Dawn Reader

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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

In Virginia, with the Bard

Joyce and I took a dash south last week--down to Staunton (pronounced STAN-tun), Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center and their amazing replica of London's long-gone Blackfriars Theater.

Let's back up a moment ...

"Old" Blackfriars
Many people associate Shakespeare with the Globe, which, of course, is where he spent most of his career.  But, earlier, he had worked at other venues (The Theatre, The Curtain).  It was not until 1599 that the Globe opened on the south bank of the Thames; by then, Shakespeare had been in London for at least a decade.  Nearly ten years later, Shakespeare's company--the King's Men--purchased a former church property, a large hall once used by the Dominicans (who wore black--thus: "the black friars"), whose property King Henry VIII had seized long before.  And Blackfriars would become the indoor site for productions.  (The Globe, you remember, was open to the elements--as is the new Globe now standing on the South Bank.)

The original Blackfriars included any number of features from the Globe (trap doors, balconies, entrances at Right and Left, etc.), but it also had candlelight--softer lighting effects.

Blackfriars in Staunton
Okay.  In Staunton, as I said, is a replica of the Blackfriars--a little smaller, but correct in most details.  The lighting is set at "candle level," and remains on throughout the productions.  But the ASC makes every effort to perform the way the King's Men would have.  Musicians perform before and after the show (and during, at times); characters play multiple roles; there is very little scenery; costumes are minimal; cross-gender casting; much interplay with the audience, a few of whom sit on the stage (at Right and Left).

We've seen two shows there--Titus Andronicus and The Two Noble Kinsmen.  Both are rarely performed, thus: the dash to Virginia last week.

Kinsmen is probably Shakespeare's final play, co-written with John Fletcher, his successor at the Globe.  It was likely written around 1613-1614, a couple of years after The Tempest, and exists today because of a quarto (small-size) publication from 1634.

It's the story of a couple of cousins (the "kinsmen" of the title) who are great friends, great warriors.  But ... they fall in love with the same woman (at first sight, of course!), and that divides them and introduces the horrible moral quandary at the heart of the play.  The kinsmen are captives, and Theseus (yes, that one!) declares that one may marry the woman; the other must die; she must choose.  (And she likes them both.)

There's not much of a subplot.  The jailer's daughter falls for one of the kinsmen--an impossible love because of their differences in rank, so she goes mad until her loved ones figure a way to convince her that her former boyfriend (who shares her rank) is in fact the kinsman she has fallen for.

The play--like others of Shakespeare's later career (Cymbeline, for example)--features some "greatest hits" from his earlier work--characters in disguise, a mad scene (Kinsmen's mad scene makes Ophelia's look like a middle-school snit), love at first sight (common in the comedies), and so on.  And the poetry is not all that memorable but serviceable.

At one point, one of the kinsmen--Arcite--it talking to the audience and says this:

Such a vengeance
That, were I old and wicked, all my sins
Could never plucke upon me.

At that very point, the actor was downstage, looking right at me as he spoke the lines (we were in the front row)--and indicated  to the rest of the audience with his body language that it was I he was using for an example.  Lots of mirth.  I gave him a thumbs up.  All in good fun, being called "old and wicked," right?  (How did he know?)

It's always a great experience, seeing a play at Blackfriars.  The cast was strong, the play moving, the production lots of fun--even though the story ends on a dark note.  Just like life itself.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Skin Game

I never went to a dermatologist until I was in my 50s.  For decades I'd ignored my skin, running around in the Oklahoma and Texas and Ohio sun, playing baseball, riding a bike, playing tennis, just being outdoors, which, in my boyhood, was far preferable to being indoors, where chores lay waiting for me in my mother's imagination.  Seeing me would activate them--and me.  So ... outdoors it was.

Decades passed.

And then I began noticing ... strange ... things on my face.  Nothing too scary.  Nothing like that illustration in our old high school health book that showed a "black mole."  That page was so gross I could not look at any other.  No, my ... strange ... things were flaky or red ... or otherwise creepy.  So I figured it was time for the dermatologist.

And there I met for the first time--but not the last; oh, no, not the last--that can of Freeze-O (my affectionate name for it) which the doctor aims at spots on my face and blasts away like Flash Gordon.  The first time this happened, I was not too alarmed: The spot was over by a sideburn, barely visible.  And in a week or so, it was gone, and only smooth skin remained.  Frozen magic!

But in subsequent trips, he's tried the Freeze-O elsewhere on my face (almost always my face)--cheek, forehead, chin, and--my favorite of all: nose.  The past few years it seems as if it's always my nose, one of the most sensitive places on the body, and, of course, the most visible.  So I go to the dermatologist; he looks at my nose--maybe strokes it; shakes his head, sighs a little, reaches for the can of Freeze-O, which Igor has been holding the whole time, tells me to close my eyes, reminds me this will sting a little (it stings a lot), then fires away, decorating my nose with a splash of red that lingers for about a week or so before morphing into a handsome scab that sometimes falls off, sometimes remains until Impatience decides to act.  Afterwards, the nose knows that something is better and shows off some new baby skin.  For a couple of months.  And then something rough and patchy begins to form again.  And soon, I know, I will be phoning the dermatologist and facing the Freeze-O.

I've a few skin biopsies, too (one has left a permanent scar in my upper arm--it was benign, so I will tolerate the scar).  One--right in the middle of my forehead--turned out to be a squamous cell carcinoma (cancerous, but not (yet) deadly).  It required a technique called Mohs Surgery, which I underwent in late July 2004.  The procedure was successful, but for a couple of months my forehead looked as if it had been a practice field for Victor Frankenstein.  In September, my students--kindly, kindly--told me they didn't notice a thing when I told them about it.  But this confirmed only a few things for me: (1) they were kind; (2) they were blind; (3) they didn't look at teachers over the age of twenty-five.  I could have had a child-sized demon emerging from my forehead--half in, half out--red and raging, and they just would not have noticed.

The scar has healed well--looks, actually, as if it belong there when I frown, which I do now and then, especially when I feel and/or see something on my face that is going to require some blasts of Freeze-O to eliminate.

PS--I write this today because my face--and yes, my nose--are now featuring the effects of a visit to the dermatologist last Tuesday.  I'm in the demon-emerging-from-the-forehead phase ...

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 35

And so she did—and so did I.  She did not convince me to go (she never could do that), but when she revealed her plan—sneaking aboard—and proceeded to put that plan into action, I had to go with her.  I could not let her go on that yacht alone.  Not and still be someone I consider a friend.
And that’s what happened.  She’d heard him tell the others where his boat was moored—and what its name was: Don Juan.[i]  She hurried toward the dock, me reluctantly trailing behind, swiftly found the boat—a very large cabin cruiser.  Incredibly, no one was watching the gangplank, and Harriet raced right up, right on board.  With me, reluctantly, behind.  No one seemed to be around, so we quickly found place to hide in one of the small closets below.
“Harriet, this is insane,” I whispered to her.  “We are going to get in so much trouble—whether or not they find out we’re here.  And what if we don’t get back by 5:30?  We’re supposed to meet Father and go to supper.  If we’re not there, he will be insane with worry …”
“Shhhh,” she replied.  “It’s all going to work out.”
But, of course, it didn’t.


