Dawn Reader

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

Monday, June 30, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 28

What’s Eating Gilbert Imlay?

Gilbert Imlay is something of a Man of Mystery in Mary Wollstonecraft’s story. In my initial research—back in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s—I had not pursued him very far. He was somewhat tangential to the story of Mary Shelley—there was just so much to learn about her—but as the years went along, I grew more and more curious about him. Who was he? And why on God’s green earth had he abandoned one of the great women of history?
Tuesday, 27 September 2011. Imlaystown, New Jersey.
I learned of Imlaystown a dozen years ago. But I did not travel there at the time—another of the loose ends I left dangling when I decided to slow the Shelley research and start writing.
But now I’ve finally found an excuse to visit this place where Gilbert Imlay was born—was it in 1754? Scholars put a question mark beside his birthdate. We know his family arrived in America in the 1680s and soon afterwards were living in the area of what would be Imlaystown. By the time Gilbert was born, the Imlays were substantial landowners and operated the grist mill—Saltar’s Mill—that stood where now stands another one, not currently functioning.
As I drive east this early fall day, Imlaystown is not my primary destination. I am on my way to Princeton, where I’ve recently arranged to tour the house where writer John O’Hara, 1905–1970, a recent interest (obsession?), lived his final thirteen years. Now owned by an eminent Princeton philosophy professor, the house is something I’ve longed to see since I first began reading about O’Hara a few months ago. I’ve seen his boyhood dwellings in his hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania; I’ve photographed a couple of other places where he lived in Princeton. But the house he built, Linebrook—so named because it sits near the junction of Province Line and Pretty Brook roads—is much more obscured by foliage than it was when he was living and writing there. When I drove by only about two weeks ago, I could barely see the house at all. I stopped the car on Province Line, right behind the house, and picked my way through a thick copse. Recent heavy rains had made a mire of the ground. I took a picture or two. Couldn’t see much. Back on Pretty Brook, I added a shot of the long driveway leading up to the back of the house. Again—not much to see. Frustrated—and afraid a neighbor might alert the police about a prowler—I didn’t stay long but drove off, annoyed at my own timorousness.
But now, just seventeen days later, I’ve used some connections—among them: one of my wife’s high school classmates, who’s now a special collections librarian at Penn State (which holds the principal collection of O’Hara papers)—to arrange a tour of the house. But I will not do so until Wednesday morning. What will I do in the area on late Tuesday afternoon when I arrive at my motel after my long, 440-mile drive from Ohio?
Visit Imlaystown. It’s only about twenty-seven miles away.
The little town is really just a cluster of buildings near Doctor’s Creek. Old houses cling closely to the narrow roads. The only place of commerce I can find is the Happy Apple Inn, once a stagecoach stop. Its website tells me that a fire destroyed that old building; the present one rose from the ashes in 1904. I can have supper there—but the Apple Inn is truly Happy (open) only Wednesday through Sunday. Today is Tuesday. Foiled again! Right behind the Happy Apple is the old millpond, now called Imlaystown Lake. Mere yards away is farmland.
I walk along the streets, taking pictures—of the dam, the creek, the millpond, some older looking houses, the terrain. But I realize that no building occupied by the Imlays still stands.          As I walk by the defunct mill, I see an open door. On it is a marker noting that Saltar’s Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. I walk in. No one’s there. A couple of broad planks serve as a walkway across the old mill machinery, now idle but still sitting in the open basement below me. More photographs. If the planks break, if I fall, how soon before anyone finds me? I imagine the headline:
Local Mystery: Strange corpse of old man found in mill. Foul play? Or foolishness?

Below: some images of Imlaystown ...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 6

1. Sometimes there's not a movie that you really want to see, but you want to see a movie. (Popcorn, holding hands in the dark ... you know?) And so it was last week when Joyce and I headed off to see A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth McFarlane's latest. I'm not a huge McFarlane fan (I thought his Ted was mostly gross rather than funny), but I love Westerns (Oklahoma boy that I was), I love Monument Valley (the trailer had revealed that some of the action would occur there--link to trailer) ... so off we went. And ... we both liked a lot more than we thought we would. Some good performances--and a surprise  appearance [SPOILER ALERT] by Django among the final credits.

2. Last week the Tribe honored its former All-Star shortstop Omar Vizquel (link to story). He really was amazing to watch and made some of the greatest plays I've ever seen (including, of course, my own). But I remember this: Back in the early and mid-1990s when the Tribe was emerging from its fifty-year swoon, when Vizquel was making impossible plays every night, middle school kids where I taught were once again wearing Tribe gear. One day, I overheard a couple of 8th grade girls out in the lunchroom. It went something like this:

Girl 1: Do you like Vizquel?

Girl 2: He has a great butt.

3. Stoddard's is open! That great frozen-custard place in Kent, the place where we've fattened up since the late 1960s and early 1970s when we were living in Kent. (I used to ride my bike there, tiny Steve in the infant seat on the back.) There were years when we somehow found the money to go every night. (Not good for the cholesterol or the waistline--but wonderful for the palate.) In recent years we've been firm: one night per season. And last Saturday was the night. Joyce and I sat in the car and moaned like teens on Lovers' Lane while we ate that spectacular custard. Of course, we can't go back ... that would be, you know, wrong!

4. And last week ... another tradition: Our first visit this season to Szalay's down in the Valley, a place where we go just about every week in the summer for fresh corn and other goodies. They don't have any of their own sweet corn yet (a bit early), but they had some from Georgia (I asked), so we bought a half-dozen ears, took them home, steamed a couple for supper, and moaned like teens on Lovers' Lane while we were eating.

5. Finally ... thanks to blog follower "Brett," who sent me some other Elmer the Worm stories he'd found using this newfangled thing called "Google." I'd written a couple of Elmer-posts on Feb. 15 and 16 this year. Elmer was a talking worm that appeared in a number of stories in Boys' Life back in the mid-1950s, and I remembered loving those tales when I was a bored lad in junior high study hall. Here are links to those earlier Elmer-posts (post 1 and post 2), and here is the list "Brett" found:

"Elmer the Worm," Sept. 1953
"Elmer's Return," Sept. 1954
"Elmer Goes Fishing," July 1955
"Elmer the Quarterback," September 1955
"Elmer Joins the Band," August 1956 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A New Clutch Purse Reminds ...

The other night while we were dining at Aladdin's out on Akron's west side, the zipper on Joyce's clutch purse broke.Time for a new one--and (mirabile dictu!) we were eating right next door to a TJ Maxx, so, after about a half-hour of looking for one (I waited awhile in the store, then repaired to the car, where waiting always goes more quickly, right?), she found the perfect thing, which she now shows me at every opportunity. Which in some ways is good, for her display often means she's going to pay for something we've just shared.

