Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

Circles And Streets.

Source: Google Maps

The street I grew up on was a cul-de-sac called Tobylynn Circle. Parallel to it was Ashley Court, another cul-de-sac, and houses on both shared backyards separated only by a drainage ditch. When I met Shawn he was on his yard’s side of the ditch and I was on mine and I don’t know which one of us hopped over first but we were immediate friends. We were both eight and lived in adjacent homes so it would be stupid to not be friends although I don’t think either of us thought about it that way. He invited me to his house and I met both his parents. Shawn and his family had just moved to the neighborhood. They seemed nice, but I felt a little uncomfortable with the way his mother asked, “Do your parents know you’re here?” I’d been to other kids’ houses and no one’s mother had ever asked me that before. I felt uncomfortable, though, because I said “Yes” even though Shawn and I had just met ten minutes earlier and I hadn’t thought to tell my parents where I was. Years later I’d realize there might have been a subtext to her question that was “Do your parents know we’re black?” I knew Shawn and his parents were black but I don’t remember giving it much thought beyond that. As a white kid in the suburbs it was easy to be naïve, to think racism was an old problem that no longer existed, or that, like smallpox, it was confined to small, enclosed places. I’d been brought up on Sesame Street so I was used to puppets and people of all colors living in harmony. And before Shawn there were no people of color that I knew in the neighborhood which caused me to develop some weird ideas. Once I asked my mother if I could have hair like Shawn’s because I’d seen his father using a hair dryer–the first time I’d ever seen anyone use a hair dryer–and I thought, “So that’s how he gets his hair all curly.”

I gave Shawn’s skin color, and my own, a lot more thought when he met my friend Troy who lived at the bottom of the hill, on Tobylynn Drive. As soon as Troy saw Shawn he froze then stepped back, then turned to me and said he had to go. I knew what racism was but until then it had been an abstraction. It was something I’d never, or at least thought I’d never, encountered. Shawn and I didn’t talk about it, and later when Troy told me I had to choose between playing with him and playing with Shawn I just quietly accepted it and spent a lot of time after that with Shawn because he was fun and we had some things in common, like a love of the Japanese monster movies that were on every Saturday, and he didn’t try to boss me around. When Shawn wasn’t around I still played with Troy and would keep my dislike of having to keep my friends separated at the back of my mind.

Somehow it never really became a problem, probably because Shawn and his family moved away a few months later. They arrived some time before Easter and were gone before school started. While I missed him he eventually became yet another in a string of short-term friends who moved into the neighborhood and then moved away. Troy and I would be friends for years but, looking back, I think we were only friends because we were close in age, and without a lot of other kids in the neighborhood it would be stupid to not be friends. As we got older, though, we would drift apart. What friendship we had would simply fade away and would not be missed.

As for Shawn, well, it’s awkward for me to talk about this because I’m so white I’d be mistaken for a marble statue if I didn’t wear clothes, and white guys have dominated conversations for so long that I’m reluctant to add my voice to the din. I wish I still knew Shawn so that I could talk to him about this experience, if he even remembers it. It’s likely it wasn’t his first experience with racism and even more likely it wasn’t his last and there have probably been those who make Troy look restrained. At the same time I don’t want to reduce Shawn to a stereotype or stand-in. It wouldn’t be his, or anyone else’s, responsibility to tell me about white privilege and how I’ve benefited from it without realizing it, without being aware it exists even though it has shaped who I am. He was–let me rephrase that. Even though I don’t know if he’s still alive I hope he is so he deserves the present tense. He is a person, and while his skin color may be part of who he is, while it may or may not be part of how he sees himself, he’s an individual. He doesn’t speak for all people of color any more than he speaks for all guys named Shawn.

That may seem obvious but it took me a long time to realize it. Even after that early experience with Troy and Shawn I still clung to the racism-as-smallpox view. If you had asked me, although no one did and I didn’t ever bring it up, I would have said that since we were the same age and lived in the same neighborhood there wasn’t that much difference in our experiences. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that there are differences in our backgrounds and family histories that shape how we see the world. There was a portrait of a relative of mine who fought for the Confederate side in the U.S. Civil War that hung in my grandparents’ house. He wasn’t a slave owner but defended the right of others to keep slaves. For a long time I didn’t think about it, although now I think of it as a part of my heritage I’m not proud of. I don’t know how Shawn would think about it but his perspective might be very different.

It’s been a long time since Shawn and I knew each other and the conclusions I’ve come to here have been the result of talking and, more importantly, listening to other people. I don’t know if my views would be any different if I hadn’t known Shawn, but I still think of them as having started with him, having started with us being friends.


Behind The Scenes.

I’ll draw the curtain:

My lord’s almost so far transported that

He’ll think anon it lives.

