Dawn Reader

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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Man of Mystery (Part 5--Conclusion)

And so the orgy began.

It was not long before I was reading mysteries with the insatiable, indiscriminate appetite of a Great White Shark.  If a mystery swam in my view, I ate it.  And my literary stomach was soon cluttered with the fictional equivalent of license plates, bathing suits, tennis balls, and chunks of once-inflatable rafts.

I've read (in no particular order here) the complete mysteries/thrillers of Lawrence Block--notably, the Matthew Scudder novels.  I think I first learned about Scudder in that 1986 film with Jeff Bridges, 8 Million Ways to Die (the first time I remember seeing Andy Garcia, too).  Soon I was reading and admiring all the Scudder novels--the ex-cop with a drinking problem--not a licensed P.I.  But then I met Block at a signing up at a Cleveland bookstore and was so put off by his manner (he was arrogant and dismissive) that I soured on him--and read his ensuing books more out of habit than passion.  I've also read his series about a hit man--John Keller. The last, I think, was Hit and Run, 2008--though a new one, Hit Me, is due in Feb. 2013.

Who else?  I've splashed in Sue Grafton's alphabet soup.  I started with G Is for Gumshoe and have read all the ones since then; oddly, though, I've not gone back to read A-F ... not sure why?  Maybe I'll do it when I've read Z and realize there will be no more?

I actually kind of enjoyed a short series by a Cincinnati writer--Jonathan Valin--who wrote some novels about Harry Stoner back in the 1980s and 1990s.  Then vanished.  I just looked on Amazon and saw that a new one is coming out soon--to Kindle Direct.  Don't know what the story there is.

Who else?  I merged my love of the Elizabethans with my detective madness by reading an entire series by Edward Marston.  His character--Nicholas Bracewell--works for a theater company but also solves mysteries.  There are sixteen in the series--and as I look over the list, I realize I've not read the last few.  (Guess what that means!)

One novel by Michael Connelly about his L. A. detective Harry Bosch (actually, it's Hieronymus Bosch--"Harry" for short) has forced me to read all the others--and a new one is out right now: The Black Box.  Gotta order it.

My older brother, Richard, got me started on a series about a small-town police chief, Mario Balzic, in Pennsylvania, a series by K. C. Constantine.  I ate all those like a weasel eats free eggs.

And the Dennis Lehane novels about the young Boston PIs--Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro.  Ben Affleck transformed one of those novels--Gone Baby Gone--into a fine film (starring brother Casey) in 2008.  One of the recent novels in the series has a scene in Becket, Massachusetts, a tiny town in the Berkshires where my brothers have an old farmhouse they use as a weekend/summer place.  There's something about that, isn't there?  Reading in a novel about a place you know very well.  Years ago, I remember seeing the film Ordinary People, which has some footage shot in Lake Forest, Illinois, where we had lived and taught for a year.  Nothing like that to decorate your skin with horripilation!

Surely there are more?

Why, yes!  All those Scandinavians I've been reading lately: Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbø, Stieg Larsson, Camilla Läckberg.

And some more Americans: Ridley Pearson (I like the ones about the Sun Valley cops--all the titles include the word Killer--like Killer Summer), Charles McCarry, Carl Hiaasen, and David Morrell, and ... the list goes on, and I'm getting tired.  But ... one more ...

Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard.  Dean of the bunch.  I've told this story before, I think.  So what?  Here it is again.  Back in the late 80s (early 90s?) I took some students to a literary event in Cleveland--the Book and Author Luncheon sponsored by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  Leonard was one of the authors that year.  I brought along with me a pile of his books for signing--and distributed them among the students so I wouldn't look more psycho-stalkery than I already did.

Leonard, early in his career, wrote some Westerns--including Hombre and Valdez Is Coming.  (Both became films.)  One of his short stories, 3:10 to Yuma, has been filmed twice, most recently in 2008 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.  I liked Leonard's Westerns.  Wanted more of them.  So I decided I would ask him ...

His line was long.  But, of course, I eventually reached him.  And popped the question: Are you ever going to write another Western?

He looked up at me.  Sighed.  No one reads them, he said.  And went back to signing books.

Some years later, 1999, he published Cuba Libre, kind of a Western.  So I decided it was I who had given him the idea.  And I decided I should take a share of the credit.

And so I am.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Man of Mystery (Part 4)

John D. MacDonald,
So ... obsessions with Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert B. Parker.  We had ignition; we had liftoff.

Next, I think, was John D. MacDonald, whose Travis McGee novels (all with a color in the title: The Lonely Silver Rain, Bright Orange for the Shroud, The Green Ripper, etc.).  (Link to Travis McGee titles)  I joyfully read all of them--and once again had to weep when MacDonald died in 1986.  No more Travis McGees!  When I taught freshman English at Western Reserve Academy (1979-1981) I used a quotation from a McGee novel as a writing prompt.  Here's the passage (from Bright Orange for the Shroud, 1965):

When I walked into the big drugstore on Fifth Avenue in Naples [Florida], I was slightly surprised to see that it was not yet nine o'clock.  There were some rowdy teenagers at one of the counter sections, and I sat as far from them as possible.  I like them fine in smaller units.  But when they socialize, showing off for each other, they sadden me.  The boys punch and shove, and repeat each comment in their raw uncertain baritone over and over until finally they have milked the last giggle from their soft little girls with the big, spreading, TV butts.  And they keep making their quick cool appraisals of the environment to make certain they have a properly disapproving audience of squares.  And have you noticed how many fat kids there are lately?  And the drugstore comedians are usually the rejects.  The good ones, as in any year, are taut, brown, earnest, and have many other things to do, and can even--unthinkably--endure being alone.  This little fat-pack was nearing the end of their school year and, predictably, would slob around all summer, with a few of them impregnating each other.  They would dutifully copy the outlook and mannerisms of their momentary idols.  Some of them would check out this summer as a bloody stain on a bridge approach.  The survivors, ten years hence, would wonder how come their luck was turning so bad, why life wasn't giving them any kind of break at all.


You can imagine how a room full of fourteen-year-olds would respond to this!  I asked my students to write a reply to Travis McGee--agreeing, disagreeing, whatever.  Let me just say that through their pieces--at least most of them--surged a torrent of emotion that's generally absent, say, from five-paragraph essays about The Scarlet Letter.  Authentic emotion.  Nice to experience in a pile of papers.

On 15 October 1979, Time magazine published a piece about MacDonald (the Pope was on the cover): "The Mid-Life Surge of McGee," which is somewhat a review of The Green Ripper and an overview of MacDonald's McGee series.  The first two sentences say this: Locked inside a beige file cabinet in Sarasota, Fla., is an unfinished manuscript entitled A Black Border for McGee.  May it never be published.

The book deals with the death of Travis McGee, an event MacDonald once said would occur after the tenth novel.  He published twenty-one.  So much for auctorial vows!

Travis has not been much of a hit at the movies.  1970 saw Darker Than Amber with Rod Taylor as McGee.  (I didn't see it--not yet!  Not on Netflix.  Not on eBay.  Grrrrr.)  And in the cast?  What an assortment: Theodore Bickel and Jane Russell!  My Fair Lady meets The Outlaw?!?!

There was one (for TV) in 1983 (co-written by MacDonald and Sterling Silliphant) based on The Empty Copper Sea.  Sam Elliott played McGee; Andrew V. McLaglen directed.  I saw it.  It sucked.  And IMBD tells me that there's a new McGee film in the works directed by Paul Greengrass (who's done a couple of Jason Bourne movies, Green Zone, and United 93)--with Leonardo DiCaprio as McGee.  Now that is a casting that gives me pause ...  Like the recent casting of Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher (from the Lee Child novels) ... don't get me started.

