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Monday, March 29, 2010

When Walt Whitman Said, "To Die Is Different From What Anyone Supposed" How Did He Know I'd Be Analyzing Obits?


Perhaps you recall from a previous chat we had here that, almost daily, I read with great interest and care the Plain Dealer obituaries. I am not obsessed with or even remotely worried about Death--far from it--I am fascinated with Life. Not mine, you understand. I am thoroughly bored with mine. I like to read about Other People's Lives, especially now that they are done with them.

I like to read their names, first of all, because I am fascinated by unusual, alliterative, evocative, or just downright funny names. One of my favorites recently was Esther Sylvester. How awesome is that? Her name is a poem. (Way cooler than the Esther who was of one of my Uncle Marshall's customers at his candy shop. He used her for advertising every Easter. He made a huge chocolate egg and put it in the window of his store. On it, in icing, he wrote Happy Easter Esther Oyster! Pretty good name. Right up there with another goofy Grandma-friend name: Flossie Shawbell. But I digress.)

A 97-year old woman passed away at a comforting place called "Nannie's Inn." If I can choose a place to have to die, I want to go there. But here's the thing: her name was Hope, and she was preceded in death by her two sisters...Faith and Charity. I'm not lying; look it up.

And how much did I love the obit of the beloved Very Irish husband, last name O'Something, whose kids' names were Kathleen, Timothy, Sean, Maureen, and Patrick? But the best part of all was that his real name, Eugene, is listed, and then, in quotation marks, the name "Geniehoney." I smiled and felt my heart melt and my eyes tear up just a little. Can't you just hear his wife calling him that all the time? So much so that it became his name? I love that the family put it in the paper.

You already know how I love the non-traditional photos for obituaries. I forgot to save/remember the one of the middle-aged woman wearing the Teletubbies sweatshirt. I had to read that obit because I had to know more about her. Turns out, if anyone had a reason to sport a Teletubbies sweatshirt, it was she. She was only 58 years old, but had something like 14 kids, 38 grandchildren and already many great-grandchildren. Wow!

But the photo in this obituary still seems odd to me. The woman died at the age of 84; the picture shows a much younger lady. Yet, the photograph is not antique-looking, and the photography doesn't look as if it was from the era of the 50s when she was a model. (It might be a mixup, but I doubt it. There has been no correction online or in the Monday print edition.) That's not the most intriguing facet to this obit, however. If you read farther into the article, you come across this incredible sentence: In later life she was afflicted with a shower of frogs. That's it. There is absolutely no context surrounding this amazing statement to give you Clue One as to what it refers to. And that is why I love it. This woman had a fantastic life and, obviously, a fabulous family or group of friends who continue to celebrate her personality even after she is gone. Is she lucky, or what? I don't give a damn about the frog shower or what it really means. I just love the fact that it's in her obituary--inexplicably and unapologetically. Probably a lot like her.

In Creative Writing I & II, I encourage my students to steal from the dead, and by that, I mean to grab pieces of ideas for poems and stories from the obituaries. It's a great place to look for names, snippets of plotlines, characters, and glimmers of ideas. Occasionally, a poet can even find a cool line.

Something like, In later life she was afflicted with a shower of frogs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Perspective On Irony, Or How I Choose My Victims Carefully And Toy With Them First, But Oh So Very Gently...

Perspective is something I struggle with, and perhaps it's because I seem to see the Irony--the Ridiculous Irony--in so many things.

Consider these scenes.
Scene I.

High school classroom. Students are in their seats. Teacher at front of room behind lectern. Finishing up instruction. Checks clock, sees that there are four minutes left.

Mrs. D.: Okay, everyone. Take the last four minutes to double-check that you have the assignment written down correctly. Are there any questions? (surveys room. sees no hands raised) Great. You've got the last few minutes to yourselves. Wow. Are you lucky, or what? Have a great day, and that's an order.

(as if by unseen decree, half the class rises and begins to shoulder huge bookbags; they wander towards door. teacher, shocked, halts them)

Mrs. D.: Um...where on Earth do you think all of you are going? I do believe that this is still room 245 and that all standard rules and regulations still apply. Stay in your seats until the bell rings.

