Dawn Reader

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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Spoon River MIddle School: 35

James B. Kuhl III

Free Writing

Here’s what I don’t understand:
When we go to Washington,
in the spring,
all of us,
the whole eighth grade—
“The annual visit
to our nation’s capital,” you say—
why do you arrange
the seats on the buses
the way you do?

I don’t understand
why I have to sit there
for seven hours
with kids I never talk to,
never even look at,
not even when some
stupid teacher puts us in a group
and tries to make us
work together,
kids I’ll never see again,
for as long as I live,
kids I hate,
so help me, God.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

July 30, 1993: I Commence a Yukon Adventure

Can it really be twenty years ago?  On this day two decades ago I boarded Delta #719, Akron to Atlanta, where I caught Delta #218 to Seattle, then connected to Delta #169 to Juneau, Alaska.  Next morning I flew on a small plane to Skagway, Alaska, and I was starting to feel afraid.  Can I do this?

In the summer of 1993, I was finishing a sabbatical year, which I'd spent working on the book that would become The Call of the Wild by Jack London: With an Illustrated Reader's Companion (Univ. of Okla. Pr., 1995).  I'd been going meticulously through London's novella, writing down things I figured most people wouldn't know (geographical names, historical events, slang, etc.) and doing research the old-fashioned, pre-Internet-has-every-answer-way: letters to librarians and archivists and authorities--and visits to same.  It had been an exciting year, and I had been surprised that I was actually able to discover some things about that book that no one else had ever found.  These were not, of course, Nobel-worthy discoveries, just small fruits of scholarship that are to researchers a form of ambrosia.

Chaplin's version of the Chilkoot Pass
Before I returned to teach 8th graders at Harmon Middle School that fall, I knew there was one more thing I wanted to do: hike the Chilkoot Trail from the old townsite of Dyea, Alaska, to Lake Bennett, Yukon Territory--a 33-mile trek that requires a climb of the Chilkoot Pass (it separates Alaska from British Columbia), a pass whose crossings in the Yukon Gold Rush (1896-99) occasioned some of the great photographs of the 19th century and prompted Charlie Chaplin (who'd seen some of them) to produce his own film about the Rush (The Gold Rush, 1925), a film he opens with a shot of the Chilkoot Pass (a scene he actually shot near Lake Tahoe.)  Young (and unknown) Jack London himself had packed over that trail in the fall of 1897 and had later used it as one of the principal settings for The Call of the Wild (1903).  How could I not go?

So that summer of 1993 I started training.  And I quit drinking.  I'd never been a big drinker--beer only. A little wine when I had to (I was not much of a connoisseur, believe me.)  But beer had been a part of my social life since early in college.  And in the summer of 1993, I was nearly forty-nine years old.  That's a long time.

Another motive: Two friends had recently gone into alcohol rehab--and alcohol would kill one of the two, a few years later, quietly, alone, on the floor ...

As I wrote in this space quite a while ago: I had no trouble quitting.  I was lucky--not addicted.  And not especially virtuous.  I was just able to stop, cold, and have not missed it in the slightest since then.  I have not had any alcohol at all (except in dishes I've been served) since the summer of 1993--not even at our son's wedding.

That summer I also started losing weight (a perpetual problem with us Dyers, who have a Fat Gene clinging like a gob of goo on our chromosomes).  I lost nearly 30 pounds that summer (down from about 195 to 165; I would lose a dozen more after I got back--they've been back for extended stays a few times since then).  I adhered to the only diet that works for me: no seconds, no desserts, no snacks, no fatty foods at all.  Chicken, fish, you know ...  I was also working out twice a day.  Running five miles every morning, biking a hard 20 min in the afternoon on our Schwinn Airdyne.  I practiced walking with a 50-lb pack, too, around the streets of Aurora, drawing odd looks and shaking heads from those who drove by.  What is that idiot doing?

I had a family motive for going, too.  My own great-grandfather, Addison Clark Dyer, had gone on the rush in 1898, riding a horse from Spokane to Skagway, where he crossed the White Pass--the other route across the mountains (and also a factor in Wild)--and headed to Dawson City, Yukon, where he found enough gold to make a solid down payment on a family farm near Walla Walla, a farm that the banks reclaimed during the Depression when he could no longer make his payments.  (It's still a farm--no longer in Dyer hands.)  Great-grandpa had kept a diary, and son Steve and I in 1986 had driven into the Yukon, all the way to Dawson City, and had found a number of places Grandpa had mentioned in his diary.

But now I was alone.  And I was ignorantly ignoring the warnings from the National Park Service and Parks Canada (which jointly maintain the trail), warnings about hiking alone.  Do not underestimate this trail or overestimate your abilities, declares A Hiker's Guide to the Chilkoot Trail, a Park Service publication.  I kind of did both.

In the next few days I'll be telling you about some of the things I did those days on the trail.  Most of July 30 I spent on airplanes and in airports (as I said), but things would change--a lot--in the ensuing days.


