Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 10



1.Joyce and I were talking about the idea of having funeral before you die. It's not, of course, an original idea. I think I've read stories in newspapers and magazines about it. I just Googled "funeral before death" and got all kinds of hits--including this one, a place advertising a "Living Funeral." (Link to site.) The site steals a little bit of my thunder because I'm talking here a little about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the famous scene when Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper attend their own funeral, hiding in the balcony. (Here's a link to the entire chapter, Chapter 17--and you'll need to read the chapters preceding it to see why people in town thought the boys were dead.) Here are some relevant paragraphs from that chapter:

As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide. The congregation became more and more moved, as the pathetic tale went on, till at last the whole company broke down and joined the weeping mourners in a chorus of anguished sobs, the preacher himself giving way to his feelings, and crying in the pulpit.
There was a rustle in the gallery, which nobody noticed; a moment later the church door creaked; the minister raised his streaming eyes above his handkerchief, and stood transfixed! First one and then another pair of eyes followed the minister’s, and then almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!
Aunt Polly, Mary, and the Harpers threw themselves upon their restored ones, smothered them with kisses and poured out thanksgivings, while poor Huck stood abashed and uncomfortable, not knowing exactly what to do or where to hide from so many unwelcoming eyes. He wavered, and started to slink away, but Tom seized him and said:
“Aunt Polly, it ain’t fair. Somebody’s got to be glad to see Huck.”
“And so they shall. I’m glad to see him, poor motherless thing!” And the loving attentions Aunt Polly lavished upon him were the one thing capable of making him more uncomfortable than he was before.
Suddenly the minister shouted at the top of his voice: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow—sing!—and put your hearts in it!”



2. Not that I need another reminder that I'm old ... but I got a notice this week from a FB friend that her husband, a former student of mine, was turning sixty this week. John Mlinek, whom I taught the very first year of my career (1966-67) in one of my seventh grade classes, is hitting the Mark this week. Sixty. Students I taught in seventh grade are turning SIXTY! I have a long history with John. He was in the first two shows I ever directed at the Aurora Middle School and went on to have a fine career in theater and in just about anything else he ever did (including teaching near Dayton). I got to see him play Hamlet at Kent State, Macbeth in Columbus in an open-air production (a dog wandered up on the stage at one point; oh well). He has directed many shows himself, and his wife, Kim, now is a tech director for many sports productions you see on the Tube. John has remained ferociously loyal to me over the years. When he's in town, he gets in touch; he invites us to his annual Oscar Night each spring; he never forgets us. When I directed my final show in Aurora at Harmon Middle School (spring 1996), he came back and performed a cameo.When a friend and I founded the Aurora Youth Theater back in the late 1960s, John was one of the first high school students we called to get involved--and did he get involved! Eventually, he and his friend Dave Prittie were running the AYT, which, sadly, has disappeared. They wrote and directed shows, performed in them. John and Dave also made films when they were in high school, and I was always flattered when they brought them over to show us the "final cut." Anyway, John was and is a special young man. I say "young man" because, well, he's younger than I! Joyce and I love him like a son.

Here's a story, just to show you. Years ago (in the thrall of my Billy-the-Kid phase) I had gone, alone, to the Midway Drive-In between Kent and Ravenna to see Dirty Little Billy, an anti-heroic film about you-know-who. It starred Michael J. Pollard (who'd made a name for himself in Bonnie and Clyde.) Gary Busey and Nick Nolte, unknown at the time, were also in the cast. This must have been the spring or summer of 1973. Our son was barely a year old, and Joyce had no interest in dirty little Billys. She had plenty on her hands with Dirty Little Steve. So I went alone. After the film had been going for a little while, I heard a knock on the car window. There were John and Dave. They'd dropped by our house to see me, and hearing where I was, they came out to join me. (They were KSU students at the time.) They climbed in the car, and we "enjoyed" the film together.



