“A river bends because it has no choice. This is how it is for brothers at war.” –excerpt, J.A. Tyler’s Variations of a Brother War

Variations of a Brother War is a multifaceted tale about the irreparable damage battlefield atrocities have on two brothers who return to the home front only to find themselves warring over the same woman. Similar to the conflict outlined in Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, J.A. Tyler has engineered a stunning formula for conflict, presenting the tragic breakdown of familial and romantic relationships amidst the raw chaos of war.

“Family Feelings” is a collaborative blend of poetry and play reading that combines the work of this week’s TNB-featured poet John Foy (and others) and playwright A. R. Gurney. “Family Feelings” pays tribute to those relationships we know best, or least! Using scenes from Gurney’s Cocktail Hour – an appeal to gain Father’s approval for the staging of his son’s play – and selected poems by John Foy and others, the performance weaves together poems and script in counterpoint so that, through echoes and associative logic, they get to the psychic truth of unspoken family feelings.

Indian Café, 108th St. and Broadway (NYC), Sunday, January 22, 2012, at 4:00 p.m.

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

Today is a big day. It’s the halfway point! I’ve written 15 stories in 15 days and I can see a light at the end of a very long 15-more-days tunnel! Thanks for coming along with me this far. Please do not leave me now, because I am afraid of tunnels–even metaphorical ones.

Today’s story is all about teen angst and high school hijinx and how intelligent discussions about s-e-x are avoided at all costs.

It is, as always, absolutely true.

 

Reformed Schoolgirl

Did you know that the press is not allowed on public school property without permission from school administrators?

That’s what I learned my senior year of high school, after alerting the local Channel 12 news team about a newsworthy predicament I thought needed some attention. I called on behalf of a group of students who felt abandoned, unfairly punished and unnecessarily censored. And I had no idea how much trouble I would cause with one tiny little phone call to one tiny little local news station.

Okay. I had some idea.

It all started in rural Texas, of course. I lived in a lakeside community out in the country, and attended a nearby school in a town with a population just under 200. I had moved from the bustling-metropolis-by-comparison Palm Springs, California, to what seemed like the middle of nowhere–a town with a gas station, a feed store, a couple of Baptist churches and not much else. There were 38 other kids in my class; the entire student body was barely enough kids to earn a Swarm badge on FourSquare.

Not that there was a FourSquare. It was 1989–before the internet, before cell phones–Hell, it was even before Super NES. Our Nintendo was decidedly un-super!

Back then, in Texas schools, your football-coach-to-kids ratio was pretty high. I’d guess a third of the faculty spent part of its time coaching some athletic team or another. But they also had to clock time as teachers, which is why my Geometry, Chemistry, Journalism, US History, and Health teachers were all referred to as “Coach.”

The coach who taught my Health class was a first-year teacher, really young and good looking and generally regarded as “cool” by the kids in his class. For example, I once bet him he couldn’t stop drinking Dr. Pepper for a week, and when I caught him with a can in hand, he lived up to his end of the bargain and removed 10 tardies from my permanent record. (Ok, haha, I know. Remember when having a “tardy” on your “permanent record” was a big deal? But it was a big deal then, which is why it was cool of him to remove mine in bulk, as the result of some silly bet.)

He didn’t stay cool for long.

Coach had assigned us a project for health class–something vague and wide open with possibilities. We were supposed to create some sort of presentation that incorporated what we had learned throughout the year. I was a drama nerd and an overachiever, so I came up with the idea that I would put on a play–a play about sex. And the more I thought about it, the more excited I got. I thought about how I could take a shot at directing, and how we could perform it in front of the whole school, not just the other kids in Health class, and how it was going to be so much fun and slightly scandalous and that this was going to look so good on my college applications!

The play I found was called “Dolls” and is described as “a face-to-face telling of young people’s stories to young people by young people.” Honestly, it’s a little pro-lifey for my tastes, but I knew it was a safe bet for school administrators who may be afraid of parental outrage. It was frank without being graphic; safe, while still addressing sexual consequences in a meaningful way.

