Dawn Reader

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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Bearly Sleeping

My very young son and I are asleep in a gymnasium ... somewhere.  It is very dark.  But also light, when it needs to be.  We are on some sort of platform in the middle of the floor.  I think we each have a bench.  It's not always clear to me where we are.

Steve wakes me.  Tells me there's a bear in the room.  Somehow this makes eminent sense to me at the time.  A bear is in the gym.  Of course.

I am afraid.  Steve is not.

It's one of those lighter moments.  I can see the bear moving toward me.  I'm relieved that it's not a grizzly.  (I know about them.)  It's a black bear--but a big one.  And he's (she's?) moving directly toward me.  I freeze.

The bear climbs the platform.  Stands over me.  Licks my face.  (He/She has a rough tongue, this bear--and ursine breath would not inspire a perfumer.)  I remain frozen.  But Steve is more courageous.  He stands and yells at the bear.  Which promptly trots off somewhere.

And I was positive that this had really happened when I awoke in my bedroom early this morning. I lay there, thinking, heart pounding still, feeling enormous gratitude for my son, who had just saved me.

Only my son is forty now and lives more than a half-hour away.  He has two sons of his own, 7 and 3.  I knew this as I lay there, but the reality of that dream did not surrender easily to the dawn.    For a few moments after I realized where I was, I even wondered if this bear-moment was something that had happened earlier.  Back when Steve was a kid.

I don't often dream about bears.  Just now and then.  The dreams are never pleasant ones.  They involve terror, flight, rapid heart rate.  The dream-bears never catch me--no claws, teeth, Dyer-blood.  But it's always close--sometimes very close.

I saw my first bear in the wild back in the early 1950s on a family trip into Yellowstone Park--in those days, by dirt road.  We saw quite a few that time--as well as a moose swimming in Yellowstone Lake.  It may have been then that my younger brother, Dave, and I began our fascination with bears.  I still give him a bear calendar for Christmas now and then, send him bear-related objects and videos.  (We both trembled and laughed at the documentary Grizzly Man.)  Dave has seen a bear on his property in Becket, Mass.  I'm sorry I wasn't there.  And very glad, too.

In the summer of 1993, when I was hiking the Chilkoot Trail--Dyea, Alaska, to Lake Bennett, Yukon Territory--a bear wandered through the campsite at Finnegan's Point early my first morning.  I didn't see him/her.  But a young German man I met on the trail (Joachim Altvater) said he/she waltzed right through as if he/she owned the place.  ("Joe," as Joachim asked me to call him, and I hiked the rest of the way together to Bennett, our bear-dar beeping continually.)

Some years earlier--1985 or so--Steve and I spent about a week in Tucson, AZ, watching the Tribe in spring training.  We always went to the Tucson Zoo in the morning.  There, one day, a tiger pissed on us (spraying right through the cage, an amazing volume), and we watched the polar bears, swimming around and around and around in their tank, each circuit eventually bringing them face-to-face with us, a moment during which they communicated quite clearly: We want to eat you.

I did eat bear meat once.  It was canned.  Not very good.  I am very sure that bears would enjoy my taste far more.  They might even, you know, lick my face first.  To soften it up ...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sucky Books 2

Not long ago I wrote a little about sucky books written by otherwise excellent authors.  Here's a handful more I'd add to the list:

  • Mark Twain: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896.  I forced myself to read this recently--only because I wanted to make sure I'd read all of Twain's novels.  It's narrated by a childhood friend of Joan's, who finds himself exactly where he needs to be for all the key events in her life.  Not much evident here of the Twain we love and enjoy and learn from.  Sadly, most of Twain's later work really is pretty dreadful.
  • Robert Frost: For the Inauguration of JFK (1961), the aging Frost wrote a poem called "Dedication."  But as many of you know, the bright sunlight had other plans (a gift from God?), and he could not read what he'd written--and so he instead recited from memory "The Gift Outright," a much better poem.  "Dedication" is doggerel--and here's a link if you don't believe me: "Dedication"
  • William Shakespeare:  Trying reading King John, just for fun.  Even some of the great plays have "duh" moments--like the pirates in Hamlet, the bear in Winter's Tale, some real unintentional silliness in Cymbeline.
  • Jack London: Two of the worst novels ever written by a human being--Jerry of the Islands  and its dazzling (?) sequel, Michael, Brother of Jerry (what a title!), racist South Pacific tales, both featuring dogs that I wish Buck had killed.
  • Ernest Hemingway: Across the River and into the Trees.  I'd always heard this novel was terrible but decided to read it for myself.  Just to see.  It's a terrible novel.  But it does have a scathing portrait of Sinclair Lewis.  Hemingway was not, uh, gracious about his competitors.  He savaged even Fitzgerald, who'd helped launch Papa's career.
  • Edgar Allan Poe: Poe tried two novels (he thought they'd bring him more money than stories and poems--they didn't), finishing one (Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which has some unintentionally hilarious and ludicrous moments), abandoning another (The Journal of Julius Rodman, Being an Account of the First Passage across the Rocky Mountains of North America Ever Achieved by Civilized Man, 1840, a sort of Western with Indians and bears and ... forget it).
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay: Her patriotic doggerel during World War II severely damaged her reputation in academic circles, where poets must thrive if their works are to live.  As a result, she fell off the cultural radar for decades (she was not in anthologies when I was in school), and it took two biographies of her, published one right after the other in 2001, to restore her to a prominent (and rightful) place in American verse.
Of course, sometimes sucky books are not really sucky.  Moby-Dick enjoyed no popularity whatsoever during Melville's life, sold horribly.  And today, I would guess, more copies of Moby-Dick sell every hour than sold in his lifetime.

And some "great" or otherwise celebrated books end up looking sucky with some historical hindsight.  I wonder how future generations will look at, oh, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which I read not too long ago and didn't think much of.  And more recently--the Oprah selection, the well-reviewed The Story of Edgar Sawtelle?  I kind of liked it--but enduring?

Time is usually the most reliable, consistent critic, so we will see ...

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Some Coffee Shop Drama

28 December 2012

I do not want to eavesdrop, to spy.  I am sitting and reading on "my" couch at Starbucks; in front of me, oh, a dozen feet away, a young couple, facing each other, sit at a table.  I barely noticed them when they came in awhile ago. She sat at the table, thumbing her smart phone while he stood in line, bought their drinks, returned to the table with their order.

Now they are sitting there, right in front of me--a 3-D mini-movie--and something consequential is going on between them.

I keep reading, but I can't help it: Every now and then I look up to see how the drama is advancing.

They are both young, no older than their early twenties.  She is thin, tall, has mid-length light brown hair, very curly.  His is dark, cropped close.  She wears a leather jacket, bluejeans, calf-high leather boots. He's a bit shorter than she, but also lean, also in jeans--but wearing sneakers, a spring-weight jacket.  His posture remains unchanged through most of the hour I see them: He sits close to the table, his forearms crossed before him on the table top.  And throughout their conversation, there remains playing about his lips the slightest, faintest of smiles.

Her posture changes continually--one leg crosses then other, then a switch.  She throws her hair back, drops her head to the table, her hair covering much of the table. Later, I will see tears in her eyes.

About the only exchange of dialogue I hear--very early--is this: SHE: I can tell you're mad at me.  HE: I'm not mad at you.

My disinterested observation: He is mad at her.

She employs a variety of facial expressions to nudge him out of his mood.  Playful emotions ripple across her face and she tries various submissive and regretful and sorrowful expressions.  These seem to me like masks she is trying on.  Looking for the one that will please.

None does.  He says something I can't hear.  Tears.  Her head drops.  Neither moves for a while.

I read.

I look up.  They are clasping hands.  Again, she is searching for the role, the look, that will dulcify him.  His expression does not change.  But his hands remain on top of hers.

I read.

I look up.  There appears to be more lightness over at their table.  Lightness and light.  I can't hear anything, but I feel that they are bantering.  Reconciling?

I read.

I look up.  They seem to have reached some sort of resolution.  The young man leans back for the first time in an hour.  They begin making departure moves.