The Time piece notes that MacDonald wrote on an IBM Selectric (so did I!) and that he liked to write in his summer fishing camp in the Adirondacks (so didn't I!).  And at the end, MacDonald lists all sorts of colors that he would one day write about.

His obituary in the New York Times (Link to obit--29 Dec 1986) notes that MacDonald wrote about 70 books and some 500 short stories.  It also notes that all the later McGee books were on bestseller lists--some going to Number One.  There is no mention, however, of the "black" book.  Nor has it appeared since.  Apparently (according to one blogger) his wife has said the book does not exist.

Which means, of course, that it does.  (The definition of a lie is a truth that you don't want to hear.)   Too bad Travis McGee isn't around to find it for us.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Man of Mystery (Part 3)

My madness about mysteries--especially the novels of Raymond Chandler--led, as I wrote yesterday, to this: some students and I wrote a musical comedy about Philip Marlowe.  But there was another consequence.  Our young son (9-ish at the time) began reading The Three Investigators series.  And he didn't just read them.  He and a couple of friends formed their own little detective agency.  He started carrying around in his pockets all sorts of "equipment" that the job would require (not a firearm, thank goodness)--a notepad, a little flashlight, a wee magnifying glass.  They even made business cards to distribute around the neighborhood.  One afternoon after school Steve came to Harmon Middle School (before he was a student there), his pants stuffed with his gear, and one of my students, seeing him, asked me what was going on.  Everything--was all I could say.

But for me--there were other consequences.  I began casting about for other mystery writers to read, and soon I was reading the complete Lew Archer novels by Ross MacDonald (1915-1983), a pen name for Canadian writer Kenneth Millar.  (Link: Lew Archer novels)  Soon, those were gone, and I leapt back in history and read the complete Sherlock Holmes stories.

Then what?

For some reason I never got hooked on Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade novels--nor on Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) and his Mike Hammer novels--though I did enjoy the old TV series (1997-98) with Stacy Keach.  Here's a YouTube link to the old opening credits from that show: Mike Hammer opening  I once saw Keach play Richard III at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D. C.--he was great, found all the humor in that dark role, too.

Robert B. Parker
But one day ... Joyce came home from some event at the library and told me that someone had recommended to her a series about a detective called "Spenser" (no first name), written by some guy named Robert B. Parker (1932-2010).  I tried one.  Hook, line, sinker.  Read them all.  Started reading each new one the first day it appeared in the bookstores.  Soon, my brothers were reading them, too, and older brother, Richard, who was the music critic for the Boston Globe, occasionally reviewed books as well--and reviewed most/all of the Parkers.  This caused some issues between the two younger brothers: Which of us would get the galley when Richard was through with it?  Dave--living in Boston (as Richard did)--usually won, though Richard occasionally sent me one in the mail, perhaps when he was annoyed with brother Dave for some reason.

That first summer of my hooking, we drove to Oregon to see my parents, who were then living in Cannon Beach.  As I would finish a Parker in the car, I would pass it back to teenager Steve, who would read it, too.  And we would pull off the road in little towns, looking for bookstores, looking for Parker novels.

I watched all the episodes of Spenser: For Hire, the TV series based on the books (1985-1988)--here's a YouTube link to the opening sequence for that series ... (Opening for Spenser).  Parker started up a couple of other series, too--one featuring Sunny Randall (a woman P. I.) and another about a small-town cop with alcohol issues named Jesse Stone.  I ate those books, too--and love the Tom Selleck TV movies based on the Jesse novels.  (Parker also wrote some YA novels--I've not read them--but I do own them!)

Since Parker's death in 2010, other writers are doing the Parker books, but I haven't read any.  Can't do it.  Oddly, though, Parker once wrote a couple of Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe novels.  One was Poodle Springs, which Chandler had started but never finished; another was Perchance to Dream.  I did read those.  They were all right.  But I still felt as if I were cheating in school ... not that I know what that really feels like, of course.

I met Parker at a couple of book signings in the Cleveland area ... and, yes, most of my Parkers are signed.  And one year I decided to take some young Harmon School kids interested in writing to meet him--an incident I wrote about in my memoir Turning Pages (link to book on Kindle: Turning Pages).  Below is what I wrote about that visit--a humbling experience ...

In the mid-1990s I drove a group of my eighth-graders up to a local book store for a Parker signing.  I was excited.  I’d read every new Spenser novel at the moment of publication—and even owned some of his early non-Spensers (like Three Weeks in Spring, co-written with his wife, Joan).  I’d met Parker at another signing, some years earlier, but the store had been so crowded that I’d barely been able to say “Hello.”  (In those days—the first time I met him—he was still signing Robert B. Parker; later, he scrawled just a plain RBP.)  I’d told my students about Parker’s novels and about Spenser, the private eye, and was surprised that they did not remember the mid-eighties’ TV show Spenser: For Hire.  I told my students to meet me at school early that evening so we would beat the crowd.  But a kid or two were late, so we arrived about fifteen minutes after the scheduled start.  I was dreading the equator-length line we’d face.
But no one was in the store.  No one but Robert B. Parker, who was wandering around in the stacks looking at books.  My students and I talked with him for nearly a half-hour before anyone else showed up.  On the way home, no one was so unwise as to ask me why I thought a crowd would be there.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Man of Mystery (Part 2)

Raymond Chandler, 1888-1959
author of the Philip Marlowe detective novels

As I wrote yesterday,I gradually became a fanatical reader of mystery/thriller novels over the past few decades, a passion ignited by Raymond Chandler, whose novels featuring private eye Philip Marlowe are such "standards" now that they've merited two volumes in The Library of America (LOA Chandler listing).  And--as I wrote yesterday--that Chandler-passion led me in the spring of 1976 to begin writing a play with and for my middle school students.

Twice a week, a group of eighth graders and I would gather forty-five minutes before the school day began to think and laugh and write.  We met over the summer, too.  And then--when the 1976-1977 school year began, we met every Saturday for several hours to complete the script.  We finished it over Christmas vacation that year.  And on April 15-16, 1977, we mounted our production at Harmon Middle School.

My dear colleagues Andy Kmetz (choreography) and Ted Clawson (musical arrangements) made everything look and sound much better than if Yours Truly had been in charge of all.

We called it ... The Periwinkle Perplex.  And as I sit here, I can't remember much about the story--just that our Marlowe (played by Fred Gloor, who has gone on to an acting and directing career--and is now a Facebook friend) was nothing like Chandler's.  Ours was more of a klutz.  A human punching bag.

But ... I have gone to the basement.  Have opened one of the myriads of boxes.  Have found the precious (?) script.  And read the opening scene--Marlowe's soliloquy: My name is Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.  It began on one of those hot summer Los Angeles nights--the kind of night when your beer glass sweats as much as you do, and pulling your shirt off at night is like peeling off an old band-aid.

Get the picture?  And I remember, as I read on, that we used some actual lines from Chandler novels--like this one: Now she's the kind of gal that could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

And our characters?  Lt. O'Really.  Det. Littlekopp.  Lawrence Shyster (guess his profession?).  Jacques De Ripper (kind of like that one).  Dr. Ima Shrink.  Mrs. Prudence Periwinkle and Percy Periwinkle.  We had a Head Ubby Dubby, too, in case you were wondering.  And ... the Voice of God (recorded--and performed not by the Deity but by John Mlinek, who'd been in the first Aurora play I'd ever done in the spring of 1967; John remains a friend--had dinner last summer!).

