Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stratford Sundries, 2

Tuesday, 6 p.m.

1. We're just back from seeing our first show of our week--a late Restoration comedy (The Beaux' Stratagem) by George Farquhar (1677-1707)--and it was wonderful. He finished writing the play while dying of TB. (So what's our excuse?) It deals with con artists, highwaymen, frustrations of all sorts (a very unhappy marriage), and--no surprise (it's a comedy!)--the triumph of love. But it also deals frankly with social class, with divorce (unthinkable!), with English inheritance laws, and other issues.
scene from The Beaux' Stratagem
The cast comprised many of Stratford's A-Team: Colm Feore (whom we'll see as King Lear later in the week), Lucy Peacock (who's played major roles here for years), Mike Shara (a young actor with great comic talents), Martha Henry (who's in her 40th season here!), Robert King ... and quite a few others. They found every quark of humor and heart in the play--without, well, chewing the scenery.

Tonight ... it's Shakespeare's King John ...

2. We had one of our "normal" days here otherwise. I was up early to head to the coffee shop to do some reading for a book I'm reviewing; Joyce joined me for a while (she's reading a new book about Salinger), then headed out to visit a few of her favorite, uh, commercial venues. We met later in the morning at another of our favorite coffee shops, where we both did some more reading and where I worked on the doggerel I'll post on Facebook tomorrow. Then ... back to our hotel room for lunch--a fruit-and-yogurt parfait we'd bought in a shop + some homemade sourdough bread I'd brought along to munch on. After lunch, I wrote and zapped a review to Kirkus Reviews; then we headed off on a fairly long walk (about a mile) to the Festival Theater, the largest venue, where we saw what I just wrote about in #1.

Afterwards, a brisk walk back to town, where we found--to our alarm! dismay!--that our favorite post-matinee restaurant, The York Street Kitchen on Erie (long story about the name), a wonderful natural-foods place, is now closing at 5 p.m. except on the weekends. Oh no! (We always ate our little suppers there.) Not to worry: Just a few doors down Erie we found The County Food Co., a small place with a great little menu of well prepared items. We munched happily, then headed back to the room before walking down to the Tom Patterson theater (arena style) to see King John at 8 p.m.
County Food Co.
3. Wednesday, 11:15 a.m.

King John is not one of the Bard's better--or frequently performed--plays. Last night I saw it for only the second time--and with a very strong cast. It's a play about the brother of the late Richard I (Richard the Lionheart)--about John's last days. It's a play about the exigencies of war--about why men fight--and what they will do (anything!) to gain or retain or regain power. Family, children, marriage, loyalties of all sorts--all re-sort themselves in time of war. The are grim moments--a boy threatened with having his eyes burned out, a head of a vanquished foe brought out on stage, a boy dying after what he'd hoped would be a leap to safety, and on and on. One of our Stratford favorites--Graham Abbey--played Philip the Bastard (and retained his status as a favorite!)--and principal parts also by other favorites, Tom McCamus (the King) and Seanna McKenna (Constance, mother to the doomed boy).

The production--arena style--also employed a lot of Elizabethan devices: candlelight (though with a bit of aid from Edison), Elizabethan costumes (instead of the medieval period, when the play took place), use of a balcony, very few props.

Among the most depressing things about this dark show: Our hostile, violent species has not changed much, just what we wear, our vocabulary, what we hold in our hands, what we employ to kill others who have what we want ...

Tom McCamus & Seanna McKenna

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Stratford Sundries, 1

Monday evening ...

While we're in Stratford, Ontario, for the Stratford Theater Festival (eleven plays in six days!), I'm going to steal from my "Sunday Sundries" idea and just write about odds and ends each day--no extended posts (unless, of course, I change my mind, which dotards frequently do).

1. As we were driving out of town this morning, I realized--about a mile from the house--that I'd left behind the totebag that had in it .... our theater tickets. Brake. Blush Turn around. Blush Go home. Blush. Retrieve tickets. Blush. Set out again for Canada. Wondering what I'd done if I had remembered the tix when we were, oh, approaching Toledo?

