves on only a handful of titles bereft at the chance of falling in love with another.
“It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper… so cry away.” -Dickens, Oliver Twist

It's nice to be surprised... imagine that, by a book no less!

The Legend of Pork Bone Tea

Oh Boy!  Time for some street eats.  There is no better street food in the world, that merges cultures and cuisines, like Singapore.
I won't take picture of food.  While table after table around me is pulling out their camera to snap close-up of dishes so sweetly delivered, I'd much rather pick up my chopsticks and spoon.
Incredible bowls of Laksa, a Chinese/Malay curry blended with Vermicelli, coconut milk, and fish slices so powerful it cleans your pores... and delightful Hokkien Prawn Mee which combines rice and egg noodles and Biryani a kind of Indian/Muslim fried rice with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and bay leaves... Bak Kut Teh and Satay and Sambal Sting Ray and... well, you get the 'real' picture.
One of the great dishes in Singapore is Pork Bone Tea/Bak Kut Teh and it even has a legend (any food with a legend is worth trying) that states once a beggar was wandering through the land and stopped at a local noodle vendor to ask for scraps.  The proprietor, who was also so poor, did not want to send the wretched man away hungry, placed an pork bone in small bowl and threw together leftover spices including anise and pepper with warm soup...resembling a brown cup of tea.  Thus, a national dish was born.
Spice and sense and unbelievable aroma.  I can still taste it now.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Think of Me / The Phantom's Cycle of Memory on the Singapore Flyer

“Think of me, think of me fondly
When we’ve said goodbye.
Remember me, once in a while
Please promise me you’ll try.”  -Think of Me, Phantom of the Opera

Preparing this week for a short performance of Phantom at the Christmas Festival here at school.  I've been blessed this year with a group of about ten sophomores with voices like angels and one German exchange student who will make a fantastic Erik...(surprised how little effort it took talking him into the cape and mask!)
“When you find that once again you long
To take your heart back and be free
If you ever find a moment
Spare a thought for me.” -Think of Me, Phantom of the Opera

We talk a great deal about the cycle of memory during this play, about thinking back and remembering so that when we re-live certain feelings and experience again, we recognize their importance.
“We never said our love was evergreen
Or as unchanging as the sea
But if you can still remember,
Stop and think of me.”  -Think of Me, Phantom of the Opera

Especially love, which is such a powerful force.
“Think of all the things
We’ve share and seen
Don’t think about the way
Things might have been.”  -Think of Me, Phantom of the Opera

Staying with us for years after it has us years later when it returns.
“Think of me, think of me waking
Silent and resigned
Imagine me trying to hard
To put you from my mind.”  -Think of Me, Phantom of the Opera

The memory of love is often sweeter than it's reality...the mystery more alluring than its confirmation in our hearts.
"Flowers fade, fruits of summer fade
They have their seasons, so do we
But please promise me that sometimes
You will think of me!”  -Think of Me, Phantom of the Opera

Standing in front of these students today, hearing them sing so innocently... brought such joy... knowing our performance will bring that same feeling to others.

Friday, November 21, 2014

We Sail Tonight For Singapore!

“We sail tonight for Singapore
We’re all as mad as hatters here
I’ve fallen for a tawny moor
Took off to the land of Nod.”  -Singapore, Tom Waits

(The following pictures were taken over the spectacular Chinese Lunar New Year Celebration 2014!)
“Drank with all the Chinamen
Walked the sewers of Paris
I danced along a colored wind
Dangled from a rope of sand.
You must say goodbye to me.”   -Singapore, Tom Waits

(It was...and is now finished...the year of the Horse!)
“We sail tonight for Singapore
Don’t fall asleep while you’re ashore
Cross your heart and hope to die
When you hear the children cry.”  -Singapore, Tom Waits

(Photos of rickshaws all wrapped up for the night on an early morning jog.)
“Let marrow bone and cleaver choose
While making feet for children shoes
Through the alley
Back from Hell.”   -Singapore, Tom Waits

(Downtown Hindu Temple...What's Up!)
“When you hear that steeple bell
You must say goodbye to me.”  -Singapore, Tom Waits

