Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Night I met an Influence, Re-ignited a fire, and Learned a Lesson

             Living in Savannah has afforded me many opportunities that I somehow was missed back in the Atlanta days. I actually get to teach in the same county where I reside, I met my soul mate who also had to move to Savannah too for this happen, and I have gotten to meet three of my top five authors. Last was number two, Neil Gaiman.

             I first mentioned Mr. Gaiman's impact waaaay back in a previous blog. A very old friend who would quite literally run away and join the circus first introduced me to him back in 1989 with a comic called The Sandman. The well paced story telling combined with smart writing quickly made this my favorite read every month. Soon, Mr. Gaiman would expand to writing books which I read voraciously. Neverwhere, American Gods, and Stardust are just a few of his works that I was willing to shell out 20 bucks or so which was a lot for just graduated college student. Needless to say, big fan here.

            Last night, Gaiman was here in Savannah performing on a story telling tour called Unchained with several other very interesting people. Kim and I bought our tickets last month for the chance to see Gaiman. He was amazing. I even go to meet him and shake his hand. We spoke for a few brief moments. It’s always nice to see someone whom I admire turn out to be a nice guy.

            We had tweeted back and forth a few times over the week. I am teaching Brit Lit with my esteemed colleague, Paul Sidney. (Check out Paul’s blog. It rocks) Gaiman wrote the screenplay to Beowulf and we had hoped to get him in to speak to the kids. Gaiman tried but his schedule just didn’t match up.

            At one point, Gaiman even tweeted back when I mentioned several kids in my class wanted to come but were underage. He replied that I was 18 and over advisory. I am proud to say three of my students were front row and to the right. Melissa, a huge Gaiman fan, even sat about five feet from the Brit author at one point but she never knew because she was mesmerized by all the other storytellers who performed.

That is how the night went for us. Several of us where there because Gaiman was speaking. About every fourth or fifth person in the rows was holding a Sandman comic or Neil Gaiman related item. Gaiman did well. He is a skillful storyteller or raconteur as they liked to be called. Yet, I found myself enjoying the other raconteurs just as much and in some ways, even a little more.

So much in fact, I was moved to start writing this blog at three in the AM when all of this came together. See way back before Kim and the kids, I started writing The Tide to work on storytelling skills. It’s my dream to be a published author and professional storyteller but life keeps happening and I put this dream to the side.

I sat mesmerized by hearing these performers spin their craft and was a little jealous too. They were good. Really good. Dawn Frasier told a story about her twin with Down syndrome and how he displayed the ultimate act of sportsmanship and kindness at the Special Olympics. It made me cry, dammit.

Edgar Oliver, a Savannah native but now Ney York transplant, had the most unique voice I have heard while he shared a hilarious account of his days as an officer at Benedictine Military School.

 It started out as a tale about getting down and dirty with his girlfriend, yet somehow Peter Aquero masterfully made it a beautiful account of what love is.

This was all put together by another Savannah native, George Dawes Green. He has authored several books and started up NPR’s The Moth which promotes the art of storytelling. He changed it up a bit and actually preached a sermon about the evils of the internet which I hate to admit was right on target. “Switch it off he said, and open a book especially one bought from a local book store.” I ‘m paraphrasing but you get the idea which is quite a valid one in a time where kindles and I-pads rule.

Then Neil took the stage. Peter Aquero Emceed the event and I loved his introduction. Mr. Aquero simply stated how Neil Gaiman is “just a guy.” Oh, and he wrote a book about some sand.” The audience erupted with laughter. But he was right. Mr. Gaiman came out quite unassuming then shared a beautiful story linking how circus elephants are taught to embrace their chains rather realizing they can fight them and how he carried his own chains which prevented him from being happy.

I came for Neil but somehow found so much more last night. It is my honest belief in which everyone has a story to share. Last night I watched five people not only do that but also openly express to the audience something very personal, at times humorous, and even a little dangerous. It was a pretty brave thing to do and I walked away hungry to figure out this art form.

 I am already scheduled to some storytelling at Oatland Island for their Harvest Fest on Nov 10th. Please mark on your calendars and come out to this. It’s awesome but more about in a later post. I think I am ready to get back to working on my craft, if I may steal line from Robbie Rankin, my old theatre director. And I will.

