Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Eiffel's Tower

Even though Jill Jonnes titled her work Eiffel’s Tower, the building of the huge iconic Paris structure is only part of this historical look at the 1889 “Exposition Universelle.”

This work also highlights such historical figures as James Gordon Bennett, Jr. of The New York Herald, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, the painters Whistler, Gauguin, and van Gogh, as well as Thomas Edison. 

Using the 1889 Exposition as background, Jonnas delves into the lives of some of the “characters” of the Gilded Age, an age that propelled enterprise and invention.

Gustave Eiffel, a builder of railroad bridges, bid [and won] the contract to erect a signature piece of sculptor to greet the visitors to the 1889 fair and wished to showcase that the French are very much a part of the emerging technological advances of the nineteenth century. Amid much controversy and criticism of this iron monstrosity, Eiffel persevered and assembled, with his two hundred workers, some of which made four cents an hour, “18,038 pieces of wrought iron with two and a half million rivets to create the world’s tallest building.”

The sheer enormity of what these men did boggled the imagination, or at least mine. Sometimes in 0 degree weather, sometimes in high winds, Eiffel’s workers clanged, banged, and chained each part of the “iron skeleton” [which rose] “to dominate the Parisian skyline.” The “sheer physical effort, the necessary precision, the relentless pace, as well as the care” involved in the construction of the 7,300 ton structure led Eiffel to immortalize these men with a plaque on the tower with all of their names.

That was the least he should have done. Seriously.

Equally interesting were the shenanigans of the painters of the day -- whether jealous of what works hung in the many exhibits {Whistler} of the fair or exhibiting early stages of the madness that would eventually kill them {van Goghs} -- the goings-on of these guys had the aura of soap opera.

Edison, the wizard of Menlo Park, knew that the fair would be the best place to “sell” his newest invention -- the phonograph;  Buffalo Bill, the most popular act of the time, lauded about Paris like a king with his troops of twenty buffalo, two hundred horses, and one hundred Indians, many who were Sioux chiefs, and James Gordon Bennett, Jr., an enormously wealthy figure in his own right, made money hand over fist selling his newspaper to the throngs delirious to knowing about it all.

Jonnes carefully weaves these historical figures, the tower, and the era into a well crafted and readable work about a time long ago with perhaps the most recognized landmark in the world at its center.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Scott "Boots" Harper

When I looked out into my classroom, for the 33 years I taught in the public school system, at the faces of the students I taught, I never imagined the unhappiness they might encounter or the tragedies they might suffer; instead, I thought of  the ways they might be successful and happy -- the careers they would have, their marriages, the children they would raise, and the full lives as productive and literate citizens they would lead.

From 1976 to 1985, the wonder years, I suppose, I taught English at Douglas County High School in Douglasville, Georgia.  Douglasville lies twenty- five miles west of Atlanta, and in those waning years of the 1970s, still existed as a small town.

In D’ville as they fondly referred to it, everyone either knew each other, was related to him or her, or they attended the same church, same elementary school, or shared a deer stand.  That small.

During the high school’s homecoming week, the police helped block off the streets for the parade on a weekday, the whole town showed up for the high school football game, and in the outlying areas, a good hard rain shut down the school system when the busses couldn’t make traction on those rural county roads.

Small town.

The backgrounds of the students varied, but there was a solidity about their loyalty to the town's Douglas County Tigers and the high school they attended.

The students I taught there -- all in the 40s, maybe some in their early 50s now,  were fine young people in spite of their vernacular -- "tar" for tire, "what fur" for what for, and “mommer and ‘em” for their parents.


One of those students whom I taught and remember fondly is Brian Harper, class of 1983. He sat in my ninth grade class, impervious to grammar and reading, but his wit and personality won me over. I didn’t care if he “didn’t like English.“

We established a relationship, and for the next three years, he chose as his elective to be what was called a “student aide” in my classroom. [a course you could take numerous times for credit].

