Saturday, November 7, 2009

Steve McQueen, a Pogo Stick and Washington Irving

Pogo Sticks

My daughters complained that they were bored. Being the genius that I am, I offered five bucks to the first girl to reach 100 pogo stick hops - in the back hard. They raced into the back yard and I paused to marvel at my brilliance before getting back to my coffee and morning paper.

Five minutes later they were back in the house wanting to renegotiate. I guess feeling like a genius for five minutes is better than never feeling like a genius at all.

The Devil and Tom Walker

My students recently read Washington Irving's The Devil and Tom Walker. It's one of my favorite short stories and I'm amazed at how the 150 year-old chronicle has maintained its relevance. Irving uses the story to absolutely shred slave traders, hypocritical Christians and money lenders. I don't run into many slave traders, these days but there doesn't seem to be any shortage of hypocritical Christians or unscrupulous bankers.

The Devil and Tom Walker is one of the funniest stories I've come across. Most of the humor was too subtle for my high school students to pick up. They did get a kick out of the situation when Irving explained that Tom Walker had no fear of the devil after putting up with a woman like Mrs. Walker.

As with the stories of Faust, Daniel Webster, Robert Johnson and Charlie Daniels' fiddle player, The Devil and Tom Walker centers on the devil's offer to make Tom Walker a rich man in exchange for his soul. He also asks Tom to be a usurer, that is a money lender, one of his own "peculiar people." The devil suggests that Tom charge two percent interest a month, that is 24 percent a year. Modern American banks rouinely charge their cusomers 24 percent or more today, don't they? As Tom Walker grows old he tries to cheat the devil by attending church, singing and praying louder than the rest and pointing out all of the townsfolk who break the rules of the church, all the while destroying lives, cashing in on his customers' misfortunes during the week. Of course, in the end, the devil takes Tom into the bowels of the earth where the hypocritical money lender will burn for all eternity.

In a day and age when Bankers seem to get away with such unspeakable behavior, Irving's classic tale is - comforting.

The Coolest Cat in History

You may be wondering why I included a photo of Steve McQueen from the set of The Magnificent Seven.

No reason.