Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Monday, October 24, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 250

Mary Struggles On

On November 4, 1827, Mary, now in London, bid farewell to Fanny Wright and Fanny Trollope who were sailing from Tower Bridge aboard the Edward for America. It took seven weeks to reach the mouth of the Mississippi River.[1]
It’s not really all that relevant here, but Trollope, after staying for a bit at Nashoba, soon soured on the project, which was nothing like what she had imagined—and hoped—it would be. Her best-selling Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) contains a brief account. [O]ne glance, she writes of Nashoba, sufficed to convince me that every idea I had formed of the place was as far as possible from the truth. She goes on to say that she found no beauty in the scenery round Nashoba, nor can I conceive that it would possess any even in summer.[2]
They didn’t stay long. Wright abandoned the project, and by January 26, 1828, the two Fannys were back in Memphis, where they waited a few days before heading to Cincinnati, nearly 500 miles to the northeast. It took about a month. Trollope was impressed by Cincinnati’s scenery—the hills, the Ohio River—and she stayed, trying to make a go of a department store (the Bazaar—it didn’t work out), so she began writing to support her family, became a best-selling author, soon surpassed by her far-more-famous son Anthony (who did not go to America with her), whose forty-seven novels I, caught in his wondrous web, read over a period of years—July 1997 to October 2007. I’ve rarely had more literary fun.
Fanny Trollope was back in England in August 1831. She’d been gone nearly four years. And by the time she had died in 1863, she had written forty books.
And now, at last (!), let’s dive back into Mary’s story …

[1] Pamela Neville-Singleton, Fanny Trollope: The Life and Adventures of a Clever Woman (New York: Viking, 1997), 116–17.
[2] (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), 27, 30.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sunday Sundries, 124

1. AOTW: This happened a couple of weeks ago--just remembered it: At the health club ... as I approached the shower, I heard one running already. And as I stepped into the room, I saw that one was running, full blast, but no one else was there. I walked over to it: It was set on the hottest possible setting, a setting far too high for anyone except Satan to tolerate. I turned it off, wondering what kind of AOTW would do such a thing ...

2. I finished two books this week.

     - Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed is the latest volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a series of novels based on Shakespeare's plays, novels written by contemporary authors.

The title comes from this exchange, early in the play, between Prospero and Caliban:

You taught me language; and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
Hag-seed, hence!
Fetch us in fuel; and be quick, thou'rt best,
To answer other business. (1.2)
Atwood--like the other writers in the series--sets the story in our own times. We're in Canada. And the Prospero figure is named Felix, who's the director at a theater festival that very much resembles the Stratford Theatre Festival (which Joyce and I have attended in Ontario every August for quite a few years).

A rival manages to get Felix removed from his position, and he finds himself living in a hovel on a farm not all that far away, a place where he continues to "see" the spirit of his daughter, Miranda, who died at age three.

He grumps and grouses there for a while, then takes a gig, under an assumed name, at a nearby prison, where he goes each year to mount a Shakespeare production with the inmates.

And this year it will be The Tempest. Like Prospero, Felix has a plan to gain revenge--and to recover the authority he lost.

The Tempest has long been my favorite of the Bard's plays, and I was moved throughout Atwood's reimagining. One of the final comments about the play hit home; it's delivered by a convict nicknamed Bent Pencil: "The play of The Tempest declares for second chances, and so should we" (268).

Here's a link to the other novels in the series. Those published so far have been based on The Winter's Tale (Jeanette Winterson), The Merchant of Venice (Howard Jacobson), and The Taming of the Shrew (Anne Tyler; this is a play I taught for about a decade at Harmon Middle School; Aurora, Ohio).

As with the other novels, by the way, Hag-Seed becomes more enjoyable the more familiar you are with the play.

     - I'm feeling both sad and happy this week because I finished reading the last (so far) of the published works of Richard Russo. As I wrote here some months ago, I first got interested in him because of that wonderful 1994 film Nobody's Fool (Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and others), a film based on a novel of the same name by Russo.

But I hadn't read anything by him. Then when Russo's newest novel appeared this year (Anybody's Fool, 2016), a sequel to Nobody's, I decided it was time. I read Nobody's first, then Anybody's, then decided I liked his work so much I would read them all--in the order of publication. And, this week, I finished with his memoir, Elsewhere (2012).

