Dallas – It’s Where They Shoot Presidents.

I really did like Dallas.
Everything in my history, everything in my DNA told me I would not. could not, should not like Dallas. But I did.
When I said the above to a friend, expressing that I wasn’t sure where my preconceived notions came from, he said “It’s because they shoot presidents in Dallas.”
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When I first arrived in Dallas I stayed with a friend I met online 5 or 6 years ago while playing poker. He lives in a fabulous apartment in downtown Dallas with a balcony to dream about and spectacular views of some of Dallas’ most iconic buildings. He had to go to work for a few hours and I had no clue what I wanted to see or do in Dallas. Since it wasn’t too far from his apartment, or his office, he suggested the Sixth Floor Museum.

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He told me what it was. But I still wasn’t prepared.
The Sixth Floor Museum is located in the Texas Book Depository, from where it is said Oswald shot Kennedy. From the sixth floor, (obviously.)
Props to the curators. The museum is tasteful, or at least as much as such a commemorative museum can be.

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We explore just a bit of Kennedy’s life and not only what brought him to politics, but what he brought to the political scene. We consider some of the decisions he made that didn’t please every American. We’re told enough about the local political scene in Dallas to understand some of the prevailing tensions of the moment. We see interviews with local police and with Secret Service as they express their concerns about this visit. Not enough concerns to curtail his Texas five city tour but enough to have been mentioned.
The hopefulness of the country and of the young presidential couple is viscerally implanted in museum goers. At least it was well implanted in me. So even though I know how this story ends, I still held my breath as I journeyed the hallway with minute by minute pictures of the crawl of the motorcade down Houston street, turning onto Elm.
And then, here we are. At the corner window on the 6th floor. Looking at onto the street from the same vantage point Oswald supposedly had when he supposedly shot the 35th President of the United States of America.
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
As I write this I, once again, immerse myself in the realities of what went on in Dealey Plaza. And it feels kind of ickky.
I say ‘supposedly’ above, because, like much of America, I’m not sure I can buy into the idea that the shots came from that 6th floor window. Standing there. Intuitively. It makes more sense. It FEELS more like the shots came from the grassy knoll. But what do I know? I wasn’t even born yet. So lets just keep my intuitions out of this missive. It does none of us any good at all for me to have an opinion on this matter.
Jackie’s actions and her poise intrigue me.
It’s no secret that the woman had class. And style. But it seems she also had a good solid grip on reality and the brutality and messiness that life contains.
Jackie wore a now infamous pink wool suit that day. It got spattered with blood and brains, yet she refused to change her clothes.
At the hospital she was urged to wash her face, her hands, her legs, and change her clothes.
No.
“Let them see what they have done.”
She also refused to leave JFK’s body. The only time she left his side was for a brief moment on Air Force One to stand beside LBJ, in her gory pink suit, as he was sworn in as President.
Only once she was back at the White House, only after she’d given instruction for his memorial (to be done much like Lincoln’s was done nearly a century earlier), did she finally leave his side and go change her clothes.
The suit is locked away in the National Archives in Maryland and won’t be available for public viewing until 2103.

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To be cliche about it all, there’s something that’s hard to look away from. Its like a train wreck. Craning one’s neck to see ever more twisted bodies.

The Grassy Knoll

I went back a few days later. Not to the Book Depository, but to Dealey Plaza itself. I walked around, took pictures, read all the plaques, and contemplated the need of us all to see those Xs painted onto the middle of the street, representing the deadly shots.

Fucking Harsh America. Fucking Harsh.

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(As my poker-playing lawyer friend said, this happening forever hovers in the psyche of Dallas. But still, I didn’t hate the place.)

Atlanta Whirlwind

I had these images of having plenty of time to write interesting, informative and pleasing blog posts about the things I’m doing.
Instead I find myself running ragged ever since I left CT – with no end in sight.
Yesterday in Atlanta I visited The Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum and Library, the historic home that Margaret Mitchell lived in while she wrote the majority of Gone With the Wind, and I ended the day visiting The High Museum of Art ( It was half price on Thursday nights!)
I really enjoyed The Carter Center. As a child my first awareness of politics was Watergate. (Wait. What? What’s a President? We have a President? And he lied?) So by the time Carter was being elected I totally wanted him to win. I had a teacher at the time who made us engage with the political process by choosing sides and visiting the local Party offices and volunteering.
I was so displeased by what I’d seen since becoming aware of politics that of course I chose to campaign for Carter.
Since leaving the Presidency the man has done many commendable things in this world and I enjoyed immersing myself in the facts of it all.
Plus it was kind of awesome to stare upon an actual Nobel Peace Prize.
A helpful museum guide named Tony broke the rules and took some pictures of me. He also gave me the Jeopardy-worthy little bit of trivia: There are only two cities in the world which house two Nobel Peace Prizes. One is Atlanta (I went and saw King’s today!) and the other is Soweto, where medals for Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela reside.
Somehow I enjoyed that tenuous connection, what with the week’s news being filled with the goings on at the memorial ceremony to honor Mandela’s passing.

