Dawn Reader

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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Last Cup at Hattie's

I've been home about an hour after I drank my last cup at Hattie's Cafe--my last cup ever. They're closing this afternoon, for good.

"My" chair & table at Hattie's
Hattie's has been part of my daily routine for quite a while now. They open at 8 (well ... sometimes it's more like 8:05ish, which can be a problem on these cold days), and I am usually the first customer. I sit on a high stool by a little high table, right against the north windows, and there I do the same things every morning: read the New York Times on my Kindle, check my email (their wireless is not totally reliable), check Facebook to see who has "liked" the posts I did before I came over, read 100 pp of a book I'm reviewing for Kirkus Reviews. I drink two cups of Hattie's coffee, have fun with the manager and servers (Dan, Amy, Sandy, Chrissy, Matt, Amanda, and others), and eat a scone I've made at home and sneaked in with me. I take a calcium/Vitamin D pill (part of my regimen now that I'm "enjoying" Lupron injections to retard the progress of my prostate cancer).

I'm usually done by 9:45 or so, and home I go to do in my study the other work of the morning.

Hattie's is the fourth coffee shop I've "closed" in Hudson in the past decade or so: Saywell's (which used to occupy half of the Hattie's space--Joyce and I habituated that place for about twenty years), Dave's Coffee (down Main Street, north a little--near the Learned Owl), Caribou (now Peet's, whose ambiance I abhor--I don't go there), and now Hattie's ...  Am I the Curse of Coffeeshops in Hudson?

Afternoons--about 12:30-2:30--are for Starbucks, whom I'm not likely to drive out of business.

It's been sad, the past few weeks, watching the inventory decline--shelves growing empty--watching workers move on to other positions. I bought a couple of Hattie's cups (see photo above) for souvenirs; then, today, just before I left, they gave me another one. In this case, three's not a crowd. I said good-bye to each of the workers today; Sandy, a special friend, hugged me hard, and both of us had tears in our eyes.

I walked home in the snow, expecting to have to shovel the walk when I got there--but Joyce had already done it! (Marriage rocks!) Inside I went to mix and bake some maple-pecan scones.  The only question: Where will I sneak-and-eat them now?

Bruegger's Bagels down on Rte. 303 (Streetsboro Rd.) is a possibility (a likelihood?): It's only a little farther to walk. But it won't be Hattie's. It won't have the history, the view (see below), the people I've come to care about very much.

RIP, Hattie's ...

My view through the east and south windows in Hattie's.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 36

The next reader was Dawn Softlight, Harriet’s cheerleader friend who’d tagged along a little with us at Settlers Cemetery. She was tall with blonde hair that was nearly white, and on our poetry reading day she was wearing a wedding dress, a white garment, I later learned, was her mother’s. Dawn already looked older than the rest of us, and in a very odd way the wedding dress seemed almost appropriate. She did not look like a little girl playing dress-up. She looked like a young woman about to be married.
She walked to the lectern with all the confidence of a born performer. She turned to us, smiled a smile that benefitted from genetics, whitening products, and orthodonture. You know how teeth in TV commercials sometimes sparkle? Well, hers actually did. It was terribly annoying. She looked … perfect. And my resentment for her deepened.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Ms. Medwin, “our next poet is … Dawn Softlight.” Wild clapping from her friends and fans and boys who wanted her (almost all of them, I would guess); polite sounds from the rest of us.
Dawn looked down at the lectern, then looked up at us with a deathly serious face. I’d never seen her display such an expression—not that I’d seen all that much of her. “My poem,” she breathed, “comes from the gravestone of Jane Williams, 1798–1894.[i] Her epitaph reads, ‘Is the jay more precious than the lark because his feathers are more beautiful?’” She paused. “I’m not sure of the original source,” she said.
“Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew,” I muttered.[ii] Dawn apparently heard something because she shot me a weaponized look. I smiled sweetly. Innocently. And thought some homicidal thoughts of my own. This was the girl that Harriet was choosing to spend as much—or more!—time with than with me!
Meanwhile, Dawn had once again affixed to her face the sober look of a serious poet (or so I interpreted it) and began to read in a voice both breathy and urgent …

“I made everyone jealous.
The girls, of course, because
They wanted to be me.
The boys because I was popular
And got away with things that
I probably shouldn’t have.
The adults because I was young
And they weren’t.
I lived a long and lovely life,
And I stayed young and beautiful—

She kept her head down for a moment—until we were positive she had finished—and then she slowly raised it, and I watched the sober seriousness dissolve into pure pleasure as the clapping began and continued until it was time for the questions and comments.
“Thank you very much,” said Ms. Medwin. “You’ve created quite a character, Dawn. Now … are there any questions or comments?”
I had some.

[i] Jane Williams and her husband, Edward, were friends of Mary and Bysshe Shelley; Edward drowned in the boating accident that killed Bysshe. Jane and Mary remained friends—until Mary discovered that Jane had betrayed her—talking about her behind her back. The dates on the gravestone are—no surprise—the same as Jane’s.
[ii] Vickie is correct. At this point in The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine is upset about not having nice clothes for her sister’s wedding, and Katherine’s husband, Petruchio, makes a long speech about how looks are not all that important. Here are a few of the other lines in that speech:

Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE LONE RANGER--Why the Animus?

Last summer's The Lone Ranger is on some "Worst Films of the Year" lists. Here's what a critic said on Yahoo!Movies:

You call this "The Lone Ranger"?! More like The Lame Ranger! (Zing!) Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski tried fruitlessly to recreate the thrill-ride magic they had on the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie set in the classic Western backdrop. Furthermore, Captain Jack Sparrow as the beloved Tonto not only didn't work, but it was in questionable taste. Even the energetic classic "Lone Ranger" theme music (otherwise known as Rossini's "William Tell Overture") wasn't exciting enough to get this train to leave the station. —Breanne L. Heldman

When the film came out, I remember reading comparisons with Heaven's Gate (1980) and  Ishtar (1987), both of which bombed at the box office (and with critics). Both of which ... I ... liked. Just as I liked The Lone Ranger--in fact, I wrote a couple of long posts here about it (Post 1Post 2).

I have a theory that I'm too lazy to explore: Many critics of today are too young to remember the original radio and TV show--and so they had no emotional history with the series.

