Dawn Reader

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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Year I Was Interesting, Part 2

Four months ago, I posted a story about how--back in 1995--Cleveland magazine somehow added me to its list of "Most Interesting People" for the year.  (Link to that post.)  I said then (I think--I'm too lazy to read it again) that the only evidence I could find for my experience was a dark blue coffee mug they awarded me (I included a photo of same).  I think there's a certificate I framed under one of our beds?  Out of sight ...

Well, just the other day, down in the basement on another errand, digging around in an old file cabinet, I found the file into which I'd stuffed some things about being one of the MIPs that year.  I've scanned them for your puzzled delight.

In my earlier post I'd mentioned, I remember, the circumstances of the photograph of me you see here.  The roaming photographer at the Terrace Club Restaurant at (then) Jacobs Field?  When I saw the flash, and realized the daffy look that was on my face at the time, I knew that would be the picture he would submit--even though he took some others that made me look more ... normal.  Human.

I notice now that the program took place on November 10--my Birthday Eve in 1995.  I was 50 years old that evening, aged a year overnight.  A little over a year afterwards, January 1997, I would retire from the Aurora (Ohio) City Schools, where I'd taught 7th and 8th graders for most of my thirty-year career.

As I look over the list of the MIPs now, there are very few whose names I recognize.  Some, though.  Dennis Barrie was executive director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  Gerald Freedman was artistic director of the Great Lakes Theater Festival (Joyce and I were season ticket holders--still are).  Tom Murdough had founded Little Tikes and lived in Hudson; Joyce had taught his son at Western Reserve Academy.  Bobby Phills played guard for the Cavs.  Bill Randle, a well-known radio personality.  Bob Serpintini sold cars.  John "Big Dawg" Thompson, a popular figure at Browns' games.  Mike Trivisonno, a shock-jock.  The others were as unknown to me as I was to them.

It was nice to be interesting one night.  As I said before, my students back in Aurora were baffled.  If I, their 8th grade English teacher, was one of the most interesting people in Cleveland, well, Cleveland was just in big trouble, that's all.  The capital of the Kingdom of Boredom.  But for a while--for the briefest of whiles--I rode the crest of that tiny wave, felt the wind in my hair, was feeling pretty good about myself just about the time I lost control of the board and tumbled head over heels into the frigid surf.  And woke to reality.

I had papers to grade ...

Friday, August 30, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 46

Robin Gaye

Free Writing

My parents named me for a common bird—
a dingy top, a breast of red, a song
that’s not among the best I’ve ever heard,
a chirping sort of mix of short and long.
It is the kind of name that girls or boys
could have, and so particularly here
in middle school I’ve had so little joy
in it. It is a reason now I fear
to leave a class, to walk the halls, where I—
as certainly and suns and moons do rise
and set—will hear the laughter and the cry
about how Robin’s not a name for guys.
Some boys will whistle—or will chirp like birds.
While others, always knowing what to say,
will hurl at me their sharpest weapon-words
of Fag! and Queer! and all their terms for gay.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"But that's MY place!"

My boyhood dog Sooner was territorial.  He knew where "his" property ended, knew where to scent-mark, knew where other dogs' territories began--though he didn't always give a Milk-Bone about that.  He went where he wanted, sometimes got thrashed as a result.  But--like Huck Finn pretending to be a girl--he took notice and done better.

I learned about how firmly in the grip of territoriality some dogs are while I was riding my bike and--later--jogging.  The local Cujos would charge out at me, but if I could pedal or run fast enough, they generally (though not always) stopped when they reached that invisible line.  When we lived in Aurora, I used to jog east on Pioneer Trail, but there was a large dog out there that waited for me (it seemed) and appeared to be missing the genes that told him when to stop.  Once, I turned and yelled at him, and he stopped and stared at me, surely calculating: That chubby little biped is yelling--is there danger? Probably not.  Still ...  And he turned and trotted home.  But I was not so certain he would come to the same conclusion on subsequent days, so I quit going that way.

Other critters, of course, are territorial as well, some roaming around in the same terrain their entire lives.  So I guess it's no surprise that we humans are territorial, too.  Some of us more than others.

I saw it in my students all the time.  Although in my later years, I did not assign seats, the students would do it themselves--virtually always sitting in the same place (sometimes for the entire year) and expressing great umbrage when someone else took "their" seat.  Sometimes I had to say, "I don't assign seats--neither can you," though I felt great sympathy for the dispossessed: I hate losing "my place" to someone else.  Really hate it.

I used to arrive at Caribou Coffee about ten minutes before it opened (6 a..m.) to make certain I got "my " chair--a nice comfortable (faux) leather one by the (faux) fireplace.  I was almost always the first one there each morning (especially on sub-zero, snowy, or rainy days--dancing lightning tends to discourage folks; not me), but for a while there was some other Dude who decided he would get there earlier than I.  He didn't want my seat, mind you (he bought and left); he just wanted to be first in line.  I didn't give a Milk-Bone about that, but for some reason it just got on my nerves that he was so obsessed, you know?  So I started showing up a little earlier, and then he did.  Then I was earlier; then he was. Then ... it got so ridiculous I just quit bothering about it.


