Dawn Reader

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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Clockwork Memory

About a month ago there was a feature in the New York Times about the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Anthony Burgess' wild and brilliant novel A Clockwork Orange.  (Link to NYT story.)  The first printings are very expensive now--I just checked on ABE: You can get (me) a signed first for only $12,500.00--not a lot to honor a former English teacher, you know? (Link to 1st ed)

I did not read the book when it first came out in 1962, the year I graduated from high school.  In fact, my first memory comes from my senior year at Hiram College (1965-66) when classmate and good friend Claude Steele (long an adornment of the faculty at Stanford University) was reading it for some class or other (or maybe just on his own?) and was waving it around the dorm as if he'd found another Rosetta Stone, this one unlocking the code to the entire universe.

But I still didn't read it right away.  I was still in that phase (that lasted, oh, several decades more) whose principal characteristic about books was this: If I haven't read it first, then it's not really worth reading.  But I did read it pretty soon (I can tell because my copy does not have the little pencil note about the date I read it--a practice I adopted, oh, in 1969 or 1970), and my initial reactions were, in contemporary shorthand, WTF?!?

The book's second sentence: There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.

I'd not read very much (i.e., nothing) that resembled that, and I remember reading the book with one finger at the back, where appeared a glossary that Burgess had thoughtfully appended.

When Kubrick's film came out in 1971, I had yet another WTF?!?! experience (CLOCKWORK trailer).  That film was the celluloid equivalent of the book insofar as it jarred my ideas of what an art form can be.  And I was hooked--both on Burgess and Kubrick.  I pretty much read everything AB wrote, saw pretty much everything SK released.

And Burgess (1917-1993) was a prolific son-of-a-gun.  He wrote some thirty-three novels in addition to collections of essays, short stories, plays, poems, children's books, biographies (including one I've always liked about Shakespeare), translations, literary criticism (a specialty--James Joyce), musical compositions ...  It's not fair, really, all that talent in one person.

His novels were all over the place--an Arthurian one (Any Old Iron), some books about a literary alter ego (named Enderby), a funny novel about Russia (Honey for the Bears), one about Shakespeare (Nothing Like the Sun), another about Jesus (Man of Nazareth), and Christopher Marlowe (A Dead Man in Deptford) ...  I think I've read pretty much all of them.

I used to enjoy watching Burgess on talk shows, including an especially notable appearance on William F. Buckley, Jr.'s show Firing Line in December 1972 when these two very witty, very quick, very learned and literate guys fenced for an hour on PBS.  (You can watch all of it on Amazon streaming: Firing Line or some clips on YouTube.)

Burgess' death (cancer) was a shocker for me.  (NYT obituary)  He had been so energetic and prolific that death seemed an unsuitable fate for him.  Death, I thought (think!), should be reserved for those whom the world will not miss.

Unfortunately, Death doesn't care what I think, and so Burgess joined in slumber those great men and women whose wonderful words he'd read and absorbed and transformed into some wonders of his own.

Anthony Burgess

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Old Friends and Firelight

The cows were chasing the hay wagon last night--and I was laughing.

Mostly I was laughing because I was not on the hay wagon with everyone else.  I was the one (the only one) who stayed behind and stood by the open outdoor hearth (sneaking extra fistfuls of chips, spoonfuls of apple cobbler, power-drinking a ... Diet coke--really) while everyone else had clambered aboard the hay wagon (some more gracefully than others, I must note in the name of Honesty), and headed off down the dirt road, then across the field where the cows, noting a new food supply (Hey, guys!  There's hay on that thar hay wagon!), took out after the wagon with a kind of lumbering grace and intensity that bore with it a bit of alarm.

Eileen had called the other night, had said she was getting some of the old group together.  Eileen Kutinsky, one of the greatest teachers I'd ever seen.  (It was a toss-up between Eileen and her sister.)  After she retired she sold her farm in Streetsboro and bought another one down near Alliance and Atwater, a beautiful place with woods and water and fields where cows can chase you when the mood strikes.

Harmon Middle School
Aurora, Ohio
Also there--a real gathering of the Elders: Mike Lenzo (just a wonderful principal I'd worked for early in my career), Debbie Langford (who'd taught math at Aurora High and played great piano in a number of our middle school shows), Steve Gotch (who taught science and whose talented children I had the privilege to teach), Dale Veverka (another science teacher; his room was next to mine for some years, and my students loved it when Sex Ed came around in science: we could hear the soundtracks of his slide shows and films right through the flimsy wall: This is the penis!), Denny Reiser (science and math who went on to work for the National Park Service and still loves the outdoors--always hiking, biking, helping others understand the wonders he sees), Joan Gnabah (who worked in the Harmon Office and tried, with moderate success, to keep the rest of us on the right page).  Spouses and some children and grandchildren were there, too, but I'd better not start on that.

As we ate (too much), I bounced around from group to group, catching up.  I'd not seen some of them since I retired from Harmon in January 1997.  Conversations ranged from "Remember the time when ..." to comments about political issues (no one was too insistent or too venturesome: nothing like a good old political donnybrook to wreck a nostalgic picnic) to queries about who is where now and what the kids are up to ... and aren't grandkids cute!

But when hay wagon time came, I just didn't go.  Don't really know why.  (Stubborn old goat?)  Joyce did, though.  She couldn't wait to hop on that wagon behind Eileen's tractor and bounce out into the field and meet the cows up close and personal.

While her hircine husband baked his butt back by the fire and fattened it in the fading light with more chips and cobbler.  And heard laughter floating over the fields.