2. As I've posted here before, I carry with me these days my father's old change purse--leather, the kind that you squeeze, and it opens like some kind of star. The picture shows the basic idea--though Dad's is brown. Anyway, I've noticed since I've been using it (late 1999--not long after my father died) that numerous
cashiers in all sorts of establishments--from Panera to wherever--have commented about how cool it is (generally, these are young folks telling me this). It happened twice on our drive up here--at an Ohio Turnpike Plaza (Blue Heron) and at a Tim Horton's along route 201 in Ontario. So ... an international phenomenon! I will add this little bit: When cashiers comment, I often tell them that it was my dad's--that, when I was a kid, I thought it was dorky, and then when he died ... priceless. When I told that to the young man at Blue Heron, his eyes teared up. So did mine.

3. As we were leaving Hudson, heading for the Turnpike entrance, we passed, on Boston Mills Road, two buzzards alongside the road dining on ... hard to tell (they were about finished). I'm not a reader of omens, but please ...!

4. When I let one of the ATMs here in Stratford suck in my card--the overture to cash--I got an error message. No $$.  I walked over to another bank nearby--same result. Panicked, I called US Bank and found ... no fraud. The 1st machine I'd tried had a malfunction, so they automatically put a "lock" on my card. All clear now ... we'll see in the morning if it works. Annoying in some ways, comforting in others.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 49


From then on, our correspondence almost always had a personal dimension.

On October 21, for example, she wrote to tell me that her sister-in-law was in the hospital; that same day I told her I’d been to Massachusetts to see my dad three times in the previous two weeks—twice via car. At this awful hour, I wrote, I think of MWS , sitting with Godwin in his last hours ….
On Halloween I wrote to tell her about the doings in our neighborhood. I’m sitting now at my desk and looking out at the little goblins, etc. parading around the neighborhood collecting calories at each door. I have a Frankenstein’s monster mask. I should answer the door with it, thereby saving much of the candy for myself as the little critters scatter ….
When I was teaching my eighth graders about Frankenstein (late in my career), I sometimes used to feign an excuse to go out in the hall, where I’d concealed the rubber mask I’d mentioned to Betty, then dart back in with a monstrous roar. Lots of satisfying screams …
Nowadays, though, with actual gun-toting monsters sometimes showing up at schools, it would be a very bad idea to frighten youngsters—in any way. Actually, it was probably a bad idea then, too … but I always did have a streak of carelessness in me.
My birthday—November 11—arrived, and I got a Frankenstein gift from my son and daughter-in-law—a fairly large doll of the creature. Betty was intrigued. Who made the large one? she asked—and I knew she was going to try to find the same one for her own massive collection. I had told her that I was feeling dreary about my birthday (it was number 55—seems youthful to me now: as I write these words, I’m a few months short of 70); Betty said, Enjoy your birthdayness—(consider the alternative) ….
And then, November 29, 1999, I wrote Betty the worst news: My father passed away this morning at 11:15. I’ll be back in Massachusetts this week for services.
Her reply: I am so sorry to hear about your loss. My thoughts are with you.
We did not write again until January 2000, more than a month later.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 13

1. We own and drive a Prius, and those acts alone seem to engender some amusement--and even hostility, at times. In the movies, Priuses are a symbol of latte-loving Lefties and assorted dorks. Remember the 2010 Will Farrell-Mark Wahlberg cop comedy, The Other Guys? Farrell drives a red Prius that ends up as a naughty-and-nasty love nest for some homeless dudes. (See the image!) And it's a symbol for Farrell's fecklessness. And remember Horrible Bosses? (Again--see image.) In that film (2011) the Prius represents the impotence of Jason Bateman (who drives it) and his quasi-homicidal buddies.

Okay, all's fair in comedy, and I can take it! Less amusing are the times that other drivers have flipped me off while passing--or, even worse, the several times our car has been keyed in a parking lot. I guess the car has come to represent the Left (where I proudly reside, by the way), and some anger from Elsewhere ends up as scratches on the car that gets us 50 mpg in the winter, 60 in the summer (even 70 on some trips). I'm not sure why our conservative use of fuel is such a pisser-offer, but it apparently is ...

(BTW: Searching for images, I see that Horrible Bosses 2--with the same guys--is coming out, just in time for Thanksgiving. I will utter no turkey jokes ... and I will see it!)

