Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, August 31, 2012

McGuffey's Readers

William Holmes McGuffey
My maternal grandparents had many books in their house at 1609 East Broadway.  She liked to read a lot, and Grandpa was a professor at Phillips University (now defunct, sadly) in Enid, Oklahoma.  Most of the books they had did not interest me in childhood.  Lots of reference books.  Works on history and theology (Grandpa taught theology).  And--oddly--the complete works of Mark Twain, a set of green books now lining one of my own shelves.  My uncle told me once that he remembered Grandpa (his father) reading Twain in bed at night, the laughter rolling out of the room and throughout the house.  Grandpa had a high-pitched hee-hee-hee type of laugh.  I can hear it clearly as I write these words.

And I wonder now about that scene: my most pious grandpa laughing at the most impious Twain.  And Grandpa teaches me once again: People are always far more complex than we give them credit for.

As a kid I did enjoy The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and after our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Rockwell, read that book to us--as well as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--my friend Pete Asplund and I thought that we were Tom and Huck (who was who was the source of an endless debate--and a pointless one: Pete was lots bigger than I and invariably got to be Huck).  Sometimes, on Saturday mornings, he would go in the little patch of woods across the street from our house, beat on a log with a stick and cry Caw! Caw! Caw!  My signal.

Unlike the boys in the books, though, I did no shinnying down pipes.  Instead, I crept down the stairs, joined Pete across the street, and off we went on our Bicycle Adventures through the wilderness of Enid's streets.  Our Mississippi was a nameless drainage creek that ran through Glenwood Park.  And, oh, what we would have given for a cave!  Even one with Injun Joe inside--especially one with Injun Joe inside.  But we had to make do with the large drain pipes that ran under the street, connecting Glenwood with Kiwanis Parks.  They were foul, oh yes.  But adventure is adventure, foulness and all.  We were nine years old.

The only other books my grandparents had that made me curious  were the McGuffey Readers.  They had a full set of them, grades one through six (the books got increasingly thick each year), and they were so nicely bound that I knew they were not actual schoolbooks that either of them had used.  I'm guessing they bought them for their children to use--or for the grandchildren to get curious about.  The copyrights on their editions--1921--confirm my suspicion: My mom was born in 1919; her brother, two years earlier.

The first four volumes of the McGuffey's Eclectic Readers were written by the Rev. William Holmes McGuffey.  Of course that word eclectic threw me in boyhood; naturally, I read it as electric and assumed the books would ... what?  Jolt me when I read them?  Light up?  Who knows what nonsense courses through a child's curious and imaginative but ignorant mind?

The biography of McGuffey (who taught at Ohio University), the story of the composition of the books (Harriet Beecher Stowe recommended him), their publication history--all of that's on the Internet these days.  Here's one of the decent sites: History of the Books  And you can still find hard copies to buy and free digital ones online.

For years, I have had on the shelf my grandparents' copies of the 5th and 6th grade readers.  I'd long forgotten how we acquired them--assumed I'd taken them when my older brother and I helped clean out Grandma's house when she died in 1978.  But I was wrong.  When I opened the 5th reader, a little card fluttered out, a card with some words in my grandmother's hand.  Inside, it says, "From Grandmother."  So ... the two books were a Christmas gift to Joyce, probably not long before Grandma died, when our own son was about to head off to school.

The contents of these books reveal a far different World of School than most American youngsters experience today.  The Preface to vol. 6 says about the reading selections: ... they present the same instructive merit and healthful moral tone which gave the preceding edition its high reputation.  The illustrations (and there are not many!) are presented as specimens of fine art.

The reading selections, then, have a moral purpose.  They also are designed for students to work on elocution, a focus in the nineteenth century and on into the early twentieth, a focus rarely found in schools today.  And we can debate if that's a gain or a loss.  The first sixty pages of the 6th volume deal with elocution.

But consider the literary selections for sixth graders--the authors included: Benjamin Disraeli, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, Dryden, Dickens, Thomas Gray, Ruskin, William Cullen Bryant, Charles Sumner (!), Scott, Washington Irving, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Goldsmith, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jefferson,Webster, Longfellow, Hazlitt, William Dean Howells, Milton, Francis Parkman, Tennyson, Helen Hunt Jackson, Macaulay, Burke, Poe ("The Raven"!), Byron, the Bible, Whittier, Franklin, Thackeray, Addison, Wordsworth, Emerson, Pope, Coleridge ... and these are just the folks most people have heard of today.  There are numerous others.

By my day, the common beginning readers featured Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff.  Every now and then a good teacher would give us a little Longfellow or Poe or Twain.  But for the most part, educators adopted a different philosophy, a different strategy: students can learn reading skills from drivel as well as from works of art.  So ... let's go with the drivel.

In the 6th volume of the McGuffey's is this statement of purpose: In schools for children, it ought to be a leading object to teach the art of reading.  It ought to occupy threefold more time that it does.  The teachers of these schools should labor to improve themselves (58).  The editor goes on to say that we should work as hard at reading as musicians do learning their instruments.

So ...  Kids should read more--lots more.  Teachers should keep learning.

I second both motions.


TOMORROW: What I believe about reading and literature in our secondary schools.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

End of Days

I have a new FB friend from long ago--a woman who was a student of Joyce's at KSU back in the the early 1970s, the dawn of our careers.  Joyce had her in freshman English at KSU, and Maria would sometimes babysit for us when Steve was still a wee one.  Then she graduated; everyone moved on.  We hadn't heard from her in years--until her recent FB "friending."

She has started a blog now, too--keeping electronic track of her final year of teaching.  She's calling it "Salt Water and School Bells"--Salt Water & School Bells.  And it made me remember ...

When I was teaching at Harmon Middle School in Aurora, I knew I was going to retire the first day I was eligible to do so.  I was only (!!) 52 at the time and could retire with full benefits with thirty years' service.  That made me eligible in mid-January 1997.  I had not lost my interest in education, not at all; I still loved the kids--deeply.  But I left for two compelling reasons--one positive, one negative.

The positive one: There was so much I wanted to do.  I'd just recently published a couple of books related to Jack London (an annotated edition of The Call of the Wild, a YA biography--Jack London: A Biography) and had recently become consumed by the story of Mary Shelley.  I wanted to read everything by and about her.  Write a YA biography of her, too.  And I didn't want to do it over the summers and on holidays.  Too much time.  And I was getting ancient (52).

The negative one: Ohio had been growing crazy about "proficiency tests," and Aurora was especially so.  I found myself more and more having to focus on teaching things I didn't believe--and having to eliminate from the curriculum so many things I loved.  Why?  Not on the test.  Moreover, there was an 8th grade writing test.  I was the 8th grade English teacher.  And when the kids didn't do well (after having been in my class for five or six months), I felt the eyes on me.  The kids, of course, had been in other teachers' classes since kindergarten, had grown up in other parents' homes.  But I felt that some administrators believed a kid's low score was my fault--even though kids wrote in my class all the time, even though ...  Never mind.  Water.  Under.  Bridge.  (But ... sometimes ... it's boiling water.)

I knew, as I contemplated retirement, that I would one day probably want to write about my career (I've done so in Schoolboy: A Memoir, Kindle Direct Publishing: Link to Amazon), and I thought it would be helpful to keep track of what I did my last 100 days.  (I'd not yet started the daily journal that I've kept since January 1997.)  And so I did.

My Last 100 Days
I bought a pack of 3x5 cards, and each day I put one in my shirt pocket, and when something happened that day, I jotted it down when I found the time.  Filled the card, added it to the pile--see impressive pile in the photo!

Since I wanted to record exactly 100 days (oh, such a decimal people we are!), I had to start the spring before I retired (my last day was in January--not 100 days of school from the beginning of the year).  And, as fortune would have it, I was doing my final play production that spring of 1996, the final of a series of about 10 "Eighth Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Shows."  These were musical/sketch shows I wrote for the kids each year.  We'd produce the show right before the end of the year--a highlight for me, an emotional time for all of us before they left Harmon to head to the high school.  I got awfully close to those wonderful casts ...  In many cases, we've found one another again on Facebook.

