Tales from outer turnip head...

Tales from outer turnip head...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Allusions and "a penny for the Guy"...

Friday Pizza and a Movie: I've been watching the new series of Doctor Who with my family lately. It has become a feature of "Friday Pizza and a Movie" in my house. It is wild how sucked-in my children, my wife and I have become with the series. The dog usually joins us on the couch too...

Which is your favorite Doctor?: Doctor Who originally aired in 1963 just after JFK was assassinated. I wasn't alive then. I found the Doctor—who was was played by Tom Baker—in reruns on PBS airing BBC at odd hours. I do not know how old I was, but the Doctor I grew to like was on air originally from 1974 to 1981—the "current" Doctor of my middle school years played by Peter Davidson was not to my liking. I stopped watching when the reruns of Baker stopped airing...

Complexity: In 2005 the series started up again after nearly a decade hiatus. It is brilliant fantasy, sic-fi, horror, story telling. What I love the most about the series is the complex plots that are played out over multiple episodes and sometimes whole seasons. No spoilers here. Doctor Who feels smart to me. The Doctor is quick and compassionate (when he has his human companion present). He is well cultured and read. He knows history like he's lived each and every moment. And he knows the future and the galaxy, and he is the lat of his kind and alone.

I love the little nods to literature, pop culture, history,  and science often placed in episodes here are a few examples from episodes we have recently watched in my household:

Episode 183: "The Lazarus Experiment"
Both the Doctor and Lazarus quote T. S. Eliot's poem The Hollow Men. The Doctor completes Lazarus' quotation with the line, "Falls the Shadow" — which has been used as the title of a Doctor Who novel. There is also a Doctor Who novel called The Hollow Men featuring animated scarecrows. The Doctor later tells Martha that Eliot got it right in saying that it all ends "not with a bang, but a whimper". The Doctor also alludes to Eliot's reference to Lazarus in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead." [wikipedia]
Episode 184: "42"
A security question needed in the plot of the show requires the next  number in a sequence. The answer is the next "happy prime."
A "happy number is a number defined by the following process: Starting with any positive integer, replace the number by the sum of the squares of its digits, and repeat the process until the number equals 1 (where it will stay), or it loops endlessly in a cycle which does not include 1. Those numbers for which this process ends in 1 are happy numbers, while those that do not end in 1 are unhappy numbers (or sad numbers)." [wikipedia] 
A happy prime is a number that is both happy and prime. The episode name references the answer to "Life, the Universe, and Everything" in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I love these little allusions as they offer deeper meaning to the plot than initially perceived.

Episode 185a: "Human Nature" & Episode 185b: "The Family of Blood"

The "bad guys" in this episode rely on reanimated straw men to do their dirty work. The story draws from the 1995 book Human Nature, but the scarecrows are from the 1998 book The Hollow Men. The layers of complexity are excellent, and the continuity to the The Doctor Who canon is phenomenal.

So, to continue three weeks of posts with ties to T.S Eliot, here is his 1925 poem, The Hollow Men:

The Hollow Men
by T.S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
      A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
                            For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
                            Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
                            For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

T.S. Eliot's Wasteland: I. Burying the Dead...

April is the cruellest month, breeding  
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing  
Memory and desire, stirring  
Dull roots with spring rain.

[The soundtrack for today is Farewell Blues (1922) by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.]

Different: Today feels different than many near it. I recently turned 43, my son 14. 14 shocks me more than 43. I blinked and there is a giant standing before me...

Standing on the shoulders of giants: I am coming to terms with the aging nature of my parents and their friends. They are starting to look like normal people, not the giants they have always been, although giants they remain in influence. 

Loss again: My wife is burying her longest friend this weekend. Death seems to have become more of a feature of this April than should have been scripted. [See how I used the passive voice there?] Each thing in turn has its place, I'm certain. It does not make the passage of difficult moments any less difficult. But comfort is always there as well. Peace and gratitude. Even in the darkest moments there are pricks of light. And most days are brilliant and warm. Sometimes we can look to the past and gain some perspective, or just a moment to attach to for some comfort...

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding  
A little life with dried tubers. 

The Lost Generation: In 1922 a beautiful piece of steel machinery was manufactured in Germany. My Opa used this tool to share his thoughts with the world; he wrote about how fascists were bad. (The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.) [Those are Yeats' The Second Coming words, not my Opa's.] My Opa moved to Spain—where he was again confronted by fascism, forcing him further west to America. He arrived in the US with his wife and two children, and the third of five on his way. I am from the third...

Heritage: My father inherited the machine which he used for years until he needed something faster, more modern. He's told me stories of law students running extension cords along the floor of exam rooms to type essay answers on their Electric Smith Corona machines of the 1960s. Progress! He kept the old German machine, crafted in 1922, and stored it in a closet somewhere...

Snoop: I was a nosey kid. Some might have called me a snoop, picking locks to find out Christmas secrets; [I hated surprises.] I have learned not to snoop, I have learned to leave the closets of others closed until their owners open them for me; I have learned that mysteries are sometimes best left mysterious, and magic left magical; [I don't mind choosing to be tricked, but I still hate surprises.] 

