Wednesday, November 26, 2008
On Tuesday November 25, the Denver Post published my essay 'Painting Pottery' under several headlines - all of which are more fun than my own! - "A dad fires up his inner artist", "Inner artist wins out over party pooper", and "Dad's feet of clay lead to pottery bliss". I have learned that there are people whose job it is just to write headlines. Thanks, guys! In addition, the folks at Ceramics in the City, the pottery studio where I had my breakthrough moment, were happy to be mentioned in the paper. They have linked both the Post essay and this blog on their website. I am pleased to be able to return the favor here.
It feels good to be getting out there. I am very grateful for my two families, Laura, Emma and Leah, and my Stanley BPS family, for being so excited for the publication and for all the amazing support.
The links to my Denver Post essay and Ceramics in the City appear at the bottom of this blog. Scroll down...
Friday, November 21, 2008
My friend Craig and I are different in many ways. I’m a dog owner. He doesn’t even have a hamster. He’s Jewish. I’m an intermittent agnostic. I’ve got a vehicle that can carry large items. He has a Volkswagen sedan. He’s got an unfortunate sense of timing. I’m more cautious. Random and fairly extraneous pieces of information, I am aware, but they all coalesced quite memorably this week.
Craig called me one day to ask if I could help him with an event he was hosting at his synagogue. His neighbor was lending him some long tables. Could he borrow my van and my time to help him haul the tables? “Absolutely,” I said, “I’ll be over after dinner tonight.” Even though I was feeling a little under the weather and my nose was congested, I was happy to help and glad for the opportunity to meet. I had some news about my writing career that I wanted to share with him.
After work, I drove home. While my daughters wrestled with homework and my wife concocted something delicious in the kitchen, I took the dog for our daily constitutional around the block. My dog’s name is Polo. He’s small, white, fluffy and very friendly. When you meet my dog, you understand that I have girls. My boss told me that I must be extremely comfortable in my manhood to be seen with a dog like this. Indubitably.
I live in an urban area. Both the city ordinance and the morality of being a responsible dog owner dictate that my jacket pocket is loaded with orange bags, the ones in which my newspaper is tossed upon my porch each morning. Polo and I walk. He pauses to deliver the unmentionables. I scoop, tie a knot in the bag. We walk on. There is an unwritten code of silence between us. I don’t question his choice of locale. He doesn’t ask why I am so eager to collect his contributions. Once or twice I have been caught unarmed, bagless. Fearful that I would be seen and reported by the neighborhood watchdogs, Polo and I scurry home, seize a bag, and return to the scene of the crime to remove the evidence, to eliminate his eliminations, so to speak.
I share this because, as Craig and I drove away from his neighbor’s garage with the tables, he started telling me how amused he was by an incident that he had witnessed a few minutes before. A dog was doing his business, smack dab in the middle of Craig’s front lawn when he pulled up to park. It was after nightfall. His headlights were on. Both dog and owner were caught in the glare. The owner quickly performed the scoop-and-tie maneuver and the pair went on their slightly shamefaced way.
Craig naturally got to wondering if the owner would have disposed of the goods if she hadn’t been surprised in the spotlight. Fancying himself somewhat of a post-enlightenment philosopher, Craig reflected on the further ramifications of the situation. If the owner was an inconsistent scooper, if she sometimes picked up and sometimes didn’t, what would the dog think? Would he feel rejection? Would he worry that some of his offerings might not pass muster? Might some of them not meet his owner’s exacting standards? Would it be possible for him to somehow fail or succeed, based on the scooping actions of his owner? As his listener and friend, I worried, truly agonized, about the kinds of things that Craig thought about in his spare time.
As one might expect, this line of conversation soon exhausted itself and I began to share my news with my friend. Craig is an excellent listener and a wonderful fan of my work. As I was relaying my good fortune, he seemed uncharacteristically distracted and inattentive. Something in the darkness was bothering him. “Excuse me just a minute, Steve,” he interrupted. He’s also very polite. “Do you mind if I turn on the light?”
