Monday, July 25, 2011

That Sinking Feeling

Once again, the Writer's Almanac has inspired the subject of a blog for me. It was on this day that the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria was struck, off the coast of Nantucket, and eventually sank.

Now, why, you might wonder, is that event of particular note. Well, several reasons. On the larger scale of human events, certainly there were bigger more costly ship sinkings. Obviously, the Titanic is the most famous, at least in terms of lives lost, with 1,517 people perishing. The Andrea Doria had only 46 people die.

Strangely, the Andrea Doria benefited from the lessons learned on the Titanic--to a point. The Andrea Doria was struck by another ship, the Stockholm, in a heavy fog. The impact of the collision resulted in the Andrea Doria listing hard to starboard which rendered the lifeboats on that side unusable. With only half the lifeboats usable, the numbers of passengers who could be rescued using them was greatly diminished. Shamefully, some of the crew fled on the first 3 lifeboats.

However, and here's where the Titanic lessons came into play, there were other ships in the area that immediately set course to assist the crippled ship. These ships included the Ile de France which had passed the site hours earlier. This ship had sufficient capacity to take on the passengers from the stricken ship. The call to abandon ship came 30 minutes into the accident, and the ship sank eleven hours after being struck.

As Wikipedia notes, the sinking of the Andrea Doria was "the last major transatlantic passenger vessel to sink before aircraft became the preferred method of travel."

So what? you might be thinking. When this story was first in the news, I was riveted with the details. Our family was one of those ocean-traveling families. With my parents doing mission work in southern Africa, which they first went to in 1946, we had to get across the Atlantic Ocean, somehow. The very first time, we went by plane which is standard now, but very unusual then. After that trip, we crossed the Atlantic in 1954 to return to the U.S., then again in 1955 to return to Africa.

So, crossing the Atlantic was something with which I had familiarity, when I first learned of the Andrea Doria sinking. It did not instill great confidence in me. The only thing I really feared crossing the ocean was the prospect that the ship could sink. It didn't help matters when on one ocean crossing the ship we were on showed a movie "Run Silent, Run Deep" about submarines preying on ships.

Sure, it was great fun to cross the Atlantic in a huge ship, such as the Queen Elizabeth I (as we did). And the time spent on shipboard was a wonderful way for missionaries heading home to decompress. But, the prospect of another ocean liner striking the ship we were on did not thrill me.

When I returned* to the U.S. for the final time in 1959, we once again crossed by ship--a ship called the African Enterprise. I even found photos of it on the Internet--shown below--which completely matched my memory of the ship. The photo of the ship's main lounge really brought back memories for there was a piano there (seen on the left in the photo) on which the ship's doctor--an Italian opera lover--played the Triumphal March from Aida JUST as we steamed past the Statue of Liberty into New York harbor.

Ah, the days of passengers crossing the Atlantic are long gone--at least in the commercial sense. There are, of course, luxury tour which do take passengers around the world. But, mostly now, people go on short jaunt cruises which are nothing like an ocean crossing.

What has not changed, of course, is the prospect of a ship sinking. Sadly, such catastrophes are still happening (as this summer's news attests), and lives are lost.
*My parents returned to southern Africa in 1960, while I stayed in the U.S. to continue my high school education.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Revisiting the Classics

Someone recently wrote a comment on my Facebook about recalling the days when I was teaching (in my first college job) and she was a student there. What she indicated was that as she and her fellow classmates reminisce they all recall having to read “the dreaded Young Goodman Brown.” She said she remembered nothing of the story or its meaning, only the dread of having to read the story. And she wondered—should she read the story again, perhaps with the maturity of some life experiences that would make “the dreaded” story more meaningful.

That got me to thinking—there are many classics that we could revisit and appreciate now with some life experience informing us of deeper meaning.

And then I thought—why not help you revisit the classics. Starting with “Young Goodman Brown.” If you still think this story might fall into the dreaded category—go ahead, skip the rest of this post.

