My Age in School Years

Note:  Some of my readers have mentioned that I might get more responses if I wrote slices that were a bit more…succinct.  With that in mind…

It’s toward the end of math class, and one of my students, Ryan, comes up to me as I’m working with another student.  He is very excited.  

“Mr. V,  you’ve been teaching a really long time,” he informs me.

“That’s true,” I admit.  “What led you to this realization?”

“Well, I’ve been looking at these pictures on the wall.”  

“Ahh, I see.” Like many teachers, I have a wall with all of my class pictures from earlier years.  They go back to the 1985-86 school year. “Okay, I guess that’s some good evidence.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty incredible.  You’ve been teaching for 66 years!” he proclaims.

“Really?”  This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, since I have yet to reach 60 in human years.  “What makes you say that?” I ask.

“Well, I was looking at the pictures, and I counted that there were 33 of them.”

“Uh huh.  Go on.” I resist the urge to tell him that I am actually missing two of the years.

“So, I took the number of pictures, and I multiplied by two, and I got 66.  So that means you’ve been teaching for 66 years.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I don’t see why you did that calculation.” This was math class, so, while I was pleased with his multiplication skills, I was eager to hear the logic of his formula.

“Okay, let me explain,” he says in a professorial tone.  “Look at the labels at the bottom of each picture.” He gestures like a teacher pointing to a detail that a careless student may have overlooked.  “You see, they show the years. And there are two years on every picture.” Here he holds up two fingers so I may count them. I nod, having successfully counted his fingers. “Look at this one. It says 2018-2019. That’s two years, so I multiplied by two.  You’ve been teaching for 66 years.”

We’ve been noting in my family that our stately old canine friend, Boo, has a right to be moving a bit slowly and demanding special dining privileges these days.  He is, after all, 112 in dog years. I may never reach his record of longevity, but at least now I can say that I’m pushin’ 70 in school years.  

You?

A Man Walks into a Bear

We were in the Adirondacks for the long weekend.  It was our last morning, so Nancy and I went to one of our favorite breakfast spots, the Country Bear, a mom and pop diner that features amazing french toast, but also has its own north country version of Cheers going on at the counter.  

On this particular day, the Country Bear is packed, and the husband and wife who run the place seem a bit overwhelmed.  I think the Rosh Hashanah long weekend wasn’t on their radar. At one point, Louise, their friend who sits at one of the counter seats, has to get up and bus some tables.  They also ask her husband, Ralph, if he’d be a dear and go out to the mini mart up the road and fetch some paper towels and napkins. Nancy and I aren’t in any particular hurry, so we just wait in line and enjoy the show.  

Ralph is a crusty old cut-up who cracks jokes and then looks around the room to see if the other customers caught wind of his wit.  Louise just hustles around looking for things she can do. She refills the plastic syrup cups. She pours coffee. She keeps apologizing to customers, reminding them that she doesn’t really work there.  She’s just helping out.

We finally get seated at a booth and Louise brings us some coffee.  “I can’t take your order. That’s for the professionals,” she notes.  We assure her we’re in no rush. As we relax with our coffees, we see a pick-up pull into the lot.  Out steps a man with a decidedly north country fashion sense. He sports multi-pocketed camouflage pants and a fisherman’s vest underneath a checked flannel jacket.  His thinning white hair is pulled back into a long ponytail, and tufts of curly whiskers spring from various regions of his face and neck. I nod toward him as he exits his truck and tell Nancy that when I retire, that’s the look I’m leaning toward.  She lets me know that I will then also be leaning toward a new life partner. This is the same “don’t even think about it” response that I get when I tell her I really want to sell the house and buy a Winnebago. I will be rolling solo.