I became more obsessive but decided that going even earlier was too blatantly maniacal.  But ... !

PAUSE: A little note here.  He would wait in his car, his music system blasting so loudly (jackass) that I could hear it a block away--even with his windows closed.  When he saw me coming down the street (I walked or biked--weather depending), he would get out of the car and move to the entrance, where he would focus fiercely on his smart phone the whole time I was waiting there.  (Of course, I was on my smart phone, too--best way ever invented to avoid unwanted social interactions!)  I don't know that we ever spoke to each other, even though we sometimes stood a yard apart for ten minutes--or more.

PLAY: Caribou has two entrances, so one day I waited by the other one--not the front one, the one on the side.  And they unlocked that door first!  I got in first.  Threw my backpack on my chair, swaggered to the register like a dominant athlete.  If I'd had a football with me, I woulda spiked it.

Next day when I arrived ... he was already there, waiting at the side door.  Jackass.  So I--mature, wise, in control, educated, liberal--went to the other door and just stayed there.  They let him in first.  He swaggered in like ...  And I said To hell with this.  It's not important.

But, of course, it was.  Is.

Eventually, he quit coming.  Don't know what happened.  Maybe he felt he'd schooled me, showed me who was the superior person (the bigger jackass).  I don't know.  But I felt a tremendous psychological relief when it became clear he was no longer going to play the game.  Maybe I flat wore the jackass down.

Now, I have a favorite seat at Hattie's Cafe in the morning (no one's yet challenged me for it).

And out at the local health club, I have several favorites.  Parking (on the south side and right across from the main entrance).  Locker (I ain't telling you the number because ... you know).  Exercise bike (when someone else is on it, I am truly homicidal).  Shower (again--ain't telling you which one).

Very, very rarely do I get all I want out there--parking, locker, bike, shower.  And on days I don't, I feel somehow ... anxious.  Up tight.  Maybe even hostile?

But on Tuesday this week I was 4 for 4.  And the heavens parted, a beam of celestial light marked my pathway to my car after I worked out, my blood pressure behaved, my homicidal fantasy life mellowed, I drove home--green at all stoplights--where I relaxed all evening with the confident knowledge that I rule!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 41

NOTE: Somehow, this got out of sequence--probably while we were in Stratford.  This is #41, though I've already posted #s 42-45.  So it goes in dotage ...

Danny Idle 

Free Writing

You think I’m lazy?
You must think it,
you sure said it
out loud,
while you were walking
between the rows of desks.

You stopped at mine,
where I was working
on this poem.

(Okay, so working
may be much too strong a
for what I was doing.
Or wasn’t doing.)

But anyway,
you tapped me on the shoulder
(I hadn’t seen you there
but should have known it
when I heard the silence
around me)
and you spoke my name
(a real attention‑getter):
“Danny?” you said.
Freezing me.

Slowly I thawed.

And twisted round
and turned my head to you.

(I didn’t say a
I  hope you noticed that.
Not a word.
I showed no disrespect.
No defiance.
No disregard.
No defensiveness—
None of those D‑Words
that teachers hate,
words that, if shown,
will earn you another one:

And then you spoke  it,
loud enough that everybody heard,
underlining every single word:          
“Danny, are you just plain lazy?”

Again … not a
from me.

I just bent my head,
picked up my pen,
and started writing this.
Not because I’m suddenly
not lazy.
But just because
it lets me ask you this:

Why is it
That when I do what I
want to do,
I’m lazy?

And when I do what you
want me to do,
I’m not?

Go on and answer that one.
And if you don’t,
well then,
you are just plain lazy.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Dancing Life

On long car trips, Joyce and I sometimes ask each other "playful" questions--just to see.  I've learned, over our four decades together, that it's sometimes very wise not to answer her questions, which tend to reside firmly in the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't category.  Though, of course, not answering at all is sometimes worse than a yes or a no or a mumble I hope will sound like distraction--or a clue that I'm deep into a very important thought that, for purposes of national security and for the continuation of human life as we know it on our planet, ought not be interrupted.

But the other day, I asked one, playfully, that caused some sleeping dragons to emerge from the mountain.  Here we go:

Dan: "What do you think of me as a dancer?"

Joyce: "I don't know what I think."  [This, by the way, she said sweetly--no rancor, no disgust, no bitterness, no patent disrespect whatsoever, just sort of flat and ... disturbingly honest.]

Still, what that answer told me was that she knew perfectly well what she thought but was trying to coax the dragons back inside.  Too late.  They'd taken wing and were looking for lakeside towns to incinerate.

I played a major trump card: "And what kind of dancer was ****?"  (Her college BF.)

And her response--which came far too quickly for my comfort: "Oh, he was a very good dancer!"

What bothered me there--the very.  The italics.


