Dawn Reader

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

When the poems fly away ...

Joyce has a good friend--a poet--who has memorized scores of poems. Recently, she (the poet) told Joyce that she's been so busy and occupied that some of those poems--perhaps feeling neglected?--have flown from what she once thought had been a very secure cage in her memory.

I know the feeling. I, too, have memorized scores of poems, but now Later Life has arrived and has begun to collect some rent, I find that some of the poems that took considerable effort to catch and confine in my head are making seditious sounds. Threats of leaving if I don't take better care of them.

As I've written here on other occasions, I have kept, in recent years, a pretty strict routine of rehearsal. I assign certain poems to certain times of the day (and certain activities), and I have been pretty good--if not perfect--about adhering to that routine. I have a set that I practice ...

  • in the shower four mornings (M-T-Th-F)
  • on my walk over to the coffee shop in the morning (same days as above)
  • at the coffee shop (same days as above)
  • on my walk home from the coffee shop (same days)
  • on my way to my afternoon coffee shop (same days)
  • on my drive out to the health club in the afternoon (same days)--some long ones ("My Last Duchess" and "Dover Beach")
  • at the health club (while I walk from the locker room back to the exercise area--all days but Sunday, when I don't go to the health club)
  • at the health club (on the exercise bike--M-W-F)
  • at the health club (on the exercise bike--T-Th-Sat)
  • at the health club (walking laps after the bike--M-W-F)
  • at the health club (walking laps after the bike--T-Th-Sat)
  • at the health club (cooldown laps--every day--some of the long poems I know, e.g., "My Lost Youth" by Longfellow)
  • at the health club, in the shower (M thru Sat); I do not say these aloud for obvious reasons!
I reserve Wednesday and Saturday coffee shop walks for learning new ones ... just today I started on Edgar Lee Masters' "Mabel Osborne," a poem from Spoon River Anthology, a poem I picked for two reasons: I like it; my middle name is Osborn (my mother's maiden name).

When things are going well, I follow this routine faithfully, week after week. But when things are not going well? My health? Joyce's? Other issues? I don't rehearse. And the result is predictable: The next time I start mumbling on the exercise bike, some words have faded. It is "yet" or "but"? Is there an "and" in that slot? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Sometimes entire lines will vanish. Stanzas. And I will have to consult Mr. Internet or one of my index cards (where I've stored them all; I carry them in my backpack). And the words, realizing I've noticed that they're preparing to fly, step back (a foolish-guilty smile affixed to their beaks) into my memory. Where they'll stay until I once again neglect them.

I know it's kind of silly, doing all this. I mean, why do I memorize poems so compulsively? Very few people even want to hear them--Joyce the principal exception. I've had family members walk away when I've launched into one. And I no longer teach. I used to have my students memorize, and I would occasionally recite something in class, just because. On my very last day of my teaching career (June 2011)--in my first class period of the day--I tried to end the class with Prospero's speech from The Tempest--the speech that begins with "Our revels now are ended ...." But I didn't get very far before I, well, broke down. A little. I didn't even try it later in the day. I knew what would happen.

So ... why do I try so hard to keep them? I'm sure there are all sorts of reasons (ranging from stubbornness to, perhaps, a dollop of arrogance), but one of the main ones, I think, is that I love them. And I don't know anyone who delights in seeing a loved one fly away.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Waiting ...

Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -

So wrote Emily Dickinson once upon a time. The poem goes on to talk about a carriage ride--Death and the speaker on the way to the cemetery. A happy poem. (Actually, it is kind of, I don't know, hopeful? I mean, riding in a carriage with Death is better than dodging the scythe of the Grim Reaper, right?) Anyway, the speaker is not waiting for Death, she/he is too busy to stop for Him/Her/It. There's a difference.

We all spend lots of time waiting. Sometimes it's pleasant (our flight to Belize), sometimes not (root canal). Sometimes it's worrisome (a hospital waiting room), sometimes just mildly annoying (the Post Office line).

And sometimes it's a combination of all of the above. Today, for example, it was time to take the 2012 Prius to Don Joseph Toyota (Kent, Ohio) for its routine maintenance. I like Don Joseph. I've been buying/servicing cars there since, oh, 1975. My dad, who'd been in WW II, was not too crazy about our driving Japanese cars, but we love the mileage, the reliability ... so we've bought nothing but Toyotas since the 70s. (Our current Prius routinely gets 50 mpg in the winter, near 60 the rest of the year. We're cheap.)

The ride over to Kent required some doing. There is road work all over the place: roads closed, construction/repair equipment beeping while backing. You know ...  So I took some back roads but had the joy of school buses all the way--it seemed, I joked later, that each bus had synced its GPS with mine. I got to stop a lot of times to watch kids "creeping like snail unwillingly to" the bus. (Thank you, Mr. Bard.)

But I got there in time. Checked in. Headed to the waiting room. Where I could smell ... chocolate chip cookies. Yes, Don Joseph bakes them (well, not Don himself!) for the waiting customers, a service that is a great incentive for people to come in and, you know, get their cars checked out. (Not long after I arrived I got a text from Joyce asking if the cookies were out. I took that as a command to acquire and guard one until I got home.)

People waiting at a car-repair place are in all sorts of moods. Relieved, shocked, depressed, angry, frustrated. (Today, I was among the first--just routine, about $45.) Some waiters stare at TV sets; others, at books; others chat with anyone nearby. Still others (me!) head for a place where they'll be left alone (and, coincidentally, be nearer the coffee and cookies).

Don Joseph has some little work tables set up away from the TV set, and that's where I sat for my hour. I worked on some writing, checked Facebook, texted Joyce about cookies, overheard some conversations. (One woman was telling some folks that she had just dropped her daughter off for the first day of kindergarten; she also said she had a son who is 26.)

So, as I said, the news was good. They'd also washed the car (a service I really appreciate). And soon I was home--no buses!--talking with Joyce.

Mentioning a certain cookie ...

(Emily Dickinson did the baking for her family, by the way.)

our Prius, freshly washed, happy to be home

Monday, August 29, 2016

I Always Walked to School, 3

More about the opening days of my teaching career--exactly fifty years ago ...

And I had a salary!

$5100 a year, and, as I discovered on my first payday (we were paid on the 1st and 15th of every month), that worked out to $168.42 for each paycheck. Bucks up!

And then I started paying bills. Buying food. Paying utilities. Etc. (Bucks down!)

My checkbook balance was usually, oh, about .08 by the end of a pay period--and the worst thing? Those months when the 15th (or 1st) came right after a weekend. Miserable.

I had no extra money for anything. Movies, plays, travels, etc.--forget it! I began to understand with a preternatural clarity the expression paycheck-to-paycheck. Fortunately, there were a couple of families in Aurora--the Bissells, the Frenches--who would invite me over now and then for a meal, and I would eat everything except the chair I was sitting on--though it surely looked tasty to me.

I had no real clue about the size of my classes. Whatever they gave me, I figured, was "normal." What they gave me that first year? Five classes, forty students in each. Two hundred students a day. Five days a week. I just shrugged and got on with it. This is normal, right?