As this fellow enters, he’s greeted simultaneously by Ralph, Louise and one of the owners.  “Earl!” they all shout. Ralph actually grunts his welcome and nods his head toward the empty stools beside him.  “This one’s Lou’s, but she’s too busy being the help,” he says. He looks around to see if she heard him. Then, with his chin, he motions for Earl to take the end stool. Earl skips the waiting line and plops down.  Soon he’s in a loud conversation with Ralph about “stupid know-it-alls.” He tells a story about a man who used to lecture people about how gentle Kodiak bears are. “He used to show off and kiss these bears. Know what happened?”

“Can’t bear the suspense.”  Ralph scans the room to see if anyone caught that one.

“Yeah, well I’ll tell ya.  Man just got killed by a Kodiak. Yeah.  It’s on video, too. They were takin’ video of him with the bear, and then the bear attacked and started eatin’ him.”

I’m somewhat happy that my french toast hasn’t arrived yet.  Soon, the daughter of the owners arrives. She thinks she’s just there to grab some cash from the register, but Louise informs her that she’d better stay.  “Your Mom and Dad are in the weeds, and Ralph and I have to leave.” The daughter sighs. 

“Hey, I saved you a trip to the mini mart,” Ralph offers.  Then he says his goodbyes to Earl. “How do you like my new hat?” he asks, yanking on the bill of his purple and black trucker.  

“It’s nice,” Earl concedes, “How do you like mine?”

“I like it more than the ponytail.  You look like Willie Nelson. Speakin’ of in the weeds.”   He scans the room and bobs his eyebrows. I chuckle at that one, and Ralph nods, congratulating me for catching his parting shot.

When Ralph and Louise depart, Earl is still in a chatty mood.  He strikes up a conversation with the daughter. “So what year are ya now, darlin’?”

“I’m a senior, believe it or not.”

“Wow! A senior already.  Are you excited about graduating?

“I guess.  A little nervous about what I’m gonna do next.”

“Oh, don’t be nervous.  You’ve got a whole world out there.  You gotta look at it like an adventure.  You’ve got unlimited possibilities.”

This is a more appetizing conversation than the one with Ralph, but it’s also shorter.  She has orders to take and tables to bus. She leaves Earl looking for his next chat partner.  He swivels in his seat and smiles down at us from his perch. Nancy stirs the air in her empty coffee cup.  She seems unnerved by this future me. I want to reassure her that I was kidding. I avert my eyes from Earl.  But then I can’t help it. I look back. He’s smiling at us.

I think it’s a testament to Earl’s skill at conversation that neither Nancy nor I can now recall how he first engaged us.  We are both introverts, and though I know that if I want to have more story possibilities, I really have to be more willing to engage in conversations, right then, I did not relish a chat with the Earl of the Bear.  Nonetheless, within moments, he had cast, lured gently, hooked, and reeled us in.  Within the first two minutes of the conversation, he was talking about unions, Jimmy Hoffa, the weathermen (of the 60s), teachers, and Nazi youth .  It was the teachers’ union and Nazi confluence that set my barb. “Are you somehow equating unions and Nazi youth?” I asked, trying not to sound too argumentative.

“Oh God no,” he said. “God, no.  I was in a union for 40 years. No, no, I was just saying that the teachers’ union convinced Hoffa that the Teamsters should associate with a “women’s profession” because they would promote a positive image for unions on an impressionable portion of our population.  God, I’m glad you asked that. You see, that’s why a conversation is so important in this country. We’re filled with mistrust and misunderstandings. I’m so glad you asked that. No, I’ve been in the teacher’s union for a long time. I’d never want to equate it with the evil that happened in Germany.”

At that point I was relieved, Nancy was feeling better, and we were both helplessly flopping in Earl’s conversation net.  It’s not really correct to call it a conversation. We mostly listened and nodded, as Earl took us through his career. He had been a teacher on Long Island.  A student OD’d on heroin on his first day as a teacher. He’d been giving a biology lecture to 1000 teachers on the day John Kennedy was shot. You don’t forget a day like that. It’s a shame what education has become.  Way too much testing he thought. Fourth graders don’t need testing. They need to work with real things. They need to build models and go outside more. “Have you ever tried to teach a ten-year-old a math concept?”

