Thursday, July 31, 2014
In one of his op-ed columns this week in the New York Times, Joe Nocera (with whom I often agree) wrote about the education of teachers (link to article). He based much of what he said on a recent book, Elizabeth Green's Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone, a book that will be published soon (W. W. Norton). Nocera was impressed. "The common characteristic of her main characters," he writes, "is that they have broken down teaching into certain key skills, which can be taught."
Okay. Some of this I'll grant you. Most of us can learn how to use a digital projector, how to take attendance, how to organize a room, how to prepare a syllabus, and on and on and on. I also agree that we do give beginning teachers too little help. In my own teaching memoir (Schoolboy, KindleDirect, 2012) I write quite a bit about my early-career cluelessness. I was fortunate to have some gifted veteran teachers on our faculty, and I learned (and stole) from them with greedy glee. But I could have used more help then ... no question.
But once all that's done--once the "skills" have been learned--do we now have a good--or even competent--teacher? My wife, Joyce, and I were talking about this, and she said all of this makes teacher education sound like Build-A-Bear. I told her I loved that image so much I was going to steal it--and so I have.
We like to think that teaching is so much like other things--like surgery, like managing a business (or an assembly line), like all kinds of other things, but the fact is--and I speak after having taught more than four decades in public and private schools--teaching is pretty much like nothing else. When a surgeon opens you up looking for your liver, she does not find twenty-five or thirty of them there, all as different from the others as they are alike. But a teacher does this every class period of the day.
If you're managing a business, your activities are only superficially similar to a teacher's. Yes, you have employees to deal with--but you can fire the ones who aren't doing the job, hire more effective and reliable ones. I didn't ever really have that luxury of choice in my classrooms. Here's something I never got to say, Billy, you're fired. Go clean out your locker. (Well, I did get to say the second part of it!) And I never got to hold interviews for replacements. No, I dealt with whoever walked in my room (or, to be honest, ran in the room--or tumbled--or leapt--or whatever other movement some hormone-infused and -maddened kid felt like doing).
As I've written here before (in other contexts), remember the greatest teachers you ever had, from kindergarten through whatever. What made them great--for you? (As we know, not all teachers are great for all kids--that's why you need a variety in a school, not a stenciled cut-out.) Was it their "skills" in leading discussions or arranging the room or handling questions or coming up with cool assignments or ... ?
Not for me. It was who they were. It was their knowledge, their curiosity, their humor, their passion for their subject(s), for their profession. The great teachers in my life were not at all from a single design at Build-a-Bear. Mrs. Rockwell (fourth grade) had us dress up as characters from history, characters from the stories we were reading; she organized programs where we would sing and tell stories and recite things we'd memorized; she showed us that learning was fun. I wanted to do things in her class because of who she was.
Mr. Brunelle (high school Latin and English) seemed to know and to have read everything. He could talk about Caesar and Shakespeare and photography (his hobby and passion) and ancient and modern history and ... And he could laugh--he loved a good pun (if there is such a thing). He taught us vocabulary, made us write what he called "themes," graded everything carefully with a red pen, talked to us from the heart, recited poems that meant something to him. He wrote in my yearbook after my somewhat disastrous junior year telling me that he believed in me. What was that worth?
Dr. Ravitz (college English professor) was a scholar, a man passionately devoted to American literature and writing. He assigned more than a dozen novels for each of his courses (try that now!), assigned essays and projects (I once had to lead a discussion about the character named Cash in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying--I am so glad this was in the era before the ubiquity of smart-phone video!).
Great teachers know that their students will not remember most of the "content" they will teach--only those things that their lives require--or that the students want to remember--or that have a personal significance. What students will remember is who was in that room--and how he or she behaved--and how that person made them feel about learning, about life, about themselves. We need to try to do all we can to lure into the profession young people who are passionate and compassionate, intelligent and interesting, curious and committed. These will become the teachers whom their students will never forget--and will ever thank.
And my wondrous colleagues throughout the decades provided eloquent evidence for the vast dimensions of teacher excellence. I worked with a teacher who brought a cow to school and had the kids take care of it, who kept the art room open every period, all day long, so that kids who were interested and had the time could come in and work--and talk, who took kids to his local farm and showed them the local history in the trees, the rocks, the ravines, who arranged annual field trips to Washington, D.C., who taught kids that music was not just an art but a discipline, one whose demands you had to respect and obey if you wanted to be any good, one who took kids to plays in Cleveland, who took kids to the Galapagos Islands over Spring Break, who had kids publish their writing in school magazines, who kept an assortment of animals in the room (from a monkey to a black snake), who made up a song that comprised all the prepositions and taught it to students, many of whom can still sing it decades later, who got kids to love to read, who sat in their classrooms over lunchtime so that kids could come in and work and talk, who organized a bike club and took kids riding all over town a couple of days a week, who sat during her "free" periods with the worst readers in the school and got them so interested in stories that they wanted to read and write their own, who taught kids computer languages in math class, who took kids to art museums, natural history museums, inventors' museums, who organized week-long camping experiences for kids, who got kids so interested in instrumental music that scores of them joined the marching band and put on weekly shows that dropped jaws throughout the football stands, who encouraged kids to enter contests in art, music, writing, foreign languages, math, who, with the kids, maintained a greenhouse alongside the school, who organized dance recitals, who organized clubs ranging in subject from leathercraft to playwriting, from fencing to knitting, who comforted those injured on the playground, soothed the broken hearts, wiped tears and noses, encouraged those who didn't really believe in themselves, who ... I'm going to stop. This list could go on forever ...
Teaching is not walking into a room and employing a standard set of skills. It's not having students practice a specific set of "competencies." It's not testing, testing, testing ... It's not a uniform Build-A-Bear design.
It's being a human being, one whose very presence in the room shouts so as to rattle the windows: This is what living is like! And it is a wonder!
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
I’m not proud of losing touch with Betty—in fact, it’s one of the great shames and regrets of my life. It bothers me so much that I’m going to delay writing about it for a while. I’ll stick, instead, to the flowering of our correspondence and try to enjoy, once again, what was growing to become one of the most rewarding professional relationships of my life.
In a message on June 10, Betty alluded to a “family crisis”; this would be the first—but not by far the last—time that we would write of personal matters. I replied about an hour later and told her that the seventeen-year locusts had arrived in Aurora. The air hums with them, I said, day and night—at times so intensely that in concert they sound like a squadron of hovering helicopters. I’ve read that the humming is the males, calling to females (like teenage boys in cars with their tape-decks blaring) … “Tape-decks.” Any doubt that we’re in the 1990s?
A day later I wrote to ask a favor—the introduction that William Godwin wrote for Transfusion, the novel of his son, William Godwin, Jr., who had died of cholera on 8 September 1832. Godwin had edited and published that novel in 1835. I had found and read the novel—but the edition I’d read had not included his father’s introduction.