The Winter’s Tale, Act V, sc.3

Every summer the Nashville Shakespeare Festival puts on at least one play in Centennial Park. This summer they’re being especially ambitious with two plays: Antony & Cleopatra and The Winter’s Tale. Really they’re being extremely ambitious by putting on The Winter’s Tale in Nashville in the summer, although part of the play does take place in the summer, but that’s another—no, wait, it is the story. Never mind.

The funny thing to me is I read both of these plays in a college Shakespeare class under the tutelage of a professor who pointed out that they’re two of The Bard’s least-produced plays. Productions of Romeo & Juliet or Twelfth Night are like episodes of M*A*S*H—always on somewhere, and obviously the NSF, which put on its first play in the park in 1988, has decided there are only so many times they can do The Comedy of Errors (3), Much Ado About Nothing (3), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (3), The Taming Of The Shrew (2), or The Merry Wives of Windsor (2).

And they’ve done The Winter’s Tale before, in 2005, which makes me think the the rerun is a little early since the play itself covers a span of sixteen years.

While the plays themselves are always great I also like to go and look behind the scenes. I didn’t interrupt but I did catch some of the cast at work.

Here’s the stage still under construction. Notice that they’re using one stage for both plays, which is one of the interesting things about Shakespeare. The original productions were in a grassy area behind the Centennial Sportsplex with no sets, only a very few props, and almost no costuming. Well, the actors did wear clothes, and for that we should be grateful—Falstaff couldn’t get the wrinkles out of his birthday suit—but originally the dress code for cast and audience alike was come as you are.

And since all the world’s a stage who could resist a look behind the scenes?

Hip To Be Square.

Source: Goodreads

When I was a kid I read the newspaper comics section every Sunday while eating breakfast. The rest of the week I didn’t have time for it—if it was winter I was getting ready for school, if it was summer I was getting ready for the day’s excursions, and if it was Saturday I was too busy watching cartoons to read anything, and I only bothered with the Sunday comics because that was the only day they came in a special all-color section. I’d read through them and maybe laugh a little and not give them a lot of thought.

That changed with the introduction of a little cartoon called The Far Side, drawn by Gary Larson, whose birthday is today. I’d seen cartoons like it before, but never in the newspaper, and I started looking through newspapers for the comics sections during the week to find it. And I didn’t just start looking for The Far Side. A Far Side cartoon prompted me to look up Olduvai Gorge, and I got a kick out of Larson’s references to science, psychology, his anthropomorphic cows, ducks, and occasional slipping in of darker subjects like cannibalism.

Most newspaper comics were—and still are—aimed at kids and very general audiences. The Far Side was one of the few that took a more highbrow approach, that made it cool to be smart. Nowadays people are proud to let their geek flag fly. Being a nerd isn’t necessarily an insult or something to be ashamed of anymore, and I think The Far Side is partly responsible for that change.

Having said all that I won’t reproduce any Far Side cartoons here. Gary Larson has issued a statement asking that his cartoons not be spread via the web:

So, in a nutshell (probably an unfortunate choice of words for me), I only ask that this respect be returned, and the way for anyone to do that is to please, please refrain from putting The Far Side out on the Internet. These cartoons are my “children,” of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone’s web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, “Uh, Dad, you’re not going to like this much, but guess where I am.”

I respect that. I also think about a hilarious bit he shared in The Prehistory Of The Far Side about the time a newspaper printed one of his cartoons next to Dennis The Menace but reversed the captions so in the Far Side a snake is saying, “Lucky thing I learned to make peanut butter sandwiches or we woulda starved to death by now.” And Dennis is saying, “Oh brother!…Not hamsters again!”

This was a huge improvement to Dennis The Menace and only made The Far Side slightly more surreal than usual, but I can see why he’d have concerns about his kids being passed around.

A Simple Plan.

The water heater was leaking and taking cold showers or heating up pans of water on the stove and standing in a tub in the middle of the kitchen was getting old so I stayed home one morning to wait for the plumber. He said I could expect him between 8:30 and 9:00 and then at 9 o’clock on the dot called to say he’d be at the house in half an hour, and he was. Then he installed a new water heater which required the use of a blow torch and after he was done the basement smelled like birthday candles which was weird because I’ve seen the same model of blow torch used to make crème brulee so I expected the basement to smell like caramelized sugar, but that’s another story.

And then once he was gone, taking the old water heater and a sizable chunk of our checking account with him, I started walking up the sunny side of the street, or at least it was sunny until it started raining, up the corner where I’d catch the bus. I had a simple plan. I could have waited half an hour for the regular bus that would drop me two blocks from where I work, but instead I decided to wait five minutes for the express bus that could drop me off a mile and a half from where I work or I could just ride it all the way to the terminal and then catch a bus that would drop me off right in front of where I work.