“Well, uh, I am a 5th grade teacher.”

“You’re a teacher? Oh, well then you know some of what I’ve been saying, right?”

Earl had been talking for about fifteen minutes without finding out that I was a teacher.  This is what I mean when I say it wasn’t exactly a conversation. I had learned a lot about Earl, though.  At the age of 4 he had lived in the Amazon region of Brazil. By age 6 he spoke five languages. He taught science and nature.  He brought EMT training to all of the ambulance workers in the north country. He led nature hikes for middle schoolers. He worked at a wilderness camp in the Adirondacks.  He had led a 31-day canoe trip with teenagers “just because they wanted one more summer at the camp.” He was 85 years old. He had gone to NYU. He used to sit in on classes at five different schools in New York, just by asking professors for permission.  He didn’t need to take notes in class. He remembered everything he heard. 

He mostly talked, and we mostly listened for the next half hour.  I ate all of my french toast, and Nancy had all of her pancakes and sausage.  Earl had eaten none of his spinach omelet or bacon. “Ah, my food’s almost always cold before I get to it.”  You don’t say.

About an hour and a half after we had arrived, Nancy had reached her Earl limit.  “Well, we really have to get on the road.” We stood to leave, but Earl had more to say.  I noticed that he resorted to a question whenever he wanted to prolong the conversation. “Whereabouts do you live?  Connecticut? Oh, I taught on Long Island for 25 years. Right across the sound from you.” We talked (or listened) for another 15 minutes, in the reverse of the usual lecture positions.  Earl sat on his stool, while his audience stood in front of him. He had learned at the feet of the scientists who worked with his grandmother. All of them were giants in their field, studying the ecosystems of the Amazon basin.  He had gone to college when he was 16 and only about this tall. He put his hand at about the five-foot level. I suggested that Earl should write down his life story (perhaps I was trying to get him to stop talking). No, he wasn’t going to write a book about his life, though.  He was leaving that for his kids. They could write it from all of his journals. He pulled out a small pocket-sized leather-bound notepad. “Got hundreds of these,” he said, tapping the cover. I imagined the task that lay ahead for one of his kids. Presumably they had heard a lot of what we had just learned. I’m going to guess that they have heard it more than once.  He’s a teacher, and he can’t stop teaching, even at 85.

I imagine that I will not look like Earl when I’m 85.  I want to stay with my wife. I will also not be looking for an audience in a diner. Too shy. Still, I have to admit that having written all of this down in the hopes that someone will sit down and read it, I’m really not that different from Earl.  

I guess I’ll just go ahead and eat that cold omelet now. 

Evanescent

I was in 11th grade, when I learned the word evanescent. I’ve never forgotten it. My English teacher, Dr. Galvin, gave us vocabulary quizzes every week. Of all the words that we learned, why is it that I can still remember the exact definitions of Laconic (concise, terse, pithy) and ironically, Evanescent (fleeting, lasting but a day)?

I was reminded of that word this past week.

I walked into my classroom on Friday, hoping that the chrysalis that had been hanging from a milkweed branch on my counter for the past 13 days would not have become a butterfly overnight.  I flipped on the lights and zipped over to the mesh cage. Actually, we can’t call it a cage. We should call it an enclosure. The chrysalis was still intact, but I was excited to see that it had turned from an emerald green to a darker bluish color.  This was a good sign. Change. I hoped that the change would be swift and dramatic at this point. We’d patiently observed the progression since the start of school, from tiny caterpillar to plump caterpillar to curled caterpillar to green chrysalis and now to bluish chrysalis.

But this was Friday.  If a winged creature didn’t emerge today, then it would likely happen over the weekend.  I wanted my class to get to see the moment of transformation, or the moment of rebirth, or just the emergence.

All day we waited.  By mid-morning, the chrysalis had changed color again.  Now, it was more of a reddish brown, and we could see the outlines of the orange and black wings. 