“Of course,” I replied. Craig flipped the switch to reveal the biggest wad of dog excrement that could possibly cling to the underside of a shoe.
“Oh, shit!” he yelled out. And I couldn’t help but wonder, what would the dog think?
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Whether you voted for him or not, the election of Barack Obama is without question a watershed moment in the country’s history. Throughout the long months of the campaign, the so-called race factor was consistently downplayed. While African Americans registered and turned out to vote in record numbers, both the Obama campaign and prominent leaders in the black community were quick to stress that the candidate’s race was not and should not be a major issue.
Fast forward to the hours immediately following Obama’s victory. The mood among all his supporters was euphoric. The celebration in the black community in particular was ecstatic. African Americans danced in rapture in the streets. Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Jesse Jackson and Congressman John Lewis, wept openly. Oprah became, in her words, unleashed. Whoopi whooped and Maya Angelou expressed graceful thanks. There was an outpouring of emotion and grand proclamations of the immense significance of the election. A black man was coming to the White House.
On the weekend following the election, my local newspaper carried a story by Wil Haygood of the Washington Post. It touched on the history of blacks in the White House. In 1901, “President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, to meet with him at the White House. Roosevelt was careful not to announce the invitation, fearing a backlash, especially from Southerners.” Certain southerners found out and the response was swift and filled with hate.
According to Haygood, the first African American to work in the executive branch was E Frederick Morrow who was an administrative officer for special projects in the Eisenhower White House, appointed in 1955.
But someone had beaten him to it. Many blacks worked in non-political jobs in the White House. One of them was Eugene Allen who was hired as a butler in 1952. For $2,400 a year, Gene Allen polished silver and washed dishes. In the bowels of the President’s official residence, he plugged away at his menial job for thirty-four years. He felt proud to serve his country’s leaders.
Rewards came. Not only did Gene and his wife Helene shake the hand of every President he served, there was the special occasion in the mid-eighties when they were invited as guests to a state dinner. Nancy Reagan called Gene about the dinner, asked him how preparations were going, and then surprised him by inviting him and his wife, not to work, but to sit as their guests alongside world leaders. It was an honor they would never forget. Helene fondly remembered drinking champagne that night, champagne no doubt that her husband had stored.
Gene’s birthday was on the same day as Gerald Ford’s. When the Fords celebrated the President’s birthday, Betty always made sure Gene’s was mentioned as well. The Allens have fond memories of the Carters and the Kennedys. Through some of the darkest times in US history and through some of the best, Gene Allen was at work for his President. From the early fifties until the mid-eighties, there were some tough times being a black man carrying trays down the halls of power. Segregation, violence, protest marches and assassinations. Gene and Helene Allen saw it all.
Slowly, over the decades, they saw a few more African Americans creep into the influential inner circles, culminating in Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice’s consecutive appointments as Secretary of State. In Haygood’s words, “the butler remembers seeing both Powell and Rice in the Oval Office. He was serving refreshments. He couldn't help notice that blacks were moving closer to the center of power, closer than he could ever have dreamed. He'd tell Helene how proud it made him feel.”
And now this man. Obama. More than twenty years after Gene Allen stacked away his last wine glass, he and Helene were on the verge of seeing an African American man ascend to the highest office in the land. Some said he’d be the most powerful man on earth. Interviewed for the Washington Post, their excitement was palpable. Now in their late eighties, Gene and Helene prepared to get dressed up on Election Day and cast their vote for one of their own. How proud that would make them feel.
The day before that momentous day, Helene had a morning doctor’s appointment. Gene rolled over in bed to wake up his wife. She did not respond. He walked over to her side, but still she would not wake. After sixty-five years, the marriage had come to an end. On Election Day, Gene voted alone.
Helene never made it. But I know that, somewhere up there, this woman, who had shaken the hand of eight Presidents, knows who won. She knows that the baton has been passed to a new man, an African American man. There is a black man in the White House. For Gene and Helene Allen and for me, how proud it makes us feel.
