Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, December 9, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 261

The Last Man and Jack London ...

The writer whose works and life I pursued with some passion (madness?) before Mary Shelley was Jack London. In the 1980s and 1990s I read all of his books, visited many of the sites that were significant in his life (two trips to Alaska and the Yukon), read all the other biographies of him, published an illustrated and annotated edition of The Call of Wild (1995) and in 1997 published a YA biography (Jack London: A Biography).
As you may remember, 1997 was the year that my Mary Shelley obsession ignited, so Jack drifted off on his ship (he’d owned several vessels, including the ill-fated Snark, about which both he and his second wife, Charmian Kittredge London, wrote volumes), and I turned exclusively Mary-ward.
The relevance here? When I read that in 1826 Mary Shelley had written a novel about a plague that wipes out most of humanity, I was acutely aware that Jack London had done much the same in his (much briefer) novel The Scarlet Plague, 1915, a novel that followed after what many consider his most significant works, The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), White Fang (1906), and Martin Eden (1909). He wrote many other fine works—but these are probably the ones that remain most prominently in the public awareness.
I read The Scarlet Plague, I see in my notes, in November 1986. I was on a sabbatical leave that year from the Aurora (Ohio) City Schools—and my sabbatical proposal had been … to read the works of Jack London and to travel to relevant sites in his life. Our new eighth-grade literature anthology included The Call of the Wild, and I felt I didn’t know enough (to say the least!) about London, the Klondike Gold Rush (the historical context of the novel), and numerous other things, so I applied for and received that sabbatical.
I have a single page of handwritten notes—a plot summary of the novel—and later I seem to have expanded them—a page and a bit more on a dot-matrix printer (the print is fading as I type this!). I have a first edition of the novel—but where? I just went through my London collection and came up Plague-less, so this may be another developing story!

So how did London handle the same sort of story that Mary had written nearly a century earlier?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Plea for the Public School, Part 3

Adams Elementary School
Enid, Okla.
the school my mom and my brothers & I attended

In previous posts I've talked about the dreadful state of many public schools--about the troubles that establishing schools-for-profit can cause. Some readers have reminded me that there are some fine charter schools (no debate about that), but in Ohio--where I've lived since 1956--we have a troubled charter sector. And, of course, charters use funds from the districts in which they function, so ... that means fewer dollars available for the public school kids. This becomes especially painful in districts where the charter does not perform as well as the local school--very common in the Buckeye State.

Anyway--one more comment about human-services that are for-profit. When my child is sick--or when my child is in a classroom--I don't want people there looking at him/her and seeing dollar signs. I want them thinking, How can I best help this person?

And while I'm at it--a word or two about private schools. I've taught in a private high school (Western Reserve Academy--about ten years) and private colleges (Lake Forest College, Hiram College--about three years), and all were wonderful experiences for me--and, I hope, for the students.* I believe that private schools can and should co-exist with the public ones (the American Way!), but I also believe that we need to make profound changes in public education if we are to restore it--no, to rescue it.

Many/Most (?) public schools are grievously underfunded. Here in Ohio (and in other states) we made the mistake--long, long ago--of putting the burden of funding on local communities, and to allow those communities to vote on that funding--which, in a way, is letting them vote on whether or not they want a chance to have a good public system.

The problems are obvious: Wealthier communities will, in most cases, have better facilities, supplies, public support; many good teachers will choose to work there where salaries and benefits are better--as are working conditions (including class sizes and number of classes and preparations). One of the most stunning differences I experienced in my prep-school teaching: I had three classes with about a dozen to fifteen students in each. My first year in public school (1966-67) I had five classes with forty students in each. Do the math. Even by the end of my public school career (Jan. 1997) I had well over a hundred students a day--sometimes as many as 150. Hmmm, how long does it take to grade 150 essays? Or 40?

