Lord Knows, I Tried

 

Image

I believe that giving the gift of music to one’s own child is very important.  This tendency to pass onto a child is something I got from my mother.  When I was about ten years old, she signed me up for private piano lessons from a Miss Shepard, who lived next to the Presbyterian church on Main Street.  The lessons were set for 2:00 pm on Saturday, exactly the starting time for the matinee at the movie theater…just a block away.  Normally, there was a western double-feature along with about 50 cartoons.  Remember, I was ten.  Instead of joining my friends to eat enough popcorn, root-beer barrels and gummy-bears to make any kid vomit, I was waiting at Miss Shepard’s front door with the Blue Book in my hand.

I practiced everyday.  The most skilled point in my lesson’s history is teaching myself the opening bars of “Dragnet”.  Miss Shepard taught me enough to play a few notes of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.  That’s a far as it got.  Even my mother agreed.  No more money was spent on my music lessons.  And, Miss Shepard had fewer dollars to spend on that thick gardenia perfume that made my eyes water.

I’m glad she didn’t smoke.

Other than the joy of having music in your life, at your finger tips, so to speak, was that if you got good enough, it could become a way to make some extra cash when you were older.

So, when my son, Brian, was born, I could hardly wait to get him lessons…in anything.  Probably, we’d start with the piano.  But I was smart enough to not even think of scheduling class at 2:00 pm on a Saturday.  I thought if everything else failed for him, he could play at the Kit Kat Lounge at the Ramada Inn just outside of Scranton.  He would have an oversized brandy snifter on his piano that would be filled with $5 and $10 bills and people calling out for another rendition of “Feelings” or “I Did It My Way”.  He would be set for life.

Image

When the time came, he said he wasn’t interested in learning the piano.

Undeterred, I kept making plans to bring this gift to him, like it or not.  I mentioned percussion lessons and how popular Ringo was with the chicks.  He said he never did like the sound of sticks hitting cymbals, so that was out.

My son is an adult now and lives in Queens.  On purpose.  A few years ago, I offered to buy him a small church organ I had spotted in a house restoration store in South Norwalk, CT.  These places specialized in finding out when some large structure was going to be torn down.  They would come in and disassemble certain items and resell them.  Once I found a complete altar from a razed Catholic Church. I always wanted a full size altar so I kept my eye on it.  After a few months, it was bought by some satanic cult from New Haven and I never again saw an altar for sale.

But I digress.

Brian, I said, I can get you this neat church organ for a song.  You can sit and play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (S. 565), or a little Buxtehude Toccata and Fugue in F. for Kris.  Interested?  Being in Business, he ran some numbers and came back to me with the fact that it would cost him and his girlfriend, Kris, about $110,000 to put the addition onto their apartment building in Astoria.  They also weren’t sure that the landlord would go along with the idea.  (He told me later that he was in, but Kris hated anything in the minor key.)

Image

Now, being a great devotee of Bob Dylan and his music, I decided I would try guitar lessons.  This was only a few years ago.  Perhaps something inside my brain would suddenly snap and music, notes, G-cleffs, chords and pitch would make sense to me.  I saw myself on our back deck playing “Forever Young” and having kayakers stop and yell: man, you’re good!  I could earn extra money playing “Kumbya” at the 10:00 am Mass at Saint Basil’s.  I soon learned that this wasn’t going to work for me.  First of all, I have large hands that are about the size of Bronko Nagurski’s, who played pro football for the Chicago Bears from 1930-37.  The neck of my guitar was made to be fretted by a nine-year-old girl.  I was going nowhere.  I was discouraged.  Then I remembered I had a son.

I decided to go straight for the jugular.

Brian, I have a guitar.  It’s not a Gibson, but it’s well made and sounds great.  With a few lessons you could be playing a little “Norwegian Wood”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, or “Malaguena”, perhaps.  Clapton gets the chicks, Brian, I said.  (Kris kicked me in the shin.)  You could turn green and die thirty years ago and still be on tour with the Stones.  You could write a rock-bio like Slash.  You could use lighter fluid and burn your electric guitar on stage, or play the National Anthem with the pick in your teeth.  It all starts with a basic acoustic guitar, though.  Interested?

He said he’d get back to me.

Then he texted me and said he didn’t have much time for the lessons.  I told him he could get the westerns and cartoons that I missed as a kid on Netflix.  He still said thanks, but no thanks.

But, I’m his father.  This is something I have to do.  So, right now I’m searching eBay for bagpipes and accordions, used, of course.

Lord knows, I have to try.

 

A Brief History of Chains and Chainmaking

Broad_chain_closeup

I am holding a very special letter in my hand right now.

But, first…

Whether we realize it or not, chains play a very important part in our lives.  Indeed, chains have, throughout history, helped to hold the very fabric of our changing civilization together.  For example, I was astounded to learn that the metal chain was first used as early as 225 BCE.  How the archeo-technologists were able to achieve the high temperatures needed for smelting iron and forging the links is a mystery to me.  I know that the use of bellows in these primitive blast-furnaces helped to drive up the temperature to extraordinary degrees, but it remains a puzzle as to how it was all accomplished.  In my daily reading of the Old and New Testament, I cannot recall a single reference to the use of a metal chain.  Ropes, yes, but not a chain as we know it.

