Dawn Reader

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

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hiatus


I'm going to take a few days off.  Bloggerel will commence again, oh, early next week.  Some other fish are begging to be fried ...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Hemingway Moment (with a Cather connection)

July 2005.

Red Cloud, Nebraska (2005)
Joyce and I are on the road to Nebraska, where we've always loved to be.  Our honeymoon was a road trip; we have taken many since.  This summer is an unusual one, though.  I am still recovering from prostate cancer surgery in June.  But I am determined not to let my health affect my life more than it absolutely insists on doing.  And so we're on the road ...

In a couple of months, school will start at WRA, and our juniors are reading My Ántonia for "summer reading."  I read the book back in college--and I read O Pioneers! somewhere, too (KSU grad school?).  And somewhere I read her often-anthologized story "Paul's Case."  But not much else.  So I've been reading all of Cather this summer--novels, stories, journalism--and I've been going to see the places where she lived, the places she wrote about.  I already took a "solo" trip to Pittsburgh (she taught high school English there for a bit; the school stands--as does the house where she boarded), and then down to Virginia, where she was born, where she grew up.  Her girlhood home (farmhouse) was abandoned when I was there--looking pretty bad--but I got some pictures of it, of the area, of her grandparents' home nearby.

Later, my mother and I will go see her grave in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.  And in a subsequent summer, Joyce and I will go out to Grand Manan Island (New Brunswick), where Cather built a summer cottage--still standing.

And now Joyce and I are on our way out to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where the Cathers moved when she was a girl, where she grew up, where she went to university, and, of course, the place she wrote about over and over again in her fiction.  We've spent a couple of days in the area.  The folks in Red Cloud have done a good job of promoting their most notable citizen--and, with some local help, we have found the places Cather used for My Ántonia; I will show the pictures to my students in the fall.

And as we are wrapping up Cather work, we decide: Let's go on out to Ketchum, Idaho.  Hemingway's last home.  The place where he now lies.  Hell, we're halfway there--might as well add a few days to the vacation?  Right?  We're both eager--and off we go.

It's a good time of year to be out here.  In the winter, Sun Valley is heavily populated with skiiers and other winter wackos.  But we have no problem getting a motel room, finding parking--any of it.

We visit the cemetery, photograph the simple grave.  We find the memorial statue just outside town.  We visit all the places the Hemingway tourist map identifies.

But one place not on the map: his final home.  Where he lived with Mary, his fourth wife.  Where he fought his demons.  And lost.  And took his life early on the morning of July 2, 1961, with a blast from a shotgun he'd propped against his forehead.  The sound awakened Mary ...

The Nature Conservancy has owned the house since 1986.  It is not open to the public.  But I know where it is, and so we drive there, find it easily, ignore the signs about No Trespassing.  While Joyce keeps the car running--in case we need to make a quick escape--I walk up to the house and around the house, looking, taking pictures.  Don't see or hear anyone.  Get what I need and we drive away like giddy teens who've just pranked an obnoxious neighbor.

And then we decide to do something a little ... weird?  Sick?  We decide we want to eat in the restaurant where Hemingway ate his last meal, the night before his suicide.  In a book called Last Suppers (2003) I've learned that he ate at a place called The Christiana--and that he had New York strip steak, baked potato, Caesar salad, Bordeaux wine.  The restaurant is still there.

We go over about 5:30--but they aren't yet open.  But I catch someone's eye inside; he comes to the door; I say we have traveled all the way from Ohio ... plea, cajole, beg.

They let us in.

And escort us to the "Hemingway table"--where he sat that night.  Joyce takes a picture of me there ... all of this, as I write about it, seems ... odd ...

And I order ... chicken.  (I do not order "his" last meal--so I'm not completely gone, I guess.)  We are the only people in the place until their regular opening time.

Next day, driving back to the real world, I still feel the exhiliration I've always felt when walking the ground associated with writers ... sort of stalkery, I know.  But exciting, too.  I also know that my students back in Ohio will get a kick out of the pictures (I think they will--hey, it beats talking about participial phrases!), though this final one--me sitting with my stalkery stare at Hemingway's table will surely cause some of them to look at me a little cockeyed.

As, perhaps, they should.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Papa in the Spring

Ernest & Pauline Hemingway
I've noticed something weird about this retirement year--more than one thing actually, but most of them are NOYB.  I've noticed that I'm still reading books--lots of books--about the writers I used to teach.  Okay, on the face of it, that's not so bad: I did teach a lot of important writers (from Shakespeare to Melville to Fitzgerald); why wouldn't I keep reading about them?

But here's the odd part: I'm doing the reading at the same time of year when I used to teach those writers.  Last fall, I read some things about Shakespeare and the Elizabethans; in the winter, I read about Hawthorne and Melville and Poe; and now I've been reading books about Hemingway.

As I said, this has been a long habit from my teaching years.  Throughout the year I would buy relevant books, then read them in the weeks leading up to the time when I would actually be teaching Hamlet or The Scarlet Letter or "Benito Cereno" or The Awakening or The Great Gatsby.  Or Hemingway.

Let's take Gatsby for example.  Over the years I read every major biography of Fitzgerald (and Zelda).  I read everything Scott published--and Zelda's novel, as well.  Not all that unusual--lots of English teachers try to do that sort of thing, I know.  But then I started reading things mentioned in The Great Gatsby.  I read that vile book The Rising Tide of Color, the racist book that Tom Buchanan talks about; I read Simon Called Peter (which Nick notices and tries to read at a party); and Castle Rackrent and Hopalong Cassidy and Economics for the General Reader--even a title from the multi-volume set John L. Stoddard's Lectures which Nick sees in Gatsby's library ...  I even bought (on eBay) a copy of the 14 February 1924 issue of Town Topics, the gossip periodical that Nick sees at the same party where he starts reading Simon Called Peter.  Perhaps it was these last two that nudged me over the line been Admirable and Obsessive?

(BTW: Fitzgerald slightly altered some of the titles of these things.)

And now, as I said, it's Hemingway.  As I did with Fitzgerald, I read everything I could by and about him--and there is a lot.  And every time I read something new, I found other things I ought to read as well ...

I first read Hemingway in college--A Farewell to Arms was on a list of "suggested reading" that new freshmen received after acceptance. (I loved it; wept copiously; wondered why most of the other titles on the list weren't nearly so interesting.)  I then read some Hemingway stories in an American literature survey.  And then my welcome-to-being-an-English-major moment: In an American Thought course, taught by Prof. Ravitz (whom I've mentioned fondly so many times in these posts), the syllabus listed The Sun Also Rises.  I was happy about that: I liked Hemingway.

And then in class, Dr. Ravitz announced: "For tomorrow, read The Sun Also Rises ...."

I didn't hear the rest of it because I had heard the two words I needed to hear: For tomorrow ...

Is this man SERIOUS?  Read a book OVERNIGHT? 

He was.  And I did.  (It's not all that long ...)  If I hadn't liked the book so much, I might have switched my major (to what, I don't know).

I ended up teaching a handful of Hemingway stories over and over: "Hills Like White Elephants," "The Killers," "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."  The students generally liked them--the stories seemed so ... refreshing ... after those months with Irving and Hawthorne and Melville, who could write sentences longer than Theuses' trail of thread ...

We did a lot of Hemingway-related travel, too: Oak Park (birthplace, young manhood), the lakes of northern Michigan (where he spent many summers--where he set some of his great stories), Key West, Ketchum (site of his final home and his grave).  I've not yet made it to Cuba, though a former WRA student--Roberto Sorghi--went there and sent me pictures of the house--and of Pilar, which now rots there in dry dock.  Oh, and I once spent an afternoon in Summit, Illinois, setting for "The Killers," a small town (no more: now part of Chicagoland) only a handful of miles from Oak Park.