The kids were grouped somewhat by ability--and the English curriculum was married to the American history curriculum into something called Core; I had each class for two periods. I'd never heard of Core; I didn't know how to merge the two subjects; no one else seemed to know, either. I had Core 2 and Core 4 (1 and 2 were the top half of the kids; 3 and 4, the lower) + a class called Reading, a class for the Core 3s and 4s. I knew nothing about teaching reading--I'd done my student teaching in (and preparation for) secondary school classes. At that level, we figured, you know, kids knew how to read ... hah!

So, I was soon doing what all the other Core teachers were doing, grades 5-8: teaching English one period, history the other. (Within a year or two, by the way, we were entirely departmentalized--Core faded into the mists of curricular history.)

Oh, and when I asked our principal (Mr. Clough--pronounced Kluff) what we were supposed to teach in English and history (American in 7th grade), he handed me a "curriculum guide," a document which, I quickly discovered, was no more than a list of the chapter titles in our textbooks. I don't remember the name of the history text (I taught it only one year), but the English book was Language for Daily Use, 7, a very traditional book: grammar, sentence diagramming, chapters on public speaking, composition, vocabulary, letter-writing, writing reports, and so on.
my actual copy, which,
obviously, I kept
The book was narcotizing. But I marched us through it, focusing on the grammar and usage chapters, day after deadly day. I don't know how the students stood it--or me. But soon I was making up stupid and/or outrageous sentences for them to analyze, and both of us began having more fun--sentences like The little boy shot an arrow at the TV. The crow ate only the man's left eyeball. That sort of thing.

In history? Well ... I just marched through that book, as well. Kids answered the questions at the end of each chapter. Etc. I showed dull filmstrips now and then. I'm bored just writing about it, fifty years later.

As the year went along, I loosened up more and more as I began to discover what the kids (and I) were capable of.  I even assigned some creative writing and got the first Arctic blast that freezes writing teachers in place for days on end while they try to grade the alpine piles of papers.

And Reading class? Well, we did have some readers (but no curriculum telling me what I ought to be teaching), so, basically, we read stories all year and talked about them. Our text was Doorways to Discovery, and, yes, I kept a copy (and have blogged about that book, too--Google it).
For the first six weeks of school that year (1966-67) we were on split session with Aurora High School, whose new building up on Pioneer Trail did not open until October. AHS was in the building from 8-12 (as I recall); we, from 12:30-4:30 (or so?). And when the high school finally moved out, they took with them pretty much everything of value--A-V equipment, books, supplies, etc. But they did leave behind one thing I found pretty useful ...

To be continued ...

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sunday Sundries, 116

1. AOTW: Not even close this week. Yesterday (Saturday) is the day that Hudson has its Farmers' Market out on the Green, just about a block from our house. And yesterday one of the people who set up a booth there parked his/her truck/SUV so that it blocked about 1/3 of our driveway--all morning long! Very difficult getting in and out. Had a mind to call the cops. (Didn't.) Not cool, AOTW!

2. Somehow I managed to finished two books this week.
   a. One was Alan Bennett's collection of short pieces (fiction and nonfiction) The Lady in the Van and Other Stories (2015), a collection I came to know about because of the eponymous film last year--The Lady in the Van--a film that Joyce and I liked a lot. (Okay, maybe we loved it.) (Link to trailer for the film.)

Based on fact, it tells the story of a semi-homeless woman (Maggie Smith in the film), who parks her imploding, corroding van in Bennett's driveway (and, later, garden), where she lived for some fifteen years before her death in the spring of 1989. Bennett (who has a cameo near the end) is played by the fantastic Alex Jennings, an actor I don't believe I'd seen before--though I just checked IMDB and discovered he was in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Wings of the Dove in the mid-90s, both of which we saw.

      - The other pieces in the volume are short stories--"The Laying on of Hands" and "Father! Father! Burning Bright"--both of which I enjoyed, as well, both showing Bennett's wry/dry-but-slicing humor and social commentary.
      * Note--I finished this book while sitting with Joyce in her hospital room last week. Sometimes you gotta read or you're gonna go nuts!

   b. I also finished (with some hospital reading, as well) Richard Russo's collection of stories, The Whore's Child (2005)--another Russo work that I really (mostly) admired and a work that found a variety of ways to move and illuminate me. Damn, he's good! (As some of you know, I'm reading my way through all his works, earliest to latest.) The title story is about an aging nun who decides to take a fiction-writing class with the narrator, and in her memoir (she won't write fiction!) she tells about how she had, indeed, been the daughter of a prostitute; her father, we learn much later (spoiler alert!), was the prostitute's pimp.

      - "The Farther You Go" tells about a guy recovering from prostate surgery--I can relate to that! But I also noticed this story deals with the same sort of incident that figured in Russo's academic novel, Straight Man (1997)--the narrator's daughter is building a house just like his, very near, but has run out of money; her husband has/has not hit her ... and what the narrator does about it. This, I believe, was one of the seeds that grew into that novel.
      - "Joy Ride"--about a mother swooping her young son away to escape her husband--has a little error in it (I know: picky, picky). On p. 78 the narrator (the son, looking back) tells us that in his school days he used to eat packets of ketchup by the fistful, to impress his middle school (bully) friends. Then on p. 105 he mentions the incident again--only this time it's mustard.
         * Still I loved this sentence near the end: "But the worst truths are contained in our many silences" (111).
      - "Buoyancy" tells about a retired prof. of literature (he's also a biographer) who's having some second thoughts about his life's work: "It was foolish and arrogant, he had to concede, to think you could imagine the truth of another human life, to penetrate its deepest secrets ..." (142).
      - I loved, as well, the penultimate story, "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart," another story that tells about a middle school boy--problems at school, with an "enemy," with the broken marriage between his parents, and a reconciliation of sorts.
         *Loved the final sentence: "It was into this entirely different world that Linwood Hart now fell asleep, sadly grateful that he was not, nor ever had been, nor ever would be, its center" (225).

3. We finished watching all of the HBO miniseries Empire Falls, based on the Richard Russo novel of the same name. Ended up liking it very much (a little bit slow at the beginning). Great cast--Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Newman, Helen Hunt, Aidan Quinn, Ed Harris, Joanne Woodward, etc. Troubling story about our tangled webs--and about our determination to inflict pain on others. (Link to trailer for film.0

4. Finally--a couple of words that arrived in my computer this week from my various word-of-the-day online services. (I posted a couple of them on Facebook, too.)

      a. Dissensus (di-SEN-suhs) (from wordsmith.org)
noun: Widespread disagreement.
Of uncertain origin. Probably a blend of dissent + consensus or a blend of dis- + consensus or from Latin dissensus (disagreement). Earliest documented use: 1962.
“The incident is one illustration of the increasingly divergent views ... ‘There is a growing global dissensus on drugs policy,’ said Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution.”
John Paul Rathbone, Geoff Dyer, Jude Webber; World Split in Fight Over Drugs; Financial Times (London, UK); Apr 19, 2016.
      b. Limacine  \LIM-uh-sahyn, -sin, LAHY-muh-\ adjective
1. pertaining to or resembling a slug; sluglike.
A man on the downhill side of prime--limbs beginning to shrink, the limacine middle expanding, flesh disintegrating into the beard.
-- John Edgar Wideman, Hurry Home, 1970
 Origin of limacine
Limacine finds its roots in the Latin term līmāx meaning "slug." It entered English in the late 1800s.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

I Always Walked to School, 2

yearbook page from the
Aurora Middle School,
my first year of teaching
Nearly two weeks ago, I posted a piece about the first year I began my teaching career--exactly fifty years ago, the 1966-1967 school year. I'd meant to continue, but Life interrupted (see previous posts), and it's really not been until now that I've been able to get back to this ... so here goes ...