By day’s end, though, the chrysalis had not changed shape.  As the kids left for the weekend, we were all a bit disappointed.  Our butterfly was following its own timetable. It wasn’t a slave to the school schedule. 

At 3:30, I was alone in my classroom and heard the voice of Peter, the son of another teacher at the school.  He had just started kindergarten, and he’d been a frequent visitor to my room. At one point, he’d spotted a tiny new caterpillar on a leaf.  It was no bigger than a fingernail clipping. I would never have spotted it. I invited him in to see the chrysalis, and he was excited to see how much it had changed since his last visit.  Still, he couldn’t wait around forever. 

I sat down at my desk to write a few end-of-the-week emails and do a little planning for next week.  I must have gotten into my email zone, because the next thing I knew it was 4:00. I looked over at the mesh enclosure and did a double take.  Something moved. I jumped out of my seat and bolted across the room. My heart soared and sank at the same moment, if that is even possible. There inside the enclosure was a beautiful monarch butterfly.  I’d been ten yards away and missed the dramatic unfolding. I had told the class that I’d be sure to get video of the moment if it happened after school. I’d been right there.

And I’d missed it.

I started snapping pictures immediately.  Butterfly at rest. Butterfly spreading wings.  Butterfly under transparent and empty chrysalis case.  I called in Peter and his mom. We admired. I sighed.

Later, I left school with the butterfly and the enclosure.  I’d read that if they emerge in the late afternoon, it’s best to release them the following day. 

I planned to at least get some video of the release.

There was a chill in the air the next morning.  The thermometer read 48 degrees. I had also read that it’s best to release the young butterfly when the temperature has reached at least 60 degrees, so I waited until around noon.  Then it was time.

I brought the enclosure outside and called my daughter to record the moment.  I opened the zipper and gently pinched the wings. I’d also read that their wings were quite sturdy, and holding them by all four wings would not hurt them.  I slowly and carefully carried the butterfly over toward a rose bush. Our butterfly bush had not survived this past winter. Roses would have to suffice.  As I placed the butterfly on one of the blooms, I did something I shouldn’t have done. I lifted my left hand to the flower to ensure a gentle landing. This effectively blocked the view of the video.  Then, our untimely butterfly did something I didn’t expect. Rather than lounging on the rose petals, getting his or her bearings and soaking up a few nourishing rays, she bolted. Just like that. Like she was late for the train.  She took off. No zigging back to say so long. No zagging to check for sweeter blooms. She darted, more like falcon flight than fluttering. And she was gone.  

I shrugged. I guess that’s just the nature of the creature.  

The inscription at the butterfly garden planted in memory of my daughter says, “A butterfly lights beside us like a sunbeam, and for a brief moment, its glory and beauty belong to the world.”  Don’t I know it. Evanescent.

It’s About Time

I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t watch a lot of TV when I was a kid.  We may not have had Fortnite, but I certainly managed to waste a ton of time.  I sometimes wonder how I might have been different if I had read more than three books a year as a tween, if I hadn’t sat slack-jawed in front of the TV watching Gilligan’s Island, I Love Lucy, The Flintstones and, for drama, Hawaii 5-0.  It’s a silly unanswerable question, since time does not allow a re-do.  I console (and amuse) myself by making obscure allusions that no one in my school could possibly understand.  Here’s one instance: Every time someone in my class walks through the left hand opening of the doorway at the bottom of the steps, I mutter, “Accidents will happen when the ‘out’ door is used for ‘in’ and the ‘in’ door is used for ‘out.’”  Somewhere in the world, I imagine, there is another person who remembers the episode where Fred and Barney are forced to bus tables at a restaurant in Frantic City to repay their casino debts. They have great difficulty remembering to use the right hand swinging door, and many plates crash to the floor.  I know I certainly learned an important life lesson.