Discovery: I was a nosey kid and I found the machine in the closet where my father had stored it away. I brought it out and began using it. Some of my earliest attempts at expressing myself poetically were through the clack, clack, clack of that old machine. Some secrets were banged away on its keys and sent off to private places. Other ideas were recorded and shared. It helped often to share.

I, like my father, moved on to something more modern when it became available to me; an Apple IIGS, Woz edition, with a Dot Matrix printer... 

Time: The German machine made it's way back to the closet; my Opa died; my son was born (taking the name of his great-grandfather who moved our family to the United States just as World War II was getting under way; my father began to look more normal to me; and I turned 43...

Gifting: On my son's birthday he received the machine from his father's request to his grandfather to part with his great-grandfather's machine (perhaps gifted by his father when Opa was 15). My father was more than pleased to pass on an old object from some attic closet; I was pleased to broker the deal; my son is enthralled! "I should invite my friends all over to see this!"

In the background I can hear the clacking of the keys flying away. Sounds like morse code getting banged away; such secrets might lie in the those keys. 

I think I'll sip my coffee and wait for any doors to be opened to me...

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee  
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,  
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

(Poetic elements from T.S. Eliots' Wastland)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain..."

Loss: Last week I attended a funeral for a friend's child. I was her teacher once... twice. Her life ended early, deliberately, tragically. I do not want to fathom, or even try to fathom, any of the emotions that surrounded her last weeks, days, moments. Nor do I want to imagine the moments now replaying forever for those closest to her, and all that comes with trying to move forward—together I hope.

I do not know how to find meaning or purpose in such an end. I am not sure I am meant to, or that any of us are. I do know that the village came together after the end. It was not too late, despite the instinct to ask that question, "What did we do... could we have done?" It was. And we are. But we have lost one of our own. We hurt, and miss her, and come up longing... How we proceed is where we might succeed. Voices of healing arrived. Compassion trumped judgement and we proceed slowly forward... 

MoCA: I attended an art show this weekend. Student art covered the walls, telling stories and capturing my sense of amazement. How talented the young ones are! My student who is gone—my friend's daughter—won an award at this show once. She was a photographer, usually capturing the silly, but sometimes capturing the beautiful and the deep. She had a sense of the aesthetic, and there was a strong will in her. 

Painting after photograph after sculpture whispering, or shouting, or plainly speaking, of ideas, and emotions, and moments inexpressible in written words. Some of these artists are just finding their voices, while others are well rehearsed in expression and purpose.

And there was music, and crowds celebrating these voices and the stories they are trying to tell. Kids, each in their own mode, accompanied the art. Strutting about, quietly listening in, hanging on the periphery. What a scene...

Finale: I have mixed emotions in pairing T.S. Eliot's poem, Preludes, to this post. I have no subtle intentions or commentary. Don't read into my pairing too much. It just seems to fit somehow. I have moved through sadness this past week. I found myself avoiding my sorrow, and embracing it, each in turn, and am wishing to move beyond it. It has been a bitter/sweet, trying to pay respect and to continue to celebrate. This is the feeling I get when I think about T.S. Eliot, bitter and sweet. 

I like Eliot's poetry, especially Prelude. I found it in high school when I was trying to be an artist of sorts. I was struggling in so many ways to find my way, and found some measure of peace in guidance from Messrs. Bulkley and Schmick, teachers of creative writing and poetry. They supported students, no matter what. What a great lesson for me to try to embrace...

So Eliot seemed to belong in my post, and I offer up his words as a moment that just is... 


The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Greylcok Plays: More than a single story...

Student Art I'd Love to Own
I've been thinking about Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieThe danger of a single story a lot lately: So about a month ago I wrote about TED talk that I had come to appreciate about the dangers of a single story: History May Not Repeat Itself... March 8, 2015. As I thought about it more and more, I decided to assign watching this talk to my students and get their input. Boy, do I love reading my students' ideas when they have something to say. Here is one of the many lines that resonated with me:
If someone wanted to know about me, and only asked someone who barely knew me, or asked someone who don't like me, they would get the wrong information and make that person think poorly of me. If they asked someone who knew me well or loved me, they would get a completely different story and hopefully their opinion of me or my story would be a good one.
Some Music Enters into my focus about story: I attended a student concert during a "directed study" block last week. It was glorious: I watched a math teacher and a newspaper editor become an Irish influenced folk duo. I listened as cross country athletes edged into pop/garage rock, I reveled in the student organized and hosted event that is quickly becoming tradition in my school. I heard one song after another thinking to myself, "Our students are so cool!"

It's a trap: While I listened to the concert, thinking how talented these kids were, wondering when and how they had tome to develop even more talents that I had not known about, I had a worry. My worry stemmed from how often I had tried to connect to my students over the years by getting to know them beyond their abilities in social studies class... but I had fallen into a trap. The girl who loves horses, the kid who lives to play D&D, the football player who turns heads with his abilities, the artist who makes me want to buy student art. Each of these kids who I had connected with, who accepted me in because I had taken an interest, had sadly become students with two stories; social studies, and their special thing. Although I made the correct first step to know more about my students than what they shared academically, I stopped once I found one passion. I had replaced a single story with another single story.

I have a lot of work ahead of me I think: The solution is simple, I think. What if I make my class more personal? What if the questions we ask both address the "content" and the "personal relevance"? Maybe I get to see more and learn more while still remaining the teacher...