A General Update

It’s been a while since I last posted.  Not for any dramatic or unusual reason, just the business of life pushed blogging to the side.  I began a long commute to the City for work and that made finding the time to blog harder. However, I’ve now accepted a new position with a new company, Etherios, and I’ll be working mostly from home. (Which doesn’t mean that I’ll necessarily have more time to blog, but it does at least free up the time I had been spending on the train.)

As for the fiction, I’ve taken the excerpts down for now.  I realized that I’ve been spending too much time editing and not enough time finishing, so I’m going to wait to solicit comments until after I’ve got a whole first draft completed. Which will be… whenever it’s finished.  I’ve actually been moving again on that. Moving slowly, but still moving.

Other than that, the kids are just amazingly impressive.  They’re each tremendously talented, gifted, and good and it’s a special pleasure to watch them excel and grow.

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A rut

Status

I wrote the first draft of this post well over a year ago and, unfortunately, it’s still mostly true. I lost 40 pounds last year and now I’ve gained it all back. I’m tired. Fatigued. All the time.

I’m in a rut, a creative valley, a box-canyon of clouded vision, a swamp of confused and tired metaphors. Everything I write reads like crap and nothing makes it past the backspace key. It’s been like this for months. Months and months and months at idle.

I’ve tried editing previous stuff and have rewritten page upon page. The problem is that when everything reads like crap, everything reads like crap. So as bad as the old stuff is, the new stuff isn’t much better. I’ve tried kick starting new projects only to see them stall and grind to a stop. I watch my inspiration—whatever meager scrap I’m clinging to at the moment–ossify and harden as I type.

It’s happening now.

It’s not just that my voice seems muted; it’s that I don’t seem to have anything interesting to say. I don’t why I’m in this funk and I don’t really know how to get out of it. I’ve tried the exercises, write and write and don’t stop and I’ve produced some stuff, but… ehhh.

I tried to supplement with other creative action. I made sour cherry and ginger syrups for mojitos. I subjected dinner guests to plate after plate after plate of fruit topped with savory sauces. I did ceviche trios, pork two ways, tacos carnitas with salsa explosion, caramelized scallops on green curry risotto cakes with grilled pineapple and a chorizo cilantro broth… and it was all been yummy and healthy and satisfying but it didn’t translate to the page.

Lately, even culinary inspiration is eluding me.

Writing about politics and economics exhausts me. And besides, there’s not much to say that I haven’t already said. I’ve thought about it, believe me , I’ve thought about it. But the truth is I don’t care enough about it right now to waste the energy. The administration is inept, spiteful and amateurish and the opposition party sucks. Long-term indicators are astonishingly, mind-bendingly awful and outside a handful of econ departments nobody seems to care. Want to know what I think? It’s all here.

But still… stories languish in limbo, plot twists seem more and more hackneyed and trite and dialog stutters and tumbles as if I’d stapled stilts to the characters’ legs.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I write for myself. I don’t have deadline pressure and nobody will complain if I spend three weeks revising two hundred words, only to revert at the end to the original. There are no readers knocking on my door or sending me angry emails. No one is second-guessing my priorities and wondering why I choose to spend my time sitting on the couch with my family watching yet another food-based reality show instead of at the keyboard getting Laiathal out of prison, helping Renée get someone’s attention, or figuring what the hell Colin’s fucking purpose is in the first place. Mike is swimming in his own depression while Susan is in Japan and I haven’t done anything to help either of them. I’ve got to kill Chip and I don’t know how to do it–maybe I’ll just kill  Hiroki instead, but I don’t know. Alex’s ending changed twice and in each version it just feels like I’m punishing her, whether she gets her guy or not. Harold has cheez whiz in his hair and probably some bodies in the basement, but who knows? John can’t get out of his goddamn bedroom to move the story along.

Maybe if my characters could complain, I’d figure out some way to push them along.

But they can’t, of course. So they languish, unwritten and incomplete. And I can’t find a way to make myself care about them.

And of course, there’s no happy conclusion to this post. I don’t have a resolution to my problem or a magic answer for anyone else suffering from a creative depression. But I know that it sucks and I want to get out of it. I just don’t know how.