Betty said she’d send it. I just looked in the file for that novel, and there is a handwritten note from Betty on American University letterhead: Dear Dan— As promised— Betty
And here’s some of what Godwin wrote about his late son, who was barely thirty when he died. He mentions that he had been surprised by his son’s desire to write. Up to that time, Godwin says, I had no reason to suspect that he could, with any degree of taste, turn a sentence or construct a paragraph. He worked his way in silence …. He notes that his son, only a couple of years before his death, had established a Shakespeare club he called “The Mulberries.”
Godwin then writes about his son’s fatal illness and quick death. I and his mother were sent for … and we attended him incessantly. He tells about the burial—and then this: He was a being of the warmest affections and the most entire generosity of temper.
Oddly, in that same email requesting the father’s piece about his son, I told Betty that we were involved in the plans for our own son’s wedding on August 14. He was twenty-seven at the time, close to the age when William Godwin, Jr., died. And so I felt a special tremor of dread as I read the elder Godwin’s tribute to his son. I could not imagine such a loss. I wrote to Betty, as well, about how we were tired of all the wedding preparation and detail. In some ways, I wrote, we wish they would just weave wildflowers into their hair and run off to Woodstock.
As I read our messages during these initial months, I notice they always seem to have some frivolous aspect to them, as well—not always did we write about death and marriage and illness and scholarly matters. We joked back and forth about Starbucks, about Austin Powers. And we found another connection: We’d both done considerable work at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (which holds both key Shelley documents and the world’s best collection of Jack London material). And this occasioned one of Betty’s flights into a kind of lyricism. She noted that she stayed with her brother, about fifty miles away, but once she survived the Los Angeles-area commute, I associate the smell of eucalyptus with those days—and many memories of the gardens—particularly the Zen garden that I found respite in … a nice set of thoughts on this clear Washington morning …
Soon enough, we were back to business, corresponding about the London theaters of the day. Mary had attended avidly for a while after she returned from Italy following the drowning of her husband. And it wasn’t too long before love was among her motives.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
A couple of days ago I was paging through Cleveland magazine, something I do once a month when it comes. It's one of those subscriptions I maintain for purely sentimental reasons. I remember the infancy of Cleveland--and I still appreciate (and am baffled by) Cleveland's decision to name me one of its "Most Interesting People" for 1995. (It must have been a very lean year on the North Coast.) (Here's a link to an earlier post about that experience.)
Most of the magazine is quite irrelevant to the Me of 2014. I don't go to night spots (except my own bed); I'll not be buying a million-dollar home in the southeastern suburbs; I'm not going to benefit from beauty products; I'm not going to dine in a classy restaurant (I'm too tired); I'm not going to buy matched sets of furniture that would not even fit in the wee rooms of our century home.
But this month a full-page ad on page 35 stopped me ... cold. In the upper left quadrant is a picture of someone (a woman, I think--a little hard to tell) squeezing a chunk of flesh at her side--a "love handle." Just above her hand, these words: If you can squeeze it, we can freeze it. A little lower in the picture: Freeze your fat away. It was an ad for SPA West and a trademarked process called VenusFreeze--Freeze Time Reverse Aging.
Now I've written here before about my perpetual struggles with weight control, struggles that began in, oh, about 1965 (I was 21) and have persisted until ... today. There is a gene in the Dyer material whose instructions are very basic: Make this person fat. A Dyer family reunion, always fun, is also an occasion to figure out who that person over there is: It sort of looks like Uncle No-Name--but a much heavier version of him--like an inflatable-doll version of him.
Over the years I've tried about every diet there is. I've eaten nothing but meat; I've been a Scarsdale boy; I've cut my calories to 900/day; I've eaten mounds of grapefruit; I've eaten like a Neanderthal. About the only diet I haven't tried is the new "wheat-belly" thing: I make sourdough bread every week, and I would rather be fat and/or dead than give it up. (No doubt I'll soon be both.)
I've also not tried surgical or pharmaceutical remedies. Well ... not surgical. I did eat lots of that unfortunately named diet candy--Ayds; I did drink my breakfast for a while--Slim-Fast. But I never took pills. I have standards!
link to it. There are some photos on the site, and I found some others on Google--see below. I'm guessing the tattoo is not part of the procedure--at least I hope not. That looks like one place I do not want needles and ink and the eyes of Another.
I've sojourned enough in Dietland to know that, for me, all results are temporary. The only sure way--for me--to lose weight is cruelly simple: exercise, no seconds, no desserts, no snacks; keep daily calories close to 1000. But the second I reach my ideal weight (which I've not done since, oh, the mid-1990s) and begin to eat "normally" again, the pounds return from their vacation and move right back in. I can almost see sneers on their faces, hear their sardonic words: I see you didn't really want me to go, did you?
And soon--my self-respect having plummeted to its nadir (I seem to find a New Nadir each time)--I'm back on my routine of self-denial. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to go for VenusFreeze, though. It sounds too much like a sexy ice-cream cone (too many fats and calories). And, of course, overriding question remains: Is it cool to freeze your fat?
Monday, July 28, 2014
Too soon, our conversation was over, and we were back on the road to Ohio, and Joyce was telling me how she’d loved watching the dance. I’d promised Betty to send her copies of some of the great maps I’d found at the LOC, and I did, and soon we were sending each other things fairly regularly—and our email correspondence accelerated for many months.
I see that in late May and early June 1999, we were still talking about the Frankenstein name—and where Mary might have learned it. One theory: She learned it from Byron—but on his Rhine trips (I checked) he was not near the site of the castle. Still … during those evenings of ghost stories during that rainy summer of 1816 in Geneva, it’s possible the name could have come up from any of the other participants—Byron or his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, for example. But—so far—no one knows.
(As I write this, I’m realizing that what I said a little earlier—that Betty did not tell me about her Frankenstein-name theories—is not true: In June both of us were writing lengthy emails on the subject.)
Throughout June, Betty was also asking me about the photographs I’d taken on my month-long European odyssey. She wanted copies of some of them; I sent them.
Our conversations sometimes veered from Shelley and her circle. In a note to her on June 7, I told her that I had just started reviewing books for Kirkus (I told her I’d done about a dozen; as I type these words, on July 27, 2014, I have done 1244 Kirkus reviews … time marches on). And even a gentle teasing tone sometimes emerged.
On June 8 I told her not to worry about the cost of duplication and postage for the items I was sending. The amounts are trivial, I wrote, and I’m happy to be a tiny part of what you’re doing. And I added: In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the thought of your feeling guilty ….
She replied: Guilt?? You want to give MORE guilt to a New Yorker, who, as a category, admit our cup runneth over???
Soon we were writing again about Mary’s lost infant child. We were wondering if the baby was lying in bed with her mother when she died—but Betty’s evidence suggested, no: She and Bysshe had bought a cradle.