Just yesterday--as I noted on FB--I finished the wonderful book about Pilar and about the years Hemingway owned her (1934-1961)--Hemingway's Boat.  And this morning I started a new book, the first thorough treatment of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer marriage (his second): Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow, by Ruth A. Hawkins, who worked on the project for fifteen years.

By the time I finish that, it will probably be the season to think again of Shakespeare.  We go to the Stratford Festival in August, where we usually see eleven plays in six days.  Then I'll read a few of  books about Shakespeare that I've accumulated.  After all, the fall is coming.  And that means Hamlet with the eleventh graders ...

Monday, June 25, 2012

Shaping, Being Shaped

A few years ago, writer Ted Gup spoke in the Chapel at his old high school, Western Reserve Academy.  I don't remember the precise occasion, but there were numerous parents in the audience.  At one point, he told the parents (I'm paraphrasing--with quotation marks!): "You can't make your children be what you want them to be.  If you want a living thing to behave the way you want, get a bonsai tree."

The Chapel was silent--but I felt the lid of the pressure cooker straining with the emotions of the students, many of whom no doubt felt like erupting into cheers.  But didn't.  (Sometimes it's just plain better to turn down the heat than to let everything erupt all over the kitchen.)

As children, many of us felt parental pressure in all of its guises--from direct, explicit instruction (command?) to more subtle hints, suggestions, disdainful sniffs, enthusiasms for our slightest indication that we might, you know, become what they wished.  Coming-of-age novels and films are full of such moments (indeed, the entire genre thrives on them).  Clueless adults try to force their offspring into muffin tins when, really, the kids would rather be scones.  (Can you tell I baked scones this morning?)

The moments can be amusing and inspiring (the kid tells his folks that they just don't get it and soars off into his or her awesome  future).  Or tragic.  Remember the kid (Robert Sean Leonard) in Dead Poets Society whose intransigent father would not accept his wish to be an actor?  A suicide ensued.

My own parents had somewhat limited ambitions for me--not that I blame them.  I earned all.  Beginning in seventh grade and continuing through much of college, I just didn't--in the locution of the day--"apply myself."  I didn't work too hard--at least on the stuff I was "supposed" to.  In high school, I threw myself into sports and drama and every other extra-curricular activity I could, thereby generally being too busy to, you know, study.  My grades were all right (a B average for high school) but hardly in the same league with the records of my older and younger brothers, both of whom were valedictorians, both of whom would end up at Harvard.  My dad told me he would pay for one college application (to Hiram, where he taught--free tuition), and if I wanted to go anywhere else, it was all on me.  Jobless, penniless me.  So ... Hiram it was.

In college, I briefly flirted with the ministry (family history) but after a couple of terms as a religion and philosophy major, I shifted to English, where I could read novels and plays--sometimes "dirty" ones!--instead of dense treatises by Hegel and Locke and the boyz.  Seemed like a good deal.  My parents were really pushing me in those years to be an elementary school teacher, but I had standards; I had character.  No, I would not be an elementary school teacher; I would be a ... secondary school teacher!  (What a rebel!)  I actually applied to--and was accepted--the American Studies program at the University of Kansas (for a Ph.D.), but no financial aid was available, so I applied for some teaching jobs in the area, got one in Aurora, and in the fall of 1966 began teaching seventh grade English.  The next time I came up for air it was 1997, and I was retiring from Aurora ...  Go figure.

My parents gradually accepted the roles I was playing--though, later, when I was doing monthly op-ed pieces for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, my dad, retired out in Oregon, would introduce me to his friends as a journalist.  The middle school English teacher stuff just didn't come up ...  In a way, it was hard for them to believe that I was doing what I was doing, later--writing and reviewing books.  In some ways, I know, they still saw me as the fifteen-year-old doofus who never missed a basketball practice but missed quite a bit of homework.

And then in 1972, I became a father myself.  And I promptly--though unconsciously--began pruning and tending our own little human bonsai tree, Stephen.  And for quite a while, I had no doubt that he would be just like Joyce and me--only better.  He was a very good student; he loved theater and music; his childhood bed was always piled with books.  MiniMe.

But then ... off he went to college, where some of his previous interests atrophied, fell away; new ones emerged.  Although, after graduation, he went into journalism for ten years (writing for a living! The Return of MiniMe!), I don't think his heart was ever in it, and soon he was going to law school at night, getting into politics--a real surprise for us.  He'd never shown any interest in politics earlier on--had never even run for student council in school or for any other office.  And there he was, years later, a two-term state legislator in Ohio.  When he was eleven, if anyone had predicted such a future, I would have scoffed at the notion.

And suddenly I had a different feeling about the whole bonsai tree thing.  I realized how profoundly difficult is is for parents to see their children exit the family track (to mix tree-and-train metaphors here), first, perhaps, to a siding, then maybe onto an entirely different track leading to entirely different destinations.  You think you know your children.  And you do.  Sort of.  But you also don't know them, for as they grow, they are becoming something that they don't even understand, not at first.  They know they want ... they want ... to be ... ?  To be.  (Yes, crazy Hamlet knew a few things.)  They want to be.  And sometimes that being is something that would have been incomprehensible to them in childhood. And to you.  And it's an emotionally wrenching experience for all involved.

A combination of death and birth--the death of something you thought you understood, the birth of something you patently don't.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

I'm the Type, Part II


A few more random thoughts about typewriters ...

1. The Hiram High School newspaper, The Panic.  Our typing teacher--Ms. DeAngelis (with the lovely first name of Antoinette!)--was the paper adviser my junior year.  I enjoyed working with her, though, as I look at what she wrote in my 1961 yearbook, I'm not so sure she knew me very well: "Best wishes to a cooperative young man."

What?

My mother might want to have a chat with her ...

The paper--in typewriter days--took some doing.  We had to type our stories two times, once in columns (40 characters per column, I think), making sure to put slash marks at the end of the column to indicate how many spaces we would need to add or subtract in the final typing.  Adding the spaces made the columns right-justified (a no-brainer now in word-processing).  See below

The Hiram High Huskies defeated the G'Men///
of Garrettsville last night in a close-fought con-
test that ended with a brawl at center court, a///
brawl that Danny Dyer dominated; he person-/
ally dispatched 8 G'Men, all of whom needed//
medical attention afterwards.  Dyer did not////
a single scratch.  In the audience, Muhammad
Ali was impressed, saying he would not ever/
like to face Dyer in the ring, much less in a///
free-for-all at the end of a basketball game.//.

The re-typing would occur on mimeograph stencils--blue greasy paperish material, backed by a thin cardboard.  The typewriter keys would punch a hole in the blue sheet (errors had to be repaired with a noxious liquid the typist dabbed on, then blew on to dry, then typed over.  When the typing was over, the blue sheet would fit on a drum on the mimeograph machine--and out the copies, such as they were, would fly, ready to be collated and stapled (by hand, natch).

2. Joyce and I both type very quickly.  We agreed some years ago not to have any contests to determine who's the faster, the more accurate.  (I don't blame her for declining to compete.)

3. Writing Grad School Papers.  I finished my Ph.D. at KSU in 1977.  Sans computer.  For all my grad school papers--and there were many--this was the process:
   a. make hand-written notes
   b. write 1st draft in pen or pencil
   c. type 1st draft--make corrections in pencil
   d. type 2nd draft--make corrections in pencil
   e. type final draft (though other drafts occurred, depending on time available)
So ... that meant I wrote the whole damn thing by hand, typed the whole damn thing at least three times ...  As a result of this, I still print out drafts of reviews and essays and other writing.  Some of the speeches I gave at WRA went through a dozen drafts--or more.  I simply cannot type it once into the computer and do all my editing on the screen.  I need to see it all--in all its pages.  Retro, I know.

