Wednesday, March 21, 2012

We remembered the lyrics.

Tonight, I talked to one of my oldest friends. Beginning in kindergarten in 1959, through high school graduation in 1972, Paul and I shared teachers, classrooms, and friends. At one time, I had a huge crush on him. :-)

As we chatted on the phone, we got to laughing about his reputation in school for bursting into song at inopportune times.  An incredible mimic and comic, as well as an outstanding athlete [in high school, he lettered Varsity in four sports], he hummed and sang the lyrics from popular songs.

We talked about our 7th grade teacher Mr. McLemore for a few minutes, and Paul remembered singing, when Mr. McLemore tried to discipline us, Buffalo Springfield's hit of 1967.

Neither of us could remember the name of the song, but we laughed as we remembered the lyrics.

We were thirteen years old.

I wonder what we "made" of this song?

My guess? Not what it intended. 

BTW: His mother will be 90 this Saturday. He and his three brothers take turns caring for her.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Read the Air and Tinkers

Jonas Woldemariam, part-time English teacher at a prestigious New York Academy, tells intricate narratives in order to engage his students. In fact, on a day when he should be teaching the demanding syllabus expected of him, he instead tells his curious students about “where he came from” [since they knew he wasn’t from here] by making up his father’s immigration to the Unites States with an elaborate story of imprisonment, kidnapping, mystery, and violence.  Jonas notes, “while it was common even among the most disciplined teachers to allow for small fabrications, from the beginning the stories I told my students existed on a more ambitious plane.” This time, however, the “ambitious plane” took off and had trouble landing as the back story for his father ended up taking up a week of class time and grew into -- well, it grew into something bigger.

Thinking that his marriage to Angela, a lawyer in a impressive firm in the city, would make him plan for the future, Jonas also wrongly misleads her about his job, his own plans, and his past. After a particularly bad fall out from his latest woven tale, Jonas takes off from his marriage and his work and seeks to retrace a trip his parents attempted thirty years before to Nashville, Tennessee.

The only son of Ethiopian immigrants and raised in Peoria, Illinois, with a violent father, Jonas’s restlessness and unsettledness, as well as his lying, seem all part of the upbringing where his mother and he constantly attempted but never succeeded in running away from their life. Now, perhaps, he can.

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu relates a story of immigration, but this writer somehow captures something different --  the lyrical prose might be what makes this story more stirring.

BTW: The title comes from his father’s story --- once his father escaped from Sudan, he had this uncanny ability to feel danger in the air -- thus, he learned how to read it. Mengestu uses this “air” motif in unusual ways throughout the novel.

This is Mengestu’s second novel -- I’ve now put his first The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears on my list.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Tinkers by Paul Harding, proves itself a worthy read. Even though the main character, George Crosby lies dying, [the novel opens with "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died"], his memory lives vividly in the past.

As his family sits on death watch, Crosby’s mind flits to his hard-scrabble youth as well as to his years as a clock repairman. Harding, in fascintating detail, relates the inner workings of clocks and their repairs, and as tedious as that might sound, it’s Harding’s capable language that makes this work beautifully. Harding uses it metaphorically to emphasize the complexities of Crosby’s life.

Crosby’s father, Horace, an epileptic, makes his living by selling his wares in the back-country of Canada, and his wife, Kathleen, a bitter woman who hates her lot [she reminded me of Addie Bundren of Faulkner fame] determines, after one of his particularly violent fits, that her husband should be institutionalized. Their story, as well as Crosby’s own, meld together in this powerful novel of nature [there are some fabulous descriptions], family, love, and loss.

Both of these books made me feel like an English major again. As I read these, I knew I was reading the work of exceptional writers.

Note: This was Harding's debut novel.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Church Youth Group Part II: P&O and Destination Unknown

The little details of Sunday night at MYF have faded from memory, but I remember it as a whole and some of the events vividly.

1. When I was a sophomore, the church provided a place for just for the youth to gather. In the basement of the church  was a large, unused classroom. The decision makers, whomever they were,  allowed the youth to paint the walls [we chose purple and orange], set up a donated ping pong table, and festooned the perimeter with tables and chairs, and a couple of old sofas.

We loved that room --- called it the P&O ---we played rock and roll, had viciously competitive ping pong tournaments, and created small bits of havoc, I’m sure. I know that each week or so, some adult, would run off a couple who sat down there with the lights off [I? Never.] or would find some of the youth hanging out and skipping church service [the building had many places to hide, trust me].  Like all things involving young people, it needed supervision.

