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Archive for January, 2014

Note from Mark: Below is the eulogy I read at my grandmother’s funeral.  She died in August 2011, at the age of 94.  My wife Sheri told me, some time ago, that I should post this, and I never did, but since my grandmother’s birthday is in January (she would have been 97 on January 18), this seemed a good time.

 

This blog is dedicated to stories, and my grandmother was one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever known. In fact, when I was writing this eulogy– and as anyone who has ever written one knows, it’s tough to do, because you want to say something poignant and fitting and not trite, but you don’t have much time to write it, and it can’t be too long, but how do you reduce the pure gift that is your grandmother’s life into five minutes?— anyway, as I was writing it, I realized that I was thanking my grandmother for passing her love of stories onto me.

One last thing: as an English teacher, I’ve read many, many personal narratives about grandmothers– so many, in fact, that when a student gives one to me, it’s hard not to get that jaded, “Not another grandmother essay” feeling.  I actually advise students who are writing college essays NOT to write about their grandmothers, only because it’s been done so many times. 

But then I remember my own Nana, and then I get it: they write their grandmothers because they feel about them the way I felt and still feel about mine.  

Anyway, from August 2011…   

It never occurred to my grandmother that she was old.

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Oh, she knew that her body was failing her, that her loved ones were dying, that her world was getting smaller. And yet, I can recall how often she’d joke about the curious habits of the people in her building, whom she called “the elderly.” Her meaning was clear: “They’re old.  I’m merely 94.”

I never considered her old either. And that’s why it was so hard to see her over the past few years, so dependent on her walker and her pills and her phone with the really big numbers. Because to me, Nana will always be the young woman who was standing by my side when I took my first steps, as I chased after some birds on a dirt road on Cape Cod; who kept walking with me, for our usual trip to get french fries during those endless Brant Rock summers; who could entertain the world with her stories. 

That’s one of the things that kept her so young, I think– her gift of storytelling, her ability to find humor in any and all situations.  We all loved to hear her stories, and luckily, Nana had millions of them.  Stories about her childhood, about why she’s called Edna (too many Roses, apparently, in her class 85 years ago); stories, complete with an Irish brogue, about her own grandmother; stories about her co-workers; the story about the night my brother was born, and I cried because I wanted a sister. 

It didn’t matter if you heard the story before, or even if you didn’t know the people involved– you’d still laugh and laugh, right along with her.

 

She’d like to hear stories, too.  She wanted to know every detail of your life– right down to what you had for breakfast in the morning– and she cared about the answers. As I got older, she wanted to hear about my high school and college friends, and as I got older still, about my job, my wife, my twins sons.  She kept asking questions– right until the end.

Two weeks ago, I saw my grandmother for the last time, at St. Joseph’s Manor.  She was very weak: she was in a wheelchair, her eyes were going, and I think she knew her time was short.  But her Irish heart and caring spirit were still very much alive, and when I reached in to hug her, the first thing she said to me was, “How are the boys?”

This week, the summer sun finally set on my grandmother, the only grandmother I ever knew, and saying goodbye is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.  So I won’t– because I know her soul, her story, is still inside of me. So much of who I am today is because of her. I teach literature now, and I know her own stories have a lot to do with that.  She taught me other things too– to love the beach, to appreciate the healing powers of salt water. To value the past and respect my heritage.  To laugh often and much.  And most of all, to relax, to spend less time worrying, and instead to find joy and delight in every single precious day.

By remembering these things and passing them on, I can make sure the Nana I love– the Nana of the sleep-overs, of Brant Rock, of the lovingly made peanut-butter-and-cracker lunches– will stay alive.  And young.

During our last conversation, Nana asked me, “Do you think God will take me?” Oh, definitely. I can see her there now, in a world without walkers and pills and phones with really big numbers. .Her Irish eyes are still smiling bright as ever as she reunites with her mother, her father, her sister, brother, husband, all her friends.  They all look so young. And I can see the angels huddling around her, listening to one of her stories, laughing so hard the clouds will shake. 

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Obviously, Martin Luther King has done so much for humanity.  But how often do we take the time to celebrate what MLK has done for that curious subset of humanity, high school English teachers?MLK

I have been teaching English for almost eighteen years now, and for each one of those years, I have read something by MLK in at least one of my classes.  His name and works always find a way into the classroom.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll talk about two examples:

(1) If you want to teach argument, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”(1963)  is the quintessential piece.  Appeals to logic and reason (or what we call “logos” in the biz), appeals to emotion (or “pathos”), appeals to his own character (or “ethos”)– he’s got all the bases covered.  I could go into detail about how he does this, but that’s another post.

