Monday, July 25, 2011

Keep Austin Surreal

This Saturday Maddie and I participated--along with about thirty or so other volunteers--in the second installation of a piece by Steve's public art group, Art on the Way.

Entitled, "Keep Austin Surreal" this mural was created with colored plastic cups locked into a chain link fence.  It is the creation of Austin artist Gary Sweeney, and it is located on South Lamar, attached to the fence between the Bicycle Sports Shop (which is a sponsor of the exhibit) and McDonalds (which is not).

The first ATOW sponsored work, entitled "Barton Barriers" garnered a good bit of attention, due in no small part to a column by 'cranky old man' John Kelso in the Austin American Statesman.  It will be interesting to see if this shows up on anyone's radar this week.

Interestingly, after all that, I actually failed to notice it this morning as I was reading and riding to work on the bus!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My Tattoo

I have a tattoo.

These days that would not be considered a particularly shocking revelation.  However, my mark not only predates the current body-ink fashion trend, it actually stands in sharp contrast to the aboriginal tribal markings, inscrutable chinese characters, butterflies, kitty cats, skulls and the many variants on 'Suzy' and 'Mom' that adorn now so many acres of skin.  My tattoo is, contrary to the trend, small, remarkably discrete and personally meaningful.

Discretion notwithstanding, my tattoo is actually visible, if not obvious.  What's more, it is actually meaningful, though that too would not be obvious until explained.  And, over the years I've found numerous occasions to explain it, having showed it to more than a few people.  I should be clear on this point and say that I have always showed my tattoo off in public places, and to willing viewers--none of whom, I am happy to report, has found it objectionable in any way.  In fact, most have found it to be instructive, which is the only reason I show it off anyway.

I got my ink back in 1973.  This was a day when bikers, not high-school kids, were the ones getting tattoos.  This was also before there was a tattoo parlor on every corner in SoCo, so I did it myself.  No, it's not a prison tat, and I didn't do it on a dare or while on a drunken binge.  To be clear, I've never been to prison, don't 'do' dares and though I may have been drunk on occasion, I have never been so inebriated as to willingly subject myself to the kind of pain required to get a pseudo-tribal marking of any kind.

I have, however, been so frustrated and angry with myself that, for one brief moment, I was sufficiently oblivious to the pain.  In an unplanned instant, in one brief and terrible stroke, I managed to make the mark that I carry to this day.  Actually, it was more of a stab.

The place was Austin High, the time was my senior year, and the event was a failing six-week grade in Frau S_____'s French class.  Now, this was certainly not the first F I'd ever gotten.  Nor was it the first F I'd gotten in that very subject.  This F was especially humiliating however, because after weeks of trying, the failing grade felt like incontrovertible proof that learning French was something I could and would never accomplish.

It wasn't just the F.  It was a confirmation of Frau S____'s complete lack of confidence in me.  It affirmed my fear that she was right.  Some people, she had said, are simply not capable of learning a language.

Though she didn't say this about me or to me directly, I got the message.  Especially when those not-so-subtle jabs were delivered just at the moment when I was perusing my latest red ink-stained homework or test in class.  It didn't help that her passion for French culture was absent from her teaching.  It seemed obvious to me that the only reason she had become a public school teacher was because she claimed to be a native speaker of French.

I had my doubts about that.  She did, to a neophyte, appear to be able to speak French, but given the facts that she did so with the thickest of possible German accents, that she was also the German teacher, and that she insisted, even in French class, upon being called 'Frau' were all clear indicators that she was anything but a Francophile.  This I knew even though I didn't know that her claim to be French was based upon her having been born in Alsace, where residents, even though they are officially living in France, still consider themselves to be a part of Germany.

All of Frau S_____'s prejudices aside, I must take personal responsibility for my failure.  It was my own inability to conquer the language that made it difficult for me to learn French.  Herein was my whirlpool of despair.  Difficult, it might have been, but not impossible it was not.

However, impossible is exactly what I thought it was on that day in the spring of 1974.  "I'll never learn French!"

With that thought in mind and a rapidograph in my right hand, I stabbed the sharp needle-like point of the pen deep into the very center of my left palm.  Just like a proper tattoo needle, the pen injected a small drop of ink in between the layers of my skin, where it remains--barely visible--to this day.

I don't make habit of showing people my tattoo, but it certainly has been useful as a succinct if somewhat offbeat example of how wrong it can be to make an assumption like I did that fateful day.  You see, even though I am not obliged nor inclined to do so under all but the most extraordinary circumstances, today I can actually speak French.

It turns out that I am not one of those people who cannot learn new languages.

In fact, it turns out that there are no such people.  It turns out that anyone--even babies--can learn a language.  Or two.  In fact, it turns out that the reason that babies can (and do) learn language is because they are babies.  They don't know any better.  They've never been told that some people just never learn to speak a language.  They just do.  We encourage them, of course, which is the difference between the way we treat children and adult learners.

Now, to her credit, Frau S_____ was not the only French teacher who made learning more difficult that it might have been, and she was actually a most generous teacher, at the end of the day.  Eventually, she gave me a passing grade for the course, and thankfully so, for due to her ultimate indulgence, I was allowed to graduate by the very thinnest of margins.

