Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 16

Bridges & Garcia
8 Million Ways to Die
1. Friday night we went to local Regal Cinema in Hudson and saw A Walk Among the Tombstones, a film based on a 1992 Lawrence Block novel with the same title. It's another story featuring recovering alcoholic investigator Matt Scudder--memorably portrayed in a much earlier (and much better) film by Jeff Bridges-8 Million Ways to Die, 1986, with another dynamite performance by Andy Garcia. I think it was the first time I'd seen/noticed Garcia in a film. There are quite a few "Scudder" novels by Block (there are seventeen of them, I think).

Lawrence Block
In the early-mid 1990s (shortly before I retired from the Aurora City Schools in January 1997), I liked taking groups of kids around the area to book signings. One night--June 24, 1995 (I just found a confirmation of the date!)--I took a carload up to see Lawrence Block at the Barnes & Noble on Mayfield Road near Cleveland. I took a bunch of his books with me for him to
sign, but at the reading/signing, I felt he was kind of ... dickish. He told us he would sign only (what? 4? 5?) from any one person--a problem easily solved: I gave copies to the kids who were with me. But his manner was kind of ... dickish. And my enthusiasm for him sickened, nearly died. I still read him now and then--but not with the avidity of my pre-signing days.

Oh, and, yes, my copy of A Walk Among the Tombstones was one that he signed that night.

The film was so-so, Liam Neeson playing a version the character he's been playing a lot lately. Minor characters were all, well weak. Lots of blood and gore and misogynistic terror. Didn't care for it.

2. A couple of nights of bad dreams ...
  • A vicious dog walks into the kitchen (I'm there--but I don't recognize the place), bites me above the left knee, and hangs on. Enter son Steve with a baseball bat. Then some gunfire (better not to get into the details, there being so many dog-lovers in the world, me, generally, among them, except when a vicious one has a death grip above my left knee). I look down: My femur is exposed. I cry out. A doctor (I don't recognize) is there but, seeing the gravity of my injury, covers his mouth and walks away. Wake up.
  • I'm in another kitchen (do you see a pattern? it's different from the first one--but I still don't know where I am). I come in with another guy (who?) who's supposedly been attending to my sourdough starter. But when I look at it, I see he has mixed into the starter a bunch of shredded blueberry muffins. I scream obscenities at him (yes, I remember what they were; no, I am not sharing) and tell him to get out of my house--though it looks nothing like any house I've actually ever lived in. I wake up angry.

3. Speaking of dickish behavior (as I did in #1 above): I see a lot of it in coffee shops, people complaining--sometimes angrily--if their drinks aren't exactly perfect. I will hesitate here ... will not say something about spoiled Americans, especially ones able to pay $2 for a cup of coffee (5¢ in my boyhood) . (This is an example, kind of, of the rhetorical device called apophasis: the device of mentioning a subject by saying you won't mention it.) Anyway, there was a guy I saw this morning who was about to have a stroke because the dark brew wasn't quite ready. He paced around like the bull who's just been told that the cow will be a little late this morning.

4. Saturday night we saw the Jason Bateman-Tina Fey-etc. film, a death-in-the-eccentric-family story, This Is Where I Leave You. It was funny in a kind of I've-seen-this-before-but-it's-still-amusing kind of way, and it was fun to see Jane Fonda--though I wish someone would give her a real part one of these days. Also in the cast, playing very much off-type, was Timothy Olyphant (Justified, etc.), and his screen presence is so remarkable that when he's in the shot (and he was not in a lot of them), you just don't really notice anyone else. Poop jokes and predictability--but I laughed a lot, too.

5. Finally--in the category of What? This week the City of Hudson re-seeded the village green, which throughout the summer, experiences heavy traffic--especially on Saturdays at the Farmers' Market. So, I thought, seeing the seeding, the markets must be over for the year. Nope. One's going on right now as I type this (Saturday forenoon) with half of Hudson walking all over the once and future grass.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Buh-Bye, Mark Twain Stamps

I'm a little sad today.

