Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Monday, June 27, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 236

Fanny Trollope--whom Mary Shelley met before Trollope's literary fame commenced--wrote a book about her experiences in America--The Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) ...

My journal reminds me that I read Domestic Manners in October 1999, somewhat early in my Shelley Mania, and some of the notes I took on that book—her account of her experiences in America (and with Americans) during the several years she was here, commencing in 1827.
Her ship arrived in New Orleans, and she immediately complained about the heat, which was much more than agreeable and the mosquitoes (incessant, and most tormenting). She notes that a crocodile ate an entire family. She describes a fire-and-brimstone preacher: The perspiration ran in streams from the face of the preacher; his eyes rolled, his lips were covered with foam ….
She comments caustically about Americans and their leisure: All the freedom enjoyed in America, beyond what is enjoyed in England, is enjoyed by the disorderly at the expense of the orderly ….
She’s saddened by the role(s) of women on the frontier—slaves of the soil, she calls them. But she has little kind to say about women in the city. They powder themselves immoderately, face, neck, and arms, with pulverised starch …. They are also most unhappily partial to false hair, which they wear in surprising quantities ….
Manifestly not impressed with the state of American letters, she refers to the immense exhalation of periodical trash … which is greedily sucked in by all ranks …. The general taste is decidedly bad … Oh, and she refers to American writers as insect authors.
And near the end she blasts us all: If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learnt, but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having, which they do not possess. The art of man could hardly discover a more effectual antidote to improvement, than this persuasion ….
Seems as if the We’re-Number-One! attitude reigned long ago, as well.[1]
my copy

[1] (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), 8, 21, 78–79, 105–06, 117, 300, 311, 408–09

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Sundries, 108

1. AOTW: No one special this week--no one particularly risky or rakish in traffic; no one being obnoxious in the coffee shops. So--by default--that makes ME the AOTW, I guess, for I'm sure I did things that caused some others to shake their heads, gnash their teeth, use naughty words.

2. This morning in the grocery store--Joyce noticed a brand of beer neither of us had noticed before (not that we look at beer brands, mind you): Oberon. Ah, thank you, Will Shakespeare; thank you A Midsummer Night's Dream!