1. National Park Service: Chilkoot Trail

2. Skagway, Alaska

3. Klondike Gold Rush

4. Chaplin and THE GOLD RUSH


Monday, July 29, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 34

Joe Britekote

Note found crumpled on floor by a desk

That new kid, that Brian kid, he better watch out.  If he thinks he can just come in here, can just come in here and push kids around and mess around with girls like Jennifer, well, he better watch out, ’cause—           [note torn off here—John Stratford]

Tisha Blacque

Free Writing: Poetry Assignment (You made us do this)

Friends come and go.
Mostly, when you make a big change,
they go.
Maybe they think
(if they think at all)
that you changed
because you don’t want to be like them anymore,
and …
if you don’t want to be like them,
well … maybe …
but …
that doesn’t mean you don’t like them anymore.


So at lunch today
there was no chair for me,
not at the table where I sat all last year.
and when I walked over there,
no one even looked up.

So I just found another table,
an empty one,
that soon filled up
with people like me …
with people like the new me …
who at least looked like
the new me.

When I thought about it later
(and I do think about stuff),
I smiled
because the whole thing
reminded me of birds at a feeder
and of that old saying
“Birds of a feather flock together.”

Emily Booker did a report on that saying last year.
I remember it
(if you listen to her
you can learn stuff,
but most people don’t
or learn),
and she said that “birds” saying goes clear back
to the seventeenth century.
back to the good old days,
when good old religious people
called women witches
and burned them.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Journey to RICHARD II, Part 5

On July 12, 2013, Joyce and I saw a production of Richard II, at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts.  It was the last of the Bard's plays we had not seen in live performance.  I've been writing about earlier experiences with Shakespeare--and how all of them, more or less, propelled me to Lenox that night.

In the late 1960s I gradually began my courtship dance with Shakespeare.  As I noted yesterday, I read Hamlet in the summer of 1967 while trailer-sitting for some friends who were away.  I don't think I read any others that summer: There were TV programs to watch, contemporary American novels to read, and women (not--oh, was I alone!).

That same spring--1967--I'd seen Franco Zeffirelli's film of The Taming of the Shrew with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Petruchio and Katherine.  The young Michael York played Lucentio.  I'm pretty sure--at the time--that I was far more interested in seeing Liz Taylor than I was seeing a film of a play by Shakespeare.  But I loved the film--even though I could tell that the entire thing had been filmed on a sound stage.  But Zeffirelli's costumes, the settings, and the over-the-top performances by the leads just drew me into that world.  And I was shocked--shocked--to discover that I understood almost all of it--again, not because of my genius (hah!) but because of performers who knew what they were saying--and how to say it.

Some years drifted by.  I was married in 1969, and Joyce and I went to Shakespeare plays now and then--including a Hamlet at Kent State University in the mid-1970s that starred two of my former seventh grade Aurora students--John Mlinek and David Prittie--as, respectively, Hamlet and Laertes.  Can I tell you what a thrill it was to watch those two in the fencing match at the end?  And, at home, I was reading my way through the plays ... slowly, slowly.

But because I was still teaching seventh graders, I never thought I would have any reason to teach the Bard and his plays.  My reading and play-going were just for my own background.  That's all.

In 1978, Joyce and I, having completed our Ph.D.'s at KSU, headed to Lake Forest College in Illinois, to a job I hated (and Joyce loved).  We stayed only a year, then returned to Ohio, where we both took positions at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson.  I stayed two years (1979-81); Joyce stayed until 1990, the year our son graduated from the school.  Then she began her Hiram College career (now winding down).

And at WRA the English curriculum included (and still includes) a Shakespeare play every year (except the senior year when students take electives).  I taught English I and III (freshmen and juniors).  I could pick any play I wanted for the freshmen, so I went with The Taming of the Shrew (wonder why?).  But the juniors all had to read Hamlet.  And that terrified me.  Yes, I had read the play back in that trailer in Silo, Ohio, in the summer of 1967--but I'd not, uh, understood lots of it.  And I'd seen only that KSU production.  I'd never "studied" the play.  And now I had to teach it to bright, college-bound juniors, many of whom, I was certain, had read/seen more Shakespeare than I?!  They would discover on Day One that I was a fake.  And my reputation?  Well, if I'd known anything about Othello (I had neither read nor seen it at that point), I could have wailed along with Michael Cassio ...

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation!
And so--that summer of 1979, before the new year at WRA began, I decided it was time for some transformation.  From Bard Dolt into Bard Authority ...  It's a transformation, I would discover--very very soon--that would require the rest of my life.  And then some ...

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Journey to RICHARD II, Part 4

On July 12, 2013, Joyce and I saw a production of Richard II, at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts.  It was the last of the Bard's plays we had not seen in live performance.  I've been writing about earlier experiences with Shakespeare--and how all of them, more or less, propelled me to Lenox that night.

In my Kindle book Schoolboy (2012), a memoir about my early teaching career (mostly), is a chapter on Shakespeare, from which this passage is adapted.  I have, uh, bowdlerized some of it (the children are listening!), so if you want the full freaky thing, you'll have to pony up $4.99 and read it on your Kindle!  (Link to book on Amazon.com).  (BTW: Many of you know the origin of the term bowdlerize: Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) produced a "cleaned up" version of Shakespeare--The Family Shakespeare--in 1807.)

My earlier posts have told how I was--to say the least--an unenthusiastic reader/fan of Shakespeare in high school and college.  I couldn't read it, and my fear of the Bard led me to avoid the college course on him I should have taken.  And so in the fall of 1966 I reeled into my public school English teaching career with a knowledge of Shakespeare I could have written on the surface of an M&M--regular, not peanut.

