Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 63

I notice now, too, that Betty and I had at some point commenced a tradition of closing our email with “Fondly.” I smile in wonder. Who started that? And when?

And so I look back … when did we start closing like that? And who started it?
Early in our correspondence, we sometimes just put our names—or something like All best or Yours ever and obliged (that was one of Betty’s). But as I look back through the emails, I see that the first Fondly came from me—on January 5, 2000, at the end of a long note about my father’s death. But Fondly did not immediately catch on. I used it now and then; so did she. But by the summer of 2000, we were both using it routinely. It was an accurate word. I did feel “fondness” for Betty—and enormous gratitude for how she was helping me. Think of it: a premier Shelley scholar pausing in her busy days to reply to earnest emails from a retired middle school English teacher who was working on a YA biography of Mary. As I sit here now, I am still amazed by what she did. And even more ashamed that—later—I allowed the correspondence to dwindle. And then disappear.
But I’m going to delay talking about that. I want to think well of myself for just a bit longer.

In early July we were writing back and forth about Janet Todd’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, a book I was in the process of reading. Betty was bothered by some of the negative comments in the reviews of Todd’s book. On July 7, I wrote a longish message about book reviewing and about how I go about it. I reiterated one of my fundamental questions that I ask about a book (a question that, many reviews later, I still ask): Has this writer done the work? (You’d be surprised how often the answer to that question is, “No.”) And if the writer has done the work, well, I am much more generous in the rest of the review—especially if he or she has a sense of humor, a graceful style, some fresh insights.
Betty replied with a kind note and said, I am back to the answer that rears itself every time I become impatient: take the time it takes. And that advice, it seems to me, is about the most basic and sensible principle any writer could embrace. A writer who hurries is a writer who will have regrets.*
I wrote back and thanked her, again, for all her help, telling her that I really enjoyed our exchanges but regret the one-sidedness of them: You are the principal MWS scholar in the world; I, in some sense, the Cowardly Lion & the Tin Man & the Scarecrow all in one.
I realize now—reading that comparison—that it seems to suggest that she is the Wizard of Oz. That’s not good, is it?

*Relevant. In a recent previous post in this series, I said that I'd resolved in 2000 not to move again--then said that seven years later we did move, from Aurora to Hudson. Oops. We moved in 1997, not 2007. Seems I'd forgotten Betty's dictum!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Never Invite an Old Guy to Speak

The text for my remarks at WRA on Oct. 20, 2014 ...

