Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Monday, September 1, 2014

Oh, the Mistakes a Parent (meaning me) Made

Since this is Labor Day, this will be brief (mustn't work too hard)!--but also saturated with guilt ...

I did and said a lot of things I regret when I was a younger (and older) father. Too many to catalogue. But today I was reminded of one of the more egregious ones. Joyce and I were having lunch with our son, Steve (now 42), and his family--wife Melissa, sons Logan (9) and Carson (5)--when the subject of sharks arose. It's recently been Shark Week, I know, and the Sharknado movies are now part of the culture. Our two grandsons are very interested in sharks (as was their father when he was their age, as I would have been if Jaws had been part of my boyhood; it wasn't).

I chatted with Steve a little about the time we saw Jaws (the first one), and I asked him when that film was first released. He thought it was 1976; I just checked: It was June 1975. In either case I was horrified: Steve was only four years old at the time. Why would I take a four-year-old to see Jaws?

Well, as Shakespeare said, thereby hangs a (shark?) tail ...

That summer of 1975 we were visiting my brothers in Massachusetts. At the time, older brother Richard was the classical music critic for the Boston Globe (he's now retired), and, as per always, he had scored us some seats for a Boston Symphony concert at Tanglewood. But younger brother Dave and I thought we'd have time to see Jaws first. So Dave, Joyce, Steve, and I--without telling Richard (who'd already gone to Tanglewood and was saving seats for us)--drove to a local movie theater to see that gory, frightening film.

By the time it was over, we were already late for the beginning of the concert. (This was in pre-cell days when we couldn't text Richard to let him know we'd be late.) We arrived just in time for intermission--and in time to meet a very worried Richard.

To whom we promptly lied. Told him some bogus story about why we were late--a story we (later that day?) rescinded and told him the truth. (It has now achieved the status of a Family Story.)

Need I note that Richard wasn't happy?

I regret that.

But even more? I regret that I took my four-year-old son to see Jaws! Here's what I sort of vaguely remember: When it started getting really scary, Joyce took him out to the concession stand. (But did that really happen, or am I fabricating a memory? I think it did happen--principally because Joyce has always had far more sense than I--and she abhors frightening movies, anyway. So ... little Steve was not in the theater during the worst parts--though that is entirely due to Joyce's maternal wisdom, not my paternal doltishness.)

Anyway, when Steve and I talked about Jaws today, I was horrified. I told him it was child abuse--and I asked him (he's passed the bar) if he could still sue. He said he could (though I'm not sure I trust him on that!).

There are many other things I regret as a father, but that's enough for now. I don't think my psyche can stand thinking about them. It would be a bit like, you know, swimming with a Great White.

PS--When I taught middle school English, I often gave my kids (as a model of descriptive writing) Peter Benchley's description of the shark in the novel Jaws (1974). I liked to use that passage for a variety of reasons (sharks are always more interesting that adverbs!), but principally because Benchley used all the senses he could (not smell--kind of hard to do that under water) and because he described the creature from head to tail. After we read it and talked about, the kids wrote their own descriptions, trying to apply what Benchley had taught them.

Here's that passage:

Rising at him from the darkling blue—slowly, smoothly—was the shark. It rose with no apparent effort, an angel of death gliding toward an appointment fore-ordained.

Hooper stared, enthralled, impelled to flee but unable to move. As the fish drew nearer, he marvelled at its colors: the flat brown-grays seen on the surface had vanished. The top of the immense body was a hard ferrous gray, bluish where dappled with streaks of sun. Beneath the lateral line, all was creamy, ghostly white. …

The fish came closer, silent as a shadow, and Hooper drew back. The head was only a few feet from the cage when the fish turned and began to pass before Hooper’s eyes—casually, as if in proud display of its incalculable mass and power. The snout passed first, then the jaw, slack and smiling, armed with row upon row of serrate triangles. And then the black, fathomless eye, seemingly riveted upon him. The gills rippled—bloodless wounds in the steely skin.

