Thursday, June 28, 2007

You Were All Right

You were all right. It worked!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Motion in Poetry

There are some days that are good, and some days that are great. I find that the great days come most often when we are not taking ourselves too seriously, but are still totally involved in or engrossed in something; that is to say, when we are the most in the moment. These moments become the stuff of eternity because our participation in some quintessence ties us to it, so forgetting the ticking of the clock can stop it. As the band Borderland said in their classic, “We can have forever for a while…”

When we are in these moments the eternal ideal in which we are participating sometimes takes over, and we are swept away in the manifestation of the ideal. This can be awe-inspiring, sublime, and even hilarious. The instance when this was most obvious to me was the poetry reading contest. Let me tell you about it.

I was the Language Arts coordinator for St. Anthony School on Makawao St. in Kailua, HI. I had the fourth through sixth graders every day for all things related to English, but I was charged with doing everything related to the poetry reading contest for the Leeward Systems. All the school systems on the leeward side of the island were involved, not just the private schools. My boss made it clear, nicely, that he wanted our school to have good participation and to make this opportunity available to all of our students.

I was the student government faculty advisor. I was running a WorldWise Schools program in which my class corresponded with a Peace Corp Volunteer’s class in Malawi. I was helping my friend with the river cleanup. I was taking extra time with some individual students. I barely had time to surf as it was, I didn’t want this extra burden too, but I couldn’t say no. A flyer was printed and distributed to the student body, and I had the first meeting of the hopefuls and participants on a Thursday afternoon after school. When the bell rang and I got my kids out to their buses and rides I took a few minutes to get a cup of coffee in the teacher’s lounge. I took a deep breath and wondered first how poor the turnout would be for a poetry reading event and second how I was going to get through it without experiencing severe negative growth.

I walked back into my classroom and it was full, just as if I still had class in session. The difference was, though, that there were very little kids from the first grade and on up to kids who were considerable larger than me; eighth grade Polynesian boys can be quite large. I stood in front of them and instantly the enthusiasm emanating from the shining eyes of the youngsters started to penetrate my cynicism and seep into my person. Some of the little kids had books with them and already knew what poems they wanted to do. They were doing a sort of classroom gymnastics trying to get the teacher’s attention by raising one hand and using the other arm to support it while elongating their trunk to get the absolute most loft on the raised hand. They absolutely could not contain their nervous energy and the sounds of their “ooh, ooh, ooh”s and “mistermistermistermister” formed the background of the recitation of the contest rules. It sounded like a monstrous hive on a hot day, with all of the drones fanning their wings at the same time.

I told the kids the rules, encouraged them to pick out their poems and have them ready for my review by the next session to be held early the following week. I bade them good afternoon, and almost immediately the kids lined up in front of me to read their poems so I could tell them if the poems and the readings were good. I tried to get away, but little kids just won’t let you go. While I was listening to the little kids belt out every word that Shel Silverstein ever wrote I could also see that the bigger kids hadn’t yet wafted away. Eventually, some of the bigger kids lost patience with the little ones and moved them to the side while they monopolized my attention. The seventh and eighth graders were as excited as the little kids, but cool prevented them from showing it. Their need to communicate some of the angst and confusion that both consumed them and drove them forward kept them rooted there for some time. I was struck with an incongruously light vision of the hulking young men as planets and the frenetic, buzzing young children as their moons or comets in their Oort Cloud. I chuckled all the way home.

I knew for sure that thereafter I would have to have a real plan for preparing these kids for the readings. Since I didn’t have a TV or a radio at my house I allowed my mind to become occupied with the planning when not performing the tasks of grading papers or planning lessons. I found that I did get quite a bit of inspiration while bobbing on the waves as well. By the time the next meeting came around I did have a plan, and I thought it was a good one. I would hear every poem and decide if it were appropriate for the contest. I would give the body of students the pointers that I had discovered in my three trips to the library to research public readings of poetry. I would assign each student to a group of peers, by age, with whom each would practice recitation and offer critiques intended to assist the reciter.

Over the next few weeks the plan was implemented and I must admit that it came together better than I expected it would have. The younger kids really got into the theatrics of it, but they took the responsibility of providing criticism as an excuse to insult the other kids. I had in the past tried to get my class to compliment everybody they met on a given day, in order to combat their predilection toward conflict. It worked well with the class and I had the younger kids confine their criticisms to compliments. They found that they enjoyed giving and receiving compliments, and then they gained a vested interest in their friends’ success. The older kids were having success developing bonds with their cohorts too.

Some poems were humorous, some were inspiring, some were exercises in rhyming, and some others still were just plain dark. There were a couple of junior high school girls who were “Goth chicks” for lack of a better term, and had chosen poems of desperation with heavy, angular wording. It was hard for them to perpetuate their aura of gothic weight while wearing bright white polo shirts and long plaid skirts in the bright tropical sunshine and lilting trade winds of Oahu, but they were persistent. One of the older boys had chosen a poem by a local writer. The poem was intended to show the incompatibility between the traditional Hawaiian and mainstream American cultures, and it did so by interjecting words in Hawaiian where there were no English words to describe local wildlife or cultural circumstances. This occurs more frequently over the course of the reading until eventually the poem ends with two stanzas in Hawaiian alone. I didn’t understand it all, but I thought it was clever. My favorite, though, was a Shel Silverstein classic that goes like this:

The Bagpipe Who Didn't Say No
It was nine o'clock at midnight at a quarter after three
When a turtle met a bagpipe on the shore side by the sea,
And the turtle said, "My dearie,
May I sit with you? I'm weary."
And the bagpipe didn't say no.

