Dawn Reader

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Good News, Bad News: Seidman Cancer Center

Seidman Cancer Center
University Hospitals
Beachwood, OH
On little cat feet my cancer has come creeping back. As it has always seemed determined to do. Last week I had my quarterly blood test (PSA--Prostate Specific Antigen), and for the first time in about two years my PSA is "detectable." Not a good sign. I should have no PSA because a Cleveland Clinic surgeon removed my prostate gland in June 2005.

But the intensity of my cancer was surprising. The post-op pathology showed it was much more so than the pre-surgery biopsy had indicated. That biopsy had given me a Gleason score of 5 (middling); post op, Gleason 9, near the top of the scale that runs from 2-10. (Here's a link to a little more info about the Gleason.)

Anyway, there was even worse post-op news in 2005: Some of the cancer cells had already escaped the prostate and were somewhere waiting to do some damage.

At first, though, they lay quiet. But then my PSA, which had been undetectable, began to rise once again, so I went through daily radiation treatments for six weeks at the Clinic (downtown) early in 2009. And, once again, my PSA plummeted.

And then--a little over two years ago--it once again began to rise. And quickly so. In July 2013 I got my first quarterly injection of Lupron, a testosterone-killing drug that works by denying the cancer cells the food they crave (testosterone).

But we all knew that Lupron was not a cure--just a stop-gap. A delaying tactic. The cancer would return--and eventually move elsewhere. Some scans showed early evidence that it had moved into my bones.

But the Lupron stopped--well, delayed--it all well beyond the time frame my UH oncologist had given me (he'd said maybe 6 mos to a year).

But now it's back. Once again "detectable." It's at a low level but, still, not the happiest of news.

Yesterday (Monday) I went up to Seidman to meet with my oncologist and talk about how we'll proceed.

Things were moving slowly yesterday. My appointment was for 1:00 p.m., but by the time I actually saw him, it was about 2:30. As I've said here before (I think), I don't really have a problem with that. When he apologized profusely, I said, Hey, this is a cancer center, not a car wash. You can't predict to the moment what folks are going to need--or how long it's going to take.

Anyway, he was happy with me for a number of reasons, among them--I've lost ten pounds since I last saw him, a difficult thing to do: Lupron usually results in a weight gain, as it initially did for me. But I've been trying. He told me that fat cells aid the ability of the cancer to find a "workaround" to their testosterone diet. Anyway, I've been exercising more and adhering to a diet I know will work for me--though slowly: healthful food--no seconds, no desserts, no snacks. I'm now in my fourteenth week of it, so the loss is slow. But steady. I hope I can continue.

He said that he will watch me more closely (PSA every six weeks now for a while), just to see how things progress. He will especially watch the "doubling time" of the PSA rise--how quickly does the score double? The answer is an indication of the cancer's aggressiveness.

He also told me what will be next--once my PSA has reached the benchmark level of about 10.0 (as it surely will): "pill therapy," a daily pill that will mirror the Lupron symptoms I've been experiencing for more than two years now: weariness, depression, weight gain, frequent infusions of heat (with mucho sweating), complete loss of libido. A nice combination.

But I remain grateful--and hopeful. I'm not really "sick"; I can still do most things I want to do, although I must rest far more than I did pre-Lupron. And, of course, Joyce is here.

In the Seidman waiting room I saw--as usual--folks of all ages and races, both genders. Many were in difficult shape--both medically and emotionally. It's profoundly humbling. And moving.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 158

Bysshe Shelley was a plein-air writer—loved to write outside. (He no doubt loved, as well, getting away from any domestic responsibilities, not that he really believed that he had any. He found it hard, too, to be around Mary, who was still grieving from poor lost daughter, Clara, who’d died just six months earlier; she had been barely a year old.)

Mary’s diary during these Roman months contains only the briefest entries—generally just a mention of where they’ve gone in the city, what she’s reading each day: the Bible, Montaigne, Livy, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear … how did she bear to read Lear’s wrenching lines about the death of his daughter Cordelia as he holds her dead body?

Bysshe’s favorite spots during their Rome sojourn were the Forum, the Colosseum, the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.[1] In his day—as old images and paintings show—vegetation swarmed over the fractured and fallen marble, giving these places the sort of post-lapsarian loveliness that the Romantics adored.

But it was the Baths, as Holmes notes in his magnificent biography, that became “his headquarters.”[2] He worked on his Prometheus Unbound there.

On Sunday, April 25, 1999, I walked over to the Baths, got lost, then found them. Closed, of course.

I took a few photographs of the outside, figuring out how I could get back there the next day. I’d scheduled things so tightly. And I made it. My journal is a little vague about what I did. A truly lovely spot, I wrote so eloquently (?). … The sun was generally good also. I did mention, too, that the vegetation from the Shelleys’ day was gone—all cleaned up and tourist-ready.

But I couldn’t linger. So much to do this day—the Forum, the Colosseum, and other iconic sites were calling. And off I dashed, feeling as I often have on literary trips, that I was becoming more concerned about the photographs than about the realities in front of me. I’d learned well the lesson of the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century: A picture proves I was there; a story does not.

NOTE: Photos I took at Baths of Carcalla, April 1999.

