Saturday, November 28, 2009

Topic Dump


In the two years I didn’t post anything I was regularly thinking of things I would like to write about if I ever started blogging again. Now these ideas are impediments to me – they weigh me down as unfinished business instead of opportunities. So I am going to dispatch with all of them quickly.

The Goose

Two months ago, arsonists – perhaps not intending the level of destruction their act accomplished, but arsonists nonetheless – destroyed an old and treasured classroom building at the school where I teach, the Paideia School. The building was called “The Mother Goose.” Paideia is composed of a combination of modern classroom buildings and old Druid Hills homes repurposed for classroom space. The Goose was one of those old homes. When the school acquired it, it had been most recently used as a day care center called “The Mother Goose,” and the name stuck (as our headmaster Paul Bianchi observed in his speech to the high school student body the Monday after the fire, there could not have been another high school building in America with a name like that). It must have been heartbreaking to watch it burn. A colleague who was there told me that the inferno reminded him of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. When I first saw the shell of the Goose, my eyes were drawn to the two chimneys, scorched and old and rising up high out of the ruins. They put me in mind of old photographs one sometimes sees of Georgia mansions in the wake of Sherman’s army.

The Goose was home to several outstanding teachers, and its front porch was the unofficial but clearly designated place for freshmen to congregate. Though much more was saved than anyone who witnessed the fire would have thought, the teachers who made the Goose their home have been deprived of much that they treasured. The loss of an old couch that had been signed by many years of students was particularly tough to take. The faculty refugees from the Goose have become my new neighbors (my building was the only one on campus with enough extra classroom space to accommodate the displaced). I hate the circumstances that brought them to me, but I am glad to be rubbing shoulders now with some of the teachers who have made Paideia what it is. It is also comforting to know that they ought to get their home back. As far as I know, plans are to rebuild the Goose, complete with the spacious porch, but with more modern appointments inside.

When I look back on this episode, Paul’s closing comments in his remarks to the students the Monday after the fire come immediately to mind: “We’ll get through this. We’ll get through this because of the way we treat each other. They can’t burn that down.” Or, as signs that appeared around the school said, “The Goose may be cooked, but we’re not.”

Laughing at Shylock

For my last English course as an undergraduate at UGa, I was assigned to write about how I would stage one of the Shakespeare plays we read in that class. I had not seen enough live Shakespeare at the time to realize how common it is in performance to set the play somewhere other than 16th century England, medieval Italy, ancient Rome, etc. I had never heard of Orson Welles’ voodoo Macbeth or of his Julius Caesar set in fascist Italy. Ethan Hawke's twentieth century Manhattanite Hamlet was still many years down the road. So I didn’t have much of anything to propose. I do recall suggesting that it would be interesting to plant some people in the audience who would respond to the action onstage as people probably responded at the Globe Theater in 1605. I don’t think I did well on that essay. I know that the class overall was my worst grade by far in my major.

I forgot all about it until a couple of years ago when my father-in-law and I were attending a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern. We had been discussing whether the play is anti-semitic. I like Harold Bloom’s contention that Shylock is “the right Jew in the wrong play” – that is, Shakespeare humanized him as much as he dared, but the combined forces of dramatic convention and the Christian orthodoxy of his time required him to put poor Shylock on a one-way path to villainy and a villain's fate.

What put me in mind of my bad essay of twenty years before is something that happened near the end. You’ll recall that not only does Shylock fail to recover his pound of flesh from Antonio, but he loses everything, even his Judaism – the Venetian court forces him to convert. At that moment in the Shakespeare Tavern production, the judge delicately removed Shylock’s yarmulke. And somebody in the audience laughed! It did seem to me that we had time-traveling visitor, a guest audience member from Elizabethan England enjoying the sight of a Christ-killing villain getting his comeuppance (the play is a comedy, after all), while us 21st century theatergoers recoiled at the unnecessary humiliation of a fellow human being.


Re-enactors

In the summer of 2008 we took a wonderful family trip up the East coast (stopping for three nights each in Washington, Boston, and Rhode Island), then into Canada (three nights in Montreal), then across Canada to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to meet up with Becki’s family at Mackinac Island. It was a great trip – the kids got to see most of the sights you would expect them to see in the places we visited, the car travel was pleasant, the accommodations first rate and our hosts more than gracious – all in all a journey we will look back on fondly.

Except for one thing: re-enactors.

The sight of grown men and women publicly playing elaborate games of dress up and pretend - and expecting me to play along! - gives me the willies. I know I ought to feel differently - I am keen on history, after all - but something in me just can't endure re-enactors. I can’t look them in the eye. I am embarrassed for them. In the early stages of our trip there weren’t many. We only came across a couple at Mount Vernon, dressed like 18th century servants and apparently living under the delusion that they were about to throw a party for General Washington. I managed to smile my way through those encounters, queasy as they made me. There were no re-enactors at Gettysburg, much to my surprise and relief. But between Boston and Rhode Island we stopped at Plymouth Plantation, a recreation of both the original Puritan settlement and a Wampanoag village nearby. And these places were staffed, as it were, by “colonists” sitting in their little houses, staying in character as they told tourists about the eel soup they had just eaten that gave them good “belly cheer,” and “Native Peoples” using fire to hollow out tree trunks for canoes in their huts (I believe most of the Native Peoples were actually Native Peoples, but you get my point). I kept my distance from all of them. Later, up the road in the town of Plymouth, my wife struck up a conversation with a re-enactor during our visit to the reproduction of the Mayflower. He “was” an English sailor, and he complained bitterly about the Puritan accusations that the crew of the ship had stolen from them. That’s what Becki told me, anyway. I wouldn’t go near the man.