And did I say that ours was a musical comedy?  With those great hits "That Old Urge to Beat up Philip Marlowe" (to the tune of "Jingle, Jangle, Jingle"), "That Old Lady's Crazy, Just as Crazy Can  Be" ("In the Mood"), "They Get a Kick Out of Me" ("I Get No Kick") ...  Oh, we had an indulgent audience!

A sample of our deathless lyrics:

That old urge to beat up Philip Marlowe
Is an urge that I try not to resist.
Want to splurge while mashing Philip Marlowe
And to be a plastic surgeon with my fist.

We had a chorus line, too--seventh & eighth grade girls.  And--as I recall--we had a full house, both nights, of wildly appreciative fans.  This I choose to believe.  (And pretty much think is true.)

And I just remembered: Closing night we had a dinner theater!  A full meal in the cafeteria after the show.  Such ambition--something about which Macbeth knew a little (Act 1, Scene 7):

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

Well, we actually did pull the whole thing off, had a great time.  And I have peopled my memory with all-too-evanescent memories of the whole thing.

But one thing I do remember: My obsession with Chandler ended at the dinner theater.  But my detective-novel mania raged on--as you will see on the morrow ...


Monday, November 26, 2012

Man of Mystery

My addiction to mysteries and thrillers has evolved (and deepened ... and darkened?) over the decades since, just a wee bit of a lad, I read some Hardy Boys novels--and (as I've noted here before) some Nancy Drews, titles I made certain my (male) friends of pubescence and adolescence did not know I was reading.  Consequences for such behavior were dire (Dyer?) in 1958 or so.  Even I--an especially dim lad in those days--knew that.

But after that boyhood phase ... remission.  I don't recall reading any mysteries throughout high school and college.  (Life itself, then, was too much of a mystery, I guess.)  But during my early career at Harmon Middle School I began reading--why?--the mystery novels of Raymond Chandler, the ones featuring P. I. Philip Marlowe.  I really cannot remember why, though I have a wispy memory (never reliable) that my older brother, Richard, recommended them?  Or maybe I'd recently seen on TV The Big Sleep, the Bogart and Bacall film (1946), directed by Howard Hawks--with screenplay by William Faulkner (yes, that Faulkner), his only full screen credit, if I remember.  And do you remember the sexy bookstore scene with Dorothy Malone and Bogart?  Lights go out, shades get pulled, clothes get ... though we don't see that part (it was 1946, remember).

By the time I started reading Chandler, I had already developed into the sort of reader with a simple but time-consuming pattern of behavior: If I read one book by an author (and I like it), I must then read everything else the dude--or dude-ess--ever published.  This is an imperative I still obey--witness my posts from last fall about reading my way through the canon of John O'Hara.

So, off I went on a Chandler adventure, reading all the Marlowe novels--Link: List of Marlowe novels.  BTW: If you've seen the wonderful Robert Downey Jr./Val Kilmer/Michelle Monaghan film Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005)--which has at its core a series of old detective novels--you may remember that the filmmaker (Shane Black) divided the story, sort of, into chapters.  And each of those chapters has a title.  And each of those titles is the title of a Marlowe novel (e.g., The Lady in the Lake).

About the time I was reading Marlowe novels, some films based on his work were back in circulation.  In 1973, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (with Elliott Gould as a modern-day Marlowe) dazzled me, and another Farewell, My Lovely (1975) with Robert Mitchum as a Marlowe and a sizzling Charlotte Rampling (I loved the music in this one--score by David Shire, who later did The World According to Garp and Zodiac).  In 1978, Mitchum played Marlowe again in a re-make of The Big Sleep (how dare they!)--this time set in England ... nuff said.  (Marlowe out of southern California?  Put Santa in the Sahara!)

I loved the narration in the Chandler novels (P. I. Marlowe tells his own stories).  Like this, from Farewell, My LovelyIt was a nice face, a face you get to like. Pretty, but not so pretty that you would have to wear brass knuckles every time you took it out.   Or this from The Long Goodbye: There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream.

Oh yeah!

Soon I was so obsessed with Chandler and Marlowe that I knew I had to do something: write a play about him and have my middle school students perform it!

And so I did ...


Sizzling C. Rampling,
Farewell, My Lovely, 1975

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Schools Can't Accommodate Talent?

In an essay about George Gershwin, critic Joseph Epstein wrote, "Like many vastly talented people, he could not be accommodated by school, so he dropped out at 15 and went to work plugging songs to vaudeville for a music publisher" (Essays in Biography, 445).

That comment--almost a throwaway remark--got to me.  Like many vastly talented people, he could not be accommodated by school ...  Interesting use of the passive voice, too--could not be accommodated ...  We do not know who or what could not accommodate George Gershwin at school, but this situation--a very talented person dropping out, doing well--is common enough in literature and the arts that it got me thinking.

Many years ago, early in my career in Aurora, a former 7th grade student of mine--then in the high school--told me that choir was the only reason he went to school.  This young man--extremely bright and from a wonderful home--graduated but did not go to college.  He started working with pottery instead--a passion he continues to explore today, forty years later.

And there are famous cases of Nobel Laureates in Literature who never went beyond high school--or even finished high school--Hemingway and Faulkner among them.  Playwright August Wilson dropped out, and Tracy Letts never went to college (their Pulitzers are not thereby tarnished).  Hell, Shakespeare himself never went to university.  (I'm not as familiar with the biographies of musicians and artists--but I'm betting the story's much the same.)   I used to joke with my WRA students: Want to be a great writer?  Drop out now!  (None ever did--which shows (a) none of them wanted to be a great writer, (b) they knew their teacher was a dork.)

And is it true that gifted students find themselves uncomfortable--unaccommodated--in school?  Sadly true, I fear.  For so many reasons.  It's fashionable now to decry bullying, but I know from my own experiences--as a student, as a teacher--that talented kids have had a very hard time in school for a very long time.  Many times, the anti-arts, anti-intellectual climate is so intense in the school, that kids have to hide their talents.  Dismiss them, even.  And, sadly (in too many cases I've seen), abandon them.

And have you seen any films about teenagers lately?  What and whom do they celebrate?  The hard-working artistic kids?  Or the athletes?  The partiers?  The slackers?  (You get one guess.)  In 21 Jump Street, Channing Tatum tells Jonah Hill (as they prepare to go undercover as high school students) that you need to ridicule kids who try hard.

The pro-athlete posture in many public schools is grotesque.  Look at your local high school's trophy case ... what's in it?  How many assemblies devoted to pep rallies or other celebrations of athletes?  How many to celebrate non-athletic talents?  Who gets an entire section in the local paper?  Whose pictures are in the paper?  Whose words are quoted?  Whose achievements adorn the school's website?  Who has booster groups whose members  raise money and devote themselves to celebrating student achievement--a certain sort of student achievement?  Our community recently raised millions of dollars ... for a new football stadium.  A well-lighted place where virtually all the young men who play will be injured.

Would the community have come up with millions for the drama program?  The music program (not counting marching band)?  (I've often wondered, by the way: Why not have band concerts with a 15-minute football game during intermission?  How would that go over?)  Any of the other arts?  Creative writing?  (And by the way--What would the community response be if I started a drama program and announced that just about all the kids would be hurt while we were practicing or performing?  That I needed an EMS unit standing by during the shows?  Think that would go over?)