(More text below photos.)

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Here in Atlanta I’m staying with a nice older gentleman named Al. It’s a booking I made via Airbnb – a service born of the sharing economy whereby you rent out extra bedrooms in your house, or pay a cheap price to stay in someone else’s extra room. I’ve been renting out my extra room that way for a few years but this trip is my first chance to really utilize it for myself. (If you don’t know Airbnb yet, do check it out.)

Anyway, Al lives just on the outskirts of Little 5 Points. I spent a good amount of time here in the 80s when Vette (my lifelong best friend) lived here.
Today I started the day with a short walk to Little 5. Truly worthy coffeehouses and a collection of stores I wish I had access to on a daily basis. I spent a few hours wandering and browsing. Enjoyable day.

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A Facebook post, saying where I was, got me a message from a friend saying she had people not too far from here and that I should visit and deliver a hug and greeting.
So I did.
That introduced me to the Lake Claire Land Trust.
What a fantastic place! With land bought from Marta, they have created a meandering little city oasis with playgrounds, sweat lodges, a small amphitheater, performance spaces, and I met an emu named Lou!
That was a great detour and addition to my day!

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Then I jetted off to The King Center to pay my respects and learn a thing or two. The complex is rambling and covers many blocks. I got to see Atlanta’s second (or was it the first?) Nobel Peace Prize.
I was somehow humbled to stand near his tomb. The gravity of it all. A friendly pool cleaner named Lawrence took my photos for me.
I really like meeting real people to chat with.

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I was going to go back to the Lake Claire Land Trust tonight for a Friday night friendly jam but that’s not gonna happen.
I walked a couple blocks from Al’s for dinner at a place called Babette’s and, at 9pm, have landed next door at JavaVino – a coffeehouse wine bar combo and I’m downing more wine than would allow me to be comfortable driving back to the Land Trust.
Here I sit writing this bit on my iPhone in hopes that when I get back to the house I’ll upload some photos and make this a real blog post.

My original plan for this trip was to cruise along the northern reaches of these southern states as I head west but a Facebook post last week from a friend might be sending me north from here to Tennessee – to McMinnville – where there is a concert tomorrow known as Bluegrass Underground. Once a month they have concerts that (I think) are filmed for PBS and December’s is tomorrow and billed as “A Pirate’s Christmas.” So yeah. I think I’m changing my plans and going north tomorrow.

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Could She Be A Hero?

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For reasons I can’t explain I’m drawn to books about the old south.

When I was a kid I generally picked my reading material solely based on the heft of the book. I disliked books that ended too quickly. I’m not sure how I found my way to Gone With the Wind, but I’m sure it’s size had something to do with it. I must have been somewhere around 11 or 12 the first time I read it.

I truly loved the book. So much so that I read it 4 or 5 times before I was 20. And I’ve read it 4 or 5 times since.

As a diary enthusiast I’ve read diaries from a number of various persons involved in the conflicts of the 1860s – from slaves who could write, to ladies of various plantations, to soldiers from both sides.

But it wasn’t until I took a class with Cecilia Miller at Wesleyan University that I’d ever gotten around to reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, (though I’d always wanted to.)

Published in 1852, still more than a decade before the Civil War, it gives some perspectives on slavery that many Americans of the time went to great lengths not to see or think about.

The novel begins at the Shelby’s plantation in K’ntuck, where we meet some of the slaves, and learn that Mr. Shelby has gotten himself into debt and even though he is a kind master, he must sell some of his slaves. So he sells Tom and a little boy named Harry. The deal in the planning stage, is overheard by Eliza, Harry’s mother and that night she runs. She and her husband are lucky enough to find each other along the Underground Railroad and they eventually make it to freedom in Canada. Hers is a gripping tale. Tom takes his fate much more stoically and travels down river with the Trader and is eventually bought by Augustine St. Claire as a sort of indulgence for his daughter Eva – a very spiritual child. When Eva dies, Tom is promised his freedom because of what an upstanding man he is and how much Eva loved him. But when St Clair unexpectedly dies too, Tom is sold again to an awful brutish man who dislikes Tom’s morality and eventually, Legree and his men beat Tom to death.

The characterization in the novel is exemplary and I loved it at the same level that I love Gone With the Wind.