Any ideas?

Most Influential Books

Following up on a meme that was started by Tyler Cowen, “The Ten Books that influenced me the most.”

The list is heavy on the fiction and light on the non-fiction.  Partly that’s because the most influential books were the books I read when I was younger, but also that’s partly because narrative has always played a strong role in my life.  I’ve read a number of books on philosophy, politics, and economics and while some have been enormously educational (Nozick, Hayek, Mises, Aristotle, Plat, etc…) they haven’t had as visceral an impact on my day-to-day existence.  Books that changed the way I thought about my life and my work, or profoundly affected the way I live my life… those are the most influential books I’ve ever read. In no particular order:

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman

Henry II: The day those stout hearts band together is the day that pigs get wings.
Eleanor: There’ll be pork in the treetops come morning.

I love this play. The language crackles, the characters are enormous and the drama fantastic. Like most people, I saw the movie first and for me, Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn will always and forever be Henry and Eleanor.  This was the first play in which I realized that every single word was precious. (As much as we lionize Shakespeare, most of the Bard’s work improves with judicious editing.) Every motion, every breath the actors take is important on the stage. Every glance and every touch means something.

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.

Atlas Shrugged is my intellectual lodestone. Or maybe that should be dead-weight?  Fountainhead? Whatever, it’s a big giant brick. It’s also a masterpiece in every sense of the word, compelling, difficult, complex, agonizing, confounding, enlightening and fabulously gigantic.

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone

In the park we’ll notice the ducks squablling but not how carefully they’ll keep their distances when they are not.

The book is a philosophical and pedagogical mess (and Spolin’s books are probably better introductions to theatrical improvisation) but Johnstone’s section on status is priceless. This book completely changed the way I approached the craft of acting and had an enormous effect on my directorial style as well. If you’re at all interested in theater, read this book.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

An odd choice for “influential,” I know.  I read it in high school, over a rainy weekend on the Florida Gulf coast. My best friend read The Fountainhead during the same weekend. We kept telling each other, “You’ve got to read this book.” Influential because of the extraordinary language and breathtaking writing. Influential because it’s a story of obsession and love and a desperate confusion of the two. I was in the middle of a desperate sort of obsessive and un-requited love and Lolita rocked me. It would be a few years before I was finally able to finally unravel my own obsessions and set them aside, but Lolita was the book that warned me to start.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, By Mark Twain

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

This is the first “real” book I ever read by myself.  When I was eight, my mother and I started by reading chapters aloud to each other. After the first few chapters, the pace was too slow and I asked if I could go read and finish it by myself. Later, as a freshman in high school, this was the first book in which I recognized theme and subtext.

Silver Age of Marvel Comics, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko et. al.

It’s clobberin’ time!

My stepfather collected comics when he was a kid.  As a result, I grew up with an enormous chest full of early Marvel comicbooks.  Fantastic four #1, Daredevil #1, Spider Man #1, Iron-Man #1, Doc Strange #1, Nick Fury and the howling Commandos, Thor, Hulk, the Avengers, the X-men… I had all them all. And I read and re-read them and then read them all again. It’s odd to describe them as influential, but they certainly were. I identified with the alienation and angst that drove so many of Marvel’s heroes and saw in their cartoonish and silly struggles a metaphor for my own life.

Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Essentially a retelling of Bastiat’s essay on the Seen and the Unseen, Hazlitt’s little book taught me to think about economics and public policy in a completely new way. The lesson is simple and direct and almost entirely ignored in modern policy. The book is available as a PDF from the Foundation for Economic Education.

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking

… a particle of spin 1 is like an arrow: it looks different from different directions. Only if one turns it round a complete revolution (360 degrees) does the particle look the same. A particle of spin 2 is like a double-headed arrow: it look the same if one turns it round half a revolution (180 degrees)… there are particles that do not look the same if one turns them through just one revolution: you have to turn them through two complete revolutions! Such particles are said to have spin ½

It took me two times through before I thought I understood all of it. It took me another two times through before I realized I didn’t. It’s not the best book on advanced physics or the origins of the universe, but it’s the first one I read. Hawking changed the way I thought about physics and science. I do remember that I once developed a partial solution to the unified field theory in the shower. I can’t remember all of it, but I do remember that it involved rethinking relative acceleration and position and treating light as a fixed reference…. I once spent a day rambling about it to a physics grad student. He was exceedingly polite.