As my earlier posts indicated, I'd listened to and watched The Lone Ranger--a lot--when I was a lad. So when I went to see that film last summer, I was ready to be emotionally affected by it (notice I didn't say impacted--I hate that locution!). And so I was.

Director Gore Verbinski waited till near the very end to employ the "Overture" from William Tell, the theme music from the original show, and, as I said in those posts, when that music soared, and as the Lone Ranger rode Silver to the rescue, well, I wept. I had suddenly become that little Oklahoma boy again, lying in front of the radio or the old black-and-white TV (the one that required you to get off your ass to adjust the set itself if you wanted to change channels or IMPACT the volume), my heart racing along with the Ranger as he righted wrongs, shared ideas with Tonto, arrived in the nick of time, rode away from town with the gratitude of the people who'd doubted him following him like another Tonto.

And the opening credits? The Ranger riding to the top of the hill? With that enormous rock beside him? The music soaring? Silver rearing? I know I know ... it sounds tacky and dated now. But then--oh, that magical then, the then of boyhood--it was Adventure and Righteousness themselves on that horse. And I so desperately wanted to ride along. I would very happily have been Tonto2.

And so I thank Gore Verbinski for bringing him back--and boo to those puppy critics who either have no years--or have no hearts--to appreciate what he did.

Opening Credits--THE LONE RANGER TV show

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Teaching to the Heart

It's pointless, I know, to rail against the current love affair with standardized testing in our public schools. It's here; it's going to stay awhile, like a clueless friend in your late-night living room, a friend who either can't tell time or doesn't care that you're tired and want to go to bed. In Ohio, the test mania began in the 1990s and was one of the principal reasons I retired in January 1997, the first day I was eligible to collect benefits. I'd watched the Ohio Proficiency Tests transform our wonderful Harmon School into something it had never been before: a test-preparation factory. (I exaggerate--but not by much.)

Some years my eighth graders did well on the reading and writing tests; some years, less well. And I honestly never felt I ought to take credit in the good years or blame in the bad. I'd had the kids(most were 13 years old) only forty-two minutes a day for about half a year when the Tests arrived. Doesn't it seem arrogant to take credit? Paranoic to take blame?

I knew that in my room were kids who could have passed those tests when they were nine years old--and other kids would who have trouble passing them when they were adults. It's called the Normal Curve. Sure, I had my students read and write a lot--every year--and some years my students were clustered more in the upper half of the curve, and so they did well. But sometimes the cluster was in the lower half--and guess what happened those years? All my fault, I know. Freeze my salary.

I've said all this before in one way or another--but, like a deep splinter in my foot, it reminds me every now and then of its painful presence. What bothers me a lot is this idea that something is important only if we can measure it--test for it. We can test, say, for knowledge of vocabulary words, for a kid's ability to punctuate according to conventional rules, for his or her ability to pick from a list the "main idea" of a paragraph, and so on. And so we do test for those things. And then we think we've measured something significant. Numbers add gravity even to weightless things.

We can also test kids' abilities to write conventional paragraphs--you know, the ones with topic sentences and details and examples and the like (the kinds of paragraphs that rarely appear in the work of our best writers, by the way). And so we do. And then we think we know something about a kid's writing talent and achievement (we don't).

But all this testing--all this emphasis on scores--flies in the face of what I think is most meaningful in an education. For a moment--think about those teachers who most influenced you, maybe even inspired you ... those whom you most admired and respected. What was it about them that made you feel that way? Was it their knowledge of commas and topic sentences? Their ability to teach vocabulary words? To prepare you for a standardized test?

In my case, it was none of those things. It was who they were that mattered. What they valued. How they showed us (not told us) about the excitement of an intellectual life. I remember those teachers who seemed eager when they came in the room (okay, not always!), who had something exciting they'd been thinking about--something they'd read or seen or heard. Something that might have related directly to what we were doing--or not.

And even more important to me? I admired, even loved, those teachers whose hearts were visible in class. Those teachers who could--and did--weep at a lovely line in a poem, whose anger at the behavior of a character on the page was genuine, who laughed when Huck Finn said that the main difference between a hog and a man is that a hog will go in a church every day, not just on Sunday. And so on. Teachers who made me want to be like them; teachers who made me care.

Teachers with such hearts--hearts so immense that you can hear them beat, even see them pulsating in class--those are the teachers who inspired me, who educated my heart, as well. And they, my friends, are the ones who truly taught me. For once the heart is engaged, the mind obediently follows, commencing a journey that only Time will end.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 35

Dwayne’s face neared purple as he faced the class. From my seat several rows back I could see the perspiration beading on his forehead like raindrops on a window. And as he read, they began to flow down his forehead onto his cheeks; some dropped onto his tie, looking like dark stains of blood.
“My poem,” he said, making poem rhyme with Rome, “is for the grave of G. Iron, 1809–1849. All it said on that stone—except for when he was born and died—was ‘Nevermore.’[i] So here goes, I guess?” He looked in terror at Ms. Medwin, standing to the side, and she nodded and smiled.

“My father was a working man.
A blacksmith, big and solid
As a statue in the park.
As soon as I could stand,
He made me work beside him,
All day long. Every day.
I hated it. I hated him.
My mother only shrugged and sighed.
And when my father died—”

“Oh, that rhymes!” cried Dwayne. “Sorry! I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay,” said Ms. Medwin. “Just go on.”
Dwayne went on:

“And when my father died
(A beautiful horse kicked him in the head),
I left this town one minute
After the funeral.
I trained birds for circuses and magicians.
Then, many years later, I came back here
To die of the brain cancer
That had kicked me in the head.”

There was a short silence. I don’t think any of us knew what to do. Dwayne Hardfall, for as long as I had known him, had never taken seriously any school assignment. I looked over at his group of friends. They were staring at him as if he were a new kid in class. And, of course, in a way he was.
Ms. Medwin began the applause, which became pretty loud, almost football-game loud. While Dwayne’s face darkened even more, then broke into a smile so goofy-looking that a lot of people laughed. (I among them.) A hard look from Dwayne ended the laughter instantly.
“That was wonderful, Dwayne,” said Ms. Medwin. And I kind of agreed—not because it was a great poem or anything but because Dwayne had done it. All I’d ever seen when I’d looked at Dwayne before this moment was, well, a side of beef. A side of beef wearing clothes. And now he’d shown me—shown us all—that he had a mind. And a heart.