And then we were talking about our own writing … how much a day? what hours are best? I told her that a former (and fine) professor of mine (Sanford Marovitz at Kent State) had said he always stopped for the day in mid-sentence: That way he knew he already had a start on the next day’s work. (I still sometimes do that—especially on longer projects, like this one.) I told her about Anthony Trollope’s amazing work habits—and that I was starting to read Trollope’s complete novels (he wrote forty-seven). By the time I completed that project (October 22, 2007), Betty Bennett had been dead for over a year. And I didn’t even know it.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
1.Joyce and I were talking about the idea of having funeral before you die. It's not, of course, an original idea. I think I've read stories in newspapers and magazines about it. I just Googled "funeral before death" and got all kinds of hits--including this one, a place advertising a "Living Funeral." (Link to site.) The site steals a little bit of my thunder because I'm talking here a little about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the famous scene when Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper attend their own funeral, hiding in the balcony. (Here's a link to the entire chapter, Chapter 17--and you'll need to read the chapters preceding it to see why people in town thought the boys were dead.) Here are some relevant paragraphs from that chapter:
As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide. The congregation became more and more moved, as the pathetic tale went on, till at last the whole company broke down and joined the weeping mourners in a chorus of anguished sobs, the preacher himself giving way to his feelings, and crying in the pulpit.
There was a rustle in the gallery, which nobody noticed; a moment later the church door creaked; the minister raised his streaming eyes above his handkerchief, and stood transfixed! First one and then another pair of eyes followed the minister’s, and then almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!
Aunt Polly, Mary, and the Harpers threw themselves upon their restored ones, smothered them with kisses and poured out thanksgivings, while poor Huck stood abashed and uncomfortable, not knowing exactly what to do or where to hide from so many unwelcoming eyes. He wavered, and started to slink away, but Tom seized him and said:
“Aunt Polly, it ain’t fair. Somebody’s got to be glad to see Huck.”
“And so they shall. I’m glad to see him, poor motherless thing!” And the loving attentions Aunt Polly lavished upon him were the one thing capable of making him more uncomfortable than he was before.
Suddenly the minister shouted at the top of his voice: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow—sing!—and put your hearts in it!”
2. Not that I need another reminder that I'm old ... but I got a notice this week from a FB friend that her husband, a former student of mine, was turning sixty this week. John Mlinek, whom I taught the very first year of my career (1966-67) in one of my seventh grade classes, is hitting the Mark this week. Sixty. Students I taught in seventh grade are turning SIXTY! I have a long history with John. He was in the first two shows I ever directed at the Aurora Middle School and went on to have a fine career in theater and in just about anything else he ever did (including teaching near Dayton). I got to see him play Hamlet at Kent State, Macbeth in Columbus in an open-air production (a dog wandered up on the stage at one point; oh well). He has directed many shows himself, and his wife, Kim, now is a tech director for many sports productions you see on the Tube. John has remained ferociously loyal to me over the years. When he's in town, he gets in touch; he invites us to his annual Oscar Night each spring; he never forgets us. When I directed my final show in Aurora at Harmon Middle School (spring 1996), he came back and performed a cameo.When a friend and I founded the Aurora Youth Theater back in the late 1960s, John was one of the first high school students we called to get involved--and did he get involved! Eventually, he and his friend Dave Prittie were running the AYT, which, sadly, has disappeared. They wrote and directed shows, performed in them. John and Dave also made films when they were in high school, and I was always flattered when they brought them over to show us the "final cut." Anyway, John was and is a special young man. I say "young man" because, well, he's younger than I! Joyce and I love him like a son.
Here's a story, just to show you. Years ago (in the thrall of my Billy-the-Kid phase) I had gone, alone, to the Midway Drive-In between Kent and Ravenna to see Dirty Little Billy, an anti-heroic film about you-know-who. It starred Michael J. Pollard (who'd made a name for himself in Bonnie and Clyde.) Gary Busey and Nick Nolte, unknown at the time, were also in the cast. This must have been the spring or summer of 1973. Our son was barely a year old, and Joyce had no interest in dirty little Billys. She had plenty on her hands with Dirty Little Steve. So I went alone. After the film had been going for a little while, I heard a knock on the car window. There were John and Dave. They'd dropped by our house to see me, and hearing where I was, they came out to join me. (They were KSU students at the time.) They climbed in the car, and we "enjoyed" the film together.
3. As I've posted here (or FB?), Joyce and I have finished watching the first two seasons of Longmire, the TV series about a contemporary Wyoming sheriff--and we've enjoyed the episodes a lot (took a while to get "hooked," I'll admit). I noticed, early on, that one of the verbal characteristics of Walt Longmire (the sheriff). When he's talking informally with folks, he occasionally (often?) ends a sentences with so ...
4. And I'll end with a Dumb Dream from last night. For some reason, I was interviewing candidates for the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. Oddly, these interviews took place at Harmon Middle School in Aurora. I sat in a little practice room, and the groups came in--I told them they could bring only one instrument with them. One of the first groups was the Rolling Stones--but they looked like middle school kids. I told them they didn't need to audition: They were the Stones. They seem pleased, as was I when I woke up immediately after they launched into "Jumpin' Jack Flash," which, oddly, sounded just like the recording even though they had with them only one acoustic guitar.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
I posted a silly poem on Facebook the other day, a poem about how the "younger generations" don't know--or even really need to know--the rules for dividing words at the ends of lines. This was a skill that earlier generations (like mine) needed because so much of what we did was either handwritten or typewritten, and on a typewriter you can stop, divide the word, hit "hyphen," and finish the word on the next line. Computer word-processors have pretty much eliminated the need for that: They just end each line with a full word, then move to the next line.
REVELATION: I just checked Word and discovered that you can set it to hyphenate (hyphenation options are under Page Layout). Below, I've reproduced the third paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities, showing in red the words that Word hyphenated.
So you can use hyphenation in Word if you wish (it has automatic and manual settings)--but I'm guessing most people won't. Hell, I didn't even know you could until just now!
So what were the rules we had to learn back in the pre-computer days?
In my copy of The Plain English Handbook (1972) here's what I find: When it is necessary to divide a word at the end of a line, the division should be made between syllables, and a hyphen should be placed at the end of the line. Never place a hyphen at the beginning of a line. Always check the dictionary for correct syllabication of English words (99).
Okay, that's pretty basic--and incomplete. You can't always divide between syllables. I checked the first grammar book I used when I began my teaching career with 7th graders in 1966 (Language for Daily Use, 1965), and here's all it says: Use a hyphen to divide words between syllables at the end of a line (427). Still incomplete.
But good old Warriner's English Grammar and Composition (Complete Course), spells it out.
28f. Divide a word at the end of a line between pronounceable parts only. One-syllable words should never be divided.
28g. A word having double consonants should be divided between the consonants. (recom-mend, hap-py).
Words like bill-ing and toss-ing are exceptions.
28h. Do not divide a word so that single letter stands alone. If possible do not divide a word so that only two letters are carried over to the next line. (pri-vacy, not priva-cy)
28i. Words having prefixes and suffixes should usually be divided between the prefix and the root of the word or between the root of the word and the suffix.