(general moaning, bitching, crabbing ensues as wanderers roam back to seats)

Mrs. D.: Holy crap. How ridiculous. Can you just imagine the phone calls I would get from Mumsy and Popsy if my rule said "All students will shoulder their fifty pound book bags four minutes before the bell and stand in a huge herd like bison in front of the door. They are absolutely forbidden to sit in their seats to wait for the bell but instead must press their bodies against one another and jockey for position like marathon runners at the gate." ? You are, all of you, insane right now. Here I am, giving you four minutes of respite from those gargantuan bookbags and the terror of the hallways, and this is the thanks I get? Never again!

(Students roll eyes, sigh, a few smile. Bell rings for dismissal. On their way out, several are heard to say, "She's right, though." One actually whispers to teacher, "Sorry!")

Scene II.

(Living room. Mother and "adult" son are sitting on couch. Completely annoying commercial for Ford Edge comes on television in which girl in nasally voice extols virtue of "texting hands free while driving" because she is "constantly on her cellphone texting and talking anyway.")

Nance: Jared. I want you to listen to me right now and with a completely open mind. Can you do that?

Jared: Oh god. I don't know. Yes. What now? Oh no.

Nance: Seriously. Pretend that it's about ten years ago. And I'm telling you that you have to type email messages on a very small keyboard that is approximately one-twelfth the size of your laptop.

Jared: Okay...

Nance: And that you have to do it very fast. And that you have to pay for the privilege to do it. And that most of the time where you want to do it, it will be illegal.

Jared: I get it.

Nance: Do you hear how incredibly ridiculous that all sounds?

Jared: I know, right?

(Nance smiles triumphantly and victoriously, almost as if she has discovered the cure for AIDS and Rush Limbaugh all at once. Sadly, it is all meaningless because not only are AIDS and Rush Limbaugh still very much with us, so is rampant and inane text-messaging. Sigh.)

Scene III.

(Classroom. Students are chatting; some are finishing up work, others already done are socializing. Teacher is circulating.)

Liz: My brother lost the cordless phone again. It's ridiculous. He's such an idiot.

Jessica: Doesn't your phone have a pager thingy? Ours did. We just all have a cell now, so we cut off our house phone.

Liz: I don't think ours does. Anyway, the battery is dead. He's in so much trouble.

Mrs. D.: You know what would be great? If the phone had something like a cord attached to it so that it didn't get disconnected from the base. That way, it wouldn't ever get lost. It couldn't!

Liz: Yeah! That'd be awesome! You should invent that, Mrs. D. That's genius.

Jessica: (rolls eyes) Are you serious? Liz. She's screwing with you. All phones used to be like that back in the day. That's why your phone is called a cordless phone. Hello? BECAUSE IT HAS NO CORD. ANYMORE. DUH.

Mrs. D.: (winks)

Liz: Oh. I get it. Good one, Mrs. D.

(Teacher pats her head, grins, and moves on. She has more minds to...illuminate.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In CW2 This Is How We Roll

Creative Writing II is All Poetry, All The Time. But, in our Quest For Good Poetry, it usually becomes All Life, All The Time. And because writing good poetry is often about baring your soul, we have become a very intimate group. That's the way CW2 goes. It's an upper-level elective, and I run it like a studio class: each student receives individual instruction in conference and is graded on his or her progress as the semester goes on. Poems are read aloud, then frankly critiqued by the group. Sometimes in our Quest For Poetry, we go off on incredible tangents. We discuss Life In General. Nothing is Off Limits. Nothing. We laugh, we cry, we advise, and we snack. (The day that I brought in a tub of Trader Joe's Ginger Cat cookies, the place went nuts.)

Teenage poets eat a lot. It helps them create.

Earlier this week, the following scene took place in room 245, period 3, CW2--or as my writers call it, The Red Pen Massacre:

Scene opens in classroom. Teacher is perched on high stool at lectern at front of room. One student, Lindsey, the editor of the literary magazine, sits frowning, at teacher desk, working at computer. Several other students are sitting at desks in classroom. One student, Carlos, is sprawled on couch, surrounded by papers and notebooks. He is writing furiously while looking from two copies on either side of him, obviously blending the two. Two black students, one boy and one girl, are seated at desks next to each other on one side of the room, reading each other's work.