Anyway, she now says the term clutch purse a number of times every hour (clutch bag dates back to 1947), and it's reminded me of something I've not thought about in years ... or, rather, someone: Clutch Cargo, an animated character who had his own TV show in 1959, a show my younger brother, Dave, used to watch--and, okay, I did, too, now and then. (He had an excuse: he was 11; I, 15, was ... somewhat ... slow to mature.)

I can't remember much about the series (except one particular thing, which I'll share later), and IMDB offered no help--so what follows I've "borrowed" from Wikipedia.

Cargo, it seems, was a writer/pilot who flew around the world on risky assignments. (Obviously, he always prevailed.) He was a big, chunky, muscular guy, I remember (I've not yet looked at the YouTube clip I've posted below), looking a little like Mr. Clean--but with hair. The plots were so unremarkable that I can't tell you a thing about any of them, though brother Dave, a more assiduous fan, perhaps could.

Cutch traveled (I did not remember this) with his ward, a young boy named Spinner, and his dachshund, Paddlefoot, which seems something of an unkind name for a dog. And "Spinner"? I not sure what's up with that, either.

Now, here's the feature of Clutch Cargo that I do remember--mostly because it was kind of creepy. The animators used a technique called "Syncro-Vox," a way to use the actual lips of actors superimposed on cartoon faces. Oh, did it look weird, as you can see from this link to an episode on YouTube. I mean, these days we don't really see the tongues of cartoon characters--right?

You can also see that the animation is otherwise unremarkable. Done on a tight schedule, Clutch had no time to bother with a lot of, well, movement in the episodes. Lots of pictures of stationary people and scenery--and moving human lips on painted faces. Awesome.

Wikipedia remarks that the series was a "surprise hit." Actually, not such a surprise in the TV wasteland of the late 1950s when my brother and I, bored out of our gourds (I mean, you can read Proust only so many hours, you know?), turned on Clutch and commented over and over about all those weird mouths.

Meanwhile, over a half-century later, sitting in a hot car and looking at (and feigning admiration for) Joyce's new "clutch purse," I remember Clutch Cargo, think about my brother, about boring 1959 Saturdays in tiny Hiram, Ohio, and marvel at remembrance of things past.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 27

Although Gilbert Imlay had decided he could not love Mary, he was very worried about her. He thought that activity would restore her spirits. So he asked if she would be his business agent and travel to Scandinavia to investigate what had gone wrong with one of his investments. He had purchased a ship loaded with valuables, but the vessel had not arrived where it was supposed to. Her job was to find the ship and to try to negotiate its return—or to arrange some other settlement that would keep Imlay from losing all of his investment.
In June 1795—with one-year-old Fanny and a French maid—Mary left for Norway. For the following weeks she kept notes and wrote detailed letters to Imlay about her progress. With many changes, Joseph Johnson published twenty-five of these letters as a book, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796).
This book—perhaps her best—contains some of her most beautiful and thoughtful writing. Godwin, in fact, wrote later about the effect it had on him: “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Mary writes with passion and courage about all her travels through the wild and unknown region—about the spectacular mountain scenery she saw and explored, the people she met, the villages and towns she visited. All of it glows in the bright flame of her intelligence.
By September, Mary and Fanny were back in London. No one knows for sure how well Mary succeeded in her task (she does not discuss her mission specifically in her book), but that fall the so-called “treasure ship” was located, so perhaps she did succeed.
But she had not regained Imlay’s love. She knew he had found other interests (land investments)—and another woman (an actress). She could not bear it.
In October, on a dark and rainy evening, she wrote a suicide note to Imlay. She put on her heaviest clothing, walked down to the Thames River, and hired a boatman. He rowed her to the Battersea Bridge. But there were too many people around.
So she told the boatman to take her a little farther west to Putney Bridge. She figured there would be light traffic, especially on a rainy night. She walked back and forth on the bridge, soaking her clothing. She did not want her dry clothes to keep her from sinking.
And then she jumped into the dark water. But her heavy clothing, even saturated with rainwater, did not immediately pull her down. Instead, her dress billowed out around her. Desperately, she tried to wrap her arms around the uncooperative cloth. And slowly she began to sink. By then, the current had carried her several hundred yards downstream.
But one of the watermen had seen her jump, and he and some companions rowed frantically to her and were able to haul her into one of the boats. Quickly, they took her to a nearby inn, where rescue workers restored her. She would live to thank them. The Times said the cause was “the brutal behaviour of her husband.” This is something Mary herself must have told the newspaper.
In better spirits, she threw herself into her work for Joseph Johnson. She had an idea for another novel. She began, too, to socialize a bit more, mostly with men and women who shared her political views. She even seems to have handled well a chance encounter with Gilbert Imlay in March 1796. Out walking, she encountered him on horseback. He dismounted, walked a bit with her. They talked. Godwin later reported she had said she’d felt “no oppressive emotion” during the conversation. But we wonder.
And I wonder this: Gilbert Imlay, what was wrong with you?

Old Putney Bridge

New Putney Bridge

Thursday, June 26, 2014

RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS!--Reading the Play ...

Early in April this spring I wrote about re-reading Max Shulman's 1957 novel, Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, a satirical novel made into a film a year later featuring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. (Here's a link to that earlier post.) I ended that post by mentioning I'd discovered there is a version of the story for stage productions, written by David Rogers and first published in 1965.

And I just finished reading it on Tuesday evening this week.

It's a script that would be easy to stage just about anywhere. There are no sets (to speak of) and no real special effects--until near the end when a boy initiates the launch of a Nike anti-aircraft missile (the story, remember, is about a small town's dealing with the arrival of a Nike base).

The script calls for action in various areas of the stage, where characters are gathered for town meetings of various kinds, and characters sometimes step away from the group to show/tell us things.

It's robustly a PG (very near a G) script. The Nike-base soldiers (so genially raunchy in the novel--and even in the film) are even more like a pack of Boy Scouts--and the townie boys (portrayed in both book and film as sort of Hells Angels-wannabes) are much milder, too--like kids who have detention for sleeping in study hall instead of for punching out their English teacher.

The language is milder, too. In the novel the soldiers used poon to refer to the girls in town; the film changed the word to boojum; the play uses quail. That's quite some progress, isn't it? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that quail has been used in America since 1859--originally student slang to refer to young women. (Chick would evolve from this.)

But the OED also reminds us that in the Jacobean age the word quail had yet another meaning--a courtesan or prostitute (in 1609, the Bard used the term in such a way in Troilus and Cressida--tch, tch). Hmmmm.

