Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Thursday, August 27, 2015

With Casey (at the Bat)

There are three poems I remember from early, early in my childhood. The earliest is Robert Louis Stevenson's "My Shadow," which I remember my grandmother Osborn reciting to me in her rocking chair at 1609 E. Broadway Ave. in Enid, Oklahoma--late 1940s. (That rocking chair, by the way, now sits in our living room.)

Many years later--teaching a section of sixth graders at Harmon Middle School (early 1980s)--I asked (okay, required) my students to memorize "My Shadow"--and I did, too. And more years later (February 2005) I held Logan, our newborn grandson, in my arms in the delivery room and recited "My Shadow" to him. He of course does not remember. But I do. I still recite the poem to myself several times a week--keeping it in my fading memory for a bit longer.

The second poem I remember from early on is "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (or "The Night Before Christmas"), which I had to memorize for a program at Adams Elementary School in Enid. (I've written about this before--try Google if you're interested.) Back then (early 1950s) I never really got that stuff about "dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly"--but I do now. Again, I recite it to myself several times a week, keeping it. At Christmas dinner with our son's family I always recite it for the kids (Logan 10, Carson 6), and last year they started doing stanzas, too--as did their father.

I'm not counting, by the way, such things as nursery rhymes and playground doggerel--some of which I still remember--e.g., "Ooey Gooey was a worm. / Ooey Gooey loved to squirm. / He squirmed up on the railroad tracks. / Toot! Toot! / Ooey Gooey."

The third poem from childhood that I remember well was "Casey at the Bat," a poem that I both liked and hated (it's about baseball--my favorite at the time; the hero strikes out--Why?). It's a poem that has kept coming back throughout my life. We still hear the clause "There is no joy in Mudville" from time to time, and Mighty Casey has remained an emblem of  pride going before a fall. (We recently saw Oedipus Rex up in Stratford, Ontario, and I, of course, thought of Casey, who at least got to keep his eyes after his tumble!)

And in 1989, Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford published (in the magazine and, later, in a book) Casey on the Loose, which fleshes out the story--giving background. (We are selling our copy on ABE Books right now!)

But I never got around to memorizing "Casey." It's kind of long (thirteen lengthy stanzas) ,,,

The last week or so ... I got around to it. It's the 156th poem I've memorized. (Get a life!)

I used my customary technique to learn it.

  • I print out the poem on regular sheets of paper, which I carry around with me, learning, reviewing continually.
  • Once I've learned it, I print a smaller copy that I then cut and paste onto a 3x5 index card. In my back pocket I carry several such cards--the most recent poems I've learned.
  • When I'm certain it's firmly in my head, I transfer the 3x5 card to the stack of all 150+ poems, a stack that (secured by a blue rubber band) I keep in my backpack for those times when memory fails me--times that have become annoyingly more frequent as the years go on.
  • I review each poem at least three times a week--more often for the recent ones (lest they, unheeded, flee).
The pictures below illustrate these stages.

A final thought. I've noticed over the years that most people don't want to hear a full poem recited. (Perhaps I don't recite well?) Oh, they don't mind a few lines (especially famous ones, which they kind of know--"miles to go before I sleep," that sort of thing), but if I decide to launch into "The Raven" or "Dover Beach" or "Birches" or some other longish work, I soon see eyes glazing (and/or rolling), smart phones coming out, watches being consulted. I've even had people walk away. Family members.

So I rarely reel off a complete poem now--only to Joyce, who, bless her, likes to hear them--and knows what it's taken for me to learn (and keep) them. If someone asks (virtually never), I'll comply. But mostly all those poems are for me, for Joyce, for my sanity.

Note the coffee stains!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 147

Seeing the house where Frankenstein was born--and traveling to a key setting in the novel, the vast glacier near Chamonix, France.

As I said, there were workmen present at Byon’s former villa (site of the birth of Frankenstein), so—emboldened—I walked down the driveway as if I belonged there. But soon chickened out (something I rarely did on literary visits back in the States). I started thinking about Swiss law: Will they lock me in a dungeon until I’m, like, you know, seventy? (I’m seventy as I type these words. Think: I would just now be getting out of that Swiss dungeon!)

