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Arr! It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, but before we start calling our friends and bosses “ye scurvy dogs,” let’s take a moment to remember that a pirate’s life wasn’t all rum and Coca-Cola, or even cakes and ale. Remember Long John Silver setting out from Bristol on the Hispaniola, bound for adventure, mutiny and Treasure Island? Well, yes—but first the Hispaniola had to be towed seven miles from Bristol down to sea: The River Avon is tricky. A big sailing ship might need 10 rowboats and 300 men to haul it up or down the river, but a schooner like the Hispaniola could have probably gotten away with one rowboat. Still, it sounds a bit like having your mom drive you and your date to the Cineplex at the mall. And you could spend hours just getting ready. Hauling up an anchor was no fun in a dirty little harbor like Bristol. The rope came up covered in mud and myriad slimy stowaways—and very slowly at that. The movie crew on a replica of the Bounty took three hours to bring up an anchor with just 180 feet of cable. What about smells aboard ships? With luck, it would be downright rank. Unwashed pirates weren’t the problem. It was clean-smelling ships that were dangerous. All the liquid filth that accumulated on any wooden boat flowed downwards and collected in the lowest section of a ship—the bilges. This was “bilge water,” and right nasty it was to the nostrils. Meanwhile, wind and waves stressed wooden hulls, voyage by voyage. Experienced pirates—or any sailor—would be alert to a change in smells. A reassuring stink meant the hull was watertight. No smell at all meant the hull was letting in seawater. Man the pumps. “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum”? Careful. A bottle of the stuff could kill you, as it did John Reading, aged 24, on August 28, 1769, while serving on Captain James Cook’s Endeavour. It wasn’t even a full bottle. Too much strong rum at one sitting can close down the body’s respiratory system. No wonder the Royal Navy kept its daily rum ration scant. Finally, even if you worked really, really hard and were elected captain, job security could be miserable—especially if your shipmates started to doubt your judgment. Captain Edward England, a hornswoggler of a pirate if there ever was one, successfully captured the Cassandra in 1720 after a gun battle. His fatal mistake was to let the opposing captain get away and eventually find help. England’s crew promptly dumped him on an island with little more than a brisk “Walk the plank!” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia SHOP_Annotated-Treasure-Island