Tentatively, Hooper stuck a hand through the bars and touched the flank. It felt cold and hard, not clammy but smooth as vinyl. He let his fingertips caress the flesh—past the pectoral fins, the pelvic fins, the thick, firm genital claspers—until finally (the fish seemed to have no end) they were slapped away by the sweeping tail.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 14

1. I wrote the other day about my adventure: falling in the coffee shop, visiting a dentist and an oral surgeon. Well, at the office of the dentist, Dr. Hoover, I sat in an examination room waiting for him to have a minute to check me out, and right outside the window was a bird feeder, which, during the time I was there, had attracted about 650,000 sparrows. I don't think I've ever seen so many sparrows in one place, but they were there, en masse, and were having a delightful time flinging and eating seeds. Occasionally a blue jay arrived for a look, a squirrel that apparently couldn't read (bird feeder). But the sparrows pretty much ignored the interlopers. Oddly, though, every time I would change my position, they would fly off to the other side of the driveway--all of them, all at once. Something about me alarmed them. Surely they couldn't have seen my face all that well?

2. Yesterday was one of those song-in-my-head days. I don't know how it got there, but there it was: "Magic Moments" by Perry Como. I didn't remember a lot of the lyrics, but, hey, what's Google for? I looked up some stuff about the song--and here's Como performing it on YouTube. He released it late in 1957, and it was #7 for all of 1958. The year I was in eighth grade, the year I was falling in love for the first time (well, the 8th grade version of love!), the year I found "Magic Moments," the soundtrack for my nascent emotions. By the way, sitting below "Magic Moments" on the 1958 top hits? "At the Hop" (Danny and the Juniors, #20), "Yakety Yak" (The Coasters, #21), "Tom Dooley" (The Kingston Trio, #28), "Great Balls of Fire" (Jerry Lee Lewis, #36), "Peggy Sue" (Buddy Holly, #50), "Johnny B Goode" (Chuck Berry, #73). And on and on. Here's a link to the entire list.

Como's lyrics are innocent beyond belief, aren't they? It's just absolutely unthinkable that a song like that could be a hit today. Check them out below ...

Magic moments
When two hearts are carin'
Magic moments
Memories we've been sharin'
I'll never forget the moment we kissed
The night of the hayride
The way that we hugged to try to keep warm
While takin' a sleigh ride
Magic moments
Memories we've been sharin'
Magic moments
When two hearts are carin'
Time can't erase the memory
Of these magic moments
Filled with love
The telephone call that tied up the line
For hours and hours
The Saturday dance, I got up the nerve
To send you some flowers
Magic moments
Memories we've been sharin'
Magic moments
When two hearts are carin'
Time can't erase the memory
Of these magic moments
Filled with love
The way that we cheered whenever our team
Was scoring a touchdown
The time that the floor fell out of my car
When I put the clutch down
The penny arcade, the games that we played
The fun and the prizes
The Halloween hop when everyone came
In funny disguises
Magic, moments
Filled with love
Snooky Lanson

My dad didn't like popular singers for the most part--he abhorred, for example, Snooky Lanson, who was a regular on Your Hit Parade. And Dad was the first one I ever heard call The King "Elvis the Pelvis." And when he saw rocker P. J. Proby on TV, he said this, First time I ever saw teeth on a horse's ass. But Dad would watch The Perry Como Show (1948-1963); I think he liked Como's genial, unpretentious manner.

Anyway, the song is out of my head today--though it brought back memories of lonely times in my room, listening to the radio, of sock hops and dances at Hiram School, of that piercing adolescent yearning I just did not know how to diminish.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Test and Schools: Are We about to Turn a Corner?

In today's (Saturday's) New York Times I was happy to read an op-ed piece by Joe Nocera, "Imagining Successful Schools" (link to Nocera's column), a piece that asked the sorts of questions that have been troubling me for years--back to the early 1990s, not long before I retired from public education, when Ohio began its long love affair with "proficiency tests." It was only a matter of time before some dunderheads began to get the idea, Hey, we can use these tests to assess teacher competence!

