Tag Archives: Providence RI

Short Story Research: Taxidermy

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“… And here at last, was a real naturalist — the man who had been the first to explore Lake Okeechobee, who had been bitten by centipedes, who had written a book, who had collected turtle eggs for Agassiz [Louis Agassiz was the director of the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology at the time], and who had been so nearly paralyzed by arsenic, absorbed in his mounting of skins, that he walked with a sort of quick scuff and shuffle!” ~Dallas Lore Sharp

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The early 20th century was marked by an obsession with the act of preserving- whether plant, animal or human.

Folks have always been obsessed with living forever, but taxidermy took it to another level! Early on, arsenic was even used as a preserving agent, hence Jenks resulting paralysis.

Could this obsession with living forever be connected with fears related to expanding urbanism, the failings of European colonies, and increasing industrialization? I see it as all connected and all waiting for a juicy horror story featuring some gory taxidermy details! Yum!

                “Had Bicocur lived in ages past, hc would havc heen accused of witchcraft and enchantment. What wonders has this excellent naturalist been able to unite in his cabinet. These are truly immortal.”  

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Ahh taxidermy!

In 1894, the curator of the Jenks Museum of Natural History at Brown University was returning to the museum from lunch when he dropped dead on the very granite steps that led to the institution he loved and tended for 23 years.

Annie Johnson, a Brown alumna, chronicles in the spring of 1962 how an attic filled with spears, pottery and other artifacts was discovered as a wrecking ball was set to demolish Van Wickle Hall on campus. The items ended up at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, says Dwight B. Heath, emeritus professor of anthropology at Brown.

How could I not be inspired to create some sort of short story on this Jenks dude and the resulting “artifacts” that were dumped?!

Here are some notes I’ve gathered to help me with the writing process:

taxidermy (from the Greek for arrangement of skin[1]) is the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals (especially vertebrates) for display (e.g., as hunting trophies or museum display) or for other sources of study (like species identification) or simply the preservation of a beloved pet.

– In the 19th century, hunters began bringing their trophies to upholstery shops, where the upholsterer would actually sew up the animal skins and stuff them with rags and cotton.

-In France, Louis Dufresne, taxidermist at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle from 1793, popularized arsenical soap in an article in “Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle'” (1803–1804). This technique enabled the museum to build the greatest collection of birds in the world.

Additional resources:

http://www.ravishingbeasts.com

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxidermy#Tanning_and_early_stuffing_techniques

The ornithological cabinet of Jean-Baptiste Becoeur and the secret of the arsenical soap: http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/pdf_files/119/1193254263.pdf

 

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This is just the tip of the taxidermy iceberg folks!  Ima keep digging!

 

Lonely: Writing Inspiration

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“I love you even when you don’t notice…”

post industrial art with a message

post industrial art with a message

 

I was recently asked:

Q: Why did that particular tag resonate so much to me that I used it with my essay? ( We Are Providence)

A: I love this tag for many reasons. As a writer, I think a lot about voice and perspective. This tag made me think about what kind of character could be saying this. Who, or even what, would martyr themselves to the degree this tag is expressing? Not only does this line hint at the common literary motif of martyrdom, it inspires my imagination when I take in the context.

Sunset in Providence

That building, abandoned for so many years, sitting on a waterfront that has seen everything from slave trading vessels to world class shipping fleets… right up the bay a19th century landfill is now transformed to a environmental education center.

Save The Bay in Providence

Save The Bay in Providence

An intricate waterway where fresh water meets the sea yet its burdened with waste and pollution. It’s this juxtaposition between nature and industry that has always resonated with me as a writer.

The tag raises all sorts of questions for me like, what kind of place is this that keeps on loving us even when we don’t notice? Even after years of environmental degradation, abuse of the natural resources, industrial sludge… and still, love remains? How telling of our potential for renewal. For transformation. How powerful.