The total amount of time either way would probably be about the same, but taking the express bus meant I could relax and put my feet up, at least until the people in the seat in front of me complained.

I’ve never ridden the express bus all the way to the terminal before so I didn’t think it was unusual when the driver, instead of continuing in a straight line on the most direct route, took a sudden left turn, then a sudden right turn, and suddenly we were in an open area about three blocks from the terminal and surrounded by other buses.

“Everybody needs to get out,” the driver told us.

“What’s goin’ on?” a woman yelled. “I paid for a trip downtown and I want to go downtown!”

Well, we were pretty close to downtown, or even in it, depending on how you define it. We just hadn’t gone to the usual stopping point and the driver had already disembarked.

I got out and wandered around. Buses from every route were parked on all four sides of an intersection. No one, including the drivers, knew what was going on, just that we’d been ordered to this stop. I wandered around and found the bus that, according to its number, would drop me off at my office. We sat for a few minutes then drivers started yelling to each other, “All clear!” and a voice over the radio announced that drivers could resume their regular routes. So we went to the terminal which, I later learned, had been temporarily shut down because of a “suspicious package”. When the bus pulled in lots of people were coming out of the terminal doughnut shop, which is apparently the safest place to go during a bomb threat.

I did eventually get to work, but the elevators were shut down for repairs. And then my computer had to run a half hour update.

I’m still not sure whether staying home would have been the safer.

A Thing Of Beauty.

Some time when I was a kid I heard that Michelangelo’s David was slowly crumbling because of rising air pollution and I thought, oh great, I hope I at least get to see it before it’s gone. And it also had a profound impact on me because it was the first time I realized that great monuments and works of art, even if they’re built to last, will eventually disappear. John Keats said “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” but then he died at the age of twenty-five. Only one of the original seven wonders of the ancient world, at least on the generally accepted list, still stands, and even the pyramids will eventually be dust. Going back even farther, to a story told before the pyramids, the epic hero Gilgamesh goes on a quest for immortality, but is told—ironically by an immortal man—that everything is ephemeral. The mighty walls he’s built around his city, and the city itself, have disappeared.

So naturally I was intrigued when I saw this on a lamppost:

 As you can see in the closeup it’s an ouroboros, a symbol of neverending recurrence, and instead of being circular it’s cleverly twisted into an infinity symbol.

It’s just a piece of paper stuck to a metal post, not really made to last and already showing signs of wear, but the interesting thing is I took the pictures a couple of weeks ago and it’s still there, although watching it gradually disappear is oddly beautiful.

A La Mode.

When I was a kid there were certain things about adults that I assumed I’d understand once I became one, like why they’d rather watch the evening news than Sesame Street, although this is one of those things I still don’t understand. Mostly, though, it was expressions adults used, like when they were going on a trip and they’d say they were “going out of town”. We lived in the suburbs which I already thought was outside of town, wherever town was—I’d been to downtown but never, as far as I knew, uptown, and what they really meant was that they were taking a vacation and going to another town and I just realized I was doing terrible observational comedy when I was five, albeit only in my head, but that’s another story.

One of those expressions I never hear anymore, one I even stopped hearing long before I came an adult, and that I kind of miss is “like it was goin’ out of style”. This always described someone doing something really aggressively. “I was so hungry I sat down and ate peanut butter and crackers like it was goin’ out of style,” I remember an adult saying, or “Vernon was raking up those leaves in his yard like it was goin’ out of style.” Based on our yard in late fall I think most people would guess that raking leaves really has gone out of style, and if eating peanut butter and crackers has gone out of style, well, I guess I’ll just be a fat fashion faux pas. It was a weird and kind of funny expression that even now doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would someone start really plowing into something because it was going out of style? Did going out of style mean it was in danger of going away? And if so why not just let it go? I guess it all depended on why it was going out of style in the first place. Some things—bellbottoms, teased hair, and shoulder pads—went out of style because they were really bad ideas, and good riddance, although I realize sounding so makes me sound like a cranky old guy standing on my porch telling you damn kids to get off my leaves. And if I complain that we’ve lost some genuinely good things because we put too much stock in what supposed stylemakers tell us I’m going to sound like an even crankier old guy and you’d be justified in wondering what kind of leaves I’ve been smoking. While the society I live in still has a long way to go toward true egalitarianism there does seem to be a looser approach to style and a greater tolerance of individuality than there once was. Tattoos and hair dyed all the colors of the rainbow used to mark a person as an outsider, but now, well, it’s not just the Isley Brothers who say it’s your thing, do what you wanna do.