[i] Edgar Allan Poe had the same years of birth and death. And, of course, “Nevermore” occurs in his most famous poem, “The Raven.”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Trashy Movies: Part 4

I'll probably go see a trashy movie on Christmas. Maybe not.

In recent weeks I've posted here a few times about my years of attendance at trashy movies, and I've offered a few (lame) excuses: (1) my boyhood in Oklahoma (where the wind came sweepin' down the plain--and where the four movie theaters in Enid showed pretty much all trash); (2) my teaching career (I felt I ... "owed" it to my students to be able to talk with them about the films they were seeing--not that I wanted to go, you understand?); (3) my desire for escape (except there's not a lot I want to escape from).

And now we reach Excuse Four: I have a character flaw--or, more precisely, I go to trashy movies because I am trash. There are those in my family who would agree with that (no names), but then again, last fall my the whole family, brothers and all, went to see World War Z. Trash or art? Artsy trash? Trashy art? Let's just say that my brothers and I enjoyed it more than our wives did.

So what kind of character flaw is this? I mean, how is it that a person who held forth in classrooms (public and private school) for nearly half a century, a person who professed his fondness--no, his love--for great literature, a person who reviews books in significant publications, a person who reads the complete works of Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Shakespeare, Twain, and many other literary luminaries, a person who spent decades traveling around to see every Shakespeare play in a live stage production, a person who has memorized more than 130 famous poems, and a person who ... how can that person lie in bed last night and watch--via streaming Netflix--Redemption, a recent Jason Statham film? It's the kind of thing that drove my mother to despair, I know. And Joyce has looked at me with ... surprise, as well.

Joyce. She married me in spite of this: One of our first dates was to see The Green Berets (1968) with John Wayne, a film that was appearing near her house in one of those "second-run" movie houses (remember them?). And--even more inexcusable--on our honeymoon in New Orleans in late December 1969 we went to see On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the only James Bond film with George Lazenby, a Bond film that ends with his marriage to Tracy (Diana Rigg)--and then, while they are driving off on their own honeymoon, some assassins attack the Bond car, and Tracy takes a bullet in the brain.  ("Happy honeymoon, Joyce.")

Since those dark early days, Joyce has gone with me many times to see films that she would never have gone to see in any other situation. (She doesn't always go--I'll grant her that. But almost always.)

Now, I know why she does this: She loves me. In spite of my trashiness. (She also knows that something egregious on the screen will earn points toward a visit to the Cedar-Lee, our nearest venue for independent and foreign films--it's an hour away, which is why we don't go more often.) Perhaps she looks at me as if I were a new car that didn't quite have all the right features? I'm afraid to ask her.

I will say that I go much less frequently now to trash. Am I maturing? Growing up? You might think so--but then there I was, just last night, watching Jason Statham hurt people.

So my grand conclusion is this ... why have I gone to so many trashy movies?

I don't know ...

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 34

Father raced to my room when he heard my scream. He flipped on the light, and I saw him step back in surprise. And I knew that he too had just felt the power of the sickening odor. Without a word, he opened a window, turned toward me. We looked silently at each other.
Then … “Vickie, did you hear—?”
“I did.”
And then a long, long conversation before either of us surrendered to the sway of sleep.

The next two days in school—Wednesday and Thursday—we worked on our poems in class, individually, with small groups. Ms. Medwin had already announced a surprising plan for us, too.
“Class,” she’d said on Wednesday, “on Friday, we’re going to arrange our room for a formal poetry reading.”
After she saw all the question marks hovering in the air like clouds of gnats over our heads, she explained a little more. “I’m going to borrow the lectern from the school, a microphone. And those of you who want to read will come up and read your poems at the lectern. You’ll deal with questions and comments afterwards. It will look something like an actual poetry reading.”
She explained what that was all about. (None of us had ever been to such a thing.) And then … another surprise.
“And those of you who are going to read?” she said. “I’d like you to … dress up for the occasion.”
Now the airy question marks transformed into noise. All kinds of questions—a few complaints—but overall excitement. Dress up! In school?
Well, if I’d had any doubts before about reading in front of the class, I had none now. It was not going to happen. But all kinds of hands were in the air right now, hands of volunteers. And among them was Harriet Eastbrook.

On Friday morning, out in the cafeteria, waiting for Mr. Leon to open the doors to the academic area, the poetry-readers stood out. Girls in dresses, boys in coats-and-ties, other curious kids surrounding and surveilling and questioning. What … ? And Why … ? And: Poems!?!? I have to say that it was one of the oddest scenes I’ve ever witnessed at school. The readers—the dressed-up ones—all behaved in kind of a royal manner. Yes, I’ll be reading my poem in class today. Even their conversational sentences seemed more … formal. Some carried in their hand a folder that held, I was sure, their poems—but the readers behaved as if they were carrying state secrets.
And even odder than all of this? The other kids seemed almost cowed by all of the formality. After the questions ended, they just stared, as if they’d stumbled into the wrong hotel room and found themselves in an alternate universe where people they knew looked somewhat the same—but something else about them was just very wrong.

When English period came, I was surprised how changes so minor could make such a major difference in the look of the room. Ms. Medwin had moved our table back a little, and put in front of the room the wooden lectern that the principal used for assemblies and other public events. Attached to it was a microphone with a flexible neck to that the speaker could adjust it. And behind the lectern, I saw, was a little platform for kids who needed one to stand on. (As you know, middle school kids come in all sizes.)
And there were vases of flowers around … flowers!
And Ms. Medwin herself was dressed up, too, wearing a floor-length dress. She looked as if she were going to some kind of formal event. It was dark green—form-fitting—and seemed almost to shimmer as she moved here and there, adjusting things. I’ll have to say that most of the boys were very attentive in English on Friday.
When we were all in our seats and settled, Ms. Medwin approached the microphone and said, “Welcome to our first seventh-grade poetry reading.” First? Were there going to be more? “Our theme—the Settlers Cemetery. Today, we will give voices once again to those who have for so long been silent.
“And our first poet today”—she looked at her list—“is Dwayne Hardfall.”
Dwayne Hardfall. The largest boy in our school since the departure of Blue Boyle. Dwayne Hardfall. Who played on the middle school football team and—so I heard—hit other boys on other teams so hard that they took a long, long time getting back up off the ground. Dwayne Hardfall. Who was dressed in a bright blue suit with a bright yellow shirt and a bright red tie. The same red as his face as he moved toward the lectern to read his poem. Ms. Medwin led the applause as he approached.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Chocolate Mom

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term chocoholic (n. and adj.) back to 1961. So late? My mom was born in 1919, and she's been one all her life. If only one of the OED editors had met her! By the way, the OED editors, fearing we might not understand, note that the term is formed from chocolate and -holic as in alcoholic. Glad they cleared that one up. (And BTW, I am positive our family used that term before 1961.)