And there was no denying that the kids in my high school could use a little extra sex ed. A couple of pregnant teenagers in a big city school represent a tiny fraction of the student body. A couple of pregnant teenagers in a class of 39 represents half the Student Council. And you can pump your kids full of all the small town family values you want, but after all the cows have been tipped, there’s not a lot to do in the country, which makes drinking and fucking the top two ways for kids to spend time together.

I made my pitch to Coach and he thought putting on a play was a fantastic idea–he even offered to be in it. He became our official faculty advisor and attended the first few rehearsals as I put the cast and crew together. He also let me bring in my drama teacher–also a young, first-year teacher–as an additional faculty advisor who could help me learn to direct. Both teachers were still under the impression that enthusiasm and creativity should be encouraged among enterprising students. Both were about to find out otherwise.

I developed a short presentation for the principal, with hopes that I could convince her to let us perform the play for the entire school. She dismissed the idea, arguing that without parents’ permission, we wouldn’t be able to expose the students to any kind of sex education outside the approved curriculum, regardless of how reserved, how timid or how compelling. The next day I returned to her office with a stack of permission slips I had typed up myself and asked how she would like me to distribute these to the parents. Unprepared to respond, she sent me to the school superintendent to solicit his permission, knowing he would never give it and I would subsequently leave her alone.

The superintendent seemed overwhelmingly disinterested in anything I had to say, but didn’t say “no,” which gave me hope. He mumbled that he would take a look at the play and get back to me.

Two days later, I had gathered the cast after school for a rehearsal. This thing was finally coming together! Then Coach showed up with a look of concern on his face. He told me that he would no longer be able to be in the play, so I would have to recast his role. He went on to say that while I could go ahead and continue my rehearsal, the “powers that be” had decided no one would ever see us perform. End of story.

He seemed pretty sympathetic when he saw the dejected look on my face. He offered solace in the form of good grades–telling me that my work up to this point had earned me an “A” on this assignment.

“Big fucking deal,” is what I wanted to say. “This play is important. It’s crucial. It’s a really great opportunity to make an impact–to actually teach kids something that could save their lives,” is what I wanted to argue. And I really believed it. All the work I had done trying to sell the idea to our principal and superintendent had convinced one person (me) that performing this play was vital to our very survival.

Keep in mind this was the late 80s. AIDS was a very real threat, and yet most of my classmates felt immune–partly because we were seventeen and immune to everything, and party because (in rural Texas, at least) AIDS was still widely-believed to be a disease that only gay people could contract, like being a good dresser or listening to Erasure.

Coach said he’d work on changing the superintendent’s mind– at least to let us perform the play for the other students in Health class. Then he left me to deliver the bad news to the rest of the cast. After discussing the possibility that all our hard work would most likely be wasted on an audience of one, we decided to power through. Who knows what support we might find over the next couple of weeks? Maybe we could address the school board at its next meeting! Maybe a petition would change the superintendent’s mind! We had not at first succeeded, but we were damn sure going to try, try again!

About an hour later my Drama teacher arrived to crush whatever hopes remained. She told us that not only would we be performing the play to no one, but also that she and Coach had been “asked” to resign as our faculty advisors and remove themselves wholly from any further involvement. Without any faculty support, we’d no longer be able to use school facilities for rehearsal or anything else.

In short, it was all over. As a small consolation, she allowed us to have the rest of the evening to figure out how to proceed and left us to our own devices, alone at the school.

We were angry–really angry. We felt oppressed, misunderstood, belittled, and disregarded. We became even angrier at the thought of our cool, favorite teachers being threatened or bullied by the administration. We were sure that Coach and Miss Drama had fought for us–would fight for us–had they been able to do so without losing their jobs.

We talked about how important this play was–how much our school needed it. Our homecoming queen was married and several months pregnant, and she wasn’t alone. Girls got pregnant all the time. And one of the most popular guys on the football team had been accused of date rape by more than ten girls. How could they say we didn’t need to talk about sex in our school? How could they dismiss us out of hand like that?