Said the turtle to the bagpipe,
"I have walked this lonely shore,
I have talked to waves and pebbles--but I've never loved before.
Will you marry me today, dear?
Is it 'No' you're going to say dear?"
But the bagpipe didn't say no.

Said the turtle to his darling,
"Please excuse me if I stare,
But you have the plaidest skin, dear,
And you have the strangest hair.
If I begged you pretty please, love,
Could I give you just one squeeze, love?"
And the bagpipe didn't say no.

Said the turtle to the bagpipe,
"Ah, you love me. Then confess!
Let me whisper in your dainty ear and hold you to my chest."
And he cuddled her and teased her
And so lovingly he squeezed her.
And the bagpipe said, "Aaooga."

Said the turtle to the bagpipe,
"Did you honk or bray or neigh?
For 'Aaooga' when you're kissed is such a heartless thing to say.
Is it that I have offended?
Is it that our love is ended?"
And the bagpipe didn't say no.

Said the turtle to the bagpipe,
"Shall I leave you, darling wife?
Shall I waddle off to Woedom? Shall I crawl out of your life?
Shall I move, depart and go, dear--Oh, I beg you tell me 'No' dear!"
But the bagpipe didn't say no.

So the turtle crept off crying and he ne'er came back no more,
And he left the bagpipe lying on that smooth and sandy shore.
And some night when tide is low there,
Just walk up and say, "Hello, there,"And politely ask the bagpipe if this story's really so.
I assure you, darling children, the bagpipe won't say "No."

As the big day drew nearer the kids started to voice their concerns about stage fright, nerves, and the fear of “screwing it up in front of everybody.” The older kids felt the same fears and told me one by one that they thought the exercise no longer held merit for them and they wanted to withdraw. Each asked me in condor if I would be there for his or her performance and I said that I would. One by one I talked them out of it. I gave the entire assembly a speech about how important oratory skills are, and I explained the ancient notion of arête. I also pointed out that no matter who came or did not come, that I would be there as each delivered his or her oration and that I would provide succor and support. Only after this promise was made did I realize that it was impossible to keep.

I had about thirty students, each with a five minute slot in a two and a half hour program. My zeal to buoy the kids’ confidence had clouded my ability to tell time and do math. When I got the schedule for the recitations I realized that there were many times where the kids would be reciting at the same time. I was in no position to rescind my comment, nor did I want to, but I had to figure out some way to be there for them all. I took a ride out to Kaneohe High School, where the event was to be held, and had a look at the venues for the recitations. There is, or was, a quadrangle of classrooms set out in a pattern like an old Italian villa. The classrooms had windows on both sides with louver blinds kept open at all times to maximize the breeze. I was told that the windows would be opened as much as they could be on the day of the contest because there would be no use of the ceiling fans in order to avoid unnecessary background noise. I went from room to room following the schedule of my school’s recitations, and identified who would be where and when. The Kaneohe High School bells rang and the campus was flooded with high school kids who were staring and sometimes commenting on my presence and odd behavior. No matter. I had a very tight schedule to plan and I couldn’t get caught up in justifying my presence. I identified each place and reciter and drew lines on the plan for where I would have to be in order to be recognized as present. I then choreographed my routes and where I would place myself so as to be situated in the line of sight of the participant. Then I did a practice run to make sure I had it all down pat and that it could be done in the correct time. Then I did it again. I thought for sure that I had it nailed.

The day of the contest came, and we all met in the parking lot / playground of the school and convoyed to the high school. My good friend came too, to cheer on his students in the contest, and to offer support if I needed it. I had a few responsibilities as the coordinator from my school in order to ensure that all of the participants were registered and were present. By the time I had the school registered the recitations were set to begin. I walked my youngest, most nervous student to his venue and stayed with him until he was two minutes into his reading and apparently had stopped looking to me as an anchor in the audience. I took off for my next destination with a cartoonish puff of smoke left curling where I had stood.

For the next two and a half hours I sped here and there and gave thumbs ups, offered pantomime advice on volume and projection, nodded, clapped, and most of all, kept moving. I realized that my friend had actually come to laugh, and not necessarily to lend support. I followed my choreographed plan and schedule to a T, and it turned out to be magnificent. I was completely on edge and in the moment when the last recitation took place. We all reconvened to carpool back to our school. It would be a week before the results were tallied and communicated, and we had an opportunity for a hopeful afterglow while waiting for the parents to come to claim their children at our school. Each kid had a point he wanted to make, either about how the preparation matched the delivery, or how the nervous energy became an asset during the recitation, or some other memorable thing to take with him to the next year’s event. The kids felt that they had accomplished something, and they felt a closer association with the written and spoken word. Subsequently, I too felt that I had accomplished something.

When the last kid was in the last car on the way home, my friend pointed out that he had the boards on his roof rack, and that his girlfriend was working a double. He suggested that we catch some waves out at Diamond Head and then get a few beers and some food at Aloha Tower. I was ready to make the most of the rest of my Saturday, and between sets we talked about the teaching profession. We decided that there would always be something to complain about, but what motivated us as teachers would never change. He pointed out that I looked like I was caught in an unrealistic circumstance on a bad sit-com, and when I laughed at that, he asked me seriously, how much money it would take to get me to behave like that if I were working at any other job? I laughed again, because there really wasn’t any other answer.