3. As I've posted here (or FB?), Joyce and I have finished watching the first two seasons of Longmire, the TV series about a contemporary Wyoming sheriff--and we've enjoyed the episodes a lot (took a while to get "hooked," I'll admit). I noticed, early on, that one of the verbal characteristics of Walt Longmire (the sheriff). When he's talking informally with folks, he occasionally (often?) ends a sentences with so ...

Now, this is not the long, drawn-out soooooooo, but a short so that indicates that he could go on but isn't going to. After I noticed Longmire doing it, I noticed that I was occasionally doing it, too. I don't think I learned it from him--but anything's possible. I think that so is "out there," though. Yesterday at the coffee shop I occasionally heard things from a table of women nearby. And one of them, telling an anecdote, completed it with this: Everybody in the group was there, so ...  Again, an abrupt so, not a trailing one.

4. And I'll end with a Dumb Dream from last night. For some reason, I was interviewing candidates for the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. Oddly, these interviews took place at Harmon Middle School in Aurora. I sat in a little practice room, and the groups came in--I told them they could bring only one instrument with them. One of the first groups was the Rolling Stones--but they looked like middle school kids. I told them they didn't need to audition: They were the Stones. They seem pleased, as was I when I woke up immediately after they launched into "Jumpin' Jack Flash," which, oddly, sounded just like the recording even though they had with them only one acoustic guitar.




Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dividing Words--and the Demise of the Hyphen



I posted a silly poem on Facebook the other day, a poem about how the "younger generations" don't know--or even really need to know--the rules for dividing words at the ends of lines. This was a skill that earlier generations (like mine) needed because so much of what we did was either handwritten or typewritten, and on a typewriter you can stop, divide the word, hit "hyphen," and finish the word on the next line. Computer word-processors have pretty much eliminated the need for that: They just end each line with a full word, then move to the next line.

REVELATIONI just checked Word and discovered that you can set it to hyphenate (hyphenation options are under Page Layout). Below, I've reproduced the third paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities, showing in red the words that Word hyphenated.



So you can use hyphenation in Word if you wish (it has automatic and manual settings)--but I'm guessing most people won't. Hell, I didn't even know you could until just now!

So what were the rules we had to learn back in the pre-computer days?

In my copy of The Plain English Handbook (1972) here's what I find: When it is necessary to divide a word at the end of a line, the division should be made between syllables, and a hyphen should be placed at the end of the line. Never place a hyphen at the beginning of a line. Always check the dictionary for correct syllabication of English words (99).

Okay, that's pretty basic--and incomplete. You can't always divide between syllables. I checked the first grammar book I used when I began my teaching career with 7th graders in 1966 (Language for Daily Use, 1965), and here's all it says: Use a hyphen to divide words between syllables at the end of a line (427). Still incomplete.

But good old Warriner's English Grammar and Composition (Complete Course), spells it out.

28f. Divide a word at the end of a line between pronounceable parts only. One-syllable words should never be divided.

28g. A word having double consonants should be divided between the consonants. (recom-mend, hap-py).
Words like bill-ing and toss-ing are exceptions.

28h. Do not divide a word so that single letter stands alone. If possible do not divide a word so that only two letters are carried over to the next line. (pri-vacy, not priva-cy)

28i. Words having prefixes and suffixes should usually be divided between the prefix and the root of the word or between the root of the word and the suffix.

And the final usage manual I used with students--Hacker's Rules for Writers, 2000 edition--repeats these rules and exceptions--and adds this: To divide long e-mail and Internet addresses, do not use a hyphen (because a hyphen could appear to be part of the address).

So there you go ... all the rules you never need to know since Word will perform these functions for you.

**

Here's the silly Facebook poem I mentioned ...

That Hyphen Thing

These younger generations have
It easy—no debate.
For they no longer need to know
How they should hyphenate.

When I was younger—long ago!—
All students learned in schools
Dividing words at ends of lines—
Those hyphenation rules.

