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Archive for January, 2011

Last Thanksgiving I had a spark of jazz reignited by a trip to New Orleans, and while the embers are still flickering a bit this week I found the Lost and Found poetry stretch at the Miss Rumphius Effect was enough to jump-start a memory about trumpeter and flugelhorn player Chet Baker.

Part of the Cool West Coast Jazz scene, Baker had a lazy way of crooning that always feels to me like rolled-up white jeans on a beach and sandpipers and ocean waves like folding butter.  It’s not a clear, strong voice but there’s something there.  I listen to the otherwise upbeat “Let’s Get Lost” and I hear undertones like the true face behind a mask. The song (from 1952, I believe) only reminds me how, after a brief comeback in the late 80s, we was a ramshackle mess. My take on the theme of lost and found, a voice found and a life lost to drug abuse.

missing U

hearing Chet Baker sing
“Let’s Get Lost”
always makes me ponder

how he ended up with a voice
like dusty rosin and whiskey
in the back of the throat

caressing the uvula
eloping with the tongue
past the remnants of his embouchure

softened and sullied
by dentures and heroin
the fading warmth

of a junkie high
pulling memory shards
like splinters of sunlight

burnished over time
with cotton batting
into a bronzed whisper

the pang of youthful yearning
and lovers driving off the map
toward a lazy reverie

that makes me wonder
if Chet was singing
to a mirror

Yeah, jazz poems can be less than cheery. Sorry ’bout that.

Hey! It’s the first Poetry Friday of 2011! Let’s go get lost among the greatness collected over at Live. Love Explore! today!

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The Silver Poplar

In the hills of California there lived a second generation hippie family named Priestly. Flint and Chenille had their teenage daughter Jade when they were far beyond the normal years for starting a family, and were more accustomed to the company of goats, but they love Jade with all their heart.

They were originally named Fromm, but after a distant cousin attempted to assassinate the President some years back they decided to Anglicize their last name to stop folks from asking them questions.  Not that they had a lot of interaction with people.  They had lived off the grid since the late 1960s and only went into town every fall to sell handicrafts and preserves during the harvest festivals. In many ways they were no different from the Amish except that they weren’t farmers, and less social, and probably should have bathed more frequently.

One fall day, as so often happens in California, a Santa Ana wind caught hold of the embers from a homeless encampment nearby and set the hills on fire. The Priestlys had no advance warning of the fire from their non-existent phone or television and were unable to evacuate their rammed earth cabin until it was almost too late.  Surrounded by smoke and flame Jade was separated from her parents and wandered for nearly a day before coming to a fire lane that lead to a town and safety. The fire raged for nearly a week before crews could bring it under control, and Jade staked out the command center in the hopes of hearing word from her parents.  After five days without food or sleep Jade passed out and was taken to an infirmary where she received her first expose to Western medicine and starchy food.

A waitress named Bonnie who volunteered with the Red Cross heard about Jade and decided to take her in.  Bonnie thought it best to keep the girl occupied so she convinced her boss to hire on Jade to help bus tables and run the dishwasher. Over time Jade came to accept that her parents had perished in the fire and resigned herself to a career at the diner.  Bonnie and Jade grew close, like sisters, even going so far as to spend their free days off driving the next town over to shop the better thrift stores and catch the early bird special and Senior Pancho’s.

One day at the diner a mysterious stranger appeared.  Actually he was a scruffy freelance photographer who still dressed like a college kid even though he was nearly 40 years old.  He was kind to Jade and without her realizing it she found herself flirting with him.  He said his name was Seamus but he went by the professional name Shame. Jade found herself spilling her life story to Shame, and by the time he’d finished his grilled cheese on whole wheat with a side of ketchup she would have walked out of the diner and followed him anywhere.

“I’ve got a job up north I need to do, maybe two day’s worth of work,” Shame said. “How ‘bout I pick you up on the way back. You could do some modeling in the Southland.  I know some people…”

The words were barely out of Shame’s mouth before Jade began fantasizing about how many reusable shopping bags she would need to bring all her stuff.  She decided it could all fit into two bags.

Shame drove several hours north to a tent city that had sprung up in the aftermath of the fires. Hundreds of displaced people and pets had converged on a small former mining town and taken it upon themselves to take their insurance money and start over fresh.  A variety of aid organizations helped out with daily needs and the county agreed to help connect them with water and sewer lines.  Shame had been hired to do a photo essay for a magazine and in seeking out an unusual angle came across a couple who were living in a log-lined dugout on the edge of town. The dugout had a small walkway lined with stones and in the front three saplings had been planted in a row. Shame had started taking pictures when the people who lived in the dugout emerged to investigate. They weren’t too keen to have their pictures taken but they became very animated when Shame asked them about the saplings.