A Room With a View by E. M. Forester

I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that! Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul! Your soul, dear Lucy! I hate the word now, because of all the cant with which superstition has wrapped it round. But we have souls. I cannot say how they came nor whither they go, but we have them, and I see you ruining yours. I cannot bear it. It is again the darkness creeping in; it is hell.

I’ve been in love with this story ever since I first saw the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation. The book has a quiet grace that fills my heart; it’s full of tender moments and surprising passion. This book fills me with hope and promise. When I close it–each time and every time–there’s a smile on face and sense of wonder and hope in my heart, “… by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory yes if you will, but a Yes.”

Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker

…he doesn’t really know how to be a good man, so he goes for the simple rules that someone else told him. It’s easier than thinking, and safer. The other way, you have to decide for yourself.

Funny. Charming. Disarmingly spare. Parker’s Spenser was my first literary role-model. I recognized very early (I began reading this series when I was 13 or 14) that the core of Spenser’s character was not violence or mystery but integrity and honesty. Parker’s hero has been derided as a cardboard cutout, flat and dull–and he often is. But it’s rare to find a character in modern fiction driven by an authentic commitment to principles.

Spenser isn’t a simple fantasy (although he is often fantastical) of unwavering commitment to an abstract code of honor, he’s a man committed to making principles work in a messy, complicated, often difficult world. The novels are at their best when they explore the moments that Spenser’s principles compromise him and make him vulnerable. Early Autumn is the most thorough exploration of those principles.

Geaux Saints!

The New Orleans Saints are going to the Superbowl.

I’ve been a Saints fan for a long time and through some pretty woeful seasons. When I was a kid, we moved around a bit, out of necessity. From New Orleans to Mexico, to New Jersey, and back to Mexico and then back to New Orleans.

I was a shy, timid child and had a difficult time making friends after we returned to New Orleans. I started fifth grade at Holy Name of Jesus elementary school and spent most of my school days in a kind of dull, bewildered funk. I didn’t make friends easily and I was the target of a good deal of physical abuse and bullying from my classmates. I was small and skinny and shy and awkward and I didn’t stand up for myself.

We lived in the bottom half of a duplex on South Liberty Street in Uptown, New Orleans and the landlords–who lived in the upper story–had a boy my age, my grade, in my school. His name was Maurice.

He was an asshole. He killed rats for fun, abused his parents’ status as our landlord, and rubbed plastic beads around his anus and threw them at my face. He was also the closest thing I had to a friend.

We’d come to New Orleans straight from Tula, Hidalgo and most of our possessions were still in New Jersey. I remember asking my parents if they could make sure that my favorite toy could find its way into the next shipment. It was a 2-XL, a little eight-track cassette player in the shape of a robot.

2-XL

2XL

The eight-track tapes made 2-XL special. The tapes would prompt the listener to answer questions by pressing the buttons–switching the tracks of the cassette. The tapes were constructed so that track switching created an interactive, dynamic experience. There were educational tapes, choose-your-own adventure story tapes and other fun stuff. Plus, his eyes would light up and flash.

I loved him. And more, I missed him.

2-XL would talk to me. He didn’t make fun of me. He didn’t pick on me. He was my friend, the only one I could think of, and I missed him.

My parents knew I was lonely, and they knew I was sad. They searched and tried and did what they could. And eventually, in what had to be an act of desperation, they thought of Saints tickets.

The Saints were bad. Monumentally, abysmally, catastrophically bad. They were the Aints, the worst football team in America. They’d never had a winning season. Years (years!) later Sports Illustrated would name them the worst professional sports franchise in the world.

But that meant that tickets were easy to get.