I've often gnashed my teeth about another aspect of all of this, too--standards.  No one goes to, say, a middle school basketball game (boys' or girls') and leaves muttering, Those kids weren't as good as the Miami Heat.  But for kids in the arts?  It's somehow different.  Standards are higher.  When they sing or dance or act or paint, they have to sound or look more ... professional.  The standards for them are much higher.  If they don't sound, well, professional, then they suck.  Years ago, I directed a high school production of Grease.  At one of the rehearsals, some high school boy I knew came by to watch, and when our "Sandy" was singing, he turned to me and said--with great enthusiasm: She sounds like the record!  She was gifted, our Sandy.  But what if she'd been just ... ordinary?  What would that young man have said then?

And need I ask: In austere times, which programs get cut first?

It's very difficult to change the culture of a school--especially when the larger culture reinforces all the odious aspects of it.  So kids with talents in the arts have to be lucky.  They have to attend a school where the adults care about their gifts--and who do something about it.  They have to attend a school where the arts flourish so pervasively that the other students recognize and value their gifts.  They have to live in a community that values their achievements--and not just with words.  They have to live in families who cherish their talents--who don't steer them away from the arts because there's no money in it.

I would say that such situations are rare in today's consumer-driven, personal-pleasure-driven, athletics-obsessed culture.  Which means that it remains difficult, nearly impossible, for the George Gershwins and August Wilsons--and William Shakespeares--of today to make it through their classes, to last till lunch.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Year One? Ain't No Fun! (Conclusion)

In the spring of 2001 I was having coffee one day with my old (very old) friend Tom Davis down at Saywell's (R.I.P.) in Hudson.  Tom, chair of the English Department at Western Reserve Academy, had been instrumental in hiring Joyce and me back in 1979, and we had remained good friends through the years.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
I had been retired from the Aurora City Schools since January 1997 and had spent the intervening years--every one of them, every day, every year--working on my latest obsession: Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.  I had read all of her books and other writing, had read every biography of her, had read biographies of everyone close to her (father, mother, friends and acquaintances--like the Lambs, Byron, Keats, Trelawny, and a ga-zillion others), I had traveled all over the place seeking out relevant Shelley-related documents, I had spent six weeks in Europe chasing her all over the place, from Castle Frankenstein in Germany to San Terenzo, Italy, where she was living with her husband when he drowned ...  I could go on.

(And will go on: I'm currently at work on a memoir--Frankenstein Sundae: Chasing Mary Shelley--which deals with those years of fierce obsession.)

Anyway, that day in Saywell's ...  by then I was winding down my research and was actually writing the book that would become The Mother of the Monster: The Life and Times of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (2012--available on Amazon/Kindle: Link to book).  Oh, and I was considerably, uh, more poor as a result of my obsessions (book purchases, travel, etc.).

And Tom was saying, innocently (I think): "You know, we have three openings in the English Department for next year."


"How about two?" I asked.

Well, it took awhile--some negotiations--but in the fall of 2001, there I was, about to turn 57, back at WRA, the school from which I stalked away in a salary snit in the spring of 1981.  Twenty years earlier (for those of you arithmetically challenged).

I had not taught since January 1997--and I had not taught in a high school since 1981.  True, I had not exactly been asleep during those years (lots of reading and travel and writing), but I had to start--cliche coming--from scratch.

I was assigned to teach three sections of English III (American literature + Hamlet) and one of what they called Senior Seminar, a course for all seniors during which they would read Plato and Nietzsche and some other dudes I didn't understand.  Oh well: The sign of a great teacher is one who can convince students that he knows what she's talking about.

American literature I have loved for a long, long time--since childhood when I met Mark Twain and some others; it was a love that flowered, though, at Hiram College (1962-1966), where I fell under the cerebral sway of Prof. Abe C. Ravitz (now a FB friend!), from whom I took SEVEN courses, most of them in American lit.  I took more Amer lit at KSU in grad school, and I read contemporary American lit compulsively.

Still ... I had never taught it, systematically, so that first year was a nightmare of  designing the course, reading the texts (some of which--Scarlet Letter, for example, I had not read in decades), planning the classes.  Not to mention grading papers, etc.

Oh, and since WRA is a boarding school, there were all those other sweet duties: dining hall, dormitory, committees, weekend duties, study hall, coaching (which I avoided by teaching Senior Sem).  Among the requirements for Senior Seminar, by the way, was a major research paper.  I spent my entire spring vacation that year grading them.

But what about the classes?

It was a slow start for me.  I had donned, once again, that cloak of an "academic," and it didn't fit very well.  I like to play too much (and say inappropriate things in class).  But I tried for the first few weeks to be Don Dyer, a persona which some (many? most?) of the students found less than delightful.

One day Tom Davis said to me, "You don't seem to be having as much fun in class as you used to."

That hit home, as they say.  And I mellowed a bit, had a much better time.

One student, though--a young woman--did not like me from the git-go.  When she got her papers back (always with grades below what she knew she deserved), she would bustle off to her previous teacher to complain about Don Dyer--or Dire Dyer--or whatever.  She was rude in class--sarcastic. One day, I remember, while I was expatiating about something absolutely crucial to the survival of the human species, I looked over at her: Her back was turned to me, and she was engaged in a merry conversation with a classmate.  I barked.  She barked back.  Bark, bark, bark.

Some weeks/months later, as I mellowed and as the kids and I began to get along pretty (very?) well, she stopped after class and apologized for her earlier behavior.  I think I did, too.  But maybe I didn't.

So ... there were some initial weeks of dealing with Who is this new guy?  And Why don't we ever laugh in here?  And grumblings about how some kids wished they'd been assigned to one of the other English III teachers.

But then the dark clouds lightened; the sun peeked his head out now and then--then emerged completely.  And I had a great ten-year time at WRA (the final nine years of which were part-time: too old for the Full Meal Deal), a time interrupted a couple of times by illness (Bell's palsy, prostate cancer), a time that ended in the spring of 2011 when, my health once again iffy and some curricular changes emerging (changes I had no strength--or maybe will--to battle), I retired for the final time and rode off into the sunset.

Where I found Facebook and Twitter and blogs and a New Electronic Classroom!  "O brave new world!" young Miranda cries when she sees young men for the first time in The Tempest.  Brave, to her, meant grand or worthy--and so it means to me these days when I have no committee meetings and dorm duty and paper-grading.

But I do have thousands of students I remember with love and gratitude.  And some of them, I know, return the favor.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Year One? Ain't No Fun! (Part 3)

Harmon School
Aurora, Ohio
In the fall of 1982 I finally made it back to Harmon School, which I'd left in 1978 to pursue a career in Academe, a career I soon realized I really didn't want.  I wanted the madness of middle school--I'd missed the psychoses of pubescence enacted in halls, classrooms, lunch room, and everywhere else.  Truly, middle-schoolers are clinical.  And I loved them the more for it.

I'd been away for four years: one at Lake Forest College, two at Western Reserve Academy (from which I'd resigned: salary snit), one at Kent State University (freshman comp, part time) and the Learned Owl Book Shop (part time, minimum wage).

And when I returned, much had changed.  The secondary schools had gone to a "campus" organization--one administrator in charge of the entire enterprise, 5-8; the high school and the middle school had building administrators who sometimes labored at the other level as well.  An idea whose time had not come.  But they tried it anyway.

But the biggest change for me?  No kids knew who I was.  Even though I'd taught there for twelve years (1966-1978), I was, once again, The New Guy, the one to be tested and bested.  Nettled and hassled.  Harassed and embarrassed.  Yes, I did teach a few siblings of former students.  And I still knew most of the faculty.  But in every other way I was a Rookie, and the kids reminded me of it, every day.