3. I finished three books this week ...

  • I've begun working my way through the complete novels of Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), a very popular (near-)contemporary of Charles Dickens (1812-1870). They were good friends, did some theatrical productions together, worked together on Dickens' magazine Household Words. I'd already read Collins' fine novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White and had become hooked. But I wanted to finish all the Smollett novels first--which I did. And now ...
    • Basil (1852--about the same time as Dickens' Bleak House) is not Collins' first novel. That honor--novel #1--belongs to Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome (1850), a novel which is harder to find. But find it I did, and I've started it.
    • Meanwhile, Basil is a fairly racy story for the 1850s. (Mary Shelley, for point of reference, died the year before it was published.) A young man of rank (Basil) sees a young woman on the streets of London, falls hard for her, follows her home (stalker!?!), where he learns, to his sorrow, that she's the daughter of a draper. Below his class. His father would never consent to a courtship and marriage. But he's smitten. Arranges to meet the young woman (Margaret), court her, even to marry her--all without his own father's knowledge or consent.
    • Margaret's father agrees to keep the whole thing absolutely quiet for a year--they will not live together, will not consummate the marriage. And the months go by ...
    • Until Basil discovers something horrifying about her ... and off we go ...
  • Richard Russo, author of the recent Everybody's Fool (2016), sequel to his earlier Nobody's Fool (1993), a novel turned into a fine film (with Paul Newman) the next year, began his career with this novel, Mohawk, published as a paperback original (no hardcover till later) in 1986.
    • Mohawk, like the Fool novels, takes place in upstate New York in the eponymous small town. Like the other two novels, it's full of eccentric characters (and, as in the other novels, Russo is forever darting back and forth and back and forth among them). Some are sort of familiar because of my recent reading of the Fool novels--a weird cop, a very old woman (actually, two of them here), people whose marriages are not working out, long-time residents, a weird, weird guy everyone calls "Wild Bill."
    • Some plot and setting elements are similar, too--a diner, a bar. There's an issue about toxic waste and irresponsible corporate behavior (just as there is in the other two novels).
    • And like the other novels, Mohawk has dark ironic humor, a razor's edge. Some shocking violence. The collapse of a building. (Symbol!)
    • Still, I really enjoyed reading it--partially because I could now see the foundation stones of the Fool novels--but also because I could see the formation of a novelist whose complete works I am now resolved to read. I've already ordered novel #2--The Risk Pool, 1988--and it's on the way!
  • Finally, I breezed through Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl, the third novel in the new series being issued by the Hogarth Press--modern novels based on Shakespeare's plays (a publishing project, I think, triggered by the recent 400th anniversary of the playwright's death). I've read/blogged about the other two--Jeanette Winterson's excellent The Gap of Time (based on The Winter's Tale, 2015) and Howard Jacobson's My Name Is Shylock, 2016). And I was really looking forward to Tyler's adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I taught to my eighth graders for more than a decade, a play that, as a result, I've nearly memorized.
    • And I was disappointed. Very much so.
    • A quick hint about the story. (The title, by the way, comes from that old saying "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.") Most of the names are quite a bit different, though Kate keeps hers. Sister Bianca is now "Bunny," who's only 15 years old in the novel, an age that effectively removes the marry-the-sister subplot of the play. Bunny, no surprise, is a ditz. The father (Baptista Minola in the play) is now Dr. Battista, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins; he has a bright young assistant named Pyoter Cherbakov (Petruchio in the play), a brilliant young scientist from Russia, a young man whose visa is about to expire. The other secondary characters in the play are pretty much gone and/or blended into others.
    • The entire Shrew plot is pretty much gone, too--the we-gotta-marry-off-Kate-to-someone-so-one-of-us-can-marry-Bianca stuff. The rivals for Bianca are gone. Petruchio's barging into the Minola house looking for a rich wife--gone. Lucentio's sneaky courtship of Bianca pretty much gone (instead, we have a young neighbor kid pretending to tutor Bunny in Spanish; his actual intent, of course, is somewhat more carnal).
    • Some things remain--sort of. Pyoter is weird; the wedding is a mess (unlike in Shrew, this wedding occurs onstage); there's a banquet (though in the play the banquet follows Bianca's, not Kate's, wedding). There are a couple of lines--"Kiss me, Katya." A few others I caught. But the previous two novelists in the series did more with including lines and images--often in humorous or ironic ways.
    • But what really disappointed me--I thought Tyler missed something very fundamental in the play. Yes, it's called The Taming of the Shrew, but it just as well could have been called The Taming of Petruchio. What we see in Shakespeare's play is the collision of two strong personalities, of two unique and headstrong young people falling in love with each other, and how love forces accommodations from both of them--manifestly not just from Kate. But Tyler, I felt, didn't know what to do with this--and there are few real sparks between the two of them. It all comes down to this--will Kate marry Pyoter so he can remain in the US?
    • And Kate's final speech? The one advising women how to behave with their husbands? Well, she makes one in the book, too. Don't want to spoil it for you, so I won't say what she says--but I will say that it fell as flat as a flapjack--at least in my eyes.
    • I really wanted to like this book--was looking forward to it so much. A disappointment.

4. At lunch on our screened back porch on Saturday we saw two cicadas take wing to avoid birds. Didn't work. We saw a sparrow nab one, a robin the other, right out of the air. Then they (the birds) settled in for a bit of lunch, as well.

5. Last words ... some words I didn't know and/or liked from my various online word-a-day sources.

  • nullifidian (nuhl-uh-FID-ee-uhn) (from
    noun: An atheist: a person who has no religious faith or belief in god(s).
    adjective: Having no faith or belief.
    From Latin nullus (no) + fides (faith). Earliest documented use: 1564.
  • Tohubohu (TOH-hoo-BOH-hoo) noun (from
    1. chaos; disorder; confusion.
    Origin: Tohubohu from the Hebrew tōhū wā-bhōhū, a phrase used to describe the world before God said "Let there be light" in the book of Genesis. It has been translated as "formless and empty." 
    Learn this: joy is not merely joyful; it is great. So be lovers gaily then, the devil! and marry, when you do marry, with the fever and the dizziness and the uproar and the tohubohu of happiness.
    -- Victor Hugo, translated by Charles E. Wilbour, Les Misérables, 1862
  • heroology, n. hee-roh-OHL-o-gee  (from
    The study or description of the history or genealogy of heroes; a history of or treatise on heroes.
    Origin:Of multiple origins. Partly formed within English, by compounding. Partly a borrowing from Latin. Partly a borrowing from Greek. Etymons: hero n., -logy comb. form; Latin heroologia; Greek ἡρωολογία.
    Etymology:Partly (in α. forms) <  hero n. + -logy comb. form (compare post-classical Latin herologia (1658 or earlier)