But then ... a change ...  The conversation I record here, by the way, actually occurred, though, of course, it would be impossible to remember it verbatim--but it was worlds of fun re-creating it!

Summer 1967.  A mobile home in Silo, Ohio.

In my trailer, late in the evening, I can hear clearly the voices of the man and the woman from several units away.  Both sound as if they’ve been drinking; both sound angry.  He speaks first. 
I don’t see how you can like that queer Tom Jones!
I love Tom Jones!
I just bet you do.
You know I do.
I bet if Tom Jones walked in here right now singing that queer “Green, Green Grass of Home,” you’d *** him, wouldn’t you?
You know I would!  I would strip naked and *** him so fast he wouldn’t know what happened.
I just bet you would.  I bet you really would.  I bet you’d *** his ***, too.
I would.  I would *** him, right in front of you.  And then I would *** his big ***, right in front of you.
I bet you would  I just bet you would …
I am wondering about this conversation as I lie there and listen to it.  Would Tom Jones really drive along State Rte. 82 in Portage County, Ohio, stop at this trailer park in the little area called Silo, between Mantua (pronounced MAN-uh-WAY) and Aurora, walk down the street to one of the trailers, knock, enter, get *** and ***?  It doesn’t seem all that likely.
Nor does it seem all that likely that I am doing what I am doing, lying here in a trailer that isn’t mine.  It belongs to the Aurora High School band director, who has let me stay in it while he and his wife are back home in Pennsylvania for the summer.  I do not yet have a place of my own.  I have moved out of my Twinsburg apartment because I’m going to save money this year by sharing a place with a colleague, another middle-school teacher who rents a place out in Aurora Township.  But that place isn’t available yet, so I need to be somewhere until the school year starts.  My belongings—few as they are—I’ve stored with another friend.
Now I’m living here alone in a trailer park full of people I don’t know.  I can hear their radios, TVs, children, arguments.  Like the one about sex with Tom Jones that has interrupted my reading of Hamlet.
Yes, I’m reading Hamlet.  On a sultry summer night I’m lying here on the couch in a borrowed trailer reading Hamlet in one of the little blue Yale Shakespeare volumes my parents gave me a year and a half ago.  I’ve decided it’s time to read some Shakespeare—especially this play, the most famous of them all.  I’m not at all sure what I’m reading, but just this year I’ve begun to think of myself as an “intellectual,” and what kind of intellectual has never read Hamlet, you know?
I recently looked at that little blue copy of Hamlet and at my pen-underlinings and marginalia from that summer in Silo.  The first lines I underlined were these (by Horatio, discussing the appearance of the Ghost):
But in the gross and scope of my opinion,
This bodes some strange eruption to our state.
In the margin I have written fore.  Yes, this is foreshadowing.  As smart as Shakespeare is, he has not fooled me
I underlined quite a few lines, but my marginalia are few and terse.  Beside Polonius’ advice to his son, Laertes, I wrote: To thine own self be true.  Beside Hamlet’s What a piece of work is a man! I noted, perceptively, man.  And beside Hamlet’s instructions to the players I wrote acting.  I’m not sure what prompted me to write these words, but I can sort of recall my pride and self-satisfaction and even wonder as I was reading.  I am reading Hamlet!  I am reading Hamlet!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 33

Jennifer Queen 

Free Writing

When I first saw him, I don’t know, I just stopped thinking.  Just like that!  One minute, I was sitting in English listening to you go on about some stupid poem, something about some Greek god that isn’t real.  There’s a picture of him in our book.  Apollo, that’s the god.  I think there’s a car they used to make with the same name.  A Buick.  My grandfather drives one with those special license plates that say Historical Vehicle on them.  He’s so proud of that old car that smells like his cigarettes and yucky cologne.
Anyway, I remember what I was thinking: How could those Greeks believe stupid things like this?  How could they believe that there were a bunch of gods?  That lived up on a mountain?  That the men gods had girlfriends down on earth?  And one, that Zeus guy, once he made himself a swan—and then he saw a girl named Leda, and he … yuk.  It’s too gross to even think about.  And how could the Greeks believe that some of their men gods looked like this Apollo guy?  Like this picture?  There’s no way that real gods are supposed to be hot.  Gods should be old and hairy and religious looking. 
And I’ll admit it, the picture in the book made the Apollo guy look kind of cute, not that he is my type of guy or anything.  I don’t really like hair that long.  Or curly.  Well, if the guy is cute and has curly hair, that’s okay.  But just curly doesn’t make a guy cute.  No, cute makes curly okay.  There’s a difference.  Think about it.
Anyway, I seem to be getting off the subject here, distracted.  I can’t help it.  I’ve felt weird ever since that English class.  Ever since I was sitting there thinking about stupid Greek gods, thinking that they weren’t real.
And then one walked right in the door.  A real one.
And I just stopped thinking.
People were saying things, I don’t know.  The teacher was introducing him, maybe, and that weird office girl Whatever Hermes was with him, but she didn’t stay, or maybe she did, I don’t remember.  It doesn’t matter.  The only thing I do remember is this—his name.  Brian Novell.  I made my ears listen, I made my memory work, made it record that name in the place where I put things I don’t ever want to forget,  but the rest of my brain had quit working.  Except for the part that controls the eyes.  Now that part of my brain was working just fine.
My eyes were like two giant sponges and Brian Novell was like made out of water and my eyes were like just soaking him up.
And then he was moving along the aisles toward the only empty seat.  And right then I wished that the kids on either side of me were absent. 
Or dead.  Dead would be better, really, because then the seat would be open permanently, not just for a day or so.
But he sat down in the only empty seat, the one right next to that weird Emily girl who reads all the time.  I turned clear around in my seat and stared at him.  I couldn’t help it!  And while I was staring at him, I heard things hitting the floor, books or something, it doesn’t matter. 
I waited there, with my back to the teacher, staring at Brian Novell.  And then, like magic, he looked at me!  And from his blue eyes came a kind of force, something, I don’t know, but it was like a power, a liquid like lava that flowed out of his eyes and burned right into mine and erased from my brain every memory of every other cute guy I’d ever seen.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.  But I couldn’t look away from Brian’s bright eyes.  I was hearing something from the person who touched me.  A voice.  A familiar voice.  The teacher’s voice.  It was saying words I couldn’t understand, like Greek or something.
I couldn’t really say what it was, but it doesn’t matter, because from the moment I saw Brian Novell, I just stopped thinking.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Latest Dispatches from the Body

