Dawn Reader

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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

When Poetry Starts Talking to Us

I didn't much care for poetry when I was a kid in school. Oh, sure, there were verses I learned out on the playground that I thought were pretty cool:

Ooey Gooey was a worm.
Ooey Gooey loved to squirm.
He squirmed up on a railroad track.
"Toot! Toot!"
Ooey Gooey!

And there were other "poems" I saw on the walls of the boys' restroom now and then:

In this castle, do not linger:
If no paper, use your finger.

But those most assuredly were not the poems that appeared in our books in elementary school and beyond--poems that I just could not get into.

Part of the problem was the teaching, I know. The teachers seemed to know the secrets of the poems, and we had to guess what they were. I did not find this fun to do. Also, they seemed to focus on things that just didn't matter to me at the time--poetic feet and rhyme schemes and the like. Who cares? I thought. Just give me some Ooey Gooey and I'll be happy!

It got worse as we moved up into high school, and I had the experience of not knowing what in the hell the poet was talking about. Remember Shelley's "To a Skylark"? Remember this?

HAIL to thee, blithe spirit! 
        Bird thou never wert— 
      That from heaven or near it 
        Pourest thy full heart 
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Okay, I think I was in ninth grade the first time I came across this. All the thee stuff made me think of the Bible (which, of course, always made me feel guilty), and wert? Is that even a word? Lines like these just didn't, well, speak to me. Or chirp. Or whatever. And if you had told me that I would one day--willingly! eagerly!--read all of Shelley's poems, I would have laughed in your fat stupid face.

But then ... something happened. I got older. My vocabulary grew. My knowledge of history increased. I started feeling things--things besides disappointment when I missed a foul shot, or embarrassment when I didn't have my homework done (often), or guilt when I thought about *** during algebra class, or ...

I learned that certain poems speak loudly to you at certain times in your life. Frost's "The Road Not Taken"--a poem about choices and consequences. Robinson's "Reuben Bright"--a poem about loss and grief. Shakespeare's sonnet "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments"--a poem about love's blindness ("love alters not when it alteration finds"). And on and on.

Lately--no surprise--I've been affected by poems about aging. I've memorized Coleridge's lines

When I was young?—Ah, woeful when! 
Ah, for the change 'twixt Now and Then!
('Twixt would have annoyed me in youth! I think I first learned that word, though, from crooner Pat Boone. Remember his little book about teenagers--'Twixt Twelve and Twenty? I didn't read that book, but for a while it was everywhere.)

And just the other day, reading a novel, I came across an allusion to a poem by Yeats about aging. The novelist quoted only a line or two, but my trusty iPhone and I hopped onto the Net, where I easily found the whole thing, "The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner":

Although I shelter from the rain
Under a broken tree
My chair was nearest to the fire
In every company
That talked of love or politics,
Ere Time transfigured me.

Though lads are making pikes again
For some conspiracy,
And crazy rascals rage their fill
At human tyranny,
My contemplations are of Time
That has transfigured me.

There's not a woman turns her face
Upon a broken tree,
And yet the beauties that I loved
Are in my memory;
I spit into the face of Time
That has transfigured me.

I love that line--I spit into the face of Time. So ... unpoetical in ways (a line I would have loved in elementary school!), so profoundly poetical in other ways.

But, you know, it's a poem you have to be ready for. Which, unfortunately (fortunately?), I am.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 91

For his children’s books, Godwin employed several pen names, one of which both clutters the tongue and arouses amusement: Theophilus Marcliffe. Godwin put Marcliffe’s name on The Looking Glass (1805), and The Life of Lady Jane Grey (1806). “Edward Baldwin” appeared on a number of other volumes, including The History of England (1806), The Pantheon (1806), and The History of Rome (1809).
He also used yet a third name—William Frederic Mylius (sometimes just W. F. Mylius)—which appeared on a few titles, some of which are not positively identified as Godwin’s work, including Mylius’s School Dictionary of the English Language (1809—a volume that would go through numerous editions) and The Poetical Class-Book; or, Reading Lessons for Every Day of the Year, selected from the Most Popular English Poets, Ancient and Modern (1810).
We know that his daughter Mary was among the first readers of many of these works—and that he was surely thinking of her—and of other children like her—when he conceived and composed them.
The last one he wrote as Edward Baldwin (or as anyone else other than William Godwin) was History of Greece, a book he began in 1809 but did not complete until 1821. I discovered just now in my files the folder I’d set aside for this book. I have a photocopy of the entire thing, a copy I’d made during one of my numerous Shelley-related trips down to the Cleveland Public Library, which has an 1822 edition of the book on microfilm. History of Greece, I see on the title page, cost five shillings at the time.
I think how research has become so much easier now. I just checked online and found several digital copies of the book. Were I working on this project now, I would not have to leave my house, drive to the Shaker Rapid on Green Road, ride down to Tower City, walk to the Cleveland Public Library, request the microfilm, load it on a reader, drop a dime into the machine for each page I wanted to print, walk back to Tower City, ride the Rapid to Green Road, drive home. No, nowadays I could just print it right where I sit—maybe catch up on Facebook while the printer is churning out the pages—that is, if I even wanted a physical copy of the book. No need, really. In fact I just this moment downloaded and saved on my desktop a .pdf of the entire book. Took under thirty seconds.[1]
Anyway, in his preface (writing in the voice of Baldwin), Godwin says he now takes his final leave of the class of young persons, for whose amusement and instruction his publications were intended. He ends with a touching sentence: He well knows the motives, warm and inextinguishable as they are in his heart, from which these works have derived their being …. He’d written those books for money, of course—but also for his own children—and, in some ways, especially for Mary. His preface is dated November, 1821.
But by that time his beloved daughter Mary, now in her mid-twenties, had left his home and had shattered his heart.

[1] All of Godwin’s books are now in digital form. Check this website: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Remembering My Mother as a Teacher

Mom, 79, in town for our son's
wedding, August 1999
My mother, Prudence Dyer, now 95, had a long teaching career. She began--with my dad's encouragement--back in the mid-1950s in Enid, Oklahoma, where she taught English at Enid's Emerson Junior High School--Enid, which as I've mentioned before, named its two junior highs for Emerson and Longfellow.

Dad and Mom had moved around a bit after World War II, and she'd actually finished her B.A. at Vanderbilt. She'd done her student teaching in Enid, but with three young sons at home (in 1953 we three turned 12, 9, 5) she'd had no immediate plans to teach. But then one day (she told me) there was a knock at the door. It was Enid school superintendent DeWitt Waller (who now has an Enid junior high named for him); he said he'd heard about her student teaching; he said he wanted to hire her.

