Dawn Reader

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

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (75)

Dinner was amazing. There’s a patio or deck on the restaurant that allows a great view of the top of the Falls. After we ate, Gil (who had eaten virtually nothing), Harriet (who’d eaten virtually everything, as usual), and I (somewhere in between) went out there and just stared at the incredible stream of water, watched the rising mist, heard the continuous roar of the water.
After we’d stood there a bit, I felt Harriet touch my shoulder. I glanced at her and she nodded wordlessly toward Gil. Tears were streaming down his face. I looked back at Harriet, whose eyes were red, as well. Mine joined them.
Soon, Mr. Gisborne came out and told us all that we could walk some more around Goat Island and that we’d meet back at the entrance to the restaurant in an hour. I asked Gil if he wanted to walk with us.
“I think I’ll just rest here,” he said.
“You won’t find a better view,” I said.
He smiled at me, and that was all I needed—then or ever.
Harriet and I headed out onto the pathway, and no one could have told from the way we talked that both of us were very frightened. We talked about school, about teachers, about TV programs (well, Harriet talked about them), about books (guess who did most of that talking). I decided to tell Harriet one of the stories I’d read about Trelawny.
“You know,” I said, “Mary Shelley—”
“I’ve heard of her,” joked Harriet.
“I expect you have,” I said, “since you’re my best friend”
“Am I going to hear some more?”
I tried not to be offended. “I think you’ll like it,” I said.
“It’s not about monsters, is it?” she asked. “Because I don’t want to think about them right now.”
“No,” I said, “it’s not about monsters—or even anything scary. Far from it.”
“Well, okay then.”
“Anyway,” I continued, “you remember that Mary’s husband, Bysshe, died just weeks before her twenty-fifth birthday?”
“I think you told me that.” She stopped and looked at me. “This isn’t going to be too sad for me, is it? Because I’ve had enough of sad, looking at Gil back there.”
“Well, a little sad,” I said, “but just at first.”
“All right. Go ahead.”
“Anyway, the Shelleys were spending the summer with some friends on the northern coast of Italy—near the top of the boot, on the western side—”
“This is getting complicated.”
“I’m telling too much, I know, but I just want you to be able to picture things.”
Harriet didn’t say anything, so I went on. “Her husband had bought a large sailboat,” I said, “and he and his friends like to sail up and down the coast.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It was. Until …”
“Until July 1, 1822.”
“And what happened then?”
“The worst thing that ever could happen,” I said.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

800? You Gotta Be Kidding!

Yesterday--March 29--I uploaded blog post #800, a piece about the very little money I've made in my writing endeavors. I didn't at first know this was so. But when I looked at my Blogspot information after I'd written it, I saw that it was #800, and I was pretty surprised. Time flies when you're trying to think of things to write about.

Blogspot's stats tell me that I've had a total of 163,810 "hits" on these posts--an average of 204.7625 readers per hit. Not bad, I guess--though, as I've said before, other bloggers, especially celebrity ones, no doubt get that many hits per minute--or second. So it goes in my small world.

Actually, I almost never look at Blogspot's stats (I don't care how many are reading it: I just have fun writing it)--just as I never look at my sales stats on Kindle Direct Publishing. As I wrote yesterday, I get a little check from them at the end of every month, and that's enough for me. It's just nice knowing that my writing is "out there," at least in a cyber if not a tactile sense.

I began DawnReader on January 6, 2012, with a post called "I Am Born." (Link to that first post.) I had no real idea what I was going to do when I started this enterprise--and I'm still not all that sure, though DawnReader has evolved into a site where I serialize books I'm working on (and that has its special terrors), where I write memoir-like pieces, where I vent about issues in education and politics, where--to tell the truth--I kind of figure out what I think about things by writing about them.

This last thought--figuring out by writing--is one of the things that really annoys me about the current craziness in writing instruction. Making kids figure out what they're going to write before they write it is just flat counter-productive and -intuitive--and flies in the face of what we know about just about every "real" writer who ever lived. I've read hundreds (thousands?) of biographies of writers, and by far they write, write, write, figuring out along the way what it is that they're up to. Sure, they may have some preliminary plans, but only the most rigid adhere strictly to them, and here's why: Writing is like being on a train without tracks, a plane without a flight plan. Or--better--it's more like being with Lewis and Clark (and the Corps of Discovery Expedition) than it is being on I-80 with a GPS voice telling you where to go.

Oh, sure, there are sorts of writing we all do that is more formulaic: We know exactly what we have to write, and so we do it. But these are rare--at least in my life. I far prefer traveling the uncharted territory of imagination and memory, prefer reading (and writing) pieces that illuminate the heart.

And these DawnReader posts, in some cases, have been the results of my journeys. I hope to have 800 more--and then 800 more--and then ...

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Writing ... There's Money in That, Right?

I used to think that people who wrote books made lots of money--and, of course, some do. (Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, Jo Nesbø, James Patterson--these and lots of other popular writers do indeed rake it in.) Throughout my boyhood I remember believing that my grandfather (G. Edwin Osborn) and his son (my uncle Ronald Osborn) were both wealthy because they wrote books.

But the books they wrote were not exactly chart-toppers. They were religious titles, aimed, generally, at small audiences--and small audiences they got. My grandfather wrote The Glory of Christian Worship, A Faith to Live By and some other titles. (I just checked: Some are available, used, on Amazon.) My uncle wrote The Spirit of American Christianity, Folly of God: The Rise of Christian Preaching, and others (these, too, are on Amazon for very few pesos).

Anyway, throughout childhood I was so impressed that my close relatives had written books! (I'm still impressed with them, by the way--not merely for the books but for the fantastic human beings they both were.) And, as I said, I was positive that they were rich and famous. Which, of course, they weren't--except in very limited spheres.

The first books I wrote were really manuals for teachers--and I still rack up a few bucks every year for them, even though they were published in the late 70s and 80s. Hell, in early February I got a royalty check for one of those books from the early 80s: $11.70 (for six months' sales). Don't think I'll be moving to the Hamptons on that.

In 1997, I published a YA biography of Jack London (called, cleverly, Jack London: A Biography) with Scholastic Press (the same as J. K. Rowling! the only thing we have in common). That book actually did very well (thousands of dollars), but now it's out of print, and I don't get squat.

During the mid-1990s I also published two books with the University of Oklahoma Press--a full-meal-deal annotated edition of The Call of the Wild and a paperback edition of the same book with fewer pictures, fewer notes and annotations They both did okay, too--but the hardcover is out of print (you can get copies on Amazon--they ain't cheap: I saw one for $497.10--though some are much more inexpensive), and the paperback is still in print, but most people don't even know it exists because it's not in bookstores. You have to order it. I just got my annual royalty statement for that publication today (Thurs.), a statement that occasioned this post, actually.
My Wild edition

Total income from that book last year: $1.79.