Last Tuesday--July 16, our son's birthday--I began taking Bicaludamide, the first of the drugs my oncologist at University Hospitals had prescribed to try to arrest the progress of my prostate cancer, which, as followers of this blog know, has already defeated surgery (2005) and thirty-five radiation treatments (2009).  Bicaludamide, which I will take in pill form for only three weeks more, is a drug that will shut off the ability of the cancer cells to "hook up" with my testosterone, which, in a simple way, is the "food" for prostate cancer.  Without that "food," the cancer cells begin dying and/or shutting down.  I will go into remission, if things go as planned.

I have not really noticed any side effects since I've begun taking the pills (though it is early--only a little over a week), other than that I'm sleeping more deeply at night--and that, actually, is a good thing for me.  Next, though, starting on Friday (tomorrow, the 26th, less than a week after Joyce's birthday), is Lupron, a more serious drug that basically shuts off my testosterone altogether, denying the cancer any sustenance.  Many--not all--cancer cells will die.  Its side effects are potentially nastier--and one is certain: the death of my libido.  Not something any post-pubescent man--or human being, I would guess--wants to have happen.  I know I don't.  Here's a link to some information about that drug, if you're interested.  Oh, and it's not in pill form.  I get an injection (in the derriere) every three months.

If you know anything about Lupron, you know that it's not a cure.  It works for a while, killing and immobilizing cancer cells, and then some of them evolve to ignore Lupron's effects; those cells survive and reproduce (survival of the fittest--heard of it?), and my PSA begins rising again.  So then it's on to other treatments--probably chemo.  It could be a year--two years?--before that happens.  And during that time I will feel (a) somewhat normal, (b) somewhat shitty, (c) completely shitty.  Nothing to do but take the shot and see.

(In the (a) category: Yesterday, in the coffee shop, I chatted briefly with a man I've known awhile.  He's just had prostate surgery and is on hormones already.  He told me he hasn't really noticed anything yet ... other than ... you know.  Here's hoping I'm in his category.)

Of course, we're all hoping that a cure is imminent.  Few scientists are more motivated, I would think, than the men who are working on prostate cancer research--not to impugn the women (no way!), but the men have an even more urgent, personal motive since most of them, if they live long enough, will develop the disease.

In the days leading up to the commencement of my Bicaludamide treatments last week, I was very nervous and emotional.  Both Joyce and I were in tears at the damnedest times--i.e., just about all the time.  I took my first pill at lunch that day, and as I put it in my mouth, I was weeping--okay, sobbing--but I could still hear the words of Joyce, who was right beside me: I love you.

I wept even more because I know what those words mean--what they could mean for her.  I carry the medical burden right now, sure--but her share of the psychological burden is immense.  She's immersed in worry; she wants me to stay healthy, to continue doing the things I've always loved (exercising, reading, writing, traveling, being with family--with her), but she also knows that if the drug knocks me down, she will become more of a caretaker, and I will become, in ways, a man she has not ever really known.  (At our weddings, we say so easily, even thoughtlessly, in sickness and in health, as if the former were some vague possibility instead of a virtual certainty.)

And so I worry about her, and all of this forms a dark whirlwind that marks the infancy of grief.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 32

Frank Falmouth 

Free Writing (Required Poem)

Down at the lake I saw a duck:
I wondered if it liked to
            muck around in the pond.
And at the store Mom bought a ham,
But I don’t really give a …
            Ma’am, I don’t like ham.
A miner works down in a pit—
I wonder where he takes a
            bit of a break?
A mason works with stones and bricks.
Our locker room is full of
            sticks for playing lacrosse.
My cousin wants to be a doc.
A bird that’s male is called a cock.  (That’s not dirty, Mr. Stratford.  You can look it up.)
For Halloween she was a witch.
The other days she’s just a
            rich girl with lots of money for costumes.
My dad said I must mow the grass.
A donkey’s also called an ass.  (Not dirty, either.)
And Mr. Stratford is the best:
He’ll see that this is all in jest.