Mom said she wasn't so sure. But Dad encouraged her. See, he knew about Mom's intelligence, her amazing organizational abilities (with three young sons you'd better have them). And so Mom began teaching during the era of school desegregation (Brown v. Board, 1954) and taught the first African American kids to attend a previously all-white school, Emerson JHS.

Mom would subsequently teach at James A. Garfield HS (Garrettsville, OH--when we moved to Hiram in the summer of 1956) and at Drake University (when she and Dad both took positions there in 1966), where she retired in the early 1980s. While she was teaching at Garfield, she pursued and completed her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, 100 miles away. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, she would leave Garfield, drive to Pitt, take evening classes, drive home, arriving near midnight--then get up and teach the next day. In the summers, she would rent a room in Pittsburgh during the week, come home on the weekends. We tended to eat better on the weekends.

Here are a few things I remember about Mom's teaching--in no particular order ...

  • At Emerson, her students read Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe--her ninth graders. As I posted here last year (I think), I recently read that book for the first time and could not believe it had once been a standard work in the junior hi curriculum. 
  • She also taught her kids sentence-diagramming, and I remember one day watching her working at home on a project she was planning for her class--diagramming "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." She was having the best time ...
  • Mom routinely corrected my usage and grammar. (Which I abhorred!) But the result? I never really had to study for such tests in school. I would just try to remember what Mom had said. Later, though, a teacher myself, I had to learn the reasons for what I was (usually) saying "correctly." 
  • Enid could be brutally hot in the fall and spring, and no schools had air-conditioning. I think of her in 100-degree heat, a classroom full of prairie kids diagramming sentences, debating the values of Ivanhoe ... hard to imagine. I remember her coming home, exhausted, but still ready to deal with her three demons--uh, sons.
  • At Garfield, she supervised student publications and honor societies at the high school, taught a full load, helped redesign the entire curriculum. During those years I was a junior high and high school student myself, and I was not--to my enduring shame--the most understanding of sons. (Translation: I was a jerk.) I remember her grading papers in good weather out on the big veranda we had on our old Hiram house--sitting on a porch-furniture chaise longue; I remember her meticulous printing (she did not write cursive) in the margins of the books she taught (I have some of them); I remember how students in various groups would come to the house to meet with her; I remember seeing how profoundly they respected her; I remember--adolescent jerk that I was--wondering Why?!?!
  • By the time little brother, Davi, reached high school age, Hiram High School was no more--consolidation with nearby Crestwood Schools in Mantua. But Mom took Davi with her to G'ville every day, where he would eventually become the valedictorian and head off to Harvard for his undergrad (and, later, graduate) studies.
  • Mom had a very quiet voice. When she was really serious, her voice grew softer, not louder. (Barely audible = Very dangerous) Some kids I knew at Garfield told me she was the same in class--when things got rowdy, her voice grew softer, and the room came to attention.
  • At Drake University, Mom really came into her own--became a revered member of the Department of Education, an advisor to doctoral students. She published a number of articles, a book (with Prof. John Shaw at Hiram) on the teaching of poetry--Working with Poetry, 1968; Amazon lists it only as Shaw's book--grrr; she was a regular "presenter" at various education workshops and conferences. (Link to Mom's book on Amazon.)
  • Early in my own teaching career (which commenced in 1966) I once visited one of Mom's classes at Drake to talk about classroom discipline (hah!); she did not tell them who I was, just that I was a young teacher. But I recall that her students figured it out almost immediately--people always said I looked like my mom--not something a boy really wants to hear, you know?
  • Mom was an early and vigorous user of a personal computer. She had an early Apple II that interfaced with her IBM Selectric. She used computers well into her 80s, then, in her 90s, her fingers would no longer cooperate; her memory faded, and she couldn't remember how to boot it up--how to shut it down. Her last laptop, unused in years, still sits on her dining room table.

Nowadays, Mom's life is considerably circumscribed. She lives in a stages-of-care facility in Lenox, Mass. Assisted living. She needs help to do pretty much everything--except correct my usage, which she occasionally still does. And I smile, am grateful. (See how mature I've become!)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

1100 Posts ... Is It Possible?

"Is it possible ...?" asks the young servant Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew--he's just watched his master, Lucentio (also young), fall in love (first sight) with the young and lovely Bianca, sister to Katherine, the "shrew" of the title of Shakespeare's early play. Tranio is asking about something quite different from what I'm going to write about here, but I like the question nonetheless.

This is blog post #1100. When I began DawnReader on January 6, 2012 (link to initial post), I wasn't really too sure what I was going to be doing. I figured I'd write about books (I read a lot; I'm a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and the Cleveland Plain Dealer), about schools (I used to teach--45 years, as a matter of fact--middle school, high school, college), about ... whatever (whatever). And so I have done.

I've done some other things, too. I've serialized several books on this site, books which I subsequently revised and uploaded to KindleDirect, where, on Amazon, they await your purchase! (You can check my Amazon Author page by following this link.) And I am currently serializing Frankenstein Sundae, a memoir about my ten-year pursuit of Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein. This draft I've been posting (2-3 times per week) is very, very ROUGH--i.e., it often sucks), but I have hopes for it--though it will take much revision. But, hey, I'm retired ... what else am I gonna do?

I've put little notes here each time I've reached 100 posts, and I never look at how many "hits" I've had on the site until I reach a new 100. I've discovered that I don't really care about the number. I'm pretty much writing for myself--and for those in the family who will live after me--so as I type these very words (Tuesday evening), I don't know the latest figures; I'm going to pause a minute and go check ... [pause]...


Okay, let's divide that by 1100 ... an average of about 194 hits/day. Not bad. Actually, I am very surprised it's that high. As I've said before, the total hits I have is equal to what, oh, any random blogging celebrity earns in twenty minutes, but for me? Not bad.

I haven't missed very many days. Illness and travel have been the only excuses, though even when I'm traveling, I try to keep up with DawnReader. There are days I don't feel like it, believe me, but the Puritan Conscience I inherited from the Osborn side of the family is like a cattle prod that "suggests" I sit down at the computer anyway. And I almost always obey the prod. (Who wouldn't? It hurts!)

So, anyway, Tranio's question ... here's the little exchange from the play:

I pray, sir, tell me, is it possible
That love should of a sudden take such hold?
O Tranio, till I found it to be true,
I never thought it possible or likely;
Tranio, I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio,
If I achieve not this young modest girl.
Counsel me, Tranio, for I know thou canst;
Assist me, Tranio, for I know thou wilt.
Well, Lucentio ends up with Bianca (to his sorrow)--a double wedding with her sister Kate and her mad suitor, Petruchio, and the end of the play.