A “student aide” ran errands, collated papers, emptied the shavings from the pencil sharpener, smacked erasers, or in my case, ran to the cafeteria to fetch me a “sweet tea.“ Brian and I were crazy about each other, and when I left Douglas County for another school system, he had graduated, gotten married, and become a father; we lost touch.

Until October of 2011.

I received an email from a former colleague at Douglas County; he wrote that a Scott Daniel Harper from Douglasville had been killed in Afghanistan, and he was pretty sure that this was Brian’s son. {this colleague and I had a mutual admiration for Brian.}

My heart ached at the thought, but as I looked up the information on the internet, saw a picture of the young man, and read the obituary -- I knew it was Brian’s son. Scott’s eyes were Brian’s eyes.

Out of touch with Brian for so many years, I decided to write him a note and tell him that I had heard about his son’s death and to let him know that I was thinking of him. I included in the note my email address in case he wished to get in touch with me. Brian did.

As soon as we talked on the phone yesterday, the twenty nine years between disappeared.  He didn’t know what had happened to me, and I hadn’t known what had happened to him -- until he suffered this so public of a tragedy.

As we talked, we laughed, we reminisced, and then Brian talked about the son he lost in Afghanistan. For that, we shed tears.

As Scott “Boots” Harper was brought home to Douglasville, the no longer “small town” came to the streets and stood, waved flags, and saluted as the black hearse passed. The procession for Scott was over a mile long.

If you have time, and you should take it, watch this video of the procession that was done in honor of Scott’s sacrifice for his country. My heart welled.

Watch this for Scott.

Watch this for Brian.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Anna's Day


On last Saturday's crisp, winter afternoon, {who gets married in January, Anna?], David and I crossed the lawn of Berry Chapel, under the foliage of some seriously, huge magnolia trees, and climbed the well worn steps to that little church, nestled beautifully on the spacious campus of Berry College in Rome, Georgia. Here, David and I were the invited guests to the wedding of Anna, a former student of mine -- KMHS, class of 2008, and Brady. 

Note: Berry College, a liberal arts institution, sits on 26, 000 acres of fields, forests, lakes, and mountains -- and shares its land with some cows. Lots of cows -- but not at the wedding.

The sun shone fully on the stain glass of this sweet chapel with its dark wood and linen white walls as the instrumental prelude played beautiful music, including a lovely version of “Edelweiss” by Rogers and Hammerstein. The bridesmaids wore a dark purple, and of course, Anna wore white and looked model perfect.

Two different soloists added modern tunes to the ceremony with “Love Never Fails,” “Word of God Speak,” and “I Have and Always Will.” I admit that I hadn't been to a wedding where all the song choices were contemporary ones, but the music selections finally won me over when the recessional song began. The upbeat “Not to Us” by Chris Tomlin sounded its first notes, right after Anna and Brady were pronounced man and wife,and as they bounded down the aisle [young love and all that],I found myself tapping my foot and nodding to its perfection for the closing nuptials of this couple.

Awesome. Simply awesome.

We joined the wedding party for a buffet supper at the Forrest Place Hotel in downtown Rome, where I got to hug Anna‘s neck and spend some time with good food and Brent, another invitee and former student, and his date Megan. Brent told me that he was currently doing his student teaching.




Brent and Megan

Argh. These guys are acting like adults -- marriage, jobs, and then smart conversation.  I only had to tell Brent to “be quiet” once.

*tee hee*

Thanks Anna for inviting us to the celebration.

David, Melissa, and I at the reception.

BTW: A friend of mine asked me yesterday how many students’ weddings have I gone to, and I have to answer, “I’ve been blessed."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Taking out the Trash and other Kitchen Traumas

Those of you who read my blog know the makeup of my family. I am the youngest of four, and my mother in order to maintain a decent semblance of good housekeeping in a house full of messy children elicited our help. In other words, she made us help.  She divided the house chores among all of us, and she had expectations for how those chores were done. We worked in the yard, did our own laundry, grocery shopped, and, of course, cleaned house -- which included taking our part in cleaning up after meals.

