Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Friday, March 6, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 105

Sunday, June 27, 2010

After visiting my mom and brothers in western Massachusetts, I am heading home, south on the Taconic Parkway (it’s free; I’m cheap). I decide at the last minute—after calling Joyce—that I’ll continue down the Taconic (instead of veering west on I-84, the direct way home), go to Ossining, New York, the final home of writer John Cheever whose complete works I’ve recently read. Cheever’s final home was in Ossining (I want to see it, photograph it), and there are some other Cheever-sites around, as well—including Sing Sing Prison, where he taught writing to convicts, an experience he later used in his 1977 prison novel, Falconer.

Ossining, NY on "that day"

I drive into the small town, take some pictures, then drive down a street looking for a place to turn around. The street ends in  a parking lot. The employee lot for Sing Prison.

Well, this is great! I think. I’ll get some prison pictures.
I stop, park, get out of the car, take a few photos … when … Hey, you!
I look. The you is I.
Don’t move!
The voice is coming from a guard at Sing Sing.
I don’t move. A couple of guards run over to me and … invite … me into the prison.
I try to explain. I’m a teacher … I like John Cheever … he taught prisoners here … I …
No one is interested. Or amused in the slightest. They take me into a little reception area and fire rough questions at me, many of which feature foul language (What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!). They want to see the photos on my digital camera. I show them. They make me delete all the ones of the prison (there are only a few—and, later, I find much better ones on Google Images).
They take my driver’s license. Make some calls. Check me out. Find out I am indeed just a harmless old high school English teacher. They return my camera, my license. Tell me to get out of there.
I do.
A black Sing Sing van follows me until I am all the way into town. I’m sure the driver is laughing all the way. I’m not.
Shaken, I drive to Cheever’s street but can not figure out where his house is—it is clearly off the road. I could try one of the twisting driveways (I’ve done that sort of thing many times), but I imagine a phone call from a worried property owner. A visit with the cops. A return engagement at Sing Sing.

So I drive across the Tappan Zee Bridge and visit some sites in Tappan, New York, sites related to Major John AndrĂ©, a British spy during the Revolutionary War who was hanged in the area (I visit the spot—there’s a monument). Washington Irving mentions AndrĂ© in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which I am going to teach in a month or so. If, of course, I’m not in prison.

Later, doing some research on Sing Sing, I learned that our expression sent up the river comes from Sing Sing, which lies up the Hudson River from New York City.
I used my Sing Sing escape story in a speech at the Senior Celebration during the graduation activities at Western Reserve Academy in June 2011. That story is probably (certainly?) the only thing about my talk that those seniors recall. (It’s the only thing that I recall, to tell you the truth.)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Whose Food Is It?

Food is among the great causes of Sibling Warfare. Not all food, of course: There were no fights among my brothers and me about who, say, would get the extra lima beans, which, in youth, I always consumed like thick green pills, washing them down whole with my milk. (Adulthood is so much easier: I never eat lima beans now and probably won't, until I have to go to The Home, at which time I'll return to my boyhood style in more ways than one.)

My brothers (one is three years older, the other four years younger) and I did have issues about a number of other food items--mostly, as you can probably guess, involving Sugar. Mom tried to hide the Oreos in the house (we always found them), and one of our Sibling Rules seemed to be: Whoever finds them gets most of them. But Richard (older) always played the Seniority Card--often in these words (I'm quoting): My body, being a bigger machine, therefore needs more fuel. Of course, the physics of this is wrong, but who knew in 1958? (And I've used the line myself.)

The other issue was the contents of those tubes of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls (about which I've blogged before, I believe). The problem: There were (are?) eight rolls in the tube. Three (brothers) into eight (rolls) don't go. Somebody got two while the others got three. It was almost always little Davi who got the two, even when he baked the rolls, a situation that did not please him--and even now, sixty years later, can cause some bitter words (which I love).