I have written at length about my early teaching years in my memoir--Schoolboy: A Memoir (Kindle Direct, 2012--link to book on Amazon), but I'd like to mention just a few things here about those opening days--that first year.

The most fundamental thing I recall is fear. I was still just twenty-one years old, but I was far from confident. Although (as I wrote previously) I'd had a good time at West Geauga High School with 11th graders (an age and grade I would not teach again, oddly, until 2001), I was very insecure about working with middle schoolers. As I mentioned in my previous post, my supervising teacher at West Geauga HS had sternly advised me to avoid that age level, but there I was ... about to start teaching at a middle school.

I'd been, I confess, a little dilatory about applying for jobs. I'd hoped to go to the University of Kansas to start a Ph.D. in American Studies; I'd been accepted. But then I'd learned they had no money to offer me (not that I really deserved any), and since the only money I had was in my pockets, that took care of Kansas. (I still kinda wish I'd gone--but then, if I had, I never would have met Joyce ...)

So I applied for a job at two schools: James A. Garfield HS in Garrettsville (where my mother had just completed a stellar stint of ten years) and Aurora, which I knew had a fine school system. I got interviews at both places. I don't know if Garfield would have hired me because Aurora called first, and I snapped up the job--even though it would be in, you know, a middle school.

I should add this: Getting a job was easy then. There was a big shortage of teachers around the country, and you really didn't even need to have a teaching certificate to land a job--you could get a "temporary certificate," then go back to school and take the courses you needed. As I think I wrote in Schoolboy, if your breath could steam a mirror, you could get a teaching job.

My dad had helped me find a little apartment in Twinsburg ($75/month)--just about five miles west of Aurora--and had made a down payment on a car for me (a 1965 blue Karmann Ghia--a VW product), and I paid about $60 a month for that hunka junk (oh, did it give me trouble!). It looked snazzy/sporty; it behaved like a constipated man about, oh, my age now. (Photo is from the Internet.) Years later, I gave my dad a check for $300--the amount he'd paid down for that car. And--shall we say?--he was shocked. But grateful.

So ... I had a job. A crib. A car.

What I didn't have? A clue about what to do with seventh graders.

To be continued ...

Friday, August 26, 2016

30 Years in the Dough

most recent loaves,
August 20, 2016
Thirty years ago I took our son, Steve, who had just turned 14, to Alaska and the Yukon for about a week.* There were some reasons for this: (1) I had been teaching The Call of the Wild for about a half-dozen years to my 8th graders at Harmon Middle School (Aurora, Ohio), and I wanted to see some of the places that Jack London wrote about so specifically in his 1903 novella; (2) my father had recently given me the diary of his grandfather, Addison Clark Dyer, who had gone on the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-99), the very Rush that lies at the heart of London's book. Steve and I wanted to see if we could find the site of our ancestor's claim (we did).

Summer 1986
near Bonanza Creek,
near site of the old Dyer claim
Steve, by the way, had just survived a year with me as his 8th grade English teacher--and had, of course, read The Call of the Wild with me.

We flew from Cleveland to Seattle (where we spent the night with my great college friends, Claude and Dorothy Steele; he was teaching at the university there), then a flight to Juneau, Alaska, followed by another flight in a small plane from Juneau to Skagway, Alaska, a plane that was piloted by a young man who looked--oh, about Steve's age. Maybe younger.

In Skagway we rented a car and drove nearly 450 miles over the Coastal Mountains and into the Yukon, all the way to Dawson City, which lies at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, the center of all that Gold Rush activity.

In Skagway, we stayed at the Golden North Hotel, the oldest hotel in Alaska, and spent some time in and out of the local shops, looking for souvenirs--and for things I could use in class in subsequent years.

In one of the shops--and I wish I could remember which--I bought a little package of dry sourdough starter, a product that came with a little book of recipes. I knew that Northland veterans were called "sourdoughs," and I thought it would be fun to make biscuits or something to take into class when we were doing Wild.

I had no idea.

the booklet!
Let's back up ... I've just told you a little about the summer of 1986--when I acquired the starter. I should add here that I had been baking our family's bread since, oh, the early 1970s. Joyce and I were impecunious grad students (and I was not exactly making a fortune as a middle school teacher), so I started baking bread for austerity's sake. It was cheaper. (And, of course, a lot better tasting--and a lot better for you). I used principally white flour and dry yeast--pretty much every week. It was part of my weekly routine. So I was an experienced--if not particularly imaginative--baker.

Okay, back to 1986 ...

When we got home from Alaska--just before school started--I decided I'd give the sourdough starter a whirl--you know, just to see?

I remember--I think?--that I had to mix it with flour and water and let it stand overnight. And when I came downstairs that first morning and saw it had doubled and was bubbling away, I felt (as I know I've written before) like Victor Frankenstein--It's alive! It's alive! (He doesn't say that in the book--just that 1931 film ...)

But the first time I baked with it--a failure. The dough didn't rise much (later, I learned that I'd not given it enough time), and the resulting product was HEAVY. But I ate every damn bit of it, and Steve and Joyce pretended it was good, too.

I didn't give up. It worked better the next week--and the week after--and pretty soon I got rid of conventional yeast and, ever since, have done virtually all my baking with sourdough (scones and baguettes not included). My routine is pretty fixed: Saturday night, about 9:30, feed the starter; Sunday morning (after 7) put two cups of starter back in the container, bake with the rest.

I make, among other things: traditional multigrain (no more all-white now) loaves, round loaves, pizza, sandwich rolls, biscuits, pancakes and waffles, a Christmas tree bread, corn bread ... that's what I'm coming up with off the top of my head.

You have to feed and use the sourdough about every week, so it's a bit like having a pet in the house, one that needs periodic attention. Even love.

Every now and then, the sourdough reminds me who's in charge. If I don't do things right, it jars me by behaving poorly (like a surly teen). This doesn't happen often, just enough to keep me humble.

I should add that I'm not all that adventurous with it. Just practical. Bake what I need and love. I'm not interested in devoting hours on end to preparing exotic or excessively complicated recipes.

So ... this has been going on for thirty years now. Thirty years! Working with it is just part of my life now, and I would miss it horribly if I could no longer do it. We give a lot of the products away--our grandson Logan is especially fond of it. The neighbors get some. Family (when we travel). The freezer is sometimes jammed with it.

Anyway, Happy Birthday to Sourdough Dyer, age 30, going on forever.

Our fridge:
starter in container on top;
a recent loaf below

*I've written other times in Dawnreader about my two trips to the North. Google them if you want to read about "other" adventures.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Night Before, the Day Of ... and After

Akron General Medical Center/Cleveland Clinic
Monday morning, August 22, 2016

Sunday was a fairly rough night--full of meds and reactions to same and worries. We had to be up at 4:45 this morning so that we could arrive at the Akron General Medical Center by six for all the preliminaries for Joyce's 8 o'clock surgery, a procedure to remove a few inches of her colon, which has a small tear and has been threatening her overall health.

