Mountebank Blog

"There is nothing so impossible in nature, but mountebanks will undertake; nothing so incredible, but they will affirm."

30 Years

Thirty years is a lifetime.  A generation.  I can’t say whether I still think of him and of the loss every single day.  But it’s close to that.  This year somehow feels harder than many, but I might say that every year.  But the anti-semitic murders at the Pittsburgh synagogue, among other things, seem to be intensifying the pain (a conservative shul, and a connection to HIAS).

I’ve marked this date on this blog many times, but I don’t think I’ve ever really written about the day itself on here (although I have for myself).  I don’t know that I will.  But this year, 30 years to the day later, I remember one thing very powerfully.  Like in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux-Arts,” I’m often struck by the every-dayness of things. How a whole universe goes on indifferent to moments of tragedy or destruction (or joy).

30 years ago today I was in the midst of an argument about nothing.  About washing dishes and whose turn it was to do that.  And that’s when the call came and I couldn’t even understand what was being said.  And when I did understand I made a sound that I had never made before and hope to never make again.  And how things like a softly falling snow, or a chalkboard with a taco special, or a feather sticking out of a down jacket, or a rental car, things that are so ordinary and common and ongoing are now forever etched.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

R.I.P. Scott Daniel Ugoretz.

February 24, 1964-October 28, 1988

Sam’s Speech

“Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”

 

Or the book version:

“Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’
‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

Redesigned

For a very long time (since March 2004) my homepage here at mountebank.org has had the same look.  It was clear, and readable, I always thought, and really just a list of links.  But it certainly didn’t look too modern.  Didn’t really represent very well what I’ve been doing with WordPress lately.  The blog was using the first WordPress theme I ever built, and simple as it was, it worked.  So, with some time off and a cold day (really a couple of days), I took the chance to do some redesigning.  The homepage is now more like a “calling card” with far less on it (although I think I will put a bit more as time goes by).

And the blog is still the same old blog (it was fun to look through some old content).  I still won’t update it very frequently, probably, but from time to time I’m glad to have it as a medium.  And I learned a lot as always in the redesign (also moved to a new host and cloud server).  My CSS skills are improving.  And my MySQL skills less so.  My overall command line comfort is unjustifiably secure.  And in WordPress…I pretty much know what I’m doing.

The End of the Circus

I see in today’s paper that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus will be closing down at the end of this season, after nearly 150 years.

I regret that.

In many ways it’s true that the Ringling Brothers show has moved a long way from the circus tradition.  Insanely high prices, huge arenas, intense merchandising of souvenirs and foods that really aren’t circus-based, and an emphasis on Vegas-style extravagance are all trends that started decades ago and have become what people associate with the circus and in those areas the circus just isn’t that appealing.  And I guess they moved in those directions because it’s what a modern audience wants.

And it’s true that smaller regional circuses (even those still traveling and using tents) are in even more trouble and getting even fewer and farther between.  Even the Big Apple Circus is filing for bankruptcy protection.

I’ve got a personal connection, though, or a set of them, to the circus, including the big arena shows, that makes me sad to see Ringling Brothers shut down.

As a kid I used to go to the Ringling Brothers circus, usually with my brothers and my grandmother (who for a while worked at a small local newspaper, so she got free tickets to all the circus, ice shows, and so forth).  And I always loved it.  I don’t remember any of the “scared of clowns” feeling that so many people talk about.  I thought the clowns were hilarious.  And I loved the aerialists and the animal acts and the music and the thrills every year.  I remember from a very young age wishing to be a ringmaster.  I was often overwhelmed by all that was going on (three rings can be too much–I never knew where to look).  But the sounds and the lights and the smells spelled excitement in a way that no other popular entertainment did.

And in my doctoral research, I read circus memoirs (from George Sanger’s Seventy Years a Showman to Barnum’s Struggles and Triumphs) and studied the ephemera and popular press accounts of the circus.  My own work was more explicitly with county fairs and carnivals but circus studies is certainly an allied field.

Circus PennantEven more than those connections, there’s the one summer, in 1981, that I spent working at a small circus.  This was sort of an odd circus–it didn’t travel, but stayed in San Diego. Each performance was about a half hour long and there were many every day. And it didn’t have its own separate admission–it was hosted at Sea World and included in the admission price.

Sea World seemed somewhat ashamed or embarrassed or uncertain about its value. It was off outside the margins of the park, in the “Nautilus Showcase” (I think that’s what it was called), a separate stage and bleachers that many guests never really encountered.  And I don’t think it ever came back after that one summer.

But for that one summer, even without the traveling, I got something of a feel of the circus family and experience–I was an outsider/newcomer (“first of may”).  The “Circus by the Sea” assembled some real and traditional circus acts and some Las Vegas performers (the Volantes and their comic unicycle/juggling act).

Serving these performers, there were a couple of stagehands, in blue jumpsuits, running on stage and grabbing props, cleaning the lion cages, babysitting the wirewalkers’ kids, driving the pickup truck to the wholesale butcher to pick up cardboard boxes of pigs’ heads for the lions (those boxes were heavy and always soggy.  And when they collapsed, it was not pretty to see what came rolling out) and doing whatever was necessary.  One of those stagehands was me.

signatures on the circus pennantCircus life has a lot of down-time backstage and on the lot (most of the performers lived in their trailers right there at Sea World), and there’s a lot of socializing.  Card-playing, pranks and practical jokes.  Teaching each other new skills even from each others’ areas.  (Ringmaster Dick Monday tried, without any success at all, to teach me WC Fields’ famed cigar box juggling routine.  It’s a great gag. I still wish I could have mastered it.)  It was a warm and welcoming family.  I had a huge crush on Delilah Wallenda, the wire walker, who was sweet and friendly backstage, but an imperious goddess 30 feet in the air.  The clowns taught me makeup.  Jose and Monique Guzman (they rode a motorcyle on a tightrope) shared pozole and tacos with me at lunchtime.  At night the younger performers and we stagehands would take a case of beer to the beach.  Marcel the lion trainer would pretend to open the chute to let the lions in while I was shoveling out the cage.