[1] Holmes, Shelley, 487.
[2] Ibid., 489.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 68

1. AOTW--I don't really have anyone all that "special" this week, just, as usual, the drivers who behave as if rules are for Everyone Else, not for them. Do you remember the Jeff Bridges film Starman (1984)? He's an amiable alien inhabiting the body of Karen Allen's late husband. But he's clueless. When he drives her car, he accelerates wildly through yellow lights. Allen asks him why. He says (sort of) that he's learned from Earthlings that yellow means "speed up." (Trailer for film.) He was right. I nearly get clipped by such folks all the time.

2. I'm about a third of the way through Salman Rushdie's new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, a wildly imaginative story about a time in the not-so-distant future when things have ... changed. The world is off kilter. The jinn have begun interfering in human affairs in a major way. I'll write more about it later, but I'm enjoying a great ride as I'm reading it.

3. Two Nerds in Open Door Coffee Company on Sunday Morning. Joyce and I are there every Sunday morning, reading the New York Times, drinking hot beverages, eating pastries that are far too good for our own good. In the Book Review today a sentence in a review of Joy Williams' new collection of short stories occasioned a tiny Grammar Discussion between us (see what I mean about nerds?). (Joy Williams, by the way, is one of my favorites!)

Here's the sentence:

The stories span almost 50 years, and even the earliest of them shimmer with death and mystery ....

We discussed whether the verb should be shimmers. For--in one reading--only one can be earliest, right? But, of course, we have a "loose use" for words like earliest, too. No one would see anything wrong with this: I like reading her earliest stories. Or: I bought a collection of her earliest stories. So ... shimmer can work if you're using earliest in its loosely plural sense. I said this morning that I'd probably avoid that construction--or modify it to something like even her earliest stories shimmer, avoiding the sniff-sniff of Grammar Nerds (like us).

4. Okay, the main business this morning. This week I finished Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Purity. I've been reading Franzen for quite a while--The Corrections was the first. And after I read it (loving it), I promptly bought his earlier (earliest?) novels (The Twenty-Seventh City, 1988, and Strong Motion, 1992) and read (and admired) them, as well. And since The Corrections (2001) I've kept up with his writing--both fiction and nonfiction (even got to review his memoir The Discomfort Zone (2006).

On Sunday, September 7, 2010, I got to meet him--sort of. The Cleveland Public Library invited Franzen to speak (thanks to friend Ron Antonucci, a librarian there), so Joyce and I rode the Rapid down to Public Square and walked over to the library, got primo seats (I was on the aisle so I could sprint to be early in line for the signing after the talk--and I was, indeed, the very first), and heard him deliver a good speech, but one that he'd given elsewhere (as he frankly told us).

I got him to sign all the books I'd brought with me (all of his books) as well as the cover of Time magazine--August 23, 2010--a cover now framed and hanging on our wall. So there! Got to chat with him a little about his other books while the waiters behind me evinced various forms of Impatience. (Too bad!)

Okay, Purity. I thought the beginning was a little slow, but once I "got into it," as they say, the flow of Franzen's tale swept me along, all the way to its very moving conclusion (which, of course, I will not reveal--other than to say it does not involve UFOs).

A murder, family (parents and children), East-West politics at the end of WW II, Internet leaks (think: Julian Assange), sex, betrayal, the mysteries of love, nuclear weapons, exotic locations (how does a South American jungle suit you?), the fall of East Germany--all this and more Franzen deals with, shifting his focus from one character to another, gradually showing us how these characters' stories are not in fact separate.

There is a character named Purity (a young woman who goes mostly by the name of Pip--and, yes, Franzen, well aware that Dickens used that name in Great Expectations, alludes to Dickens and the novel several times; there's some Hamlet stuff, too--a ghost of a father), but it's also the concept of purity that is at issue here. One key character--the Assangey guy--is obsessed with his reputation for purity, and when something happens to threaten that, well, stuff happens. And we are left to wonder about the impossibility of humans possessing such an absolute trait.

Relationships between men and women. Oh, yes. Much of that here. Is fidelity even possible? Can men and women really co-exist in a relationship? For very long? There is more than one answer here, and the words hope and hopeless are relevant. I'll not say more about that.

A few other things:

  • I think I caught a typo in the novel. On p. 391, a character tells how the father of his GF sent him some first editions of books by Bellow, Mencken, and "John Hershey"--surely he meant John Hersey.
  • There's some stuff about tennis--and it made me wonder if this was Franzen's silent salute to his late friend David Foster Wallace, whose novel Infinite Jest deals heavily with the sport?
  • As usual, there are some striking sentences, Just a few here:
    • "He had to kill the man he'd been by killing someone else" (136).
    • "He'd got inside her head with a wooden spoon" (266).
    • "She had as much body fat as a Shaker chair ..." (405).
  • And I'll end with this description of the Bay Area in the fog:
Fog spilled from the heights of San Francisco like the liquid it almost was. On better days it spread across the bay and took over Oakland street by street, a thing you saw coming, a change you watched happening to you, a season on the move. Where it encountered redwoods, the most local of rains fell. Where it found open space, its weightless pale passage seemed both endless and like the end of all things. It was a temporary sadness, the more beautiful for being sad, the more precious for being temporary. It was the slow song in minor that the rock-and-roll sun then chased away (518).

Conclusion: The dude can write.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Chicken (a) Little

Last night I spent nearly $100 at Campus Camera in Kent. I'd gone there to pick up six DVDs made from six VHS videos of plays I'd directed back at Harmon Middle School and Aurora High School. I have not looked at those videos since the 1980s (the era they were shot), and now I'm terrified to see them, even though it is now surpassingly easy to do so.