For the past few years on my snail-mail I've been using--exclusively--the "forever" stamp featuring the image of Mark Twain--with a bit of a Mississippi River steamboat in the background. And I've used quite a few of them. Since my mom (95) can no longer use email (and hasn't been able to for several years), I write snail-mail to her twice a week--Sunday and Wednesday--and all of those letters (372 by my last count) have featured Twain's stamp on the envelope.

I have a long and happy history with Mark Twain--as some earlier posts here have described--beginning when I was in Adams Elementary School (Enid, Okla.) and listened every day after recess (if we were good) to our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Rockwell, reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to us while we cooled off (it was Oklahoma) and settled down (we were fourth graders). Later, I learned that Mrs. Rockwell, dear soul, had done some bowdlerizing as she read--probably a good idea in the Oklahoma of 1953. Probably still a good idea in Oklahoma!

Later, I read more Twain in high school, college, grad school, and spent some happy years teaching Huck Finn at Western Reserve Academy from 2001-2011 (when I retired). Post-retirement, I settled in and read all of Twain's books, including the weird ones he wrote near the end of his life (e.g., Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1907--just three years before he died with Halley's Comet in the sky, just as it had been at his birth in 1835).

I've been several times to Hannibal, Missouri, his boyhood town on the Mississippi that in some ways now resembles a Twain theme park. Our first visit? On our honeymoon in late December 1969. We had spent most of our time in New Orleans and had decided to drive back up along the river, stopping at Hannibal. (English-major nerds!) We'd already taken a riverboat ride back in New Orleans, up into the bayou country. Joyce was working at the time on Kate Chopin, who lived in Louisiana for a while and wrote many stories set there--including her fine novel The Awakening (another book I taught at WRA). So ... we spent a day in Hannibal in the early weeks of our marriage--now approaching forty-five years ago.

Later on--much later on--we returned to Hannibal, then drove to Florida, Missouri (not far away), where he was actually born. The tiny birth house is now inside the local Twain museum in Florida. (See below.)

So I was sad when I got on the USPS site the other day and discovered I could no longer buy those Twain stamps. (I settled for some that celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation.)

My mom was an English teacher, and I knew she'd appreciated the Twain stamps. I'm sure she did, though she never actually articulated that appreciation. Things change at 95.

And nothing is forever--not even a "forever stamp."


Good news: Just found some Twain stamps on Plunked down the plastic ... cost a little more ... who cares!?!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 51

The year 2000 commenced. The first year of my life when I did not have a father. A couple of weeks earlier, 20 December 1999, Joyce and I had celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary. I’d called ahead at a pricey restaurant in the area—being careful to let them know that this was a special day for us. They assured me they’d be attentive.
Fat chance. An excerpt from my journal: Instead, we were plunked down in a small room where there were two birthday parties + a large collection of raucous/drunken young businessmen arguing about the Browns, the Internet … my fillet was tough, the potatoes were watery and tasted as if they’d been on the warm-up line for a while ….
Throughout January I was sticking to my research routines—reading books for Kirkus I would later review, continuing to read about Mary Shelley and her circle (I was reading about actress Fanny Kemble early in the month), going to movies and plays. I also had a scholar’s horrible experience: I read and took notes on a book—then discovered I’d already read and taken notes on it. Advancing dotage? I also had started reading biographies of Coleridge, who had been friends with William Godwin—and who had visited the Godwins when Mary was just a little girl.
I notice, too, that I was also active on eBay, bidding on and buying items related to Mary and friends—for example, a nineteenth-century engraving of Villa Diodati, Byron’s place in Geneva, the place where Mary began to conceive the idea for Frankenstein that summer of 1816. And now—nearly fifteen years later—I’m trying to figure out how to get rid of all those things I was pursuing so vigorously.