Especially at lunch.  I shared duty with an administrator (who will remain nameless) and my good friend Andy Kmetz, the art teacher, my partner on almost all of the Harmon drama productions.  (We did a show that year--E. T., Phone Harmon--with a very small turnout at tryouts: the kids didn't know me yet, didn't trust me.)  Andy loved the kids--knew them all--and would often spend most of the lunch hour talking with a few at a single table.  Leaving me the other 5,000 to deal with.  (Andy also loved cigarettes--and would disappear, every freaking day, for seven minutes back in the teachers' lounge, puffing away, while, again, I tried--and failed--to cope with the 5,000.)  The Nameless Administrator was often absent, too, off in an office ... administering something.

And who were the 5,000?  Ninth graders.  They spent part of their day at Harmon, part up at the high school.  And I had no influence over them whatsoever.  I did not have them in class.  I did not know their names.  (Most of them didn't bother to learn mine, either.)  Many of the boys were bigger than I.  And everyone's principal aim at lunch--so it seemed to me--was to give me a preview of Hell.

I would walk by a table, hear "Asshole!" muttered as I passed.  I would whirl.  Look.  See nothing but cherubic innocence.

I would see underneath a table a veritable grocery store of dropped food.  Whose was it?  No one's.  What's my problem?

Once, trying to break up a fistfight (Andy was off smoking; the Administrator was... ?), I grabbed one large lad by the waist and was pulling him away when the other guy, swinging from his heels, clocked me in the jaw--the hardest punch I've ever suffered, before or after.  He got three days at home.  I got a sore jaw and a lot of amused looks from my students as, dazed, I waxed eloquent about the indirect object after lunch.

So many pleasant stories that year ...

Gradually, though, my eighth graders began to accept me as a member of the human race (teacher version), and when I did plays and other activities with them, I slowly--slowly--began to reforge the bonds that I'd spent twelve years establishing before.

By the end of the year (June 1983), we liked one another.  And things only improved, in my view, every year until my retirement (January 1997).


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks, 2012

Expressions of gratitude are whirling everywhere today--on Facebook, email, texts, greeting cards (mail delivery: tomorrow), phone calls, prayers, and whispered wishes of all sorts.  We thank our gods, our families, our friends, and the good fortune that permits us to be together, some of us, for yet another year.

Many, of course, are suffering today.  They are ill or otherwise unable to do what they love to do.  They have endured losses.  Their hearts have fractured.  They face hard choices and dark futures.  For many, hope is merely a strange sound in a foreign tongue.  And Black Friday has a very different meaning for many people.

The other night, my mother, 93, fell in her apartment in her retirement complex in Massachusetts.  She could not get to her feet and spent the night on the floor, waiting for a health-care worker to find her in the morning.  No broken bones.  But she is spending today in the hospital in Pittsfield and upon release will have to go to the rehab center, not to her own place.  She may never return there.  My mom is a tough customer.  She is not grateful for any of this.  She does not want to be in the condition she's in; she does not want to be where she is.  In a very fundamental way, she does not want to be who she is.

She is grateful that two of her sons--Dick and Dave--are there and that she will have some sort of Thanksgiving with some of her family.  Perhaps her last.

So I was thinking--perhaps we ought to be grateful today--and every day--not just for what we have but also for what we don't have.  Life is precious.  Fragile.  And for those moments--those few moments--when we are in the sun and smiling and gripping the hands of loved ones we must indeed be grateful.  For all can change--will change--in the blink of Time's disinterested eye.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Year One? Ain't No Fun! (Part 2)

I knew virtually nothing about boarding schools when Joyce and I began teaching in one in the fall of 1979.  I'd read A Separate Peace.  I'd seen some movies.  And one crazy kid in my generation at Hiram had gone to Western Reserve Academy.  My friends and I thought he was insane.

In the fall of 1979, I would turn 35 years old.  I had thirteen years of teaching experience.  I had a Ph.D.  I had some publications.  I thought I was pretty hot stuff.  A few days/weeks of boarding school life cured me of that daffy notion.

That first year we lived in a nice school-owned house across Rt. 91 from Western Reserve Academy.  An easy walk.  But that was the only easy thing about that year.  I taught only three classes (with 12-15 students per class)--normal load for an English teacher--but the department required that each student write a substantial essay every single week.  Do the math.  Forty students times, oh, twenty minutes to grade each essay = 13.3 hours of essay grading per week.  Just for a single assignment!

I had two different classes--frosh and juniors--and I had never taught high school English before.  The freshmen read The Odyssey and a Shakespeare play and numerous other things--plus an "outside reading" book each of the five marking periods.  The juniors read Hamlet, some of the Greek tragedies--and "outside reading," too.  I hadn't read any of that stuff since college; I'd never taught it (the thought of teaching Shakespeare terrified me).  Oh, and there was a required 200-word vocabulary list.  And other books.  All of which my students had to believe I knew about.  I spent many dark hours reading and readying for those classes--trying to be prepared enough that the students would think I knew what I was doing.

But these were just some of the academic requirements.  I also had to coach two seasons (I did girls' tennis in the fall, boys' in the spring).  I had dormitory duty one night a week: I patrolled a girls' dorm from 7-11 p.m., making sure that the girls were working, making sure that Freddy Krueger did not come charging through, razor-gloves slashing away.  Etc.

I also had academic committees and faculty meetings.

Oh, and dining hall.  In those days, WRA served family-style meals at lunch and dinner (for which we had to dress up--coat and tie--Monday-Friday).  Joyce and I had to "host" a table two meals a day, five days a week.

Every so often we also had a weekend assignment, too--a dance or something to chaperon.

After several weeks of this I complained to my department chair, Tom Davis: Even God rested one day!  Tom, who would become a great friend, replied: You're not God.

No truer words ever spoken.

I felt like an idiot for weeks--no, months.  The kids used words I didn't know (mode, transpo); they referred to campus buildings by nickname (The A was the Athenaeum); they wore Bean boots (clothing I'd never seen or heard of).  They knew--with a depth it would take me a long time to learn--the difference between what the rules say and what they mean.  They balanced confidently on the very thin dress code wire.  The boys knew how far they could loosen their ties, allow their shirts to sneak loose; the girls knew how short their skirts could be, etc.

It took me a while, as well, to adjust to the school's grading system.  No letter grades.  Just a scale of 1-7 (low to high).  The school gave me a sheet that said a 4 was an average grade.  So in my early essay grading I gave a passel of 4's.  May I say that those grades did not endear me to my students?  An earnest delegation of kids came down to my house one night the second week or so to let me know that 4's were not the average grade; 5's were.  Oh.  I smiled and made nice.  And gently revised my standards.

Overall, though, the kids were great.  The frosh were generally terrified (lonely and homesick), so I had no trouble relating to them.  I was terrified and lonely and homesick, too.  And in my one class of juniors, I lucked out.  They were bright and cooperative.  Well ... mostly.  When we were doing Hamlet, I required them to memorize x lines of any of his soliloquies (I forget the exact number).  One young man memorized exactly that many from the "rogue and peasant slave" speech, stopping his effort in mid-sentence.  I kind of admired that--though it pissed me off, too.

At the end of the year, I was more exhausted than I'd ever been in my life.  But I'd also had a very good time ... after I figured a few things out.  I'd started doing some dumb "lunch-time rhymes" that the kids would read during lunch-time announcements (Turkey, turkey, turkey, / What have they done to you / To make your lovely body / Secrete that yellow goo?).  I'd done the first of my Chapel talks (about the movie The Exorcist).  I'd written a series of satirical skits with kids--and seen it produced: WRA and Peace.  We had made some great, life-long friends.