We decided we had a pretty powerful story on our hands: Small Town School Takes Small-Minded Approach to Sex Ed. We decided to call the press.

I guess our thought was that after they saw it on the news, parents and other members of the community might support us in our cause. And if other adults brought enough attention to the matter, the superintendent would be forced to rethink his decision.

We also decided to stick together–no matter what. I would make the call, but we’d all be party to the decision. The blame would not fall on my shoulders alone, and we would not back down, no matter what the consequences. Our only hesitation was in creating trouble for our “cool” teachers who we believed had been on our side all along. We wanted to distance them–shield them from any of the repercussions.

So we did two things. First, we used a pay phone at the school to call the local TV news. I unloaded the whole story to an interested reporter.

Second, I went home and called our teachers. I told each of them that the cast and I had decided to take action, to fight for our right to sexually educate our peers. I wouldn’t give them any details, but assured them no laws would be broken. I felt that for their own protection they should know nothing more–it was important for them to have plausible deniability.

I don’t know exactly how long it took the “cool” teachers to sell us out, but I’m guessing it was a matter of minutes. They both called the principal at home to inform her that we had some devious tricks up our sleeves.

The next day I was called into the principal’s office just after the first bell. Coach and Miss Drama were waiting with her, and I spent the better part of first period being yelled at by the three of them.

They wanted to know what we had planned. I wouldn’t tell them anything.

They threatened to suspend me, expel me. I wouldn’t tell them anything.

I tried to defend myself. They didn’t want to hear it.

They told me that my actions would likely result in getting good teachers fired–ruining their lives forever. I cried. I believed them. I felt guilty. But I wouldn’t tell them anything.

They finally dismissed me and I went back to class, teary-eyed, red-faced and already exhausted. Ten minutes later they called me back into the office and asked me why the Channel 12 news team was calling for an interview. What did they know? What had I told them? Was I an idiot or just determined to get everyone fired?

I was told to “call off the dogs” or face a stiff punishment–one that would make detention seem like Spring Break. My principal watched as I dialed the Channel 12 newsroom again. I was openly bawling at this point–I had become an emotional basket case, and the basket was full of guilt and humiliation. The reporter was unavailable because, as I found out later, she was waiting with a camera crew just outside school grounds to try to get this story. So, after some more yelling, I was sent back to class.

At lunch, the cast and I gathered in the auditorium. They had heard my name called over the loudspeaker all morning, and seen me walking around the halls like a crying zombie. Some of them were pissed at me for crying. They thought it was a sign of weakness–that I had buckled after promising we wouldn’t back down. Others defended me, saying that even though we were all supposed to stick together, I was the only one being screamed at in the principal’s office all morning.

That changed when Coach found us and marched us into a classroom. Miss Drama stood in the corner of the room as Coach sat us down and gave us the talking-to of our lives. He marched back and forth, yelling at the top of his lungs. His face turned red, then purple, then red again. He treated us as if we had set the school on fire. There was no sympathy for our cause. There was no “thanks for the heads up last night.” He just paraded around the room, screaming and calling our actions stupid and reckless and irresponsible and indefensible.

Man, I hope he never finds out about Columbine.

I stopped crying and I got angry again. But this time it was a quiet anger. A Clint Eastwood anger. You know? It’s a cold, detached anger, with a calmness that terrifies. It’s the anger that comes with understanding. I was finally realizing that the people in charge were not on our side, and never had been. The adults who we had been so concerned about and whose jobs we had been so prepared to fight for–had turned on us at the first sign of trouble. They had probably never been our advocates–never pushed back in any way for our benefit. They weren’t being bullied by the administration. They were the bullies. And Coach’s red-faced rage-filled ranting was proof.

It’s not like we got caught drinking or doing drugs or cheating or ditching class. It’s not like we had vandalized the school or started a food fight in the cafeteria. It’s not like we had allegedly date-raped more than ten teenage girls.