And the final usage manual I used with students--Hacker's Rules for Writers, 2000 edition--repeats these rules and exceptions--and adds this: To divide long e-mail and Internet addresses, do not use a hyphen (because a hyphen could appear to be part of the address).
So there you go ... all the rules you never need to know since Word will perform these functions for you.
Here's the silly Facebook poem I mentioned ...
That Hyphen Thing
These younger generations have
It easy—no debate.
For they no longer need to know
How they should hyphenate.
When I was younger—long ago!—
All students learned in schools
Dividing words at ends of lines—
Those hyphenation rules.
We had to know the syllables—
And what exceptions were.
Oh, hyphenation made us wise—
Or “sage,” if you prefer.
Computers, though, have ended that—
They don’t divide at all.
Instead, they start another line—
I stagger at the gall!
The difference ’twixt will and shall—
And how to hyphenate?
And lie and lay—and who and whom—
Oh, these have made us great!
Friday, July 25, 2014
We drove right over to her place on Massachusetts Avenue, a route I knew a bit because our tour buses always used it on the many annual trips our Aurora eighth graders took to the Nation’s Capital. (Chaperoning those trips, I learned that a mile on a bus loaded with eighth graders is different from a mile with Joyce.)
Betty answered the door, invited us in, and we immediately noticed how dim she kept her lights. It didn’t take long to figure out the reason: Framed on her walls were some priceless objects, including a letter in the hand of—and signed by—Mary W. Shelley. (Bright lights can cause fading.) Trying not to drool, I looked around and expressed my envy and admiration. And realized that what was on her walls probably exceeded in value my entire “estate.”
We sat down, had coffee, and talked about Mary Shelley and what I was up to. Joyce later said that it reminded her of a dance, a dance in which the woman (Betty) was trying steps on the man (Danny) to see how he would respond—to see if he was worthy. Apparently, I must have responded all right because the hour or so ended with great amity, with vows to stay in touch, with promises of various sorts—all of which both of us kept.
Here’s one exchange I remember, but a bit of background first. On February 22, 1815, Mary, 17, delivered a daughter, which means (employing the nine-month rule!) that they had “done it” not long after their initial meetings back in May of 1814—before their dash to Europe in company with her step-sister Claire Clairmont. But the evidence suggests it was a premature birth—perhaps a seven-month child—and she lived only about two weeks.
The first Mary Shelley biography I’d read, back in January 1997 (as I’ve said), was Emily Sunstein’s Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (1989). Sunstein says that Mary “possibly meant to name her Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin III” (97). Anyway, I had a couple of questions for Betty about this infant.
How did Sunstein know what Mary intended to name the child?
Do we know where is the infant buried?
When I asked these things, Betty’s eyes lit. “I warned Emily about that,” she said. “There’s no evidence about the name.” And then—“No one knows where she lies, though I have some ideas.” I would not learn what those ideas were. Although Betty would prove to be a very generous scholar and friend—answering all kinds of questions, sharing all sorts of information and informed speculation—she was not yet ready for that kind of trust. Can’t say that I blame her.
Scholars can be very careful about what they share—especially before they publish their findings. Earle Labor (the Jack London scholar I mentioned) once trusted me with an amazing and emotional story about a young Stanford student named Anna Strunsky, who had been one of London’s early loves—and had even co-written an epistolary book with him on the subject of love, The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903—the same year as The Call of the Wild).
Anyway, London married someone else (then divorced and married again), but Anna, who married William English Walling, never forgot London. Here’s what Earle wrote in his recent biography: “Though she married William English Walling …, she carried a miniature portrait of Jack in her wallet for the rest of her life” (167). This Earle had learned from her daughter in an interview.
When Earle told me that story, I was working on my YA biography of London. He asked me not to use the information. I didn’t. But oh did I want to!
Thursday, July 24, 2014
I was saddened a couple of days ago when I saw the news in the New York Times that Thomas Berger had died. (Link to obituary.) For decades, Berger had been one of my favorite novelists, and as each of his books came out, I pounced--as the photo of one of our bookshelves shows (and not all of the books are visible!).
It was my classmate and friend from Hiram College, Bill Heath, who first alerted me to Berger in the mid-1960s. He told me that I had to read Berger's 1964 masterpiece, Little Big Man, a novel that I've read a half-dozen times since. Of course, I grew up in the Southwest, and as a boy I'd been a ferocious reader of biographies of Western figures--so Berger's novel was a perfect fit for me. Wild Bill Hickok, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse--these and numerous others made appearances in Little Big Man. It's as if Berger had interviewed me before he wrote the book, asked me what I wanted to read, and went back into his study to create it.
Once I'd read Little Big Man, I started reading Berger's earlier novels (beginning with Crazy in Berlin, 1958, the first novel in what would become a tetralogy focusing on Carlo Reinhart, one of the most memorable characters in contemporary American fiction) and then--as I said--I bought each new one the day I saw it on the bookstore shelf and read it ASAP.
When I married Joyce in late 1969, I introduced her and her family to Berger--and she actually taught Little Big Man to some KSU frosh in the early 1970s, and her uncle Paul adored the novel as well; I think her parents read and loved it, too. I remember Uncle Paul asking me (afterwards): "You have any other books like that?" Well, no, there are no other books like that--but I felt exactly the way he did. I want more books like that!
I learned that two other films are out there, as well--The Feud (1989--which I've ordered) and Meeting Evil (2012--which is now in my Netflix streaming queue). I'll report on them later.
When I posted the Times piece about Berger's death, I heard from a former student, Molly Young McCormick, who said she thought I had taught that novel to her middle school class back ... well, a long time ago. And that reminded me of something: I had not taught the full novel (that would have been professional suicide at the time--Berger can be ... naughty ... and violent), but I had used a passage from it. Just this moment I went to one of my (many) file drawers and found the folder labeled Comp--Conversation (LBM): Compositions--Conversation--Little Big Man. And inside I found the very worksheet I gave to my middle school students for years. (See below.) I also found an old transparency (remember them?) in that folder, one I'd also used in class for years, as well. I wanted my 7th and 8th graders to use this excerpt from Little Big Man to figure out the punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph rules for writing conversations.
In 1999, Berger published a sequel--The Return of Little Big Man. When I heard it was going to be released, I was ecstatic. It was as if a Beatles fan had just learned that a "lost" album had just appeared--or a Frankenstein fan learning that Mary Shelley had written a sequel--or ... a sequel to The Return of the King ... or ... you get the picture.
But I didn't care for it--not really Berger's fault, I guess. I mean, how could anything live up to my expectations? Before I'd read it, I'd agreed to lead a discussion about Little Big Man at the local library. In prep, I re-read LBM (loving it--loving it again).