On the stairs that led to the basement were stacks and stacks of big Civil Defense [end of the world rations] sealed barrels.  At one point, some one pried open the lid of one to peruse the contents [packs of stale crackers and powdered milk] and other times, in order to show their manliness, the guys punched the barrels [to see if they could dent them -- they could].

Other times, we pulled those barrels into the P&O to sit on if we needed extra, and there was a carefree-ness and a casualness to perching on one in our short skirts -- another habit that didn‘t buy us Brownie points. We were not necessary good custodians of what we were given -- but most of us were grateful for the space. It became a refuge and an attraction for youth who didn’t go to church at all. The room gave us place -- and we needed the space.

Because of some of the mentioned problems, the P&O provided much drama and discussion [division and dissension as well] for the church elders. Church members complained about the noise, worried about the lack of supervision, and believed that it was a haven for heathens and attracting an “element.” My daddy went to bat for the youth and our hangout as he believed the church either provided a safe place for us or we would find a place, perhaps less hospitable and desirable. The room won out, but the battles for it were numerous and constant.

2. Once a month the parents provided this outing for the youth called “Destination Unknown.” After the worship service on Sunday night, we piled in cars --  before seat belts -- as many of us as possible crammed into one car and headed out to members of the church’s home to have dessert.  Driven by one of the church’s career bachelors, Billy's car filled first as he always allowed us to ride in the back with the hatch open and our legs dangling out like refugees.

We never knew where we were going: the best part being the little parade we created as we traveled. The lead car, knowing the destination,  and then the four or five behind, with the hooping and hollering youth, would meander in and out of streets around the church and the outlying avenues, deliberately keeping us guessing for ten or fifteen minutes until the host home was revealed. This ten or fifteen minute fete of “riding around” was nuts as we honked the horn, hung out the windows, pounded the roofs and in general, acted as bad as we could for church-going youths.

Once we got to the “destination,” some mother plied us with cookies,  cake, or ice cream. Such a little thing, but in that time, the excitement of that church field trip thrilled us. Obviously, we entertained easily.

3. In the warm months after Sunday night church, the guys gathered in the church parking lot and played basketball.  On a lone telephone wire pole in the middle of the lot, a church member hammered a handmade goal, and it was the youth group of my era that made this a hangout place. While the guys played HORSE or half court basketball, the girls sat on parked cars, sipped bottled Cokes, and chatted and analyzed the boys like they were difficult math equations.

I always hated it that my daddy was the first to pick us up and take us away from the fun. One time when my brother Ken and I were driving ourselves to Sunday night church, we stayed too long [we were in the family car -- the only one].

When we weren’t home on time, or what my daddy considered “on time,“ he walked the mile or so to the church to get us. I’ll never forget when I saw my daddy walking up the street that led to the church  parking lot, the feeling of dread so rooted in my stomach I thought I would puke. Madder than forty wet hens, his anger for “our not coming home on time” resonated deeply; my dad was a natural worrier, and it was this concern, coupled with the anger, that fueled his walk.

My daddy had a no-nonsense reputation, and when he showed up, the crowd of youth gathered in that parking lot parted like the Red Sea for Moses as he approached. All of those young people who knew my daddy didn't want to cross him -- it was a quiet respect, one of which I didn't appreciate at all at the time.

During the week, when church was closed, the church parking lot became a hang out for the youth of Sylvan Hills. On any given evening, the youth of the area stopped by to see if anyone was there, and in many cases, someone was ........

Hanging out? At a church? Yes, we did, and in the long run, we were/are better for it.

Other events that we looked forward to -- opossum hunts, church intra-murals, and living in the steeple.

But that, my kind readers, is for another blog.

Thanks for reading.

Church Youth Group: Part I - Choir and MYF

My family has always been church goers.

I grew up going to church every Sunday morning, and as I became of age to be categorized as one of the “restless youth,” I attended MYF on Sunday nights.

Methodist Youth Fellowship met on Sunday evenings at 6:00 at my home church in Sylvan Hills, Mary Branan, and after a casual youth dinner of chili, hot dogs, or sandwiches, prepared by the formidable and intimidating Annie Maude {that’s what we called her; I can’t remember her last name}, the leadership parceled us into small group meetings [I think this was grouped by grade], and then Sunday evening worship service in the sanctuary where the music was provided by the youth choir.

Encouraged by my parents, I did some "time" in the youth choir. All of my siblings sang in the school [except me -- I took PE instead] and church choirs, and it made sense to me since they all  have very good voices; however, I am a pretty, bad singer. If I had to just sing melody, I was okay, but if it came to harmonizing, I usually ended up mouthing the words -- cause, seriously, in that small, youth choir of twelve to twenty voices, depending on that week’s attendance, a bad voice like mine could stand out.  Trust me, some folks stood out -- and not in a good way. I didn’t want to add that to my long list of aspects about my adolescent self of which to be self-conscious. I was already skinny.