Monday, October 02, 2006

How's Your Head?

My memory is starting to fade, but I can remember this incident pretty clearly even now. I had been COS’d from the Peace Corps and I was on a plane leaving London and heading for Boston. I didn’t do any traveling in between leaving Africa and going back to America, which is not the norm. Most people take some time and go somewhere to spend some of their readjustment allowance and get back into the American head. I had a sunburn, a straw hat, and a battered dashiki when I left Ghana on the Lorry Airways plane, and I had the same get-up when I joined the flight in London. I have to admit I was a little put off by all of the clean white European people in what appeared to me to be fancy clothes.

I was sitting in the very back of the plane where you could still smoke, and I was savoring one of the last of my Ghanaian cigarettes. An obviously American guy sitting near me asked what I was smoking, and I gave him one. He looked a little bit like a hipster, and I asked him what he was doing in England. He hated the African cigarette and he said that he had been working with a rock band that was touring Europe. I asked who it was, and he said it was Phish. I said that I had lived with guys at UMass who knew them, and he invited me forward to meet the rest of the band. I sat down after introductions and met the guys in the band. They had been touring with the Psychedelic Furs and had hated it. They found the fact that I was a returning Peace Corps volunteer to be fascinating. They had more questions for me than I had for them. Eventually I got to asking Trey for an autograph for my brother, who was a big fan. He asked me what to write and I said, “Hey Brother, how’s your head?” He looked at me funny, and I explained that we were known to have a few now and again and that the funny question the next morning was always, “How is your head?” He understood it, and wrote it down. I put it in my pocket.

When we landed in Boston we were herded through the gates and I caught sight of my mother, sister, and brother waiting for me. I tapped Trey on the shoulder and pointed out my brother. He wished me luck and got on with getting his stuff through customs. I got through the line and caught my mother’s eye, but she didn’t recognize me. I guess I had changed a lot. When I tapped her on the shoulder and stood right in front of her she recognized me. My sister and brother had been looking for me in separate areas and we all got together to head out to the car.

In the car on the way home my brother said that the weirdest thing had happened to him. That he was in the airport looking for me and he saw a guy that he could have sworn was Trey from Phish, perched up on a light stand looking around. When Trey saw Brother staring at him he looked right at him and said, “Hey, Brother, how’s your head?” I said that that reminded me, that Trey wanted to give something to him, and I handed him the autograph.

He thought that was funny as hell, and so did I.

Vanity of Vanities!

My older daughter lost another of her front teeth. The upper one, and the one right next to it has come loose and has moved a bit toward the empty space of its neighbor. She is a snaggle tooth little kid, and she is really very cute. She was talking about the performers she sees on the Disney channel and was ranking them in order of importance to her. She mentioned one girl's name and said, "She is my favorite singer." And then she quickly recanted and said, "Well, no, you're really my favorite singer, and she is my next favorite, and then..." I didn't get it at first. I asked her to repeat herself twice and she did, even providing further explanation. Sometimes when we are in the car on long trips we will sing sing along songs, or if I have the time and inclination to pick up the old guitar we sing some of my old favorites together. I never thought of myself as a good singer, but I have enjoyed singing along with the radio or in the shower or what have you. I know for sure I am not as good a singer as the girls on the Disney channel, but I got a real sense of satisfaction from my daughter telling me that I was her favorite singer. This satisfaction comes from knowing that she did not make her decision based on precision of the notes or the quality of the tone, but rather that she made her decision based on the fact that our shared time and enjoyment was the true "harmony". I had always hoped that my kids wouldn't be so shallow and would have the strength of heart to cherish what is truly worthwhile in this world, but I did not know, and still do not know, how to teach that. The source of my satisfaction is the fact that she gets it. She is an honest to goodness real, good kid.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Knock Down Drag Out Dance Party

This is a very short, but very recent memory. I want to throw it onto the electronic canvas for posterity before I forget to remember.

I was recently lucky enough to attend a dance party where all inhibitions were completely abandoned. It has been a long time since I have danced like that, and it was long overdue. The girls were so very aware of their fashion style and their dance moves were fluid and graceful. They were teaching each other the steps as they danced them. The boys moves were fully athletic, more clipped, and some could even be called military. I was spared the need to employ my hands, which is a concern of mine when I dance, because I was holding my newest little partner, who just broke the eight pound mark. The Egg Lady commented that we wouldn't have to mop for a long time because the boys got to spinning out some breakdance moves.

There is no feeling like that when your house is filled with your own new blood. You feed them, nurture them, engage them in revelry and ribaldry when it is right to do so, and you enjoy the uninhibited, unconditional response. I remember when their father was a goofy giggling little kid, saying stupid stuff and wearing his weirdness on his sleeve. He wasn't standing with me, having a beer and commenting on the idiosyncrasies of our children because he was escorting the family of a friend around the base. The family was with him, but the friend was lost in the desert. Now he, my own flesh and blood and the father on whom these tittering children so heavily rely, is again mounting the machines of war. Another of my brother's sons will join him in harm's way very soon.