So ... here's a fairly radical solution that we will probably never enact. I believe we should flood the public schools with money--and not entirely (or even prominently) by the local school district--for many simply cannot afford what's needed. The state and federal government need to begin to behave as if the education of children and young people is truly, not just rhetorically, important. In a democracy, of course, an educated citizenry is fundamental. We simply cannot allow poor schools to exist, wherever they are. We are cheating children, of course (a deadly sin, in my view), but we are also damaging our democracy. Ignorance and ill-education are severe threats.

(Mark Twain, by the way, over and over again, wrote about how ignorance was a severe threat to America; it still is.)

I guess we need to have the imagination required to view the worst of our schools and ask: Would I want my child to go there? And if we don't (and surely we don't!), then as a nation we need to do our best to make sure that there is as much equal opportunity around the country as is possible.**

So flood the schools with money ... flood, I say! For construction and renovation of buildings (and maintaining them), for purchase of supplies and equipment (including, of course, technology), for attracting teachers by offering substantial salaries and working conditions (including reduced class sizes and reduced numbers of classes for each teacher). There are idealistic, compassionate, and talented teachers everywhere; we need more of them. We need hordes of them. But we need to realize, as well, that teaching is a profession, and we need to begin treating it as such. That means salaries, working conditions, trust, respect. And we must reform teacher training (but that's another topic for another post).

Our politicians bellow about how important education is, but no one seems to want to prove it by providing the major investments required.

We also need to abandon this Standardized-Test Mania that has swept the land for nearly twenty years now. Last spring I did some presentations at a public middle school in semi-rural Michigan, and during one break I sat in the school library, reading. I saw classes were cycled in there not to find books or read or talk about books but to do practice standardized tests! Over and over and over again.

One of the principal reasons I retired from public schools when I was first eligible (I was only 52) was that I could see, already, in 1997, that tests and scores were beginning to dominate the curriculum. And dominate kids' notions of what school is for. One day I went off on a riff about something about Shakespeare, and one of my eighth graders put up his hand. Is this going to be on the proficiency test? I assured him that it was not. Then why are we talking about it? Reasonable question in an unreasonable world. He was not being rude, by the way--just fearful.

Our grandsons--7 and 11--have already taken more standardized tests than Joyce and I did in our entire school careers--kindergarten through Ph.D.!

Here's one thing I know: Learning stuff is fun. With a great teacher guiding things, it's even more fun. I still spend most of my days reading and learning about things I've never known. It's among the greatest pleasures of my life. I will do it until I can't.

But I fear that too many kids in public schools today are equating learning with testing. And school with drudgery. Their days are filled with routine and narrow, narrow ideas of what learning is.

So, I'm getting tired of writing this right now, so that means you must be tired of reading it! In the next day or so I'll do a post about what curricular reforms would be most beneficial--though some of those ideas are just a few paragraphs above this one ...

*Our son attended WRA, as well (grades 9-12)--but was able to only because his mom was teaching there: He could live at home and receive free tuition--a faculty benefit of considerable value--a cost we could not otherwise have handled.

**There are of course other prominent factors at play: family, community, cultural/social influences on the young. But let's give everyone a chance. Far too many today have virtually no chance ...

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 260

There’s no need to go through an exhaustive summary of the novel—besides, you might want to read it yourself—but before the Darkness arrives, some years pass; the relationships grow ever more complicated (we see in those relationships the pale ghosts of Mary’s own problems—and losses); there is war; death. And then some dark news arrives. Let’s let Mary tell it;
We, in our cloudy isle, were far removed from danger, and the only circumstance that brought these disasters all home to us, was the daily arrival of vessels.[1]
And those vessels brought news—a plague.
The narrator says: Can it be true each asked the other with wonder and dismay, that whole countries are laid waste, whole nations annihilated, by these disorders in nature?[2]
And then Lionel becomes the storyteller—writing what he calls his journal of death.[3] London struggles to carry on—even the theaters remain open.
The months pass; the crisis deepens; the deaths accelerate at alarming rates; lawlessness becomes an increasing problem. Hopeful Lionel sees a glimmer of light: We were all equal now.[4] But the England he knew is gone.
In the fall of 2096 survivors gather in London and decide to emigrate. And so their wanderings commence. And then there are only fifty remaining. The number dwindles to four. And then Lionel in Italy. Alone. He considers suicide. He decides to write instead and takes a year composing the book that we are reading. As far as he knows, he is … the last man. He resolves to take to sea in a small boat.
Happy story!
Mary, by the way, does not imagine much of a technological future. There is travel by balloon. Steamships are common. But her interests did not really include technology; her focus was on people, on fear, on loss, on hope and then hopelessness. And knowing what we know about her own fears and losses creates more slices of the scalpel across our hearts.