Along with a few moos.

Friday, September 28, 2012

And We Were All Reading BIRDY ...

Today's word-of-the-day made me think of writer William Wharton (1925-2008).  (Obit from NYT)  His 1984 novel Scumbler was the first time I'd seen that word--or, more likely, the first time I'd bothered to look it up.  As you can see in his obituary (link above), Wharton had long been a painter and took up novel-writing later on.

He burst on the literary scene with a remarkable first novel, Birdy--later made into a film in 1984 with Matthew Modine and Nicholas Cage.  I cannot remember who first told me about Birdy.  Did I read a review?  Did my older brother mention it to me?  All I know is that Joyce and I both read it in 1979 (we pencil the dates in the books we read), and we both fell in love with it.  I'll confess right now: Joyce read it first (March); I, in August.  So Joyce must have convinced me of its wonders.  And she was right.

The condition of the cover of our copy of Birdy tells all.  Chewed.  I taught the book to my freshmen at Western Reserve Academy back in the day (1979-81), and Joyce taught it several (more?) times after that.  I even had my freshmen write about a quotation from the novel: "We all have our own private kinds of craziness.  If it gets in the way of enough people, they call you crazy.  Sometimes you just can't take it anymore yourself, so you tell somebody else you're crazy and they agree to take care of you" (120).

I had the kids write about the way(s) they were crazy.  It was fun, hearing them read those pieces aloud.  Adolescents have few problems writing about their personal insanities!  They know they're nuts.

As I look at that quotation now, I think, too, of Emily Dickinson's little poem ... remember this one?

MUCH madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.        5
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

Anyway, for Joyce, Birdy was an easy call: She loves birds.  She'd always had parakeets as a girl (they adored her, too--landing on her finger after their frantic flights around the living room), and at times in our marriage we've owned a number of larger birds, including a couple of Amazon parrots.  All those in-our-marriage birds shared a single quality: they worshipped Joyce and despised me.  When I walked by the cage, they would bark at me--well, the avian equivalent of a bark.  These, the same creatures that would crawl docilely on her finger and coo and make baby-cute noises.

I never did a damn thing to any of them, either.  I mean, it's not like I leapt at them or fired guns across their cages or waved snakes at them.  They just had some deep, primordial aversion and expressed it with screech and beak and talon.  I told Joyce, "You know, I don't really like having in the house an animal that wants to kill me."  She smiled, petted her docile parrots that looked at me with a fierce hatred.  Go figure.

Anyway, we were so enamored of Birdy, a story about a guy with a gift and an obsession with birds (I know: sounds weird--and does it ever get weird by the end), that we became sales persons--urging all of our friends and family to read it.  And many did.  And many liked it, too.

And afterwards, as Wharton published other novels, I read them on the day I bought them.  Dad, A Midnight Clear, Scumbler ... and then I sort of lost interest and lost track, I guess.  As I look at the titles of his final books, I don't even remember them at all: a couple of memoirs, Wrongful Deaths, Houseboat on the Seine.  I should probably read them now, just to see.

Wharton belonged to my parents' generation (Dad, 1913; Mom, 1919), so he wrote about his experiences in WW II (Midnight Clear is the best example), and he wrote about aging (Dad is wrenching).

But it was that first book, Birdy, that grafted wings onto my body and set me soaring, for a while, around the remarkable literary geography he imagined.

William Wharton

Thursday, September 27, 2012

SAT Reading Scores Drop, and ...?

The story was all over the newspapers on Monday and Tuesday: SAT reading scores had dropped to a new low.  (Example story: Washington Post--SAT)

The writing average also dropped a little--but that test is so absolutely meaningless that I'm not even going to say much about it.  For twenty-five minutes students have to write to a prompt they've just been given.  Twenty-five minutes.  The test measures speed and the ability to write a formulaic response.  Neither is a virtue for a writer.  Some of the best writers I ever taught did not do well on that test.  The reason?  They were good writers.  Deliberate ones.  They took their time.  Thought about things.  Worried about individual words and sentences.  Just what good writers do.  With predictable results on the SAT.

Anyway, what about reading?  Should we be wringing our hands?  Introducing more testing in the lower grades (is that even possible?)  Excoriating kids and parents and teachers for their egregious failures?  Maybe firing some folks?  Getting back to the basics?  Kicking some butt?

Of course there's lots of blame--if blame's the game--to go around.  Kids don't read much.  Neither do their parents (Fifty Shades of Grey does not count--okay, it does; just being snotty). Teachers pound away at "basic skills" because that's what the brain-dead proficiency tests measure.  But the good teachers know that the only way to help kids become lifelong readers is to make reading fun.  Fun and useful.  If we make reading onerous, we are making it far less likely that our students will continue to read when they no longer have to.

But we all know that the real culprit is the culture--this largely non-literary culture of pleasure and entertainment that now pervades all.  Our children did not invent it; we did.  And it's so alluring and fascinating that it's virtually impossible to resist.  I've told Joyce many times that I'm glad I grew up when I did.  If I'd been born twenty years ago (forty years ago?), I don't know if I would have been much of a reader at all.

When I was a kid in the 1950s, there were not all that many options for my leisure time.  Play outside (which I did as often as I could), read (which I also did a lot), listen to the radio or to records (activities that do not preclude reading--I often read, and still do read, while music plays), watch TV.  But through most of my childhood and adolescence there were only three TV stations (CBS, NBC, ABC), and my parents controlled the on-off button (no remotes--can you imagine!).  We also couldn't watch TV on school nights, and we had to ask permission to turn on the set at other times.  (Oh, the oppression!)