So one afternoon, I went with my step-father to the Superdome. We lined up with perhaps a couple dozen other people in the access hall leading to the floor of the field.  The dome was enormous, huge… massively, impossibly immense. And completely empty. Paper covers hung over the backs of a smattering of seats, like flecks of salt in an endless sea of gray: the seats open for purchase as season tickets. And then we ran. It was a race. Everyone lined up in the hall ran onto the field and into the stands to grab the covers for the seats they wanted. Most made pell-mell down the turf for the low, 50 yard line seats. We ran up. Up the stairs past the first level. Up more stairs past the second level. Up more stairs…. and grabbed the covers off a set of three seats in the upper section, visitor’s side, about the five yard line. They were cheap seats. But for us–one parent working, the other in grad school–they were fantastically expensive. An absurd, ridiculously expensive luxury expense that–had times been better and I been healthier–my parents would certainly would not have undertaken.

We bought the tickets with a family friend, Gus Orphan. And for the next seven years I went to every Saints home game with Gus and my step-father.

None of us knew anything about football when we went. Which was OK, because apparently the Saints didn’t know much about football either. They lost and lost and lost and lost. But even in their astonishing ineptitude, I’d found–my family–had found something to hold on to. And we held on tight.

We went and watched and yelled and screamed and shouted. George and Gus drank beer and ate hot dogs. I drank soda and ate Chipwiches. We watched the away games at home. I had something to look forward to every week. I’d found sanctuary with the Saints and in the Superdome.

I started tossing the football around with a neighbor kid. I got some friends at school.

And I got my step-father. Every week, we sat together and rooted together. We celebrated together and we commiserated together. We laughed and we cursed–and yes, it was too often much more cursing than laughing, but we did it together. It was ours. The Saints were ours. They were what brought us together.

So now, I’m grown. I don’t live in New Orleans and haven’t since 1990. My step-father lives in Mississippi. We don’t have the season tickets anymore and haven’t for many years. But every Sunday, I watch the game. And every Sunday, after the game, I call my step-father. And we laugh. Or we curse.

But lately? Lately we’ve been laughing. As if all those years of losing have been washed away.

I haven’t been back to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. I don’t have any family in the city anymore and when I visit my parents, I visit them in Jackson. But I grew up in New Orleans. Dear friends were deeply affected by the flooding. And I watched in horror, along with everyone else, as the city I loved drowned. I watched as the dome that had sheltered me when I was lost and scared and lonely failed and crumbled in the storm.

But I followed the city and I followed the Saints. And both began to rebuild.

I watched the first home game in the Superdome post Katrina. The dome, so recently broken–a concrete metaphor for a city in ruin–had been patched and repaired. The reconstruction of the Superdome was heavily criticized. It had been a local priority and siphoned money and labor from other areas of the city. It was an expensive, absurd, fantastically ridiculous luxury project that–had the times been better and the people healthier–the city would certainly not have undertaken. But when Steve Gleason blocked that first Atlanta punt, I know that my cry echoed with each and every one of the those seventy thousand in that building, and with each and every other fan watching the game. That same shaking, exultant, desperate cry of hope.

The Saints began to win. And the city clung to them, just as I had. Because the Saints were theirs.

Yeah, it’s just a game. Grown men putting on costumes and throwing a ball. But in New Orleans, putting on costumes and throwing a ball is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The city has grabbed hold of the team in a way that is truly unique. New Orleans has defined itself with its cuisine, Mardi Gras, and now the Saints. It might be silly, it might be trite, but it still seems to be more than just football. Black and gold. The Fleur-de-Lis. A dog that fetched kick-off tees. A silly un-grammatical cheer.

“Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem saints?”

The answer of course was everyone, for years and years. But it didn’t matter to me because what I got from the games I got from the man sitting next to me. What happened on the field was lagniappe.

The city is rebuilding and recovering. And if the Saints have helped, they’ve helped by bringing the people of the city together. By giving them a respite from their troubles. What the people of New Orleans take from the Superdome, they take from each other.

And now the Saints are going to the Superbowl; it’s all lagniappe.

Bless you, boys.

Partron Saint

Partron Saint

Friend me

I signed up for Facebook the other day. I think this link will work. Friend me! It’s another social networking website where we can network, socially. As opposed to networking anti-socially, I suppose. Which is harder, and more pointless. I do that too, but I can’t tell you where.