When our son, Steve, was at Western Reserve Academy (1986-1990), he got to play Lucentio in Shrew, a play I'd taught to his class in the 8th grade at Harmon School in Aurora. (Also in that cast--Aurora's Andy Paul, whom I also taught and who was, I think, Petruchio?) I'd directed those boys a half-dozen times in middle school productions, and when I saw them onstage in Shrew, guess what my tear ducts were doing?

I'm not sure what any of this has to do with DawnReader #1100 ... but that's the nice thing about a blog, isn't it? It doesn't really have to make much sense! And I love the thought that blog sounds a lot like bog, which is exactly where I find myself mired many mornings.

I'll end with this. In 1797, William Godwin (father of the child who would become Mary Shelley--a child born this very year) published a collection of essays called The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature. Early in the fourth essay ("On the Sources of Genius") he says this: When a man writes a book of methodical investigation, he does not write because he understands the subject, but he understands the subject because he has written. He was an uninstructed tyro, exposed to a thousand foolish and miserable mistakes, when he began his work, compared with the degree of proficiency to which he has attained, when he has finished it.

Oh yes. But I would broaden what he said: It's not just books of methodical investigation; no, it's just about any kind of writing we do. Writing clarifies our thinking, and we often don't know for sure what we really think until we've written.

And so ... DawnReader will continue to be the place where I figure things out--sometimes clumsily, sometimes incompletely, sometimes ridiculously, sometimes not at all. But it's the effort that counts, right?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Parade's End, 1

I've been slowly working my way through the one-volume edition of Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy--Parade's End, comprising four novels (original pub dates in parentheses): Some Do Not ... (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up (1926), and The Last Post (1928). The novels take place before, during, and after World War I--a war which Ford knew intimately: He'd served in the British army, had endured some bloody battles, was wounded. Parade's End, in some ways, deals with events and emotions that roiled through his own life.

Of course, I'd heard of these novels throughout my entire adulthood but had somehow never gotten around to reading them. But when Joyce and I recently streamed the 2012 HBO Miniseries based on the novels (with Benedict Cumberbatch!), I got hooked--decided to read them--bought the one-volume edition you see above (Knopf, 1961)--and just finished the 1st novel.

I love it so far.

And one thing that has really impressed me is how screenwriter Tom Stoppard so artfully adapted the story. I mean, there are moments in the novel that merit only a sentence or two, but Stoppard saw their significance and used them in the film. We see, for example, a wordless but passionate sex scene aboard an English train--Christoper Tietjens (protagonist) and his wife-to-be, the complex Sylvia, have just met and have, uh, progressed rather rapidly. Here's what Ford says about it: Because he had had physical contact with this woman before he married her; in a railway carriage, coming down from the Dukeries. An extravagantly beautiful girl! (121).

And that's it.

I'm going to write more about this tetralogy in the coming weeks, but today--a story about Tom Stoppard. He's, of course, the celebrated playwright (The Real Inspector Hound, 1968, etc.) and screenwriter (Shakespeare in Love, 1998); he's also written novels, radio plays, and just about any other damn thing he feels like.

Back in 1979-80, Joyce and I had just arrived on the campus of Western Reserve Academy to commence our careers there. I was going to teach a section of English III (juniors), and during the junior year the students would be reading Hamlet (as they still do). I thought it would be great to introduce them to Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), a play based on Hamlet's old university buddies who agree to spy on him for King Claudius. They are kind of clueless young men, and Hamlet catches on almost immediately. When Claudius sends Hamlet (along with R&G) to England, supposedly to collect a debt, he is actually carrying his own death notice, but he switches it up so it's R&G who get offed. Chop, chop goes the axe; plunk, plunk go their heads.

I had a first edition of the published play, and a WRA colleague (who shall remain nameless) borrowed it from me after I'd finished using it with my class. Months passed. A little concerned, I asked him about the book, and with a face as deceptive as Guildenstern's he said, "I gave it back to you a long time ago."


I replied that he had not returned it; he said he was positive he had. End of issue. (Oh, how I wished for a headsman of my own!)

What could I do? Nothing but rage, rage against the dying of the Right.

This perfidious colleague moved elsewhere after a year or so, probably packing the book with the household linen so that I, sneaking in his house late at night to go through his books, would not find it.

By the way, I just checked on Advanced Book Exchange: A 1st printing of R&G is now going for as much as $7500.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 90

Yes, our Aaron Burr. He’d come, among other things, to see little Mary.

Little Mary, in fact, was quite an attraction for the literati and the cognoscenti in her earliest years—especially the left-leaning ones. The daughter of two of the great minds of the era—Godwin, Wollstonecraft. What marvels would this child one day perform? (Quite a few, as we have subsequently learned.)
Burr—the former Vice-President of the United States, having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel (1804), having escaped a treason charge (1807)—was now in Europe getting involved in various enterprises, none of which panned out, and he was financially destitute. The Godwin family, despite their own dire financial straits, welcomed him, however. Mary’s biographer Miranda Seymour writes, 41 Skinner Street was a haven of kindness and hospitality.[1] Burr’s diary mentions many visits to the Godwins’, and he grew very fond of them—and they of him. But by 1812, Burr was back in the United States to play out the final scenes of his remarkable life. And the Godwins were trying to make a go of their book business.

To make his children’s bookshop flourish, Godwin knew that he could not publish his books under his own name. England had veered to the right, and many in the reading public now considered him dangerously liberal—if not treasonous. And, of course, there was that scandalous volume he’d published about his late wife. But Godwin carried on, employing some pseudonyms in his books for the young.
His first book—the author named as “Edward Baldwin”—was Fables, Ancient and Modern, published in 1805 (when little Mary was about eight). Here’s a brief excerpt from my journal, March 30, 1998: to Saywell’s [local drugstore and coffee shop, now gone, sadly] to begin reading Godwin’s Fables Ancient and Modern, a volume for children he wrote under the pseudonym Edward Baldwin; interesting; I borrowed it from OhioLink, and it is seriously overdue, not something I like to do; sent e-mail to Hiram to see if I can renew the thing….
Apparently, I didn’t have much trouble, for I continued reading the entire volume, finishing it on April 2, 1998. Looking for my notes today (January 26, 2015), I discover that I’d typed them on 4x6 index cards. I’ve got quite an impressive little stack of them. I always used a blue card for the bibliography card, white for the notes (oh, how OCD I could be!). I have a single card for each of the fables Godwin rewrote. Here’s the card for “The Eagle and the Crow”:
A crow, observing an eagle carrying away a lamb, decides to emulate his great relative. He lands on a ram and tries to carry it away: “He might as well have thought to fly away with the city of London.” The shepherd disentangles the crow, clips his wings, and “turned him into the garden for the amusement of his children.”[2]
Hmmm, what kind of moral do we have here?