I read.

I look up.  They are moving to the front door, he ahead of her by a few feet.  He pushes open the door, heads out in the front parking lot.  She follows.  He does not hold the door for her, does not even look back.

I read.

And I think: She cares more than he does.

And so I read--and struggle to resist the infection of sadness the young people have left for me.

Friday, December 28, 2012

TWELVE ANGRY MEN and One Young Teacher

from the 1957 film--Klugman is in
the right foreground
The recent death of actor Jack Klugman (link to obit) got me thinking once again about the play Twelve Angry Men.  Klugman had played Juror #5 in the 1957 film (directed by Sidney Lumet, director of Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Network, and any number of other notable films), and I think he was the last surviving member of that stellar cast.

I first used the Reginald Rose (1920-2002) play Twelve Angry Men early, early in my teaching career--perhaps even my first year, 1966-1967. I can see the setting: We moved some of the rectangular classroom tables into the center of the room, forming a square of four tables.  Our jurors (mixed gender) sat around the table, scripts in front of them, and performed the play for the rest of us.

In later years, I continued using the play and was happy to find it included in Exploring Literature (1981), the anthology I used for many years with my eighth graders.  And even when we changed anthologies later on, I kept a class set of the older ones around, mostly for Twelve Angry Men, which my students always enjoyed reading aloud and even performing in class.

In February 1988 I got a jury summons (I've had several since), and I was excited--now I would have a Twelve Angry Men experience!  My students were excited too.  (Because of the jury?  Or because they would have a sub?)  But ... disappointment.  I sat in the jury assembly room with lots of other folks.  There,  I read one of Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser until we all got sent home--and I never did get a Lumet-moment.  (And I still haven't.)

When I read about Klugman's death, I pulled from one of our (too) many file cabinets the file I have on the play.  Here's what I found inside, in order, top to bottom ...

  • A New York Times story (10 April 2011) about director Sidney Lumet, who had died the day before at age 86. Twelve Angry Men was his first film.
  • An AP story (from the Plain Dealer), 26 August 1998, about the death of actor E. G. Marshall, another juror in the film.
  • A New York Times story from 17 August 1997 about Showtime's version of the play, a version that cast a black actor (Mykelti Williamson) in the role of the bigot
  • An AP story (via the Plain Dealer) from 19 May 1997, a feature on Sidney Lumet and the recent release of his fortieth film, Night Falls on Manhattan with Andy Garcia.
  • A copy of the 19 April 1996 issue of Entertainment Weekly--whose cover story was "The 50 Greatest Directors and Their 100 Best Movies."  Sidney Lumet is among them.  But Twelve Angry Men is not in his list.
  • A photocopy of the AP obituary for actor Martin Balsam (14 February 1996), another juror.
  • A printout from some database (IMDB?) listing the cast and principal crew on the film.
  • A Los Angeles Daily News story (reprint in the Plain Dealer, 2 May 1995) about Lumet's new book, Making Movies.  (I've read it!)
  • A transparency of that story--one I used to show to my classes on an overhead projector.
  • A page torn from the 17 February 1995 issue of Entertainment Weekly, a full page advertising an upcoming showing of Lumet's film on TNT.  Hosted by Geraldo Rivera, we are told!  (See image above.)
  • A piece about the 100th anniversary of the el trains in Chicago, from the Plain Dealer, 22 July 1992.  The sound of an el train has significance in the play.
  • A New York Times obituary for actor Edward Binns (a juror in the film), 6 December 1990.
  • A photocopy of an ad (New York Times, 6 May 1990) for Lumet's new film, Q & A.
  • A 3x5 note card--my handwriting--identifying significant moments in the script--with page numbers.
  • A projection transparency of a paragraph about the film from Lumet's book.  In it, he talks about shooting the film.  "As the picture unfolded," he writes, "I wanted the room to seem smaller and smaller."  He talks about shifting lenses throughout the shooting.
  • A copy of a student handout I distributed before showing the film.  It lists basic information about the film and cast and has some "Questions to Consider While Viewing Film"--among them: What are some reasons people seem to want to vote guilty right at the beginning?  And What is the most convincing evidence against the boy?  That sort of thing ..
And that's all.  I would have guessed there was more in that folder.  But there isn't.

But I did clip and fold the Times obit for Klugman; I did place it in the file.  I'm not sure why.  I'm not teaching now--and it's virtually certain that I will never again use that play in a classroom.

But still ... I gotta be prepared, you know?  And so I continue to clip and fold and file ... dutifully ... pathetically ... ?

P.S.--Until I wrote this, I didn't know that Reginald Rose had died in 2002.  I just printed out his Times obit, added it to the file.  (link to obit)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dream Links

I had a golf dream last night--as real as anything surreal can be.  I was on a course that somehow blended the grounds of Hiram College (which I attended) and Western Reserve Academy (where I taught for a while).  I was in a threesome but cannot for the life of me remember who the other two were--only that both were far better than I, not a major achievement.  And why we were smashing golfballs on a college/school campus is unknowable.

I remember that, off to my right (never a safe place to be when I'm hitting) was a very energetic young couple copulating on the grass.  He, I recall, was making lots of noise.  She seemed oddly placid--detached (well, intellectually), as if she were thinking about her next class.  (Don't worry, worried readers: I didn't recognize either lover.)

I had to borrow a club, borrow a ball, which I promptly hit somewhere unimaginable, and then the sound of a snowplow woke me from what, as far as I can remember, is the only golf dream I ever had.

I did play golf when I was younger.  One of my earliest memories is my mother taking me, a pre-schooler, along with her one day when she played nine holes at the old Phillips University course in Enid, Oklahoma, just blocks from our house.  I just discovered on the web that it's now called University Lake Municipal Golf Course.  Lots of words for a nine-hole course.

The picture at the left shows lots of verdure on the course today.  It has not been ever thus.  They did not irrigate when I was a lad, so except for a few lush hours in the early spring, the grass was khaki colored most of the year.  And--could this be true?--the "greens" were packed sand.  It was a brown experience, playing golf in Enid.  The other feature of the course?  Ground squirrels, popping up their heads everywhere from their burrows.  (I wonder how many got bonked over the years?)

My mother, I remember, said that I could play.  She gave me a ball.  Then she told me she would hit my first shot over the lake for me.  Swing.  Plop!  Splash!  Buh-bye, Danny's ball.  She did not have another extra (so she claimed), so I walked along with her the rest of the morning, caddying, feeling vaguely betrayed, a feeling that has deepened over the decades and has now achieved a pure certainty.

Later, after we moved to Hiram, Ohio, I learned to play with Dad and my little brother, Davi, on the Chestnuts Hills course, now defunct, in Ravenna, about a dozen miles south.  It, too, was a nine-holer, with only two par-four holes.  Not much to worry about, except for slicing on the first tee, which I invariably did.  I would guess that whoever bought that land found the Land of Lost Golf Balls off to the right of the first tee--a Smaugian treasure-pile of golf balls, many of which were mine.

There was another hole nestled against a fence separating the course from Maple Grove Cemetery. Once, over-clubbing, I hit my tee shot onto the roof of a maintenance building in the cemetery grounds.  Don't know if that building is still there--but if there's a dent in the roof, it's mine.

And--confession is good for the soul--I once hurled my pitching wedge into that same green from, oh, twenty yards away, where I'd just demonstrated how not to pitch.  The club flew far farther than the ball, landed mid-green and excavated an impressive divot.  Which I repaired with more alacrity than skill.

Even later, a teaching colleague of my mother's, Rudy Kelker, converted his Garrettsville, Ohio, farm into a course--called Sugarbush (still flourishing)--which Davi actually helped to build (in a sort of go-fer fashion).  We played there a lot, and it was there that I saw that I was going to forever suck in golf.  And worse: My little brother was going to be better--a lot better.  (True: He played on his high school team and became a scratch golfer.)

And that left me a single option--quitting.  Which I exercised promptly, offering all sorts of self-serving excuses for doing so.  It would shame me to reproduce them here, so I won't.