The presentation/discussion was at 10:00 a.m., June 25, 1999--part of the Hudson Library's "The Last Friday Book Talks." I see in my journal for that day that I pretty much talked the whole time--showed slides, talked about Berger's other books, etc.--typical insecure, over-prepared teacher ... didn't allow much time for discussion.
That same summer of 1999 my father was dying. I was driving back and forth to Pittsfield, Mass., where he and my mom were. He was in and out of nursing and rehab facilities as he was navigating the final stages of his long, wonderful voyage. On Father's Day that year I thought about Little Big Man, about the death of Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne who was the father figure for the narrator Jack Crabb. Later, I wrote about that final Father's Day, about the death of my father, in my memoir Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss (Kindle Direct, 2012). Here's some of what I wrote there ...
That same summer of 1999 my father was dying. I was driving back and forth to Pittsfield, Mass., where he and my mom were. He was in and out of nursing and rehab facilities as he was navigating the final stages of his long, wonderful voyage. On Father's Day that year I thought about Little Big Man, about the death of Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne who was the father figure for the narrator Jack Crabb. Later, I wrote about that final Father's Day, about the death of my father, in my memoir Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss (Kindle Direct, 2012). Here's some of what I wrote there ...
In my journal that final Father’s Day of my own father’s life I noted that I had once again wept at the death of Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne father figure for Jack Crabb. Knowing his time is nigh, the old man, now blind, climbs to a noble height. Rain is falling. Berger himself, I wrote, must have wept as he wrote those wonderful words that Old Lodge Skins cries out on the top of the mountain.
And here they are—
Then he commenced to pray to the Everywhere Spirit in the same stentorian voice, never sniveling but bold and free.
“Thank you for making me a Human Being! Thank you for helping me become a warrior! Thank you for all my victories and for all my defeats. Thank you for my vision, and for the blindness in which I saw further.”
Oh, that my own father—condemned to a wheelchair on his final Father’s Day—could have climbed a high mountain to cry his gratitude to his god—and then die satisfied in a soft rain.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
In 1999 I was in Europe for nearly a month (from April 11–May 6), trying to visit every extant Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley site—and any number of places where nothing really stands any longer but where something significant happened. For example, on Friday, April 23, I got off the train in Viareggio, Italy, and walked along the Mediterranean beach. It was there, in August 16, 1822, that Edward John Trelawny, in accordance with local law, cremated the drowned and barely recognizable body of Percy Bysshe Shelley that had washed up (he had drowned on July 8). It was there on that beach that, the cremation nearly complete, Trelawny snatched from the fire the remains of Shelley’s heart.
I’m going to write much more about my journey in subsequent chapters, but it was this trip—or my report of it, anyway—that drew Betty and me closer together. When I finally got home (and I was so ready for that!), I wrote Betty on May 10 with an account of my travels. I told her what I’d learned from my visit at Castle Frankenstein—that it was impossible (as I noted earlier) that Percy and Mary had visited it during their elopement journey down the Rhine in 1814. I also mentioned a few other key places I’d been—Field Place (the estate where Bysshe Shelley grew up), Tan-yr-allt, the Welsh house where Bysshe and his first wife had lived for a bit—and where he claimed he’d battled an assassin late one night.
And this: I will be going to the Library of Congress map room in the next few weeks; there I will try to find an early 19th century map of the Rhine to see what I can determine about the course of the river in those days. I’ll let you know if I discover anything of interest ….
Remember: The Library of Congress is in Washington, D. C. (duh); American University is in Washington, D. C.; Betty taught at American University. I can’t remember, of course, all the ulterior motives that were banging around in my head at the time I wrote to Betty, but I’m betting one of them was this: I’m letting her know I’m going to be in Washington … let’s see what happens.
Less than an hour later, Betty wrote back. She thanked me for sharing the details about the trip—agreed with my Castle Frankenstein comments and said, mysteriously, I have a different theory about the Frankenstein name … but it remains a theory. I never did find out what she meant about that.
But here was the good news: Let me know when you are in town—perhaps we can meet. … With kind regards …
And that, my friends, would turn out to be one of my life’s finest gifts.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Last Saturday evening Joyce and I passed a limo on I-480 near Twinsburg. But I didn't know it was a limo, not until I pulled out to pass and saw that it was as long as the Orange Blossom Special. (For those of you who are chronologically challenged, the OBS was a train--and a song, here performed on YouTube by Johnny Cash. The train ran from New York to Miami.) Anyway, that limo was one long car, and I was glad for one of the few times in my life that I was on a divided highway--would've been impossible to pass back in the old two-lane days of my youth.
Riding in a limo was not a common thing when I was growing up. Funerals. Sometimes weddings. (Joyce and I did not have one.) Wealthy characters on TV shows and in movies. I don't recall that anyone in my high school rode in one to the proms my junior and senior year. It was costly, yes, but I think a lot of us thought it was just plain presumptuous, too. Basically unthinkable. (Hell, I could barely afford a corsage!)
Anyway, that limo the other night reminded me of one of the times I did ride in one--an event so unusual for me that I published an op-ed piece about it for our local newspaper, the Hudson Hub-Times, on July 11, 1984, almost exactly thirty years ago.
The occasion? Aurora High School had recently presented Guys and Dolls, directed by my good friend Andy Kmetz, who also worked with me on many middle school productions (and on the two high school productions I directed, as well--Grease and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Anyway, the appreciative cast gave Andy a limo ride and two tickets to see Little Shop of Horrors at the Palace Theater in downtown Cleveland. This was in the days before the major restorations on Playhouse Square, and I said this in the piece:
The Palace had not changed since the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was last there! I swear, there was a stain in the carpet and a leaf of peeling paint right where I remember them. Even the seat greeted me with a squeal of renewed acquaintanceship.
I remarked in the piece, as well, about the amenities in the limo--a bar, a TV set, a cut-glass dish of mints. And I said this: When you're riding in a limousine, you don't look at other motorists; they look at you. But I couldn't resist the temptation, and I saw expressions ranging from curiosity to envy and awe to something I can only define as rage. And although I know it's impossible, I'll swear there were some who looked at us and knew we didn't belong!
But, hey, we had a great time, though Andy informed me that the only time he'd ever been in a limo was at a funeral.
Here's the final paragraph ...
The students at Aurora High, with their gracious and thoughtful gift, freshened our vision that night. And were Andy and I, in true fairy tale fashion, granted one wish, it would be that everyone, at least once in a lifetime, could ride in a chauffeured coach, right up to a palace door, and step forth in a swirl of light and a flourish of trumpets.
I don't know that I've been in a limo since then--perhaps at a funeral or two--but I know it's a far more common occurrence today.
By the way, when I looked in my files for a copy of that limo piece, I found a business card for Elegant Limousine Service (North Royalton, Ohio); I see via Google that they're still in business--though much expanded.
And on a darker note--Andy now is in an assisted living unit in Kent, moving only with the aid of a walker. He was a fantastic dancer, and the numbers he choreographed for our shows were always the best part of the night. Joyce and I go to see him on most Wednesday evenings, and we laugh about the Old Days--the plays, the rehearsals. Next time I see him--tomorrow night--I'm going to remind him about that fantastic limo ride in 1984. The night that he and I got a glimpse of another world.
