Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Changing Time

In January this year I wrote about the experience of receiving--then promptly losing (twice)--a Timex watch. I was, oh, ten or so. (Link to that previous post.) For some reason, this past Sunday, while Joyce and I were off on a morning walk, we fell to talking about watches.

I remarked that when I was a boy, it was sort of a rite of passage, getting your first wristwatch. I can still (vaguely) remember going down to the Sears in Enid to pick it out. It was a boys' Timex with a gray strap. (By the way, later on, Joyce and I had a crotchety jeweler who insisted on the difference between a watch strap and a watch band, and when we would use the incorrect term, he would disdainfully correct us--like a humorless English teacher with no social skills.) Mine had a leather strap, as I was saying, and I was surpassingly proud of that watch, showing all my friends, who feigned interest fairly well.

Of course, it was a pre-digital, pre-electronic device, so I had to wind it all the time (often forgot). Mine looked a bit like the photo above--but, as I said, with a gray strap.

My friends often had more impressive devices--with Speidel metal watch bands, with the words waterproof and/or shockproof on them. Still, I was so happy with my watch ... but boyhood carelessness lost it for me.

I've had other sorts of watches throughout the years. In the late 70s I even had an old-fashioned pocket watch that I would wear with my three-piece suit (which didn't adorn me very often).

Since about 1990 I've been wearing a Seiko (with a brown leather strap) that I got in Massachusetts the year that our son began college at Tufts. I've had it worked on--several times--both by local jewelers and by the Seiko team. The last time--they told me they couldn't get parts anymore, so when it quits this time, that will be it. That's too bad. It's very accurate, has a moon-phase function, calendar (all very unobtrusive). I bought a new Seiko (larger, unfortunately) when the old one stopped. Then, a few days later, the old one started working again, as if to say I ain't done yet! So I put it back on, and it's been working fine for months.

We have some family watches--and one watch from a friend (former Harmon School colleague Andy Kmetz)--watches that were given by employers for X years of service & retirement--that sort of thing. Andy's had belonged to his father.

The year I retired from Western Reserve Academy (the 2010-2011 academic year), I was meeting my classes in the fall. Near the end of a period late in the day, I told a class about something I'd recently read (I'd already told my other classes that day)--that many young people no longer wear watches; they rely on their smart phones instead. After I told that story near the end of the period to my final class, and after I asked them if any of them wore watches, I noticed they were all staring at me oddly. I asked what was wrong.

"Dr. Dyer," said one brave young man, "you already told us that story at the beginning of the period."

I laughed--told them that if I ever did anything like that again, they should take me out in the woods and lose me. Maybe I'd find my old Timex out there in the woods ... strap and all.

my current watch

Monday, March 30, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 113

When I was doing my reading and research on Mary Shelley, I did veer off the Shelley Turnpike now and then—as these pages well certify—to explore some local by-ways. The story of poor Harriet Westbrook is among the most wrenching of all.
While Bysshe Shelley, 18, was at Oxford University, he met Harriet, 15, who attended a school in Clapham with Shelley’s sister Hellen.[1] The young man dazzled the bright and attractive Harriet, daughter of the owner of a popular coffee shop. Bysshe was handsome, brilliant, wildly articulate, an Oxford student!—and had even published two Gothic novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne (both in 1810). His enthusiasm about life—and the life of the mind—was, well, viral.
And Harriet caught the virus.
In about three months things changed--drastically. Oxford expelled Shelley (and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg) for their publication The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley had turned 19 and was sort of hanging out, avoiding his (justifiably) irate father, and visiting his sister at school—and, of course, Harriet, who soon became the cynosure of his attention.
By August, Bysshe had convinced Harriet, now sixteen, to run away with him to be married in Scotland (where marriage laws were less restrictive). She agreed, and on August 29, 1811, off they flew (sort of—by carriage) to Edinburgh, where they married. Her father was not all that disturbed: Bysshe was the son of Sir Timothy; he would eventually be Sir Percy Bysshe Shelley. Not a bad arrangement, class-wise.
But Sir Timothy was not pleased. When he learned the news, he cut off Bysshe’s allowance—£200 a year—and wrote a harsh note to Hogg’s father: God knows what can be the end of all this disobedience. He and his son would remain estranged—an estrangement that outlived Bysshe and transferred most bitterly to Mary Shelley. And ended only with his own death at 90, only seven years before Mary died. He did, however, eventually (and grudgingly) contribute funds both to his son and, later, to Mary.
But Harriet Westbrook Shelley must have realized very, very early in their marriage that she had been pulled into the vortex of a cyclone. She had no idea how dark her life would become—and how short it would be.