[1] Ibid., 225.
[2] Ibid., 233.
[3] Ibid., 267.
[4] Ibid., 317.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Plea for the Public School, Part 2

Adams Elementary School
Enid, Oklahoma,
which my mom, brothers, and I attended
A week or so ago I posted: "The profit motive is a terrible, destructive idea for human-service enterprises--like health-care and education. More below ...

These posts are dealing with my fundamental belief--that we must substantially infuse our public schools with money and curricular reform and bright, caring people. Across the country today, many parents are moving toward enrolling their children in charter schools, online schools; many prefer private education, voucher plans, and the like to the traditional public school. And in many cases, some/most/all of the funds (for charters, online schools) come from the public schools.

We know that the profit motive is good for some things. It has in some ways propelled the improvements in technology that we all enjoy, the clothing we wear, the dwellings we live in, many of the products we use, and so on. Companies like Apple and Microsoft compete for our business; we can benefit from that competition (in ways).

But I'm arguing here that using this motive in human-service enterprises is a horrible idea. We all know the case of Martin Shkreli, who, acquiring the rights to a medical drug, promptly doubled its price ... bad, eh? Actually, he raised the price by a factor of fifty-eight! Social media and the press excoriated him; his smirk became as well-known as Trump's pursed lips.

Unfortunately, we viewed him as an exception rather than as a rule. Drug companies want to make money--lots of it. And hospitals and med centers? Our son and his family live in Green, Ohio, and within a mile or two of their house are two enormous med centers operated by competitors, Summa Health and Cleveland Clinic/Akron General. The costs of building, staffing, equipping, maintaining those facilities are staggering--and unnecessary. And guess where those funds come from? (If you guessed "our medical bills," you get a smiley-sticker on your homework.)

We know that these facilities are staffed, in most cases, by caring, professional people. But the redundancy--the unnecessary redundancy is so costly. And, of course, there are so many places in the country where there are no such facilities at all. Green, Ohio, gets two; other places get zero.

Health insurance is another instance, isn't it? Because it's for-profit, there is pressure to make money--even if that means that the companies have monetary reasons (big ones) to give you a hard time about your claims. And, of course, your costs are higher because not everyone is contributing to the pool. (Not everyone can, of course.) Some sorts of insurance require participation--auto, home. The mandate in Obamacare's guidelines has been controversial, but unless everyone's in, then costs cannot be reasonable. Everyone is in auto and homeowner's insurance, so the costs (though annoying) are much better than they otherwise would be.

Okay. What about schools?

I hate to see what's going on now--the profit motive rearing its gorgon head in public education. You can easily Google and find some egregious cases of for-profit schools (online and otherwise) extracting profits at the cost of quality in the classroom. Lying about their enrollment. And accomplishments.

(Of course, there are awful things going on in some public schools, too--but they are not encouraged by the juicy carrot of $$$.)

I understand why this is happening--why some parents are turning away from the public schools. Some of them (the schools) are horrible. Out of control. So severely underfunded that the buildings are imploding, the textbooks are mildewing, and many of the youngsters are afraid to attend. Classes are huge. Teachers are overworked and stressed. Everyone seems to be suffering from a terminal case of Standardized Test Mania. These are not small matters. They require immediate--and substantial--attention.