We had to know the syllables—
And what exceptions were.
Oh, hyphenation made us wise—
Or “sage,” if you prefer.

Computers, though, have ended that—
They don’t divide at all.
Instead, they start another line—
I stagger at the gall!

The difference ’twixt will and shall
And how to hyphenate?
And lie and lay—and who and whom
Oh, these have made us great! 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 39


We drove right over to her place on Massachusetts Avenue, a route I knew a bit because our tour buses always used it on the many annual trips our Aurora eighth graders took to the Nation’s Capital. (Chaperoning those trips, I learned that a mile on a bus loaded with eighth graders is different from a mile with Joyce.)
Betty answered the door, invited us in, and we immediately noticed how dim she kept her lights. It didn’t take long to figure out the reason: Framed on her walls were some priceless objects, including a letter in the hand of—and signed by—Mary W. Shelley. (Bright lights can cause fading.) Trying not to drool, I looked around and expressed my envy and admiration. And realized that what was on her walls probably exceeded in value my entire “estate.”
We sat down, had coffee, and talked about Mary Shelley and what I was up to. Joyce later said that it reminded her of a dance, a dance in which the woman (Betty) was trying steps on the man (Danny) to see how he would respond—to see if he was worthy. Apparently, I must have responded all right because the hour or so ended with great amity, with vows to stay in touch, with promises of various sorts—all of which both of us kept.
Here’s one exchange I remember, but a bit of background first. On February 22, 1815, Mary, 17, delivered a daughter, which means (employing the nine-month rule!) that they had “done it” not long after their initial meetings back in May of 1814—before their dash to Europe in company with her step-sister Claire Clairmont. But the evidence suggests it was a premature birth—perhaps a seven-month child—and she lived only about two weeks.
The first Mary Shelley biography I’d read, back in January 1997 (as I’ve said), was Emily Sunstein’s Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (1989). Sunstein says that Mary “possibly meant to name her Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin III” (97). Anyway, I had a couple of questions for Betty about this infant.
How did Sunstein know what Mary intended to name the child?
Do we know where is the infant buried?
When I asked these things, Betty’s eyes lit. “I warned Emily about that,” she said. “There’s no evidence about the name.”  And then—“No one knows where she lies, though I have some ideas.” I would not learn what those ideas were. Although Betty would prove to be a very generous scholar and friend—answering all kinds of questions, sharing all sorts of information and informed speculation—she was not yet ready for that kind of trust. Can’t say that I blame her.
Scholars can be very careful about what they share—especially before they publish their findings. Earle Labor (the Jack London scholar I mentioned) once trusted me with an amazing and emotional story about a young Stanford student named Anna Strunsky, who had been one of London’s early loves—and had even co-written an epistolary book with him on the subject of love, The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903—the same year as The Call of the Wild).
Anyway, London married someone else (then divorced and married again), but Anna, who married William English Walling, never forgot London. Here’s what Earle wrote in his recent biography: “Though she married William English Walling …, she carried a miniature portrait of Jack in her wallet for the rest of her life” (167). This Earle had learned from her daughter in an interview.
When Earle told me that story, I was working on my YA biography of London. He asked me not to use the information. I didn’t. But oh did I want to!


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thomas Berger, R.I.P.


I was saddened a couple of days ago when I saw the news in the New York Times that Thomas Berger had died. (Link to obituary.) For decades, Berger had been one of my favorite novelists, and as each of his books came out, I pounced--as the photo of one of our bookshelves shows (and not all of the books are visible!).

It was my classmate and friend from Hiram College, Bill Heath, who first alerted me to Berger in the mid-1960s. He told me that I had to read Berger's 1964 masterpiece, Little Big Man, a novel that I've read a half-dozen times since. Of course, I grew up in the Southwest, and as a boy I'd been a ferocious reader of biographies of Western figures--so Berger's novel was a perfect fit for me. Wild Bill Hickok, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse--these and numerous others made appearances in Little Big Man. It's as if Berger had interviewed me before he wrote the book, asked me what I wanted to read, and went back into his study to create it.