[1] Clapham, south of London, just across the Thames, is about 60 miles southeast of Oxford.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 43

1. AOTW: In Aurora (Ohio), the McDonald's has two driveways in front; they are one-way (one an entrance, the other an exit). Right in front of the building is a short, curving part of the driveway system that connects the entrance and exit lanes. It, too, is one way. This past Tuesday evening we were driving the correct way on that little connecting lane, and here came the AOTW driving the other way in an SUV, his body language (and SUV language) communicating that we were somehow at fault. We weren't. We had to go up on the curb to avoid hitting him. (In the photo, the little connector lane is just to the right of the parked car; if you look closely, you can see the one-way arrow painted on the blacktop.)

2. I finished another book this week about Mary Shelley, called (surprise!) Mary Shelley, by Martin Garrett--part of the British Library Writers' Lives series (Oxford UP, 2002). It's a beautiful book to look at, full of pictures of the people and places significant in her life. I didn't really learn much from the accompanying text (it is really a book for people who are beginning their journey through MaryWorld). I was disappointed that it seemed to buy into the idea that Mary got the Frankenstein name from her 1814 journey down the Rhine, a theory that I just think doesn't hold much water (no Rhine pun intended): and there is no documentary evidence to support it. Still ... if you want a good (short) introduction to MaryWorld, this would be a good one to read.

3. I'm nearly finished reading a novel by a former Harmon Middle School student, Cori McCarthy:  Breaking Sky, an exciting YA novel about the not-too-distant future when America's status in the world has diminished. But some young pilots (including our hero, a talented young woman named Chase) are training with some hot new aircraft in the hopes of changing things. I didn't know Cori well (I knew her brothers better). She was in 8th grade the final year of my career (1996-97), and I retired in January that year. I also had a student teacher most of the fall and just did not get to know the 8th graders very well at all. My loss. I'll write more about Breaking Sky next week when I've finished the book.
4. On Saturday night, Joyce and I went to Kent to see the film Still Alice, the story of a 50-year-old academic (a star academic, by the by, played wonderfully by Julianne Moore) who learns she has early-onset familial Alzheimer's. This is a disease that Joyce and I know very well--she far more than I because she dealt with her mother's battle for nearly a decade--and subsequently wrote a terrific book about her mom's struggle, In a Tangled Wood: An Alzheimer's Journey (SMU Press, 1996--here's a link to the book on Amazon). Strong performances, too, by Alec Baldwin (her husband) and Kristen Stewart (one of her daughters). (Link to trailer for the film.) Tears arrived more than once.

5. Today, I'm making (I hope) the last batch of chicken soup of the season--made the stock yesterday from the carcass of a roaster we'd eaten the previous week. CrockPot, here I come!

6. I'm going to be reviewing a new biography of Saul Bellow, and, as I've said here before, I've been reading some of Bellow's novels that I either never read or have forgotten. I've nearly finished his 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, a book I'm fairly sure I read nearly a half-century ago (some names of characters are familiar to me--and, no, not just Augie's!), but I couldn't have told you a lick about it until the past week. It's a long book, a coming-of-age, episodic novel that, in a way, propelled Bellow's subsequent career (which culminated with a Nobel Prize in 1976). I'll write more about the novel when I've finished it, but here are a couple of lines that leapt out at me the other day:
  • "It takes some of us a long time to find out what the price is of being in nature, and what the facts are about your tenure" (Lib of Amer edition, 797).
  • "Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can't use he often can't see" (816).

7. The other day, I read (or used?) the word hanker, meaning to have a restless or incessant longing (for)--e.g., "I have a hankering for some chocolate." And then I wondered, Where did that word come from? The OED traces this meaning to 1642; an earlier one (1601) means, basically, to hang out.  (Milton used it in an essay!) The OED says the origins are "obscure"--though they note a similar Dutch word with a similar meaning. There's also a related English word--hankerer--which I've never seen (that I can recall). "For chocolate, she is a hankerer!" (Or ... for chicken soup.)

I remember from my years of watching cowboy movies and TV shows that hanker was a common word from the mouths of Westerners--e.g., "I have a hankerin' for some chow."