Trouble began almost immediately.
We had not been in the closet long when we began to hear other people come aboard—lots of other people.  They were loud and had obviously been drinking.  In the dark we could hear the clink of ice cubes going into glasses, the sound of bottle caps being twisted off and tossed aside.  These were not comforting sounds, not to me.
“We have got to get out of here,” I whispered.
Harriet ignored me, then pushed the door open, just a crack, to see what was going on.  I edged closer, too.  And what I saw confirmed the message my ears had received: Lots of college-age people, bottles of alcohol everywhere, the smell of something a number of them were smoking, loud laughter.  Someone moved near us and turned on the sound system, the booming music soon drowning out all conversation.
And then I felt something I did not want to feel: The boat was moving!
“There’s still time!” I urged Harriet.  “We can run … we can jump onto the dock.”
“It’s all right,” she said.  “We’ll be back in a couple of hours, and your father will never know.”
As if Father was what I was worried about.
I wanted to run myself, to sprint through the people, out to the deck, where I could jump to safety—but I knew I could not leave Harriet there alone.  What would I tell Father?  And her mother?  And—even worse—what would I tell myself if something happened to her?  I simply couldn’t run off and leave my best friend, my twin, aboard a boat full of drunks.  And so I stepped back into the closet and settled to the floor and waited.  Something, I knew, would happen.  But what?

            [i] Ed. note: This, of course, was the name of the legendary romantic lover.  But, ominously, it was also the name of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s boat, the boat that capsized on 8 July 1822.  And Shelley—Mary’s beloved husband, who could not swim—drowned.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sleeping ...

I've never had trouble sleeping--not, anyhow, since I have been aware what sleeping is.  (Of my infancy, my mother probably could tell you different stories.)  Even back in my Oklahoma boyhood, when it was a gajillion degrees on an August night (in the daze before AC)--so hot that we had on our beds only the fitted sheets (no top sheet, no blankets, no spread)--I would fall into the Sleep of the Innocent moments after the light went out.

Not that I was an Innocent, mind you.  Any old friends from Enid, OK, days could confirm that I was, at times, a Naughty Child, one who threw rocks, lied, sneaked off to see movies my parents had forbidden me to see, figured out how to coax Cokes from the machine without offering a financial sacrifice, didn't always do homework, punched both brothers (older and younger) with impunity, stole cookies from my mom's hiding place, charged donuts at the grocery (that one caught up with me at the end of the month), borrowed dimes I never paid back (or intended to), "borrowed" a dollar now and then from my mother's purse and my older brother's room (he hid his money under a serape that lay atop his dresser drawers), shoplifted Snickers, stabbed with a butcher knife the (stolen) basketball of a guy I hated.  That one, I know, is borderline psycho, and worth an entire entry of its own.  For now, just take my word for it: He deserved it.  And so did his basketball.

But even amidst all that--I shushed my feeble Jiminy Cricket as it chirped ineffectually at me.  And slept like a drugged baby.

And on into junior high and high school, where, of course, my crimes against humanity grew darker.  We won't get into them.  Well, only to say that they involved lies, theft--just about all the relevant Ten Commandments, except murder (though I certainly thought about it--"As he thinketh in his heart, so is he." Prov. 23:7) and that other one that requires the cooperation of a willing partner, of whom there were none, at least none willing to break Commandment Seven with me.  In adolescence, the Dark Side often doesn't have much trouble convincing you to Come On Over.

Still--slept like a drugged baby, all through junior high and high school.

The same in college, where the evils of alcohol, tobacco (not firearms), late nights, and galloping libido combined to cause St. Peter to flip over his pencil so that its eraser was ready to go should I croak in college.

Slept like a drugged baby.

And on into my first job, teaching seventh grade English in Aurora, Ohio, where I was far too busy to sin (I smoked, drank beer for a while--but not much: I couldn't afford those habits for long).  And I slept far too much: I got in trouble a couple of times for showing up late to school, my face creased with sleep, my hair steadfastly refusing to obey any efforts of brush or comb.  (It wasn't long, though, that, chastened, I became one of the earliest to arrive at school.)

Slept like a drugged baby.

Until, oh, about 2011.  Between 1966 and 2011, I was pretty much teaching every year, so busy (classes, papers, play practices, meetings, grad school, family) that I was always tired, and there was that nightly question: Will I fall asleep before I finish getting into bed?

I retired (for the second time) in June 2011, and since then I've not slept nearly so well.  Some physical/medical changes account for some of it, of course.  I'm older, have had prostate problems, so like most other guys over the age of sixty, I receive, during the night, urgent messages from the Nether Regions that it's time to go do something.  Sometimes several times per night.  Back in bed, I find it's not so easy to sleep.  (No more drugged baby--more like a hyperactive one.)

Also compounding the problem: Worry.  Health.  Aging.  Regret.  Fear.  And, of course, that ultimate conversation I will have with Mr. G. Reaper when he decides it's time for The Visit.  Mr. Reaper, always grim, generally gets what he came for.

I haven't taken any narcotics (the good kind) yet. (Meaning #2 on Dictionary.com: 2. anything that relieves pain or induces sleep, mental numbness, etc.)  But I've thought about it.  Sometimes I just can't get up in the morning because I have slept so poorly.  And Dawn Reader becomes Later-in-the-Morning Reader.  So if some meds will KO me, maybe it's time to get clocked.

Or ... maybe I just need to revert to my Younger Self.  Snatch a few Snickers bars at the Acme?  Or stab some creep-o's basketball?  Lie a little, throw a few rocks.

And sleep, once again, like a drugged baby.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 34

It’s odd how that can happen in your life.  Just one thing.  Just one little thing you do—or don’t do—and everything else, for the rest of your life, becomes very, very different from what you had imagined or planned.
I won’t say that what Harriet did that day began as something harmless.  It bothered me, right from the first moment.  But because of what she did, I found myself in a position of having to make a choice—a choice I never wanted to make.  But had to.  And it was then—when I made that choice—that everything changed.
We were in one of the souvenir shops—one of the many souvenir shops—and Harriet and I had sort of drifted to different parts of the store.  She’d gone to look at clothes; I was looking at a little display of books about Put-in-Bay and the other Lake Erie Islands.  I’d already read the old book about the islands that I’d gotten for my birthday years before—Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands from 1898.  But I was looking through some of the others when Harriet rushed over.
“You’ll never guess!” she gushed.
“A boy?” I said.
“Yes!” she cried, ignoring the sarcastic tone in my voice.  “But not just a boy,” she went on.  “The boy.”
“What does that mean?”
“I mean,” said Harriet, displaying the false patience of someone who can’t believe how someone she’s talking to can be so stupid, “that he is the one I’m going to marry.”
“All right,” I said.  “Are you asking me to be your maid of honor?”
“I don’t need to ask that, do I?” she said, suddenly serious.  “I mean, we’re going to do that job for each other, right?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to figure out how I could change the subject—though I hadn’t had any luck doing that the past two days.  Harriet’s ability to talk about anything but boys had totally vanished.
“Anyway,” she went on, after a deep sigh, “he’s standing right over there”—I looked; he was clearly of college age—“and he’s got a boat!
“Lots of people have boats,” I said.
“I mean he has a big boat, a … what do you call it?”
“A yacht?”
“That’s it!” she cried.  “A yacht.”
“That’s nice,” I said, turning again toward the book I was holding.
Harriet yanked it out of my hand.  “And he’s going to go around to some of the other islands this afternoon and will be back here by five.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I heard him inviting some people over there to join him.”
I looked.  The “people” were others of college age—young men and women.
“Harriet, he didn’t invite you, did he?”
“Not exactly.”
I looked at her, waiting.
“I mean, he invited everyone around there—in a voice loud enough for me to hear, so …”
“So you figured he meant you, as well?”
“Of course!” she chirped.
“Harriet”—I tried to sound serious—“he did not invite you.  He doesn’t know you.  You’re a sixth grader, and—”
“Soon a seventh grader.”
“Whatever.  You can’t seriously be thinking of going?”
“I am,” she said.  “And you’re going with me.”