But Joyce and I decided that year that we would ask if we could divide a single job for the 1980-81 academic year.  Both of us were nursing our infant writing ambitions; we both wanted more time to write.  The school went for it, and the next year we shared a job and danced on the edge of poverty ... but that's another story.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Year One? Ain't No Fun!

Fall 1966.  Fall 1978.  Fall 1979.  Fall 1982.  Fall 2001.

These were the times when I was a rookie--the five times when I started teaching in a place I'd never been before--or in a place where I'd been gone so long that none of the students knew who I was.  And I learned, each time: The first year in a new place--even if you're older and experienced--can be tough.  And humbling.

My first plunge into teaching, the fall of 1966 at the Aurora Middle School in Aurora, Ohio, is an experience I have written about a lot--most thoroughly in my Kindle book Schoolboy: A Memoir (Link to book), so I'll not say much about it here--except this: Every day I felt incompetent, overwhelmed, and wildly happy.  I knew I was doing something I loved; I just wished-to-hell that I knew how to do it!

In the fall of 1978, after a dozen years in Aurora, I headed to Lake Forest, Illinois, with Joyce and Steve (age 6) to become chair of the Department of Education at Lake Forest College.  That sounds impressive.  But I was the only full-time member of the department (several adjuncts taught courses for us).  When I got there, I learned a few things very quickly--and not all were pleasant.  I discovered that the State of Illinois had put the department on probation (no one mentioned this during my interviews), so I had to spend the year reorganizing things and satisfying Illinois that we had a good program (I did so: They lifted the probation).

I also learned that many students who came to my classes were resentful about doing work.  For one course, for example, I asked them to read a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Some were downright hostile.  Read a book!  Are you kidding me?  More umbrage flared when I assigned essays for them to write.  And when I returned those essays, one student, unhappy that I'd marked usage and grammar and spelling and the like, barked at me: Hey, this isn't an English class!  I replied, mildly, Oh, what language were you using?  They eventually got over it, no doubt attributing my zeal to my rookie status.  I'd learn.

I also realized that things went much better when I taught the same way I'd always taught in middle school--using humor and silliness now and then to brighten the academic darkness.  Once I began to relax with the students, the classes went much better.

In the spring term that year, one of the loudest of the lads I'd taught in the fall was doing his student teaching.  And as I visited his classes and helped him deal with issues ranging from planning a class to finding the best materials, etc., he actually apologized to me for his behavior in the fall.

I told him it hadn't been entirely his fault.  I'd really had no idea how to teach a college class and had adopted a kind of distant, "professorial" persona that surely was annoying.  He confirmed that it was.

By the end of the year, I was feeling much better about things.  I was getting along with students; classes were more fun.

But I also knew that this was not for me.  I far preferred teaching to teaching about teaching.  This was an insight that arrived, oh, in October, and so I began looking for ways to get back to Aurora, to resume my career there.

WRA Chapel
But it took several years before that happened.  In the meantime, Joyce and I both found positions at Western Reserve Academy, Hudson, Ohio, and there we moved in the fall of 1979, to commence our careers as boarding school teachers.


Monday, November 19, 2012

"In a kingdom by the sea ..."

Last night, Joyce and I watched a DVD of a silent film from 1921--Annabelle Lee, a film putatively based on Poe's sad poem--among the last he ever published--about the death of a young woman.  (Link to IMDB info on the film) Poe liked writing about that--in "The Philosophy of Composition," 1846 (three years before he died), his well-known essay about writing poetry, he says, Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.  And--a bit later: the death ... of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world--and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.

Poe wrote those words about "The Raven," his most popular poem (for which he got less than $15 in his life!), but they apply as well to "Annabel Lee," the poem he wrote in May 1849, five months before his death.  It was published, posthumously, in November 1849.

The poem tells about young lovers "in a kingdom by the sea."  Their elders think they are too young to love.  The young lovers--as ever--know better.  But Annabel Lee suffers a sudden fatal illness.  Dies.  Is buried by her family in a "sepulchre by the sea," where the narrator visits regularly to grieve.  (Link to "Annabel Lee.)  (BTW: On 15 January 2010 I talked about Poe in a Morning Meeting at WRA--then recited "Annabel Lee" at the end.)

We watched the 57-minute film for more than one reason.  For one, I am a Poe freak (for proof, you can read on Kindle by YA bio of EAP: Link to Poe bio); for another, I've always loved old films--silent films--and I'd never seen this one.

But the principal reason?  Playing the "Young Annabelle [sic] Lee" was one of Joyce's relatives, Arline Blackburn, who'd also enjoyed a long radio career.  "Young Annabelle" is not on the screen very long.  She appears to be a teenager, and we see her emerging from the Lee mansion (above the sea at Nantucket!), where she greets her widowed father, then hops up on her horse and rides down to the fishing village to visit the man who will be her lover, David, who is coming back from a fishing voyage.  They greet each other.  A title card then tells us that time has passed.  Good-bye, Arline.

The film has very little to do with Poe's poem.  Every so often, a title card will appear with some lines from the poem.  But that's about it.

Here's the quick plot: Mr. Lee does not want his daughter to marry David, who's poor.  David sails off in search of a missing cargo that could enrich him.  No luck.  His crew eventually mutiny and put him and a Chinese worker referred to throughout as a "voodoo Chink" aboard a lifeboat.  (Times were different!)  Their little craft lands on a deserted island, where they live more like Robinson Crusoe than Prospero.  David's friend dies.  A ship eventually rescues him.  He goes back to Annabelle Lee to pay a surprise visit.

Jean Dujardin in The Artist
Meanwhile, Annabelle's father has tried to fix her up with another guy, a publisher.  She likes him.  BTW: He looks a lot like the character played by Jean Dujardin in the recent film The Artist.) But she cannot believe David will not come back.  They receive word that David's original ship (they think he's on it) has sunk.  But Annabelle still believes.  Temporizes.  Meanwhile, David's widowed mother has come to live with the Lees and to be the mother Annabelle has never had.

David shows up!  His mother is thrilled.  Annabelle is thrilled.  Even Mr. Lee seems thrilled.  They embrace by the sea.  THE END.  Not quite the way the poem went--or ended.

Poe, presumably, has been spinning in his grave since word of that 1921 film eventually worked its way down through the Baltimore soil above his body.  Of course, filmmakers have long abused Poe's poems and stories.  IMDB lists more than 200 films based on his writing.  I've seen lots of them ... so many varieties of suckery.  So Poe's been spinning for a long, long time.

Perhaps one of the reasons he always looks so dour in the portraits?  He has premonitions.  He knows what Hollywood is going to do to him.  Maybe that's why he drank so much?

Edgar Poe--
Has he just watched
Annabelle Lee?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Great Teacher

Dr. Robert F. Pryce
1982 Yearbook, WRA

Yesterday, I learned from a former colleague and current FB friend about the death of Dr. Robert F. Pryce--Bob Pryce--truly one of the greatest teachers--and greatest human beings--I've ever known.

I met him in the fall of 1979 when Joyce and I began our careers at Western Reserve Academy.  Dr. Pryce (what the kids always called him) was one of the coaches of the girls' tennis team, and that was one of my early assignments, as well.  Frank "Stretch" Longstreth was the head coach, and Bob and I were his assistants.  During those practices with Bob--with the players--I had some of the best times I had in my entire career.