For a play from 1965, it's a little dated--even for its own era. The character of Grace Bannerman (Joanne Woodward in the film), for example, a ferociously busy housewife (she is on--or chairs--just about every committee in town), relents at the end of the play and resolves to stay home more (husband Harry's horny). "I'm going to resign from all my committees," she says. "and I'll never direct another pageant" (143). (Are we supposed to applaud?)

And all the other various conflicts resolve themselves more or less amiably--and not always in the way Max Shulman had originally written the story ... oh, those playwrights! (The high school toughs decide to join the Army because the girls have told them it's the soldiers' uniforms that excite them so. Geez.)

As I wrote some months ago, it was Writer's Almanac that posted a notice about the birthday of Max Shulman (1919-1988), and it was WA that propelled me back into the past to read Shulman again, to watch the film again, to read the play for the first time. And I loved the journey into the past ...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 26

Not long afterwards, Mary Wollstonecraft began work on the book that has earned her a permanent place in history, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). This, one of the first and strongest statements of women’s rights, remains widely available (online and in print), widely taught.
It was a book unique in a time when women had very few legal rights. Books written for women were full of advice about deportment. In 1766, for example, the minister James Fordyce wrote that women should display “meekness and modesty” and should read only lighter, less challenging books. Difficult reading was for men. Who had logical minds. Who, unlike women, did not let emotions get in the way.
Mary Wollstonecraft strongly disagreed. She said that society should stop treating women like children. She argued that independence was “the grand blessing of life” and that it was time that women began enjoying it just as much as men did. “I do not wish … [women] to have power over men,” she wrote, “but over themselves.”
She said, too, that the most interesting women she had known were those who had “accidentally been allowed to run wild” as children—who learned to explore, to read, to think. So why not make this a regular feature of girlhood? Instead, a typical girl was taught to think about being beautiful. A girl, said Mary, should not grow up to be like a caged bird taught “to adore its prison.”

After this publishing success,  Mary decided to go to France to write about the Revolution. She wanted to see these exciting events for herself. In December 1792, she crossed the Channel and headed for Paris. She was not impressed with the city, complaining: “I have seen very little of Paris the streets are so dirty.” And so they were. The streets were not yet paved, and they were, like city streets all over Europe, filled with the droppings of horses and farm animals. In London, horses dropped 100 tons of manure per day. And many people still threw their own waste into the street, as well, waiting for rainwater to wash it away.
She did not have to wait long to see amazing—and horrifying—things. On 26 December, armed guards took Louis XVI—no longer King of France—right by Mary’s window. Drums beat a steady rhythm in the silent streets. To her surprise, she wept. She hated the whole idea of royalty, but she felt sorry for the doomed man she saw that day.
On 21 January, the King was beheaded, and in February, France declared war on England. Suddenly, Mary found herself in great danger—an Englishwoman living in the country of an enemy. Although she decided to remain in France, some friends helped her move to the safety of a village just outside Paris. By springtime she was involved romantically with the first man who would—at least for a time—return her love.
Gilbert Imlay was an American businessman and writer.[1] He had fled America to avoid some debts (this he did not tell Mary) and was considering joining the French military. None of his letters to Mary now exist, but he must have been a physically and intellectually attractive man, because Mary fell for him—and hard. In a matter of weeks they were living together in a small house, away from the eyes of the curious. Here, Mary continued to work on her history of the French Revolution, and, in their idle times, the lovers walked over the countryside.
By August 1793 Mary was pregnant. So she moved back into Paris where she would be closer to the services she and her baby would require. But Paris was not safe—not for anyone who criticized the government, not for English enemies. The Reign of Terror was in full swing. the French revolutionaries were rounding up and executing aristocrats and other people they perceived as threats to their new government. To protect Mary, Imlay lied to the French authorities and registered her as his wife. As the wife of an American citizen, she would be safe. And she began signing her name as “Mrs. Imlay.” 
Imlay’s business was taking him away from Mary, however—for days, sometimes for weeks. Her letters to him are painful to read. She repeatedly asks him when she will see him again—pleads for him to rejoin her.
On 14 May 1794, with the help of a midwife, Mary delivered a daughter and named her Fanny, in honor of her lost friend, Fanny Blood. Her labor, she wrote, was “natural” and “easy,” and she surprised her attendants by spending only one day in bed after the delivery—a brief period unheard of in her day. A week later, she was out taking long walks.
In 1795 Mary decided, once again, to return to London. It had been a horribly difficult year for her. The French winter was bitter, freezing the Seine River and the water fountains of Paris. Imlay was clearly not going to return to her. And she was trying to rear a baby by herself. She felt terrible. Godwin later wrote, “No human creature ever suffered greater misery.”
Her sorrow continued to worsen, and in April, deeply depressed, she took a heavy dose of laudanum—a mixture of opium and alcohol used as common pain-killer in her day. Imlay rushed to her, and friends kept her moving and awake. She recovered quickly, and her spirits once more revived. But depression was never far away. She wrote to Imlay: “I have not only lost the hope, but the power of being happy.”

[1] His hometown in New Jersey still bears his family name: Imlaystown.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"The Gray-Hair Set"

Monday Morning: I'm skimming the Arts section of the New York Times, and I check the Arts, Briefly feature to see what's going on. On Monday, there's always a story about the weekend's top films, and I'm curious. I read that Kevin Hart's sequel--Think like a Man Too--was number one at the box office. And then I read this: "The only other new movie of note, Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys (Warner Bros.), took in an estimated $13.5 million, about what was expected given that the somberly marketed film mostly went after the gray-hair set."



Let's admit a few things. Eastwood is no longer a young man (he just turned 84), and it's been awhile since his films attracted a young audience. And let's also admit: The original "Jersey Boys"--Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons--had their biggest hits when I was in high school and college ("Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry," 1962; "Rag Doll," 1964; "Let's Hang On," 1965). Let's also admit that--at least at the Kent Cinema last Friday night--most of the audience were not ... young.

And Eastwood slipped into the film a sly reference to himself: On the TV we see a quick shot of the young Eastwood playing Rowdy Yates on the old Western series Rawhide (1959-65). In the Kent Cinema the other night, I heard an appreciative buzz at that moment--all of it, probably, from, you know, the gray-hair set.


I don't think I'm alone when I say this: I've always been annoyed by those who categorize (and thereby judge?) by some sort of physical/chronological trait. I never liked hearing You're just a kid or Teenagers today are just so _____ [fill in the blank] or You look like you've put on a few [usually uttered when I'd put on quite a bit more than a few] or Have you always been short for your age? or ... whatever. We don't tend to think about these categories at all--not until we move into them. Then, suddenly, we become more alert and sensitive--and even defensive. I often see Facebook posts from folks who are offended by something they've read on the site--and I confess I've sometimes messaged friends who have said things about the elderly (never angry things ... just ... things). But I also have to admit: When I was younger, I was every bit as clueless as some I'm criticizing right now.