I did go out and hack around now and then--even bought a (sad) set of clubs.  But when my son was on the edge of beating me, I decided it was time to quit again.  And I passed the clubs along.  He now plays with his own children, and there is no way I'm going out on the course where, I'm sure, my seven-year-old grandson would give me (a) a lesson, (b) yet another reason to quit.

I will end with the worst shot I ever hit--and "worst," for me, is something to behold.  At Sugarbush, there's an elevated tee, up on a cliff.  Off in the distance, straight ahead--the club house.  To the immediate right--ninety degrees: a service road/cart/pedestrian path descending the hill.  One day--near the end of all--I hit my tee shot down that road, an impossible, right-angle shot, really, worthy of a gazillion YouTube hits.

The worst seven shots?  The seven putts I once took on a flat green.  On in one.  Seven putts.  An 8 on a par 3.

See why I quit?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Frightening Sounds of Silence

As I've written here before, communications with my mother, 93, have declined over the past few years.  Until recently, she was very adept with her computer, and had the annoying habit of replying almost immediately to email.  I would write a newsy note to her; twenty-three seconds later would come a reply.  Meaning?  I still owed her a note.

Occasionally there were pauses in her email.  She was having problems with her machine.  And she was so proud about her prowess that she would never ask anyone at her stages-of-care facility for help.  She would wait until one of her sons showed up for a visit.  Many (Most?) of my visits in recent years involved some time at her computer, straightening out messes of various sorts.

Sometimes she would call and try to describe the problem.  Sometimes I could help--but usually not.  I just couldn't "see" the issue she was describing, and she would hang up, disappointed in her dunderheaded second son.

As the years went along, the computer silences lengthened.  Her arthritis in her hands made typing a chore (she had always been the fastest in the family).  And she was forgetting how to do the simplest things on her machine--even, eventually, how to turn it on and off, how to access her email program.  Joyce and I used our digital camera to make an illustrated guide for her--a guide to her own computer.  And that worked for a few weeks.  And then ... computer silence.  A permanent one.

But there was always the telephone.  We called two or three times a week, checking in.  But two years ago, I also started writing snail-mail letters to her, twice a week.  Sending her the family news, a poem now and then, a clipping from the Plain Dealer.

And then, a few weeks ago, she took a bad fall and had to move--temporarily, she hoped--to the nursing wing in her facility.  My brother arranged for her to have a phone in her room (a room she shares with another woman), and we were able to call her there--though she didn't always answer.  Perhaps she was at PT?  Or otherwise occupied?

And then, last week, no answers at all.  We called several times a day--usually at mealtime (knowing she has her meals in her room).  Nothing.

I spoke with both brothers, who were not too worried.  They live much closer (we are nearly 600 miles away) and see her on weekends.  And Dave (my younger brother) gets calls immediately from the facility when something is wrong.

Then yesterday--Christmas Day--my brothers and other Mass. family were in her room.  Dave called me on his cell.  I told him to hang up and let me call her room.  Has she forgotten how to answer a telephone?  Hers is no simple pick-up-and-say-hello phone; there's a button to push.  Does she remember which one?  Also: Her hearing has been deteriorating ...  Does she even hear the rings?

I called.  Dave eventually answered.  He said he'd figured out the problem: Somehow, the mute switch was on.  Mom had never heard any ringing because there hadn't been any.  It's probable that she did it inadvertently.  Which means it will probably happen again.  But now I can call the front desk and have someone check.

It was an odd, wrenching feeling, not being able to communicate with my mother.  I'm sixty-eight years old, and I've always been able to communicate with her--even when it was only a cry or some other infant complaint.  And now I was writing letters.  Receiving no answers.  Making phone calls.  Receiving no answers.  Such a feeling of helplessness, of imminent emptiness.

But now--for the nonce, anyway--there is a way to hear her voice again.  A way to make her laugh.  To hear a story I've forgotten.  A story, maybe, about me as a little boy, on Christmas, a little boy who thought the greatest gift he could ever receive would be a new cap gun, a baseball, a Davy Crockett cap, a little boy who could never have imagined that one of his greatest gifts--one day, far in the future--would be the tremulous sound of his dear mother's voice.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas and KIRKUS

Caribou didn't open till eight today (two hours later than usual), so I slept a little longer, surrendering, by doing so, my "Dawn Reader" appellation for the day.  Dawn had already spread her rosy fingers by the time I opened wide to my forty-third Christmas with Joyce.

First impression this morning: Cooking smells from downstairs.  Joyce was already at it.  We divide duties on big meals: I do the baking and some of the other prep; she likes to do the turkey and the vegetables.  We share the clean-up.

But a minor crisis: Our 12-14 lb. bird was missing an essential ingredient: the pop-up thermometer! Fortunately, we have a device with a probe and a cord that extends out of the oven.  Panic diminished.

Another minor crisis: Am I getting a cold?  Much evidence of such last night, declining this morning.  But still ... ?  Popped an Advil last night; slept better.  But still ... ?

Once I was sure all was well, I microwaved one of my scones, popped it in my coat pocket, and trudged in the snow down to Caribou, about two blocks away.  (Actually, I'd walked about a block when I remembered I'd forgotten the warm scone on the dining room table--back I trudged.)

All the way down there, I did what I always do: recited (in my head) some of the poems I've memorized.  I have a set I do in the morning, others I do in the afternoons when I'm pedaling the exercise bike.  Nerd.

I arrived just as they were opening and briskly walked over to "my" chair and dumped my stuff on it.  No usurpers dare make a move on Christmas!  The two young women working today are two I know well--both have been there for years, know my order (medium dark), know my routines (sit in the corner and read for about two hours).

Oh, and I answered the daily trivia question, principally because it was the same one as yesterday: Does NORAD track Santa each year?  Actually, that's a complicated question, isn't it?  They say they are tracking him ... but are they, in fact, tracking Santa?  See ... I can be Deep on Christmas!

I ate my scone (smuggled in) while reading the New York Times on my Kindle Fire.  Then I checked my email (junk) and Facebook (a few messages to read, a few posts to Like/Comment).

Then I settled in to read 100 pages of the latest book I'm reviewing for Kirkus Reviews.  It's a decent book about Colonial history.  This is what I do every morning, 365.25 days a year.  One hundred pages for Kirkus.  Taking notes.  Thinking about what I want to say about the book.  Wanting to be fair to the writer, useful to the readers of the reviews.  Sometimes it's really easy: The writer has done his/her homework, displayed some wit and insight, made me think about something in a new way--or taught me something I didn't know (and, in many cases, didn't even know I needed or wanted to know)--or jarred a cherished belief/bias, or confirmed same.

Sometimes it's harder.  A lazy author, a highly tendentious approach.  I don't like to write negative reviews (I've received a few myself--know how they feel), but sometimes the writer has just so patently deserved one that I have to comply.

I've been doing this routine-of-reviewing since March 1999, when I did my first review for Kirkus (I am very near 1100 now).  When I was teaching at WRA, I cut back a little during the school year: I did one book a week.  But when the summer vacations came, it was back to 100 pp/day.  Which is what I've done since I retired in June 2011.  Haven't missed a day.

I don't know what I'd do without Kirkus.  I'd probably just read some other things.  But reviewing has sent me to books and writers I never otherwise would have read--often because I thought I wasn't interested in the subject--or had never heard of the writer.  Now and then I get a dud of a book by a dud of a writer--but not often.  I'm almost always glad I've read the book.  Afterwards.

About ten o'clock I finished my reading quota--a little longer than usual because one of the other Caribou regulars, John (a minister), sat down beside me for a while, and we chatted about our aging parents.

When I got home (I have poems to recite on the return, too: nerd), Joyce had already peeled the potatoes--my job!--for boiling later.  She said she wanted to save my energy.  (Do I need to say more about her?)

Later today I will talk with my mother, 93, in her nursing home room.  My brothers will be there.  My niece and nephew.  My sister-in-law.  And their voices will put tears in my eyes.

Meanwhile, we are preparing for the noon invasion of our son, daughter-in-law, and grandsons (3 and 7).  And their voices will put tears in my eyes.