“The trees on either side are local pines but the one in the middle is a silver poplar,” the man said. “We saved them from the fire and they have come to represent the life we left behind.”

“Once we settled here in town we meditated until the cosmic spirits confirmed that our daughter had not died in the fire,” said the woman.

“And we planted these trees to represent our family, and we know that as long as the poplar tree is thriving our Jade is still alive,” said the man, who happened to be named Flint Priestly.  The woman was his wife, Chenille.

Shame looked at the two old people, looked at the pathetic saplings, and decided to say nothing about Jade. Instead, he gave them a hundred dollars from his wallet in exchange for permission to take some more pictures. Seeing as the Priestly’s were struggling in an otherwise thriving new town they happily took the money and sent Shame away with a small jar of mountain berry preserves.

After Shame left, the Priestly’s went into town and proceeded to spend all their money equally on canning supplies and fruit. They had hoped to return to living simply and trading as best they knew how.  But while in town the shopkeeper found the Priestly’s to be suspicious and when the police were summoned Flint, who had grown up with fairy tales of police brutality against protestors during the Vietnam War, panicked and began assaulting the officers. In an attempt to flee Chenille destroyed a good deal of merchandise that she couldn’t afford beyond the money Shame had given them.  Charged with disturbing the peace, assaulting an officer, property damage, and under suspicion of theft, The Priestly’s were the first occupants of town’s newly built jail cell.  A county judge came to hear the case, gave the Priestly’s a warning, and let them return home as poor as they were when they went into town.

Shame arrived as promised to pick up Jade and they rode off to the Southland with a tearful farewell from Bonnie. True to his word, Shame hooked Jade up with a modeling agency and she quickly became the new “it” girl for her earthy looks. Her story of losing her parents in the fire, and a gallery show of tasteful nudes shot by Shame, guaranteed Jade would never have to worry about money. Known simply by her first name, she became a brand for natural beauty products, a clothing line made from natural fibers, and the face behind an international movement eliminate shoes.

“Shoes remove our only connection with Mother Earth,” she would say in the television ads, a line her mother had taught her as a child that would echo through her head late at night.

Shame and Jade remained together for years but never married.

Over time it began to eat away at Shame that he’d never reunited Jade with her family.  When had the opportunity he knew he was merely being selfish. He’d wanted Jade all to himself, and seeing how successful and happy she had become he felt he’d made the right decision in not taking her back to the log dugout in the hills. He got out the photos he had taken that day and remembered the story about the three trees. Soon he became obsessed with wondering how the trees were doing. So one day he told Jade he was going on assignment and drove north to see what had happened to Jade’s parents.

The town of Hope, as that is what they had named it, had grown to look like a prosperous small town from another era. Buildings were simple and modest, streets were paved but relatively free of cars as most people walked, and it struck Shame that the town looked as if it had always been there. He had to search long and hard but eventually he found the three trees.  They were no longer in front of a dugout home but instead stood in front of the windows of the town library. The pines on either side had barely grown ten feet but the poplar towered over them and sprung bright green.  The tree had prospered alongside Jade’s success, just as her parents believed it would. But the sickly pines caused Shame some concern.

The town librarian was new to Hope but she had heard stories about the Priestlys. After their incident in jail, they returned home and became reclusive. They ventured out either in the early morning or late evenings and no one knew what they were doing. One day they found Flint sitting on a curb sobbing with a magazine in his hand mumbling something about his lost daughter. The librarian believed that Flint had seen a fashion model who looked like his daughter and it was too much for him to bear. After that they abandoned their home and disappeared, presumably into the woods, and were never heard from again.

Shame returned to the Southland, stopping at a nursery along the way to purchase a silver poplar sapling to give as a gift to Jade. When he arrived Jade eagerly greeted him.

“Were going to have a baby!” she said.

And the three of them grew happily together for for a while beneath the shade of the silver poplar tree they planted in front of their family home.

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© 2010 david elzey

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The New Grimmoire is a story project where I retell and reimagine tales from the Brothers Grimm. They appear here on Thursdays.  Not every Thursday necessarily, but as they make themselves available to my muse.