She was very weak by the time we got here, but all the staff were very welcoming and encouraging, and before we knew it we (our son, Steve, was waiting for us when we arrived) were upstairs in the area where all the pre-surgery activities go on. Blood draws, BP checks, questions, questions, questions, an IV. Steve and I were able to sit and talk with her until almost 8, when the surgeon arrived for the final check. I recited some poems for her--Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur (a couple of her favorites)--hugged and kissed and wept. A final wave.

She has been incredibly courageous through all of this; the stuff is far more than uncomfortable, which is a pale, pale word for what she's felt the past few weeks as it became more and more certain that we would have to be here today. There's really no choice.

Everyone raves about her surgeon--and we have met him. Dr. Horratas. So we are as confident as we can be about that aspect of it. It's just, you know, the not knowing that make you crazy.

So now (about 9:30) I'm sitting with Steve in the waiting area. His wife, Melissa (who is a nurse and who teaches nursing courses at KSU), is on the way. And I am waiting for the only news I will accept today. There is something absolutely terrifying about seeing someone you love about to be wheeled away into the unknown ... and the fear that you may never see him or her again is absolutely paralyzing.

12:30 p.m.

Through the morning I'd talked with Steve and Melissa, done a bunch of reading and writing (trying to lose myself in work; they were doing the same thing). About 11:30 I shut it all down ... surely this would be over soon? My buzzer would buzz, summoning me to the desk for news ...?

But it wasn't until about 12:30 that we got the call that the surgeon was ready for us, so Steve, Melissa, and I sat in the little conference room (#2!) until he came in. He very calmly took us through it all--let us know that she had come through just fine. He even had pictures, which I looked at with the oddest damn feeling: My wife's insides ... But I felt enormous relief--inexpressible relief. We won't be able to go see her for a couple of hours--after she wakes up and they check her out some more. Can't wait ...

Thursday, August 25

I quit keeping this blog-log of what I'd been doing--just one more thing I couldn't seem to find time to do. But just a few other memories, comments about the whole thing ...

  • The front desk somehow forgot to let us know when we could go to see Joyce in recovery, but Melissa went up and asked, and, apologetically, they said she was on her way to her room. I was a bit upset--the thought that she'd wake up--and not see me there? So we headed up to room 5205, but it was empty; she was on the way. We sat in a little lounge area where we would see her come by--and then, there she was! The aide was talking with her, and she was answering. We went to her room. Embraces. Kisses. Many tears. She was still a little "out of it" when I read to her a poem I'd written for her--so much so that, later, she said she hadn't remembered it! (I'd gotten so emotional during the reading that I was croaking like a frog with laryngitis by the time it was over!)
  • She had an excellent team of professionals who dealt with her the next couple of days--and our daughter-in-law spent Monday night with her in the room, a decision that turned out to be a good thing: Joyce had some ... issues ... in the night, and Melissa was right there to take care of them. A remarkable gift Melissa gave us--herself.
  • I was back-and-forth to Hudson a few times, knowing that I needed rest, as well. And each time I returned to her room, I saw improvement. Her speech, for example, had been a bit difficult for her; she said that she could think of what to say, but her lips, tongue, and teeth were not exactly cooperating--not at first (thanks to the powerful drugs that had put her asleep). The program also called for her to get up and moving ASAP, and on Tuesday she was strong enough to take ten different walks around the hospital unit where we were. She was determined.
  • By Tuesday afternoon they were telling her she would probably go home on Wednesday, and she was excited. Her post-surgical issues were resolving very quickly--for which we were profoundly grateful. Joyce has been very determined the past few years to keep herself in shape, and she goes out to the local health club six mornings a week (early, about 6:30 or so), where she walks, does the rowing machine, some weights. These activities really helped accelerate her recovery, we are certain.
  • Late Wednesday morning we got the news that she could go home, and it all happened very quickly thereafter. A volunteer with a wheelchair arrived to take her to the front door (too far for her to walk), and I headed to the parking lot to get the car. In the car, Joyce told me the damnedest story: The volunteer who'd helped her had been in Joyce's graduating class at Garfield High School in Akron. They had known each other back in the 1960s--and he, in fact, was a good friend of Joyce's next-door neighbor in Firestone Park, a young man who'd actually taken Joyce to the prom! So it goes in Coincidence Land.
  • She continues to feel better, to do better. Right now (10:15 a.m.) we have just come from a long walk around our block. There is still a long way to go on this particular journey, but she is determined to complete it. And when Joyce is determined? Well ... stuff happens!
We were overwhelmed throughout by the kind and loving comments sent along via Facebook, where'd I'd posted some sketchy updates throughout it all. It's just so astonishing to see comments and "likes" from people from all over our lives--from our own elementary school days to recent colleagues and friends to everyone in between. It's what I love about FB.

We have not finished our journey through the tangled wood, but we know where we're headed. We're moving steadily forward. Hand in hand.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday Sundries, 115

1. It's difficult to write today. As my Facebook friends now know, my wife, Joyce, will be undergoing four hours of abdominal surgery early tomorrow morning at Akron General Hospital (now affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic). She has a great surgeon, lots of support from family and friends, but, of course, Worry doesn't care about any of that--nor does Fear. I've learned, though, that work is the key to survival (physical and emotional), at least for me. Murderous Macbeth said, flippantly, The labour we delight in physics [medicates] pain. Which goes to prove that even a murderer can occasionally be profoundly wise. Joyce is working furiously today, too. So I will work on ... until I can't. And inside I will tremble and quake until she awakens tomorrow from the surgery, sees me, smiles, takes my hand.

2. I finished a couple of books this week.

   a. The latest collection of stories by the amazing Joy Williams--Ninety-Nine Stories of God (2016)--a collection of, well, ninety-nice "stories," some of which are only a few sentences long, some of which are a few pages. Nothing lengthy here. The title could be misleading: Most of the stories are not directly about God, though "the Lord" (as she most frequently calls the deity) does figure in some of them. They are, however, about Life and coincidence and confusion and oddity and quirks and ... well, just about anything you can think of. Some examples ...

      - a woman saves her mother's artificial knees after cremation
      -  a man thinks you don't get older in church
      - someone has a pet rabbit named for an adverb--Actually
      - someone says, "We can only know what God is not, not what God is" (story 49).
      - the Lord is in line for a shingles shot at a pharmacy
      - the Lord is in a den with pack of wolves--wonders why they're hunted and hated so
I think you get the idea? Fun to read--quick, too!

   b. Although I finished the "autobiography" part of the third and final volume of Mark Twain's Autobiography, this week I finally finished reading through the back matter, as well (hundreds of pages), including a long account he wrote near the end of his life, an account of his firm belief that two of his close assistants--Isabel Lyon and Ralph W. Ashcroft (who married in the middle of it all)--had been systematically ripping him off. (BTW: There's a recent book that deals in great detail with this matter--Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years, 2010, by eminent Twain scholar Laura Skandera Trombley.) Anyway, Twain is an emotionally broken, bitter man by the time all of this happens, and the way he describes Lyon and Ashcroft is brutal.

      - Ashcroft, he says, "insults me as freely and Frankly as if I were his fellow bastard and born in the same sewer" (311).
      - about their wedding: "a binding together of a pair of conspirators" (354).
     - of Lyon, he says, "the muscle in her chest that does the duty for a heart is nothing but a potato" (385).
     - and on and on ...