The manner in which we use chains is also something that we seem to have completely overlooked.  There are chains in parks, gardens, ships, dog leashes and doors, but these are only about 1 percent of the total usage.  I have included a special list of various chain uses later in this essay.

The first patent taken out for a chain cable was by Phillip White, a blacksmith from Northumbria, England.  The “smithy” was the mainstay of chain making until new technology rendered it obsolete in the 1970’s.  So, here we have an unbroken link of this very useful item from 225 BCE until the latter days of the 20th century.  Chains of course are still manufactured, but giant amorphous machines and furnaces have left the old blacksmith to hand making decorative chains for sale in gift shops and craft fairs.

Another little known aspect of this very interesting industry is the role that women have played.  In the Midlands of England, which was the industrial heart of the country, women were often the forgers of mid-weight chain cables.  One such woman, a legend in her time, was Lucy Woodall.  She apprenticed for the Samuel Woodhouse & Sons of Cradley Heath.  She was 13 years old at the time and would work 12 hour shifts.  After her retirement in the 1970’s, she went on to do “podging” on rugs for charity.  Lucy died in 1979 after suffering years with arthritis. I will present here a partial list of the uses of chains:

Chainsaws, lifting chain-linked Lewis, chain drives, curb chain, door chain, key chain, lavatory chain, leg-iron chains (fetters), chain link fences anchor chains and even as musical percussion instruments heard in such works as Janacek’s From the House of the Dead.

Chains have made their way into our cultural world in other ways.  The First Gulf War had a theme song…it was Unchained Melody.  And, who among us will not feel our heart-break or a tear fall when Janis Joplin sings the blues in Ball and Chain?

Here are a few examples of the intricate and decorative designs found in some chains:

284px-Single-jack-chain      357px-Double_jack_chain     800px-Singapore_chain

 

A single jack chain                   A double jack chain                                   A particularly pretty Singapore chain

One afternoon in 1910, a woman chain maker by the name of Lydia Bare, sat on a bench to take a much-needed break.  Her rest was necessary as she was only 15 years old and had not yet gotten used to the long hours of standing and pounding her hammer.  She looked at the mound of coiled chains that represented her efforts of three days of labor.  Her mind drifted to thoughts of her sister, Molly Reagan, who was living in New York City.  She had not seen her beloved sister in several years…since Molly married Michael Reagan and them emigrated to America.  Lydia and her sister, Molly were not natives of England.  Neither was Michael.  They were all Irish.  The prospect of steady work forced them to leave Ireland and move to England.  She saw the loops of iron, hundreds of them, all linked and seemingly endless and unbroken.  She thought of writing a letter to Molly.

Lydia began to feel very sad about her life without her beloved sister.  She looked around her and saw the grime and dust that was her workplace for 12 hours everyday.  It disgusted her.  She looked at her hands remembering how soft and lovely and white they were when she was a little girl.  Now she was seeing calloused, scarred, burnt, red and puffed hands of a middle-aged woman.  Who will ever marry me?, she wondered.  Who will find me attractive?  What man would want to kiss the roughness of these hands?

Just then, a group of factory managers began to crowd in the doorway of her shop.  They were on their months tour of the various buildings of the vast mill grounds.

Lydia rose and returned to the anvil.

So, what have we here?  One of the men pointed at the coil of chains that Lydia had been producing.

She stared at the pile of iron rings.  A bad taste was filling her mouth.

These are the chains I forged here during my life, she answered.  The men smiled and filed out.  The last man glanced back from the doorway at Lydia and thought: so pretty, I wonder what her ankles look like.

Chain Lady

The only known photograph of Lydia Bare (ca 1900)

A year later, Lydia mailed her sister a long letter.  In it she described her life and her dreams.  Would it be possible, she asked at the end of the five-page letter, to come to New York and stay with her and Michael for a short time until she could find a job and a small flat to live?  Jokingly, she asked Molly if there were many Yanks who would like a nice a nice and obedient Irish lass for a wife?  As she wrote that line, Lydia thought of how much lotion she would have to use to soften her ugly hands.  At least I have an acceptable face, she thought.

Molly wrote a letter back to Lydia after holding the letter close to her heart for nearly a year.  Yes, there are too many Yank menfolk, she said, and too few women of marrying age.  Michael and I will think about this for a bit.

Michael and Molly held onto the letter for another year or so.  They held onto it when Molly took ill.  The letter went with Molly to the hospital on Blackwell’s Island when she was told by the doctors that she had contracted consumption.  Lydia’s letter was kept in a special decorated teak wood box that stayed on a table beside whatever bed she was sleeping in.  The box with the letter was in her hands when she died.

Michael took the box and a small trunk of things that were special to the life he had shared with his much-loved Molly.  He gave the box to a distant cousin for safekeeping and then walked downtown.  Thirty-five minutes later his dead body was found wedged against a pier below the Brooklyn Bridge.