Monday, July 21, 2014
I had pretty much forgotten about my original note—I mean, I’d not forgotten that I’d written to her; I just figured that she was a lot busier than I and had better things to do than to reply to a random email from a retired eighth-grade English teacher in Aurora, Ohio. She was Betty T. Bennett, after all … and I …?
But her note was kind. She apologized for taking so long (though she offered no excuse) and said it is always special to hear from someone who found her work useful.
And then she made a mistake: She asked me a couple of questions: How is your project going …? And: By the way, where are you located? Ask me questions, and you get replies.
I replied the same day—only about an hour later, in fact. I sent her a massive note, one in which I trotted out some Big Guns (my two brothers). I told her that my younger brother, Dave, had published books with the Harvard Business School Press; I told her that my older brother, Richard, was the music critic for the Boston Globe. I told her, again, about my Jack London books; I outlined for her my self-imposed deadlines—finishing the research, traveling to Europe to see the important places in Mary’s story, starting to write the text.
I wrote a thick paragraph, as well, about Joyce and her scholarly and writing interests. And in a final paragraph (a small one with a presumptuous message) I asked her something that I had no business asking—not someone of her stature, not so early in our correspondence. May I send you my bibliography, I asked, & ask if you see any glaring omissions? Anything I simply must consult before I proceed?
I think if I had been Betty Bennett, that would have ended all correspondence. And it pretty much did. She did not reply.
On March 17, 1999—three months later—I wrote again to tell her I was heading to Europe to visit Shelley sites. I asked her if she knew of any comprehensive list of the places the Shelleys had lived, places that are still standing. She wrote back the same day—told me she knew of no such list but wished me happy hunting.
I will mention here that in her first note to me she had said that she was at work on her Shelley biography for Harvard University Press. At the time, I read this as kind of a warning (Don’t try to fool me with the “YA” stuff … I’ve already got a contract with a Biggie Press), but as I re-read her note more than fifteen years later, I detect nothing of the sort. But, of course, my attitudes about Betty are now much different. At the time she first wrote to me, we didn’t know each other at all, but as the next few years passed, much would change.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
1. This past week saw ... The Hudson Sidewalk Sale! Lots of people, some elbow-swinging at the popular venues (e.g., the Grey Colt), some anxiety on my part: Will I get my table at the coffee shop?
2. And suddenly I have a sore left knee, the same one I damaged hiking the Chilkoot Pass back in '93. That knee has flared over the years, then has gone back to sleep for a while. Once--about ten years ago--I actually was scheduled for knee surgery. Then ... Bell's palsy arrived. They gave me a strong steroid (thus my still-muscular physique), which killed the inflammation and pain in my knee. I canceled the surgery and have not had a problem until this week. I think I know what happened: I tripped on a throw rug in my study. Not exactly Chilkoot-ian, but it did the trick. We'll see what happens ...
3. This has been a week of backsliding, diet-wise. We hit Stoddard's Frozen Custard; we bought bags of blue corn chips ("no salt added"); we bought a massive bag of vanilla-almond granola. I say "we" in all those clauses. That's the right person for the pronoun--but not the right number. Shame on ... "us."
|Garner as Jim Rockford|
4. And--best of all--today is the birthday of Joyce Ann Coyne, who on December 20, 1969, somehow stood in Concordia Lutheran Church in Akron and spoke her wedding vows ... to me. I had met Joyce (officially) only a few days before her birthday in 1969. We were in the same summer school class at KSU, but I had merely admired from afar for most of the weeks of the course. Our second date was her birthday dinner. Her parents took us to Iacomini's in Akron (I had prime rib, thank you--well, thank Mr. Coyne, who picked up the tab), and I must have worried her parents. I was wearing a new sport coat and slacks from Richman Bros.; the coat was electric blue; the pants were blue-and-white check. I thought I looked sophisticated (I was 24), but I must have looked like something far different to her family. If I saw someone dressed like that walk in the room right now, I'd laugh ... and then call 911.
|the restaurant--I think we were at the table|
in the lower left corner
I was very nervous that birthday dinner day, July 20, 1969. I so much wanted Joyce and her family to like me. (And I was still in that daze all young men in love feel: I think she likes me! ... WHY?) I don't remember much about the meal except this: Joyce accidentally spilled some sugar on my baked potato, and I quipped, If I'd wanted a sweet potato, I would have ordered one. People laughed. Whew.
Last night we celebrated by going to the Anatolia Cafe in Cleveland Heights, then over to the Cedar-Lee to see the film Belle.
I often think about the near-impossibility of our ever even meeting, much less ending up together for more than forty-five years now. I will give her some gifts later today ... but, as always, I know that she is the greatest gift of all.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
Yesterday, driving over to Kent after a visit to Szalay's farm market, we passed the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library and, as usual, took quick looks at their electric sign outside, a sign which advertises events and other features of this fine library (that sign is not visible in the photo above). Yesterday evening, I read this: We have books about LeBron James.
Well, the Snooty Me would say that if it's about LeBron James, it's not a book, and I'll confess that Snooty Me was especially Snooty in the ensuing miles we drove. I was barking things like Why not advertise that you have books by and/or about Henry James? Or William James? Or Alice James? Or even Will James!?!? And so I steamed and fussed and fizzed for quite a while. Does LeBron get to dominate everywhere? Even the library, for Melvil Dewey's sake?
Eventually, Snooty Me got tired and More Reasonable Me emerged from hiding, checking the sky to make certain no more bolts of lightning were zigzagging his way.
Yes, I'm sick of LeBron-o-mania; I'm sick, in general, of the excessive celebration of athletes we see from T-ball through the World Series (even though I benefited, moderately (very moderately), from such celebration in my own school days); I'm sick of seeing bright, scholarly kids bullied, marginalized, consigned to the school library while the athletes are enjoying yet another pep rally or bonfire or trophy presentation or any other sort of secular beatification. (Our community willingly--eagerly--spends millions on athletic facilities for kids.) I'm sick of seeing our athletes dominating entire sections of newspapers, entire clusters of channels on cable, astonishing chunks of bandwidth on the Internet, entire universities ...
Don't get me wrong. I've always loved baseball, basketball, and other sports (though I find I don't watch them anymore--but I still check the Tribe score every morning). When I taught, I used to enjoy playing with the kids at lunch (Nerf football, Frisbee, 4-Square, etc.). If you're great at sports, good for you. If you keep active throughout your life, you should enjoy many healthy decades. I'm talking about balance.