There is no feeling like dancing around the kitchen with the kids, but it may be selfish. It is a fantasy to think that you can keep them with you, and keep them safe. It is a fantasy to which I cannot subscribe, no matter how much I wish I could. So we equip them with the morals to make good decisions, arm them with the strength and self confidence to actuate the convictions of those morals, and the will to heal their minds when it is done. No matter what heart pounding, blood roaring adrenaline rush they have to endure, no matter what foreign shore on which they find themselves, no matter how the traumas they might encounter manifest themselves, they will always have a giddy spin around our kitchen floor.

And I hope that will bring them back.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Father's Day '06

I see him
Standing, lips smacking, teeth out
In the act of standing he has forgotten
why he rose

I don't know why he got up
But I have always known
what he stood for,
In my memory, in my life

Filling the door frame
creaking leather and weapons
He lifts me past his cologne and five o'clock shadow
and I am elevated past my fear

Past, I see him
waging war across the globe
a lionized youth
putting the world to order and then

A pensive man
standing by his aging and infirmed father
as he slips off to prepare his place
and happily raises his children up

I stand
and in the act of standing forget what I stood for
my children's small hands holding me here
and the line of my fathers calling to me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


I realize that I write a lot about things that can’t be conveyed or explained. I feel as though I want to communicate feelings or experiences when I know it is truly impossible. Rather than relying on my ability to communicate that which can only be experienced I rely heavily on the universality of emotion, experience, and knowledge of the numinous. I really feel compelled to talk about the first time I really surfed, but I don’t know that I can communicate the main point, which is the feeling of surfing, because I had never experienced it before doing it and I don’t know how universal this unique experience is.

I had been going with my good friend to a couple different surf spots early mornings and on weekends much like I had gone fishing with my brother and cousin back home. I would join the effort for the sake of the doing of it, not expecting that I would experience any level of success, but knowing that the attempt was fulfilling enough in and of itself. And every once in a while I would catch a fish, but until one strange day I had never caught a wave.

My friend and I would most often go to a less crowded spot off of the far north point of Kailua Beach Park. The waves would break on an island probably a quarter mile off of the shore, and I could never seem to make it out past the break. I was riding his eight foot “long” board. It was not big enough to float my weight so I could jump over the whitewater and it was too big for me to duck dive the break. More often than not I would fight my way out just to get blown back in and then I would have to fight my way out again. Without fail I would get too exhausted to keep at it and would just climb around on the island and skin dive for limpets that always got away.

One day, when we were out at Diamond Head, my friend was surfing and I was battling my way out and getting blown back in. I fought my way out again to a point where I could almost get in front of the break, meaning that I could reach the wave before it threw a lip and bob over the top without getting blasted by the whitewater. I poured it on in a flat out race against the evolution of the wave. My arms ached, my shoulders and my deltoids could barely pull through the water and keep my body on the board and my skin was chafing raw against the salted, waxed fiberglass. I had decided that this was my best shot, that it was now or never. I gave everything I had to make it to the wave before it went white. I could see my friend off in the distance bobbing on the set, pumping his arm in the air, cheering me on. My neck ached too from keeping my head up while exerting every muscle in my upper body, but I could see as I got closer and closer that the wave had hit the point where the sine wave bouncing off of the ocean floor was diminishing as the depth of the water tapered up to the shore line. The wave reared, quite suddenly, and the lip formed on the back side of the wave. It was like the big bad wolf inhaling before delivering the blast of force that would blow me back to Lani Kai.

I was dejected. I gave up. I stopped paddling so the wave would go white first and push into me rather than landing on me with all of its potentially deadly weight. I lay my head on the board and held my breath. My world became a world of the instant; not even a world of connected moments. The blast of torrential whitewater was tremendously powerful. There was no thinking, there was only the reaction. Until that instance I had always tried to go over, duck under, or make something happen while being hit by the wave. I was not a quitter so I never had quit. This time I just let the wave take me, knowing that I would wind up back on shore anyway.

You have to understand how far the break is from the shore at Diamond Head. It’s pretty far. When the whitewater caught the board and I wasn’t kicking or paddling, the fin on the bottom caused the board to be turned in the direction of the shore, the way it was supposed to, as was the intention of the designers. Once the board was turned in the right direction the rest of the organic hydrodynamics took effect and the board was stabilized by the power of the wave. I was still far from the shore, but the board was caught where it should have been and I was on it. I realized in an instant that I was not going to be dumped into the water and bounced off of the ocean floor. I tried to stand up.

Have you ever been working on staging or on a ladder and taken a step and found that there was nothing under your foot, either because the planks on the staging were overlapped or because you had miscounted the rungs on the ladder? Perhaps you have been walking up stairs and thought there was another step at the top, so your foot rose and fell and did not meet a step where you thought it ought to be? (Or perhaps you’ve found yourself sliding inexorably toward the mouth of an open well with no way to stop yourself? Was that just me?) There is a split second of absolute abject terror that starts in your solar plexus and pulls your soul out of your body through that point. Stretch that split second to the entire ride of the wave, and that is as close as I can come to describing the feeling of catching your first wave. Have you ever had a dream where you were flying? Have you ever had a dream where you became aware that you were dreaming, but you were not so fully awake as to leave your dream state? Then you could control the unreal and unbelievable things that occurred in your dream. The feeling of knowing that you can keep that freefalling feeling going and control it is the same feeling as controlling your dream. Imagine the euphoria you would feel if you discovered that it was real, and that you could do it whenever you wanted to as long as the sets were rolling in. Add to that the fact that you are outside in the elements and in nature, experiencing the same feelings between the euphoric moments that you would on a mountain hike, and you have a very addictive combination. There are many, many people who give up everything else and devote all of their time to surfing. That is the draw.