In recent decades, mainstream journalism has sought to avoid grouping folks and thereby sort of dismissing them with a phrase. You can't get away these days with comments about the physical traits of ethnicities and races; you pay a price if you're careless about the language you use to talk about women. But other constituencies are still fair game. How many jokes have you heard about Chris Christie's weight? And it's still okay, apparently, to ridicule teenagers and the elderly. (In coffee shops I often overhear the young say something like "Some old guy ..." and the older say "Kids today are just ....") One sure way to elicit the sound "Eeeuuuuuuuuu!" from the young is to talk about Elder Sex.

And I often see posts on Facebook that use words and/or images to point out how disgusting the elderly are (I am?). The image below is one I've seen quite a few times--and someone re-posted it just yesterday (Monday), too.

And now that I'm galloping toward 70, I've become more and more sensitive about being locked in a chronological category. Dismissed. True, it's not all that bad for me yet, but I've seen what I consider egregious examples of it in the elder facilities where my loved ones have finished/are finishing their days. Too often I saw my father--who survived the Depression, served in the U. S. Army overseas (both theaters) in World War II, who was called back to active duty during the Korean War, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma (I could go on and on)--too often, as I said, I saw him treated as little more than a piece of meat when he got older and was living in assisted living and nursing facilities. No one, it seemed, had taken the time to learn his story--or the stories of his fellow residents. I see this as the most profound disrespect.

In our culture, it seems, the older you get the less others want to hear your voice--or to solicit your opinion, or ... access your vast database of experience. It wasn't always so. And it isn't so in some more traditional cultures.

But, sadly, it is so in ours.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 25

The more I read about (and by)  Mary Wollstonecraft, the more I realize that she is a miracle of human ambition—hers is the sort of story that should give everyone hope. Think of others who have emerged from relative obscurity to surprise the world (and probably everyone who knew them) with their sidereal talents—oh, say, Shakespeare? Trollope? Austen? Jack London? August Wilson? And on and on and on ...
Just picture this. It’s 1786, the year Mary Wollstonecraft will turn 27. Her mother is dead. Her father, an abusive drunk, has moved away. Her older brother (who will inherit the family’s assets, such as they are) has cut her off. Her best friend has just died. The school she founded with her sisters has just failed. She is a woman in an age that offers few opportunities for women. If there are any brothers in the family, they will inherit. Women cannot attend university, belong to a profession; if they marry, their husband has full legal authority over them—and the children.
And yet … Mary Wollstonecraft wants to be a writer, an intellectual. And so begins one of the great transformations in literary history. But slowly … slowly …  Her immediate problem after the school closed? What to do for an income.

Following the school failure, sister Everina went back to live with her brother Ned, sister Eliza found a teaching job elsewhere, and Mary accepted a position as a governess to the daughters of the large, wealthy Irish family of Lord Viscount Kingsborough. There were twelve children. Now, she would have the opportunity to put into practice the educational ideas she’d written about in her booklet.
Although she grew to love the Kingsborough children, she found her situation very frustrating. As she wrote to her sister, she disliked associating only with “a set of silly females.”  Still, the Kingsborough girls loved their new governess. Unfortunately, her popularity with the children began to annoy Lady Kingsborough—as did Mary’s fierce pride. Mary believed that her intelligence made her the equal of anyone. Wealth and position were irrelevant.
During her free time, Mary continued to read eagerly and to study foreign languages—she worked on her French and started learning Italian. And she continued to write, managing to complete a short novel based on her own life, Mary: A Fiction, a story that opposes the idea and practice of marriage. In it, “Mary” meets an older man, a very desirable one, who’s attracted to “Mary” because of “her appearance, and above all, her genius, and cultivation of mind.” They fall in love, but he sickens and dies, and a grieving “Mary” spends the rest of her days in selfless service: “She visited the sick, supported the old, and educated the young ….”

It was not long before the Kingsborough adults gave up on Mary. She did not seem to understand her place. She did not seem to know when to keep her mouth shut. And so in August 1787 they fired her.
Mary was not really sorry to lose her position. She hurried back to London, to the office of Joseph Johnson, who had published her first booklet. Johnson was looking for a hard worker like Mary. Her impressive determination convinced him to employ her. He also found her a small house, and she was very grateful. “You are my only friend,” she wrote to him. “I never had a father, or a brother—you have been both to me ….”
Late in 1790, Mary wrote a little anonymous volume called A Vindication of the Rights of Men—a book that supported the French Revolution. It sold so well that Johnson quickly printed another edition—this one with Mary’s name on the title page. And she became well known, especially among the young revolutionaries and radicals in London. Among them was William Godwin.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 5

1. Some coincidences. The other day this cartoon was in the paper, and for those of us "of a certain age," an allusion to William Tell always animates our memories of the old TV show, The Lone Ranger (1949-57), for it was a portion of the Overture from Rossini's 1829 opera William Tell that provided the theme music for The Lone Ranger. (Here's a link to the old TV show's opening credits.)

Now here's the coincidence part. Just the night before I saw the cartoon, I'd watched on cable a bit of last summer's film The Lone Ranger (dir. Gore Verbinski; starring Johnny Depp (Tonto) and Armie Hammer (LR)), a film that received some of the worst reviews of the year (and tanked at the box office), but a film both Joyce and I liked a lot when we saw it (opening night around here)--and liked again the other night when we watched the final portion of the film, a fantastically choreographed action scene that features the Ranger riding Silver on top of a train that carries the Bad Guys. I blogged about the film last summer--but I'll repeat one thing I said here: When the William Tell music began in that climactic scene, I wept. And I wept again the other night. I really believe that history will be much kinder to The Lone Ranger (2013) than the critics were last year, many of whom, I would guess, had not grown up with the show and just didn't get it.

2.I posted here recently about comedian Mike Birbiglia whom Joyce and I had stumbled across quite by accident while flipping through Netflix recommendations ("Because you watched .... you might also enjoy ..."). We both really like his style, his story-telling gifts, his (generally) PG-13 approach (oh, am I weary of jokes about poop and puke and the grubbiest sex a mind can conceive). We watched the Birbiglia videos that we could stream on Netflix, then, this week, watched via Netflix DVD his show What I Should Have Said Was Nothing (here's a link to a portion of it). Afterwards, we felt that sadness that all readers and viewers feel when there is no more. End of Harry Potter, Edward Cullen, Frodo, Rabbit Angstrom, Nick Adams, etc. So I got on Birbiglia's website and found he was going to be on tour this fall. Where? And I discovered one of his venues will be ... the Palace Theater ... in ... Cleveland, Ohio! (Scored the tix! Will be there on 13 September!)