Okay, so I'm not a good dancer.  Back in Enid, Oklahoma, in the 1950s, my mother signed me up for some dance lessons down at the old Convention Hall with a bunch of other kids whose mothers were worried about their future social lives, I guess.  I met some guys from other schools and found out that they, too, liked to spit and throw rocks.  I learned some new words, too.  But what I didn't learn was how to dance very well.  We "learned" the waltz, the fox trot, the rumba--and the jitterbug.  We did some square dancing--and I liked the Mexican Hat Dance.  Overall, though, the class was a failure.

In junior high and high school there were dances all the time, but I mostly did just the slow dances--i.e., the ones requiring me pretty much to just stand there and hug the girl.  I did some jitterbugging in junior high and even won a little contest one night when the competition was particularly thin--were the other boys outside smoking?  The last popular dance I learned (sort of) was The Twist, but I am more than grateful that there were no smart phones in those days that could post evidence of my skill on Facebook.  I was pretty bad.  And as subsequent dances came along--The Pony, The Watusi, etc.--I sat and watched and waited for the slow ones.

I didn't go to many dances in college--there weren't many.  Just informal things down at the Student Union, which I ignored--or waited for the slow songs.  My senior year, a horror: I realized I still needed a physical education credit in order to graduate, so I signed up for ... Ballroom Dancing, held down in what was then called the "women's gym," a site now gone, converted into office spaces.  (Though some floorboards, beneath the tile or carpet or whatever is there, are probably still conversing among themselves about the Ballroom Dancing class in 1966.  Did you notice that Dyer guy?  That guy was lame!)  We went through some of the same old steps I'd not learned back in Enid--with a Tango added (don't ask) and some others I have mercifully forgotten.  Still, I think I got a B.  (I showed up, tried.)


Joyce, on the other hand, is an excellent dancer.  She'd taken lessons--tap, etc.--all through girlhood, had performed in recitals and shows.  Fortunately, she did not discover the dimensions of her marriage error until it was too late--at our wedding reception--at the dancing part.  Her college friends, who didn't know me, stood and watched in dismay and probably swept her aside later and mentioned the a word (annulment), but she was too fine a person for that.

Her parents had been excellent dancers, too, had gone out dancing for fun all the time, even very late in their lives.  I'm sure they, too, were ... alarmed ... at the choice she'd made, a choice whose failings were evident at the reception--and elsewhere.

So ... Joyce and I have not danced very often.  We danced at our son's marriage in 1999 (I'd not improved), and every now and then (once a decade or so), I will swoop her in my arms and say "Let's dance!"  It doesn't last long.

Anyway, our car-conversation about dancing bounced along a little longer, then faded as we, mercifully, changed the subject--the subject, of course, that I had introduced.

Joyce's final comment is a sort of mixed blessing/message, isn't it?  Here it is:  "You're not a terrible dancer."

Monday, August 26, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 45

Zed Cypher

Free Writing

No one knows me.
I float down the hall—
another brown leaf
on Spoon River.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

My Father Visits Again

Twice in the last two days, check-out clerks have praised my father.  Well, not exactly my father--but something my father used to carry--and now I do.  It happened at Szalay's outdoor market down in the Cuyahoga Valley; it happened again at the BP station in Hudson.  Both times it was the coin purse you see pictured at the top of the page.  (The one you see is not my father's--but one exactly like it.)

I'm not sure when my father started carrying that little purse, but he always had some kind of coin-carrying device in his pocket--he was not a "loose-change" guy.  I remember the little plastic squeeze-kind bearing the logos of car dealers or other enterprises.  But they never lasted too long: They would start to tear at the ends, and, pretty soon, Dad would be carrying another one.  I think I remember a device even earlier than that, a little baggy kind of thing with a snap-fastener on the top.  And he also had the kind that folded (see image).

But the last one he was carrying near the end of his life was the leather squeezy kind that brought me such notice this past weekend.  Both clerks were women--but men have commented on it, as well, over the years I've carried it--since 1999, the year my father died, and my mother--for a reason I can't imagine--gave it to me.  And I've been carrying it ever since.

Sometimes the reactions are quite enthusiastic.  The clerk at Szalay's, for example, almost cried out about it: That is so neat!  I agreed, then used the line I've always used since this purse-gushing routine began: It was my father's.  [Pause.]  When I was younger, I always thought it was, you know, weird.  But then he died ... and now ...  And that's usually as far as I get before my voice catches, or my eyes redden--or both.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

"There's Our Little Grey Home in the West"--Words from My Father

When my parents moved from Hiram, Ohio--where they'd lived between 1956-1966--to Des Moines, Iowa (where they both would teach at Drake University), they decided to "downsize" and live in an apartment building on Americana Court downtown.  The building was a sort of high-rise, grey on the outside, new at the time (I recall).

The first time I visited them there--during spring break of my first year of teaching in Aurora (spring 1967)--I flew for the first time in my life.  I was 22 years old, and--with great improbability--on my flight from Cleveland to Chicago was Nan Dimity, the girls' phys ed instructor at Aurora Middle School.  We sat together--and she calmed my first-time-flyer fears.  (To me, every groan and rumble was the soundtrack of imminent disaster.)