My class is studying outer space in science, and this has of course led me to begin humming, “It’s about time; it’s about space; it’s about two men in the strangest place…”  These are all the words I know from the theme song to a show about super-speedy space travel that turned into retro-time travel. I think I may have only watched the show once in my life, but the theme and premise have traveled with me through the years.  I believe that makes it perhaps the most powerful ear worm ever created. Listen, if you dare!

One of the concepts that my class has been exploring is the question of how you know it’s the earth’s movement, not the sun’s that causes us to see the sun appear to travel across our sky.  If, as we’ve been told, it’s not really the sun moving; if instead it’s us, on earth, spinning like a top, why don’t we feel that movement?  

To help us see the problem in another way, we watched a video of a man sitting on a train watching another train speed past in the other direction.  It appears clear that the man’s train is still, while the other train zooms by. But is it? The voice on the video asks us to consider the possibility that the train we’re sitting on is actually the one that’s zooming past a stationary train.  The truth is, while we’re passing, we can’t tell.

It’s like that with time, too, I thought as I hummed.  Time is flying past us, or else we’re flying headlong into the future, but we can’t really feel it.  We can’t feel it, that is, unless someone hands us a time marker, a clear reference point. I received several this past week.

Marker one:  Claire, a former student of mine, emailed to say that she had just graduated from college, and before she headed off to her new job, she hoped to stop by and chat.  This was a welcome email. It was not the college graduation, though, that startled me into the realization that time had indeed sped past…or we had hurtled into a crazy new world.  It was the nature of her new job. “So, what are you going to be doing in Chicago?” She had mentioned that she’d been a neuropsychology major while at the University of Chicago. I braced for something impressive.

“Well, I’m still hoping to go into teaching, but I don’t really want to go right back to school.”

“Understandable.  It’s good to have a little time in the real world. So, what are you going to be doing?”  I was curious what prospects lay on the job landscape for the modern neuropsych major.

“I’m going to be a consultant.”  

Of course she is.  Time, I feel your speed.

I thought about what I might  possibly have been able to consult about when I was a 21-year-old recent college graduate.  Flintstones wisdom? Proper doses of Vita Meata Vegamin?  Nothing.  Even now, I have doubts about what I might impart as a consultant.  We’ve zoomed past that old time, though, bringing us to…

Marker Two:  While I was in the science lab with my class on Friday, the teacher handed me a note, this time from another former student, Clark.  He wondered if I remembered him. He had been a student in my class in 1989. The night before, he had been at my current school, attending Back to School Night, since his daughter is now in Kindergarten.  Yes, indeed, I certainly remember Clark, though, as a nearly 40-year-old, he probably doesn’t resemble the wide-eyed kid who lives in my memory. He was certainly memorable. It’s hard to forget a kid who, fighting cystic fibrosis at the age of 9, successfully sues Nintendo for misleading him into buying a baseball video game that turned out NOT to feature his favorite players.  At least that’s how I remember it. He hoped we could catch up soon, and I hope we can. We’ll try to travel back and forth in time. I’ll probably show him his class picture on my wall. I’ll ask him about his classmates, what they and he are up to now, and maybe he’ll remember something funny from his time way back when he was in 4th grade.   

Marker Three:  Science ended early on Friday, and it meant that we had time to kill before we headed out to recess.  The class had already lined up when I noticed that not enough time had passed in science. I decided to play the three-letter-word guessing game.  It goes like this: I think of a three-letter word, but I don’t tell them. Students then guess a three-letter-word like “man,” and I say, “My word comes after “man” in the dictionary.  On this particular day, they narrowed it down quickly. The second guess was “pop.” I allowed as how my word came before “pop” in the dictionary.  

“Now?”

“My word comes after “now.”

“Off?”

“My word comes after “off.”

“Out?”

“My word comes before “out.”

Pause.

“Recess?”

“My word comes — oh, no, it’s not time yet. Keep guessing.”

Pause. “So it’s between ‘off’ and ‘out’?”