Once I'd read Little Big Man, I started reading Berger's earlier novels (beginning with Crazy in Berlin, 1958, the first novel in what would become a tetralogy focusing on Carlo Reinhart, one of the most memorable characters in contemporary American fiction) and then--as I said--I bought each new one the day I saw it on the bookstore shelf and read it ASAP.

When I married Joyce in late 1969, I introduced her and her family to Berger--and she actually taught Little Big Man to some KSU frosh in the early 1970s, and her uncle Paul adored the novel as well; I think her parents read and loved it, too. I remember Uncle Paul asking me (afterwards): "You have any other books like that?" Well, no, there are no other books like that--but I felt exactly the way he did.  I want more books like that!

As far as I know, four of Berger's novels have made it to the silver screen. The most famous, of course, is Little Big Man, 1970, with Dustin Hoffman. I didn't really care for the film because it distorted one of my favorite novels so much. Another was Neighbors, 1981, with Belushi and Aykroyd (from SNL's Olympus), and I remember liking it--but saw it more than thirty years ago, so I think I'm going to have to hop online and see it again.

I learned that two other films are out there, as well--The Feud (1989--which I've ordered) and Meeting Evil (2012--which is now in my Netflix streaming queue). I'll report on them later.
When I posted the Times piece about Berger's death, I heard from a former student, Molly Young McCormick, who said she thought I had taught that novel to her middle school class back ... well, a long time ago. And that reminded me of something: I had not taught the full novel (that would have been professional suicide at the time--Berger can be ... naughty ... and violent), but I had used a passage from it. Just this moment I went to one of my (many) file drawers and found the folder labeled Comp--Conversation (LBM): Compositions--Conversation--Little Big Man. And inside I found the very worksheet I gave to my middle school students for years. (See below.) I also found an old transparency (remember them?) in that folder, one I'd also used in class for years, as well. I wanted my 7th and 8th graders to use this excerpt from Little Big Man to figure out the punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph rules for writing conversations.


In 1999, Berger published a sequel--The Return of Little Big Man. When I heard it was going to be released, I was ecstatic. It was as if a Beatles fan had just learned that a "lost" album had just appeared--or a Frankenstein fan learning that Mary Shelley had written a sequel--or ... a sequel to The Return of the King ... or ... you get the picture.



But I didn't care for it--not really Berger's fault, I guess. I mean, how could anything live up to my expectations? Before I'd read it, I'd agreed to lead a discussion about Little Big Man at the local library. In prep, I re-read LBM (loving it--loving it again).

The presentation/discussion was at 10:00 a.m., June 25, 1999--part of the Hudson Library's "The Last Friday Book Talks." I see in my journal for that day that I pretty much talked the whole time--showed slides, talked about Berger's other books, etc.--typical insecure, over-prepared teacher ... didn't allow much time for discussion.

That same summer of 1999 my father was dying. I was driving back and forth to Pittsfield, Mass., where he and my mom were. He was in and out of nursing and rehab facilities as he was navigating the final stages of his long, wonderful voyage. On Father's Day that year I thought about Little Big Man, about the death of Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne who was the father figure for the narrator Jack Crabb. Later, I wrote about that final Father's Day, about the death of my father, in my memoir Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss (Kindle Direct, 2012). Here's some of what I wrote there ...

In my journal that final Father’s Day of my own father’s life I noted that I had once again wept at the death of Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne father figure for Jack Crabb.  Knowing his time is nigh, the old man, now blind, climbs to a noble height.  Rain is falling.  Berger himself, I wrote, must have wept as he wrote those wonderful words that Old Lodge Skins cries out on the top of the mountain.
And here they are—

Then he commenced to pray to the Everywhere Spirit in the same stentorian voice, never sniveling but bold and free.
“Thank you for making me a Human Being!  Thank you for helping me become a warrior!  Thank you for all my victories and for all my defeats.  Thank you for my vision, and for the blindness in which I saw further.”