(Singapore Downtown from atop the Marina Bay Hotel)
“Wipe him down with gasoline
Till his arms are hard and mean
From now on boys this iron boat’s your home
So heave away boys.”  -Singapore, Tom Waits

(Celebrating Year of the Horse)
“We sail tonight for Singapore
Take your blankets from the floor
Wash your mouth out by the door
The whole town is made of iron ore.”  -Singapore, Tom Waits

(Kicking it with Bruce Lee)
“Every witness turns to steam
They all become Italian dreams
Fill your pockets up with earth
Get yourself a dollar’s worth.”  Singapore, Tom Waits

(Universal...of course)
“The captain is a one-armed dwarf
He’s throwing dice along the wharf
In the land of the blind, the one-eye man is king.”  -Singapore, Tom Waits

(Cable Cars over the City!)

“Away boys, away, boys, heave away.” –Singapore, Tom Waits

(Marina Bay Sands...that's us on 56th floor!)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Adieu, Paris

 Late Night... strolling Hemingway haunts with Rolf.  A perfect night to say, au revoir.
From Paris we traveled north by train across the Channel to England all around and about London:  Westminster.  The Eye.  Shakespeare's Globe.  London Tower & Bridge.  SOHO.  Theater District & Buckingham.  Thank you to all my friends and family who wrote to us during that time.  We appreciate it so much. This blog will not chronicle those travels.  Instead, we head south by southeast...back to Asia!

Great Expectations and Leaks in the Frescoes of Versailles

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be.  I have been bent and broken, but … I hope, into a better shape.”  -Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

We packed up our day bags, cameras and corkscrews, funky cheese and funny hats and made our way to  Gare du Nord bright and early for the short train ride to Versailles.
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”  -Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Strolled the grounds, picked four-leaf clovers, rowed the boats, fed some silly ducks...
“Love her, love her, love her!”  -Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Toured inside and out... queuing in the madness of this luxury chateau.
“I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.”  -Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Some days are all mixed up... walking room after room searching for a Napoleon Coronation painting while listening to Dickens on headphones gawking at room after ornate room of Marie Antoinette's personal Pottery Barn collection... and keeping one eye on my daughters who love nothing else but to run wild.
“You are part of my existence, part of myself.  You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here…”  -Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

And then I stopped and stared up and saw this fresco... patched in scotch tape, dripping raindrops onto my nose.
“There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of  what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.”  -Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Then somehow... it all made sense.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Summer Night" of GREASE + The First Day of my 21st Year

Boys:   Summer lovin', had me a blast
Girls:    Summer lovin', happened so fast
Boys:   Met a girl crazy for me
Girls:    Met a boy cute as can be
Both:   Summer days drifting away to, uh oh, those summer nights  -GREASE

Here we go again.  It's year 21 and I'm singing on the first day of school.  This years's song of choice:  GREASE and Summer Nights!
Boys:   Well-a, well-a, well-a, uh!  Tell me more, tell me more did you get very far?
Girls:    Tell me more, tell me more like does he have a car?   -GREASE 

I've always known that teaching was meant to be a struggle.
Boys:   She swam by me, she got a cramp
Girls:    He ran by me, got my suit damp
Boys:   I saved her life, she nearly drowned
Girls:    He showed off splashing around
Both:   Summer sun, something's begun but, uh oh, those summer nights.  -GREASE

You're supposed to wrestle with the teaching of books.
Girls:    Well-a, well-a, well-a, uh! Tell me more, tell me more, was it love at first sight?
Boys:   Tell me more, tell me more did she put up a fight?  -GREASE

Literature is humbling, trying to break out from an established mold... soul crushing is more like it.
Boys:   Took her bowling in the arcade
Girls:    We went strolling; drank lemonade
Boys:   We made out under the dock
Girls:    We stayed out till ten o'clock
Both:   Summer fling don't mean a thing but, uh oh, those summer nights.  -GREASE

Most days...I am talking to the walls.  Kids groan at the mere mention of Atticus Finch or The Prince of Denmark's soliloquies.  They drop their heads to the desk when Dickens comes out and even my favorite poems from Bukowski and Frost and Silverstein make eyes roll out of heads.
Boys:   Tell me more, tell me more But you don't gotta brag
Girls:    Tell me more, tell me more 'Cause he sounds like a drag.  -GREASE