(Not kidding.  You are the best, Mr. Stratford, and I know I won’t get in trouble for this because that’s not how you roll.  Is it?  I did not write any bad words, and you can’t say I did.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Journey to RICHARD II, Part 3

On July 12, 2013, Joyce and I saw a production of Richard II, at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts.  It was the last of the Bard's plays we had not seen in live performance.  I've been writing about earlier experiences with Shakespeare--and how all of them, more or less, propelled me to Lenox that night.

Last time, I recorded the shock I felt when I saw that Macbeth, a play we'd studied my senior year at Hiram High School (1961-62), was included in my literature anthology, Interpreting Literature, for English 101 at Hiram College.

Ordinarily, I suppose, I would have felt elation at repeating something I'd already done in high school--similar to the feeling I felt when I took my first grad school course at Kent State (summer 1968), American Literary Realism, and realized I'd already read every novel on the long syllabus--except The Yemassee by William Gilmore Simms.  I'd had a great teacher at Hiram--Prof. Ravitz (of whom I've raved before in this space)--and he had prepared me well.  (And don't be petty or suspicious: In 1968 I re-read every one of those novels!)

But the difference in 1962?  I hadn't really read Macbeth in high school; I'd just sort of sat in the classroom while people who had read it discussed it.  (Or people, at least, who feigned knowledge more convincingly than I.)   I had tried at Hiram High--I really had.  But as I explained last time, I just could not read it.  It made no sense to me.  The language did more than defeat me; it got all up in my face and said You're stupid!  And I could do nothing but agree.

My Hiram College professor in English 101 was Dr. Charles F. McKinley (I've written about him in this space, too--some of his daylilies are now in our garden), and I was terrified.  He had given my older brother a B.  And that was inconceivable.  Brother Richard didn't get B's.  I don't think he'd ever had one until Dr. McKinley decided it was time.  No, Brother Richard was nothing but A's.  Grade school, junior high, high school (valedictorian), college, grad school (he would go on to Harvard, complete the coursework for his Ph.D., all A's, before deciding he'd rather go to the symphony and the opera and write about it than write earnest treatises about Oliver Goldsmith).

Anyway, Dr. McKinley.  He was a small, lean man (I think I was taller; I am 5' 8"), with a slight moustache, scholarly graying hair.  Dapper is the word, as I think of it.  His voice, though, was deep and expressive and even--don't get the wrong idea--seductive.  His voice alone could seduce you into a story, into a discussion, a poem, a play ... Macbeth?  When you said something dumb (I was good at that), his way was not to dismiss you but to ask you a question and then another one until you realized the answer to his final question was I am dumb.  It's so much more effective to discover that you're dumb that to have someone else merely declare it, don't you think?  Has a more enduring effect.

Dr. McKinley also loved--loved--to read aloud.  (So would I, a voice like that.)  In fact, truth be told, he probably did it too much.  On the other hand, I think there were probably times when he just figured he'd rather listen to himself than any of us ... so ... might as well read aloud today.

With Macbeth--which I did not really have an easier time reading in college than I'd had a few months earlier in high school--Dr. McKinley's reading actually helped me.  For the first time, I could hear the language (which, of course, is how we are supposed to encounter it: I mean, Shakespeare wrote plays, plays to be performed), and just hearing the words read by someone who knew what they meant was a revelation to me.

Okay, revelation is a bit extreme.  But for the first time in my few experiences with the Bard, I was starting to get it.  I began to think that some of the funny things were funny (the Porter in Macbeth), some of the horrible things, horrible (the murder of Macduff's family--wife and little boy).

Still, I did not emerge from English 101 with a passion for Shakespeare--or with the ability to read it on my own.  It was more a sense of relief.  No more Shakespeare!  In fact, a year or so later, I delayed declaring myself an English major for one reason: I was afraid of Shakespeare.  English majors had to take the Shakespeare class.  And I just knew I would not survive that course.

Not long after that, the Hiram College Theater Department produced Romeo and Juliet.  A good friend from nearby Garrettsville, Jim Vincent, played the Friar, so I went.  But not because of Jim.  I had the hots for Juliet (so did every other breathing straight guy on campus), and she had actually spoken to me--more than once.  That meant ...  Nothing, actually.  It meant nothing.  But I was young and hopeful with a pounding heart and vivid imagination.  So ...  Anyway, I understood nothing about Romeo and Juliet as I watched it.  I was relieved when they finally--three hours later--got around to killing themselves.  I was about ready to do it for them.  It was nice to see Jim dressed up like a monk; Juliet was hot.  But that got old--in a hurry--and that production did nothing to alter my attitude about the Bard.

Meanwhile, my parents had never given up trying to get me to read and watch Shakespeare.  A play would be on TV now and then (I didn't watch), and my senior year they gave me (birthday? Christmas? I can't remember) a complete set of the Yale Shakespeare, forty little volumes (the plays, the poems, the sonnets, a book of criticism), quarto-sized, all with blue covers with their own little metal, two-tiered storage rack.  (I couldn't find a Google image of the books in a rack, but the photo does show you the forty volumes.)  I displayed them in my first apartment.  Didn't read a single one.

But then ... a miracle.  Dr. John Shaw, the only one who taught the Shakespeare course at Hiram, took a sabbatical.  A full year away from the campus.  I became an English major and graduated without a course in Shakespeare--and proud of it.  After all, I was going to be teaching in a middle school.  And what kind of madman would want to teach Shakespeare to those hormonal psychos!?