3. Last week (or maybe the week before?) Writer's Almanac posted (as the poem for the day) Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar," a poem that I remembered from the funeral of my great-grandfather, Warren A. Lanterman (1866-1963). (I was a frosh at Hiram College at the time.) And so--in his honor--I decided to memorize it ... and now I have. (It's the 132nd poem/literary passage I now know!)

Here's the entire thing (it's short) ...

SUNSET and evening star,
  And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,        5
  Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
  Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
  And after that the dark!        10
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
  When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
  The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face        15
  When I have crossed the bar.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

We're Unique ... and We're Not, 2

The other day I wrote about how part of growing older (from childhood on) is learning that in fundamental and very profound ways we are not as unique as we sometimes think we are. We are not immune from accident or illness (our injuries do not heal with Wolverine-ian alacrity--and some, physical and psychological, will not heal at all); there are limits to our physical prowess (limits that become ever more restrictive as we age); and, eventually, even our minds begin to fail us--memories evanesce, quick recall becomes just another instance of evanescence (I used to be good at Jeopardy- and Trivial Pursuit-like games; now I suck). And on and on.

So ... in basic ways we are all very much like one another--and very much like our ancestors (including the very remote ones, the ones who slept in trees, who lived in caves).

But I think it's useful to go beyond this--to consider this: In what ways am I unique? Different? Unlike most other people?

It's a hard question, really. As I sit here, thinking about my "uniqueness," I realize that everything I can come up with is not unique at all--myriads of others share the traits I'm thinking of. I have a sense of humor; I read a lot of books; I love to write; I'm disciplined about getting my work done before I do anything else; I like to bake--and cook our meals; I am a creature of habit (you can find me pretty much in the same places at the same times every day); I love the movies--and great TV programs; I have a (facile) felicity with rhyme & rhythm (odd: I can't dance a lick); I love my wife, my son and his family, my mom and brothers and their families; I wish I could quit snacking near bedtime; I should sometimes think a moment (or ten) before I speak; I love long car trips; I can't imagine what a vacation is (Joyce and I work every day of the year, even when we're traveling); I'm moderate to liberal on social and political issues; I've memorized a bunch (130+) poems. Etc.

And then there are my looks (but let's not go there, okay?).

But do those things make me unique? Even in combination? Aren't there lots of other folks--scads, maybe?--who could make a very similar list about themselves?

By the way, I am not trolling for praise/condemnation here--do not want people to wax lyrical about what a unique human being I am/am not. (That would be beyond pathetic.) I'm just trying to think about what we mean when we talk about human uniqueness. When we leave this life, many people around us will feel sorrow--loss. But even that is evanescent, isn't it? When our great-great-great-great-grandmother died, the people around her were probably sad--but now? We don't even know her name, do we? Or anything else about her? Do we have anything that belonged to her? Do we know what she looked like? What made her happy? What made her cry? Sure some of her genes are active in us--but which ones? And in what ways? And, of course, we had thirty-two great-great-great-great-grandmothers ... so which one are we even talking about?

I talked with Joyce about this over lunch today (Friday), and she said that it's the uniqueness of our minds that's unassailable. She's currently reading that new book about the human brain--The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku--a book which is dazzling her, by the way (and me, too: she shares well!). (Here's a link to a clip of him on The Daily Show.)

And, of course, all our minds are different from one another (just as they have many similarities of structure and behavior--living inside our heads: both Godzilla and Aristotle, vying for dominance). I've been fortunate in my life to know so many folks with astonishing minds--from members of my own family (my two brothers and I are as different and similar as we can be: Richard knows more about classical music than anyone else I've ever known--ditto for Dave re: US and British history); to special teachers (from elementary school through grad school); to amazing colleagues at Aurora Middle (Harmon) School, Lake Forest College, Western Reserve Academy, Hiram College; to amazing students at all those places. (It was a very rare day when I walked into class and did not hear something novel and/or surprising--something I'd never thought of--and wished I had.)

So--okay--our minds: both the kitchen cabinet and the mixing bowl for our experiences, our memories, our ideas, fears, loves, tastes, hates, talents, incapacities, frustrations, hopes, worries, insecurities, dreams. Seat of our ecstasy and our depression. The organ that guides and misdirects, that perceives and misperceives, that understands and fails to do so, that truly makes us unlike anyone else, alive or dead or yet unborn.

As usual (always?), Joyce is right. (You'd think I'd have figured that out by now!)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 24

As she matured, Mary Wollstonecraft, like Godwin, was beginning to believe that marriage was a kind of a prison, and she wanted no part of it. She’d witnessed her own mother’s sad experiences—and now she was alarmed by the recent marriage of her sister Eliza to a man named Meredith Bishop.
When Eliza gave birth to a daughter, she had terrible difficulties. She slipped into a deep depression—something of a family trait—and her husband, desperate for relief, invited Mary to live with them. With Mary’s aid, Eliza gradually regained her strength and mental equilibrium—but this was only temporary. Her husband was mystified.

And then . . . a bizarre episode. Mary—deciding that her sister was in mortal danger and that Bishop, her husband, was not a good spouse—plotted to help Eliza “escape.” Early one Saturday morning in 1784, the sisters fled by coach across London Bridge into the city. Inside the coach, Eliza was so upset that she bit her wedding ring in half. Using false names, they registered at an inn … and waited. Eliza had left behind most of her possessions and—surprising to us—her baby.
Why did she leave her child? Because both Eliza and Mary knew that English law gave virtually all family rights to the husband. He could decide how to treat his wife (she was considered property), how to treat his children (also property). When a woman married, all her possessions became her husband’s. So Eliza realized that when her husband found her, he would just take the child. And the law would be on his side.
Sadly, Eliza never again saw her baby, for in August, the little girl died. She had not lived long enough to celebrate her first birthday.
The Wollstonecraft sisters were relieved when Bishop decided not to pursue his runaway wife. But Mary was not sure what do to next. They had to do something, and soon. Money was short. She convinced Eliza that they should start a school—just as Godwin had tried to do only a year earlier.
They heard of an opportunity in Newington Green, an area in the village of Stoke Newington, just northeast of the city (and now part of London). There they found a large empty house, and even some students—all girls. Mary’s friend Fanny Blood taught drawing and sewing, sisters Everina and Eliza helped out as best they could, and Mary herself taught the traditional subjects of reading and writing. The women worked hard, earned a good reputation, and soon—after only a few weeks—had twenty girls with them. Godwin later explained Mary’s success as a teacher: “No person was ever better formed,” he wrote, “for the business of education.”
But something terrible was looming in the near future, something that nearly devastated Mary. Fanny Blood was deathly sick. Mary had seen what was happening, had known what the symptoms meant. Coughing. Spitting blood. Tuberculosis. TB was almost always fatal in Mary’s day. So she left her school and remained with Fanny until she died.
But when the grieving Mary returned to Newington Green, she found the school was in trouble. Debts were mounting, students were quitting—even their boarders were leaving. The sisters were forced to close their school.
Mary’s only other source of income was from a little booklet she had hurriedly written and sold to publisher Joseph Johnson, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. Generous Mary gave her entire advance from the publisher (ten guineas) to Fanny Blood’s parents for their expenses.
The booklet was really a list of guidelines for mothers. Mary advised women to nurse their own children, to keep firm but fair rules, to dress children simply, and to emphasize basic skills. But, she stressed, “The main business of our lives is to learn to be virtuous.”
Meanwhile, with the school a failure, there was no choice: The sisters had to separate.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