So ... what do we do about it? Stay tuned ... more later ...

Monday, December 5, 2016

Back to Seidman Cancer Center--Twice

Seidman Cancer Center
University Hospitals
Beachwood, Ohio

Friday, December 2

This was not one of the most pleasant days of my life. Prior to my next visit with my oncologist (see below) I had to drive (with Joyce, thank heaven) up to Seidman and go through a little bit--(1) a series of blood draws (PSA and some others), (2) a CT scan, (3) a full bone scan. The blood draws were at 9:30 a.m. and by the time other other procedures were over and we got home, it was a little after 2 p.m. One of the injections, by the way, is radioactive--for the bone scan. (I should have Spidey-powers by this time!)

Nothing really hurt (except for the "pinch" of the injections). It was just the customary psychological worry that darkened all the hours. The CT scan is pretty quick--and it had a funny moment. I was getting rid of all the metal I was carrying (keys, ballpoint, change, etc.), and I discovered in my back pocket ... a pair of pliers! I'd been fussing around in the basement the previous day and had totally forgotten I'd stuck the pliers where I did. The technician got a kick out of it too--told me it was the first time she'd seen that!

The bone scan takes much longer: 30-40 minutes, during which time I have to lie perfectly still while I ride back and forth through a huge scanner. At times I shift position so that the scanner can get a different look at me. I've had the procedure several times before (at Cleveland Clinic and at UH Seidman), so I know what to expect. And I was ready. I silently rehearsed one of the batches of poems I've memorized--prefaced with "The Gettysburg Address," my latest. I'd tried to get it ready for Thanksgiving to impress my grandsons, but I had some significant botches that day, botches that, I guess, confirmed what Logan and Carson already know: Grandpa (they call me "Silly Papa" or "SP") has some ... issues!

Some previous bone scans have revealed that my prostate cancer is trying to move into my bones. It actually got a pretty good foothold in a rib before my oncologist put me on Lupron, which put the metastasis on Pause--but only on Pause. There is no cure. My PSA has started to rise again, so he is watching me even more closely now--and will add a medication in the near future, a drug (bicalutamide) that mirrors the effects of Lupron, a drug I will be "enjoying" (via quarterly injections) for the rest of my life. Bicalutamide, thank goodness, comes in a daily pill. And it should, again, put the cancer on Pause.

In case you didn't know--or have forgotten--Lupron zaps testosterone and thus kills libido, makes me more emotional (weepy, not angry), greatly reduces my energy, makes it very difficult to keep my weight under control, relocates body fat, produces infusions of heat (misnomer: "hot flashes"--they don't flash; they pervade, slowly, surely)--generally a very pleasant drug that has profoundly altered my life.

I was first diagnosed with prostate cancer late in 2004. Had surgery (prostatectomy) in June 2005. The cancer came back. I had six weeks of daily radiation treatments in the winter of 2009. The cancer came back. I started on Lupron about two and a half years ago. The cancer came back.

So here we are.

As I write this (Sunday afternoon), I know nothing about any results. I'm meeting on Monday morning at 10:20 with my oncologist to go over them--and to find out what my body is doing to me now.

Monday, December 5

A mixture of good (mostly) and bad (a little). My PSA has crept up from 7.6 to 8.6 since late October. Of course, I should have NO PSA (I have no prostate gland), so each little tick upwards indicates increased cancer activity--just a-lookin' for a home (it loves the bones). My scans were generally good--except for a spot in the center of my spine, a spot my oncologist is going to keep an eye on though not worry about just yet. (That's my business, worrying all the time!)

We had to wait forever to get my Lupron shot--some sort of insurance hassle, finally resolved, so I got to answer the nurse's questions about Thanksgiving as she was jamming the needle in my right rear cheek! Pain and turkey soup ...