It was also a powerful night in another respect. I knew I’d be writing about this night before it even happened. My assumption was I’d be talking about the lovely chat Neil Gaiman and I had. (We did and it was AWESOME!) Something else happened and I have to share because it moved as much as the raconteur fire which was lit inside of me.

You know all about the tweets between Neil where I invited him to teach Beowulf. When my turn in line came this was the approach I took.

“Hey man, I am the teacher who has been tweeting you all week. Thanks for considering visiting us even though it didn’t work. We all got a kick out it., “I said with a shaky voice.

Mr. Gaiman smiled and said in a lovely British accent, “Ahhh yes, the teacher doing Beowulf. Sorry about that but wish you luck.” We shook hands. Coolness for me.

I had a moment and seized it. “Mr. Gaiman, I want to introduce you to my students. This is Melissa, Jordan, and Holiday. Also very big fans and thank you again for coming to Savannah. It’s been amazing to hear you and your fellow artists.

Neil Gaiman continued being a delightful individual and spent a few moments with my students. All three looked like those girls form the news footage of the teeny boppers watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show.

Our moment was over and Mr. Gaiman moved on to the throng of fans waiting for their moment too. I was on Cloud Nine and even spent a few moments with that Peter Aquero fellow asking ways to get into racontuering. He hugged me when I complimented on his velvet burgundy jacket. He was a big guy but I can respect when a large man like me is willing to show emotion so I happily hugged back. Neat guy. He talked like the northern version of my good friend and mentor, Tony Daniels. Just that alone, makes Mr. Aquero cool in my book.

Kim and I mingled. We said some hellos to our various friends from all our circles. Kim even got in line to have Mr. Gaiman sign my old copy of Stardust which I gave Roni back in the early dating days. I watched the proceedings from a far and wasn’t the least bit jealous when Neil Gaiman gave Kim a big smooch on the cheek. Ok, maybe a little bit.

Kim and I walked out into a one of those evenings in downtown Savannah where the humidity was fighting with the oncoming Fall chill. We were passing Mellow Mushroom as I got lost in my thoughts about those days of being a ghost tour guide when we came up on Holiday and Melissa. I asked if they needed a ride but they said they were fine.

Matter of fact, Holiday had to come over and show me the Neil Gaiman book she bought from the Blue bus (Please click onthis link. Gaiman talks about their bus and it's very cool) which transports the Unchained players and a Salvador Dali book she bought for one of my school’s art teachers. They started talking to Kim and I got distracted by a group of SCAD kids.

It was a pack of about five-six students and they definitely had that “I’m here for Gaiman Punkish Goth look. One of the guys who sported a variety of face piercings came up to and asked very politely,” Excuse me, sir, are you a professor?”

I almost burst out laughing. Robby the professor? I visualized myself in front of an Oxford style classroom wearing that fancy corduroy jacket with the little patches on the elbows. More stifles of laugher. Then the notion of getting some round gold glasses where I’d look like Professor Indiana Jones. I began to realize I could get used to that notion. Whip crack!
"Dr. Richardson?"

We shook hands as I replied, “Sorry to disappoint, guys. Just a high school sped teacher.”

A young lady with alternating shaved designs and dyed teal places on her head spoke up. “It doesn’t matter. Either way what you did was an inspiration.”

“What?” It was the only word in my head. Rather than vocalize, my face said it for me.

The first guy goes on. “We watched you take the time to make sure your kids got to meet Neil Gaiman. It’s not many teachers who’d bring their students to something like this and make sure they met their hero. Man, we need more teachers like you out there.”

I am always amazed at our abilities at how we humans can be so destructive to each other yet so uplifting at the same time. This pack of crazy looking Punk rock Goth kids said the very words I needed to hear to remind what it is that I do and why I put up with the fucking bullshit to to do it.

See, I have fallen out of love with teaching. It has become mired down in the stupidity our elected officials have instituted to get re-elected (This is not a conservative v. liberal issue. They are all guilty) piled with some many jobs that I rarely get to actually have the opportunity to connect with a student in an academic manner. I could give examples but it would just take away from the point these wild looking SCAD students reminded me.