And nowadays?  Many kids walk around with the world in their hands.  Internet, streaming video, Facebook, more music than you could listen to in your entire life, a reference library of unimaginable scope and range (can you imagine carrying around all 13 volumes or so of the OED? well, with a smart phone, you can), and on and on ...

Throughout the history of the printed word, people have read for two principal reasons: (1) to find out stuff and learn, (2) to enjoy themselves.  Sometimes, obviously, the two overlap.  Well, nowadays the "finding out stuff" job is surpassingly easy.  How many times have I checked my iPhone for a spelling, a definition, the dates of Henry V, the location of a writer's grave--all while sitting at Starbucks and sipping a grande Pike (no room).  And the entertainment function of books?  Except for some very notable exceptions, entertainment resides not between covers but in the air.  For from the air we are able to see films our grandparents saw, listen to just about any song ever recorded, watch TV shows we missed, see interviews with celebrities we love, look a strangers making fools of themselves on YouTube, and on and on.

We can even read e-books, too.

In such a high-tech, fast-moving world, an old codex looks pretty pedestrian.  At least for many people.

Still ... a book, for me, remains my main source of information and entertainment.  Sure, I stream video; I check Google to find things quickly; I use the Internet for many, many things (not for those foul ones you're imagining right now ... I know your dirty minds!); I am far too interested in Facebook for my own mental health; I Tweet occasionally; blog every freakin' day.

I like all those things, but I love books.

I just recently read an essay "On Reading" by Siri Hustvedt, a writer I like very much.  (Her husband, Paul Auster, is another of my favorites.)  It's in her brand-new collection of essays--Living, Thinking, Looking (Picador, 2012).  "Reading," she writes, "is not a purely cognitive act of deciphering signs; it is taking in a dance of meanings that has resonance far beyond the merely intellectual" (139).

I like that--a dance of meanings ... beyond the merely intellectual.

And at the end, talking about books that have meant a lot to us, she says, "The ones that stay with us, however, become us, part of the mysterious workings of the human mind that translates little symbols on a page into lived reality" (140).

To a certain extent, she says (and I agree), we become the books we've read.  And they become us.  Remember the end of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451?  In a society that bans and burns books (451 is the temperature at which book paper ignites) Montag, a reformed burner, finds a remote community where people have memorized books.  They are the books.  If you ask, they will recite to you The Odyssey, Hamlet, whatever.  They are holding out for the day when books are once again needed.

But then ... oh ... read it yourself.

I know that there have been books that have become part of my students' lives.  They grew up with a little wizard boy.  Many of them read the Twilight books--and The Hunger Games--and the Tolkien books--and many, many others.  Those stories and those characters now occupy a permanent place among their neurons.  I like to think that I have dropped some other folks in the mix, too--like Hamlet and Elizabeth Proctor and Hester Prynne and Buck and Cash and Edna Pontellier and Nick Carraway and so many others.

I hope those characters populate their dreams; I hope their dreams intertwine with the greatest stories ever told.

But we've got to make reading a pleasure--from the very earliest days.  Otherwise ...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Paragraph/Schmaragraph, Part II

In his early novels about the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, author Henning Mankell focuses from time to time on Wallander's father, a difficult man (he never wanted his son to be a cop--and never drops the subject).  But also a somewhat talented one.  He paints.

But the father has very narrow ambitions.  He paints the same landscape (sometimes with a wood grouse, sometimes not) over and over and over, and never seems to run out of people and institutions willing to buy a copy.  This puzzles Wallander, but later, when his father's gone, he is touched by the memory of those repetitive paintings.

I think about Wallander's father when I think about what we ask youngsters to do, over and over and over, in school writing assignments that require the five-paragraph format.  Whatever ideas you have, we tell them, pour them into the same mold.  It's like requiring art students to paint by numbers, music students to follow a strict formula in composition---every time.

It's also odd that we require students to write in a format that no one outside of school really uses.  Look at essays in The Atlantic or the New Yorker or any other serious magazine.  Look at a newspaper op-ed page; look at prize-winning collections of nonfiction.  How many five-paragraph essays do you see?  How many paragraphs follow the model we pound into our students?  How many paragraphs have topic sentences.  (Sure, some do--but many, many others do not.)

The universe of writing is enormous--there are so many ways to arrange ideas, to communicate them effectively.  So why do we focus on one tiny asteroid (the five-paragraph essay) and declare that it is the entire universe of writing?  We would make our student writers far more agile, for more interesting, if we showed them many varieties of organization, if we taught them to allow their ideas to determine their structure, not the other way around.

We should teach them to ask: What am I trying to say?  What are some good ways to communicate that?  What is the most effective way for me?  Often students can answer these questions only after they've begun to write.  The shape emerges from the stone, as sculptors sometimes say.

William Godwin
William Godwin, father of Mary Shelley, was a novelist and philosopher, and he wrote somewhere (can't put my finger on it at the moment) that he didn't know what he thought about something until he wrote about it.  Writing was the way he discovered what he thought; he did not write because he already knew what he thought and wanted to explain it.  This, I think, is the way many of us (most of us?) are.  But it's not the way we teach kids to write in school.  We want them to have a thesis before they write, to know what they're going to say before they say it.  This made no sense to me when I was a student; it makes no sense to me now.