I've been self-publishing on Kindle Direct the last couple of years and am doing all right there. (I started doing so because I'm getting too old to wait around a few years to see if a traditional publisher will nibble on a manuscript.) At the end of each month I get a nice little check (never more than $200) from them--but, still, not exactly Hamptons-level bread, is it?

I would guess that the vast majority of writers can't make a living by writing--and so they teach, or live with Mom and Dad, or marry someone with money, or they played and won the lottery, or they rob 7-11's on weekends or cook meth in the basement. Who knows?

All I know is that I don't write for the money. I write because it's fun. And because I can't imagine not doing it.  And I should say: It's a good thing I don't write for the money--because I sure haven't made very much!

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (74)

Four o’clock came soon enough. Harriet actually did lie down and appear to sleep, though I’m fairly certain she didn’t actually drift off. I spent some time reading another book about the Mary Shelley connection to the Falls. A friend of her and her husband’s—Edward John Trelawny—had come to America in 1883, and in his published letters he tells about his visit to the Falls on August 5. Some of the things I read about Trelawney astonished me, and I couldn’t wait to tell Harriet and Gil about them.[1]
About a quarter to four, Harriet pretended to wake up—stretched, yawned, tried to look dazed.
“Did you have a good … nap?” I asked so sarcastically that she knew she hadn’t fooled me.
“I tried to sleep,” she said. “But you are the world’s loudest page-turner, did you know that?”
“Is that a Guinness Book of World Records category?” I asked. “I think it should be.”
Harriet said nothing.
“Want to head down to the lobby?” I asked.
“Sure. Just a minute.” And Harriet staggered into the bathroom as if she had just awakened from a hundred-year sleep. I couldn’t help it. I laughed. And when she emerged a few minutes later, she was once again Harriet the Dazzling. Sleeping Beauty awakes! She really was beautiful, and I knew she’d be turning male heads on both sides of an international border before we headed for home.

Most everyone else was in the lobby when we arrived. I looked for Gil, then saw him with his mother moving very slowly toward us from an elevator that had just opened. He was gripping his mother’s arm tightly and was shuffling along instead of taking steps. His face, again, was paper-white. It was awful to see him suffering so.
Incredibly, though, he was smiling. He was where he wanted to be.
“All right,” announced Mr. Gisborne, checking a clipboard. “We’re now all present and accounted for. We’re going to walk over to Goat Island. Stay together until we get there. Then you can walk around and look at stuff—but stay on the pathways and stay with your roommate. I don’t want to see anyone by themselves.” This last sentence he delivered with all the seriousness of a prison guard. “At four forty-five,” he added, we’ll gather at the Top of the Falls Restaurant down at the end of the island. There’s a gift shop there, too. And that’s where we’ll meet. We have five o’clock reservations. So don’t be late. Don’t make me come looking for you!” (Prison Guard Statement #2.)
And off we went. Harriet and I stayed with Gil and Mrs. Bysshe, who were, of course, lagging behind everyone else. I glanced behind me. And there was Mr. Leon. He raised his hand in a friendly wave and pretended he was admiring the foliage and other scenery along the way. But I could tell he was bringing up the rear—making sure no one got behind him. Oddly, I felt more comfortable, seeing him there. Because, of course, I was looking everywhere for Blue Boyle.

[1] Vickie’s comments here and later indicate this book was probably William St. Clair’s Trelwany: The Incurable Romancer (New York: Vanguard Press, 1977).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lessons My Mother Taught Me (but I didn't learn) ...

Some of the things my mother taught me--explicitly and implicitly--have in fact "kicked in" over the years. While I was growing up, she was an English teacher (junior high first, then high school), and she never instructed me how to teach well. But I learned a lot by inference--just by watching. I saw how she routinely graded her papers (even when she didn't feel like it), how she prepared so thoroughly for her classes, how she went back to school for advanced degrees (master's, Ph.D.). I saw how she used her "vacations," too--traveling to places she was teaching about; reading, reading, reading; writing articles for teachers' magazines. She and I both published essays in English Journal, the secondary-school publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. Her final article there was "An Expression, a Possession, and a Dream" (Sept. 1964); my first was "An Alternative for the Middle Years: English for Little Big Men" (Nov. 1971). Cool, eh?

And Mom wrote books, too--Working with Poetry (her co-author was Hiram College English professor John Shaw) stayed in print for many years. (I just checked Amazon: You can get a used copy for 15 cents! There are some copies on ABE, too, though, oddly, they don't mention my mother as co-author ... lawsuit!!)

So, yes, she was quite an influence. I learned a lot--though I never would have admitted that when I was a funky adolescent (in this case, "funky" is a nice way of saying "asshole").

But there were some of her sayings and teachings that still have not caught on--like don't stir up your ice cream and make your bed (okay, I'm pretty good about this now) and put everything away before you go upstairs to bed (I never do that) and clean up your plate (I do that only when I like the meal--and if I don't like it, it's generally my fault since I do 90% of the cooking in our house) and don't wear blue jeans so much (I wear them all the time). Once, when I was in my 40s, we were all out in Oregon/Washington for a family reunion. There was going to be a picnic at Uncle John's. Joyce and I were staying in the same motel in Walla Walla with my parents, and when Mom saw me in blue jeans, she said, "You're not going to wear jeans, are you?"

"It's a picnic, Mom."

"It's not appropriate."

In a rage I returned to my room and changed. (Remember, I was in my forties.)  At the picnic, of course, everyone else was in jeans and shorts. But not this Dyer boy. (I think I'm still angry about this ... can you tell?)

Sometimes, Mom tried to be a little ... sly ... about how she, uh, modified my behavior. When I would mispronounce a word, she would immediately use it correctly in another sentence. (That annoyed me, actually.) She would do the same thing with usage errors (same response from ungrateful me). Still, I have to admit, all that correction did have an effect--a good one--though I never employed those tactics with our own son. (For which I'm sure he's surpassingly grateful.)

But the one lesson I really have not learned is this one: The weather is not a personal affront she would say whenever I complained it was too hot, too cold, too wet, too snowy, not snowy enough (on school days). For a lot of years I didn't know what affront meant, but I got the idea. Don't take the weather personally was her message. But I always did.

I remember sitting upstairs in the old Hiram High School (R.I.P.) study hall in the afternoon--an afternoon when, say, we had a baseball game later. All day it had been bright and sunny ... then ... about 2:00, sitting in study hall, I would look to the west and see the dark clouds building. And by game time it was pouring. I did not take such events well.

The son, grandson, and nephew of ordained Christian ministers, I confess that I sometimes viewed the weather as a message from God directly to me.

GOD: Remember how you swore at your little brother?

ME: No, I--

GOD: Don't lie--I hear everything! I'm God, after all.

ME: Okay. Sorry.

GOD: You'd better be. [Some deep deific sighs--winds commence blowing very hard--trees bend; God chills out.] Anyway, remember when you swore at your little brother?

ME: Yes.