4. For about ten years, our son was a reporter with the Akron Beacon-Journal.  We had very carefully taught him to type the "real" way (the way we had both learned in typing class).  Fuggetaboudit.  When I watch him type, it appears to me as if he's almost using random fingering--whatever finger's available is fine with him!  He's pretty quick, but both his parents could kick his ass, keyboard-wise.

5. I watched my students type for years--eighth graders and high school juniors.  What I saw varied from two-finger hunt-and-peck to the "correct" way (i.e., my way).  I think they all probably had "keyboarding" lessons back in elementary and middle school.  But not everything "takes," as I know from my own sad experiences in calculus, chemistry, and band--not to mention my piano lessons (I will write about them one day).

Each new font required a separate element,
requiring the removal of the old, the
placement of the new ...
6. Things that pissed me off about typing on a typewriter: jamming keys, getting the paper back exactly on line after an erasure, having to go back and type underlines when I wanted to show italics, proofreading at the end of each page (before removing it from the machine) and realizing that a needed correction would require more space than I had (e.g., typing the word their when I meant they're; I can erase their, but they're needs more space!), nearing the end of the page and realizing I would not have enough room for the footnotes I needed (requiring me to re-type the entire f*****g page!), having to replace ribbons periodically (the IBM ones were expensive), having to change the typing element on the IBM whenever I wanted to use italic type--or change font ...

Jack and Charmian London
So ... lots of problems, lots of hassles, lots of wasted time.  A final thought: Jack London (1876-1916) married two women (not at the same time, duh), both of whom could type very well.  He would write longhand, then deliver the pages to his spouse, who would do the typing ...  Do I need to report what would happen in our house if I were to suggest such a procedure?  (That pneumatic sound you hear is not typing ; it's an automatic weapon's fire.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

I'm the Type

Writer's Almanac informs me that today is the anniversary of the invention of the typewriter, patented this day in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Typewriters have been in my world since I was born; I have one now, an electric that doesn't work very well and emerges from its home under my printer table only when I need to complete some kind of form, an activity much less frequent now that I'm (a) no longer teaching and (b) able to submit so much online.

My grandfather, G. Edwin Osborn, a seminary professor and preacher, had a manual typewriter in his study, a machine my grandmother also used, mostly for her family letters that came every week and which I now wish I'd saved.  (I do have some, but most have disappeared.)  Their typewriter had one of those old double ribbons, black and red, and Grandma would use the red for her letters so that she saved the black part of the ribbon for what she saw as her husband's more important work--his books, lessons, sermons, professional correspondence.  You had to flip a lever on the machine to move the ribbon from red to black.

Grandmother wrote to all the family once a week--but she wrote only one letter.  She rotated it so that each of her correspondents would get the original copy one week; others would get a carbon copy.  The next week, we would get the carbon; someone else, the original.  She would then write--in pen--some personal message on the family letter.  Grandma was good about that, the personal messages.

My parents had a couple of manual typewriters in the house too.  Mom did most of the typing--she was very quick and patient and precise.  Dad was none of the above.  He would write his sermons longhand in small brown spiral notebooks; she would type them.  Mom taught my older brother, Richard, to type, and he also became very fast and accurate on that old Underwood upright that looked something like the one at the left.  Richard was born to become the journalist he was.  My room was right next to his in Hiram, and when he was a student at Hiram College (living at home), I always knew the day a paper was due for one of his classes: He was up before dawn, pounding away on that Underwood, the keystrokes and the bell that announced the imminent end of a line waking me up, keeping me awake and enraged as I lay next door plotting the obliteration of both typewriter and typist.  Richard had the facility, even then, of writing a first draft that was also a final draft.  Typing his college papers cold, the morning they were due!  I was both deeply admiring and dangerously jealous.  (I'm a multiple-draft guy, even now--except in blogs, as you may have noticed.)

In high school, I took typing class--as did just about all of us.  It was a Life Skill.  And it is also the class from which I've retained the most.  I still remember those timed drills we would do--typing fixed passages to see how quickly and how perfectly we could type them.  The sound of keys struck, bells ringing, carriage returns ... returning.  You could tell by the sound of those carriage returns who was "winning" the timed portion.  I was very competitive then and did not like hearing someone else's bell bong before mine, another carriage return banging before mine.

That sort of scene made possible a moment from S. E. Hinton's YA novel Tex, whose eponymous hero pranks his high school typing class by replacing the ribbons with rolls of caps for toy pistols.  When the students typed that day, it sounded like the Alamo--well, not really.  But Tex got in trouble; young readers laughed.  And young readers today would have no clue what just happened.

Later, may parents gave me a little blue manual portable (can't remember the brand), on which I wrote my very undistinguished undergraduate papers--and even a couple of grad school ones.  The computer generation--the MS-Word generation--has no idea of the hassles of typing--especially when the typist erred.  When that happened: stop typing; advance paper a little; pick up typewriter eraser (they sucked); use the red part to "erase" (it never worked very well); use the little green brush to whisk away the eraser fragments; realign paper (it was always slightly off afterwards); type until next error; repeat process.

Later, paper companies produced a product they called "erasable bond"--paper whose words you could easily remove with a plain old pencil eraser.  But ... the paper had a greasy feel, and, of course, it was easy to smudge if you didn't handle it carefully and allow the words to dry.  The final "improvement" was white-out, which made pages with errors look as if a bird had used them for toilet-training.  Some of my grad school profs at KSU outlawed the erasable paper: They didn't like the "feel" of it as they were grading.

Joyce brought to our marriage another blue manual typewriter, a Smith-Corona, but, pretty soon, we bought our first IBM Selectric, which we both used for our dissertations.  We kept it in a neutral location so that we both could have access to it--and we negotiated the times of day it would be available.  We both typed so much that when the kindergarten teacher asked our little son, Steve, what his parents did, he replied, "Type."  The Selectrics had a correction tape in it, sticky white tape that could lift off your errors (usually)--a real time-saver.  I wrote my dissertation longhand (Joyce did the same with hers), then typed three separate drafts (it was 400 pages long--400 embarrassing, puerile pages), and by that time I was so sick of it that I paid a friend to type the final copy.

Soon, we knew we would need a second machine, and when we sold our Kent house and moved to Lake Forest, we plunked down $800 (major money in 1978) and became a two-Selectric family.  (We had one car, two Selectrics!)  And so we stayed until the computer era.  Our first machine?  A Kaypro II--with dot-matrix printer.  And soon we had two of them, as well.  (Harmony in the house has no price!)  We kept a Selectric around for a long time, until we could find no one to service it.  I loved those heavy old machines ...

Ever since, we've been a two- or three-computer family.  And, as I said, our last remaining typewriter lives under the computer table, like King Arthur in Avalon, waiting to be called forth once again to save and serve the world. Or fill out a form.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Parts Is Parts


Edgar Poe wrote some strange stories--no doubt about it.  From tales of madmen chopping up annoying old men, to weird siblings living in a falling house, to a vengeful dwarf barbecuing a cruel king, to a madman relentlessly pursuing his double, to wealthy people attending a costume ball which Death, uninvited, visits--Poe wrote stories that attacked the viscera as well as the imagination.

But one of his strangest tales--one he valued very highly (but subsequent generations have not)--is "The Man That Was Used Up."  First published in August 1839, the tale concerns Brevet Brigadier-General John A. B. C. Smith (surely a satirical version of William Henry Harrison), the military hero of the Bugaboo and Kickapoo Indian wars.  The narrator, visiting him, is curious about "an odd looking bundle of something" lying near his (the narrator's) feet on the floor.  A voice comes from the bundle, a leg emerges, which commences to pull on a stocking.  The narrator realizes that the bundle was a collection of artificial body parts.  Gradually, other pieces emerge and connect themselves together to form ... the ideal version of a general, the version the public adores.  The narrator leaves with a new understanding of celebrity.