Lately I’ve struggled with the idea of heroes and why I declare mine as I do. And I wonder why there are no women in my battalion of heroes. In my mind I’ve been wondering if I have any female heroes. In an effort to see if Stowe could be one, I visited the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Hartford Connecticut last weekend.

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It was a fine early fall day, sunny and bright.

I wandered through the visitor center waiting for the house tour to begin.

For sale in the museum store were a great number of contemporary books on social justice as well as kitschy writing implements, and numerous items with quotes – buttons and mugs and such.

In the learning center I enjoyed the display of book covers from around the world, showing the many languages the book was translated into.

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There was a large bulletin board inviting visitors to say “Who is Uncle Tom to you?” I was both miffed and intrigued by the competing opinions that Obama is Uncle Tom and Obama is not Uncle Tom. Hmmmm.

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Harriet was from a large and somewhat famous family of outspoken individuals. Her father and brothers, mostly pastors. Her sisters, all writers. But she outshone them all when she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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Her Husband Calvin Stowe convinced her to publish under her own name so there might be more impact if the public knew this came from a real person, and a woman at that.

Publication skyrocketed her to stardom, making her, at the time, much more famous than her neighbor Samuel Clemens.

The house tour was as interesting as an historical house tour can be. Not a very ostentatious home; a couple of parlours, a modest kitchen, and 3 bedrooms upstairs. No photos allowed inside.

James was an excellent guide on my tour, with insightful stories about the timing of various events, family life, her children – especially two twin daughters who acted as her managers and never married, and a son who drowned in the CT River at the age of nineteen.

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He also gave an interesting perspective when he told us that Harriet was not modest. She was most likely to brush her fingernails upon her lapel and say “Yes, I wrote that, and I’ve gotten quite rich from it.”

The Stowes traveled widely on her earnings, and Calvin was able to leave his teaching position.

While it is debatable whether or not Abraham Lincoln, when he and Stowe met, actually said the exact words pictured at the top of this page, it is certain that her novel made it much easier for the north to embrace the Civil War.

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A great novel. A well preserved historic home. But not my hero.

Ode to a Teacher

I have a friend who pays an inordinate amount of attention to obituaries.

It’s not like he’s of an age where one would watch to be aware of the passing of friends. He’s always been like this.

He’s the one who tells me when a friend’s parent has passed, or perhaps the untimely death of an old acquaintance in our age group, or an important yet little known person who influenced our chosen brand of American culture.

Earlier this week I got a text from him that said “Mrs. Sokolowski died. 89 years old.”

Wow.

Chesterlyn Sokolowski. Eighth grade? Seventh grade?

It seems some of my best teachers came from that time of my schooling. Anthony Dyer was middle school too.

These are the teachers who pushed me. These are the teachers who knew I could do better than what I did.

Mrs. Sokolowski was a hard-ass. No excuses were good enough. She insisted on work done well. She scoffed at efforts less than 110%. She scowled and growled and hissed and snapped. Right now my mind pictures a viper.

She was the matriarch of Memorial Middle school, possibly I have that impression because her daughter worked there too. Miss Sokolowski taught French which I took two years of (and passed) but with which I was completely lost and decidedly unfluent in, when I was in France. Mrs. Sokolowski taught English and writing. (Not that this is any of my best writing but it’s just coming off the top of my head – and yes, I see the awkwardness of some of the previous sentences.)

Along with the babysitter of all my young years, Mrs. Bostock, Mrs. Sokolowski was very important to the shaping of my writer-brain. And Mr. Dyer was there to teach me how to think, how to see the big picture as well as the details and comprehend the nuances to the shaping of civilization.

I was an excellent student in Middle school. Hungry for the knowledge these people could give me, rebellious slightly and always a bit of a lazy student, they drew out the best in me.

When asked most of my life who was my best teacher ever, I was always inclined to point the finger at Mr. Dyer. A large man with piercing blue eyes, a shock of yellow blond hair, and the voice of a Viking, he was flamboyant, loud, intimidating and endlessly entertaining. Mrs. Sokolowski was old even then, with her curled grey old-lady hair and glasses. And she was a little mean. She was the kind of teacher who might have a ruler in her hand to slap loudly on a student’s desk. She was relentless and maybe not so well liked. She may not have been as entertaining, and it may have been harder to sit in her class, but she was without doubt a force to be reckoned with and a remarkable teacher.

Beyond Middle school my thirst for schoolwork waned considerably.

My teachers were less interesting, less motivating. They seemed to be sort of bumbling and ineffectual.

This may have been due to my own lifestyle changes, it was the start of high school where I met a whole new crew of fascinating long-haired boys. Boys more interested in music and marijuana than in schoolwork or knowledge. But it seems to me, when I look back on it, that part of the problem was that I had come up against teachers who were not as smart as me. I don’t mean to sound grandiose, but I felt then as if they had little to teach me. Certainly I was learning new things in circles I hadn’t even known existed and school didn’t afford me opportunities that interested me as much as watching ‘the band’ learn new songs, hanging out in sand lots on mountain tops having keg parties and learning to know a whole new crowd of people, and a whole new introduction to music.