GOD: Well, that is why it's pouring rain on the baseball diamond in Hiram, Ohio, right now. That is why you're not going to be playing baseball today. So ... what have you learned?

ME: Not to swear at my little brother.

GOD: See ... it's not all that difficult, is it?

ME: But God ...

GOD: Yes.

ME: Sometimes he's just a shit!

GOD: Your double-header next Friday just got washed out! [Lightning flashing, thunder booming, Danny cowering.]

So, yes, my mom was right about so many things--but wrong about the weather. I still take it personally--as I did this morning (Wednesday) when I woke up and saw out on the sidewalk the inches of snow I would have to shovel. And so I swore at my little brother--and the snow fell more heavily ...

Some guys never learn--not from Mom, not from You-Know-Who.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (73)


 Mr. Gisborne had not planned a lot for us to do that first afternoon we were at the Falls. He figured we would be tired (actually, it was mostly the adults who were tired), so our instructions for the mid-afternoon hours were to stay in our rooms until four o’clock, when we would all assemble in the lobby and walk over to Goat Island for our first good look at the river and the waterfalls. Then we’d go to dinner at the Top of the Falls Restaurant.
Gil’s room, we learned, was right next door. He was staying with his mother—not the dream of most adolescents on a school trip, but I, of course, knew the reason: He needed her. Also, I’m sure the school would not want to put the responsibility for Gil’s condition on any other adult—and certainly not on another student. Schools know very well how to spell lawsuit.
I was happy to see that there was a (locked) door connecting our room to Gil’s. Hesitating a little, I knocked lightly on it, and Mrs. Bysshe opened the lock from her side.
She smiled when she saw who it was. “Well,” she said, “this is perfect. Gil will be so happy.”
“Can I see him?”
“Oh, he’s lying down for a little while, Vickie. I’ll let you know when he’s up and about, though … is that all right?”
It was.
She pulled the door softly shut. I turned toward Harriet, who was staring at my back, and shrugged.
I went to my backpack and pulled out a map of the Falls area.
“We might as well look at what we can do,” I said.
“Before Blue Boyle hurls us over the Falls?” Harriet was joking. And she wasn’t.
“That is not going to happen,” I said with false certainty. Actually, I had been kind of thinking the same thing myself. “I bet he doesn’t even know we’re here,” I offered.
“Would you bet your life on it?”
I didn’t see any need for an answer.
“Let’s just look at the map,” I said after a moment or two. I unfolded it on the coffee table in front of our little couch. I pointed to where our hotel was.
“I can read a map, Vickie,” said Harriet. I could tell she was in no mood for me to be playing travel agent.
“I know. I’m just … I don’t know.”
Harriet, I think, could tell that she’d hurt my feelings. She sighed deeply, then said, “All right, Miss Tour Guide,” she said, “let’s take a look.” But she was smiling.
We looked at the trail around Goat Island and the location where, tomorrow, we would ride The Maid of the Mist, a tourist boat that would take us right up to the edge of Horseshoe Falls. We’d also planned to see Cave of the Winds (a cave right at the foot of American Falls), and the site where Table Rock used to be before much of it toppled into the Falls in 1850. A man washing his carriage on the rock barely escaped with his life.[i]
There would be lots of walking and hurrying about tomorrow. I wondered how much of it Gil would actually be able to do.
“I hope Gil will feel like doing most of this,” Harriet said. And her words reminded me of why I loved her.

[i] Vickie is correct about this.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Nerd on a Walk

By the time I was teaching my final few years at Western Reserve Academy (I retired in June 2011), I'd memorized all of Poe's "The Raven." (I think I've written about why and how I learned in an an earlier post? Too lazy to look right now.) Anyway, by that time I'd been memorizing poems for decades--and I knew a simple lesson: If I didn't review them--often--I'd lose them. And that takes time, reviewing the 130-some poems I have memorized. As I've written here before, I have a set of them I do on M-W-F while I'm on the exercise bike, another set for T-Th-Sa. I also have a couple that I recite just about every day while I drive to the health club ("The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" and "My Last Duchess"). But for "The Raven," in those WRA years, I'd discovered this: If I started reciting it when I left the house to walk to school, by the time I touched the door to Seymour Hall (my classroom building), I was reciting the final words shall be lifted nevermore. Soon I was timing that walk, home to school, so that I always finished the poem just as I grabbed the door's handle. I found a kind of--what?--satisfaction (?) in doing that.

Well, I also have yet another set of poems I do while walking back and forth to Bruegger's Bagels every morning. I do them on Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday. Four days keeps them solidly in mind. Here they are:

  • The Walking-to-Bruegger's Set
    • Auden, "Musée des Beaux Arts"
    • Bishop, "Breakfast Song"
    • Booth, "Nightsong"
    • Collins, "After I Heard You Were Gone"
    • Crane, "A Man Saw a Ball of Gold in the Sky"
    • Cummings, "maggie and milly and molly and may"
    • Dickinson, "A Bird Came down the Walk"
      • I time this one so that I start saying it as the sidewalk begins a down slope.
    • Dickinson, "The Going from a World We Know"
    • Dickinson, "The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky"
    • Dickinson, "I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed"
    • Donne, "The Flea"
    • Frost, "Fire and Ice"
    • Frost, "Acquainted with the Night"
    • Hardy, "When Dead"
    • Houseman, "When I Was One and Twenty"
    • Hughes, "Mother to Son"
    • Jonson, "On My First Son"
    • Masefield, "Sea Fever"
    • Matthews, "Misgivings"
    • Millay, "Sonnet XI" ("I Shall Forget You Presently, My Love")
    • Poe, "To Helen"
    • Ransom, "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"
    • Ryan, "Spiderweb"
    • Starbuck, "A Gift"
      • By now--I'm waiting at the crosswalk on Rt. 303, with Bruegger's right across the street.
    • Shakespeare
      • "Our revels now are ended"
      • "When in the chronicle of wasted time"
      • "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought"
In Bruegger's I have my little breakfast, do my Kirkus reading for the day (100 pp.), then head back home and do the second batch of poems.
  • The Walking-Home Set
    • Shakespeare
      • "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I"
      • "I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation / prevent your discovery"
      • "'Tis now the very witching time of night"
      • "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow"
    • Stevenson, "Requiem"
    • Tennyson, "The Charge of the Light Brigade"
    • Thomas
      • "In My Craft or Sullen Art"
      • "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower"
    • Whitman, "O Captain! My Captain!"
    • Wilbur, "Ecclesiastes 11:1"
    • Wordsworth
      • "My Heart Leaps Up"
      • "The World Is Too Much with Us"
    • Yeats
      • "Oil and Blood"
      • "When You Are Old"
      • "The Second Coming"
I'm sure you see an alphabetical pattern here! Well, that helps me remember the sequence. So now you know how I spend part of the morning on M-T-Th-F. So if you see me walking, lips moving, no sounds emerging, relax: I've not "gone over"; I'm just having a conversation with a few special friends who live in my head.