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what the huck

Seems like once or twice a year Huckleberry Finn finds himself in hot water.  Usually regarding some form of censorship, almost always around Twain’s use of the word nigger.

Yes, the word is hurtful.  It’s also historical.  It is a part of our American heritage, one of the uglier parts, and to ignore it (or worse, to hide behind the phrase ‘the n-word’ as if that somehow makes it more polite for conversation) suggests we are still unable or unwilling to address our nation’s racism head-on.

So how surprising is it to find that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being produced with the word nigger replaced by the word slave and the Injun in Injun Joe expunged completely.*  And by a company called NewSouth Books. The New South, of course, being the term originally used to separate the Southern States from their pre-Civil War plantation-and-slave-owning ways and their modern, more integrated self. Clearly NewSouth (if not the New South) would prefer to whitewash (so to speak) its hurtful history by removing all traces of it from literature.

Once you start ‘cleaning up’ literature, or revising history, in the name of not hurting people’s feelings where do you stop?  If someone objects to the portrayal of Huck’s Pap as a drunkard and abusive, do we remove all references from the next edition? What about the murderous violence in the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons?  Should that go next?

More bizarre to me is that this new edition is prefaced and edited by Twain “scholar” named Dr. Alan Gribben. I don’t doubt Dr. Gribben’s credentials, only that I have a hard time calling someone a scholar who thinks presenting Bowlderizations of classic literature in order to make them “less hurtful, less controversial” is somehow preferential to actually using the text for what Twain intended: as a scathing satire aimed at exposing the very things modern sensibilities find objectionable. It seems to me a scholar would recognize the value of the author’s intent and the opportunities the text provides in opening discussions about the material.

Language has weight and meaning, Dr. Gribben.  I hesitate to point this out, as I’m sure you must have come to realize this during your studies, but the word slave denotes a lower class of human while nigger promotes a person’s belief in another human as a lesser species.  The meaning and intent behind the user’s word choice is evident in how they use it, and Twain understood this, and he was explaining it for the rest of the world to see.  You can travel the world over and find a history of slaves among many (so-called) civilizations; Americans had to invent the word nigger to further underscore their contempt. The word is used as an epithet toward people who are not and never were slaves no mater what its original providence. This is part of Twain’s point.

Dr. Gribben has defended himself against the “textual purists” by suggesting that his edition will allow for the book to be used with a younger, more “general audience.”  I would like to suggest that Dr. Gribben, for all his fine scholarship, doesn’t have the slightest clue about young readers and, in fact, doesn’t respect or trust them to be able to deal with the truth.  You see this a lot, with people making decisions for the good of the children.  Think of the children! It is not only an insult to the intelligence of young readers to suggest as much, it shows a near contempt for educators and professionals who deal with children to know how to present and teach challenging material to those readers.

It isn’t pretty, but the only audience this new edition of Huckleberry Finn will satisfy are those who would prefer that the past be absolved through omission.  Perhaps the next book NewSouth can publish would be a narrative of the settlement of the Oklahoma Territories without mentioning the Trail of Tears.  Or perhaps a version of Farewell to Manzanar that somehow skirts the issue that the Japanese were American citizens.  You know, because we wouldn’t want to upset people by opening old wounds with something as hurtful as the truth.

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* Since posting this I’ve seen reports that the word Injun was removed entirely and others that say it was replaced with Native or Indian. At least they didn’t go with Redskin, but Indian Joe isn’t any more “corrected” that Injun Joe and Native Joe sounds stupid..

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My girls, in 7th and 9th grade, are both taking Mandarin as their foreign language.  As a parent, I am extremely proud at how they are doing with what to many Westerners is considered a difficult language to learn. As a former educator and someone generally concerned about education and educational reform in the United States I am utter baffled by our insistence that kids need a foreign language before going out into the world.

The arguments I was given when I was in school, and still in place in many places, is that a foreign language is essential to get into college, where it will again be essential to learn if you intend to go to graduate school, where you will be required to do primary-source research in languages other than English.  I went to art school, and studied film, and none of my three years of high school German was required to get into school, nor would it have necessarily been helpful for a graduate degree.  I would have been better served with background in the language of visual storytelling, the narrative of illustration, the language of screenwriting and theatre.  I know a great many people who went into a variety of fields that did not require a background in a foreign language, yet we were all required to learn one.

