Thanks to all y’all (as we say in Texas) who’ve come around here and left a word or two. Have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
1. About the Dead Man and Road Songs
The dead man has been everywhere, man.
He walks along the shoulder, holding out his thumb.
From the Yucatan to the Yukon, and the left shoulder to the right,
the dead man has seen it all.
On Saturdays, the dead man goes honky tonkin’.
They write songs about him and call him
‘Stranger’ in Texas and ‘Buddy’ in Tennessee.
He hopes to pull the tire jack from the stone and become the king of the road.
When Jesus left Chicago, the dead man followed hoping to elude
the hellhound on his trail.
The dead man still carries the old guitar he found at a crossroads in Mississippi.
He tries to play like Robert Johnson but comes off sounding like Elvis.
He’s met them both out on the highways and told them he was following the Dead.
That was a joke, though, and he thinks they knew it.
In Luckenbach, he joined other dead men and they sang songs by Willie,
Waylon & the boys until dawn when the Sheriff arrived.
The dead man let love slip away somewhere near Salinas
and hoped to reach Amarillo by morning.
He got off the L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught.
He is on the road again, chalking up many a mile.
He’s walked through every road song worth singing, a long strange trip indeed.
Yes, the dead man has been everywhere, man.
2. More About the Dead Man and Road Songs
The dead man prays for all the roadkilled animals at least once a day.
He started doing this a long time ago, and it’s become his habit.
The dead man bums a smoke when he can, another habit.
He has seen (and sometimes set with a careless flick of the butt)
summer wildfires that scorch the median.
Coming around again in springtime, he’s seen the wildflowers
growing best where the roadside had burned.
This makes him feel important.
In the summertime he sleeps among the roadside prairie grasses,
and he huddles under bridges in winter.
Someday, the dead man will get where he’s going.
He hopes he’ll know it when he gets there.
But the dead man has been on the highway for years.
You have seen the dead man, and you kept on driving.
He doesn’t mind, though, loneliness and solitude are his beans and beer.
The dead man understands this is how songs are made, where they come from.
These are the dead man’s wandering years, and he is in no hurry.
This is a response to the Big Tent Poetry prompt to write a dead man poem using the form invented by Marvin Bell, which is based on the Zen admonition to “live as if you were already dead.” I started writing sentences and soon I realized that the dead man was a highway wanderer and that there were lots of songs about him.
Many of the lines in Part 1 either refer to or are borrowed directly from songs by Geoff Mack, Hank Williams, Roger Miller, ZZ Top, Robert Johnson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, George Strait, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, and the Grateful Dead.
Mad props to Dave Bonta for his post about formatting poetry in WordPress, which gave me the answer to indenting long lines, something I rarely use.
Go here to read more dead man poems.
A few months ago, I had my students read “The Interlopers” by Saki. It’s a cool little story about two men whose families are feuding over a worthless piece of land. The kids liked it, and I decided to have them read a related nonfiction piece and since I had just finished reading the March issue of National Geographic with its fascinating story about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, I had them read that.
“The Interlopers” involves wolves and the National G story focused on the feud between humans and wolves over land, which made it a good piece for our state standard that focuses on the way similar themes are presented in different genres. The kids really liked it, and the discussion afterward was lively and interesting, and beyond the appropriate connections regarding theme and genre, conflict and resolution, they found a new way of seeing the pointlessness of feuds, and learned a lot about the importance of predators in an ecosystem.
But toward the end, it went were discussions of large predators typically go when a roomful of boys, even teenaged ones, is involved.
“What would happen if a wolf met a mountain lion?”
“That lion would eat that wolf.”
“No way, wolves travel in packs. That wolf ain’t alone.”
“Yeah, but one-on-one.”
“The Lion, probably.”
“What about a wolf versus a bear?”
“How about a wolf versus an alligator?”
“Wolf vs. hyena?
“Wolf vs. …?”
I let it go as we were toward the end of class and they were clearly enjoying themselves, which is an important part of education. Too often, it’s easy to forget to just have fun, but any teacher can tell you that if the kids are enjoying your class they’ll follow you almost anywhere.
I asked later if they enjoyed reading the article and they unanimously said yes and wanted more. A few asked for an article about big cats, and I suspect they’re already cooking up the “What about a tiger vs. …” questions for that discussion.