Dad, of course, was the Ultimate Consumer in our house. He would get the most of anything he wanted, and there was no Court of Appeals. He was the Supreme Court. So ... when we had pancakes, Dad got most. Ice cream--Dad got the biggest dish. Pie--don't even think about it. Dad remained a Pie Freak his entire life. If I've told this story before, I'm going to tell it again, a story about when Dad was in his final days in 1999.

Here's what I wrote in my journal on Oct. 20, 1999; I'd just returned from western Massachusetts, where my parents were living. My dad had about six weeks to live; my younger brother, Dave, called to tell me the story ... Dad was in the hospital ...

About noon, Dave thought Dad was dying (he was apparently slipping away), so he began reciting to him the 23rd Psalm, tears running down his face. Then the nurse came in with his lunch and said, “Hi, Ed, I’ve got pie for you today!” And Dad perked right up, ate all the pie, and was fairly coherent the rest of the day. 

I think if the subsequent nursing home had served better pie, Dad might still be with us.

Later, a husband, I had to be careful about getting food I wanted from Joyce's plate. I learned very very early in our marriage that it was a grievous mistake just to snatch something from her. And so it remains. (I'll come back to this.)

When our son was born in 1972, I initially, of course, wanted none of his food (Gerber's! No thanks!), but, later, I began transforming into my father in a way. Steve's food was my food. Simple. (I paid for it, damnit!) In some ways, there was no problem. He didn't like pizza crusts; I did; I ate them with impunity.

Early in his Halloween days, though, there was an issue. We didn't want him to Pig Out on all his candy, so we kept it in a drawer, dispensing some to him every day. But when he was a wee lad, he didn't really remember what was in that drawer. So ... we (yes, we, Joyce!) would sometimes (often) take from that drawer the candy we really liked. Dan: Snickers; Joyce: Reese's Cups. Later, Steve's memory improved, and our petty thefts were ... noticed.

Now, back to that stealing-from-Joyce's-plate business. She is actually pretty good about sharing. When we used to go all the time to Stoddard's (frozen custard), she would usually (not always) save for me the final bite or two of her cone.

Popcorn-at-the-movies is a separate issue that I'd better not get into. (I do want to remain married.)

But the other day (here we go) we were eating supper in front of some show we'd DVRed. She had brought to the little table we use some crackers. (I am a Cracker Fanatic and if I eat but one, I will generally eat the entire package. This goes back to boyhood when Dave and I would each eat a stack of saltines while watching late-night TV.)

So .. the crackers are lying there on her plate. Waiting. Joyce goes in to get something to drink. When she comes back with it, she notices some crackers are AWOL.

Let's just say there is an ensuing ... conversation  ...

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 104

Our first stop: Warnham Pond, which now is a nature preserve adjacent to a golf course. My journal reminds me that I hopped out of the cab, then after fiddling with the gate catch a bit (feeling very stupid in the process) I walked through some high grass to the pond, where a huge swan was swimming toward the other side.
So what was I doing at Warnham Pond—and why did I take a few ineffectual photographs of it? Well, Shelley’s father, Sir Timothy, kept a boat there—and fished there (as did his son). But what really thrilled little Bysshe about the pond were the stories about the Great Tortoise that lived there. Later, he would delight (and frighten) his smaller siblings with tales of this tortoise. He also told them of a “Great Old Snake” near their house. His sister Hellen later recalled that Bysshe would often attribute unusual night sounds to the Great Tortoise.[1]
Well, all I saw was the Great Swan, photographing it while Brian sat in his cab, meter running. As I remember all of this now, I’m guessing Brian was thinking that he had just hooked a Great Tortoise of sorts, one with some pence and pounds to extract. (He would end up with quite a few—all well earned, as you’ll see.)