So ... I had a college degree, a major in English, a certificate to teach English in Ohio's secondary schools, and all I had ever "read" of the Bard was Julius Caesar and Macbeth.  I had seen only Romeo and Juliet Now, those, my friends, are qualifications!


Monday, July 22, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 31

Billy Belfry

Free Writing

Everyone says I’m crazy,
says stuff like,
“That Belfry kid,
he’s crazy!
He’s really crazy!”

there are some things,
a few things,
not many things, really,
but some things
that might make people,
some people, anyway,
make them stop.
And wonder.

Like in second grade,
that time I ate a spider.
It wasn’t a big hairy one,

just one of those little ones
you can sometimes catch
on the ceiling of your room,
if you’re quick
(like me)
and not afraid
(like me).

So I took him to school,
the spider, that is,
and when the teacher said,
“It’s snack time,”
and everyone else brought out
Twinkies and Snickers and Oreos
and Gummy Bears and Fruit Roll-Ups
and pretzels and chips and powdered donuts
and juice boxes and graham crackers,
and some had apples and carrots
and soy milk (you think I’m crazy!)
their moms made them bring,
I took out this tiny Tupperware thing,
the smallest they make,
turned it over,
tapped it on the bottom,
till the spider
dropped into the palm of my hand.

By then,
everyone around me was watching,
the teacher was saying,
“Billy, is that—?”
The spider was kind of groggy—
that Tupperware keeps out the air, you know—
does a good job of that—
so he wasn’t moving too fast.

And so I whacked the palm of my hand
against my mouth,
felt the spider land
in the back of my throat.
And I swallowed him before he could even think about him running along my tongue and

Everyone was yelling stuff:
“Sick!”  “Gross!”
“Billy’s crazy!”

But I never said anything bad
about their snacks!
All that sugar and fat—
they’re not good for you.
Not good to you.
But a spider, you know—
his poofy little body,
all eight legs of him—
is one hundred percent
Pure Protein!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Journey to Richard II, Part 2

On July 12, 2013, Joyce and I saw a production of Richard II, at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts.  It was the last of the Bard's plays we had not seen in live performance.  I've been writing about earlier experiences with Shakespeare--and how all of them, more or less, propelled me to Lenox that night.

About all I knew about Shakespeare in my childhood was that he lived a long time ago, he said "to be or not to be," and he was impossible to understand.  I did own a few Classics Illustrated comics of some of the plays--Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and some others--but they were not among those I read repeatedly--like The Call of the Wild, The Last of the MohicansThe Deerslayer, and even Moby-Dick.  And if there was a new issue of Superman around (or Superboy), forget Classics Illustrated.

I recall no experiences at all with Shakespeare in elementary school.  Our own son, in fifth grade, was in a production of Julius Caesar (much edited); he played Man in Haste and came running out (thus: in haste), said something hastily, then moved hastily along.  But we read about Dick and Jane, not Richard II or III.

In high school, though, here came the Bard.  In our sophomore year at Hiram High School we had to read Julius Caesar, which was in our literature anthology, and I suddenly found that old Classics Illustrated comic a great comfort.  The problem was simple: I could not understand a thing in the play.  Nothing made sense to me.  Soothsayers and Ides of Marches and weird names (Metellus Cimber!?) and dialogue, even on the first page, that sounded like gibberish.

This is the very first speech:

Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday? what! know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?
Okay, we've got a weird name--Flavius (no one at Hiram High School had a name remotely like it).  We've got hence, which meant nothing to me.  Being mechanical?  I pictured robots.  What trade art thou?  I knew about trades: The Cleveland Indians always made bad ones.  (See the problem?)  And all that thou stuff sounded a lot like the Bible, which always made me feel guilty, often for good reason.

Let's just say that I did not do well during our unit on Julius Caesar.  Compounding the situation?  A teacher impossible to fool.  Mr. Brunelle had almost finished his Ph.D. in Classics--so not only did he know Shakespeare, he knew all that freaking Roman history junk, too.  There are times, believe me, when you want a teacher as dumb and ignorant as you are.

Our junior year was American literature, so ... no Shakespeare.  For some reason, it's traditional in American high schools to do American lit--and often American history, too--during the junior year.  Not sure how all that got started.  But later, when I taught at Western Reserve Academy, the American literature curriculum in English III included Hamlet anyway.  "Hamlet," I used to tell my students, "that great American hero."

But our senior year, here came Macbeth, and, again, I found myself not up to the task.  Mr. Brunelle  had retired, and in his place was a veteran teacher who'd retired elsewhere and had returned to the classroom probably because she'd discovered, very quickly (as I did decades later), that a teacher's pension check isn't all that impressive.  She was a nice enough woman--but not in his league as a scholar.  She seemed to know as little about Macbeth as we did, an ignorance that was somewhat comforting, though it didn't help me on the quizzes, which (except from the answers I'd gleaned from Classics Illustrated), were all exemplars of the variety of Error.  And, again, the language left me cold and confused.  Take the Sergeant's speech from very early in the play ...