We're Unique ... and We're Not

When you grow older (as I one day probably will), you gradually realize (or so I've read) that a lot of the uniqueness you felt was yours has fallen from you like (ready for a cliché or two?) ... Leaves from a tree? Feathers from a molting bird? Hair from a balding man?  Oobleck from a Seussian sky? (Take your pick.)

When I was a little boy, I was certain I was and always would be exempt from the cruel vicissitudes of life. (Falls from my bicycle, burns on the stove, encounters with bullies at school, my inability to use crayons to draw anything that remotely resembled anything actual, etc.--these soon began to modify my view of the world.) I was certain I would never get old like my great-grandfather Lanterman (1866-1963), who, by the end of his days, was lying in bed moaning, "I can't even wind my own damn watch"--but still declaring that he was looking to marry a rich widow in poor health and promising that when he reached 100, he was going to start going back the other way. (We'll never know if he could have done that, as you can see my his dates.)

I suppose I was certain, too, that I would always be able to run (not all that fast, as I soon discovered on the long sidewalk of the University Place Christian Church, Enid, OK, where, at about age 10, a girl (Shirley Williamson) whupped me with ease in a footrace). In fact, I was sure as a kid that I would always be able to do the physical things I wanted to do because, of course, I would never get old. Some years later, I remember the shock of recognition when I read Hemingway's 1924 story "Indian Camp" involving Nick Adams, a character very much like Hemingway himself. At the end of the story, Nick is with his father, a physician (as Hemingways' was), who has has just treated a pregnant woman. Here's the final sentence:

   In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing; he felt quite sure that he would never die.

You go, Nick!

Throughout my life of 69 years (70 looms, only months away) I have learned in so many ways that I'm not unique--not beyond the grasp of physiology and physics, fragility and illness. I have battled weight gain my entire adult life (losing, winning, losing again)--I had thought I would never have that problem, a problem shared by my father and his numerous brothers. I've watched my physical abilities decline. I used to run 4-6 miles a day. Can't run at all now (ankles, knees). I used to be a decent baseball player (up through high school), but now I have to tell my nine-year-old grandson to take a little off his fastball when we're playing catch. When I was teaching, I used to get up around 5, play Early Bird tennis at 5:30, teach all day, go to play practice, etc. Later, my tennis days over (elbow, shoulder, knees, ankle), I would still rise around 5 and be in my classroom at 6 a.m., working, preparing for the day. Now I have to force myself out of bed between 6:30-7. And I sometimes find myself "needing" a little nap about 2:30--a "little nap" that can sometimes consume two hours. Or more.

As a young man I never thought I would do and say some of the dumb, dumber, and dumbest things I did as a teacher, husband, father. But I did. I never thought I would lose my father. Never thought I'd see my mother in a wheelchair, unable to read (she was always reading). Never thought I'd be so fiercely loved as I have been for nearly forty-five years now. (It's nice to be wrong, now and then.)

And, of course, prostate cancer. In late 2004 when I had my biopsy, I was certain I did not have the illness. I was wrong, so very wrong. About so many things.

So many of us continue to feel as if we have some sort of "exemption card" that enables us, to, oh, drink-and-drive, text-and-drive, eat whatever we want to, watch endless television (or surf or Facebook or whatever endlessly), smoke, gamble, use our Visa cards, ignore our children--our parents--our siblings, and do other things we know are deleterious ... to others, of course, not to us. We have that exemption card ...  Among life's hardest lessons: learning there is no such card. Those who appear to have one are merely floating on the surface for the nonce; the sharks are still stirring below, growing hungry.

Of course, I've also discovered throughout my life some ways that I've remained (relatively) unique, and I think I'll get into those things next time ...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 23

So … who was Mary Wollstonecraft? I published a lot of her story in my YA biography, The Mother of the Monster: The Life and Times of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, but for those (legions) who have not read that book, I’m offering here a bit about Mary Wollstonecraft's life (adapted from The Mother of the Monster) so that subsequent sections here will perhaps make more sense

She was born in London on 27 April 1759. Her father was a silk weaver—as was his father before him. When Mary’s grandfather Wollstonecraft died in 1765, her father inherited some rental properties that provided enough money for the family to move to Barking (about eleven miles east of central London), where he farmed, though never successfully. Success was not a word that often fit the efforts of Edward John Wollstonecraft.