And then they will be gone ... and Joyce and I will be cleaning up ... and laughing ... and her voice will put tears in my eyes.

And later we will fall asleep on our forty-third Christmas, and I will wake up tomorrow and head down to Caribou, Kirkus book in my pack.

And the echoes of the voices of my family will be music in my memory.  And there will be tears in my eyes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Let's Drag!

Drag racing!

When I was in high school (1958-1962), some of the rustic lads in Hiram, Ohio, at a loss for what to do in their ample spare time, took up drag racing.  The Beach Boys' racing songs "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Shut Down" came along a year after I graduated, so I like to think that that Wild Boys of Hiram were the inspiration for those hit songs.  Seems logical.

In those days, Hiram was a quiet town and township, so far as I knew.  We had a single cop who had to patrol its 23.2 square miles.  And in the days before cellphones we somehow knew where he was most of the time.  (Smoke signals?  Flashing mirrors?  Intuition?)  Freeing us for frolic.

Out west of town on Ohio Route 82 a little ways lay the rural home of Spuddy Munn, an old guy (probably younger than I am now).  I don't know what his actual name was (surely not Spuddy?), and I saw him rarely, only when he came out to the mailbox at the end of his drive to pick up ... what?  It gives one pause.  Spuddy had a sign at the end of his drive where it touched Rte. 82: "Aiggs."  I swear.  He sold hen's aiggs there, though I don't know anyone who ever bought or ate them.

Some geometrically inspired lad calculated that the distance from the end of Spuddy Munn's driveway to Abbott Road was exactly a quarter of a mile.  And fairly flat.  Perfect!

Between 1958-1962, a total of seven cars were seen at night on Rte. 82 west of Hiram.  I exaggerate.  But traffic was very light in the days before multiple-car families.  Worrisome headlights rarely appeared, east or west, to vitiate our plans.

Ours looked a bit like this one.
I never drove in those nocturnal races.  (I was certain my father would learn of it, and the car keys, purest gold to an adolescent, would disappear forever into his pocket.)  But when I was driving alone on some urgent family errand to Mantua, I occasionally came to a stop near Spuddy Munn's driveway, accelerated in our '59 Ford Fairlaine all the way to Abbott Road--just to see.  (My times were never very impressive.)

I did ride along one night in a race with my friend Paul, who lost to someone whom he later had to beat up as a consequence.  You know ... can't beat you one way, I'll beat you another.  The two cars lined up, side by side, at Spuddy's, engines racing.  Someone, hand raised, stood in front on the north berm.  Dropped his hand ... and off we roared into the West!  In that race, alongside Paul, I was positive my father's headlights would appear in the rear-view mirror, and the entire ride, which was over in seconds, felt to me in Super Slo-Mo.

As far as I know, no one was ever hurt during those races on Rte. 82--not until afterwards, sometimes, when fists flew, shifting the balance between Winner and Loser.   Or not.

Spuddy Munn's house is gone now.  Weeds reign.  The end of the drive is barely visible.  But when I cruise by with Joyce (legal speed, of course) on the way to Hiram, I often point out that sacred, historic site, the site where we underwent one of our adolescent male rites of passage.  (I can't believe there's not a historical marker there!)

And even now--more than fifty years later--when I hear the Beach Boys' "Shut Down" on an oldies station, I feel again the tension and the fear of those long-ago nights.  And wish for all the world I could see my father's headlights, slicing the darkness.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Guns in School?

James Butler ("Wild Bill") Hickok
I don't know why so many are obsessed with the idea that more guns make us safer. Not an idea that, oh, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, et al. would have embraced.  (Maybe it was just in the movies, but didn't lawmen have the cowboys disarm when they entered town--i.e., civilization?)

And armed guards in schools?  Totally ineffective.  Think: In all the armed robbery films you've ever seen, who gets dispatched first?  If you were demented and bent on attacking a public place (a school, movie theater, mall, whatever), wouldn't dealing with security guards be Item #1 in your plan?

Armed teachers?  Please.  That's a disaster in the making.  Highly trained, continually trained professionals (cops, soldiers) miss all the time, hit people they didn't intend to (did you read about the attack earlier this year near the Empire State Building? Link to story).  Imagine your elementary teachers blazing away in a hallway.  It's insane.  Asinine.

It's just a sad fact that we can do very little against determined, heavily armed lunatics.  Think: Even if all of us in a crowded Starbucks were heavily armed, and if a gunman suddenly burst into the shop, blazing away with an automatic weapon, most of us would be dead before we even knew what was happening.

And the killer?  He (yes, he: they're all men) wouldn't care, because virtually all of these young men expect to die--plan to die--in the attack.

And that brings me to the point I wanted to make today: These heavily armed assailants are our suicide bombers.  But for some reason we don't have the courage to restrict their access to their materials of mass destruction.  Don't we carefully control access to high explosives?  If young men were running into malls with homemade bombs strapped to their bodies, wouldn't we immediately begin rigidly controlling access to bomb-making materials?  You bet we would.

We cannot stop madness.  (Read some histories of mental illness.)  We're not all that good, either, at recognizing madness--true homicidal madness--in our family and friends and neighbors.  Ex post facto we're very good at it--but not ahead of time.  We can certainly do a better job of making adolescence a less stressful time for youngsters (all the anti-bullying programs will surely help), and, sure, we ought to think about the level of violence in all of our media.  And we need to make security of our children a priority--without making them try to learn and play in an armed camp.  A virtual prison, razor-wire and all.

But the most effective thing to do?  Limit access to weapons of mass destruction.  Severely.  I can think of no reason why a citizen of a democracy needs a firearm that can kill dozens of people in moments.  Needs virtually unlimited access to thousands of rounds of high-caliber ammunition.  It's as if we were collaborating, isn't it?  As if we were strapping the explosive vests on our young men, handing them the triggering devices, then piously standing back and saying Exploding vests don't kill; crazy people kill.

P.S.  Humans are the hypocritical species.  The inconsistent species.  So many deeply conservative people like to argue about the Framers' original intent in the Constitution--except, of course, when it's inconvenient to do so.  (Similar to our use of Bible verses: We quote the ones that support our biases, ignore the ones we don't like.)  Both the grammar and the original intent of the 2nd amendment are clear: It's an armed militia the Framers were talking about--not the right of all of us to own forty-seven assault rifles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammo.  And the arms they intended?  Flintlocks and weapons that were not firearms (swords, knives, pikes, etc.).  They certainly were not thinking of Uzis and Glocks and banana clips.  The Framers would stand drop-jawed in disbelief at what we have done.  With tears in their eyes ...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winter Sounds

Last night, here in northeastern Ohio, the winter sounds commenced. High winds.  Rattling windows. Sleet pelting the glass. Plows moving up and down streets.  You know ...

Where we live (next to a funeral home with a large parking lot) there are other sounds.  The owners like to keep their lot absolutely clear of winter, so trucks were over there early this morning (three-ish?) scraping away.  Such gentle nocturnal sounds.  I could also hear other small plows nearby--some with that delightfully piercing beep-beep-beep whenever they were backing up.  Which was often.  Those trucks had their sound effects timed very well: Just as I would start to drift off, a sharp beep! would remind me that this was not a night for sleeping.  This was a night for waxing romantic about winter ...

The trucks eventually moved elsewhere to awaken other sleeping folks, and I drifted into a bizarre dream about animals that made beeping sounds.

Until about 5 a.m.  When I heard that sweet sound a snow shovel makes when it scrapes a sidewalk.  Scrape! Scrape! [pause for tossing] Scrape! Scrape! [pause for tossing] ...

I tried to let my dreams "go with it" (could I somehow integrate those scraping sounds with the beeping animals?).

Didn't work.  Awake.

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.  Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.  The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow ...

No.  I staggered out of bed, stumbled to the window, looked out: A neighbor was shoveling her walk and driveway--an early departure for a Holiday visit.  Awwwwwwwwwwwww.  (That sound does not adequately express what I actually felt--which was an odd emotional mix of rage and Christmas cheer.)