Fall Academic Awards
Western Reserve Academy
20 October 2014

Never Invite an Old Guy to Speak

I know what some of you are thinking—Hey, that’s the Old Guy who hangs out at Open Door Coffee! Yep, ‘tis I. And now I’m going to demonstrate why you should never invite an Old Guy to speak.
I’d like to thank Mrs. Chlysta for inviting me here today—I’m so grateful for the opportunity to wear a necktie again after two-and-a-half years!
Okay, let’s be more mature … here goes: I’ve spoken from this podium many times—and it’s never ceased being an honor. It’s nice, too, to see some of my former colleagues—and students. I taught Mrs. Borrmann in English I, Mr. Ong in English III; they both still owe me homework. And Mr. Burner was a senior when I first taught here in 1979–80. But I won’t tell you what I know about him … Well, maybe for money.
And, as I said, I sort of know some of you from Open Door, where I hang out in the morning. As a former teacher, it makes me feel good—hopeful—to see students studying. Caring. (Makes me feel even better to realize I don’t have to grade any of it!)
A quick story. Just last month my mom turned 95, and I was telling her that I’d agreed to speak here today, but for various reasons I wasn’t sure that I could go through with it. She looked at me sadly, perhaps remembering I was her idiot child, and said, “Danny, the day will come when no one will ask you to speak, so you probably ought to do it.”
Mom—still wise at 95. Still annoyingly wise. So here I am.
I need to apologize to Mrs. Chlysta, too, because in a minute I’m going to talk about math—and that could get embarrassing. You see, I never exactly excelled at it. I sort of bumbled and stumbled and grumbled through high school math, but when—a college freshman—I took calculus, I was lost from Day One. I was Bilbo in Mirkwood. And huge spiders were everywhere. On one of my miserable tests, my  professor actually wrote this: “Can I help you cry?”
That was nice. But, actually, no—you can not help me cry! Crying is not a team sport. Yes, there is no i in team, but there is one in crying!
When I was teaching English III here, the word evanescent always appeared on my vocabulary list—yes, I was one of those. Vocab lists and quizzes! What a jerk of a teacher! Anyway … evanescent … vanishing, fading away.
In one way, evanescence is the nature of all life, isn’t it? Creatures come into the world, they mature (well, most of us do—my mom’s not so sure about me!), they weaken, they die. A day passes, a month, a year. Many years. Centuries. Millennia. And, today, relatively few folks from centuries ago manage even to elbow their way out onto the tiny stage of our common memory. Homer. Alexander. Cleopatra. Henry VIII. Shakespeare.
Speaking of whom: Have you been following the stories about the bones of King Richard III, recently discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England? They’d lain there, forgotten, since 1485. At the Battle of Bosworth Field, about fourteen miles away, he’d been slain by his successors, the Tudors, whose spectacular queen, Elizabeth I, about 100 years later, would be on the throne when Shakespeare’s play Richard III premiered in 1592, a play that features, near the end, Bosworth Field with Richard, surrounded by enemies, crying out, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Didn’t work out. He ended up underneath a lot constructed for—ironically—horseless carriages. And soon—playing Richard III—Benedict Cumberbatch!
Anyway, you may ask, “How do we know those parking lot bones are Richard’s?” By the DNA of a living descendent—that’s how.  
So … let’s think a moment about our own DNA, our own family histories. We can name our two parents. Our four grandparents. But pretty soon things get tricky, don’t they? Can we name all eight of our great-grandparents … sixteen great-great grandparents … thirty-two great-great-great grandparents … sixty-four …  one hundred twenty-eight … two hundred fifty-six … five hundred twelve … (See, I can multiply!) But things quickly get unmanageable after a few generations, so even though those people were directly responsible for our being here, right now, we probably don’t know a single thing about any of them—not even their names. (To make a selfie, your very-long-ago ancestors would have needed to chisel a rock!) But we do know one thing about these ancestors, though—their evanescence. And—their anonymous permanence. We don’t know who they were, but pearls of them—both perfect and flawed—are strung along our chromosomes, helping make us who we are.  
So, let’s think about this for a moment: At Shakespeare’s time (1564–1616) each of you would have had approximately a thousand direct ancestors. Five hundred specific men and 500 specific women would have had to find one another and hook up—successfully—for you to be sitting in this chapel 400 years later. And then, of course, all subsequent (and relevant) children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren from those Shakespearean-era ancestors would have had to have survived war, famine, illness, injury, accident, folly. Senior pranks. If a single one of them had failed to survive before he or she reproduced … well, let’s just say that it’s virtually impossible that you’re sitting out there.
Are you feeling depressed yet? (This is another of the reasons you must never invite an Old Guy to speak!) Knowledge can do that, you know—knock the wind out of you. Depress you. Terrify you.
But … good news … it can also inspire you. Animate you to make some graceful and unique moves in your dance to the music of Time.
So let’s move on to this. The late Cornell astrophysicist Carl Sagan once wrote, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” …  I like that: We’re all starstuff—actually, not just metaphorically.
We are gathered here today to celebrate some varieties of that starstuff. To commend those among you, who—consciously or unconsciously—have realized that time is short, precious, precarious, unpredictable … evanescent. And you have decided that—while starlight is flooding through your window—you will make sure that soft glow illuminates something wonderful and wondrous—your potential, your fragile, unpredictable, miraculous lives.
So many of you are doing that—in myriads of ways. Making your time matter. And so today we congratulate you, and I wish for you—for all of you—that starlight will continue to gleam upon your lovely, improbable lives for a long, long, long time.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 62

