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February 2008 Archives

Books, Books, Books, Books...

One pleasant side-effect of being laid up with a phlegmy chest: I have a legitimate excuse to lie around reading.  (Of course, I was doing that anyway, but now I don't have to feel even remotely guilty about it.)  And since I haven't gotten around to updating any of the site's "Recent Reads" areas recently, perhaps a few recs here in the ol' journal would be in order.

Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis.  An intriguing mix of the familiar-from-eighth-grade-social-studies and the completely surprising, this account of the American Revolutionaries in the early days of the Republic is consistently delightful.  You'll learn fascinating tidbits about the below-the-radar genius of James Madison, the intense partnership of John and Abigail Adams, the almost-ironically-imperial character of George Washington, and (perhaps most interesting of all) the remarkably compartmentalized mind of Thomas Jefferson.  I had a healthy respect for Madison before reading this--he's a local boy, after all, from only a few miles outside Orange--but I had no idea how complicated, self-contradictory, even self-deluding Jefferson was, which makes Ellis's biography of TJ, American Sphinx, a definite must-read.

The Terror by Dan Simmons.  A cracking good yarn.  Simmons has constructed a book which is part historical novel, part horror story, and all absorbing.  Though it's based on the real voyage of Sir John Franklin and his two ships to find the Northwest Passage, and is therefore full of fascinating details about 19th-century sailing and icebreaking practices, the story is centered around Simmons' creation of a terrifying something-or-other that's stalking the ships.  As they sit, frozen in place for the second winter in a row, unable to escape, the ships' crews have to face the same decisions faced by the men aboard Shackleton's Endurance at the other end of the world--how to defeat the cold, the boredom, the darkness, the deprivation--but also decisions Shackleton never faced, like how to avoid being plucked off the ship and eaten alive.  It's a masterful balancing act, full of creativity and vivid detail, and I knew Simmons had me cold (so to speak) when he stretched a single action sequence over twenty-five pages and I didn't even notice until it was over.  Wonderful storytelling, highly recommended.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.  If you're wondering why I was in the mood to read Simmons' novel, it was because of this superb real-life adventure (which I didn't realize until it was in my hands had been published in 1959).  Lansing's command of events on Shackleton's abortive Antarctic adventure is superb, but his storytelling ability is what makes this book work so beautifully.  Every time you think you see an opening for our heroes, Lansing slams it closed with a timing that verges on the unearthly.  I can imagine that any writer could make Shackleton's tale worth reading, but in Lansing's hands, it's a tale worth savoring--you want to pull people aside on the street and tell them how amazing it was that Shackleton didn't lose a man.  A classic of nonfiction for good reason.

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis.  As a stone fan of Ellis's comics writing, particularly Nextwave, The Authority, Planetary, and the indescribably gonzo Transmetropolitan, I was looking forward to reading his first prose novel, and I wasn't disappointed.  Sure, at some level I suppose I could have predicted that an Ellis novel would involve Godzilla fetishists, but it's a rousing good tale nonetheless:  the bastard child of Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson, hopped up on speed and driving America's highways in a car with a powerful engine, dangerously unreliable tires, and a stereo tuned to an all-punk all-the-time station and cranked up to skull-liquefying volume.  Have a blast!

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  I've long loved Narnia, but for nearly as long, I've had a definite uneasiness with Lewis's fiction for adults.  Actually, some of the Narnia material is a little unsettling as well--the casual racism of The Horse and His Boy, say, or the rather unnerving fate of Susan in The Last Battle--but it was my readings of The Great Divorce and the astonishing short story "The Shoddy Lands" in his Of Other Worlds collection that really brought me up short.  To put it mildly, Lewis had Some Issues With Women.  I was therefore a little leery of picking up a Lewis novel about three sisters that's narrated by one of them.  Luckily, his muse was up to the task, and it turned out to be an enjoyable retelling of the myth of Cupid & Psyche.  I was a little disappointed in the ending, when the tale really shifts away from the myth and moves into Lewis's attempt (one of many in his career, I might add) to bring the classical mythology he loved into a satisfactory detente with the Christianity he had married himself too.  As rationalizations go, it was roughly as effective as most rationalizations for adultery, but his descriptions of the actual affair are quite engrossing.  It's also interesting to see some of the tropes from Prince Caspian (such as the siblings disagreeing on what is/is not visible, or the battle decided by single combat between the monarchs) getting trotted out for an adult audience.  All in all, though, it's really the heartbreaking way in which he shows Orual's love for her sister being broken against her rationality that makes it worth reading.