As Russo tells us at the beginning, it's principally the story of his mother, Jean, who was mainly responsible for the care of Russo and his brother (Greg) in Gloversville, NY, where the boys grew up--the town that Russo uses (modified, of course) for several of his novels (a town which has several names in his various fictions--from Mohawk to North Bath). Russo's father was not around much and is more of a shadowy presence in this memoir that focuses on Jean and her various emotional problems--and her death. (Russo has an epiphany near the end about what was troubling her).

Russo talks only incidentally about his own career here, but readers (I, certainly) will be astonished by his devotion to his mother, whose behavior was, let's say, a test for anyone around her. I was profoundly moved by his (and his wife's) dealings with Jean. It was not easy.

Readers of Russo's NY novels will notice the similarity of some incidents in his life that ended up, transfigured, in those works--like the scattering of a parent's ashes (which is prominent in That Old Cape Magic).

Oddly, Russo repeats an error here that appeared in Cape Magic, too: He tells us that he recited at the memorial service for his mother a sonnet by Shakespeare--"Fear no more the heat o' the sun." But this is not a sonnet. It's a song from the Bard's Cymbeline, a song sung by several characters:

From Cymbeline, Act 
IV. Scene 2

EAR no more the heat o’ the sun,
  Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
  Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great,
  Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
  To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
  Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
  Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
  Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
  Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

I'm not sure how this got by the various proofreaders--and by Russo himself? Oh, well ...

I am happy that I've read these books--and liked them all, the reasons varying. He is a masterful storyteller, able to move from character to character, from scene to scene, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as if it were life itself.

Mohawk (Vintage Books, 1986)
The Risk Pool (Random House, 1988)
Nobody's Fool (Random House, 1993)
Straight Man (Random House, 1997)
Empire Falls (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)
The Whore's Child and Other Stories (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)
Bridge of Sighs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
That Old Cape Magic (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)
Interventions, with illustrator Kate Russo (Down East Books, 2012)
Elsewhere: A Memoir (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
Everybody's Fool (Alfred A. Knopf, May 3, 2016)

3. We saw The Accountant last night in Kent and enjoyed it for what it was--clever excitement. It sort of reminded me of a Jason Bourne film without the CIA hovering about (though the Treasury Dept. is hovering about in this story). Ben Affleck did a good job--as did J. K. Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, and the little boys are wonderful (the boy versions of Affleck and his brother--flashbacks throughout the film). A popcorn movie--but I do love popcorn. Link to trailer for the film.

4. Last Words--from my various word-of-the-day online providers ...

     - from

harum-scarum \HAIR-uh m-SKAIR-uh m, HAR-uh m-SKAR-uh m\
1. reckless; rash; irresponsible: He had a harum-scarum youth.
2. disorganized; uncontrolled.
... he warn't bad, so to say--only mischeevous. Only just giddy and harum-scarum, you know. He warn't any more responsible than a colt.
-- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876
Origin of harum-scarum

Harum-scarum entered English in the late 1600s. The first element of this rhyming compound, harum, is based on the obsolete verb hare meaning "to harass" or on the the verb hare "to run like a hare"; the second element is based on the common verb scare.

     - from

obambulate  (o-BAM-byuh-layt)

verb intr.: To walk about.

From Latin ob- (to) + ambulare (to walk). Earliest documented use: 1614.

“Mukul was obambulating in circles like a caged animal.”

Sam Mukherjee; Chopped Green Chillies in Vanilla Ice Cream; Rupa Publications; 2011.

     - from

nudnik \NOO D-nik\
1. Slang. a persistently dull, boring pest.
Pinni becomes enraged and says my brother is a nudnik. I agree with Pinni. Even though my brother Elyahu is my own flesh and blood, he's an awful nudnik.
-- Richard Burgin, Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1985

Origin of nudnik
Nudnik is an Americanism formed from the Yiddish verb nudyen meaning "to bore, pester." Nud- is of Slavic origin: nudny in Polish means "boring"; the Polish verb nudzić means "to bore" and is the source, again through Yiddish, of noodge. It came to English in the mid-1900s.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Many a Twelfth Night ...

program from
Oct. 21, 2016
It's possible I've seen twelve Twelfth Nights--maybe even more. It's a play I don't really get tired of. One of the first was in 1989 when I took a group of Aurora students to see a production at the University of Akron on Friday, April 28. I see from the notes in my Twelfth Night file that the kids who went were, for the most part, those who had been involved in the Aurora High production of The Merry Wives of Windsor a couple of years earlier--I'd been the director.

