Saturday, April 11, 2015

An Extraordinary English Teacher, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Teen Angst, 1963

The Father of English literature,
Geoffrey Chaucer.  Does anyone care?
Mrs. Gehring does.
I was listening to NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge last weekend while happily assembling a ham/bean/pepper soup, and heard something I haven't since my senior year at Minot High School in North Dakota—a recitation of the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Middle  English! On the RADIO! In 2015!

I realize that few people can relate, but as high school seniors in North Dakota in 1963, my classmates and I were forced by a cruel and perverse English teacher, Mrs. Gehring, to MEMORIZE the prologue. And then we had to recite it, in Middle  English, before our class. We didn't know any better. We just did it.

(Well, not all of us. One classmate admitted that she took an F rather than subject herself to the Chaucer experience.)

It is one of the few memorized pieces from my more-or-less clueless youth I can remember, but don't make me go past the first four lines. And yes, we had to use Middle English pronunciation. And we had to do so perfectly, as with every assignment in Mrs. Gehring's class.

Here's an audio example and below, the text as we memorized it. Go ahead, try it! FYI - "shoures soote" is pronounced like "sure-es soo-tuh". Today we'd say "sweet showers." My, how language changes over time.

       Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
10That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halweskowthe in sondry londes;

Like all teenagers we asked.....

What's the point?  Even then, when it wasn't at all proper to question authority, we wondered, why? How will we benefit from memorizing Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English? Or in any English?

This is what we preferred to do as teenagers in Minot, North Dakota, 1963.  Dance. Party. Drive around.  Explore the coulees. Rat our hair. Admire the cattle and the wheat, and folks that can't be beat. Anything but memorize a lengthy Middle English poem.
I posed this question to my classmates on our Magi '63 FB page a few days ago and got a flood of responses. Mrs. Gehring, and by way of her, Geoffrey Chaucer and Kate Turabian, had a lasting impression. A few excerpts:

My "Turabian" went with me to college and I probably still have it somewhere. Inside the cover I wrote, "This belongs to Merlin McDaniel; if found, please hide it in a better place than I did, 
Dan W. Anderson I heard Garrison Keillor recite a few phrases (from Chaucer) on Prairie Home Companion a few years ago. I actually enjoyed learning the Canterbury Tales, kind of like learning a foreign language. Learning it made me appreciate how language changes over time. What I remember with considerable less fondness is that research paper I finished the day it was due at about 6:00 in the morning. The spacing had to be so exact. And I'm sure it was at least 70,000 words long. At least that is how long it seemed. 
Mary Shirley Issendorf I remember staying overnight with Susan Howard the night before that research paper was due..... We were up alllllll night long typing our papers!!! I thought we'd run out of White Erase (or whatever it was called) to correct all the typing mistakes! 
Mary Janz  Mrs, Gehring had us read the Iliad, Odyssey and other classics, write haikus and poems in Iambic Pentameter, create illuminated manuscripts of the intro to the prologue of the Canterbury Tales. I still remember staying up late doing that in India ink. I can still remember the first line we memorized!! And then there were the vocabulary words we created out of Latin roots! She was ruthless!
Maybe Mrs. Gehring had a thing for Medieval times and literature. She certainly had a thing for teaching. She was the best teacher I ever had, high school or college. It was because she required her students to go far beyond what we thought we could or should do. It's as if she didn't consider that we couldn't do it.

Even back then, senior English students were grouped in "advanced" (superior) or "regular"(not quite up to snuff) classes. I was "regular "and it annoyed and insulted me.

But then, guess what Mrs. Gehring did? She made her inferior regular students do the same work as her advanced superior students! I loved her for that. Still do. Her expectations for us were high, and expectations have a lot to do with how students perform.

(In my classmates' comments above, I see that the smart ones had to also copy out the Prologue in the illuminated style. I am grateful I didn't have to do that. )

In addition to painfully reciting Chaucer, we had to memorize and use Greek and Latin prefixes and roots, a dozen or so a week, which I appreciate to this day. We also  had to write a serious research paper. No big deal, right?