3. We've been watching the HBO miniseries Empire Falls (2005), the series based on Richard Russo's novel of the same name, a novel I just recently finished (Russo also wrote the screenplay). (Link to trailer.) Quite a cast. Ed Harris, Paul Newman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joanne Woodward, Helen Hunt, Aidan Quinn, Robin Wright Penn, and on and on. The emotion of the novel does not come through nearly so strongly here, but it's fun to watch all these heavyweights in action. We've seen only about half of it so far--so I'll save the rest of my thoughts for later.

4. We're also watching more of the Brit series William and Mary, with the wonderful Martin Clunes (later he became Doc Martin, a character we like even more than his "William" here). We're both souring a little on the second season. I'm especially weary of the deceptive-teen aspect of it. It's all a cliche now, I fear, and every time they become the focus, I become bored. The same with Mary's wacko mom. I'm not sure we'll finish it. It is fun, though, to see Clunes do his thing.

5. Last words--some words I liked from my various word-of-the-day online providers this week.

   a. opacus \oh-PEY-kuhs\ adjective  [DICTIONARY.COM]
Meteorology. (of a cloud) dense enough to obscure the sun or moon.
What is the cloudspotter to do when the cloud layer has grown thick enough to be of the opacus, rather than the translucidus, variety, so that it doesn't show the position of the sun or moon?
-- Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter's Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds, 2006
Origin of opacus
Opacus is a New Latin construction that stems from the Latin opācus meaning "shaded."

   b. run of the mill, n. and adj.  [OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY]
Inflections:   Plural runs of the mill, run of the mills.
Forms:  18– run of the mill, 19– run of the mills.
Origin: Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: run n.2, of prep., the adj., mill n.1
Etymology: < run n.2 + of prep. + the adj. + mill n.1
orig. N. Amer.
 A. n.
1. N. Amer. The material produced by a mill before being sorted or inspected for quality; (more generally) goods of an uncertain or variable quality produced by a mill. Cf. run n.2 47a, mill-run n. 3. Now rare.

1876   J. B. Killebrew Rep. Ocoee & Hiwassee Min. District 33   Lumber is cheap. Ten dollars per thousand is the price for inch lumber, the run of the mill; $12.50 for choice.
1877   Rep. Select Standing Comm. Immigration & Colonization in Jrnls. House of Commons Canada 11 App. 172   The run of the mill will cost from $15 to $16 a thousand, and the selections, throwing out portions of it, makes good flooring.
1896   W. G. Berg in A. L. Johnson Econ. Designing of Timber Trestle Bridges App. iii. 39   Lumber can be bought more cheaply by giving a general order for ‘the run of the mill for the season’ or ‘a cargo lot’.
1910   H. Maxwell Wood-using Industries of Maryland 26   The cost of longleaf pine by the run of the mill was $12.05 in 1908 in Louisiana.
1939   M. Evans & E. B. McGowan Guide to Textiles 66   Run-of-the-mill is a term which in general means that the merchandise has not been inspected... Sheets and pillowcases are frequently sold as run-of-the-mill.

 2. The ordinary, average, or mediocre type of something.

1922   S. Lewis Babbitt xiii. 170,   I guess I'm as good a husband as the run of the mill, but God, I do get so tired of going home every evening, and nothing to see but the movies.
1930   Hearst's Internat. Sept. 37/2   But level-headed as a wife and a darned sight better-looking than the run of the mill of wives.
1938   K. A. Porter in Southern Rev. Winter 429   I've got a special job beside my usual run of the mill.
1966   Polit. Sci. Q. 81 2   As long as the going is good, the run of the mill of the citizenry will not enter the political market.
2003   K. Scott in C. B. Bailey Age of Watteau, Chardin, & Fragonard 94   Like Mignard, Chardin used formal means, among them portrait conventions, to set his scene apart from the run of the mill.
(Hide quotations)

 B. adj.
Of an ordinary or undistinguished type or quality; average, mediocre; mundane.
Freq. hyphenated, esp. in attrib. constructions.

1919   Trans. Med. Assoc. Alabama 263   The run-of-the-mill layman is not nearly so well equipped for this work as the run-of-the-mill physician.
1933   Sun (Baltimore) 14 Oct. 4/3   An ordinary, run-of-the-mill gravy.
1943   B. A. De Voto in Harper's Mag. May 645/1   But what they have to say is mostly run of the mill.
1969   Daily Tel. 21 Apr. 17/7   No hard boundaries exist to separate jazz singers from run-of-the-mill night club performers.
2008   Review (Rio Tinto) Mar. 7/3   While its most dramatic uses include replacement joints, surgical instruments and heart stints, it has many more run of the mill applications.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

It's Just Weird ... Falling Out of Love with ...

... sports. I don't really know how it happened--I know only that I didn't will it to happen. But happen it did. And few things have surprised me more.

Those who have known me for a long time know of my quondam passion for sports--for playing, watching, listening, reading about (in the newspapers). One of the great thrills in my life was seeing my name for the first time on the sports page of the Kent-Ravenna Record Courier, which, by the way, often misspelled my name. I was Donny Dyer and Danny Dwyer and other versions. But I didn't care that much. We had an ongoing joke on our Hiram High School basketball team: If you score even one point, you get your name in the paper. A thrill no matter how many numbers follow!

When we moved to Hiram, Ohio, in summer of 1956 (I was about to turn 12), it didn't take long for me to fall in love with the Cleveland Browns. They held their summer training camp at Hiram College, and I saw Jim Brown and Lou Groza and Paul Warfield and many others over the years. I even played ping-pong with RB Ernie Green (and I lost very quickly). I watched them faithfully (obsessively?) until they released QB Bernie Kosar. I lost interest, haven't watched any football games in probably a decade.

In high school I played basketball and baseball. In college I was on the tennis team--and I played tennis afterwards for years at a nearby racket club.

Haven't played tennis in probably twenty years--maybe longer.

It took me a little longer to fall for the Indians. They had a very bad record throughout my youth, and I'd come to Ohio a Yankees fan. But that eventually changed, and I became a big Tribe fan--listening in bed to broadcasts from the West Coast, going to many games--later, watching virtually all of them (often reading something while doing so).

But I haven't watched a Tribe game in five years or so. Or listened. I couldn't name more than a player or two.

The Cavs came along later, too (they were an expansion team), but I was obsessive about them in their near-misses in those years with Mark Price, et al. Price hailed from my hometown of Enid, Okla.; I once saw him in a local grocery store, and we talked amiably about Enid--I was shocked that he was hardly taller than I; I'm 5'8".

I haven't watched a Cavs' game in five or six years. Didn't watch any of the recent playoffs.

I no longer read the sports pages at all.

So what happened?

I don't know. And--please--it's not as if I sit around and sniff about how superior I am. I don't and I'm not. I just really have no interest. I was not even tempted to watch the Cavs' recent Game 7. I'm happy they won--but mostly because that win seemed to make so many others happy.

So, again, what happened?

Again ... I don't know. Some of it probably was due to my cancer diagnosis later in 2004. Suddenly, things got very serious, and I realized that Time and Decline and Death were not just words to apply to other people.

Some, probably, has been due to aging. I couldn't play tennis now if I wanted to (knees, elbow, etc.). Playing catch with my 11-year-old grandson is almost beyond me (that boy throws hard). I know I'm gonna get bonked in the face one of these days!

