I’d Walk a Mile…

Ever since I was a young teenager, I’ve wondered why “walking a mile” is supposed to represent walking a long distance.  I remember hearing about the slogan Camel used for decades to advertise its cigarettes, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel!”  And yet, 5280 feet (1.609 km) is not that far a distance to walk, really.  (It probably is a long, long way to run, especially for someone like me, who has never run long distances.  I don’t run because I don’t have the stamina.  Why don’t I have the stamina?  Because I don’t run.)

This subject comes to mind because the Owl flies tonight, which means I’m going to be pounding pavement in a little over an hour.  Tonight is the second return of Nite Owl Theater, and tonight Fritz the Nite Owl will be hosting Plan Nine from Outer Space, long considered the worst movie ever made.  The Grandview Theater is just over three miles from my house in Weinland Park, a straight westerly walk up W. 5th Ave.  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t walk three miles in 27-degree weather to see that thing–I used to have a VHS copy of it, but erased it to record cartoons for Susie when she was a toddler.  But Fritz is hosting it, and that’s reason enough.  (Susie’s introduction to the legendary Mr. Peerenboom will be on Christmas night, when the show will be–surprise, surprise!–Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.)

At least three of the items on my “bucket list” (a wish list of things I want to do before I “kick the bucket”) involve walking.  The three big walks I want to make in my lifetime are these:

  • John Wilkes Booth’s escape route.  It would start at the back door of Ford’s Theater in Washington and wind its way through Maryland and Virginia before ending in Port Royal, Va., where Booth was captured and was shot by a demented Union soldier, a born-again Christian and self-castrated eunuch named Boston Corbett.  It would also include pit stops at the Surratt family tavern in Clinton (then called Surrattsville) and Dr. Mudd’s farmhouse in Bryantown.
  • The National Road.  This inspiration came to me while I was living in Franklinton (“capital of West Virginia”) from 2002 until 2009.  The main drag through Franklinton is W. Broad St.  In fact, Broad St. is the major east-west thoroughfare in Columbus.  It is part of U.S. 40, which is the old National Road, beginning in Cumberland, Md. and terminating at the Kaskaskia River in Galesburg, Ill.  Much of it would be familiar terrain for me, since I went back and forth on W. Broad St. daily when I worked at Medco Health on Phillipi Rd.  In Wheeling, my dad’s hometown, the street is called “National Rd.”, and part of its route includes going over the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.  (I don’t remember if I’ve ever crossed the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, but my dad said it swayed so much that during a circus parade to Wheeling Island, one of the elephants was so petrified its handlers had to blindfold it and lead it across.  Sobering, especially if you’ve ever seen the footage of the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State.)
  • The Pony Express route.  This would be from St. Joseph, Mo. to Sacramento, Calif. (known fondly to my friends in the Bay Area as “Excremento”).  Even though emails and text messaging are legion, I still love the feel of writing (or tape-recording) letters and cards and then dropping them in the blue mailboxes (when I can find them).  The only reason I never signed up to be a carrier during my stint at the main post office in Cincinnati was because carriers had to have driver’s licenses–I would have been happy to take my mail on the bus and deliver it that way, but that wasn’t permitted.  And mail call–although increasingly disappointing–is still my favorite part of the day.  (Amazon.com gave me a $1 subscription to Rolling Stone for recently buying a DVD, and my first issue arrived yesterday.  Two previous issues were in the mail today.)  So, walking the Pony Express route–all 1680 miles of it–would be a good way to combine my love of mail and my love of walking.  Ads for Pony Express riders targeted “young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen”, with the added notice “Orphans preferred.”  My walking the distance of the Pony Express route (Fort Collins, Provo, Salt Lake City) would be proof that you don’t need to be young, skinny, or wiry.  I was when I was a teen (“not over eighteen”), but I am an orphan now, so I meet one of the qualifications.

I keep reminding myself I need to be on my guard tonight.  The Ohio State Buckeyes were victorious over the University of Michigan Wolverines today (as they have been annually since 2004), 37-7.  The game was here in Columbus, so I am sure that there will be places along W. 5th Ave. where I will be running a gauntlet of drunken yahoos who are celebrating the victory aided by sustenance they’re carrying around in brown paper bags.  I am thankful that the old Roxy Theatre on N. High St. (just north of Lane Ave.) is no more.  If it still existed, I’m sure that’s where Fritz would be hosting this program tonight, and trying to get through High St. when the streets and sidewalks are clogged by inebriated football fans would truly be a hellish experience.  So, I’m glad to be making the trek to Grandview, west of where all the insanity is occurring.

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Cost-Saving Day

Today was one of the “cost-saving days” dictated by our contract.  (I get to choose six of them, whereas four of them–the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Eve–were chosen for me.)  I slept late both yesterday and today, so returning to the work routine come Monday morning won’t be easy.  Open-ended waking-up times are very easy to get used to.