Facebook is wild. I signed up because my father said that he’s posted a bunch of pictures from his trip to Vietnam. Well, you know, one thing leads to another on Facebook (I think they design it that way) and suddenly I’m getting messages from High School friends I haven’t seen in twenty years. Which, aside from making feel kind of old, is really cool. And kind of odd.

It’s disorienting, falling into all those memories so suddenly. I’ve been so completely disconnected from that world that it barely even seems to have been me. Through a glass darkly and all of that. I mean, sure, I bear a strong resemblance to that gawky, awkward, terribly sad and desperately pretentious teenager who had such awful, awful hair. But I’m pretty different now… or maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m just fatter.

But I don’t think so, and that’s part of what makes Facebook so odd. None of us are the same as we were twenty years ago. We’ve married or partnered up–sometimes repeatedly–we’ve had kids,  we’ve gone to college, we’ve learned and lost and loved and moved and… well, we’ve grown up. We’re all versions of the people we were back then, but we’re not the same. Of course, that’s part of what makes “catching up” so intriguing.

I’m excited to hear from all these people, to exchange the bits and excerpts of our lives that seem relevant or interesting. I’m excited to see, however veiled it might be, the shadow of the child that lives in these adults. I’m excited to see all these teenagers finally free of the weight of teenage angst.

As it happens, John August blogged about this today too.

When I left Boulder to go to Drake, and when I left Drake to move to Los Angeles, I left people behind. Through phone calls, letters and visits home, I maintained relationships with a few close friends. But ninety percent of the people I knew vanished in the rearview mirror. That doesn’t happen as much anymore. Through Facebook and email, it’s trivial to keep up with dozens of classmates more or less daily.

But is it really a good idea?

Your twenties are a crucial time, and I’d argue that it’s harder to discover yourself — or reinvent yourself — when surrounded by a vast network of people who already have a fixed opinion of who you are. I went to college and grad school not knowing a single person, and while it was a little terrifying, it was also liberating. Decoupled from my previous opinions and embarrassments, I was able to become the 2.0 and 3.0 versions of myself. I could only do that by going somewhere new. By changing place.

By leaving the old ties behind.

Facebook is like finding the knotted cords, unraveling them and then trying to play cat’s cradle.

Or maybe it’s like finding a metaphor that doesn’t quite work and then torturing it to death. … I said I got fatter; I didn’t say I necessarily got less pretentious.

Part of what makes the reconnection process so interesting is that it’s necessarily so incomplete. Twenty years is a long time. I realized that I’d been trying to sum up twenty years in twenty words; it’s impossible and impossibly frustrating.

I can say, “I married a wonderful, amazing woman who fills my life with joy.” But I don’t have space to fill that in with all of the little details that made the wedding so improbable and spectacular. I can say that I moved from Portland to New York, but that fails to capture the dread terror of that move, the excitement of having been recruited, or sufficiently set the stage for the way I felt when the center moved to D.C..

To latch on to another incomplete metaphor, it’s like trading baseball cards. We exchange pretty pictures of ourselves and our kids and share the statistics of our lives, but we can’t watch the games where those stats were compiled. To overextend the metaphor; our lives aren’t Tivo’ed.Which is not to say that there’s no point in reconnecting. Trading cards can be great fun, and these are the cards of some of the favorite players from my life.

Kaxil Kiuic

My step-father is Indiana Jones.

Seriously.

Well, OK. His name is actually George Bey, but he’s like Indiana Jones.

He’s Dean of Sciences and Professor of Anthropology at Millsaps College in Jackson Mississippi and is currently on a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia looking for gold and secret mystical skulls that will vanquish tyranny from the face of the earth and give the New Orleans Saints a Superbowl victory.

Well, OK. So maybe that’s impossible; the Saints will always stink. But he really is in Southeast Asia right now and he really is a Dean and a Professor and an archeologist, and he even owned a whip, and although he’s too young to have ever actually fought Nazis, if he did meet some Nazis, he would seriously kick their butts.