“Young Goodman Brown” is one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Written in 1835, it is widely regarded as his best-known short story. The primary characters are Young Goodman Brown himself, his wife Faith, and sundry characters who appear during the course of the story.
A quick interjected comment about the character’s name—Young Goodman Brown. Obviously, young is an adjective describing his youth. The family name of Brown is somewhat universal. And Goodman—well, that’s an honorific title that would have been used during Puritan times, one step below “gentleman.”

The story begins with young Goodman Brown taking leave of his wife to set out on an unspecified errand as night falls. They are newly weds, having only been married three months, and she somewhat petulantly begs him not to go. He tells her he must go—and so he leaves his sweet wife Faith, who is the picture of innocence with pink ribbons in her hair.

Ah—foreshadowing. The wife’s name is Faith.

Not long after setting out, young Goodman Brown encounters an unnamed character who upbraids him for being late. Goodman Brown replies “Faith kept me back a while.” The two begin to walk along, deeper into a darkening woods, and Goodman Brown begins to hang back complaining that his father never went so far into the woods. But, he is urged on by his traveling companion, who tells him:

``Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.''

The traveling companion is now identified as “he of the serpent.” So, clearly young Goodman Brown is on a dodgy errand and has met up with the devil, or at least the devil’s emissary. The quoted speech (above) clearly links historical events within the Puritan community with the forces of evil: the Salem witch trials, and the so-called King Philip’s war, where wholesale slaughter of American Indians was carried out by the settlers.

Young Goodman Brown is astonished to learn that his traveling companion is well acquainted with church leaders, the governor, and members of the council. As he digests this information, he sees a woman ahead of them on the path. She is Goody* Cloyse, who taught him catechism. Not wanting to be seen by her, Goodman Brown ducks into the woods, while his traveling companion stays on the path. When he encounters Goody Cloyse, she screams “the Devil” but they soon fall into friendly banter so it is clear they too are well acquainted. When she disappears, and young Goodman Brown is once again walking with his traveling companion, Brown demurs:
``Friend,'' said he, stubbornly, ``my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand. What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?''

His traveling companion suddenly disappears, leaving Goodman Brown sitting puzzled and contemplating what to do next. He then hears voices of two approaching travelers, who turn out to be the other people who instructed Brown in catechism—the minister and Deacon Gookin. They too are on their way to the same gathering as the devil, and Goody Cloyse. Goodman Brown cries out: ``With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!''

As he cries out this plaintive declaration, he hears a young woman’s voice. And looking up to the sky, he sees something fluttering down, which catches on a branch—a pink ribbon.

``My Faith is gone!'' cried he, after one stupefied moment. ``There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.''

He finally gives himself over to the forces of evil, and joins the gathered worshippers. Someone calls for the converts to be brought forward, and Goodman Brown steps forth. He hears the words of welcome:
``Welcome, my children,'' said the dark figure, ``to the communion of your race. Ye have found thus young your nature and your destiny. My children, look behind you!''

Goodman Brown beholds Faith in the gathering, and in a final desperate plea tries to save her: ``Faith! Faith!'' cried the husband, ``look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.'' The story solemnly informs the reader “whether Faith obeyed he knew not.”

The next morning, young Goodman Brown returns to his village, a changed man. He sees all the familiar loved figures—the minister, Deacon Gookin, Goody Cloyse, and finally his wife Faith who greets him happily.

The story wonders whether or not Brown had fallen asleep and only dreamed the witch-meeting.

Sorry, no answer to that question.

The ending informs us:

“And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”

After that summary, do you really need an interpretation? For myself, I like the thought that what Goodman Brown discovers in the darkened woods is that we are all mortal—we are not perfect, we are flawed. And the knowledge—the coming of age, if you will—overwhelms him. He cannot live a carefree satisfied life with that knowledge.

What do YOU think the story is telling the reader?

Now, I am taking requests. What classic would you like to see revisited? If I have read it, and can remember it, I will “teach” a class on it.

*Goody—a shortened version of Goodwife, corollary to Goodman

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Several weeks ago, I began to notice that my heartbeat was not all it should be--you know, not nice and regular and steady. Instead, it felt thready and at times weak.

Since I pay attention to little messages from my body, I made an appointment with my family doctor. She too felt my pulse, listened to my heart--and to me as I described what I had been feeling--and then promptly called on the office intercom for an EKG. Once I was hooked up with various little leads, and a read-out of my heartbeat was made, she announced: yes, as I thought, you have atrial fibrillation.