Luckily, I sucked at it enough so that I knew it could never become a serious pastime for me, but I got good enough at it to experience the euphoria of catching a good wave often enough to keep me coming back. And my friend finally let me know that the long board was not really a long board for a guy as tall as me. Once I rode ten foot boards at easier spots it got downright fun. But then when you’re out there to ride three foot waves and a seven foot set rolls in…

But that’s a story for another time.

Lakeshore Limited

I’ve got an experience stuck in my head, and I want to get it written down before it flits away. It won’t take but a second. I don’t know why this experience sticks in my mind; I think it may be because it was so pure and unfettered an incident of revelry. Here it is:

Once upon a time, I found myself on a train going west. This story is not about the journey west or the destination of the train. It is about the first leg of the trip, from Boston to Chicago, on AmTrak’s Lakeshore Limited. I have spent days and days on trains in Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, and I think the Lakeshore Limited is the train I like the best. I won’t deny that this very well may be because the Lakeshore Limited is the train I find myself on every time I arrive home in Boston. One has to admit, though, that the Lakeshore Limited has a certain character that is not found on any other train.

The people who staff the train live in one of the destination cities, which means that there are either Bostonians or Chicagoans imbuing the journey with their wit, sardonic attitude, and gruff hospitality. The passengers are also all either coming from one of those cities or going to one of those cities. This isn’t to say that all of the passengers are Bostonians or Chicagoans, but there is a very strong probability that they are New Englanders or Midwesterners. The train itself is the cultural melting pot of the two regions.

There are scheduled journeys at night. We left Boston at night and were scheduled to arrive in Chicago in the morning. There are sleeper cars that I’m sure were full, but the time of year was just at the beginning of spring break for the colleges, and the economy seats were all full too. I had never seen a train full to capacity until then. It was crammed with probably eighty percent young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, each with far too much luggage to keep in the cabin of the train. College kids were elbowing each other and stepping on each others’ toes to get to and from the bathroom and to their backpacks, etc. I decided I would head to the bar car for a beer because a fair percentage of the kids were not old enough to drink.

The bar car was just as crowded. It reminded me of a Dublin pub at 10:55. It was a lucky thing that someone was getting up just as I was looking for a place to sit. I hopped on that seat like a gull on a French fry, dropped my pack and shuffled through the rocking line to get a beer. People were thrown into each other with each sway of the train, and it soon became obvious that it would not be tenable to remain in the bar car and to uphold the integrity of the idea of “personal space”. It was like a front row crush at a general admission concert. I finally got back to my seat with my beer and tried to settle in next to a very heavy guy who was probably ten years my senior. He made a joke about everyone fitting in, and the thrust of it was the double entendre between getting along with a group of people and actual physical space. There was no way he could have made the joke to just me without everyone in the immediate vicinity hearing. We all laughed, it was funny. Because of the rattling and rocking noises of the train, each conversation had to be louder than the background noise, which made it impossible for everyone to talk at once. It was pretty clear too that there were plenty of people who were traveling alone and did not have the impetus to control individual conversations. Organically, the conversation in the car became a single conversation, based on clever quips, sarcastic comments, and clever banter. It was the single time when I felt most like I was an extra in a well written sit-com. As Boston became Worcester we felt out how it would work for us to all stay in the crowded car together. As Worcester became Springfield we were all having a good time. As Springfield became Albany we were trying to keep the laughter coming and looking for ways to maintain the good time. It became like a rolling party. The people who had seats would have their drinks passed to them by the people who stood by the bar. People whose feet got tired were spelled by those of us with seats.

I noticed at the end of the car three college girls standing together. One was clearly of north Asian descent, one was clearly of purely African descent, and one was clearly of north European descent, with blue eyes and blond hair. Each of the girls was beautiful but I looked at them in wonder not just to enjoy their beauty but to revel in the fact that I came from and was shaped by a place that could support and advance the cause of diversity so well.

The large man next to me was a driving force in encouraging the shared humor of the car. Eventually he lumbered to his feet, and I thought it a pity if he were to head back to his seat at that point, that it would leave the rest of us at a bit of a loss. He went to the bar and collected a guitar case from the barman. He explained to an individual near us, but really to everyone in the car, that he was a professional studio guitar player, and that he had to travel a lot to make his recording sessions. He was deathly afraid to fly, though, and had to take the train everywhere. He wouldn’t dare leave his guitar for storage or check in, and felt like playing a bit now.

The air filled with requests and there was a bit of a rush on the beer as everyone settled in for a tune. But there would be no settled tunes that night. The heavy guy was a studio musician who had done long stints in bar bands all over New England, and knew exactly which tunes he could pound out on an acoustic with a pickup and a little amp that would get a crowd of hazy college kids singing. Before long, every voice was raised in song and the barman had to run back to the dining car for more beer. The rocking of the car sent people leaning into each other, and there they stayed. Almost as if the player had a set list he put one song after another that complemented it perfectly, and we rocked on to Toledo.