For now, I want to zoom in on a particular passage from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one that is just two sentences long:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n*****,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

As always with King, it’s not just what he’s saying here but how he’s saying it.  Strictly from a rhetorical standpoint, his passage is remarkable to me, for several reasons.  First, he’s worked in some great metaphors in there– e.g. “stinging darts of segregation” and “airtight cage of poverty” and “ominous clouds of inferiority.”

Next, it’s an excellent example of the rhetorical device known as anaphora– the repetition of a word or phrase and the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences.  So, in this case, we have a series of dependent clauses beginning with “when.”  The repetition of “when” lends some rhythm and unity to the piece.

Speaking of the dependent clauses, did you notice how the “when” clauses get piled on and piled on?  At the end, the reader is saying, “Whoa!  That IS a lot!”  To me, this is an example of how the form of this passage mirrors the content;  the repetition of the clauses underscores the overwhelming burdens African-Americans have to carry.

Finally, this passage is a perfect way to teach the usefulness of the periodic sentence– which is a sentence that withholds the main subject and main verb until the end.  In this case, we have dependent clause after dependent clause (ten, by my count), until finally, we get to the main subject (“you”) and main verb (will understand”).  Again, this is the form mirroring the content: the passage is about how long the African-American community has had to wait for change to occur, so now, as readers, we have to “wait” until the end of the sentence to see the main subject and verb.  So brilliant! (King, I mean… he’s the brilliant one, not me…)

(2) MLK also ties in perfectly with that high school staple Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (published in 1960). Now, even someone reading this book for the first time can see that Atticus Finch, in his quest for racial equality and his commitment to nonviolence, shares a lot in common with Martin Luther King.  What’s cool is that King himself saw this connection.  In fact, King actually makes an allusion to Atticus in his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait.

The Atticus reference occurs in a chapter called “The Sword That Heals,” which is itself part of a metaphor King uses to describe “the just and powerful weapon” of nonviolence.  Reverend King alludes to a moment in Mockingbird when Atticus goes to the local jail to protect his client, a black man named Tom Robinson, from a mob that wanted to lynch him.   The scene gets tense very fast, with the men telling Atticus to get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Suddenly, Atticus’ daughter Scout– blissfully innocent as always– comes out of the shadows and recognizes the leader of the gang; he’s the father of one of the boys in her class.   When she calls the man, Mr. Cunningham, by name, the mood changes; it’s as if just the simple act of hearing his name awakens Mr. Cunningham to his potential actions, even shames him.  The gang disperses, and the crisis is averted.  Later, Atticus– ever the wise sage– says the incident reinforces the fact that “a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they are still human.”

That’s the incident in Mockingbird.  Here’s what King had to say about it in Why We Can’t Wait:

“We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice.  It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.

“Yet there is something in the American ethos that responds to the strength of moral force.  I am reminded of the popular and widely respected novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird.  Atticus Finch, a white southern lawyer, confronts a group of his neighbors who have become a lynch-crazy mob, seeking the life of his Negro client. Finch, armed with nothing more lethal than a lawbook, disperses the mob with the force of his moral courage, aided by his small daughter, who, innocently calling the would-be lynchers by name, reminds then that they are individual men, not a pack of beasts.

“To the Negro of 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice.”

I haven’t taught Mockingbird in a decade, but I’d encourage anyone who does teach the book to use this connection.  Not only does it allow for a discussion about the similarities of Atticus Finch and Martin Luther King, but it also drives home a larger point: that the literature we read in class does not exist in a vacuum.  Indeed, the ideas in these texts have real-life implications. Students may not always believe this, but it’s true.

 

 

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This December, I gave my Composition students an early Christmas gift: I played “Rosalita” for them.

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They needed it. Desperately. About a month prior, I name-dropped Springsteen on a quiz. (“Combine these two sentences into one using an appositive: A: ‘Bruce Springsteen is a living legend and one of America’s greatest performers.’ B: ‘He has never had a number one song.’”)

Then, for extra credit, I asked them to name three Springsteen songs. Maybe two kids, out of twenty, could do it.