So.  Click on something.  Buy it.  Find some reading time.  Enjoy.


6:37 PM

Having nearly reached the conclusion of another trimester, with only Saturday's three review-based classes between myself and our exam period, and having concluded a period of some two weeks of coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath with this afternoon's diagnosis of walking pneumonia, which malady's resulting in a course of prednisone has left me with a raging case of insomnia, exacerbated by two perhaps ill-advised large cups of coffee with dinner, and improved not at all by my consuming a significant chunk of Joseph Ellis's excellent history of the American republic's early days, Founding Brothers (whose frequent quotations of primary sources have had what should by now be an obvious effect on the style in which this subfequent poft has thus far been compofed), I find myself musing upon this realization: an inordinate number of the posts I make in this journal seem to concern being sick and/or tired.

I suppose this is partially due to the fact that I use this forum for venting, and during the school year at Woodberry Forest School, the main subject for venting is almost inevitably fatigue.  This is an exhausting career in many regards.  Eight-hour days do not exist; if you're lucky you might occasionally manage a four-hour one, but the duty roster guarantees you'll get a sixteen-hour one at least once a week.  Perhaps as a result, I tend to post here only when there's a break in the action, during which time it's only natural to look back over said action and realize just how much effort was expended (and maybe work in a smidgeon of dread about the effort that will be required in the action yet to come.)

The other time I tend to post here is on those occasions when I'm sick enough that a break in the action is imposed upon me.  Again, it's natural at such times to kvetch: this hurts, that's not working properly, these feel weird, you wouldn't believe what discharge x from orifice y resembles, etc.  Reaching the middle of my forties probably isn't helping matters much (though I should note that my physician, Dr. Michael Silvester, is unfailingly upbeat about my general health whenever I visit him.)  My own tendency to soldier grimly on through the early stages of most illnesses is likely a contributor as well; as Kelly noted (earning a respectful high-five from me for her keen perception), this bout of pneumonia probably started about two weeks ago, and I haven't missed a moment of work.  By the time I finally acknowledge that I'm sick, it has become (by definition) something I can't ignore, and what I can't ignore I tend to write about.

But still, what kind of fun is it to read the work of a writer who spends so much of his writing time whining about everything that's keeping him from writing?  If I had more time, wouldn't that fact be a threat that I could be writing even more about how sick and tired I am?


So: In the coming months I'll be trying hard to focus on other stuff:  The coolness of the lunar eclipse the other night.  The delightful prospect of UNC's basketball team surging toward the end of the ACC season.  The anticipation of the day when the final volume of the collected Y: The Last Man will go on sale.  Ian's upcoming induction into the National Honor Society.  Dixon's 4.0 GPA during his first semester of high school.  Kelly's admirable success in getting to the gym regularly (and not minding that I haven't felt like going in several weeks.)  The idea for a detective novel that's been tickling my brain on and off over the past month or so.  The possibility that I might at last be moving to teaching English full-time, rather than spending half my days teaching speech.  The next phase of my attempt to visit (and bird in) every state in the union.

In short, I hope to heed the advice of Anthony Kiedis in the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Fight Like a Brave": 

If you're sick-a-sick'n'tired
of being sick and tired
if you're sick of all the bullshit
and you're sick of all the lies
it's better late than never
to set-a-set it straight

Or, as the great statesman Michael Palin stated so eloquently at the commencement of Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief album, "I think all right-thinking people in this country are sick and tired of being told that ordinary, decent people are fed up in this country with being sick and tired.  I'm certainly not.  And I'm sick and tired of being told that I am."

12:14 AM

Primary Thoughts

Last week Kelly and I were able to do something we haven't had the chance to do very often: vote in an election that might make a difference.

Mind you, we're conscientious about our responsibilities as citizens, and we regularly haul ourselves out to the tiny rural church that serves as our district's polling place.  It's just that said church is in Virginia, which for the past forty years has been a reliably red state, and bluish voters like Kelly and I are typically offering only gestures of defiance against the Red Menace* that our neighbors form.  On a couple of occasions I was able to vote for winners, but usually only those seeking re-election, such as Bill Clinton or John Warner. (Yes, I did in fact vote for a Republican; I felt he deserved my support for publicly refusing to support Ollie North's campaign, and I don't feel guilty for doing so.)