by Simon Barker-Benfield

Sep 19, 2014

The Dog Was Out

Al Pacino may have been the star of Dog Day Afternoon, the film version of John Wojtowicz’s brazen daylight robbery of a Brooklyn bank, but from the opening frame of The Dog, a mesmerizing new documentary about his life, Wojtowicz makes sure the audience knows who the star is now. The Dog, as Wojtowicz wanted to be called, was the center of attention again, and he liked it. “Nobody would ever did what I did,” he says in the doc. “Nobody would ever rob a bank to cut off a guy’s dick to give him a sex change operation. That’s why they made a movie about it.” Wojtowicz, who died in 2006, was a Goldwater Republican in 1964, when he was drafted. He had his first gay sexual experience during basic training, he recollects, with a “hillbilly by the name of Wilbur,” but in 1967 John married Carmen Bifulco (“my female wife”), the mother of his two children. The marriage ended on June 20, 1969—eight days before the Stonewall riots erupted in Greenwich Village. He heard the new gay liberation movement’s siren call, which proclaimed, “Anybody can be straight, but it takes somebody special to be gay.” When the Dog first met Ernest Aron, at a festival honoring St. Anthony of Padua, he was “infatuated,” he said, and “had to have him.” A gay priest married the pair in 1971, and Ernie, who also went by the name Liz Eden, immediately began to beg John for sex change surgery. After the latest in a series of suicide attempts, Ernie was admitted to Kings County Hospital, and when doctors told John that Ernie was “never getting out of here,” John decided he had to rob a bank to save his wife. On August 22, 1972, at 2:50 p.m., the Dog and his two young accomplices, Bobby Westenberg and Sal Naturale, entered a Chase Manhattan Bank on the corner of East Third Street and Avenue P in Brooklyn. Westenberg panicked and fled just moments before the Dog handed a teller a note that read, à la The Godfather, “This is an offer you can’t refuse.” A machine gun was produced and the siege began. John’s demand was simple: “Tell the cops to go to the nuthouse and bring Ernie down here. We’re gonna get on the plane, fly him to Denmark and get him the sex change operation.” Outside the bank, thousands gathered to witness the spectacle of the NYPD, the FBI, emergency vehicles and, most important, TV news crews, all waiting to see if the Dog would kill the seven hostages he held inside. The news that an “admitted” homosexual was robbing a bank to finance a sex change operation for his wife named Ernie must have produced spit takes all across America. The Republican National Convention was even yanked off the air for live footage of the Brooklyn media circus, where the crowd chanted, “Queer Queer Fag Fag”; pizza was delivered; and John received a series of visitors, including his mother, Ernie and an ex-boyfriend. The siege ended at 3:30 a.m. on the tarmac of JFK International Airport. Wojtowicz, Naturale and the hostages were waiting in a limo for a jet to whisk them away, when an FBI sharpshooter killed Naturale. The Dog was captured. Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon premiered in 1975, while John was still in prison. He paid for Ernie’s sex change operation with the $7,500 he received for the movie rights to his story, but after Ernie became Liz, she told John she would never see him again. So John “married” his third wife, George Heath, his jailhouse lawyer. Thanks to Heath, the Dog served only five years of his 20-year sentence. Unable to find work after his release (he had actually been a bank teller before the robbery), he moved back home with his parents and lived on welfare. Cashing in on his notoriety, John would pose at the scene of his crime, wearing an “I Robbed This Bank” T-shirt and charging money for pictures and autographs. Filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, who spent 12 years working on The Dog, saw John as a “unique New York character” who certainly “deserved the film.” John was also clearly invested in it. He clung to the Dog persona until his death, telling the camera, “I’m the bank robber! Fuck Al Pacino! I’m the gay Babe Ruth!” Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films CONNECTS_John-Wojtowicz

by Colin J. Warnock

Sep 18, 2014

The Potential Power of Good Teachers

For the 49th year in row, schoolteachers heading back to the blackboard jungle have the comical wisdom of Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase to shore them up. But this fall, Kaufman herself isn’t here to egg them on. The nation’s instructor emerita, who taught beyond her centenary, died at age 103 in July 2014. Kaufman’s irrepressible intelligence and humor made her a potent advocate for teachers. The granddaughter of the celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (whose stories were the basis for Fiddler on the Roof), she arrived in New York from Odessa in 1922. The first English phrase Kaufman uttered in a New York City public school classroom—following the example of her peers—was “Mwooom?”, a compression of May I leave the room? Kaufman’s eventual command of English notwithstanding, her application for teacher certification was repeatedly rejected. When the examiners judged her interpretation of an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet to be poor, Kaufman sent her essay to Millay, who wrote back, “You gave a much better explanation of it than I myself should have.” Armed with that validation, Kaufman finally got in, to the great benefit of generations of students and teachers. Up the Down Staircase, published in 1965, is an amusing epistolary novel, but its message is serious and direct: “Good education means good teachers,” and the powers that be systematically prevent schoolteachers from doing what they do best. Nearly 50 years later, little has changed. Today’s teachers are expected to overcome every societal ill that burdens the children in their classroom, including the foremost challenge, poverty. They must heel to crushing, bureaucratic education policy that gets in the way of good teaching. And they endure low pay and status, yet they shoulder the blame for a national school system in disarray. Most public school students this year will face the Common Core, a test-driven set of governmental standards for education. This policy follows Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind and other initiatives before them. In 2004, when New York was considering mayoral rather than board of education control of schools, Kaufman remarked, “I’ve been through 20 different approaches. None of them worked.” “What does work?” a reporter asked. “Good teachers,” she replied. “Better money. Do whatever it takes to find them and hold them.” Teacher pay has been an issue for centuries. In the 1890s, William Rainey Harper, the University of Chicago’s first president and a member of the city’s board of education, rebuffed the Chicago Federation of Teachers’ request for a raise. He scoffed at the idea that schoolteachers should be paid more money than his wife’s maid, and further inflamed the federation by suggesting that raises be granted only to male teachers. (The federation’s leader later said, “I think the cause of women’s suffrage advanced further on that day than it had gone in 50 years in Illinois.”) School has become about test taking, and the tests, as Austin middle school librarian and teachers’ advocate Sara Stevenson has noted, “punish schools, districts and students who underperform.” This system leaves teacher and student powerless. “When a child has a question about the test,” she explained, “the teacher is legally bound to say, ‘I can’t help you.’” Stevenson notes that successful workers are driven by “autonomy, mastery and purpose.” Both teachers and students benefit from these attributes, and they can achieve them through a partnership—but it must be supported by the educational and societal systems. In an August 2014 New York Times op-ed, “Teaching Is Not a Business,” educator David L. Kirp explained: “All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture.” Talking heads often put the blame for America’s poor educational rating on teachers, and cite a poll that shows that 13 percent are considered poor at their jobs, while ignoring the inverse 87 percent approval rating. Meanwhile, a Congress with an approval rating dipping into the single digits blithely imposes more restrictions upon educators’ ability to educate. Yet teachers old and new continue to show up in classrooms at the start of each school year. They still have Bel Kaufman’s words to inspire them: “The potential power of good teachers is awesome. Today our children need them more than ever.” Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_Bel-Kaufman

