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.

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