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Another Danged "Teacher Dream"

Last night ... March 27/28, 2015

I am teaching American history in a public school--something I did only once, by the way, the very first year of my career (1966-67), seventh graders, Aurora (Ohio) Middle School. I didn't really know what I was doing that year, other than surviving (which, barely, I did) and, often, having a very good time, and I was glad that I could teach just English the following year. (I'm sure the Gods of American History were appreciative, as well.)

Anyway ... I do not recognize the school I'm in. It seems to have features of the schools I attended and worked in--from Adams Elementary in Enid, Okla., to the Hiram Local Schools to the Aurora Middle School. 

It's the day of the final exam--and there seems to be a massive number of students in the school. Populating the dream are some folks I know--kids and adults (from all times of my life)--but right now I can't identify a single one of them.

For some reason we have been transported to a test site (how?) for the final, and I am aware that I am but one of the teachers who have American history classes. Can't say who the others are. The building resembles a nightmare (!) version of the old Hiram School. The lowest floor (where I seem to be headed) reminds me of that old Hiram Schools basement where the shop was--and the classroom of Mr. Brunelle, a high school English teacher who, I much later realized, had a profound effect on my own career.

Something is gnawing at me as I move along into the bowels of the building: I've not prepared an exam to give the kids!

At first, this does not bother me too much ... perhaps it's a standard exam that all the kids are taking? But I can't seem to locate any of the other American history teachers.

In my head I begin composing a couple of essay questions I can read to the kids ... just in case. I can't remember one of them, but the other was was this:

Write about the role of hope in American history.

I'm sure I had more than that ... surely I added more information to help the kids focus their answers? Of course I did ... what kind of teacher would I be if ...

I'm a little concerned when I see what the kids are carrying and not carrying. What if they have no notebook paper? I can't supply any! I ask one young man carrying only a pencil, "Do you have any paper?" 

He ignores me.

And then we are in the basement--which is looking Carlsbad Caverns-ish--and I swing open a heavy door so sizable it's Tolkien-ian. Inside ... a high school band is warming up. I ask someone where the middle school band is ... no answer.

I step back into the hall.

And then Joyce is rising, getting ready to head out to the health club, and I am awake (sort of) and so glad I don't have to monitor an exam today--especially one I have not yet even written.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 112

Bysshe Shelley was an excitable, brilliant young man—inventive and imaginative and susceptible to tales of the supernatural. Throughout his life, boyhood to manhood, there are stories about him getting so excited about a late-night sound or suggestion or scene or story that he—in modern terminology—freaked out.
Let’s look at just one of them. Not long before he died, he and Mary and little Percy and some friends were living in a seaside house, Casa Magni, in Lerici, Italy. (The house still stands (see below)—though a seawall now keeps it dry.) Edward Williams (one of their friends) recorded the following incident in his journal on Monday, May 6, 1822:
After tea while walking with Shelley on the terrace and observing the effect of moonshine on the waters, he complained of being unusually nervous, and stopping short he grasped me violently by the arm and stared steadfastly on the white surf that broke upon the beach under our feet. Observing him sensibly affected I demanded of him if he was in pain—but he only answered, saying “There it is again!—there!”—He recovered after some time and declared that he saw, as plainly as then he saw me a naked child rise from the sea, clap its hands as if in joy and smiling at him. This was a trance that it required some reasoning and philosophy entirely to awaken him from ….[1]
Almost exactly two months later (July 8) Williams would drown in the boating accident that also took the lives of Charles Vivian (a young deck hand) and Bysshe Shelley himself.

Bysshe’s excitability and impulsiveness manifested itself in a variety of ways. As a boy (as we’ve seen) he liked to scare his siblings with frightening tales; he performed electrical experiments that literally shocked some observers; more than once in his later life he decided he was going to adopt someone else’s child. And, of course, there were those sixteen-year-old girls he ran away with.

Casa Magni (then)

Casa Magni, April 23, 1999

[1] Frederick L. Jones, ed. Maria Gisborne & Edward E. Williams, Shelley’s Friends: Their Journals and Letters (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1951), 147.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

My 2nd Grade Self

Avondale School
Amarillo, Tex.
(2nd grade)

I stare at my second-grade self today and notice that he is staring back. I'm surprised I don't see more confusion in his eyes. For I have become something that lad could not have imagined in 1951.