PS--Just looked up my earlier post about "The Raven": Link

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (72)

My mind aswirl, I ran back to the hotel, peeked into the lobby, made sure Mr. Gisborne wasn’t looking me way (he wasn’t), and slipped back into line with Harriet and Gil. They both looked at me anxiously. I said nothing.
“Well?” asked Harriet. “What did you see?”
I decided not to tell her everything. “I think it’s the same bus,” I said.
“The same bus?” asked Gil.
“The same one that was at the McDonald’s in Erie,” I said.
“Is that a bad thing?” Gil asked.
“A very bad thing,” Harriet and I said in unison.

I guess it’s time for a little geography lesson here. Maybe not all that interesting, I know, but you kind of need to “picture” things before I tell you about all that happened during that day we arrived—and the following day.
Just before the Niagara River begins its majestic fall, Goat Island splits the river in half—and then little Luna Island splits one of the halves yet again. So three smaller waterfalls compose Niagara Falls. The two parts divided by Luna spill over what are called “American Falls” and the much smaller “Bridal Veil Falls.” The much larger, more dramatic and beautiful part (on the other side of Goat Island), cascades over “Horseshoe Falls,” which is actually in Canada. (Again—all three falls, combined, are “Niagara Falls.”) All things are complicated in the region by the USA–Canada border, which pretty much is the Niagara River for a ways. The Rainbow Bridge over the river connects the two countries, and everyone knows that the more dramatic and famous views are on the Canadian side.
Our hotel was on the American side, right across from Goat Island, which has both pedestrian and vehicle bridges connecting it the mainland, and there are hiking paths around the island. I think that’s enough for you to get the picture.

When Harriet and I got upstairs to our room—which had a wonderful view of Goat Island and the river—she didn’t wait another second. “Okay, Vickie. You’re lying to me.”
“Well … maybe not lying—but you’re not telling me everything, are you?” She stared at me so hard I almost laughed: She looked a bit like a stern teacher accusing a kid of stealing a juice box at lunch. But there was nothing really to laugh about.
“You’re right,” I said.
“You never could lie to me,” she said. “I can see right through you, you know? You’re like a window, Vickie. Did you know that?”
I didn’t know that. And I also didn’t think it was true. Well, it was partially true: Harriet could see through me. No one else could—except Father, of course. Some of the time.
“Tell me about that bus, Vickie.”
I told her.
And Harriet, a picture now of pure fright, stared at me. “Blue Boyle is in this hotel!” she cried.
“I’m afraid so.”
And we stood there, two girls staring across a room while the Niagara River thundered below us like Fear itself, risen to the surface, threatening to sweep us both away.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Few Things Sadder Than Sunday Email

I don't get much email these days--well, much personal email. Back in the mid-1990s when I first started fussing with email (AOL dial-up!), email, for a while, completely replaced most other forms of communication. My mom was on AOL--my two brothers, too--and we wrote to one another all the time. I also heard from friends and colleagues and others, and it was a grand thing.

Oct 28, 98-June 24, 02
When I was working on my YA biography of Mary Shelley (The Mother of the Monster: The Life and Times of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley--Link to the book on Amazon), I launched what would become a massive correspondence with the late Dr. Betty Bennett, one of the world's leading authorities on Shelley (she'd edited the three volumes of Shelley's letters and had numerous other MWS publications, as well). In those days I printed out most email, and when I assembled all the Betty Bennett correspondence, it filled a massive notebook of priceless information about MWS and her circle. (I've been using it for a new book I'm working on: Frankenstein Sundae--a book about my ten-year obsession with MWS and her novel.)

But then ... the New Kid on the Block: Texting. I noticed in the last couple of years of my tenure at Western Reserve Academy (I retired in June 2011) that my students (juniors) did not use email very often to communicate with one another. Texts instead. I often sent mass emails to them (reminders, etc.), and I know that many of them either didn't see them at all--or did so days later (sometimes past the point of the email's original relevance). I'm still not much of a texter at all--still. My son and I exchange them now and them--my wife, too. My younger brother. That's about it. I exchange texts, oh, once a week or so?

Meanwhile, my email has become, well, pathetic. As I said, I get virtually no personal emails now. And Sundays are the most pathetic of all. It's now 11:34 a.m. on Sunday, and here's what I see in my Inboxes:

Let's go from top-to-bottom; the first screen is what Gmail calls "Primary" email:

  • from "me"--a photo of the Betty Bennett notebook I sent to myself
  • a confirmation of an Amazon order for Brach's candy (don't ask)
  • an ad from the Nation magazine
  • the word-of-the-day from Dictionary.com
  • a link to today's New York Times
  • my weekly summary from Wordsmith (another of my word-of-the-day sites)
  • the daily junk from the National Council of Teachers of English
In the second Inbox (what Gmail calls "promotions"):
  • ad from Simplehuman--from whom we bought a trashcan for the kitchen--and we order replacement liner bags from them; they let me know how important I am--every single Sunday
  • reminder from the Plain Dealer that today's paper is available
  • a reminder from Books-a-Million that I can go there and get deals
  • a reminder from OfficeMax that I can go there and get deals
  • a 2nd daily reminder from the Plain Dealer
  • a reminder from Kohl's that I can go there and get deals
  • Writer's Almanac--the daily post I really like (I often share their stuff on Facebook)
It won't get any better as they day goes on. Not a single personal message so far today--and I don't really expect any. About the only people I hear from via email are Joyce (who's right upstairs) and my two brothers. My mom, 94, can no longer handle email, so I write snail-mail to her, twice a week. (She can't even answer that anymore.) I occasionally correspond with editors at the Plain Dealer and Kirkus Reviews about a recent submission and other issues. That's about the extent of it.

My father, who died in late November 1999, never did get into email--and certainly not texting or Facebook messaging (which is how I get most personal correspondence now--and not much of that). If the USPS didn't deliver it, he didn't get it. I really do want to keep up with correspondence. I watched my dad sort of retreat inside himself in his last years, and I felt, in a way, he was imprisoned by Old Technology; New Technology had the key--but he just couldn't make himself do it.  I hope my son will never have to say the same of me.

PS--The spell-checker on Blogspot still doesn't recognize "texting." Weird ...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

That Song ... What WAS It?

Who can tell why such things happen? A week or so ago, sitting in Bruegger's Bagels in the morning, I felt some wisps of a song lyric drift across my mind--a lyric from years gone by. Whence came the wisps? And why? I don't know. All I do know is this--that for the next few days (that's right: days) I tried to convince my brain to assemble the wisps into a cloud that would rain the name of the song on me.

But no go.

The more I thought, the less I remembered. And so I figured I'd try another technique: forgetting about it altogether and hoping the rain would simply commence one day.

It didn't. The drought continued.

I could sort of remember a bouncy tune. A word or two: umbrella, mine.