We had a pretty low-key Thanksgiving fête, just Steph, Susie, and me.  It featured turkey, potatoes, carrots, wine (for Steph), water (for Susie), and apple juice (for me).  It was hardly a Norman Rockwell setting.  As we ate, we watched a Two and a Half Men stored on the DVR, and I enjoyed some of the many episodes of Law and Order that TNT broadcast.  I was too wiped out, both emotionally and physically, to write either here in the blog or in my diary, and I was in bed well on this side of midnight.
Even though the temperature hasn’t been above 30º F. today, I’ve been outdoors quite a bit today.  Yesterday, Thanksgiving, it was dark most of the day, with a constant cold rain.  The only time I was outdoors was to run turkey parts straight out to the trash can in the back yard, so David, our tabby, wouldn’t get into the trash.  (He feasted on giblets from the turkey, so he ate as well as we did.)  This morning, I took Susie to the Short North post office branch to buy a $.10 stamp, so she could mail a letter to her pen pal in Ireland.  (I had given her two $.44 stamps already.)
Steph and I walked, mostly along E. and W. 5th Ave., in the afternoon after the noon meal.  She took my camera and shot some pictures of different scenes and buildings along the way–Godman Guild, the New Life United Methodist Church, shops near the corner of High and 5th, etc.  We walked as far west as the Thompson Recreation Center, and then turned around and headed eastward.  Our goal was to be in the light of the sun as much as possible, and the sun darted in and out from behind clouds the entire time.
As maudlin as it sounds, I have been searching the junk stores and thrift shops for a decent copy of Eric Enstrom’s “Grace,” a painting taken from a photograph of peddler Charles Wilden.  I’ve seen the pictures in church social halls, friends’ dining rooms, and even some hole-in-the-wall restaurants here and there.  Since it was so ubiquitous, I thought that it had crossed the line into kitsch, but lately I’ve rethought that.
What I like about this picture is that the old man in the picture is genuinely thankful and glad for the food that is set before him.  And it’s quite a simple meal, just some bread and gruel.  The Lord’s Prayer says “give us this day our daily bread,” meaning give us the food to sustain us, no more, no less, no deprivation, but no excess, either.
I realized that I had some rethinking to do in this area sometime last year.  I was walking through the kitchen at night, and the lights were off.  I nearly fell when I stepped onto a scatter of cans on the kitchen floor and nearly fell.  After I regained my balance, I was cursing that our pantry was so overloaded cans weren’t staying on the shelves.
I caught myself a moment later.  So easily did I forget the days when I was between jobs and rolling pennies so I could buy a cheeseburger.  I had forgotten the days when I would buy two hot dogs for a dollar at United Dairy Farmers and savor them as though I were eating a thick rare steak at the finest restaurant in town.  And here I was griping about having so much food my pantry runneth over!
I have my earbuds in right now while I’m typing.  In today’s mail, I received an MP3 disk of the “Top 95” countdown of WXIL-FM, my all-time favorite radio station during my early adolescence.  This program was recorded New Year’s Eve 1977, counting back the top 95 hits of 1977.  (WXIL’s place on the FM dial was 95.1.)  Currently, Chicago’s “Baby, What a Big Surprise” is playing, and I remember that song fondly.  (In eighth grade, I saved my lunch money so I could buy Chicago XI at Hart’s.)  I’m enjoying hearing commercials that I had forgotten, for companies like Auto Sound and Security and Powell’s Honda.  Earlier, I heard Stillwater’s song “Mindbender,” which I had completely forgotten.  (Never mind that I used to sit by the radio for hours with my tape recorder, waiting for that to come on.)  I was glad to get that disk in today’s mail.  The year 1977 was not a particularly happy one for me, but the radio was a constant companion during my many hours of self-imposed exile in my bedroom.  

A Question No One’s Ever Posed (at Least Not to Me)

“If you could only have one [this part varies] for the rest of your life, what would it be?” is a question and a what-if game that I’ve alternately enjoyed and dreaded over the years.  I had mixed feelings when it was immortalized on the Stand By Me poster:

If I could only have one food for the rest of my life?  That’s easy–Pez.  Cherry-flavored Pez.  No question about it.

I recently thought of something that hasn’t come up, not in let’s-go-around-the-circle-and-get-acquainted sessions, or camping-out-in-the-yard situations.  If you could only hear one piece of music the rest of your life, what would it be?

For me, two pieces of music are tied for first, and for me, I doubt it’s possible to break the tie.  The two choices are either Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite.  The only way I can minimize these two choices is to say that if I could only hear one movement of the Ninth Symphony, it would be the second.

I’m not even sure if the Ninth Symphony would have made it onto the list–let alone vying for a spot at the top–if my parents had watched Walter Cronkite and The CBS Evening News.  Being a native of Wheeling, for a long time my dad insisted that he and Mother watch WTRF-TV (Channel 7) local news.  Channel 7 was the NBC affiliate at that time, and it was followed by The Huntley-Brinkley Report.  After 30 minutes of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley reading the news, the closing credits rolled, playing the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  I didn’t know how special it was until my dad played it for me from their multi-LP set of The Basic Library of the World’s Greatest Music.  (I was familiar with Beethoven, because I had seen his scowling profile on the bust that was atop Schroeder’s toy piano in Peanuts.)