2. We'll be heading off to Stratford, Ont., soon for a week-long orgy of play-going. We'll see eleven plays in six days, including two different versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream--one traditional, one avant-garde (directed by Peter Sellars). We've gone every summer since 2001 (I'd been there a time or two before it became one of our end-of-summer rituals). We stay in a little hotel right downtown, enabling us to park our car all week long; we can walk to all the venues. (There are several theaters.) I'll be blogging about our experiences and will thus put Frankenstein Sundae on hiatus for a week.) Here's a link to the plays this season--most of which we'll be seeing.

3. Although I retried from public school teaching in January 1997--and from Western Reserve Academy in the spring of 2011--I still feel nostalgic when I see the school buses rolling and see kids with backpacks and books. The other day, in the coffee shop, I overheard two WRA young men talking about Tim O'Brien and The Things They Carried, a "summer reading" book for their English class. I got to meet O'Brien not long ago when he did a gig at Hiram College (Oct. 6, 2010). I'm sure he doesn't remember. Anyway, that coffee-shop conversation--about a book, about a writer--made me a little nostalgic (a dangerous emotion!). I know I cannot return to the classroom (age, health, energy), and I have no desire to spend my evenings and weekends grading essays and vocab and whatever. Still ... I do miss the kids ... and sitting in a room talking about things I care about ... I miss those things--deeply.

5. Joyce and I are also planning (tentatively) one last drive across the country. There's a Jack London Symposium (a biannual event) out in Berkeley, Calif., in late October, and it would be nice to see again some former colleagues from LondonWorld. We've reserved a room out there--and paid the symposium registration fee. But we'll wait to see how we are feeling as the date gets closer. Cross-country trips have been a part of my life since 1949 (the first--I was a few months shy of five), and they have enormous emotional significance for me. We were always heading out to the Northwest to see my dad's family (a big one--there are countless Dyers and Dyer-relatives still populating the region). If we go, I'll probably weep all the way out, sob uncontrollably all the way back.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

That Time I Published a Poem, 5 (and final!)

Okay, the time has come (the walrus said) ... I've delayed/strung out the account of that time I published an actual poem in an actual journal. It was a poem about teaching (as you'll see), so back in early 1982 I thought I'd try some of the good teachers' journals/magazines that I knew about. Some rejections ensued.
  • Phi Delta Kappan: "I regret that we cannot publish ... does not meet our editorial needs at this time."
  • Today's Education (published by the NEA): "Unfortunately, it does not fit in with our planning for forthcoming issues ...."
  • Educational Leadership (pub. for/by ASCD--Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development): "I regret that we will not be in a position to publish your article." (Article? It's in quatrains--and it rhymes!)
And then came the surprise. The outfit that publishes Education, Reading Improvement, and other journals sent me an acceptance on August 1, 1982.  "I would like to use your poem entitled 'On Teaching' on the back cover of one of our education journals." I wasn't keeping a regular journal/diary in those days, so I have no record of how I responded, but I'm guessing it was with the same sort of glee I would have felt upon receiving positive Pulitzer and/or Nobel news. On the cover! (Okay, back cover ... but still!)

But there was some further news--not so welcome. I was to pay them $50, my "author's share of publication costs"--though I did get ten copies of the journal (where are they? I can find only one?!?!). I passed on the opportunity to have my picture included (that would have meant an additional $15). 

In August 1982, for some historical context, I was just about to recommence my career at Harmon Middle School--eighth grade English. I had left Harmon at the end of the 1977-78 school year (I'd been there my first dozen years in teaching) to begin what I thought would be a long college career at Lake Forest College. But I didn't like college teaching. I knew by October I'd made a mistake. I resigned in the spring and found a job at ... Western Reserve Academy for the 1979-80 academic year; the school hired Joyce, as well. I would stay only two years (I resigned in a snit because of what I thought was an inadequate salary offer for 1981-82); Joyce stayed ten, long enough to see our son graduate from the school. In 1981-82 I taught part-time (frosh English) at Kent State and worked part-time in a local bookstore. We had very little money that year--so the $50 for the privilege of having my poem on the (back) cover of a teachers' magazine was pretty much of a stretch for us. Fifty dollars--a lot of money for us in 1982. (A pretty good chunk now, as a matter of fact.)

But I was able to worm my way back into Harmon (where I stayed until retirement in January 1997).

