Good morning, my friends! It certainly has been a while, I’ve missed you, and while I can’t apologize for my absence, I might at least manage to account for what I’ve been up to in place of writing half a dozen blog posts per week. Before I launch into accounting for my absence, however, I would ask that you update me on your own goings on, as my lack of blogging has — as one reader and friend pointed out last night, certainly curtailed our interactions.
Things in the Gudgel household are going well for the most part, save for the fact that I have been sick four times this winter/spring, and can’t seem to ditch whatever is going on in my throat at the moment. Aside from that, though, the kids are great, Sonja is doing very well — keeping up with her ambitious workout and weight loss goals like a boss! And as for me, well, I’ve been reaching some goals of my own.
You might remember that my primary reason for taking time off from the blog was to write, and write I did. Since the start of 2019, waking up at four o’clock and averaging a few hours of writing a day, I managed to transform about seventy pages of bulleted lists and notes and diary entries from my first year of teaching at Omaha North into five hundred pages of what I hope is coherent and compelling memoir. I’ve included an excerpt below so you can see what I’ve been up to, and decide for yourself if it was time well spent or if instead I should just stick to blogging.
In addition, I’ve been a running a bit, getting 242 miles in thus far in 2019 as I train for a robust calendar of races between March and November, as well as enjoying lifting weights and taking spin classes. I’ve made time to read; in addition to writing one, I’ve read eight books so far this year, some far more interesting than others. I recommend Born To Run by Chris McDougal as the best book I’ve read so far in 2019. I’ll probably post about that in the coming months. And of course, I’m still teaching at North, SCC, and NWU, coaching track, and helping prepare for VinNEBRASKA, which I think is going to be incredible again this year. And of course, I’ve been spending every possible moment with my kids, Titus and Zooey, who are growing up too fast and are the single greatest source of joy in my entire life.
I’ve had some pretty great wine this year as well, though Sonja and I have cut back substantially on our weeknight indulgences. (As you might expect, that helps a lot with trying to wake up at four in the morning.) Nevertheless, here are just a few of the more exciting wines I’ve had this year, for those who still regard this as a wine blog:
I suppose that looking over those bottles, it’s fairly easy to deduce that Sonja and I visited Napa and Sonoma recently. We went back out for our anniversary in February — we’ve been married six years! And we tasted a lot of amazing wines, had some really excellent food at places like the CIA and Gott’s Roadside, and hung out with a few of my friends from Harvard for a day, touring wineries, playing Cards Against Humanity, and cooking dinner. It was a pretty great trip, though it didn’t take either of us long to start missing our kids.
One of the most important things, perhaps, that has happened this year, is that for the first time since deciding I wanted to be a writer in college — knowing full well that I also loved teaching and needed a stable career to support my writing habit, I actually took writing seriously, not only in theory but also in practice. I can want to be a writer all I want, just as most fifteen year old boys seem to want to be professional athletes. Ok. Cool. Good for us. Now what are we doing to make that happen? For me, it has been setting aside designated time every day to write, as well as studying the craft diligently by reading what other authors have done, and while that has taken away from my blogging, my sleep, and a few others things, it has allowed me to get a great deal done as well. It has enabled me to meet a goal, and I am thankful that I’ve made the time to do this.
I was talking to Dave Phinney earlier this week — he’s the guy who founded The Prisoner and Orin Swift, and now he’s making spirits. He’s an amazing guy, really easy to talk to, very down to earth; he’d fit in well here in Nebraska. Anyway, he was telling me that soon he had to sit down and taste through 300 wines, the ’18 vintage, to begin the blending process. We quipped a bit about how wine sometimes begins to feel like work, and how it never, ever should. Toward the end of last year, as I was writing a post a day throughout December, the blog felt that way to me. I have no doubt that you, my friends, noticed how forced, deliberate, and repetitive my writing started to become. I’m sorry for that. Now, with a little break under my belt, I think I’m in a place where I can return to writing the occasional blog — you know, when I actually have something meaningful to say. So that’s my plan, and I hope you’ll continue reading and remarking on the journey.
Thanks to everyone who clicked, opened, and read this post today (or at any time in the future). Still, I do much of my writing for you. I don’t imagine I’ll ever post on itheewine with the sort of frequency I used to, but you can count on me to show up in your inbox once in a while from here on out, while I simultaneously attempt to finish up another book of poetry, a cookbook I started writing recently for fun, and hopefully some more wine writing as well. I’ll keep you posted. Thank you for reading. It’s good to be back. Now then, my parents showed up in town yesterday, so I’m going to go make waffles for the family. Have a terrific day, everyone!
Cheers to the opportunity to re-prioritize, and to reuniting with old friends,
And now to really put myself out there…
(Excerpt of first draft, not for publication or redistribution)
In A Place of Un-Thought Beauty
Monday, August 25, 2014
“The animals looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
To this day, it is impossible for me to read the concluding lines of George Orwell’s Animal Farm without having chills run down my spine. In the more than ten years during which I taught something like thirty sections of English 1-2, what we called English 9 in LPS, I would enthusiastically pour over this slim volume of allegorical brilliance, generously doling out the requisite picks, hammers, and headlamps needed for my students to mine it to its core. We would conclude the short ten chapters having read Animal Farm first for its undeniable literary merits, and then for its in-depth historical analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
As we concluded Chapter Ten, I would always take the lead, allowing each word to rise from my throat with increasing melancholy and gravitas. It didn’t have to end like this. They almost made it work. I would end with a proverbial mic drop, allowing the stunned silence to echo through the room. There is no greater tragedy than that which took place at England’s Manor Farm. Can we as citizens of the world learn from these horrific errors before it’s too late?