I guess The Huntley-Brinkley Report is a much better introduction to the Ninth Symphony than A Clockwork Orange, although after seeing that film, I no longer associate “The William Tell Overture” exclusively with The Lone Ranger.  When I was in Boston, Sega released an arcade game called Pengo.  In between rounds, a row of penguins would march out onto the screen and dance to the “Ode to Joy.”  The game was popular enough that I could easily get the tune stuck in my head.  Later on, when hearing a professionally recorded version of it, if I’ve been unmedicated for awhile and the volume is high enough, the choral portion of the “Ode to Joy” triggers manic episodes for me that can last hours or days.

The other piece of music, The Lieutenant Kijé Suite, was the B side of the Peter and the Wolf album that my dad brought home for me when I was in kindergarten.  It was produced by Vanguard Everyman Classics, with Boris Karloff narrating Peter and the Wolf.  (It is available on CD, and well worth every cent, especially the way Karloff ends the narrative: “…because the wolf, in his hurry, had swallowed her [dramatic pause] alive!”, stretching out the final word over several seconds.)  I felt adventurous one day, and decided to play the “grown-up” part of the record, and found I liked it even better than Peter and the Wolf.  With an adult’s supervision, I could play it on our stereo, the big Magnavox console in the living room, but my parents finally let me play it on my orange and white General Electric monaural phonograph in my bedroom because I asked them to play it for me so often.

My mother told me that when I was in first grade, she had no idea that I was being physically and emotionally abused by my teacher.  She said that I would come home, eat my after-school snack, “then you’d go up to your bedroom and put on Vivaldi on your record player until it was time for dinner.”  I do love Vivaldi (enough to rip an entire five-CD set of it to this laptop), but my memory is a little fuzzy on playing Vivaldi.  (I did hear, several times, about my bringing The Four Seasons to Pioneer Nursery School when the teachers asked us to bring our favorite records to share.)

The other vivid Vivaldi memory was when I was preschool and kindergarten age.  We didn’t go to church on Sunday morning.  My mother usually slept late, and I would be awake to watch Tom and Jerry before the news and religious programming dominated the rest of Sunday morning television.  My dad was usually awake at the same time, reading the Sunday paper.  As far as remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy, we always played Vivaldi’s Gloria, and Dad would make pancakes or French toast, along with bacon and eggs, instead of pouring me my usual bowl of cold cereal.  (Neither of us said it aloud, and I only came to realize many years after Dad died in 2000, but part of what made the Sunday morning celebrations so special was that Mother was not with us.  She had yet to go fully nuts, but she had begun going down that path.)

First UU’s holiday concert last year included the Gloria, and I forgot how special that piece of music had been until I arrived at the church.  I arrived while the musicians were tuning and warming up, and the goose bumps rose all up and down my arm when I heard the French horn player practicing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” several times while preparing for the concert.

And what have I been listening to while I’ve been typing this entry?  Such erudite music as Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and The Fortunes’ “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again.”

My Early Life Inspired a TV Episode

I’ve seen more than one person over the years wearing a button that said MY LIFE IS A SOAP OPERA.  All of us feel that way, usually quite justifiably, but I can truthfully say that a first-grade playground incident was immortalized on a kids’ show.

The show didn’t receive nation- or worldwide coverage.  The program was Hattie, Chattie, and Thurb, a puppet show broadcast on Marietta College’s small television station, WCMO-TV (known as Project 9 or Project 2 initially, depending on which channel it used), a station which had a broadcast radius of maybe about 20 blocks.  Picture the bargain basement equivalent of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, but without a human character.  The station’s budget was just about nonexistent, so the students running the show made puppets out of socks.

I don’t even remember what animals the characters were, although I watched the show quite faithfully when it was on late in the afternoon, trying (in Marietta) to hold its own against the maiden voyage of Sesame Street.

In the fall of first grade, I was proud of the fact that I had lost my first tooth over the summer, and I was about to lose my second.  I was always thirsty, and I was constantly wiggling it to show off to friends, or unconsciously wiggling the tooth back and forth with my tongue.  (At the time I thought it resembled a Tog’l Block, a toy made by Mattel, which featured cubes with one hinged side.)

After lunch, I was on the Washington School playground, and in the middle of talking to a kid or jumping onto the merry-go-round, I must have popped the tooth out with my tongue.  I wasn’t even aware of it, until a kid said, “Hey, you’re bleeding!”  I remember tasting something funny in my mouth, and I put my finger in, and it came out streaked with red.  Instinctively, my tongue went for the loose tooth, and it was gone.

Washington School, Marietta, Ohio.

I was proud of this at first, but then panic set in.  When I lost the first tooth, like many another child before and since, I put it under my pillow at bedtime that night.  The next morning, the tooth was gone, and there was a dime under the pillow.  (At six years old, that was big money.  When Susie first started losing teeth, we left dollar bills.  She came out ahead, too.  According to the calculator at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a dime in 1969 has the buying power of $.60 today.)