I love teaching and I love my students. It’s OK to hate the outside forces that reign down on me to make my job all the harder. This is where I am supposed to be right now. I helped three very awesome and unique kids have an experience that might be the catalyst which gives the world the next great author, artist, or something great. I did what a teacher is supposed to do.  I showed those kids the world was little bit bigger last night the same way Mrs. Clark and Mr. Oliver did for me back at Union County High School in 1986.

I dream daily of being in front of an audience where I regale all with  my anecdotes of being that hopelessly dorky kid growing up in the mountains of North Georgia the marshes of Savannah with his unique family. I’ve had some amazing shit happen to me in my lifetime and the best part is I am finally finding my voice where it all ties together to make a good story. I dream of putting all this on paper and this is also slowly forming.
"You've got big dreams......"

At the same time, I recognize I may have hit a point where I can respect and appreciate the moment I am living in. It may not consist on hearing the applause I dream of but, thanks to a motley group of SCAD kids, I have been reminded that I did take a stand made a mark. I believe this is the best thing we can achieve as human beings.

I’ll get there. I am hungry for it but at the same time I have a responsibility to some kids over at Jenkins High School.
           And that alone will make a pretty good story

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A White Porpoise, A Red Tailed Hawk, and Terrible Loss for my Good Friends...

            It’s been a busy few weeks since we last leaned on the fence and chatted about what’s on my mind. I’ve gone begrudgingly back to work after the end of the Summer of Kim. The kids and my amazing wife threw me a fantastic birthday. I’ve learned a bit about the enormous difference between going back to school as an employee and as a parent.

            Something else has happened which has had a larger impact on me that I want to admit. I have spoken of my friend/mentor/adopted big brother, Capt. Tony Daniels before. The Capt, as we like to refer to him and his family has had an enormous impact on my life. I went to Young Harris College with Tony. After he graduated, I met his sister, Dawn and the friendship blossomed. His parents were often around in those days and other periods of my life so I felt like I really know the Daniels pretty well. Matter-fact, when I think of my window at YHC, I realize the Daniels were a major part of it for me.

            It hit me pretty hard when I found out on the Facebook how their mom, Mrs. Daniels, lost her battle to cancer.

            I’ve spent the last week trying to figure out what to say or how to say something to maybe help with what they are going through. I got nothing. Except that I love them and I am here. Then my birthday came and something happened that rocked my world so hard, it has taken me bit to process it so I could write about it.

            I realized it was time to finally share the Hawk story.

            A few hours had passed since Mom, Mary, I and our entourage had returned from Hillcrest Cemetery to lay the Big Guy at rest. I had set up shop on the deck staring at the marsh and heavily trying to self-medicate on Camel lights and anything in a bottle.

            Our neighbor, Ron Bebee, (as mentioned in the last blog) dropped by to pay respects and say hello. As is custom with Ron, he walked up nursing his obligatory bottle of Bud Lite in one hand with a spare in his pocket even though we always offer to share our coolers with him.

            Rags, Gid, and a few others sat in silence on the deck as we all tried to find words to get something started but no one really spoke much. Some grief is just too thick.

            Ron finally broke the silence. “Shit, Rob. I don’t know what to say but I am so sorry. Bob was a helluva guy.”

            I nodded, faked a smile, and lit another Camel. I put the pack on old wire spool we always used as a table.

            Ron went on. “Sherry and are sorry were missed the service. We showed up late due to traffic and didn’t want to interrupt. We just stood off to the side and waited. “

            “Thanks, Ron. Means a lot that you guys would even come out. I know ya’ll got work.” I forced myself to keep it together.

            “The funny thing, Rob, is that something wild kinda happened so I am glad I had to sit off to the side.” Ron popped the second Bud Lite. “We were watching the service when I noticed this large bird fly up and land on the power lines over by where your daddy’s plot was.

            I didn’t think much of it at first but after a few minutes I began to pay more attention to that bird and I realized it was a red tail hawk. That bird sat there on that power line and I swear to God, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Bob’s service he watchin’. When the service was over and ya’ll were leaving, the hawk flew away.

            It stuck with me the whole way over here and I remembered how much your dad used to love to watch all the hawks we have out here. He used to talk about those birds all the time when we’d catch up out the yard.”