Of course, we live in an age when more and more artificial parts are available to us--from limbs to internal organs.  No longer is this sort of thing sci-fi--and not all that long ago, it was.  Do you remember the old TV show The Six Million Dollar Man?  1974-1978?  Pilot Steve Austin (Lee Majors), grievously injured in a crash, is rebuilt with bionic parts, so he's not only hot, he's fast, strong, skilled--and he has a solid manufacturer's warranty.  (The Bionic Woman  with Lindsay Wagner was a spin-off in 1976.)

I have now reached the age when the warranties (such as they were) are expiring on my parts.  As Yeats observed (about something quite different), "Things fall apart."  So do people.  In the last, oh, fifteen years I've watched the right side of my face stop working (Bell's Palsy)--it's mostly back, but not all the way; I've experienced the sundry delights of prostate cancer (surgery, radiation) and skin cancer (surgery); I've had a knee that failed me, an elbow, a shoulder (so I will lose no more tennis matches, principally because I will no longer play any!); I've adorned some of my teeth with crowns and, most recently, enjoyed the six-month process of getting one molar replaced with an implant.  When I was a teenager, I remember, I would wonder each night what strange "delight" would appear on my face the following morning.  Now I wonder what part will fail--or fall off, what system will shut down.

I think, for example, of our kitchen disposer.  Last Sunday, it worked fine.  Monday, it sounded as if it were trying to process shards of metal.  Monday--fine; Sunday--not fine.  Just like the rest of us, one day.

I am not complaining about my physical/medical/dental issues, mind you.  Many people have much worse experiences, ones from which they simply cannot rally.  One day, we will all join them.

I'll end with a story about my father.  When he was a little boy on his Oregon farm, he was one day helping his older brother split firewood.  He held a piece upright on the block, steadying it with the little finger of his left hand.  Which his older brother promptly chopped off, right next to the palm.  This was, oh, 1919 or so, so there was no freezing the finger, no dialing 911, no ambulance to an ER where surgeons could replace the finger.  It was just off, that's all, and they cauterized the wound in the kitchen and Dad was back doing chores the next day.  They buried the little fellow somewhere on the property, where, in a fairy tale, it would have grown into a sturdy tree, whose seeds would possess the most amazing magic, available only to a pure-hearted child, who would discover, one hopeless day, how a single touch of a single seed from his father's tree would bless his life.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tribe Time


Last night I went to Progressive Field to see the first Cleveland Indians game I've seen all season.  I've not seen any on television this year, either--or listened to any on the radio.  This may not seem remarkable to anyone, but for years--decades--I was a fairly obsessive Tribe fan, a passion that began back in 1956 when we moved to Hiram, Ohio, and my father took my brother (Dave) and me, ages 7 and 11, to see our first Major League game.  Tribe v. Tigers.  We lost.

In those days, I was a Yankee fan.  We'd recently moved to Ohio from Oklahoma, and the only televised baseball was the NBC Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons--and the Yankees, it seemed, were always on.  And always winning.  We like winners, we humans.  We love them.  (In fact, I was noticing at the game last night that every between-the-innings promotion involved a contest of some sort--winners and losers--from my favorite--the racing ketchup-mustard-onion (mustard won--my choice!)--to the bizarre "frozen T-shirt" contest that involved a couple of very young children, girl and boy, in a race to see who could first don a frozen shirt; the little boy lost, in front of 20-some thousand fans; I found the whole thing repellent.)

In Ohio, it took me a while to warm up to the Tribe.  Although they'd won the pennant in 1954 and had some pretty decent teams (nearly won in 1959), they began their long decline into mediocrity and incompetence about that time and didn't really emerge until those great teams of the mid-1990s.  Once, back in the late 1950s, I was at a Tribe v. Yanks game (I was still in junior high), and a rowdy Cleveland fan behind me (he was beery and belligerent and bulbous) asked me if I was a Yankee fan.  "Yes!" I chirped.  "I hate your guts," he replied.  I returned to my hot dog and silently wished him ill.

Jimmy Dudley, Tribe radio announcer
Throughout high school and college, the Tribe was on TV only a couple of times a week, but I listened all the time on the radio--announcers Jimmy Dudley and Bob Neal often were the last voices I heard at night before I drifted off to sleep.  And I knew, too, that off in Austintown, Ohio, my great-grandfather Warren A. Lanterman was listening too on what remained of his farm.  He never missed a game.

After I got married in 1969, nothing really changed.  Still watched all the time.  Listened to most games at night.  Joyce, who knew little about baseball, gradually became a fan, too, and one of my great memories occurred late one night when the Tribe was out on the West Coast.  We'd take a little portable radio to bed with us, and Joyce shook me awake about 1:00 a.m. to tell me the Tribe had just gone ahead.

When more and more games were televised, I used to have them on, all the time, while I was reading or writing or doing work for school.  When I traveled, I listened on my laptop--but never paid the extra $$ to get a video stream.

I became a father in July 1972, and son Steve grew up to the sounds and sights of the Tribe (mostly losing: one of his first heroes, just to show you, was journeyman shortstop Tom Veryzer).  When he was still a wee one, I took him to his first game at the old Stadium, and the post-game fireworks frightened him so badly he cried for half an hour.  There are times that parents feel inadequate.  That was one of my times ... why hadn't I prepared him for the loud noise?  Oh well.  It would not be the last mistake I made as a father.

During Steve's boyhood, we always went to Opening Day, rain or shine or snow (that's right: snow).  And in the spring of 1985, I plunked down plastic and took him to a few days of spring training out in Tuscon.  We saw Bob Feller (long retired) working on his pick-off move in left field; we saw young Julio Franco and were dazzled; we returned with two of the worst sunburns in family history (another paternal screwup).  And at the Tuscon zoo, a tiger tried to spray us with urine--not something I'd expected.

After Steve left home for college and Life (1990), my Tribe mania did not diminish.  The Indians were great in the 90s, and we went to many games, often courtesy of friends with season tickets they couldn't use.  We saw them eliminate the Mariners in 1997 at Jacobs Field ...

My younger brother has remained a ferocious Tribe fan even though he's lived in the Boston area since college days.  He's  no longer a Browns fan (the Patriots have won his heart and allegiance), but still steadfastly a Tribesman.

And I?

I don't know what's happened.  But two years ago I pretty much stopped following them.  It's possible I watched part of one game last season--but I'm not sure.  And this year I went last night only because Steve gave me a trip to the game for Father's Day.  It was odd being there with so many empty seats (all those years of full houses, I remember); it was odder not to know so many of the Cleveland players--and on the Reds, only Brandon Phillips, the wonderful infielder who got away from Cleveland years ago.  I was ready to go home about the third inning.  I was tired.  Ready for a book and bed.

There are, of course, many reasons to dislike professional sports--the vast amounts of money, the corrupting influence they have on the rest of the culture (so many young people pursuing the hopeless dream of becoming a professional athlete), and so on.

But I can't say that my declining interest in the Tribe had any intellectual/rational roots at all. I have no "holier-than-thou" attitude about it.   I didn't really think about it at all.  It just happened.  One day I loved; the next I didn't.  And love, you know, remains what it always has been--a most amazing mystery. We can neither summon nor dismiss it.  It enters our lives, has its way with us, then stays forever or departs tomorrow, obeying only its own inscrutable imperatives.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I Love Trash


Our toddler son liked Sesame Street a lot more than he did Mr. Rogers, a show he would tolerate (hey, some TV is better than no TV!) but never really enjoyed all that much.  But Sesame Street, with its friendly critters and songs and kid-friendly adults--that was more up his alley.