Lydia waited for a reply for years.  She never learned of the fate of her sister.  She gave up hope of ever emigrating to America and finding a strapping Yank husband.  She married an iron worker from the same mill company where she worked.  He had a love for the bottle but not for poor Lydia.  One evening he beat her to death with an iron rod.  The kind of rod that would someday be turned into a chain.

The cousin, Barry, looked through the box and then tied it tightly in leather straps.  He never read the letter from Lydia.

In 1930, Barry’s son, Paul takes possession of the box upon his father’s death.  Paul loved old things and he began to read the letters that Molly had collected.  He came upon Lydia’s letter and thought it was very special in the way it described a long ago life of two girls in Ireland.  He put the letter into a new envelope and, with a note, mailed it to his fiancé, Mary, who lived on a farm in Pennsylvania.  Mary read the letter and decided to stop delaying her marriage.  She and Paul were united in Matrimony in 1936.  They had four boys, the youngest being Colin.  That’s me.

Upon the passing of my father, it was left to me to go through his papers.  In an old teak wood box, still held together with leather straps, I found Lydia’s letter.

I saw it as a kind of chain letter.  It had survived many changes of hands.  No one broke the chain, not really.

That’s the letter I’m holding in my hand at this moment.  Good luck delivered it to me.

The letter reads in part:

Dear Molly, This letter is like a chain, it may have a beginning, that is me, but where it will end is something not known to us.  The links in this letter are like those of a chain, intertwined and forged close by my own hand in the furnace of heat mixed with drops of my very own sweat.  How unladylike a thing to say.  I believe that it would be unlucky if this letter were lost or destroyed.  That would be like having a ship’s anchor chain break.  The unfettered vessel would then drift away, into a storm, and eventually sink.  It is my most dearest wish that anyone who holds or reads this letter to never, never sink…for sinking is death.  Save, hide, recopy and cherish this letter and make sure it moves on through our family…so that all who are a part of the chain will live.  This letter has the weight of iron but the freedom of winged flight.  Hold on to these words of mine and you will fly.

I pondered over who to leave the letter to upon my own death.  I have a grandson, so perhaps my daughter is the one to own it.  But my son will likely be a father someday.

The choices lay coiled, like a long iron chain in a small shop in the Midlands of England.

 

[Sources: Wikipedia and “Chains and Chainmaking” by Charles Fogg.  1981 Shire Publications Ltd.]

The Confessional: A Short Story

MontrealConfessional

An elaborate carved oak confessional sat in a corner of a large and beautiful church. It was the Church of Our Lady of the World in Montreal, the center of Catholic French Canada.

There were several confessionals in this cavernous house of worship.  The congregation, holding onto the older ways of the Roman Church, still frequented the booths to obtain absolution for their sins, perceived or otherwise.  The old French priests sat in the center portion, and on busy sinful days, would lean first one way than another to hear two confessors, one at a time.  He would slide open a small wooden grated screen and lean toward the sinner.

The interaction, perhaps in French, went something like this:

The penitent: “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been (giving a time) since my last confession”.

The Confessor: “Go ahead”.

After the litany of transgressions was spoken, the priest would offer a few words of advice or encouragement.  He would then absolve the sins, in the Name of God the Father, God the Son and The Holy Ghost.  Then came the penance; which was often a few prayers, or, if the sin was great, a deed or command from the priest to go out and make things right.

“Go, and sin no more”, was often the departing words from the priest.

The confessional hours were Wednesday’s from 4:00 until 5:30pm and on Saturday from 2:00 until 5:00pm.  For especially troubled souls, a private appointment could be made with any of the priests available.

Hugh Ballard sat in a corner of a pew, in the apse section of the church.  He was alone save for a few praying and troubled souls that shunned the nave and wished to keep to the more deserted corners of the great church.  This is the place that Hugh liked the most.  He was mostly alone with his thoughts.  He also had a direct view of a certain elaborate carved oak confessional.  From his place at the end of the pew, he would wait until 5:05pm, every Wednesday, when she would walk down the right aisle of the nave and enter the confessional.

Hugh had first seen her several months ago when he was making an attempt to translate the Latin quotes that were written high on the wall above the altar.

Winter had set into Montreal.  The cold blasts of wind from the St. Lawrence River drove people indoors, to the shops along the Rue Sainte-Catherine; the bookstores, the bistros and the churches.  Montreal had more than it’s share of houses of worship.

She caught his eye as she walked down the side aisle toward the confessional.  Her mid-thigh coat was a bitter lime color trimmed with faux rabbit and her black woolen tights fitted nicely into mid-calf boots of fleece-lined leather.  But it was her hair, an enticing blend of auburn and chestnut, moderately curled, that blended with the tassels of her wool nordic style cap that caught his eyes and kept them on her for too many minutes, too many minutes to qualify as a glance…but long enough to be called a stare.  Her overly long scarf hid her chin and neck. Hugh estimated that she stood 5’3″ in her socks.  Hugh was 6’2″.  She would fit nicely under his arms in a passionate hug.

On more that one occasion, their eyes met.  Once, when she left the confessional, he caught her glancing over at him as he sat and read in his chosen pew.