My 1951 self, as I recall, had the following interests:
- cap guns & cowboys
- baseball (I played on my first team that summer--the Amarillo Ticks: Our green T-shirts featured a large white tick on the front).
- TV--but there was a problem: In 1951-52, Amarillo had no access to television; all stations were too far away; no roof antenna could coax in a signal from Dallas, which lies 360 miles to the southeast. So ... even though we had a TV set, it sat there, inactive, for the two years we were in Amarillo; we listened to radio programs instead.
Paramount in Amarillo
- Pancakes
- our dog, Sooner, a fantastic terrier mix that our grandparents from Enid, Okla., had brought along with them on one of their visits (presumably with Mom and Dad's permission); during our nap time (our room was in the back of the house), my little brother and I would sometimes sneak Sooner in through the window--much better than napping!
- cap guns and cowboys
- avoiding big kids (sixth graders were terrifying)
- going to cowboy movies (Amarillo had movie theaters!)
- my bicycle--it was in Amarillo that I first learned to ride; my first (rough) lesson: It's easier to start than to stop a bike.
- cap guns and cowboys
- family car trips to see my dad's family in Oregon
- playing on the monkey bars at school; we had a game: two lines would form; you would hand-over-hand your way to the center where your opponent waited; you would try to get him/her around the waist with your legs and pull the loser down! (I won a few of those battles: small size was an advantage.) I can't believe the teachers stood there and watched ... times have changed.
- cap guns and cowboys (why not? we were only a few miles away from Palo Duro ("hardwood") Canyon, hangout of the Comanche)
- reading (not really ... though I did like Ferdinand and some Dr. Seuss books; I also read some little biographies of cowboys
- girls ... no way!
So ... as I look back at the boy from 1951, that freckled boy looking back at me mildly amused, that boy wearing a shirt made by his grandmother, that boy who by some cruel twist is now seventy years old, I guess I could try to explain to him my current interests--reading, writing, going to movies (not too many these days about cowboys, I fear), hanging out with the most wonderful human being I've ever known (Joyce Dyer), playing with my grandsons (almost 6 and 10), watching The Rockford Files over and over and over again, making bread and other baked goods, eating Wheat Thins, seeing Shakespeare plays ... let's not go on. We never will get to the cap guns. And I think that lad has has enough shocks for one day.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Deathwords Soon Available!

Sometime soon--later today or tomorrow--I will be uploading this latest collection of doggerel to Kindle Direct. You don't need a Kindle to read it--just a Kindle app on your smart phone or tablet.

Here's the Foreword to the collection ...


Deathwords is not a word of course.
Or is it?
I just checked  the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered I am right. Deathward and deathwards appear (in 1398 and 1727, respectively), the former used by Malory and Swinburne and Robert Browning, the latter by Keats and Macaulay. Shakespeare—I just checked my concordance—used death-worthy in his long poem The Rape of Lucrece in 1594 but never stooped so low as to use deathward—and certainly not deathword(s), which I am now claiming as my own invention, putting me in the same category with, well, Shakespeare and with whoever thought of citizening and eyeballing and selfie—all recently added to the OED.
So … deathwords: synonyms for events or places related to dying and death, synonyms that may be euphemistic (“passed on”), dysphemistic (“feeding the worms”), humorous (“termination station”), or realistic (“graveyard”).
So … what’s going on in these verses I've collected here? In mid-December 2014 I got the idea for a silly poem about a frog that croaked—in both senses. And the next thing you know, each day I was posting on Facebook another quatrain (or so) that employed a slang term or phrase that we use for death--deathwords. On and on they flowed, and I must admit that, running out of ideas, I was helped by various websites whose masters/mistresses have nothing better to do than to accumulate and list such expressions. I thought of a lot—but there are scores of them out there, many of which I’d never heard before. Eventually, I decided to stop at one hundred. (There are many more, but I was getting depressed. And, I would guess, the interest of my Facebook audience was … dying.)
I’ve also included here a group of poems I’m calling “Deathless Doggerel” for two reasons: (1) they are not about death; (2) they are, well, doggerel. These are lines I wrote now and then and posted on Facebook for my friends to ignore—or to which they could feel superior.
Also, I like another meaning of the word deathless, number three in the OED’s list: deserves to be remembered forever; never to be forgotten.
This definition has lived since 1630. Perhaps these verses will kill it.

Mea culpa: While I was copy editing this text, I discovered several instances of my sending out into the world some deathwords I’d already used in a previous quatrain. Rather than delete one or the other, I decided to leave them both here (with a confessional endnote). Maybe there’s a fateful or metaphysical reason this happened? Nah ..., probably just dotage.

Daniel Dyer

March 25, 2015