Another reason for being grateful had to do with entirely unforeseen events, not the least of which was my little tangle with the law year after I gave myself that tattoo, I found myself living in Paris, holding out my subtly marked hand to allow shopkeepers to sort through the change that I could not identify nor pronounce.

It took a remarkable French teacher to break the spell cast upon me by both my Texas teachers of the language.  His name was M. D_____, and we called him the Dancing Bear because it was his habit to begin every class by singing (and sometimes dancing to) a French folk song.  "Au jardin de mon pere, les lillas sont fleurie..."  Contrast this with the only French song I had ever heard in Texas, La Marseillaise, and you get the idea about the difference in the two approaches.

When I entered M. D_____'s French class, I was one of the worst students, unable to read or write, and virtually unable to speak as well.  I have to say though (not without some pride) that it wasn't long before I had made enough progress to be one of the better students in the class.  Not the best, of course, but certainly better than the worst.  In fact, the by the end of the term, the worst students were the formerly best students to begin with--those straight A girls from high school who could decline their verbs but couldn't muster the courage to ask a French person where the bathroom--erm, toilet--could be found.

So, now, whenever anyone tells me that they are one of those people who just can't learn a language, I show them my tattoo.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Monologue or Dialogue?

Today, the monologue is supreme and the air is thick with angry rants and piteous laments.  The viciousness of this phenomenon is given its teeth by the internet, but the appetite for the one-sided speech has been a part of human experience since we created language.

Although it is tempting to reach for the extreme and claim that thanks to the internet, communications among people these days  are more vain and self-serving than they have ever been, I won't do it.  In fact, the urge to make that claim is part of the reason I feel compelled to say something about it.

Another reason for writing about it is that I may be part of the problem.

This journal--now called a blog because it is on the internet--could easily be described as a monologue, loaded with the very same rants and laments that I decry in what is this, a rant?  Or is this a lament?

Actually it is neither.  It's a part of the group of writings that I have deliberately called my observations and comments, because that's all I have ever wanted it to be.  And that's all it has been, for many years now, a place where I can write down--purge from my overheated brain--my thoughts and observations.

This journal existed long before the internet, and it continues to go on outside of it.  I keep another journal--pen and ink--for observations and comments that occur to me when I have a few moments to collect my thoughts at the end of the day.  And there is the journal I keep in my bag, so I can write when I am on the bus, or in a meeting.

Some of the entries in this journal are rants, sometimes they are laments.  But most times they are boring, quotidien bits of detritus that are more akin to exfoliating than actual writing.  In other words, nothing I'd want to share with others.  In a word, its a monologue.

But this journal is different.  Or at least I hope it to be so.  This journal was intended, right from the start, to be a dialog.  That is, I had a reader in mind, someone with whom I wanted to communicate important thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes these have taken the form of rants and laments, but in that sense that they were intended to reflect my thoughts and feelings, which, like most, tend to run toward the sensational. More important, those words were for someone. Otherwise, why write?

Better, what to do when the reader loses interest or dies?  What does the writer write about when there is no one listening?

The answer is (naturally): the same damn thing we do every night, Pinky.  Of course, technically, it's still very much a monologue, even when I can imagine someone listening.  And, since I do all the writing, the feedback that comes in person from my friends and family is not visible as part of the record.  So despite my intent, the speech is still very much one-way.

This speech, words that I cannot and do not suppress here is, I hope, more and different than a mere monologue.  More in the sense that it is not just a idle or Different in the sense that I intend it for public consumption.  These are not my private thoughts, they are public ones.  They are also not random, but directed to my friends and family.  At first, it was to my mother-in-law, Billie, to my Bride, Valery, and to my brothers, David and Stephen. Now, more than ever, these words are especially addressed to my daughter, Maddie.

Though Maddie does not now read this journal, I suspect that someday she will.  I hope, like any father, that my daughter will be interested in who I was and what sorts of things I thought about.  She has some idea, of course.  While we talk every day, and many of the things I write about actually come from discussions--actual dialogues--with her, there are many questions she will have about me long after I am gone.  This journal may serve to answer at least some of them.

I will not pretend to be writing literature here.  This stuff is raw, unfiltered and as close to moonshine as you can get.  It's occasionally a little rough, and it'll make you gag from time to time, but there are some real good moments in here as well.  That's why I and how I do it, after all.  By keeping in mind that I do have an audience, I imagine that I am engaging in a dialog--albeit a very slow one--and consequently hope to keep this work from becoming too self-centered.

Ok, so it's too late for that.  But, while this isn't exactly a two-volume auto-biography, it's also not a Tweet.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bet Ya

Little is given
Nothing taken
When the two sides
Come crashing together

Did you think
in your repose
that unsung guilt
would pay
your debt?

Did you think
yourself making way
adding not
deceiving math itself
for your pleasure?

The Balance Sheet
doesn't lie
when it does.

You are not
Pure Energy.

You are neither
Made nor Destroyed
A Particle nor Wave
Shadow nor Soul
Point nor Line.

You are not here
You are Lost
When the pen is out of ink
The mark too faint
To make the difference.

Penny bets
Might as well be
for all the courage you've gathered
for this hand.

Don't tell me, just
Bet or don't.
Go all in
Or just sit this one out.
The table will not
Rot or rust
without your risk.
The table doesn't care
But the cards do.