Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dumber by One

I wrote on Facebook today that it seems as if every time I turn around, there's another painful medical/dental procedure to experience. Perhaps, I suggested, I should stop turning around.

I'm just back from having one of my final two wisdom teeth pulled. Apparently there was little problem, and the only pain I felt came from the shots designed to prevent pain. So it goes (as Vonnegut would have said).

So ... I'm now half as smart as I was before the surgery, right?

But while I was in the waiting room, I got the greatest news. I could not for the life of me remember an address where we used to live (I was only about three). After World War II, my dad began working on his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma. For a year we lived in Norman (our "real" home was in Enid, 117 miles north---so swears GoogleMaps).

I've tried various things to find that address in recent, contacts with local historical societies, etc. No luck.

But today--while I was waiting to have my wisdom reduced--I got an email from the Norman Public Library. In a city directory from 1947 they found the Dyer name and address--428 Park Drive. I just looked at the "street view" on GoogleMaps and recognized the house immediately though I could not have told you a thing about it just moments before.

It's still there--that's the best news. I'd feared that Sooner campus expansion might have devoured our house. But, no. The campus lies a block or so south of our place, and we're safe. Or someone is. I haven't checked yet who the current residents are.

I'm hoping this spring (if my jaw has healed, if some other odious thing has not happened to me) to take a "sentimental journey" back to the places we lived in the Southwest--Enid and Norman (OK), Amarillo (TX)--and interview the folks who are living in "our" houses now. Sound like fun? It does to me. More fun--say--than oral surgery?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 25

1. We love Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO (show is now on hiatus until February). It's comedy, yes, but also deals with political and social issues that the major news networks ignore, for they are too busy with stories about Ebola and other matters whose principal virtue is that they frighten viewers. (Here's a link to a YouTube video of his piece on lotteries.)

2. Earlier this week, I wrote about my memories of one of my mentors, George Hillocks, who died this week. I said in that post that I'd given away the book he'd co-authored, The Dynamics of English Instruction, Grades 7-12. Guess what? It turned up in one of the piles we're trying to deal with (new shelves, donations, sales).
My Copy!

As I read through it now, I find all kinds of insights that I probably indicated were my own when I was teaching. Yes, the text is a bit dated now (1971!), but it remains the single most thoughtful and comprehensive text I know on teaching English. I'm grateful that I got to tell that to George Hillocks only a few years ago.

3. An Exciting Friday Night: Still not completely recovered from the Bug That Bit Me on My Birthday, I've been unwilling/unable to go outdoors much. I usually make it to Open Door Coffee Co. in the morning (a couple of blocks from our house--a nice walk, except for Saturday, when Black Ice reminded me at every step of my mortality). But that's been it since last Wednesday when we got back from Pottsville, PA, on our mission to deliver our John O'Hara collection to the Schuylkill County Historical Society. But Friday night we ventured out--though we did not leave the car (I kept my slippers on--an Old Man move for sure). We went to the Starbucks drive-thru in Stow-Kent, where, during our last visit, they had presented me not with the venti decaf Americano I'd ordered but with a pumpkin spice latte, an error I did not discover until my first sip--about halfway home; we turned around, got a replacement and a we-screwed-up card from Starbucks that saved us $4 on our order on Friday night. After we got home, I lit the gas logs in the living room for the first time this year, curled up and read and wrote for an hour before heading upstairs for a Wallander episode. (Are you still awake? I'm not sure I am, and I'm writing this!)

4. Finally, I want to recommend Brock Clarke's latest novel, The Happiest People in the World (a title that may win the Irony Award this year!). I first encountered Clarke's work when I read his 2007 dazzler An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, a novel I liked so much I settled in and read all of his previous works:

  • What We Won't Do (short stories), 2002
  • The Ordinary White Boy (novel), 2001
  • Carrying the Torch (short stories), 2005
I reviewed Arsonist's for the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Sept. 2, 2007) and then his next novel, Exley (2010) on Nov. 7, 2010 (link to that review).

I got to meet Brock after arranging for him to spend a day with our students at Western Reserve Academy in April 2008. At the time he was teaching creative writing at the University of Cincinnati (he's now at Bowdoin), and he drove up on Sunday evening (April 27) and had supper with the English Department. He was a hit with us and, the next day, with the students. He spoke to our Morning Meeting and then visited classes all day and then attended a reception hosted by one of our parents' groups--the Pioneer Women, who had funded his visit.

I see I'm running out of space, and I'll have to talk more about his new book in a post later this week. But I thought you'd like to read the introduction I delivered when he spoke to Morning Meeting that day in 2008, so here 'tis ...