Maybe that’s why the expression “goin’ out of style” is no longer fashionable and why I don’t hear it anymore. I’d still like to bring it back, and I plan to start using it myself. I’m going to use it every chance I get. You might even say I’ll be using it like, well, like someone who says it a lot.

Call Me Maurice.

When I was seventeen it was a very good year, especially that summer. I took a trip across Europe thanks to my parents and a student ambassador program called People To People. One of my teachers–and to this day I don’t know which one–nominated me for it. This was before the internet, at least as we know it, and it was only by dumb luck that I stumbled–or rather was pushed, willingly, into it. We went through seven countries: Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia back when it was still called that, one night in Germany, France, Spain, and finally Portugal, or, as I like to think of it, Spain’s Canada. We were about thirty teenagers crawling down the Iberian peninsula by bus, stopping in cathedrals and learning the culinary alphabet from Wienerschniztel to calamari, and along the way each of us was dropped off for short stopovers with families in Austria, France, and Spain. There are at least a dozen stories I could share, but for now I’ll stick with my time with the French family and le cheval terrible.
The French family lived just outside of Toulouse in a wonderful rustic farmhouse, and were really nice people. We exchanged Christmas and joyeux Noel cards for several years after my visit. They had a teenage son with whom I shared almost everything in common except a language, although he spoke a decent amount of English and I, well, I could do a passable Maurice Chevalier which cracked him up. In fact I entertained the whole family, especially their two Spaniels, one of whom was so taken with me she left a little present by my bed and I put my left foot right in it. They told me there was a local saying that a man who puts his left foot in le merde will be successful in life and I told them a dumb joke about how my friend came in with le merde in his hand and I said, “Why are you carrying dog shit?” and he replied, “Would you believe I almost stepped in this?” They thought this was worthy of Moliere and had me repeat it for guests which makes me think I could have pursued a career as a Franco-American standup comedian, but that’s another story.

Source: Wikipedia

One evening they thought it would be nice to visit some relatives who lived on a neighboring farm and share my scatalogical humor. And while the mother and son were taking the car they thought it would be fun if father and I went on horseback. I’d ridden a horse maybe twice in my life before then so I assumed I was well-prepared, although there’s a world of difference between impersonating Maurice Chevalier and being even a passable chevalier. And they assured me their horse Coquette–so aptly named–was very nice. She seemed to be nice, too, and very pretty with her dusky coat an flowing blonde mane, although gentlemen prefer brains. She ignored me and ate grass while I introduced myself and when I climbed aboard and said “giddyup” she ignored me and ate grass. And then when I tugged on the reins a little she ignored me and ate grass. When I said, “How do you put this thing in drive?” she lifted her head and started galloping down the road.
The farm, by the way, was adjacent to a French main highway. In the distance I could see a car coming in the opposite direction. “Whoa!” I told Coquette and then behind me the father started shouting “Pull to the right!” In English, amazingly, although even on the back of a galloping horse I think I would have known my gauche from my droite and none of us wanted to turn this into a scene from Equus. I pulled hard on the reins and Coquette suddenly stopped, trotted off to the side of the road, and proceeded to eat grass.
She was taken back for her paddock, the car was sent back for me, and the family kept assuring me “Coquette really is a very nice horse, but she doesn’t speak English.” Which I knew was half true, since I’d already learned she didn’t speak English.


You Say You Want A Revolution.

There are two things I remember about the French Revolution. Well, more than two things, actually; even though I wasn’t there I’ve studied history quite a bit and the French Revolution is one of those big events that comes up regularly. Anyway there are two things I remember that my high school World History textbook said about the French Revolution, statements that apply well beyond France. The first is that revolutions tend not to happen when things are at their absolute worst but rather when they’ve started to improve. I suppose this is human nature. When people are at rock bottom they tend to creep along sideways; it’s only when they get lifted up a little that they start to look up and get impatient for what they only now see they’ve been missing. The second statement I remember was that revolutions tend to become the very thing they set out to overthrow. This was certainly true of the French Revolution which not only paved the way for Napoleon’s rampage across Europe but even before that had the Reign of Terror. Here I need to hand the reigns over to Mark Twain and his more eloquent comments on the same idea:

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Again I think this is human nature. The intent of every revolution is to overturn the status quo, but the only way to do that is to replace it with another status quo, or “Windows echo your reflection when I look in their direction now,” as was said by Status Quo, but that’s another story. People tend to fall back on the patterns they’re comfortable with, even if those are the wrong patterns.

It’s the tragedy of history that revolutions don’t learn from their mistakes or even the mistakes of previous revolutions, but then maybe that’s human nature too. Maybe it’s why, as Yevgeny Zamyatin said in his book WE, “Then how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.”

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