And so it happened. And Nocera's column revisits some recent research that shows the folly of it all. Most alarming: Good veteran teachers are leaving the profession; many bright young people are deciding not to enter it at all. Of course there are still some wonderful teachers out there--bright, dedicated, compassionate. There are some in every school building in the country. But, as Nocera shows us, it's manifestly not because we're encouraging anyone to be there. In fact, we are arranging things so that the very people we want to attract are saying no thanks and pursuing other careers. Can't say that I blame them.

In my own experience, here's what happened on standardized tests. Most kids did about what they usually did in class; a few did better; a few did worse. But what I noticed (not from my building principal, who was too wise to be fooled by all this stuff)--especially from the central office--was a greater and greater concern with the test results. With scores.  Some years my kids did well (I taught English, and my 8th graders took tests on reading and writing), some years not so well. It was just like any other school activity: Some years I had great play casts, other years not so great. Same thing in sports, music, art, whatever. Normal variability.

But what I knew was this: I worked just as hard as I could, every year. I always had the kids do lots of reading and writing--and, later on, "test preparation" (what a waste). So when they did well, I was happy; when they did not so well, I felt bad for them. But I tried never to let those scores--good, bad, ugly--"get to me."  I didn't give myself too much credit when they did well--nor blame when they didn't. There are just too many other variables--powerful ones--that affect kids' scores.

And soon testing proliferated (and testing companies were raking in the $$$). One of my grandsons, now in fourth grade, has already taken more standardized tests than I did in my entire school career--kindergarten through grad school. His school focuses on test preparation--as so many school districts must because of all the public attention surrounding the tests (results published in the local paper, etc.). Maybe it's time for some courageous administrators (that term is not an oxymoron!) to step forward and say We are not focusing on test preparation but on education in this building!

Anyway, I'm hopeful that Nocera's article is an early sign that the test-glacier is melting. And that we'll return to the world of sanity, a world where young people want to go into teaching to help kids become learners for life--where young teachers get kids excited about reading and writing and science and math and music and drama and art and ...  We need to use tests principally for diagnostic purposes. As I've written before, we need to  make the profession of teaching an attractive one, not the repulsive one that it certainly is now.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"Ups he jumps ...."

When I was a wee lad and would take a fall, my dad, if he witnessed the event, would launch into a little rhyme:

Hooray for Robert Rumble!
He doesn't mind a tumble.
Ups he jumps and rubs his bumps
And doesn't even grumble!
Hooray for Robert Rumble!

I'm not sure what therapeutic value the rhyme had--but as I think of it now, I miss my dad a lot--and I wish he'd been around earlier this morning when I took a tumble in the coffee shop.

I was walking back to the counter for a re-fill, tripped on something, and realized I was not going to recover from the fall. (Can't tell you what happened to the coffee cup?!?) I tumbled right into the counter where I was headed, my lower lip and jaw making hard contact just below the line of my lower teeth.

And then I was on the floor, dazed, and people were gathering around asking me if I was all right, and some friends were helping me to my feet, staying with me until Joyce came. There was blood. Pain. The fear that I'd done some serious damage to my lower front teeth.

I called my regular dentist: out of town till Tuesday. Joyce and I drove over to her dentist: out of the office. So we drove down to the office of Dr. Hoover--who, coincidentally, about 30 years ago treated our son for a serious injury from a batted baseball (no, 'twas not I who hit it)--and he worked me in right away. He said he couldn't see any damage to the teeth, but he said I needed stitches, inside and out. So his office set me up with an oral surgeon in Solon, Dr. Reppas, who also worked me in right away.

He gave me about 7,000 shots in my gum and lip, then, when I was thoroughly numbed, gave me about ten stitches in my inside lip, and a few outside as well. Panoramic X-rays showed no further damage. Then ... off to get four Rx's.