My parents picked me up at the airport and drove me to their new place downtown--and as the building came into view, my dad sighed, "There's our little grey home in the west."

I thought that was a little odd--but Dad was full of odd sayings (after a meal: I feel like I swallowed something; it's raining: lingle-lingle-lingle outside; a cat: a trownitz--an onomatopoetic word; so on), so I didn't really think anything of it.  Not that initial time, not the other 10,000 times he said it before, tiring of apartment life, they bought a home on the north side of town where they lived until they retired and moved out to Oregon.  I never again heard him say "little grey home in the west"--even though their new place in Oregon was actually grey (weathered cedar shingles) and was about as far west as you can get in the continental United States--perched on a cliff near Ecola State Park above the Pacific Ocean in Cannon Beach!

Then--just last week--I was reading a book I'm reviewing, and the author mentioned that he'd bought a "little grey home in the west."  What ... ?

That sent me immediately to Google, where I quickly (of course) found that "Little Grey Home in the West" was a popular and very sentimental song during World War I.  Here are the lyrics:


When the golden sun sinks in the hills
And the toil of a long day is o'er
Though the road may be long, in the lilt of a song
I forget I was weary before
Far ahead, where the blue shadows fall
I shall come to contentment and rest
And the toils of the day will be all charmed away
In my little grey home of the west

There are hands that will welcome me in
There are lips I am burning to kiss
There are two eyes that shine just because they are mine
And a thousand things other men miss
It's a corner of heaven itself
Though it's only a tumble-down nest
But with love brooding there, why no place can compare

With my little grey home in the west.

And here is a YouTube recording of a performance of the song: Link

And here's another link to a long-ago audio recording: Link

And here's a link to the sheet music: Link--copyright 1911, music by Hermann Löhr and lyrics by D. Eardley-Wilmot.

 Is the Internet amazing?  All this I discovered in a matter of moments while sitting with my laptop, sipping coffee (I was sipping, not the laptop).

I also discovered a set of printed cards with song lyrics--cards that showed a WW I soldier in positions of repose and reflection, presumably thinking of the words, hearing the music in his imagination and memory.

Next--I hopped on eBay, typed in the key words, and found and bought an old 78 rpm recording of the song performed by Irish tenor John McCormack, one of my father's favorite tenors.  (Here's a Link to McCormack singing on YouTube.)  As I write these words, the recording has not yet arrived from the seller, but I want it here--now.  I want to hear that Irish voice I heard soaring from the hi-fi's in our house all those years of my boyhood.  I want to hear my own father's voice--he was a fine tenor as well--singing along with McCormack's.  I want to be in that car, coming from the Des Moines airport in the spring of 1967.  I want to hear my father, as he sees the building, saying, "There's our little grey home in the west."  I want to tell my father a hundred thousand things I neglected to tell him.  And I want to do it all to music.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 44

Unsigned/No Name

Assigned Poem—turned in without a name.

A Sonnet You Made Me Write

A ssignments should be very short—and fun—
S ince me and other kids don’t like to write,
S ince I must wait until my homework’s done
I f I have plans to text with friends tonight.
“G o to your room and do what you must do!”
N ow, that is what my parents always say
E ach evening when our lousy dinner’s through,
D espite my urge to work … some other day.

S o often I will say, “I have no work”
O r otherwise convince them that I’m free—
N ot that I think I really ought to shirk—
N ot that I think the world revolves for me.
            E nough of this!  I’m sick of homework’s trap—
            T his endless, boring, sonnet-writing crap!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Medical News

Yesterday, I went to the local University Hospitals lab here in Hudson (see picture), where I underwent some blood tests, including the first test for PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) I've had since I commenced hormone therapy on July 16 (Bicaludamide--for thirty days) and on July 26 (Lupron injection).  My PSA score, which should be zero (I have no prostate gland--removed in June 2005 surgery), had risen after surgery to .31 in late October 2008.  I began radiation therapy a couple of months later (thirty-five daily treatments, weekends off), and the score fell to .07 when I had my first blood test afterwards (August 2009).

And then ... it started rising again.  My final test (before hormones) was on June 7 this year, and it had soared to 22.9.  Not good.

But the result from yesterday was very encouraging.  In just that short time--from July 16 to yesterday--my PSA has fallen from 22.9 to 0.59, the lowest it's been since January 2011.  (My other scores were good, too--liver function, electrolytes.)  As important--or even more so: I feel all right.  Nothing egregious is yet going on with me--no major hot flashes, no lassitude, etc..  I sleep more soundly (that is not a problem), and I seem to have even more mood swings than usual ... but much better than I'd feared ... so far.

So .... I'm encouraged.  But, of course, I know that these numbers are both real and chimerical.  They're "real" because, well, I took the test; 0.59 is my score.  (Kind of like some Algebra II quiz scores I remember from high school.)