I used to go to Campus Camera all the time. Back in the late 1960s, early 1970s--and even beyond--I had my middle school students write and shoot and edit Super 8 films (and I should say that J. J Abrams' 2011 film Super 8 had me in tears--link to trailer for the film). We even had a couple of film festivals at the school, and one group of girls won a student film contest at WVIZ-TV--a film in which they matched images of Van Gogh paintings to lyrics from Don McLean's song "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)." (Link to video of the song.)

Anyway, those film projects had me heading into and out of Campus Camera several times a week, and I bought lots of equipment there, too--camera, tripod, viewer/editor, splicer, splice tape, film stock, etc. How I have any retirement money at all is a mystery. But I hadn't been in the place in a long time; things look a little different (digital, you know), but I felt right at home, too.

Okay, so here are the six I just had transferred--and I should add that former Harmon student Andy Paul has about six others I just gave him (from about 1982-86), tapes of shows that he was in. He's going to convert them for me and send me copies:

  • 1984: 8th Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show (HMS)
  • 1987: Grease (AHS)
  • 1988: 8th Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show (HMS)
  • 1989: The Merry Wives of Windsor (AHS)
  • 1989: 8th Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show (HMS)
  • 1991: 8th Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show (HMS)
These recordings were not done by professionals; in some cases, kids stood in the back of the Harmon Commons (or AHS gym, at the time) and recorded them with a sad camera on a pretty good tripod--maybe with some close-ups now and then. Black-and-white. I'm not counting on very good sound, either.

I directed my first show in Aurora at the old Aurora Middle School (Craddock), on the gym floor, in the spring of 1967, a show I wrote with some students called The Founding of Aurora; or, The Grapes of Wrath. One of the students who was in that show (John Mlinek) showed up at my house one day a few years ago with copies of the script, and we sat--John, his wife, Joyce, and I--and read it aloud, wondering all the while how on earth we'd ever thought that stuff was funny. 

John, by the way, remains a good friend and did a cameo in the very last show I did in Aurora, the 8th Grade Farewell Show in the spring of 1996.

I directed more than thirty plays in my career (all but two at Harmon; those two were at Aurora High)--but not all that many made it to video. It was too much of a hassle in the early days, and, later on, we tried a few, had some "issues" with quality. I really don't know if there are students whose families shot video during the final few shows I did in the mid-1990s. But I don't have them--I don't think. In this Mess That Is My Life they could be in a box somewhere. If they exist at all.

And so here I sit ... looking at the little pile of DVDs I now have and feeling a bit like the Cowardly Lion, only no part of me is leonine. So I'll probably not look at them.

Unless ...

Friday, September 25, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 157

And now … a slight shift away from summers by the sea, new boats, and drownings. I want to consider the Shelleys elsewhere in Italy before I deal with the end of poor Bysshe. My own travels in Italy were more logical (?) than the Shelleys’ were. Working on a strict budget, I went down the boot, from the Alps in the north to Naples in the south and back again. But the Shelleys, as we’ve seen, were more peripatetic.

They lived in Leghorn (Livorno), Bagni di Lucca, Venice, Este, Naples, Rome, Leghorn (again), Florence, Pisa, Bagni di Lucca (again), Bagni San Giuliano, Pisa (several places), then San Terenzo/Lerici for that fatal summer of 1822. Looking at a map of their travels—all within a period of about three years—you risk vertigo.

I was more … sensible (and impecunious). As I said, I went down the boot, stopping at key Shelley sites, but ran out of time (and lire) and could not get over to Venice, one of the great regrets of my life. I have written about Florence and Pisa and some other places. But let’s “do” Rome and Naples before we return to the Doomed Ones in Lerici.

The Shelleys loved and hated Rome. What was not to love? They moved into a place there on March 5, 1819, and spent their days seeing the sites, two of which especially attracted them: the Baths of Caracalla (Terme di Caracalla), the largest public baths in ancient Rome, and the Pantheon, both of which, of course, I had to see—as well as the Protestant Cemetery, where lie the remains of Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. And Edward J. Trelawny.

I arrived by train on April 25, 1999, and was immediately overwhelmed by the heat. Although I spent my boyhood in Oklahoma and Texas, I’ve grown wimpier under the sway of Old Sol as the years have gone on. I can recall only one other time I’ve been hotter in my adulthood than I was those two days in Rome—a visit to Key West to see some Hemingway sites early in June 2003 nearly reduced me to a puddle. Oh, and I just remembered another sizzler (with the added benefit of intense humidity): June 12, 2003, in Cloutierville, Louisiana, where Joyce and I had driven to visit the home where Kate Chopin had lived for a while.

our photo 2003
A shocker: Looking up information about that home just now, I see that it burned to the ground early in October 2008.
from National Trust for Historical Preservation

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yogi, R.I.P.

I think I was kind of disappointed when I learned his name was Lawrence Peter Berra. And I'd never heard of Teaneck, NJ. I preferred Yogi. Until Yogi Bear came along, I'd never known anyone else with that name. Still haven't. I remember that my dad explained to me how he got the name Yogi (because he squatted like a yoga dude--don't know if it's true; I hope it is).