So now I had lost the tooth–literally.  It wasn’t only gone from my mouth, it was completely gone.  I remember madly scrambling around the slide, the swing set, under the Funnel Ball, and everywhere I thought I could have been.  I was in total despair, worsened each time I picked up a small white pebble, thinking it was my tooth.  (I must have looked like one of the peasant women in Millet’s painting “The Gleaners.”)

I managed to feign enough calm about this during the rest of the school day.  And it was a good thing, too, because my first-grade teacher was likely certifiably nuts, a woman very free with both her shrill voice and her ruler.

After school, when my dad picked me up, I told him of my plight and my despair.  I worried even more when he vetoed the idea of going onto the playground with me, so we could pursue The Case of the Missing Denticle.  He was noncommittal, but still saw fit to prolong my worry and my unease.  All was well, because I was $.10 richer come morning.

About two weeks later, we were watching Hattie, Chattie, and Thurb, and one of the characters faced the same dilemma.  He/she had been on the playground, and lost a tooth while playing, and couldn’t find it.  The ending was the same–the puppet’s parents were understanding, and abode by the spirit, if not the letter, of the custom.  (Dad had a weekly program on WCMO called Bookshelf, and my guess is he told the story as entertainment to the students and staff when he came in to tape the episode.)

Despite this, I have never made a serious attempt to write anything for television, other than the obligatory Star Trek script when I was in middle school, and a half-assed attempt to write a script for my favorite children’s show in fourth grade, Curiosity Shop (a Chuck Jones project that was markedly less successful than Bugs Bunny and Road Runner).

I did try my hand at radio drama.  A St. Mary’s classmate and I tried to write a science fiction radio play, inspired by a tape of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast.  We even set the story in the form of news broadcasts, and spread out Exxon road maps of much of Ohio, West Virginia, and Maryland plotting the invading armies from some other galaxy.

In high school, after reading Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, I wrote (and completed!) a CBS Radio Mystery Theater episode which was a conscientiously accurate adaptation of A. Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Final Problem.”  It never left Marietta, although many times I contemplated typing it up and mailing it to Himan Brown, the director of Mystery Theater.

The hard copy is long gone, but I shudder when I remember some of the passages I wrote, such as “Follow me to a London office, where Dr. John Hamish Watson sits writing in his diary.”  I had listened to enough tapes of the show to include such trivia as “Our mystery drama, ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem,’ was adapted from the A. Conan Doyle classic for the Mystery Theater by Paul T. Evans, and stars [Holmes] and [Watson].  It is sponsored by Anheuser-Busch Inc., brewers of Budweiser, and General Electric citizen band radios.”

Maybe even then I had the foresight to realize that writing radio dramas was going to go the route of repairing fountain pens and blacksmithing as a means of supporting oneself.

Something Symbolic About the Books on Reserve For Me Today

I came home from work via the Northside branch of the library late this afternoon, and the two items awaiting me were a DVD of Joe Gould’s Secret and a hardcover of The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, by Alice W. Flaherty.  Dr. Flaherty is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and teaches at Harvard Medical School.  Half her book is a study of hypergraphia, the overwhelming desire (urge) to write, the other half deals with the other side of the coin, writer’s block.

Joe Gould’s Secret is the true story of a hypergraphic person, Greenwich Village bohemian and indigent Joseph Ferdinand Gould, who prowled the streets of New York from the 1920s until the mid-1950s.  A Harvard graduate, Gould was frequently disheveled and penniless, but always pounded the pavement with a shabby portfolio and stacks of cheap composition books.  He claimed to be writing the longest book in the history of the world, An Oral History of Our Time, which he bragged was “11 times longer than the Bible” and still nowhere near completion.

New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell profiled him in 1942 in an article called “Professor Sea Gull,” detailing his daily rounds to collect money for “the Joe Gould Fund,” find rooms in flophouses, get meals in greasy spoons, and cadge free drinks from generous soft-touch friends.  As much as he talked up how monumental the Oral History was, Gould always had a million excuses whenever Mitchell asked to actually see the work in progress.  The few notebooks he let Mitchell see repeatedly covered the same subjects: the death of his physician father, and “The Dread Tomato Habit,” rewritten literally dozens of times.  Several New Yorker readers mailed Gould small sums of money after reading the article, and afterwards Gould would not let Mitchell alone, constantly harassing him for money, help with publication, etc.

Gould died in a Long Island mental hospital in 1957, and there was a mad scramble among his friends and those who remembered his Greenwich Village heyday to track down the many composition books which Gould said comprised his masterpiece.  The end result was Mitchell’s conclusion that the project was imaginary.

The many tellings and re-tellings of “The Dread Tomato Habit” and “The Death of Dr. Clarke Storer Gould” boomeranged on me while I was unpacking what I laughingly call my “files” when we made the move from Clintonville down here to Weinland Park.  To the left of my worktable here in the front room, I have a stack of bound legal pads, notebooks, and looseleaf pages.  I was appalled at how many of them were false starts of the same project, which I began sometime around 2003.  The working title is Collegetown, and it’s a novelization of my life at Ohio University in Athens during the mid-1980s.  The finished project, if I ever get that far, was for it to be a mammoth project, along the lines of Ross Lockridge’s Raintree County.  (I was inspired to try this after listening to the entire manuscript of Lockridge’s only novel as an audiobook.)  Yet I never seem to get past the same few scenes.