I cannot remember when my mother did not crave chocolate, and that's because I wasn't born till 1944, and she'd already been an addict for twenty-five years.  In our house, we had dessert with every meal but breakfast, and the dessert was invariably ice cream--with chocolate sauce on top. We almost always got vanilla ice cream because Dad didn't really care for chocolate--and money was tight. So Mom would make her own chocolate sauce with that Hershey's powdered stuff that came in the sort of can pictured here. It had a metal lid that wasn't easy to lift. Mom had no problem. Passion awards dexterity. (We also, from time to time, tried Neapolitan ice cream--with three equal chunks of vanilla-chocolate-strawberry--but nobody liked the strawberry part, so we gave up on it.)

Mom would heat the powder-and-water mixture on the stove-top, then pour the hot sauce over her vanilla ice cream. Heaven.

My brothers and I had learned--somewhere? don't remember where--that if we stirred our ice cream vigorously, it would transform its texture to something more or less resembling what came out of the machine at Dairy Queen. Mom thought this was too crude for the dinner table and proscribed it, so we had to do it when her back was turned. But then--one magical day--we persuaded her to try it, and that was a life-changer for her. From then on she also stirred her vanilla cum Hershey's with an impressive determination until she had something that looked like Dairy Queen chocolate. Heaven.

Which, by the way, is what she would always order when we were traveling. Out on the road, she could get real chocolate out of the machines--not that ersatz stuff she stirred back at home. When we were living in Hiram, she and Dad, after supper, liked to drive (at 20 mph--a speed not pleasing to the adolescents in the back seat) up to Burton, Ohio (about 12 miles due north), where there was a soft ice-cream place on the square. Mom would always get chocolate--except during maple-syrup season when she would cave and get the maple ice cream, which was, in a word, Heaven.

My brothers and I, by the way, were not chocoholics. Yes, we all liked chocolate, but we could get by without it. Still, we had favorite candy bars. Mine was Snickers; Richard's, some sort of Peter Paul candy (Almond Joy?); Dave's, 3 Musketeers (I think). But, as I said, we could live without them.

Mom couldn't. A sure-fire gift for her birthday, Mother's Day, Christmas.

Mom also kept Oreos in the house. And chocolate chip cookies. Or tried to. She hid them in various venues around the house (my favorite: inside the pressure cooker deep inside one of the bottom kitchen cabinets), but hungry adolescent boys will find anything edible, and we did. I'm ashamed to admit that we sometimes ate them all--and then had to deal with Mom's disappointment/rage/etc. when she reached for the pressure cooker and realized it felt a little ... light.

As I said, giving Mom chocolate for special occasions was a no-brainer. And still is. Over the years we were always giving her books and clothing (she loved Pendleton wool) and things to hang on the wall and jewelry and perfume and ... you know. Chocolate remained a staple, though. And how about this? One of her favorite meals (perhaps her very favorite) is salmon. Well, brother Richard once found and gave her a chocolate salmon. And that, my friends, was the greatest of mega-hits with Mom.

And is it a coincidence that she has lived for the past ten years or so only minutes away from a restaurant called Chocolate Springs in Lenox, Mass.? And can you guess where we invariably go when we are in town to see her? Her freezer and fridge and cupboards are chockablock with chocolate.

Now that Mom is 94 and in an assisted living unit, her world has shrunk considerably. No more Pendleton wool (she's in her sweat-suit phase of life); no more books (she can't keep focused--and her eyes are weak); no more things to hang on the walls (we're getting rid of same); no more programs or upgrades for her computer (she hasn't been able to use it in several years).

Chocolate, however, remains. Until very recently, my brothers could take her to a local Friendly's for you-know-what, but it's nearly impossible to take her out now. So Dick and Dave take her Fribbles and a Wendy's Frosty now and then. And her birthdays and Christmas are almost exclusively chocolate. She still loves it with all her heart. Chocolate Santa is very generous.

The past few years we've been sending her these amazing Taza chocolate bars (pictured below) from a company in Somerville, Mass., on the edge of Boston, where my two brothers live (one in Lexington, the other in Dorchester). They are great--in fact, they're so good that I'm thinking I might become a chocoholic. I would be in good company ... the best, actually. (Link to their website)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"So how did you guys meet?"

As some of you know, Joyce and I celebrated our forty-fourth wedding anniversary yesterday, 20 December. Some of my FB friends asked how we met ... and it is a good story, one that I've told before. In fact, on 10 November 2008 I spoke about it during a speech at Western Reserve Academy. Joyce was in the audience--but she had no idea that I was going to be talking (and singing) about her. It was a speech on the school's theme for the year--"The Power of One."

Here's the text of that speech--a little long, I know: Deal with it!  Oh, and I am so grateful for WRA student Hunt Hearin, a talented pianist, who played for me that day, making my sorry self sound halfway decent.