The other hassle--scheduling for next time, a process that takes far longer than it does to meet with the oncologist.

But--considering how worried I was over the weekend, I feel pretty good about things--at least until the next round of tests commence in January. Meanwhile, I'll try to forget it all--and to continue to be grateful for so much. As I've written many times before, I am humbled in that waiting room at the cancer center; I am incredibly fortunate to have beside me the great heart of Joyce Dyer.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sunday Sundries, 130

1. AOTW: Well, I hate to return to the Same Old Well, but this week I had several AOTWs, all of whom did the same thing: Ignore the law that says When your lane ends, you do NOT have the right-of-way. You must slow and merge, not charge ahead like, oh, Ben-Hur in a chariot race. I almost honked at one guy on Saturday, but in these days of everyone's-carrying, I thought it more prudent to be a wuss.

2. I finished two very good books this week--one a "serious" novel (though comic)--the other a detective novel (sometimes I think our genre are ridiculous--writers are serious, pretty much all of them).

     - The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder, was a finalist for the National Book Award this year. (It lost to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, a novel I liked a lot, too). The title is the name of that infamous football play on November 18, 1985, Giants v. Redskins, when the career of Redskin quarterback Joe Theismann ended when a hit by Giants' linebacker Lawrence Taylor was a factor in the shattering of Theismann's leg. (Here's a link to a video of the play; you might not want to look at it.) By the way: One of the TV commentators was O. J. Simpson.

Anyway ... the novel begins with a swift summary of that gridiron play. And then we arrive in the present. It seems a group of men meet each year on November 18 in a motel, don the equipment of those players, head over to the local middle school field and re-enact the play. But first they have a lottery to determine who will perform as which player. There is no single protagonist: All of the men are equal (as characters). They are a spice-rack of human beings. A little bit of everything. Along the way, Bachelder zings the motel culture (great bit on "free" continental breakfasts), the American family, the American male, our passion for ritual and routine, etc. A gentle scalpel he uses. But the slices are deep.

I learned about the book, by the way, from novelist Brock Clarke (whose "break-out" novel was An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (2007), a novel I liked so much I invited Clarke to spend a day with us at Western Reserve Academy, which he did--April 28, 2008. My students read and pretty much loved the book--and felt like geniuses while doing so: The novel dealt with a lot of the American writers we'd read during the year. Brock and I have stayed in touch--and I've read and loved his subsequent books, too. Here's a photo of him with one of my classes that day. (He and I are in the front row; he's the younger guy!)

     - I also finished the latest Michael Connelly novel--The Wrong Side of Goodbye--featuring his stalwart detective Harry Bosch (named for the painter!). Bosch, who worked a long time for the LAPD, is out on his own now, part-time as a private eye, part time in another LA-area police department.  (We enjoy the Netflix Bosch series.)

He's working two cases this time (one for each of his part-time jobs): (1) the "screen-cutter" is a serial rapist terrorizing the area; (2) a fabulously wealthy man who's dying hires him to see if he has any descendants (this one is a lot like a Raymond Chandler story!). The stories do not intertwine--but they show the changes in Bosch's life. There's a big change at the end, too, but I ain't sayin' what it is!

I've enjoyed the Connelly novels for years--including his newer series about the "Lincoln lawyer," Mickey Haller, who, we learned in earlier novels, is related to Bosch; Haller has a key role in this one, too.

Years ago (October 11, 2006), Joyce and I met Connelly at Joseph-Beth up on Chagrin Blvd. (the store is gone now). Signed a bunch of books, graciously. Here's what I wrote  about it in my journal. [edited a a bit] (Echo Park was his new novel.)