Someone may say I’m jinxing the eventual writing of the book by going into detail about it in a public forum such as this one.  All I can say in reply is that playing it close to the vest hasn’t worked for me.

I was reading The Boston Globe online the other day and saw that filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano will soon begin production of the movie Hypergraphia.  It’s based on the enormous diary of Arthur Crew Inman, an Atlanta-born professional inheritor and unsuccessful poet who lived as a near-recluse in an apartment hotel in Boston from 1919 until he took his own life in 1963.  Inman lived with his wife and an ever-changing staff of servants and hangers-on, writing about his own bigotry, attempts to publish his poetry, and the conversations he had with thousands of “talkers” he hired through the classified ads to come and tell their life stories to him.  The film project’s Website provides you with many details of Inman’s life, including sound files of his voice and interviews with people who knew him.

One of the 155 handwritten volumes of Arthur
Inman’s diary.

When I lived in Boston, Dr. Daniel Aaron was in the midst of winnowing down the 155 volumes of the diary into the two-volume, 1600-page version the Harvard University Press published.  I can only vaguely place the location of the apartment hotel on St. Botolph St. where Inman lived.  I remember it was near the Mother Church of the Christian Science Church, and near the Prudential Center.  (In fact, noise from the construction of the Pru was one of the major factors that led Inman, who was the Leonardo da Vinci of hypochondria, to blow his brains out.)  What sticks out in mind about that locale is that the subway stop always seemed to feature the same ragtag string quartet, and on the rare occasions I was in that neighborhood, they always seemed to be playing Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” at a manic tempo, so frenetically that I wonder why they didn’t saw through their strings.

I’ve wondered if I’m hypergraphic at times.  I just checked Dr. Flaherty’s book out of the library today, so I haven’t even cracked it yet, so I’m not sure of the diagnostic characteristics.  I’m not even sure if it’s a condition listed in the DSM-IV-R.  But I know there are times when I can sit down with pen and paper and have to write for hours, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s creative writing, i.e., something that I am thinking of and bringing into existence, or if I’m copying something that’s put in front of me.  I am in love with the mechanics of writing, and the fact that I’ve kept some type of diary since 1974 (when I was 10½) bears witness to that.  The other side of this is that bringing myself to write anything–as I wrote about in my previous entry–is a major battle.  I have several ideas for projects, and since I never work from outlines and seldom use notes, I’m as clueless as a potential reader when I sit down at the typewriter, computer, or ruled page and get to work.  (Louis L’Amour loved to tell the story of when his daughter came into his study and found him furiously at work at the electric typewriter, writing one of his many Western novels.  “Daddy, why are you typing so fast?” she asked.  “I want to see how this story ends!” he replied.)

Last Friday, I went to the kickoff of the Radical Queer Convergence at The Awarehouse, the repair bay/party hall in the alley behind the Third-Hand Bicycle Cooperative.  After the film Riot Acts, I was talking with two people outside (one had gone outside to smoke, and we followed, mainly so we could hear one another over the music inside).  Somehow we got on the subject of the actual mechanics of writing.  I think this came about when I mentioned that I had to buy Liquid Wrench to get my old manual portable back into workable shape, something that should have drilled the point into my psyche.  The three of us agreed that the mechanics of the writing was just as important–if not more so–than the finished product.  Miles, who had operated the laptop to show the Riot Acts DVD, mentioned the scribes who laboriously Torah scrolls.
That would take a kind of stability that a hypergraphic person probably could not harness.  I remember when a rabbi brought out the Torah scrolls in the chapel at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati when I was taking a night class there in 1990.  If the scribe–the Hebrew word is sofer–made a mistake, he/she cannot just cross the letter or word out and keep on going.  An error would mean beginning that particular panel over from scratch.  And a sofer usually doesn’t do just Torah scrolls.  He/she also does sacred documents, such as the marriage ketubah.  (They’re also the ones who will produce the get, the divorce document, so it’s a win-win situation all around for them, marriage-wise.)
What made me respect the mechanics of actual writing was reading the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, the two-volume book he wrote about his military career (not his Presidency, for good reasons).  He had gone broke when one of his business partners depleted their company’s assets and fled the country, so he wrote his autobiography to provide for his family.  About the time he began the project, he learned that he was terminally ill with throat cancer, not surprising for a man who smoked 20 cigars a day.  He dictated until he lost his voice, and then took to writing the manuscript himself in longhand (the first typewriter was patented in 1870, but Grant used a pen and ink), finishing it only four days before he died.
Ulysses S. Grant at Mount McGregor, N.Y.,
in 1885, writing his memoirs.