And then came more words: by August she was mine.  Well! That was all that I (okay, Google) needed. A quick search, and I found the song. "Bus Stop" by The Hollies, 1966. By late that fall (the fall that I began teaching at Aurora Middle School), it had reached #5 on the charts. I must have heard it all the time because that year I was living in Twinsburg, driving back and forth to Aurora every day (five miles each way) while listening to KYW radio in Cleveland, a pop station that played Top 40 hits all day. So I probably heard "Bus Stop" several times a week that fall. And it found a more or less permanent home in my auditory memory. Before it began to go wispy on me.

I didn't remember much about the Hollies until I consulted my friend Google. I knew that they were from England--and I thought they were riding the wave of popularity in the Beatles' impressive wake. If you check them out on Old Reliable Wikipedia, you'll see a surprise (unless you're really into popular music): One of the Hollies' members was Graham Nash, who left the group in 1968 to perform with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. (One of the highlights of my life: seeing Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young perform at Public Hall in Cleveland on July 3, 1970, just two months after the KSU shootings; we heard "Four Dead in Ohio" and "Find the Cost of Freedom" for the first time.)

The other members of the Hollies (perhaps named in tribute to the late Buddy Holly) were Allan Clarke, Vic Steele, Eric Haydock, and Don Rathbone--names than mean nothing to me now--and probably not then, either. (The Hollies still have an official website, by the way: Link to website.) They cranked out nine albums in the 1960s, nine more in the 70s, and then the wave, its energy spent, arrived tamely at the shore.

And the years rolled on. And I totally forgot about it all. Until one day my brain wheezed a wisp of a cloud. And a mini-adventure commenced ...

Link to lyrics

Link to YouTube audio/video of the original 45 rpm recording.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (71)

While the others filed into the hotel, I whispered to Harriet, “Save my place,” and hurried over to the other bus, which sat there empty. The closer I got, the more I realized it was the same one I’d seen earlier in Erie. I stepped beside it and saw a banner fastened along one of its long sides: CONGRATULATIONS TO THE SOUTHERN OHIO FOOTBALL ALL-STARS! NIAGARA FALLS OR BUST!
And then I knew—knew—that it was the same, and I also knew that I’d correctly identified the glowing yellow eyes I’d seen staring back at me as that bus had pulled away from McDonald’s.
Blue Boyle.
I had sort of lost track of him after the football season ended—after he was out of the headlines on the sports pages, headlines that had, throughout the fall, featured his gridiron heroics (if that’s the right word). I don’t normally read the sports pages (nothing really changes there but the names), but I could not help myself during that season he was back—playing for Southern Ohio Prep, that private school not far from Franconia.
Every week the stories grew—the yards he’d rushed, the vicious tackles he’d made (the opponents he’d put in the hospital). Father told me he’d even seen him interviewed on TV—and that college coaches were already foaming at the mouth and breathing heavily as they pictured Blue Boyle wearing their school colors, rushing for new collegiate records, putting more opponents in the E. R. What a wonderful thought!
What I couldn’t understand, though, was how. As I said, the last I’d seen of Blue Boyle was back on Green Island in Lake Erie the previous summer when he had tried to kill Harriet and me—and had very nearly succeeded. So … how did he escape from Green Island (the Coast Guard had swooped in and surrounded the small island inhabited only by marine birds)? How did he end up at S.O.P.? Where was he living … and with whom?
That last question could not have a lot of answers, and the most obvious answer is the one I dreaded the most: Harriet’s father.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the Road ... Again

Yesterday morning (Wednesday, March 19) I rode my bicycle for the first time this spring. Well, it was sort of the second time. The evening before, after supper, I'd hopped on and ridden around the funeral home parking lot right next door--just to make sure the gears and brakes were working all right. (They were.) A couple of circles of the lot, that's all ... not really a ride, you know?

During the winters my bike lives in the basement, where I entrust its care to the spiders and mice. I carry it down late each fall when the long-range weather reports confirm that there ain't gonna be much good riding in the foreseeable future (i.e., November-December-January-February). Last fall, it was somewhat emotional for me, taking that bike downstairs. My last ride had been on October 28--to Starbucks in Hudson (a routine route for me)--and when I got home, I was not sure I'd ever ride that bike--or any bike--again.

As regular readers here know, I've been wrestling with prostate cancer (and its insistent returns) since June 2005 when I underwent a prostatectomy (removal). Then the cancer returned. Radiation in 2009. The cancer returned. In late July 2013 I received my first injection of Lupron, a drug which effectively killed my testosterone (food for prostate cancer) and, of course, killed my libido, as well. (One day I'll write about that.) I was also getting bad numbers on my liver tests.

So ... when I took that bike to the basement in late October, I was not at all sure I'd ever again be hauling it back upstairs in mid-March for its annual trip to Eddy's Bicycle Shop in Stow for its spring tune-up. Tears that late October day ... lots of them.

I learned to ride a bike in Amarillo, Texas, 1952 or so (when I was seven), and I've been a casual rider ever since. I quit riding a bike in high school (not a cool thing to do, ride a bike), but not long after I married in 1969, I got a new bike--Joyce still had her Schwinn from girlhood--and we did some riding--and I also rode around with our infant son in the child seat after he was born in 1972. He liked to go to Stoddard's in Kent--where they have some of the best soft ice cream in the galaxy. I still like to go there, but my cholesterol numbers say No! so Joyce and I go only once a year ... tradition.

Joyce bought my current bike--a Schwinn--when we were living in Aurora--oh, around 1992 or so? She offers now and then to buy me a new one, but I kind of like the Old Fellow, and (darkly, darkly) I'm hesitant
to spend money on something which I may not be able to use much longer. I use it, as I said, casually. But when I was teaching at nearby Western Reserve Academy (a few blocks north), I rode it whenever I could, back and forth several times a day during my ten-year stint there (2001-2011). Post-retirement,  I ride to the coffee shop in the morning (when the weather cooperates), to Starbucks, to the barbershop ... a few other errands. I like to hop on when grandsons Logan and Carson are visiting. They seem to get a kick out of seeing their "Silly Papa" on a bike. (You have to admit: There is something a little funny about seeing an Old Guy in a helmet on a bike.)

Well, I somehow survived the winter. The Lupron took my PSA back to zero (it will rise again--that is certain--but I'm hoping not soon). My liver numbers went back to normal, too. And a week ago I realized it was about that time again. Eddy's Time. I went to the basement, thanked the vermin for their service, and struggled with it back up the stairs and out into the back of the car. And Joyce and I drove it off to Eddy's for its annual physical. Which it passed splendidly. (Thanks again, vermin!)

