Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Years after the fact, I can joke about high school theater and its devout practitioners. The drama we threw ourselves into and created, our over-emoting, our line-quoting, all the ways we fell in love with our own adolescent performance. It's an easy target. But yesterday I attended the funeral of my beloved English teacher, play director, and speech coach Martin Carter, and was hit hard in the heart by how important and wonderful that freaky funny little microcosm was and is.

Maybe things are different in urban and suburban schools, where the stakes are higher, competition stiffer, and the top talent really might go on to be professional actors. But in the homogeneous middle-of-nowhere small-town school where physical prowess reigns and strict gender codes keep kids brutally in their place, the theater department is a rare refuge. A place to escape and a place to pretend to be someone else. To try on other lives for size. To construct another time and place to inhabit where you are implicitly important to the story. And Mr. Carter was genius at bringing us in and making us feel like we mattered.

He had a lot of pain in his life--he'd been orphaned young and raised in a foster home, and his only son was in and out of trouble and died tragically--and the way he carried that was neither a hard bitter scar or a needy open wound, but a steady pulse of sensitivity, the openness of his marvelously expressive elastic face, his slouchy, purposeful stride. It fueled his drive to make life better for the kids he could reach every day. He was a magnet for misfits, nerds, smart kids, shy kids, weirdos, kids that were or felt different in any way.

He had a big classroom next to both an outside exit and the door backstage—a gateway and escape. In it he taught literature by day, coached speech practice after school, and gathered us for play rehearsals in the evening. Mr. Carter's room was like a living room for me and my friends and our fellow speech-and-drama nerds. It was where you could go to find each other, to take a break, to eat lunch in his office in peace. In the back of the room were three closet-sized dressing rooms, in which I smoked my first and last puff of clove cigarette (I fell down from the headrush). In the makeup room, our faces were slicked with thick sticks of stage makeup, a heavy perfumey grease that was near impossible to wash off. Newly crow's-feeted and cheekboned, we blinked at ourselves in the wall of mirrors, trying to touch without smearing the new faces on our faces, these garish caricatures of adulthood: Is this what I'll look like? In the costume closet, surrounded by decades of discarded prom dresses, we turned off the lights, gathered around my Ouija board and summoned spirits who spelled badly and alluded vaguely to ominous deaths.

No matter how ridiculous, we were always welcome.

When we would go down to the Twin Cities for the state speech meets and one-act play competitions, or I would visit Amy who had moved to a cushy suburb, it shocked me how well-trained and equipped other schools were. The immaculate sets, the cushy auditoriums and classrooms, the students' exquisite poise--even the techies scurrying around were super-cool, dressed to the alternative nines. We were a ragtag northern bunch, with our nice clothes from the Fargo mall, rayon dresses and teal button-ups and cheap shoes from Baker's, many of us still permed and mulleted. I people-watched with awe and fascination and occasional seizures of inferiority. We were so small.

But Mr. Carter elevated us all. Everyone knew him, and he knew everyone; he was sort of a legend. And he took for granted that we were as good as or better than anyone else there, no matter where we or they came from. And, it turned out, we were. He loved to win, yes, and he often did--but mostly he just loved us. The real prize, always, was him.

Photo from the Enterprise from 1993, the year he technically retired--yet his funeral was full of current high school students. "I see Mr. Carter pretty much every day," one girl told me. Teacher for life.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Over on the University of Minnesota Press blog, a brief Q&A with Lisa Uddin, who writes about zoo shame, i.e. "why people feel bad at and about the zoo":
These decades [the 1960s and 70s] of intense revitalization transformed many U.S. zooscapes from the so-called “Naked Cage” template of animal display – widely condemned – to early incarnations of the naturalistic, immersive enclosures that typify zoo design today. Zoos also began revitalizing their animal collections in this period, breeding select species whose populations in and outside of captivity were dwindling. This spatial and biological overhaul often gets discussed as an institutional turn to wildlife conservation. What is missing from these accounts is analysis of how the turn was also fully contemporary with the smoldering racial tensions that defined the urban experience in the long postwar period, and, more specifically, the shame that made cities unbearable for so many Americans... I am considering how zoo renewal variously reflected feelings about race and urban space, how it amplified those feelings, and how it offered channels for relief. The shame of American zoos, I argue, is part of the shame of American cities. 
The last time I was at a zoo was in the summer of 2008, when I went to see some bands play at the Oregon Zoo (friend of a friend playing, got in free, otherwise it would pain me to pass dollars through a zoo's ticket window.) The Cowboy Junkies were playing when we arrived and I wasn't ready yet to succumb to a blanket on the grass, the soporific was already heavy in the July afternoon air, so I wandered the perimeter and came upon the elephants.

The elephants were walking back and forth in the same easy meter as the Cowboy Junkies. I thought of a beautiful essay a friend of mine wrote about watching these same elephants sway in time to the music. "They were dancing!" she said, and that fit so well with what her essay was about, a moment of relief and beauty and redemption after an ugly, rattling event. But what I learned later, by accident, was that elephants sway when they're distressed.