Monday, September 24, 2007

the real thing

Saturday night I saw a leopard about 10 km outside of Mussoorie, on the road from Dehra Dun.

I know that people see leopards all the time. I have watched them on the nature channel, closely enough to see their pupils dilate, but for the time and space between us. I have seen them in zoos, just as close, but they are fake leopards in zoos, elaborate products of sophisticated taxedermy, big tabby cats born in other zoos. In nature reserves, there are wild leopards, but the wild freedom which we perceive in them diminishes when we hear that they have names and regular veterinary appointments.

For that reason, I think that seeing one in nature carried a sort of surreal sensation of unanticipated familiarity. I knew right away that it was a leopard. The real thing was, in many respects, an exact replica of its artificial counterparts that had already been introduced to me. Yet that is backwards... the artificial leopards are replicas of the real thing.

The reality of the leopard, its authenticity, somehow made it undeniably more special than any other leopard that I have seen. I will probably always be able to see that imperfect picture, in sweeping headlights, of an enormous cat flowing across the dirty concrete barricades on the side of a twisting mountain road before gracefully and casually cutting off down the hill into the immense darkness. It was not an amazing picture, even if we had been given enough time to snap it on a camera. It was dark and the car was bumping and the situation was not altogether ideal for watching wildlife. The authenticity, though fleeting and poorly resolved, made it a priceless moment.

I have been reacting to this sensation, not to the leopard only, but to the feeling of being in awe of something so wild and true. I have thought, in my endless considerations of the properties of analogy and metaphor, of God's Love.

Love is a favorite concept of this world that we live in. The love of God is often intimated, sometimes imitated, but never perfectly and completely duplicated in the people around us. And yet we catch glimpses of it, so familiar and thrilling that we do not doubt it is love, but revel in the perfection and warmth of it. We know it because it is the ideal that we have heard so much about. When we see it, we do not spend a moment wondering if it is love, but rather, we spend the entire wild-eyed experience recognizing it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

my day job

School has been a cruel master lately.

I don't think I was cut out for this job. I do really believe that mathematics is worthwhile. It is a practical necessity for some jobs in the modern world, and it is a beautiful thing in its own right. I really do believe that every kid I come across can benefit from a little math. And yet... I feel that I am often at cross-purposes with my students, who come to me for test scores and good grades and college acceptances, and rarely for math.

I feel like there is a fundamental flaw in this system of making kids learn math. We tell them they need to learn math and they do not believe us. Obviously a math teacher needs math everyday. You've chosen a stupid job, that's not my problem. I'm going to be a fashion designer, I won't need math. I'm going to be an artist, I won't need math. I'm going into business, I won't need math.

There is an artificial demand for math. When a person aspires to something which they realize demands math (and not just math grades or math classes) the teaching and learning is smooth and enjoyable and amazing. I have seen it. I have seen that sort of interest and determination that transcends class credits and points on tests. But rarely. Most students, and I myself have occasionally done this, settle into the role of a blindly trudging, artless mercenary.

Unfortunately, by the time the student acknowledges a necessity for math, their only hope of success seems to depend upon how far they were dragged along unwillingly during the years preceding their epiphany. And I guess that's where I come in.

Dejectedly and contentedly, and with a scrap of renewed purpose, I suppose that I have always really put myself here to sell a bit of vision, or maybe soften the soil for it. Time will tell if I can make a living on that.

Friday, September 14, 2007

dubiously used books

Joie and I finished Treasure Island, and last night at study hall I checked out The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I enjoy the urgently soothing flow of his writing.

The book is relatively thin and the writer is highly regarded in a literary sense, which means that this particular copy of the book has been abused by a fair number of AP English students. As one begins reading the book, it is difficult to ignore the penciled brackets that surround (and ironically fail to emphasize) the most deeply significant seven out of every eight paragraphs. I patiently waited for it to end. Sure enough, after the first twenty pages or so, all of the papers had been written with sufficient profundity and an artful, playful vagueness to hint at the wonder of the piece without getting bogged down with details like the people and places in the book, and without giving away anything about the last 250 pages or so.

I wonder if those people ever ask themselves why people enjoy reading.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

same thing we do every day, pinky

I have recently volunteered to help out with the Model UN here at Woodstock. Next weekend I will be going to a conference at Doon School, located in Dehra Dun, the dusty metropolis at the bottom of our mountain.