web image of Warnham Pond
Next stop—the Warnham Church, which my journal records as a small beautiful structure with a surrounding graveyard that features many old tablet-style gravestones (I saw no Shelleys). Then into the village of Warnham itself, where I got some shots of the Shelley Arms Pub.
web image of Warnham Church
my photo of Shelley Arms pub
But what I really wanted to see that day—and feared I would be unable to—was Field Place, the Shelleys’ ancestral home, a structure not visible from the road and accessible only by a long gravel drive that features an entrance sign that says Field Place Estate—not exactly an open invitation. Still … I’d never been one to hesitate (too much) in the presence of a literary site I wanted to explore and photograph. I’d trespassed many times … what could happen?

my photo of Field Place entrance
The worst? Chasing some John Cheever sites in and near Ossining, New York, in June 2010, I found myself detained, briefly, in Sing Sing Prison.

Note: I took many photos during my 1999 trip to Shelley-Land, but all were 35 mm slides, and I have not scanned them all--thus, some Internet theft for images here.

[1] Holmes tells about these stories in the early pages of his Shelley: The Pursuit, 2–3.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Visit from My Father

I think about my father every day. Although he died in November 1999, I remember him with such fondness that he remains a powerful presence. Last night he appeared in a dream, and I'm pretty sure it was due to my posting on Facebook yesterday this late-1950s picture of him (he's on the far right) sitting with his long-time friends Paul and Rose Sharp, whom he'd known since college days back at Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, in the 1930s. Dr. Sharp had recently arrived to be the new president of Hiram College, where my dad was already on the faculty (Chair, Division of Education). It was a time--as you can see--of fellowship and pipes. (Dad had many of them, stored in a long rack in his room.)

The Sharps--like the Dyers--had three children, and we were close to one another in age--and because our parents were dear friends, we spent lots of time together. It was a wonderful series of years (only about seven), a time I didn't really appreciate sufficiently until, of course, it was all gone ...

About the dream ...

I am with a group of students (I can't remember any identities), and we are sitting together in some sort of surreal place that is both a movie theater and an arrival/departure area at an airport. But this airport area is from the old, pre-9/11 days. We are sitting by a glass door that leads directly out to the airplane where passengers enplane and deplane via a set of movable stairs. While we are sitting there, one group arrives; another departs--all very quickly.

I become aware that my father is with us when I hear him sobbing. I look to my left, see him there, just a few seats away from me.

I rise, go over to him. He is not the young, vigorous version of my father you see in the picture. It is later--much later--when he can no longer rise without help, when all he can really do is turn the TV on and off and doze in front of the flickering screen.

I kneel in front of him, embrace him, hear him say, "I can't see ... I can't see."

Now both of us are weeping. And I tell him, "I'll take you home, Dad. Home."

And then I am awake. I lie there, tears from the dream still on my face, new tears joining them. And I miss my father with a vast desperation.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 103

In the fall of 1997, I published a YA title—Jack London: A Biography—with Scholastic Press. (I used to love telling my students, later on, that J. K. Rowling and I had the same publisher!) As soon as the book was out, I called some local bookstores (when there used to be such things) to arrange signings; one that accommodated me was Waldenbooks at Akron’s Rolling Acres Mall. I was excited about the date they gave me, 14 December 1997—prime Christmas shopping time. Surely, I would sell scores of Jack Londons!
When I arrived, I was even more hopeful. There were rivers of shoppers flowing up and down the mall corridors; the stores were crowded—Waldenbooks was crowded. The manager had set up a little table for me at the entrance—more good news!  Even the shoppers who had not intended to enter Waldenbooks would see me there with a stack of Jack Londons and, curious, would stop and buy a (priceless) signed copy for every YA in their extended family. I felt my heart synchronizing with Scrooge’s—with both versions of him: the greedy old guy who loves money; the reformed old guy who loves Christmas.
I sat there for two fucking hours.
I didn’t sell a single fucking book.
Okay, my son, bless him, stopped by and bought one.
I did not speak with a single fucking (non-family) shopper.
Okay, one mother and daughter, who seemed about ten, floated in the flow a moment when the girl cried, “Look, Mommy! An author!” Mommy glanced at me and the books—she was only feet away—then said, loudly, “Keep moving—he’s not famous!” And she grabbed the little girl’s arm and dragged her back into the torrent.
I thought of many bad words. And wished much ill upon her (the mother).
Rolling Acres closed in October 2008, its Waldenbooks dying with it. Later, of course, Waldenbooks itself, a subsidiary of Border’s, passed away with its parent in 2011.

