September 2003

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The Angels Have Stolen My Red Shoes

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Volume 2, Number 9

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.

 

The Angels Have Stolen
My Red Shoes

by Maria Barron

 

It was January 1981 and I was in college, searching for some sense of transcendent wisdom somewhere within the cracked, hopeful, beautiful, brutal world I was rather meekly preparing to inherit in my culture’s collegiate coming-of-age ritual.

The New Year had rung in with the universally and personally unhappy news of the murder of Beatle John. And I was not asking for whom the bell tolled because I was pretty sure it tolled for me and all the other suckers living on this crazy planet. I read the news today, oh boy … and I was pretty much talking to myself in song lyrics for most of that semester. My internal dialogue rhymed - and it also rang with chords of deep distress. What was going wrong in this country; that Ronald Reagan, actor with a gun, would be elected president and John-the-walrus Lennon would be murdered in cold blood?

What indeed. I was 20 and life was imponderably bizarre, and I kept running into these things that clanged in my mind, reverberating with the very sound of how insane people could be. David Bowie was singing about it all on his new L.P., Scary Monsters … and Super Creeps, and the truth of it felt ominous.

When I came out of my deeply-colored, stare-out-the-window moods, I’d spin some Elvis Costello on the stereo for a good dose of dry British wit, almost as good as some of Lennon’s minor stuff. Heh. You know, you can’t match John. But Elvis, as in Costello, had one of those eternal-youth songs you could sing along to, although not many of his you could. A jangly little song about making a deal with the angels…

Oh I used to be disgusted
And now I try to be amused,
But since their wings have got rusted,
You know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes.

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes … So I could sing my way out of that feeling of deep distress about the world, and have some fun, and keep moving, and do a reasonably good job passing my classes at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The “vaunted” Medill School of Journalism - or so the people who were part of the institution wanted me to believe - but I was not entirely with them on their high opinion of themselves. I had a couple of pretty good teachers there; you know, better than fair, and I had some dorks for teachers there too.

And then I had a real live monkey god for a teacher. I can’t help it. From the first time I saw his loveable mug - his huge smile that sort of loped across his funny, expressive face, arriving finally after several animated seconds into full glory, reaching nearly from ear to ear - I thought he was one of those little statues of the monkey gods, miraculously come to life as a human. What was even more amazing was, he was real in there. Real eyes shining out and connecting with you, real heart behind his every move and gesture. Real caring.

Schwarzlose
  Photo: Medill School of Journalism
  http://www.medill.northwestern.edu

I got it, then. I got what was wrong. In life, you have to walk amongst a lot of people who somehow are really not themselves. But every now and then you get to meet someone who, like the Velveteen Rabbit grown shabby from love and use, has become real.

Dick Schwarzlose rocked. He was the ethics professor, although that was always kind of disguised under class names like News Media and Society. He would jump from a desk to add emphasis to a point he was making. He would circle the room like a predator, crouched a bit, as though he might pounce at any moment, posing increasingly bewildering questions: What would you do if… Ah, but then what if… He would pull up a chair facing yours to “dialogue with you” on a point in front of the class if he thought he might be able to get you to do it.

I was kind of shy behind my lyrical lenses. But I’ve always known how to listen really well. And even though I didn’t like to talk much, I liked to write. He got that.

The term paper assignment was just some facet of “news media and society,” so I wrote about John Lennon - how he used the entertainment media and then the news media to try to actually dialogue with the world about where it was going, how he had done that in such a revealing and poetic way, and how I loved him for having done that. I turned the paper in at least a week late, with the front-page instructions, “PLAY LOUD.” Lyrics wove through the interview quotes and story line. It ended where an idiot with a gun forced it to. And Prof. Schwarzlose wrote back, giving me an A+ grade, saying the paper left him breathless and frustrated over “our failed revolution.”

We all want to change the world.

I decided then that I wasn’t crazy, even if the world to me seemed incomprehensibly bizarre and (to steal Linda Goodman’s phrase) I wanted to make it rhyme. As a young adult preparing to head out into the world, I felt like Dorothy in Oz, surrounded by the unknown - but that funny monkey god had given me my red shoes.

Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes. Red shoes, the angels wanna wear my red shoes.

To teach like Dick Schwarzlose taught, you have to really love people. He never - like never - gave answers, always just challenged “you” to find yours. Always challenged you to remember your humanity. Always challenged you to consider the humanity of those you would come into contact with as a news reporter. Always made you think, what if… Always made you think.

And if you asked for advice, he gave his old standard: Don’t unpack your boxes. The version of that he told me when I called him some years ago was, “Don’t get a mortgage.” Stay free for a while until you know that you know what it is: that thing called being free. He also told me in that phone call that he’d had quadruple bypass surgery after a heart attack he had while riding his bicycle. So he had to give up the pipe he had always smoked in class. He didn’t have any trouble teaching without it, he said, but he couldn’t grade papers.

I guess he must have gotten that knack back, because the news article said his family brought a stack of term papers back to the school the Monday after the monkey god died - from another heart attack, which again happened while he was out biking. He was 66. The paper said that was in June.

I heard about it in an e-mail from a friend in August. “Oh man, no,” I thought. Look at the news media and society today. Look at the shenanigans the Fox network is playing on journalism, look at where the military-industrial thing is going now, look at these kids who don’t even know there ever was such a thing as a class in Ethics in Journalism School. We need Dick Schwarzlose in the world doing his thing, challenging kids to look to see if they still have any candles burning in their temples. Urging them not to be afraid to embrace the glow. Urging each one to find the moral compass of his own heart and use it, and not to be afraid to let others know it’s there.

The angels must have their reasons, and the good professor must be needed elsewhere, but we sure could have used him here on Earth a bit longer. I confess I hadn’t talked to him in years, and yet I feel his absence now, and I’ve been grieving.

So I sat in the dark with that e-mail, with just the computer’s glow, and I had myself one of those deeply colored moods: part blue, I’d say, and part maroon. And when I was coming out of it, Elvis Costello was singing in my head from somewhere back in 1980, though it seemed a rather irreverent time to hear it, … and I won’t get any older now - the angels wanna wear my red shoes.

Schwarzlose used to tell the class to call him Poopsie, call him anything but professor. He also taught: be who you are; learn who you are; take that along with you, rely on it, and don’t let the bastards shoot you down.

I’m a good listener. So I do know where to get my own rubies and how to sew them on the slippers myself. I know that “do it yourself” is the name of the game. If you don’t do what you’re called to do in this world, if you don’t even bother to try to hear in your heart what you’re called to do, remember than no one else but you can.

But right now, I’m feeling mighty sad and a bit bewildered at the passing of a delightful, forever-young Old Soul who was, hands down, everybody’s favorite teacher at my old school.

It’s like I’m stuck in Oz, and the angels have stolen my red shoes.