Mostly, I think, it's just ... falling out of love. Amiably so. A divorce without affect. Without rancor or resentment of any kind.

Our son still loves sports. Our older grandson (11) loves sports, and is very good at baseball and basketball, and is beyond very good in golf. He's already shooting in the 70s--from the regular tees. (Actually, I realize I have seen baseball and basketball games recently--those starring (!!) our grandsons.)

And I'm happy for all who love the games. Loving an activity brings obvious joy to so many people. My own loves have changed, that's all.

Still ... it continues to puzzle the hell out of me ...

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Age of the Coward

Not long ago I read a frightening book--So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2016). In it, he tells the stories of folks who've tweeted carelessly--or posted something carelessly--and received such a hailstorm of (mostly) anonymous opprobrium and vicious commentary that their lives were fundamentally altered. And not for the better. Jobs lost. Homes lost. And so on.

This is the Dark Side of social media, of course--and by "social media" I don't mean just Twitter and Facebook and the like. Many, many other sites (like Amazon.com) permit folks--anonymously--to comment and criticize and castigate to their dark heart's content.

I've been the recipient of some of this (and will probably get some more for this)--and I've just done my best not to let it affect me--and to avoid reading such things whenever I can. But some of it can be, well, frightening--not just in the words but in the obvious rancor and bile that fuel them.

Nowadays, everyone can be a critic. No qualifications required, other than an Internet connection and an attitude. No, you don't need to know all that much (or anything) about books or music or art or restaurant fare or politics or sports or anything else; you just need to have a need. And a sharp knife.

We have been nearing a time (and maybe we're already there?) when all opinions are equal. And--in our polarized society--the nastier the better. You and I can share with the world what we think, and this, apparently, is just too much for the bitter among us to resist.

All of this is, of course, cowardly. When I published book reviews in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, my name was on all of them. And from time to time I took heat from the writer, the writer's family and friends. Never pleasant. Same for the op-ed pieces I wrote for many years. But I knew that this went with the territory. And so I learned to accept it.

And when I published books myself, I was never pleased by negative comments or reviews (there were a few), but I saw the name of the reviewer, the name of the publication, and I knew this was just part of the process. And, again, I learned to accept it.

But I just can't stand today's vicious anonymity. What's the source of this bitterness? This passion to injure? To destroy? Why do some think it's fun--and acceptable?--to post some outrageous comment and hide behind some opaque screen-name while doing so? To me, it's no different from throwing rocks from a freeway bridge. Or painting objectionable symbols on someone's house. Then running away.

Cowardice has always come in a variety of forms. Now we have a new one. A new one that empowers anyone to torment--and to pay no consequences whatsoever. The Internet has flung open the gates of the human zoo, and the fanged ones are among us.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

School Year Begins

The signs have been everywhere--the signs of another beginning of another school year.* School clothing in Kohl's, supplies in Office Depot, school buses on practice runs, photos on Facebook of kids in their new clothing, holding their new supplies, getting ready to head out for their first day in a new grade. (The facial expressions of those kids range from This is gonna be fun! to I hate this!)

One of the sure signs for an English teacher is the arrival in the mail of various prompts and publications, and even though I haven't taught at all in five years, and even though I haven't taught in a public school in almost twenty years, I still get, every fall, a sample copy of Scope magazine from its publisher, Scholastic, Inc. And just the other day--here it came (see image below). The hope of Scholastic? That I'll use the magazine once again with my students.

I loved using Scope when I was teaching in a public middle school. Some years all the kids subscribed; some years I got a classroom subscription; other years I would use things with the class--things I'd saved from previous years--or things from the newest issue (to which I subscribed). The half-dozen file cabinets out in the back of the house are chockablock with tear-outs from Scope (and countless other publications).

This current issue has an article on terrorism (a 9/11 survivor talks)--good way to start the school year?

There's a short story about a kid on Mars. Followed by a piece about the science of living on Mars.

There's a piece about how our phones are making us rude.

But the piece I would have used? A dramatization of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." This version is narrated by a group of ravens. (One online site says such a group is called an "unkindness" of ravens. Seems fitting--at least for Poe.) There's also an Old Man and a Bad Guy (who--spoiler alert!--kills the Old Man, whose sleeping behavior bothers him). There are also a couple of stage directors--SD 1 and SD 2.

The dramatization ends with this:

All Ravens: Caw, caw, caw!

SD 1: The light fades to black and all falls still.

I think I would have had fun using this when we talked about Poe. Later on, at Western Reserve Academy, I had my eleventh graders read the original Poe story, and it might have been a hoot (or a caw?) to take a few minutes to read this aloud in class with the students--the text of the script is only three pages long.

So, yes, the arrival of Scope is something I now expect. When I see it in the mail, I have this farrago of feelings: happiness, nostalgia, worry (Am I teaching this year?--I sometimes have this dream), amusement, and on and on.

I miss teaching ... miss the kids ... but it ain't gonna happen again. Still, it's kind of Scope to assume it will--and to send me a copy of Scope. Just in case ...

*I've been writing about the commencement of my own teaching career, exactly fifty years ago, and I will get back to that soon.

Monday, August 15, 2016

I Always Walked to School

Adams Elementary School
Enid, Okla.
My mom had also attended it,
not long after it opened.
I never rode the bus to school. I rode it only to athletic events and, later, as a teacher on a field trip (don't get me started!). Because we lived fairly close to the schools I attended, I always walked to school, K-12.  Google Maps says it's about a half-mile from my later boyhood home in Enid, Oklahoma, to Adams Elementary School. An eleven-minute walk declares Google. In good weather I rode my bike, but walking, biking--they both took longer than eleven minutes because I was, you know, Taking My Own Sweet Time. Meeting friends, lazying along--in no real hurry to get to Adams, where hours of workbooks and silence and (occasionally) some fear awaited me. (The kid who bullied me was--no kidding--named Donald McDonald and his brother was Ronald.)

The Hiram Local Schools (where I attended grades 7-12) was about the same distance, I'd guess, though most of those years we lived down Hiram's steep hill. At the bottom. Cardio. Every morning.

I even walked to college for a couple of years--right up that same high-school hill to Hiram College.

I'm thinking and writing about this today because our grandsons, 11 and 7, start back to school this week. August 17. An unthinkably early day. When I was a boy, we never started this early. No, it was basically Labor Day to Memorial Day, leaving us three honest-to-God months of FREEDOM in the summer--hell, it wasn't even officially summer yet when we headed for home at the end of a school year.

But--our vacations were much shorter; there were no teacher in-service days. Oh, and I never even imagined a "snow day" until we moved to northeastern Ohio. Those days of snow helped me fall in love with Ohio, by the way.

And I'm thinking today about the beginning of school for another reason, as well. This 2016-17 academic year marks an anniversary for me, for it was exactly fifty years ago, the late summer of 1966, that I began my public-school teaching career at what was then the Aurora Middle School; Aurora, Ohio. Seventh graders. I was twenty-one years old, would not turn twenty-two until November that year. My students were twelve. (Below, see my yearbook picture from that year!)

I had just recently completed my student teaching at nearby West Geauga High School (11th grade English) and was feeling pretty good--and pretty bad. I'd had a good experience there with the kids. I learned a lot every day (I'm not so sure how much they learned, though), and I'd already made an astonishing discovery: I loved teaching. (More about this later.)