Hugh had very dark brown hair that curled behind his ears.  He often skipped shaving,  giving him a slight air of an artist or graduate student.  His eyes were hazel and, to most women, worth the time for an endless gaze.  But, at 5:04pm on Wednesdays,  his eyes were scanning the front door for her appearance.  At first, he would sit about half-way down the nave pews, and when he sensed her walking down the aisle, he would cross himself and get up to leave.  This move would put him almost face to face with her.  He would use the two or three seconds to look into her eyes, study her cheeks and hear her take a breath.  Being a man of quick thinking, he would time his inhales so that he could smell her…her lack of perfume…just her.  He detected a faint body heat from her walking in her warm coat.  That faint body heat often carried with it her scent.  The scent that separates one person from another, however subtle.  And to Hugh, her scent was pleasing beyond explanation.

Once or twice their eyes caught each other.

He also had a fraction of a second during this moment when he could see her hair from only inches from his eyes.  However, after several of these attempts of proximity, Hugh began to feel that he was taking a risk.  He needed to see her from another location…from a corner where she would not notice him.  That very last thing he wanted was to have her think that he was stalking her.

No, that could never happen.

So on each Wednesday, he would find a place to pray…that is to watch her.

As she turned the corner by the confessional was a marble column that contained Holy Water.  She would dip her fingers into the clear liquid and cross herself before pulling back the heavy velvet curtain and going in to tell the Confessor her failings…her sins.

Hugh began to keep time of her sessions.  She would stay 24 minutes each time.  Hugh, who had not been to confession in many years, thought that was a long time to tell someone your sins.  Then he began to wonder.  What could this beautiful, pure, virginal soul have to confess?  What sins could she have committed?  Was she an embezzler?  A diamond thief?  An art thief?  Surely, none of her sins could have been of the flesh, she was too pure a soul for that sort of thing.

It didn’t take many Wednesdays before Hugh fell in love with the girl.  He had no idea of how to approach her.  What would, or could he say to her?  It was at these times that he lost faith in himself.  No woman as angelic as she would ever so much as give him the time of day.  Hugh was certain that his existence was nothing to her.  He may as well have lived in the backwaters of the Amazon River.

But, his curiosity grew as to what she was telling the Confessor.  So he devised a plan.  This was a despicable plan and he was ashamed of himself for even considering it.  He went ahead and considered it anyway.  He would listen in on her confession.  After all, it was the only way.  Even if he caught the priest in a small alley behind the church in the blackest hours of the night and put his hands on his neck, the old man would never break the Seal of Confession.

Hugh went to a large Radio Shack and began to ask questions.  Eventually, he found out about a small “spyware” shop several miles south of town, in a warehouse district close to the Vermont border.  He purchased a small mic that would transmit voices to the tiny ear set of his smart phone.  Next, he went to a cheap stationery store and bought some patches of goo that was meant to stick posters on walls.  It was guaranteed to hold 15 pounds.

Perfect.

A few days later, he sat and read a book in the apse pews.  He waited until the tourists left.  The church wardens were busy moving people out in preparation for the evening Mass.  A wide column blocked anyone’s view of him and the confessional.  He stood close by as if he were studying a plaque on the wall.  Then, after a quick check around him, he pulled back the velvet curtain and, leaning over, pressed the goo and mic to the underside of the small elbow shelf below the screen that separated the sinner from the Confessor.

“May I help you?”

Hugh quickly backed out and stood facing a young priest.  He hadn’t seen this guy when he checked seconds earlier.

“I…I think I had dropped my wedding ring on the floor,” Hugh lied.

They both pulled back the curtain and looked on the carpet.  No ring.

“Sorry, guess it slipped off elsewhere.”

Hugh was out of the side door just as he heard the chiming bells that told the small congregation that Mass was about to begin.

On the next Wednesday, Hugh was sitting somewhat more distant from the confessional.  He quietly pushed his ear phone in and pulled his hair over it so people would not think he was listening to some punk group in this house of worship.

He turned his phone on and muted the tones.  He could hear the rustling of a books pages.  Earlier, he watched as the elderly Confessor entered the center booth and prepared for the parade of sinners.  He was probably reading his Office, a certain number of prayers that priests were required to read every day.

Then he saw her coming down the side aisle.  It was a mild day and her coat was unbuttoned, revealing a plaid shirt.   Her small breasts, hidden from view all winter, were now slightly visible under her shirt.  He tried to imagine them on her slight body.

She dipped her fingers into the Holy Water and crossed herself as usual, but not before glancing at him and holding the contact longer than usual.  She turned and entered the booth.

Hugh became suddenly uneasy.  What if she had seen too much of him each Wednesday?  What if she suspected him of stalking her?  He knew he wasn’t.  He knew he loved her…but from afar.

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” she began.

“Yes, my child?”

“You see, Father, I have certain feelings for a certain man…and I don’t even know his name.  I think he follows me around the church sometimes.  I know he’s here in this church tonight.”

Hugh’s panic grew.

“Do you think he’s following you to do harm to you?  Shall I call 911?”