by Amy K. Hughes

Sep 17, 2014

Light on Iyengar

Before I settled on vinyasa as my favorite style of yoga, I sampled Iyengar. I found the postures pretty challenging, to say the least. I once asked my instructor how I could possibly contort my foot in the way he’d demonstrated. In exasperation he snapped, “It’s supposed to be a daily practice! You can’t do it sporadically and expect to get anywhere!” B.K.S. Iyengar himself may have shared this sentiment, but I like to think he’d have expressed it more gently, perhaps by saying, as he wrote in his book Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, “Do not stop trying just because perfection eludes you.” Iyengar is the man credited with bringing yoga to a wider audience, both in India and in the West. As a devoted yogi—I’ve been practicing for almost 10 years—I am deeply indebted to Iyengar, whose 1966 book Light on Yoga indeed shone a light on a little-known practice combining meditation, pranayama (breathwork) and asana (poses) and made it available to the masses. Iyengar began learning yoga at the age of 15. Born in the Indian village of Bellur and plagued by illness throughout his childhood, he was sent to live in Mysore with his sister and brother-in-law, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, sometimes referred to as the Father of Modern Yoga. It was believed that the temperate climate and access to yoga would improve Iyengar’s health. It did, and a few years later he was teaching yoga himself, to students including such luminaries as Aldous Huxley and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. In 1952 Iyengar became the teacher of violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. Iyengar’s 1954 visit to Switzerland at Menuhin’s invitation was the first of many and the starting point of his teaching career in the West. More than bringing ancient Indian ideas to a Western audience, Iyengar promoted an altogether new discipline. While certainly revered by modern practitioners, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a 2,000-year-old teachings on yogic philosophy, “say next to nothing about physical poses; their overriding concern is the workings of the mind.” Even later Indian texts that include asana instructions offer far fewer than those taught in classes today. The yoga Iyengar promoted, then, was not an ancient practice but a modern amalgamation based on a variety of influences, created in large part by Krishnamacharya and developed and elucidated by Iyengar. Krishnamacharya was a demanding teacher who occasionally denied his students food and beat them with iron rods to prod them into shape. Iyengar’s approach was simultaneously more relaxed and more precise. Having learned from experience that injuries can occur if one pushes too hard too fast, he developed a slower yet no less rigorous style of yoga that uses props like blankets, straps and blocks to achieve correct alignment. As it turned out, such disciplined precision found a mass audience, and those of us who practice yoga have been benefiting from Iyengar’s careful descriptions and explanations of poses, breathwork and philosophy ever since. Iyengar practiced yoga daily until his death last month at the age of 95. He achieved many things in his long life, including opening yoga institutes on six continents and being named by Time magazine, in 2004, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. His greatest achievement, though, is the unseen, everyday one—bringing peace, happiness and health to millions of people through the practice of yoga. Photo courtesy of Everett CULTUREMAP_Who-Owns-Yoga

by Emily Burns Morgan

Sep 16, 2014