I love Animal Farm, and to a somewhat lesser extent dystopia in general. In an environment that was so new to me, so different and in many ways intimidating, I still had Orwell. Over the past decade of teaching freshmen English as often as ten times in a school year, I had become so familiar with Animal Farm, also Romeo & Juliet, The Odyssey, and short stories such as “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, “A Sound of Thunder,” by Ray Bradbury, and “Harrison Bergeron” (my favorite) by Kurt Vonnegut that I relied upon them for comfort. Orwell’s masterful dystopia was sure to be a hit with my new freshmen, I assured myself. I mean, the Russian Revolution of 1917 is genuinely interesting to kids, and Orwell’s writing style and vocabulary aren’t especially challenging to reluctant readers. I was going to knock this lesson out of the park and then flip my bat. Just watch me.
Confident, I stepped into the room after the bell and quieted things down. I handed out one tattered near-first edition of the classic text after another, until everyone was holding a faded, musty-smelling book in their hands that bore the image of a glaring pig and a sneering donkey (stupid, really, to feature poor old Benjamin like that – did the artist even read the book?). I wrote “allegory” on the chalkboard in my typical, clumsy-yet-legible-all-caps, and then crossed my arms over my chest and asked “Who can tell me what this word means?”
The responses were immediate, and most of them off topic.
“It means English sucks!”
“It means I don’t give a shit!”
“It means we’re going to win tonight!” (Gives dap to another jersey-wearing kid next to him.)
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Is it when things get all bloody n’ nasty n’ shi’?”
“Is this formative or summative?”
“Why don’t you just tell us?”
“It means we should get to go home early because nobody knows!”
“I know what this is about.” And suddenly, the room went quiet. The kid who had spoken was one who never spoke. Over the years at North, I came to learn something about gang members that I didn’t realize in this moment; when kids wore the colors of known gangs and talked a lot about being in gangs or threw signs, they usually weren’t really in them. They might be familiars, but they were running a serious risk by posing like that, and more than once I saw it backfire on a kid.
Real gang members, on the other hand, didn’t draw attention to themselves. They didn’t wear anything that ignorant white teachers like me would find suspicious and report. They showed up often enough to ensure that the truancy officer wasn’t going to get involved. They behaved well enough that their teachers wouldn’t write referrals. Hell, usually they passed most or all of their classes, partly because they were genuinely intelligent kids, and partly just to avoid the hassle of drawing attention to themselves, which is a big gang no-no. Real gang members weren’t going to jeopardize what they were doing in the gang, or the gang itself, by acting a fool.
Over time, I became far more wary of the pleasant if standoffish kid in a Ralph Lauren Polo and subtle yet distinctive tattoos peeking out over his shirt collar than I was of the bandana-wearing kid sagging his pants around his ankles and twisting his fingers together while shouting “Sup Blood,” because the former is far more likely to be an actual gang member than the latter. The kid who had just begun to speak about Animal Farm and allegory was one of the former.
“I’m thinkin’ this about what y’all did to us back in the day when we was slaves.”
Students were nodding their heads, agreeing wholeheartedly, probably because they truly agreed and also to make the kid happy. I stopped. What y’all did to us? What I did to him, to them. How many people felt this way? The question would ultimately cost me several nights of sleep.
I assessed the situation without much difficulty; the young man who had spoken was not saying this to act out, nor to put me on the defensive, which I tried to avoid. His voice was calm, the look on his face one closer to inquisitive than aggressive. He was sharing his idea – and his worldview with us. In the end, I had to wonder how much of that worldview, along with his circumstances today, were a hangover from the slavery he was talking about.
I began teaching at Omaha North High Magnet School within days of the slaying of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that prompted riots, violence, and some important conversations. Nevertheless, I unquestioningly believed myself to be one of the “good guys” and being placed so easily on the opposite side of “us” was instantaneously uncomfortable.
Because I do not personally harbor deep seeded racist beliefs, I felt at ease in the limited patches of the black community to which I was exposed by friends and roommates – naively I had never thought of myself as one of “them”, a non-member of the black community, rather than one of “us,” a member of the species. This is the sort of ignorance that my white privilege so readily allowed for. I guess it’s the same old ridiculous racist cliché – “I can’t be racist. I have black friends!” Right.
I know I’m not black, yet I was somehow naïve to the reality that to many, my skin color was my defining characteristic. To have this young man place me on the opposite end of the picket line, or the fire hose, was painful, eye opening, and saddening to me all at once. What I did to him. I could rationalize it away, I could argue it away with the same old tired logic, but at the end of the day, especially to a fourteen year old, perception is still reality.
As my students looked from him to me, and from me to him, and from him to me again, they had no difficulty determining which was which. I was the white master in a position of authority and power, the privilege I so easily forget about as visible to every child in my classroom as my necktie or my staff badge. My student had responded bravely to my question, and he had responded in earnest. He deserved nothing less from me.
“In many ways,” I responded, “this story is indeed about slavery, about liberties and those who have them torn from their hands by people – or animals, in positions of power.”
My student nodded that he understood. “Well then,” he said. “Let’s read it already.”
(C) Copyright Mark Gudgel 2019, All Rights Reserved