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dream, Dream, Dream

I don't know when I've had a good dream.  Lately, it seems, my dreams feature the usual Freudian messes: insecurity (I'm in a classroom; things are out of hand), incompetence (I'm in the outfield; I pick up the ball; I can't throw it), lack of preparation (I'm in a play; I don't know my lines).  Or I'm involved in something vaguely--or patently--felonious.  Even homicidal.  (I know, I know--but we're being honest here.)

I had no dreams like that when I was younger--even the baseball dreams came later, after my "career" was over.  I remember, when I was younger, that I sometimes (often?) felt regret when I woke up.  Damn, it wasn't real!

But now?  It's relief I feel--sometimes unspeakable relief--when I wake up and discover that I've not just thrown a kid off the roof of the school (I exaggerate), or killed a guy because he was trying to kill me, or committed some other outrage that I will not confess to, even in a snarky blog post.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term nightmare back to about 1300:

a. A female spirit or monster supposed to settle on and produce a feeling of suffocation in a sleeping person or animal. 

Female, eh?  Oh, those guys who make up words and dictionaries--same sort of guys who blamed it all on a woman with an apple?  Anyway, I can't say that I've ever felt suffocated in a nightmare.  Just, you know, terrified?  Heart-pounding, BP-soaring, sweat-soaking terrified.

In the spring of 1958, I was finishing my 8th grade year.  In April that year, the Everly Brothers, Don and Phil, released "All I Have to Do Is Dream," a big hit for them.  By May it was the number one song in the country.  (Wanna see/hear it?  Link)  It was sort of a daffy song (the words gee whiz are in the lyrics!), a young man's lament about lying around all day thinking about his girlfriend.  (I can make you mine, taste your lips of wine, any time, night or day.)  In 1958, I thought that the wine part was a little naughty, you now?  Alcohol, I'd been taught, was the Sweat of Satan.  Though--I guess it wouldn't have been too bad to have a girlfriend, in 1958, who was, you know, a little naughty ...  Still, it's a young man's song about a young man's dreams.  Old men don't have gee whiz in their dream songs; they have what-the-*#*##*#*?

Everyone knows that dreams have figured prominently in religious history--we remember all the Joseph in Egypt stuff.  Hamlet confessed to his "friends" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has bad dreams.  Seems to me the whole play is one helluva nightmare: Dad murdered, Mom marries murderer, Hamlet kills girlfriend's father by accident, girlfriend commits suicide, school friends betray Hamlet, who arranges for them to die, Mom drinks deadly poison intended for Hamlet, Hamlet kills Stepdad, bodies all over the stage, invaders arrive at the end to take over the kingdom.)

As I think about it, Hamlet and I would have a lot to talk about, to share--though, obviously, his nightmares had a better script.  He might like to hear about mine, though, just for fun.  Of course, it would take me awhile to explain baseball to him ...

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 33

The next morning, we got up fairly early, found a place to eat breakfast, and then Father told us we could go off on our own for a while.  “Just,” he said, “make sure you stick together, all right?  I don’t want to see just one of you anywhere … agreed?”
We did.
“And we’ll meet for lunch right here about 11:45?”
We agreed.
So off we raced to walk up and down the streets of Put-in-Bay, window-shopping, really shopping, relaxing in the sun.  Near the waterfront was the small DeRivera Park, where we sat at a bench and relaxed, looking at all the pleasure boats docked, others coming and going.  In the distance we could see Middle Bass Island, not even a mile away, and, closer, the tall Perry Monument.[i]  But the best part?  Enjoying the great pleasure of being with my best friend.
But Harriet, it seems—the Harriet that I had known, anyway—had apparently been undergoing some sort of personality transplant in the last few weeks.  Her obsession with the high school boy aboard the Islander had not diminished at all—but it had spread, like a powerful virus, throughout her imagination and now, as we walked along the streets, virtually her entire conversation contained comments about the boys we saw.
And worse.  Several times she grabbed my arm and insisted that we follow one—or more—of them to wherever they were going.  But I always wrenched free, tried to invite Common Sense into our conversation.  But Harriet had broken up with Common Sense.  She was now completely under the spell of … Sex.
Let me remind you.  We had just finished the sixth grade.  We were eleven years old (would not turn twelve until later in the summer).  Although Harriet—I’ll confess—was starting to look … older than her age, she was still, at least in my eyes, a girl.  A child.  I, on the other hand, still looked like the same skinny, dark-haired girl I’d been for several years.  No one would look at me and mistake me for a high school student.  Possibly, they could with Harriet—but only “possibly.”
But we see the world only through our own eyes—we see ourselves only through those same eyes—and Harriet, that summer day on Put-in-Bay, was obviously seeing herself as, oh, a sophomore or junior in high school.  And she was acting as if her eyeballs were somehow able to leap from her head into the eye sockets of every high school and college boy we saw in the streets.
And, of course, just looking and commenting were not enough for Harriet.  So a few times she actually went up to a group of them (while I tried to find places to hide) and, very boldly, introduced herself and tried to become a part of the group.
I am relieved to report that no one really took her seriously, though there was one creepy sort of guy who followed us for a little bit, but we ditched him in a souvenir shop and ran laughing out into the street, where we could see him through the window.  He was walking around the store, trying to look casual, but also very obviously looking for Harriet.
And so the morning flew.
We met Father for lunch—as per agreement—and then while he went back to his room for a nap, Harriet and I went back into the streets for Round Two of our visiting the shops.  The streets after lunch we even more swollen with tourists.  Other ferries had arrived, people had come over in their own boats, and there was almost a festival atmosphere in the streets.  People enjoying sun and freedom and health and leisure.

And then Harriet did something that changed everything.

            [i] The monument, 325 feet high, erected in memory of the naval victory of Oliver Hazard Perry over the British during the War of 1812.  A very popular tourist attraction in Put-in-Bay.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gail Godwin's Novel, Edgar Poe's Raven, and My Face


I've been reading some of Gail Godwin's earlier novels as I prepare to review her new one in about a month for the Plain Dealer.  And the other day, I was reading A Mother and Two Daughters, a novel set in North Carolina that begins with the death of the father of the eponymous two daughters.  The rest of the novel chronicles their lives in the aftermath, revisits their earlier lives a bit, and concludes six years later with a huge family gathering out in the country.