Before we could drive ourselves, Daddy took us early to Sunday evening church so that we could go to youth choir practice. For thirty minutes, we went over this week’s song, learned the parts, and then sang it one or two times through. Maybe. I have no idea if we were ever any good -- the adult choir wasn’t, so I am banking on the fact that the youth choir wasn’t either. It was a different era -- the pool from which the voices were pulled was quite shallow.

I did not like choir practice; I believed it was full of the nerdier church youth, and I wanted to be edgier -- hang out with those who showed up just in time for food. That  feeling would change later when the church hired a young minister of music, a graduate of Shorter College and his side kick, a graduate of  Berry College -- but I digress.

BTW: Neither my mother or daddy could sing very well either.  As a child when I sat next to them  in church, sometimes when they shared the Methodist Hymnal and sang  “My Hope is Built” or “He Lives”  off key, I looked around to see if anyone else noticed my mother‘s low alto sounding voice or my dad‘s, well, bad one.  Usually not, since in that church, there were a lot of bad, adult singers --- most of them in the morning service choir, in their white robes with velvet stoles, singing solos.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s,  more young people became attracted to Mary Branan.  I don’t know if the church leaders began instigating some more progressive programs [hiring young people to be youth leaders, allowing us to listen and talk about Jesus Christ Superstar, or providing a place for the youth to gather], but I know that a lot of my brother Ken’s and my friends from high school, whose parents did not attend church, began to come to church on Sunday night for MYF. {As far as I know, this could have been a trend in all Methodist churches.}

I  was greatly curious about those friends of mine who didn’t attend church, but what was even more puzzling to me were those friends of mine who came to church but their parents didn’t.

You don’t have to come to church? Really?

I imagined that they could have these leisurely Sunday mornings:  sleeping late, watching television and listening to the radio, or lying around on the floor with the Sunday, color comics from the Atlanta Journal spread out before them, toast and jelly in hand, and reading every comic three or four times each.  

Life without the rituals and traditions of church ? Unfathomable.

In retrospect, there were probably more people who didn’t attend church than did, but in my young mind and insular up-bringing, to not go to church seemed, well, uncivilized and the families who didn‘t go seemed -- well -- un - family - like as if something was inherently wrong. I noted that I was much more likely to get permission to hang out with someone whose whole family were church goers, as in my parents knew them, than in a family who was not, a prejudice that I didn’t quite understand at the time.

--- end of Part I ---

Saturday, March 3, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

History professor William E. Dodd of Chicago has no idea what he’s getting his wife, son, and daughter into when he accepts the  United States ambassadorship to Germany in 1933. Happy to leave the bogged down feeling he had of academia and seeking to recapture the nostalgia of a early time he spent in Germany as a student, Dodd finds himself and his family on the cusp of a “New Germany,” one fraught with signs of the horrors and persecution yet to come.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts “narrative nonfiction” of this time uses Dodd’s own notes, historical references, Martha Dodd’s letters and journals to recapture the harrowing days set during Hitler’s rise to power.

Excited to be in Berlin, the Dodd family settled into their role as diplomatic, American family and embraced the German government in place. Martha Dodd, a promiscuous young woman and recently separated from her husband, used the current “enthusiasm for restoring German” to immerse herself into the social scene where she enjoyed many parties courtesy of her position as diplomat’s daughter.  William Dodd, stodgy and frugal, found the climate of Germany unsettling and the expensive entertaining that went along with being an ambassador a hard adjustment. 

During that first year in Berlin, the Dodds experiences ran the gamut -- excitement for their company to be held in high esteem but also horrified as they watched the changes in Germany, part of Hitler’s new regime and its politics, unfold into an atmosphere of secrecy, tension, and murder.

The Dodds had relationships with historical figures who would later be significant in Germany’s spiral  downward.  From sharing conversation and meals at polite diplomatic gatherings in various places in Berlin, the Dodds knew intimately men who would eventually be killed by Hitler or who would carry out Hitler's orders to kill.

Not used to playing the games of diplomatic protocol and horrified by what he heard, Dodd attempted through telegrams and letters to let the State Department back home know of the changes in Berlin. Due to pettiness and jealousies and internal strife in that area of our government [perhaps a little more complicated than that], the State Department seemed to offer up little help and an indifference, that borders on lack of human compassion, to the atrocities of Germany -- this both angered and puzzled Dodd.

The two Dodds involvement with these men and women of Hitler’s regime gives a first-hand account of an American inside that country in one of its most volatile times.