Daniel Dyer
Western Reserve Academy
Morning Meeting, 10 November 2008 
            I lured my wife here with … well … with a little white lie.  She would never have come if I had told her that she was going to be the focus of my Power of One talk.  But so she is.  And now she can’t leave without drawing attention to herself—which she never likes to do.  Sorry, J …
            Shall I tell you a story?
            It was the summer of 1969.  July.  About a month before the Woodstock Festival and all that Sixties’ hopefulness about how we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden …  Richard Nixon was in the White House—he’d defeated Sen. Hubert Humphrey that past fall.  The United States was bogged down in a war in Vietnam.  The big movies that year: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (a James Bond film), Alice’s Restaurant.  On TV the top three shows were Laugh-In, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza.  Still in the top twenty … The Beverly Hillbillies.  The best-selling novels in steamy 1969 were Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, and  Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine.
            Just that past winter, the Browns had lost the NFL Championship game; the Indians were in the middle of a miserable season, a last-place finish in the American League East, 46½ games out.  The Cleveland Cavaliers did not even exist; their first season ever as an NBA expansion team was a year later, 1970–1971.
            That summer of 1969, I had just finished my third year of teaching.  Aurora Middle SchoolAurora, Ohio.  Seventh grade English—no, “Language Arts,” we were calling it then.  That summer I had decided that I would take another couple of courses in graduate school.  I’d started work on my master’s degree over at Kent State University, just a dozen miles away from my Aurora apartment, a tiny single-room-with bath—no shower.  My bed folded inside the couch.  After I pulled the bed out, there was hardly any room at all to move around the apartment.  It was a room much smaller than the smallest room in The A.  My rent was $110 a month plus utilities.  It was home.
            And in that home I was lonely.  A couple of years earlier my parents had moved out to Iowa to teach at Drake University.  Both of my high-achieving brothers, older and younger, were at Harvard.  My little brother was an undergrad; my older was working on a Ph.D.  (He never finished his!  Ha!)  I was teaching seventh graders about subjects and predicates, action verbs and linking verbs, trying to keep them from killing one another at recess, trying to shovel a pathway through the snowdrifts of papers that obstructed my life every week.  I taught six classes a day.  About 200 students.  I was busy.  Tired.  Stressed.  Poor (my salary that year was $7062.93).
            And lonely.
            Very lonely.  At age 24, I was definitely no “love machine,” not a functioning one anyway.  I was broken down, out of gas, ready for the junk heap—so much so that I had just about given up hope of ever finding anyone.  Back in my own school days, I’d gone with a girl for a long time—from seventh grade through spring break of my freshman year in college.  When she dumped me.  An old story.  Another guy.  I cried for a while—oh, about five years or so.
            I’d had a few random dates since then, but nothing really steady—not even in college.  And since I’d graduated and started teaching, I’d had even fewer dates.  Once or twice I went out with a young woman who is now the aunt of Alison Monroe.  She was great—but she was living far away.  I rarely saw her.
            At Kent State that summer I wanted to take some sort of course in American literature—one of my loves in the literary world.  But the course I wanted—whatever it was—was full.  Closed out.  All that was left was a course in American Transcendentalism—not my favorite period.  Lots of Emerson and Thoreau and Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller and other 19th-century folks with big vocabularies and no sense of humor at all.  Oh well.  I went ahead and enrolled.
            On the first day of class that June—as was my custom in those lean and lonely bachelor years—I was watching very, very closely as the women entered the classroom and took their seats.  Some were as old as my mother (generally not a good plan); some were with their boyfriends (buh-bye); some were, well, pulchritudinously challenged.  But one—oh, yes! one!—now, she was different.
            In the days that followed I listened to her in class, recognizing hers as a special intelligence.  (Okay, I also thought she was hot!)  But I already understood that making a move on her would be foolish.  Self-destructive.  Psychological suicide.  I’d made that mental calculation—the one all guys make (don’t we, guys?).  We look; we evaluate; we calculate; and sometimes we realize that this person, well, is beyond us.  And so, to save face, to prevent from tearing that flimsy tissue of early manhood’s self-respect, we step back; we don’t even try.  Better to remain at a safe distance than get too close and feel rejection’s sharp blade once more slicing between our ribs, probing for that trembling, vulnerable heart.
            I never saw her outside of class, either.  There were two ways to exit the classroom building, and she never went out the way I did.  Never.
            Until that once …
            Yes, one day in mid-July, I am trudging out the door, alone, when I feel someone fall in step beside me.  I look over.  It is she.  For a moment, my heart hits its pause button, then punches fast-forward.  She looks back at me.  Me!  I damn near pass out.  But as we step out into the sun—oh, that auspicious sun!—she speaks.  To me.  “Could you tell me,” she says, “where the library is?”
            I gulp.  Then say the smartest thing I’ve ever said in my life, before or since.  “Sure,” I croak.  “I’ll show you where it is.”  And off we go, together, toward the library, where, I will learn later, she’s already been going every single day after class.  Realizing that I am profoundly dense, she’s taken the first step herself—a move my poor, poor psyche is incapable of even imagining, much less performing.
            Fast forward one week.  Our second date.  It’s July 20th, her 22nd birthday.  It’s near midnight.  We are standing in her family’s living room down in Akron’s Firestone Park.  Her parents—finally!—have gone upstairs.  She says to me, “You know, I just got out of one engagement”—yes, she recently broke off with her college boyfriend; lucky me—“but,” she continues, “if you asked me to marry you right now, I’d say ‘Yes.’”
            Pause.  Talk about a Sadie’s question!
            Pause.  I’ve known her only a week!
            Pause.  This is insane!
            Pause.  Insane, yes … but being alone?  That’s more insane.
            And so I utter those immortal words, those eloquent words for all the ages, that lyrical mellifluous sentence that would have caused Shakespeare himself to bow in admiration.  I say … Let’s do it.  (I sometimes joke, telling this story, that she’d misunderstood me—by Let’s do it, she’d thought I meant Let’s get married.)
            And exactly five months later—December 20, 1969—we were married.  So … next month we will celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary.  And Joyce Coyne—yes, that was her name—has been the single greatest influence in my life.  The Power of One—in this case, a manifold power, an enormously transformational power.  Let me list—quickly—what I’ve learned from her … what I owe to her.
            • I learned from Joyce how to work hard.  Until I met her, I thought I did work hard.  I didn’t.  Joyce never—I mean never—wastes time.  If I didn’t drag her off to the movies or a play or a concert on the weekend, she would sit up in her study, reading, writing, wrestling with words and ideas until sleep finally defeats her. She is focused, determined, self-disciplined to a degree I’ve rarely seen.
            • I learned from Joyce how to be more patient.  She will laugh at that one, tell you I’ve got a lot more to learn.  She’s right.  But I’ve seen that patience in her scholarship and writing; I’ve seen it during our son’s childhood (she was, simply, just the best mother); I’ve seen it in her teaching (she taught AP English here from 1979–1990—her picture hangs in the upstairs hall in Seymour—and since then she has been Professor of English at Hiram College).  I saw her patience when she dealt with her father’s cancer, her mother’s Alzheimer’s.   I’ve seen it in her boundless patience with me.
            • I learned from Joyce—am learning from Joyce—some of the most valuable things I know about writing.  She reads my every word before anyone else does—except these!—always cradling in one of her gentle hands my fragile ego; in the other, a scalpel.
            • I learned from Joyce how it feels to have someone absolutely believe in you.  It’s the most liberating feeling there is, to know—to know—you have an ally in life.  A permanent one.  Someone who gleefully hops in the car with you—as she does each summer—to go visit the homes and graves of famous dead writers, to drive to Stratford, Ontario, to see a week of Shakespeare plays, to hang out in a bookstore, to … well, you get the picture?
            • I learned from Joyce about forgiveness.  About how hard it is.  How rare.  How essential in this world full of imperfect creatures.  Some of you know that Hawthorne story “Young Goodman Brown,” about the young man who discovers the sins of his family and friends and neighbors and just can not forgive them.  And so he lives a long and unhappy life.  Do you remember the words that end that story?  [T]hey carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.  If you can’t forgive, you see, your laughter drowns in the acid of bitterness.
            • And, finally … hey, I could go on for a long time about this … I learned from Joyce the vast, unlimited dimensions of love.  She embodies, for me, what poets have said for centuries—that love has no end, that it has the power to transform, that it illuminates the darkness, glorifies the daylight, heals the wounded heart, soothes, comforts, makes bearable those moments that threaten, that injure, that damage, that sadden and depress.  When you are loved as I have been for thirty-nine years, you believe—even while staring into the grim face of death itself—that you are immortal.