[1] Ibid., 59.
[2] London: Thomas Hodgkins, 1805. New York: Garland Publishing, 1976, pp. 147–51.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 34

1. On Facebook this week (I think) I mentioned my old elementary school--Adams School in Enid, Oklahoma. Here's a picture I found online. This is the view, looking north (toward Kansas, only about 50 miles away). The left part of the building (though it looks identical) is the newer part; they were constructing it (1955) while I was a student there in the early and mid-1950s (I finished sixth grade in June 1956; by August we had moved to Hiram, Ohio, a wasteland in my 1950s view). My two brothers also attended Adams (brother Richard had just finished ninth grade at nearby Longfellow Junior High when we moved; brother Davi had finished second grade)--as did my mother, not long after it opened in 1915 (she was born in 1919).

When I was in Enid awhile ago (researching my memoir--Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books, Libraries, and Loss), I visited Adams and was saddened by having to undergo such a thorough security check. I told them in the office that I'd attended the school a half-century earlier, but they looked at me with suspicious eyes--would not let me take pictures in the hallways (pervert!). But I was nonetheless touched to see that so much of it looked as I'd remembered.

The playground was behind the school (hard red Oklahoma clay), and I remember we used to divide up, Yankees and Confederates, and make wild charges across the playground. The teachers stopped it after a bit--too many bloody noses after lunch, I guess. I was always a Confederate--not for any political reason (I had no politics in the fourth grade) but because, I think, the Confederates on TV programs and movies sounded more like me than the Yankees did. When we moved to Ohio, it took me some time to adjust to all the Yankee-talk I heard.

2. Joyce and I saw Birdman on Friday night, and we both liked it a lot--mostly, in my case, because it is so different from the usual film fare these days. I loved all the moving cameras--following people down anfractuous hallways in the depths of a Broadway theater building where Michael Keaton (who, years before, starred as the superhero Birdman) is trying for a comeback in legitimate theater. And I liked, too, all the backstage-onstage conflicts. Great acting all around, too. And, as always, I love being surprised--and Birdman is full of them (including the very first shot of Michael Keaton).

3. We also saw The Wedding Ringer this weekend--a very predictable film (and reminding me of one a few years ago--I Love You Man (2009), which deals with friendless Paul Rudd's not having a best man, then finding one in Jason Segel). Still, Kevin Hart showed more range than I thought he had, and there were some funny moments--and some gross ones, too (peanut butter placed on a you-know-what). And there's a dog that bites a guy in a ... strategic location--and won't let go.

I got to thinking, though, about how the Wild Drunken Party has become an integral part of films about young people--parties featuring drugs, sex, maybe a little violence. It's hard to think of a popular film involving twenty-somethings (or high school kids) that does not involve one. I wonder how many young people have ever actually attended a party remotely like one of those? I'm going to sound like an Old Guy now, but it saddens me, this obsession with pleasure--rather, this definition of pleasure as something purely hedonistic. So many characters emerge from these cinematic parties saying something like, "That's the best time I ever had in my life!" Or: "I wish my whole life could be like last night!" Or some such.

What also saddened me about Wedding Ringer? The appearance in a very minor role of Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar back in 1972 for The Last Picture Show. She's such a fine actress. But in Wedding Ringer, she plays the demented grandmother of the bride; she has no lines, just makes ludicrous faces and erupts in fire during a family dinner (I'm not giving anything away--the scene was in the trailers for the film). So often now we see older performers (especially women, I fear) playing the vile caricature of a daffy older person. (Think: Wedding Crashers, The Proposal.) As if Old Folks are hilarious merely for being old, a tad forgetful, a bit uninhibited and uncensored. I know: It's just a convention. But we seem to think it's intensely amusing to think that Grandpa might be thinking about sex (and then doing something about it)--or Grandma might say something naughty. Why? Do we cease being human at 70?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Handyman Dan (Not!)

I came home today and found Joyce painting a wall. As I type, I'm inhaling the fresh aroma of fresh paint--I'm sure that's healthful. I suppose I should feel some shame--I mean, I didn't do a thing to help or contribute--but I don't, and I don't think Joyce feels (much) resentment for my lack of participation, either: After all, she knows how useless I am around the house. It has been ever thus.

Let's blame my dad.

Although he grew up on a farm in Oregon (nearly a dozen in the family), he was never very much good around the house. Oh, he owned some tools, but the result was not usually very good after he wielded them. Occasionally, he would roust me (why not brother Richard? why not brother Dave?) out of bed on a Saturday morning to help him with some pointless project or another. His efforts often required some subsequent remediation from someone who actually knew what he was doing.

When I was in eighth grade in the Hiram (Ohio) Schools (1957-58), the boys all had to take "shop"--guess what the girls had to take? The teacher was Walter Lohr, who also did some coaching (I had him for 7th grade basketball). I did learn the difference between a crosscut and a rip saw in his class; I got to watch him use the table saw (we, I think, were not allowed--though maybe he kept only me away from it? wise choice), the band saw, the jigsaw. We all had various projects--I remember a bird house (mine offered accommodations even the most self-loathing bird never would have accepted), and I made some kind of little cedar storage chest that my mother kept around until she thought I'd forgotten about it. Then ... out it went. (Can't say that I blame her.)

I just checked my Hiram Schools transcript: my semester grades for Shop: C+, B-. Mr. Lohr seems to have been generous

That was the extent of my manual training, Mr. Lohr's class. Later--out on my own--I always needed others to help me. Jim Wright, a colleague at the Aurora Schools, helped me early in my career whenever I needed someone to hook up a washing machine or do some other household task. He was great about helping--though he must have thought I was ... challenged. (He was right.)

Jim kept helping, even in the early years of our marriage, and I think I was wise not to let Joyce know how "handy" I was before we married. She's, of course, learned by now. About the most complicated thing I do is hang pictures on the wall (does that count?)--or turn down the temp on the hot-water heater when we're going to be away for a while. Anything else ... Joyce has to do. Or we have to hire someone. (We know some good folks around Hudson to help out--though I have seen in the faces of some of them a sort of sour disrespect (for me!) when they see how trivial the job will be.)