We just wanted to put on a play. We wanted to be heard. We wanted to make a positive impact on the people in our community.

I sat perfectly still, unmoved, until Coach finished his rant and dismissed us. And then I was called into the principal’s office one last time.

That’s when she informed me that the press is not allowed on public school grounds without permission. The Channel 12 news reporter I had called would not be allowed on campus. There would be no big story on the news that night.

We had failed.

But it felt more like she had failed me. The school had failed me. And the “cool” teachers had failed me most of all.

I put it all behind me when I graduated. I left town and never really looked back. There are certainly teachers from high school that I remember; ones I admired, who inspired me and pushed me to achieve. But the rest of them are just an unpleasant smudge on my permanent record.

Fans of Heart, the rawk band led by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, fall into one of two categories: (1) those who dig the band’s fat rock licks from the 70s and lost interest after 1982’s underwhelming Private Audition, and (2) those who think that after 1982’s disappointing Private Audition the band was just getting started and who actually prefer the more embarrassing, slick, and power-ballad-heavy material to come. Naturally, I fall into the latter category, because guitars and feathered hair are nice, but exploding pianos and Aquanet are better.

This Heart-fan dichotomy was illustrated powerfully last year at karaoke night at Matchless bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Surely you’ve heard about what happened. It was a battle royale between the old school and the, uh, new old school, and boy was it a shitstorm. For my song I chose “Alone,” the desperate power ballad to end all desperate power ballads, and I sang the f*ck out of it.

 



She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.

Like the monkey, I wish to make a dramatic entrance.

But what constitutes a great dramatic entrance?  Is it some thing or some act that rises above ordinary by its very existence or action?  Or is it an invitation for one’s imagination to go someplace it hasn’t been lately — or someplace it has never been?

The great dramatic entrance — whether it’s an opening sentence, an architectural feature or a theatrical introduction — has a come-hither quality, I think.   It startles one pleasurably with certain unspoken possibilities.

Some people’s flair for the dramatic goes way back.  Take the du Pont family, for instance.  They fled the French Revolution, it is said, and landed on these shores on New Year’s Day 1800 — kissing the still-new world on the first day of a new century.

I call that a dramatic entrance, and I raise it here because we live in a big old house with a history.  It sits on a rise above the Brandywine River.  And, although you mostly can’t see the river because of intervening woods, the water below, slowly gouging the valley, lends a mystical quality to our environs.

The presence of the river is not incidental.  In 1802, Eleuthere Irenee du Pont settled on the side opposite our house, on the site of an old cotton mill.  While the original mill had burned, the millrace remained intact, enabling du Pont to get a jump on his project.  He soon constructed the first high-quality gunpowder mills in America and thereby founded one of the oldest and most successful American enterprises in the history of capitalism.  The mansion he built on a hill above his mills stands today.  If not for the trees, in fact, my family would look daily upon it.

And — here’s the crucial thing — were it not for the trees, du Pont’s house would also look upon us.

E.I. du Pont had an older brother named Victor, who built our house between 1807 and 1811.  On his side of the river, Victor constructed woolen mills to manufacture cotton cloth.  His company — known, after Victor’s partner, as Du Pont, Bauday & Co. — functioned for decades into the Nineteenth Century.  Nice little business, I suppose, but his brother bet on a better future.  Du Pont de Nemours & Company diversified and went public and made many members of an old family very rich.

But before that there were two well-connected brothers living at a time when shopkeepers resided over the store and manufacturers lived next to their mills.  The brothers had social stature.  There’s reason to believe, for example, that the boots of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette trod the old floorboards that we often now walk in bare feet.

Over time, however, the house known as Louviers apparently passed into abandonment and disrepair, sitting vacant for some time and serving as a temporary hospital during World War I.  Then, in the 1930s, one du Pont descendent took up residence, renovating the house, raising his family, and eventually living out his days there.