In late June 2000, I wrote to Betty about something that had often bothered me—about biographies in particular but about human discourse in general. The question of motive(s). We are quick to explain the behavior of others (maybe even of ourselves), but can we ever really know why someone does something—and is why even a sensible question?
Here’s what I wrote in my email: I have much trouble—in the books I read, the films I see—with the whole question of motive. I think, for example, that everything I do arises from an awfully complex series of causes, some proximate, some distant, some ineffable? In many instances I simply can’t tell you “why” I did something. Yet writers/filmmakers don’t hesitate to identify motives of characters/subjects, sometimes in the most simple-minded fashion. I think psychology resembles calculus more than arithmetic, but so often I read/see accounts of people whose acts the writer/filmmaker attributes to a single cause. Psychology reduced to a single sum: x + y = z.  I just don’t agree. I don’t think that the behavior of you or me or anyone else with a brain can be easily explained. And this, of course, makes the writing of biography all the more difficult.
I went on to use the example of William Godwin’s accepting the friendship of Bysshe Shelley (before the latter eloped with the former’s daughter Mary). And I suggested a number of “reasons”—but how can we know? This enterprise, I concluded, is difficult, horrendously difficult, teeth-grindingly difficult. But—[was I feeling optimistic now?]—also more fun than just about anything else.
In early July I wrote to tell Betty I had just returned from five days in Massachusetts, helping my mother move from the assisted living unit where she and Dad had been (in Pittsfield) to an independent apartment in Lenox. Now that Dad was gone, Mom no longer needed to be there—and she was eager (too pale a word) to escape. Packing, unpacking, setting up things … we all know the drudgery. Betty wrote to say I know the kind of work you did for your mom’s move is very draining—on different levels. And, yes, it was.
Oh yes. I also vowed at the time that I would never again help out in a move—someone else’s or my own. Seven years later, of course, Joyce and I packed up and moved from Aurora to Hudson, Ohio (about twenty minutes’ distance). So go resolutions.
I notice now, too, that Betty and I had at some point commenced a tradition of closing our email with “Fondly.” I smile in wonder. Who started that? And when?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 20

1. A wonderful ceremony on Friday to install some former Aurora teachers and students in various halls of fame that the Aurora Alumni Association sponsors. It was great to see Tia Hodge-Jones, who was in our son's classes at Harmon School (1982-86) and who appeared with him in some play productions there, has gone on to do wonderful things on the New York stages--and to write a book for young actors--and to teach and inspire yet another generation. (Here's a link to her book on Amazon.) I've not seen her in about 30 years, and it was wonderful to be with her for a while.

And it was a terrific thrill to witness the installation of two former colleagues at Harmon School--Andy Kmetz and Eileen Kutinsky--into the Honored Educators' Hall of Fame. Both were outstanding teachers (Andy in art, Eileen in science), and both were major influences in my own career. Eileen had already taught a few years when I arrived to begin my career in Aurora (fall of 1966), and I immediately recognized what a rare talent she is--and promptly began to beg, borrow, and steal ideas from her. And, believe me, she had an endless supply. She was extraordinarily generous to me--and, later, to Joyce and Steve--throughout her remaining years at Harmon School. In fact, Eileen was one of the principal reasons we withdrew Steve from Hudson Middle School when he was in sixth grade and moved him to Harmon. We knew that he would learn more about the world just from looking at her walls and displays that he would in someone else's room.

I was happy, by the way, when Eileen, in her remarks, acknowledged her late sister, Vivian LoPresti, who'd taught for years at Lake School (elementary) in Aurora. She was one of the two best teachers I ever saw (I once spent a week in her first-grade classroom when I was in grad school--observing, being dazzled). Guess who the other best-I-ever-saw was? All in the family ...