Not Enough Sartys in Baghdad

A while back I decided there were interesting parallels between Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” and the situation in Iraq – we needed fewer blood-and-honor hotheads like Ab Snopes trying to preserve their dignity by incendiary means and more people like his son Sarty, nascent adherents to a higher sense of justice: the rule of law for all, not just me and mine. But then my analogy turned nasty on me. What does it make the U.S.? Major DeSpain, the white-columned mansion owning, French-rug having, tenant-farmer oppressing, Confederate veteran.

So I decided to leave that alone.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hard Waves of Nausea


Last Saturday was perhaps the darkest moment in a dark year for Georgia football fans. Leading perennial doormat Kentucky 20-6 at halftime, we turned it over four times in the second half to lose 34-27, despite having outgained the Wildcats by 150 yards. It was our first home loss to Kentucky since the legendary 1977 debacle, when they shellacked us 33-0 – at homecoming, no less! – with Prince Charles in attendance. As an Athenian, I remember well that civic humiliation before royalty. Even James Brown performing “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs” at halftime could bestow no mojo on our lackluster team (Who was the greater eminence in Sanford Stadium that day, anyway, The Prince of Wales or the Godfather of Soul?). Last Saturday’s loss was a fitting end to a depressing week (the entire Bulldog Nation mourned the untimely death of Uga VII) and a depressing season, a revolting spectacle of a talented team shooting itself in the foot with catastrophic turnovers, untimely penalties, and faulty execution.

As the Kentucky game dragged toward its inevitable conclusion, I found myself missing Larry Munson, the radio play-by-play man who retired before last season after 40 years behind the mike. Georgia fans revere Munson. His call of the most famous play in school history, a touchdown pass from Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott to save the game against Florida during the 1980 championship season, is part of every fan’s mental soundtrack, along with other well-known Munsonisms: “Look at the sugar falling from the sky!” and “We just stomped on their face with a hobnail boot!” Especially during his later years, Munson was not known for clearly describing the action on the field, but that scarcely mattered to any of us who had grown to love him. The point of listening to his call of a game was not to know precisely what was happening but to participate in the psychodrama of Munson’s experience of the game. He was a notorious pessimist. It we were ahead, there was always too much time left on the clock. If we were behind, Lady Luck was not going to smile on us. For this reason, when things did turn out well- especially if it happened in dramatic fashion – having gone through the game enduring Munson’s angst made the thrill that much more thrilling. Yes, Munson was weak on the details, but when he retired, AJC sports columnist Steve Hummer aptly summed up what the change in the broadcast booth would mean for Georgia fans: “Know more, feel less.”

Munson’s celebratory calls are justly celebrated, and I think they sell well on DVD. But I’m sorry some enterprising person at the UGa Athletic Association has not made a compilation of Munson’s calls of on-field disasters. I regard those as some of his greatest performances. Why shouldn’t they be? Can anyone recite the radio call of a successful docking of the Hindenburg? Munson’s spontaneous imagery was just as vivid, just as memorable when the Dogs were experiencing the agony of defeat. It could even be cathartic. I recall a home game in the late nineties, after we had won an improbable victory over Auburn the week before and finally seemed about to turn the corner and get out of mediocrity. But then fate ordained that we lose to Ole Miss at home. When our failure to convert on fourth down made defeat in that game inevitable, Munson growled, “And hard waves of nausea sweep across the stadium.”

I suppose that’s how it was last weekend after the Kentucky game. Too bad Munson wasn’t there to be the Greek chorus commenting grievously on the nightmare unfolding before him.

This season isn’t over yet, mind you: we face Georgia Tech this Saturday, as we do every Thanksgiving weekend. The tables appear to have turned in this series. After losing to the Bulldogs seven straight years, the Yellow Jackets won 45-42 last year under their new coach, Paul Johnson, with his triple option offense. This year Tech is 10-1 and ranked seventh in the country. The Jackets and their coach are getting great press (A couple of weeks ago, one of the hosts on the sports talk station I listen to in the morning said, “If you’re a Georgia fan, you must be sick of hearing about Paul Johnson.” Yes. I. Am.) While Tech rides high, Georgia is 6-5 and unranked, after several years of top ten finishes. Coach Mark Richt, who revived Georgia’s program after years of mediocrity, is catching hell from the fan base. He will almost certainly have to fire his underperforming defensive coordinator Willie Martinez after the season.

As is always the case in a rivalry game, this is an opportunity for a frustrated team to salvage its season. A victory would be especially sweet this year: the Dogs are 7 point underdogs, and beating Tech would utterly tarnish what has been a magical season for them. Do I think an upset likely? No way. I don’t see how our undisciplined defense is supposed to slow down Tech’s juggernaut offense enough to allow our erratic offense to score enough to beat them. But you never know. Tech does not appear invincible - they barely escaped 4-6 Wake Forest. What if the Georgia defense that stuffed Auburn for three quarters shows up? Quarterback Joe Cox threw two bad interceptions in the second half against Kentucky, but he threw three touchdowns in the first half. If competent Joe shows up Saturday, who knows?

Sic ‘em, Dawgs.

UPDATE, SATURDAY NIGHT, 11:30: In the words of new voice of the Bulldogs Scott Howard, "the earth is back on its proper axis again."