Last spring I was paging through a recent issue of Kirkus Reviews, looking for a forthcoming book I might like to review for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  My usual pattern when I do this is to look for writers I’ve heard of—writers I like.  I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews and know that good writers usually—though certainly not always—write good books.  I think of Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees and Jack London’s Michael, Brother of Jerry as two of the worst books I’ve ever read, both by very good writers.
            Anyway, last spring, paging through Kirkus, I came across a novel with a strange title by a writer I’d never heard of.  An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke.  I skimmed the very positive Kirkus review (just skimmed—didn’t want to influence my own thinking too much!) and decided: This is the book for me!  Not only did the story sound engaging—a high-school boy accidentally burning down the home of Emily Dickinson (in the literary world, a heinous act comparable to, say, converting this very chapel into a Chipotle—though Mr. Gough, I know would love THAT)—but the story involves arsonous assaults on a number of other New England literary landmarks, including the homes of Mark Twain and Robert Frost.  Writers I teach!  Writers whose homes I’ve visited!  Writers whose graves I’ve knelt beside and wept!  (Yes, I’m one of those.)
            The Plain Dealer was willing to assign me the book, but before it arrived, I ordered and read Brock Clarke’s previous three books—another novel (The Ordinary White Boy) and two collections of short stories (Carrying the Torch and What We Won’t Do)—and was greatly impressed with his range, his sense of humor, his ability to coax from ordinary experiences some most uncomfortable truths about our lives.  I laughed when I read Brock Clarke, and when I read that story “Starving,” a story a number of you have also read, I cried (yes, I’m also one of those).
            And then the galley of Arsonist’s arrived; I read it late last June; I loved it.  I wrote the review, sent it to the PD, and they ran it on September 2, right about the time the book was released—and I soon discovered that I was just one reviewer among many who loved the book.  The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post—these and many other publications ran rave reviews of the sort you rarely see these days when it’s more fashionable to trash than celebrate a book.
            I knew, too, that I wanted my students to read it—near the end of the year when they would be more familiar with many of the allusions Brock Clarke makes in the novel—allusions to The Scarlet Letter to Emerson to Frost to Twain to so many other American literary figures—and to one very special non-American, a non-muggle, in fact: Harry Potter.
            And I knew that I wanted to have Brock Clarke visit WRA.  I found him on the website of the University of Cincinnati, where he’s taught writing and literature for seven years (after other teaching experiences at Clemson and the University of Rochester, where he earned his Ph.D.), and on the Cincinnati site I learned, too, of his many previous literary awards (Pushcart Prizes among them), his publications in some of the most prestigious literary journals in the country (Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, Southern Review, Georgia Review).
            I e-mailed him to see if he does this sort of thing—visiting high schools, meeting with students.  He responded quickly: Yes, he does this sort of thing, and he would love to come here.  And my next move was to approach the Pioneer Women, who have for so long supported so many different activities around the school—including financing the visits of and holding receptions for several other prominent writers, among them Tobias Wolff, Matthew Pearl,  and Sharon Olds.  The Pioneer Women were eager; they were generous; they are the principal reason that we have with us today a young writer whose Arsonist’s Guide has been swirling our American literary waters, a young writer whose works—past and future—will, I am confident, one day assure his place among those very folks whose homes are torched in this funny and wonderful—but also very wrenching—novel.
            Please welcome to this school (the school where the grandfather of Emily Dickinson once worked) and to this podium (the podium where Ralph Waldo Emerson himself once spoke) … writer Brock Clarke.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

John O'Hara: Photographs

These pictures designed to accompany my publication, "Do You Like It Here?": Inside the Worlds of John O'Hara, Kindle Direct, 2014.

1. O'Hara's birthplace: Pottsville, PA; 123 Mahantongo Street

2. Boyhood home; Pottsville, PA: 606 Mahantongo Street

3. O'Hara farm, near Cressona, PA, their "summer place"; Panther Valley Road & the old farmhouse.

4. St. Patrick's School; Pottsville, PA

5. Home of his mother, Katharine Delaney O'Hara; Lykens, PA

6. Keystone Normal School; Kutztown, PA (now Kutztown University of Pennsylvania)

7. "Linebrook": His final home in Princeton, NJ

8. Grave--Princeton Cemetery

9. "O'Hara Nook": Pottsville Free Public Library

10. John O'Hara Street; Pottsville, PA

11. YMCA; Princeton, NJ; September 2012

John O'Hara--Now Available

My long essay/booklet on John O'Hara, a piece I'm calling "a brief biographical memoir," is now available on Kindle Direct for the whopping (low) price of $2.99. (You can read it on your smart phone or tablet if you download the free Kindle app.)