After practices we would sometimes jog 4-6 miles together--sometimes with some of the team, sometimes not--and on those runs I realized, again, that I was participating in sort of a moving seminar conducted by Dr. Robert Pryce.  Back home, I would start looking up things he'd talked about--hoping I'd fooled him into thinking I'd known what he was talking about, had read what he was reading or alluding to.  He was one of those people I never wanted to disappoint.

I quickly learned that Bob was far more than a tennis coach--in fact, tennis (which he was pretty good at) was one of his least accomplishments.  He taught French; he directed plays; he was a spectacular father and husband; he was a pianist, often volunteering to accompany kids during their vocal or instrumental recitals.  And friend.  He helped Bill Appling, the school's musical director and a single father, deal with the demands of job and fatherhood.  He welcomed Joyce and me into his home, where we met his terrific wife, Velia, who also taught French and organized the school's weekly assembly programs (among myriads of other things)--and she is also one of the greatest cooks who ever humbled me.

It's not always fair to judge parents by the accomplishments of their children, but in Bob's and Velia's case I'm going to do so.  They had talented daughters who have crafted wonderful careers.  It's as if avatars of Bob and Velia are now out there in the world doing important work, igniting a little Pryce fire wherever they are.

Bob was an intellectual.  The real thing.  Not a pompous, arrogant, or "elitist" man at all--just a man who loved words, languages (he knew several others--German, Latin, maybe Italian--I can't remember), literature, ideas.  And not ashamed of it a bit.  Going to his house was such a thrill for us.  Sitting in their back dining room, eating something fabulous, learning from Bob and Velia.  Feeling both humbled and grateful.  We talked about books all the time.  He was forever reading, somehow finding time to do so amid the cyclonic swirl of commitments at a boarding school.

The students adored him--in his classes, his plays, his other activities.  At dinner, they swarmed to sit at the Pryces' table in the dining hall.  They knew they were going to get a lot more than food that night.  Often after dinner, Joyce and I would join them at their table, too.  Where we learned some more.  I remember once ... after he retired ... he came back to WRA to fill in for a while.  One of my best students stopped me in the hall.  "Do you know Dr. Pryce?" she asked.  I said I did.  "He's just wonderful!" she said.  I said that I knew.  Oh, did I know!

Bob's talks in the Chapel were always terrific.  Literate, witty, concise, respectful to the space and to his audience.  He was the adviser to the Cum Laude Society for years and always handled that task with his customary skill and aplomb.  When he spoke in faculty meetings, everyone listened.  Listened.  If Bob said it, it was worth thinking about--a lot--even if you didn't agree with it.

And did I mention he could write?  Our first year at the school, I served with Bob on the College Guidance Committee.  One of our responsibilities was to produce what was called a "write-up" on each student applying for college.  We divided the students among us, interviewed them, checked their records, and so on--then wrote a memo to be included in each student's application.  Each week, the committee listened as members read their drafts.  The first time I heard one of Bob's, my thought was, Who is this guy?  The language was so graceful, so clear, so supportive of each kid.  Once again, Bob was the teacher; I, the student.  He also wrote one of the volumes of the official history of the school.  No offense to the other writers--but Bob's was just, well, professional.

One of Bob's acquaintances at Cambridge (yes, that Cambridge) was poet Ted Hughes, and I remember sitting in on a English class one day where he was the guest for the day to talk about Hughes and his poetry.  He read (and recited from memory) so many wonderful lines and poems--all showing another of his talents--performance.  He was a wonderful actor, and he was able to communicate so clearly and effectively with his student performers.  His were among the best student productions I've ever seen.

The last time I saw Bob perform--2 October 2006--was at the local library here in Hudson.  He was reading to a very appreciative audience a number of his favorite poems.  One was Ted Hughes' "Hawk Roosting," which Bob delivered in a way that, well, a hawk would have said it.  I was blown away.  (Link to poem.)

And here's something far more quiet--but resonant, too--about Bob.  He and I shared the same barber in town--Mickey.  I used to run into Bob at the shop.  Then, later, as his disease began to consume the Bob I'd known, I met another, still genial and delightful man who was no longer too sure who I was.  We no longer talked about WRA and Dickens or Shakespeare.  We talked about the weather--and Mickey the barber.  And that would have to do.

When Bob could no longer go to the barbershop, Mickey used to ask me how Bob was doing.  I knew less than I should have.  I knew he wasn't doing well.  I'd even heard that he was barely hanging on.  Mickey was sorry to hear that.  Genuinely sorry.

As I was.  Am.  I guess I knew what was coming.  It was just a matter of time.  But, still, when the news came yesterday, it was a profound shock.  The sun in Hudson seems dimmer today, the air a little colder.  And most desperate is the thought that I will never again listen to Bob's voice--will never again learn at his side--will never jog beside him feigning knowledge I do not have--will never laugh so hard I cannot breathe.  Instead, today, I'll weep.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bob the Slob

In the fall of 1982 I returned to Harmon School in Aurora, Ohio, to teach.  I had left in the spring of 1978 (the year of our teachers' strike) and had gone off to teach at Lake Forest College in Illinois, a decision I regretted almost immediately.  I loved my colleagues and students at LFC, but I missed middle-schoolers.  Very much.  Within months I was trying to get back to Aurora.

But there were no openings, and it didn't happen until, as I said, the fall of 1982.  That year (1982-83) I taught English 8, German I, and German II--the latter two courses causing me more than a bit of anxiety.  But that's a blog for another day.

With the eighth graders that year (1982-83), I recommenced something I'd done with seventh graders in the years before I'd left--something I called "Friday Writing" (which, I think, I've written about here before).  Basically, the kids and I wrote for thirty minutes each Friday--about anything we wanted to.  Then, the last ten minutes or so, volunteers--I among them--would read aloud.

On Friday, 11 February 1983, that year I wrote at the top of a yellow sheet of paper "The Strange Earthly Sojourn of Bob the Slob, 8th Grader."  And then ... this sentence: Bob awoke with the taste of Doritos in his mouth and the wisp of a memory of a dream he had enjoyed so much he knew it must have been about something bad.

This was the opening sentence of what eventually became my first YA novel, Bob the Slob, which I worked on every Friday the rest of the year--and on through the summer--and on into the next year.  By the fall of 1984 I had finished a draft I was pretty happy with and was dutifully sending it off to publishers in NYC and elsewhere.  And waiting for the good news.

Which did not come.  For three years I sent it off.  Waited.  Got messages that ranged from the much beloved We accept no unsolicited or unagented manuscripts to more agonizing ones: We really enjoyed reading about Bob, but ...

Did you know that the biggest word in English is but?  Three little letters can derail a lengthy train of positive clauses aligned behind it.  I really did get some nice, encouraging notes and nibbles from editors.  But nothing solid.

Anyway, I was soon caught up in other projects and put Bob on a shelf, where he has lain since the late 1980s.

But no more!  Bob Arises!

Over the last few months I've been resurrecting Bob.  I had to retype the entire book (the program and old Kaypro II I'd used were too obsolete--and I couldn't even find any disks).  I made no changes as I typed it.  Just wanted the "original."  I then spent quite a few weeks revising and updating Bob.  (I wrote it when many people still had dial telephones--and the Internet was still in the future.)

And in the next twenty-four hours, I'm going to upload Bob the Slob to Kindle Direct Publishing, where those of you with Kindles can click, download, read it.

A few words about the story: Bob is about to start his 8th grade year in a small Ohio town (!!).  He's not looking forward to it.  He is a chubby kid, wears thick glasses, and has had to endure some ... unpleasantness ... from his classmates.  Making things worse: His "summer reading" book was Lord of the Flies, a book that features a chubby kid with glasses, a kid everyone calls "Piggy." Bob knows what's going to ensue.