(I was feeling pretty bad, as I said, because I'd had very little help from my supervising teacher at WGHS. He'd turned over four classes to me, and throughout the entire 10-12 weeks I was there, he saw me work with each class one time only. Four visits the entire time--each followed by some perfunctory (and mostly useless) comments. Otherwise, he sat in the lounge all day, smoked, and enjoyed his weeks off.)

I was a little worried about middle schoolers--for a couple of reasons. For one, during my own early adolescence I was, well, certifiable. The principal factors in my madness: realizing I had barely any interest in schoolwork; trying to survive the newly cruel rule of King Testosterone; trying to figure out who in the hell I was and what I was good at (I was very wrong about the latter for quite a while.)

And another reason? One of the few bits of advice my supervising teacher at WGHS had given me was this: Whatever you do, don't get stuck teaching in a junior high school. I'd smiled with a sort of daffy confidence at that remark--Of course I wouldn't get stuck in that kind of hell-hole!

But I did. And was "stuck" there--very happily, thank you--for about thirty years.

To be continued--my first very difficult days (years?) in the classroom ...

the year I began my career

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sunday Sundries, 114

1. AOTW: How about the guy in the huge black Escalade coming at me the wrong way down a one-way street in Hudson the other day? He did not look at me as I swerved out of his way; thus, he did not see my sign language or hear my grievous execrations.

2. We're still loving the brief Brit series William and Mary (we've watched four of the six episodes on Netflix DVD). I'm a little tired of the "annoying-teen" motif, not just here but in so many movies and TV shows. I worked with teens my whole career, and, sure, some were annoying. But the vast majority were not, and many possessed the kindest hearts a human can hope for.

3. We saw Jason Bourne the other night--and were disappointed. It's the same movie as the others, and I found myself (impossibly!) bored. An old bad guy in the CIA. Car chases (and motorcycle) through busy streets. A killer stalking JB (guess who wins?). Multiple international locations (a la James Bond). Time for Jason to buy a condo in Key West, to kick back and watch some Netflix.
4. I've finished a few books since the last time I posted an "SS."

     a. I finally got around to reading Things Fall Apart, the 1959 novel by Chinua Achebe about the collapse of a culture in Nigeria--the arrival of Christian missionaries, of "modern" ways, of technology. We follow one powerful man who believes deeply in the old ways and, therefore, a man doomed to lose. I know that many students at Western Reserve Academy have read the book: I used to see them carrying it around--I still do. The title, of course, comes from that famous sequence in Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" (link to the poem), and, near the end, one of the characters just flat says it: "The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart" (176).

     b. While we were in Stratford for the theater festival, I read Donald Ray Pollock's newest novel, The Heavenly Table (2016). I'd liked Pollock's first two books (and have signed first printings of each!), Knockemstiff (2008) and The Devil All the Time (2011). He writes about rural America (rural Ohio often) and helps us see in close-up the lives of people who are so far off the grid that they don't even know there is a grid. Okay. The Heavenly Table takes place in his rural world (the WW I era) near the Ohio River (both sides) and employs the device of telling several stories that do not converge until the final chapters. A farming family whose son has run off somewhere; three brothers (two are barely able to function) who turn to bank robbery; a black man trying to get to Detroit; a man who's a local inspector of outhouses; an Army lieutenant who realizes he's gay--these are the main stories he follows. Not much turns out well. But I felt Pollock, this time, was more interested in being grim and gross and outrageous than in really trying to craft a story whose intricacies reveal something about the human mind and heart. Lots of violence and bodily functions and the deleterious effects of a lack of education (and this last I am on board with!).

     c. And, finally, just yesterday I finished Richard Russo's 2001 novel Empire Falls (which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), a novel that will sound very familiar to fans of Russo's earlier works (Mohawk, Nobody's Fool) and his most recent one, Everybody's Fool (2016). Some of you know that I'm slowly working my way through Russo's complete works, and I've now read six of his ten (another is on the way!). So in Empire--we get a crumbling town (this one in Maine, not New York), a wealthy family, a diner, a bar, some local eccentrics (a derelict dad, a hot waitress who keeps marrying the wrong guys, etc.), a troubled protagonist, a bent cop, and on and on.

Russo, though, makes it all seem different and fresh. He has the gift (Jim Harrison had it too) of moving you through a narrative, and you're not always aware that you even are moving. Things just seem to happen--just as they do in Real Life--and it's not until you've read many, many pages that you begin to see the significance of it all. Even the smallest detail can emerge, later, as a Matterhorn.

Principally, it's a novel about secrets (and the destructive power of same), and we do not learn them all until the very end.

Bridge of Sighs is next. I read it when it came out (2007) but don't remember it well, so I'm going to read it again to see if and how it fits with his earlier work.

Oh, and last night ... started watching the HBO miniseries based on Empire--just the first 20 minutes or so ... will write more about it next week ...

5. Some words I liked this week (words arriving from my various online word-of-the-day suppliers):

     a. synthespian, n.  A computer-generated character in a film.
Origin: Formed within English, by blending. Etymons: synthetic adj., Thespian adj. and n.
Etymology: Blend of synthetic adj. and Thespian adj. and n.

The film may be a mixture of live action and computer animation, in which the character appears to interact with human actors, or may be made wholly with computer animation.

1989   Videography Oct. 71/1   Since 1987 Kleiser and his partner, sculptress/artist Diana Walczak, have been toiling away at their current company.., creating what they feel are the forerunners of the actors of the future, computer generated characters or ‘synthespians’, a term they have coined to describe their product.
1992   Forbes (Nexis) 7 Dec. 46   Actors can be replaced by synthespians who will be created from libraries of gestures and expressions housed in a computer bank.
1994   Observer 19 June (Life Suppl.) 69/6   The prospect really exciting some Hollywood execs is the possibility of developing a ‘virtual star’, also known as a ‘vactor’ or ‘synthespian’, a believable computer-generated human character.
2001   3D World Mar. 14/2   Attitude Studio claims that its new virtual creation, Eve Solal is the most lifelike synthespian yet.

     b. titivate  \TIT-uh-veyt\ verb
1. to make smart or spruce: She titivated her old dress with a new belt.
2. to make oneself smart or spruce.
“Come on, lovey, just a little cup of tea and a nice piece of cake. There'll be plenty of time to titivate afterwards.” “Titivate?” Joanna said slowly as if this was some strange foreign word she had not heard before. “Titivate? What for?” [...] “I'm not going out anywhere if that's what you mean.”
-- Nina Bawden, A Little Love, a Little Learning, 1965
 Origin of titivate
Titivate entered English in the early 1800s when it was sometimes spelled tidivate, which, in turn, is thought to be blend of tidy and elevate, literally meaning "tidy up."

Saturday, August 13, 2016

But, of course, I didn't really retire ...

April 2008
one of my WRA Eng III classes with writer Brock Clarke

Yesterday, I wrote a bit about my final year at Harmon Middle School (Aurora, Ohio), the finest school that ever was (and still is, from all I've heard). I'd retired in January 1997 certain that I would never teach again.

I was wrong.

As I often am.