Then there's co-workers who treat you like a punching bag or punchline...
Girls:    He got friendly holding my hand
Boys:   Well, she got friendly down in the sand
Girls:    He was sweet, just turned eighteen
Boys:   Well, she was good, you know what I mean
Both:   Summer heat, boy and girl meet but, uh oh, those summer nights.  -GREASE

And all of that combined together makes for an... impossible challenge.
Girls:    Tell me more, tell me more how much dough did he spend?
Boys:   Tell me more, tell me more could she get me a friend?  -GREASE

So... what would any lunatic do?  He would attempt a production of the American musical GREASE, of course!
Girls:    It turned colder; that's where it ends
Boys:   So I told her we'd still be friends
Girls:    Then we made our true love vow
Boys:   Wonder what she's doing now
Both:   Summer dreams ripped at the seams…. But oh, those summer nights.  -GREASE

Standing on the first day of school, staring into the faces of thirty strangers class after class, foreign faces, apathetic eyes, hollow expressions, bored and loathsome, full of empty hate and confusion ... and here's me singing this crazy song ... so hopeful as I dance with my hands extended out... I feel a million miles away from any other soul, completely alone... trying to reel someone, anyone toward me.  Laugh at me all you want.  Point and laugh and shake your head.  Turn your back and ignore me like I'm not even there.  The days of trying to reach one...just one student are long gone.  I'm doing this now, for myself.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Licked Before You Begin" -Rolling with Atticus Finch

Birthdays come and go... another year, another nail in the ole' coffin of time.  This year I battled a chest cold that turned into an infection but stood there in the classroom and delivered... (as I've always done!)  My line-up included that day:  Aesop's Fables periods 1 &2, Phantom of the Opera periods 3&4, (head on the desk 20 minute exhaustion nap for lunch) Oliver Twist period 5 (Mr. Brownlow meets Nancy on London Bridge) Of Mice and Men period 6 (Boy, that Candy really likes to eavesdrop...) and To Kill a Mockingbird for period 7&8 (Mrs. Dubose gets her Ivanhoe and Jem becomes ... something that it's a sin to shot)  It's not fair to be sick on your birthday!  Then again... who said life was fair?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Our Business is the Soul

(Allegorie Mythologique, 1580. Eccole De Fontainebleau)

Any poor schmuck can be an English Teacher.
(Le Combat de David et Goliath. Daniele Ricciarelli)

Born in an English speaking country, snag a passport... off you go!  Next thing you know, you're standing in Asia with a workbook in your hand saying, "Alright. Alright.  Alright."
(Le Combat de David et Goliath. Daniele Ricciarelli)

You should see these jokers.  Pot bellied.  Reeking.  Five minutes late.  Class a disheveled mess.  Students yucking it up!  English Teachers be like… "What page we on, dudes?"
(David vainqueur de Goliath 1606.  Guido Reni )

A Literature Teacher is different.  Teaching Literature is not a job, not a profession, not even a career.
(Le Triomphe de David 1615.  Bartolomeo )

Teaching Literature is a lifestyle.
(Le Coucher de Desdemone 1849.  Theodore Chasseriau)

It’s waking up at 2 a.m. dream/agonizing over what you’re going to say to that one kid who confessed a secret fear in their journal.  It’s pacing an empty classroom muttering poetry to yourself.  It’s long walks at night ruminating upon novel characters and their choices and how to make that real to students.  It’s personal narratives that connect with every set of eyes in the room.  
(Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist, 1527.  Bernardino LUINI)

It’s a thoughtful process that only intensifies when the bell rings and the school is deserted.  It’s not math algorithms or science labs or history notes or physics diagrams… It’s Literature.  It’s illumination.   
(Hercule et Achelous 1617-1621. Guido RENI)

On your best days, while others are stumbling over protocol and common core and page numbers and lesson plans and outcomes and skills assessments… you are a Literature Teacher and you illuminate.
(The Temptation of Christ, 1854. Ary Scheffer)    

What does it mean to know every story by heart?  What’s it worth to see any painting in the world and say to yourself, “I know that story.  I’ve lived that moment.”  What’s it worth a person to have that capacity?  That depth?  English Teachers don’t know…but Lit Teachers do.  Our business is the soul.