Anyway ... late in the novel, the three women have gone to the seashore, where they visit their family cottage for the first time since the funeral.  Through a series of odd events, the place burns down.  And when she is returning home alone, Cate--the older sister--begins to experience some unusual physiological changes.

Feeling a sharp pain near her jaw, she figures she's having some sort of severe dental problem, but at the dentist's office, she hears this:

"... I'd say you'd be a good candidate for Bell's palsy."

"What's that?"

"Paralysis of the facial nerves.  ... I'm going to arrange for you to see a neurologist.  ... Whatever it is, the sooner we catch it, the more chance there is of a full recovery."

Full recovery?

"Am I having a stroke?" asked Cate (476).

Well, she subsequently learns that she does have Bell's, and as the novel winds down, we learn that her case has been clearing up--though there are some lingering effects.

These passages hit me personally.  For it was not all that long ago that I, too, had a surprise visit from Bell's palsy--a visit with lingering consequences.  Here is a passage I wrote about my experience in my memoir Schoolboy, available on Amazon/Kindle:

Fall 2003.  Western Reserve AcademyHudson, Ohio.
Men, for the most part, are strange creatures, truly!
— Moliere, Tartuffe, 1.6

I’d always intended to memorize “The Raven,” but I’d just never gotten around to it.  I knew others by Poe—“Eldorado,” “Alone,” “To Helen,” “Annabel Lee.”  Still, whenever I taught Poe, I told my students about this “Raven” ambition of mine.  They seemed mildly interested.  Polite.  One day I realized I was about to turn sixty and still hadn’t learned the lines.  Didn’t look as if I would.

Then in October, 2003, I was hit with the strangest damn thing.  I came home from school one afternoon, my mouth feeling dry.  So I rinsed it out, but when I tried to spit into the bathroom sink, water went everywhere. What the hell …?  I looked in the mirror.  The right side of my face appeared to be sagging.  I wasn’t sure what was wrong.  But I remembered I’d once had a sinus infection that had caused a similar distortion.  Perhaps another had arrived—though I didn’t feel ill at all.   Just some sharp soreness that was declaring itself behind my right ear and along my right jaw line.

That night Joyce and I went to the Ohio Theatre in downtown Cleveland to see a production of Tartuffe.  During the show Joyce noticed that my right eye was not blinking.  She was worried.  But afterwards—we stayed for all of it—I insisted on driving home.  (Sometimes I’m nothing if not a stereotypical, mulish American man.)  Still, privately, I was worried, too.  Why can’t I blink?  Every few seconds I had to use a finger to hold my eyelid shut.  If I didn’t, the eyeball dried quickly.  And hurt.

At home, Joyce wanted to take me to the ER.  I said it was probably just a sinus infection.  I’d wait till morning.

I slept well.  But I’m not sure how.  Was my eye open all night?  Or did I keep my hand on my eyelid the entire time?  In the morning my face was worse.  The entire right side would not obey a single command.  Frozen.  Dead.  While I was showering (and wondering if I’d had a mild stroke), Joyce called our doctor.  He quickly recognized the symptoms of Bell’s palsy—the paralysis of the facial nerve.  I’d never heard of it.  He told us it was not dangerous but sent us to the ER.  The physician there confirmed the diagnosis, prescribed Prednisone and an anti-viral.  He told me that no one is really sure what causes the condition (perhaps a virus?); there is no cure; it either goes away or it doesn’t.  It might take weeks.  Or months.  It’s like some surreal malady out of a Poe story, you know?  (“The Man with the Frozen Face”?)

The short course of Prednisone—intended to relieve the swelling and perhaps allow the facial nerve to function again—did nothing for my Bell’s.  But it did erase that Chilkoot-Pass pain in my left knee.  So I canceled the arthroscopic surgery I’d scheduled.  (The pain has not returned.)
My diary for those early weeks with Bell’s shows my continuing attempts to keep up with my normal activities.  Teaching.  Book-reviewing.  And it was not until a few days after my diagnosis that our family doctor told me I must keep my right eye taped shut, all day, all night, every day.  

This is not as easy as it sounds.  I bought gauze eye patches, but underneath I had to secure the eyelid with medical tape.  But the goddamn lid wanted to stay open, and if I didn’t tape it properly, it snapped back up like a disobedient window shade, and I had to re-do it.  I fussed with my eye many times per day.

We went to see a neurologist in Akron, a guy who didn’t seem too sure what to tell me.  He sent me to an ophthalmologist, who told me one of my options was to sew my eyelid shut.  I was getting frustrated.  Angry.  No one seemed to know what to tell me.  Tape the eye?  Don’t tape it?  Use eye drops?  Don’t use them?  Sew the damn thing shut?  In late October my diary was full of details about the successful or unsuccessful tapings of my eye.

And there were other nuisances.  I could no longer drive a car.  And because my lips were not cooperating with each other, I had to drink all liquids through a straw—even hot coffee, my constant morning companion.  Although I chewed mostly on the left side of my mouth, food oozed out on the right and chunks of chewings end up caught between my cheek and right jaw bone.  Kissing Joyce became awkward.  It was difficult to talk—my words beginning with f- didn’t sound right.  When I smiled, I looked freakish, and I considered whether it might be better just to put on a Phantom mask and be done with it.

By mid-November I realized I could not keep teaching.  Using my single eye to survey my class, to read papers, to keep up with the assignments—not to mention my book-reviewing.  (Feeling all day like an effete Polyphêmos.)  Talking remained difficult.  And some of my students were so uncomfortable with me that they avoided looking at me all period.  This was not good.   So I told the Academic Dean I was going to have to go on leave until I started recovering.  Most of my students professed sadness and regret, though I’m sure many were relieved that they didn’t have to look at my freaky face for a while.

Meanwhile, Joyce’s online research found the Facial Nerve Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, only about a hundred miles away.  She called a specialist there, Dr. Ernest K. Manders, who spoke with her at length.  He agreed to see me on 22 December.  He told me to fast the night before—just in case I elected to undergo a minor surgical procedure.

Dr. Manders, a wonderful man, was very encouraging.  He thought I would recover most if not all of my facial function.  But it would take time—maybe months, maybe more.  He believed I was a good candidate for an interesting surgery.  He would insert in my right eyelid a tiny gold weight that would permit me to blink properly, would end my daily battles with medical tape.  He performed the operation late that very afternoon.

It changed my life.  Within a day—once I removed the bandage, once the thick antiseptic ointment dissipated—I had both eyes back.  The world around me once again broadened and deepened.
But on our way home from the surgery, late in the evening, a mile or two from our house, a deer leapt into the side of our car.  We did not see her at all before the impact—there was no Oh, there’s a deer!  Look out!  Not until impact did we hear and feel her.  Then we saw her limp off into the woods.  Like that deer, our car would never again run just right.  And neither would I.

While I was recovering over Christmas vacation (now that I could use both eyes, I’d planned to return to teach in mid-January), I received a playful email from Suneil, one of my very fine students.  He was especially gifted in science and math (the other kids looked with awe upon him) but had been doing very strong work in English as well.  His email said something like this: I’ve learned about five stanzas of “The Raven.”  How many do you know?