The guitar player was like a master of ceremonies for the train that night, and he worked magic on the lot of us who were there. He played a couple slower tunes toward the end of the night, and took my request of “Sunny” on the condition that I sing it, and I tried, but he grew frustrated when I couldn’t remember the words and sung it himself (as I knew he would). When he put his guitar back in its case he made pronouncements about the time, and spoke of how much fun we all had- he wrapped up the night for us, and we filed back into our seats to unwind while we rolled into the city of big shoulders. When we filed off of the train in Chicago there were a lot of tired but satisfied grins. Instead of us feeling like we had done a hard night of travel we were experiencing the afterglow of a good party.

That is my most memorable recollection of riding the Lakeshore Limited, but I have to say that each trip has been good. The views of the Great Lakes are great (pardon the pun) if you travel by day, and the people are always cool. I hate to sound like an ad for the train, but I haven’t traveled any real distance by train in some time, and I kind of miss it.

Go West, Young Man

There was a time when I was free to do whatever struck my fancy. It is rare that such a time presents itself, and when it does, it should be utilized to full advantage. I had some money in my pocket, I had no dependents, and I had the vigor and wherewithal to do something simply for the experience of it.

A friend contacted me and told me of his intention to visit a mutual friend at grad school in central California. He said that he knew I had availability and wondered if I might like to go. I told him that I now had a new friend in Colorado who would also be happy to host us if we found our way there. No sooner had we mentioned what was possible than we were planning how to make it happen. We got together and held “planning sessions” and in no time we had tickets for flights to Sacramento and Denver, and had people who would be waiting to pick us up at the airports.

We got off the plane in Sacramento and I commented that this was my first time in California. I had half expected, erroneously, that the earth would be quaking as soon as I got off the plane, and that all of the action scenes from every cheap movie I ever saw would be playing themselves out just outside the window. I thought the whole state would be filled with cowboys and hippies and valley girls goofing on surfers. OK, so I wasn’t all wrong, but the airport was filled with mostly regular people. The hippest hippie in the world was there, though, and he was the old friend we were there to see. We took a few minutes there in the airport to catch up, and then spilled out into the legendary California sunshine to work our way to the University of California in Davis.

Our friend’s car was a conservative sedan that you wouldn’t imagine he would drive. I forget exactly how long it took us to get from Sacramento to Davis, but the air was crisp, the sun was bright, and the conversation was vibrant. Since the time that we had all been in high school together my friend with whom I traveled had been in the Peace Corps (in the Persian Gulf), I had been in the Peace Corps, and the friend we were visiting was pursuing a doctorate that would help unlock the secrets of the universe. We did a lot of catching up on that ride.

When we got to his apartment I felt as if I had strolled right back into my senior year of college. The place was decorated in bohemian cheap, and there were people comfortably located on every sitting and lounging space available. It turned out that the crowd that was gathered was my friend’s band, and they were convening in preparation for their gig that night. My friend played the trumpet and some percussion instruments for the band, and they had gotten quite popular in the area. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and some recreational refreshment before heading out to the gig.

The show was at a well established brew pub, originally founded in the seventies. It was founded by a master brewer from Bavaria who had fallen in love with California and did not want to return to Germany, but who loved his native Germany too. He had decorated the pub in German style and had continued to brew Bavarian style beers that one would be likely to find at the Oktoberfest in Munich. These he served in one liter tankards of leaded glass, just like the ones advertisers showed zaftig frauleins brandishing in European beer gardens. I thought it was really cool, especially since I am such a lover of beer, but the clientele completely interrupted the German illusion. The place was filling up with nouveau bohemians and throwback hippies, all meticulously arranged so as to appear unkempt in just the right way. Undoubtedly, this was their milieu, and the event was a minor happening in their society. My friend and I from the east looked quite conservative by comparison, and my friend who blew the trumpet was the hippest hippie because he obviously gave no mind to the politics of the alternative world that swirled around him. Not that he was unaware of what transpired from day to day, but rather that he pitied those people too caught up in niggling about life and not living it.

He sat with us drinking a huge brown beer while the band took the stage and the bass player started a chunky line that clearly came as second nature to him. The rhythm guitar laid an easy progression over the bass line and it became clear that it was a contemporary funk song. The drummer and the lead guitar hopped in with driving beat and hook after hook, and we got worried that our friend had been too caught up in our conversation and had forgotten that he was part of the band. The band played on for about three minutes before our friend finished his beer and said he’d see us in just a bit. He went around to the back of the stage and came up onto it from behind, leaning against an amp and grinning. He held his trumpet in his hand, but was clearly caught up in the tune, like he was the biggest fan who happened to have the best seat in the house. I think I was the only one who took any notice of him at all. The song went on an on as a funk jam, and I knew that he had forgotten his part or missed his cue or something. My other friend took his leave to step outside and smoke, perhaps he could no longer stand to watch. I sat drinking beer and enjoying the song as it grew to a tremendous crescendo and, in an instant, every member of the band stopped on a dime and a spotlight bathed my friend in light while the rest of the stage went dark. He had snapped to life and was blowing the wildest, most inspired instrumental solo I have ever witnessed. The crowd had obviously been waiting for this. The players were good, and the band together was great, but my friend was the best musician among them by far, and they all knew it. The rest of the band joined in again and my friend was an active member of the show from then on. I was flabbergasted.

