Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 204a

A passage I will insert earlier in the text.

February 10, 2016
Just this morning I finished reading The Angry Ones (1960), the first novel by John A. Williams (1925–2015), a talented writer, an African American, who died in July 2015, and it was not until I read his obituary in the New York Times on July 6 (link) that I’d ever heard of him. (Shame on me.)
Since the summer I’ve been slowly working my way through his books (I’ve read three now—and I’ve been very impressed), and while reading The Angry Ones I came across a passage in which the novel’s narrator, Steve Hill (a struggling black writer in New York City), tells us about some action he witnessed in World War II.

ignore the lurid cover--
the novel is nothing like
what the cover suggests
In Viareggio. The Italian town where Bysshe Shelley’s body washed up on the beach in 1822, the beach where Byron and Trelawny and others arranged for Bysshe’s cremation (in accordance with local ordinances).
I visited Viareggio, as I’ve written, on April 23, 1999, walked through the town, walked along the beach, photographing all, missing the monument to Shelley (as I realized years later), the monument that is only about a block away from where I was. So it goes.
Anyway, I was struck with Williams’ passage. It’s full of the racial tension he invariably writes about—and reminds us of the all-black units in the U. S. Military during World War II (another subject that Williams, who served as a Navy medical corpsman during the war writes about with some passion, even anger).
So—although this passage does not have anything to do with Bysshe Shelley (save for its location)—here it is:
The Germans had left snipers in Viareggio. Not a single street was safe, especially one corner near the edge of town. And the Germans never missed. There had been the usual friction between Negro and white troops, but it was intensified when some Southern boys moved into town. As long as Negro troops were on the street, the white Southern boys walked across that intersection where the snipers never missed. They wouldn’t run. They walked as though they were making it through a park or something, and all of us loitered in doorways to watch them. Shaking in their white skins, those crackers stepped from cover. Bang! His fellows ran out and dragged him in. Another cracker boy would have to cross the street. He would look from cover to see how many of us were in the doors and windows watching, and when he saw, he would walk out. Bang! They would rather die than be afraid in front of a Negro, and we gathered along the walls and in the doors and windows every day to make sure at least a few of them and their Southern pride died.[1]
The racial animus that existed—exists?—among Americans glistens here like clear glass in the Italian sun.

[1] (New York: Ace Books), 102.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

My Parents: Newlyweds, October 12, 1939

my parents' wedding
October 12, 1939
University Place Christian Church
Enid, Oklahoma
Last fall--not long after what would have been my parents' 76th wedding anniversary (my father died in late November 1999)--I was rummaging through some old family file folders and found a story I'd known very little about.

They'd married on October 12, 1939. (BTW: I never tire of telling the story that Joyce and I married in 1969; our son, in 1999.) And after the wedding--I knew--Dad, who had recently become an ordained minister for the Disciples of Christ, took a job in Denver. And that's all I really knew about it--save for one fairly lurid family story about a late-night rat in the apartment and a (mostly naked) Dad defending his Guinevere with a mop handle. (Wish I had video.)

Anyway, in that file folder I found some details I'd not ever known: In a fairly lengthy account of their wedding published in the Jackson (Ohio) Herald (no date--but it must have been very soon after the wedding; my mother's father was from Jackson) I read that Dad and Mom were going to Denver where Dad would serve at the South Broadway Christian Church--and that they would live at 2 Lincoln Street.

Well ...

I hopped online (we always hop online, you know, not leap, though that has a nicer sound--a bit alliterative) and found that the South Broadway Christian Church is still standing, still affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. (Link to church website.)

I wrote to one of the current ministers there (Dustin Adkins), and over the next few weeks he did some research for me; I was stunned by his kindness.

He sent me some pictures of the building, told me that Dad had been the assistant minister there, sent me pictures of 2 Lincoln Street, went to the library where he found in the city directory they'd had a second, later residence in Denver, as well: 435 South Sherman--so he went there, as well, and found there was not a house at that address but that it could have been an error in the directory, for there was a house right next door--437--which seems large enough that it might have contained an apartment, perhaps upstairs, with the 435 address. He also checked the Sanborn fire insurance maps and sent a photocopy.

Anyway, we've stayed in touch, on and off, and here are some of the photos he sent me, filling in some missing pieces in our family history.

Oh, the minister was not certain, but it's likely that Dad and Mom left in late 1941 or early 1942: Pearl Harbor, WW II. Dad became a Chaplain, served in both theaters during the war, won a Bronze Star for bravery in action.