    1678  R. Cudworth True Intellect. Syst. Universe i. iv. 257 A certain Mixture, of Physiology and Herology or History blended together.
    1720 Magna Britannia I. p. iii, Hero-ology, deducing our noble Families from their ancient honourable Originals.
    1880  J. S. Stallybrass tr. J. Grimm Teutonic Mythol. I. xv. 366 We may conclude that all the Teutonic races had a pretty fully developed Heroology.
    1923 Classical Weekly 17 29/1 Athenaeus mentions a Heroology of Anaximander.
    1990 Folk Music Jrnl. 6 86 Very famous Female Warriors tend to become true folk heroes. The topic, therefore, deserves some attention from herology's point of view.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Late Bloomers

Recently, an Aurora student from many years ago wrote to me in a FB message: I was a late bloomer ... my interests did not kick in right away.

Well, he's not the only one. Yours truly qualifies for "late-bloomer" status as well. Although I'd done pretty well in elementary school (except for getting a minus now and then in "keeps hands and materials away from mouth") my grades were good.

I can't say, though, that I had any identifiable intellectual interests back in the early 1950s (my elementary school years). I liked biographies about mountain men and cowboys; I liked Davy Crockett; I liked my bike and baseball and throwing rocks; I liked ice cream and the movies; I liked cowboy shows on TV--and there were many of them in the 50s. And there were a couple of girls ...

The concept of homework had not really reached Enid, Oklahoma, then--not in the elementary grades, anyhow. I had books to read for book reports but that's about it. Everything else we did in the classroom (our desks bolted in rows to the pine floors of Adams School) under the close supervision of veteran teachers (all women, by the way) who knew exactly what we would do if they let their attention drift during what they called "seat-work time." Spit wads were a personal favorite, flicked with a ruler.

Things got worse during my junior high years. Homework arrived, and I did not approve. Did not do a lot of it. As a result, my grades bounced around in C and B Land in 7th and 8th grade, and my parents began to despair, and my brothers were delighted. I found I was decent in basketball and baseball and convinced myself I didn't need all this schoolin': I was going to be a professional athlete. (Hah!)

And, of course, testosterone made most of my "decisions" the next dozen years or so. Maybe more.

In high school I grew somewhat more attentive--fewer C's, more B's and A's. Mostly because I had a few teachers whom I didn't want to disappoint.

College--the very thought of it--terrified me. But I went (tuition-free: Dad taught at Hiram College) and generally did well in classes I liked, less well (okay, even worse) in classes I didn't. Mature, eh? While I was there, I rediscovered my boyhood fondness for reading (and not just biographies of Kit Carson and Jim Bowie), and I was happy to discover I could major in something that basically required me to read and write.

I graduated in 1966 with an average above (barely) a 3.00 and commenced my teaching career. After a couple of years of teaching in a middle school I decided to return to work on a master's at Kent State (12 miles away), and there I discovered, at age 24 or so, what can happen when I actually try--and care. I did very well there--careened on to my Ph.D.

Continued teaching and became a Readin' Fool; I now read (conservatively) a couple of hundred books a year--maybe more??? I've been a professional book-reviewer for nearly twenty years.

So ... what I'm saying ... I understand "late blooming"; I experienced it myself; I saw it countless times among my students throughout my 45-year teaching career.

And, if I may segue, this is what worries me, deeply, about our current Test Mania and the urge to test and classify and categorize when kids are so young, so, well, unformed. In many cases, they are barely nudging up through the soil, showing a flash of green; we hardly know what sort of plant they even are. Yet these lists of scores--these data we extract from them--convince us that we do. (After all, numbers are real, aren't they?)

I think today's sort of testing would have destroyed me. I wasn't ready (and I most certainly was not alone).

What we ought to be doing in school is more nurturing, more helping kids find out what sort of plant they are, giving them lots of different kinds of soil to grow in, showing them the multiple delights of the world.

And then we can watch in wonder as, one day, the buds open and show us something we've never seen before.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Cicada Quiet

among the 1st arrivals,
several weeks ago
I just noticed today that it's quieter around here in Hudson, Ohio--no more deep droning sound in the air from sunrise to sunset. The cicadas are ending their brief return after their seventeen-year hiatus below ground. The silence is suprising, almost unnerving.

Oh, there are still signs of them around: some live ones are flying, walking around, looking, I must say, a little dazed. (I'm guessing the birds are beginning to wonder where their stunning bounty of food has gone.) This morning, Joyce used the hose to wash a number of carcasses from our front and side porches.