It’s probably wrong of me to blame this disinterest and this turning from school on my teachers, there were other factors in my life that precipitated these changes in me.

Certainly there were a few memorable teachers in high school, including Mr. Adams and Mr. Seibal(?) but this post isn’t about them.

When I was in my early 40s I went to the post office one random day and Mrs. Sokolowski recognized me. Many people from my past recognize me because somehow I look just the same now as I did when I was 8, and 25. It took a moment for me to place her, then I smiled. A few moments of chit chat and she got serious and said “May I ask you something?”

She asked me – “Did we do right by you? In school? I know we did okay with the average students, but I always worried about you smart kids. Did we challenge you? Did we set you on the right path? Did we do okay?”

It seemed such a burning question inside her, I was surprised.

I was moved by her query. I guess I’d never thought about a teacher’s perspective on someone like me. I guess I didn’t know, that back then, they knew I was smart. Isn’t that silly? I knew. I knew they treated me differently, placed me in advanced classes and whatnot. And I knew they worried about me in high school when my grades began to drop, (when they pulled me into the guidance office and told me I was hanging with the wrong crowd,) but I didn’t know I mattered to any of them. Not really.

I saw it though, that day, in her eyes. She truly cared to know if she’d done a good job. Not for her sake, but for mine. I mattered to her. This was literally stunning.

I didn’t know, other than theoretically, that a teacher truly cared about the trajectory of a single student, like an arrow she’d had a part in aiming.

I told her the truth.

She’d done the best she could with me. She engaged me and taught me well. I told her I’d lost interest through high school, perhaps because I didn’t have teachers of her caliber. I’d not gone to college, instead I traveled the country for nearly a decade, then I’d opened my own successful business (which I was 12 or 13 years into owning at the time) and that I’d have to say yes, she had, they had, done okay by me. They’d taught me to think and learn and I couldn’t have asked for better.

We parted happily and I thought of that encounter often. I related it to friends many times through the past bunch of years, with awe at her concern, and honor that she thought of me at all.

Before I relate what it was like when I went to her wake (which is the point of this post) I’d like to tell how after the wake, I went to dinner with a teacher friend. He assured me that teachers do indeed think often of individual students and lay awake at night wondering if they’ve done right by these kids. And when talk turned to other areas of our lives, and an idea came forward that he could utilize in his teaching, and I watched his eyes light up with the possibilities of this new idea and how it could and will affect the experience his students will have; I thought of her.

I felt compelled to go to the wake. The point of a wake is to pay one’s respects to the departed. I didn’t expect to know anyone there, unless Miss Sokolowski, who was surely no longer Miss Sokolowski might be there, and I hoped she was.

I walked in to a mostly empty funeral home. The emptiest wake I’d ever attended. There were a few people looking at the photo board. There were pictures of her in the 40s, a glamorous looking woman with  perfect 40s hair. There were pictures of her as a young girl, grainy sepia toned photos, a little girl on a red wagon, a little girl looking into a stream. There were pictures of her as an old woman, smiling around a table with other old women. None of them looked like my Mrs. Sokolowski. But then, there was one small photo, from an instamatic camera, with film color that’s not holding up well, of her accepting an award or something at a podium among diners. Ah! There she was.

I looked around – I wanted to tell someone – look! There she is – my teacher!

There was no one to tell.

It was an open casket.

I walked over and stood before her. Her skin was grey and she was old and didn’t look like anyone I knew. But I looked past that, I looked through to the woman I saw in the photos, to the woman who waggled her finger at me and INSISTED I do as well as I could.

I thanked her for caring. About me and about all the many students whose lives she had undoubtedly touched as much as she did my own. I thanked her for our encounter at the post office. I thanked her for all that she gave of herself. I told her I hoped her life had been satisfying in all those realms a kid never imagines for a teacher. I told her that I hoped her journeys beyond this planet would afford her heart and soul much peace. I told her she had mattered.

And when I turned from her, I wanted to tell this important information to someone else. I wanted to tell someone that she mattered. There were chairs there for the family, but no one was in them. There were a couple of small groups of people talking amongst themselves. I looked for Karen – Miss Sokolowski. She was not there.

I stood not knowing what to do.

I wanted to shout to the room – hey! This lady over here! She mattered! Do you know that?!

I looked back at her for one final Thank You, and then I left.

Goodbye Mrs. Chesterlyn Sokolowski. Thank you, you did good. You mattered.