Oh, that my own father—condemned to a wheelchair on his final Father’s Day—could have climbed a high mountain to cry his gratitude to his god—and then die satisfied in a soft rain.






Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 38


In 1999 I was in Europe for nearly a month (from April 11–May 6), trying to visit every extant Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley site—and any number of places where nothing really stands any longer but where something significant happened. For example, on Friday, April 23, I got off the train in Viareggio, Italy, and walked along the Mediterranean beach. It was there, in August 16, 1822, that Edward John Trelawny, in accordance with local law, cremated the drowned and barely recognizable body of Percy Bysshe Shelley that had washed up (he had drowned on July 8). It was there on that beach that, the cremation nearly complete, Trelawny snatched from the fire the remains of Shelley’s heart.
I’m going to write much more about my journey in subsequent chapters, but it was this trip—or my report of it, anyway—that drew Betty and me closer together. When I finally got home (and I was so ready for that!), I wrote Betty on May 10 with an account of my travels. I told her what I’d learned from my visit at Castle Frankenstein—that it was impossible (as I noted earlier) that Percy and Mary had visited it during their elopement journey down the Rhine in 1814. I also mentioned a few other key places I’d been—Field Place (the estate where Bysshe Shelley grew up), Tan-yr-allt, the Welsh house where Bysshe and his first wife had lived for a bit—and where he claimed he’d battled an assassin late one night.
And this: I will be going to the Library of Congress map room in the next few weeks; there I will try to find an early 19th century map of the Rhine to see what I can determine about the course of the river in those days. I’ll let you know if I discover anything of interest ….
Remember: The Library of Congress is in Washington, D. C. (duh); American University is in Washington, D. C.; Betty taught at American University. I can’t remember, of course, all the ulterior motives that were banging around in my head at the time I wrote to Betty, but I’m betting one of them was this: I’m letting her know I’m going to be in Washington … let’s see what happens.

Less than an hour later, Betty wrote back. She thanked me for sharing the details about the trip—agreed with my Castle Frankenstein comments and said, mysteriously, I have a different theory about the Frankenstein name … but it remains a theory. I never did find out what she meant about that.
But here was the good news: Let me know when you are in town—perhaps we can meet. … With kind regards …

And that, my friends, would turn out to be one of my life’s finest gifts.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Limo Daze



Last Saturday evening Joyce and I passed a limo on I-480 near Twinsburg. But I didn't know it was a limo, not until I pulled out to pass and saw that it was as long as the Orange Blossom Special. (For those of you who are chronologically challenged, the OBS was a train--and a song, here performed on YouTube by Johnny Cash. The train ran from New York to Miami.) Anyway, that limo was one long car, and I was glad for one of the few times in my life that I was on a divided highway--would've been impossible to pass back in the old two-lane days of my youth.

Riding in a limo was not a common thing when I was growing up. Funerals. Sometimes weddings. (Joyce and I did not have one.) Wealthy characters on TV shows and in movies. I don't recall that anyone in my high school rode in one to the proms my junior and senior year. It was costly, yes, but I think a lot of us thought it was just plain presumptuous, too. Basically unthinkable. (Hell, I could barely afford a corsage!)

Anyway, that limo the other night reminded me of one of the times I did ride in one--an event so unusual for me that I published an op-ed piece about it for our local newspaper, the Hudson Hub-Times, on July 11, 1984, almost exactly thirty years ago.

The occasion? Aurora High School had recently presented Guys and Dolls, directed by my good friend Andy Kmetz, who also worked with me on many middle school productions (and on the two high school productions I directed, as well--Grease and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Anyway, the appreciative cast gave Andy a limo ride and two tickets to see Little Shop of Horrors at the Palace Theater in downtown Cleveland. This was in the days before the major restorations on Playhouse Square, and I said this in the piece:

The Palace had not changed since the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was last there! I swear, there was a stain in the carpet and a leaf of peeling paint right where I remember them. Even the seat greeted me with a squeal of renewed acquaintanceship.