“Listen,” I say, “I can give you a hint.  It’s a word that could be used to describe me.”

“Oh! Oh! I know it.”

“Yes?”

“Is it ‘old’?”

“Well, it’s about time!  Let’s go out to recess before it’s too late.”

The Great Sculpt Off

The beginning of a school year requires a lot of adjustments.  For me, there’s the change from seeing one or two people a day to seeing 21 or 41 or 400, depending on where I’m standing.  There’s also the pace, the decisions, and the schedule, to name a few. I’m adjusting to an early lunch, which means a long afternoon, for the first time in my memory.  For my students, the start of school has all of those adjustments as well. They probably don’t raise their hands much in the summer. They don’t write much. They’re not sitting at a desk much. One adjustment we all have is that we’re feeling a different kind of tired in the last hour of the day, especially on the last day of the week.  It’s not necessarily physical fatigue; it’s more mental. Here’s a moment, though, that surprised me.

It was Friday afternoon, and yes, we were all tired.  Even four-day weeks can be exhausting at the beginning of the year.   We headed to the art room for the last hour. I had decided to hang around because the previous week’s art class hadn’t gone that well, and I wanted to see if this week’s would go better. We’d had a class chat.  I knew that there were quite a few kids in the class with an artistic bent, so I was hoping that our scheduled time wasn’t going to be a problem every week.

The class assembled on the rug for the introduction. After taking care of some leftover work from the previous week, it was time for the main event: a sculpture challenge.

Every year our fifth grade takes a trip to an outdoor sculpture museum called Storm King Art Center.  It’s an incredible space, with 500 acres of land, monumental sculptures, and the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley.  To help the kids get ready, our school’s art teacher likes to have kids work on making their own sculptures. The challenge she presented them on Friday had the feel of one of those kids baking challenges, though it involved teams, so I guess it was more like some of the Top Chef experiences.  The goal was to use one sheet of tag board, a pair of scissors, 10 paper clips, and a foot of scotch tape to make the tallest freestanding tower. Sorry, no fondant allowed.

The teacher emphasized the idea of collaboration, mentioning that there would be different ideas to incorporate into the design and that team members would need  to compromise. To add to the challenge, they needed to try to make it attractive on all sides.

Part of me was nervous.  Everyone was tired. Did I mention it was Friday afternoon?  It’s one thing to come up with ideas and to build when you’re tired, but it’s another thing to show patience, good listening, and a willingness to compromise. 

On the other hand, the challenge seemed to rejuvenate my class.  I could sense the energy level and enthusiasm rising. When the teacher set them off to work, telling them they had 20 minutes to create their tall sculpture, the kids took off.

I shouldn’t have been so worried.  They immediately split the task of gathering materials.  One person grabbed the scissors, another the paper and the tape, while another counted out the clips.  It looked chaotic, but it was the good kind of chaos. Conversations started at each table, and, amazingly, people were listening to each other.  The purple table cut their paper in half the long way and then folded each half down the center (long way again). They set one creased piece atop another… and it stood.  Just like that. And it was tall. One team member pointed out, however, that it didn’t exactly seem “beautiful.” They still had work to do.

Another cut theirs in half and turned one part into a cone.  This led another person in the group to make some of the remainder into a ball.  Their idea was to make a very tall ice cream cone.  

Still another table drew on their experiences from an earlier grade.  Remembering the heart-shaped tubes they made as Valentine mailboxes when they were in first grade, they cut their tag board the long way, attached the long sides with paper clips and bent the paper back into a heart-shaped cylinder.  It stood, though they decided that tape might be stronger than the clips. They also took a peek at their purple neighbors, and realized they could use some height.

The green group created a cone and a cylinder, put the cone on top of the cylinder, and found that it resembled a tree, and it stood.  