Hugh’s phone was equipped with a chip that could tell him if another cell phone was being activated.  He heard the signal!  The Confessor had taken his cell and turned it on.

It was all over.  Hugh walk quickly to the side door and broke into a sprint.  Halfway through the park that surrounded the church he yanked the ear phone out and threw his cell into a trash can.  He leaned over to cover it with a discarded meal.  Perhaps this would give him precious time to get many blocks away when the police searched the cans.  He ran like his life depended on it.  He ran until he found himself lost in the tiny side streets of Old Montreal near the river.

“Oh, no, Father.  No.  No.  You see I have come to love him, even though we’ve never spoken.  I am taken by this man.  I want this man, Father.  I want him to take me and make the maddest of love to me.  Please, Father, help me find the right words to say to him.”

“You see, my Confessor, all my other little sins are nothing I feel the need to ask forgiveness for.  I have come today to confess the deepest of and darkest of sins….Lust.”

A Room With a View

Everyone likes a room with a view.  Otherwise, why do we need windows?  Does anyone want to look out over the Fresh Kills Land on Staten Island, the Gowanus Canal or the latest toxic runoff pond from some mine in northern Canada?  No, we don’t.  And, I believe I can speak for most of us, we all want a view, but a view filled with beauty.

Below is a photograph of our bedroom window.  When we were looking at the house prior to buying it, we looked out all the windows…to check out the views.  Some of the things we could see were nothing to write home about.  Like our front porch.  Nice, but not something you’d want to look at for more than a minute or two.  Our living room picture window provided a killer view of Rainbow Lake and our little dock down the hill.  The kitchen window gave us a superb view of our bird feeders (as well a fine line of sight to our Kenmore BBQ, which is a real feast for the eyes.  But our bedroom window was in a class all by itself.  From the comfort of our four-poster, we could watch the seasons as they marched through our little front yard in all their timely glory.

In the Spring, we could look out and see the Purple Tirilium growing in the small thicket that partly hid our house from the road.  I could watch the ferns grow and cover the ground around the evergreens with a lovely carpet of greenery.  I could see our car, the r-pod and the back door of the garage that had a window planter I had attached to the rose colored cinder-blocks.  Bright red flowers hung from the pot like a Bavarian chalet.

In the Summer, we could see the small patch of grass that served as our lawn.  I could also get a fine view of the new stone walkway our neighbors, D’Arcy and Judy so artfully constructed.  If I leaned a bit, I could see our cottage sign, Tir Na Nog. That was the name of our cottage.  Many of the local cottages bore names like Heron Point, Three Pines or Camp Trout.  Our house was named for the Irish myth and meant “Land of Eternal Youth”.  I could also see the car.

In the Autumn, the few hardwoods would be aflame with colors of the brightest yellows and reds.  The ferns would begin to go brown.  The sky would turn grey and the mushrooms would push up through the dying ferns.  And, I could see our car.

In normal Winters, we could see the boughs of the pines holding the soft, pure snow.  The little animal tracks could be seen on the virgin snow.  Oh, the snow!  It would fall and swirl about like we lived in a glass snow globe.  On clear nights, I could go to the deck, wearing a cozy woolen sweater and watch Orion make his hunting journey across the small patch of clear sky above our house.  Out of our bedroom window on winter days, I could see the back door of the garage, the bright red flowers, faded now.  And, I could see our car to study the few inches of snow it had covering it.  Then I would gleefully take the broom and brush the dusting of snow from the car’s roof, then make fluffy snowballs to toss at the scampering squirrels and they darted here and there trying to find their nuts.

But, this winter.  The great winter of 2013-14 was a different story altogether.  The r-pod has vanished beneath a small mountain of snow. Our garage may or may not still be there.  For all I know, someone could have taken it during one of the snowstorms…or on a night when it was -23 F and I failed to check why the garage wasn’t visible anymore.  Our car?  It may be still in the driveway…maybe not.  I’ve given up trying to keep the snow off it and from fallen down my back from the two feet of the white stuff that clung to the overburdened branches of the pine trees…if the pine trees are still there.  Even the squirrels have given up trying to find their nuts.  We have a young man who comes out after a snowfall and plows us out.  We get a bill for every visit.  I made some calculations.  We’ve just paid his child’s tuition at Yale.

The mountain (not a mound anymore) of snow seen from our bedroom window is large enough now that I’ve given some thought to installing a chair-lift…just for beginners, though.  Maybe a luge course?  Maybe a training area for Everest climbers?

At this point in the post, I know most of you don’t believe me so I took a picture from our bedroom looking out at the view.  See the lovely lace curtains?  See the cool dream-catcher?  See the white/grey view through the window?  That’s snow.  That’s all we can see.

This is our Room With a View.

Image

The Bubble Man of Montreal

He was a dream-maker, a writer of love letters and a magician in a black frock coat; he played out his act in the square in front of the Basilique of Notre-Dame in Montreal.  He was like a pilgrim doing his penance, with the Basilique keeping watch on his movements.