Well, goddamn! I thought.  I wrote back to Suneil, told him I was going to start working on the poem, as well.  I promised myself that I would memorize one stanza per day until I’d learned all eighteen of them.  I kept the promise.  And on one of my first days back in class, Suneil and I recited the poem, alternating verses.  I made a couple of mistakes; he made none.  The students applauded.  And Suneil and I had a history.  The following year whenever I saw him on the campus, there was a current between us.  And later, when Joyce and I visited the Poe museum in Richmond, I bought and sent Suneil a necktie adorned with little ravens.

As I write this a few years later, I wonder: Why did Suneil do that?  Start on “The Raven”?  Tell me about it?  Did he know how I would respond?  That I would join him in the pursuit of the black bird?  And did Suneil—that bright, sensitive young man—somehow detect a way to heal me?

But I have not recovered completely.  I performed the facial exercises the therapist prescribed; I took monthly trips to Pittsburgh for tests on my progress.  Feeling and animation gradually returned to my face.  But during one trip in May 2004 I found that I had made only two percent improvement since the previous visit.  I was discouraged.  I’d been working hard, doing everything I was supposed to.  But I still had a total of just sixty-eight percent function.  I had an appointment for early July.  But, depressed, I canceled it; I have not gone back.

Today, I would guess I’m about at eighty to eighty-five percent.  It’s very unlikely that I will get any better.  I’ve learned to live with it.  To adapt.  People who’ve known me can see the difference, I’m sure, but people I’ve just met probably think I’ve just got a wry smile, a lazy eyelid.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Government Spending ... What if ... ?

The last few years--well, ever since the 2008 financial meltdown--some politicians have managed to push to the top of the national agenda ladder an item that doesn't perch there very often: government spending.  Somehow, our other pressing national concerns (employment, war, poverty, energy, immigration, education, health care, violence, global climate, etc.) must occupy lower rungs--or even get off the ladder altogether and move nearer the end of the line.

Of course, not all economists think government spending at a time like ours is a bad thing--principal among them, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who writes for the New York Times a couple of days a week.  But Krugman is a divisive, polarizing figure, so I'll not drag him into this (even though I just did).  Instead, I want to write briefly about how "government spending," like so many other words and phrases, means something different depending on where we stand.

First of all--it's evident that we all like government spending that benefits us, our loved ones, or causes we care about.  If you're on Social Security and Medicare (as I am), you think that spending on those programs is great.  (If you're twenty-two, working on your first job, you're probably not too crazy about those deductions from your paycheck: After all, you will never get old.)

And if you or your loved ones are in the military, you don't have a problem with military spending--with VA medical benefits--with military pensions.  My mother loves my dad's pension from the Air Force, benefits that compose a serious percentage of her monthly income.  But think about it: She's 93 years old (my dad died more than thirteen years ago); my dad retired from the Air Force back in the 1960s.  So for--what?--about a half century Mom has been receiving the financial benefits from  Dad's military service that ended long, long ago.  Fair?  Our family thinks it's great.  Someone else might wonder why he or she has to pay taxes to support some old woman in Massachusetts.  And, of course, if you're a pacifist, you have different thoughts altogether about the military items in the federal budget.

What if your local school receives state aid?  What if you're living on a pension from a teaching career that ended in 1997 (I am)?  What if they're paving the pot-holed street in front of your house?  What if you drive to work every day over a long bridge over a deep river?  What if you've lost your job and are having trouble finding a new one?  What if you attend a state university?  Or work at one?  What if your children are hungry?  What if you use your local library?  What if you have no private medical insurance and your kid gets injured?  What if you raise corn in Iowa?  What if your house catches on fire?  Or someone steals your car?  What if a new virus emerges?  What if you like your food inspected?  Your water?  What if you work for an aircraft company?  What if you drive on an interstate highway?  What if ... ?

Well ... it's pretty evident that we could continue with what-if's? for quite a while.

And my point should be pretty clear.  We like government spending that benefits us and/or our loved ones and/or the causes that are dear to us.  We dislike government spending that does not benefit us (and/or loved ones)--or that goes for causes that we disapprove of.

So what do we do?  We engage our imaginations (what if we were in the shoes of someone else?).  We summon our compassion, employ it, give it a full-time job.

And, sure, we try to curtail/prevent budgetary waste (but remember: one man's waste can be another man's salvation).  We recognize the fragility and evanescence of human life.  We are grateful for the benefits we enjoy, the improbable good fortune that brought us to this place at this time.

And, thinking all of this, how can we be anything but humble--deeply, deeply humble?

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 32

So school and holidays slowly returned to their normal patterns.  And I went to school, endured my classes (every now and then—something interesting; not as often as I wanted—especially after my year with Mrs. Falkner), played and talked with Harriet at lunch, then home to read and work in the basement, figuring things out … reading in the evening.  Doing what little homework I had to do.
Mrs. Eastbrook and Harriet were often at our house—or we were at theirs—and this was very comfortable for both Harriet and me.  We both liked the other’s parent.  It was a nice arrangement.  Two families joining.  Sort of.  At first, both Harriet and I had thought that maybe our parents would do more than socialize—that they’d marry, join our families officially.  But that didn’t seem to be happening, and pretty soon both Harriet and I were considering the other’s parent more like an aunt or uncle.  And Father and Mrs. Eastbrook acted toward each other—certainly around us—more like brother and sister, not a husband and wife.

Father always took his two vacation weeks in late July, and we always went to the same place, one of the islands in Lake Erie.   There are lots of them in the western part of the lake, ranging in size from Kelleys Island (nearly 3000 acres) to tiny ones where there’s hardly even room to take a single step. Some of the names are so strange, too: Mouse Island, West Sister, Green Island, Sugar Island.  Some are open to the public, some are owned by the  U. S. or Canadian government, some are refuges for birds and other wildlife, some are private property.  One—Rattlesnake Island, a creepy name—is a private club, the whole island.
Look at a map of Ohio, and you can see how we went.  We drove north on I-77 to the Ohio Turnpike, then headed west to Exit 6, where we picked up Ohio Route 53, drove north to Catawba Point.  There we caught one of the ferries—the Islander was my favorite—and chugged four miles to South Bass Island, usually called Put-In-Bay.  The trip on the water took only about twenty minutes.[i]
In 1995, the summer after sixth grade, I convinced Father—and Mrs. Eastbrook, too—to let Harriet go with us.  Her mother was a little reluctant—Harriet would miss some lessons, some club meetings—but when Father talked to her about all the exciting things we could do on Put-In Bay (and on the other islands, too), she finally gave in.
Father liked to get on the ferry before noon, and it was more than two hundred miles to Catawba Point from Franconia, so the night before we left, Harriet slept at our house so we could get an early start. 
In the middle of the night, I woke up thirsty and went down to the kitchen for a drink of water.  When I got back to my room, I could see in the dim glow of our nightlight that Harriet—though asleep—was twisting around on her bed and mumbling things I could not understand.
I went to her bed for a closer look.  Her eyes were open and were moving rapidly around.  The sounds she was making were louder, but still impossible to make any sense out of.
I leaned over to her and whispered:  “Harriet … Harriet … wake up.”
At first she did not respond to me at all, but when I repeated what I’d said—this time a little louder—she started up so suddenly that I yelped in surprise.
“Vickie!” she said.  “What are you doing?  You scared me!”
 “I scared you!” I cried.  “You scared me!”
“I did?”
“Yeah, you were twisting around on the bed, your eyes were swirling around, and—”
She sat up quickly and used both hands to smooth her long hair back out of her face.  “Oh, Vickie,” she said, “I was having the worst dream!”
“It wasn’t the monster again, was it?”
We heard the door open.  Father!
 “Girls?  Is everything all right?”  He flipped on the light.  “I heard some noises coming from here.”
 “I just had a bad dream, Mr. Stone,” said Harriet.  “I’m okay now.”
 “Are you sure?  Is there anything I can do?”
 “I’m sure.”  She made a laughing sound that I knew was not real.  “It was a dumb dream, really.  I’m sorry I woke you up.”  She sort of laughed again.
 “All right,” said Father.  “Be sure to let me know if I can do anything, though.”
He turned out the light, pulled the door softly shut.  I sat in bed beside Harriet; she was shivering with fright.  “Don’t talk about it too much,” I warned.  “I’ve heard that if you talk about a bad dream, you’ll remember it—maybe even dream it again.”
 “Okay,” she said in a very small voice.  “But there’s just one thing …”
 “There was a big snake thing, Vickie.”
 I waited.
 “It was in a lake,” she said.  “It was swimming across a great big lake.”