The design work and cooperation were impressive for any time, but particularly for a Friday afternoon.  One group had big ideas, but ran out of time with their assembly. When time was called and everyone stepped back with hands raised (clearly they watch those cooking shows), the red group didn’t end up with a free-standing sculpture. However,  during the discussion that followed the challenge, they realized some things they could have done. The teacher reminded the class that a lot of sculptures and designs fail in their first iteration, particularly when an artist takes risks. Artists and designers rarely create masterpieces with their first drafts.  This was a life lesson that I could imagine not going over so well on a Friday afternoon, but my imagination was being negative again. The group received it well (how mature!), and everyone welcomed the possibility of a new challenge in a future class.

For me, the whole process gave me hope for the year.  I know that not every session will feature the energy and cooperation I saw on Friday, but I also know that if they could do that on Day 8, when they were tired, when they were just beginning to form a community, when they were just getting adjusted to each other, then good things could lie ahead.  

And I don’t just mean the weekend.

Wondering about the Fourth Wall

Yesterday I went to Oklahoma!  I’m thinking of using that sentence as part of my morning message in class to highlight the relationship between punctuation and meaning.  Of course, the shock value depends on my fifth graders’ understanding of geography. They may take it completely in stride. “Yeah. I went to the Hamptons. What’dja do in Oklahoma?”  

I’m not sure right now if this writing is headed toward a discussion of conventions or a musical theater review.  I think I’ll go toward the show right now, and I’ll save the conventions for next week when I’ve seen the reaction in my class.  Then I can either focus on geography or grammar. What a teaser!

I know that the Slices we write for the Two Writing Teachers challenge are not meant to take the form of a book, movie, or theater review, so I won’t tell you that I thought the Oklahoma! revival was way better than just a remake or update of an old show.  I won’t go into the fact that it took the musical into new territory, where it explored much more than just the way “the farmers and the cowhands should be friends.”  I won’t talk about the brilliant acting that made an actress’s wheelchair seem to fit and even enhance the scenes. I won’t talk about the lighting that completely and instantly transformed the mood. I certainly won’t give away the stunning final scene.  I’ll stick to a small moment.

We were sitting in the third row of seats in the horseshoe-shaped theater known as Circle in the Square.  But really, we were the fourth row of audience members, because some lucky patrons actually had seats at the picnic tables that ringed the stage.  The play basically takes place without any scenery changes, and it sort of resembles a school cafe-gym-atorium set up for a square dance, a picnic, a wedding and a shooting.  You know, the usual school stuff. Sorry about that. The seating arrangement has the effect of blurring the lines between the actors and the audience, a cool effect, but also a bit confusing for this audience member.

Diagonally across from us, at one of the picnic tables, sat an elderly man who looked to be on his own.  He caught my daughter’s eye first, and she pointed him out to me. He sat at a table with four other people who appeared to be together.  I say this not because the color of their skin was different from his, but because they were chatting among themselves, enjoying each other’s company, and he sat slightly apart, though he did engage them in a bit of chit-chat at one point.  From the moment we spotted him, I found him hard to ignore. Not only did he seem a bit out of place at the table, but in his baggy beige suit, he seemed like he would have been particularly uncomfortable in the land of cowboys and farmhands as well.  Throughout the show, my eye wandered his way.

Note: photo taken before the show began, not during.

Apparently the actors felt the same attraction, because they seemed to seize every opportunity to plop down on his table or to lean over and sing toward him.  At one point, Will Parker, the charming but intellectually-challenged cowboy, actually reclined atop the table, his backside toward our side of the horseshoe, but his shiny belt buckle right in the old man’s face. He remained there, propped up on his elbow, for a few awkward moments, extolling his own physical endowments, inching them toward the man, and seemingly waiting for his reaction.  

It’s here where I’m muddled about that invisible wall between stage and audience, because though we didn’t have the best view of Will Parker’s physique at that moment, we did have a most excellent view of the little old man’s face. His eyes widened, his eyebrows rose and fell discerningly, and then, slowly and oh so subtly, he seemed to nod his approval, as though admitting that yes, in his estimation, Will did possess some fine…er…attributes , even if a nimble brain was not one of them. It was a tour de force deadpan performance with no loss of composure, no laughter (from him, that is), and almost no movement except with his eyes and mouth. Could this kind of finesse really have come from a mere ticket holder like me?