Over the course of the night I progressively grew less aware of where my body ended and the rest of the world began. I felt like I was in a UHF TV show that was experiencing interference. The return to the apartment was just the real beginning of the party, because the band couldn’t hang out and interact while they were working. The night grew fuzzier and I knew that the party was over when my friend handed me a hot cup of coffee, and it was light out. They tell me I had been sleeping for hours. The one thing that did stay in my memory from the night was seeing groupies in action. It was the first and only time I had been at a party with groupies. They were fawning over the members of the band and were vying to position themselves with the band members throughout the night. My friend had to extricate himself from several admirers in order to spend time with us. I thought it was the strangest thing I had ever seen.

My friend asked me what I thought of California and I had to admit to him that the Golden State was a little too hung over for my taste. He laughed and said that he had just the thing. We went to the university to visit the raptor center. We were out in the beauty of the California day and we were let in to watch the birds of prey feed. My favorites were the owls. My friend had to run in to his office very quickly; this sparked a conversation about his work. We asked him what he did, and he cheerily and immediately replied that he was a mad scientist. We pressed him more about the mad science. He became pensive, obviously thinking about how to portray his work in a way that an intelligent layperson could understand. He started by explaining that the particles that make up atoms have distinct qualities of their own. He went on to explain that there are particles that are just as small or smaller than the constituent parts of atoms that are not bound into atomic structures. This was my introduction to neutrinos, I think. He went on to explain that waves are observable, measurable manifestations of energy, and that they are free from the rules that govern particles (particles being “things” and waves being “energy”). His work focused on discerning the difference between particles and waves, and identifying whether or not there was a “building block” having the properties of both a particle and a wave, and thus unlocking the secret to the makeup of the universe. I was dehydrated and my head was throbbing, but I remember being fascinated by his description of his work, though my depiction of it is erroneous and clumsy. I thought that every hippie in a band should contribute as much to the world. Since then string theory has gained credence in the scientific community and I wonder if he alluded to that at all.

My spinning head was spinning as we drove into the redwood forest. It was not a forest of giant sequoias like I had seen on TV, but the redwoods were beautiful trees, and they are straight and tall. The aspect of the forest was clean. The bed of the forest was not crowded or cluttered like the deciduous forests back home, and there were no low hanging branches interrupting your view or posture. It was unlike the forests I had been in in Africa either. In the stillness and shade we shared a moment of quietude that refreshed the psyche. As we saddled up to get back to the pad I felt a twinge of regret that we would be flying out the next day.

We spent the next day catching up some more and just enjoying each others’ company as we had done as youths in high school. It was a day in which we did not need to experience anything extraordinary to get the most out of our time together, and we had to fly sometime around midnight. We made a big meal, we watched a movie, we walked to his favorite coffee shop- we clocked shared mundane experiences, and the common denominator of each was our mutual camaraderie. It is telling that this time stands out as the best part of the trip for me.

Our friend put us on the plane at some ungodly hour of the night and wished us good luck. We bade him farewell, and in the middle of the night we arrived in Denver. I was a bit disappointed because I couldn’t see the mountains from the window of the plane. We got off the plane in Denver and my friend was not there to greet us. This was before the age of the ubiquity of cell phones. We waited and waited and there was not only no sign of my friend, but there was no sign of anyone. Stanton International is dead in the middle of a weeknight. We discussed what to do, and I suggested that we try to make our way to Boulder and find his place, and that the only other alternative I could think of was to either wait until daylight and try to contact him, or to get on a flight back to Boston. We wound up taking a cab to Boulder, which cost us a little more than we wanted to spend, but we found my friend’s place. I knocked on his door loudly and persistently, and he eventually opened the door in his underwear with his hair two stories higher than his head. He let us in and said he was really glad to see us, but wanted to know why we were there a day early?

I said that there must have been a miscommunication, and that I didn’t mean to drag him out of bed. I suggested that we all crash out until daybreak and then decide what to do. (For the record, I know I had told him the right day, I’m pretty sure he just spaced it.) He said no, that since we were all awake and it was still predawn, that we had just enough time to hike the flat irons to watch the sunrise. We were tired, but we figured that it was an opportunity that we wouldn’t get again soon, so we took it. We waited while my friend got dressed and then we drove out to where the flat irons are. My high school friend and my Peace Corps friend got along well, as I knew they would. When we arrived at the trail head and began to hike I was a little surprised to find that “hike” in Colorado does not mean the same thing as “hike” in New England. In New England “hike” means a long walk up a mountain or hill, gaining altitude gradually over time. In Colorado “hike”, according to my friend, meant a climb up a rock face. I felt bamboozled, but my eastern friend and I kept our wits, focused our attention, and made it up to where we would watch the sun rise.

Sunrise from the flatirons was magnificent. It was one of those moments when you realize that you are in the presence of God. What else can be said? If we had never taken that trip then we would never have that experience to carry with us. It was clear, as the gloaming turned to day, that this experience was the reason we had come.

And then we had to do the same climb in reverse, which is harder, and it was back to reality. We got back to his place and because the date of our arrival was in contention, he had not taken the day off from work. My eastern friend and I stayed at his place and rested and then got out to explore Boulder Colorado a little bit. Boulder is a nice city. It is a beautiful city high in the mountains and the air is crisp and clean. I couldn’t help coming away with the feeling that Boulder knew how cool it was. I felt like Boulder had an attitude. This feeling was not abated over the next day and a half that I stayed there, but rather it was reinforced. This was the beginning of the “extreme” sports movement, and Colorado is an extreme state. Further, Boulder is a college town filled with young “extreme” people. I’m certain that my assessment of Boulder as a city with an attitude stemmed mainly from my first experience of being out of touch with the youth. That had never happened to me before, and I think I took it out on the city. Next time I am in Boulder I promise to give it a better chance.