Our son (now 42) evinced no special handyman gifts when he was a boy (other than cutting himself accidentally with a knife), but in his adulthood he has proved to surpass his Old Man--by far. In his home in Green he's done ceramic tile floors and all sorts of things I don't understand. When we were visiting my mom in western Mass., I watched him dig around in his car to replace an entire headlight assembly. I couldn't have done it if the fate of the world relied on my doing so.

It ain't gonna get no better. As I age and weaken and become forgetful and ever more clumsy, getting involved in a home-improvement project would be disastrous--totally inconsistent with the term home-improvement.

So ... it's a good thing that Joyce is fearless about doing things--about doing it all herself. She does not seem to have lost too much respect for me as a result--but you'll have to ask her for the truth. After all, one of her majors in college was theater. Acting.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Didn't feel like it, so ...

When I was a kid--especially, an adolescent--I was very adept at finding things to do when I didn't what to do what I was supposed to do--like homework, like chores around the house. Probably my most frequent strategy: lie. No, I don't have any homework. Or: I already did my homework. Or: I'll mow the lawn after supper. Or: It's not my turn to fold the laundry. (Hint: It was my turn.)

Later, though, a college student, I began to realize this wasn't all that good an idea--avoiding things (grades were a continual reminder). Still, I did it (procrastinate), but gradually I began to, oh, "mature" (I guess) and to do (most of) the work I was supposed to do.

When I began my teaching career (fall, 1966), I was still trailing clouds of (un)glory and occasionally got myself in a bind. I wasn't too (or at all) prepared for class; I didn't get papers back in a timely fashion; I didn't ... I'm getting embarrassed, confessing all these failures.

But when I began taking graduate school courses (1968--and paying for them myself), when I met and married Joyce (1969), when I became a father (July 1972), well, I began to put aside childish things and became more and more "responsible" about all of my professional and domestic tasks. By the time I retired (for the second time) in June 2011, I was a near-fanatic about getting things done for my classes--planning well ahead for what I would need to be doing--and when. (I think some of my students thought I was a tad robotic.)

Since I've been retired, though, I sometimes find myself slipping back into boyhood in more than one way. I sleep later. I become more dilatory. True, I do have some professional commitments (deadlines on book reviews) that I never miss (hell, I was reading a book in the Cleveland Clinic hospital while recovering from prostate cancer surgery!), and I continue to do the jobs around the house that have sort of evolved over the years to become mine. (More about those in a subsequent post.)

But still ... I realize that I'm finding excuses now and then for not doing things that I'm supposed to do. True, most of those things are self-imposed, but still ...  Instead of working out, I take a nap. Instead of working on various writing projects I've assigned myself, I take a nap--or I go to the store for some bananas (as I did this morning).

And today--instead of doing the work required to continue my serialization of Frankenstein Sundae (which, supposedly, I'm posting three days a week on this site--M-W-F), I suddenly felt an urgent urge to go the UPS Store to mail something, and when I got home (with time enough still to do it), I decided I needed to bake some scones.

And so I did. Maple-pecan ones. My favorite. (See below.)

I'll write more of Frankenstein Sundae on another day--because, of course, I know I have a endless supply of them, right?

just out of the oven--11:55 a.m.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Getting "Old Man" Spam

I really don't need reminders that I'm no longer a Spring Chicken. I can feel it in my knees, the sway of imbalance; I can see it in Time's Evil Mirror.

But every now and then I forget. The other day, for example, I was at the BMV getting a replacement driver's license (yes, the Old Guy who has somehow stolen my body "lost" the license, which, in fact, was just elsewhere in his wallet, not in its wonted place); the clerk asked me about my hair color--I'd written "brown" on the form.

"Now, what color is your hair?"

"Brown ... well, used to be brown," I mumbled like a third grader caught cheating on a comma quiz.

"We need to go with what it actually is," she said--fairly gently. I was actually impressed: sensitivity in the BMV! And she even looked and sounded a bit like my third grade teacher, Mrs. Ziegler; Adams School; Enid, Okla.

"Gray," I said (though I think I like "silver" better--sounds somehow more ... valuable).

"Yes," she agreed--far too quickly. And started typing gray into her computer. Sigh.

Though I may forget my age, my computer never forgets. How do I know? Spam. News feeds. Let's take the latter first. I use Yahoo as my home page (I know, I know ... get over it). As I scroll down the news feed on Yahoo, I see other links and stories that Yahoo has provided just for me. Here's one of them that was there the other day: How Older Men Tighten Their Skin

I did not click on it--will not click on it (I have standards!)--but it's the sort of thing I see in that feed quite a bit. I'm guessing that you high school students whom I taught in 2010 or so do not see those stories. You probably get things like, oh, How to Keep Your Skin Like BeyoncĂ©'s.

And, of course, there's spam, which gmail promptly assigns to my spam folder, a folder I nonetheless must check occasionally to make sure gmail hasn't screwed up (imagine!) and placed there a message from HarperCollins inviting me to submit a manuscript--$1 million advance as soon as I do so. (This has not yet happened, but it could, you know? So I gotta keep checking.)

Anyway, as you can imagine, my spam includes all sorts of things for my health (drugs, supplements) and for my, uh, shall we say potency? Potency of a certain variety. (Pointless, of course, in my case since, a prostate cancer sufferer, I am enjoying quarterly Lupron injections, injections whose sole purpose is to kill my testosterone to retard the advance of the disease, which feasts on testosterone.)

Oh, and there are also invitations via spam to undergo procedures that will, the messages assure me, increase my, uh, dimensions.

And invitations to "connect" with young girls from eastern European countries--just for companionship, mind you.

There are also links to information on cruises (that'll be the day) and to all sorts of other Senior Information (Medicare, for example; this link was on my feed just now: Medicare Expenses Can Be Suffocating). I'm guessing younger computer users see things like this: Is It Time to Switch from Flintstones Vitamins?

I actually switched some time ago: to One-a-Day--50+. I'm surprised they don't have yet older versions. 60+ 70+ 80+ And You're still alive? See? Our vitamins work!

Yep--keep taking those vitamins and you'll forever be a Spring Chicken, never a Superannuated Rooster.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I'm a Nobel Nominee!



Here's why ...