Terrence: I think it needs more development. The tone is good, but you don't have any positive imagery in there like you said you were going to.

Kashala: I know! I said it wasn't done yet. I'm experimenting with some alliteration in the first stanza, though, so I want some feedback on that, please. Also? Did you notice how my diction changes here (indicates a line) when I started using more fricatives? That took me all night! (Takes a plastic baggie containing chicken wings out of her purse; opens it, takes one out, begins to snack on it.)

Terrence: (immediately crestfallen) Oh no! No. You are not--

Kashala: Don't be hatin' on me right now because I have some fried chicken up in here.

Terrence: (looks longingly at the food and shakes his head; looks up at the teacher as if to say, "Aren't you going to say anything?") That is just hurtful.

Mrs. D.: (to girl, with mock admonishment and horror) Do you know how cliche you are right now? Holy crap! You are African-American. You are eating fried chicken. You used the slang terminology "be hatin' on me" and "up in here." You have a bunch of braids in your hair. AND YOUR NAME IS KASHALA! What on earth is left?

Kashala: I could get me some ropes and do the double-dutch!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

After All, Wine Does Come In Red And White, So It's Pretty Patriotic Already...

You know, I'm just flabbergasted by all the uproar and falderal about this Tea Party bullshit. Now there's a Coffee Party that was started on that most serious of all political forums, Facebook, and while I respect all exercises of The Democratic Process, I still think both of them are missing the boat. They really have no clear agenda or goals, and neither one is willing to be completely organized or take ownership of anything.

Well, Dept. Readers, you know what that means. Time for me to step into the breach and start bossing people around. I'm starting my own movement and I'm calling it The Wine Tasting. Here's what we're about: restoring civility, couth, intelligence, and authentic leadership to America and American Government. Period.

The Wine Tasting will not take pride in being a vast, decentralized movement/network of militiamen, conspiracy theorists, birthers, cultish Wal*Mart shoppers, gun-toters, and scooter-riding wrinklies on Medicare who maintain they want the Government to keep its hands off their healthcare, or people who think that being a mom/waving at foreign countries qualifies you to hold high government office.

In short, wackos.

Rather, The Wine Tasting will be a highly organized and elite (not a dirty word!) group with a carefully selected membership with an actual leader who will be responsible for its actions and influence. For the time being, as the Founder And Originator of The Wine Tasting, I volunteer to be its first...Host.

And, as Host, I propose the following rules be adopted immediately:
1. There are no "rallies." All Wine Tasting events are billed as just that: Wine Tasting Events.
Example: A Wine Tasting Event will be held on Saturday 6 March at the (insert name of pleasant indoor venue here) in support of the candidacy of _________."
2. All Wine Tasting Events are held indoors.
3. There will be an Official Spelling And Grammar Checker for any signs, placards, pamphlets, etc. and no signs may have illustrations or pictures of any kind.
4. Guests and Members must wear appropriate dress--business casual, minimum--to all meetings/Events. Men will never, ever wear hats.
5. Members of The Wine Tasting must prove that they read more than just the TV Guide, People magazine, and the Twilight series of teen novels. Subscription to at least one newspaper is required.
6. Potential Members will be asked to take an impromptu quiz with no Googling privileges. Questions may include, but are not limited to the following:
A. Which American historical document contains the famous phrase "We the people..."?
B. How many sitting federal Supreme Court justices are there?
C. Which Constitutional Amendment gave women the right to vote?
D. Did your state go republican or Democrat in the presidential election of 2008?
E. Under what circumstances did there become both a North and a South Korea?
7. Members must be registered voters.
8. Host reserves the right to disinvite any Member of The Wine Tasting if said Member displays or advocates any behavior that is embarrassing to or contrary to the organization.

So far, that's what I've got. I'm still working on it all, but I know you'll help me out in Comments. After all, if a Facebook group is going to try to save us, the least the Dept. can do is step up and further refine the process.
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