Joyce was already up, getting ready to head out to the health club.  (What a woman!)

I was wondering if sleep were still  possible.  I looked at the bed.  It shook its head at me: Nah, you ain't sleepin' here no more! was the clear message.  So I made the bed.  Headed for the shower.

When I came out and dressed, I saw that the neighbor was indeed loading bundles of presents into her car (I am so Sherlockian sometimes) and was about to head out.  And I was readying to go out to shovel when ...

Wait!  Our sidewalk was clear!  Did our neighbor ... ?  Nah.  She wouldn't ...

I moved to another window, another view of another portion of the sidewalk.


Out there shoveling show--my snow.  She was paused for the moment, leaning on the shovel, exchanging pleasantries with a shoveler working to remove every flake from the funeral home lot.

I moved downstairs as she was returning the shovel to the garage.  I knocked on the door glass.  Opened it.  I'm off to the club! she chirped as cheerfully as any bird in spring.  Got my back exercises in already!

I muttered thanks and something about how I had been planning to shovel ...

She smiled.  Climbed in the car, backed out, headed off for another workout.

While I stood there thinking about a nice hot scone.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Party Animal? (Part 2)

All right--back to that party stuff.  In a post a few days ago I mentioned that my party life--boyhood, pubescence, adolescence--was pretty tame, for reasons that ranged from religion to isolation (Hiram, Ohio, was/is not a metropolis) to an overall personal wussiness: I thought alcohol and cigarettes were evil; I was a budding star for MLB and the NBA (hah!) and did not want to defile my body; I was sore afraid.  Of ... ?  I'm not sure.  Getting caught?  Finding myself an addict?

Then came college.  Fall 1962.  I had never tasted alcohol.  Never tried a cigarette ... well, maybe once or twice in high school.  Had not ever drunk coffee.  It was time for ... corruption!

But Hiram College offered little to corrupt.  In my four years there (1962-1966) I never saw any marijuana or any "hard" drugs.  The entire township was "dry" during my years, so carloads of undergrads had to drive east to Mantua Corners (Ernie's), south to Garrettsville (lots of options), or north to Welshfield (the Riverside Cafe, known affectionately among us as "The Road").

But I remained pure.

For several months.

In the fall of my freshman year, my roommate got me to join a bunch of lads who were going off to spend the weekend in Pennsylvania at the riverside cabin of some classmate or other whose name I cannot summon from the swamp of memory.  There was lots of beer.  And wild irreverent talk--which grew ever louder as the night progressed.  I drank Cokes and felt supremely superior.  We all slept on the floor, scattered about like toys discarded by a bored child.  As we were all readying for sleep, one very drunk guy (who would later become a minister) cried out: Let's take off all our clothes and jump in a pile!  There was not an enthusiastic response.  It was one of those ideas whose time had not come.

On through the fall I remained a teetotaler (Coke-totaler?).  There was no alcohol on campus (no legal alcohol), so at the campus parties--where I practiced wallflowery--were, again, very tame.  I stood and watched things swirl around me.  I was being loyal to my girlfriend from high school, who was off being loyal to me at another college.  Right?  Not that I wasn't noticing the young women of Hiram.  But I was doing little about it other than the yearning so much a part of the soul of the shy adolescent (me).

And then ... spring break ... freshman year ... my girlfriend came home (her letters had trailed off in recent weeks--this in the days before cell phones and email) ... she did not call me when she arrived ... I called her ... we arranged to meet ... we went for a drive ... she didn't want to "park" ... she had something to tell me ... she told me in her driveway ... can you guess what it was? ... and I tearfully went looking for my high school friend Paul ... found him ... told him the news ...

And we headed north immediately for Welshfield ... for The Road.

A road which led directly to a significant change in my party experiences for a while.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What I Remember about 20 December 1969

Our wedding day.  Forty-three years ago today ...

  • It was cold.  Icy in Akron, Ohio.  My grandmother Osborn fell on the ice the day before, broke her arm, kept the news from us as best she could.  She didn't want anything to detract from "our day."
  • My uncle, Dr. Ronald E. Osborn, delivered the remarks on the occasion.  In his talk he quoted from Mark Twain--from a work I didn't even know existed at the time, "Extract from Adam's Diary."  Standing at the grave of Eve, Adam says, "Wheresoever she was, THERE was Eden."
  • We were married in Concordia Lutheran in Akron.  Later, I learned that Joyce's ancestors, stonemasons, had helped erect the building.
  • The service was very traditional.  No hippies with maracas, no vows taken from The Prophet.
  • My uncle Ronald's daughter, Virgina, his only child, had been killed just two years earlier in an automobile accident.  A stellar student, she was on her way during spring break from Stephens College to stay with friends.  On a Missouri highway, a man in another car had a heart attack.  His car drifted into the path of my cousin's.  She was the only fatality.  Several others survived.  Our wedding was horribly difficult for my uncle, for my aunt Naomi.
  • My ushers included my two brothers, Dick and Dave, and college friends Bill Smith, Don Bartlett, Claude Steele.
  • I wept throughout the service.
  • So did my brothers.  (We share a Weepy gene.)
  • I barely knew Joyce's bridesmaids (who were nothing like the ones in the recent eponymous film).  They were friends from high school and college.  They eyed me warily ...
  • I barely knew Joyce.  We had met just five months earlier.  (A story for another day.)
  • Joyce's friends and family weren't all that sure about me.  I don't blame them.  I'm not too sure about me, either.
  • We had the reception at the gatehouse at Stan Hywet.  Because my grandmother didn't drink,  Joyce and I didn't either.  Our champagne was fizzy grape juice.
  • A couple of Aurora families were there.  Dr. Fred Bissell went around the room and collected cash for us, affixing bills to a little Christmas tree.  It came in handy on our otherwise ill-financed honeymoon trip to New Orleans.
  • Joyce spoke on the phone with Paul Steurer, her cousin, who was in med school at OSU and taking exams.  He was like her brother.  But he couldn't make the wedding.
  • We fed each other cake.  Laughing.
  • Oh, here's something I just remembered that makes me blush: I had seen an episode of My Three Sons about one of the sons getting married (was it Tim Considine?  I think so!).  In that episode, he thanks his dad, as they wait to enter the ceremony, for making him worthy of his bride.  I liked that.  I said it, word for word, to my own father as we waited to enter.  He gave me an odd look ... had he seen the episode, too?
  • Joyce is a wonderful dancer; I am not.  Picture our dance together ...  Now delete that picture.
  • I had hidden our car--a 1969 VW Fastback--so that my waggish friends would not decorate it.  And they didn't.
  • At some point we departed for our first stop, the Holiday Inn North in Columbus, Ohio, about 100 mi away.  Not smart on a winter's eve.  But we made it safely.  Rice fell from my clothing inside the motel room.
  • And so commenced a most wonderful forty-three years ...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Forever? Really?

This morning I was reading a book by a guy who was somewhat obsessed with a famous writer's former house.  "This is his house forever," he writes.

"Forever"?  Really?

Forever may be one of the words we use most carelessly--or at least much more metaphorically than we think we do.  I'm forever (!) reading about things or people or ideas or contributions or whatevers that are going to last forever.  Really?  Forever is a comforting word.  But a self-deceptive one, too.

Back in English 101, Summer 1962, Hiram College, my professor, Dr. Charles F. McKinley, read aloud to us Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" (my first experience with it)--the poem about the broken statue in the desert, the statue with the bold inscription: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." (Link to entire poem)  Shelley, a few lines later, referred to the statue as a "colossal wreck."

And so it is with all our monuments, actual and metaphorical.  Have you ever visited an old cemetery?  Tried to read inscriptions and epitaphs?  Time effaces most of them--and it doesn't take very long.  I've recently visited Imlaystown, New Jersey, a few times, looking for the Imlay family cemetery there.  (Gilbert Imlay, who grew up there, later wrote a novel and became the lover of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, whose husband (Percy Bysshe Shelley) wrote "Ozymandias.")  But nothing remains.  Even local historians are uncertain where the stones once were--the stones long ago smashed, stolen, covered over ... who knows?