Doubtful it stood;
As two spent swimmers, that do cling together
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald--
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villanies of nature
Do swarm upon him--from the western isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied;
And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show'd like a rebel's whore: but all's too weak:
For brave Macbeth--well he deserves that name--
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour's minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix'd his head upon our battlements.
I couldn't make anything out of that.  Something about swimming and choking art (I picture someone throttling a statue?) and gallowglasses (what you wear when you're being hanged?) and whores (I knew what they were, courtesy of my nasty friends) and slaves and chaps (was this a Western?) and a head of some kind.  Otherwise, I was clueless.  And just hoped my less-than-stellar quiz grades would not too severely damage my grade for the entire marking period.  (Vain, idle hope!)

But when Macbeth lost his head, Shakespeare in high school ended for me.  And a few months later I was sitting in English 101 at Hiram College, taking the course with Prof. Charles F. McKinley in the summer before the beginning of the regular academic year.  "Getting a head start," as my dad put it.  (He had told me I could either go to school or get a job.  I chose school--not nearly so much work.)

Down at the Hiram College bookstore, I thumbed through our literature anthology for the class, Interpreting Literature.  It was pinkish.  Imagine my alarm when I saw that one of the works included: Macbeth.



Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Taste of Humble Pie

They say that humility is good.  That confession is good for the soul.  That humble pie should be a staple.  And eating crow is good for psychic health.

And so ... I fess up ... (as one of my elementary school teachers used to urge me to do whenever there was an unsolved crime in the classroom) ... and I now commence the ingestion of HP and Crow, seasoned with Confession ...

I committed a major research blunder.  Here goes ...

As some of you know, I have for several years been researching the life of one of my former English teachers, Mr. Augustus H. Brunelle, who taught me English, Latin, and German at Hiram High School, 1958-1961 (when he retired--purely a coincidence that I was in his class at the time).  Over the past few years I have visited places where he lived, where he worked; I have interviewed his son (now in his 80s) and others who knew him; I have conducted lots of online research (thank you, Ancestry.com) and in libraries--the public library in Sioux City, IA, where he went to school and college, was especially helpful.  I gave talks about him at Western Reserve Academy and at two different Hiram High reunions.

So far, okay.  No servings of Humble Pie.

Sometime last year, checking on Ancestry.com, I saw in the 1900 Census data that the Brunelles were living at the time in Miller, Iowa.  Hmmmmmm.

I checked a map, saw that tiny, very rural Miller was in the north central part of the state, about 175 miles away from Anthon (also tiny and rural), where Mr. Brunelle was born in 1894.  So ... it seemed that the Brunelles had moved to a different Iowa town.  What excited me, though: I discovered that his father, Edmund, was listed as "farmer."  I'd not before known what his occupation was.  (He had abandoned the family later on.)

And now the story begins to darken ... well, not the story: My screw up.

Joyce was planning a John Brown research trip, one that required a journey across the entire state of Iowa, west to east, a journey Brown himself had taken in 1859, the very year of Harpers Ferry.  Well, sez I to Joyce, maybe we can stop and see Miller while we're out there?

And so, a few weeks ago, we did.  I even posted a story here about our time there--about meeting a kind woman in Miller, a lifelong resident who promised to do some Brunelle research for us--finding, perhaps, the location of their farm (information not in the Census report).  Great.  And on I drove to Sioux City, feeling the elation of a successful researcher, to see the house they'd lived in, the high school and college he attended.  Afterwards, we drove south along the Missouri River then swung east and followed John Brown's route across the state--approximately the course of I-80.

Darker still grows the story ...

Back home, the flutters and clutters of life kept me from emailing the woman in Miller with more specific information.  I would get around to it.  Soon.  Or so I promised myself.

Then, on Wednesday came an email from her, reminding me of her offer, her willingness.  Okay.  Just the prod I needed to get off my duff.

I dug back into my Brunelle files and found my photocopy of the 1900 Census page that shows the Brunelles in Miller. But as I was typing my response to my friend in Miller--yes, in the very act of typing my response--I noticed something.  The top of the page.  The words Miller Township.

Wait a minute ...  Is Miller in Miller Township?  What if ...?

Feeling an alarm beginning to sound in my conscience, I typed "Miller Township, Iowa" into Google's search window.


And discovered ... that Miller ... is the name of the township wherein Anthon, Iowa, lies, not Miller, Iowa.  The Brunelles had not moved from Anthon to Miller; they had stayed right there in Anthon where they were in 1894 when Mr. Brunelle was born.

I said some very bad words and forms of very bad words.  Many of them, at least in part, rhymed with "duck."  Or "cluck."

All my discoveries about the Brunelles in Miller, Iowa--dutifully included in my PowerPoint, dutifully delivered in my speeches, dutifully included in my conversations with our new friend in Miller--all of it: based on a careless error in reading the Census data.

I had to write back to her and confess my screw-up.

I have not heard from her.  I hope I don't.

Meanwhile, I'm eating heavy but very nutritious slices of Humble Pie, with side dishes of Crow.  And feeling very very tiny while doing so ...

And if humility cleanses the soul, well, my soul now glistens like a mirror in the summer sun of, oh, Miller Township, Iowa.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 30

Omnee Voar

Disciplinary Form: Witness

I didn’t really see nothing.  I mean, I was at the table where it happened, but I wasn’t really paying attention.  I was eating.  Chris was talking about hunting or something, and then I hear all this noise, people are scooting their chairs back real fast, like when someone cuts one, so I look up and see something sort of strange.  Terry is standing there with his fists up, and Chris is sort of slumped over, and then Chris sort of turns his head sidewise.  Weird.  And then Terry hits him again, right in the face.  And Chris falls over on the floor.  And by then Mr. Dutie was there and broke it all up.
So I saw the second punch.  But the first one, well, I was eating, not paying attention.  So I don’t really know anything.  Sorry.