The first two images--the exterior and interior of the church--are from the web. The others, from Dustin Adkins..

view of house 2 S. Lincoln from church

view of church from 2 S. Lincoln

2 S. Lincoln
437 S. Sherman
city directory showing my parents
living at 435 S. Sherman

437 S. Sherman

Sanborn fire insurance map
showing 437 S. Sherman

Monday, February 8, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 204

“What a Strange Thing Is Life!”[1]

Mary had a world of things to deal with when she returned to London in 1823. She could not have known it, if course, but she had nearly thirty more years to live. Still only twenty-six years old, she had experienced a host of horror that I still find it hard to imagine—the deaths of children, miscarriages, the death of her husband, the deep social opprobrium after her elopement with Bysshe in 1814, the two-year estrangement from her beloved father. And now that she was back in England? More ostracism from a puritanical and unforgiving public, sexist obstacles that lay before her like the Alps (A woman scholar and writer! You can’t be serious!), and—a very pressing problem indeed—money.
As I’ve written before, her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, blamed her for the fall of his son Bysshe and, indeed, for his death (his reasoning: Bysshe would never have been in Italy had he stayed with his first wife, Harriet—whose suicide Sir Timothy no doubt lay at Mary’s feet, as well). Lord Byron had written to Sir Timothy, trying to ease the tension, but Byron, of course, wasn’t living the sort of life that Sir Timothy would have … admired. Or respected. Byron, too, was a Fallen Angel and also bore (in Sir Timothy’s reckoning) some responsibility for the corruption (and death) of his son. So, as I’ve also written earlier, Mary dealt with Sir Timothy only through an intermediary, his attorney, William Whitton. Sir Timothy knew (and bitterly so) that English inheritance laws would assure that Mary and Bysshe’s son, Percy Florence Shelley, would eventually inherit all—he was the legitimate son of Bysshe, the eldest Shelley son. But Sir Timothy would be damned if he would make it easy for Mary.
He did instruct Whitton to arrange some funds for Mary and Percy—the barest minimum of some £100 for her own living expenses and a promise of £100 annually to help with Percy’s care.[2] Mary was initially excited—did this bode well for the future? for an increase? for acceptance into the Shelley family and thus into society?
It would have been easier to squeeze from Mont Blanc the drops of sympathy and money that bitter Sir Timothy gave her. He would not forgive her, would not meet with her, and when he died in 1844—more than twenty years after Mary arrived back in England—Mary had only a half-dozen years remaining in her own life. And she had never met her father-in-law.
So … how would she make money? With her pen. It was all she could do. And so she began. 

[1] Mary Shelley, Journals, 468. Entry dated December 14, 1823. London.
[2] Seymour, Mary Shelley, 336.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Sundries, 88

1. AOTW: The person who failed to turn off the cellphone which chirped late in the night and woke me up. Uh oh ... I did that. Making me the AOTW. Do you get a T-shirt for this?

2. This week I finished My Name is Lucy Barton, the 2016 novel by Elizabeth Strout (who won a recent Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge), a novel that's been receiving terrific reviews here and there and everywhere. (Here's a glowing one from the New York Times.) I too enjoyed the novel--but not so ecstatically so as did some of the reviewers I've read.

It is a story that many of us can relate to (at least to certain aspects of it): ill health, a hospital stay, a surprise visit from the patient's/narrator's mother, a woman whom Lucy has very rarely heard from since she left her impoverished home, headed to New York City, worked hard to become a writer.

The visit lasts five days, and Strout adeptly zigzags in time--back to Lucy's girlhood (and its numerous deprivations), her relationships with her siblings, her first (failed) marriage, her children, her beginnings as a writer, her time in the hospital, a very kind and competent physician.

There are some very affecting moments/scenes in the novel (the Old Man veered near weeping), but I felt some of it was a tad forced, and Convenience ruled a bit too strongly in places.

Still, a book I enjoyed reading--a book I'm glad I read. And here are a couple of moments and/or passages I really liked:

  • But there are times, too--unexpected--when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can't possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are completely free from terror, I realize I don't know how others are. So much of life is speculation. (14)
  • There is that constant judgment in this world: How are we going to make sure we do not feel inferior to another? (79)
There's a lovely final paragraph I will not reproduce--don't want to ruin the experience for others who will read the book. (191)

And one little error: She says that sixth graders are 12; nope. Most are 11 (though some may turn 12 during the year).