I managed a smoothie for lunch (and supper); then, after supper, Joyce suggested that what I "needed" was some Stoddard's frozen custard, which seemed to me to make lots of medical sense.  So off we went for that.

Oh, I also took four-hour nap after taking some meds.

The pain seems manageable right now--though I am on a pretty big med for it--and the oral surgeon said I could start to eat normally (though carefully) as soon as tomorrow. (Though I'll probably--for medical reasons only--need some more Stoddard's in the coming days.)

Meanwhile ... I'm grateful for friends who wait, for my wonderful wife, for some accommodating dental professionals.

But I wish I could hear my dad chant about Robert Rumble: Then I know I'd be better soon.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Computer Bedlam

I've been having computer trouble today. Computers were supposed to make things so much easier, you know ... you remember? Take the grocery store, for example. Scan each item. Up pops the price. Etc. Except, of course, the cashiers are constantly having to call for price checks, or manipulate items so that their scanner can read the bar code. When I was a kid, Mr. Jones, our grocer (yes, that was really his name), had an old-fashioned (not then--now) manual cash register. We took items to the register; he hit a couple of keys; the prices popped up like pieces of toast. Off we went to sip our Grapette and down our donut. No price checks. No bar codes. Just ... efficiency and speed.

When computers work correctly, of course, they're hard to beat. (Think: John Henry and the steam drill.) We can keep track of our finances, find just about anything ... like the full lyrics to a song from the 1950s that, incomplete, is playing in our heads. Like get back in touch with people we haven't even thought about in decades. Like entertain the NSA officers "listening" in ...

But then there are those days ... like today ...

I'd become a fan of OneDrive, Microsoft's cloud wherein I store a lot of my writing. It's so convenient. I can access OneDrive from my iPhone or iPad or computer, enabling me to edit text just about anywhere (like when I'm supposed to be paying attention to what the person across the table is saying to me). A real time-saver. When I'm at Starbucks, say, I can enter changes in a review or some other text I'm working on, and when I get home, there those changes, now on OneDrive, are available to download and print at my convenience.

Except, of course, when I can't.  Like right now. Like for the past two hours.

Over at the coffee shop this morning I made some changes in a review I'll be filing on Sunday with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I thought of a better way to open the review, did some rearranging of paragraphs and sentences, saved it to OneDrive, walked home, where I ... can't do a Damn Thing because OneDrive won't open. This webpage is not available is the message I'm getting now--and have been getting for Eternity.

It's no real crisis--not yet. I have the typescript of the review, the penciled changes. I can re-do it here at home. Instead, I keep hitting "reload," hoping, hoping, hoping ...

And remembering those Dark Days in the mid-1970s when I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation. I wrote it all with a pencil, then typed it--revised and typed it three different times--on an IBM Selectric (pencil-editing after each 400-page draft emerged; I typed about ten pages/hour, so it took about forty hours to type each draft), then paid a friend to type the final draft (I was sick of it).

A computer would have changed all that, right? Unless I'd stored my most recent draft on OneDrive ...

IBM Selectric

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tuesday in Chagrin (Falls)

I got an email the other day from a former student--one who is among my most former of students--John Mlinek, who was in my seventh grade class now and again during my first year (1966-1967) and who performed in the first two plays I directed at the Aurora Middle School (The Founding of Aurora; or, The Grapes of Wrath, spring 1967; Our War for Independence; or, 101 Ways to Be Revolting, spring 1968). Both shows I wrote with groups of middle school students; both we performed on the gym floor in the old middle school. In the first, John played the Rev. Ku Klux (clever, eh?), and in the second he was King George III. (I posted something the other day about John: Those kids from 1966 are turning 60 this year--impossible, impossible, impossible.)

One of my favorite memories of my entire teaching career: At the end of Revolting, King George III (John), whupped by the colonists, comes prancing into the gym dressed like a hippie and preaching "peace" while the soundtrack boomed "Georgy Girl," a recently popular song by The Seekers. (If you don't know it, here it is, via YouTube.) The crowd of middle schoolers in the bleachers went nuts. It might have been the biggest reaction to any moment in any of the 30+ plays I directed.