During that summer, there was one week when the Ringling Brothers circus came to San Diego, and everyone from our circus packed up to go.  Not to see the show–to see friends.  I came along, even though of course I didn’t know anybody.  But everyone else did know somebody–usually many somebodies. In-laws, cousins, old classmates from clown college, friends of friends.  Our circus people knew so many other circus people and it was like everyone was related.

At one point, I ended up sitting with Marcel and some elephant trainers drinking beer.  And I saw that not only did the people know the other people, but the animal people all considered their animals to be parts of the same extended family.  Marcel asked about other lions and tigers who were working with cat men there and elsewhere–not just the trainers, but the animals, by name and with a real interest in their progress and lives.  And he talked to the elephant guys about elephants they had, or elephants who were with other units or other shows, as real individuals they knew and cared about. That has always given me a different perspective on the “exploitation” of the circus animals.  To the circus people I knew, the animals were circus people, too.  They weren’t exploited.  They were partners.

I guess we live in a world where the circus as entertainment is no longer viable.  And I guess we live in a world where that kind of lifestyle for performers who make their own community in a small location and across an entire country doesn’t have a place anymore.  And as I said, I regret that.

27 Years

Lots of things change.  Grief doesn’t go away.

R.I.P. Scott Daniel Ugoretz.

February 24, 1964-October 28, 1988.

26 years

R.I.P. Scott Daniel Ugoretz.

February 24, 1964-October 28, 1988.

It seems a strange thing to do on a sad anniversary, but tonight I’m taking my class to see Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera.  It was just the way the schedule worked out.  Last night talking to my parents on the phone I said that Scott would have enjoyed the opera, but then after getting off the phone I remembered that he and I went to the opera together several times as kids, and Carmen was one of the operas we saw.

I wonder if that was in my head somewhere when I made this reservation.  It was some kind of program for elementary school kids to be exposed to opera at the San Diego Civic Center.  I don’t remember how old we were–I think I was probably 8, so Scott would have been 7.  Or something like that.  I can actually picture the costumes and set, and remember talking to him about it afterwards.  In fact (and I’m not proud of this) we both agreed that the woman singing the title role was too fat.  And we actually wrote a letter to the opera saying so–that we couldn’t believe someone so fat was believable in the role of Carmen.  It’s embarrassing to remember that we were that shallow and immature and …but we were 7 and 8 years old.

We got a letter back from someone at the opera company (probably in the marketing and communications office) who told us (in quite a snotty tone) that they chose singers based on their singing ability, not their superficial physical attractiveness.  Even at the time, I remember that we felt chastened.

This was part of a time when we had these unlimited public passes.  We could travel anywhere in San Diego, and I remember trips to Balboa Park, to Fashion Valley mall, to the main library in downtown San Diego, and Horton Plaza–which at that time was extremely seedy.  Sailors, homeless people, prostitutes and petty criminals and vendors.  We traveled everywhere and I think that freedom (we had no money so mainly just went places to walk around and look around) made both of us comfortable in cities and new places–and we experienced something similar in our trip to Europe together, the last summer before he got sick and lost the person he was.

We were also big on writing letters then.  I remember in addition to the letter to the opera a letter to San Diego Rapid Transit praising our usual bus driver.  I remember his name was Floyd Chapman, and he was friendly and protective and funny.  The SDRT responded to us, too, and told us that they would tell Mr. Chapman and his supervisor about our letter.  We were so pleased to see his big smile and he shook our hands the next time we rode his bus.

Scott and I were close–partners in letters, in exploring, in talking and arguing.  For so many years.  On anniversaries like today, and in fact often still, I remember that closeness and the times we had together before he was gone.

I wish I could talk to him today.  And many days.

 

WordPressiversary

Looks like I missed it by a month or two, but still worth recognizing that this blog passed its 10-year anniversary in March. Started in March 2004, and although it’s been intermittent for much of the time, looking back I’m very glad to see and say that I’ve had the site and will continue to have it.

And it’s worth noting how much, in ten years, WordPress and my work with it has contributed to my personal and professional life. When I think back to the original thinking, the first start (TypePad vs. WordPress was an original question), I remember that many of my same concerns (flexibility, community, design options, ease of use, affordability) are still informing my choices now.

Anyway, happy 10 years, mountebank.org/blog. This old theme looks a bit old-fashioned, now, true. But if we wait long enough, it’s sure to have a new retro appeal.

25 Years

An impossible number to really comprehend.

R.I.P. Scott Daniel Ugoretz.

February 24, 1964-October 28, 1988.

STEAM

Adam Savage at the 2012 San Francisco Maker Fair explains with some brilliance how art is part of STEM (art is where it all begins), and how learning works best when it comes through “making what you can’t not make.”

This is just an excerpt from the end of the talk, the part most relevant to teaching and learning. The entire talk is well worth a listen.

On Being a Wizard

There are many things to like about Gandalf, but one of the best is that he is a wizard not because he is some kind of magical creature, not because some other wizard bit him, but because he learned to be a wizard. When he has a serious question, what does he do? He goes to the library!

(First animated gif I made from “scratch,” too).

library