Back near the beginning of my career, I read James Moffett's book Teaching the Universe of Discourse (1968).  Mofffet influenced me then; he influences me now.  Early in the book he wrote, "A student writing in all the forms as the authors he reads can know literature from the inside in a way that few students ever do today" (7).  In other words, by trying all sorts of ways to write, kids can understand more clearly they things they're reading, as well.

Let's end with our old friend Procrustes, the robber who forced his victims to lie on his bed (no, not for that reason).  If they were shorter than his bed, he stretched them to fit; if they were longer ... chop, chop.

I don't think he is a fellow we should emulate in the teaching of writing, literally or figuratively.  He was, after all, a Bad Guy.  And his sort of rigid thinking has brought all sorts of unhappiness in the world (just ask Hester Prynne).  Instead, we should work to liberate our student writers, let them explore the "universe of discourse," help them learn myriads of ways to communicate.

Let's not teach them to paint a single landscape in a single way.  Or to stretch or chop their ideas to fit some seedy bed in some wacko's hideout.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Paragraph/Schmaragraph, Part I

Back in elementary school, we all learned the progression.  Words, sentences, paragraphs.  It all made such eminent sense then.  Words, sentences, paragraphs ...  Sort of like crawl, walk, run ...

Later on, in junior high and high school, the teachers began pounding into us the notion of the paragraph, and we began absorbing the idea that there's really only one kind of respectable paragraph, the kind that has a Topic Sentence perched on top like a sentinel crow, a bunch of closely related examples, and then a "clincher sentence" or a transition to the next one.

If our paragraphs looked like that, we got good grades.  We were writers.  If not?  Well, we just had to keep focused.  Keep on topic.  Learn the pattern.  Apply it in all situations ...  Don' think--just do it.

Later (1966), a seventh grade English teacher, I read this in my first textbook, Language for Daily Use (1965): "A paragraph is a series of sentences which develop one topic or one idea" (109).  The section mentions that paragraphs have topic sentences; usually, they are first--but they can come later, too, if you're clever.  But don't try to be too clever too often.  Stick to the program.

(Oddly, I notice that the authors of Language for Daily Use selected for an example a paragraph from the Call of the Wild, the one that begins, "Buck's first day on the Dyea beach was like a nightmare."  The first sentence in chapter two.  When I "taught" that page in 1966-1967, I had read The Call of the Wild only in Classics Illustrated form. I had no idea what Dyea was (a town, now completely gone,  on the southeastern Alaska coast, a town where thousands of gold-seekers began their trek into the Klondike over the Chilkoot Pass) or how it was pronounced (die-EE).  I did not suspect where that I would one day also stand on the Dyea beach, my 13-year-old son beside me.)

And so I pounded into my students the same notions about paragraphs that my teachers had pounded into me.  Topic sentence.  All subsequent sentences stick to that topic.  This is a real paragraph!

Later still (in the early 1980s) I taught at Western Reserve Academy; all students had to buy and use Warriner's English Grammar and Composition: Complete Course (1977 edition).  In it, I read some familiar material in Chapter 21: "The Paragraph"--"A paragraph is a series of sentences developing one topic."  And: "The topic of a paragraph should be stated in a sentence somewhere in the paragraph."  And: "In general, place the topic sentence at or near the beginning of the paragraph."  And on and on.

In those years, we pounded into our college-prep students the idea of the "five-paragraph essay," an essay that features an introductory paragraph that ends with a three-part thesis statement, then paragraphs on each of the three parts of the thesis, a concluding paragraph.  All paragraphs had topic sentences perched on top like ... you know.

I did not notice then what I notice today, looking at Warriner's.  A footnote on page 309 (the first page of the chapter): "This chapter is concerned primarily with the paragraph in relatively formal expository writing.  The student should realize that the rules for paragraph organization and development given here do not apply to the paragraph in narrative writing or in very informal personal essays or in news writing."

That's a footnote that all of us pretty much ignored.

I did not think then what I think now--that most "rules" for paragraphs are grotesque distortions of the ways writers actually approach their work.  I don't know many writers (except in school) who ever sit down and think--I'm going to write a five-paragraph essay today.  No, it's usually more like--I'm going to write about Lassie today.  Or: I'm going to write about my early years today.  Or: I'm going to write about Shakespeare today.  Or: I'm going to write about how procrustean paragraphs piss me off.

Since 1999, I have reviewed nearly 1100 nonfiction books for Kirkus Reviews--books by winners of the Nobel and Pulitzer and National Book Award, books by people I'd never heard of, as well--and in only a couple of cases have I read books whose authors employed the paragraph definitions and restrictions we so often place on student writers, K-12--and beyond.  And those couple of books sucked.  Dull as dirt and a lot less useful.

Enough for today--but here's where we're going tomorrow: (1) There is no such thing as "the" paragraph.  Just good ones and bad ones, effective and ineffective ones.  (2) The five-paragraph essay is about the worst thing we could teach young writers.  And one of the principal reasons for its  lingering appeal?  It makes grading essays easy.  All of its other "virtues" are bogus.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Twenty-Five Things I Miss About Teaching at Western Reserve Academy

Brick Row

I had a couple of stints at WRA: 1979-81, 2001-2011 (with a health-related year off in the middle of that).  I turned 57 that first year back and discovered I was no longer capable of working full-time in a boarding school, a place that requires so much of its faculty--not just classes, but meals, dormitory duty, coaching, committees, advising, and on and on.  But the school was very accommodating, allowing me to be part-time for the remainder of my time there.  And what a wonderful time it was for me.