With one hundred days to go, it was 28 May 1996.  I arrived at school at 6 a.m. and began working on production things for the show.  I have a note about bumblebee costumes.  My students watched a video that day about Anne Frank (we'd read the play based on her diary).  I had practice after school till 5:45, hurried home for a quick supper, and was back at school from 6:30-9:30 p.m.--getting the program ready.  I faxed to former student John Mlinek some lines he was going to say.  John was in the first play I ever did in Aurora--May 1967--and had agreed to come back for a cameo in my last.

All went well, both nights of the show.  Very well.  I was an emotional wreck.

On 28 August, I was back filling in cards: A new school year had begun.  And as I fan through my one hundred cards today, I'm reminded how much my days were in the thrall of routine.  I was almost always at school by 6 a.m.  I would start the coffee, fill the copy machines with paper, then work in my room till the kids came in for home room.  On this day, though, was the opening session for teachers and staff.  Here's a little snarky note I wrote: Speech by Cleveland Heights principal, a little banty-rooster type with fluffed and flawless hair and a gym bag full of athletic allusions.

I had a student teacher that fall--Lisa--from Hiram College, and she was one of the best I'd had in all the years of supervising student teachers.  I gradually turned over most of my load to her--though I usually stayed with her in the room, taking notes, thinking of helpful things to pass along.

I grouse about things on the cards: copy machines that jam, A-V equipment that doesn't work, kids who are dorking around.

The school had already hired my replacement, Len, who was on the staff as a substitute (he would fill in wherever).  If he had no other commitment, he would come in my room and get to know the kids.  I'd told everyone that I wanted no big departure scene; in fact--I told my students that they would not even know which day was going to be my last.  One day I would be there--the next day, not.  (Just like Life!)  I told Jerry, the principal, I wanted no parties, etc., either: I just wanted to go home and get to work.  (The teachers did give me a gift--a signed wooden plaque; affixed to it was a piece of the old hideous orange-and-brown Harmon carpet!)

One day I got an email from a parent who said her son shouldn't be penalized for spelling on his essays.  Okay.

I see I was also teaching that fall in the Weekend College at Hiram (every other Saturday morning, 8-12)--Writing in the Liberal Arts, an introductory course.  I was preparing for a part-time post-retirement career at Hiram, but I did it for only a couple of years.  It was taking too much time, and I had so much more I wanted to do.  Still ... I loved the experience and am still in touch with one WEC student via old friend FB.

In late October and early November--Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.  One of my favorite times.  On 5 November, Joyce and I went to the Guy Fawkes Day dinner at Hiram College--always fun.

On 11 November--my birthday--the power went out in the whole school.  I promptly told a ghost story about Hiram (stolen from Mark Twain or someone).  My card says Great reaction.  (I could be modest on the cards, eh?)

22 November was the day I'd decided to stop teaching the eighth graders and turn it over to Len.  That night, Joyce and I drove up to Borders--and saw Joyce's new book on display.  What a high ...

The rest of my time I did what Len had been doing--filling in here and there, tutoring kids for the upcoming proficiency tests, helping out my colleagues Jerry and Donna Hayes.  Waiting ...

16 January 1997 was my final day.  I met longtime colleague Denny Reiser at McDonald's in Streetsboro for breakfast.  We talked about our careers ... he would be retiring soon, as well.  First period I had a long, emotional talk with principal Jerry Brodsky.  I'd taught and worked with him since the late 1960s.  At lunch, I sat with some of the other old timers, and we ended up reminiscing about our strike in 1978.

In my final class that day--with some sixth graders--sat Erin Patch.  Her father, Greg, had been in the first class I'd ever taught back in 1966.  Strange ...

The superintendent came by to bid me farewell (that was nice of him).  Jerry announced on the PA at the end of the day that I was retiring, and lots of kids, on their way to the buses, stopped in the hall to say good-bye.  My eyes had not been dry for an hour.  Before I left, I stopped in and said good-bye to custodians Dale Dean and Kathy Coopy, who had always offered me such outstanding help over the years--especially around play time.  Wet eyes again.

The snow was heavy that day; a lot of colleagues left early.  I struggled out to the car.  I carried with me the briefcase my parents had given me when I started teaching in 1966.  I hadn't used it in years.  But I used it that day to carry out of the building my final few belongings.  It was heavy with memories ...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fat Is Funny?

We saw the new film The Campaign last weekend.  Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis in a parody/satire of our current political climate and culture.  I laughed a lot (sometimes, as usual in such comedies, feeling ashamed of myself for doing so).  But I was struck, watching the film, about how we continue to think it's okay to make fun of fat people.

Galifianakis has a fat family in the film.  Fat wife, fat kids.  And we're supposed to laugh at them not just for what they say and do--but for how they look while saying and doing it.  It's funny, you know, seeing a fat woman having sex.  Fat kids eating too much.  A fat family have a fat old time in their fat-friendly home.

Hollywood is fine with fat humor.  Think of, oh, Bridesmaids.  And Melissa McCarthy, the fat comic actress whose humor is bawdy, yes, but also rests on a quivering pile of adipose.  If she looked like Kristen Wiig, she would still be funny--but fall-down funny the way she is in that film?   And the way she was in a few of the SNL skits when she was guest host (1 October 2011) not long after Bridesmaids premiered?  Don't think so.

Fat humor has a long history, of course.  Shakespeare knew his audiences loved it, so every now and then--here it comes.  In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff is called "the fat knight," and there's a very funny scene when he, to aid an escape from a jealous husband, disguises himself as the "fat woman of Brentford."  And in an earlier scene--after hiding in a laundry basket (also for an escape) and being dumped in the river--he complains: think of that,--a man of my kidney,--think of that,--that am as subject to heat as butter; a man of continual dissolution and thaw: it was a miracle to scape suffocation.And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames, and cooled, glowing hot, in that surge, like a horse-shoe; think of that,--hissing hot,--think of that, Master Brook.

And later, worried that the news of his doings will get back to the court, he says:  If it should come to the ear of the court, how I have been transformed and how my transformation hath been washed and cudgelled, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop and liquor fishermen's boots with me.

Yes, they would melt his fat and use it to waterproof boots!

I need to say before I write another line: I've had weight problems myself throughout my life--thanks, in part, to some weighty Dyer gene that drags the whole chromosome down.  My father got very heavy--as did all of his brothers.  My own two brothers, off and on, have looked like my uncles.  At the moment, I'm sort of overweight but not to the point I disgust myself.  A couple of months of denial would do it.  I've been up and down since my adolescent growth spurt (a phrase of surpassing irrelevance in my case: I maxed out at 5' 9").  As high as 200+, as low as 150.  I'm about midway now.  And guess what?  The first piece I ever got paid for writing?  An op-ed in the Chicago Tribune on 10 April 1979; it was about my battles with weight loss.

In fourth grade, I had an overweight teacher--one of the best teachers I ever had, anywhere--named Mrs. Stella Rockwell.  She didn't like us to use the word fat, so she required us to use, in her presence anyhow, pleasingly plump.  And so we did use it--in class; outside, at recess, it was fat and other f-words.

Meanwhile, fat-and-funny characters have been everywhere.  Porthos in The Three Musketeers. Piggy in Lord of the Flies.  Porky Pig and Miss Piggy and Fat Albert.  SNL almost always has a pleasingly plump performer, the late Belushi and Farley among them.  Currently, Bobby Moynihan and Kenan Thompson play heavy for humor.

Fatty Arbuckle
And, of course, Hollywood.  One of the first great silent film stars ... Fatty Arbuckle.  A parade has followed him--including some great ones, like John Goodman, and some very popular ones, like Kevin Smith and Jonah Hill (who lost a bunch of weight--has been putting it back on).  The tabloids love to show celebrities who have let it go--Oprah's up-and-downs are legendary.  Kirstie Alley.  Kathleen Turner.