Oddly, Gilbert Imlay's own burial stone on the Isle of Jersey (isn't that odd?) (he died in 1828) is also gone--or so illegible that no one's sure which one it is (I checked).  Fortunately, years ago, someone transcribed the inscription, so we do know what it once said (translated from the original French):

November 24th.  Gilbert Imlay, deceased the 20th day of the month of November one thousand eight hundred twenty-eight, 74 years old, was buried the 24th of the same month.

Closer to home ... some years ago (in 2000) I went looking in a Chicagoland cemetery (Elmwood) for the grave of William H. Chaney (d. 1903), the man who many scholars believe was the biological father of writer Jack London, whose The Call of the Wild appeared the year that Chaney died.  But I learned there that his friends had not purchased "perpetual care" for him, so after twenty-five years his remains were removed and placed in a common grave--somewhere. And the Chaney plot went to someone else.  (The meaning of all this? No exhumation now is possible, and thus no way to establish scientifically any alleged paternity.) (Link to my essay about this search.)

Even closer to home: The Harvey Firestone statue in Akron's Firestone Park.  New construction now conceals it from motorists and pedestrians.  And who is Harvey Firestone, anyway?  The company he founded and knew is much altered.  Gone, really.  When my wife, Joyce, was a little girl living in Firestone Park, Harvey's sway was still considerable (her dad worked for Firestone).  A trip to the statue was like a trip to church.  Almost.  (Joyce has written a wonderful book about Firestone and the Park--Link to book on Amazon.)

Nothing is forever, of course, except nothing.  Will the Washington Monument be there in 100 years?  Probably?  A thousand?  Ten Thousand?  A hundred thousand?  Million?  You get the picture.

I don't want a cemetery plot.  A stone or marker.  Just scatter my ashes somewhere meaningful, for now. (The significance will be lost, very soon.)  Land, sea.  Wherever.  And those ashes will then be a part of land/sea/whatever.  Until they aren't.  But definitely not "forever."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I've not ever "unfriended" anyone on Facebook--or hidden posts from anyone.  There are times, of course, when I've felt like it.  (As I'm sure some of my FB friends have felt like unfriending--or hiding--me after I've posted something annoying.)  During the recent political campaign season I often read posts from FB friends who were articulating positions antithetical to my own.  I cringed.  But didn't click.  And very seldom replied.  When I did reply, I tried to use the "message" feature instead of make a public comment.  (Maybe I messed up a few times?  Can't remember.  Choose to think I didn't.)  I've refused a friend request only one time (long story).

After the recent school shootings (isn't it horrible that we all know what a school shooting is now? the locution was unknown in my own school days) I had one FB friend who announced that he wished to be unfriended by anyone who owned a handgun; another declared he was going to hide posts from any of his friends who expressed support for gun control.  "I've looked at life from both sides now"--as Joni Mitchell sang in 1969, the year I was married.  Well, FB is kind of "all sides now" in today's complicated polygon of political and religious opinion and belief.

I'm no saint, believe me.  I don't like to hear opinions I don't agree with.  In the coffee shop where I often go in the morning to read ("Dawn Reader," remember?), I overhear positions--often loud, always peremptory--that I find disagreeable at the least, deeply offensive at the most.  I don't say anything, don't argue--ever.  (I keep my nose buried in my book, try not to hear.)  But every now and then, weary of it all, I go to some other coffee shop.  Just for a break.  But soon I'll hear something there that will set my blood a-bubbling, and back I'll go to the other place.

I don't watch any TV news channels anymore.  None.  It seems that TV news has only one guiding principle: Report what the most depraved people in town/country/world are doing.  Instead, I watch The Daily Show, read the New York Times on my Kindle every morning, read a variety of magazines (online and otherwise).  I try to read columnists I don't usually agree with (not easy), but I confess that (like most other people?) I am most comfortable reading writers whose biases are akin to my own.

Many of my FB friends are former students--some from as far back as the 1966-1967 school year, my first in in the classroom.  And I confess that I'm often dazzled by what I read from them.  Some are now (were they always?) far to my right (politically, religiously) and routinely share or post things that alarm, even horrify me.  Others are now on the left--and since that's where I reside, too, I find their posts far less troubling!  Others are apolitical (and/or areligious) and usually post only about their pets, their children, spouses, favorite recipes and restaurants, etc.  FB, in a way, is like being in a crowded coffee shop, sitting and listening: You can hear just about anything.

Most of my own FB posts are my lame attempts to remain an English teacher nearly two years after I retired.  I note the birthdays of writers I like, post newspaper/magazine cartoons that relate to works I used to teach, post interesting (to me) words-of-the-day from various sources, talk about what I'm reading or writing.  I've been doing a series of silly posts about a character I call "A Dumb Guy"; I post a bit of doggerel every day (which I cleverly call "Daily Doggerel").  That's about it.  I generally avoid provocative FB posts.  (Don't always succeed.)  (And I will "Like" some political/religious posts I agree with.)

When I do have something political to say, I usually say it here, in the blog.  And so in recent months I've written about gay rights, labor unions, and other Lefty issues that I try to keep out of my FB posts--though I do post a link to the blog.  (Okay: "I am large, I contain multitudes," as some bearded poet once said.  I contradict myself.  Sue me.)

When I see someone else's post that annoys me, I usually just keep scrolling--the equivalent of concentrating on my book in the coffee shop.  Sometimes I reply (personally, not publicly).  Sometimes I percolate all day but resist the temptation to respond.

I'm not convinced that responding--arguing--does any good.  (Do you know anyone who ever changed his/her opinion because of someone else's FB rant?  Or saucy meme?)  What does more good, I think, is to keep the coffee shop open, to continue going there.  Maybe some of my deeply conservative FB friends will realize--seeing my posts, remembering our history together, remembering me as a person--that all liberals are not insane, all Obama supporters do not want to see the country destroyed, all advocates of gun control are not political stooges, all supporters of gay rights are not out to destroy the family, all advocates of labor unions are not socialists, all atheists are not evil.  And so on.

And maybe I--reading their posts--will understand the other side(s) a little better?

Probably naive.  Pollyannaish.

But I loved my students--back then.  And it's awfully hard for me to turn that switch off.  Mostly because I don't want to.  Usually ...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Chicken Thoughts

I picked a chicken clean earlier this morning--dark meat, light, in between.  Set it aside.  Then tossed the bones into a stockpot.  Added water.  Fired up the stove.  And now, a couple of hours later, the smell of chicken broth has replaced the air.  I breathe the essence of chicken as I type.  Poor thing had to die to live again in sentences.  Not much of a resurrection.  But Joyce will later use some of the broth for her asparagus soup (which I will politely decline to sample--asparagus and I are not on speaking terms, have never been so, never will be so), and I will employ the rest for chicken-and-rice soup, one of our winter staples.

The smell, for some reason, had jarred me loose from my moorings today.  I had intended to sit here and write about some things I've promised to write about.  As I look back over my postings, I see that I have never finished the "series" I started on mystery novels.  (But I will, I think.)  And from much earlier--an unfinished "series" on ... I can't even remember what it was (and am too high on the smell of chicken stock to check)--which is one indication of that series' significance, I imagine.

And just yesterday, I began yet another "series"--this one about parties.  I'm sure I'll get back to it.  Tomorrow.  The next day.  Never.  Who knows?

Instead, all my poultry brain can do this morning is hop from subject to subject, like a hen on a hot sidewalk.  (Is that what a hen would do on a hot sidewalk?  Hop here and here?  Or would she simply flap off to somewhere cooler?  Or maybe she'd like the hot sidewalk?  Maybe she'd wonder why all sidewalks weren't hot?  Maybe she'd look good, there on the hot sidewalk?  Maybe some roosters would wander by, looking for love in all the wrong places?  Maybe one of them would like the look of that hot chicken?  Maybe feathers would fly in a winged flurry of passion?  I hope so.)

(Notice how a writer will steer onto a sexy detour when he feels his audience slipping away?  Homer did it.  Shakespeare.  Must be a good thing?)