On January 4, 2000, Betty Bennett and I resumed our correspondence. I told her the story about re-reading, re-note-taking that book (it was Richard Church’s 1928 biography, Mary Shelley). Betty wrote about her discouraged frame of mind—about life’s losses, she said. Sometimes, she added, the solitary writing life feels like solitary confinement.
I wrote back about my own continuing grief. My father’s loss.  Death ended it all, I said, put a period at the end of a wonderful sentence. … Old age brings an awful anonymity; once you enter a care facility, you become like everyone else. And then some updates on my contacts with agents and publishers—not much happening—and the news that I would be giving a talk on Mary Shelley at Hiram College.
A day later I wrote to tell her that I’d recently bought an autograph letter written by Washington Irving. I was acquiring things about him because he’d had a relationship with Mary—after the death of her husband—and I was very curious about the choreography of that dance. (I will devote a chapter to this—later on.) Anyway, I told Betty that I’d been unable to read some of his handwriting, so I’d gone to the scholarly edition of his letters to see what it all was. Found out. Then also discovered, in the notes, that the framed letter hanging on my wall belonged to Marietta College.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Memorizing ... Realizing ... (Final)

Last summer I was memorizing a poem by Emily Dickinson, a poem that I'd first read back in English 101 at Hiram College in the summer of 1962 with Prof. Charles F. McKinley. (By the way, via my fellow Hiram College Terrier and long-time friend David Anderson I have some of the late Dr. McKinley's daylilies in our garden--and one bloomed this morning: an omen!)

As usual, though, I sort of ... digressed ... for a few posts, then got interested in something else, and never did finish saying what I wanted to say about that poem--"I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died"--and about the experience of memorizing poems by Miss Emily.

By the way--here are three links to those earlier posts in case any of you have nothing else to do today: First Post, Second Post, Third Post.

I noted in those other posts that I've memorized quite a few of ED's poems, and I talked about about using ED with students, as I recall (Hey, I do not have time to read my old posts!).

Okay, some general thoughts about memorizing her. First, her favorite form--the old ballad form--uncomplicates the process quite a bit: quatrains, iambic rhythm with alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter. Rhyme scheme: abcb. She wrote most of her poems in this format--and teachers for years have realized that they can wax wise about Dickinson by noting that you can sing her poems to such tunes as "Yankee Doodle" and that Coca-Cola song ("I'd like to teach the world to sing ....").

Her poems are almost always short, as well. Easier, one would think, to memorize a short poem (like ED's "They Say That Time Assuages") rather than a long one ("My Last Duchess," The Odyssey).

Okay, those are the easy things about memorizing her. Rhythm. Rhyme. Brevity.

But there are some things that complicate the entire enterprise. For one, her rhymes are not always perfect. Take a look, for example, at "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"--one of her justly celebrated ones:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then –’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

First stanza--no problem. me and eternity.  But from then on?  What I'll call "imperfect rhymes"--though there are "official" terms for what she does.

away = Civility
Ring= Sun
Chill= Tulle
Ground = Ground (!)
Day = Eternity

Now, granting some lenience for varying pronunciations over the years, I still see ... well ... oddness here, don't you? And the boldness to rhyme a word with itself--as if she were saying, That's right--I rhymed a word with itself. And perhaps you can hear her saying (demurely, to herself): Better to use the same word than one that rhymes but just isn't right. Besides, in a poem about death, why not pound the word ground into the stanza?

So ... unpredictable rhymes complicate memorizing. A stanza with perfect rhymes is easier to memorize: remember one of the rhyming words, and you've got a great chance of remembering its partner(s).

But another complication is her unusual diction--choice of words. Not all that strange in "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" (though my Tippet - only Tulle is a choice one!).**

Now ... let's take a look at "I Heard a Fly Buzz" and see how she reached out from the nineteenth century to slap my face a little, to say: Wanna learn this? Do a little work!

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm -

The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset - when the King
Be witnessed - in the Room -

I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable - and then it was
There interposed a Fly -

With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz -
Between the light - and me -
And then the Windows failed - and then

I could not see to see -

As you can see, the only perfect rhymes occur in the final stanza: me with see. The rest are imperfect.

And her diction: the heaves of storm ... What portion of me be / Assignable ... I could not see to see ...