Granted, they’re only sixteen.  During their lifetimes, the only Springsteen song that reached the Top 40 was 1997’s “Secret Garden,” when all of them were still in diapers.

Still… this is Springsteen!  How is it possible these kids only know one or two of his songs?  It’s not as if he hasn’t been recording music for four decades!  And counting: his 18th album, High Hopes, was released today.

I had to do something.  Yes, as a teacher, I am charged with educating my students about appositives and antecedents and words such as “aficionado” and “aegis.”  But I also have to help them become Functional, Culturally Literate Human Beings.  So at the end of class one day, after they handed in their vocab quizzes, I played “Rosalita”—in my mind, the quintessential “Introduction to Springsteen” song.

Not everyone may agree.  For example, Rolling Stone, in a 2013 commemorative magazine ranking the greatest 100 Springsteen songs of all time, not only put “Born to Run” at number one, it barred “Rosalita” from the top ten. (Poor Rosie languishes down at eleven.)  Also, “Rosalita” was never officially released as a single, which doesn’t help its notoriety.

And frankly it’s old, dating back to his second album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, from 1973.  That means the “real” Rosalita (if such a woman ever existed) would be in her early- to mid-sixties by now. (I don’t know what’s harder to accept: that the Boss himself is 64, or that Rosalita is now a cougar.)

Still, for my purposes, “Rosalita” encapsulates everything great about a Springsteen song: it’s got sax, clever rhymes (e.g. “Lord have mercy” and “swamps of Jersey”), an eminently singable chorus, and lots and lots of lyrics, sung in Bruce’s inimitable “somewhere between a mumble and a barbaric yawp” style.  All stuffed into an anthemic seven minutes.

Most of all, like so many Springsteen classics, “Rosalita” tells a story—actually, two stories.  On one hand, it’s a love song, about a cash-poor/ braggadocio-rich young buck who wants to liberate (confiscate?) his senorita from the clutches of her overprotective parents.

But it’s also a “let’s-blow-this-clambake” song, preparing the way for songs like “Thunder Road” or “Born to Run”; in “Rosalita,” the narrator wants to use music as a way to leave his going-nowhere town and head out West. (And by the end, that dream starts to become a reality, when the record company gives him a “big advance.”)

But I didn’t just play “Rosalita” so my students could learn about Springsteen’s music; I wanted them to learn about Springsteen the man.  Think about it: Springsteen has adopted countless personae over the years, from a veteran, to a firefighter, to a despicable—yet bizarrely celebrated—deadbeat dad from Baltimore (who went out for a ride and never went back).

But for “Rosalita,” the first-person narrator is a young, Jersey-born slacker with nothing but a guitar and a rock-and-roll dream.  In other words, Springsteen himself, circa 1973.

In his book Songs, Springsteen calls “Rosalita” his “musical autobiography,” and he’s right. It may not be historically accurate (Did Bruce really know a Rosalita? How about a Big Bones Billy?), but no matter: the narrator of “Rosalita” is who Bruce was back then.

And in some impossible, metaphysical kind of way, it’s who he is now. I’m reminded of that great E.B. White essay, “Once More to the Lake,” in which the author describes returning to a vacation spot from his youth.  “There had been no years,” White says… and the same applies to Springsteen.  We know he’s now an Elder Statesman of Rock; he just doesn’t let us believe it.

That sense of timelessness is on display in “Rosalita.” In the lyrics, Bruce muses about the passage of time, when he says, “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”  But you know what’s really funny? That in 2013, an Elder Statesman of Rock, worth $200 million, can sing lines such as “Your Papa says he knows that I don’t have any money”… and get away with it.

And honestly?  I think, by playing “Rosalita” for them, I was trying to get away with something, too.  Sure, I wanted my students to know a few things about Springsteen.  But I also wanted them to know a little bit about me—as both a fan and a forty-three-year-old high school teacher who still doesn’t feel all that removed from high school himself.   I guess, when I hear “Rosalita,” I can’t help but feel a little timeless as well—if only for those seven minutes.

Here’s the story—one I shared with my students after I played the song for them, about the two times I’ve seen Springsteen live.  The first was in February 1988, the opening night of the Tunnel of Love Express Tour.  I was a senior in high school (“Not much older than you,” I point out to my kids); I was with five of my best buddies; and I was experiencing The Boss playing “Rosalita” live. Glory days, indeed.