The man appeared, without seeming to come from any place in particular.  The space by the frozen fountain in the Place d’Armes was empty.  I turned my head to look at something and then turned back only to find him preparing his magic show.  He had a plastic basin that was half-filled with water.  There was a dark blue bottle of a soap making liquid.  In his hands, he held a long cord that had several loops along its length.

He seemed impervious to the gusts of cold wind in the square.  These gusts caused most of the people to turn up their collars and the children to reach to their parents for the warmer gloves.

As I stood on the curb of the Rue Notre-Dame, he began his act.  He mixed the liquid and the water, dipped his rope into the basin and, pulling it out, a hundred soap bubbles appeared and were promptly blown away by the wind.

Soap bubbles have always held a fascination for me.  They are indeed very strange objects.  Thin and magically iridescent they became symbolic of three things for me.  They are like dreams, appearing out of no place in particular and making their way through our sleep.  But dreams, like the bubbles can start out perfectly round and then degenerate into amoeba-like motions and become disturbing in their irregularity.  And then they burst, causing us to sit up in bed, shaken and worried about what went wrong with the dream.

They are like love letters.  Created by a motion of the hand and sent on their way.  Most burst like bubbles, but unlike bubbles, real love letters can be bundled in ribbons, boxed and put aside.  Someone, decades from now, will find them and discover secret loves and evidence of connections hitherto unknown.

Finally, they are also like a life.  They are born with a motion, then sent outward to drift, with or without direction and following the whim of the wind, they too, burst.

Curious.

The man had attracted a fair number of people of all ages, but most were children.  It was then that I noticed a pattern.

The young ones had an irresistible urge to pop the bubbles.  They were too young to see the symbolic nature of these amazing creations. They failed to see the future in the wobbly spheres.  They giggled as they ran among the shapes and popping them.

One thing I did not see was any older person chasing and bursting the floating symbols.  They were watching the shapes drift away.

They were watching their old love letters, dreams and magic drift away…only to burst somewhere, around the corner and down some side street.

BubbleGuy2

Mummies in Dublin? or How I Filled a Day Looking For a White Horse

GreenCelticKnots

Right here at the start, I’ll say that if you want a good look at Dublin, a really good look, then you have to do some homework.  Go out and buy a copy of James Joyce’s’ Ulysses, pick up a Cliff Notes while you’re at it, and read away.  This zillion page novel takes the reader all over that amazing city in just one day, June 16, 1904.  If you can read it in only one day, you’re a far better man or woman than I am.  But, it is a must read book.  If you call yourself a “reader” and you haven’t read Ulysses, then you are a mere browser of light, obtainable fiction.  Go ahead, challenge yourself.  The reward will come in several forms: 1) You can now honestly tell people that you’ve read it.  2) You won’t have to carry it around to Starbucks (the book is a chick-magnet).  3) You can now call yourself a “reader”, look someone straight in the eye…and hold your head up.  Note: Don’t get it for your Kindle because no body will know you’re reading it, will they?

But I digress.

It’s almost St. Patrick’s Day.  When people of any ethnic background wear goofy green top hats and wear buttons that read KISS ME, I’M IRISH.  The button is a waste of money…I never got many takers.

I’ve been to the Old Country several times now.  And as I was preparing for this years celebration of my saints namesake, I pulled out my Clancy Brothers CD, Wolftones and The Irish Tenors and found myself sitting in front of the TV watching “The Quiet Man”.  I began to reflect on some of the interesting aspects of Dublin, a city that many have said is the “best kept secret” in Europe.  I know it’s not in Europe, per se, but I don’t feeling like arguing the point here.

The city is the oldest town in Ireland, dating back to the 10th century.  Dublin straddles the River Liffey.  One of the many crossings of the river is the O’Connell Street Bridge.  According to legend, if you stand on the Bridge, you will always see a white horse.  Well, I stood for nearly an hour looking for the horse.  At the end of the hour, I would have settled for a brown, or even a grey horse.  I began to take most notice of the fair-skinned Irish lassies that crossed the busy bridge.  Some of these women had the classic red hair of your “typical” Irish person.  Whatever color their hair, they looked as fetching and adorable as any female in RiverDance.  The males in the dancing line weren’t bad either.

So, no white horse.  How could I possibly fill out the rest of the day?  Should I visit the General Post Office, the exterior walls of which still bear the bullet holes fired from English gunboats on the Liffey during the 1916 Rising?  Should I wander over to the Abbey Theater and check on tickets for a production that night?  The Abbey Theater, training ground for generations of the greatest actors of the English and Irish stage.  Without that theater as a proving area for extraordinary talent, where would Masterpiece Theater have found most of its cast members?.  Perhaps I should stroll over to St. Stevens Green and Trinity College.  There, in guarded glass cases is perhaps the most beautifully illustrated book in the world, the Book of Kells.  In the Dark Ages, while they were busy burning witches over in England, the monks were copying the illustrations for the Book.  It’s no wonder that England is reluctant to give all of Ireland back to the Irish.

I had choices to make to fill a day that provided no white horses.  That’s when the idea of two great Irish traditions came to mind: mummies and Guinness.