This morning, in the coffee shop, I earned a Peace Prize nomination--no question. Let's begin with the setting. A smallish room. I'm sitting on a high stool before a tall table with a small round top right next to the northern window--my wonted (and wanted) spot. There, each day, I drink coffee, consume a scone smuggled from home (I fool no one), read the New York Times on my Kindle, read 100 pages from either a book I'm going to review or a book I'm reading for fun--or because I've never read it before (though, perhaps, I sometimes feigned having read it). This morning I was reading from Parade's End (I'm nearly 200 pages into it--am loving it, especially after recently streaming the HBO miniseries with Benedict Cumberbatch--with script by Tom Stoppard).

I occasionally talk briefly with people whom I know--but for the most part I'm alone with my coffee and my thoughts and the words of others lying on the page before me. I am, in a way, in a cocoon attached to a branch of a tree that's sometimes busy with birds. Birds that generally don't bother me.

Today--only feet away from me--some tables were pushed together to accommodate a group of men whose political views are--well--not siblings to mine, let's say. These men come in regularly, though usually they sit across the room, and I am able to--as we used to say--tune them out.

Not today.

They were in high dudgeon because of the current President of the United States--who, of course, is to blame for all ills, to be credited for no pills that have restored some health to the country. That really goes without saying (though I just said it) in our polarized political world. We partisans (and, yes, I am a Foul Liberal, a Democrat, the very reason America is Going to Hell) are generally not too adept at identifying the virtues of our political opponents. We are very adept at identifying failures of all sorts, real and imagined. I'm as guilty of this as anyone else.

Anyway, this morning I could not help but hear all of it--as I said, they were only feet (not yards) away. Fiercely, I tried to concentrate on Ford Madox Ford, whose wonderful prose, eventually, surrendered to the less-than-wonderful prose nearby. I heard all the Standard Solutions for health care, the economy, education (amazing how much they thought they knew about that), civil order, women's and racial issues (they were all male and white), and a panoply of other political hot potatoes.

I heard myself (well, not individually) condemned over and over. I heard the positions I embrace demeaned and trivialized and misrepresented over and over and over.

And, remember, I am but feet away, bent over a book that has ceased to speak to me.

And--friends of all political persuasions--know this: I did not bark out my objections (I am no dog of that breed); I did not slam my book shut and head for home in a huff or otherwise Make a Scene; I did not lean over and sucker-punch the man who was delivering the most egregious (and Fox Newsy) nonsense.

And for that, my fellow Americans, I hereby nominate myself for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, I believe in free speech, in the right that all of us have to cling tightly to whatever foolishness we have come to adore (notice I'm saying we, not you!). I believe deeply in the sanctity of the coffee shop.

Still ... just feet away ... it can be hard to take.  But I took it ... like a (hu)man ... stayed out of a discussion that did include me (even though I was just feet away) ... did not resort to violence ...

And so ... look for me in Stockholm ...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

We Are Our Stories ...

Yesterday, I did a little post on Facebook about finishing the last of the novels and novellas of Philip Roth, books I had not read before. The last was the one you see pictured--The Prague Orgy, which serves as kind of a coda to his trilogy Zuckerman Bound.

One of the quotations near the end struck me--and I posted in on FB. Here 'tis:

 "No, one's story isn't a skin to be shed--it's inescapable, one's body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die ..." (782).

Well, yes, you do go on pumping out your story until you die (though you have fewer and fewer listeners as you age), but what I wanted to write about today is something a little different--about how your stories disappear when your older loved ones die.

My dad (1913-1999) was a great storyteller. He loved telling jokes (where had he heard them?), especially ones that were vaguely "naughty," stories my mother (feigning?) despised. One was about a drunk on a bus, a drunk seated next to a Dunkard preacher. The drunk spends some time checking out the ... different ... appearance of the Dunkard, then asks: "Hey, buddy, what are you?" The preacher replies, "I, sir, am a Dunkard pastor." The drunk replies: "Shake, buddy--that's what the driver just called me!"

My dad also liked to tell stories about his three little boys--about the time my older brother, Richard, burned his stomach badly on a barrel full of burning trash--about the time Dad, pitching baseballs, hit little brother, Dave, in the cheek with a curveball that didn't. And then this one about me:

Scene: A filling station in Illinois. A family trip. Little Danny is pre-school.

According to Dad, Little Danny hopped out of the car, unzipped his pants, grabbed hold of what was inside those pants, approached the attendant, and declared: I need to take a nice fresh teetee.

And then Dad would laugh so hard he would turn bright red and perspire.

As I said, my father has been dead since November 1999. My mother, 95, does not remember a lot. My two brothers know the filling-station-in-Illinois story--but only because they'd heard it from Dad. I'm guessing that Illinois attendant has emerged from therapy by now and has forgotten--or repressed--the incident.

What I'm saying is that when our loved ones go, our stories go, as well. And isn't it a desperate thing when there is no one left to tell them? No witnesses? When Dad told that story, I was (depending on my age) embarrassed or entertained or impatient (jerk that I was). I didn't realize at the time that those stories were like the strong arms of my father, arms that could hold me, protect me. Could make me feel immortal.

Monday, January 19, 2015

I Wake in Darkness

I wake in morning light to darkness, a darkness born, in my case of too much thought, thought about the myriad weaknesses and failures of our species (I do not exclude myself), failures that include our determination to despise those who aren't like us (and to kill them, if we can), our unwillingness to listen to viewpoints that contradict our own (even in the mildest ways), our election of public officials who are vain, vile, vapid, corrupt, our reluctance to respect our democracy (a form of government requiring us to educate ourselves to the greatest extent possible, to show up at the polls, to see the subtleties in public issues, the ambiguities, to accept the necessity of compromise in such a varied nation), our passion for comfort and entertainment and pleasure (a passion that, for too many, surpasses all others), our easy surrender of gains earned by long and even bloody struggles (union rights, civil rights--is the Voting Rights Act really no longer needed?), our unwillingness to imagine the lives of others--especially others less fortunate than ourselves--our thoughtless eagerness to judge the many by the few (some welfare recipients cheat; therefore ... some lawyers are corrupt; therefore ... ; some schoolteachers are lazy; therefore ...), our hunger for easy solutions to difficult problems, our almost religious devotion to numbers (students' test scores, for example--surely they must mean something!?), our continuing disdain for those who are highly educated (Elitists!), our worship of celebrities, our unmatched affection for the screens in our lives, our aggressive materialism (our belief that what we own validates our human value)--these and so many more worries darken my sky this bright morning (getting older, failing health, loss of loved ones, disappearing relevance), so much so that I have to force myself out of bed to face more of it, fearing that I will see Hope winging away to an inaccessible location, and then Joyce touches my hand, my hair, asks me how I'm doing, and the lights begin to flicker once again.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 33

1. I finally got back the results from the two bone scans I had on January 2. The nuclear bone scan (to see if my prostate cancer has moved into my bones) shows no advancement. Earlier scans (which I took before the Lupron treatments commenced in July 2013) showed that one of my left ribs was illuminated like a Star Wars light saber--its entire length. Although I haven't yet seen this recent scan, my University Hospitals oncologist, responding to my email query, replied with this: the previous bone lesion is less intense than previous suggesting improvement.  No other sites. I had to wait another week to learn about my bone-density scan--a procedure to make sure my bones are not thinning, becoming more frangible. This is a danger both because of my age (70) and my regular Lupron treatments. This is the reason I'm so focused on not falling. I am taking large doses of calcium and Vitamin D each day to combat the enemies of age and medication. Here's what my oncologist sent me: Dexa scan : normal density Keep taking Ca and Vit D. Oh, I will ... I will!