The students are all researching the countries and committees they will be representing at the conference. So far, I have been able to contribute that I lived in Italy as an infant and I saw what I believed to be Indonesia from Singapore. My connections to Peru, South Africa, and Panama are even less noteworthy, if you can believe that. Taking inventory, I can already see myself grasping for respect in a tight situation and playing the only cards that I have for those countries. My sister lives in Colombia, which I am almost certain is next to Peru; I attended a talk by Desmond Tutu, who has been to South Africa; I know a palindrome about Panama.

Part of me is very interested in world politics, but admittedly a silent majority of me is much more interested in pirates. As a form of government, I mean. Like 'Model Mutineers', wherein a group of students stages a heartfelt debate over important commodities like rum and gold, which, contrary to all pretensions of our sophisticated governmental proceedings, really do keep the world running.

I am also in favor of a 'Model Illuminati' conference, for those students who really plan to go far. The 'Model Anarchy' club has been not meeting regularly for years.

For now, I shall try to content myself with the study of civilized governments, though I have a sneaky suspicion that they are all run by pirates and elitists anyway.

At this point I am reminded of a comment of mine (that I have forgotten) which evoked the response from Victor's dad: "You read too many story books."

Yes... Yes, I do.

My deliriously insincere apologies, this entire entry got away from me. I actually intended to express my newfound interest in MUN and instead I probably earned myself a file in the pentagon. I guess my proper appreciation of politics fits about as well as the neck tie that I will have to learn to affix by Friday.

I think that this quote might be the best explanation of my interest, my contempt, and my stake in politics:

"The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices."
-- C. S. Lewis

Thursday, September 6, 2007

born to not run

As my sister's blog sometimes includes inspirational accounts of exhilarating running experiences, I thought that I would take a rare opportunity to describe my own recent fitness endeavor. I ran yesterday.

It hurt like mad. My legs hurt and my arms hurt the entire time I was running, and they still hurt now. It was not enjoyable in any way. I had not run since last year at this time. I can only remember some of the scenery, besides all of the other people in pain.

I noticed the white dog at the chai shop at the bottom of the hill near a sort of saddle of the mountain. That dog always seems to be crazy and mean, but they keep it tied up so it cannot attack people walking by. I will never understand the people around here who raise dogs to be wild, starving, and crazy beasts. I think my experience in India has significantly decreased my ability to understand the need for pets.

I noticed a string of Buddhist prayer flags hanging across the road. The flags are colorful sheets of cloth about the size of a piece of A4 paper. They never cease to remind me of the plastic flags at car dealerships and fireworks huts in the states. They have prayers printed on them with ink and a big woodcut stamp and a roller. We saw some old men making them in McLeod Ganj, at the temple where the Dalai Lama spends most of his time. When the prayers are completely faded off, they will be answered, the Buddhists believe. Some of the flags are bright and new, and others are tattered and gray.

I noticed a streamer of brown cassette tape twisting in the wind. I remember that because I have always wondered how that stuff gets caught at the top of a telephone pole. I think I remember wondering that during last year's race at the same curve in the road. It's the curve on the downhill stretch right after the turnaround by flag hill. Right before the black plastic squatter shack with the donkeys outside.

I noticed a little rivulet of water coming down the side of the mountain right by the road. The locals will find a big flat leaf and bend it like a taco shell and use rocks to weigh it down inside the miniature stream. This makes the water spout outward from the side of the mountain rather than trickle down the rock and dirt, and they use it to fill buckets or wash hands or get a drink. I think that's clever.

Monday, September 3, 2007

my morning person


Most mornings, Will wakes us up about 45 minutes before we want to be awake. Sometimes his first scuffs on the tough coconut fiber mat in the living-room are enough to wake me up, and I can hear him carefully pick a path around the furniture in his dim journey to Mamma and Pappa. He smells worse than most things his size, and at that time of the morning, he has a formidable aura indeed.

Recently, he has been bringing his belongings with him: a blanket, a stuffed dog and two stuffed bears--all fake of course, the pillow from his bed and the one from the floor next to his bed, where we hope it will save him from another smack on his head after a short fall. Needless to say, this often takes him two trips. He sometimes comes in with the first load and unceremoniously dumps it on our bed, and without so much as a glance at us turns around for the remaining pillows and animals.

