06 January 2008

M. Moody

In the laundromat, folding. Union Street; this may or may not be Red Hook. A woman speaking French to her unruly child. It's winter, and no longer evening - just night. I'm reminded of Montreal. I think of things I might say in French to the woman, to make friends. I think of Mr. Moody.

Kelly Moody was my high school French teacher. Last summer - this will be a stupid but necessary digression - I wrote to my high school to get the address of my old baseball coach, and in so doing gave up my location, and now they send me fundraising emails and invitations to reunions and other such things as I have no intention of attending, and their alumni magazine. I read it the way most alumni read alumni magazines, if they don't file immediately on receipt: the pictures, the class notes, the obits.

One of the first issues to find me had a picture on the cover of a man with a vaguely familiar face, except for a white mustache and suspiciously dark hair. It might be a bad reproduction. It says on the cover, "Salute to Kelly Moody." The article inside claims he's retiring after 34 years. It's most of the usual alumni magazine tripe that I used to write myself; biographical sketch, amusing anecdotes, future plans. They missed the moving quotes from a former student or colleague about beauty revealed and lives changed. They included a story involving leading students in vandalism and running from the police. I would never call it a good piece of writing, but in the last two respects they were at least as honest as one might dare to be in the official house-organ of the snootiest prep school in Middlemarch.

You had to suffer through Frau Kuhn's first-year class if you wanted to take French at the (then) Boys' Academy, but if you did the reward was as many as three years with Kelly Moody. So I did. There was something derelict about following this path. French was widely recognized to be easier than Spanish (which my brother took), and a sight easier than German or Latin (which my brother also took). And you took Latin because you wanted to be a doctor or impress the college folks, or you took Spanish because anybody with a pulse could see it was going to be useful to know. You took French because - well, because your buddy was in the class. Or you were killing yourself with calculus and physics and needed the gut. Or because you weren't killing yourself with so much as English, so why start with the foreign languages?

Mac Duncan, we heard rumors, required his Spanish students to learn conjugations and things. I guess we did some of that. We must have. I don't remember much of it (Montreal proved I don't remember much of it). I remember Mr. Moody once half scolding, half laughing at me for inventing French words by doubling the last consonant of the English word and adding an E. So there's some indication of vocabulary work, at any rate. I seem to remember quizzes, and I did place into second-year French at Kenyon.

Mostly, I remember that we had better things to do. Like French breakfasts. My senior year, French met second period of the day, which would have been around 9:20. At one point, the French breakfast "class" actually involved making crepes on a hotplate, learning the French names for things, discussing how those crazy French would do things different by not using margarine. You can do that once, reasonably, I suppose, and by "reasonably" I mean that it's probably OK to cut yourself and the kids some slack and try to gin up more interest than is usually found in the plusque-parfait. We had French breakfasts - which devolved along the way to Tropicana and bagels and cream cheese in a toaster oven - often enough that finally when one of us offered "I think it's time for us to have a French breakfast," Mr. Moody responded with "It's time for me to keep my job."

Sometimes we would watch a "Vic Flick," one of an impossibly clumsy series of educational films in French featuring a character called Victor and his pals. I think Frau Kuhn showed us one or two of these, dissecting in great earnestness the use of "etre" instead of "avoir." Watching a Vic Flick in Mr. Moody's class was a high-school version of MST3K, with Moody in the roles of both Tom Servo and the evil scientist, cracking wise and laughing as he'd run the film forward and backward, over and over, freezing to ponder a particularly hilarious expression on Victor's face.

We watched "The Stranger" one day. Mr. Moody wasn't there. Much later we learned he'd been involved in an incident of some kind that landed him in the city jail. We were watching Meursault pondering his fate from a cell, he told us, while our teacher was staring through bars at his own patch of blue sky.
He was late one morning - actually, I think he was late a lot of mornings. But one morning as we watched him pulling into the parking lot from our classroom window, we concluded it would be a good idea to pull all the blinds except the one we mooned him out of. He was laughing as he came in; said, "I guess I can't say I saw anyone's face."

Sometime between then and now - maybe even at the time - I realized that at the root of pretty much everything in that class was something fundamentally insane. Insane south-southwest, anyway. He had a pair of corduroy pants he wore so often we started to refer to their distinctive khaki as moody green. We spent a class working on original surreal art. I handed in a quiz once with my nickname "hambone" on it, and it came back illustrated with a drawing of a snarling, drooling dog, bone in mouth. There was a bizarre story, illustrated on the chalkboard and possibly told in explanation of lateness or absence or a wound, about how he got mad at his wife for complaining about him driving too fast, or something, so he drove around the circle in his driveway, round and round, faster and faster, until the V^2/R we were learning about in physics kicked in and his car met a tree.

And yet.

Whatever derelict reason you might have had for taking French, somebody who should have known better had decided to offer it on the schedule. I like to imagine that they offered it, and that some of us took it, out of a belief in beauty. You chose French for the gut, but you might have also chosen it to read the Symphonie Pastorale and
"Familiale" and Camus, to watch Un chien andalou and Les jeux sont faits and Diva, because Magritte blew your mind and you weren't quite sure what was going on with Rousseau but that lion was cool, and Van Gogh lived in France and cut his ear off. And because you grew up seeing pictures of Paris and you knew that that was the best place you could possibly travel. (And then you did; you came around a corner walking from the Gare du Nord, and suddenly the Eiffel Tower was framed by a narrow alley, and you rediscovered a moment when the doors of your heart were opened.)

And none of that had to do with the hierarchy of the Boys' Academy's jockocracy or getting into Yale or what girl from Bexley you weren't dating. It was a horrible place, most of the time. Or maybe it was a horrible time, and I just blamed the place.

One day - it was a propos of nothing; I remember, in fact, thinking it had come from out of the blue, a piece of dark soul that had for some reason detached and risen to the top of his mind - Mr. Moody said to us: "You think I don't know what it's like? You think when I was in college I didn't hear people saying There goes Kelly, off into the woods to read poetry."

Looking back at it from Red Hook, Mr. Moody's French class suddenly seems like an island of sanity in a deranged world.

Song of the day is anything by Amadou & Mariam, maybe "Beaux Dimanches."

01 January 2008

Ringing In

New Year's Day. Smell of roast pork from the oven; football on TV. Dodging advertisements for "Lost."

Last night at Hope and Anchor's party:

Good fun; a happy crowd. At one point someone sang "Tubthumping,"
and I was singing along from my barstool with the rest of everyone, and around about the third or fourth time blasting through the chorus I suddenly thought of Spalding Gray. If you're going to stop in the middle of a new year's party and reflect on absent friends, you might as well reflect on Spalding Gray, I suppose. And then go tell some stories of your own.

Cold and rainy when we got up this morning; sunny later when I got out and took the title photo, and met Dean and Lori out walking. And then the dark closed in early, with USC beating a Big Ten team and a return to the drudgery awaiting tomorrow. Same as it ever was.

Song of the day is "Tubthumping," obviously. And "On a Good Day" by Ned Massey, just because.