There's a squirrel in my yard right now.  I don't like them.  From time to time squirrels have invaded our attic, required Seal Team 6 to remove them.  Davy Crockett shot squirrels--or grinned them out of trees.  I never found grinning at a squirrel to be very efficacious.  But then I am not Davy Crockett nor was meant to be.

There's a moment--speaking of squirrels--early in the journey of Lewis and Clark while they were still on the Ohio River.  September 11, 1803.  Near Grand View, Ohio.

Here's what Lewis wrote in his journal that day:

Set out about sunrise, passed Sunfish creek 1 mile &c &c    entered the long reach, so called from the Ohio running in strait direction for 18 miles    in this reach there are 5 Islands from three to 2 miles in length each—  observed a number of squirrels swiming the Ohio and universally passing from the W. to the East shore    they appear to be making to the south; perhaps it may be mast or food which they are in serch of but I should reather suppose that it is climate which is their object as I find no difference in the quantity of mast on both sides of this river it being abundant on both except the beach nut which appears extreemly scarce this season, the walnuts and Hickory nuts the usual food of the squirrell appears in great abundance on either side of the river—  I made my dog take as many each day as I had occation for, they wer fat and I thought them when fryed a pleasent food—    many of these squirrils wer black,  they swim very light on the water and make pretty good speed— my dog was of the newfoundland breed very active strong and docile, he would take the squirel in the water kill them and swiming bring them in his mouth to the boat. we lay this night below the fifth Island in the long reach on the E. side of the river having come 26 miles 

Lewis would have had trouble on the Eighth Grade Writing Proficiency Test, as you can see.  Would have failed it, probably.  Mechanics and all.

I'm interested that he liked to eat the squirrels--and that he "made" his dog go after them.  I assume he meant that he "allowed" his dog to go after them.  He found them "a pleasent food."  The squirrels, I imagine, found the experience somewhat less than pleasant.

I wonder if Lewis and Clark made any broth later?  From the remains?  And if the aroma spread through the forest?  Permeated their clothing?  Filled their lungs with the essence of squirrel?  Got them off-topic in their writing?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Party Animal?

When I was a teenager, I never attended a party that was remotely like the teen parties I see in the movies these days.  (Think, oh, Superbad or 21 Jump Street.)  In fact, growing up, I recognized that parties were not really much a part of my life.  My parents didn't let us have birthday parties with friends--just family.  (Pretty sedate.)  And I didn't attend all that many, either.  I'm not sure why.  My family was very conventionally religious, so maybe that had something to do with it?  And we also had very little money: Both parents were teachers--back in the day when a low salary meant something.  Who knows?

Occasionally, there were little parties at school.  Halloween--that sort of thing.  But nothing too memorable.

DD, doing Mexican Hat Dance
Sadie Hawkins Day, 1961
When we moved to Hiram, Ohio, I was about to enter seventh grade, and that year a whole new world of school dances emerged in my sky.  I had my first date that year.  The seventh grade dance.  We jitterbugged in the fall of 1956--and I was fairly decent at it since my mother had forced me to take dancing lessons down at Convention Hall in Enid, Oklahoma, a weekly responsibility I ranked with trips to the dentist.  And worse: I had to wear a suit and tie.  But I did learn to waltz and two-step and jitterbug.  And I felt that amazing, surprising frisson when I first touched the hand of a girl I didn't know ... a girl I wanted to know ... a girl from another school ... another galaxy ...

Besides school dances in junior high there were also social events sponsored by our church youth group--Chi Rho--very tame events that involved fruit punch and vanilla wafers and much adolescent yearning for ... for what?  I wasn't quite sure.

By high school, I was sure.  But the dances and parties at Hiram High were awfully tame (by the standards of Superbad, let's day).  Again, many of the events were sponsored by our church youth group--CYF (Christian Youth Fellowship).  We had a New Year's Eve party each year (we all went home, sober and horny, about 12:05 a.m.).  And a few other events.  We had some cast parties, too, after the school plays.  Also tame and booze-less.

I liked the parties in junior high and high school.  I especially liked it when it was our class sponsoring the event.  We got out of classes a couple of hours early to go decorate the gym--streamers from the basketball rims to the floor, tablecloths on card tables, record-player set up on the stage.  Pretty exciting stuff.  Lots of guys just sat in the bleachers and talked about (you know) and let the girls decorate.  Women's Lib was a few years away.

And both proms I attended--junior and senior year--were tame affairs as well, at least among "my" crowd.  No booze anywhere that I knew of.  And even if there had been, I would not have taken any.  I was still in the thrall of my religious upbringing (drinking was a sin--a sin, I discovered, that did not dissuade my parents, who had hidden some bottles of sherry here and there in the house; I found them--felt profoundly betrayed)--and I was an athlete (well, a Hiram athlete--there's a difference), and I thought alcohol would ruin my chances to play for the Tribe.  (Actually, what ruined my chances of playing for the Tribe was my overall suckiness.)

I went to my first alcohol-soaked party at Hiram College, fall 1966.  But let's put that one off till tomorrow.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

14 December 2012

The professional and social media are thrumming with commentary about yesterday's grim events in Connecticut.  My various FB friends have posted memes that support positions along the entire continuum of opinion (from arming teachers to eliminating all firearms).  And my own heart is aching--as are the hearts of all who are parents--or who have an imagination.  That image: a man dressed in battle gear--entering an elementary school--seeing children there--firing a weapon into their small bodies ...  We all struggle--and fail--to keep such images from our minds.

I am not sanguine at all about any significant changes occurring as a result of yesterday.  Our legislators and other leaders are cowards.  And our culture enjoys--celebrates--violence in myriads of ways--from our music to our computer games to our TV shows and films and literature.  Among our most popular sports are the most violent ones. On Friday nights, millions of Americans crowd into bleachers at the local high school to watch their sons hit others' sons as hard as they can.  Standing by are EMS units.  Physicians.  Can you imagine a school--a community--sponsoring any other activity that guarantees the injury of children?  Yesterday I overheard two older men talking sadly about the shootings, then segueing seamlessly into an excited discussion about some vicious hits they'd seen on ESPN the night before.

I also see little hope for all of this because we are such a violent species.  Our DNA drips blood.  We have been killing one another for as long as we've been able to.  We are killing one another right now, as I type these words.  We will kill one another tonight, tomorrow morning, and on and on.  In another context, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote: "So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind."

We're also incredibly adept at rationalizing our killing.  Others are evil; they asked for it; the world is better off without them; it's a war; they attacked us first; ...

So ... a few thoughts about what I've been hearing about guns and violence, even though I know that my words will change nothing other than arouse the ire of those who oppose my views.  As the Chinese writer Lu Xun wrote, I feel "the futility of an arrow aimed at the sea."

  • "Guns don't kill people."  I've never found this the slightest bit persuasive.  Of course guns kill people--lots of people, with little effort.  To me, it's a bit like saying "Lawnmowers don't mow lawns."  Sure, by themselves they don't.  But that is what they're designed to do.  You don't cut the grass; you and and your machine do.  Same with firearms.  Handguns are designed to shoot people.  Quickly and efficiently.
  • "We'll be safer if there are more guns."  Equally unpersuasive.  Picture this: You're in a crowded movie theater, somewhere down front.  A killer enters from the back, opens up with an automatic weapon.  You are armed.  You stand and return fire toward the rear of the theater (assuming you can really tell where the fire is coming from).  Think you might hit some innocent folks?  And this: Someone fifteen rows away, also armed, sees you firing, thinks you're part of it.  Opens up on you.  And besides: statistical evidence shows clearly that virtually all shootings have nothing to do with self-defense.
  • "We need to lock down schools."  Sure, we can always improve safety precautions, but we cannot stop someone who wants to kill.  If the school's locked down, a killer will simply strike outside, where the buses are loading or unloading.  Or attack on the playground during lunch or recess.  Or shoot the person operating the metal detector, and move on into the building.  People who want to kill--and who don't care about the consequences--are not dissuaded by any of our precautions.
  • "We need to eliminate guns."  As much as I love this idea, it won't work.  Hasn't the slightest chance of working.  History shows, over and over, that if authorities outlaw something that people want, people will get it from other sources.  Remember Prohibition?  How are our drug laws working out?  Prostitution laws?  If we outlaw firearms, a massive illegal trade will promptly ensue.
I think (hope?) that the vast majority of people believe in some restrictions, though.  No one but a crazy, for example, thinks it would be okay for everyone to arm and dress like a S.W.A.T. officer to go to the mall. Few would argue that we ought to be allowed to drive a fully armed tank to work, or keep a missile launcher in the back yard.  So most of us agree that we need to draw a line somewhere.