But I did take a number of photographs, which, fortunately, came out well—mostly. And remember—this was the time (1999) before digital cameras were really widely available, so I was shooting standard 35mm slide film and would not know the fates of the photographs until I had the film processed. (Oh, we had it rough back in them thar days!)

The weather—for one of the few times on my entire journey—became my enemy during the trip to Chamonix. On the morning of April 21, I wrote this in my journal: the rain is coming down, and the skies are low. If the visibility is zero, it would be pointless to go, but you never know what might happen this afternoon.

Oh, such youthful optimism …

An hour later, I was sitting on the tour bus with a half-dozen other disappointed people. The rain continued to pour. (Had another Mt. Tambora erupted?)

Two hours later I was in the coffee shop at the top of the ski lift at Chamonix. The snow is blowing, I wrote in my journal then, [and] I can’t see a thing.

Two hours later—12:30 p.m.—I was sitting in another restaurant, writing in disappointment about the day. The weather is truly terrible—with very low visibility … but the little village here [Chamonix] has some older buildings. I will go out later & get some drippy photographs. (I did.)

And then we learned the little train would not be running out to the glacier that day—no real surprise. I was profoundly disappointed that I would not get to see one of the key sites in Frankenstein—and one of the world’s wonders (though now greatly diminished by climate change).

Naturally, as we were on the bus heading back to Geneva, out came the sun, illuminating Mount Blanc in all its splendor. It reminded me of an experience I’d had a few years before out in Seattle, where I’d gone to the library at the University of Washington to see some of their wonderful photographs from their Klondike Gold Rush collection. (I was in the final stages of my Jack London research.) I’d arrived at the library in a cliché of Seattle fog. Could not see a thing. But hours later, when I emerged, the sun was blazing, and I saw—seemingly right in front of me—Mount Rainier in all its splendor. I nearly fell over with surprise. And gratitude.

Final words from my journal about our journey back to Geneva: The shadows of clouds—now gliding, now racing across the gleaming high glaciers, are so gorgeous that I almost forget that I saw so little for my $160 today.

IMAGES: Scenes of (and around) Villa Diodati in Geneva, followed by a photograph of the giant glacier, the Mer de Glace, which I did not see (see above) in Chamonix, France.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Not a Favorite Sort of Day

In a few minutes I'll be heading out to Akron's west side, where I will meet with ... my dermatologist. This is not my favorite thing to do on a fine August day. In fact, it's among my least favorite things to do.

But after I sailed to the opposite shore of the River Fifty, I found myself in his office a couple of times a year--or more. It's generally painful, though moderately so (say, on the Waterboarding or Medieval Scale). Rarely--rarely, I say--I get nothing but a "See you in a few months."

And then there are those other times involving aerosol cans of frigid spray (I think of cop shows: Freeze!), scalpels, needles and thread.

I had a mild skin cancer back in the mid-2000s (squamous cell), a gift (right between the eyes) from the sun that involved surgery, stitches, a Frankenstein-creature's look for most of the summer. People no longer stare at me (for a variety of reasons), and even I have to look closely to see the scar. The surgeon did a wonderful job--far better than, oh, Victor Frankenstein did.

And I also have had numerous visits involving the aforementioned spray can (today, I fear, will be one of those--at least). Most of the targets--of course!--have been in prominent locations on my face (are there any subtle places on the face?), places that take a week or so to begin looking "normal," and I admire the workers in the coffee shops I patronize: All do a wonderful job of pretending I don't look as if I've just been shot in the face with a b-b gun.

Lately, I've been on a six-month cycle with my dermatologist. But it seems I end up going back to see him before the six months expire. Such is today's visit. I'm due to see him in late September, but I've got some Uninvited Visitors on My Face who need a cold reminder that I don't really want them.

And so ... at 10:45 this morning (or so) ... I'll be in his office, waiting for the frigid whoosh! from the can. And for a week or so I, sans glasses, will squint in the mirror and pretend that, You know--it doesn't look all that noticeable! And Joyce, bless her sweet soul, will say she cannot even tell.

And little children in the grocery store will stare and ask, Mommy, who shot that man in the face with a b-b gun?