As I’m sharing this story to the students, I realize the period is almost over, so I zip to my second Bruce concert. It’s a little over twenty years later, in August 2008, and now I have a wife, two kids, a job, and much less hair.  And if I hadn’t already been thinking about how much time pad passed between the two shows, a chance encounter with a former student drove the point the home. “1988?” he marveled, when I revealed the last time I had seen Bruce live. “Wow. I wasn’t even born yet.”

At that moment, as if on cue, I heard a crack of thunder, as the skies unleashed a furious concert of its own.  Rain. Wind.  Cloud-splitting lightning.  They had to postpone the show for an hour, just to be safe.

But when Bruce and his E Streeters finally emerged onto the stage, none of that mattered.  They just played and played and played… and then, to reward us for sitting through the storm, they played some more. Finally, just shy of midnight, for the whopping seventh song of his encore, Bruce said he would play one final number—or as he called it, “one more fairy tale about New Jersey.”

“Rosalita.” Of course.  And with those opening chords, the crowd erupted, just as raucously as I remember it back in 1988, when I was seventeen.  There had been no years.

“And let me tell you,” I say to the kids, just as the bell rings, “it sounded great.” For a cougar, Rosie could still rock

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(Note: Last week, several students did an impressive presentation on the art of M.C. Escher, and I was reminded of a paper I wrote in college, some oh-twenty-one years ago. So I pulled the paper– which was on the works of Escher, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge Luis Borges– out the drawer and re-read it.  Still holds up.  Here are some thoroughly revised excerpts…)

“Our three-dimensional space is the only reality we know. The two-dimensional is every bit as fictitious as the four-dimensional, for nothing is flat, not even the most finely polished mirror.  And yet, we stick to the convention that a wall or a piece of paper is flat, and curiously enough, we still go on, as we have since time immemorial, providing illusions of space on such plane surfaces as these.  Surely it is a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then claim: ‘This is a house.'”– M. C. Escher

We have been brainwashed.  Since art began, that charlatan Verisimilitude has tricked us into believing that what is depicted within the confines of an artist’s print or within the covers of a book can actually happen in “reality” (and I’m using that term VERY loosely).   In short, we have a bizarre faith in the three-dimensionality of art. Our depth perception is too acute, in that we perceive depth when none is truly there.

That’s where M. C. Escher comes in. Famed Dutch lithographer and renowned architect of impossible worlds, Escher (1898-1972) constantly highlights the artifice of art. Escher never wants us to believe that what we are seeing in his prints– or any work of art, for that matter–is “real.”  Instead, he flaunts the “flatness” of his works, to remind us that what we are seeing is a fictive world that cannot exist in our 3-D reality.

But it’s gonna hurt.  To help correct our faulty “depth perception,” Escher has to trick us first. As Escher maintained, “Drawing is deception; it suggests three dimensions when there are but two! And no matter how hard I try to convince you about this deception, you persist in seeing three-dimensional objects” (Ernst 5).

Escher’s Three Sphere’s I illustrates his point: the wood engraving seems to be three stacked spheres: one that resembles a round beach ball, atop a sphere that seems to be cut in half, atop a squashed, elliptical-ish sphere.

Three Spheres

At least, we want to think we are looking at spheres.  Actually, despite what the title of the print suggests, there are no spheres at all, just three flat circles.  Don’t believe me? Then consider this possible “side view” of the same print created by Bruno Ernst in his 1979 book The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher:

Three Spheres Sideview

Get it?  Those are not spheres; they’re all flat circles, all iterations of that circle on the bottom. One on the ground, one folded in half, one standing straight up– all two-dimensional circles.  Our minds want to believe they’re three-dimensional shapes, but they’re aren’t.  Despite all appearances, the objects are strictly flat; any depth they may seem to have is our doing.

And we have to do it.  Yes, it’s wrong to see “three dimensions when there are but two” (as Escher says). Yes, art is a 2-D illusion, and on some level, we know it and don’t accept it.  AND YET   By stubbornly refusing to accept the two-dimensionality of art, we make the works “work.”  when we behold a piece of art– any work of art– we become art’s “third” dimension.

Pretty “deep,” huh?

Ernst, Bruno. The Magic Mirror of M. C. Escher. New York: Random House, Inc, 1979.

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