First I decided to deal with the dead.  Now, there’s dead and there’s dead.  I wanted to see the really dead, the poor souls who were, maybe, 800 years dead.  So I took myself along the Liffey and across Half-Penney Bridge to St. Michan’s Church.  This little known church had some very strange and curious chambers beneath the pews.  For a few pence, an old caretaker took us through two heavy slanting doors that led to the crypts.  The passage way down there was about as eerie as any dimly lit passage that had numerous crypts could possibly be.  It didn’t help that the caretaker’s flashlight kept blinking out.  Then there were the mummies.  Forget Boris Karloff and Egypt…these mummies were thought to be the result of the limestone walls that protected against the Dublin rain.  The caskets were open.  One individual was said to be a Crusader because his legs were crossed and had his hands crossed over his chest.  His forefinger was slightly raised and had a polished patina.  The caretaker told us that it was good luck to rub the finger.  I looked down at his hands.  His skin, as most of the other mummies, was thin, tight and desiccated.  His empty eye sockets stared back.  The small slit that was once a mouth, seemed to whisper to me: “Go ahead and rub my finger, I’ll give you good luck”.

“What good luck could that be?”, I asked.  (I was whispering to a guy that had been dead 800 years!)

“Like a pot of gold, and it’s only a short walk from here,” it replied.  Only I could hear our conversation.

We continued along the passage way, looking into the crypts.

“That coffin over there is Bram Stokers’ father,” the caretaker said.

After an hour, I longed to be among the living again, so we climbed the small steps and emerged, like Zombies, through the heavy metal doors.

I’m thirsty, I thought.  Pulling out my Dublin I located my next stop, St. James Gate.

This was the home of the Liquid of the Gods, the Elixir of Youth.  If you’re with me on this, you’ll know I’m talking about Guinness Stout.  I went through the gate and took the free tour.  Brewed here first in 1759, it is now a worldwide symbol of Irish pub fare.  At the end of the tour, the guide graciously led us to a tasting room.  All the adults were given a pint of stout to finish out visit.  I savored mine, knowing that having a Guinness in Dublin was like sipping a fine French wine in a fine French bistro.  As the servers were making way for the next group, I noticed that a woman at the next table had taken only a small sip of her glass.  She rose, put her jacket on and left.  I thought I detected an American accent.  I finished my pint and as I was getting up to leave, I noticed the waiter staring a the almost full glass.  As he stared, and I can only assume he was wondering why the glass was not empty, I thought I saw a small Irish tear roll down his cheek.  Some people love what they make and make what they love.

As I walked out onto the street, I looked back at the Brewery.  The sun was peaking out after the typical Irish shower.  I thought I caught a portion of a rainbow.

Well, there you go, I thought.  The Crusader’s finger had delivered some good luck to me.

Good luck that came in a pint glass.

O'connell street bridge

The O’Connell Street Bridge  A White Horse?

haPenny bridge

The Half-Penney Bridge

3948750783_81b4921a79_b

The door to the crypt of St. Michan’s Church

Crypt2

The passage way in the crypts

MummiesDublin

The Mummies of Dublin

 

Pushing Chalk: Recollections on a Classroom Life

Hey, teacher leave them kids alone.

-Pink Floyd “Another Brick in the Wall” 1979

“What is a rock?”

I actually asked this question of my Earth & Space Science class of ninth graders.  It was probably my third year of teaching.  I was in a public school near Wilkes-Barre, PA.  There were thirty kids in my class which was being held in an annex of the actual school where I worked.  The back wall of the room echoed my voice back to me.  I was fingering a piece of chalk.  As I stood waiting for a response, a thought came to me.  Did I realize just how goofy and stupid I just sounded?  Did these ninth graders really care what a rock was?  Did it matter in any way to them?  Did it matter at all?

The year was probably 1975.  The school district, as well as the whole Susquehanna valley had gone through a terrible flood in 1972, and they were still suffering from flooded buildings and lack of classroom space.  It was no surprise I was hold my class in an annex…where the walls echoed.

I only had one lesson plan to prepare because I taught the very same thing, five times a day, to classes of thirty or so students.

That was my first teaching job.  I had been working on my Master of Arts in Teaching in S.U.N.Y. Binghamton when I got a tip on a full-time teaching job in Pennsylvania.  I had accumulated enough credits to be provisionally certified in that state.  I left the classroom of Binghamton on a Friday and on Monday, I stood on the other side of the desk.  Now, S.U.N.Y. Binghamton, (now Binghamton University) had a great program with their MAT in Earth Science.  But, even though I student taught, was video-taped and critiqued, they never prepared you to stand in front of thirty ninth graders, alone, and learn classroom management skills in about three minutes.  Because, if you didn’t get the students when the starting gun went off, you would never have them.

I learned quick.

There was a few fellow teachers there that taught me something about education and how they valued it.  One teacher had just completed his Masters for permanent certification.  I recall him saying that he was NEVER going to take another class again in his life.  I thought this was a strange thing for a professional educator to say.  It spoke more to his basic philosophy of the value of education than anything I heard since.