Monday, August 24, 2015


And--somehow?--I've reached 1300 blog posts today. I've posted something nearly every day since I commenced back on January 6, 2012 (link to that first post). So ... either I have a lot to say, or I have nothing to say--and have proved it 1300 times now.

As is my custom, I check my stats only on these "anniversary" posts (each 100 of them), and I see right now (10:37 a.m.) that I've had 239,256 "hits" on the site--an average of 184 per post. But, looking at the stats, I recognize that some days I have far fewer, other days far more. It depends on the topic, of course, and whenever I write about politics or education, the number spikes a bit. So it goes. One hundred eighty-four sounds like a lot, but, of course, I am no celebrity blogger who gets that many hits per hour (or minute), so I remain (justifiably) humble.

But (as I probably have said before?) I write these mostly for myself--and for whatever posterity will ensue. I'm hoping that my son--and his sons--will one day page through them and learn more about their father and grandfather. (By the way--my grandsons, early on, began calling me "Silly Papa," a name they have recently shortened to "SP." I have no idea how I could have earned such a name!)

When I began this enterprise, I assumed I would post something Now and Then--maybe once a week or so? But my Puritan work ethic has transformed Now and Then to Every Damn Day, and I can hardly describe to you the anxiety I feel when it looks as if I'm not going to be able to post something on any given day. Self-imposed tasks have all (and maybe even more of) the authority and gravity of tasks that others impose upon me--not that there are too many of those these Days of Retirement.

Among the blessings (for me) of doing this--It forces me to write, and writing, of course, forces me to think (or at least it should). And so--by writing I figure out what I think about things, just as William Godwin (father of Mary Shelley) said some two hundred years ago.

And so ... while I'm able, I'll keep this little vessel afloat and see where winds and currents carry me. So far, they've taken me places I never would have expected--and brought me pleasures I did not know existed.

And perhaps one day a grown grandson will read and say, "Silly Papa wasn't always silly, was he?"

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sunday Sundries 63

1. AOTW ... I don't really have someone this week. Oh, sure, we saw lots of wack jobs on the highways between home and Fallingwater over in Pennsylvania--but nothing that really stood out--or reeked with a special fetor. Just the usual: failing to use turn signals, speeding in work zones, passing and then nearly hitting us when returning to our lane ... the usual.

2. I finished a few books this week--a few words about each.
  • Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson (1990). I've owned this book since 1990, but Joyce and I just got around to reading it this summer. It had earned a number of honors, back in the early 1990s, including the National Book Award (fiction). As Johnson acknowledges, it's a book heavily influenced by earlier seafaring tales, including Moby-Dick and Melville's great story "Benito Cereno." From the latter, Johnson actually borrows some of his own characters' names.
    • The novel's in the format of a journal kept by Rutherford Calhoun, a young recently freed slave who runs away to sea when his love life gets complicated. It's a ship involved in the slave trade, and soon there are two revolts brewing: one by the sailors, another by the slaves.
    • Rutherford had a somewhat literate background--he alludes to Chaucer and Shakespeare and some philosophers. But he's also a naive narrator at times, too.
    • I loved the book--until near the end when Coincidence arrived in full costume. It's not quite as bad as David Copperfield finding his old schoolboy enemy James Steerforth washed up on the beach after a shipwreck--but close.

  • The Meaning of Human Existence, by E. O. Wilson (2014). Wilson, who taught at Harvard for decades and has won two Pulitzer Prizes (On Human Nature, 1979; The Ants, 1991), writes vigorously here about a scientific and a humanities approach to viewing the world. Early on, he writes, "[W]e are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world" (26).
    • He is not a religious writer--does not believe--but neither is he a combative atheist like Richard Dawkins (whom he labels a "science journalist" (71)) or Sam Harris. Rather, he argues for the use of reason--for listening to scientists (and artists and novelists, etc.) to discover the truth of our nature--of why we are here.
    • What interested me most (among many things) is his recognition that we are a storytelling species. "We are devoted to stories," he says, "because that his how the mind works--a never-ending wandering through past scenarios and through alternative scenarios of the future" (43).
    • He sees tribalism as religion's "exquisite human flaw" (150). The more we align ourselves with limited groups, he writes, the more dangerous we become. This is the familiar argument about fearing/demonizing The Other.