This information about his name I acquired in boyhood from my set of baseball cards (Topps), acquired with purchases of bubble gum down at The Hub in Hiram, Ohio, the village's only hangout back in the day (mid-1950s). (Like most every other doofus from that era, I later tossed them all--putting away childish things.)

I was a huge Yogi fan, had begun being so when I'd first started catching on our summer baseball team in the summer of 1957. I had just finished seventh grade. Hiram was forming its first-ever team. I had played for a Kiwanis-sponsored team back in Enid, Oklahoma, before our move to Hiram in the late summer of 1956. But I hadn't been a catcher. I had been a barely competent outfielder and an incompetent infielder. (When I played short, a bouncer to me was a double.)

So as the Hiram team formed, our coach (who was he?) asked if anyone had ever played catcher. Seeing no hands in the air, I raised mine. A lie that earned me a starting position and a love for catching that extended clear through high school.

And a hero in Yogi Berra.

Back in those days there were not many MLB games on TV. In Enid, we'd had nothing but the NBC Game of the Week on Saturday afternoon, a game that often involved the Yankees, the era's dominant team and, of course, a huge market. NBC was not stupid, not back then. Show the Yankees on Saturday. Get a huge audience for your smiling sponsors. I became a Yankee fan then, and it was quite a while after our Ohio move before my heart allowed the Tribe in.

There were other things about Berra that puzzled me. How could you throw right-handed and bat left-handed (as he did)? Whenever I tried swinging from the left, I was more than pathetic. I also broke a bat or two (not pleasing the coach of our impecunious Hiram team)--this was the Era of the Wooden Bat. No sissy aluminum for us!*

I liked that he was sort of, well, homely (like me) and not too swift afoot (like me). The resemblances pretty much end there.

For Christmas one year I got a Yogi Berra plastic action figure (okay, doll, really--about a foot high, as I recall). He was in full catcher's garb ("the tools of ignorance," I later heard them called), had his mask in his right hand, and was looking skyward for a pop foul. This item disappeared in one of my childish-things decisions. Another dumb move. The image you see is it, I think. (Thank you, Pinterest.) I don't see the mask. My memory is that it was in his right hand. Could be wrong. Or maybe this previous owner lost the mask, as I think I did.

I remember Yogi playing left field later in his career. The Yanks had a younger, more agile catcher, Elston Howard, who would also move to left field, where in one of those Series games against the Milwaukee Braves he made an important catch on his knees.

So what did I admire about Yogi? Great catcher. Could hit. Said funny things. In one of my favorite paperbacks from boyhood, Curve Ball Laughs, there's an entire section devoted to Berra called "Strawberras and Cream."

I sort of stopped following Berra after he retired from playing with the Yanks. Oh, I know he did some things for the Mets, managed the Yanks for a while. But by then my catching days were over--my final season was the summer after my freshman year in college when, playing for an American Legion team, I found that I could not really handle pitchers who threw too hard. I ended up at 1st base, where I soon displayed my ineptness with grounders.

So ... Yogi is gone now. Still, he had a long and enviable life. And, sure, I can smile at all the Yogi-isms that spread across Facebook and elsewhere after his death.

But that's not the Yogi I want to remember. It's that hitter, who--calmly, no theatrics--stood at the plate, watching, then smacking the hell out of the ball. He didn't like to walk. He could hit any damn pitch. My dad told me he once saw Yogi hit a double on an attempted intentional walk; another time, he hit a pitch that bounced first.

Or--even better--the catcher looking skyward in search of the ball and knowing--knowing--he is going to catch it.

*Later, our son would bat left, throw right, and field with far more grace than I. Some genes, fortunately, do not travel directly from father to son.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 156

The construction arrangements came courtesy of Edward John Trelawny, whom I’ve mentioned several times here. As I said, he entered the Shelley circle early in 1822 via Bysshe’s cousin Thomas Medwin and quickly established himself—through some considerable flash and exaggeration—to be someone whom the Shelleys and the others enjoyed. He was full of adventure stories (some were sort of true), and he later published his own memoir—with Mary’s help (for which she received little of his gratitude)—Adventures of a Younger Son (1831). Even later, he would publish a self-serving memoir about his experiences with Shelley and Byron, called, frankly, Reflections on the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858). It, too, bore some resemblance to the truth.

Anyway, Trelawny was a robustly, romantically handsome man—a sort of Johnny-Depp-as-Pirate look—and Mary was taken with him. In Pisa, in February 1822, the group had agreed to Byron’s suggestion that they mount a production of Othello in Byron's Pisan mansion (with all of Pisa to be invited), and Trelawny, swarthy, was to play the Moor. Byron, we know, was good at suggesting things—like midnight ghost-story competitions—but his initial excitement sometimes faded with the dawn’s early light. Othello was one such project.

Still, the cast would have been fantastic. Byron as Iago (Medwin raved about his thespian skills), Mary as Desdemona, Edward Williams as Michael Cassio, Jane Williams as Emilia. Who wouldn’t pay to see that?

But all came to naught. Byron’s latest lover, Teresa Guiccioli, did not speak English, and, according to Medwin’s account, pouted, so Byron, after a few rehearsals, let the project die—just as he’d given up on his own ghost story back in 1816.[1]

But if Byron suggested ghost stories and Shakespearean productions, it was Trelawny who fueled the fires of both Shelley and Byron to build their own boats for an idyllic summer by the sea.