Mary’s was not a happy childhood. In many ways, she was born into the wrong world at the wrong time. Adults expected obedience at all times. But Mary was a child who loved to run and play, to explore. Her parents must have thought there was something wrong with her. And she deeply resented their rules and restraints.
Mary also resented the favoritism her parents showed toward her older brother, Ned. Because he was a boy, he received all the attention. He would have the opportunity to go to school, to enter a profession; he would inherit the family’s money and possessions. Mary always thought this was horribly unfair—even though it was common practice. As a result she never got along with Ned.
But throughout her childhood and youth, what Mary disliked most of all was her father. He drank, then became violent and abusive. He hit his wife. He hit his children. Later, sober, he would cry and beg forgiveness. Mary would sometimes throw herself between her parents to protect her mother. Sometimes she spent entire nights near their bedroom door when she feared her father would become violent.
When Mary was about nine, the family left Barking and moved north to a farm near Beverley, not far from the North Sea. Here, Mary loved running through the fields and playing sports. She loved letting her mind run, as well—staring at the moon, imagining shapes in the clouds. She never liked dolls or games that most other girls enjoyed.
But the farm failed in the hands of her feckless father, so the family moved again, this time into the town of Beverly. Although Mary missed the open spaces, she enjoyed the neat little town that had its own theater, school, and circulating library.
She also enjoyed seeing and meeting more people. One elderly couple—the Clares—befriended her. She grew to love them, so much so that she sometimes spent entire weeks at their house. Mr. Clare owned a little personal library that he encouraged Mary to use. This was the beginning of her lifelong reading habit. Books became her teachers; the Clares’ house, her school.
When she was about fifteen, the family suddenly moved again, this time back near London to Hoxton—during the time, coincidentally, that eighteen-year-old William Godwin was a student at the Hoxton Dissenting Academy. They did not meet—though it’s likely that they sometimes passed each other on the street, never realizing that for a moment they had been in the presence of a future spouse, that, together, they would create a daughter, a daughter who would … you know.
In Hoxton, Mary met Fanny Blood, who would become her closest friend. Mary later named one of her daughters Fanny. She dreamed that Fanny Blood and she would go off and live together and escape the dreariness of life at home. Mary fashioned a ring from a lock of Fanny’s hair and kept it always.
At 19, Mary took a job. Unmarried women from her social class had very few employment options. She could be a governess and raise the children of other people. She could be a teacher—though finding a school to employ her would not be easy. Or she could become a hired companion to an older person who needed help with the tasks of daily living. Or a tavern maid. Or prostitute.
So for two years Mary became a paid companion to Mrs. Dawson, a wealthy and somewhat bossy widow who lived in the fashionable resort of Bath, famous for its hot springs.
But Mary’s mother became very ill with dropsy—now called edema, fluids accumulating in the body due to congestive heart failure.  So Mary left her job and returned home. For two years she nursed her ailing mother, who died on 19 April 1782. Her final words to Mary were pathetic: “A little patience, and all will be over!”

Mary’s father had been of no use throughout his wife’s final illness. He continued his drinking, his gambling, his spending. When she finally died, he married the housekeeper, Lydia, took along his youngest son, Charles, and moved to Wales, where he bought a little farm. He stayed there for the rest of his life, relying on the financial help of Mary and her older brother. Mary’s two sisters, Eliza and Everina (ages 21 and 18), went to live with brother Ned, where they would stay until they found husbands—a search the selfish Ned hoped would not take long. Another brother, James, went to sea.

And Mary?  Now a tall, attractive young woman—with auburn hair and light brown eyes —she set off for Waltham Green, a little southwest of London, and moved in with the Blood family. She and Fanny were together at last. But it was not all that she had hoped for. The cottage was small, the family had little money, and so for eighteen months Mary experienced the frustration of having what she wanted—a life with her best friend—but in an unsatisfactory way. She tried to convince Fanny to leave with her, to set up their own household, but her friend declined.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Teacher, Teacher, Burning Bright ... 3

So ... a judge in California recently ruled that his state's teacher tenure law was unconstitutional--and cited, among numerous  other things, the many "grossly ineffective teachers" in his state--tenured teachers, who, he argued, were difficult--and expensive--to dismiss. In effect, he's saying: Tenure protects some bad teachers, so let's don't protect any of them--gifted ones included.

I'm going to post later about the tenure issue itself, but I want to write a bit today about "grossly ineffective teachers"--and about what we can do to attract into the profession more bright, creative, and compassionate young people.

How is it that "grossly ineffective teachers" find employment in the first place? Well, let's be realistic: A lot of school systems are not exactly ideal, are they? The physical plants are in horrible shape; there is no money for books and supplies; many students live in homes whose adults don't exactly value education. One of my "favorite" moments in my career: I was explaining to a class of middle-schoolers about some of the books we would read during the year when one young man said, "My dad said I don't have to read no books." Later, I called the father and discovered the son was quoting him accurately.

Anyway, most school districts are not Hogwarts (which, as you may recall, had some "grossly ineffective" teachers, as well!). And although every school system has among its employees a varying number of folks who are absolutely devoted to the kids and the curriculum, I will note the obvious: It's less likely that a bright, creative, and compassionate young person will elect to begin his/her career in a place that offers little but frustration. It's more likely, isn't it, that he/she will look for a place that seems safe and supportive, a place that pays (relatively) well, that offers budgets for supplies, for class trips, for A-V equipment and computers and whatever, a place whose faculty includes skilled veteran teachers from whom to learn the arts and sciences of pedagogy.

So: Many school districts, sorting through job applications, are not exactly overwhelmed with excellence--actual or potential. In this bizarre world--a world in which we tie much of school funding to local property values and the willingness/ability of residents to tax themselves--the poor (rural and urban) have a far harder time attracting excellent teachers, creating excellent schools.

When I began teaching in the fall of 1966, I had five classes of seventh graders--40 in a class. Two hundred students a day. I was too young and dumb to know that this was outrageous. Two hundred kids! When I assigned a written composition, I was condemning myself to impossible hours of correction.  Even if I spent only five minutes per piece (something I never managed to do--but let's just say five minutes), that meant 1000 minutes of grading = nearly seventeen solid hours of work.

Zoom ahead more than forty years. Teaching at Western Reserve Academy, I had three classes of about a dozen kids each. Hmmmm ...

So--all things being equal--where would you prefer to teach if you were young, bright, creative, compassionate? Some of you--idealistic and humanitarian--would no doubt prefer the challenges of a rural or urban school that presents myriads of challenges (and students). But--just a guess now--more of you would prefer to have fewer students, fewer classes, lots of financial support, fine facilities ... ?

NEXT TIME: Some other things that dissuade some of our Best and Brightest from considering a teaching career. And why is that some teachers are "grossly ineffective"?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 22