Anyway, John and his wife, Kim (who live near Cincinnati), were in town because Kim, now a technical director for televised sporting events, is going to be doing the Browns game this week (check it out: every image you'll see in that will come to you courtesy of Kim!). So we decided to meet in Chagrin Falls, at the bridge, at 5:30, and then decide what to do for supper.

We met. We decided. Rick's Cafe, which, it turns out, is a place John had always wanted to go but never had. (He, Kim, and Joyce munched ribs; I, morally superior, ate a salad with chicken pieces--and stole fries when I thought no one was looking.)

Hours flew as we rehearsed memories from years ago, as we talked about our lives then and now. At some point we drifted over to the popcorn/ice cream shop across the road, and while a dark thunderstorm edged in from the west, we licked cones (I ate moral yogurt, not immoral ice cream) and postponed our separation until Armageddon was upon us.

And off we drove--Joyce and I to home, John and Kim to Cleveland. While the heavens shuddered and flashed. And memory did the same.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Time for a Laugh--Bring in the Eunuchs

Yanna McIntosh and Geraint Wyn Davies
in Antony and Cleopatra, Stratford Festival


Noun--1. a castrated man, especially one formerly employed by Oriental rulers as a harem guard or palace official.

1350-1400; Middle English eunuk < Latin eunūchus < Greek eunoûchoseunuch, chamberlain, equivalent to eune-, stem of eunḗ bed, place of sleeping + -ochos keeping (akin to échein to hold

Shakespeare was wise enough (most of the time) to include a little comedy with his tragedies. And so we have the grave-diggers in Hamlet, Roderigo in Othello (things don't work out well for him!), the Porter in Macbeth, and on and on.

I'd not seen Antony and Cleopatra in a few years, and when I saw it on Sunday last, I was surprised during a scene when Cleopatra's eunuch (Mardian) comes in for a little good-natured (?) ribbing in a couple of places.

In 1.5, Mardian, entering, says to Cleopatra, "What is your highness' pleasure?" And she replies "I take no pleasure / In aught an eunuch has." (Chortle, chortle.) A little more of an exchange. Then Cleopatra asks him, "Hast thou affections?"

MARDIAN:  Yes, gracious madam


MARDIAN: Not in deed, madam; for I can do nothing ...
Yet I have fierce affections ....

And later, in 2.5, we get this. Charmian, Cleopatra's principal attendant, says her arm is sore; she cannot play.

My arm is sore; best play with Mardian.

As well a woman with an eunuch play'd
As with a woman. Come, you'll play with me, sir?

As well as I can, madam.

And when good will is show'd, though't come too short,
The actor may plead pardon

Here, we even get a reference to something "short"; hmmmm, wonder what that is?

The eunuch has been a comic figure throughout the history of drama and literature--and film. Check out this "eunuch test" devised by Mel Brooks (via YouTube). And the Broadway hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which opens with the rousing song "Comedy Tonight") features a comic pair of eunuchs. And on and on. Oh, and they're also often sneaky, knavish types. (Fans of Game of Thrones know about the duplicitous eunuch Varys--see below.)

Anyway, we've all laughed and shuddered at eunuchs--and we all know the close kinship between laughter and shuddering. The best comedians and writers of comedy (like Shakespeare) have always danced upon that frail line that separates the two.

And on Sunday last, watching the eunuch scenes in Antony and Cleopatra, the audience laughed heartily at the lines I've quoted above--and at the stage business the director had added (some was very naughty, as you might imagine!).

I sort of laughed, too, out of habit, I suppose. For I'd already realized that I was the subject of the humor, the secondary target of the comedy. Because, you see, since my first injection about a year ago of Lupron--a drug that retards the progress of my advancing prostate cancer--I have been a eunuch. A chemical one. But very much the brother of Mardian, if not Varys.

TO BE CONTINUED (unfortunately) ...