My years in public school had been demanding in a much different way.  Sometimes I had as many as 200 students a day--with three different class preparations.  And every year, of course, there were kids who just did not want to be in school--no--stronger: who hated school.  I generally ended up getting along with most everyone, though, and, as I wrote yesterday, I loved my years in a public middle school.  Loved them.

WRA was very different.  I never had more than three classes, usually with no more than a dozen or so students in them.  I taught English III--juniors--a course that comprised lots of writing and reading.  The junior year the school devoted to American literature + Hamlet (that great American hero).  And because I adore Shakespeare and American literature, it was a perfect fit.  And walking or biking to work every day was nice, too (the school is only a couple of blocks from our house).

Today, I miss a lot of things about the school.  Here are twenty-five of them ...

1. My students.
2. My colleagues.
3. Teaching Hamlet--stopping them after the first line ("Who's there?") and joking about how hard Shakespeare is--acting out the, uh, "country matters" scene with Hamlet hand-puppets--laughing about the pirate scene (even a great play can have a dumb idea).
4. The summer reading--the last few years it featured great plays from the American theater, including August: Osage County, Long Day's Journey into Night, The Crucible, The Glass Menagerie, and Fences.
5. Reading the students' essays about their experiences with their families, with Shakespeare, about a favorite book from childhood, about parties (blackmail!).  (I was somewhat less charmed by reading 45 earnest essays on Hawthorne.)
6. My students.
7. My colleagues.
8. The moment in The Scarlet Letter when Hester tells a distraught Dimmesdale: "Thou shalt not go alone."  I still get goose flesh when I read that scene.  I used to tell my students, "That is love.  Taking another's hand in the wilderness, holding on."
9. Showing the old Disney cartoon of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" after we've read the story.
10. Traveling all over the country in the summers (sometimes with the help of school stipends) to visit the homes and graves of famous American writers.  Making my students watch the ensuing PowerPoints.
11. That moment in Melville's "Benito Cereno" when the students realize that old Herman has manipulated them into rooting for the wrong team.
12. Reading The Call of the Wild with my students (yes, I did it with high school kids, too!).
13. Helping students read Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, an amazing, landmark novel.
14. Hearing--over and over, every year--a student say something I'd never thought of about a book I'd read twenty times.
15. Reading all the other books by the writers I was teaching--and biographies. too.
16. Speaking to Morning Meetings and assemblies, where the students were always so gracious and welcoming.
17. My students.
18. My colleagues.
19. Laughing about "inappropriate" things in class (oh, the stuff you can say when you're old!).
20. Making up stupid poems to recite to students and faculty.
21. Watching the discomfort among the students as they read Kate Chopin's The Awakening--a novel that features a woman who realizes she does not want to be a wife and mother--but already is both.
22. Watching students interact with the writers we brought to campus.  What a sight!  Watching and listening to students sit in class with an author whose book they've just read (among them, Tobias Wolff, Robert Sullivan, Dan Chaon, Brock Clarke).  (When I was in high school, I didn't get to sit in class and ask Hemingway and Steinbeck questions!)
23. Reading The Great Gatsby with students--watching many of them fall in love with it.
24. Reading Flannery O'Connor with students--oh, can she shock, even nowadays.
25. Sitting down with students and going over their writing with them individually.  Great progress can happen in a short time in that kind of setting.
25a. My students.
25b: My colleagues.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Twenty-Five Things I Miss About Teaching at Harmon Middle School

Harmon Middle School
Aurora, Ohio
Although I retired from Harmon School in January 1997, I still think a lot about that wonderful place, still miss many things about teaching there.  Among them ...

1. The kids.
2. My colleagues.
3. Reading students' papers about finding the Frankenstein monster in the Harmon building.
4. Seeing students' faces when they realize Shakespeare is, you know, all right.
5. The kids.
6. My colleagues.
7. Watching the final night's performance of one of our plays--hearing, when the final lights drop, the great cheer from the happy cast behind the curtain.
8. Hearing in class an unexpected comment that takes us on an unexpected and wonderful detour.
9. Hearing kids read their free writing aloud.
10. The kids.
11. My colleagues.
12. Watching kids' faces as they realize the horror and the wonder of Anne Frank's life.
13. Reading kids' essays about "The Geauga Lake Monster."
14. Concocting stupid vocab jokes.  (see earlier blog)
15. Watching kids' faces when then see the connection between gerunds and sex.  (see earlier blog)
16. The kids.
17. My colleagues.
18. Watching the kids' reactions to Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush--especially "the dance of the rolls."  YouTube link to Dance
19.Sitting and listening while kids recite Shakespearean sonnets they've memorized.
20.Hearing kids talk about books they've read and loved.
21. Reading The Call of the Wild with my students.
22. Reading the kids' essays about their hopes and worries about high school.
23. Watching the faces of kids illuminate when they realize they like something they thought they never would.
24. Watching kids play an Elizabethan card game in class.
25. The kids.
25a. My colleagues.
25b. Watching the 8th graders--their last day in the building--hugging, crying, realizing a phase of life is over ...

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Beware of Shark-Infested Waters?

I just Googled "shark-infested" and got well over 100,000 hits.  I checked every one of them.  (Lie, of course.)  But many of them deal with folks who have ventured into the ocean and found themselves consumed or nearly consumed or nearly nearly consumed by the sharks infesting the waters.