2. One result of these encouraging ... results: I'm going to return to some book-reviewing for the Plain Dealer, something I'd had to abandon a couple of months ago. Books editor Joanna Connors has been very accommodating, but I'm going to "ease" back in--reviewing only things by writers I already know well--or subjects I know well. Energy loss remains an issue--again, from aging, but principally from those quarterly Lupron injections.

3. This week I finished Philip Roth's 1998 novel, I Married a Communist. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It deals with the Red Scare of the 1950s--the House Un-American Activities Committee--the blacklists. All of that. But the frame story is in the present. And much of the tale is told by the narrator's (Nathan Zuckerman's) former high school English teacher, now in his 90s. Back in the 1950s, this teacher's brother lost his radio career--and his public reputation--because of his Communist sympathies. And when he broke with his wife, she published a book--I Married a Communist--ghosted by two right-wing "journalists," one of whom was directly related to U. S. Grant. Portions of the novel are very moving, and, as usual, Roth is able to float around in time as if it were his personal pool, and (also as usual) his ending is deeply affecting.

4. I also finished Roth's 1990 novel, Deception, which I did not enjoy so much. It is virtually all dialogue among characters whose names appear only rarely. There are no dialogue tags (no he said, she said) and very few passages of exposition. Just raw dialogue, and it's up to you to figure out what's going on. Turns out--I think?--that much of this is from the writer's notebook. Were the sex discussions imaginary? Actual? His wife, who reads it while he is not around, is ... concerned and curious (two pale words for what she feels). Anyway, this one was in the Admired but Didn't Enjoy category. An amazing technical achievement, but it left me kind of ... maybe not cold, but cool. Not every reader felt that way. The New York Times (via Fay Weldon) called it swift, elegant, disturbing (March 11, 1990--link to review.)

5. Finally ... last night Joyce and I saw Selma, and we were both deeply affected by it--for varying reasons. We both lived through that era, of course. When that march occurred (March 1965), I was twenty years old, a junior at Hiram College, and the events were all over the evening news and newspapers--and were the fuel for many late-night dorm-room conversations. (Joyce would graduate from high school that year.)

In another way, Joyce has been working for seven years on her book about abolitionist John Brown, so the Selma events--more than a century after Harpers Ferry--resonated deeply with her.

In yet another way, I spent my boyhood in the segregated Southwest--Oklahoma and Texas. When we moved to Ohio in the summer of 1956, my Oklahoma home town, Enid, still had segregated schools, bus seats, drinking fountains, public parks, restrooms, etc. I grew up thinking all of that was normal.

I've been puzzled by the many questions about filmmaker Ava DuVernay's view of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (beautifully rendered, by the way, by Tom Wilkinson). He's shown resisting Civil Rights and King more than he actually did. (In today's Times, for example, columnist Maureen Dowd goes after that film for this portrayal--link to Dowd's piece.) Johnson in fact did evolve to a more supportive position--just not in the time frame of the film.

And my response? Who cares? Are we really going to look at a film about Selma and whine about the portrayal of a white character? (Do we need to look back at film history and see how many times filmmakers have portrayed black characters in less-than-factual ways? Or presidents? Or other historical figures? Start counting now; you should finish in the next decade or so.)

I've also heard some quibbling about the accent of English actor David Oyelowo (who played King superbly). Please. Tom Wilkinson didn't sound much like LBJ--and we have myriads of examples of Americans playing Brits and vice-versa in great films: Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love (a film, by the way, that played fast and loose with the facts of Shakespeare's life--and career). If you want to know what King and LBJ actually sounded like, hop on Google and start listening. Don't expect Selma to do that for you.

Historical or literary accuracy is not something I really expect at the movies, you know? (If I want that, I'll go to the library, not the cineplex--though at the library I'll also find distortion, misrepresentation, bias, etc. if I'm not careful.) Do I go see Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes--a Holmes who is virtually nothing like the character in the stories (and what about his accent?)? Do I go see Russell Crowe as Noah, for pity's sake, and complain he didn't look or sound like the real one?These are just movies. Movies--many of them--are works of art, works no more concerned about bare fact than is any painter or sculptor or novelist.

What we saw in Selma last night was an emotionally truthful (if not always historically accurate) film. We saw King's human fragility and inhuman determination. We saw the white establishment's firm resistance (personified by LBJ) to Civil Rights. We saw the incredible courage of men and women who walked into the face of violence and hate and said No more.

Of course the film didn't show it exactly the way it actually happened--and why should it? That's not an artist's job.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Magazine Days

We still subscribe to a few magazines--the New Yorker, The Nation, Entertainment Weekly (I know, I know--but how else do I remain relevant?), the New York Review of Books, Harper's. We used to have more of them coming in the house: Atlantic, New Republic, Newsweek, TV Guide, Down Beat (!!!), and others I can't at the moment recall. Oh, yes ... there were some years when my older brother gave us gift subscriptions to People--again, for the relevance reason.

When I was growing up, magazines were a great help to me when I was bored (which, in adolescence, was often--i.e., when I was not at baseball practice or making out or thinking about making out). Our family subscribed to Life, Saturday Review, Time (later, changing politically, Dad started taking U. S. News & World Report), Sports Illustrated, TV GuideOpera News (for my older brother). Many an idle hour I filled with them. (I'd even look at Opera News now and then, principally to try to figure out what on earth my brother liked about it. BTW: My brother later did some writing for that magazine.) But I did not peruse the religious publications my parents subscribed to--Christian Century and some others I've forgotten. I was already damned--and I knew it.