So … that humiliating mall-memory is fresh when taxi-driver Brian asks me if I am famous (it remains fresh, really), so I smile and tell him no, I’ve published a couple of books, but I am famous only in my own house—and not always there.
Kind and savvy enough to show no disappointment, Brian roars off to show me Shelley’s Horsham-Warnham world—or what is left of it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 39

1. This week--writing something--I used the expression took a gander. And I wondered, Where did that come from? Well, not all that complicated, really. It's a word only about as old as my father (Dad: 1913; gander meaning to look about, 1914--USA origin) and it's a word that compares our looking around to a gander's sticking his neck out. My Dictionary of American Slang reveals that Raymond Chandler used the expression in his great Philip Marlowe novel The Big Sleep (1939).

2. I recently finished Hideous Love, a 2013 novel in verse by Stephanie Hemphill. She tells the story of the early life of Mary Godwin (later--Shelley)--from girlhood (she was born in 1797) to the death of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned off the coast of Italy in July 1822. Hemphill uses a series of short, unrhymed poems, quite a few of which are very good (some--not so good). There's a bad copy-editing error: More than once she mentions Mary's girlhood home on Spinner Street (It was Skinner Street--and Hemphill does use this name correctly a few times, as well.) I like many of the lines. Here's some from Geneva, 1816, when the Frankenstein story is forming in her imagination: I feel something begin / to stir inside me here / amidst the mountains, / and it is not a child (113). But there others that she should have highlighted and hit DEL. Like this: I am as delighted as a kitten / licking her milk-stained paws (156). I have a few other quibbles, but, for the most part, I'm glad I read it.

2. This week I had to get our income tax information ready for our accountant. 'Nuf said?

3. As I've written before, we're trying to "downsize"--and have, indeed, gotten rid of quite a few things. But we keep ordering books, both of us. Just can't quit. Addicts.

4. Yet another book I finished this week--The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel (2014), by Jerome McGann, an English professor at the University of Virginia, an institution Poe attended for a bit (until his departure for a variety of personal failures). It's a very analytical work about Poe's poetry (as the title suggests), and as I've gotten older, I've become more and more interested in the lives of writers than in textual analyses of their work. But McGann takes the verse very seriously and believes Poe--though remaining a popular poet--has perhaps never had his just deserts from literary critics of poetry. Okay. But it's full of observations like this one: Poe's verse is "a mournful and never-ending remembrance, haunted in intertext" (148)--a line that includes one of Poe's own most noted words about his own poem "The Raven" in "The Philosophy of Composition":

The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen

Anyway, I read it slowly--didn't want to tire of the academic diction--and learned some things I'm glad I know.

5. Finally, Joyce asked me this week about why we call someone a heel. (Hmmm, why would she be asking me this?) I guessed that it was probably because a heel is, well, low. But I wasn't sure. I just now looked it up.  The OED--and this is some kind of coincidence--dates it around 1914 (the same as take a gander), US origin. Origin uncertain--though they offer a link to the definition of heel as the lowest part of the foot. I love OED definition:

Among criminals: a double-crosser, a sneak-thief; more generally: a dishonourable or untrustworthy person, a rotter.

And, of course, that sent me to rotter ...

A person who is morally corrupt; a dishonest, nasty, or worthless person; a scoundrel.