The place hasn’t changed much since, and when we study the renovations we often wonder what the old man and his wife may have been thinking.  In the master bath, for instance, the sinks don’t match, one being six inches shorter than  the other.  It seems obvious that she was short in stature, but the lack of symmetry is startling in a house that is so well balanced in other ways.

Also, they added a kitchen far away from the living quarters.  This stood to reason, because — as the relics of a paging system attest — wealthy folks had servants in those days.  The kitchen needn’t be close to things when family members ventured there neither for dinner nor cleanup.

There were other changes, too numerous to mention here, the reasons for which we attempt to infer now and then — an old walk-in basement safe (for silver?), janitorial closets in the halls (to keep the bathrooms pristine?), built-in fire hoses by the bedrooms (because the du Ponts historically feared fire?).

Curious, but I promised an essay about entrances, didn’t I?

Here’s a funny thing about the house that matters to the subject.  There is a small paneled library with built-ins from the Thirties.  It’s barely ten by ten, yet in addition to bookshelves it features a fireplace, a large window, and three doors.  Three.  One of those doors comes in from the hall and another goes out to the back porch.  It’s the third door that presents the puzzle.

This door, much to my daughter’s delight, is a secret door.  Sandwiched between the fireplace and an outside wall and hidden behind rolling bookcases, it leads to the living room.

What’s odd about that is the following.  If you’re going to the dining room or the entry foyer on the way from the library, you pass right by the main door to the living room anyway.  You needn’t pass through servant’s quarters or walk out of your way.  It’s right there.  So the hidden door is not at all required.

Furthermore, it’s only hidden on the library side.  On the living room side it’s plainly a door, albeit one without a proper knob.  So this unnecessary secret door readily gives up its secret to the close observer.  What’s going on here?

I think I know.  I think the man who installed it understood something about old-fashioned dramatic entrances.

Picture Scarlett O’Hara descending the grand stairs of Tara.

Picture Mary Poppins floating down on her umbrella.

Picture an injured Willis Reed, not expected to play Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers, jogging onto the court at Madison Square Garden in 1970 to an electrified crowd.  The game is won before the first shot is taken.

Now think of the man who built that secret library door.  The maid ushers his guests into the living room and offers them cocktails.  Sipping their drinks, they peer expectantly through the open doorway into the front hall, awaiting their host.

Instead, a door opens behind, where they least expected, and there he is among them — suddenly, dramatically.

If he were a modern author, he might have written: “She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.”  If he were a sports legend at game time, he may have been the last one out of the locker room and into the arena.

Beginning journalists learn that a lead paragraph must include the Who, What and When of the story.  Yet many seasoned journalists will tell you that the best newspaper lead paragraph ever is simply this:

Bang bang bang.

Why?  Because its draw is irresistible.  Plus: in the beginning is the end.  In other words, great story beginnings often also contain the ending.

Therefore, maybe my beginning — the thing and the monkey — is not so great.  It intrigues, perhaps, but doesn’t complete.

But picture those once grand stairs of Tara, falling into ruins.

Picture the magical nanny, for the last time lifted by umbrella over the rooftops of London.

Finally, once more, picture the man who built that hidden door.  The party is concluding.  He could walk down the hall and use the main door to his library.  But he doesn’t.  He waits until no one’s looking.  And then he disappears.

Mitochondrial DNA is a profound, primeval truth.  As far back as all the creatures we can see with our naked eye, ourselves included, it’s meant that the blueprints for the energy of our lives are passed only through the lines of mothers.  Poetry is all about such profound truths.  Sometimes those truths possess lives in cruel ways.  Sylvia Plath is known as a writer and a woman who killed herself.  Her daughter became a writer.  Her son has just killed himself.  A tragic purification of the mitochondrial line.  It so happens that Sylvia’s imagined rival, mistress of her husband Ted Hughes, and Sylvia’s rival to the dramatic (but not poetically) minded, also killed herself, and her daughter with Hughes.  But that is soap opera, not poetry.