            It was true, Out on the property, we have a quite the menagerie of different animals that pop up from time to time including to alligators, deer, and a few families of red tail hawks that live somewhere across the creek on Isle of Hope. On many occasions, the Big Guy would come and find us to drag us from whatever Mary, Mom, and I were doing to point out what the Hawks were doing. It was almost a passion of his.

            One time, Dad tore us away from Mary and I’s late brunch to share Momma Hawk teaching her baby how to hunt. All of this was in our front yard. Momma Hawk stood big enough to carry off a hobbit. The damn thing could have easily come up to my waist; it was a powerful image and the moment where I fell in love with them too.     

            By this point, we were all sitting on the edge of our seat. Ron had our full attention. I only looked away so I could better grasp the plastic cup I was drinking bourbon and cokes out of. Ron wrapped up his story,” Guys, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that bird was your daddy’s spirit watching over all that to say goodbye but you can take this anyway you want.”

            And I have. Mary, Mom and I have noticed that at many junctures in our lives, a hawk shows up at moments when we need it. I have come to take it as the Big Guy saying, “Hey, I may be gone but that doesn’t mean I am not going to stop watching over you guys.”

            It is not an unusual occurrence where one of us will be catching up and the other mentions how they were going to work or doing something then look up to see a hawk watching them. We have gotten to where we refer to as, Hey, I saw Dad today.”

            Week before last I coolest thing to happen to me where I called Mary and shared. It was my birthday and half way through preplanning ant school. I was working on some US History test prep with my buddy, Billy Walker when Dave Westbrook came running in.

            Dave was elated to share, “You guys are not going to believe this. There is a hawk out next to the shrubbery. He just standing there is doesn’t seem to be afraid of people. We had six people standing around it and it had no fear.”

            Billy and I go out to see this and sure enough, out on the walkway was a red tail hawk. He was about a little over two feet tall and just standing there. At first, I thought he was hurt because we got pretty close and nothing occurred, Until I stepped forward by myself.

            I could hear Billy off in the background saying to be careful but something inside of me told me I would be fine so long as I approached carefully.  I was about three feet away when the hawk turned his head and peered at me. Our eyes locked. As weird as this sounds to say, I swear I felt as if that hawk was looking inside of me instead of “at” me.

            I am sure it was only a few seconds but after what felt like an eternity to me, the hawk leapt up and flew to a low hanging branch on the live oak I often admire as I walk to class. We spent the next hour or so watching him bounce around the front of the front of the school. All said, it was a pretty impressive afternoon.  
My good friend, Paul Sidney took this with the school camera

These were with my cell phone

            In spite of all this, I consider myself an individual with above average intelligence and very analytical mind when it comes to processing information. I am well aware there are very logical explanations to everyone of these occurrences. I have read up enough on these hawks and have a pretty good base of information on how animals act to make plausible explanations to why these hawks show up

              It doesn’t change the fact of how much comfort I get when one of these beautiful creatures pop into my life and reminds me that I am not alone. As I drive deeper in middle age, I find myself taking life pretty responsibly. If I want to allow myself my one moment of acting like Shirley MacClaine for the sake of comforting a devastating loss then I will. I don’t think anyone can fault for that if they do, fuck ‘em.

            Tony, Dawn, and Mr. Daniels, I am so sorry for your loss and wish I could be there as the hard part begins. Moving on. I wrote this over the past few weeks in hopes of that maybe it would be of some comfort but also to remind you that Gloria is not gone so long as you find ways to remember her. As I type this, I can’t stop thinking of the creativity you guys have and I realize that Gloria is going to be immortalized in many ways. I look forward in hearing about you guys finding your voice on this.

            For some reason, it always go back to Pat Conroy and a crowded parking lot at way too many Buffett shows when I think of you guys. This quote just feels appropriate so please indulge me.

            “The white porpoise comes to me at night, singing in the river of time, with a thousand dolphins in radiant attendance, bringing charismatic greetings from the Prince of Tides.”


As I crank up the blender to toast the memory of your Mom, I hope, that in some way, you guys discover your own white porpoise. We found ours and it has made life a little less empty.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lady to go and toast.