This is amazing Miss Emily at her best. By saying something in an unusual way (The Eyes around - had wrung them dry - = people had cried themselves out) she requires readers to stop, to think. And by using ambiguous words--King--she prompts you again. Is this a religious reference? Or, here, is Death the King? And how about that last line, I could not see to see - ? Awesome.  And have you ever heard the behavior of a fly described as Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz - ?  Not I.

So ... memorizing Emily Dickinson? Deceptive. Difficult. So much seems so simple (those short lines, those short stanzas, that brevity), but her genius has loaded into each line her unique vision, her profound insights into the world, and it is those things that make memorizing her work a combination of hard work and revelation.

**tippet = a scarf, usually of fur or wool, for covering the neck, or the neck and shoulders, and usually having ends hanging down in front.

tulle = a thin, fine, machine-made net of acetate, nylon, rayon, or silk

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I Didn't Blog Today

At lunch, I realized, then said to Joyce, "I forgot to blog today."

"You've had a lot to do today," she said--as always, trying to make me feel better about a failure. This, as you can well imagine, keeps her very busy.

Yeah, sure, I had things to do. I was at the coffee shop by 7:45. By then I'd already caught up on my email (such as it is these Days of Retirement), done my online banking, posted my Daily Doggerel on its separate blog, checked out Facebook.

At the coffee shop I read the New York Times and about 70 pages of a novel I'm preparing to review for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  I left a little sooner than usual: I had to drive the Prius over to the dealer in Kent for the 40,000-mile inspection. While I waited, I worked on the text of a speech I'm giving in late October and also wrote one of my semi-weekly letters to my mom--these two tasks accomplished via iPad and OneDrive.

Home, I had a few more things to deal with, including pasting some photos into Mom's letter before preparing the envelope for the carrier,who usually comes just before noon. A couple of books showed up first via UPS: a new book about slavery and capitalism (which I'd ordered for Joyce) and a new post-apocalyptic novel I'd read about in the Times last Sunday, a story that involves a group of actors performing Shakespeare in the ruins.  Sounded like my kind of book.

Then the mail came. A couple of other things to deal with.

And then came those twelve cuckoos from my great-grandfather's clock that hangs at the foot of the stairs, right by the front door. That clock has hung in my house since I was in 7th grade or so.


And sitting down with Joyce and realizing I'd not written a blog post for today.

Oh well, there's always tomorrow.

Oh, and by the way ... The postal carrier neglected to pick up Mom's letter, so I dropped it in a mailbox on my way over to Starbucks, where I now sit, where I now type and post this installment of DawnReader.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Evening with Mike Birbiglia

We stumbled quite by accident into the world of Mike Birbiglia (buhr-BIG-lee-uh). We had watched some comedians on Netflix, and that site gave us one of those If-you-liked-X-then-perhaps-you'll-like Y suggestions. It was a Birbiglia comedy special--My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (link to My Girlfriend's Boyfriend), which you can stream on Netflix. And we were hooked, both of us. (I wrote about this "discovery" somewhat earlier--here's a link to that previous post.)

I reported back in June that I'd scored some tickets to see Birbiglia's new show, Thank God for Jokes, part of his 100-city tour, at Cleveland's Palace Theatre.

We drove up there this past Saturday night and had a great time--nothing happened to diminish our fondness for him, but lots happened to increase it. After a short set by another (young--and good--comedian whose name I've already lost ... dotage), Birbiglia came out--a bit pudgier since the last time we saw him--but looking like an ordinary guy in most ways, except for his uniquely expressive voice and face. And those eyes. Pretty cool eyes. (Hope Joyce didn't notice!)

 I don't want to give away anything about his set (I hope it's on video soon). I'll just say that he talked about words, about religion, about jokes, about his gigs, his embarrassments (he is always very self-effacing about his failures, which seem almost to form a centerpiece for his sets). He breezily and easily interacted with the audience, gently drifting from left to right across the stage, even as he shifted subjects, then, unobtrusively, showed us how it was all interconnected.