The speaker could be the land or could be that lonely abandoned factory, trying to get our attention. There are so many possibilities there for us to envision. What sort of abusive, ill balanced relationship is this that we have with our Earth? With the city of Providence? It will keep on loving us even when we don’t notice it.

red bridge- Providence

Red Bridge- Providence

Isn’t the drive behind loving and being in love being seen? To be known? Still, there she is. Willing to forgo even that most basic recognition. We have dumped, we have polluted, we have neglected, we have gentrified… but still she loves us.

Gotta love Earth...

Gotta love Earth…

 

Teacher Confessions: Headless Chicken

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I know, I know. Its totally cliche… but this has been the sort of week where I have running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

thats one sexy chick

thats one sexy chick

Now, I usually take on a ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude when it comes to remaining calm. Its part of the job ( like a doctor or nurse of other life saving professional…) to remain calm in the face of stress. But today, I almost lost it. So why has it been so stressful?

-Testing, testing, testing…

-New teacher evaluation system

-Surprise visits from school department observers

-deadline to hand in 2nd quarter grades

-deadline to give and grade”post-tests” ( more testing) for one ( of the three) of the courses I teach…

– “normal” chaos of middle school which includes but is not limited to:

aah puberty...

aah puberty…

-Fights, Crying fits, Puberty related distractions “Hey my Adams apple is bigger today Miss!”

middle school is great!

-Thanks ‘no pass policy’, I teach periods 4-6 ( all after lunch) and yes those kids need to pee and aren’t holding back what they think of this ‘no pass policy’.

-Cuss words of every shape, size, color and national affiliation

anger

-Kids who dont eat lunch and almost pass out in classroom  ( I gave up that banana i was saving for later…)

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-VARIOUS  wardrobe malfunctions

yup. that happens.

yup. that happens.

Actually now that I write it all out, its all just a little bit amusing, isn’t it?

sad-banana-2

aah the absurdity.

Next Week: my take on RI’s proposed NECAP testing graduation requirement…

Middle School teacher confessions: Parent Night

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One of the things I appreciate about my teaching job is location, location, location.  It’s one my neighborhood middle schools and since I live only 5 minutes away from where I work, I often run into my students.  They are often much more surprised than I and I can’t blame them.  I remember the very few moments I ran into my teachers and feeling really confused and out of place while I thought ‘what? This person has a life outside the school?’  I am sure it is much the same for them, especially when they see me with my son, Ali.

 

This week alone, I ran into my students at the public library down the street and on the way to school at the bus stop.  I am sure the school year will be filled with these run-in’s, or at least I hope so.  I think it’s really important that young people get to see and interact with role models who are like them; who went through similar life circumstances and struggles.   I know it was very important for me to see myself in others as a young person.  This was for many reasons; I was an only child, an immigrant to the middle class burbs, a female of color in a mostly white town, one of very few Muslims in the fear ridden era of 9/11…the list goes on and on.  I still remember the first time I ever came face to face with another Palestinian woman artist.  I was 21 and recently returned from my study abroad in Cairo.  I left Egypt reluctantly ( the first time in 14 years I got to interact with fellow Arab-Americans) and I came back to a rough and lonely RI winter. Brown University hosted Suhair Hammad, a Palestinian spoken word performer/ poet/ writer/ artist.  I cried after every piece she performed. I felt like she was talking to only me.  When I approached her at the end of the performance, I was in total awe that I was in the presence of someone who ‘got’ me, who understood what it was like to live in my skin.  Of course she wasn’t as enamored with me… she was a seasoned performer who meets with and interacts with tons of other arabs all the time. Not to mention she grew up in Brooklyn, home to a pretty large Arab American population, not my lil ol’ Johnston RI. So, I am pretty sure meeting a fellow Arab wasn’t as life changing to her at that point…

Time goes on, but that is something I remain sensitive about; the realistic role model…the relevancy to a young person.  This takes on an entirely different level when I start to talk about teachers of color in a mostly minority community…where over 90% of the teachers are middle class and white, most do not live in this hood, and most do not have English as a second language… although most are great, understanding, kind teachers, they remain rather untouchable as living, breathing examples of role models to these students who are growing up in a much different (and constantly changing) world.  Although slow, I am seeing the shift; more and more teachers are emerging from these very communities and it’s making a difference.