3. Last night (Saturday), Joyce and I drove over to Kent to see the Coen Brothers' latest--Hail, Caesar! (Link to trailer for the film.) I should preface this by noting that Joyce and I are huge fans of Joel and Ethan Coen and have seen all their films (many more than once), all the way back to Blood Simple in 1984. In my mind, there are no bad Coen Bros' films. Even the ones I'm not crazy about evince levels of imagination and skill that are very rare in Hollywood. A number of critics want the Coens to make "masterpieces" every time out--serious ones (like Fargo, which actually made me laugh a lot). Critics ganged up on the Coens and pretty much trashed Burn After Reading (2008), a wonderful satire that I've seen four or five times. (One of my favorite Brad Pitt roles--as a vacuous personal trainer.)

Hail, Caesar! is in the Burn genre. A satire on Hollywood, religion, vanity, greed, geopolitics (and a lot more); the Coens explore the difference between image and reality (especially with the Esther-Williams-like character played by Scarlett Johansson, who looks classy and sophisticated in the synchronized swimming scene, a scene that seems to have Moby-Dick floating beneath the surface, but, as we find out, is someone quite different from her image (like many of the rest of us?).

I really loved Alden Ehrenreich, who played someone called Hobie Doyle, an Audie-Murphy type of character--a 50s Western hero (who could sing, twirl a rope, etc.). There's a hilarious scene between him and Ralph Fiennes, who plays a sort of fey director of "serious" films; Fiennes tries to put the cowboy in a tux and have him utter wry and sophisticated lines in his new film--doesn't quite work out. I don't think I've seen Ehrenreich in anything else--hope to see him again. He's talented.

BTW: I realize my allusions to Esther Williams and Audie Murphy will place me in the category Of a Certain Age, but this Coen film demands some knowledge of popular culture in the early 1950s--my boyhood. It was the age of the Western, the swimming movie, the movie musical (there is just a great production number in Caesar featuring Channing Tatum and a bunch of sailors in a bar--an old-fashioned song-and-dance number that is a highlight of the film--and which has some not-too-subtle suggestions that these sailors, about to go off to sea for months (sans women), are going to ... enjoy ... one another instead). Viewers also need to know about the blacklists, the fears of "Commies" in Hollywood, the efforts of film producers to make fortunes on religious stories (hmmm ... no conflict there, right?), the sway of the gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton plays twins here--rival gossip columnists clearly based on Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons), and more ...

So ... was Hail, Caesar! a Major Motion Picture? No. But it made me laugh, admire, think, remember. And for that I am ever grateful.

4. Some words-of-the-day I liked recently.

  • Aeromancy \AIR-uh-man-see \Noun: 1. the prediction of future events from observation of weather conditions.
  • Cryophilic \krahy-oh-FIL-ik\ Adjective:  1. preferring or thriving at low temperatures.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

"Letters, we get letters ..."

My dad liked singer Perry Como and often watched The Perry Como Show (1948-1963), which, most of its run, was on NBC. Later, it appeared on Saturday nights (8-9) and then Wed. (9-10). I'm not sure why he liked Como, though he was genial, unpretentious (like my dad). Maybe--just maybe?--it was the pretty dancing girls who appeared each week? Nah, not my dad.

Anyway, one of the regular features on the show came near the end when those Pretty Dancing Girls would sing a little ditty:

Letters, we get letters, 
We get stacks and stacks of letters.
"Dear Perry, would you be so kind
To fill a request
And sing the song I like best?"

And the Pretty Dancing Girls would bring to him a handful of letters. He was invariably seated on a stool (he liked to sit, did Perry), and he would open one and then perform the song some fan had requested. (Link to some video of this routine.)

Dad loved the mail, by the way. When we lived in Hiram, he was always the one to go to the Post Office to check Box 206 (ours) to see what had arrived--and in those days, the mail came twice a day. Later, when they were retired out in Cannon Beach, Ore., he would be the one to drive to the Post Office, pick up the mail, drive home (after a lengthy stop at the Lemon Tree, the little restaurant/coffee shop where he hung out), and hand each of Mom's letters to her, one by one, announcing what it was. (I think that would have annoyed me, had I been the recipient.)

I confess that I'm (pretty much) the One Who Checks the Mail--though I am not so foolish as to hand individual pieces to Joyce, one by one. There would be Dyer Consequences.

We get very little first-class mail these days. About the only personal letters are Christmas cards. The rest is junk, pretty much. Texting and email have replaced the USPS in many ways.

But ...

There are two people to whom I write old-fashioned letters every week: my mom and my dear former teaching colleague Andy Kmetz. Mom is no longer capable of using her computer (though she was quite adept for a long time), and Andy refuses to learn how to use a smart phone or a computer. He was always intransigent about technology during the years I taught and directed plays with him. He liked a record player, accepted the necessity of (but did not love) the tape recorder. That was it.