They're chimerical because, as I've written here before, hormone therapy is not a cure but a delaying tactic.  Right now, the cancer cells are starving (no testosterone to "eat"), but some of the clever little fellers will figure out what's going on; some evolution will occur; the hardiest/fittest will survive--and reproduce. You know.

We're hoping that doesn't happen for a good long while.  (A year or so?  More?)  But anything is possible with this nasty disease.  And when the numbers begin again to rise--as they surely will--then it will be on to chemo--or, we all hope, something even more efficacious that will have emerged by that time.  Something that works.  A cure.  Then ... something else can dispatch me!

Elmore Leonard, R.I.P.

When I went to check my Elmore Leonard file the other day, I found far less in it than I thought there was.  A 2009 Times review of his Road Dogs by Robert Pinsky, who called Leonard "a virtuoso storyteller."  And there was a 2012 Times review of his novel Raylan (stories based on Raylan Givens, the character he created in "Fire in the Hole," the character now portrayed by Timothy Olyphant on Justified).  The reviewer, Olen Steinhauer, noted that "our best crime writers are sometimes our most astute social novelists ...."  You bet.

But where was the rest?  As I've written here before, I'm an inveterate clipper of newspapers and magazines.  Surely all these many years I've been reading Elmore Leonard I would have been clipping reviews and features about him?  Guess not.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe I thought he would always be there, as if anything so good ever remains very long.  I should have known.

I started reading him back in the seventies.  Read one.  Then had to read them all.  (My pattern.)  When I was serving my first stint at Western Reserve Academy (1979-1981) my department chair and friend, Tom Davis, was similarly hooked, and as the years rolled along, we would talk about Leonard (whom Tom for some reason insisted on calling luh-NAHRD), sharing the dirty jokes that Leonard virtually always included in his stories.

I once took some Harmon Middle School students to see him speak at a Books and Authors Luncheon in downtown Cleveland--an event I wrote a little about in this blog (here's a link to that post).  It was there that I got Leonard to sign many of his books.  I was nervous about taking a big stack of books to his table, so I divided titles among my students so I wouldn't look like such a stalkery jerk--which my students already knew I was.  Am.

I just looked at some of those titles and remembered my error: I'd neglected to tell the kids to have him sign on the title page, so he signed several on the end-papers, diminishing the resale value.  Not that I will ever sell Elmore.  Sacrilege!

Eulogists all over the media the past few days have said about all there is to say about him.  But I'll add one thing.  His books always amused me because his Bad Guys always figured they had everything figured out. (just like the rest of us?), an error they realized at the end when a Good Guy's bullet was speeding toward their head/heart/both.  Elmore, by the way, never too flashy, always used the word shot to describe a shooting--never anything more flashy like blasted.  An Elmore-Moment from Killshot (1989):

He raised his hands to show her, Look, I'm unarmed, and stepped back saying, "Okay, take it easy, Miss," trying to think of a story to tell her ...  And she shot him.  Fired his own gun at him and it was like the sound of it punched him in the belly, make him grunt and double over.  He put his hand on the table to straighten up, said, "Wait now," and she shot him again, socked him in the chest with it so hard he went back against the chair and sat down.

It goes on a little more--but you get the idea.  The "He" had everything figured out; then he realized he didn't; then he got shot.

I rounded up all the Leonard books I could find in the house and stacked them on the dining room table.  Quite a pile.  I went through each one, looking to see how many were signed (just a half-dozen: my memory, like so much else about me these days, fails).  But I also found a few more clippings, tucked away inside a few books.

One was a People magazine feature about him from March 4, 1985 (link).  A 2000 Times review of his Pagan Babies.  Two reviews from the Times (May 2005) of his book The Hot Kid (one in the daily paper, the other the cover story of the Book Review).  But that's about it.  As I said, I thought I'd had more--hoped I'd had more.

Oh, and I remembered ... when his novel Be Cool was coming out as a film in 2005, the students at Western Reserve Academy got a preview because one of the producers, David Nicksay, was a WRA grad.  Nicksay signed my copy of the novel on Thursday, February 24, 2005, when he spoke to a school assembly, then, later that day showed the film, which, I fear, was not nearly so good as its prequel, Get Shorty.

I've liked several of the Elmore films, by the way--all the way back to Valdez Is Coming and 3:10 to Yuma and Hombre--all based on his early Westerns.  Among the more recent ones (besides Get Shorty) I've liked Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Soderbergh's Out of Sight.

But the realization the past few days that there will be no more Elmore Leonard novels is a sad one.  I spent so many hours in his company, got to meet him once, enjoyed the films so much (well, most of them).

And now, sadly, I have one final clipping to add to his folder--yesterday's page-one New York Times story about his death: "A Novelist Who Made Crime an Art and His Bad Guys 'Fun.'"

You bet.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 43

David Freund

Free Writing

Since first grade
Jonathan and I have been
best friends.

(He was always “Jonathan,”
never Jon
or Johnny
or Whatever.)