            [i] Ed. note: All of what Vickie says about the Lake Erie islands is accurate.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Motivational Posters

At the health club where I go in search of youth (my own--don't be nasty), the locker room walls feature, here and there, some framed motivational posters.  Near the locker I often use is the one you see above.  It shows a golf green, an umbrageous tree, a water hazard reflecting said umbrageous tree, a blue sky, soft sun. Nice place.

Below the image, the message: ACHIEVEMENT ... The achievement of your goal is assured the moment you commit yourself.


(A word, by the way, which the OED tells us comes from a Dutch word meaning doll's excrement.)

I guess if you're checking yourself in to a mental asylum, then your goal is assured the moment you commit yourself.  Otherwise ... are you kidding?

This morning I am going to commit myself to becoming the principal violinist for the Cleveland Orchestra.  And guess what?  That ain't gonna happen.  I could buy the finest Stradivarius, commit myself to years of lessons with the finest teachers (who, of course, would never waste their time with me), practice for endless hours every day (driving down local property values), audition with the finest orchestras.  And guess what?  The achievement of my goal is [NOT] assured ....  I don't have the talent, the ear, the fingers--none of it.

What the saying should add, of course, is this: The achievement of your sensible goal ...  But even then, of course, nothing is certain.  It is possible, even sensible, for example, that I could read the English translations of all the novels of Balzac (1799-1850).  I've done this sort of thing before.  I've read all of Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray, and I've begun Tobias Smollett.

But let's consider Balzac.  His masterpiece--The Human Comedy--comprises some ninety-five titles (novels, stories).  Possible, right?  Reasonable, maybe?  Gonna-do-it, probably not?  Wanna-do-it, kind of?  Wanna-have-done-it, definitely!  But I'm galloping toward dotage right now, and as my sturdy steed accelerates, and as he sniffs the finish line, he's not going to slow to a trot because I whisper in his ear, But I'm not finished with Balzac!

And, anyhow, I've got a problem with "motivational" stuff--books, speakers, recordings, videos, courses.  Posters.  I'm too ... unmotivated ... to check the research, but my sense is that motivational whatevers have very little effect--and what little effect they do have is evanescent.  You know, you hear the speaker and are animated by his energy, his message, his hopefulness, and you dance out of the session, energized, determined ... hopeful.

Or you look at that locker-room poster on the way out to the parking lot; you figure it's time to commit yourself to whatever.  You bounce out to your car, your mind awhirl with airy visions of the New You.  Out on the road, some asshole cuts in front of you.  Your imaginative energy begins generating new, non-transformative scenarios.  You picture trailing the asshole to his asshole house.  Where you confront the asshole in his asshole driveway.  Where the asshole either backs down--or you kick his asshole up into his brain, where it will find fraternity with his asshole neurons.

So by the time you get home from speech or health club, the transformative passion has faded, the venom of vengeance has dissipated.  And you pretty much settle for a nap instead.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 31

As our school years continued, the events of the third grade eventually faded from our conversations.  In some ways, it was just so strange—what I saw on Middle Island, what we all saw—that it couldn’t say alive for long.  People want things to be normal.  Explainable.  It’s how we get through the strangeness of life, by focusing on the normal, the everyday, the expected, the usual.  So we force the abnormal to retreat—to hide, not disappear.  For despite our fierce effort to ignore and conceal them, things do come back.  Especially the strange ones.  And the dangerous ones.
The adults did not tell us much about what had been going on there on Middle Island.  Father told me only that Dr. Eastbrook had been working there in a hidden laboratory, in the woods, underground.  He came out only at night, when it was safer because the island was “closed” to visitors after sundown.  He would slip across the bridge back to St. Mary’s, where he’d stored a car in a rented garage, and he’d drive over to Marietta or some other small town to get the supplies he needed, trying not to shop in the same places too often—not even get gas at the same station—so that he would not arouse too much curiosity among the local residents.  In St. Mary’s, it seems, virtually no one had ever even seen him.
Father would not tell me what his experiments involved.  But I was starting to figure some things out.  He must have been doing something illegal—otherwise, why all the secrecy?  Also—and this was the disturbing part—his experiments must have involved the bodies of animals, the remains of people.
When I got a little older, in fifth grade, I read The Island of Doctor Moreau, a novel by H. G. Wells, who also wrote The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.[i]  I turned pages eagerly, reading about a shipwrecked man, Edward Prendick, who finds himself arriving at an island, an island occupied by Dr. Moreau, the man who has rescued Edward at sea.  When he lands, he’s surprised to see odd-looking creatures.  He hears strange cries of unknown animals, at all times of day.  Later, in the woods one day, he sees a … man?  But is it?  Wells describes it as a “grotesque, half-bestial creature.”  Even later, Edward sees more of them.
Well, of course, he learns that Moreau has been conducting experiments.  Fusing animals and people—the “beast folk,” they’re called.  Horrified, he later manages to sail away in a small boat—though his rescuers refuse to believe his story.
And while I was reading that book, how could I not think about Middle Island?  And Dr. Eastbrook?  And, of course, Blue Boyle.

            [i] Vickie is correct.  Wells published this novel in 1896.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tenure: A Case of Cliche?

Wherever we stand along the political continuum, we have to resist the tendency--the passion?--to reduce to cliche and caricature those who are standing elsewhere.  Those who are opposed to welfare programs, for instance, like to point to some flagrant examples of welfare cheats (ignoring the far greater problem of, say, cheaters in the financial industry--and in every other arena of human endeavor, for that matter).  Those who are opposed to firearms sometimes characterize gun-owners as slack-jawed cretins who value their right to bear arms more highly than the rights of others to draw breath.  And so on.