I got the bike back on Saturday, March 15, and put it back on the side porch, where it will live until snow fly next fall. But, as I said, I didn't ride it until Wednesday morning. And as I rolled out onto Church Street, heading for Bruegger's Bagels and my morning caffeine hit, I felt, once again, that surge of joy I'd first felt back in Amarillo in 1952. I'm riding! I'm riding a bike!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (70)

By the time I got back to my seat, Gil was awake. “You were gone so long I thought you’d taken another bus home,” he said.
“I tried,” I said, “but I didn’t have enough cash.”
“That’s what happens when you leave home without American Express,” said Gil.
I smiled. “You’re feeling friskier,” I said.
“I’ve been looking at all the Niagara Falls signs,” he said. “They’ve gotten my adrenalin going.”
We chatted back and forth like this for almost an hour—sometimes Harriet would contribute from across the aisle—when we left the Thruway and began heading toward our hotel. It was mid-afternoon, and I could tell from the noise and chatter on the bus that the kids, and probably the adults too, were ready to arrive.
We eventually pulled into our hotel—very near the Falls—called, cleverly, Inn at the Waterfalls,[i] pulled to a stop, and listened to Mr. Gisborne’s instructions. “All right, people,” he barked into the microphone, “we’re here.” Mr. Gisborne was a master of noting the obvious. “Everyone wait right here until I go inside and make sure they’re ready for us.”
And that we did. In a few moments he was back, ready for another announcement. “All right, people,” he said once again, “they’re ready for us. Please pick up your luggage outside, then form a line at the check-in desk inside—staying in the same order as you were on the bus.”
I had a question but decided not to ask it. But a less careful seventh grader did, “Mr. Gisborne?”
“If we’re in the same row but across the aisle from someone, who should go first?
“Oh, grow up!” snarled Mr. Gisborne. “Just deal with it, all right?”
I glanced back at the seventh grader. His red face was bright enough to have agitated even peaceful Ferdinand the bull. I smiled at him, trying to communicate a little sympathy. I hope he didn’t think I was laughing at him.
We slowly moved toward the front of the bus, moved down the stairs to the baggage area, whose doors were once again lifted like wings. Gil’s mother had hurried down to join us and had taken Gil’s single bag. He made a slight effort to indicate he could carry it himself, but gave up easily.
As we walked toward the front door, I looked across the parking lot and saw another bus already parked there. It looked familiar. Like the one I’d seen back at the McDonald’s in Erie. Impossible, of course … too great a coincidence. Still …
I felt Harriet fall in step with me. “Vickie,” she said, pointing toward the other bus, “is that … I mean … it’s not … is it?”
I couldn’t lie. “Sure looks the same,” I said.

[i] There is no motel with this name in the Niagara area.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

More on Common Core

The other day this publication came in the mail--an ad (and a sample) for a classroom news magazine, a joint publishing project of the New York Times and Scholastic, Inc. (full disclosure: Scholastic published my YA biography of Jack London in 1997).

Of course, what leapt out at me was the phrase Common-core ready. The Core is so omnipresent now that companies of all sorts are naturally looking for ways to profit from it. We already know who the big money-makers will be: companies who publish classroom materials and tests--and test-scoring and data-handling outfits. We are talking billions.

By the way, I have no real objection to core experiences for kids. I think it's a good thing that kids all over the country learn some common terms, some common concepts--maybe read some texts in common, as well. When I taught junior English at Western Reserve Academy (2001-2011), the English Department required four common texts, one each marking period. We usually read Hamlet first, then The Scarlet Letter, The Awakening, and The Great Gatsby. (We also had "summer reading" texts in common; most recently, these were classic American plays, like The Glass Menagerie and The Crucible.) But beyond that, we WRA teachers enjoyed something called "academic freedom." Radical term these cookie-cutter days.

I also have no objection to Up Front, the magazine. I always loved Weekly Reader back in my own elementary school days, and there were years in my public school career (1966-1978, 1982-1997) when I had kids subscribe to--or I had a classroom set of--Scholastic's Scope magazine, a periodical designed for English teachers to use with students.

Up Front is a more "contemporary" publication--i.e., more pictures, fewer words--but there are informative articles about a wide assortment of things, from the design of the Supreme Court to South Africa to electronic trash to Tiananmen Square (1989). (Okay--some of the headlines are silly: What's the Deal with Iran? for example.) My only serious complaint really (beside the paucity of words, the prominence of pictures) is an inattention to the arts.

 I also can't really blame the publishers for their Common-Core marketing strategy: The Core is here and isn't going away anytime soon. Might as well use it to make a few (more) bucks.

No, what I object to--fiercely--is more and more standardization in education. And testing. High-stakes tests enforce conformity in the curriculum; indeed, the tests become the curriculum. And why not? If we are going to judge "competence"--of children, of teachers, of school districts--on standardized tests, well, it's foolhardy for a district to say, "You know what? We're going to do what we think is best for kids--tests be damned." That requires more courage than most of us are equipped with.

I ended my public school career just as statewide testing was hitting its stride in Ohio. (In fact, that movement was a principal reason I retired: I had become less teacher, more trainer.) A kid (an 8th grader) actually said this to me during our time studying Shakespeare and Much Ado about Nothing. Let's put it in the form of dialogue--appropriate!

KID: Is this going to be on the proficiency test?


KID: Then why are we doing it?

TEACHER: Because I'm bigger than you and could smash your face.

Okay, I didn't say that last thing. But when we have kids genuinely wondering why we're learning some things about Shakespeare, genuinely wondering why we "get off the subject" to pursue something interesting that just flew into our minds, then we should realize we're on a road we should not have taken. We should have gone the road less traveled by. It would have made all the difference. And still could ...

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II (69)

About an hour later I stood and worked my way down the aisle, to the restroom in the back. I could feel the eyes of Mr. Gisborne following me. (I’d seen him whirl and stare at other kids—and even adults—who’d felt Nature’s Call and could not wait until our arrival at the Falls, our next scheduled stop). I knew he was checking to make sure I didn’t stop somewhere to socialize along the way. A no-no on the Gisborne Bus.
But when I reached the back, I saw the Occupied sign on the door, so I leaned against one of the unoccupied seats, swaying to and fro a bit whenever the bus deviated from its path.
“How’s Gil doing?” It was the voice of his mother, not five feet away from me.
“Oh,” I said. “He’s okay … resting a lot.”
I looked across the aisle and saw Mr. Leon there, too. His eyes were fixed on me—so much so that I nervously said, “Hi, Mr. Leon.”
He smiled, did not speak.
“I appreciate the way you’re caring for him,” said Mrs. Bysshe. “He thinks the world of you, you know.”
“I know,” I said, suddenly feeling as if I were going to erupt into tears. “I think the world of—”
And then I did erupt into tears, slumping down into the seat beside Mrs. Bysshe.
“No sitting down back there!” Mr. Gisborne’s voice crackled through the PA system.
“She’s with us!” barked Mr. Leon in a voice that needed no amplification. I looked up, surprised at its intensity—surprised, too, that he hadn’t shattered the windshield.
“Oh,” came Mr. Gisborne’s reply, sounding somehow both tiny and tinny.
All this back-and-forth had the effect of reducing my breakdown into a kind of a sniffling whimper. I felt Mrs. Bysshe’s arm around me and realized I hadn’t felt it arrive there.
“You know how sick he is, don’t you, Vickie?”
“I do,” I shuddered.
“His father and I really debated about this trip,” she said. “We knew it might be impossible for him.”
“But we also knew that”—and here she began to shudder a little herself—“we knew that we would regret it for the rest of our lives if we didn’t try to help him get to the Falls. He’s been so obsessed with them—ever since I can remember. A little kid. Library books spread out on his bed. But it’s gotten even more intense lately—especially since he learned … you know …?”
I knew.
“So anyway,” she said, “I’ve noticed all you’ve done—and all you’re doing. I won’t ever forget.”
Just then the door to the restroom snapped open, and out stepped at shy sixth grader who looked “green in the gills,” as Father often said. Nauseated is a fancier term.
“Motion sickness,” she said, as if she needed to explain anything to us.
“That’s an awful feeling,” said Mr. Leon, who stood and helped the child move along the aisle to her seat.
“And I miss my mommy,” I heard the little girl whimper. So I was not the only one, I realized, away from home for the first time.
I rose, stepped inside the restroom, closed the door, sat and sobbed until I heard a knock.
“You all right?” asked Mrs. Bysshe.
I wasn’t—but said I was.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bernard Malamud--Back on Page One