And do I even need to mention the gigantic diet book industry?

Jingles & Wild Bill
And television?  I remember a character named Jingles, played by portly Andy Devine, in the old show Wild Bill Hickock.  And William Conrad in a TV detective show called Cannon.  And Roseanne Barr and ...

The Internet, of course, is full of fat sites.  (I don't want to Goggle some of them--browsing history, you know?)  But, among other things, there are numerous places to find jokes about fat people: Fat Jokes

And viewers of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life will never forget the overweight-man-in-the-restaurant scene, which YouTube has thoughtfully archived for all of us to enjoy: Warning: Do not click on link near a mealtime--Monty Python

Comedians (think Bill Maher) still make jokes--sometimes cruel ones--about the overweight, too.

So why is it still okay to make fun of overweight people?  Well, maybe, for one thing we're running out of permissible targets for humor.  Remaining are the old, the dumb, the overweight (I've been all three, thank you).  And babies.  (It's funny to put words in their mouths--to watch them shoot poop in an adult's face--see The Change-Up.)  But other traditional targets are now no-no.

Also, I think fat humor lingers because many people can relate to it.  Many (Most?) folks have been on diets, have wrestled with weight gain and loss, so they don't mind, maybe, laughing at themselves?  After all, we don't really mind, most of us, being laughed at when it's about something we can remedy.  But when we can't?  Now, that's a different story.

Or maybe there's just no powerful lobby/constituency that can prevent the ridicule.

You know, I never wanted to be fat.  But there are times when I just must eat that ... whatever.  (Or, worse, eat that cubic yard of whatever.)  Fortunately, even though my metabolism is very slow, I can, eventually, lose that cubic yard of whatever.  Other folks are even more fortunate.  Joyce can eat that cubic yard of whatever and lose it the same afternoon.

But there are other people who simply cannot.  Every time they fail to deny themselves, they pay a rough, enduring consequence.  And their struggles are manifestly not funny.  Many overweight people actually deny themselves far more than some of the thin among us.  It's just that every donut I eat remains with me.  Not so with those who enjoy a blast-furnace metabolism.

Fat, of course, has come to symbolize sloth and excess and poor food choices and lack of exercise ... so when Bill Maher talks about the fat people at the mall, he is really talking about something quite different from those specific people he saw.  He's talking about an attitude, about the visible signs--the very visible signs--of the decline of a society.  And he recognizes, as well, the sad relationship between weight and health care costs.  So many of us now are on BP and cholesterol meds because of our size and condition (I'm not--not yet anyhow).  So many of us need medical attention for conditions exacerbated by our weight--diabetes, heart and kidney issues ... you know.

So ... do we laugh at the fat family in The Campaign?  I found myself that night laughing at some of the outrageous things the children said at the table (they'd been urged to confess things they'd done wrong).  But I could not bring myself to laugh at the "humor" based entirely on their physical condition.  I thought it veered very near child abuse.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How I Became a Democrat--And Why I've Remained One (Part IV)

Sunday, 26 August 2012.  Panera Restaurant.  Hudson, Ohio.  9:15 a.m.

At the table near us (just behind me) two married couples are talking politics.  They don't care who hears them.  They've just come from church, and all profess to be Republicans, though one guy declares that he was once a Democrat but saw the light.  Like St. Paul.  The men, by the way, routinely interrupt the women.  They are talking about the election--and, at the moment, about those egregious rape/pregnancy comments that dominated a few recent news cycles.

A woman says: "Some of the things the Republicans are saying are really terrible."  Pause.  Pause.  Pause.   "But, you know, I can't vote for Obama."  The others mutter their assent.

After a half hour of this, Joyce and I, who have been trying to read the Times and talk about things we care about (softly, softly), decide to head out and go to the grocery store.  It is either that or engage these strangers and launch an acrimonious debate that will sail everywhere and arrive nowhere.

I overhear a lot of coffee-shop conversations in Hudson.  Retired now, I have no life.  So I'm at Caribou most mornings, Starbucks most afternoons.  A couple of hours at each place.  I do my reading and note-taking.  Some thinking.  Some listening.  I don't consider myself an eavesdropper, by the way--but some people are loud and seem to have been absent that day in science class when the teacher talked about how sound waves travel in closed spaces.

Most of the political discourse I hear makes me grind my teeth in despair.  Many apparent paraphrases of Fox News commentaries.  Or Rush re-hashes.  Obama is a Muslim.  Obama was born somewhere else.  Obama is a Socialist.  The government is evil.  We need to take our country back. This debt is killing us.  Obama is the worst president in history.   (That sort of thing.)

And here's an odd thing, too.  Some of these people are what I guess I'd call coffee-house acquaintances.  We wave, say hi, ask about the other's offspring; we tell one another stories; we kind of like one another ...  I know they're Republicans; they know I'm a Democrat.  But after the affability is over, they will sit a dozen feet away from me and grouse loudly and bitterly about DamnDemocrats and socialists and all--as if they are some entirely different species, as if I am--what?--some odd genial harmless anomaly.  A single exception, maybe to their political equation (Democrats = Evil Ones Who Want to Destroy America).

It interests me to realize how--whatever our political positions--we are able to rationalize what "our side" does, no matter how troubling.  Republicans were amazed how many Democratic women continued to support Bill Clinton after Monica and the others.  Democrats are amazed that Republicans support Mitt Romney, who alters positions like a channel-surfer. 

We're all bundles of contradiction and major and minor hypocrisies.  We bellow about buying American and outsourcing and debt to China--then head off to shop at Walmart, the world's biggest dumping ground for Made-in-China.  We bray about family values, then fracture them like so many panes of glass.  We condemn Bush for the Afghan War--but say little when Obama continues--and expands--it.  With great umbrage, we blast the ridiculous things uttered by folks on the other side but find a way to minimize or excuse the outrageousness on our own side.

We find and embrace the single example that supports our position and ignore the mass of evidence that contradicts it.  (A lone hesitant climate or evolutionary scientist is enough, in some minds, to cancel the hundreds--thousands--on the other side.)  Some corrupt clerics or coaches convince us to condemn religion and athletics.

I'm exaggerating for effect here--because I'm leading up to something, something a former high school classmate (and follower of this blog), Ralph, anticipated in an email he sent me a couple of days ago.

Here's what I'm getting at.  Not long ago I reviewed a book called When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.  I am not an evangelical, but I liked the book, mostly because the author (T. M. Luhrmann) is an anthropologist and really did attempt to understand instead of condemn, parody, or celebrate.  Luhrmann imbedded herself in a couple of evangelical church communities (one in Michigan, the other in California), made friends (did not conceal her scholarly purposes, not at all), and set out to try to understand.

And one of her principal conclusions?  Evangelicals and others are, well, wired differently.  (She presented some psychological testing data to support her case.)  We "have different evidence for what is true," she wrote.  And--to a great extent--we "live in different worlds" (220).

See where this is going?

We live in different worlds.  Many of us cannot fathom why someone would be on the other political side.  Why would any woman or minority be a Republican?  Why do you want to turn America into a failed socialist state?  We look at one another across a vast canyon of misunderstanding and mistrust.  And, so far away, we are able to impute to others the worst of motives.  Even when we're sitting at adjacent tables in Panera.

But people do change parties, change positions.  Atheists become evangelicals--and vice-versa.  Liberals become conservatives--and vice-versa.  And so on.  Why?  What does it take?

In some cases it takes something deeply personal.  My father-in-law, for example, had little sympathy for demonstrators against "The Man" and "corporate America" back in the late 60s and early 70s.  He thought they were anti-American.  Then, just before he retired, Firestone (for whom he'd worked his entire adult life) decided to cut him (and save a bunch of retirement benefits).  Suddenly, he saw the wisdom of the side he'd long ridiculed.  He enlisted the help of the union, got some help, got his pension.  Changed both his tune and the lyrics.