But this state has been getting appreciably more purple in recent years.  Our other Warner, former governor Mark, was an immensely popular figure here despite being a Democrat, and his lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, has been doing solid work in Richmond as well.  In 2006, I was delighted to see George "Macaca" Allen go down in flames and put Jim Webb into the Senate, and since John is retiring at the end of this term and Mark is running for his seat, there is a very real possibility that the Old Dominion will soon have two Democratic senators.

Okay, my district still has as its Congressional representative the irritatingly knee-jerk right-winger Eric Cantor, but at least he's a member of the minority party these days.

What's new and exciting, however, is having gotten the chance to vote in a primary election that may have meant something significant.  Not only is Virginia tending blue, but last week we got to choose between two groundbreaking candidates for president, and either of them could well be our next Chief Executive.  For a man born in 1963, when Jim Crow laws still ruled much of the nation, it was a proud moment to stand in a voting booth and see a black candidate's name on the presidential primary ballot.  It was even prouder to see that his chief opposition was a woman.  It would be significant if the Democrats were seriously considering a member of either group to carry the party's standard; that members of BOTH groups are on the ballot is a sign that the country is not the same one I was born into.

Of course, it's not merely the melanin or the XX chromosomes that are significant here; it's that we've now got some evidence that the principles on which this nation was founded are more than principles.  For all the racism and sexism in America (and there's plenty), we're at least entering a period where we don't automatically reject a candidate because of African ancestry or she's got interior genitalia.

Moreover, in this primary, a Democratic voter was demonstrably defying either sexism (by voting for Clinton) or racism (by voting for Obama).  (I suppose if you voted for Mike Gravel, you were arguably defying probability, but that's another issue.)  No matter which candidate you backed, you were making a statement about America's ideals--about the way the country ought to be.

Better still, the current polls suggest that either candidate might well win the general election.  And if there's one thing I like better than making an idealistic statement, it's making an idealistic statement that has practical value as well.

Kind of like winning a basketball game by using sound fundamentals, high-percentage shots, energetic defense, and good sportsmanship.

It's fun to play that way.  It's even more fun to play that way and win.



*The Red Menace is, of course, only one of the variously colored world-conquering hordes from the original version of the board game Risk.  The others are the Blue Meanies, the Yellow Peril, the Black Plague, the Gang Green, and the Pink Panzers.

2:39 PM

Whack-a-Mole in Hades

Two years ago, I finally snapped.  I'd been coaching forensics and debate since my first year of full-time teaching (1991), and in early 2006, it became apparent that I couldn't do it any more.  Between the end of the school day and the start of practice, I would find myself sitting in a dark room in dread, trying to control my rapid breathing, all which made it fairly easy to realize that I badly needed a change.  Luckily, we were at that same time in need of someone to take over directing the winter Black Box play, so I told my headmaster, the drama department chairman, and my assistant coach that if someone else would take over the team, I would gladly take over directing the play.

I haven't had much call to wonder about the wisdom of that move, but this weekend I was able to consider my decision in some depth.  My former assistant, now the head debate coach, was needed for a physics contest in North Carolina, so I told him I could cover for him and take the team down to Hanover County yesterday.

First, however, I had to conduct Friday's practice.  I had forgotten how much a debate practice resembles a marathon session of Whack-a-Mole.  Each student has only a brief time to work with you, so you can't concentrate on any one thing for more than a few minutes before you must wrench yourself away and listen to another student, usually doing a completely different event, and offer him suggestions for improvement.  Take ANY extra time to make your critique more thorough and you delay not only the next student, but all the other students in the queue, which makes them even more insistent and needy when they finally do pop up into your field of view.  I began at 1:15, and finally chased the last student from my room just after 5:00, feeling as though I still needed at least another half-hour with each of them to provide any useful feedback.  My whacking arm was exhausted, and the moles were still percolating through the soil.

