Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Between 22 and 70

When we walked into the party an hour late ("It's in your blood," laughed Uncle Jon), everyone was seated for dinner and the only table left with space for four was in the corner where Twinkles the clown had set up shop.

The clown table turned out to be the perfect place for us at Uncle Sid's 70th birthday party, where we could spread out and not worry about mess nor the girls' preschool version of manners, which included dining on bread, butter, and cake, hiding behind our backs when introduced and begging to leave after Twinkles drove away.

Hiring a clown for the children is just the kind of thoughtful touch my uncle Sid is known for. The fifth kid of seven, he has always been the cutup of the family. He's bigger than life, with a booming laugh that usually dissolves into ticklish giggles, a generous spirit, and an enduring tenderness beneath his teasing. He'd visit when we were kids, reciting his football player "drain bramage" routine with a helmet perched high on his head, cracking us all up, making a wine glass at the Thanksgiving table magically ting without touching it, chasing us kids with his camera. His radio commercials for the jewelry business he named after his sons played on Steve Dahl's show in the 90's and I always loved to hear his rich voice "This is Sid Fey!"

At his 70th party he still tears everyone up and laughs hale and hearty as his back becomes littered with the nametags friends leave with him as they hug.

And hugs were in abundance (Aunt Susan came all the way from Colorado!) as I did the rounds of the room, getting news from cousins (Eric and Kathleen are expecting Sid's third grandchild!) and laughing at old photos of Sid being Sid (jaunty sideburns, plaid sportcoats and magic tricks.)

Uncle Jon asks after my brother and I share the happy news of his daughter, my niece Maggie's 22nd birthday Monday. Our happy wishes for her will need to be long distance all the way to South Africa where Mags is working with AIDS orphans before her graduation with a pre-med degree from Mizzou in May. From Cape Town, she sends tales of culture shock and loveable hordes of children, of safaris and wine tours. Her photos show her after her climb to the top of Table Mountain, stretching her arms over the city and the view of the sea. In another set of pictures, she holds the same pose, opening her arms as she bungee dives from the third highest bridge in the world. Even in still images, the pictures of her flight are breathtaking. She doesn't flinch, holds her body in a perfect posture of Christ, her sacrifice to the air and the sensation.

She is twenty-two, having the spring of a lifetime, six weeks she will never forget. And an entire life before her as well.

A twenty-two year old who can't be stopped, a vibrant seventy-year old. And between them, a life halted too early at fifty two.

Before we left for Sid's party, I received the news of the death of an old friend. Although he taught at the high school where my children will go to school, merely a mile from our house, I first met Greg Harris in New York City. We were taking a summer film seminar at NYU in the summer of 1997. The course, taught by the great Cynthia Lucia, was a primer for high school teachers in media, film and literature courses. John Golden, Mary Christel and Ellen Kruger, who all went on to write books on the teaching of film, were colleagues in the Tisch School of the Arts screening room. Greg was taking the course as prep for creating and proposing a new senior film course at New Trier; the Catholic school where I taught had, ahem, a far less stringent approval process for my little film course.

Spend five minutes with Greg and you got his powerful warmth, his intelligence, his vibrancy. Spectacularly kind. So funny. His part in classroom debates amped the intellectual level; his presence at a table guaranteed a good time.

It was a memorable three weeks. Besides Cindy's brilliant lectures, the engrossing film curriculum and the lively class discussions, we had Manhattan in glorious summer. Greg and I and some classmates hiked up to the Cloisters one Saturday to see the Unicorn Tapestries, Spaulding Grey interviewed strangers in front of an enormous outdoor crowd in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Brad Pitt was filming Meet Joe Black in the Park Slope Armory; Post headlines screamed the surreal tragedy of Versace's murder. I saw Janet McTeer in A Doll's House and Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse in How I Learned to Drive. I called an old college friend for drinks; we met up at his office in the World Trade Center.

Greg called me about a year later to invite me to create a presentation with him for the upcoming National Council of Teachers of English conference in Denver. We worked together after school for months on "What Makes a Film Art: Designing and Teaching a High School Film Study Course." Yes, Power Point.

Our plan: Greg would speak on researching, designing and defending his new film studies course; I would offer some classroom ideas about "reading sound" to "overcome the supremacy of the image in film studies." Working with Greg was such a pleasure and an intellectual adventure; he was continually supportive, full of great ideas and encouragement. He spoke of his students with respect, generosity and love - his life work, after all, was for them.

By Denver, we had our projected Powerpoint slides, video clips and handouts. A capacity crowd, probably 200 teachers or so. They bellowed with laughter at the kitschy promotional video Randy had cut to entice kids to sign up for my course and laughed again at my comparison of teachers to Toto, pulling away the curtains to show the workings of The Man behind. It was exhilarating. We felt like rock stars.

Greg and I presented at NCTE again in Baltimore in 2001. I would hear news of him through mutual friends, but I think the last time I saw him was in Indianapolis in 2004 where we served together on the organization's Commission on Media. His warmth and humor were high points during the conference when I was beginning to understand that teaching while pregnant and with a toddler at home was not working for me.

This post is sounding more me than Greg, but I have to chalk it up to his incredible personality - Greg had such a talent for making people feel good. His flame was bright and sustaining.

My heart breaks for Jay, Greg's partner of 32 years. I mourn for his students too, but I'm so happy so many of them were able to learn from him.

Here were some of Greg's ideas about the teaching of film from our Denver presentation:

Films provide an outstanding way to meaningfully address diversity and issues of student safety. And films can dramatically help students address our common humanity. In an adaptation from the New Trier English department goals: "From the richness of ideas explored in the study of film, students can recognize and empathize with human experience and gain understanding of the enduring power of the human mind and spirit."

Some of the "rich ideas" that I explore with students include: Questions of justice and truth - by examining the fluidity of truth and the inherent flaws in memory in Reversal of Fortune. The far reaches and consequences of romantic obsession in Vertigo. Confronting our fear and mistrust of what we don't understand and exploring the question - do people come into our lives for a purpose? - through the study of Gods and Monsters.

Bill Condon's Academy Award winning film Gods and Monsters, I believe, will endure as a classic of our time. The film sensitively portrays James Whale, director of the Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein films, in the days before his death. It is a film about, among other things, what is monstrous? What is human? It is certainly not a stretch to link Condon's fundamental questions with Gardner's Grendel or Macbeth for that matter. The film can challenge student's stereotypes and force the issue of our common humanity -- issues that transcend sexual orientation, class and education.

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