And to boot, tommorrow, the 31st, is the 140th anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment, the abolition of slavery in this country. Best part of my job is when I get to casually mention these facts during the introductions before the play.
He didn't like being in Vietnam. He's got a son in Iraq, and they don't like being there, either. But there they are, sailing through their stormy lives, and somehow D. has made it to 9 years at this school, and two grandchildren. All the friends who survived to retire with D. are long gone; D's wife thinks that this work, which he doesn't really need to do, is how he's managed to get through it all.
If D. had his way, he'd be hunting and fishing and ably holding down his station at the EZ-Boy all the live long day. Only grudgingly will he admit to the truth of his wife's claims. He wears half-tint aviator sunglasses, scrabbly whiskers and heavily stained plaid flannels. He has a droll, rough way of understating things, the kind of dry NCO humor that takes a bit before you realize that he is not, in fact, condescending to you. Small children can't get enough of him.
I'm re-reading 1 Henry IV, in anticipation of playing Hotspur for a podcast recording. There is a world of difference between D. and Falstaff, but, for purely physical reasons, D. now ambles around my imagination playing Falstaff, with the same rough, droll bark that D. uses to shepherd 2nd graders around the cafeteria.
I imagine D to be a kind of reformed, sober Falstaff--the one who actually is capable of killing Harry Percy. D is the anti-Falstaff, as it were. I have no doubt in my mind that this mighty bear of a man, who now wades through shoals of adoring kids for a living, most probably endured his own share of darkness and death-dealing while under arms.
* * * *
Happy Chinese New Year, everybody. Who let the dogs out?
His lips are thick and they droop, his back is scoliated and slightly hunched, he wears a walkie-talkie with an earbud and a microphone so tiny that it disappears in his awkwardly oversize fingers. He wears thick square glasses and he shuffles when he walks, which makes his awful quickness all the more surprising.
There are some schools where the evidence of a strong principal can be read from the walls, from the brisk pace and the clear enunciation of their lieutenants, the teachers and the custodians. A strong principal, like a strong President, will leave imprints of their egos on the color schemes, the neatness of the lines of kindergarteners, the awe mingled with fear you see in the eyes of children regarding any of their elders, like so many Latin-American trade secretaries clustered for a photo-op in the Rose Garden. But a strong principal does not necessarily a good school make. Just as a strong President will be a volcano of hubristic passion, so a strong principal can just as easily quash the lives of the children and educators whom Providence has seen fit to set the principal over.
Here at L. Elementary, we see perhaps the beginnings of why the strong principal arises in the first place. The current principal swims in torrents of aides and other educator-officials, the school is a concatenation of swelling classes and older architecture continually added to, improved upon and renovated over the course of decades. There are levels and passages, ramps and doors and interior walls that were very obviously once exterior walls. In such an environment, G. is like State Secretary George Marshall to the principal's Harry S. Truman.
Surprisingly, for all his physical details, children and staff take to G. like Israelites to Moses. He judges, he directs, he stage-manages, he parts. Even the principal watches his cues.
We pull into L. Elementary for an unprecedented three-show day, having performed in the morning for three-schools-in-one-show, and then two shows scheduled in the afternoon for L.'s kids. We're tired, crabby, hungry, things are broken and I haven't slept as much as I should've.
G. leads us into our space, which is crowded with kids eating things and spilling things and smelling funny, like they always do in their larval stage. Immediately I notice the nimbus of soft grace that covers G. like a robe, clothing him in quickness and competence. He arranges cafeteria tables around us. He marshals children around electrical cords and rolling stock. He turns water into wine. Instantly, my day is shorter, my hands are stronger, my feet are surer, my voice lifts like a balloon.
He has every key to every door, he knows the best parking spots, he can hold off legions of shrill children with the wave of his large, leathery hands. He laughs like a girl.
We've known many impressive custodians in our tour, some better even than G. And we've known worse. But I've never met a custodian who could so easily be one of my troll puppets, and still be so damn good at what he does. G., I salute you.
It’s rather like living within someone’s idea of a world, rather than a world unto itself.
It’s not particularly easy, being what it is, a pace that demands suppleness, strength, and a healthy dose of cunning. Airports and interstates and trains and the like; rented cars and boots that are literally wearing apart at the seams. I am a leaf on the wind.
One of my best friends has been suffering from the anxiety and the hardship of composing her college thesis while her grandmother weakens, for which I have supplied all of the sympathy and support I can muster. It has become a contest of will and sheer righteous determination for her.