Sometimes, I think, it's fear of some kind.  And we move toward the party or position that makes us feel safer, more secure.

And, maybe, sometimes, it's rational--based on the preponderance of evidence.  I look at your platform; I look at mine; I weigh the evidence; I make a choice.  But I suspect this doesn't happen all that often.

More often, I think, it's emotional, visceral.  Or cardiac.  Oh, sure, we love to think we hold the positions we do because of their logical power, their inherent Truth.  We studied the issues, you know?  And now we've decided.

But I don't think we're anymore logical about politics (we're probably less so!) than we are about any other kind of competition.  We look at the evidence, of course (but what evidence?); we consult others' views (whose?); then, perhaps, we ignore it all and root for the team we love.  (How else to explain a Tribe fan?)

Our minds may try to instruct us, but our hearts compel us.  We often can't explain why we love someone or something.  We just do.  We're often no better at explaining our political loves than we were back in eighth grade when a friend would exclaim in disbelief, "Why do you like her!"

And so in this election, I have looked at the issues that matter the most to me--health care, war, education, voting rights, civil rights, the economy, the environment, and many others.  I have informed myself.  And--no surprise--I find I am more in line with the Democrats--far more in line--than with the other side.

I don't like Obama's continual aloofness.  I don't like his military policies.  I don't like his weak compromises.  I don't like his cozy relationship with Wall Street.  I don't like his failure to be the vigorous, progressive leader I thought he was last time around.

But ...

He fought for universal health care.  He supports alternative energy.  He supports labor unions.  He supports public and higher education.  He supports civil rights for all Americans.  He supports environmental protections, even if they're costly.  He supports ...

Plus ... he's on my team, and I just plain like him better than Romney.

So both my reluctant mind and my eager heart are telling me ... Vote for Obama.

And so I will.

Monday, August 27, 2012

How I Became a Democrat--and Why I've Remained One (Part III)

And I've showed my politics how?

When, at age 21, I began teaching seventh graders in Aurora, Ohio, I wore my liberal politics on my sleeve.  And on every other part of my clothing, as well.  And on my head and face.  (Long hair, moustache, sideburns.  Superior sneer at times.)

There was that McCarthy for President bumper sticker on my car.  And my vigorous lunch-room colloquies with like-minded colleagues--especially a couple of librarians, Donna (whose children I taught) and Doug, also age 21, who had just graduated from Kent and could match me, slogan for slogan.

Not all my colleagues were with me, of course--far from it.  Most notably: the math teacher Jim, an ex-Marine, who had a sympathetic heart (he loved kids and teaching) but whose training and experiences had led him to conclusions different from mine.  Oddly, we became and remained fast friends.

As I look back now on those years, I know I stepped over the line--or leaped over it.  The satiric plays I wrote with the middle schoolers each year and produced each spring were politically liberal.  Authorities were bad; protests were good.  The very first one (called The Founding of Aurora; or, The Grapes of Wrath, May 1967) featured a character named Lumber Brains Johnson (LBJ) and another called the Reverend Ku Klux.  Subtle.  And many of the parents in the audiences were, well, torn: It was great to see little Bonnie and Billy performing (My kids are so talented!), but the political aspects of the show were, well, troubling to some ... many?  One liberal parent told me that after one of the shows he nearly got into a fistfight out in the parking lot with another father who had said I was a bad influence on the kids.  I see on YouTube that parents brawl at Little League games--but middle school plays?  That's special.

Here's another example: In 1968, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about Vietnam policy were telecast, I took my little black-and-white set (with sexy rabbit ears) to class and had the kids watch, live, all the while annotating and commenting with my own (largely ignorant and wholly partisan) observations about the credulity and integrity of the liars who were testifying.  It is not a scene I recall with pride.

And I must say quickly that my anti-war stance was a very safe one.  Although I took and passed the physical for the military draft, I was classified 2-A, an occupational deferment.  There was a shortage of public teachers in those days, so public school teachers avoided the draft.  When that deferment vanished with the draft lottery that came along in 1970, my number (assigned by birthday) was scary: #46 out of #366.  Meaning: I would be called early in the draft.

But--I turned 26 in 1970, the cut-off age.  They were taking only 18-25-year-olds.  So I was safe.  And from my position of safety I could safely utter all sorts of safe anti-war sentiments and remain safely safe.  (My older brother had reached 26 before the draft, and my younger became a Conscientious Objector--a classification that deeply troubled our father.)

Many I knew were not so fortunate--or made other choices.  Two of my best friends from high school, Troy and Paul, went into the military.  Troy went to Vietnam, where he was seriously wounded (afterwards, I taught with him in Aurora and walked the picket line with him during our 1978 teachers' strike); Paul ended up in the Honor Guard in Washington, D. C., where he had to deal all the time with protesters.  I saw him in Washington in, oh, 1968 or so, when I was there with our 8th graders.  We had coffee in a diner and he talked with me about how horrible he felt about having to bear a weapon against his fellow citizens.  I was not close friends with anyone who died in Vietnam--but I knew more than a few.

Only moments before ...
Meanwhile, public events were becoming ever more alarming.  Before I started my third year of teaching, assassins had cut down both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy--the liberal hope for the 1968 presidential race.  (He'd pretty much wiped out McCarthy in the primaries--much to my chagrin.)  I just this moment remembered this: RFK had officially entered the race late (in mid-March, only after he'd seen the strength of McCarthy's anti-war message), a move that angered a lot on the left (like me).  And when I saw McCarthy up at Western Reserve University that summer, he arrived about an hour late--and said something like this: I'm sorry to be a bit late today ... but I'm not as late as Sen. Kennedy!  The crowd went nuts.

And in May 1970 ... the KSU shootings (which I've written about in an earlier post).

Things fall apart, wrote Yeats; the center cannot hold.  And in the late Sixties and early Seventies there was no real center--not any political one.

As the years passed, my commitment to liberal causes did not ever diminish.  But my proselytizing in school did.  By the end of my career, I virtually never talked about politics in class--although I had fine colleagues who did so, all the time.  I'm sure my students had no trouble inferring where I stood on things, and I would answer questions if they asked.  But they rarely did.  I'd realized that  students were, of course, a captive audience.  And I really shouldn't be preaching politics at them--my politics.  So I didn't.  Better late than never?

Besides, I had other audiences by then.  In 1982 I began writing monthly op-ed pieces for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and I would write about politics from time to time.  I was also publishing essays in magazines--though not in political ones.  I was ... what? ... broadening my interests.  And now, like everyone else, I have FB and a blog and Twitter ...

I have never been very active in official political events.  I've attended a few, donated some money.  I supported our son, a two-term (Democratic) Ohio legislator.  Out of office now, he remains active in Democratic Party causes in Ohio--especially in education.  But he's been far more animated politically than either his father or his mother.

But the issues I continue to believe in are the ones that, in general, the Democrats continue to promote and the Republicans continue to oppose.  A brief, not all-inclusive list of the issues that continue to concern me:

Civil Rights--I still believe we need to do more to assure fair treatment of racial and other minorities--employment, housing, and the like.  As Dickens once wrote, we're all on the same train, heading to the same terminal. Democrats have long fought to protect and extend civil rights.

Environment--We Americans waste and pollute at a rate that far exceeds any other people-- mostly because we can and because we've deluded ourselves into thinking that because there seems to be no short-term consequence, then there must not be any long-term ones, either.  Read Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  Time after time, humans have wasted themselves right into collapse. Democrats have long fought to protect the environment.

Women's Rights--Equality of opportunity and pay.  Who can be opposed to this?  I've watched the principal women in my life (my mother, my wife) struggle mightily for decades against the various guises that Good Ol' Boys assume to stay in power.  Democrats have long fought for the rights of women.