  • The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Led Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, by Michael Shermer (2015), monthly columnist for Scientific American and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. This was one of my "bedtime" books (ten pages or so at night, now and then), so it took me nearly seven months to work my way through its 439 pages of text.
    • With a vast amount of research and reading, Shermer tries to show that we have grown as a species--to the extent we have grown--principally because of the discoveries and teachings of science.
    • He alluded to so many works I'd never heard of--but it's good to feel ignorant, now and then. Keeps you motivated as a reader. But I felt ignorant a lot of the time in this book.
    • Because news networks nowadays are so determined to focus only on what the most depraved among us are doing, it's surprising to discover that in so many ways we have become less violent, less cruel, less biased. (Many charts to show how/why this is so.)
    • I liked his discussion of what's called "the confirmation bias"--"where we look for and find confirming evidence for what we already believe and we ignore or rationalize away disconfirming evidence" (386). We are all, more or less, guilty of this, aren't we? We read op-ed writers with whom we're going to agree; we'll watch TV shows that feature people who say what we want to hear; etc. We friend/unfriend people on Facebook who disagree with us. (Proud to say I have not ever unfriended anyone--though the temptation now and then has been powerful!)

3. On Friday night, Joyce and I went to see the recent Guy Ritchie film, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., (trailer for film). The original TV series (with Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo, David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin) began in 1964 (the fall of my junior year in college) and aired its final episode in January 1968 (midway through my second year of my teaching career--Aurora Middle School; Aurora, Ohio). I watched lots of the episodes (maybe all?), and like many other fans (most) was most partial to Ilya Kuryakin. The show also featured veteran actor Leo G. Carroll (at the right in the poster), who'd starred in a TV show I'd liked as a kid--Topper (1953-55)--a series about a man who could see the ghosts of the people who used to live in his house.

  • The film was pretty calm for a Guy Ritchie film--think Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch and the two Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr.
  • Still, there some classic Ritchie touches.
    • Twice, for example, amusing/dangerous/violent things were going on in the background while the camera focused on an unaware character or two in the foreground.
    • There were plot flips and surprises I didn't see coming.
    • Split screens, multiple screens, funny music, etc.--all Guy Ritche touches.
  • The characters are somewhat different from their TV parents. Kuryakin on TV was a slight man, skilled in martial arts, etc. But not physically intimidating. The Kuryakin in the film (Armie Hammer--whom I really liked in The Lone Ranger, a film that is far better than the critics said) is a boiling cauldron--a temper, an intimidating presence. And Solo (Henry Cavill, fresh from the title role in Man of Steel) is a former thief, a slick guy, far more slick than even the TV Solo was slick.
  • The plot was fairly typical world-on-the-precipice-of-disaster stuff (a nuclear weapon on the loose, etc.), but it was fun to see Ritchie deal with the cliches and make them his own (in a good way).
  • Oh, the Leo G. Carroll part was played by Hugh Grant ... strange to see the Bad Boy of an earlier generation now playing the Older Dude.
  • Joyce and I both laughed a lot (where we were supposed to), and I was glad to see they left open the possibility of sequels.
  • This was sort of the "origin story" of the series--how Solo and Kuryakin met, how U.N.C.L.E. got formed (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement).

4. I got a surprise on the computer today. I inadvertently hit some keys, and suddenly a voice was narrating everything I was doing. (Windows 10)  Took me a bit to figure out how to shut off the guy, but I did. Here's a link if you want to turn yours on (and off!).

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Fallingwater with the Grandsons

Fallingwater, 8/21/2015
And, yes, I had forgotten how tired I could get.

We had a long day with our two grandsons (Logan, 10; Carson, 6)--a long and wonderful day with two remarkable boys. (I know, I know: Everyone's grandkids are remarkable.)

A couple of years ago (yes, years ago) we had given Logan on his birthday a trip to see Fallingwater (we had already given him books--and a Lego version of the house to build, too), and, as I wrote yesterday, time had just sort of flown by without our really doing anything about that gift. We were all too busy, you know?

But as we neared the beginning of another school year (he starts on Wednesday), we knew we'd better do it now before the whirl of school consumed him.

So Joyce made the appointments, and the Weather Gods were smiling because yesterday, the twenty-first, was one of the most glorious days of the summer: sunny, blue skies, upper 70s. No humidity.