No matter what you think of the finished product, and setting aside what a dreadful President Grant was (Ohio may be the Mother of Presidents, but with the exception of William Howard Taft, they’re generally a pretty sorry lot.), I have to admire someone who was able to write while facing a literal “deadline.”  When Jimmy Carter’s memoir Keeping Faith came out in 1982, in my mind I kept juxtaposing the picture of Carter sitting in Plains, Ga. at the keyboard of his word processor, still very healthy (which, at 86, he still seems to be), and Grant at death’s door with his pen in his hand.
I wrote an essay a few years ago called “The Keys to My Heart,” in which I confess my love of typewriters.  I mentioned the memorable scene in the film The Shining when Jack Torrance’s wife realizes that he has gone insane.  While working as a winter caretaker for a haunted resort hotel in the Rocky Mountains, Jack plans to write a play, and laboriously spends hours in front of the typewriter, banging away.  His wife Wendy goes to his desk one day and finds, to her horror, nothing but reams and reams of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  My take on this was not that Torrance had gone over the bend (although, ever since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you just take for granted that any character Jack Nicholson plays is nuts), but that he was blocked, yet addicted to the sound of his typewriter. 

Impromptus

During my senior year at Marietta High School, one of the final classes I took was Public Speaking, under Mr. Tom Miller.  (I had been on cruise control academically for most of my secondary school career, and this was a class, I knew, that would provide maximum grades for minimal effort.  That was pretty much the story of my entire high school experience.)

One class activity screamed “I don’t have a lesson plan in mind!” in letters four stories high.  That was when we came to class and found the day would be for impromptu speeches.  Mr. Miller would call your name, you’d go up to the podium, and he would hand you a slip of paper with a topic.  So, without notes or preparation, you were supposed to discourse, while he kept one eye on you and the other on the second hand of his watch.

(I thought of this because when I logged onto Blogspot tonight, I logged on without the slightest idea of what the hell I would write about.  I just felt guilty that I haven’t posted for a few days.  That was when I wish someone had handed me such a paper, so I’d be able to write about something.  That’s how I ended up writing this impromptu about impromptus.)

I distinctly remember the one he handed me.  It was Mud.  That required some major effort on my part.  I discoursed for about a minute on the mud that was on the cuffs of the jeans I was wearing that day.  (The mud came from my walk the previous Saturday from Marietta up Route 550 to a bookstore a guy had in his garage, along with the chickens he raised.)

Then I added a second D to the word, and ended up giving a very pedagogic and exceedingly pedantic speech about Samuel A. Mudd, M.D.  (The M.D. could stand both for his native state of Maryland and the fact that he was a medical doctor.)  He was the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg after Booth had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.  (Booth had broken his leg while jumping to the stage from President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater.)  For this, Mudd was arrested and found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Dr. Mudd, while imprisoned at Fort
Jefferson on the Florida Keys.


At the time, I’m pretty sure I was convinced of the usual take on his case.  He was a humble country doctor fulfilling his Hippocratic Oath by taking in and treating an injured stranger, and for this he almost paid with his life.  I am more aware now that he was quite active in the Confederate underground in that part of Maryland, and that he knew Booth before the assassination, and that once he realized who his house guests were (Booth was with David Herold, who knew that part of Maryland intimately because he had hunted there since childhood), he did not tell the Federal authorities and Secret Service that were scouring the area.  I did emphasize that he did leave prison four years into his sentence, imprisoned at a hellhole on Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida.  (He saved the lives of hundreds of prisoners and guards during a yellow fever epidemic.  President Andrew Johnson pardoned him shortly before leaving office in 1869.)

I think even the teacher was impressed that I had managed to achieve this feat.  I think I went over the designated time allotted for my impromptu speech.  I think my classmates, whether interested in Dr. Mudd’s life and trial or not, were hoping that I would keep on running off at the mouth until it was time for the final bell (and the end of the school day).  It was a weird type of Scheherazade situation.  The longer I kept up there telling the story, the less likely those that hadn’t been up to the podium would be called.

There ought to be an Impromptu Website for us bloggers who want to write almost daily, but come up short with subject material on any given day.

A Farewell to a Friend: John D. Solomon (1963-2010)

To quote Archie Bunker in the episode “Stretch Cunningham, Goodbye,” “I ain’t never delivered a urology before.”  This is the first time I’ve ever tried, even though this is one that is for cyberspace and the blog world, not delivered to mourners in a house of worship.