After he is settled in our room, he finds the flashlight that Joie keeps near the bed and proceeds to make shadow puppets. Since his pappa only knows how to make a pretty sad looking dog and a five-legged spider, Will's shadow puppets are appropriately pathetic even when his wildly wagging fingers are in the beam of the light. When this gets boring (as it soon does), Will climbs all over us or dumps out his toys or carries the dirty clothes around the house. Anything that keeps him quiet keeps us very happy and we find that in the early morning we are exceptionally supportive parents.

Sometimes we talk about breakfast, and Will gets very excited. If he hears the word 'chai' or 'tea' or 'coffee', he holds us to it. He can say all three words, though he seems to make no distinction. He just knows that Mamma will give him a warm and milky mug of good drink.

About 7:30 AM, EVERY DAY OF THE BLESSED WEEK, the garbage guys come to graciously remove our previous day's garbage, which we keep topically separated in two pails. When Will hears the doorbell, he sits up and says, "Babbage!" I have always been amused that Will thinks Charles Babbage has come to visit, and it makes me smile knowingly to think that old Chuck has been dead for a hundred and thirty some years now and Will is none the wiser. But we always correct him and tell him that it is the garbage, and then he slides down off the bed and lumbers over to the kitchen with the same manly air that any boy has the first time he helps to carry a piano or cut firewood or stare at a greasy engine. Will's deep breathing and his steadfast gaze during the task speak of his dedication and sense of duty. He is really very proud to contribute in this way.

Usually Joie gets up to open the door for him. If she is slow in finding the keys, I can hear Will yelling "Keys! Keys!" and urging her to hurry. Sometimes Joie comes back into the room to put another blanket on me and shut the door so I can sleep a few more minutes, and I think that at that moment I feel like the most loved man that there ever was. Eventually Will, to whom every day is a summer vacation Saturday morning, bashes through the door to excitedly welcome me to the day.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

yo ho ho

My study hall duty a couple of days ago came after a very long day. School had already drained me of more than its fair share, and I could not be bothered to spend the time shuffling papers and scheduling the learning that has to happen. Being in the library, I started perusing the eclectic collection of books that finds its way to an international school.

In recent months, I have read three books by Hemingway, but his writing is often much better than his stories. I have spent at least as long being partway through Seven Years in Tibet, but Heinrich Harrer's story is often much better than his writing. While I am willing to track a dying Kudu with Hemingway in exchange for the occasional gem, it is a telling test of my fortitude to climb an un-described mountain with Harrer in exchange for an unknown sensation that feels very much indeed like seven years.

I read Hemingway with a certain double edged fear. I think that if I were a writer I would tend toward and aspire to certain of the same strengths.

Anyway, when my eye caught on Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, I felt an unexpected invitation to return to something that I had counted among the lost. I think that when the book first ended and I had to close it knowing that Long John Silver is toiling away to a pirate's freedom without even a goodbye, I was more than a little sad to have finished it at all. I would rather, almost, have left them all on the Hispaniola, bound for treasure and intrigue. I have since learned that this was one of the books that can stand to be read again. I have read it three or four times, and it is still a solid story with excellent dialogue. Young Hawkins can return to the Admiral Benbow Inn and start it all over again. The aging monster Billy Bones can stamp around on the cold beaches of England yet again in his tormenting anticipation of Flint's men. And Long John Silver can play once again the master pirate that he surely was.

This is the first time in a few years that I have read it. I suppose that I read the book differently after having seen a few more ports, having met a few more people, having walked a few more roads, and having passed a gazing night on a cold and crashing Cornish beach.

This time I was on page 72 when study hall ended and I restarted reading it so I could read it aloud to Joie, and we are on page 38.

An excerpt, from the opening of the dead man's chest...

A strong smell of tobacco and tar rose from the interior, but nothing was to be seen on the top except a suit of very good clothes, carefully brushed and folded. They had never been worn, my mother said. Under that, the miscellany began--a quadrant, a tin canikin, several sticks of tobacco, two brace of very handsome pistols, a piece of bar silver, an old Spanish watch and some other trinkets of little value and mostly of foreign make, a pair of compasses mounted with brass, and five or six curious West Indian shells. I have often wondered since why he should have carried about these shells with him in his wandering, guilty, and hunted life.

This text can be found in its entirety at the project gutenberg website.