And what can I say about Andy Kmetz? Supremely talented, absolutely devoted to the kids. He helped me on many play productions (choreography, scenery, et al.), and I just could not have done those productions without him. Everyone knew--and no one knew better than I--that the most beautiful moments in those shows came from Kmetz. And I was so grateful. Joyce and I visit with him still--about once a week. And although he is in his 80s now, he is still in so many ways ... Kmetz. You just never know what's going to come out of his mouth ...

2. I want to add that the folks involved in the Aurora Alumni Association are spectacular human beings. The effort and the heart that have gone into their programs are humbling. Good people doing good things. Oh, that this weary world had a few more billion like them ...!

3. I came across the word bugbear this week--a word I've seen many times, of course. But this time I stopped, wondered, did some checking. (See the bottom of this page for info from the Oxford English Dictionary about the word--which has a long history.) I learned, too, that the term is now part of the gaming world. I'd not known that ...

old engraving of a bugbear
4. We finally got around to seeing Guardians of the Galaxy last week. I liked the interplay among the characters a lot more than the boom-booms and the destruction. (Which shows what a wuss I am.) Some funny and some touching moments mixed with some (to me) boring violence.

5. And finally ... I liked a poem by E. E. Cummings that found its way into Writer's Almanac this week--liked it so much I memorized it. Memorizing Cummings presents some issues--mostly because his language is so unconventional. On the other hand, I've discovered that once I do learn a Cummings poem, it stays with me pretty easily. My brain doesn't have too many other things like it in storage--except, of course, for a few other Cummings poems!

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

bugbear, n.
Pronunciation:  /ˈbʌɡbɛə(r)/
Forms:  15–16 buggebeare, 16– bugbear.
Etymology:  Apparently < bug n.1 + bear n.1
1. A sort of hobgoblin (presumably in the shape of a bear) supposed to devour naughty children; hence, generally, any imaginary being invoked by nurses to frighten children. Obs.
1581   J. Bell tr. W. Haddon & J. Foxe Against Jerome Osorius 10 b,   Hobgoblines and Buggebeares, with whom we were never acquaynted.
1592   T. Nashe Pierce Penilesse (Brit. Libr. copy) sig. I4v,   Meere bugge-beares to scare boyes.
1607   E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 453   Certaine Lamiæ..which like Bug-beares would eat vp crying boies.
1651   T. Hobbes Leviathan i. xii. 55.  
1758   Johnson Idler 24 June 89   To tell children of Bugbears and Goblings.
1840   R. H. Barham Look at Clock in Ingoldsby Legends 1st Ser. 61   The bugbear behind him is after him still.

 a. transf. An object of dread, esp. of needless dread; an imaginary terror. In weakened senses: an annoyance, bane, thorn in the flesh.
a1586   Sir P. Sidney Arcadia (1590) iii. xxvi. sig. Yy6,   At the worst it is but a bug-beare.
1642   D. Rogers Naaman To Rdr. sig. Bv,   All you that thinke originall sinne a bugbeare.
1717   Kennett in H. Ellis Orig. Lett. Eng. Hist. ii. 430 IV. 306   The king of Sweden is every day a less bugbear to us.
1841   Dickens Old Curiosity Shop i. iii. 86   What have I done to be made a bugbear of?
1871   E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest (1876) IV. xvii. 51   Confiscation, a word which is so frightful a bugbear to most modern ears.
1880   ‘G. Eliot’ Let. 14 Sept. (1956) VII. 322   Our only bugbear—it is a very little one—is the having to make preliminary arrangements towards settling ourselves in the new house.
1955   Sci. Amer. Jan. 90/1   Richness of context was their bugbear.
1966   Observer 10 Apr. 12/3   The great bugbear of economic management is the near impossibility of devising policies with a particular objective in view without..making it harder to attain other..desirable ends.

 b. attrib. or as adj.
c1600   Timon (1980) i. ii. 6   Thou shalt not fright me with thye bugbeare wordes.
a1734   R. North Examen (1740) iii. viii. 25. 601   The most horrible & bug-bear Denunciations.
1853   E. C. Gaskell Cranford xii. 223   Indiscretion was my bugbear fault.
1930   E. Sitwell Coll. Poems 252   A bugbear bone that bellows white.