            And now … the silly part …
            Tomorrow, I will have a birthday.  I will be sixty-four.  And so before I’m sixty-four, I want to enlist the talents our own gifted Hunt Hearin—and I want to apologize in advance to your ears as I serenade—in gratitude for her astonishing Power of One—Joyce Dyer.
            SING: “When I’m Sixty-Four” (The Beatles)

When I get older losing my hair,
Many [hours] from now,
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine?

If I'd been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door,
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
[Tomorrow] When I'm sixty-four?

oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oooo
You'll be older too, (ah ah ah ah ah)
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you.

I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone.
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride.

Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
[Tomorrow] When I'm sixty-four?

Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight, if it's not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck, and Dave

Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
Stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, Wasting Away.

Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?


Friday, December 20, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 33

The next day in class—Wednesday—we spent the first few minutes talking about our walk to the Settlers Cemetery—and different kids read aloud what they’d found on the gravestones. Then Ms. Medwin asked us what ideas for poems we had, and some kids told about what they’d been thinking, and Ms. Medwin helped those kids—and the rest of us, listening—to think of different ways to write them. “And don’t worry about rhyming,” she said. “If you look in Spoon River, you don’t see much rhyming.” She paused. “What do you see?”
“Strong emotions,” I said quickly—then wished I hadn’t.
Ms. Medwin smiled at me. She already knew I didn’t like to draw attention to myself, and she was pleased, I think, about what I’d blurted out. “Does that make sense to the rest of you?” she asked. “Strong emotions?”
Some kids made various grumbling sounds that meant, Yeah, I guess. And I wish Vickie would just shut up!
Then we talked a little about emotions—which ones are stronger than others.
“Well,” she said, “make sure you think about which strong emotions you want your person to show us—and then think of how you could show them?”
She turned us loose to work on our own for a while. I glanced over at Gil, who was bent over his desk, already writing. A glance, too, at Harriet, who was smiling at me in the oddest way. She flicked her eyes back and forth between Gil and me, a quizzical look wrinkling her forehead. And then I understood: Harriet knows.

At home that night I worked awhile on my poem about my gravestone and came up with this:

Francis Wright: He tried—but failed.

So why should birds
And bats and insects
Be the only ones to fly?
Oh, sure, they have the wings,
But do they also have
The passion?
I’m sure they don’t.
Fish don’t love to swim—
They just do.
The same with birds:
If they want to move,
They have to fly—
Or hop helplessly on the ground,
I thought about this
For decades.
And finally I figured my passion
Would be all I’d need
That day I climbed that tall, inviting oak
Out near Nashoba Park,[i]
Clear to the top,
And spread my arms.
And flew.

I felt pretty good about it, actually—until later in the night. A smell awoke me. A powerful, sour smell of death. I remained right where I was—but rigid with fear. I slowed my breathing, pretending to be asleep. And it was then that I heard—or thought I heard?—the whisper. The voice was raspy and sounded very, very close to me.
I’ve never found death amusing, Victoria. Then more raspy breathing. I waited … waited … And then I knew he (it?) was gone. The air sweetened. And I screamed.

[i] Remember that “Nashoba” was the name Frances Wright gave her freed-slave community in Tennessee in the 1820s.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The 703 Club

I just noticed on my Blogspot account page that this is will be my 703rd published post. When I started this journey on 6 January 2012, I didn't know that I'd have 703 things to say about anything. Seems that I did--and it seems, also, that post #700 slipped by me, unnoticed. (Coincidence: We lived in Hiram, Ohio, on Rt. 700 for a number of years in the early 1960s.)

I don't suppose there's anything special that is going to happen to me because of reaching Number 700. I always get a big kick out of those SNL skits that declare there's a special club for folks who have hosted the show a certain number of times. The most recent one, I think, was in March 2013 when Justin Timberlake hosted for the fifth time--and he was invited into the Five-Timers Club (no apostrophe in the skit!), where he met other hosts from years gone by (Steve Martin, Candice Bergen, Chevy Chase, Paul Simon, and others). Here's a link to the video.

Ain't gonna happen for me.

I'm not sure why I began blogging. It was probably associated with my retirement from teaching. Suddenly, I no longer had an audience--a live one, an interactive one. Yes, I've published (and continue to publish) many book reviews and essays and some books--but I don't really know much about the response to those things. (Some of those responses I don't want to know.) So maybe I was just a little lonely when I started blogging?

I do know this: I had no intention of doing this every day, seven days a week. I thought I'd post something every few days, when the mood or an idea struck. And if you look back at those early weeks, you'll see that I skipped days now and then.