He’s a fantastic teacher and a wonderful father and he runs this totally freaking AWESOME biocultural reserve, Kaxil Kiuic: The Helen Moyers Biocultural Reserve.

Located in the Bolonchen District of the Puuc region of Yucatan, Mexico, the Helen Moyers Biocultural Reserve is a privately owned entity managed by Kaxil Kiuic, A.C. It consists of 4,000 acres of dry tropical forest and contains within it the ancient Maya center of Kiuic as well as the remains of the historic community of San Sebastian. The abundant and diverse flora and fauna found within the reserve make it one of the best remaining zones of dry tropical forest in the Yucatan Peninsula. The ecological and cultural resources of the reserve are protected, and 50 hectares of the Maya center of Kiuic have been officially donated by Kaxil Kiuic to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Kiuic is one of the first archaeological sites that has been acquired officially by the INAH in Yucatan and will be preserved in its entirety within the protection of the biocultural reserve that surrounds it. This initiative represents a new model for development in Mexico to manage its ecological and cultural resources.

It’s a private organization, on privately owned land and supports a growing number of research projects, educational programs, and efforts to contribute to the development of long-term productivity and sustainability for nearby communities.

USA Today did an article on him and the site in Kaxil Liuic last June. (There’s a great photo gallery that accompanies the article too.)

I say he’s Indiana Jones, but the truth is, he’s cooler than Indiana Jones. He’s cooler because he’s real and because I know him and love him and grew up with him and because, well… because he’s a searching for meaning and truth. USA Today also interviewed him and they asked him about Indiana Jones. This was his answer,

Indiana Jones is a myth about archaeology and archaeologists. And like most great myths, it does at some level reflect a truth about what we do and our identity. Maya archaeology has a great history of adventure and most Maya archaeologists can tell you at least one hair raising tale that might find its way into an Indiana Jones film. And I don’t think we would be living and working in the jungle if we didn’t at some level enjoy the whole idea of exploration and adventure. Yesterday morning as I was leaving Stairway to Heaven, I put my hand on a tree only to find it occupied by a very long tree living snake looking me in the eye. Its skin perfectly mimicked the color and texture of tree it occupied. However, although the moment was Indiana Jones-esque, my reaction was not to yell or curse the beast and kill it, but pull out my dvd recorder and record the snake’s movement from tree to tree. I am a scientist and the moment was thrilling both because snakes are a little bit scary, but also because it was very cool to see this type of snake close up and have a chance to record what I was seeing.

I think this is one of the main things that distinguish the myth from the reality, the thrill is based on a combination of discovery and exploration from a scientific perspective. The moment of discovery, whether of an ancient tomb, or building or cache of pottery is one of the things that drive us to do what we do. It is a rush, no doubt about it. But the rush comes from unearthing a piece of the past that will aid us in understanding the questions of the past, not about cosmic powers or aliens, but about things like, how did the economic system operate, or what evidence is there for changing patterns of elite political organization. So, unlike Indy, we don’t grab things and run, we spend weeks and months and years, carefully unearthing things, most of which are very mundane. My team is out in the field excavating houses, and garbage dumps and plaza floors, systematically recording the data with cameras, and drawings. Carefully bagging and tagging each set of artifacts from a particular context. Others are collecting soil samples to try and extract information on plant and animal remains that might tell what an object was used for or what the Maya diet consisted of. These field archaeologists then send the work back to our field lab for analysis, so we can find out the dates for our buildings, or plazas and what they might have been used for. From there select material is sent to professional laboratories for chemical analysis or C14 dating. The end result are papers and presentations and books that interpret all the data in an effort to answer both the small and large questions that drive our discipline. It is from this data that our project is rewriting the history of Maya civilization in the Puuc region.

Photos from the Kaxil Kiuic website:

Sister Jean Marie

James Lileks has a post up at buzz.mn, “Who was your favorite elementary school teacher?” It got me thinking about the Catholic school I went to for fifth, sixth and seventh grades.

I remember Sister Jean Marie most of all. I had her for sixth and seventh grade math. Other teachers called her “an institution.” We called her old. We figured she’d probably taught Galileo math. We also figured she was probably the person who turned him in to the church.