[1] For two brief accounts of this, see William S Clair’s Trelawny: The Incurable Romancer (New York: Vanguard, 1977), 60; Leslie A. Marchand, Byron: A Biography, 3 vols. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), 974–75.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


maple-pecan scones
September 22, 2015

I'm sitting here smelling the scones I just removed from the oven. This olfactory drug permeates the house. And I know few things that smell better, by the way, than fresh baked goods. I remember back in my boyhood home town (Enid, Okla.) when we would sometimes drive by the local bread bakery (was it Bond Bread? I think so), and the aroma would work its way inside the car, and I would somehow think it would be a good time for a peanut-butter sandwich (Peter Pan, smooth; nowadays, I'm a Skippy Super Chunk guy).

(BTW: On eBay I just found this Bond Bread cookbook. Didn't buy it.)

And even now, Joyce and I sometimes go home from Chapel Hill the "back way," north along Main, then Newberry Streets, a route that takes us by Schwebel's, from which there often used to emanate that I-think-I-want-a-peanut-butter-sandwich aroma. A couple of years ago there was a news story about the imminent closing of the bakery (link to story), but the last time we were along there, we saw that the outlet store was still open--and there were some large delivery trucks parked, as usual. So I'm not sure what's going on.

Back to scones ...

I'm not sure when I started eating them--certainly not back in my Bond Bread days. Perhaps on one of the trips I took to England in the 80s and 90s? Hard to say. I do remember buying them at Starbucks and at the Great Lakes Baking Company, the wonderful local bakery right next door to the coffee giant.

I started baking them only a few years ago, deciding I'd like to have one for breakfast every day (which I do). I had an early disaster (they were flat as shingles--and about as tasty), but since then, they've turned out pretty well most of the time.

I've tried various varieties but find I've zeroed in on a personal favorite: maple-pecan. I use Ohio maple syrup (plus a bit of a zap from some pure maple extract--sharpens the maple flavor I love), and I use organic pecans I get at Mustard Seed Market. They ain't cheap. But I've learned that Hunger trumps Economy.

Every now and then I'll change up--and will do cherry (or cranberry)-walnut or blueberry or whatever. But I end up back with the pecans and the maple syrup.

I have some personal history with pecans, you see. For a little while in the late 1940s and early 1950s we lived in a rented house, 1709 East Broadway Ave. in Enid, exactly a block away from my maternal grandparents' house. And we had a pecan tree in the back yard. Here's an image of that house I just copied from Google Maps street view. Is that a huge pecan hovering in the back yard? I hope so.

When the nuts fell, they had, for me, two purposes: weapons (yes, I would whip them at my brothers) and snack food. My mom (and grandmother) also made fantastic pecan pies that I can taste right now. I remember little dishes of them, some metal nutcrackers lying handy ... Pecans were a bit of a mess to deal with. But the rewards were immense. The picture shows the kind of nutcrackers we had.

I remember when we came to Ohio (summer 1956) that we were all surprised that pecans were so expensive--considered, even, some sort of delicacy. Hell, they'd been all over the ground in our back yard. Instant ammo for boyhood skirmishes. Unforgettable in Mom's and Grandma's pies. Impossible to forget as I stir them into my scone mix.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 155

And it’s the Hunts’ arrival that was the proximate cause of the death of Bysshe Shelley. Or one of the causes, at least. There are so many that precede and then underlie any event in a person’s life. The Shelleys’ decision to move to Italy—the decision to spend the summer of 1822 on the coast at Lerici—the decision, with the aid of their new friend Edward Trelawny, to build a sailboat (and to spend hours every day on it)—the failure of Bysshe to learn how to swim (he’d had near-drowning experiences previously)—and, of course, the arrival of the Hunts in Leghorn (the English name for the town of Livorno).

On July 1, 1822, Bysshe, his friend Edward Williams, and a local teenager (Charles Vivian) who worked on the boat set sail for Leghorn to meet the Hunts.

Mary would never again see her husband alive.

And Deaths Arrive 

We should talk about the boats a bit. In the 2007 issue of the annual Keats-Shelley Journal is a substantial article by Donald B. Prell.[1] In it, Prell rehearses the story of the building of the craft, the debate about its name, its subsequent history. I’ll be relying on him heavily here.

Let’s start with the name. In addition to their friendship, there was some competition between Byron and Shelley—and not just of the literary sort. Byron, of course, was enormously popular with the reading public, despite (or perhaps because of) his naughty reputation. Shelley had just the naughty reputation. There was also some testosterone-fueled peacockery involved.

Which reminds me: On April 17, 1999, when I visited Byron’s home, Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham, I was walking up the country road that leads to the site when I heard what I thought at first were the cries of distressed humans. Help! I thought I heard. Or maybe even Hell!

But when I arrived, I saw the source: peacocks wandering around the grounds. Very territorial peacocks (and -hens), I should add, who insisted on (and got, from me) a wide berth and profound respect..

Anyway, Shelley could not compete financially with Byron, but he sought to do so. In ways, they were like a couple of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs vying for dominance. And thus … the boats.

[1] “The Sinking of the Don Juan Revisited,” 136–154.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 67

1. AOTW: No one "stood out" this week (the usual Traffic Clowns, etc.), so I'll just comment about a recent conversation I heard (in a coffee shop) between a couple of middle-aged guys (40ish, 50ish?) who were talking about football games. Their conversation was full of youthful locutions like Dude, I'm like ... and Yo ...  I don't want to be harsh, but what does it mean when adults talk like kids?

