Sunday, April 19, 2009

Aimless Reading: The C's, Part 26 (Andrei Codrescu)

Codrescu, Andrei
The Muse is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans

I am certain, absolutely certain, that this book was a birthday gift given to me on October 26, 1995 by my friend, Valerie. 1995 was a crazy and eventful year. In August, I returned to New York, where I had sublet my apartment in the East Village to some friends, after having spent a year as a volunteer teacher in Ecuador.

Part of the reason I ended up in Ecuador in the first place was because I had been madly in love (or completely obsessed, take your pick) for about five years with a woman I had met in college. We had had an on-again-off-again friendship that never quite requited, as it were.

At the end of my second year teaching high school, I knew my teaching career was coming to an end, and decided I wanted to go abroad somewhere to learn to speak a language. This woman, E., was teaching in Ecuador that year, so I went to visit her and almost immediately decided to do a volunteer year myself, despite the fact that she would be moving back to New York.

It was a fairly laid back volunteer program. I simply wrote a letter to the priest that ran the place saying that my Spanish was pretty good and that I wanted to volunteer. I received a letter back asking for my flight information and telling me what I needed to bring with me.

In the morning I taught gym to boys and girls or arts and crafts for girls (boys were out working shining shoes in the streets to earn money for their families at this hour). In the afternoons, I tutored children of all ages in reading, writing and math. In the evenings, I taught adult education, which included reading, writing, and math, with a little bit of history and culture thrown in for good measure.

During one of my adult education classes, I was trying to teach the adults geography. The reason I was doing this was because Ecuador and Peru had just declared war on each other and a lot of the men were signing up for military service or getting drafted, so I thought it might be a good idea for them to learn where Peru was and where the disputed border between the countries was. I brought a globe to the class and, beginning at at the macro level and moving toward the micro -- planet, continent, nation, city, etc. -- tried to give them a sense of the world. I first showed them where New York, where I lived, was, and then where Quito was, and tried to give a sense how much distance was between them.

An older Quichua woman with no teeth raised her hand and asked, What's that, teacher? What's what? That thing you are pointing at. It's a globe, a map of the planet earth. The whole planet? Yes, the whole planet. It's round? I am sorry, again? The earth is round? (Holy shit!) Yeah, it's round. Oh.

When I returned to NYC in August, I saw E. at a party, and something had changed. She wanted to requite, and we did, and it was great for thirty days, and then less great for another thirty, and then hell for another thirty and then the relationship was over, ushering in several years of depression, exacerbated by the death of my father a year later, a move to Buffalo and another ill-fated relationship a year after that.

When my friend Valerie gave me this book, I think I was in the second thirty days of the relationship, "The Descent Into Madness." I had never heard of Codrescu at the time (didn't and don't very often listen to NPR). A few years later, in 2003, he was supposed to come to do a Valentine's day fundraiser for Just Buffalo, but got sick and canceled at the last moment.

Thankfully, Robert Creeley was still alive and still in Buffalo. I called and asked if he could stand in, as we had already sold 200 tickets to the event. He graciously agreed, and then gave one of the most amazing readings I ever saw him give. He read 20 or so poems he had written to his wife Penelope each year on Valentine's day. At the end, he talked a little about the war that was about to begin in Iraq, and then recited "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold. There wasn't a dry eye in the house after that.

You can read an excerpt from Codrescu's book by clicking here.


Zuri said...

Nice to know you've been teaching in Ecuador. Hope you have enjoyed your stay while you were in this beautiful country.

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Thanks, Zuri -- I love Ecuador -- I have been back once since I taught there and I hope to get back again some day!