She was mean. I don’t just mean strict, although she was certainly that. She enforced a rigid discipline in her class that no kid dared to defy. And we had some serious trouble-makers. We had one kid, Chester (no, that’s not his real name. I’ve changed the names of all the kids.), who was… troubled. Chester had a real-life pinball machine in his bedroom and lived in the French Quarter with his mother and our cross-dressing school music teacher, Mr. B (Opal to his good friends). Chester’s Mom and Mr. B didn’t live together so much as share rent. And I don’t mean to imply that Chester’s mom didn’t enjoy the company of men, because she did… extensively, maybe even professionally. (I do mean to imply that Mr. B also enjoyed the company of men, very much.) It was an odd house.

Chester was the kind of kid who, when the class was tasked with coloring in pretty little bunnies on Easter cards for the Children’s Hospital, would fill the bunnies on his cards entirely with black crayon and black magic marker . “Jungle Bunnies,” he called them. (Nice, I know. He had a lot of jokes that ran along similar lines; I’m unlucky enough to remember a few of them.) I remember that Mrs. L disapproved strongly. I’m pretty sure Chester got whacked with a ruler for that one. Of course, I think the cards still went out. There was a quota, after all.

Chester tortured poor Mrs. L. She was an old woman (aren’t they all when you’re in sixth grade?) with a giant, slate gray beehive hairdo. She wore giant faded muumuus with brown and yellow floral prints and taught history and social studies. And she had a glass eye. The eye would wander. Sometimes you couldn’t tell who Mrs. L was yelling at. It could just as easily be you or the kid across the room… there was no telling who she was looking at because she was staring both of you in the eye. Sometimes the glass eye would roll up toward the beehive… and then just keep on rolling on back until it was looking out the back of Mrs. Ls head. Then she’d stare at us with the one pale white eye, looking completely alien and vaguely reptilian. Until Chester would gently point it out, “Hey Miz L, yer eye has gone all freaky. Y’a looks kinda like a gater.”

But Chester was quiet as a mouse in Sister Jean Marie’s class.

Sister Jean Marie wasmean. Not just hard and tough and stern–although she was all of those things too. A dog that’s been beaten all its life can get mean: all spite and venom and filled up with a nasty desire to hurt. Sister Jean Marie was like that. Especially at the blackboard. Doing problems in front of the rest of class is never fun, but in her class it was torture and humiliation. “What’s wrong Lucy?” “It’s an easy problem, Lucy.” “God you are so stupid, Lucy.” “You have a brain like a sieve, Lucy.” “It’s a wonder you can remember how to stand up, Lucy.” “Go sit down Lucy. Let someone else do it right.”

I remember a friend and I going back to visit her when we were in High School. Well, OK. We didn’t go back to visit herso much as visit generally, but she was there and we spoke to her. It had been four years since we’d been in her class. She asked about Lucy. Lucy had gone to a different high school, neither of us knew her anymore. Sister Jean Marie told us again that Lucy was the stupidest girl she’d ever seen.

I know. It’s not funny anymore, I’m sorry.

I remember when Bobby didn’t do his homework. “Where’s your homework, Bobby?” “Lost it or forgot it, Bobby?” “Don’t lie to me, Bobby.” “Forgot it or didn’t do it, Bobby?” “I thought so.” “Do you think I’m stupid, Bobby?” “Of course you do.” “Now you’re crying?” “Why are you crying, Bobby?” “Are you a little baby, Bobby? “Crybaby Bobby.” “Don’t be a little crybaby.” “Crybaby Bobby. Why don’t you go sit in the corner and cry, crybaby?” “Of course you are. Go sit in the corner if you’re going to cry. Crybaby.”

There was a chair that faced a corner in the back of the room. It was where crybabies went to sit until they stopped crying. When they were done they had to ask permission to return to their desk. I sat in that chair. Not as much as Lucy or Bobby did, but I sat there. We all did. It wasn’t really math class unless some poor kid, desperate, humiliated, and mocked by the teacher, broke down sobbing; Lucy was usually the first to break. But at some point, we all did.