But we had to do it perfectly using footnotes and all according to the stringent rules of a demon-bitch named Kate Turabian, who probably had something to do with training Mrs. Gehring in the finer points of instilling dread and terror.

Do high schoolers still write research papers according to Turabian's exacting standards? I don't know. But I do know that in the early 1960s, way before computers, typing a lengthy research paper with footnotes was a Herculean (probably a vocabulary word in Mrs. Gehring's never-ending quest to elevate us) effort.

Mrs. Gehring was tough, but with a sense of humor and reserved caring. She brooked no nonsense, but encouraged students to laugh and explore, within bounds. She was sharp, perceptive, scary. She had a commanding presence, which is essential, I think, to effective teaching and leading.You never wanted those high heels clicking in your direction or that fiery gaze burning a hole in your forehead. You didn't want to be friends with her. But you wanted her to respect your efforts.

She taught us how to construct a paragraph and develop a five-graph essay, but also how to do harder things that had no apparent point. Such as memorizing Chaucer.

But isn't that what life turns out to be? Doing hard things day after day, year after year? Especially going to work at jobs we don't like, raising difficult children, having challenging relationships, trying to reverse the relentless tide of physical decline, regretting? Holding grudges? On it goes.

We get so caught up in the rush of time, which I'm sorry to report from the seventh decade, accelerates with every passing day, that we forget to question the value of what it is we're doing and what we could do instead.

It never occurred to me, at age 18, that I would someday be 70 years old. The horror!

I also could not have envisioned that some 50 years later, I would be chopping onions and flame-roasting poblano peppers, and, at the same time, in a dreamy sort of way, questioning why I was doing what I was doing with my one and only life, and thinking about what I was going to do next, and in mid-meander, the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Middle English is on the radio!

It stopped me dead before I let out a whoop.

I turned up the volume full blast because 1)I couldn't believe what I was hearing and 2) I loved, that for whatever reason, the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Middle English was planting Mrs. Gehring in my frontal cortex.

Wherever you are, Mrs. Gehring, thank you. I hope you're still alive. I hope you still adore the Father of English Literature, and that you heard the NPR program. I hope this post will reach you, and you'll know that your demanding classes and inspired teaching did not go unappreciated by a bunch of North Dakota rubes and farm kids.

Maybe that was why you imprinted Chaucer on our impressionable brains. So that 50 years later, we could accidentally hear it recited perfectly, just like you taught us, and we could say, I know that! I did that. I could do it again. I can do anything. 

Even if  I am now officially an old woman.

Maybe that was the point?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Hey! You! Get Offa My List! UPDATED!

In reference to my post below about Rolling Stones ticket prices. They're bad. The average is still probably around $624, as reported by a couple sources cited in the original post.(See below)

But a reader pointed out that the best prices for concert tickets can be found on StubHub! I looked and sure enough, prices for the Minneapolis concert appear to range between $134 and ...... $10,757! If you don't believe it, look!

However, many tickets exist in the $150- $250 range. Not great, but not the worst in the stadium.  AND, most importantly, StubHub! promises that the price you see is what you'll pay - no surprises with taxes and fees. 

Theoretically at least, PK and I could see the Stones for between $300 and $400.

The Events Ticket Center, where I originally searched (and also called and talked to a real person two days ago) now has tickets ranging from $124 to $4,450. A couple days ago, the lowest ticket listed was for $250 and the highest was $3,400. How could the prices change so dramatically in a few days?

The guy I talked with—his name was Shawn—told me that those two tickets, the cheapest available, with taxes and fees, would end up costing $677.

Hence I ditched my long-held desire to go to a Stones concert. And also got huffy.

About the June 3 Stones concert in Minneapolis? Reconsidering. 

As a another reader pointed out, YOLO. For any Luddites out there, that means you only live once. 

If I start talking myself into buying concert tix (which will also mean adjusting PK's attitude) I would add LIS - Life is short.