Whew, I guess Joyce wasn't thinking of me ... was she?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

An Exchange with My Mom

When I was a snotty high school kid--and was at my very snottiest--I (for a reason I can't recall) stopped talking to my mother, a situation my dad remedied very readily by tying my vocal cords to the car keys: No talk to Mom? No car. (A swift and certain cure.)

My earliest memory is talking to my mother. We were living in the upstairs apartment at my maternal grandparents' house--1609 E. Broadway Ave.; Enid, Okla. (our address was 1609 1/2). We had a large window in the front of the house (see picture), looking out over Broadway, and I remember sitting there with Mom, looking out, talking about the traffic--vehicular, pedestrian. There was a lot of the latter in those days (this had to be in the late 1940s) because many people didn't own cars; most people owned only one; everyone walked a lot more. Enid also had a bus system that serviced the entire city (and, yes, those buses had signs that said "Colored" in the very back--this was pre-Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).

1609 E. Broadway
My mother was never a loquacious person. She was quiet. Intelligent (she would earn her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh when I was a snotty high school kid). Highly organized. She always did our family income taxes. She would close the door to the study, and Dad would warn us throughout the day: Keep it down ... Mom's doing the taxes today ... she's on the peck.

On the peck. Probably not a very PC thing to say anymore about a woman! The OED does not seem to know the expression--but there are some meanings of peck that relate to anger and churlishness. And peckish can mean irritable, peevish, touchy, says the OED. That was Mom at tax time.

She was not on the peck all that often--despite her living with four males who could be, well, snotty in various ways.

The daughter (and, later, brother) of a Disciples of Christ minister, Mom was very ... conventional ... in her views of human behavior. Puritanical, really. We did not swear in our house (on very rare, on-the-peck occasions she might say, "Hell's bells!" But that was the extent of it). We ate three family meals together every day--yes, including breakfast (that was a pleasure for my parents during our Snotty Periods). We went to church together. We boys answered the phone like this: "Dyers' residence ... Danny (or Dickie or Davi) speaking." We held our tongues when company came for a meal. We made our own lunches for school. We did our own laundry. Etc.

When I was in my forties, she told me to change out of my bluejeans before we went to a Dyer family picnic out in Oregon. I did--though not happily, I can tell you. My brothers and I were the only ones there not wearing bluejeans.

Later on--in a period becoming less Snotty--I talked to Mom about teaching. She was a career teacher (as was my father), and she was a talented one. When I began my own career (with 7th graders),I needed ... help. In my first year--1966-67--I would call her from my pathetic Twinsburg apartment (they were living in Des Moines--both teaching at Drake University) and ask for advice about various pedagogical things. Also ... money. I was raking in $168.42 on the 1st and 15th of every month--not a fortune--and every now and then I would need $20 or so (never more did I ask for). I bought groceries. Cigarettes (yes, I was smoking in those early Aurora Middle School years). Paid my phone bill. (I could not afford a single extension; the only phone was on the kitchen wall.)

Later, retired, my folks moved out to Oregon, and we called back and forth about once/week. Mom was on the Internet early (she had one of the first computers in the family), and soon we were emailing regularly, too.

But all of that has ended. At 95, she can't use her laptop anymore (she's forgotten how to turn it on, how to use it, how to turn it off). And she's incapable of calling me--or anyone else. She can't write letters.

And so I call a few times each week; write her snail-mail letters. During our calls, she is invariably chipper (never on the peck), laughs at herself, her inabilities. She has to struggle to find words now. She knows what she wants to say, but sometimes the words just aren't there. So I wait ... or help her out.

She can still zing me now and then (she's always been good at that!). Here's the latest:

On Thursday this week, I was telling her about her great-grandson Carson's recent performance in a play in kindergarten--a play about the alphabet. He played letter C (because of his name). I quipped: "I would have been D, Mom--and I had a couple of those on my high school transcript."

"That's not funny!" she said in her Death Voice.

And so I stopped laughing, fearing that Mom was On the Peck.