  ˈbugˌbeardom n. bugbears collectively, needless fears.
1862   Mrs. J. B. Speid Our Last Years in India 150   The assaults and tyrannies of bugbeardom.

  ˈbugˌbearish adj.
1800   Southey in J. W. Robberds Mem. W. Taylor (1843) I. 35/2   Bonaparte..a name now growing more bugbearish than ever.
This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1888).

Saturday, October 18, 2014

John O'Hara--The Home Stretch

John O'Hara in his study
Visitors to this site know that for the past few years I've been chasing the story of writer John O'Hara (1905-1970), who wrote short stories, novels, journalism, plays--and who also did some duty in Hollywood as a screenwriter. I'd seen all the films that O'Hara worked on--and all the ones based on his novels (BUtterfield 8, A Rage to Live, Ten North Frederick, Pal Joey--a musical he co-wrote with Rodgers and Hart for Broadway, later transformed to a film).

Here's a link to O'Hara's film work.

I'd managed to find and watch all the films associated with him--all but one: I Was an Adventuress (1940),  I recently found a DVD available on Amazon's site; I bought it; it arrived a few days ago; I watched in Thursday evening.

It's actually a pretty good caper film staring (Vera) Zorina (1970-2003), a ballerina who starred in a handful of films. (We get to see her perform a chunk of Swan Lake near the end of the film.) She's part of a trio of con artists (the other two are Peter Lorre and Erich von Stroheim--both are very good in the film) who use a switch-the-jewels con to great success. (The film opens with them in operation.) But then--they pull the con on Richard Greene (who would later play Robin Hood in one of my favorite TV shows in the 50s and 60s), and Zorina falls for him. Complications ensue.

The production values are very 1940: elaborate interiors, fakey looking exteriors with filmed backgrounds in front of live action--there's an amusing car chase near the end that's patently using film speed to increase the speed of the vehicles.

Still ... I got involved with the characters and was fooled a couple of times by something that looked real but turned out to be yet another con. I like that!

In a week or so I'm going to upload to Kindle Direct a long biographical essay about O'Hara--about my adventures chasing his story--and now I have finally seen I Was an Adventuress and can include a bit about it.  I'll keep you posted ...

PS--Here's a link to a YouTube clip from the film ...

Friday, October 17, 2014

And Then I'd Done 1000 ...

I looked up to discover that this will be DawnReader post #1000. How can that be? Didn't I begin this series just yesterday?

Well, no. I just looked. Post #1 came on January 6, 2012 (link to that initial post). I had no real idea what I was doing at the time (do I now? not so sure), but I'd been retired from teaching for about half a year, and I was missing, I guess, an audience. I'd had one--a captive one--since the fall of 1966 when, terrified, I'd first walked into my seventh grade classroom at the old Aurora Middle School (Aurora, Ohio) and saw 40 (that's right--forty!) 12-year-olds staring at me as if I knew what I was doing. I didn't. But I figured it out--after a few decades or so. (By the way, that first year I had five groups of 40--every day. I thought that was just, you know, normal, so I went with it. Showing you in yet another way how dumb I am.)

But once I walked out of my final classroom at Western Reserve Academy (June 2011), I was sans audience--except, of course, for Joyce, who is a wonderful listener but who also has A Life of Her Own and has more purposes on this earth than to listen to me bloviate. So I began to blogiate (a word I just invented; I like it). And have done so pretty much every day since that initial post.

I've also been posting retrospectively at each 100 posts--and I also look (each 100 posts) to see how many "hits" I've had. Here I go: I've not looked since #900 ... back from checking ... 199,552. So, doing my arithmetic, I see that that's 199.552 hits/day. Not bad for a nebbish from Enid, Oklahoma. (This site's spell-checker, by the way, just tried to change nebbish to snobbish. Interesting.)