We stayed another day and explored Boulder a bit more. We had excellent Mexican food, which I was later to find out was quite authentic, and spent time recounting our misadventures in the Peace Corps and comparing the Arab experience to the African experience. Each of us thought that his experience was the best and most unique, and for each of us individually, we were right. The next day we got on a plane at a more acceptable hour after saying our goodbyes. When we landed at Logan I knew the trip was one without a purpose, but it was one well undertaken and one that I would not soon forget.

Monday, April 24, 2006

May Day

May Day is a big holiday in the Hawaiian Islands. The saying is that “May Day is Lei Day”, and it really held true. There was a May Day pageant at our school, and the theme was “It’s a Small World”. Every class had to put on a presentation of song and dance for its chosen country or culture. The second grade did Korea, and the third grade did Germany. I had the sixth grade and we did Hawaii because one of the class mothers in my class was a kumu hula, or a teacher of the traditional cultural ways in the Islands. She knew that I taught the kids a new Hawaiian word per week and that I was interested in learning about the culture in which I found myself. She thought it was a good thing, and thought that it was good for the kids too.

We took time out of each day for a month in preparation for the pageant. We had to acquire and perfect the traditional costume of our culture and we had to get the dance down pat with the music. I had never tried to hula before. My hula experience began and ended with a plastic hoop. I did know, however, that the hula is the oral tradition of the Polynesian people, with music and movement included. It truly carries the heart of the culture with it. In the distant past, though, there were many hulas that were lascivious in nature, and it caused a conservative reaction by the missionaries who tried to extinguish it. In response to the religious reaction, the Hawaiian people were, and perhaps still are, in the throes of a vital resurgence of the culture that includes a devolution movement.

The kids insisted that I practice the dance with them. I was a very involved and interested teacher, and I promised to practice with them but not to dance in the pageant, and they agreed. This is how I came to learn my first, and only, hula. The story was that of the goddess Pele’s sister, Hi’iaka being caught between the worlds of men and gods. It is a poignant story. Pele is the goddess of fire, but really she is the goddess of the volcanoes that create the world- without volcanoes there would be no earth in the middle of the Pacific. Hi’iaka is the goddess of some things, but in this hula she represents the flowering forest at the breast of the volcano- there is a question whether she is Pele’s sister or daughter here, and if you care for further elucidation I suggest you read up on it (Hi’iaka was brought to Hawaii from Tahiti as an egg, and … it goes on). For the purpose of this tradition, the forest is in the embrace of the volcano, making the connection between the volcano and the ocean, where Maui lives. The ocean provides for the people, and the forest provides for the people by producing kalo and pigs, and the volcano has the power to both create and destroy. Above the volcano is the endless sky, which represents eternity. Hi’iaka intercedes for the people in her charge with her angry sister Pele and binds the culture to the land in a covenant not unfamiliar to Westerners.

The music was percussive because it contained only instruments that were found in the Islands prior to the arrival of the “breathless people” or Ha Oles. The main instrument that the kumu used during the rehearsals was a gourd covered in a net of cowry shells. It was amazing how much noise she was able to get out of that alone. The hula required dance steps and learning two languages. For me, learning the Hawaiian words for the shouted song was cool, but the most interesting part was learning the sign language. I learned the signs for ocean waves indicating distance, direction, and time. I learned the signs for the passage of suns and moons. I learned the dramatic signs for expulsion and conflagration. The students were all very serious. When I was in sixth grade I couldn’t take anything seriously at all. About half of the students had significant amounts of Hawaiian blood, and I could tell that their parents had influenced them to be serious about this as part of the cultural resurgence and devolution movement. I, as a teacher, benefited from the cresting wave of Hawaiian pride. They got it down pretty good, pretty fast. One day when there was too much noise after lunch I went with the kumu to Kailua Beach Park with the kids and watched them stamp out the hula on the white sands facing Moloka’i. I was so proud of my kids, doing their culture proud and maintaining the appropriate level of decorum. I hope I never lose that memory.

When the last few days before the pageant rolled around, the kumu brought in another kumu from her hulau to help get the girls’ moves and costumes right, while she worked with the boys. She also brought the entire band from her hulau. Suddenly there were a handful of scowling, large, muscular bad-asses imposing their way around my class, and I was a bit worried about how the kids would react. I should have known better. Sure these guys were huge and potentially ferocious, but they were related to half of the class. Everybody called them “Uncle” in much the same way Akans call the older men “Father”.

On May Day, the day of the big pageant, every class did their routine, but the whole school was keeping a close eye on my class. They had the burden of representing for the entire population, and had to do everyone proud. They did a great job. Each boy gave it his all, and they maintained the requisite steeliness of gaze and martial quality of manner. Each girl moved fluidly, attending to the requisite precision that the goddesses required. I found myself mimicking with stilted, staccato movements along with them and reciting the ancient words to myself as they shouted them. When the performances were over there were congratulations all around, and there was a general consensus that I had done a good job in spite of my being a haole.

That night my friend, his girlfriend, my brother, and I all had a cookout on the beach and took in the sunset. It was one of those nights that seem steeped in comfort and contentment. The feeling of having done well at something and having it over with, like the sigh of an infant, is eternal in its own way.