Original post
Hey! You! Get Offa My List!

I love this caricature of the Rolling Stones. I hope the copyright police don't come after me for posting it on my non monetized (what a word!) blog with 10 readers and sue me for copyright violation. Because then I could really never afford a Rolling Stones concert. 
I've never composed a bucket list, but I believe that certain as-yet-unseen-by-me people, places  and things will jump up and grab me if I stumble into range.

Such a stumble/grab occurred a few days ago when I realized that PK and I would be in Minneapolis on June 3 for a Rolling Stones concert. Wow! Big damn grab! Right by the throat. Made my tongue stick out like on that famous album cover.

I'm a rock n' roller from way back, and for years, the Stones was my favorite band. That was before a great flood of easy-to-access music, and younger friends,  pumped up my music life. I still love the Stones, and never tire of songs like Jumpin Jack Flash and Sympathy for the Devil, but the band has settled somewhere on the far edge of music that compels me to dance, sing, sniffle, or otherwise enter an elevated state.

When the Stones was my top band,  I was dying to see them in concert. I thought I would have given anything! Not any more.

Not since yesterday when I discovered that Rolling Stones concert ticket prices start at $250 and go up to, are you ready? $3,400!!! For one freaking ticket!

According to one source, the Stones are far and away the most expensive in-concert artists. Here's a list from 2013 and a more recent source with similar information. The first source also details how many millions per year some of the artists amass. Amounts listed are the average ticket price.

10. Paul McCartney, $241
 9. Pink, $270
 8. Fleetwood Mac, $282
 7. Beyonce, $294
 6. Roger Waters, $314
 5. Justin Timberlake, $339
 4. Eagles, $354
 3. Maroon5, $364
 2. One Direction, $460
 1. Rolling Stones, $624

Ok. Where have I been hiding that I didn't realize that Big Names command small fortunes for their stadium extravaganzas?

I've been hiding in the sticks. And in the decades that have passed since I first loved the Stones in the 60s. I've been hiding in the garden and on the rivers and in the mountains where pop culture and media don't necessarily rule. I've become a person far enough removed from mainstream culture that I cannot fathom the audacity of billionaire celebrities asking fans to pay hundreds/thousands to see them. And I don't get it about celebrity worship that involves spending more on a single concert ticket than many people pay for a month's rent.

I don't feel deprived (well, maybe a little) of great live music. We live on the I-5 corridor midway between San Francisco and Portland/Seattle, and because of that geography, we snag fabulous talent into our little venues for mid-week concerts. Big names, not the Stones or U2 or Fleetwood Mac, but artists that are Grammy winners or nominees or should be. The local concerts usually run between $25 and $55, but we did pay $99 to see Richard Thompson last year. (At the historic Rogue Theater.)

I won't even get started on the fantastic concerts we've seen at various New Orleans venues, none of which exceeded $100 per ticket. More like $30.

My nephew Michael Johnson lives in Minneapolis and was considering the Stones concert with us until informed about ticket prices. He wrote:
Playground for the rich.  I mean, back in the sixties, who would have thought it would come to this?  But I guess the "bad boys of rock" never were really part of that altruistic hippie crap anyway. Don't get me wrong, but the Stones were definitely more sex and drugs than they were peace and love.
I responded:
I imagine that the really huge names in rock, hip hop, rap, country, pop, can command these prices. But I’m trying to think of a “peace and love” group from the sixties or seventies that is still as popular as the Stones. 
A peace and love group that is still around?  Well, I think they are on PBS getting rolled out for the pledge drives. Then the six-figure salaried CEOs of said non-profits get to go see the Stones! This is the top-heavy celebrity worshipping "culture" of our times. 
Well, whatever. PK and I will be in Minneapolis June 3. We will not be paying $677 (cheapest 2 tickets + fees and taxes) to occupy nosebleed stadium seats at a Rolling Stones concert.  But I, for one, will offer a reluctant toast to a great Stones song, You can't always get what you want.