And in that alley, of course, lived Oscar the Grouch, who--perhaps because I'm a bit curmudgeonly myself--was my favorite character.  And his signature song--"I Love Trash"--in some ways has been the music accompanying my life--my personal soundtrack, especially in one very special category: the movies.  ("I Love Trash"--YouTube)

When I was a kid, there was a lot of trash playing at the movies--in fact, there was an entire category of films called "B movies" that were, essentially, trash.  No redeeming virtues.  Low budgets.  Minor actors in major roles.  Cheesy scenery and music.  Plots as thin and transparent as Saran Wrap.

And I loved them--especially the Westerns (I grew up in the Southwest).  My boyhood heroes were Lash LaRue, Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, the Three Mesquiteers, Bob Steele, Hopalong Cassidy,  et al., who shot black-hatted bad guys down at the Sooner on Saturday afternoons and--later--moved to television when that new medium was looking for filler and re-ran the old B movies for years--decades, really.

As I got older, I began going for more sophisticated trash--mostly on television.  Hiram had a theater (the college auditorium) where they showed films--but only one showing, Sunday nights (except in blockbuster cases--like Oklahoma and Peyton Place)--and that simply could not satiate my Oscarian appetite for trash.  Besides, a lot of the films the college showed were not really trash.  I saw Richard III there (zzzzzzzz) and Witness for the Prosecution and The Hustler and other more ambitious films.

And fifties and sixties television showed virtually nothing but trash.  Formulaic dramas.  Cowboy shows ("horse operas," my dad called them--and "oaters").  Shows about lawyers who never lost (Perry Mason), cops who never lost (Dragnet), quiz shows that were rigged (Twenty-One).  And so on.

But when I moved out into the "real" world (i.e., not Hiram, Ohio), started teaching, went to grad school, started writing, and so on, my taste for trash did not diminish.  In fact, I fear, it increased.  Let me rationalize (i.e., repeat the lies I tell myself): Because I was spending so much time in intellectual pursuits (like lunch duty in a middle school, say), I needed trash, you know, to help me maintain my ... equilibrium. Also, I needed, you know, to "stay current"--to keep up with the trash so that I could, you know, communicate better with my students!  It's not that I like Charles Bronson movies, see?  But I need to go to them ... for professional reasons.

All of this was very convincing to my very accommodating conscience.

When I got married, Joyce, I think, was a little surprised--if not alarmed--to discover my fondness for trash.  (She should have known better: On one of our early dates I took her to see The Green Berets.)  Even on our honeymoon, we went to see the newest James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a film that ends with Bond's marriage--and the immediately ensuing murder of his bride.  Nice honeymoon film.  I'm betting that Joyce emerged from that theater with a somewhat altered view of the man she'd married--and with perhaps a more profound  understanding of "for better or for worse."

Early in our marriage I continued watching trash on TV (though I slowly began watching less and less television--virtually none now), and the movies we went to were much better--the 70s was the era of Altman and other filmmakers who were actually trying to do something besides providing the light by which people ate popcorn and made out.

But trash was still available.  And trash I still consumed.  I convinced Joyce to go see Valdez Is Coming with a lie (a smudgy white one)--I told her it was a foreign sex comedy.  (It's a brutal Western based on an Elmore Leonard novel.)  This was a ploy that seemed amusing at the time--and has since become an archetypal family tale--but when Joyce realized what was going on ... well ...

Now it's time to confess one of the worst decisions of my early fatherhood.  1982.  Our son, Steve, was not yet 10.  And Death Wish II was playing near our home in Kent.  Joyce was busy.  I would take Steve to the movies.  Well ... the only people in the theater were Steve and I--and about ten guys who looked as if they could audition for the characters whose brains Bronson's bullets were splattering all over the screen.  I felt terrible.  But the popcorn was good.  And we stayed till the end.  This was not my finest hour.

I still tend to favor trash at the movies (though I still see every good film I can, too--Joyce and I are cinemaddicts), and with the joys of cable on-demand and Netflix (streaming and DVD), I can watch again and again those trashy films I love the most.

Here's our week night evening pattern.  I am usually in bed, reading, by 7:15 or so.  I read a chapter or so in each of the half-dozen books I have going up in the bedroom (currently: Thackeray's Catherine, Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth, Dan Chaon's Stay Awake, Tóibin's Brooklyn, Dubus' Townie, and Parker's The Jaguar).  Then ... I flip on the cable and look for a trashy movie.

In recent years, I've watched--over and over and over--Wedding Crashers, Red, Due Date, Knocked Up, Role Models, Horrible Bosses, The Change-Up ...  I could go on.

(Freud would understand, maybe.  One must not neglect the Id.  Ids have rights, too!)

When Joyce--whose study is next to our bedroom--hears the TV come on, she closes her door (why?) and works for an hour more (she has standards!), and when she eventually drifts in about 8:45 or so, off goes the trash, on comes a BBC mystery of some sort, and I fall asleep with the words of Inspector Morse winding their way into my ears, up into  my brain, where Oscar is singing me his lullaby ...



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Of Maps and Honeymoon Tears


Honeymoon 1969.

Joyce and I were married on December 20, then drove to New Orleans, a place we'd decided to go because neither of us had ever been there.  New marriage.  New place.  New life.  Seemed to make sense.

We left right after the reception and drove to Columbus, Ohio, our first night, in what was then called the Holiday Inn North.  And the next night, we were in another Holiday Inn, this one right on the Mississippi River in Memphis.  And then--the long day's drive, Memphis to New Orleans, about 400 miles.  We got a late start ... you know ... honeymoons?  So by the time we neared New Orleans, it was very late.  I'd been doing all the driving because I'd not yet taught Joyce how to drive a stick shift, and our 1969 dark green VW Fastback had been performing well (a record it would later sully in spectacular fashion a couple of years later, breaking down--once again near the Mississippi, but this time near Davenport, Iowa--and Joyce and I spent a couple of days at the Tall Corn Motel, not the most romantic of venues, while the local VW mechanic figured out ever more imaginative ways to bankrupt me).

As we approached Lake Pontchartrain, I handed the map to Joyce and said, "Here, you navigate us to our motel."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the first time I made my wife cry.

Thereby hangs a tale ...

Because my dad's family lived out in the Northwest and we were living in the Southwest (Oklahoma and Texas--later, Ohio), we took a number of long family car trips out to the Walla Walla Valley--and to the coast.  Those were the days when gas stations were called "filling stations" or "service stations"--the days when you could get a Coke and a smile, yes, at the station--but also a new tire, installed, a tune-up, an oil change, etc.  And no self-serve whatsoever.  Dad would always get out of the car and talk with the attendant.  He was good at small talk, my father.  Always.  One one of the last rides he took--an ambulance from the ER to the nursing home--I was with him in the back, and within minutes he had established that both he and one of the attendants had been in the Air Force.  They were BFFs by the time the ambulance arrived.

It was also a time when gas stations gave away road maps--free.  So my brothers and I would--at every stop--load up on the relevant maps and follow our journeys across the country.  As a result, I became a pretty good little map-reader.

Joyce had a different history.  Her father--a wonderful man--had different ideas about the car.  He always drove on their trips, always was the only one with the map.  As a result, Joyce became a pretty bad little map-reader.

So in December 1969 when I said, "Here, you navigate us to our motel," I had no idea what I was asking.  And when I heard/saw the tears, I had no idea what I'd done.

She finally managed: "I can't read this map."

And--not for the last time, not by a long shot--I felt like an idiot in her presence.  I mean, what kind of boor makes his wife cry--on her honeymoon!

My kind.

Anyway, I pulled over,  checked out the map, figured out what we needed to do, drove on, apologies tumbling from my lips like books from a shelf in an earthquake.

When we arrived at the little motel-with-character that I'd picked out months before--and had made reservations for, months before--we discovered to our horror that they had given the room to someone else since we had arrived so late.  I whined, "But it's our honeymoon!"  The night clerk just snorted and went back to reading his porn novel.  (Or so I've decided to report.)