My best friend from The Harvard Crimson, John David Solomon, Harvard Class of 1985, died the first of November.  He was 47 years old, six weeks younger than I am.  I learned he had leukemia two years ago, when he mentioned it–almost offhandedly–in his blog, In Case of Emergency, Read Blog.  Even knowing that leukemia is not the automatic death sentence that it used to be, I was quite worried.  Cancer is still cancer.
Yet he seemed to be making progress toward beating the disease.  He posted regularly to his blog, usually answered my emails promptly (the blog was how we reconnected in the last two or three years of his life), sent pictures of himself with his wife and young daughters, and reassured his readers the disease was in remission.  (The only time I ever directly addressed his leukemia, after learning of it, was to extol the virtues of the Arthur G. James Cancer Center on the Ohio State campus, telling him that if he needed treatment there, my door was always open to him.  I overlooked the fact that his native New York had some top-rated cancer facilities of its own!)
I met John the first time I worked the graveyard shift at The Harvard Crimson.  I had worked during the weekend, typesetting Harvard Business School’s weekly newspaper, The Harbus News, so I had yet to experience the high-pressure, crisis-ridden, anxiety-laden atmosphere that thrummed like an electric current in the pre-hours before “Cambridge’s Only Breakfast-Table Daily” rolled off the press and began appearing in the dormitories and the streets of Harvard Square.  I was trying to learn the intricacies of the CRTronic Linotype, and keep up with the endless flow of typewritten copy as it came down from the upstairs newsroom.  Additionally, I was down to (almost literally) my last dime, payday was still almost a week away.  I was learning to swim by immersion in a tank full of starved piranhas.
John was the proofreader that night.  I didn’t know that he was taking particular notice of me or my situation–although he had let me know he was technologically illiterate when it came to my computer.  My fellow typesetter that night knew the machine intimately, and was trying to keep ahead of her own workload, and did not have time to nursemaid me through learning the procedure.
The first gesture of friendship came when Pat Sorrento, the production supervisor and foreman who had been with the paper since the mid-1960s, asked for someone to make a run to Tommy’s Lunch, the diner on Mount Auburn Street by Mather House.  John seemed to pick up on the fact that I was not flush for a meal, and probably also was aware that I had barely eaten.  Without my asking him to, he said, “Go ahead and order something.  Don’t worry about it.”
Extended periods of working together either cement or destroy friendships.  He and I became close after he paid for that first meal from Tommy’s, and talked quite a bit during the slack hours when there was little work, or when I was in The Crimson‘s building to pick up mail or my paycheck.  The true test, however, came during the summer of 1983, when he and another editor were given the responsibility of editing and producing The Confidential Guide to Courses at Harvard-Radcliffe, Harvard’s annual course guide, known informally as The Confi Guide.  The Crimson itself only printed twice a week during the summer, so the Guide consumed most of the time and energy of everyone who was staying to work on the newspaper that summer.
Many a night, I would come to the building at 4 in the afternoon after a sandwich and lemonade at Elsie’s, and not leave for nearly 24 hours.  I had sublet living quarters on the edge of the Tufts campus, but I slept more nights at The Crimson than I ever did in my own bed.  If the paper ran that night, the finished product was barely out of the building (bound for hand delivery or the Cambridge post office for mailing), then it was time for typing Confi copy, usually with the radio or TV for company.  When we all came to a stopping point, John and I would creep up to The Crimson‘s top-floor lounge, The Sanctum, and collapse on couches.
On several other nights, John would creep off to his Oxford St. apartment (his summer HQ) and leave me a batch of copy.  I’d work on it for several hours, and once the Coca-Cola didn’t have any effect, and I was unable to get my fingers, brain, and eyes to work together, I’d slink up to The Sanctum for some much-needed shuteye.  I would leave a note on the bulletin board for John, saying, “Please wake me up at such-and-such a time.”  As soon as I saw a Sanctum couch, it would be like someone taking the switch that powered my body and throwing it to “off.”  And before I knew it, I would be awakened to a hideously nasal rendition of “Reveille,” and behold John standing over me, his hands cupped over his mouth like a bugle.

We even spoke of religious issues.  John was Jewish, but not particularly devout.  I had moved to Boston partly because it was the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association–it was the Unitarian equivalent of Vatican City or Jerusalem.  Except on the Sunday mornings when I was too exhausted to get out of bed, I regularly attended services at one of three U.U. churches.  Yet, during the Days of Awe 5744, he dragged me–one of the few Gentiles at The Crimson–to the Conservative Kol Nidre services.  It was the only time during the year he ever put in an appearance at services, and he seemed surprised when I asked him if he planned to go to the Ne’ila service that would conclude Yom Kippur.  (We didn’t.)

I’m sorry to say that I never saw him again after I left Boston in 1984 to start at Ohio University.  There were intermittent phone calls and letters, but we lost touch altogether until I Googled him and found his blog.  We stayed in touch by emails, and we favorited each other’s blogs, and when I hoped to bring Susie to New York to visit the American Girl store, I planned to reunite with John, whose girls were also American Girl fans.

There is a scene at the end of Stand by Me where the protagonist of the story, now an adult, is sitting at the keyboard of his word processor.  He has just written of the untimely death of his best friend.  He typed:

Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever.

And so it is with me.  Although I hadn’t seen John in more than a quarter century, I will miss him forever.

This blog entry falls far short of honoring him properly, but since I once completely took over a story we were supposed to co-write (“Who Shot the President?”, for the special issue marking the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination), it is appropriate.  I can’t deliver this from the bimah of a synagogue, so I want to honor John in the setting where we have both come to feel at home: the blog.

May he rest in peace.

John D. Solomon (1963-2010)

I Still Love the March to the Mailbox

This November has been so insane that I knew better than to even try my hand at NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) this year.  We are now just over two weeks in residence in our Weinland Park duplex, and the living room (my office) still looks like a walk-in storage locker.  I have the work table set up, complete with the laptop and my 80-cent Royal Royalite manual typewriter, but the setup is not conducive to any creative writing.