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Tonight was Parent-Teacher night at my school and it turned out that it was parent night for everyone…even the teachers.  Nothing like bringing a three year old to work to bring everyone feel a little cozier!  Thank goodness for one of my students who, as a big brother himself, jumped right in and took over for me when I needed to speak to parents.   As soon as we arrived, Ali decided this particular 12 year old was going to be his new best friend. This student was one of three boys, raised much like Ali by a young single mother.  I knew I liked this mother before I met her because he started off the school year by complaining to me about how much his mother makes him read and write.  He is one of my better readers because of it. I saw myself reflected in her and I hoped she saw the same.

We are all so, so connected…

Jaffa is to Palestinians : Fox Point is to Cape Verdians

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I always found it interesting that Rhode Islanders are known for giving directions by describing landmarks that no longer exist:  Take a left where Frankie’s corner store used to be —Across from the old DMV—–after the Londsdale drive in, oh yeah, they tore it down, but you remember don’t you?—-  Rhode Islanders ‘ memory banks are pretty impressive.

And I, a tried and true Rhode Islander, feel that it is only right to continue on with the remembering.

My family is originally from Jaffa, Palestine, land of oranges and olives, circa ’48.  They were forced to flee amid bombing and my grandmother, barely an adult,  found her way to Kuwait as a teacher, where about forty years later we would have to flee amid bombing again…

….But I digress…

The Jaffa of today is not the Jaffa of 1948… much like Fox Point, a neighborhood in Providence.  Once a vibrant Cape Verdean, Portuguese and Irish community  it is now nothing like the Fox Point of ’48.  Instead of hearing Creole on Wickenden Street, now you hear Browneze… (slang for Brown University hipster lingo…)  Much like Jaffa, now part of ‘greater Israel’, instead of hearing Arabic, it is mostly Hebrew.  My grandmother would barely recognize her hometown today…much like WWII soldiers who came back to Fox Point wondering what happened to their vastly changed neighborhood.

In Fox Point, the construction of the highway and Brown University expansion and property buyouts successfully gentrified a family neighborhood by renting apartments to college students at high prices. Working class families had a hard time saying no to a fat Brown check to buy their home.

I hear they offer up a ton of money to Palestinians still holding on in East Jerusalem.

This in turn led to the scattering of the population, the shutting down of locally owned businesses and community centers, and the inevitable shift in the culture of Fox Point, now a college hangout.  Some Rhode Islanders still recall a time when Cape Verdeans spanned the area down Benefit Street to the Old Stone Bank.  Walking along Benefit and South Main Street today,  it is hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t the sanitized version of history we are lead to believe it is…when you might have heard small children playing outside, when the electric trolley dropped off passengers getting off of work, when the air was scented with Catchupa and other stews…

I wonder how long memories hold up?  How long before we forget that Yaffa had a bustling port that is now closed?  That I came from a family of farmers and landownders?  That Palestinians had a livelihood?

Maybe as long as I give directions like a Rhode Islander we’ll be alright:     ‘Where? Israel? Oh yeah,  just take a left where Palestine used to be.”

Now Approaching…Providence

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“…and having a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress called the place Providence, a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” Roger Williams   1661

Recently I was on the commuter rail back to Providence, going home after another long but fulfilling day of my creative writing residency at Lesley.  I was somewhere between day 3-8 ( its all a blur after a while), and I was doing a lot of thinking about the hows and whys involved with place.  How do people end up where they are? And why do they stay?  Sometimes the answer is simple, some people end up in a place for school, work, or family.  While others cite external reasons such as conflict in their homelands or lack of resources.