Now, I don't like to hear little words (or actually some long words) such as atrial fibrillation. But not liking to hear something does not make it go away. My doctor referred me to a cardiologist with these words--I don't think you need to go immediately to an emergency department. Well, such a statement focuses the attention when your doctor allows as how you DON'T need to go to the emergency department. I couldn't help but hear an unspoken YET.

A few days later, I did see that cardiologist, and he in turn had another EKG performed--yup, still in atrial fibrillation. He started me on a new blood thinning medicine and recommended scheduling a cardioversion.

Now, cardioversion is the little cousin of that dramatic medical procedure on TV shows, when a patient is in cardiac arrest, and someone grabs two paddles, yells CLEAR--and then zaps the patient. In cardioversion, the paddles are smaller, and the electric charge toned down some, but it still is zapping the heart. (And, I learned the nickname for the doctor who does the cardioversion is Sparky...)

Or, as my cardiologist (who I did like a lot) said--rebooting. HA. Immediately my husband took to referring to the procedure as my rebooting, and that the result would be KGMom 2.0.


So, I am now at the end of the week which began with my rebooting. Since cardioversion is done under general anesthesia, I felt nothing, and have no negative residuals from the procedure.

What I am hoping is that rebooting is not prelude to more such procedures. And I hope that KGMom 2.0 had all the bugs worked out first. You know, I don't want a constant stream of updates being rolled out, requiring installation etc.

As usual, Shakespeare provides words of wisdom: all's well that ends well.

Here's hoping...

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Remembrance of Things Past

Those readers who know me realize I am a big fan of the Writer's Almanac. I receive it as a daily email, a practice I began when I missed the NPR segment too often. So now every day, I can start out with a literary bon mot to savor.

For example, today is Marcel Proust's birthday--July 10, 1871. And I know that because I read my Writer's Almanac. Two Proustian amusements I enjoy--one is the recurring reference to him in that charming independent movie of a few years back--Little Miss Sunshine. Steve Carell plays a very depressed scholar who fancies himself the number # 1 Proust scholar...until he learns of someone ELSE who is even more the # 1 Proust scholar.

The other is the title of Proust's most famous work--Remembrance of Things Past. At least that's how the title is rendered in English. Apparently, that title, though so well-known by most literature students, should have been rendered as In Search of Lost Time. I like Remembrance of Things Past better--maybe because that's what I feel I frequently do when I set out to write a blog.

For the purists, Proust's title in French is À la recherche du temps perdu. which I confess really does translate better into In Search of Lost Time. OK, whatever.

The other day, on the anniversary of the poet Shelley's birthdate (of which the Writer's Almanac reminded me), I went searching for a suitable Shelley poem to use on Facebook. I found the poem "
When the Lamp is Shattered."

Interesting how the themes in this poem seem to echo that search of lost time, or even remembrance of things past theme.

Herewith the opening stanza--the rest you can read by clicking on the link above:

When the lamp is shattered
The light in the dust lies dead—
When the cloud is scattered
The rainbow's glory is shed.
When the lute is broken,
Sweet tones are remembered not;
When the lips have spoken,
Loved accents are soon forgot.
I heard a successful movie script writer being interviewed by Terry Gross the other day. He made the point that, in his opinion, most movie scripts are really the same story told over and over again. He gave some examples to illustrate his point. I see what he means--and that repetition of theme certainly occurs in literature. Only there--we call them archetypes.

There is that recurring theme of the intransigence of existence--the mutability of all things. Contemplate how an entire play--Hamlet--seems to hang up on that theme. And Hamlet's awareness incapacitates him. He wanders around musing "to be or not to be."

About now, dear reader, you may be wondering--what's gotten into her. Oh, maybe I am just musing. Tempus fugit. Memento mori.

Let's hope that the next Writer's Almanac puts me on the path of a cheerier theme.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

The other day I was suddenly seized with the urge to clean out my office--not the one in our home, but the one at the community college where I had taught for the last several years. I have not taught a course for three semesters, and I have no thoughts of asking for a course. With my husband retired, my not having a course frees us up to travel. So perhaps my teaching days have drawn to a close.