The poem appeared in Reading Improvement, a quarterly, in the Summer 1983 issue. And here it is in all its back-cover glory ...  When I first found my lone copy of the journal, I was alarmed to see the two little blue F's. I hope they were postal codes or something and not grades issued by the mail carrier.

Anyway, something is very obvious: It's not a "poem" at all; it's doggerel--of the very sort that I now compose every day for my Facebook friends. The "Ted," by the way, was my colleague and friend Ted Clawson, the Aurora band director, and I can't for the life of me recall why I dedicated it to him ... although he was my best friend.

As I read this effort over now, I see some (many!) problems of composition. But let's not get into it.

Okay ... just a little: The third line breaks the iambic rhythm. The same problem exists in the second line of the second stanza ("Jubilant") and the first line of the fifth stanza ("Teaching"). To be consistent, I should have started those lines with unaccented syllables--but, hey, "real" poets do that stuff, right? (Yes, but on purpose.) Anyway, it's mildly amusing, I suppose. The only real comfort comes with this knowledge: It's not a "poem" that anyone is going to "discover" and place in any kind of anthology--even a bad one. Until I resurrected it today, no one but me even knew that it existed. And that's a good thing. May it swiftly return to its (well deserved) obscurity.

Reading Improvement, by the way, is still in business--unlike lots of other little magazines/journals. I learned, via Google, that it was started in 1963, my freshman year in college. I don't know how many times they published poems on the back cover--or if anyone wrote a disgusted letter to the editor about a certain "poem" on the back cover of the issue from the summer of 1983. I suppose I could look it up ... but there are some things we'd just rather not know, right?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 48

Then I left for New Harmony, following, in pre-GPS days, the directions given to me by some patrons at a McDonald’s in Bloomington, where I’d stopped for lunch. I, of course, had a road atlas with me, but the state map of Indiana was not all that detailed, and I hoped to gain some information about a more scenic route to New Harmony. At Mickey D’s, a helpful Hoosier, seeing me look at the map, offered me the best way—but, as I wrote in my journal later, the directions were serpentine … and I was about to leave, planning to ignore him. But then a young mother with two little guys sitting at the next table told me she’d overheard and gave me some different directions, which I followed—and loved.
Off I went on some lovely little two-lane roads winding through rolling hills and beautiful hardwood forests (leaves changing—though it’s quite dry, too, and the fields are full of grasshoppers, reminding me of some Oklahoma summers from years ago) ….
It was a gorgeous day in New Harmony—nary a wisp of a cloud. I walked around the town, camera firing away, took a good look at the former home of Robert Owen, a stately brick structure (bought two prints of same—one for me, one for Betty; mine still adorns our kitchen wall), and wondered about Utopian dreams and dreamers and what draws them to rivers like the Wabash, to places where they believe they can somehow create a society that will restore us to our prelapsarian purity. So far, it hasn’t worked. Anywhere.

Now … about that special poignancy I mentioned a little earlier concerning my October 4 email to Betty that informed her about my imminent trip to New Harmony. After telling her my plans for that trip, I wrote this: Then I’m off to Massachusetts this weekend for my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary. Of course, I couldn’t have known when I wrote that sentence that this would be the final anniversary my father would live to celebrate. I have written in detail about my father’s decline and death in my memoir Turning Pages: A Memory of Books and Libraries and Loss (Kindle Direct, 2012), but just a few things here, for some context.
My parents were married in Enid, Oklahoma, on October 12, 1939. An odd coincidence: My wife and I were married in 1969; our son and daughter-in-law, in 1999. Cycles. Dad had led a vigorous life (born on a farm in Oregon—a star athlete in high school and college); he’d served during World War II (both theaters) and Korea (stationed in Texas). But as he aged, he slowed, declined. And by the fall of 1999, he was in a wheelchair, barely hanging on in the assisted living unit where they lived near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He knew the next step was a nursing home—and he, like every rational person, dreaded that prospect.
I drove east, alone (Joyce was teaching), on Saturday, October 9, and stayed with my brothers in their old country farmhouse in Becket, Massachusetts, a place they use for a summer and weekend getaway (they both lived—and live—in the Boston area). Both my brothers were there for the anniversary—as well as our son and daughter-in-law, married less than two months. We had a little dinner in an area of my parents’ facility, and I later referred to it in my journal as a bust. I noted that Mom and Dad sat at opposite ends of the long table, … and I don’t believe they exchanged any words the entire night—a scene from Citizen Kane.
When I got home on Monday, there waiting for me was a voice-mail from my younger brother. Bad news. Dad was in the hospital, his heart misbehaving. Things were not looking good, so I made arrangements to fly out on the actual day of his anniversary …
I’m not going to rehash all of this. I can’t. Not again. Dad, 86, hung on until the end of November …  I was back and forth to Massachusetts several times that dreary month.
But on  October 16 I let Betty know what was going on. I told her about his situation—then this: Anyway, I’m home again and awaiting the call I’ve never wanted to receive. She replied: So sorry to hear about the news of your father. I know this must be a difficult time and my thoughts are with you.
From then on, our correspondence almost always had a personal dimension.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