My memory is that Akron U's was a very good production; in fact, I still think it's one of the best I've seen. (Wish I'd saved the program--but it seems I didn't. Not like me.) In my folder I do have six programs from other productions--at the Stratford Festival (1991, 2006, 2011--with Brian Dennehy as Sir Toby Belch; I remember a scene on a golf course!), at the Great Lakes Theater Festival (2000, 2009). I also remember a production at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass., but I don't seem to have the program. My mom, who lives nearby, was there--as was my older brother and younger brother and his wife. A decade ago, maybe? (Just checked my journal: It was Friday, September 5, 2009, and we were there to celebrate my mom's 90th birthday. So ... not a decade ago--just seven years ago. Hard to believe that Mom was actually there: She has been unable to move very much in recent years.)

And ... last night ... we saw it again in downtown Cleveland at the Hanna Theater, the venue of Great Lakes Theater Festival (GLTF) productions.

It was a good--not great--production. I loved the staging. They had but one set, which (as the playbill notes) was sort of based on "Miss Havisham's world before the cake rots" (18).* All the scenes take place there--including the shipwreck near the beginning. The players just confine themselves (for the most part) to a certain segment of the stage--though not invariably so: Often they wander around having close (but silent) encounters with actors on pause, waiting for their own moments to commence. Sometimes these moments were especially fraught with significance in the play--as when, for example, near the beginning, one of the shipwreck survivors (Viola) wanders near a reclining Orsino, with whom she will soon hook up. Very cool.

There were few props and set pieces as well--touches that would have brought a smile to the Bard's face. On his own Globe and Blackfriars stages the action flowed freely--no scenery, precious few props. I did enjoy the sort of boxed enclosure they employed for various things--from an entrance to a gazebo--and the audience laughed hard when Feste-Belch-Aguecheek are hiding there and watching Malvolio discover the false love letter that leads to his dark, dark downfall. The hiding men slowly moved the box--in which they were visible--from upstage to down ... slowly, slowly--getting closer and closer to the duped Malvolio.

I was very impressed with the women--Viola (Cassandra Bissell), Olivia (Christine Weber)--and Malvolio (Lynn Robert Berg) is one of the company's real talents. Their deliveries were crisp and intelligent and invariably comprehensible.

Not so with the three foolish male characters (Feste,Aguecheek, Belch), all of whom, it seemed to me, were a bit out of control, prancing around, acting the fool (as they're supposed to do) but sacrificing the words in the process. I often couldn't figure out what they were saying--even though I knew what they were saying (and I heard other patrons say similar things at intermission). All three men are fine performers, but the business often trumped the language last night.

The dark treatment of Malvolio near the end is always hard to watch, but I did like how director Drew Barr had the tricksters soften when they realize that they've gone too far--much too far. Beyond the pale.

The music was fine--playing, singing. ("If music be the food of love, play on!")

And the whole thing got a strong ovation when it ended (nearly three hours). And much deserved. Despite my quibbles and cavils I went home happy. I'd just seen a great play done well in a place I love to go to; I got to sit, again, beside Joyce. I got to marvel (laugh and sometimes weep) at the words of the greatest writer who's ever lived.

*Miss Havisham, the jilted bride in Dickens' Great Expectations, the woman who continues to wear her wedding dress and keep the cake on the table for years after the jilting.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 249

Final thoughts spurred by Frances Wright, friend of Mary Shelley, who toured America and wrote about it (1820s); among her subjects--public education.