But soon, writing the blog posts became part of my day--every day, traveling or not, in sickness and in health. My old Puritan Ethic kicked in, and I knew that if I didn't post something, I would suffer some very unpleasant floggings from Mr. Guilt. (By the way, that term guilty pleasure never made any sense to me. Brought up in the home I was, I've always felt that all guilt is unpleasant. To say the least.) Guilt does not come, for me, in the shape of Jiminy Cricket floating in on an umbrella, a smile affixed to his insectile face. No, Guilt, for me, is something hideous that would rather eat my hand than shake it.

I exaggerate. (But not by much.)

Looking over these 700+ posts, I see I've done all kinds of things here ...
  • memories of childhood and later
  • serializations of books I've been working on
  • essays on topics ranging from education, to health, to writers and books and movies I like, to political issues
  • plain old silliness
At the end of that very first post, I wrote this:

Be patient: I'm starting slowly here, trying to figure out what to put on this site.  What to say.  I hope I'll be what I've always been: informed, annoying, entertaining, annoying, and annoying.

Well, I don't know how annoying I've been (not too much, I hope). I hope you "regulars" have had some fun visiting this page. I've had fun putting stuff there. And I have the feeling that as long as I'm sentient and healthy, I'm going to keep doing so. Every cotton-pickin' day!

BTW: I just decided to check the number of "hits" on my site--just to see: I've had 147,344 (as of 10:55 a.m., 18 December 2013). That's an average of about 201 people/post. I'm flattered, surprised, humbled ... grateful. And certain that, oh, Miley Cyrus would get that many hits per hour! (Or minute? Second?) Maybe I should take up twerking in some tight Santa-shorts? (Now, just try to get that image out of your head!)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 32

By the time we got back to school, the period was almost over. And after we had put away our coats and gathered our books and made it to Ms. Medwin’s classroom, we barely had time to sit down and hear her say “Tomorrow, bring in some ideas for your poems,” when the bell rang, and all humanity was on the move, flowing into and down the hallways. The current separated me from Gil and Harriet, and I was once again alone, moving toward math class.

That night, at home, I took a closer look at Father’s copy of Spoon River Anthology in our sitting room/library. I read quite a few of the poems and was saddened by many of them. So many people with regrets, I thought, turning pages. It is a volume about lost love and prejudice and cruelty and misunderstandings and falseness and abandonment and dreams that died. But there were also amusing ones, as well, and poems about people who’d loved their lives—had loved the people in their lives. And great surprises … like this one.
I turned the page to poem number thirty-four and found this:

Percy Bysshe Shelley
My father who owned the wagon-shop          
And grew rich shoeing horses
Sent me to the University of Montreal.           
I learned nothing and returned home,
Roaming the fields with Bert Kessler,
Hunting quail and snipe.        
At Thompson’s Lake the trigger of my gun    
Caught in the side of the boat 
And a great hole was shot through my heart.
Over me a fond father erected this marble shaft,
On which stands the figure of a woman         
Carved by an Italian artist.    
They say the ashes of my namesake   
Were scattered near the pyramid of Caius Cestius[i]    
Somewhere near Rome.

I was shocked. A Spoon River poem by a young man named Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, like his namesake, died young. In July 1822, Bysshe Shelley, who’d never learned how to swim, had drowned at sea in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia (part of the Mediterranean) when their small boat was apparently swamped by high waves. He left his wife, Mary, a widow for her remaining twenty-nine years. When he died, his age, oddly, was twenty-nine.
The Spoon River poem mentioned that Shelley’s ashes are buried near a pyramid in Rome. They are—in the Protestant Cemetery there. And I thought, reading this poem, about Mary, who in 1816 had begun writing about Victor Frankenstein and the monster he created. She’d had no idea at the time that another monster awaited her only a handful of years later, a monster that rose from the Gulf of Spezia and dragged her husband down to his death.
Here’s one of the more amusing ones—if, that is, you can find anything amusing about a death in the Civil War.

Knowlt Hoheimer
I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart   
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail 
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,           
Instead of running away and joining the army.
Rather a thousand times the country jail        
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,        
And this granite pedestal        
Bearing the words, ”Pro Patria.”[ii]
What do they mean, anyway?

I decided I was going to try to mix emotions in my own poem, too—sadness, humor. For that’s what life is, isn’t it? A mixture? Every book I ever read—every good book—shows that mixture, that blend of wonder and horror that is a human life.

[i] Caius Cestius—an ancient Roman politician who died between 18–22 BC. The pyramid still stands near the Protestant Cemetery where Shelley’s ashes lie—not far from the grave of fellow poet John Keats.
[ii] For fatherland.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Trashy Movies: Part 3

In recent days I've written about my attendance (my surprising and confoundingly regular attendance?) at trashy movies. I've offered two trembling excuses: (1) autobiography (I watched lot of them when I was a kid--not much else was available); (2) pedagogy (I watched them so that I would be able to talk with my students about them).

So far, I've failed to convince myself, so let's move on to yet another reason/excuse, and see how that flies.


This sounds like a very good reason, doesn't it? We all have aspects of our lives from which we want a little break now and then, right? Jobs, neighborhoods, family finances (smart way to escape those worries: go spend a small fortune at the movies!), family (annoying siblings, parents, children, spouses, in-laws, etc.), health, general responsibilities, and on and on and on.

But here's the problem: I don't want to escape all of that; I don't need to escape all that. Let's take each of those aspects, one at a time ...