Bernard Malamud (1914-1986--a year younger than my father) was back on page one of the New York Times Book Review today. It's right where he belongs. The long story was a review of two Malamud volumes published by the Library of America--volumes that all lovers of American literature ought to have. (Link to the Times review.)

Malamud, if I remember, was "popular" only once--when the film of his baseball novel, The Natural (1952) was released in the spring of 1984, starring Robert Redford, Glenn Close, and numerous other worthies. At the time, he sold lots more copies of that 30-year-old novel--and many of his other works, as well--and then sort of retreated again into his quiet excellence.

I'd never heard of Malamud until the 1965-1966 academic year--my senior year at Hiram College--when I took a course in contemporary American literature with Prof. Abe C. Ravitz. We read (I think) The Assistant (1957)  in that class (hard to remember because of all the subsequent Malamud reading I've done), a novel that features one truly bizarre episode at a cemetery--a fall into a fresh grave that, of course, evokes Hamlet and other stories. The final paragraph blew me away back in the day:

One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between the legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew.

It was from that novel--and from all the other Malamud I read (and I eventually read all of it)--that I began to learn about the various lives of Jews. A WASP from Oklahoma, I knew zip about Judaism (except, of course, the Bible stories). I realized, reading Malamud, that my ignorance was far more vast than I'd suspected.

Dr. Ravitz also had us read a cool story--"The Jewbird"--which I liked so much that I used it, early in my career, with my middle school students, who probably learned from it that their teacher really was a weirdo. Later on, Malamud sort of drifted out of my curriculum; I don't know why. Probably because I was just stupid.

Another Malamud story that had an effect on me was "A Summer's Reading"--a story about a 19-year-old kid (named George) who tells everyone in his neighborhood that he's going to read 100 books that summer. I think I related to that kid because I would have done what he did--initially: read nothing and lie about it. But when the word spreads around his neighborhood, George becomes something of a local celebrity. He likes it. But soon ... suspicion from his working sister, who earlier gave him some money because she was so proud of him. The summer passes. He hasn't read squat. Then, the final paragraph ...

One evening in the fall, George ran out of his house to the library,where he hadn't been in years. There were books all over the place, wherever he looked, and though he was struggling to control an inward trembling, he easily counted off a hundred, then sat down at a table to read.

That story had (and has) tremendous resonance for me because I went through a period (somewhat earlier than George--junior high) when I just stopped reading but lied all the time about it--to my friends, my parents, my teachers. And then--without any reason I can really think of--I was back reading and have never stopped--and don't plan to. (Honest!)

Anyway, as the years went along, I bought and read each new Malamud as it appeared--and then, almost exactly twenty-eight years ago--I learned that he had died at the age of 71. (Link to New York Times obituary.) At the time, I was just 41, and 71 seemed, well, an okay age to die. Now that I'm 69, I've revised that opinion--strongly. My grief was of the selfish sort: I wanted more Malamud to read.

In 2004, Joyce and I were in Cambridge, Mass., driving around looking at Longfellow sites--his former home, his grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery--his tomb, really. While we were driving through, we saw the much more modest stone of Bernard Malamud. It some ways, it seemed fitting, that simple grave--he was never an outrageous writer. But in other ways, I wanted him to have a marker that would attract everyone to the site--a marker that said, Here lies a great American writer.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Memories of Writer Max Shulman--Who Made Me Laugh (& Other Things)

There was a brief paragraph yesterday on Writer's Almanac about the birthday of writer and humorist Max Shulman (1919-1988). Here's that paragraph ...

It's the birthday of the humorist Max Shulman (books by this author), born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1919). He wrote several books, including Anyone Got a Match? (1964) and Potatoes Are Cheaper (1971). He grew up during the Great Depression, and he said he became a humorist because "I turned early to humor as my branch of writing ... [because] life was bitter and I was not."

I looked up his obituary in the New York Times and saw some eerie parallels: he was born the same year as my mother; he died at 69 (my current age); he had bone cancer (the likely next step in my prostate cancer saga). (Here's a Link to that obit--Aug 29, 1988.)

But let's not think about any of that. I want to think instead about all the pleasure he gave me in my reading and film-going and TV-watching life. I think I first became aware of him when, as a high school kid, I saw the movie Rally Round the Flag, Boys! at the Hiram College Theater--a popular Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward film based on Shulman's novel of the same name. It was released early in 1959 (I was in ninth grade), and I remember being dazzled by it--and not just by the humor. (It's the story of a small town, Putnam's Landing, CT, where the Army is considering building a Nike base--no, not Nike shoes, Nike anti-aircraft missiles.) There was a wild sexy subplot, too, involving Harry Bannerman (Newman), who's calmly married (to Joanne Woodward) but gets involved with lubricious Angela Hoffa (Joan Collins). When I saw that film, whole new worlds emerged in my adolescent telescope ...

Later (eagerly!) I read the book and got even better details than Hollywood permitted in those days, and that novel sent me off to the Portage Co Library (in Hiram), where I checked out and read some other Shulman novels--Barefoot Boy with Cheek, The Feather Merchants, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and I Was a Teenage Dwarf. I loved all of them.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis became a hit TV show from 1959-1963 starring Dwayne Hickman in the title role, with the sexy Tuesday Weld as the sexy Thalia Menninger (forgive me: I was 15 at the time), and Bob Denver as the memorable Maynard G. Krebs--a "beatnik" character. Some episodes are on YouTube, and here's a Link to one. And what a coincidence! When I watched it yesterday, it was an episode that featured a moment I clearly remembered--the moment Dobie learns, in science class, the word propinquity. He's taking zoology (high school) only because Thalia (his love) wants him to become a doctor, but he has no gifts in science. The assiduous, studious girl next him never speaks--finally, he gets her to--and she says, "I love you." And she goes on to explain that it's because of "propinquity"--nearness.