Just look at some of these headlines--and some video links, as well:

1. "Naked Fisherman Rescued from Shark-Infested Waters": Naked Fisherman

2. "Golfers Brave Shark-Infested Course": Brave Golfers

3. "Forbes Lists Most Shark-Infested Beaches": Forbes List

4. "Abducted Penguin Rescued from Shark-Infested Waters": Penguin Rescue

5. "Penny Palfrey Ends Her Shark-Infested Swim": Penny Ends Swim

And let me say one thing here: My Shark Credentials are in very good order.  I read Peter Benchley's Jaws when it came out in 1974.  (I have a first printing, too.)  With my eighth graders I used Benchley's description of the creature as a model for descriptive writing.  I actually read Jaws II (I'm not bragging, just saying).  I saw all the Jaws movies, including Jaws III-D, which is right down there with the worst films in the history of light.

The first Jaws movie (1975) even introduced a little ... friction ... in the family dynamic.  We were in Massachusetts, visiting my two brothers.  Older brother, Richard, was then the music critic for the Boston Globe and had gotten all of us seats at a BSO Tanglewood concert.  My younger brother (Dave) and I decided we had time to see Jaws before we headed over to Tanglewood.

We were wrong.

We got to Tanglewood in time for intermission.  And found our older brother a little incredulous about our lies (car trouble) and more than a bit annoyed when he learned the truth (which emerged in injudicious laughter a few moments after the lies).  And now--nearly 40 years later--Dave and I still find the incident far more amusing that Richard does.

But now I want to write in defense of sharks and our intemperate shark language: There is no such thing as "shark-infested waters."  Sharks belong in the ocean, in whatever numbers and in whatever mood they wish.  We don't live there ... well, not recently, anyhow.  It is we who are "infesting" the waters.  A more accurate headline: People Infest Sharks' Home; Sharks Enjoy Take-Out.

There is also no such thing as a feeding frenzy.  They're just eating, the way they always have.  (If you want to see a real feeding frenzy, go to a Tribe game--or some all-you-can-eat buffet--and watch people.)

Now, if a shark came into my house (remember the Land Shark on the old SNL?), then I could talk about a "shark-infested house."  (Land Shark Video)

But "shark-infested waters"?  Now, that's just pure prejudice.  Anti-sharkism of the highest order.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Golfers: "Driving" Me Crazy! (Or: Beware of Hookers)

Let's begin with a scene from, oh 1993 or so.  Joyce and I moved to Aurora in 1990 and lived there till 1997 when I retired from Harmon Middle School--and her mother, who had been living with severe Alzheimer's at nearby Anna Maria, had passed away.

Part of my routine in those golden years of youth (okay, I was nearly 50) was to run four miles or so every night (every night I could) after school.  My route (see map and route) took me west on Pioneer Trail, then a loop past the high school and down the Harmon driveway to Aurora-Hudson Road; I took a right on S. Bissell Rd., then, quickly, a left on Walden Dr.  Through the Walden development I went, back on Bissell, right on W. Pioneer ... and then home.

The problem--the problem with golfers--came on that little ribbon of S. Bissell before I turned onto Walden Dr.  (See black asterisk near the bottom of the page.)  Right at that asterisk was a tee.  And often when I was running, there were golfers waiting to tee off, hitting due south.  Directly, in other words, in my direction as I jogged toward them.

Had any of them mishit a ball (do golfers ever do that? hook or slice?), I could not have dodged--even as lightning quick as I was at 49.  Head shot?  Probably would have killed me.  But did any golfers ever wait until I had passed (about thirty seconds or so?).  No, all went ahead and teed off as if a living thing were nowhere in sight.  Again--any golfer who had hooked his/her shot could have hit me.  Hurt or killed me.

Once I realized that none of the duffers--er--golfers were going to acknowledge a non-golfing life form, I started standing behind a convenient tree and waiting until the linksmen/women had hacked away.  Then I trotted on.  Pissed off.

I write about this today because this continues to happen--even though I'm not jogging (no one threatens me on a stationary bike indoors--not yet).  When we drive to Aurora and head up Bissell ... there are the golfers on the Walden course.  When we drive to Kent on Judson Road ... there are the golfers at Raccoon Hill.  When we drive to Szalay's market on Barlow Road ... there are the golfers at Ellsworth Meadows.  Teeing up and off, parallel to the roads.  Whack!  And, again, always they tee off as if no cars (bearing people) were in sight.  No windshields or windows.

Confession: I used to play golf--until my younger brother started beating me (at which point the only respectable thing to do was quit).  And I was probably as clueless as the doofuses I'm complaining about here.  But I hope not.  (My little brother started beating me a long time ago--so I can't really remember what a doofus I was on the course.)

So here ... a hopeless plea.  Look before you whack.  Don't assume a perfect tee shot.  Remember that cars and windshields are fragile.  And so is the skull of a passing jogger or biker.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Discovering BookWorld

In January 2009, I was receiving daily radiation treatments for my pesky prostate cancer down at the Cleveland Clinic.  Seven weeks, five days a week, I drove down to the main facility near Case Western where I lay on a table and let a Star Wars kind of contraption rotate around my--you know--zapping me a few dozen times.  It didn't hurt, just sapped my energy the more it went on.