And so I write letters ... well, I type letters on the word-processor.

Neither one of them ever replies. My mom, 96, just can't. And I generally see Andy each week when we go over to his assisted living place in Kent. I used to write my dad a card a couple of times a week before he died in November 1999. I would buy ridiculous cards for him--congratulating him on a new baby, etc. I figured he'd get a kick out of them. But by then, he was incapable of response, as well. So I just had to imagine ...

I know that if I outlive Mom and Andy, I will probably write no more letters. Most every other intimate of mine is wired (and/or wireless). So ... that will be the end of it.

I can't really say that I look forward to writing letters each week, but I do know this: I will miss it horribly, when it's over.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 203

Godwin's changes in Mary's novel ...

William Godwin, Mary’s father, as we have seen, was not one to resist what today we call meddling. He was a most confident man—absolutely certain that he was right about, well, about anything about which he pontificated. And so he’d arranged—without telling Mary—to publish a new edition of her book, an act that could seem, of course, a generous, loving surprise gift. But what about discovering that Godwin had made some alterations in the text?
Imagine Hawthorne re-issuing his friend Melville’s Moby-Dick—but getting rid of all that annoying detail about whaling. (Probably not a good example. Hawthorne was not all that alert to “annoying detail”: check out the Custom House introduction of The Scarlet Letter.) But you get the picture. So … what did Godwin change?
One scholar says there were some “114 substantive differences” between her original 1818 edition and this new one in 1823.[1] A look at the list of the changes, now available online, shows they are generally very small alterations, principally dealing with diction.[2] Here’s an example; the creature is speaking about his desire to have Victor Frankenstein create a mate for him:
• 1818 version (Mary’s):  How is this? I thought I had moved your compassion; and yet you still refuse to bestow on me the only benefit that can soften my heart, and render me harmless.
• 1823 version (Godwin’s): How is this? I must not be trifled with: and I demand an answer.
A reminder: As you can see, Mary’s elevated diction is wildly different from the groans and grunts employed by the creature in James Whale’s influential 1931 film of her novel (with Boris Karloff as the monster).

About a decade after Godwin’s edition, Mary would present her own revision, and in that edition the changes are profound.

[1] Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley, vol. 1, “Introductory Note,” by Nora Crook, xvci.
[2]  accessed Feb. 5, 2016.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


Seidman Cancer Center
University Hospitals
near University Circle, Cleveland
As my Facebook friends know, yesterday I spent the late afternoon in this building undergoing a Sodium Fluoride PET Scan (link to info about such scans). My oncologist at University Hospitals wants to see if my pesky (oh, weak word!) prostate cancer is moving into my bones, a favorite venue (time share?) for this creepy (better word) cancer.

So ... Joyce and I drove down there yesterday. First step: An injection of the radioactive fluid that enables the scanner (see image below) to detect any oddities in my bones. As I was getting the injection, I made a joke about being Spider Man for a few hours. The technician smiled briefly--I'm sure he's heard that before--a few thousand times. He had a little trouble finding a vein in my arm (my veins, knowing what's coming, have become more and more reluctant to pop out as this disease has evolved), so he ended up using the back of my hand--not my favorite.

And then Joyce and I sat in a fairly comfortable individual waiting room until the toxic cocktail had time to course through my body. Talking. Looking out over Euclid Ave. with scores of Case-Western students swarming all over the sidewalks on that surprising day of false spring. (I even wrote one of my silly daily doggerels--on my iPhone.) Then ... off to the scanner ... which resembled this one (but seemed to be even longer).

I had to remove all metal (oh, my piercings!) and lie perfectly still for about a half-hour while I slid through the machine on a tray (I felt like food in a cannibals' cafeteria), which made noise only when it shifted me to the next position. To consume the time, I did what I usually do: I reviewed a batch of poems I've memorized. Oddly, I began with Emily Dickinson's "They say that time assuages" and ended with her "Because I could not stop for death." Those poems may not be just odd--but, oh, creepy (?) in their relevance. Inside that machine I actually smiled, thinking about it.

And then the half-hour was over, I was sliding back into the mouth of the machine. Putting on my shoes, my belt. Feeling both changed and unchanged.

The technician told me nothing (except "Good luck"). I know nothing. I don't know when I'll hear about the results. I assume it will be the same as always: If there's something worrisome/ominous, I'll hear pretty soon; if not, we'll go over the scan during our next appointment--about five weeks from now. Whatever. I'll worry whatever the case, of course..

Out in the waiting room ... that wondrous sight. Joyce. Who rose, smiling. Hurried over to me. I cannot express what that sight has meant to me since July 1969. When we met.