... up to Joseph-Beth with Joyce for the Connelly signing … a good crowd there; in front of us were two women from Kitchener, Ont. who were very loquacious/big mystery fans/big Connelly fans; MC was very laid-back (looked just like his photos) and talked about his life and about this current book; emphasized how much research he does for each Bosch book (which usually takes him 11–12 mos. to write, though he wrote The Poet in 3 mos., he said, and The Lincoln Lawyer in 4; told story about how he thought he’d made a mistake when he retired Harry & made a P.I. of him; realized he could not get him back on the force, which was where he belongs; but then a new actual police chief came into L.A. and began hiring back retired detectives (he’d actually read Bosch novels, too), so MC had a way to get HB back in the action he liked him to be in; answered questions for about 30 min, then scrawled his name on the books I’d brought—all of them; I was #1 in line!

3. We're keeping up with the TV series Elementary by using the CBS All-Access app--not the best app I've ever used, but worth it for this series based on Sherlock Holmes, who, here, is a consultant to the NYPD, present-day; and Watson is Lucy Liu, a former doctor. Not all the episodes are good--I figured out the bad guy in a recent one in the first 15 min--and I'm not all that bright!

4. We finished the latest season of Midsomer Murders via Netflix (it's been on since 1997!). I'm not sure why I watch them, but I do. They are wearisome and often dull (and I often don't care about anyone in the episode, including the detectives). But I started them, so I have to see them all, right?

5. Last words--some words I liked this week from my various online word-of-the-day providers:

     - from wordsmith.org (don't think I've ever seen this one!?!)
          chunter: (CHUHN-tuhr)
verb intr.: To mutter, grumble, or chatter.
Of imitative origin. Earliest documented use: 1599.
“All they [passengers in the train] did was chunter on about lambs, holidays, solar panels, grass growing, farming, the health service, marinades, Niagara Falls, the Taliban, and -- honestly -- noisy neighbours.”
Louise James; Biddies Doing My Head In; Belfast Telegraph (Ireland); Mar 27, 2016.

     - from dictionary.com
          quinquennium    \kwin-KWEN-ee-uh m, kwing-\
1. a period of five years.
…[W]hat I'm hankering after first, you know, is some hint that the racket is still going on. Not all that frequently. Say once in a quinquennium.
-- Michael Innes, A Family Affair, 1969
Origin of quinquennium: comes directly from the Latin noun quīnquennium, formed from quīnque "five," and annus "year." It entered English in the early 1600s.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Fruitcake Day

I just pulled from the oven the second (and final) batch of fruitcakes for this year. It's a recipe I got from my mother (Prudence Osborn Dyer) who got it from her mother (Alma E. Osborn), who got it from ... ? Who knows? Probably from some magazine or friend--or maybe even from her mother (Persis Lanterman)? Or maybe it came down from Mt. Olympos via Hermes, who had a message to deliver from the gods ... Try this recipe! it said.

I don't like most fruitcake, not at all. And, of course, we all know that Christmas fruitcake is kind of a cultural joke now. But the one I grew up with? The one you see in the photo? Now that is a different story.

When my mom stopped making them and no longer sent us one, I started doing it myself ... maybe for twenty years now? Plus or minus. I used to make a lot of them, mailed them to family and gave some to friends. But a few years ago, my older brother started making them, too, so I don't need to send them to family any longer.

Also--I don't have the energy I used to, and as you bakers know out there, it takes a bit of effort to do a fruitcake.

This one is a so-called "white" fruitcake--not dark and dank and disappointing. It's very light (though massive in calories! lots of butter, sugar, etc.), so I can't eat a lot of it. At least, that has been my resolve for years and years. It's usually the last resolution of the year I break. Just can't stand it. Have to eat chunks of it!

Not everyone in the family is as crazy about it as I am. My wife, Joyce, loves it, so we generally break our fasts together--feeling, of course, less guilty by doing so. "Just one piece," we say--then, "Just one more piece"--then "We should not have eaten an entire loaf!"

Anyway, Christmas does not seem like Christmas without them. And so I bake them every year, even when I don't really feel like it.

Now ... to find a place for them in the fridge!

PS--I blogged about these last year, too (and the year before), and included the recipe. Here's a link to the recipe.