When I was in elementary school, my mother went back to work full time as a dietitian [what we now call a nutritionist]  at Grady Hospital in Atlanta.  At each week’s end, she planned the menus for “supper” for the upcoming week [written in her illegible scrawl in a stenographer's pad] and made out the grocery list.

When my sister Margaret and I came home from school each afternoon, we cooked the meal from her plans {frozen fish baked in the oven, cubed steak fried in an iron skillet, corn beef and cabbage boiled into oblivion}. In those days, mother defrosted frozen meats by leaving them out on the counter all day oozing and dripping their juices [so barbaric by today's standards -- no wonder I can't do math]. By the time my sister and I got home from school, the meat would be ready for cooking. The bulk of the cooking responsibility went to my sister who was older and more capable.

After dinner, my mother expected us to do the clean up.

These chores, for some reason, *rolls eyes* caused much infighting and feelings of being put upon.

We did it --- reluctantly and poorly, I’m sure.

In order to ease “too much” cooperation among siblings and to expedite the process, my mother divided the dinner clean up chores into four areas -- four of us, four jobs:

1. Table and chairs
2. Counters
3. Washing and drying
4. Sweeping the floor and taking out the trash

We found all of these jobs annoying if not downright intruding on our lives. A formidable taskmaster as indefatigable as a battle ship, my mother nagged and hounded us until we acquiesced, no matter how long it took. She did it nightly, standing behind us as she could take on anyone and outlast them. I now know that she could have done all the clean up in half the time it took her to get us to do it, but...she was raising us to take care of ourselves --- in all ways. :)

As I grew older and became more aware of all the sacrifices she made for us, she did come behind us, sometimes late at night, and make sure that the kitchen was cleaned to a level  [much higher -- rewashing pans, wiping down the counters more completely] so that none of us would die of botulism, salmonella, or other painful deaths associated with poor kitchen hygiene.

My siblings and I share a collective childhood memory: barely out of diapers and not even able to speak in complete sentences, we each remember standing on a stool in front of a sink full of hot sudsy water and dirty dishes. Traumatic, huh? We used to say -- we washed dishes right after we learned to walk.


Another memory that brings us bouts of laughter about the nightly cleaning up of the kitchen is one, we swear is true, of my oldest brother Hunter cunningly calling out first at the end of supper: “table and chairs,"a claim to the job perceived to be “the easiest” of the four ones designated by my mother.

I don’t know what the protocol was for who got to say first what he wanted to do -- but ingrained in my and my other siblings’ memory is that somehow Hunter got the easiest job. Every time. I’m sure it’s some kind of intuitive jealously that went along with his being the oldest and somehow more privileged in our eyes.

“Table and chairs” by definition meant clearing the table of dishes, wiping down the table and the chairs that sat under it,  and then being done.

We viewed it as the dream job of cleaning up.

The second best job,"counters," involved clearing and wiping down all counters. Containing only a single aisle, our kitchen was tiny, especially in terms of today's kitchens, but we did have a walk in pantry. On one side sat the sink with a short counter on either side, and on the opposite side, a longer counter between the refrigerator and stove was used for food preparation and storage.This counter space got ridiculously messy with the detritus left over from getting a meal ready.

Of course, the two worst jobs [and the last two that could be completed]  were washing and drying and then sweeping the floor and taking out the trash. So, if this was my chore, I had to wait till the others were through before I could complete mine.

It was a Communist set up, but it was one that my mother found worked because it divided [not evenly in my humble opinion] but into four distinctive jobs.

The job I hated the worst and which I seemed to get the most, of course, was sweeping the floor and taking out the trash. It was the last job of the cycle and usually completed at dusk or when it was just starting to  get dark -- the spookiest hour of the day.

Our small kitchen had an extension [that we called the den], and the sweeping of the kitchen thus involved the sweeping of the den as well.  See? Worst. Childhood. Job. Ever.

Since the counter job was done before the sweeping and usually done by my brothers, instead of sweeping the crumbs from the counters and the crumbs from the table and chairs directly into the trash can or into their hands to put in the trash, they ultimately just pushed it to the floor. Voila! More sweeping for me or whomever was stuck with Job Four --

Usually me -- cuz --- well, I have the best memory.