Anyway, back to Reasonable Me ... I remembered, after I cooled down, that I did not begin my reading life with Henry James but with the equivalent of LeBron James books. One of the earliest biographies I remember reading was about Lou Gehrig--I think it was called The Iron Horse. I read piles of cruddy Westerns and sports novels. Piles. For years. Then, gradually, I began to put away childish things. In high school--under the influence of Mr. Brunelle, whose English classes I had; in college--under the influence of Dr. Ravitz (I took seven English courses from him); in my marriage--under the influence of Joyce Dyer; in my teaching career--under the influence of thousands of students ... I began reading the great works of literary history--and continue to do so.
But it was not Henry James who drew me into the libraries of my youth (in fact, when I was younger, he would have driven me away from the library!); it was Lou Gehrig and Wild Bill Hickok and Jim Bowie and Nancy Drew (I did not let my friends know I was reading about her!) and The Kid from Tompkinsville and ... the assorted LeBron Jameses of the day ...
So, Stow-Munroe Falls: Keep the signs glowing. Get those kids in the library. Get them reading. Try to make sure they never stop, not until the light fails.
Friday, July 18, 2014
As I look today at my first email to Betty, I blush a little. It’s more than a little pretentious—more than a little self-serving. I should have known better. I was certainly old enough. By October 26, 1998, I was about to turn fifty-four; I had already retired from my career in the Aurora (Ohio) City Schools (in mid-January, 1997) and was already receiving lots of mail from the AARP. (I was also living on a pension and discovering the delights of that.)
There are three paragraphs in my message. The first informs Betty that I just finished reading her three-volume edition of Mary Shelley’s letters—“a stunning piece of scholarship,” I call them. I say I’ve recently published an annotated book about Jack London, so “I know what an enormous amount of work you did to produce such wonderful, meticulous annotations.” Hmmm … just a little self-congratulatory?
My middle paragraph—the longest—tells her about my recent YA biography of London (released by Scholastic Press in 1997)—and about my plans to write a YA biography of Shelley, as well. I tell her about all the Shelley and Shelley-related reading I’ve done—and about my plans to head to Europe to start seeing things as soon as the reading (or most of it) is over.
I’m surprised, as I read this over after more than fifteen years, to discover I had already read so much of Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. But at the time I was in the first flush of excitement after retirement. I was spending all day every day—seven days a week—reading and taking notes and thinking about the book I would write.
I was also negotiating with publishers, principally with Scholastic Press. I wanted them to do the Mary Shelley book, and I was certain they would go for it. After all, the London bio had sold pretty well, had earned solid reviews, won a couple of awards—the American Library Association had listed it as one of their Best Books for Young Adults for 1998. Here’s what the ALA still says on their site about it: This exciting portrait of the author of The Call of the Wild focuses on London's true-life adventures riding the rails, dogsledding during the Yukon gold rush, and sailing the South Seas.
But in 1998, Scholastic didn’t think they’d be interested—but they wondered about other writers I might do for them? But by then Mary Shelley was firmly gripping my imagination, and I just could not imagine dropping her project and turning to someone else. So I told Scholastic thanks-but-no-thanks, thereby chopping off the only live branch on my publishing tree.
In August 2002, having just finished a draft of The Mother of the Monster, I sent Scholastic a copy—along with a letter detailing the work I’d done on the volume. And I waited.
Four months later (December 12) … a kind rejection. Thank you for submitting … intrigued by the life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley … [not] right for our list … a bit too institutional … please accept our best wishes for your future success.
I was angry.
But began a long process of querying other publishers and literary agents. I have a fat file of letters to and from scores of them.
No luck. And so on March 2, 2012, I published the book myself on Kindle Direct.
And now I realize I’ve once again drifted away from Betty Bennett to talk about myself. Typical. Back to my first email to her …
My final (shortest) paragraph apologizes (genuinely? speciously?) for my talking about myself so much, then praises her again for her “scholarship” and her “devotion to MWS.”
Signed: Daniel Dyer (Dan)
I’m not sure I expected an answer (no mention of such an expectation in my journal for that day), but I know I was hopeful. After all, remember Earle Labor? And, later (as I mentioned many pages ago) Emily Sunstein, who wrote the first biography of MWS I read?
So I was surprised—thrilled—to see a reply in my inbox on January 4, 1999, more than two months after my original note.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
I've written a couple of recent posts about Emily Dickinson--mostly experiences in college (as a student, as a "singer" of a song a friend and I "composed" based on Dickinson's "If You Were Coming in the Fall").
When I began teaching myself, it was not too long before I had my students memorize some of Dickinson. Some years it was "Because I Could Not Stop for Death," still a favorite of mine. When I required students to memorize, I always learned the text, as well, and after a few years I would try to learn something else by the same poet (since I already knew the required one). And so, as the years drifted along, I soon had a nice "stash" of Dickinson poems nestled in my brain ... here's a list:
“Because I could not stop for death”
“A bird came down the walk”
“Hope is the thing with feathers”
“If you were coming in the fall”
“I like to see it lap the miles”
“I taste a liquor never brewed”
“Much madness is divinest sense”
“There is no frigate like a book”
“They say that ‘Time assuages’ —”
“The going from a world we know”
“The brain is wider than the sky”“I heard a fly buzz when I died”
You'll notice the last one--"I heard a fly buzz." This is the most recent. It's a poem I decided to learn because, paging recently through my old English 101 textbook from Hiram College (summer 1962), I saw the poem there--and I remembered, as I read it over, what a puzzle that poem had been for me, what a bit of a dust devil it had kicked up in my head back when I was still seventeen years old.
Here it is--page 371 in Interpreting Literature. I'm struck now, by the way, that it's next to Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee ...?"), the first of the Bard's sonnets that I memorized (I know thirteen others now, as well).
I remember very clearly reading Sonnet 18 in Dr. McKinley's English 101 class, so it must have been then that my eyes drifted across the page to see "I heard a fly buzz when I died."
Can I tell you what that line meant to a naive reader like me? Nothing. How can you tell me what you heard when you were dying? Where are you to be able to say something like that? (Was the poet in Heaven? Or, you know, the other place?) It just made no freaking sense to me in the summer of 1962. And I could not imagine why a nonsensical poem would be in an anthology to start with! I mean, I already knew that "great literature" was often (very often) beyond me. My encounters in high school with Shakespeare (Julius Caesar and Macbeth) had convinced me of several things: (1) I was an idiot; (2) Shakespeare was impossible to read; (3) people who said they loved Shakespeare were (a) insane, (b) liars, (c) both; (4) I would never again read anything by the Bard--as long as I lived!
The lone virtue of "fly buzzed"? It was short. And it rhymed (kind of).
Well, I'm out of time and energy for the nonce ... will finally get to the memorizing issues (and revelations) next time!
Here's the entire "fly buzz" poem, by the way--a little easier to read than it is on that scanned page ... quiz on Monday.