Second grade.
Best friends,
every year,
even third
when we had
different teachers.
We’d still walk
to school
eat lunch,
Play all weekend
and holidays
and summer.

One day,
earlier this year,
Jonathan asked me—
if I thought
Emily Booker
was cute.

I looked at him,
saw in his serious eyes
that nothing
would ever be
the same.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

O, Romeo, Romeo! (Part 2)

Romeo & Juliet
Stratford, 2013

As I wrote last time, I had not been looking forward to seeing Romeo and Juliet at Stratford this season.  But as I also wrote the other day, I was hopeful when I saw the bare stage awaiting us at the Festival Theater.  As you can see from the image (lifted from Google), the design is, of course, somewhat Elizabethan.  There's a trap door at Center, entrances Up Right and Left, levels for, oh, balcony scenes.  And because this is 2013, there are all sorts of technical (and pyro-technical) surprises possible for directors to employ.

We have seen--and greatly enjoyed--minimalist/traditional Shakespeare productions before--a wild The Winter's Tale in Cleveland a couple of years ago and two different shows (Titus Andronicus and The Two Noble Kinsmen) at the Blackfriars Theater in Staunton, Virginia, a place that hosts productions that attempt to re-create the ambiance and the staging of productions at Shakespeare's original Blackfriars (indoor) theater in London.  So--as I said--I was hopeful when I saw the bare Festival stage.

The opening was clever.  Some players dressed in the liveries of the Capulets and Montagues came out to make the amusing pre-show announcements ("turn off all communication devices not yet invented"--that sort of thing); a competition between the groups grew and morphed into hostility, and the present sort of dissolved into the past--like that old film technique, one shot dissolving into another--until we realized that the characters were now in character and were delivering Shakespeare's lines at the beginning of R&J, though cut slightly (and the Prologue--with its "star-cross'd lovers" stuff is gone, too), and the show was off and running toward its inevitable conclusion.

The houselights--as they do in Staunton--remained low, so the players could see us; we could see them; we could see one another--the same as it would have been in the outdoor venue, the Theatre (the Globe did not open till 1599--after R &J), where Shakespeare's company performed.  No special effects unavailable to Shakespeare's company were used.  Juliet's entombed body rose from the floor through the trapdoor--but this was an effect possible at the old Theatre.

And I loved so many of the "touches" the Stratford production employed.  Actors entering as others were exiting--overlapping one another--a dramatic ebb and flow.  Actual musicians (playing period instruments--lute, violin, tabor, pipe) flowing in and out of the story.  Period dancing.  The balcony scene played from the same sort of spot where it surely occurred at the Theatre.  And I loved the direct interchanges with the audience: The players frequently spoke lines directly to folks near the stage, joked with them, poked fun at them.

And some moments were magical.  The "Queen Mab" speech is one of the most famous in Shakespeare--and it can be a great piece for Mercutio to deliver.  I've seen some horrible versions of it, Mercutio throwing himself all over the stage in some sort of frenetic attempt to help the audience understand.  Jonathan Goad (one of our Stratford favorites) did it differently--more quietly--using sharp diction, graceful hand movements, an elastic face and lithe body, and--most important of all--his patent understanding of the text to make that speech so lucid and lucent that he held the audience spellbound.  I've never seen anyone come close to what he did.

As I wrote the other day, I'd also had a (stupid, insensitive, sexist, ignorant, ageist) worry that Sara Topham, a thirteen-year veteran of the company, was "too old" to play Juliet.  Duh.  She was luminous.  She found all of Juliet's energy and bounded around the stage like the young enamored teen she is supposed to be, veering wildly from one raw emotion to another--like a middle-schooler on the eve of her first dance.  Yet she, too, delivered every word with her customary intelligence and clarity.  Anyone who didn't understand her was just not paying attention at all.

Some of the smaller parts--especially Tom McCamus (another favorite) as Friar Laurence--were exactly what they were supposed to be.  Scott Wentworth found both the heart and the anger of Capulet.  The Nurse, Tybalt, Lady Capulet--all so good.

And as for Romeo (young Daniel Briere) ... he was in some mighty company (see above) but held his own and found a sweetness in Romeo--and an adolescent's mercurial temperament--but also the ferocity when he battled Tybalt.  (The stage combat throughout was excellent.)  He is a talented young man who has a long, long career ahead of him.

And the end!  Oh, the end!  It was common in Shakespeare's own company for shows to end with a jig--the players prancing around, sometimes even acting out ribald skits, sending the audience home in a more exuberant mood.  Even though Joyce and I have seen every play in the Shakespearean canon onstage, we had never seen the jig--not until last week.  And it was thrilling.  The dead came to life and danced again.  And the audience left the theater both educated and animated--which, of course, is the intent, isn't it?