The number of hits/day varies widely, of course. When I write about education or political issues (which I do much less often than I'd thought I would), more people tend to read/share it. When I serialize my book about chasing Mary Shelley (as I'm doing now on MWF--except for today), fewer people tend to tune it. That's all right. As I tell people (including myself), I'm doing this really for myself. If people are reading it, that's fine. If they're not, that's fine, too. To me, it's the writing that matters.

Each day I print out DawnReader and stuff the page(s) in a notebook, of which there are now several. Much of my doing so, of course, is for "posterity" (i.e., my son and grandsons), who will find in these pages many family stories and much about their Dad and Silly Papa (my grandsons' name for me--wonder why?)--and about Joyce ("Gommy" to the grandsons)--stories that otherwise would have Gone to the Grave with me. And for that I'm glad.

All the pressure to do this every day comes from me--and/or from that Puritan Conscience I learned in my boyhood home. The world will not stop if I fail to post one day, of course. Still ... I know I will go around all day (maybe all week) feeling guilty if I don't do it.

And so--right now, as I type this little conclusion--I'm already wondering: What will I write about tomorrow?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Vidal on Video

The other night--responding to one of Netflix's if-you-liked-X-then-you-should-try-Y suggestions--Joyce and I started streaming the 2013 documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (link to the trailer for the film). I posted here earlier when Vidal died in 2012 (link to earlier post), and in that post I talked about my long history with Vidal. I'd never met him, but I'd read him for decades--always with admiration--and I'd taught his stories "The No-Talent Kid" and "Harrison Bergeron" for years. I'd also, for a time, showed his film The Left Handed Gun (it was his story) about Billy the Kid, and some classes had read his fine play Visit to a Small Planet, about a weird alien who arrives and proceeds to foment war wherever he can; war, we find out later, was his hobby. By the way, he did another Billy the Kid film in 1989 with Val Kilmer as the Kid. Link to trailer.

I didn't realize until right now that there's a film of that play (Visit to a Small Planet)--with Jerry Lewis as the alien. I'm going to have to go find that film somewhere ... ah! Just checked: I can stream it on AmazonPrime--and will do so ASAP (and, thus, have another post!).

Anyway, the 2013 documentary. It's a wonderful piece of work (check out the details on IMDB)--especially if you agree with Vidal's Lefty, skeptical politics--which I do. You see footage of him as a boy--and as an older man near the end of his life. And throughout Joyce and I were dazzled by his ... dazzle. His was so witty, so caustic, so right so much of the time, and we realized, watching, that there is no one remotely like him on the political stage today.

Jay Parini
By the way--students who were at Western Reserve Academy in April 2012 will be happy to see the important presence in the film of Jay Parini, the writer who visited WRA for a day--talked in the Chapel--visited classes. Parini is Vidal's literary executor, is writing his biography, and has many interesting things to say about Vidal throughout the documentary. It was from Parini, by the way, that I learned in 2012 that Vidal was dying.

The film deals also with Christopher Hitchens, who'd once been a potential heir/successor to Vidal. But Vidal disinherited and disavowed him when Hitchens came out in support of the Iraq War--and then, of course, Hitchens died in 2011. Before he died, though, Hitchens attacked Vidal in the pages of Vanity Fair (see link later on). Their falling out was big (and bitter) news in the literary/political world. Here's a link to a YouTube video of Vidal commenting on Hitchens. And--to be fair--here's Hitchens on Vidal.

Joyce and I both ended up being very moved by the film--the sad scenes near the end (his necessary move from his beloved home in Italy) are wrenching.

As I've written here before, we're sorting our books, getting ready to dispose of/sell/donate many of them. But not the Vidals. They're all staying right where they belong. Right where we can get to them.

AND ... here's a link to a list of all his books on Amazon. And to his New York Times obituary.
Vidal, the young rebel at 21