We ended up at the Ramada Inn downtown, the motel-with-no-character.

Years have passed.

Joyce is now much better with maps.  No surprise.  It took just a bit of practice.  But, lately, I'm sad to report, she's fallen in love with someone else.  The GPS Lady.  Who never once has made her cry.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Don't Throw Me in That Brier Patch!

Wren's Rest
It would be difficult to teach the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris these days.  In some ways, they make the controversies about the racial aspects of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn seem almost frivolous.  Harris (1848-1908) was, roughly, Mark Twain's contemporary (Twain was thirteen years older, died two years later).  Like Twain, he was a journalist (he worked at the Atlanta Constitution for about thirty years) who also wrote popular fiction.  His home, the Wren's Rest, is a museum now in Atlanta.

Born in Georgia before the Civil War, he had close contact with slaves, listened to their stories, tried to capture their dialect and their humor in print.  His principal literary character, Uncle Remus, says the 4th edition of Oxford Companion to American Literature (1965), was "whimsical, lovable, ... once a slave ... [but] now a trusted family servant who entertains the young son of his employers with traditional fables of his race."  Many today find all that a bit patronizing--a romantic view of the slave-master relationship.  And so it is.  But ...

When I was in school, his stories (with the spelling standardized) were in our readers, and then there was that Disney film, The Song of the South (1946), a film that blended live action scenes featuring Uncle Remus with animated characters from his stories (Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, et al.) as will as the birds and other critters that fluttered and fussed around Uncle Remus (James Baskett) while he sang the most famous song in the film,  "Zip-Ah-Dee-Doo-Dah." (Song on YouTube: "Zip").  The era of political correctness has caused Disney from time to time to pull the video from distribution.  (It's not currently available from retail outlets--but plenty of copies on eBay.)  On Snopes.com you can read about the controversy surrounding the film--the portrayal of Uncle Remus, the reasons that many find aspects of the film offensive.  (Info re SONG OF THE SOUTH)

But I didn't really want to write about Harris today but about one of his stories, "How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox," a story probably more well-known as the tar-baby story.  The fox, recall, has caught the rabbit with the tar baby (this story is in A Song of the South) and is preparing to do what foxes do when they catch rabbits.  He says (in Harris' words) that he plans to "bobby-cue" the bunny.

Not what the bunny wants.

But our bunny is as clever as his direct descendant Bugs (they have the same last name!), and he tells the fox: “‘I don’t keer w’at you do wid me, Brer Fox,’ sezee, ‘so you don’t fling me in dat brier-patch. Roas’ me, Brer Fox’ sezee, ‘but don’t fling me in dat brierpatch,’ sezee."

Translation: Roast me if you want, but please--please--don't throw me in that brier patch!

Well, they go back and forth, the fox making dire promises, the rabbit pleading not to be cast into the brier patch.

And we know what will happen, of course: The fox, deciding that he will indeed toss the bunny in the prickers (what could be worse than inflicting on a creature its worst fear?  Think: Fear Factor and Room 101 in 1984).

Which, of course, is precisely what our bunny wants: The brier patch is home.  And just before the bunny runs off toward his cleverly won freedom, he cries back to the fox: “‘Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox—bred en bawn in a brier-patch!’ en wid dat he skip out des ez lively ez a cricket in de embers.”

Here's a link to the whole story (it's not very long): "How Mr. Rabbit ..."

That story delighted me as a kid--just as did the stories of those human scamps Tom and Huck.  (And, even later, The Odyssey.) The clever one saving himself from the threats and violence of the bigger, the meaner.  All of that had great appeal for a small boy like me navigating his way across a childhood sea that surged with monsters seen and unseen.

But as I got older (and then really older), I began to see a different sort of message in that story.  I saw--as I probably should have years earlier--that it is really a story about figuring out what your brier patch is--and then making sure you live in it.  I think of myself.  For some people, I would guess, spending time (decades!) with middle school students would be, well, unpleasant.  A circle of Hell.  But for me?  A brier patch.  And how about reading 100 pages a day of an assigned book?  Every day.  Seven days a week.  Fifty-two weeks a year.  Cruel and unusual punishment for some.  For me?  Brier patch.

If I were making a commencement speech this year, I would urge graduates to find their brier patches.  And to live in them the rest of their days.  Why?  Because it's where they belong.  It's where--all their days--they'll be as happy as a rabbit that just outfoxed a fox.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Grandfather's Day

G. Edwin Osborn, my
maternal grandfather,
1897-1965
I never met my father's father.  He died well before I was born, died when my father was still a young man.  I've seen a few pictures.  He was a hard-working man, an Oregon farmer (just across the line from Walla Walla, Washington), a man who fathered nearly a dozen children, taught them all to work hard, play hard, go to church, respect things you ought to respect, stand up for one another.  My father and his siblings were very close, even though they didn't see much of one another.  Most of them stayed out in the Northwest (the Walla Walla Valley is home still to myriads of Dyers), and my father headed for Oklahoma, Phillips University, and Prudence Osborn, my mother.

G. Edwin Osborn was her father.  I was fairly well along in school before I learned that the G stood for George, a name he abhorred.  I never heard anyone call him "George," and I had neither the courage nor the self-destructive stupidity to utter the name in his presence.  Not that I feared him physically--I never did.  All he had to do was look at me in that way, and Shame emerged from the shadows to slap me down.

Grandpa (he signed letters to us "G'pa") had the Lord on his side, and we knew it.  He was an ordained minister (Disciples of Christ).  After preaching in Virginia, West Virginia, Arizona, and elsewhere, he ended up back in Enid, at Phillips (his alma mater), teaching there in the College of the Bible.  He took his family to Scotland, where he earned his Ph.D. in Theology, then returned to Enid until he retired.

Grandpa was also an author of many articles and several books on religious subjects, including The Glory of Christian Worship (1960).  I just opened my copy for the first time in more than a half-century (I know: shame on me) and saw that Grandpa had inscribed a copy for my sixteenth birthday, "the day," he wrote, "that marks the transition from Boy to Man.  To understand better the Unseen Resources needed and available in making that transition I hope you find this little book helpful.  G'pa."

[Pause to clear my eyes.]

But the great achievement of his professional life was the publication of Christian Worship: A Service Book (1953, 1958), the book that became the standard service book for Disciples ministers all over the country.  He spent a dozen years working on it, and when I graduated from high school in 1962, he gave me an inscribed copy.  At that point, I think Grandpa had hopes for me--hopes that I would follow in his footsteps, in the footsteps of his son, Ronald (who also became a respected minister and seminarian).  And for a while--in college--I flirted with the notion, but then, like my father, drifted into teaching, where I found a career that I would love for forty-five years.

Grandma and Grandpa visited us a few times in Hiram, and one of the great shames of my life occurred over the Christmas holidays, 1963.  I had just finished my first term of my sophomore year at Hiram College, and some high school friends were home on break.  We got together one night.  In a bar.  I drank too much.  And when I came home that night (morning, really), I became very noisily sick upstairs--right next door to my grandparents' room.  Among the lows of my life, that is right there with the lowest.

Grandpa did not say a word about it the next morning, not to me.  But he did look at me with that look that summoned Shame, who has flogged me about that incident for a half-century.

Grandpa was born in Jackson, Ohio, on April 17, 1897; he retired in 1964; he and his wife, Alma, moved to the Lenoir Christian Home in Columbia, Missouri, where he died in late September 1965.  I am very nearly his age now.  The family drove out to Columbia for the funeral (I was still in college), and when I walked into their cottage, which was overflowing with friends, my grandmother, saw me and cried out, "And here's the one with the Osborn name."  At the funeral, the service came directly from his service book.  We sang "O God Our Help" and I wept after the first three words and was not able to sing many words thereafter.  And wondered how it could possibly be that the order of service that day in the First Christian Church, Columbia, Missouri, could spell his last name Osborne.