  • Job. I loved my job, right from the beginning (Sept. 1966) when I walked into my first classroom, #116, Aurora Middle School; 102 E. Garfield Rd.; Aurora, Ohio. Seventh graders. Oh, sure, there were always things about that job--as there are about any job--that did not exactly delight me. Alpine piles of papers to grade. Teachers' meetings. Committee meetings. Obnoxious parents (not too many of those--but some). Getting up early in the morning. Working every evening, every weekend throughout the school year. (Wait a minute--what did I like about that job?) Etc. But being in a room with curious youngsters? Talking about things I cared deeply about? Reading things I loved? Why would I want to escape that?
  • Neighborhood. We live on a quiet street in a quiet town--right next door to a funeral home (Stage 3 Retirement! And very quiet neighbors.). Our other neighbors are generally amiable and respectful of our privacy. And vice-versa. (Okay, sometimes ... but let's not get into that.) We are close enough that we can (and do) walk to many of the things we like and need--bank, grocery, coffee shop, post office, book store, restaurants, etc. Why would I want to escape that?
  • Family finances. I can't complain. We're not wealthy--never were, never will be. But we have been prudent throughout our lives, saved, economized; we drove (and drive) efficient cars, paid off debts as fast as we could. We were lucky, too. We both had jobs we loved and we stayed with them for our entire careers. Never lost a job (I did quit a few times!), never got laid-off or downsized or fired. Sure, we took our jobs seriously and worked hard--but so do a lot of other people who find themselves with a pink slip in the mailbox. We were fortunate. Very fortunate. And we are profoundly grateful. Why would I want to escape that?
  • Family. Many in my family are gone now--or distant (my two brothers live in the Boston area; my mom, in Lenox, Mass.). I don't see them very often (a few times a year), and when I do, I invariably have a great time. Our only child--our son, Steve--lives about a half-hour away in Green. We love him, love his wife, adore their two sons, Logan (8) and Carson (4). So why would I want to escape that?
  • Health. Okay, this one's different. As readers of these posts know, I've been dealing with prostate cancer since late in 2004--have had surgery, radiation (neither worked), and am now on Lupron, a stop-gap hormone-inhibitor that will be effective anywhere from a few months to a few years. Then it's chemo's turn. So, sure, I'd like to escape that--but can't, really. It's always on my mind, somewhere. I find the best way to avoid thinking about it is not to go to the movies but to focus on reading and writing or spending time with Joyce. Then, indeed, my health worries cower in a corner, waiting.
  • Responsibilities. I don't have a lot of these anymore. Retired, you know. I used to have many, of course: teaching, play-directing, fatherhood, spousery (not a word, I know, but it should be), and all the other things associated with career and home-ownership and all of that. But now? Responsibilities have fallen from me like icicles from the gutters on a warm day in January. Most of the ones that remain are there because I want them to be (book-reviewing, cooking, baking, home finances, snow shoveling--okay, not that one).
Still, there are times when I lose myself in a film--those times when the screen goes black, the credits roll, and I can't believe it's over. (Our son, by the way, when he was very young, would cry when the movie ended.) But never does this happen at a trashy movie: I'm always aware I'm in the presence of Trash, and, like Oscar, I somehow love it ... but still need to come up with some better reasons for doing so.


Monday, December 16, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 31


Gil and I, of course, had immediately understood the horrors of that gravestone, and that understanding had sent both of us to the ground.
First was the tragic story that the stone told. The wife of S. T. Leon had died in childbirth on 1 February 1851.[i] And her baby had had lived only an hour. Whoever this S. T. Leon was, he must have been devastated—losing his wife, his daughter, all within an hour on the same day.
But there was more. S. T. Leon. The same initials, the same last name, as our school’s custodian. An ancestor?
And finally—I’m not sure what Gil knew (I would find out later), but I was also struck by the baby’s name: Mary W. Mary Wollstonecraft was the mother of Mary Godwin (who later married Bysshe Shelley); she, too, died in childbirth (in 1797). And Mary Godwin’s middle name? Wollstonecraft. This was getting weird.
Harriet, of course, knew nothing about the experience that Gil and I had had with Mr. Leon on the day of our detention. Nor did she know about his initials. I hadn’t had a chance to talk with her yet. But she, too, had read the sad short story carved in the sandstone, and as I looked up at her, I saw tears in her eyes.
“That’s so sad,” Harriet said. “That poor man.”
“It is sad,” I said, regaining my feet. “And very creepy, too.”
Harriet looked at me. “Creepy? Why creepy?”
“I’ll tell you later,” I said. I looked down at Gil, still seated in front of the stone. Without looking at me, he raised his arm—the sign for help. I grabbed his hand—his cold hand—and helped him to his feet. He stood there, pale, his forehead perspiring despite his icy hands, looking at Harriet and me.
“Are you going to introduce me to your friend?” he finally asked.
I’d forgotten. He and Harriet had never met. “Oh, sorry,” I said. “Harriet, this is Gil Bysshe. Gil, Harriet Eastbrook.” She smiled.
“I’ve seen you cheer,” he said.
“You have?” She smiled more.
“At the pep rallies,” he added.
Harriet seemed expectant—as if waiting for some kind of praise from Gil, like And you were great, too. But he didn’t say anything else. He just stood there with a sort of crooked look on his face—not sarcastic, though. Friendly.
Gil’s face changed. He was looking behind us. We turned. Ms. Medwin.
“Are you all right?” she asked us.
We said we were.
“Do you have your notes finished?”
We said we did.
“Good—because it’s about time for us to leave.” She gestured back toward the archway, where we could see the rest of the kids were gathering.
Silently, we started moving toward the others.

On the way back to school, Harriet, Gil, and I walked together. The rain had started—more like a steady drizzle. Harriet’s cheerleader friend sort of trailed along a few steps behind us for a little bit, then found another group of people to walk with. Harriet, I knew, would have some explaining to do later on. But she was good at that. Explaining. Getting people to understand. And forgive her.
We took turns, the three of us, showing the others what we’d found on our gravestones. Gil and Harriet were puzzled about the epitaph from the grave I’d taken: He tried—but failed. They, too, wondered what he had tried to do. And Harriet wondered, “What kind of person would put something like that on someone’s else’s grave? Something that will be there forever?”
“Well, I don’t know about ‘forever,’” I said. “Some of the inscriptions are almost gone already—and I could barely even read this one.”
Harriet’s stone was a lot more “normal”—whatever that means. She showed us what she’d written:

Mariana Chabot
Nov. 12, 1819 – Dec. 5, 1889
Daughter, Sister, Mother, Grandmother
“Fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky” — Wordsworth

“That one’s pretty good,” said Gil, and I felt Harriet stiffen a little at the word pretty. She, I knew, that it was really good. “Now take a look at this one—another sad one.

Charlene Vivian
July 8, 1804 – July 8, 1822
“Alas, then, she is drown’d?” — Shakespeare, “Hamlet”

“That’s a horribly sad one, too,” said Harriet. “Drowned. At …” She was doing math in her head.
“Eighteen,” I said.
“Eighteen,” echoed Harriet.
“On her birthday,” said Gil.
“What could be worse?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Gil. “It’s kind of a perfect circle, isn’t it?”

[i] This is the same day that Mary Shelley died in London.