I won’t say it distracted me from the deeper meaning, the social commentary, or the crucial moments of the story, but at the end of the show, I confess that I did feel the added suspense of wondering if the little old man in the beige suit would suddenly leap over the table, join hands with Curly and Will and Ado Annie, and take a bow with the rest of his cast mates.  

He did not.   But maybe they were still just messin’ with me.  

It’s been 24 hours since we returned from Oklahoma! and I’m still feeling a little disoriented.

The Brave and Heroic One

I’m sitting on a bench in my backyard, soaking up sunlight on a Sunday morning.  At my feet is my dog, McGee, his black fur absorbing even more rays. I love McGee.  The ways I love him or the things about him that I love are innumerable; the why is  mysterious.  He makes me imagine.

I didn’t grow up with a dog, and it’s possible that stunted my empathy, because I now have a theory that dogs (and I guess I’ll reluctantly admit, cats) invite empathy. It has to do with language, or their lack of it.  Dogs don’t “tell” what’s on their mind or how they feel. They show, and we must infer. We have to stop and observe behaviors, and then journey into their fuzzy head. McGee’s feet bounce up and down, left, then right as he stands at the top of the stairs, like one of those show horses prancing in place.  His body vibrates. It doesn’t take an empathy wizard to infer that the impending feast (dry kibble) stands as one of the highlights of McGee’s day.  

It takes a little closer observation to note that when my wife and I are in different rooms of the house, McGee  generally finds his way to the midpoint between our two locations. Nancy is downstairs watching Chef’s Table.  I’m in the dining room procrastinating in front of a computer. McGee has done his triangulation and reclines at his post at the top of the stairs. He’s resting, but also alert. He seems to keep one eye on each of us. At those moments we infer his deep sense of responsibility.  He must keep tabs on his herd.

At other times, though, our empathy is mostly imagination.  It’s a mind (or heart) playing with the mystery of what might run through another creature’s mind.   My wife has a Master’s degree in that field. Perhaps this is because she grew up with ducks, rabbits, dogs, cats, chickens, and an imaginary friend or two.  She takes what she observes in McGee, his loyalty, and his urgent barking when something needs to happen immediately (He barks to inform us when Boo, our elderly dog, needs to be let out.  He barks at 5:00 p.m. when he desperately needs his next meal. He barks when we put his leash on him, as though we might, without his reminders, forget that our next step is to leave the house).  She also observes McGee’s boundless self-esteem, which grows daily despite some evidence that his body was designed by a committee charged with using up assorted leftover dog parts. Still, he prances through the house or the neighborhood, tail raised, head high. These behaviors and attributes have led her to imagine a full character, who, if that design committee had gifted him with language, might actually speak the words that Nancy utters for him.  

When he was hiking with us and accidentally stepped off  a log bridge, finding himself neck deep in muddy waters, it seems perfectly believable that after extracting himself, sneezing, and shaking water all over us, our faithful and overly confident dog’s first barked comments might include these slightly delusional words:  “Wow! I repeat, wow! Did you guys see how I just saved you from that tsunami? I leaped into the wave. I smashed it back into the large, and nearly overwhelming puddle over there. That was a brave and heroic act, dontcha think? You are very fortunate to have such a brave and heroic leader.”

Logically, I know that McGee has a simpler brain than this.  His schema does not include tsunamis or the concept of heroism.  Still, I think the character traits are real: the sense of duty, the need to give orders, the inflated and unwarranted sense of grandeur.  And, with practice, I am learning to throw my mind, and my voice, into that wordless fuzzy head. It’s empathy training 101, and just one more reason to love my dog.

Can you guess what I’m thinking right now?