During that period I took a leave-of-absence from Western Reserve Academy.  I simply could not handle a demanding job with all the driving, the treatments, the accumulating weakness.  My routines were fairly set (can you imagine? me with a set routine?).  I would still go to Caribou early in the morning to do the reading for the book reviews I was writing for Kirkus Reviews.  I was also working on some various writing projects in the morning.  Later, I would try to ride the exercise bike at home for thirty minutes, trying to maintain whatever strength I had.  Then, after lunch, I would drive to the Clinic, listening to Middlemarch, the only "talking-book" experience I'd ever had (and still the only one).  Oddly, I finished that novel the final day of my treatments.  I sat in the driveway before going in the house and listened to the last ten minutes.  Not a dry eye in the car.

Anyway, during this period I got a wonderful email from a parent of one of my students.  She wished me well--and then suggested I might enjoy a series of books she liked--books by the British novelist Jasper Fforde (pronounced "Ford," pretty much).  At that point, I was ready to leap into just about anything that would distract me from my grim routines.  And so I ordered the first one--The Eyre Affair--just to see.

These were novels about a character Fforde named Thursday Next, who is an agent who moves in and out of the BookWorld--the realm where the stories and characters in books are actual.  Among the many odd things in BookWorld--when you go there (and very few can), you realize that the people are wearing only what the author has said they wore (if the author did not mention socks--no socks) and the scenery has only the features the author mentioned (no trees in the book? no trees in BookWorld).

Thursday Next battles the dark forces that want to disrupt things in BookWorld.  There is a mega-corporation, Goliath, bent on world domination (and doing very well, thank you); there is a Hades family (three guesses: are they good or bad?); there is a Goliath agent with the endearing name of Jack Schitt; and on and on and on.

Fforde drops literary allusions around his terrain with the glee of an Easter-Egg-hider.  Shakespeare, Austen, Homer, Dickens--you'd better be up on all of them if you want to catch some of the humor.  (I'm sure I'm missing things--which is annoying.)

The books are amusing, frightening, sanguinary, clever, quick, and, well, dazzling.  But I would not suggest you do what I did: I consumed the first five like a fistful of Fritos.  And as a result, I sort of wearied of them.  (My fault, not Fforde's.)  And when the sixth one came out last year (One of Our Thursdays Is Missing), I bought it but did not immediately read it.  I plopped it on a pile and ignored it.

But then I got the chance to review the newest one--The Woman Who Died a Lot--coming out this October, so I quickly consumed #6 (which I loved) and am now preparing the review of #7.  (I'll post a link when it's out.)

Meanwhile, I am enormously grateful to that thoughtful mother.  Those books helped brighten some dim days.

Link: Fforde's website

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Oh, How I Love Librarians! (Part 5--and Final!)

Wednesday, 12 September 2012.  Tamaqua (PA) Public Library.

We have driven over to Tamaqua, about sixteen miles northeast of Pottsville, where we will pursue the John O'Hara story that's been obsessing me for more than a year now.  In the early months of 1927, when he would turn 23 years old, O'Hara took a reporter's job on the Tamaqua Evening Courier.  He didn't last long.  His old enemy alcohol and his inability to get to work within a few hours of when he was supposed to be there combined to terminate his tenure.  As Matthew J. Bruccoli puts it in his biography The O'Hara Concern (1975), "John's work was good--when he did it--but for part of the time he was commuting to Tamaqua by trolley and arriving late, hung over, or both" (45).

Current newspaper offices
I have never seen a photograph of the old Courier building, and I want to take one.  But where was it?  We park the car on Broad Street and ask a man standing there with his young son, dressed in martial arts garb, where the newspaper offices are now.  He points.  We are about three doors away.

Inside, we discover it's lunch time and that the editor has gone.  The secretary takes our names and questions.  They'll get back to us.  (And the editor does, within an hour!)

Tamaqua Public Library
Meanwhile, we wander down to the Tamaqua Public Library where we will look for an address in an old city directory, if they have any.  A volunteer points us immediately to the librarian, Gayle Heath, who begins helping us, letting us know along the way that she is the only full-time employee there.  She jokes: "I'm the reference librarian, children's librarian, archivist, adult librarian--you name it."

But the library doesn't have the sort of directory we need, so I ask if they have the old Courier on microfilm. They do.  She finds a spool from 1925 and sets it up for us on the reader.  I'm guessing that the paper's address will appear in each issue.

I am right.  The film is smeary, though, so I look at several issues of the paper before I'm sure.  18 Hunter Street.  Just a few blocks away!

(Do you see why I love librarians?  And libraries?)

We thank Ms. Heath profusely and dash for the car and fire up the GPS.  Yes!  It finds 18 Hunter.  Our GPS narrator takes us there ...


It's an empty lot.

18 Hunter St.
Where it used to be ...
I photograph the site and am feeling that grumpy feeling I always get when I arrive at a literary site to discover that what I'd hoped/expected to see is no longer there.

But then I get an email from the current editor of the Tamaqua Times News, which merged earlier with the old Courier.  She suggests I try a Facebook page--Tamaqua Then and Now.  I join the page, post a query: Does anyone have a photo of the old Courier building?

Not long afterwards--some email from a former writer (he sends me some .pdf files of some pieces he wrote about O'Hara) and from a woman who does have a photo and is sending it to me for scanning.

And, once again, I'm in Nerd Heaven.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Oh, How I Love Librarians! (Part 4)

Once I started work researching my books on Jack London, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Poe (Amazon Author Page), I discovered a whole new world of libraries, a whole new world of library services.