I mention this because of some conversations I've heard and read recently about teacher tenure.  Actually, they are conversations and comments I've heard for decades.  Those who are opposed to tenure for public school teachers (or university professors) like to say things like I'd like to have a lifetime guarantee in my job.  Or complain about those teachers who, having earned tenure, transform immediately into slackers who phone it in the rest of their careers.  (See the image above!)

So ... some thoughts about teacher tenure.

  • First of all, tenure is not a lifetime guarantee.  The law in Ohio when I was teaching (1966-1997) specified that tenure was no protection in cases of (1) incompetence, (2) moral turpitude, (3) insubordination.  In other words, tenure did not protect me from dismissal on grounds that can lead to the dismissal of anyone else in any other position or profession.  It's true that superintendents and school boards were often hesitant to go after tenured teachers. (Hearings could be nasty; negative publicity benefited no one.)  But they could have ...
  • School boards can be unpredictable.  Most of the school board members I worked with over the years were dedicated folks who wanted to do what was best for kids.  But very few of them had ever taught one minute in a public school classroom and had only a flickering idea of what it was like to face classrooms of kids, day after day after day.  And--every now and then--a wacko would get elected, someone with an agenda, a vendetta, a dull axe in need of some serious grinding.  Tenure laws protected teachers from the whims and caprices and prejudices of exercised board members.
  • I also taught for about ten years in a private school that offered no tenure protection for teachers, all of whom were on "at will" contracts--i.e., either party could terminate at any time for any reason.  Job anxiety among faculty was much higher there than in the public school where I taught, and I watched with sadness the swift and surprising departure of some very fine colleagues.
  • For most of my career, I taught in a comfortable suburban middle school with a minimum of serious problems.  My experience, I am quick to acknowledge, was not typical.  But ... I can't think of a single example of a colleague who, having acquired tenure, just shut down and collected his or her paycheck.  There was too much peer pressure from the rest of us--too much artful and compassionate work from our building administrators--to allow that to happen.  Sure, some teachers were better than others; some worked harder than others--the same as in any other enterprise.  But I never really worked with that cliched tenured teacher who was just marking time.
  • A vaguely relevant aside: Movies about teachers invariably get everything wrong--and promote some stereotypes that have stuck.  Teachers with Nick Nolte (1986--image above) featured a character nicknamed "Ditto" who did nothing but pass out ditto worksheets all day; atop his desk towered a pile of papers, behind which he would sleep.  One day, Ditto dies in class, and no one even knows it until the end of the day.  And the more recent Bad Teacher (2011) with Cameron Diaz offered an even more egregious caricature of school life.  And the films that show crusading teachers are also invariably wretched and fail to use but a tiny fraction of the pixels that color an actual classroom.  (End of rant.)
  • The lazy tenured teacher cliche also implies that teaching is an easy job.  (Hey, all those weekends, vacations, summers!)  But as I've written in this space before, most of the teachers I knew worked seven days a week--plus evenings--during the school year.  And in the summers, many were going back to school, doing educational travel, reading, other school-related activities.  Firing the intellectual furnaces.  Sure, there were probably some who lay around all summer, sunbathing and letting their brains atrophy.  But not many--not where I taught.  And during the school year?  There's nothing easy about teaching six classes of eighth graders every day, about supervising the lunch room and the bus arrivals/departures and the torrents of humanity in the hallways between classes and the meetings and the paperwork and the parent conferences and the extra-curricular assignments and the ... I could go on.  I'd love to see some prominent critics of teachers give it a go for a few days ... weeks.  How long would they last?
  • I was very relieved back in the early 1970s when the board voted to give me tenure--not because it meant I could coast for a couple of decades but because it meant I was free to dedicate myself to my job without looking over my shoulder each spring to see if the Grim Reaper were in the building.  Yes, other people in other jobs have that worry--that constant worry about job security.  But is that a good thing?  Instead of whining about teacher tenure, shouldn't we look at it as an opportunity that employers should offer to all workers?  Do a good job, keep your nose clean--your pants zipped, keep a civil tongue in your face, and I won't fire you!  Sounds like a good, humane contract to me.  For everyone.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 30

I found somehow the energy to sit up, relieved to see the fog lifting, all throughout the woods.  Sunlight swayed down through the trees like bright sheets of cloth.  I heard the voices of children, behind me in the woods, calling my name.  I cried, “I’m here!  Over here!
And then they were around me, helping me to my feet, their voices chirping at me like birds.  And Mrs. Falkner held me tight, hugging me to her and saying, “Oh, Vickie, we were so worried, so awfully worried!
And then someone saw the sack.
Or maybe smelled it.
The sack that Blue Boyle had dropped over by the grave marker.  We all moved slowly over toward it, the stench strengthening with every step.  We stood in a silent circle around it, breathing through our mouths.
Mrs. Falkner reached out for it, pulled it to her, lifted it a little, opened it.
And then did something I’d never before seen an adult do.  She screamed.
The sack fell from her hand, and before she could turn us away we saw.  We saw.
Tumbling out into the grass near the grave were the broken bodies of animals.  Our lost dogs and cats—or pieces of them—the ones we’d thought had run away, the ones we’d grieved for, now lay at our feet, crawling with vermin, their eyes staring blankly toward the sky, the woods.  Toward us.
And then we were all screaming and running down the road.  A race that slowed only when Mrs. Falkner’s piercing voice called for us to stop.

We went back to the bus in a silent cluster, no one drifting far from the group.  Hopping along with us, from tree to tree, as we advanced … a sparrow.  Now, I know: Sparrows look alike to people who don’t study them.  But I was certain—as certain as I was of what I had just experienced back in the woods—that this was the same sparrow I’d seen in her nest, back at the Refuge Headquarters.

The driver took us back into St. Mary’s, straight to the police station only a couple of blocks away.  Where we told our horrifying story to some very worried officers.

It took some months before I was able to find out much more about what had happened that day.  Father was not eager to tell me much about it—parents always keep from their children information that they think will upset or harm them.  The sort of information, in other words, that we most want to know.
It seems that Dr. Eastbrook had constructed some kind of laboratory, concealed there below ground in the woods of Middle Island.  There, he was doing experiments that involved the bodies of dead animals—including human beings.
I had read about what used to be called “Resurrection Men.”  These were people in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth century who supplied surgeons with dead bodies to study and to learn from.  It was illegal to do this.  (The only legal bodies were those of executed criminals—but there just weren’t enough of them to supply the doctors’ needs.)  But how can you learn about the workings of a human body, the surgeons reasoned, if you can’t ever study the inside of one?
So the Resurrection Men visited cemeteries at night, stealing bodies, delivering them to physicians, who would pay a lot to acquire them.    This went on until the law changed.
But what was Dr. Eastbrook doing with the bodies?  No one would tell me—if anyone knew.
And what was Blue Boyle doing there?  The answer to this question was an odd one.  No one believed me.  They thought I was mistaken, or frightened, or deluded by something I’d only partially seen in the fog.  Blue Boyle?  What would a third-grade boy be doing on Middle Island with Dr. Eastbrook?  A third-grade boy who was six feet tall?  Impossible.  I was just wrong, that’s all.  Just plain wrong.
But I knew what I’d seen.  And I had seen him.  He had spoken to me.  Maybe even saved me.  So I had no question whatsoever.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Peanut, Peanut Butter!