But where?  Maybe after yesterday we can agree that our current line is woefully misplaced.  We should not make it easy for folks to acquire rapid-fire weapons.  It should be hard--very hard. Maybe impossible.  (What are they for? And punishments for having them illegally should be severe--and should involve everyone from the buyer to the seller to the manufacturer.

But I'm not holding my breath.  For I am certain that--as I write--handgun sales are soaring.  Even as I am certain that--as I write--people will be killing one another with them.  Today.  Tonight.  Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Friday, December 14, 2012


When you're a little kid, Friday doesn't matter.  It's just another day (assuming you're of an age to know what a "day" is).  When I was growing up--in my pre-school years--the only day of the week that had any consequence at all for me was Sunday.  That was the day I had to dress up (yuk), go to Sunday School (yuk), and--a bit later, when I was able to sit still without embarrassing my parents and grandparents (who often went with us)--church (yuk).  Grandma, by the way, had developed some strategies for dealing with restless Danny.  Among my favorites--tying her handkerchief into the shapes of various animals.  I especially liked her rabbit.  But anything was better than a sermon, you know?

But the year when I would turn five, that was the year that I learned the glory of Friday because that was the year I started Mrs. Dugan's kindergarten.  (Somewhere there's a picture of me dressed like a pilgrim for a kindergarten Thanksgiving program--a pilgrim in sneakers, blue jeans, stained T-shirt, pilgrim collar and hat.  Later, had I wandered into the Massachusetts Bay Colony looking like that, they would have hanged me while Hester Prynne cheered.)

In kindergarten I learned to love Fridays, very soon.  Because when kindergarten ended at Friday noon (yes, half-day kindergarten), I was free to become a child again.  Free to do nothing--except, of course, follow instructions at home: clean my room, make my bed, carry my dishes out to the kitchen--those sorts of odious requirements.  And once the excitement and novelty of kindergarten wore off (day or two after I started? a week?), I was routinely late, mostly because I was constitutionally incapable of walking by Kiwanis Park without stopping to sample its pleasures.

Site of Kiwanis Park,
Enid, OK
I walked to kindergarten--a straight, two-and-a-half blocks or so along Broadway Ave. in Enid, Oklahoma, a route that passed Kiwanis Park, which featured a slide, swings, a nasty creek (home to some cool looking crawdads), a merry-go-round.  Crack cocaine for a five-year-old.  Every now and then my mom, getting a call from Mrs. Dugan, would have to come get me in the park, walk me the rest of the way to kindergarten.  I cried.

As my school years went on, Fridays became ever more dear as school became ever more drear.  I can feel it now--that euphoria born on Friday morning, its childhood and adolescence during the school's early hours, its swelling  into adolescence at lunch, then to full ripe adulthood by mid-afternoon.  The frustration as I stared at the clock throughout last period.  Why don't those clock hands move?  My exhilaration as I heard the bell.  Heading outside.  Breathing the air of freedom ... grabbing my bike from the rack at the school, gliding off into the neighborhood with nothing to do.  Maybe find some friends.  Head for the crack cocaine of Kiwanis Park!


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tree Bread

12 December 2012
Yesterday was another day of Holiday Baking.  (I've blogged earlier this season about baking my grandmother's fruitcakes--and I did, indeed, deliver one to my mother in the nursing home where she's now recovering from a fall: she munched as eagerly as I.)

I've been making these tree-shaped sweet breads for a long time now--thirty years or more?  I think so.  My mother had made similar things back when I was a wee lad who loved Christmas for two very irreligious reasons: opening presents, not having to go to school.  It was indeed the sweetest holiday.  Presents and no homework and no getting up early (except, of course, on The Day, when my brothers and I all awoke before any other animals in town).  Dad, by the way, always annoyed us on Christmas morning: We could not begin opening presents until he appeared, and he would not appear until he had shaved.  Picture: a cluster of three boys around the (open) bathroom door, watching Dad shave in his maddeningly leisurely fashion.  Oh, did he know how to manipulate the moment.

As a kid I even (sort of) liked church services at Christmas.  The decorations, the music, the pageantry (such as there was in our Disciples of Christ denomination).  I remember one weird Christmas Eve service, though, in Des Moines, where my parents were living at the time.  It was the early 1970s.  Vietnam.  While we marched forward to take communion, they were flashing slides of the war on a screen--grim images from battle, from bombing raids.  Most sobering.

And, of course, the food.  We almost always had a turkey--though Dad would sometimes get a Smithfield ham, too.  Mashed potatoes.  Sweet potatoes.  Green beans.  Cranberry sauce.  Rolls (store-bought).  And--for dessert--pumpkin pie, mincemeat pie, my grandmother's steamed pudding (I'll be blogging about it a little later on).  Naps.

Oh, and some years my mother made an unintentionally phallic salad.  On a salad plate (bottom to top): a circular slice of pineapple, a banana (sliced to it would stand on end), a red LifeSavers sticking out from the bottom side of the banana, a maraschino cherry atop the banana.  It was supposed to look, I think, like a Christmas candle.  It didn't.  (Ours sort of looked like the photo--but Mom used pineapple for the base.)

Anyway--on Christmas morning--after Dad finished shaving--we did our opening (never on Christmas Eve, despite the desperate pleas of the Three Young Materialists).  And while we opened--some years--we ate tree bread.

I don't know where Mom got the recipe (probably from a magazine--or a friend), but we had it a few times--and I loved it.  (I am a bread-o-holic, by the way.)  Later, married, a father, I decided to try it myself.  (Little Steve loved the look of it.)  But there were years when it was less than ... edible, I fear.  (Though I resolutely ate it anyway--It's fine ... really!)

When I started using the sourdough starter I acquired in Alaska on a visit in 1986, the bread presented new challenges.  (A heavy dough rises more slowly--and, impatient, I sometimes started shaping-and-baking before it was really ready.  Not a good idea.)

But now I've got it down pretty well.  Haven't messed it up in quite a few years.  (Notice I'm saying so after I've baked it.  Must avoid The Curse of the Overconfident Baker.)  The process takes hours.  First, I have to "feed" the starter (8-12 hours).  Then mix the starter with the other ingredients (white, wheat, oat flour; honey; salt; melted (soy) butter; slivered almonds, candied fruit, dried/sliced apricots) (up to an hour).  Kneading.  Setting aside to rise (current batch went nearly four hours).  Cleaning up.  Shaping (form "ropes" of dough and string them back and forth on the baking sheets).  Another rising (two hours this time).  Baking.  Cooling.  Cleaning up.  Storing for Christmas.  On Christmas: warming the bread, icing it (powdered sugar + water), sprinkling on the glaze some more candied fruit (it looks like decorations--really).

Each year I mail one to my brothers for their use on Christmas mornings (the years I'm not with them).  No one ever says squat to me about them: good, bad, thanks--anything.  (Brothers!)  Oh, I take that back.  One year Richard said (on the phone! on Christmas Day!): The tree bread was better this year than last year.  Nice.

It's not our son's favorite, either.  As I said, he's always liked the look of it, but he's never liked nuts (almonds, remember).  In fact, he may be the only American child in history who does not like peanut butter--smooth or crunchy.  But Steve--bless his nut-hating heart--does eat a piece, every Christmas morning.  Feigns pleasure.

Joyce and I, though?  We eat it with lupine animation and manners.  Not a pretty sight.