And at the little Hiram School, our little library was up in the front of the study hall room; I would burn some study hall hours not by doing homework but by reading magazines we did not take at home--Boys' Life (only when I was in junior high, mind you), Look, Collier's, Saturday Evening Post (some good cartoons!), National Geographic (guess which photos I was interested in--photos that were often torn out very early in the month--not by me but by Horny Upperclassmen who were certainly not as interested in anthropology as they were in ... well ... you know?). But even Saturday Evening Post occasionally had a naughty story by naughty John O'Hara. (Literature, you know? Love it.)

My Osborn grandparents took Reader's Digest, which I always enjoyed. The jokes. The puzzles. The (short!) articles. Even the features--like the vocabulary quiz (which perplexed me: Are these really words?). They also subscribed to a pile of religious periodicals (Grandpa was a preacher and seminary professor), and I would only rarely look at them. (Front Rank was one of them, I think?) They had no pictures, no jokes (oh, maybe a cartoon I didn't understand), and certainly none of the virtues and possibilities of National Geographic.

Nowadays, of course, magazines are falling alongside the leaves of fallen newspapers. Newsweek is pretty much gone. Life, Look, the Post--all gone. Other magazines survived by becoming sharply focused, by targeting specific demographics--like Red Ryder BB Gun News (not real--but you get the idea).

I subscribe now to Atlantic online, but when it pops up on my Kindle each month, I find I don't really read it--or even look at it--very often. It's just not the same.

I'd rather be fifteen, slumped sullenly on the couch, paging through oversized  Life in search of a feature on primitive tribes of women. Or Marilyn Monroe. Whatever.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 89

In 1999 I spent some time in London (as I’ve said) trying to find sites significant in Mary’s girlhood. But they are few.

According to The London Encyclopedia,[1] a reference book I virtually ingested during the time I was working on Mary Shelley and her circle, the Polygon stood in Somers Town, which, at the time was north of London but has now been swallowed by urban growth, though if you look on a
Somers Town
Polygon is on the left
London map, you can see it now identified as a distinctive neighborhood.
The Polygon, says the Encyclopedia, was a striking 15-sided building of 32 houses, three storeys high, built around gardens. It was there that Godwin was living; Mary Wollstonecraft died in their place (No. 29), and, some years later, in 1828 (when the location had become less desirable), Charles Dickens (in his middle teen years) and his family lived in No. 17. Peter Ackroyd, my favorite biographer of Dickens (Dickens, 1991), says the family lived there only about ten months before continuing their journey down poverty’s slide.
But the Polygon was long gone (!) by the time I headed to the area in 1999. As the Encyclopedia says brusquely: The Polygon was demolished in the 1890s. Sigh. But Polygon Road is still there, only blocks from St. Pancras Churchyard, where we know Mary Wollstonecraft would be (temporarily) buried. My journal from 1999 records my visit to St. Pancras—but there’s nothing about going to look at the spot where the Polygon had stood. Idiot!
After Mary Wollstonecraft’s death—and after Godwin’s remarriage to Mary Jane Clairmont—and after that complicated family decided to go into the book business—they all moved, as I’ve said, to Skinner Street in Holborn, a bit farther south in London. A number of London’s streets were named for the sorts of businesses that operated there. Bread Street was the home to numerous bakers (Mary and Percy Shelley were married at St. Mildred’s, Bread Street), there was a Brewer Street (hmmm, wonder what went on there?), and animal skinners occupied their eponymous street. We can be certain that the air in the vicinity was not an aroma to remind you of the alluring sweetness of Calypso’s island in The Odyssey.

On April 18, 1999, my journal says I took a walk to Skinner Street—of which there is not much, I commented. (That’s helpful!) Somewhere I have a photograph, though. The place where the Godwins lived—41 Skinner Street—is also gone. Here’s how biographer Emily Sunstein describes it: Number 41 was a cheap new five-story corner building with a curved display window and a carved head of Aesop over the door. Occupying the ground floor were the bookshop and offices …. The upper four stories comprised Mary’s home. One of the first visitors was Aaron Burr ….[2]
Yes, our Aaron Burr. He’d come, among other things, to see little Mary.

[1] Ed. By Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (New York: Macmillan), 1983.
[2] Mary Shelley, 47–48.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Hope Is the Thing With Feathers

One day, in a Hiram College English class (mid-1960s), I remember Prof. Ravitz saying something like this about Emily Dickinson: From her garden she scanned the universe. I liked that--hoped I'd remember it (which I, more or less, have). Over the ensuing decades I've fallen more and more in love with her, "The Belle of Amherst," as she facetiously referred to herself in a letter--a facetious prediction, actually. On May 7, 1845 (she was fourteen years old), she wrote to Abiah Root, a girlhood friend, about her imagined future: I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don't doubt that I shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age. ... But away with nonsense (The Letters of Emily Dickinson, vol. 1, 13).

Over the years I've memorized a number of her poems (I just checked: I know 13--not a lucky number; I'd better hurry and add another), and among my favorites is the one that begins with the line that heads this post:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Hope is a bird that perches in the soul.

I've been thinking about this poem a lot in recent years, mostly because I see all around us the deleterious effects of hopelessness. It seems to me such a simple thing to understand: When people have no hope, then they cease caring about both themselves and the rest of us. The results are obvious--and horrible.

I've never known hopelessness--only in the most superficial, even silly ways. (I don't have a date for the prom yet! ... I'm not good enough to play for the Cleveland Indians! ... etc.) I grew up in a very stable home--educated parents who cared about us--good schools (well, most of the time)--never hungry a day in my life--got to go to college virtually free (my father was on the faculty)--etc.

I never worried that my life would collapse, that "things would not work out," that my son would not have a chance at an even better life than I've had. That I would be jobless, or homeless. I quit a few jobs, but I never lost one. I am now enjoying the benefits of Social Security and Medicare and the (Ohio) State Teachers Retirement System. We own a snug home in a safe neighborhood. When I need a new winter coat--or pair of gloves--I go buy them. We are not wealthy by America's 1% standards (not by a long shot), but by the standards of most of the rest of the world, we are in the 1%.

I believe very deeply that we need to do all we can to assure that all of us never experience hopelessness--that we don't permit Dickinson's bird to fly away. When people wake up in the morning and feel they have a chance--that their neighborhoods are safe, that the public schools are strong, that the social safety net is secure,that their children have a hopeful future, that the rest of us care about them--then we live in the sort of place I believe we all want to live in.

But now? Too many of us do not feel safe, do not have adequate housing, do not have jobs that pay a living wage, do not have decent public schools for our children, do not ...

Too many of us, in other words, are feeling the birds in our souls ruffling their feathers, preparing to fly.