We drove down to their home in Green, Ohio (about a half-hour south of us), to pick them up, arriving about 9 (our appointment at Fallingwater was for 2 pm). We talked a while with our son, Steve, and his wife, Melissa, who were about to surrender to us the two most precious things in their lives. There is always some unspoken anxiety in such moments--as I well remembered from my own days of young fatherhood--handing our son over to grandparents. Worrying. (After we left, Steve called us twice in the first hour, and texts went back and forth, too.)

First stop: Starbucks in Green (Grandpa needed his Caffeine Fix), but soon we were on I-77, to I-76, then some rural roads that eventually got us to Fallingwater a little before one o'clock. The trip across was great. Logan (who sat in front with me) was fascinated with our Prius and its doodads; we told stories, recited poems, laughed, and the boys had questions: How were they like their father when he was a little boy? That sort of thing. We talked about Frank Lloyd Wright, too--and the house we were about to see. And all the fun the boys recently had in South Carolina with their parents. Time and miles evaporated.

We thought we would be walking around the site for a while before our 2:00 appointment, but when we checked in, the clerk told us she had openings at 1:15, so we decided to go then on our hour-long guided tour--only about fifteen minutes away.

The boys were great during the tour--attentive and respectful (far more than I would have been at their ages)--and Logan chided me softly when I asked the tour guide what the family had done about sewage disposal in 1935 (when the house was built). Seems that the Kaufmanns (the department store in Pittsburgh--later, a chain) simply sent things into the stream, Bear Run, directly. Later--septic tanks. Now, they pump it out to ... the guide wasn't sure where.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the house--you need the two-hour tour for that--but you can easily find hundreds of them online.

Of course--worried grandparents!--we were certain the boys were going to fall into the creek, and I pictured myself diving in, fully clothed (thank God!), to rescue them. But nothing that alarming occurred (in fact, nothing alarming occurred, if you don't count Carson's spilling some red soda water on his white shirt! I got the clear message from him that I was to say that I couldn't even tell where it happened--and so I complied/lied ).

Joyce bought the kids some souvenirs in the gift shop (T-shirts, some pencils, etc.); I paid for lunch in the little cafe in the visitors' center (after the tour).

And then--all too soon--we were back in the car. Just before we got back on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, however, we had to stop at a woodcarving place we'd seen earlier, where they had a Bigfoot out in front. (Our son loves Bigfoot, and as a kid had a board game involving the creature; he's actually gone on Bigfoot hunts.)

So ... the boys paused with the Creature, who was kind enough not to eat them during the process.

I doubt, by the way, that we were the first tourists to stop at both iconic sites ...

The trip home was more of the fun we'd had on the way--with Weariness (the boys', ours) becoming a new companion in the car. But except for one "adventure" finding a men's room "in time" (we did), the trip back to Green was more of the cruise of pleasure we'd been on since nine in the morning.

We got back a bit before seven, chatted some with Steve and Melissa, then roared for home (well, insofar as a a Prius can roar) ... and bed.

Oh, our weary bones! Oh, our gratitude for the health to do this--for the gorgeous weather to accompany us--for the two little boys who energized us all day--for their wonderful parents who, for nearly ten hours, entrusted their treasures to us. Trusting us even in the face of Bigfoot!

The Old Man looks a little weary here!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Just Time for a Brief Word ...

We're going to be heading out in a few minutes to take our grandsons (6 and 10) to Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house over south of Pittsburgh. I've seen the place several times: a class field trip at Hiram College (American Art, spring 1966), twice I took middle school students to see it, Joyce and I have been at least once. We think the boys will love seeing it.

We couldn't have dialed up for a better day. Supposed to be sunny and moderately warm today.

We actually gave our older grandson, Logan, this trip as a birthday present. Two years ago. But, somehow, we never seemed to get around to it. And he enjoyed reminding us, coughing into his hand "Fallingwater!" Pretending. (I deserve the blame for his coughing strategy, by the way: I taught it to my son, who has passed it along. Oh, the legacies we confer on our young!)

Anyway, on Saturday I will do a more complete post about the journey.

It's almost time to uncircle the wagons and head out ...