Later, back in our room, I read online a very negative newspaper review of the production--and was shocked.  (The critic seemed more upset about what the show wasn't than what it was.)  But both Joyce and I were excited, talking happily about it all the way back to our room downtown (a good mile or so).  I know that I had just seen Shakespearean theater the way I love it.  When performers must rely principally on their intelligence and their skill to create characters that we believe.  And I had participated in the production.  Because, you see, the Elizabethan stage demanded that the audience do so.  There are no lighting effects (told it's night, you must imagine it is so), few special effects (you must imagine what you are told), virtually no scenery (you must imagine a rich Italian interior, a street in Verona, a friar's cell), few props, and so on.

Fanny Kemble
And audience members must imagine that the performers they see so clearly are in fact the characters they are playing--no matter how they fit (or don't fit) the "look" of that character--something fans of opera have long practiced.  One of the most famous of all productions of Romeo and Juliet occurred on October 5, 1829, when young Fanny Kemble, just nineteen, debuted as Juliet in her initial performance in public.  Her father, Charles Kemble (in his 50s), had been playing Romeo throughout his career but yielded the part for what would be a long run to William Abbott, twenty years older than Fanny.  Charles himself played Mercutio.  The audience, by all reports, had no problem with the age differences whatsoever; in fact, they went wild with enthusiasm; Charles' company was saved (for the nonce); Fanny went on to a long career and lived a long while in Lenox, Mass., home now to Shakespeare & Company, where we have several times seen productions--excellent ones.

Shows done in traditional Shakespearean fashion thus become a collaboration: the players' efforts and skills ignite our imaginations.  And, the next thing we know, we're being transported, off into a world of wonders where we float on a rich sea of words, words that keep us buoyant even when they bring us the most dire of messages.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 42

Victoria Byle

Free Writing

People say my brother,
my twin
(yes, a girl and a boy can be twins—
I’ve explained that so many times that
I hate the question—
and hate whoever asks it),
is angry all the time.

That pisses me off.

Victor Byle 

Free Writing

My sister,
my twin,
she has a temper.

I bet

Sunday, August 18, 2013

O, Romeo, Romeo!

Daniel Briere and Sara Topham as R&J
The truth: I wasn't looking forward to seeing Romeo and Juliet this season at Stratford.  For one thing, I've seen it far too many times.  It was the first live Bard production I'd ever seen (Hiram College, 1962), and it's so often produced because it's one of those plays that attract all ages.  And teachers bring their classes--entire schools appear sometimes.  A money-maker for classical theater companies.  Allusions to it are everywhere--from Bugs Bunny to an Amanda Seyfried film (Letters to Juliet, 2010).  Not to mention, you know, West Side Story?

But still I go when it's somewhere near, just about always.  (Some Shakespeare is better than no Shakespeare.)  As a result, I'm tired of it.  Have chunks of it memorized.  Recognize its weaknesses as one of his early plays, weaknesses whose prominence grows under repetition's magnifying glass.

I've not seen it done well very often, either.  Many companies go with young, hot leads, hoping the hotness will prevent people from noticing that R&J don't always know what they're saying.  I've also seen directors fly in plane-loads of bells and whistles to ring and shriek throughout so that, perhaps, the audience won't notice that the principals ... suck.  Videos playing on huge screens.  Uzis.  Rock bands.  I've seen it all.

So ... when I saw the list for the Stratford Festival's season, I very nearly did not buy tickets for Romeo and Juliet.  Did I really want to hear those lines again?  Watch young actors botch them?  Witness another anguished iteration of a pointless double suicide?

But I bought them.  This is Stratford, after all (we've spent a week here every year since 2001), so there was hope.  I've seen some of the best productions here that I've ever seen--and I've seen the Bard in New York and London--and many other towns tiny and towering.  I still remember a magical Pericles here, a great cycle of Henry plays (Parts One, Two, and Henry V with the same players in the same season), a Midsummer Night's Dream in an Amazon rain forest, a cowboy Taming of the Shrew, and on and on.  So ... out from my wallet flew the plastic ...

But I was not looking forward to it, not at all.  That long walk from our room in Mercer Hall to the Festival Theatre--that long walk back in the dark.  With another Romeo and Juliet in between?  Really?

Also--I saw from the program that some of the Festival's "veteran" actors were playing some of the young people.  The wonderful Jonathan Goad (eleven seasons) and Sara Topham (thirteen seasons) were playing, respectively, Mercutio and Juliet.  Could they convince?  I wasn't sure. (What a stupid bias I'm evincing here--one I ought to have been more sensitive to since I'm 68 years old!) True, young David Briere (Romeo) was making his Festival debut ... and how would that play?  The minor roles were loaded with great Stratford talent: Wayne Best (Montague), Scott Wentworth (Capulet), Tom McCamus (Friar Laurence), and others.  That was encouraging.

When we settled into our seats, I saw a bare stage.  More happiness.  No (apparent) fancy-pantsing seemed imminent.  I was hopeful--even mentioned to Joyce that perhaps they were going to do it in the "old" (Elizabethan) fashion.  That would be a new one for me.

And so they did ... as I would have known if I had read the program before the show instead of afterwards!

TO BE CONTINUED: Next time--the production that dazzled ...