Taking out the trash was the last of the last four jobs; the trash, wet and gross, dumped into paper bags [before garbage disposals] and handled with as little body contact as possible, had to be taken to the outside pails. I did this job, I'm pretty sure, more than my share.

The location of said garbage pails lay inside the backyard fence at the end of the driveway; in order to get there, I carried it out the back door, where the dim back porch light barely lit the dark, down the eight  steps, and around the corner of the house to the pails. In the middle of that trek, the eerie light from the back picture window made Venetian blind crazy patterns on the grass.

Scary dark. It was always scary dark. Shadows. Gray areas. Boogey man.

Even though I walked the trash out, the return trip was different. After lifting the lid on the garbage can and dropping the paper bag with a dull thud, I looked over my shoulder fully expecting the boogey man. In anticipation of him, I ran like a fool back around the house, up the steps, and slammed the door behind me, breathless, but safely back in the hum of the house.

Taking out the trash was such an irrational fear...

but it was one of many I had as a child:

stepping off the bed in the dark to turn off the over head light,
allowing my hand to dangle below the bed rails,
sleeping with the closet door open,
crawl spaces,
the trunk of Halloween costumes in the attic,
the coal furnace in my aunts' house basement,
my aunts' basement,
and the recurring childhood dream of Ced Gunter's daddy cutting off the head of a witch.

And all that, my blog readers, is the stuff of another blog. :)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Three Days: Three Books

David and I spent a long weekend in the mountains only for the days to be rainy and foggy -- it was three days of reading. :) Aww, shucks!

Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea had been on my reading list for over ten years. Recommended to me by a former student {Dominique, are you out there?}, I finally read the novel this weekend.

Set in the lushness of the Caribbean in the early 1830s, Antionette Cosway grows up in a strange household. Her widowed mother paces and frets, her “touched” brother hums and drools, and she wanders un-chaperoned about the family compound where superstitious slaves lurk in corners and whisper of old secrets.  Divided into three parts, Rhys structures the novel for a young Antionette to narrate the first, an Englishman, married to Antionette, to tell the second story, and then Rhys shifts the setting to England where Antionette relays the details of her daily imprisonment in an attic room in Thornfield Hall.

Does the latter sound familiar?

Imaginative and haunting, and  the setting of  Jamaica and Dominica beautifully described , Rhys’ novel about the native origin of the “mad woman in the attic” should be read by all who enjoyed Charlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre. Or didn’t enjoy it.

Do I hear a collective groaning, former students?

Denny Swift’s dog Enzo, on the eve of his death, takes a reflective look at his well lived life and the family who adopted him.  The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is an uplifting novel that examines human life as observed by a dog; Enzo, of course, is a very eloquent and perceptive dog. 

BTW: Since Denny is an “up-and-coming race car driver,” Stein fills the novel with race allusions and phrases -- all used quite effectively and often wittily -- as in the book's title.

Funny, philosophical, and poignant, this easy read kept me up into the wee hours to finish it on the same night I started it. I would recommend it to anyone who loves pets and stories of love, loyalty, family, tragedy, and the recovery from it.

When Patty MacLemoore, a history professor, wakes up in jail, she’s horrified to discover that she has been involved in a automobile accident in her driveway, one that leaves a mother and her young daughter dead. Given a prison sentence for driving under the influence and with a revoked license, Patty does her time and exits her incarceration with the intent to spend the rest of her life trying to atone for her actions. 

Blame by Michelle Huneven with its lovely prose reeled me in and kept me turning pages to its compelling end. Riddled with interesting characters, realistic dialogue, and the complexities of moral consequences, Huneven writes a worthy contemporary novel about the placement of blame and the restorative power of remorse and redemption. This novel  and  its subject matter was a surprisingly good read.

ETA: These three books could not be more different in style, subject matter, and approach. I loved it --- :-).