Then lo! for the first time since March of 2006, I woke up early on a Saturday, loaded a group of blazer-clad debaters onto a minibus, and drove east with the traditional behind-the-wheel breakfast of a Hardee's chicken biscuit.  It was as if nothing had changed at all.  The same women were manning the registration table at the school, and I was once again sent to judge Student Congress, the event where (if I may say so) I distinguished myself as a knowledgeable and scrupulous parliamentarian for over a decade.

The students were much as they were two years ago, too; many of them intellectually gifted, some of them possessed of extraordinary oratorical abilities, some carrying ambitions that short-circuited their sense of fair play.  Most didn't bother to give sources for the claims they made about the nation's problems, baldly making assertions that went largely unchallenged.  As debate goes, it was mostly alternating oratories, rather than actual argumentation.

The judge's lounge was especially bad.  Typically judges are provided with free food and drink that is at least plentiful, if not of superb quality, but this tournament managed to do neither.  When I arrived at around nine a.m., there was a dispenser of coffee, with a quart of fat-free half & half, eight or nine packets of Splenda, and about as many packets of sugar.  That was it for beverages, except for the two dozen eight-ounce bottles of water.  The only food was a single dray of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins, two small tubs of cream cheese, and a dozen bagels.  Ir was pretty lean as judges' breakfasts go, but I had luckily filled up at Hardee's, so all I really needed was my coffee.  I got two cups before it ran out; no more was ever made.

Lunch would be better, or so I hoped, but it turned out that no lunch was provided.  We were allowed to buy the hot dogs, canned drinks, and candy bars that were for sale in the competitors' lounge, but even the discount from $1.50 to 50 cents didn't make the hot dogs all that appealing.  During the thirty-minute break between Congress sessions I ate one anyway.

Once Congress wrapped up at about 2:30, I returned to the student lounge in the school cafeteria, where the only seating was on the flat round plastic discs attached to the tables.  If pressed to name the one unmitigated evil that public education has committed against our children, I would have to say it's making them sit on these things every day.  They're like some kind of torture implement designed by parakeet fanciers; there's no back support, and barely any butt support, so sitting on one for a single lunch period is awful, and sitting on one for an entire afternoon is almost procrustean. I tried to concentrate on my book, C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces, so that I wouldn't notice my surroundings.

Awards were finally announced at 4:30, and I was happy to see several WFS students earn slots in the upcoming state tournament, but as I headed the minibus back into the evening's rosy conclusion, my happiness couldn't outweigh the overwhelming exhaustion I was feeling, an exhaustion that wasn't merely physical, but existential. I was floored by the realization that I used to do this regularly. I did this regularly for fifteen years.  I had always known it was a burden, but until I set it down, I never realized just how heavy, how exhausting, how unwieldy it really was.  If Sisyphus could ever have put aside his stone, this is how he would feel after pushing it up the hill once more, just for old times' sake.

My realization this February, then, is a wholly appropriate one for Black History Month:  Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I am free at last!

12:19 PM

...the birthday of Cecilia Anderson!

Elaine Carroll, Kel's ex-roommate and BFF (and the maid of honor at our wedding, I should also note) is now the proud mother of a baby girl whose middle name is still in negotiation; hubby John Anderson is apparently wanting to introduce "Carroll" into the equation (much as we gave both our guys "Dalton" as a second middle name), while Elaine is pushing for "Joan," which just happens to be the feminine form of "John."

Aren't they just the cutest?

The first name is a colossal "duh" in some ways. Elaine and John are devout Catholics. John is a classicist, trained at Berkeley and Yale. Elaine holds a music degree from UNC and an arts management degree from NYU.  She worked for Boosey & Hawkes music publishing after college. She used to manage a chamber music festival. Now she manages an orchestra for a living and plays flute in an Irish band (the Shamrogues) on the side. St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music.  Do you see where this is going?

Anyway, this child is a total delight for the happy couple, as well as their numerous friends and relations, and I can report that Kelly was less tense during her own labor than she was last night after Elaine called to report that the contractions were five minutes apart.  Luckily, unlike Elaine, she was permitted to start swilling down vodka immediately.

She has not, at least in my presence, burst into a Simon & Garfunkel tune, but it's only a matter of time.

Welcome, Cecilia!

6:46 PM

I meant to tell this story a week or two back, but things got busy.