Sister Jean Marie had supernatural reflexes. She could stop a hulking 12 year-old boy charging at a dead run with one hand and flip him around like a paper doll. I saw her do it. The kid’s name was was Blake, and he was charging at me with evil intent. I can’t remember why, maybe it was a Tuesday. Sister plucked him neatly out the air with one hand and dropped him, meek and quivering, down in front of her. She spoke quietly, but firmly. It was at least a week before Blake bloodied my nose again–and never again anywhere near Sister Jean Marie. Not that I was a teacher’s pet, mind you. Sister Jean Marie was discipline incarnate, and running in the halls was simply not allowed. She didn’t care if I got caught, so long as it was a neat and orderly beating… with no running.

I had her for homeroom in sixth grade too. Some mornings she’d come in with little pieces of toilet paper stuck to her chin and cheeks. I kid you not, the woman shaved. She was tall, maybe six feet and rail thin. Her hands were like vice grips and her stare was hot and furious. She was lighting quick and razor sharp. And she was old school; she wore the habit and the blue dress. Always. Some of the other nuns, like Sister Lee, wore the habit at school, but took it off when they went… wherever it was that nuns go. Back to the nunnery, I suppose. Sister Lee was fun. She taught religion and drove a black Firebird Trans-am (complete with giant decal). She called me “Red” for an entire year. Sister Jean Marie didn’t drive a car. We all figured that she lived in the cloakroom and ate spiders.

But she taught me math. I remember once I failed a quiz. As punishment, Sister Jean Marie told me to write out the names of all fifty States and their capitals. I didn’t do it. So she doubled it. “Write them all out twice.” I didn’t do it. “Double it.” This went on daily for some time. It was like a ritual, we’d all file into class and sit down. She’d read attendance, (Yes, that’s right. She’d read attendance. There was no calling out at any time in Sister Jean Marie’s class.) she’d double my punishment. The days wore on. It was a kind of math lesson. By the end of the year, my punishment was to write out the States and their capitals over 16 million times. I remember figuring it out with a friend. If I wrote one word a second, nonstop, 24-hours a day, everyday for fifty years, I still wouldn’t finish.

I learned more math in her class than in any math class I’ve ever taken. She scared it into us. She made us fear her like I imagine she feared God. She instilled in us a biblical, old-testament kind of fear. We quaked in her presence and we obeyed, and we did what she said and we learned the Law and we lived the Law. If she said to sit the corner, we sat in the corner. If she had told us to wander the desert for forty years, we’d have done that too.

My favorite High School math teacher was Miss P. Miss P was the nicest, kindest, sweetest teacher I ever had. She was about four feet, six inches tall tall and must have weighed eighty pounds soaking wet. She ran the math club and carried a pearl-handled single-shot .22 in her purse. She was the math teacher that made me like math. She made math fun, and she made it exciting and competitive and entertaining. Heck, I went on out-of-state math club trips with her; I looked forward to the annual math convention every year. I played inter-scholastic math games every Tuesday and I liked it. (We played On-Sets and Equations… I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s played these games!)

Miss P had taken high school math from Sister Jean Marie. She said the same thing everyone said, that she’d learned more in those classes than anywhere else. She also said she owed her life’s work to Sister Jean Marie. She said that after that class she’d never wanted to do anything but teach high school math.

I’m glad I had Miss P for math. And I’m happy that she’s still teaching; she runs the math department in my old high school. I’m sure that that Sister Jean Marie must have retired from teaching by now.

I think of my children and I think of their teachers. They’re all Miss Ps (packing less firepower) and Sister Mary Lees (without the hot ride). I haven’t seen any of their music teachers, male or female, stumble drunkenly down the street wearing a pink wig, stilettos and a wedding dress. There have been no reports of glass eyes or beehives. And there’s been nothing to compare to Sister Jean Marie. I’m very grateful for that. As much as there is that bothers me in modern pedagogy (the incessant, pointless testing; the political correctness; the lack of academic rigor), I am happy to consign the systematic humiliation and ridicule of eleven-year olds to history.

I haven’t seen Lucy or Bobby in over 20 years; I hope they’re both well and happy and healthy.

And I don’t care how much math they learned.