The publication is the result of several years' work. Below, I've reproduced the Foreword and some of the other front matter. Note, too, that in a separate posting today I'm providing photographs of some of the key locations I mention in the publication.


To Prof. Abe C. Ravitz

Who, during my years at Hiram College (1962–1966), showed me a brave new world, gave me some of the maps I would need to explore it, and wished me bon voyage.
And so it has been …


What follows is an account of my recent pursuit—consuming several years—of John O’Hara, 1905–1970, a writer who at the height of his long, controversial career enjoyed bestseller status and serious, if mixed, critical reception. This is a personal story—a memoir of my (mild?) obsession—although I necessarily include lots of information about O’Hara’s life and career, about his books, essays, plays, and journalism.

It’s important to note what this publication is not. As its very brevity certifies, this is neither a comprehensive biography (there are many aspects of his life I do not explore—or even mention) nor a close reading of O’Hara’s many works. Although I do sketch some of the details of O’Hara’s life and some specific works, I urge readers who are eager for more to consult the biographies listed in the bibliography. Mine is an account of a curious tourist, one who pauses to look closely at things that interest him, then moves on.

This piece is full of a tourist’s opinions, as well—my assessments of his work, of his life, of his writing’s ultimate value. Positive and negative. I realize, of course, that no one has the Final Word on anyone else, and this effort does not pretend to be definitive. Other readers will have other opinions, will wear other lenses through which to view this most remarkable man—and story. Despite some negative things I say here, I’ve greatly enjoyed my journeys through O’Hara’s work, my explorations of his worlds. And I am grateful for those who supplied directions, comfort, and encouragement along the way.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 72

In Mary Shelley’s life there are many moments I wish I could have witnessed. Shelley’s courtship of her, the Frankenstein summer, and on and on. But one of the most intriguing, for me, was early in 1822 when she and some significant others were gathering in Pisa: Byron, Thomas Medwin (Shelley’s college friend who would later write a biography of the poet), Edward John Trelawny (a rake of the first order who entered the orbit of t powerful stars and enjoyed the glow). Trelawny would outlive almost all of them—and would arrange (he died in England) to have his ashes buried alongside Bysshe Shelley in Rome. On his stone are some lines of Shelley’s, lines he wrote shortly before he drowned:
These are two friends whose lives were undivided.
So let their memory be now they have glided
Under the grave: let not their bone be parted
For their two hearts in life were single-hearted.
Anyway, in Pisa these folks were always looking for novel things to do. Here’s what William St Clair (one of Trelawny’s biographers) wrote about this epoch:
On a typical day the men would practise boxing or fencing or shooting. Byron would travel the 400 yards to the city gate in his carriage to avoid being stared at, and then mount his horse and ride a couple of miles with the others …. The evenings would be spent in visiting or at the theatre …. On one occasion Byron proposed that they should themselves act Othello in the great hall of his palace (Trelawny, The Incurable Romancer, 1977, 59–60).
We know some of the assigned parts. Byron was Iago (appropriate); Edward Williams (who would drown with Bysshe that summer), Cassio; Medwin, Roderigo; Desdemona, Mary Shelley; Emilia, Jane Williams. They rehearsed a few times, but the project collapsed because of the complaints of Countess Teresa Guiccioli—Byron’s latest squeeze—who spoke no English and felt excluded. I suspected that the mid-April arrival in Pisa of Claire Clairmont—mother of Byron’s illegitimate daughter—was a factor, as well.
On January 27, 2001, I wrote to Betty: Don’t you wish you could have witnessed one of those Othello rehearsals with MWS, Byron, et al.? Oh my.
She replied fifteen minutes later but did not respond to my question. Mostly she rehearsed for me some of her many activities—from teaching, to going to meetings, to reading, to ….
I wrote back a week later to tell her I was heading to Massachusetts to help my mom, who was about to undergo cataract surgery. (As I type, I’m remembering my own recent visit to my eye doctor, who told me cataracts were forming in my eyes now.) I also said that in my own account of Mary’s life I’d reached the point—the awful point—of the drownings. I have much sadness to write about in the ensuing days, I said.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

George Hillocks, R.I.P.