I remarked in the piece, as well, about the amenities in the limo--a bar, a TV set, a cut-glass dish of mints. And I said this: When you're riding in a limousine, you don't look at other motorists; they look at you. But I couldn't resist the temptation, and I saw expressions ranging from curiosity to envy and awe to something I can only define as rage. And although I know it's impossible, I'll swear there were some who looked at us and knew we didn't belong!

But, hey, we had a great time, though Andy informed me that the only time he'd ever been in a limo was at a funeral.

Here's the final paragraph ...

The students at Aurora High, with their gracious and thoughtful gift, freshened our vision that night. And were Andy and I, in true fairy tale fashion, granted one wish, it would be that everyone, at least once in a lifetime, could ride in a chauffeured coach, right up to a palace door, and step forth in a swirl of light and a flourish of trumpets.

I don't know that I've been in a limo since then--perhaps at a funeral or two--but I know it's a far more common occurrence today.

By the way, when I looked in my files for a copy of that limo piece, I found a business card for Elegant Limousine Service (North Royalton, Ohio); I see via Google that they're still in business--though much expanded.

And on a darker note--Andy now is in an assisted living unit in Kent, moving only with the aid of a walker. He was a fantastic dancer, and the numbers he choreographed for our shows were always the best part of the night. Joyce and I go to see him on most Wednesday evenings, and we laugh about the Old Days--the plays, the rehearsals. Next time I see him--tomorrow night--I'm going to remind him about that fantastic limo ride in 1984. The night that he and I got a glimpse of another world.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 37


I had pretty much forgotten about my original note—I mean, I’d not forgotten that I’d written to her; I just figured that she was a lot busier than I and had better things to do than to reply to a random email from a retired eighth-grade English teacher in Aurora, Ohio. She was Betty T. Bennett, after all … and I …?
But her note was kind. She apologized for taking so long (though she offered no excuse) and said it is always special to hear from someone who found her work useful.
And then she made a mistake: She asked me a couple of questions: How is your project going …? And: By the way, where are you located? Ask me questions, and you get replies.
I replied the same day—only about an hour later, in fact. I sent her a massive note, one in which I trotted out some Big Guns (my two brothers). I told her that my younger brother, Dave, had published books with the Harvard Business School Press; I told her that my older brother, Richard, was the music critic for the Boston Globe. I told her, again, about my Jack London books; I outlined for her my self-imposed deadlines—finishing the research, traveling to Europe to see the important places in Mary’s story, starting to write the text.
I wrote a thick paragraph, as well, about Joyce and her scholarly and writing interests. And in a final paragraph (a small one with a presumptuous message) I asked her something that I had no business asking—not someone of her stature, not so early in our correspondence. May I send you my bibliography, I asked, & ask if you see any glaring omissions? Anything I simply must consult before I proceed?
I think if I had been Betty Bennett, that would have ended all correspondence. And it pretty much did. She did not reply.
On March 17, 1999—three months later—I wrote again to tell her I was heading to Europe to visit Shelley sites. I asked her if she knew of any comprehensive list of the places the Shelleys had lived, places that are still standing. She wrote back the same day—told me she knew of no such list but wished me happy hunting.
I will mention here that in her first note to me she had said that she was at work on her Shelley biography for Harvard University Press. At the time, I read this as kind of a warning (Don’t try to fool me with the “YA” stuff … I’ve already got a contract with a Biggie Press), but as I re-read her note more than fifteen years later, I detect nothing of the sort. But, of course, my attitudes about Betty are now much different. At the time she first wrote to me, we didn’t know each other at all, but as the next few years passed, much would change.