A month and a half later, my birthday, November 11, 1965.  A card from my grandmother.  A little girl on the cover says: "Your BIRTHDAY?  How charming!  How gracious!"  Open card: "How fascinating!  How attractive!  How talented!"  Open another layer: "How OLD?"  On the back of the card was a note from Grandma: "Dear Dan, Your g'pa selected this card for you, & had 'your mark' on the corner of the envelope.  See!  (Well, perhaps you can if the P. O. stamp doesn't cover it.)  He thought you were a great guy--& so do I."  And, yes, just beside the stamp, in G'pa's hand, the penciled word "Dan."

Grandpa Osborn was a wonderful grandfather--supporting all three grandsons in their interests.  He listened to opera with little Dickie (and fostered what would become a life-long interest); he went to see Davi and me play baseball.  During our Enid years, we were never far away.  During WW II, we lived upstairs at their house at 1609 E. Broadway.  Afterwards, we moved down the block to 1709 E. Broadway, and still later we bought our first house at 1706 E. Elm, just a few blocks north.  We were always at Grandpa's house.  A safe place.  I still remember their phone number.  I'd pick up the phone, hear the operator say "Number, please," and say "5630-J."  And the phone would ring, and one of those two wonderful people would answer.

Grandpa had a great sense of humor (his laugh was of the hee-hee-HEE variety) and adored my grandmother.  He was always touching her, hugging her, sitting beside her on the couch with his arm around her.  I thought it was a miracle.  And it was.  He chewed Chiclets, polished his shoes ever day, kept his desk in his study so organized that I am reeling with Shame as I look around my mess of a room.  I loved his study.  Books neatly on shelves.  A full standing wooden console radio (where he listened to opera with Richard, baseball and boxing matches with me).  Once, I opened his main desk drawer and saw all his office supplies neatly arranged--paper clips all lined up the same way.

Grandpa's chair; my mess.
I am sitting right now in his desk chair, the chair where he wrote his books, his letters, his lessons, his sermons.  And across the room, on a shelf, is the photograph that sits at the top of this page.

I think about Grandpa every day--miss him horribly--miss his laugh, his wry humor, his wisdom.  And I wonder how a man could be so good; I wish I ...

But don't we all wish we'd somehow lived up to the expectations of those whom we love and admire the most?

And so I sit in his chair and work in the warmth of his gaze and his smile.  And that will have to do.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Where's GO When You Really Need It?


I wasn't very good at Monopoly.  (I say "wasn't" because I don't play anymore: I won't play games I routinely lose--I quit playing golf about the time my little brother started beating me routinely.  Childish, immature, I know.  Deal with it.)  Whether it was bad luck or poor strategy or fundamental inattention or a preference to be outside throwing baseballs, I don't know.  But I pretty much sucked at the game and virtually never won.

One other sign of my boyhood maturity: When it was evident I was going to lose (in Monopoly or in any other board game), I would flip the board up, cry out something foul (if neither parent was around), and stalk off to my room where I would think dark thoughts, plot dark deeds, and eventually fall asleep and dream dark dreams.  Card games were easier: just fling the deck around the room before stalking out, stalking to my room, where I ...

I'd like to say that something fundamental about Monopoly troubled me.  How its entire goal, say, is for one player to destroy the financial foundation of everyone else who's playing.  How it encourages a belief in luck, how it fosters heartlessness (don't you cheer when your brother lands on one of your properties you've loaded up with hotels!), how the "winner" is the person who bankrupts everyone else.  (All of this is starting to sound awfully, eerily contemporary!)

But none of that bothered me when I was a boy.  What bothered me was losing.  Games were for winning,  Brothers were for beating--if not destroying.  And if you can't win, well, just quit and stalk off to your room ... it worked for me.  But it probably forced my brothers into some delicate maneuvers.  They needed me to play (the more, the merrier), and they needed me to play a while; they also wanted, in the worst way, to whip my ass.  So ... how to let Danny, you know, think he has a chance, at least for, oh, an hour, so we can have a more interesting game.  Then crush him.  And accept with resignation and even a sick satisfaction the reality--as a consequence of your crushing--that you're going to be picking up scattered Community Chest and Chance cards or Risk! pieces or all the Charles Dickens cards in the Authors set.  Small price to pay for destroying Danny's day--and self-concept.


Virgil is the last player on the right
I had to learn to be a better loser, a skill I practiced and perfected at Hiram High School, where our sports teams generally lost every game (at least during my tenure).  We had no football team at all (too small a school), and in basketball (1958-1962, the years I was on the team) we probably did not win five games, total.  Those we did win were amazing--close--heart-pounding (every cliche you can think of).  One of the highlights of my life--and I am not exaggerating--occurred in the Southington game my junior year.  We were tied (or one behind) with seconds left, and there was a jump ball at mid-court.  Jumping for us was senior Virgil Rowe, our best player, who was only about 5' 8" or so--but he could JUMP.  During the time-out, he took me aside and told me to sprint for our hoop as soon as the ref tossed up the ball.  The Southington players were confident their much taller player would get the tap.  When the ref tossed the ball, I took off, Virgil whacked the ball to me, I caught it in stride, laid it up ... and ... IN!  HIRAM WINS!  That play will stay in my head until all thoughts have diminished and sailed off into the west with Galadriel.

So losing was regular at Hiram.  I got used to it.  Accepted it as a Fact of Life--a Fact of Life not nearly so appealing as some other Facts of Life I was learning and yearning about ... but that's another story.  Sometimes, it was ugly, though, like the time I lost a little tennis tournament (summer after seventh grade) to my good friend Paul Misch.  I was so overcome by the loss that I broke down and cried, sobbing, head down on the net, inconsolable.  Paul--bless his heart--came over and put his hand on my shoulder and told me it was all right.  Comfort.  I think he was more baffled than anything.  What is this Dyer kid doing?  I finally settled down and accepted my second-place ribbon (don't be impressed--only four of us were in the tournament).

About the only think I liked about Monopoly (when I wasn't winning--which, as you've seen, was virtually never) was GO.  If I could just get to GO, you see, I would get another $200 and I could keep playing.  GO meant hope.  Hope meant yet another chance to destroy my brothers.

Nowadays, I miss GO.  Wouldn't it be nice if there were milestones in your life--at regular intervals--when some John Beresford Tipton (old TV show The Millionaire--see link: Tipton & THE MILLIONAIRE) would send his emissary to your door;  He knocks three times.  You answer.  You see.  You smile.  It's that guy again!  You open the door.  He says, It's time.  Here's a little something to get you going again.  Two hundred dollars won't cut it anymore.  In our economy, we need GO PLUS.  So--what?--$2000?  $20,000?  That would be nice.  A fresh start, get some bills paid off, put a little aside, go to Yosemite ... go wherever.  Just go, go, GO!








Friday, June 15, 2012

Doodlebug: A Father's Nickname for His Son

As we near Father's Day, how can I not think of him?  Charles Edward Dyer, 1913-1999.  Always "Edward" or "Ed" (he hated "Charles").  A wonderful man, a great father.  Yet, like many of us children, I suspect, I didn't really know him very well at all.  And some of the things I didn't know were both surpassingly simple, surpassingly complex--at the same time.

For example ...

I can not remember the time before my dad called me "Doodlebug," though sometimes he added some initials: "D. J. Doodlebug."  It is the first name I remember, the last name he ever called me.  Not long before he died, I walked into his room at the nursing home where he'd gone to die--all systems failing--and he brightened a moment, the drug haze dissipating, and he said, "There's old Doodlebug!"

When I was a child, I had no idea what that word doodlebug meant.  (And the initials D. J.?  No clue.)   I remember asking him once, and he said I reminded him of a little train, a doodlebug, chugging around the house at full steam all the time.  That sounded all right.  Sort of flattering ... sort of not, too.