That Time I Published a Poem, 4

Okay, we're getting closer. I really did publish a poem once in an actual periodical, but, as I wrote about last time, I recently remembered, going through old correspondence folders, that I'd tried at least two other times to dazzle an editor with my prosody. Last time, I posted about my first failure--well, not my failure, of course. The editors' failure (notice the plural possessive: as I said, I had more than one rejection of "Resurrection," a lame poem about waking up one night with a "dead" (numb) arm and shaking the sucker back to life--the arm, that is, not the poem).

Now ... here's a second (very) embarrassing experience. It requires a little background. Back in the early 1980s we acquired a dog. A black Lab puppy. A colleague's daughter was giving away puppies from their litter, and, with fond memories of my own boyhood dog (Sooner), I impulsively took one and promptly named him Sooner, as well. Our son was only eight or nine at the time, and I thought it would be good for him to have a dog around. A boy and his dog ... you know?

I was wrong. This hellhound was the most destructive creature I've ever seen--Godzilla included. His temperament was gentle and amiable (his gastro-intestinal exhalations unbelievable), but he gnawed floor tile, books, record albums (he was very fond of one Bill Evans cover). Just a quick story. Joyce and I once made homemade pasta for some friends who were coming over for dinner, left it to dry in the kitchen, went upstairs to change, came back down and found every strand of it gone. Guess where? I raged, raged against the dying of the dinner--and then had the consequent pleasure of dealing with Sooner's night-long vomiting.

Much of his behavior, I know, was my fault. Still ... nothing on earth had ever pissed me off as much as that animal. (One of his litter-mates, by the way, tore the clapboard siding from his owner's house.)

Anyway, I wrote a poem about him called "Sooner." (See image.) And promptly sent it off to a bunch of presses.

Here come the rejections ...
  • The Ohio Review: "Thank you for giving us the chance [to reject this?] ... We are sorry to report that it does not meet our present needs."
  • Poetry (what was I thinking?): "Thank you for giving us the opportunity ... but regret to report that in our judgment its merits did not prevail against those of other poems in the very large number of competing manuscripts."
  • Small Pond: "I wish I could keep Sooner but can't." (Exactly the way I felt, by the way--about the dog.)
  • Images: "This isn't quite right for Images."
  • crazyhorse: "We regret ... sorry ...."
  • Chouteau Review: "I'm afraid .... Thank you for thinking of us."
  • Blue Horse (in Augusta, GA): a bit of good news, sort of. A full-page letter. "We have come upon evil days, financially speaking," she (the editor) wrote. But she said she was planning an anthology one of these days. "Would you like to join the improbable dream with the revision?" (She'd suggested a few things.) I wrote back quickly, said I'd love to revise ... and ... wait--and have been doing so since July 1982. I just checked Amazon and found no sign of such an anthology edited by her. So I guess I'll wait some more.
So ... we gave Sooner away (I'm sure he was promptly re-gifted, I hope to someone who understands such as he)--our small son wailing the while (he would write essays in school--several of them--about this experience), and I realized, afterwards, that I'd just done some things I was deeply ashamed of, things unworthy of forgiveness. But I also realized that I was a poor owner for Sooner. And I realized it was much more fun to write a bad poem about him and get some nifty rejection letters that to run out to the grocery at the last minute to buy some boxed pasta for our dinner guests.

TO BE CONTINUED ... the final installment, up next!