At the time (1997) I was already fully submerged in Lake Mary Shelley and was learning everything I could about her, about her family and friends, about Frankenstein and her other books (about which I'd known nothing). I had a literary agent. I was gonna write another YA biography, this one of Mary Shelley. I was gonna ...

But by the spring of 2001 I found myself in a strange, unexpected situation: I missed teaching. What! I could not return to public school, though: I'd let my Ohio certification lapse, and in order to restore it, so declared the State of Ohio, I would have to takes some new courses--several of them. I was indignant when I learned that (especially when I discovered several grammar and usage errors in the official letter telling me I was no longer qualified to teach English in Ohio public schools).

But with the aid of some friends I got back on the faculty of Western Reserve Academy (where I'd taught from 1979-81). Private schools do not have to adhere to Ohio's standards for teacher qualification, so I was golden there (if not in Ohio's eyes). And I enjoyed yet another batch of years--a decade. I retired for the second (and final) time in June 2011.

Teaching at WRA was another variety of wonderful--very different from a public middle school (where I'd labored and loved). I taught eleventh graders--youngsters who were in the final throes of college dreams and applications, of disappointments and thrilling successes.And as I gradually made the transition from 8th graders to 11th graders, I found myself, again, wandering in a forest full of wonders.

Eleventh grade was American literature (plus Hamlet, that great American classic--as I always liked to joke), and American lit was my primary background and love. So each year I took the kids through American literary history (after we'd disposed of the Melancholy Dane--"Good night, sweet prince ..."), from the Pilgrims and Puritans (and the poems of Anne Bradstreet) to a contemporary writer, someone whom I would often find a way (with WRA's splendid help) to bring to school to meet with the kids, who'd read that writer's newest book.

Oh, did I have fun--except with some of the very formulaic writing that the school began to insist more and more that we do. I hated it. There's is a universe of discourse out there--so many ways to write what you're thinking and feeling--but we had to focus on one tiny (and largely passé) way: the five-paragraph essay. But never mind ... I want to be nostalgic right now, not bitter!

The WRA kids were great to me. We laughed often. They tolerated my signs of imminent ... disarray (like my telling at the end of a period an anecdote I'd already told at the beginning--this happened!). I had more fun than I'd had since ... well, since I'd been at Harmon Middle School.

But, as I indicated yesterday, health issues arose, became more insistent I pay attention to them, and so I knew it was time. I wanted to leave while I was still more or less myself--and not some shadow thereof. And so I did.

During the school year, I still see WRA students down at Open Door Coffee, where I hang out, and they are friendly--I've gotten to know a few who come there regularly (occasionally, I get a request for some help with an essay or a literary passage; I'm invariably grateful). I've been invited back up to speak on campus most every year since I left, and that's wonderful, too--a way to introduce myself to a new batch of kids, some of whom I'll later see at Open Door.

I also get other surprises down there now and then--students from Harmon Days who drop in to surprise me. It's just impossible for me to believe that those first seventh graders I taught back in 1966 are now in their sixties and are, like me, grandparents ...  I was 21 when I met some of them; they were 12.

And as this new school year's starting, I'm reminded that my own career began fifty years ago at the Aurora Middle School (as it was then called--before Harmon was built). I think I'll be writing about that next week ...

Friday, August 12, 2016

That End-of-the-Year Smile

I forget where I got this picture. I think a student took it, then sent it to me? It was the spring of 1996, I think (context clues!), and, guessing what I see in the background, I think it's the last day of school, the day when teachers and staff would come outside and wave good-bye to the students. It was always a very emotional time for me. I taught eighth graders the last fifteen years of my career, and they were the oldest kids in the building--Harmon Middle School; Aurora, Ohio. They were usually sad about leaving, emotional. In a way, they were putting childhood behind, heading into high school. They were both excited and somewhat afraid. Anyway, I thought then (and still think) that Harmon was one of the best schools--ever. (Not that I'm biased, mind you.)

The spring of 1996 was an even more moving time for me. I'd already decided that this would be my final full year of teaching. I could retire (30 years' service) in January 1997, and that I did, on the very day I was first eligible. I had miles to go before I slept, you see ...

There was yet another reason for some high emotion at the end of the year. My final dozen years or so some colleagues and I mounted a production--The 8th Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show. We had a running gag with the title (not a funny gag--but, you know, a gag?): We would attach to the title the eighth graders' year of graduation from high school. So ... this show we'd just done (always near the end of the year) was The 2000th 8th Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show. Ha, ha.

With earlier classes the gag had been plausible enough (The 95th ...) that I actually had people ask me if there really had been over ninety shows.

The farewell shows were a collection of skits and songs and dances (all about life at Harmon), and I was fortunate--very fortunate--to have the help in later years of my friends Andy Kmetz (the art teacher, a gifted dancer who did all the choreography and so much more) and Gary Brookhart (the band director, who accompanied us on the piano with professional skill and a sensitivity to what kids were capable of).

Anyway, that spring (1996) I had just finished my final show at the middle school--I had done over thirty. And I was awash in emotion. I knew I would never direct a play again. And, indeed, I haven't.

The two girls in the foreground of the picture were involved in that final show. One is a Facebook friend; the other I've lost track of.

I look at the me of 1996, twenty years ago. My beard and hair are dark. My weight is good (an adult-long battle, sometimes won, sometimes lost). I have a faint smile. Excitement mixed with relief and with hope and with being polite for the picture-taker. I'm wearing my "uniform" of my late-career years: polo shirt, slacks.

That smile tells me much more today, too. I was eager to retire for a couple of reasons. For one, I was disgusted by the proficiency-test mania that had already begun to dominate the public school curriculum (it has lasted twenty years--such foolishness); for another, I was eager to get on with my writing life.

In 1995 I'd published a fully annotated edition of The Call of the Wild (Univ. of Okla. Pr.), and in the fall of 1997 I would have two other books--a YA title (Jack London: A Biography, Scholastic; and a paperback edition of Wild--also Univ. of Okla. Pr.). I was certain that other books were in me, that good health was obviously going to last ... I was also writing op-ed pieces for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I had not yet published a single book review.

That changed that very fall when I published my first review in a small publication called Ohio Writer. I would do a few more for them, then, on a friend's recommendation, got a gig with Kirkus Reviews in March 1999, a gig that continues to this day. This year--if all continues--I'll hit review #1400 for Kirkus.  In the spring of 2000 I contacted the Cleveland Plain Dealer about doing reviews for them; in August that year, my first appeared, and I eventually wrote nearly 200 (I think--haven't counted) for them before the paper, having downsized, no longer used freelancers for book reviews but took virtually all of them from the wire services. (My last review appeared in the PD about a year ago.)

I still do one Kirkus book per week, all year long. I have two blogs (this one and Daily Doggerel). I keep writing away at books, publishing them all on Kindle Direct now. Once I got my cancer diagnosis (December 2004) I knew that I could no longer count on the bounties of Time, bounties I'd foolishly thought would last, you know, for ever. So ... no more dickering with traditional publishers. No more time.

That slight smile in June 1996 has, then, another couple of qualities: ignorance, naivete.

But I love the stronger emotion I see there--hope.

I've had twenty more years ... I've tried not to waste them ... I know for certain now that I am fragile, mortal. Of course, I always knew it, but now I know it. There's a difference. And so I will try to work every day until I simply can't--at which time I hope Fate will sweep me quickly, mercifully away. One must not linger after the party's over.