Andee St. Cloud

Disciplinary Form: Witness

I seen the whole thing.  But I didn’t hear nothing.  Here’s why.
Me and … (forget it—I’m not giving out any names) … were outside by one of the windows.  Just talking.  Not smoking, like you think.  Just talking.  And, anyway, I just happened to be looking in the window, and I seen that Crowe kid walk over to that Cross kid’s table.  And Crowe, he just like taps the Cross kid on the shoulder, and when he turns around, Cross, well, Crowe pops him a good one, right in the face.  One of those big right hooks.  Wham.  And the Cross kid, here’s the weird part, here’s what he done next.
Kids’ chairs are flying, guys are jumping up, and that Crowe kid has his fists all up again.  And then the weirdest thing happened.  The Cross kid, he doesn’t fight back (I always thought he was chicken).  You know what he done?  He like turns his head to one side, like he offers his face as a target for Crowe.  And Crowe, like he don’t even hesitate.  Bam!  Nails him again.  And Cross is all on the floor now, and here comes a teacher, I think it was Mr. Dutie, to stop it after it’s all over, of course.
So I just turn around to my friends and tell them what I seen.  And then we all … talked some more.  That’s all we done.  Honest.  We just talked.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Journey to RICHARD II

As visitors to this site know, last week Joyce and I saw a production of Richard II, the only Shakespeare play we'd not seen in a live stage production.  We'd been looking for Richard for a couple of years, waiting, waiting.  But the play is (was?) sort of "out of the cycle" for some reason--the "cycle" being those plays that are commonly produced.  There's a handful that you can see just about any old time: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Hamlet ... you know.  The usual suspects.  The ones everyone's heard of.  The ones that have a chance to earn back the production costs for the company.  Which is going to draw the greater crowd?  Romeo and Juliet or King John?  Macbeth or Timon of Athens?

Last spring I got a note from my younger brother that Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. (where my mother lives), was going to do Richard II, so I ordered tickets online asap.  As close to the stage as I could get (we were in the second row, center left, on the aisle).  And then we settled in to wait for a few months ... hoping some cruel-hearted virus would not visit our house that week--or a flat tire out on I-84--or whatever.

Well, none of the whatevers happened, and, as I posted the other day, we saw a marvelous production there, one that had us weeping--okay, sobbing--at the end, not just for poor Richard (who gets his) but for ourselves ... for our journey.

For me, my passion for Shakespeare was slow-growing.  In fact, for years it showed no growth at all.  (Is there such a thing as negative growth?)  My earliest clear memory lies in Enid, Oklahoma, where we were living at the time (the early 1950s).  My father, who taught at Phillips University (R.I.P.) in Enid, had somehow joined the university's production of  As You Like It.  He played Charles the Wrestler.  (Oddly, my father's first name was Charles, but it was a name he didn't like; he used his middle name, Edward, instead.  Charles had been his father's name, and I don't want to go all Freudian on you, but Dad's father had died when my father was a teenager--so was there some kind of primal fear about early death and the name?  Dad needn't have worried: He lived to be near 90.  Or was it just a show of respect?  For Dad, there was just one Charles Dyer, a father whom he'd revered.)

Anyway, Charles the Wrestler.  Those of you who know the play remember that Charles was sort of an Elizabethan cage fighter, going around the countryside, taking on and defeating all challengers.  A usurping duke wants Charles to lure into the ring the son of the duke's brother--and kill him.  (Got to keep future problems out of the way, you know?  Nip 'em in the bud.)  Charles snarls.  Agrees.

But in the match, it's Charles who's defeated (not killed), and our hero (well, one of them) goes off to find love and other magic in the Forest of Arden.

Mom dyed some old tights red for my father, and I can see him right now, standing near our front door at 1706 E. Elm Ave., flexing his muscles, posing, laughing, heading off in the Oklahoma early evening light to be in a Shakespeare play.  Dad had played football in high school and college (University of Oregon), a star in track (a sprinter), and even at age 40 (his age at the time of Charles the Wrestler), he could cut an imposing figure.  I knew that I would never want to get in the ring with Dad.  Only Death would dare that, and it took him more than a decade to finish off my father, who did not go gentle ...

I didn't see that production of As You Like It--I don't even recall an offer to go.  (Was there one?)  I was only 9 or 10, so maybe my folks figured it would be better to wait ... but the Charles scene is very early in As You Like It; couldn't I have gone for that?  But I didn't.  And so that omission joins far too many others on my list of Life's Regrets.

Throughout my boyhood there were times when my parents tried to get me interested in the Bard. There were those Maurice Evans TV productions that we all gathered 'round to watch--Hamlet (1953), Macbeth (1954), The Taming of the Shrew (1956).  And--as I look at IMDB, I am surprised to see another one: Richard II (1954).  Did I watch ... ?  

Not likely.  I never made it too far through any of those shows before I drifted away, upstairs to my room (shared with my younger brother), where I found my comic books, which had one great virtue: I could understand the stories, the words.

And that Shakespeare guy?  Downstairs?  Was that even English?