On 28 October 1997 I began tracing Mary Wollstonecraft’s name in my own way—by reading all of her books—starting with her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, the landmark text that assures her permanent place of eminence in the pantheon of writers about women’s rights. In that volume she blasts the “false system of education” for creating such massive social inequality. “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it,” she urges, “and there will be an end to blind obedience ….”
After that, I proceeded to Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787;  A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790; her marvelous Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, 1796; The Wrongs of Woman: Or, Maria, A Fragment, 1798; Cave of Fancy, 1798; and Original Stories from Real Life, illustrated by William Blake, 1788, 1791, 1796.
Compiling this list today, I am alarmed to see that I did not read her An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, 1794. Why not?  It’s a key document, not just in the history of political ideas but in Mary’s personal life. It was the book she was researching and writing while living with Gilbert Imlay in and around Paris. (Much more about him later!)  She was working on it when her daughter Fanny was conceived and born. It was a book Mary Shelley had read, more than once.
But I didn’t read it back in the late 1990s. I did read other books about the Revolution—most notably Simon Schama’s massive and masterful Citizens. I read biographies of Napoleon and of Revolutionary notables, like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and Danton and Robespierre and Lafayette. So I feel a surge of shame as I consider this: Did I decide not to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s history because I didn’t take her seriously as a scholar?  After all, she had no formal training, no academic degrees. So how could she … ?
I see now my ugly bias is the very one she exposed and assailed in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Again and again she wrote how many men refused to perceive women not as creatures of reason but of affection or emotion.
As Hamlet cried, “Why, what an ass am I!” (2.2).
And so I’ve put I’ve put her book on the Revolution on my stack to read as soon as possible. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011. 
And now I’m in love with Mary Wollstonecraft all over again. As I near the end of her amazing book about the French Revolution, on every page I am feeling ashamed of myself for my failure to read it ten years ago when I was fully aswirl in Mary Shelley’s whirlpool world.
In words that would resonate with the recent Occupy protestors, she writes, early in the text, about the enormous wealth disparity in pre-Revolutionary France—and, of course, in many other places and times: “The luxurious grandeur of individuals has been supported by the misery of the bulk of their fellow creatures, and ambition gorged by the butchery of millions of innocent victims” (17). And, a bit later: “Let not then the happiness of one half of mankind be built on the misery of the other ….” These days, "one half" is more than generous.
There are some dazzling paragraphs about her visit to the abandoned Versailles—“How silent is now Versailles!” she cries. Throughout, she urges the importance to human potential and progress of virtue, a pure heart, education. “It is by thus teaching men from their youth to think,” she says, “that they will be enabled to recover their liberty … .” She sees as “pernicious” the “aristocracy of wealth.”
Reading these words—and so many others like them—I am, as I said, more than ever alarmed by my failure to read her book a decade ago. But, as I’ve also said, I’m more than ashamed and alarmed and regretful. I’m in love with Mary Wollstonecraft.
So why wasn’t Gilbert Imlay? What was wrong with you, Gilbert? You were living with one of the most remarkable women in history.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 4

  • The Traveler's Lament: How can it be that when you're gone for only one day (or twenty-one ... or 1001), that there is a Himalayan pile of work to do when you walk back in your house?
  • Joyce and I spent a productive, informative, and, in some ways, uncomfortable morning last week at Baltimore's National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. (Link to the museum's website.) Joyce was principally looking for the display that features Abolitionist John Brown (she found it); otherwise, we were there to learn. But the very first display was a mock-up of a slave ship. With us at that point was a summer-camp group of middle-schoolers (almost all were African American), and as the very informed docent told the kids about the horrors of the Middle Passage--the vileness of the treatment of human beings--I felt eyes turning our way at times. Ancestral guilt ...
  • A Traveler's Joy: Crossing the state line back into your state. When we lived in Oklahoma (when I was a kid), our entire carful (Mom, Dad, Dick, Dan, Dave) would erupt into Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" every time we crossed back into the Sooner State.
  • Standing in a long line at the Post Office the other day, I thought about how we all want tax cuts--until they inconvenience us. We want tax cuts that inconvenience other people, right?
  • As I posted here earlier this week, I'm now patronizing the new Open Door Coffee Co. here in Hudson. But yesterday--Saturday--for the first time, someone else was sitting brazenly at "my" table. I let him get away with it ... this time. But I make no promises concerning future violations.
  • Yesterday was the opening day for the Hudson Farmers' Market. All sorts of folks swarming over the Green in search of the green.
  • We had a wonderful dinner Friday night at Hudson's new Peachtree Southern Restaurant with old Hiram College friend (and tennis teammate) William (Bill) Heath and his wife, Rosér; they're in town for his 50th college reunion. Both are writers, so it was fun to share with them the stories of the vicissitudes of this writing life ...  I tried the pecan pie--only, you see, in honor of my mother, who made great ones throughout my years at home--and the Peachtree's was fine. Though not my mom's ...
  • And--of course--Father's Day. Charles Edward Dyer, 1913-1999. Not a day, not an hour, goes by ...  Thank you, Dad ...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Teacher, Teacher, Burning Bright ... 2

The other day I posted about the ludicrous idea that teachers choose their profession for mercenary reasons. I mentioned that a few folks I've known did teach principally for salary--but it's hard to condemn people, isn't it, for wanting to have a job with benefits?

I wrote, as well, about the "short" salaries I earned throughout my career, though, as I said, by the time it was all over, I was earning enough to live a solid, middle-class life, to pay my bills, buy food, travel a little, own a house. My parents' dream--for themselves, for their three sons. A dream that's becoming ever more difficult to realize in today's more harsh world--especially for the middle class. (Take a look, for example, at Robert Reich's recent documentary, Inequality for All, available on Netflix streaming.)

I did enjoy decent benefits while teaching--though not at first. When I began in the fall of 1966, the school offered no medical insurance, no dental--nothing but the state's retirement plan--STRS (State Teachers Retirement System)--a plan that has served me well since I retired from public education in January 1997. Again, STRS has not enriched me, but it has enabled Joyce and me to continue our middle-class lives.

The other benefit that public education offered me? Tenure. What they called in my day (still?) a "continuing contract." This was not, as some think, a lifetime guarantee of a job. I could lose my position for a variety of reasons: insubordination, incompetence, mortal turpitude, the elimination of my discipline in the curriculum (not likely--I was an English teacher). I saw tenure as a significant step in my profession--something I had earned, one of the things that told me that I had indeed chosen my life's work. It was an official confirmation that I ... belonged.

Teacher tenure has been in the news lately because of the recent decision of a California court declaring that state's tenure law unconstitutional (link to New York Times story about the decision; link to text of the judge's ruling). From what I read, I can see that California's criteria for earning tenure are somewhat less rigorous than Ohio's--just a year and a half to qualify in the Golden State. I believe it was five in Ohio at the time I earned it--and it was not automatic. The Board of Education could have simply "non-renewed" my final temporary contract, and that would have been it. (This happened to some of my colleagues.)

I want to direct you to a wonderful blog post from our son, Steve (yes, yes, it's nepotism!), on this issue. He's the Education Policy Fellow for Innovation Ohio (a Columbus political "think tank"), and he wrote an informed and emotional piece the other day (link to Steve's blog) about tenure about about what he called "Great Teachers."

Steve raised some issues I want to talk about, too--but from the point of view of a former public school teacher. And I want to ask some simple (though troubling) questions: Why would a young person want to become a public school teacher today? What are we doing to attract bright, creative, and compassionate people into the profession? And what are we doing to dissuade them?

And I will get into that (and more about tenure) in subsequent posts.