I shared a study hall (about 80 students) with another “experienced” teacher.  We would sit at the dining hall table where he would watch the kids and I would work on the N.Y.Times crossword puzzle.  One day, early in September, he told me he was going to give me some valuable advice on how to avoid discipline problems.

“Watch this,” he said.

He had seen a kid whispering to another somewhere across the room.  John (not his real name) went straight for the kid and hauled him into the hall where he proceeded to yell at the student until the kid began to cry.  He then brought the offender back to his seat and returned to sitting beside me.

“If you pick out a kid, like I just did, take him into the hall and shout until he cries, you’ll never have a discipline problem.”

John’s teaching style was rooted in the minimalist category.  He would put a film on the projector.  Turn it on and then head to the nearest phone to talk to his wife about how things were going at the furniture store they owned.

I learned a lot from John.

My years in that school did harden me for problematic issues.  I was attacked in the hallway by a ninth grader who already had a police record.  One of my former students was murdered by his father (or so the story goes), who took the kid and hung him from a tree in the back yard.  Another of my former students used to rely on a crooked doctor to supply him with drugs.  One afternoon, the boy went for his dose and the doctor refused.  So, naturally, the kid bludgeoned the doctor to death.

By the late 1970’s, I’d had enough of that school and all the emotional baggage that came with it.  I left and took a job in Connecticut.  I never even emptied my file cabinet.

I put in two years at a public school in Fairfield County.  The attitude of teachers, parents and students was an even 180 degrees from what I had come from.  I loved the job.  Everyone was so “into” their profession and the students were more than pleasant to teach.  unfortunately, the district had a strict policy of “last hired, first fired”.  I had taken the job as a one year replacement and, due to a tragic accident, it had turned into a two-year job.  Then they closed a school and the older teachers bumped the younger ones.

I went job seeking.

Then another tip paid off.  A private all-girls school in Stamford was in need of a science teacher.  I interviewed.  I inked the contract and entered the realm of the independent schools.  I never looked back.

Here, I had freedom.  No lesson plans to file.  No discipline problems.  The trade-off was in salary.  I would have made much more in the public sector, but I chose the job that gave me freedom and respect.

Now, to make a long story short, I ended my career teaching in the private schools of Manhattan.  My first job was at the Quaker school in the East Village.  Wow.  I rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous.  I would see Susan Sarandon waiting in the hall with her stroller.  One Sunday night, I watched her give out an Oscar.  On Tuesday, I held the door for her.  I even met Raffi, the Mick Jagger of the kindergarten set.

After two years at the Friends school, I moved up to the upper east side to a small school that went from N/K to 8th grade.  We fed the really famous schools like Dalton, Trinity and Horace Mann.  Our auctions and fundraisers were held in such venues as the Hard Rock Cafe, Copacabana, Hotel St. Pierre and the Russian Tea Room.  I was at this school on 9/11.  A parent of one of my students (a former Secret Service agent) passed me in the hall and told me that a few minutes earlier, a plane had gone into the Trade Center.  Later, I went down to the front desk to see whose parents were arriving, and I would get the child from whatever class he or she was in at that time.   One of my students was getting books from her locker as I waited to take her to her waiting father.

“Mr. Egan,” she asked. “is this like Pearl Harbor?”

Several days later, one 8th grade boy asked if he could speak to the upper school assembly (we had one every Friday).  I sat with my class as he went up to the small stage holding something folded.  He stood, alone in front of all the grade 5 to 8 students, and held out an American flag.  He wanted to offer it to the school to fly from our flag pole.  His voice broke and he had to halt his speech.  The room was silent.  The tears rolled down my cheeks.  He found the strength to finish by telling us that the flag had once covered his grandfather’s casket.  His grandfather was a WWII veteran.

I was proud that I risen to hold onto a great position in one of the toughest educational environments in the country.  When I retired in 2005, our tuition was close to that of Yale, (and our selection process for our kindergarten was even tougher than Yale).

Was I a good teacher?  Only the students, some of whom hold PhD degrees, can say.  But I never tired of the fascinating position I held.  I had kids from grade 4 to 12, the ground zero of raging hormones.  Yet, from out of the chaos of emotion they carried in their young brains, I saw eager anticipation for the future.  They looked forward to a life of choices and they were anxious to get on with it.  As I aged, my memories began collecting in my minds vault.  The kids, however, wore their energy and curiosity in their eyes, in their smiles and in their giggles, however silly it all seemed to them at the time.

So, I had gone from a nervous rookie who had to learn the ropes of teaching in a few minutes, to teaching and being an advisor to sixth graders.  The educational world had changed a lot.  My first class averages in 1973 were done with a slide-rule.  When I retired, I was teaching PowerPoint.

My last day in the classroom wasn’t spent pushing chalk.

I simply snapped the cap onto the felt dry-erase marker.

Here are a few selections of my photo memories:

Image

One of my students from Corfe Hills School in England.  I was an exchange teacher to Dorset in 1984-85.

Image

One of my home room class photos in John Jay Park.  The East River is in the background.

Image

Another sixth grade home room.  All these kids are now professionals in the fields they chose.  Look closely into their eyes.