Labor Unions--These organizations, to a great extent, made my wife's life possible.  (And mine and our son's, too.)  Her father worked for Firestone in Akron, and the salary and benefits he enjoyed allowed him and his family to live a middle-class life, allowed him to send his daughter to college, which she attended, by the way, with the help of a Firestone scholarship.  Of course there are corrupt union officials here and there (corruption, in case you haven't noticed, is an unwanted, uninvited guest attending every human institution--from the clergy to the Tour de France, from Tobacco Road to Wall Street), but my teachers' union helped me acquire health care and retirement benefits, sick leave, a decent wage, protection from arbitrary dismissal--and so much more.  The union did annoy me, deeply, from time to time ... but on balance?  No question.  It's been alarming for me to watch many Americans abandon their unions and to throw themselves on the "mercy" of their employers.  Democrats have long fought for unions and worker rights.

Health Care--This is a no-brainer.  As someone who's had enormous medical costs in recent years (prostate cancer and its multiple consequences), I know what it's like to see bills that are staggering in size--that would, if I had no insurance, bankrupt me.  We need to pool our resources for this because all of us, eventually, will use the health-care system.  And so we all need to help pay for it.  When I was young and healthy, my premiums helped other people; lately, it's been the reverse.  Democrats have long fought for universal health care.

Voting Rights--The Founding Fathers were frightened of universal suffrage, and that's why the Constitution originally limited voting rights to white, property-owning men.  Not good.  We need to find ways to get more people to the polls, not fewer.  Any attempt to diminish voter turnout--or to control who votes--is, to me, akin to treason.  Democrats have long fought to extend and preserve voting rights.

Public Education--Charter and private schools are okay by me--but we must have a great system of public education, as well.  And we don't.  Wealthy communities at least have a chance to have a good school.  But not impoverished areas.  Our current system of school funding pretty much assures that the poor and hopeless will stay that way.  Democrats have long fought to support public education.

Gay and Lesbian Rights--I've written about this before.  But we can't continue demonizing and denying basic human rights to our brothers and sisters, our friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  It's inhumane at the most profound and unforgivable level.  I grieve for the obstacles faced by so many who are dear to me--family members, friends, former colleagues, former students.  Democrats have long fought to support gay and lesbian rights.

There are so many others (war, government support for the arts and humanities, the right to choose, sensible regulations to keep businesses from behaving as if we're still in the era of trusts and monopolies and Robber Barons, the respect for science (not just technology), the need to improve higher education, sensible gun control, and on and on and on).

But this blog is now approaching the length, if nowhere near the artistry, of War and Peace.  So I'll stop.

Tomorrow--Why I'm going to vote to re-elect President Obama, even though some of his policies deeply trouble me.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

How I Became a Democrat--and Why I've Remained One (Part II)

So why did I change species--from elephant to donkey?

Let's put it simply: changing personal circumstances, changing times.  These were the principal reasons that I found myself, as I grew older, moving away from the GOP and aligning myself more and more with the Democrats .

The personal part: My boyhood had been so insular.  Enid, Oklahoma.  Racially segregated throughout my boyhood (separate schools, churches, restrooms, drinking fountains--you've seen the pictures in history books.)  Protestant church.  All-white school.  My parents' like-minded friends (with a few exceptions).  My deep respect for my parents' opinions, a respect, of course, that eroded as I became a teen and was certain they didn't know anything worth knowing.  They just didn't get it.  (My sage friends, of course, did.)

When I was nearly 12, and we moved to Hiram, Ohio, I found that things were not much different.  De facto segregation replaced de jure.  Our little school was all white, all Christian (as far as I knew).  We did have some Roman Catholics--and even that was weird to my ignorant eyes.  Our lives still orbited the same white star.

But--slowly, slowly--as the Fifties reeled into the Sixties, and as television began bringing into our house images of worlds and people so unlike what I knew, I was at first perplexed.  And then, at some point, I realized that I'd been living on a very small cultural island throughout my boyhood.  I was shocked. You mean the whole world isn't like Elm Avenue in Enid, Oklahoma?  Hiram, Ohio?  Not everyone is Christian? White? Republican?  Middle class?  Yes, I'd been very, very ignorant--an ugly word for an ugly condition.

And then, in the fall of 1962, on to Hiram College, which was not exactly a bubbling cauldron of motley humanity but at least showed me that there were differences in this world.  And that those differences could be pretty spectacular.  One of my best friends, Claude, was black.  He lived on the south side of Chicago.  His father drove a truck.  His white mother had an M.A.. in sociology.  I had never known anyone remotely like him.  (I had never even spoken to an African American person--or any person of color--until college!)  Claude married one of my white classmates and soared off to a great career--including being chair of the psych department at Stanford University (he's still there--but in a different capacity.)  We're still very much in touch. I stayed with them a few times when I was out in the Bay Area doing Jack London research.  And the cliche prevailed: It was as if we had never been separated.

My senior year, I roomed with a Jew named Bob who also revealed to me the vast dimensions of my religious and cultural ignorance.  I met atheists, too.  And gays. (No one was openly so, by the way--still too socially risky for that in Hiram, Ohio.)  And women who boldly spoke their opinions.  Who had read more books than I had (not that great an accomplishment in those days).  And said bad words ...  Amazing!

And, of course, the professors.  They were not at all the monolithic left-wing stereotypical caricatures we read about now and then these days.  Not by any stretch.  They were all sorts.  A potpourri.  Left, right, middle, and who-gives-a-damn?  They, too, presented so many images that conflicted with what I'd known as a child.  The German professor was black.  My favorite English teacher (of all time!) was Jewish.  And women on the faculty!  (I'd thought, you know, that they taught only public school, mostly elementary.)

As I grew to know all these folks--in and out of class--I realized something I should have known all my life, of course: In the most fundamental ways they were just like me.  And in other ways?  I realized that our differences educated me.  And I was grateful for that.  So it wasn't much of a stretch to follow with this: If they're just like me, then they should have the same rights that I have.  And the political party that seemed most interested in assuring that?  The Democrats.  They were the ones proposing and voting "Yes" on Civil Rights legislation.  On women's rights issues.  On Medicare.  My father's party opposed all.  This was deeply unsettling and upsetting to me in the early and mid-1960s when I was in college.

And religion.  Although I was moving away from the orthodox religious practices and beliefs of my family, I still believed in the truth of many of those humanistic New Testament teachings I'd learned as a boy.  We must help the poor.  Love one another.  Forgive.  Accept.  Treat others as our brothers and sisters.  Be the Good Samaritan.  All that--and more--continued to make inherent and enduring sense to me, even stripped of religious contexts and significance.

So ... these are the personal factors that began to bring about the change--in me, in my brothers, in many of my friends.  But the country was changing, as well.  It was the Sixties.  I graduated from college in 1966.  While I was there, a U. S. president was assassinated.  Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.  Fire hoses were blasting Civil Rights demonstrators in the South.  Congress was debating and enacting the social legislation of the Great Society.  Hope, as Emily Dickinson wrote, was indeed the thing with feathers--and Hope was soaring in those days.

By the time I graduated, there was also a war in Southeast Asia.  And it was escalating.  I began teaching at the Aurora (Ohio) Middle School in the fall of 1966, and it was not long before anti-war protests were dominating the nightly news.  Martin Luther King had shifted his emphasis from Civil Rights to anti-war and labor rights.  The country was in violent turmoil.  Deeply, bitterly polarized.  I was opposed to the war--as I remain opposed now to international military aggression.  My reading of history had told me--and tells me--that those who want the wars, who declare them, who benefit and profit from them, are rarely the ones who fight them.  That's for the rest of us.  Remember Tennyson's lines about the cavalry in his "The Charge of the Light Brigade": Theirs not to make reply, /  Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the 600?  (And, yes, I've memorized that one!)