The cicadas have enjoyed our house and yard this year, affixing themselves to the screens, walking around on the porch (perching on my bicycle tires), dying in clumps on the sidewalk, on the steps, on the porch itself. They were so plentiful at one time that our son, Steve, brought his two sons (Logan, 11, and Carson, 7) up from nearby Green to see and hear them. The boys were simultaneously excited and a bit wary--at least at first. Learning that cicadas have no teeth emboldened the boys (as it once did me).

I imagine the critters will linger a bit more--it's not suddenly Exeunt left. Like the rest of us, they'll drop and die on their own schedule, thank you.

I'm glad I got to see them another time, despite having to watch my step on the sidewalks for a few weeks, despite having to brush them from my hair and shoulders and bike tires, despite hearing them roar in chorus while I was trying to take a nap. They are one of nature's wonders, reminders that if you think your own life is weird, well, consider the cicada.

If I am still kicking when they next return, I'll be eighty-eight years old. Unthinkable. But if I am alive to see and hear them, I hope I still appreciate the wonder of it all and not gnash my teeth (if I have any) and grumble like a Grumpy Old Man (which, by the way, I already am).

And speaking of unthinkable, our son will be sixty then, our grandsons in their twenties.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Thoughts of Union ...

My dad--and I'm not sure why--wasn't crazy about labor unions. In fact, when he was teaching teacher-education courses at Hiram College (1956-66), he would distinguish between the teachers' union (AFT--American Federation of Teachers) and what he called "professional organizations" (like the NEA--National Education Association). No surprise: He favored the latter. I knew this for two reasons: (1) I lived in the same house with him; (2) I took his (required) introductory course for those considering a teaching career, Educ. 301: The School in American Society (and, yes, I got an "A," dammit!).

As a result, I was slow to warm to unions myself. When I began teaching (fall of 1966), the Aurora Education Association (AEA), an affiliate of the NEA and OEA, was pretty much a social club. It sponsored a progressive dinner at Christmas, a teachers' bowling league (which I loved, by the way), and seemed to me to be pretty much a formality.

Except ...

My first year I chaired some committee (why me?) that never met ("Professional Rights" or some such name), but one spring day I got a message: We needed to meet with a teacher and the Superintendent about a salary issue ...

At that time, Aurora still had a merit-pay system. Based on your building principal's recommendation, you could earn up to 4% more on your salary (also available, 1, 2, and 3%). The best part: That percentage became a permanent part of your base.

Well, one of the veteran teachers believed he'd been unfairly denied the merit increase and demanded a hearing. I was just 22 years old that spring.

We met in a room at Aurora High School (the brand-new AHS had opened just that year), and the Superintendent came swooping in, declared peremptorily why this wasn't going to be an issue, and rose to leave--all within about two minutes.

The two other teachers and I (and the veteran who'd wanted the hearing) sat there silent and awe-struck.

And then something that sounded like my voice said, "Wait!"

The Superintendent turned around. "Yes?"

"Shouldn't we at least talk about this a few minutes?"

And for a reason I cannot to this day figure out, the Superintendent turned around, sat, and talked with us, eventually agreeing on some sort of compromise involving the veteran teacher's status the next year when merit pay decisions came up.

I have no clue why I spoke up (I was terrified)--or, as I said, why the Superintendent broke stride and returned. But I did, and he did, and my opinion of unions began to change.

Later, I would become a very active member of the AEA, participated very vigorously in our teachers' strike (spring of 1978)--I even got cited by the Aurora Police for blocking (amiably) a driveway so that a vehicle full of replacement teachers could not just cruise up to the high school. (Yes, I have a record!)

I remember that, near the bottom of the Harmon Middle School driveway, we used to picket. It was friendly--some sad parents would pull up and talk with us (a few were angry; most were not)--but occasionally joining us was a retired teamster who lived across the street, a man who was puzzled by our genial behavior: You guys need some damn ball bats out here, he would tell us. We would smile and talk about Proust (not really--but you get the idea).

Oh, I'm no Pollyanna about labor unions--even our own. I well know the problems I saw firsthand (e.g., protecting those whom the teaching profession would perhaps be better off without)--and those problems I read about in other unions (corruption).

But on balance? No question, at least for me. Unions made better the lives of millions of workers and their families. Joyce's father (a life-long URW member in Akron) was able to live in a nice home in Firestone Park (Akron), to send his only daughter to college, to save, enjoy health and retirement benefits, job protection (which came in handy when the company decided to cut him off just months before his full retirement benefits would have kicked in). He went to his grave a Union Man.