Saturday, August 17, 2013

To Goderich We Go ...

Goderich (little red dot) on Lake Huron

Goderich  (pronounced either GOD-rich or GOD-er-ich) is a town in the Canadian province of Ontario and is the county seat of Huron County. The town was founded by William "Tiger" Dunlop in 1827. First laid out in 1828, the town is named after Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich, who was British prime minister at the time. The town was officially incorporated in 1850.  --from dictionary.com's "reference" tab ...

Today (Friday), before lunch, we drove west about forty-six miles from Stratford to Goderich, which sits on the shore of Lake Huron.  We have no matinee to see today, so we decided on a short road trip.  We looked at the map, decided on Goderich, and off we went.

We used to do this quite often during our week in Stratford--head off to explore somewhere, pack a picnic lunch, eat with the mosquitoes (who were also dining)--but as I've gotten older, I've also gotten--what?--weirder? more paranoid? chicken?  Here's the silliness behind it all: There are very few designated parking spaces for Mercer Hall (our hotel) in the parking lot behind the building, and I'm afraid (yes, afraid is the word) that if we drive somewhere, all those slots will be gone when we get back, and then ... and then ... and then?  What?  The universe implodes, time reverses, huge, fantastic creatures emerge from the the interstices among the stars--flesh-eating creatures that crave the meat of men between 68 and 69 years old.  So now do you understand why I'm prefer to be so sedentary here?  To park the car on Monday afternoon and not use it again till we go home on Sunday afternoon?  Completely reasonable, right?

Anyway, off we drove on Highway 8, encountering the first major road construction about ten miles outside of town.  But I was patient, sitting there, waiting, knowing that it didn't make much difference, anyhow, because there wasn't going to be a parking place when we got back.  There were three such stops along Rt. 8--three places where traffic was one lane only--and best of all?  On the way home, we were twice the first car not allowed to proceed.  There we sat, waiting for the westbound traffic to reach us, be waved through.  Then ... our turn.

But, soon, the construction went away, and we drove into the lovely Ontario countryside with well-kept farms (so many farmhouses are yellow or red brick), small towns that remind me of Oklahoma towns when I was a boy: wide main streets, no big-box stores, busy businesses occupying all the old buildings in the old downtowns.  Oh, sure, there were a few franchises here and there there (Subway, Tim Horton's, a lone McDonald's), but lots of local ones, too, and I got all weepy and nostalgic and even a bit angry at how we've screwed up our own small towns.  We did not see, for example, a Wal-Mart until ... Goderich.  But it was outside town--on the eastern edge--far enough away that it did not seem to affect all that much the health of the downtown businesses.  Of course, Goderich is a county seat--so there is business there of a political and legal nature, and those businesses require other business, and so on.

Oh, and there is virtually no sprawl in the small towns.  You enter town; you leave town; the countryside commences almost immediately at the town limits.  The way it used to be ...

Downtown Goderich is a large circle, the courthouse in the center, and we parked there and immediately found a perfect place to eat (in name as well as menu): J's Bistro (10 Courthouse Sq., if you're ever there).  I had a chicken wrap (sans sauce, sans bacon); Joyce, a summer salad that took her, oh, approximately twice as long to eat as my wrap.  But I was patient.  Also, she ate my carrot soup, my side (which she'd ordered for me because she wanted it), so I sat there and played with my iPhone and visited the men's room a couple of times.

Hours later, outside, we found a little book shop--well, a book and yarn shop (it seems that books aren't sufficient these days--you need something else, too; I'm going to open a books and bacon shop)--but most of the stuff in it was, well, to be kind, not as interesting as the yarn.  But the owner worked in the local public school, so we talked a bit about schools.  When I told her I'd taught middle and high school English for forty-five years, she looked at me with a kind of soft pity that I found comforting.

Down to the beach we went for a walk.  The sky was perfectly blue; the water, aquamarine.  Some mothers, lying in the sun, had little children swarming around them like gnats.  Goderich is in the process of moving near the beach its old train depot--a lovely brick building.  Bless them for saving such things.  We took a few pictures, then headed "home" ...

... a drive during which I noted my anxiety level (no parking place!) elevating every half-mile.  By the time we got near Stratford, I was nearly certifiable.  (To Joyce I said: "We are now two miles away from having no parking place!"  Far, far calmer than I--about most anything--she smiled, indulgently, I would say.)

We entered town.  Made our turn.  The parking lot now in view.  Car tops glistening in the sun.  "There's not a single ****ing one!" I cried with the despair of the banished Romeo (we're seeing Romeo and Juliet tonight--just getting ready).  We pulled into the lot.

"There's one," Joyce said calmly, pointing to the obvious.

I veered in; parked; exhaled for the first time in about twenty minutes.

I looked at Joyce, a daffy crooked smile affixed to my face.  "We're here," I said.

She smiled again, said nothing, her silence eloquent.  If I could translate that silence, it would say something like this: Dan, I love you--really love you.  But ...

Some photos from Goderich ...