What’s more interesting to me, nearly two centuries later, is not the shining morning faces of the students she saw in Connecticut but the enduring relevance of some of her comments about public education—and its profound importance.
In her letter of March 1820 (from New York) she writes about how communities are willingly taxing themselves to provide free public schools, which, she says, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to the whole population. In larger towns these schools teach geography and the rudiments of Latin.[1] She goes on to talk a bit about higher education (slowly taking root in America) before returning to more comment about the importance of all this.
The child of every citizen, she writes, male or female, white or black, is entitled by right to a plain education, and funds sufficient to defray the expense of his instruction are raised wither from public lands appropriated to the purpose, or by taxes sometimes imposed by the legislature and sometimes by the different townships.[2]
And we need to remember here what she had said much earlier (in a letter from July 1819, from Albany): Knowledge, which is the bugbear of tyranny, is, to liberty, the sustaining staff of life. To enlighten the mind of the American citizen is, therefore, a matter of national importance.[3]
Wright’s comments strike me especially hard. As readers know, I spent my forty-five year career in classrooms, most of them in a public middle school, where I taught seventh and eighth graders. As that portion of my career wound down (I retired from public education in January 1997), the passion for (or disease of?) standardized testing was beginning to pervade the state of Ohio—and the rest of the nation.
Now—it’s October 2016 as I write these words—it is a full-blown madness (not to mention a ga-jillion-dollar industry). My grandsons, 7 and 11, have already taken more standardized tests than  I did, K–Ph.D. Teachers take risks if they deviate from the test-driven curriculum, for they are evaluated, at least in part, by the scores their youngsters receive on those mindless measures. Education has gone with the wind, and test-preparation has swirled in to replace it.
I’m horrified by it—and I believe that Frances Wright would also have been. She believed in schools that taught people fundamentals, yes, but also taught them how to think and evaluate and debate, schools that gave youngsters worthy books to read, and on and on.
She would be shocked at the anti-education, anti-intellectual attitudes that are so pervasive now in our country. We’ve reached the point at which public figures are almost ashamed to reveal the extent of their education, as if earning advanced degrees were a mark of madness—or, at the least, elitism.
              I think of that horrible scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part Two, when populist Jack Cade and his minions are trying to stir up a revolution against those whom they consider elites (and, to be fair, those who consider themselves elite—but that’s another story). Anyway, in 4.1—right after that famous line The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers—we get this exchange about a man a minion has nabbed. Let’s see what his crime is—and how he’s punished:
Enter some, bringing forward the Clerk of Chatham
Exit one with the Clerk
And as I hear some of the bellowing this political season (Trump v. Clinton), I hear the echoes from the distant voice of Jack Cade. So popular. So dangerous and destructive and deadly.

[1] Ibid., 215–16.
[2] Ibid., 216.
[3] Ibid., 83.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Change in the Air

"Now the leaves are falling fast.
Nurse's flowers will not last ...."

I recently memorized this poem--"Autumn Song," by W. H. Auden (link to the entire poem)--and it got me to thinking about seasonal changes--and about how poets have written about them since the dawn of poetry itself.

When I was a kid, seasonal changes had one simple meaning, revealed in a couple of boyish questions: Can I ride my bike today? Can I play baseball today? Can I go outside today? That was about it.

But as I've gotten older, the metaphor of change has begun to overwhelm all other concerns. Living things grow, they fade, they die (or seem to have died). Then ... spring ... If you've survived ...

Every fall in recent years, my thoughts have turned more and more this way--and ever darker. This fall, for example, I've already seen the end of the sweet corn season at Szalay's Farm Market (where we buy our corn all summer long). The Hudson Farmers' Market--which operates on the Village Green, just a block from our house--has closed for the season. Every morning, our yard displays more and more fallen leaves. Some birds are looking wistfully to the south.

And yesterday was my last bike ride of the year. On nice days I ride down to Starbucks after lunch--maybe a mile away (much of it on sidewalks and a bike path)--where I drink heavy caffeine, read, write doggerel.

But I know it's not wise for me at my age (nearly 72) to ride in the cold and the wet (it's probably not wise for me to ride at all, but I'm a-gonna do it until I just simply can't). In a few minutes I'm going to go out on the porch and transfer my bike to its winter home--the basement. Where, every time I go down there, it will look reproachfully at me until the warmth of spring/early summer is here. And I'll haul it back upstairs, stuff it in the car, drive it to Eddy's for its annual checkup. And, after Eddy's, it will forgive me.

Mortality, of course, hovers darkly above all of this. And the inevitable question that begins with this: Will this be the year that ...? I refuse even to write the rest of that question. Words sometimes awaken and alert Mr. GR (Grim Reaper), reveal your location--like a ping on a lost smart phone. Oh, that's where he is!

I've realized while writing this that my seasonal questions today are not all that different from the ones I had in boyhood. Can I ride my bike today? Can I go outside today?

It's the sort of question we all ask, really--whatever age. In youth, most of us are not aware those heavy words are what make our tongues lie flat. Later ... we know.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 248

Frances "Fanny" Wright's observations about American education during her tour of America, 1818-20.