Every so often I receive from the National Council of Teachers of English its online newsletter called "Inbox." I usually skim it, occasionally read something--follow a link somewhere. But on November 18, I was shocked to see the following:

George Hillocks Jr. Has Died

Educator, author, and researcher George Hillocks Jr., professor emeritus in the Departments of Education and English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, passed away on November 12. He also had taught writing in Chicago schools for more than 25 years.
In 1997 Hillocks won the NCTE David H. Russell Research Award forTeaching Writing as Reflective Practice. In 2004 he received NCTE's Distinguished Service Award. Of Hillocks's 1986 NCTE book, Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching, former NCTE Executive Director James Squire called it "a splendid piece of work that needs to be considered carefully and soon." 

As you can tell from the item, he was quite an accomplished scholar. But he was more. To me he was a connection to one of the men who had the greatest influence on me early in my teaching career--Bernard (Bernie) J. McCabe.

I met McCabe at what was then called the Educational Research Council (ERC) in Cleveland (1957-1984; link to brief history of ERC). Schools that were members of the Council (as Aurora was) got all kinds of services from them--including workshops for teachers--in the summer and during the school year. And it was at one of those that I met McCabe--a crusty, brilliant man whose abrupt manner annoyed some but inspired others (like me). I attended a number of his workshops, but the most influential was one on film study and filmmaking with students (late 1960s? early 1970s?). I dashed back to Aurora and was soon teaching kids about film history--and "supervising" them as they ran all over the place shooting their own films.

McCabe occasionally spoke fondly of a former colleague--George Hillocks--with whom he would write what I long thought (still think?) was the best book for English teachers I'd ever read: The Dynamics of English Instruction, Grades 7-12 (1971--a third author was James McCampbell, whom I never met). I had this book for years, consulted it often, stole from it routinely, and only recently (wouldn't you know!) gave it away during our current Downsizing Frenzy. I wish I had it right now ...

Joyce and I met George Hillocks many years ago at an NCTE function (I can't remember where or when--it was in my pre-journal days), and we talked a lot about Bernie. I remember thinking they sounded a lot alike: the nasality, the keen intelligence, the eruptive laughs.

On May 1, 1975, not long after I arrived at school, my principal, Mike Lenzo, called me into his office. Showed me a story in the Plain Dealer. "Lakewood Couple Found Shot to Death" says a headline. Bernie. A double suicide. He was only 45; his wife (a first grade teacher), 42. No note. No reason given.

Years later (2010 or so), writing my memoir about my teaching career (Schoolboy), I wanted to know more. So I found George Hillocks' email address and exchanged a few messages with him about Bernie. But he didn't really know a lot more--or was not going to share what he did know. But he said he missed Bernie--a lot. (I'll add that I never again taught Edwin Arlington Robinson's suicide poem, "Richard Cory," without thinking about Bernie McCabe. Link to the poem.)

And now George Hillocks is gone as well. Two titans in the profession. Irreplaceable.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 71

Then, four days later, on December 14, Betty wrote to tell me that her father had died. She mentioned that he and her mother had been happily married for more than sixty-eight years—in the deepest bond of love. Betty’s is a very emotional note and mentions her crying—I will stop again soon, she said.
Having recently lost my own father, I had a sense of what she felt. The worst feeling I have experienced this past year without my father, I wrote, is an overpowering sense of his absence. I wrote in my journal last year [the day he died] that I was going to bed for the first time without a father and would wake up in a world without him. It was a desperate, lonely thought, and I have not recovered and not hope to recover.
What I meant by that last part: I do not ever want to think of my father and not feel his loss—painfully feel it.

A few days later I wrote to tell Betty that Tennyson’s ode to Wellington, which I’d just read, was one of the worst poems ever written. It’s too long to reproduce here, but here’s one of the early stanzas:


Where shall we lay the man whom we deplore?        
Here, in streaming London’s central roar.     
Let the sound of those he wrought for,
And the feet of those he fought for, 
Echo round his bones for evermore.

I added in that same note that I had a sort of self-imposed deadline for the end of my first draft. Betty replied the next day. Here I am plodding away, she said. I continue unnaturally worn out—so you keep writing for the two of us.
I’m incredibly touched as I read those words now—you keep writing for the two of us. She had begun to accept me—not as an equal (she had none) but as a colleague, someone also doing what she considered the Good Work of trying to tell Mary’s story fairly, completely.
My reply, though, mentions none of this. Instead, insensitive, I wrote about my recent interest in the actor Edmund Kean (one of Mary’s favorites) and told her I’d collected a few Kean items over the years. Our correspondence drifted back to him in mid-January 2001. I finished that last bio of Kean, I wrote. What a sad story (as all ultimately are). Dead at 45—destroyed by alcohol …. But during his last appearance on stage, he collapsed into the arms of his son, Charles. Not a bad way to go, I guess.

Link to entire Tennyson poem.