How I mentioned lately how great it is to be retired?
To get to just read --- wheeeeee!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"In puzzling, there is no substitute for victory."


Another Christmas has come and gone, and once again my clan made ourselves nuts with a beserko puzzle of 2000 pieces and much playing of games: Bootlegger, Tichu, Mille Bornes, and Foose Ball.

Another Christmas -- much frenzy -- and then as the Goo Goo Dolls sang, "here is gone."


The "crack head" puzzle we worked this year has an interesting origin.

Pam, a good friend of mine and a reader of my blog [double bonus!!!] read on my blog last year about how my family loves to spend our Christmas holidays hovering over a table laden with puzzle pieces and working them until they are finished, no matter how hard or frustrating  -- sometimes sweating and fussing over the puzzle into the "wee" hours of the night.

Our determination to complete them, no matter the level of complexity, borders on a type of family madness.

What is the reward for being so demented?

Bleary eyed daylight hours?
Swearing not to " work any more puzzles" evah?
Muttering under our breath: "I can't work that thing. I can't work that thing."
Avoidance of the room and the people poised in combat over the cardboard cutout pieces for the puzzle of the moment?


Those vows and proclamations rarely last as our competitive spirit and "victory taps" --the finding of pieces that someone else "had been looking for -- for hours"---- is too in bred.


Note: "Victory taps" are my brother-in-law Ralph's placement of a piece into the puzzle. He says it's to make sure it fits; we all know it is a delicate but definitive noise to alert the rest of the puzzle workers that he has been successful at putting in a piece.

*tap, tap*

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I came home to a sweet surprise. On my front porch, left by UPS or some other courier, is a package addressed to me from Pam. Inside this package is a puzzle --- a 2000 piece puzzle of the most popular tourist attraction in Germany, Neuschwanstein. {My nephew-in-law David --who is from Germany and currently he and my niece are living there --  told my brother Hunter that no one from Germany goes to this castle; my brother, therefore, summed up that it was "the Graceland of Germany" -- bwha}.

How thoughtful and sweet it was of Pam to buy this for my family to work, but man! the puzzle was hard. Of the 2000 pieces, approximately 1500 were snow, trees, snow on trees, or sky. Fun. Fun. Fun. Except not.


For almost five days, we put that crazy puzzle together -- we moaned and groaned, felt frustrated and slightly demented, as we struggled with that "beast" of a puzzle.


We had strategic approaches to its completion [thanks to the "engineers" that run amok in our family} : we sorted the pieces by color, by shape, by "maybe these go together." We paced ourselves, changed shifts, and vowed to not "overdose" on its difficulty. Sometimes we stared at it and wished for a piece to find its place. Hours. We stared and tried to will the darn thing together [or at least, I did...].


We approached it with "process of elimination" {Angie style} as we checked out every possibility for a piece to and stacked the "look alikes" together so as not to try them again.


We strategized. We categorized. We compartmentalized. We divided and conquered.

We took on that puzzle like the puzzle nerds/conquerors we are -- eat our dust -- Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror, or Douglas MacArthur.

We took this puzzle down [one piece at a time!}

We did not capitulate.

We rose to the occasion.

We were victorious!

*holds up fingers in victory sign*

Wasn't it MacArthur who said, "In puzzling, there is no substitute for victory"?

  the last 100 or so...

 the final "victory taps"

 some of those who worked it ----

 a close up

Thank you, Pam, for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours of..... fun. :)

After we finished the 2000 piece monster, the 'phews and news picked out a 500 piece one to work. My sister-in-law Sally texted Angie and Paul who were not around for the end game, and what did they say? --- "'Bout time."

Here were some of the comments on the 500 piece puzzles they worked next:

Bryan: "This is so easy.'
Chapman: "It's like puzzle little league."
Stephen: "Ridiculously simple."
 Margaret: *claps*"My kind of puzzle."
Hunter: "Eh."
Andrew: "Is this for real? It feels like cheating."
Me: "Puzzle Spark Notes."
Ken: "Wait till next year."

*tap, tap*