Some things happen right away to darken his skies: Some high school kids torment him on his way to school; a (large) classmate has decided to make Bob his personal punching bag; some of his teachers seem clueless.  And one annoying teacher has decided to coerce Bob into trying out for the fall play, Dracula.

One bright spot: a new girl.

Bob the Slob follows Bob throughout the fall and culminates with the production of Dracula.

I'll post a note here--and on FB--when the title is available.

BTW, I've left the dedication of the book just the way it was in the 1980s: For Stephen--and for all those Aurora kids.

Friday, November 16, 2012

"I Don't Win a Lot"

There's a moment in the 2011 film Horrible Bosses.  The three wannabe boss-killers (Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, and Jason Bateman) are sitting in a police station trying to explain why they were speeding away from a crime scene.  Bateman says he likes drag-racing.  The bemused cop (Wendell Pierce, a veteran from The Wire) says with patent disbelief, "Drag racing ... in a Prius?"  Bateman pauses (a wonderful, lingering pause), then replies, "I don't win a lot."

I'm with Bateman.  I don't win a lot.  Haven't ever won a lot.  As I sit here trying to think of things I've won, I can come up with only a few.  One year, at Harmon Middle School, I won a Thanksgiving drawing among the faculty and got a free turkey--a good thing: dollars were tight those years when son Steve was in college.

And in 1974, when the Ohio Lottery commenced (50¢ tickets), I played a few times, won a few dollars, then, very soon, realized that all I was doing each week was contributing to the winner's pile.  I quit playing.  Haven't played since.

Oh, and a few years ago I won a drawing sponsored by Norhio Plumbing.  Got a $50 gift certificate to the restaurant of our choice.  That was nice.

But, generally, I don't win stuff.  I was elected 4th grade class president for a six-week term in 1953, then was removed from office when a teacher caught me going down the up stairs (I'm not kidding).  I won election to the Student Senate at Hiram College, but when I ran for President my junior year, I lost (to my roommate! that was awkward).  I never won the teacher-of-the-year award in the Aurora City Schools (I was there only about 30 years, so I might have won it, if I'd stayed).  I did win a teaching award at Western Reserve Academy my final year in the classroom (2009-2010), and I was very pleased about it--though I also wondered, in my heart of hearts, if this was a bit like voting onto the All-Star team a veteran who'd never quite made it in his prime, but he's retiring, you know?  Prob'ly oughta give the Old Guy a nod this year ...

And this week comes news of yet another blow--from People magazine.  It seems they've once again overlooked me and have awarded their Sexiest Man Alive award to someone else, this time to some guy with two last names: Channing Tatum. You gotta be kidding me.  Listen--I wear undershirts just like that one, all winter long.  I can tilt my head a little to the left.  I can put my hands in my pockets.  I can look unsmiling at the camera.  I had a haircut like that in seventh grade.  I've been doing all those things for decades now.  Sure, I don't writhe around in strip clubs (Magic Mike) feigning coitus with desperate housewives; I don't pretend I'm a high school student and seduce my AP Chemistry teacher (21 Jump Street); I don't have sneaky, illicit sex with Winona Ryder (The Dilemma).  I have standards.

And I bet that's exactly why I didn't win this year--again.  Standards.  When you've got them, well, others just can't stand it, you know?  So instead of conferring awards on the deserving they throw them at the most proximate young face and/or butt they can find.

True: There's always next year.  But I'm not really too hopeful anymore.  Like Jason Bateman, I've just resigned myself to being one who doesn't win a lot.

And BTW: I do drive a Prius!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Twain's WHAT IS MAN?

I know, I know: I was supposed to be writing today about good novelists and poets who write sucky novels and poems.  That's going to have to wait another day or so, I fear.

Last night I finished reading Mark Twain's little 1906 book What Is Man?, a book he was so worried about (remember Michael Cassio in Othello?  "Reputation, reputation, reputation!  Oh, I have lost my reputation!  I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial" [2.3]) that he published it anonymously in a small press with a very small run--only 250 copies.  He knew that the views it contained would alienate many in his vast readership, folks who expected Twain to make them laugh--or to create scenes of playful, idyllic childhood--or both.  (For the same reason--worry about reputation--Twain refused to allow his memoirs to be published until 100 years after his death--thus, vol. 1 appeared, on schedule, in 2010 and became a surprise bestseller.)

What Is Man?--only 140 pages long--is a sort of Socratic dialogue between characters identified only as Old Man and Young Man, and in some ways, I'm sure, they are aspects of Twain's own character--his younger, more naive and hopeful self vs. his older, more sardonic and skeptical self.  The Old Man leads the young one around with a string of words and arguments that the young man is incapable of countering.

The Old Man argues that Man is a machine--that all influences, thoughts, ideas come from outside himself.  (Only his temperament is his own.)  "Shakespeare created nothing," he says.  "He correctly observed, and he marvelously painted" (11).

Throughout, the Old Man alarms the younger one by arguing that Man is no better than a rat, an ant, a flea; in fact, in fundamental ways, we are inferior to these other creatures.  He praises the architecture and government of an ant colony.  He says, "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can" (106).

The Old Man also evinces a deep cynicism about wealth and privilege.  He notes that "a baby born with a billion dollars--where is the personal merit in that?  A baby born with nothing--where is the personal demerit in that?" (13).  Hmmmm, sounds a bit like the 2012 campaign?!

And he repeats the old argument heard in college (and prep school?) dorms since the Middle Ages, I'm sure: All Man's acts, even acts we view as charitable, heroic, self-sacrificing, etc., are actually selfish--done to satisfy himself, to make himself feel good.  Man's only impulse, says the Old Man, "is "to content his own spirit" (16--italics in original).  (You know the old, specious argument: Mother Teresa was selfish because she wouldn't have performed all those humanitarian acts if they had not made her feel good.)

But--the Old Man offers what he views as the best plan we can follow: "Diligently train your ideas upward," he tells the Young Man, "and still upward toward a summit where you will find your chiefest pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon your neighbor and the community" (71).

He veers more toward the Dark Side when he talks about human morality.  "The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures," he says, "but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot" (115).

The Old Man (and Twain?) concludes with a blistering statement about cultural relativity, about our insistence that our views, our government, our religions are, well, Number One.  Right.  Blessed.  Others are, well, wrong.  And probably evil.  Here's the passage in its entirety:

Nations do not think, they only feel. They get their feelings at second hand through their temperaments, not their brains. A nation can be brought—by force of circumstances, not argument—to reconcile itself to any kind of government or religion that can be devised; in time it will fit itself to the required conditions; later, it will prefer them and will fiercely fight for them. As instances, you have all history: the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Russians, the Germans, the French, the English, the Spaniards, the Americans, the South Americans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Hindus, the Turks—a thousand wild and tame religions, every kind of government that can be thought of, from tiger to house-cat, each nation knowing it has the only true religion and the only sane system of government, each despising all the others, each an ass and not suspecting it, each proud of its fancied supremacy, each perfectly sure it is the pet of God, each with undoubting confidence summoning Him to take command in time of war, each surprised when He goes over to the enemy, but by habit able to excuse it and resume compliments—in a word, the whole human race content, always content, persistently content, indestructibly content, happy, thankful, proud, no matter what its religion is, nor whether its master be tiger or house-cat. Am I stating facts? You know I am (140).

Oh, Mark Twain.  The man who made the whole world laugh ...  (I stole that sarcastic crack from Prof. Abe C. Ravitz, Hiram College, circa 1966).