I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm -
The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset - when the King
Be witnessed - in the Room -
I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable - and then it was
There interposed a Fly -
With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz -
Between the light - and me -
And then the Windows failed - and then
I could not see to see -
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
My email to Betty Bennett was not the first time I’d encountered a Scholar Star. Back in the late 1980s I’d gotten interested in Jack London (I was teaching The Call of the Wild every year to my eighth graders) and was in the process of reading all fifty of his books (only four are about dogs, by the way—and two of those were published posthumously)—and everything else I could about him. In 1990 I applied for—and was accepted into—a summer seminar on London for secondary school teachers, a six-week course sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The leader was Prof. Earle Labor, the leading London scholar in the world. (He still is.) Earle had published countless articles, edited collections of London’s work, and was writing what I knew would be (and has turned out to be) the definitive biography, published late in 2013.
That summer I drove out to Rohnert Park, California, where I and the other dozen or so seminarians lived on the campus of Sonoma State University, near the site of London’s former ranch at Glen Ellen, near the settings for any number of his stories and novels (including Little Lady of the Big House and The Valley of the Moon). We were in class all morning every morning, then spent our afternoons and evenings doing our homework, working on our seminar projects (mine was an annotated edition of The Call of the Wild, published in 1995 by the University of Oklahoma Press—a book that bears the imprint of Earle’s influence and published with his support), and hiking and hanging out with one another.
Some dark things happened that summer for me and my family (the death of my father-in-law, the descent into deep Alzheimer’s of my mother-in-law), some emotionally wrenching ones (our son—our only child—was preparing to leave home for college), so that London seminar was one of the few bright lights for me in a sometimes sullen summer sky.
Anyway, out in Rohnert Park I made some fast friends—none more fast that Earle Labor himself. We have stayed in touch over the years (we still exchange email now and then), have read each other’s manuscripts (I’ve been far less help to him than he has been to me), and have seen each other occasionally, as well. In 2003, Earle invited me out to Centenary College of Louisiana (where he taught) to participate in the celebration of the centennial of the publication of The Call of the Wild. On September 28, I talked to a large group, showed slides of the settings of the novel—from Santa Clara County, California, to the Canadian Yukon. Had a grand time. (Sold some books!)
So when I emailed Betty Bennett on October 26, 1998, I’d already had wonderful experiences with a prestigious—but warm and accommodating—scholar. But I had no real clue that I was about to have some more.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
It's odd how mid-July has emerged as one of the most significant periods of my life. Back in boyhood, I always loved the time--mostly because of no school and because I could play baseball, ride my bike, go on vacations with my family ... what's not to like?
Later, a teacher, I found that July remained a favorite month--the only month of the year when there was no school. Not that I hated school (I loved my job, except, of course, for those times when I hated it). I could read, relax, exercise, sleep late, have weekends free (no papers to grade!), drive around and visit friends and family and literary sites, take summer school classes at Kent State.
And in July 1969 in one of those summer school courses--American Transcendentalism, Satterfield Hall--I met Joyce Coyne, who had just graduated from Wittenberg and was taking a course only to have something to do. She had decided to stay home for the summer instead of heading east to Philadelphia, where she had been accepted into the grad school at the University of Pennsylvania. Her mom had skin cancer (it turned out to be a minor issue, fortunately), and Joyce had resolved to stay home and help. I of course noticed Joyce right away in class but made no "move": She was so intelligent, so attractive, so ... together (in 60s jargon) that I knew I had no chance with her. And so I sat silent, admiring from a few rows back in the class. Feeling that regret that borders despair ...
One day, after class, she spoke to me (I've written of this before), and by mid-July we were an item. She invited me to go to dinner with her and her parents on her birthday (the 20th), and a night or so later ... she ... proposed to me. To me! I was shocked--but no so much that I couldn't speak. I accepted. (Duh!) And have not for a single second in the ensuing forty-five years felt a single electron of regret. (I dare not speak for her, however!)
Joyce had had a fairly unremarkable pregnancy (only a man could say something so clueless, right?). We had found out around Thanksgiving that she was expecting, and I was excited. We had not "planned" to have a child at the moment (we were both busy grad students--and I was teaching, as well), but we had not, uh, planned not to, either. Joyce had developed a craving for eggs, and we were making scads of them every day. We attended natural childbirth classes sponsored by the Red Cross in Kent (confession: I was worried); the teachers told us that childbirth was labor not pain, a distinction neither of us found very useful (or accurate) later on.
We exercised, too. Took walks. Played Frisbee in the road of our cul-de-sac in Kent (College Court). One night--in the gloaming--we played one toss too long: Joyce did not see it coming, caught it alongside her left eye, and had a nice shiner for a while. (These days I probably would have been cuffed and charged.) She never blamed me, but I blamed me and felt horrible until the black faded to blue, to yellow, to ... normal.
On the morning of July 16, about 10, a spasm. And off we drove to City Hospital in Akron (where Joyce herself had been born) for the delivery. Which was not easy. Which was not mere "labor." Which was painful. So much so (she was not dilating fast enough) that the doctors gave her a saddle block, at which point I had to leave the delivery room (such were the rules in those days). I was ambivalent about that. I wanted to be with her, but seeing her in such pain--hearing her cries? It was nearly unbearable.
So off I went to wait, alone. Later--hours?--the news: We had a son. I raced to the room and saw them, and immediately some "fatherhood switch" went on--a switch I never knew I had, a switch that, subsequently, has never gone off. (I discovered another one, years later, a "grandfather switch.")
But then little Stephen Osborn Dyer became deathly ill. Sepsis. They swept him off to Children's, and for a week I was back and forth: City (where Joyce was very ill, too) to Children's and back again. The second time I saw my son, he had an I-V in his head and was lying in a little crib in neonatal ICU. The doctor told me that this sepsis was "the great killer of babies." I did not find those words comforting. What I did find comforting was the presence of Joyce's parents, Tom and Annabelle Coyne, who were with me for much of the time. They took me to dinner, sat with me ... I don't know how much of a comfort I was to them, but I will never forget their ministrations ...
Steve emerged all right. Joyce eventually strengthened. And on a day in very late July we were all home together for the first time. And then began the process of figuring out what it means to be a parent (when I get the answer/s, I'll let you know).
July 16, 2013
It was just a year ago, at lunch, with Joyce seated beside me, both of us weeping, that I put into my mouth a little white pill--Bicalutamide--and washed it down with a sip of pomegranate juice. This was the first step in the testosterone-deprivation therapy designed to battle the prostate cancer that had come surging back after a failed surgery to remove the prostate, a failed series of 30 radiation treatments--both at the Cleveland Clinic downtown. Joyce and I were crying because we knew that our lives would never again be as they were.
And they haven't. So much is still wonderful, of course (I mean, I get to live with Joyce), but other things have become odious--the hourly periods of intense heat and perspiration, the death of my libido, my lack of energy, my periods of Arctic darkness ... and more.
Mid-July ... "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"--or so says Dickens in the first long sentence of A Tale of Two Cities (a sentence, by the way, my 8th graders used to memorize). And so I look at mid-July--the best, the worst. But, on balance, the best ... by far.
All of that opening sentence from A Tale of Two Cities ...
IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.