Later, after he died, thinking about that name, I checked the OED, and, Dad, are you sure about that train?  Here are the other meanings of that word--and how, I guess, they've applied to me.

1. a tiger-beetle, or the larva of this or various other insects.  Now, Dad, this one is not very nice.  Most of the colloquial uses are derisive ("You blamed doodle bug, yuh!" from C. E. Mulford's Orphan), but there's also a mention in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Tom, wondering if a witch has interfered with his plans, consults a doodlebug: "Doodle-bug, doodle-bug, tell me what I want to know!"  The bug emerges a moment, sees Tom, darts back in the ground.  I loved Tom Sawyer as a kid (our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Rockwell, read it to us after lunch--if we were "good").  I wanted to be Tom--to sneak out at night, have adventures, escape from a cave where I was trapped with a killer.  Okay, maybe not that part ...  I do not remember Mrs. Rockwell reading the doodle-bug chant--but I must have felt a shock of recognition.  Was that the day I went home and asked Dad about the word?

2. a nickname applied to the German pilotless plane or flying bomb of the war of 1939-45.  Dad was in World War II, both theaters.  He landed at Normandy some days after D-Day.  He surely knew this awful definition.  Maybe he foresaw my adolescence?  When I would set out to destroy so much that mattered?  Did he know that you can not reassemble everything?  That some things stay broken?  By the way, the first published use of the word in this meaning was in June 1944.  I was born five months later.

3. a divining rod or other device supposed by prospectors to indicate the presence of oil, minerals.  So, Dad, in what sense was I (am I? have I ever been?) a divining rod?  Well, let's stretch the metaphor: I'm now a book critic, looking for treasure on printed pages.  I hope I employ tools, though, that are a little more reliable than a forked stick?

4. a prospector for oil, minerals, etc.  (See #3)

5. a midget racing car.  Hence, transf., any small vehicle: spec (a) Railways a "New Style" or similar locomotive; (b) Mil. a reconnaissance car or tank; (c) a tractor of truck modified to increase its performance.  Well, this is the one you told me about, Dad, among the possibilities the least disturbing!  I did indeed do a lot of running around as a kid--a lover of summer, wishing I were Tom Sawyer, energy sufficient to power a tractor or a train.  (And where, Dad, has that gone?)

Dad didn't really have firm nicknames for my two brothers, one younger, one older.  I'm not sure why.  But I think they've missed out on something.

I still sign "Doodlebug" on all the letters to my mom (sometimes with the mysterious "D. J." as well).  My heart leaps up when I behold the word in print somewhere.  And when I think of my father, lying there near death, his great athlete's body betraying him, his bright, educated mind struggling to comprehend, his fear surely his greatest enemy, I wonder how he could find the strength to summon that word once again, that word that brought a smile to my face, then broke my heart.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Stick or Slush?"


Hiram, Ohio.  1959.  I am 15 ...

Dan: My dad just got a new car.

Friend: Stick or slush?

Dan: Slush.

Friend: Too bad.

Dan: Yeah.

It was important then--in 1959--that I knew how to carry on a moderately informed conversation about cars.  Guys needed to know stuff like that, and I pretty much didn't.  I knew the difference between the hood and the trunk, headlights and taillights.  But not really a lot more.  But I paid attention when other guys talked.  Picked up what I could.  Tried not to sound too stupid.  Explored the dimensions of agreeing with the guys who knew the most.  A good strategy.

Here's something that happened once.  In the back of our high school science room (that's right--room, not rooms: ours was a small school) was an old automobile engine, cleaned and mounted and on display.  I don't know what it was doing there, but I would sometimes sit back there and look at it and wonder how-the-hell anyone could ever take one of those apart, figure out what was wrong, put it back together.  It seemed harder than sentence-diagramming, which was giving me enough trouble.  (It's hard to diagram the suckers when you really don't know what, oh, a predicate is.)

One day, two behemoths were back there, seated near me (never a comfortable feeling), and I was avoiding eye contact by pretending to do homework.  (We were enjoying that splendid time after a teacher has just said, "Why don't you take the last ten minutes and get started on your homework?"  Later, a teacher myself, I learned what such a question means: I've run out of stuff to do and ten minutes still remain in the period!)  I could hear that they were debating something about the engine.  About the name and location of some part or other.  They couldn't agree; things were heating up.  Then one of them tapped me on the shoulder.  "Hey, Dyer."

"Yeah?"  I sounded cool, detached, competent.

"Where's the thingamabobby?"  (I can't remember the name of the real part.)

Both of them, faces red, were glaring at me.  Both of them could crush me like a cardboard coffee cup.  And then--do I have some Huck Finn blood in me?--I asked the bigger of the two, the guy I knew would win a fight between them, "Where do you say it is?"  He pointed.  "You're right," I said.  And turned back to my homework.

"See!" brayed the bigger guy.  "Told ya!"

And I lived to lie another day.

So ... the question stick or slush? was a question about the transmission: Did my dad's new car have stick (manual transmission) or slush (automatic)?  And--in 1959 Hiram--if you drove a car with slush, well, you were something less than a man.  I mean, it wasn't even driving if the car shifted for you!

In Driver Ed class, we used a stick.  Oh, were there some funny times in that class, the car bucking along like a spastic bronco while some novice tried to adjust the gas-clutch to get a smooth start.  I didn't have any trouble.  Not because I'm a gifted driver, mind you, but because back in eighth grade, Johnny Kelker (a friend) had a dad who let him drive their car (stick) up and down their long driveway.  Johnny liked to see if he could get it into third before he hit the garage.  And every now and then, when Johnny's dad was up on the Hiram campus (he was the Admissions Director), Johnny would let me try it.  And so by the time I got to Driver Ed, I had done all my bucking and snorting back in Johnny's driveway.

For years, I always had stick in our cars.  Always.  (That's why I'm so, you know, virile.)  And then in 1969  I started going out with Joyce Coyne, whose family always owned slush.  Teaching Joyce to drive stick in my new Volkswagen Fastback (dark green) was, well, humbling, educative (for me: Don't speak to your lover, I learned, the way you would to one of your brothers--or your seventh grade students), exciting, terrifying, sometimes jolting.  Teaching someone how to start from a stop on a hill ... that requires patience, not just from the teacher but from the lines of people behind who are trying to get somewhere important.

As the years went along, it became a bit more of a problem to get stick in our cars.  Toyota still offered its five-speed (which we loved) in its Corollas until fairly recently, and we always went with it.  But now it's all slush, all the time.  And I miss it--a lot.

The last stick I owned took me to Massachusetts a few years ago when my younger brother was about to undergo prostate cancer surgery (which I'd "enjoyed" in 2005).  I went out to help out.  His son, Rick, a new driver, was very interested in stick, so I took him to a large empty parking lot near a church one weekday, and we bucked and snorted around a bit before he got the hang of it, and off we went onto the roads of Lexington, where we sent a number of Redcoats and others fleeing for their lives.

I'll end with one of my favorite "stick" stories.  Back in the spring of 1999, I was chasing Mary Shelley's story around Europe--England, France, Switzerland, Italy--and Germany, where stands Castle Frankenstein (though its tie to her story is tenuous, at best).  I took a train from Florence to Munich, where I rented a car at the airport to drive around and see relevant sites (the castle, the Rhine, and others).  While I was waiting in line, I heard the clerk telling people in front of me that they had only standard transmissions.  Stick!  Some people turned away, grousing, thinking of long bus and train rides.  I strode to that desk, flashed my license, signed those forms, headed for that lot, picked out that car, fired her up, roared out onto German roads like the Stick Stud I've ever been!

PS--If you're interested in Mary Shelly, see my Kindle book: THE MOTHER OF THE MONSTER