One scene in I Hate Hamlet involves an exhausted Barrymore waking up on the sofa in front of the television, having left a pile of debris around him--mostly champagne bottles and bags of junk food.  Because the script has champagne bottles being liberally opened and shared around, and because we are not legally empowered to give real champagne (or any other sparkling wine) to our students, I had to run out to Food Lion the weekend before the show and buy out their entire supply of sparkling apple cider (and a few bottles of sparkling Welch's grape juice for practice--the "Welch's" label is too visible on the bottles for them to work as faux champagne in front of an audience.)

In any case, I grabbed about a dozen bottles and four bags of Doritos and potato chips.  On the way back from the store, however, I realized that there was a kink in my plans: the champagne bottles would be opened and emptied on stage every night during dress rehearsals, so it was just a matter of keeping all the dead soldiers around and setting them around Barrymore during the blackout before the scene.  The chips bags, however, are never seen full on stage.  Before I could set them around his inert figure, they needed to be emptied.

Luckily, I have just the personnel for that sort of task.  At home.

I walked into our living room, where Ian and Dixon were busily slaughtering duckies and bunnies (our house euphemism for playing video games that involve mayhem) with their friend Taylor, and I handed the surprised boys the bags of chips.

"I need these emptied before tonight's rehearsal," I explained.

Ian grabbed the bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.  "You're the best dad ever."

5:56 AM

Upcoming Reunions

I've spent most of my life attending the Matthis family reunion near Taylor's Bridge, NC, held every Father's Day at the home of my cousins, Ellen and her brother Gladston.  I can't even begin to catalogue the sights and sounds from that reunion that are permanently etched into my memory, from the world's largest magnolia tree out front (on several occasions the home of orchard oriole nests) to the dazzling hummingbirds visiting Ellen's myriad flowers to the sugary tartness of Gladston's lemonade.  But after Ellen's death at age 92 this past July, it's going to be hard to return to Sampson County this year.  In recent years her arthritis kept her from doing all of the work she used to do to run the reunion, but though I feel pretty sure those family members who've been pitching in to help will keep up their efforts, it's not going to be quite the same.

Luckily, I can point to two other reunions that won't be the same--but may be more enjoyable for that fact.

In May, a twenty-year gap in Chapel Hill's music scene will once again be filled: The Pressure Boys will retake the stage at the Cat's Cradle.  Yes, the six-man band I followed from their days as high-school students (mainly because I was in high school with them) until their 1988 breakup has decided it's time to dig out the trench coats and Air Jordans and get back to pumping out ridiculously infectious dance music.  Better still, it's a benefit gig.  Frontman John "Zippy" Plymale has been working hard to raise money for cystic fibrosis research, organizing and producing the wonderful Songs for Sixty Five Roses benefit CD, and for that cause he was able to persuade the far-flung members of the P-Boys to reunite for a show (possibly two!) at the Cradle.  Since this is requiring drummer Rob Ladd to come back from California, and sax-player-turned-lawyer Greg Stafford is having to dry clean a truly venerable houndstooth hat, it's a commitment we should honor.  Click on the P-Boys link above to go buy your own tickets.  Kelly and I will be there, decked out in gear from our twenties, ready to embarrass our children horribly.

But that's not all!  On June 6th, the ArtsCenter in Carrboro (only a few doors down from the Cradle) hosts the 25th anniversary celebration of the Transactors Improv Co. Still the ne plus ultra of improvised theater, the Transactors were a favorite performing group when Kelly and I were young marrieds in Chapel Hill, and when my old CHHS buddies Allison Heartinger '81 and Dan Sipp '79 joined the troupe, we almost because groupies.  Eventually, and probably only to get some use out of me since I was there anyway, I was asked to join up as a backup pianist/guitarist, improvising backup music for scenes, helping the actors create original musical comedies about embarrassing personal problems, and spontaneously composing the irritatingly cheerful "Dan's Theme," which I fully plan to play again in June at the first opportunity I have to make Dan wince.  Yes, a whole slew of former members are apparently heading to the Hill to help celebrate, and I'm looking forward to seeing them, even the ones I've never met.  I imagine we'll gather backstage and find a particularly enjoyable irony in the fact that we'll all have come great distances and taken great pains to celebrate twenty-five years of creating art that is by its very nature ephemeral.

You don't have to be a comedian to laugh at that.

5:07 AM


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