Thanks to Wil Haygood. His article A Butler Well Served by This Election appeared in the Washington Post on 11/07/08 and is the inspiration for this story. Post photographer Kevin Clark’s photo of Gene and Helene appears here.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Family members, celebrities, teachers, historical figures, community leaders.
For me, growing up in southern England in the 1970s, my heroes were the stars of the Arsenal football team as they made their historic title runs – Brady, Macdonald, and others. Action shot posters covered my bedroom walls. In my early twenties, as college opened my eyes politically, I read voraciously the works of those fighting apartheid: Gordimer, Woods, Coetzee, Malan, Mphahlele, Paton. I met a couple of them – Donald Woods when he came to speak at my university and Es’kia Mphahlele when I taught his grandsons in Denver. I remember celebrating the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 as I had celebrated a few months before the last-minute goal for Arsenal which brought home the English championship. As we grow and change, so do our heroes.
I recently had the great honor of meeting my latest hero. A gentle and wise man in his seventies, he looks a lot like the Father Christmas of my childhood. He is blessed with a full head of white hair, a downy beard, a portly profile, a warm smile, and a bountiful heart. A storyteller, a gifted writer who describes the world as I wish to see it. For him it is a place of goodness and laughter, and generosity of spirit. He is quite possibly the single most influential voice in my own writing.
Robert Fulghum may still be best known for the essay that propelled him into the public eye - All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It remains a wonderful philosophy by which to live. He has since written eight best-selling books. A former cowboy, minister, and teacher, Fulghum now divides his time between Moab, Utah, Seattle, Washington, and the Greek island of Crete. Lucky fellow.
He also travels for speaking engagements where, last month in Lakewood, Colorado, I was fortunate to hear him reflect on his latest musings, share some wonderful new stories, and re-tell some old favorites. I especially enjoyed the one about Norman, the little boy who single-mindedly decided he was going to be the pig in the play of Cinderella. His wise and experienced teacher allowed him free reign and Norman stole the show. During the course of the evening, Fulghum had his listeners laughing and crying; he snapped a photograph of the audience – to inspire him during the lonely moments of the writing life; he even had us singing the words to Itsy Bitsy Spider to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth. A delightful couple of hours.
Most memorable and inspiring was the opportunity to meet the author following his talk. The usual line of book buyers and autograph seekers formed in the back of the hall. I too joined the line. I had no clue what to say to the man who was expecting to sign a copy of his latest book. What could I say to someone I knew so well, through his reflective writing, yet not at all?
As the line in front of me got progressively shorter, I had a brief moment of star-struck panic. I am a sensible, even-keeled schoolteacher in my early forties. Fulghum is a self-described old geezer, a moderately well-known author who writes about the everyday. This was not the latest pop sensation confronted by hordes of adoring fans. I wondered about buying one of his books to give myself a prop, something to talk with him about, but I owned all the titles for sale that night. Now second in line, I worried that I would be speechless, or worse, mumble something inane.
My turn came. The author reached out to sign the book I hadn’t bought. He looked up at me. “I’m Steve,” I said, as calmly as I could. “Nice to meet you, Mr Fulghum.”
“Nice to meet you too, Steve,” the baritone voice of wisdom responded. Well, that didn’t buy me a lot of thinking time. A pause, enough time to tell my hero the only thing that really mattered. “Thank you.” I briefly told him that I was a teacher and a director of children’s theater, that I too had encouraged my own Normans to find their place in the limelight. And I thanked him for his incredible body of work and for being the writer with the most influence over my recent commitment to write and my decision to publish my work online.
Fulghum’s response? He reached his hand over the desk to shake my hand, to thank me for doing what I do, for inspiring children, and for pursuing my art. I was honored and touched by his gesture and his words. The renowned author, who had just spoken to hundreds, whose books have sold in the millions, wanted to shake my hand? It was the response of a humble and gracious man.
Mr Fulghum, I hope you have an opportunity to read this one day. You made my day and gave me further encouragement to follow my passion. For that, you are my hero.
Painting of Robert Fulghum by Dimitris Katsigiannis from www.robertfulghum.com