He is not really a traditional comedian--not in the sense of being a jokester. He is a storyteller, a gifted one, who has learned what great storytellers have always known: It's a narrative that draws us in, that keeps us attentive. We wonder: What will happen next? What will it mean?

He uses profanity very sparingly (and, thus, very effectively), and often finds a clever way to suggest that it's someone else who used those words--not he.

I'd not heard of him before that serendipitous discovery on Netflix last June--and I'm guessing others have not heard of him either. I hope that changes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 50

I stopped this serialization of my memoir about chasing Mary Shelley when Joyce and I went to Stratford, Ontario, for the Theater Festival in mid-August. Travels and illness and ennui have kept me from this, but I'm back at it now--and will continue the serialization on M-W-F until its completion. The installment before this one (LINK to that earlier post) included the news I'd sent to the premier Shelley scholar, Betty Bennett, about the death of my father in late November 1999. And so we continue ...

I don’t remember if I did what I’m going to tell you next, but I’m going to assume I did. William Godwin, Mary’s father, died on 7 April 1836; he had recently passed his final birthday—his eightieth—on 3 March. Eighty is a lot of years in any human era, but in the first third of the nineteenth century it was highly unusual. The median age for a man at death was about forty-five. (For those of you whose statistics are rusty—this means that about half of men died before forty-five, about half after forty-five.) So in 1836, Godwin was an unusually old man.
As we’ve seen, the road he and Mary had traveled was a rough one at times. Godwin’s wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, died in 1797, shortly after delivering the child who would become Mary Shelley. Little Mary grew up with a father who adored her.
But near Christmas, 1801 (Mary was three), Godwin remarried—to Mary Jane Clairmont, who brought two children into the family—Claire and Charles Clairmont (the two children had different fathers); also living in the Godwin home was Fanny Imlay Godwin, the child of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay (of whom I’ve written quite a bit earlier in this volume). In 1803, Mary Jane delivered William Godwin, Jr. So … by 1803 five children were living in that household, no two of whom had the same parents. It made for some complicated choreography.
By 1836, of course, death had been a regular visitor to the Godwin circle. Daughter Mary had lost three children—and her husband. And her friend Lord Byron. Fanny Imlay Godwin had taken her own life in October 1816. Harriet Shelley (Bysshe’s first wife) drowned herself in the Serpentine later that same year. William Godwin, Jr., still in his twenties, had died of cholera in 1832. And on and on.
So Mary knew about death.
She’d also had other conflicts with her father. She’d greatly disliked her step-mother (so much so that when she was a young teen, she’d gone to live with family friends in Scotland for nearly two years). During one of her visits home she’d met the dashing young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She was soon seeing him secretly, and on 28 July 1814, they eloped, her step-sister Claire Clairmont in tow. For two years Godwin refused all communication with his daughter.
But following Harriet Shelley’s suicide—and the subsequent marriage of Mary and Bysshe—things cooled off, and Godwin felt very comfortable borrowing chunks of money from his new son-in-law. And correspondence re-commenced between Mary and her father. He helped her with her publications—even wrote with pride to her about the first stage production (in London) of her novel Frankenstein, a play called Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823).
Mary, in turn, helped her father. When he was stuck on his final novel—Deloraine (1833)—he told Mary about his problems with the plot, and she suggested using the device of the chase, a device he had used so wonderfully well in his early novel Caleb Williams—and a device Mary herself had used so expertly in Frankenstein.
Godwin immediately saw the power in her idea and finished his final novel, a story that is full of incidents and characters, slightly altered, from Mary’s life. In a way, Deloraine is a final tribute to his daughter.
But by the spring of 1836, he was ill. Mary and her step-mother cared for him, in shifts, and when he finally passed, they were both with him. In her journal she wrote on 7 June 1836: I have lost my dear darling father—What I went through—watching alone his dying hours. … O My God—I am too miserable to write—too ill—too hopeless to do aught but weep.
I think I read what Mary wrote about the death of Godwin not long after my mother called with the dark news about my own. I hope I did, for as I look over her words today, I know the nature of her despair, a despair shared by all who have lost a beloved parent. A despair I felt in late November 1999.