Oh, and here's another coffee-shop conversation I overheard this week--the sort of thing I've never in my life heard: two middle-aged guys (or older) talking--at length--about their hair!

2. Joyce and I started (last night) watching (via Netflix DVD) the Masterpiece Mystery series called Grantchester. (Link to a promo for the series.) Kind of liked the first episode (though formulaic, of course--and everyone was blindingly white; to be fair, it set in the post-WW II English countryside). We liked the lead actor (who's rather attractive, if I do say so ... I'm like, yo, dude, ...). Will try a few more ...

3. Re: the kid who made the bomb that turned out to be a clock. I'm not intimate with all the details of this case (I don't know who screwed up where, who handled things poorly--and why), but as a former teacher I know this: Can you take a chance in a world like ours?

4. Joyce and I finished the wrenching five-part HBO documentary by Spike Lee, When the Levees broke. It was so disturbing that we often stopped it and switched over to some frothy (and/or filthy) comedian for a while. I'd known, of course, that Hurricane Katrina was "bad," and we've also been watching David Simon's series (also HBO, about post-Katrina New Orleans) Treme. But the dimensions of human loss and suffering were just staggering. It's one of those films that I am glad I saw, one that I highly recommend, one that I never want to see again.

5. I've been a fan of the Chicago private -eye novels by Michael Harvey (link to his website); I'm almost finished with his newest one--The Governor's Wife--and am enjoying it a lot. I forget how I "got onto him" and his work--but I'm glad I did. I've read them all. This one is about an Illinois governor about to head off to prison (where a number of governors have gone), and somehow--in the court house--vanishes. P.I. Michael Kelley is now on the case--and closing in ...

6. I had lunch earlier this week with our son, Steve, and Andy Paul, his good friend from middle and high school. I taught both of them in 8th grade, directed them in seven middle-school play productions, saw them in their high-school productions, as well. (A special thrill: seeing Andy as Petruchio and Steve as Lucentio in a production of The Taming of the Shrew, a play they'd read with me in 8th grade!) Andy went off to Stanford, Steve to Tufts, so they drifted apart over the years. Andy now runs a small, thriving business in Sacramento (Andy's Candy (link to his website)--how he stays slim is beyond me), and Steve lives in nearby Green, where he teaches part-time at the Univ. of Akron (writing classes) and works as the Education Policy Fellow for Innovation Ohio in Columbus (link to website), a job that enables him to work from home (sometimes) and spend lots of time with his two boys, Logan (10) and Carson (6) and with his busy wife, Melissa, who is an award-winning teacher in Kent State's School of Nursing.

Anyway, we had a wonderful lunch (with Andy, his wife, their two very patient little girls, 11 and 8), and the young (!) men were surprised when I told them that they--now age 43--are a year older than I was when I taught them in 8th grade back in 1985-86.

Andy took a pile of VHS tapes from Steve and me, tapes of old play productions from middle school; he's going to convert them to digital ...  Not sure I want to see them. I prefer remembering all of them as awesome and do not want any disconfirming evidence!

Left to Right: Steve, Andy, Some Old Guy

Saturday, September 19, 2015

My Study Photographs, 2

Another in a continuing series about the framed objects on my study walls.

In the summer of 1816, Mary Godwin (not yet Shelley) traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, in company with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her (pregnant) step-sister Claire Clairmont. There, they would meet Lord Byron (the two poets would become good friends), who was the father of Claire's unborn child.

Anyway, 1816 was the famous "Frankenstein summer," the summer of foul weather (the so-called "the year without a summer," caused by an earlier massive eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia), the summer (a day in mid-June) that Lord Byron proposed that they all write a ghost story. Mary, after a day or so of indecision and worry, began the tale that would become Frankenstein.

On July 21, Shelley and Mary set off for the nearby French Alps, for the town of Chamonix. A spectacular glacier nearby, the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), would simultaneously delight and frighten Mary, who, as she worked on Frankenstein (published on January 1, 1818), elected to set one of the novel's key scenes near Chamonix, on the Mer de Glace.

It is on the glacier that Victor confronts his creature and hears his story about what has happened since Victor abandoned him in horror not long after the "creation." The creature--who is manifestly not the slow-moving, virtually wordless being we so often see in the movies--was not only extraordinarily agile and athletic (oh, what an NBA power forward he would have made!) but extremely articulate. At ease with language. Here is some of what the creature says early in their encounter:

"Be calm! I entreat you to hear me before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough, that you seek to increase my misery? Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it. Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous." (Chap. 10)

As I've written here before, in the spring of 1999, I was chasing Mary Shelley around Europe, and one of the places I went was Chamonix--I very much wanted to see the Mer de Glace.

But this was not to be. It was pouring rain, and the little tourist train was not running.

I have read, though, that the glacier has greatly diminished in our era of climate change--has nothing like the formidable presence it had when Mary saw it.

Or as it's portrayed in this picture I have hanging on my study wall, a picture I acquired at a Chamonix gift shop, had framed here in Hudson.

PS--Here's a link to some images of the glacier, one of which I've pasted below.

PPS--And here's a cool little entry from Mary's diary, July 22, 1816:

In one village they offered us for sale a poor squirrel which they had caught three days before--We bought it but no sooner had I got it in my hand than he bit my finger & forced me to let it go--we caught it however again & Shelley carried it some time--it appeared at length resigned to its fate when we put it on a railing where it paused an instant wondering where it was & then scampered up the native trees-- (Journals of Mary Shelley, 115).