In a letter from Albany, New York, in July 1819, Wright makes her first significant comments about education in Views of Society and Manners in America (1821). She writes, first, about the enormous significance of education in a democracy—especially a fledgling one like America’s.
To enlighten the mind of the American citizen, she writes, is, therefore, a matter of national importance. And she hurries to add that this education is not left to chance. She sees that in this union of knowledge with liberty lies the strength of America.[1] She then moves on to other topics—including the astonishing scenery in upstate New York.
Later, she makes a sharp, education-related comment now and then. In August 1819, for example (from Geneseo, NY), she writes: Among the ignorant, one fool can work more harm than twenty wise men can work good ….[2]
Throughout, I noticed, she seemed determined to praise Americans. (What country before, she asks, was ever rid of so many evils?[3]) She saw such hope here, even though she raged against our failures, as well—especially slavery. And women’s rights, though she comments at one point—excessively so, perhaps—that it is impossible for women to stand in higher estimation than they do here.[4]
But it’s in her letter from New York City (March 1820) that she expatiates most fully—and most enthusiastically, even passionately—about American schooling. She begins bluntly: The education of youth, which may be said to form the basis of American government, is in every state of the Union made a national concern.
In Connecticut, she writes, she saw a group of children heading to school, and what she observes is almost amusing in its contrast to what Jaques, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, says in his celebrated “All the world’s a stage speech”—the line about “the whining school-boy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school.”
This is not what Wright sees, no whining, unwilling lads. She writes about the children, neatly dressed, with their satchels on their arms and their faces blooming with health and cheerfulness, dropping their courtesy to the passenger as they trooped to school.[5]

to be continued ...

[1] 83.
[2] Ibid., 113.
[3] Ibid., 83.
[4] Ibid., 219.
[5] Ibid., 215.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Siblings Have Their Uses

Siblings can be very useful. Give me some time, and I'll think of some ways. Okay, here's one: You always have someone to blame stuff on. A broken water glass, some missing Oreos (I was saving those for dessert, boys!). A defaced bedroom wall.

Once, in 1954 or so (I was 9-ish), in our house in Enid, Okla., I put a paper target on my bedroom wall, and practiced throwing my toy tomahawk. I found some difficulties, though. It was hard getting the head of the tomahawk to hit instead of the handle. (The red handle, by the way.) Paper does not well withstand even a handful of hits from a tomahawk, toy or no. So when I went to the wall to affix a new paper target, I saw, after removing the old, ripped one, that the red handle had made some very noticeable dents, tinted red, in the drywall--punching right through the wallpaper.

Big deal. I made a few more targets, scored some more hits, many more red dents. Tiring of it all (the thing would not stick!), I moved on to other activities.

I was surprised that my mom noticed the dents right away (ah, the naivete of youth!), but since I was sharing a room with little brother Davi (about 6), I had a convenient mule to bear the burden of my guilt. I don't think I really escaped, though: My folks had learned by then that Davi was Innocence; I was Guilt.

Anyway, my two brothers and I blamed one another for things throughout youth (in some ways, I fear, we haven't quit), and a couple of weeks ago my brother Davi (now Dave) visited for a weekend: He was here for his 50th class reunion at James A. Garfield HS in Garrettsville, Ohio. He had a great time. So did we. Until the last night he was here.

I was not sleeping well, so I went downstairs and curled up on the couch for a while. Then--late, late in the night, the hour when Jacob Marley would have been about, if I were Ebenezer Scrooge--I awoke on the couch with some, uh, urgent matters to attend to.

I staggered toward the downstairs bathroom (I have a bit of a vertigo problem these days), and my left arm collided with the edge of a bookcase, a bookcase I've passed by a dozen times every day for the past twenty years (the amount of time we've lived here). I've never come close to hitting that edge before.

In the bathroom I turned on the light and saw red. Lots of it. I'd really gouged myself. I put pressure on it (yes, I was a Boy Scout!), and--slowly, slowly--Niagara subsided.

Next morning ... it was UGLY there on my arm. And so it has remained ugly this entire ten days or so since Dave left.

But it's finally scabbed over. I'll survive.

It was all Dave's fault, of course. He was sleeping in the spare room, the place I would have gone, the default place Joyce and I go when Morpheus refuses to embrace us.

Definitely Dave's fault.

Oh--add insult to injury?--when he left here, he flew to the south of France to join his wife.