I recognize that schools must prepare high school kids with a solid general education so that they can enter the collegiate and post-graduate world on an even footing, but learning a foreign language is so Old World thinking, so 19th century. Back when the foreign language requirements came about there was a great deal of research and scholarly work being done outside the United States. And many students were the children of immigrants whose language was a vital bridge between worlds. We don’t live in those worlds, and yet we cling dearly, desperately to these antiquated ideas because… well, why?

There are two major cultural shifts from the 20th century that I believe are far more significant and should be offered as required “languages” in schools, or at least as equal alternatives: media and computer programming. Both of these areas hold a major influence over our daily lives and without understanding and teaching them formally we are setting our kids up for a future where, bright as they may be, they won’t be able to compete with their global counterparts.

It sounds a little rant-y to suggest that we need to give children media awareness, but daily in television, movies, magazines, and newspapers – online as well as in traditional formats and venues – they are bombarded with information and are never taught to analyze the message. A student curious about the methods of propaganda used by fascist governments during WWII might be uncomfortably surprised to find very similar language and arguments being used by political pundits on television.  More likely, they will see the past as being disconnected from the present and won’t bother to question what they see daily because they have been conditioned to accept media as entertainment unconditionally.  The political divisiveness in this country is directly related to our inability to educate an electorate in the language of the media and the result is visible daily.

Computers are such a part of our daily lives that they are as overlooked as the media.  Because computers have been designed to be “user friendly” and “intuitive” we seem to have abdicated our responsibility to understand the technology to those whose job it is to make things “just work out of the box.” So what’s the big deal?  We use hundreds of computer-based things daily that we don’t understand – e-books, mp3 players, digital cameras and digital phones, even our modern cars – but how could knowing and understanding programming language be of any use?

Here’s a question many people don’t consider: Who writes the computer programs, and are you comfortable letting someone else do it and control what you can do?

I know, that sounds absurd. Computer programmers aren’t some evil elite (though Microsoft and facebook seem to wield quite a huge bit of influence in our lives) but the bottom line with all computer-based technology is that it can only do what it’s programmed to do.  All well and good, but who gets to decide that? In a reversal of over 600 years of publishing, the abdication of understanding computer programming is akin to reverting back to a time when only the monks could read and write. It’s no longer enough to teach kids how to read, how to use spelling and grammar, they need to bilingual and that means computer literate as well and plain literate.

Or we could let enterprising nations take over all our programming while we continue to be a society of consumers who hold steadfast to our old educational ways. Let the rest of the world program our technology and use the media to keep us placid and entertained.

In Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits there is a character, Supreme Evil, who mocks God for wasting his time building what he considers non-essential aspects of Creation.  “Slugs.  He created slugs.” He goes on, in true movie villain fashion, to monologue about what he would have done.  No messing around for him. “8 o’clock, day one, lasers.” It’s funny that Supreme Evil finds all the natural elements of the world useless, all he cares about is the big, explosive technology, but how is that any different than our blindness about the influence of media and technology in our lives without understanding the building blocks that makes technology possible?

By the end of 4th grade kids should be able to write a simple logic program, and make a simple game that could be soldiered on a basic breadboard. By 6th grade they should be able to create web pages using html, and design and build simple robots without help.  Basics.  Not units on computers or once-a-week time in the computer lab, but as a subject equal with the history and math and language arts. In high school kids should be able to build and set up their own laptops from parts, customize and modify the operating systems, and finding ways to optimize their education using programs of their own design.

They should be able to pull apart the flaws in logic while watching political pundits are arguing and should spot the emotional manipulation built into commercials on television before they enter middle school.  Come high school they should be able to tell the difference between balanced and biased journalism (and learn that he who shouts loudest is probably hiding something) and see that their favorite programs (especially their beloved comedies) reinforce bad stereotypes about race and gender. It might not hurt to include quite a bit of foreign media to give them a picture of how we are viewed from the outside.

I realize the shift this puts on educators to know and teach radically new subjects, and perhaps until the deadwood of older set-in-their-ways teachers and administrators can be replaced we’d need specialists to come into classrooms and teach these subjects.  We need enthusiastic people to explain how media and computers work and acknowledge that these are important aspects of our world. But the longer we put it off the harder its going to be to get it going.

And if this isn’t too obvious, this is especially important with girls. For all the reason you can imagine.

I am incredibly proud of my girls and their apparent ease with Mandarin, just as I am with their abilities in the arts and their interest in athletics. But it kills me that public education has killed the notion that anything outside of the classroom is worthy of study, and that working toward getting into a college (eventually! let’s not rush them!) means mastering a language that in the future might not be anywhere near as important as the things they deal with right now.

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