Friday, September 18, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 154

I was surprised by the size of La Spezia, I wrote in my journal on Friday, April 23, 1999. In the Shelleys’ Italian days (1820s) the area was small, undeveloped—fishing and other Mediterranean-related enterprises were the occupation of most people. Five kilometers away –a swift train ride—were San Terenzo and Lerici, the latter the once-tiny place where the Shelleys had rented a summer place—the Casa Magni—which stood—and stands—right near the shore.

It is a lovely small village, I wrote of San Terenzo/Lerici, and a bay with deep blue water and a new promenade that protects the house from the sea. In the Shelleys’ time the sea was right at their lower doors, where boats were stored. I wandered around the little town on a gorgeous, cloudless day, taking pictures and easily finding the Casa Magni, still absolutely recognizable from the 1820s. On the house now there are plaques declaring its significance in English literary history—and on the waterfront is the Shelley Bar, which I photographed but did not enter. (Now, of course, I wish I had.)

In the summer of 1822 Mary Shelley was not at all happy about her life. She would suffer a life-threatening miscarriage in mid-June, and Bysshe’s insistence that she sit in tub of ice (which took hours to acquire from San Terenzo) probably saved her life by slowing, then stopping the bleeding. Her hope was at one of its lowest ebbs. She had buried two children in recent years—and now this. And Bysshe was spending all day frolicking with Byron and Trelawny—or out on his boat with Edward and Jane Williams, flirting wildly with Jane. Oh, and stepsister Claire Clairmont was there, as well. In a beautiful spot she nonetheless felt as if she had sunk into hell.

Mary’s journal entries are brief—mentions of what she was reading and studying (Homer, Virgil) with only the vaguest note about her physical problems: I am ill most of this time. Ill & then convalescent.[1]
Meanwhile, things were about to get more complicated. Their friend Leigh Hunt was arriving. Shelly, Byron, and the others had resolved to start a journal, The Liberal, which Hunt, a poet and essayist but also the only journalist among them, had agreed to edit. But with him he brought his wife, Marianne, and their six children (they would have four more), children who were—to be generous—rather … active. And generally uncontrolled. Mary dreaded the day when they would all pack themselves into the Casa Magni, a place she already found unpleasantly public.

Casa Magni--back then

[1] The Journals of Mary Shelley, 411–12.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Star Wars

Note the glare in the upper left corner: That is not the flare of
a flash: It's Old Sol himself.

I know, I know: The title is misleading. A lot of you Chewie fans are probably grinding your teeth in dismay to discover that this is not about the latest Star Wars installment but about an Old Man at war against the sun (a star!) in his favorite coffee shop, The Open Door Coffee Co. in Hudson.

I sit at the same table every day, 7:30-9:30 a.m. more or less, and throughout most of the year the sun is not an issue. Across the street is a sturdy brick building that was a bank when we first moved here (no more), and it does a sturdy job (as it's supposed to!) of sturdily blocking the sun.

But when the equinoxes arrive twice a year (as the autumnal one is about to do), the earth, shifting on its axis, allows the sun to blast my face for a while.

This morning, I timed it. The sun hit my eyes directly at exactly 8:00, and at 8:28 it had risen (i.e., the earth had rotated) enough to be above the frame of the window. Relief!

On most equinoctial days I can cope. Sometimes there are clouds. Sometimes the sun--perhaps feeling some pity--reserves its full glare for more deserving (i.e., evil) souls sitting nearby. But on other mornings--like today--when there are no clouds, no humidity, no haze--it hits me with its full fury, sometimes so fiercely that I have to sit on the other side of the table, back to the window, until the fury fades. And Apollo, in his chariot, smiles with pride and vindictiveness (we no longer believe in him!).

So ... on the scale of human misery what I'm describing is pathetic, wimpy, elitist, etc. I'm worrying about the sun in my face in a coffee shop! Please!

But still ... we do love to whine about our inconveniences, don't we, inconveniences that we can even elevate to Tragedy when we're feeling particularly put upon. (How am I supposed to read with the Granddaddy of Sunlamps Full in My Face?!?!)

I like to think that I'm fairly level-headed, sensitive to the plights of others, humble, etc. (And I rage against those whom I perceive to be more callous, self-centered, arrogant, etc.)

But still ... that damned sun is annoying!

Happy autumnal equinox to y'all! September 23, 4:22 a.m., in our part of the woods.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 153

And so—rolling through Signa, initial setting for Ouida’s novel, rolling from my Jack London to my Mary Shelley obsession—I felt an odd confluence of passions.

I read Signa back when I was working on my YA biography (Jack London: A Biography, Scholastic Press, 1997), but I’d forgotten much of it. But just now I discovered that the entire text is available online (link to text)—and here’s some of what Ouida said about the little town: 

It is so old our Signa, no man could chronicle all it has seen in the centuries; but not one in ten thousand travellers thinks about it. Its people plait straw for the world, and the train from the coast runs through it: that is all that it has to do with other folks.