For most of my life--until those years of research--my experiences in libraries had comprised browsing, borrowing, reading, returning late, paying fine.  That was about it.  I don't think I'd ever used any of the special services the libraries provide--no archival work whatsoever.  (If the Carnegie Public Library in Enid had archives, I didn't know about them--or care; I wanted only the latest biography of Buffalo Bill or Wild Bill Hickok.)  And in Hiram--public school, public library, and college--again I restricted myself to pleasure reading or to the types of resources I could find myself with the aid of a reference book or a publication like Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, where I found articles to help me write (awful) papers on Frank Norris and Tennessee Williams and Philip Freneau and the like.  I also figured out how to operate microform readers (microfiche, microfilm spools)--and those were about all the arrows I had in my Library Quiver.

Oh, but then! 

Beinecke Rare Book Lib
As I began diving into the Jack London pool, I was soon corresponding with and visiting libraries and archives all over the place.  The annotated edition of The Call of the Wild (1995) took me to Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library where I read the actual diary of Marshall Bond, who'd traveled to the Klondike, met the young (and unknown) Jack London.  It was Bond's dog that London so admired and later plopped into his novella The Call of the Wild.  At the Newberry Library in Chicago I was able to read some very rare books about the Klondike and its gold rush.  At the California History Room in the Oakland Public Library (which young Jack himself had used voraciously) I found out all sorts of stuff about the Chinese lottery, some restaurants that were popular with London and his wife.  At the public library in San Jose--I was able to pin down the date that Jack London had actually visited the Bond Ranch in Santa Clara (where Wild begins).  At the University of Windsor (Ont.) Leddy Library I read the printed reports of the North-west Police during the gold rush years.

The Huntington Library
At the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. ... treasure.  Here are stored most of JL's original manuscripts and papers, and there I met the wonderful archivist, Sue Hodson, who has remained a friend.  At the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley I found many photographs of the Londons--some of which appear in the book.  At the Library of Congress (!!) I used the Geography and Maps Room to find authentic period maps of California, the Bay Area, the Klondike ... and on and on and on.

In these wonderful facilities I learned about a whole new world of library work.  About high security--entering, working there, leaving.  About wearing white gloves while handling some material.  About being in a world where professional librarians are enormously skilled and knowledgeable about the materials I wanted to work with.  About how incredibly generous they were with their knowledge, their time.  How imaginative they were about helping me find some pretty weird things.

Shelley and Poe took me to many other places--the University of Virginia, the University of Indiana, the University of Rochester, the library at Ohio University, at Ohio State, and on and on.

Cleveland Public
Main Library
And one of the greatest resources of all? The Cleveland Public Library and its fabulous ClevNet system.  I spent many days at the Main Library in the History room and Literature room reading books about the gold rush.  I'd ride the Rapid downtown from Green Road, walk to the library, work all day, stop back at Tower City for a snack, hop on the train, ride back to my car, my brain a-swim with all I'd discovered that day ...

Oh, those times were lovely ...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Oh, How I Love Librarians! (Part 3)

Once out of college and in the classroom again, this time as a teacher, I found my reliance on the library--and on librarians--grew heavier and heavier.  In fact, my first good friend at the old Harmon Middle School was a librarian, Doug Kramer, also a rookie.  He was about 6'5" (or more?), a former roundball player at KSU who now sat in the little Aurora Middle School library (not yet a "media center"), towering over all.  When Doug--"Mr. Kramer"--declared silence, there were few who would gainsay him.

We became good friends, ate lunch together, horsed around after school--that sort of thing.  He was newly married (I can't remember her name), and I liked her very much too.  Over spring break that year, I drove to New York City to visit an old friend.  Out in the middle of Pennsylvania at a rest stop I saw the Kramers, also on their way east.  (He drove a red Mustang--was I envious?!!)  (Cue: Music from Twilight Zone--Link)

Doug stayed only one year, though.  I don't remember where he went, have no idea what his life and career turned out to be.  I was always friendly with his numerous successors: book-lovers tend to "bond," you know?

The other great librarian friend that first year was Donna French, whose daughter Linda was in eighth grade and helped me write the first play I did that first spring.  There were seven French children, and I taught most of them--wonderful young people, all.  Donna worked as the elementary school librarian but spent time in the middle school, too.  She and her family sort of "took me in" those first few years--feeding me when I ran out of money (which didn't take long: my paycheck, on the 1st and the 15th, was $168.42, take-home), entertaining me when I was lonely (which was often).  Their house overflowed with books (as mine does now).  Her husband, "Bud," was a physicist but was as down-to-earth as anyone with a celestial intelligence could ever have been.  The Frenches really made me feel part of the family and helped ease my way into a life I was finding so amazingly difficult and stressful.

When I began taking graduate courses at KSU (nights, summers), the library became ever more important, though I don't recall that I had anything like a "relationship" with any of the myriads of librarians at KSU.  I was just another anonymous face in a sea of faces they had to deal with.  But I practically lived in that library at times.

Satterfield Hall
And, oddly, that library served as a connection to Joyce ...  In the summer of 1969 we were both taking a class in American transcendentalism at KSU.  We did not know each other--but I had certainly noticed her.  But, as I've written before, I'd already made that Pathetic Male Calculation--the one that, translated, says approximately this: I have no chance with her. I am not going to waste my time and break my own heart by making a move.  And so I didn't.

But one day after class, right outside Satterfield Hall, she fell in step with me.  And she asked me if I could tell her where the library was.  I--sensing an opening--told her I would show her.  (Oh, you wise and clever man!)  And I did.

Of course, I learned later she'd been going there every day.  (Oh, you wise and clever woman!)

Tuesday: Librarians help as I write books.

Wednesday: Librarians later in my life.

Thursday: Something new!