Another beloved friend, an ex-, has been taking care of her dying father, commuting between Portland and southern California on a semi-monthly basis. We have only a very meager few opportunities to speak with one another, but those moments are always warm and penetrating. As time goes on, this is a template I’ve grown more and more accustomed to from more and more of the important lights in my world.
There is no imminent death in my family’s circle right now, thankfully. Everyone’s safely accounted for, tucked away in their lives, snugly. Grandma Sol means to visit the Philippines again, with my half-brother escorting her this time. I was honored and much gratified that she asked for me, but my puppets and the children must detain me stateside for this round. To tell you the truth, I am relieved my brother can make the trip this time. I think my heart would burst if I crossed that ocean again, so soon.
But lately, I’ve been looking in the mirror and thinking of my Grandpa, gone for almost two years. I helped to care for him in his last years, and especially his final days, cleaning and medicating him. I’ve been present at the deaths of each of my grandparents save Grandma Sol, who is all we have left. (When did we all become so orphaned?) I’ve long been something of an albatross in all of my families, a harbinger of profound changes, a scion of hope and unwanted ramifications all at once. No one is ever qualified to be anyone’s child. I suspect this may be why my heart, like my place in these families, resembles a clenched fist, sometimes.
I look in the mirror and I see his chin, his eyes, the forcefulness of his brow. I share with my cousins, my uncles and my father the same set to the shoulders, the same pitch to the hips and the knees when we walk purposefully while seeming to walk casually. Some of us are better at things than others; some of us carry more of Grandpa’s charm, more of his dash, others are blessed with his brave eyes, just smart enough to dare, and not so smart as to lose the name of action. We think and eat and drink and love like epic Greeks, quick to agonize, and yet there is more reserve, more control beneath the bluster of large-heartedness than you would expect. Grandpa was a great one for secrets and plans, intentions held close to the (admittedly loud, Ft. Lauderdale-chequered) vest.
I’m quietly surprised at how vivid his voice still is in my memory. One of the first things I noticed after my Mom’s stroke, was how quickly my memory of her voice slipped away, and with her voice went any semblance of her before. That which she was before she was broken into so many sharp-edged shards, the whole-ness of my mother, is now little more than a photograph in my memory.
Grandpa, meanwhile, is alive and thriving there, constantly measuring, quipping, pottering about, eating, poking things, teaching me how to play chess, making faces, even more of a patriarch now than he ever was. He sprawls on his couch in the house we sold a year ago, he watches my plays from the center of the house, loudly cracking pistachios, he looks out of my dull eyes in the mirror. The lush and manifold qualities of his voice still inform my inflections, faintly coloring all kinds of things.
He is my trickster, my guide, the demi-urge that hankers after long shots and risky prospects, the subtle perk of curiousity that convinces me to look past the next rise. Always proud of me, always just a tiny bit dissatisfied.
Portland is inundated in a Biblical way. I half expect to return home to a truly Floating World. Apparently some poor mortal pissed off one of those Sky Deities, and here we are, rubber duckies and boathouse garages floating down the Willamette floodplain. The trees, if you can imagine, are lush in that barren sort of way they are in the middle of winter, where you can feel their exuberance in the torrents of sheet-rain, their branches and twigs cast high into the air like outstretched fingers, so many Lears cavilling in the mist.
At the moment I’m wandering Idaho again, plying puppets and letters and endless cups of coffee. Motels and hostels, duffel bags and carefully thumb-worn files crammed into so many portable units. I have a grade-school folder purchased at a dollar store, with paintings of elephants gazing impassively from the cover. I use this folder as the latest incarnation of my Go-To File, or, Where Papers of Present and Overriding Importance Go to Die. These elephants, with their knowing, inscrutable stares and their fabled memories, stopped me somehow somewhere back a month or two ago, and here they still are, herding my unfinished and yet-to-be-replied-to letters.
There is snow on the freeways, mist pouring off the rivers, drizzling rain bearding the trees and the hillsides. The skies are glancing with searing light and tumbling weatherfronts. The mountains are deeply hidden.
On our way here, we were waylaid in Pendleton for a night, waiting for sunlight to clear up the ice on the Meacham summit. Here in Boise, the high hills surrounding the city are splendidly frosted, and flurries of exuberant snow whistle down every morning, only to stipple the windshields and nothing more.