I shot this walking back from my day in Central Park when we were in New York back in October. I was looking through the pictures with my wife the other night, skimming through them, and this one caught her eye. I’d glanced at it quickly before, but the more I looked, the more I liked it, probably because of the detail hiding in the shadows. Hidden details. We don’t always see them in our own work, do we? There’s a good reminder, I thought, of how valuable it is to have others checking out your work, seeing it differently and sometimes more clearly than we might ourselves.
Click the picture for a higher-res image.
I imagine a fire eons ago. You can’t stare at a fire—even a fake one in an electric fireplace—for long without going back to those fires before history when we as a species made our bargain with the wolves. I wonder what it must have been like to hear those other social hunters out there in the night. To know how much they were like us.
When did that first wolf wander into some human encampment? Perhaps he said, if you give me a place by that fire and a share of what you kill with those nice fancy spears, knives, bows, rifles and ICBMs, I’ll help you track and hunt. I’ll warn you of danger at night. Someday I’ll rescue you from rubble and sit down when I smell cancer in your bodies. Mostly, though, I’ll stick with you even when you least deserve it.
Over time, Wolf traded in some wildness and size, domesticated himself just as we were doing the exact same thing. I read once that a key difference between Homo sapiens and our Neanderthal cousins was that they didn’t domesticate the wolf. That they somehow passed on this alliance with an animal that would be protector, partner, ally and friend.
We evolved together, us and the dogs, and that’s a large part of why it seems so right to live with dogs and so unnatural (to me anyway) not to have dogs around. But then dogs are wolves at heart, and bargaining with wolves can be a tricky thing. The wolf is likely to win, and he’ll make you not mind losing. For instance, my wife and I go to work every morning to earn the bread to put the beast into their bowls, and they lounge at home all day.
Sounds like that wolf that wondered into that ancient camp may have won that one. But that’s okay because to paraphrase The Stranger from The Big Lebowski: It’s good to know they’re out there takin’ ‘r easy for all us sinners.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran into two former students—at a bookstore, no less, which truly warmed the very cockles of my English teaching heart. Both were students I’d taught as seventh graders and then again as eleventh graders in regular public schools (this was prior to my getting into teaching in an alternative setting).
It’s always good to run into these former students from time to time to see that they’ve transitioned into adulthood and managed at least some of the attendant challenges, but it’s especially nice when one takes the time to tell you what an impact you had on them. They come and go through our classrooms so quickly year after year, and we never really know if we’ve actually helped them, taught them anything lasting. It’s almost a gamble and we teachers have to have faith that what we do will pay off somehow, someway we’ll likely never see.
One of the two I ran into made it a point to tell me just how important I was to her as an English teacher and debate coach. She told me she probably never would have gone to college if it hadn’t been for me. That surprised me coming from a kid I remember as being smart, studious and motivated, but then I grew up in an environment where college was an expectation and it’s an easy trap for a teacher—or anyone, really—to assume that we all grow up with the same expectations. Still, whatever I did or said in class must have had some effect and for that I’m grateful because we don’t always know what lessons our kids are really learning in our classes. We hope they’re learning what we’re teaching, but they learn other things too: lessons they take from how we interact with them, speak to them, and treat them. How we approach our subjects too.
Education is an endless process of discovery and there is joy and humor in that—fun, even. Sometimes it’s tough getting there, but the rewards are so great, so fulfilling, that kids who see that in their teachers can’t help but be inspired to some degree. Whether that inspiration leads to college or just getting tomorrow’s essay in on time, it all leads in the same direction and our job is to push those kids a little farther down that path to wherever they want to go.
As educators, I think the most important part of the job is to pass along the love of learning to our students and then teach them the tools they’ll need to teach themselves the things they want and need to know. I’m always telling kids that my job isn’t to solve their problems for them but to help them figure out how to solve them on their own.
It was nice to hear those words from that former student, now an adult with her own family (yet still referring to me as Mr. Brush, as they always do), especially since she was among the very first students I ever taught. I remember that first class on that first day, thinking Good Lord, what if I teach them everything I know and it only takes 10 minutes… what do I do with the other 186 hours and 40 minutes for which I’ve got them this year? I still remember those seventh graders staring back at me—I doubt any teacher ever forgets the kids he teaches in that terrifying first year—and I never would have thought I’d learn as much from them as (I hope) they learned from me.
I guess I knew more than I thought and somehow that love of learning, that curiosity, that drives me must have rubbed off on a few of them. That’s always been and probably always will be the most important thing I teach. But then, you don’t really teach that do you? You have to live it.