But, the office that I shared with two full time faculty and one other adjunct still held some of my personal items as well as student information and text books.

I loaded books into boxes, and then went through several file drawers where I had accumulated worksheets, quizzes, exams, and even student papers. With abandon, I tossed the papers into recycle bins. I wondered what to do with some of the textbooks--composition books which I had no use for if I weren't teaching.

As if by design, a man appeared at the door. He was one of those textbook buyers who circulate at the end of each semester, looking for used textbooks for which they pay money. Well--sure, go right ahead, look through my books. And he did, and found a fair number for which he offered me $17 total. Done and done. The first time such a buyer appeared at my door, I agonized over what to do. Many of the books that I had collected had been sent unsolicited as tryout texts. So, I was in a quandary. When I asked a colleague, she was frankly puzzled at my ethical pause.

The task of cleaning out the office was a necessity, but it also set me to musing--and thus the real inspiration for this post. I have loved teaching. Nothing I have done in my varied work career has been so rewarding as teaching. And I am grateful to all the links along the way that led me into teaching.

Fresh out of college, with my degree in English literature in hand, I had no clue what I might do. So, off to grad school for me. I realized that I had been privileged to have excellent professors at my alma mater, so I wrote a note of thanks to one of my favorite profs. He promptly wrote back and asked--did I want to return to my alma mater, after my master's degree program was concluded? It was for a one-year fill in for someone on sabbatical. Did I?

Well, I surely did. So, after one year away for grad school, I returned as a very young newly minted instructor in English. I was all of two or three years older than my students. I had no trouble asserting my classroom authority with students, but some of my former professors, now colleagues, didn't exactly help me. Some students told me that one prof was reminding students that they had to read their assignments if they wanted to discuss intelligently the issues. Only one person that he knew could discuss intelligently without having read the assignment--that was me.

So, I asked my former prof, now colleague--please, don't tell students such stories about me! (I think I might have been secretly pleased at being identified as discussing intelligently.) That was then--now I realize that I no doubt short-changed myself but not reading thoroughly the assignments.

After eight years of teaching, I moved on to other work. Make that three other jobs. The last full time job came to an abrupt end when the company I was with merged with another, and I was "made redundant" (that wonderful British term). Facing the prospect of sudden and unplanned retirement, I wondered what to do. Well, there was teaching. So I applied to our local community college for adjunct status teaching English composition. Thus I returned to teaching to conclude my working career.

As with anyone involved in teaching, I have my cache of student stories. There was one student who was furious at me for "giving" him an F. I calmly informed him that he had earned that F. There was another student who gleefully told me, when I returned a paper to her on which she had earned a B, that she only began writing the paper the night before it was due. My comment to her--imagine if you had done more preparation; you might have gotten an A.

Encountering students after a 20 plus year absence from teaching had a completely different dynamic. Add to the time factor the difference between students attending a four-year residential college and students attending a two year non-residential community college. Students at community colleges frequently carry full class loads and work full-time. That leaves little time for engaging enthusiastically in the academic riches of college education.

At the community college some students' stories nearly broke my heart. I would always give students an initial assignment in class--write a diagnostic essay in response to a prompt. That way, I could see how they wrote and have a base-line sample of their writing skills. Sometimes I used the prompt--what was a problem you had, and a way that you solved it. I had quite a few young women who wrote about getting pregnant while in high school, and their decision to keep and raise the baby as a single mom.

In one class, I had a young woman named Brooke. She sat in the back, and never talked. I could tell she was friends with one of the young men. One day, she missed class. I had a fairly strict attendance policy, so I noted the absence. Then she missed again, and again. I finally asked the young man--and he said he thought she was dropping out. It turns out that she had quarreled with her mother, who turned her out. Brooke, at age 18, was living in her car. She never did return to class, and I often wondered what happened to her.

So, as I cleaned out drawers and files, packed up books and personal items, I thought. I thought back on a career in teaching, and again silently thanked the professor who tossed me a one-year teaching position. Of course, it lasted more than one year. The professor on sabbatical who I replaced never returned.