And the party whose elected officials tended to oppose the war?  Democrats.  By the 1968 presidential primaries, I was a supporter of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and had boldly (!) put a bumper sticker on my 1967 Chevy Nova SS 327 (oh my, what a hot car that was!) that said (boldly!): McCARTHY.  It was green, I think.  I was growing my hair a little longer, letting a moustache take up residence on my upper lip, allowing my sideburns to creep downward.  Radical, eh?  In 1968,  I drove up to Western Reserve University (pre-Case consolidation) and heard/saw McCarthy speak at a rally.  He quoted Shakespeare.  And some Latin poets.  And the Greek tragedians.  The auditorium--the packed auditorium--contained the most excited crowd I've ever been in, saving, probably, some Tribe playoff games.  And more than a few Cavs' games back in the 80s.

It actually was a little risky to start making myself a public liberal in Aurora.  The town had voted overwhelmingly for conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964.  And some of my students' parents were not too thrilled about this shaggy puppy teaching who-knows-what down there at the middle school.

More on THAT tomorrow ...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

How I Became a Democrat--and Why I've Remained One

In this era of demonizing political opponents (all on the left are socialists/communists; all on the right, Nazis) I thought I'd make a stab at humanizing the debate a little.  In the next few days I want to tell some stories about my own political journey.  I'll try to avoid hyperbole and animosity and focus on the experiences that have shaped my political views.  Naive, I know.  But still ...  Maybe some understanding can occur if there are fewer sparks but more steady light.

Our house was full of Republicans in the 1950s.  My dad, mom, my two brothers, and I--all of us Liked Ike in 1952 and 1956 and believed the Republican slant that Adlai Stevenson was a out-of-touch egghead.  An intellectual.  As I think about it, that was an odd notion to reign in our home.  My father had a Ph.D.; my mom would soon begin work on hers; all three sons later charged off into Ph.D. programs (two of us finishing).  Our heads, it seems, were a bit ovoid, too.

Some of our relatives and family friends were Democrats.  But it was a fairly quiet era then (at least among our friends) when folks in one  political party did not equate membership in the other with Evil.  In fact, my dad's best friend--Dr. Paul F. Sharp--was a staunch Democrat.  Dad had met him at Phillips University back in the 1930s, where both Dad and Dr. Sharp met their wives.  They were four fast friends--for a lifetime.  In 1957 Dr. Sharp became president of Hiram College, where my dad was teaching.  And when he left seven years later, it was devastating for my parents.  They had spent holidays together (Thanksgiving, Christmas), had gone to dinner often.  Socialized all the time.  But only a couple of years later, in 1966, Dr. Sharp, now the president of Drake University, lured both of my parents onto the Drake faculty in Des Moines, where my mom and dad stayed and retired.  (But Dr. Sharp, ever restless, went to assume the presidency of the University of Oklahoma--I think it was in 1972.  He stayed until his own retirement.)

Anyway, although my parents disagreed with the Sharps on many political issues, I never witnessed any acrimonious arguments.  Those times when they did disagree in front of us generally ended in teasing and laughter.  Those were the days.  Agreeing to disagree.  Not creating for the other a new circle in the Inferno.

In the 1960 presidential election (JFK v. Nixon) our house was firmly in Nixon's camp--and when JFK won, I remember my older brother (he was about to turn 19), deeply disappointed, saying something like this: It's the first shotgun marriage in the White House--and will probably be the first divorce.  Sex before marriage.  Divorce.  The darkest of sins in our family.  (Neither, by the way, did or would occur in the JFK White House--though there were, of course, those Marilyn-Monroe moments.)

Years later, my mom, converted to the Democrats, told me that she'd voted for JFK.  She said lots of women she knew had done that--had agreed with their Republican husbands, then, behind the curtain, worked a different magic.  Made Camelot possible.  I want to believe her.  And so I will.

As I said, Dad loved Ike.  One of Dad's favorite stories: the time he shook the General's hand in a mess test one rainy morning in France, WW II.  Maybe Dad washed that hand in the decades to follow; maybe not.  But as the years rolled on through the turbulent sixties and on into the seventies and beyond (Dad died in 1999), he moved farther to the right and retained his adamantine positions to the day he died.  The papers then--1999--were full of negative things about Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Dad believed all of them.  I think he really believed that Hillary had pulled the trigger on Vince Foster and that she and Bill were the Spawn of Satan.

Watergate hearings
By the mid-1960s all three of the Dyer boys were Democrats.  Mom, too.  But after a fierce argument one day around the time of the Watergate hearings (Dad believed on his deathbed that Nixon had done nothing wrong)--that was 1972--my brothers and I talked together and decided we would no longer argue politics with him.  The reason?  Simple and complex.  We loved him.  Deeply loved him.  He had grown up on an Oregon farm, worked his way through college during the Depression. Served in both theaters in WW II.  Returned to service during the Korean War.  Stayed in the Air Force Reserves to make sure Mom would have his pension (she still does).  Preached in various churches around the area on Sunday for extra income.  Taught in summer school, every year, for the same reason.  Worked hard to put his sons through college.

So it seemed--what?--profoundly ungrateful, even disrespectful, to argue bitterly with this man who had done so much for all of us.  We owed him peace, we agreed, in his declining years.  And so we gave it to him.  With love ... and with no regrets whatsoever.


Part II (Sunday)--So why did all three Dyer boys and their mother shift party allegiances?
Part III (Monday)--How have my political beliefs manifested themselves?  Then?  Now?
Part IV (Tuesday)--Why I will vote to re-elect President Obama, even though I'm not thrilled with some of his policies and actions.

Friday, August 24, 2012

King Stephen, Part III

When I began reviewing books for the Plain Dealer in 2000, I did not review any King books for quite a while.  Not until 2009 when I wrote a very positive review of Under the Dome, his massive new novel that, I later learned, most critics all over the country liked as well as I did.  That book marked a sort of return for King, who had been off writing more "serious" (and, to me, boring) stories that had served, I felt, to drive away fans from his base.  I have no statistics to support what I just said--just a feeling.  A hunch.

Anyway, I did like Under the Dome and enjoyed reading all of its nearly 1100 pages.  Here's my final sentence in the review: Busy, ambitious, overlong but addictively munchable, "Under the Dome" is fundamentally a novel about human cruelty, animated by our desires for power, pleasure and sex. Often we are cruel to one another, King says, simply because we can be. And that seems reason enough.

A year later, I reviewed his latest collection of short fiction--Full Dark, No Stars--a book I didn't like as much.  I felt the "horror" in these tales was not up to his usual keep-the-nightlight-on level and wrote in the final sentence: Perhaps King has taken Cujo to the park to play so often that the fierce dog has mellowed -- preferring to lick the reader's proffered hand to ripping it from the wrist for a midday doggy treat.

Despite these reservations, I still have an enduring respect for his talent--and for his productivity.  Most of us can't write an interesting email very often; he writes interesting novels--some of them over 1000 pages long--every year, or even more frequently.  It's astonishing, really.

But what about his status with today's young readers?  As I wrote yesterday, "Stephen King" used to be magic words back in the 1980s and 1990s with my students.  Many of them had read some of his books--some had read all (shaming their teacher).

But in 2011 (when I retired from Western Reserve Academy), I asked my students one day how many of them had ever read a Stephen King novel.  As I remember, of my forty or so students (high school juniors) only one had read anything by him--I think it was the novel Cell.  All the others had, of course, heard of him.  But while they had been growing up, other popular writers had seized the youth readership--principally, of course, J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins.

I have no idea if my small sample in a small school in a small Ohio town is indicative of anything beyond the walls of that building.  But my guess would be that it is.  I don't see people reading King in public nearly so much as I used to.  Of course, I don't see people reading in public period very often--and many of those are on Kindles or Nooks, so who knows?  Again--just a hunch.