Have I written about peanut butter before?

I don't care.  I'm writing about it again--mostly because last night I once again humiliated myself in front of the TV, a table knife stuck in the mouth of a large jar of Jif Extra Crunchy, the knife emerging continually, the knife bearing on its shameless blade a shameless slab of Extra Crunchy, said slab deposited in my mouth by said shameless blade, which, scraped against my lower teeth, cleansed itself of the shameless slab, which my teeth and tongue and ptyalin proceeded to process so that the shameless blade could quickly arrive again with another shameless slab ... and on and on until the jar was cleansed. And I was both satiated and shamed.

But don't be too judgmental: It wasn't a full jar, not really.

I cannot resist peanut butter.  I cannot remember when I have not loved it.  We always had Peter Pan around our house--in the big cans.  (This sounds familiar: I know I've written before about cans of Peter Pan.  Too bad.  Maybe I'm as addicted to writing about pb as I am about eating it?!  When I just searched Google for an image, the one that came up was the very one I'd posted on a blog some months ago.  Tough.)

Some pb memories:

  • I carried it my school lunch, every day, grades 1-12.  My mother--who was a teacher, too--very quickly taught us to make our own lunches (the night before), so I swabbed Peter Pan (Smooth) on a piece of Wonder Bread (the only wonder: that it didn't rip apart while I was spreading the pb), put another piece of WB on top, cut them in two (diagonally, as my mom insisted), wrapped it in waxed paper, put it in a lunch bag (I did have a lunch box for a while, but I was forever leaving it at school), tossed in an apple: LUNCH!
  • Throughout my thirty-year public school teaching career, I carried it to school, every day.  By then I had matured and was preferring Crunchy to Smooth; by then I was making my own bread every week--whole wheat, sourdough--and I cut the sandwich straight across instead of the diagonal my mother had taught me (Rebel!).  Still--I tossed in an apple and a little container of yogurt (vanilla).  LUNCH!  (I also had a lunch boxy kind of thing I carried for a while, but I too often left it at school, so I went to brown-bagging.)
  • Early in my teaching career (for all the early years: from 1966 on), I had very little $$.  (My take-home, if I may remind you, my first year at Aurora Middle School was $168.42 on the 1st and 15th.)  One of my first purchases on payday?  A big jar of pb.  I knew that before the next paycheck arrived, I'd have little food--but if I had pb, I had a meal.
  • Between, oh, 1979 and 25 October 2005 (when the place closed forever, after nearly a century of operation) I went pretty much every day to Saywell's Drug Store in Hudson, a warm, old-fashioned place that still had a soda fountain and a few tables.  I sat at one of those tables almost every morning, and almost every morning I ate a toasted bagel with pb.  Smooth: It was all they had.  But when Mary Ann--one of the wonderful folks who worked there--found out I preferred Crunchy, she made special trips to the store to buy it.  Just for me.  That's the kind of place Saywell's was.  
  • BTW: Just searching Google about Saywell's, I found something I'd forgotten: Our son, when he was a reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal, wrote an emotional piece about the closing.  Here it is: Link.
  • The closing of Saywell's ended my daily pb consumption.  Still ... I always have a jar in the house, just in case.  (Dyer's Law: If you have a can of Campbell's tomato soup and/or pb in the house, you have food.)  Sometimes months  go by without the jar's emergence into the light.
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  • But every now and then (last night, for example), the pb does emerge, and I catch up on my ADCPB (Average Daily Consumption of PB).  Last night, I'm afraid, I ate so much that I will have to lay off for a few ... decades ... to get my average back to where it was.
  • Joyce loves pb, too.  Sometimes we scrap over who holds the knife.
  • Our son does not like it.  Doesn't like nuts of any kind.  So our particular peanut may have fallen close to the plant in some ways--but then rolled away a bit.
We went to the grocery store this morning, stocking up on staples.  Guess what's on the shelf ... right now?  Ready when we are?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Film, A Surprise ...

As I've been reading my way through the works of John O'Hara, I've also been viewing my way.  Like a number of his slightly older colleagues (Fitzgerald and Faulkner), O'Hara went to Hollywood a number of times to work on screenplays--and, in one case (The General Died at Dawn, 1936, starring Gary Cooper), to make a cameo appearance--he even delivered some lines and did pretty well. You can see him at the far right, just behind the blonde woman with the hat in the foreground.

The only film he received full screen credit for was Moontide, 1942, a film with lots of high hopes and a good cast.  But ... low-budget and (sad to say) bad writing doomed the film.

Several of his novels were converted into films--Ten North Frederick (1958), BUtterfield 8 (1960: Elizabeth Taylor won a best-actress Oscar), From the Terrace (also 1960--with young Paul Newman), and A Rage to Live (1965).

But O'Hara also contributed to a number of other films--either scenes or story ideas.  I just saw The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), a musical that was nothing much more than strung-together production numbers.  But--hey--you haven't seen anything until you've seen--in this film--Ernest Borgnine sing and dance!  (Borgnine's last film appearance was in Red, that Bruce Willis thriller/comedy a year or so ago.)

Another one I recently watched--and really liked was On Our Merry Way, 1948 (I was four!), a film with a lot of surprises.  Burgess Meredith plays a young newspaper man who's been lying to his wife (Paulette Goddard, who had once married Charlie Chaplin, for real) about his position at the paper.  She thinks he's the popular "Roving Reporter"; actually, he does want ads for lost pets.

But he manages to get a day's assignment as the Roving Reporter and goes around asking people how their lives have been affected by a child--a question suggested by his wife.  And this device permits the film to feature stories within stories.  As Meredith asks his questions, he listens to the story--and we see it.  At times, too (and I really liked this), Meredith turns right to the camera and addresses the audience directly.  To add a little spice: He's being pursued throughout the day by a bookie's enforcer: He's been gambling and losing.

The first story--the one O'Hara wrote--involves some traveling impecunious musicians (O'Hara loved jazz), Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.  (Trumpet legend Harry James makes a cameo.)  When their bus breaks down in a small town, they decide to sponsor a talent show in town to raise money for the repairs.  They figure if they let the mayor's son win, all will go well.  But ... there's a supremely gifted woman musician in town, a woman who can play every instrument like a prodigy. Harry James appoints himself judge ... and all forces collide at the contest.

The second story involves an aspiring actress (Dorothy Lamour) who gets her chance to perform because of a child star.  She has a pretty decent production number, too--singing, dancing, carrying on.

The third story is the weakest--and is a patent ripoff of the O. Henry tale many of my 8th grade students used to read--"The Ransom of Red Chief," the story about some kidnappers who grab a kid so bratty that they have to pay the parents to get rid of him.  Well, the kidnapping part is gone, but the bratty boy is there (Fred MacMurray is the man bedeviled by the boy)--and the ending is much the same.  (Here's a link to the original O. Henry story: Link)

Anyhow, On Our Merry Way is worth watching--available on Netflix (though not streaming)--and I just saw some reasonably priced copies to buy on eBay.