Dobie & Maynard

Barefoot Boy with Cheek, published in 1943, the year before I was born, occasioned another memory. My dad used to chant some of that poem to his sons now and then: "Blessings on thee, little man, / Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan."  I would have bet the house that it was a Longfellow poem. Nope. John Greenleaf Whittier. And here's a Link to the whole thing, which is much longer than I'd supposed--and made me recall that Dad recited only the first few lines (thank goodness!). I'm sure I wouldn't have liked the "kissed by strawberries" stuff. (Neither would Dad.)

Anyway, thanks to Writer's Almanac for reminding me of Shulman--and of the bright joy he brought me in Dark Adolescence.

PS--I have a first printing of Rally Round the Flag, Boys!.  Just checked on ABE: It goes for $50-$60. Too little ... it's priceless!

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II (68)


Back on the bus. Ready to go. Gil’s mom had brought him a little cup of ice water. He sipped slowly from that cup for a lot of miles. I asked him if he was hungry.
“Not really,” he said. “Not anymore.” And then he turned toward the window again.
I hated myself at that moment, hated that I’d been so thoughtless—asking a question whose answer I already knew. Of course he wasn’t hungry. He was deathly ill. He was on this bus only because of his passion to see something he’d always wanted to see. And I had to go ask a stupid question …
I recognized Harriet’s voice whispering at me from across the aisle. I looked back at her, and she jerked her head, indicating she wanted me to slip over into the empty seat next to her. I looked up toward the front. Mr. Gisborne had told us not to change seats—and not to move around at all while the bus was moving, unless, of course, we had what he called “a waste-product emergency.”
I looked back at Harriet. She was frightened. I checked the front, saw that Mr. Gisborne had slid down into his seat—probably sagging and sluggish because of the massive meal I’d seen him eat at lunch. Lots of meat and potatoes, all Super-Sized. I guessed he’d be napping for a while.
I moved quickly to the empty seat alongside Harriet, who grabbed my hand and squeezed so hard I nearly cried aloud. “What was that?” she whispered fiercely.
“I’m not sure,” I said, trying to sound more certain and safe than I felt. “But I’m afraid it’s a who, not a what.”
Harriet gripped even harder. “Not again,” she moaned. “Oh, please, not again.”
We sat there holding hands and silent for a time that could have been moments, could have been an hour. Fear affects even the ticking of a clock.
Then I felt a movement behind us in the aisle. I looked up. Mr. Leon. I prepared a lie—but didn’t need it.
“You’d better get back, Vickie,” he said. He pointed ahead where I could see that we were approaching the tollbooths for the New York Thruway. The bus would slow, would stop. “He’s going to wake up soon.” I didn’t need to be told who he was. I gave Harriet’s hand another quick squeeze and slipped back across the aisle, where Gil seemed still asleep, as well.
And sure enough, as the bus slowed, Mr. Gisborne’s head jerked back up as if yanked by a puppeteer. He stared ahead for a minute, figuring out where he was, I guess, then looked back fiercely and saw … nothing out of the ordinary. That seemed to satisfy him. He took the microphone and said, his voice ragged with recent sleep, “We’re slowing because we’re approaching a tollbooth,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.”
Nothing to worry about …
I heard Harriet joke, “I wish it was The Phantom Tollbooth.” Probably not a joke, actually.
Gil stirred slightly, and I touched his shoulder. “We’re about to move onto the New York Thruway,” I said.
He looked back at me, smiled thinly. “Awesome,” he said. And slumped again into sleep.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More like your mother ... or father?

Joyce and I have spent many hours together in the car--I'm guessing we've spent months together in the car (maybe even years) during our decades of travel. We take turns driving, though I (in some ways I remain my father) like to be the one who starts out, who finishes. Sometimes it's just plain stupid, what I do. For example, when we leave Becket, Mass., a place in the Berkshires where my brothers share an old farmhouse they use for weekends and summers (and is only about 20 minutes away from Mom in Lenox), I always start out driving, even though I go only about eight miles, down to the Shell station in Lee, where we gas up and get coffee at the McDonald's that shares the parking lot with Shell. From there, Joyce drives all the way to the McDonald's at the Lord's Valley exit on I-84--some 170 miles away. So why doesn't Joyce just drive the Becket-to-Lee portion, too? Because--that's why.

Anyway, on our many long car trips we do various things. Read (I often do my daily Kirkus quota of 100 pages during one of her stints), take notes on various things, laugh, remember, stare at the scenery, try to convince the Old Bladder that he really can wait a bit longer, can't he? Please ...

But we often ask each other speculative (i.e., silly) questions about various things--questions that begin with such things as What would you do if ... ?  What would have happened if you had ... ? Which movie star ... ? If you had never met me, ... ? That sort of thing. Sometimes one or the other of us doesn't really want to "play," and we've both developed very intricate strategies for avoiding having to do so. (I will not reveal mine--I will definitely need them again.)

Anyway, the other evening, we were driving along in search of a Starbucks when I asked Joyce, "Are you more like your father's family--or your mother's?" And we talked a bit about how she had the fierce work ethic of the Haberkosts (her mom's side)--but then her dad was a hard worker, too. So it wasn't all that easy an answer.

My Osborn grandparents (Mom's folks) were fastidious and organized--words that in some (but not all) ways fit me. My study is far messier than my grandfather ever would have tolerated. His study was so neat it looked as if no one used it--but he used it every day. Mine's a trash heap. Still, I know where things are--pretty much. My mother was also a very organized teacher (I was, too--after a decade or so)--though Dad was a little more laid-back in his own teaching. It's not an easy question to answer, I realized.

And then I figured out an evolutionary answer. In that same conversation, I had said to Joyce, "Just think how many simians had to survive for you and me to be here." Yes, countless protohumans (all of whom would snort in derision at my lifestyle) had to live long enough to reproduce--surviving illness, injury, accident, assaults, falling trees, hungry predators, etc. It's--to coin a phrase--mind-boggling, the unlikelihood that I'm here. If just one of them had misjudged a leap and landed in the lion's mouth, well, I wouldn't be here--and neither would a gajillion other people.*

Then another thought. Maybe you fall in love with someone who shares a common ancestor. Well, of course, we all do that, but I mean one a little farther down the ladder. Suppose love is, in one sense, kinship recognition? We already have expressions for it--a soulmate, a kindred spirit, and the like. Maybe those expressions mean something a bit more literal?

I've known since 1969--when I met her--that Joyce and I were, in fundamental ways, kin. Maybe we actually are, as well ... ?!  Next car trip we'll talk about it. Unless one of us doesn't want to play.

*I actually have an event like this in my family history--a necessary Dyer escaping from Indian captivity. I'll write about that soon.