Others might fall into a third category;  actually having the privilege to actively choose where they are in any given moment.  Despite the obvious,(I ended up in RI after my mother and I’s escape from Kuwait in the midst of Iraqi bombings in 1990.  Seeking safety and familiar faces, my mother followed her brothers’ who were recent RI area college grads.)   I’d still like to think I fall into the later category: That where I am is exactly where I chose to be.

Often when  people find out I immigrated to the United States, the first question is “why Rhode Island?”
Now, because I grew up in Rhode Island I absorbed my fair share of RI-isms. Including, but not limited to: dropped “r’s… or ‘aahs’, interesting driving habits, and an affinity for coffee milk.  I also picked up on the ‘RI inferiority complex’ and took the question as a direct affront to my adopted home state.    Whether or not the speaker intended, I couldn’t help but hear a snarky tone that may as well been asking, “of all places, why in the world would you want to come here?’

While I cant speak for all Rhode Islanders, it has been my experience that many of us harbor this inferiority complex that rears it’s ugly head while conversing with those not from RI.  We tend to think: ‘our roads are broken, are political system is broken, our school system is broken’…True… but isn’t it like that everywhere?

Although I realize there are some things that make RI truly exceptional  (entire district teacher firings that made international news,  one of the worst unemployment rates in the country, site of the second highest concentration of Italian Americans (watch out Jersey Shore).  There are other things that make RI special too, the capital city is home to a rapidly growing arts and music scene, farmer’s markets make fresh and local food easily accessible to city residents, and overall it is a great place to raise a family.

More than anything, living in Rhode Island has made me a believer in the power of perspective. But, there was a time where even my die hard optimism faltered.

Last year,  following my divorce, I went into fight or flight mode, immediately aching for flight.   I yearned to move to Boston, after all, I was attending graduate school there, (albeit a  low residency program),  I already had a few friends there and it was close enough that my son could maintain regular contact with his father’s family.  More than anything I craved new scenery. I wanted nothing more but a complete physical break from everything familiar.  It didnt help that my ex and I were deeply embedded within the very fabric of Providence.  We were Rhode Island College sweethearts.  He was a Providence native and a community organizer on the south side and I was a teacher at a school nearby.  We often interacted with the same families.  The same students that gave him a hard time, softened once they realized that the guy who made them cleanup the playground was married to one of their favorite teachers.  It often went both ways.  We were drunk off of feel-good community involvement.

We were going to change the world.

Till he got laid off and our already fragile young marriage started ripping at the seams. He wanted to follow his dreams of travel and joined the navy.  I was scheduled to start my long put-off creative writing program…now while raising a one year old on my own. I fervently believed that getting away from Providence would be the perfect jump start necessary for a new life. But it was one dead-end job interview after the other.  Soon I had to face the fact that I wasn’t going anywhere.   I spent the better part of the summer skulking around feeling stuck in a suddenly too large apartment.

Friends and family stepped up, offering whatever they could to help ease the transition; babysitting, shared meals, hours of their time consoling me on the phone. Despite my sullenness,  a new life began to take shape.  I began singing backup in my friends R&B band, reading more, catching up with old friends, things I never would have had the time for when I was married; when I was busy taking care of everyone except myself.  Suddenly, I was enjoying uninterrupted ‘me’ time since my ex and I shared custody–something I would’ve felt much too guilty to take before.     I hated to admit it, but I was starting to appreciate being ‘stuck’ in Providence and all the new associations I was making with the city.  It turns out that I always had the choice to leave, but I didn’t have to go anywhere in order to start over, to find a safe haven.

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I think about how much life has changed for me this past year as the train leaves South Station. Vibrant new memories take the place of painful ones, new people and experiences enriched my life in ways I never imagined.  I watch the cityscape give way to dense tree cover as we approach Route 128 and Canton Junction.  I allow my mind to drift over the blurry tree tops as I redefine my dreams, clarify my intentions.  The forest melts into rusty industrial parks and mill cities at Mansfield and the Attleboro’s,  reminding me of the power of perception and of my seemingly endless choices. The train skirts alongside route 95 when the conductor announces, “now approaching Providence”, but I already know I have.