But King continues.  I bought his massive new one from last year, an alternative historical novel about the JFK assassination.  A few of my FB friends have read it (and loved it, by the way).  It's still sitting on one the piles in my bedroom.  Waiting.  I know I'll get to it one of these days, mainly because, well, I'm still a (mostly) loyal subject of the King.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

King Stephen, Part II

I wrote yesterday about how I resisted reading Stephen King until 1990--until The Dark Half, his creepy 1989 novel about a writer who creates a pen-name.  And all sorts of unpleasant things ensue.  King himself had used the name "Richard Bachmann," so he surely had imagined: What if this person were to come to life?  What then?  His novel offered some ideas.

Following that one, I started reading everything, even going back to read some of the previous ones--though not all.  I still have not read Carrie or Pet Sematary or The Shining or Firestarter--and I've never read any of the Dark Tower novels.  Not sure why.

But I did devour It and The Stand and--most tremblingly--Cujo, about a large dog that gets rabies and goes on a rampage.  (Sort of like a berserk Buck from The Call of the Wild.)  I read that novel a long, long time ago, but I still remember one sentence from it.  One unpleasant character was a guy named Joe Camber, whom Cujo dispatches at some point.  When he has Camber on the ground, King wrote this (and I'm pretty sure this is accurate): And this time he came for Joe Camber's balls.

That is not a pleasant image for a man of any age to read.

And while I was reading some of the old ones, I was trying to keep up with the new ones that were flying from his typewriter--and then from his word-processor.  I remember that when he was in his typewriter phase, he wrote somewhere that when he lost himself in his writing, he fell into the page.  I always liked that image.  Later--now with a computer--he changed it to fell into the screen.  Also pretty good.

And so I read, as they appeared, Four Past Midnight, Gerald's Game, and on through Cell (2006).  And there I stopped.  By then, however, I was often mining King's works for examples to use when I was teaching writing to my eighth grade students.  King was extraordinarily popular with many young readers then, and when I mentioned him--or showed on the overhead some example of how King had handled something--attention was never a problem.

So why did I stop?  I guess I'd tired of it?  I felt there were times when he was repetitive.  Or--hard to believe--boring.  Oh, there were amazing flashes, though.  When he serialized The Green Mile (six installments--six little paperbacks in the spring and summer of 1996), I was in the bookstore immediately when I heard the next installment was ready.  King had always liked Dickens--wanted, I think, to see what it would be like to serialize a novel the way Dickens and those other amazing Victorians did.  I don't think I'm a modern Dickens, he wrote, but I have always loved stories told in episodes.

I remember reading an interview with King afterwards, though.  He said he'd never serialize again.  Why?  Because, he said, it gives the critics six chances to kick your ass.

I also bought into the novel The Plant that he was selling directly online--I think it was $2 an installment?  But then, I guess, so many people were cheating him that he stopped. 

King was the King of Popular Fiction for a long time--but like many popular artists he yearned for more.  He wanted to be seen as a Writer--not just as someone who could write popular novels that weren't, you know, Serious Fiction.

And in the 31 October 1994 of The New Yorker, he made a breakthrough.  The magazine published his story "The Man in the Black Suit"--a story much influenced by Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil" (Hawthorne's text).  I remember there was some controversy about that--Stephen King in The New Yorker?  Who's next?  Belva Plain and Danielle Steel?  But readers generally liked it, and King has published fiction in that magazine seven or eight more times--nothing since 2009, though.

And Harper's Magazine, as I mentioned yesterday, has a new King story in their current issue.

TOMORROW: Returning to King, reviewing a couple of his books, his status with young readers today.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

King Stephen, Part I

A couple of days ago I read a new Stephen King story in the September Harper's Magazine--a little King-ian mix of the quotidian and the grotesque.  "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation" tells a story familiar to me (at least for a while): a grown child now coping with a parent's Alzheimer's.

My wife's mother went through the entire course of Alzheimer's in the 1980s and 1990s--moving from not remembering where her car keys were to not knowing what food is, what eating is.  Who her loving daughter was.  (In 1996 Joyce published a wonderful book about these years--In a Tangled Wood: An Alzheimer's Journey; here's a link to it: Joyce's book.).  So as I was reading King, I was remembering our own experiences with Joyce's mom.  And I have to say: King had things pretty much right.

It's a story about a man whose father is now living in an Alzheimer's facility; the son routinely takes his father out to eat--an experience that seems novel to the father, week after week, even though they go to the same place every time.  I'll not say more about the story--other than that it soon veers into the very familiar sanguinary realm ruled by King.

I avoided Stephen King books for a good long while.  Until 1990, to be precise.  And by 1990, he'd already written quite a few, among them some of his classics--Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, Cujo, Pet Sematary, Misery, a couple of the Dark Tower volumes, four titles under the name "Richard Bachmann" (The Running Man and Thinner among them), three story collections, a work of nonfiction (Danse Macabre), and five screenplays.

And that, folks, was twenty-two years ago.  Since then the titles have continued to fly from his most fecund imagination straight to the best-seller list.

In 1990 I had of course heard of King.  Who hadn't?  His books were everywhere in the stores (remember bookstores?); his newest invariably zoomed to the top of the best-seller lists.  He was featured now and then in the weekly magazines (remember them?).

But I hadn't read him for a couple of reasons--for one, I wasn't much of a horror fan; for another, I've always resisted reading the "latest" thing, figuring that if I haven't read it before 100 million other people, then it's not worth reading.  As I've written before, I did not read any of the Harry Potter novels until all seven had appeared.  I didn't read The Da Vinci Code until everyone else on the planet had finished it.

But I was in early on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, so I had no psychological issues reading them.  I helped discover Stieg Larsson, you see!  (Not really ... but you understand?)

So I held off on King.  And held off some more.

But in the summer of 1990 I headed, alone, out to Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, where I was going to participate in a six-week Jack London seminar, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  I'd recently gotten interested in London since The Call of the Wild was in our new literature books.  (Little did I know where this was going to lead!)

Among the books I'd packed to read for "fun" on the trip--Stephen King's The Dark Half, published in 1989.  It would be my first visit to King's throne room of fiction.  I'd see how it went ... see what all the hoopla was about.

It didn't take long.

As I lay in my little bed in my little room at Sonoma State that summer, I found myself more frightened than I'd been since childhood.  But I couldn't stop reading.  I charged through The Dark Half, a story about a writer who meets his alter ego.

And I left a lamp on the rest of the night while I "slept."


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Memory Better Forgotten ... Or Maybe Not?

Every now and then it's good for the soul to tell about yourself a story that doesn't portray you in your usual soft, flattering light.  Most of the time most of us are wonderful.  We behave in saintly fashion.  We utter locutions graceful and memorable.  We delight our friends, charm our families, and amaze strangers who are perhaps surprised to find behind such a, well, aging exterior such a youthful, vibrant soul.

But it's not always thus, is it?

To illustrate, I take you back to the spring of 1965 (or so).  I was attending Hiram College, living in Whitcomb Hall.  And while I'm at it--let's not forget how meanly we all lived in college dorms in the 1960s!  Our room (307) had two beds, two (cheap) desks, two (hard) chairs, two (small) closets.  That was it.  Once a week--if we remembered--we could trade one bedsheet for a freshly laundered one.  Anything else in the rooms came from home.  We added a record player and two manual portable typewriters.  A couple of clock radios.  That was it for technology.

So, perhaps, the meanness of my living conditions caused me to behave the way I did.  Environment trumping all.

Among the objects we had in the room was a hot-pot--one of those little plug-it-in-and-heat-the-water devices that we used in the evenings when, our work not done (or started), we would start the hot water going for the instant coffee we would drink half the night to keep us from falling asleep as we wrote our soporific papers that would later narcotize our professors.

We also had another living thing in the room.  A little painted turtle.  I cannot remember where it came from, honestly (and this posting is redolent of nothing but honesty).  But it lived in a little fishbowl cum terrarium that sat atop my dresser.  (So does this mean he/she was mine?  I honestly do not remember.)