Passengers come and go from the sea to the city, from the city to the sea, along the great iron highway, and perhaps they glance at the stern, ruined walls, at the white houses on the cliffs, at the broad river with its shining sands, at the blue hills with the poplars at their base, and the pines at the summits, and they say to one another that this is Signa.
But it is all they ever do do; ….[i]
And I have to add that I didn’t see many fellow passengers staring fondly or curiously out the windows of the train … just the reflection of an aging American with a memory of Jack London.

I see on the map that Pisa is about sixty miles west of Florence, with Signa lying only about twelve miles outside of Florence. Total trip by train—about an hour and a half.

I noted in my journal that some of the hills on the journey reminded me of those near Marietta, Ohio, down on the Ohio River—but the Tuscan hills also reminded me of the scenery in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Much Ado about Nothing (1994), a film I used with my eighth-grade students the final few years of my middle school career. They loved it. So did I, even though I saw it five or six times a year (I had that many classes) before my retirement in January 1997.

In Pisa, I found a so-so hotel, then walked around the streets taking pictures. I knew I had to go see the Leaning Tower, and, of course, it was mobbed with tourists, surrounded by merchants selling everything you can think of that’s even vaguely Tower-related. I had actually heard at the hotel desk a couple of Americans ask the clerk if there were anything else to see in Pisa—a moment I could not have credibly created. It happened.

Then I boarded a train for La Spezia, a little over an hour up Italy’s western coast. It was near here that the Shelleys had decided to spend the summer of 1822, a summer that poor Bysshe Shelley would not survive. I needed to stand in the scene.

Photos of Pisa from my April 1999 visit ...

[i] https://archive.org/details/signabyouida02ramgoog pp. 2–3.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Oh, the Stories We Tell

My father lied. Sort of.

It was the 1980s, and I was out for a visit in Cannon Beach, Oregon, where they'd retired. Dad invited me to go with him to a Rotary meeting in nearby Seaside. Dad had belonged to service clubs (all male, in the early days) for as long as I could remember. He was in the Lions Club in Enid, Oklahoma, and I think he'd been in Kiwanis there, too. He'd joined Rotary while we were living in Hiram, Ohio, and attended the weekly lunches in nearby Garrettsville.

So, sure, I went along. Where Dad introduced me to his fellow Rotarians as a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Actually, I was teaching 8th grade English--and had been teaching middle school kids for about two decades. Yes, I had an occasional op-ed in the Plain Dealer (about ten or so a year), but I was not an employee--never was, never would be. But Dad was proud of my publication, and that pride transformed me into a journalist--at least in public--and Dad into ... a deceiver, if not a liar.

One oddity: Through most of his career, Dad was involved in teacher-education programs. Hiram College. Drake University. But--at least at the Rotary meetings--journalism trumped pedagogy.

And, yes, I gently corrected Dad--informing his friends that I was a teacher and a freelance writer.

I was thinking about this recently because I read a published essay not long ago by a teacher who told a story about a classroom episode, a story that I am virtually positive was a lie. Everything I know about kids and teaching and classrooms (I taught for forty-five years) rose up and shouted Lie! Lie! Lie! when I got to that key portion of the essay.

It was an anecdote intended to make a point, of course, and so why not alter or concoct a story to fit your need? (You know the cliche about the lying fisherman?) After all, we do it all the time, don't we?


We are the storytelling species. The lying species. And when we're telling a story, if we think a lie (or exaggeration or omission or whatever) will improve the effect, well, most of us go with the lie. We spin lies like the miller's daughter spins straw into gold in "Rumpelstiltskin." And that gold--if it's bright enough--will easily fool many listeners, or readers.What's the harm?

Well, ask Brian Williams. And a host of other journalists who have either embellished or fabricated stories. (Google Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Janet Cooke--and see what you find!)

Well, we're also a credulous species. And sometimes our stories persuade others to do things they might not otherwise do. Or give others false ideas about us. Or believe things they shouldn't believe. Or ... you know. Check the memes and quotations on Facebook--many are just outright lies.

I have not the faintest hope that anything will ever change. We love a good story too much--and we even endure, ignore, and forgive lies when they entertain or confirm a bias or soothe.

Think of Hamlet. Queen Gertrude, late in the play, enters to tell Laertes that his beloved sister, Ophelia, has drowned herself. Gertrude tells a long and lovely story about flowers and skirts spreading in the stream. On and on she goes.

And it's clearly a lie.

How would Gertrude even know all these things had happened? Would someone have stood on the shore and watched the flowers and the spreading skirt--and just watched in awe? Or would he or she run have down to the stream to save the young woman?

In all likelihood, someone found the dead Ophelia, gross in the mud, and kind Gertrude, wishing to spare Laertes, crafted a kind story. A lie.

I'll excuse that one.

But I have a hard time excusing writers of nonfiction (supposedly it's nonfiction) who lie on the page. That's what fiction is for. Remember the case of James Frey back in 2006? Some curious folk discovered that some incidents he'd reported as fact in his memoir A Million Little Pieces (2003) were, well, fiction. Oprah, who'd raved about his book, invited him back on the show, where she eviscerated him. (Link to that show.)

A quick story (not a lie!). Years ago, reading a memoir for Kirkus Reviews, I came to believe that the author was lying. He had been careful to keep things fairly vague, but there were enough facts available for me to verify. And many of them failed to pass the lie-detector.

I notified my editor. He notified the publisher, who, at first, defended the writer.

But when the book was eventually published a few months later, it no longer claimed to be a memoir; now, declared the cover, it was a novel.

At last ... the truth.