And so I'm saddened to see a chart like the one I've posted below ...

This, of course, is the result of downsizing, of out-sourcing, and, of course, of flat-out union-busting and unadulterated greed. Workers who, because of unions, were once firmly in the middle class now must struggle even to get by--working multiple jobs for diminished wages and benefits. Exacerbating the problem? These workers have few advocates. In a non-union job you're pretty much helpless, on your own. Fragile.

I personally benefited tremendously from the teachers' union. Working conditions, health care, job protection, retirement benefits ... and on and on. And my students benefited, as well, from the overall climate and working conditions, from the stable faculty (happy people generally don't leave their jobs, etc.).

Again--I do not wish to suggest there were no problems with unions--of course there were (they comprised human beings, of course--this flawed species of ours).

But still I have to ask: Why can't all American workers enjoy such things? Shouldn't our simple humanity insist on it? Demand it? Are we really going to have to fight the union battle all over again?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 235

While I was whirling away in all my Mary-research, I read a bit about and by Frances “Fanny” Milton Trollope, including the 1997 biography Fanny Trollope: The Life and Adventures of a Clever Woman.[1] My notes remind me that I read that book in the middle of September 1999 (a couple of years into my research), and as I page through the volume now, I am stunned to see how much Trollope wrote in such a short time. Forty-one books between 1832 and 1856. Just twenty-four years. 
Equally astonishing: Born in 1780, she did not publish her first volume until she was in her fifty-second year. Novels and travel books were her favorite (especially the former), and among her novels was The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw; or Scenes on the Mississippi, 1836, now credited with being perhaps the first anti-slavery novel—as well as an influence on Harriet Beecher Stowe.
I’ve not read this novel, and, as I look online today (June 22, 2016), I see that there are available only print-on-demand editions—or some very expensive originals (she published the novel, as was the custom then, in three volumes). I’m going to have to pony up for something because I want to read that novel. (I just now checked: I can get it online—it’s been digitized by Google.)

I did read one of Fanny Trollope’s books, however—her first one, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832—a book that propelled her into an almost immediate celebrity and (on our side of the pond) notoriety. She had traveled to America, where, to say the least, she was generally not impressed with many of us—or with our ways.

[1] Neville-Singleton, Pamela, (New York: Viking). 1st American edition was 1998, which is the one I read.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mort Sahl, Still with Us ...

August 15, 1960
I don't know why I thought of comedian Mort Sahl the other day, but I do remember that I could not think of his name (coming up with names--an issue that has, well, deepened as I've grown older). I still couldn't think of it after a reasonable time, so I hit Google with "1960s radical comedians," and there he was, along with some others whose names I can't remember right now.

Mort Sahl. Sharp wit. Biting political satire. Politically incorrect. Bright as a brass button in the sunshine.

I Wikipediaed him and was surprised to see he's still alive (born in 1927)--and even more so to learn that he's still performing fairly regularly.

There was a time when Sahl was on TV a lot as a guest; his comedy albums sold very well; then things went sour when he began regularly going off on the Warren Report (the official account of the JFK assassination). He didn't believe it. He smelled conspiracy. And his audience, tolerant at first, gave up, drifted away, found other voices to listen to. While he'd stepped off the train for a moment, he realized that no other train would stop for him. And he found himself limited to small clubs in small places with small audiences.

And it was in just such a setting that I saw him perform in 1966 or 1967, down in Columbus, Ohio, where a great college friend, Claude Steele, was starting to work on his Ph.D. I drove down to visit him and wife Dorothy, and they took me to the oddest bar/club I've ever been in. I think it was called "The Bedroom," and it featured servers dressed in pj's, bedroom decor, etc. Some rather feeble searching on Google and did not turn up anything about it, so I'm going to rely entirely on Traitor Memory.

I don't remember anything specific Sahl said that night--though I do remember that he was still ranting a lot about the Warren Report.

I do remember that I laughed a lot; I remember loving his biting, intelligent humor. And I think I remember marveling at how ... professional he was, even performing in this odd, odd place to a room either half-full or half-empty. A long fall from The Tonight Show and other prestigious venues where he'd once been a welcome guest.

Sahl still has a considerable presence on YouTube--and here are a few links to some bits he did.

1. explaining politics (1967)
2. Mort and Milton Berle (not sure the year)
3. With Steve Allen (1960)
4. With Smothers Brothers (1969)

I'm glad Mort Sahl is still out there--still saying those outrageous things that need to be said. He's kind of a Jiminy Cricket, chirping away even when we don't want to listen. And listen we should.