My roommate (notice I haven't named him--for two reasons: one, I want to protect his rights; two, I don't want him to contradict any of the truths herein) and I had settled upon a name--not a nice name.  The sort of name that two adolescent males could summon from the fetid swamp of their imaginations.  It is a name I cannot actually tell you, not in a Family Blog like this one.  But I can sort of suggest it with another, vaguely similar name.  We called him Little Feather-Merchant.  (Actually, this substitute name is not all that good a hint, is it?  Let's just say that "Little" was actually part of his name and that what followed was another compound word, the latter of which ended in -er ... nuff said?)

Well, one dull evening--an evening after the girls were back in their dorms (9:30 for frosh, 11 for upperclasswomen)--I was not yet "ready" to commence reading and writing and studying.  You know ...  But the hot-pot was bubbling away and would soon be ready to pour its boiling contents into our cups to animate the brown crystals of caffeine that would motivate us for the rest of the night.

So how did it start?  Were we for some reason talking about lobsters?  How quickly they cook when dropped into boiling water?  (At that point in my life, I'd not yet eaten any lobster.)  And do they feel pain?  You know, the sorts of conversation that occasionally arise during lulls in the otherwise unrelieved cerebral colloquy characteristic of a college men's dorm room.

Well someone--surely not I!--wondered what would happen if we were to drop Little Feather-Merchant (LFM henceforward) in the hot-pot.

Feeling scientifically curious, I said I would do it.

Others suggested--in the ways familiar  to those knowledgeable about male adolescent intercourse--that I would not do it.  (Chicken is among the gentler terms hurled at me.)

I announced that I would do it precisely at midnight.

Word flew around the floor--indeed, the whole dorm.  And by 11:55 our room was packed with the curious and the sadistic.  Among them was Denny, a mesomorphic lineman on the mighty Terrier football team.

Midnight ... when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world ... you know.  Not willing to drink hot blood, I instead picked up LFM and held him over the pot now boiling like, oh, the witches' cauldron in Macbeth.

There may have been some chanting.  Drop him!  Drop him!  Drop him!

I heard the midnight chiming from the college clock.

And then ...

Do I dare make you wait till tomorrow to find out?  No, I'll tell you now ...

I couldn't do it.  Couldn't drop him.

I put him back in his bowl while disappointed undergrads filed out, many leaving behind them some unhappy words about my virility, my family history,  my resemblance to certain of my own body parts.  You know ...

The last to leave ... Denny, the mesomorphic lineman on the mighty Terrier football team.

Dyer, it's a good thing you didn't drop that turtle in that water.

Why's that? I asked.

I woulda beat the shit out of you, right in your own dorm room.  He was smiling, but it was the sort of smile you see on a tiger in a zoo--the sort of smile that says, Yes, you're safe right now, out there, but ...

I don't remember what happened to LFM.  I hope I took him down to Matty's Pond nearby and released him into the warmth of some childless painted turtle family; I hope he grew into a solid, responsible, moral adult who would never even consider dropping a human into a vat of boiling oil.

Monday, August 20, 2012

You've Got to Be Carefully Taught

A FB friend re-posted this meme yesterday about racism--about how children have to learn it.  I sent her a note about that song from South Pacific--"You've Got to Be Carefully Taught"--and she promptly replied with a link to the lyrics (Song).  I don't know if she'd known the song before ... but she knows it now.

That brief exchange got me thinking about South Pacific and about its prominence in our family.  I was only four years old when the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical premiered on Broadway, 7 April 1949.  It ran for 1,925 performances--a hit.  Among the records we had at home was a boxed set of 78s of the Broadway cast, including the stars, Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin.  For some reason that show caught me in its snare, immediately became a favorite, and still is.  I'm not sure why.

My father had served in the South Pacific during World War II--a chaplain stationed in Hawaii, where he re-connected with one of his brothers, Gordon, USN, who'd been a aboard a Navy ship in Pearl Harbor when that 1941 attack commenced.  So maybe it was a family connection that first snared me.

Helen Traubel
Guy Madison as Wild Bill
I know that it would not have been Pinza's association with opera.  He had sung at the Met for nearly twenty years (1920s-1940s), retiring a year before the opening of South Pacific.  My grandfather, father, and brother were into opera and liked Pinza a lot.  I had no use for opera at all.  Well, horse opera, I did.  Give me a little Wild Bill Hickok or Hopalong Cassidy any day.  Turandot--nah.  My parents and brother occasionally tried to get me out of the OK Corral, but I would have none of it.  They would tell me about exciting opera plots--emphasizing the swordplay and other violence (maybe that would get me?).  But none of it worked.  I just could never get past what I guess, for me, was the verisimilitude issue: Opera singers--at least the photos I saw in them of Opera News--did not seem to look the parts, you know?  Guy Madison looked like a Hickok-ian hero.  But Helen Traubel?  Nah.

Mary Martin never did it for me, either.  I guess she was okay in her part as the spunky Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, but, later, when she played Peter Pan in the 1950s, well, there was, I thought (at age 10), something profoundly wrong about a woman playing one of my heroes--one of my male heroes.

So, surely, it was the music--and, later, I suppose, the romance.   I mean, once my hormones started percolating, and once I began to look at girls as, well, girls (and not as odd creatures who didn't know baseball and cared about spelling bees), well, I could not resist songs like "Younger Than Springtime" or "Some Enchanted Evening."  (I still can't, even though I met my "stranger" more than forty years ago across a not-so-crowded classroom in Satterfield Hall, Kent State University.)

I listened to those 78s over and over and over again.  That took some attentiveness.  For as those from the 78 generation know, the records didn't last very long, requiring constant changes and flippings of sides.

When LPs arrived, we bought the original cast album once again.  And, again, I listened over and over and over.  And, once, my listening precipitated a family crisis that nearly ended my life.  It was a summer's day; I was listening to South Pacific on the hi-fi. I was in high school--maybe a sophomore?  Enter: Older Brother Richard.  Who marched to the hi-fi, removed South Pacific, started playing some opera thingy.  I protested.  (I didn't immediately kick his ass--though I could easily have done so.)  Instead, I went to Mom.  Mom, Richard just took off my record and put on one of his!  She looked at me: Well,maybe he should have a turn--you've been listening quite awhile.

Well, I went off.  I yelled.  Swore.  Wept.  Raced upstairs and in a singular act of self-loathing began destroying my own gym bag.  Why?  I have no answer other than It was available.

I heard Dad's tread on the stairs.  But I was still in a Full Rage and was now kicking the wall in my bedroom.  Dad never lost his temper.  Never.  But he came close that day.  He grabbed me by the shirt and cocked his mighty fist (he was much bigger--much stronger).  Suddenly, I lost all interest in mayhem and sagged in his grip like a rag doll.  A weeping rag doll.  He released me and headed back downstairs.

I climbed out my window--my upstairs window--onto the the roof over my parents' bedroom, leaped to the ground, and ran off up into Hiram where I looked for sympathy in the houses of friends.  Found little.

I first saw the movie in the summer of 1958 (I was not quite 14) in Indianapolis, where I'd gone to visit my uncle and his family.  The previous year he'd taken me to see a Butler University production of A Man for All Seasons, during which I promptly fell asleep.  I did not fall asleep in South Pacific.  Instead, I found myself falling head over heels in love with Mitzi Gaynor.  She had ... something ... that ... interested ... me ...

Back home, I bought the movie soundtrack album and listened to it a few thousand times, all the while enjoying the cover image of Ms. Gaynor, an image spoiled only by that old perv Rossano Brazzi, who lip-synched the songs performed by Georgio Tozzi, a Met bass, who, I later learned, took to playing that role himself onstage.

Right now, I don't think I have a recording of South Pacific in the house.  Easy enough to remedy, though.  And Mitzi Gaynor is still alive, too.  Only 80, I think.  "Younger Than Springtime."