Earlier this afternoon, I plunked down a little money to cater to the more anachronistic side of me.  After doing some laundry, I went to the hardware store and bought some Liquid Wrench, since the typewriter has been so long unused that it was quite sluggish when I typed some keys experimentally the other day.  (That was a glaring indictment, a Machine Age J’accuse.  If anything, I beat typewriters to death.)

I didn’t fill out a change-of-address card with the post office when we moved last month.  I changed my New Yorker subscription online, and mailed a card to The Catholic Worker‘s circulation department, and mass emailed friends of mine who send me snail mail.  Several weeks ago, I submitted a poem to The New Yorker  via email (the only way they accept them these days).  I’m wondering if I’m being a bit too audacious if I send them a card saying, “Hey, guys, if you’re planning to buy my poem, I’ve moved since I submitted it in mid-September.  Here’s the new address.”  I think I probably will mail them a card Monday.

The slogan for the 2010 Census–which I saw on T-shirts and bumper stickers everywhere, was March to the Mailbox, and it was one I liked.  I still like to “march to the mailbox.”  Yesterday, I bought a set of MP3s from The Radio Lady in Orange County, California, and thought about ordering online with my debit card.  Instead, I printed out her order form and mailed a money order.  My disks will probably be several days later than normal, but I still liked the action of mailing the money order to her.

The above YouTube video is an excerpt from a 1980 made-for-TV movie entitled Gideon’s Trumpet, the true story of a semi-literate Florida convict in 1961 who argued that the Constitution entitled him to legal representation if he was unable to afford it himself.  He fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and emerged victoriously, defended by future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas.

Fast forward to about 5:15 in the clip.  The movie itself is not what you would call action-packed.  Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool hall and stealing wine from the bar and change from the cigarette machine–nothing that would make this a Dirty Harry-type picture.  So, the most dramatic moment in the picture comes when Gideon (played by Henry Fonda) actually sends his petition to the Supreme Court.  Mawkish as it may be, I’m still stirred when his fellow convict asks to hold and look at the petition for a second, and then I choke up a little when the music swells and Gideon drops that fat envelope into the outgoing mail slot.

I had a similar experience and feeling when I was at Ohio University.  I  spent many an evening in the computer lab at Alden Library, furiously typing away on an IBM Personal Computer, writing and re-writing the first few chapters of a long moribund novel, printing it out on the laser printer, and preparing it for mailing.  I was applying for the Bennett Fellowship, a writing fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy in New England.  (I would be given room and board on the school’s campus, plus a modest stipend.  In exchange, I would have to finish a novel by the end of June and occasionally teach some writing classes to some bored, spoiled little East Coast WASP kids.)

When I finally checked and rechecked the finished product with my unrelenting typesetter’s eye and deemed it was ready to go, I had a large stamped envelope ready, all set to receive the manuscript.  I printed it for the last time, put the stack of pages into the envelope, sealed it, and I was walking out of Alden Library to the mailbox by The Oasis.  That was where I saw my friend Jennifer, who was coming back from a meeting with her Honors Tutorial adviser.  It was about two days before the must-be-postmarked-by date for applying for the fellowship, so she had begun to doubt whether I was serious about applying.

Jennifer’s skepticism vanished when I held up the envelope.  “Look!”  I said.  Her eyebrows raised, betraying how pleasantly surprised she was.  There was my return address for my Scott Quad dorm, the addressee was indeed the Bennett Fellowship Committee at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H.  I just felt a sense of relief at having this self-imposed burden lifted from my shoulders.  I had raced the calendar, and I had won, if only barely.  I had been more conscientious and more driven about this than I had been about my schoolwork.

Yet, her enthusiasm rivaled mine.  I thought she was handing the envelope back to me, but she held onto the corner she had gripped to read the address.  For a second, there was tension, like two kindergarteners about to fight over the same toy.  She wouldn’t let go.  Finally, she pulled open the mailbox door.

I got it then.  Gingerly, we both moved it toward the opening, and, with an unspoken signal passing between us, let it go at the same time.  The lid closed, and I heard the muffled thud! of the manuscript as it landed in the square bucket (“flat box”, I learned later, was the correct name) inside.  Superstitiously, I gave the mailbox lid an extra flip, making sure it was in there.

“Now, you are not to talk about this until you hear from them.”  It was just before Thanksgiving, and Phillips Exeter said there would be a decision sometime in February.  I heeded her words.  For the first few days after mailing the project, I reverted back to my childhood days of breathlessly checking my mailbox, just like I did after mailing a batch of proof-of-purchase stickers to Kellogg’s headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan for a new toy.

I did not get the fellowship, although it was late in February when the thumbs-down letter arrived.  I was able to keep hope alive for much of Christmas break and into the new year.  It was much better than my rejection from Esquire the previous summer.  My information from Writer’s Market told me there would be a reply in 10 weeks from Esquire‘s short story editors.  So, when my short story came back in its return envelope less than three weeks later, I felt like I was getting it back on the tines of a pitchfork.  (At the same time, Playboy had kept another short story longer than usual, which made me think that the editors were squabbling about how huge a check to cut me, since the story was so magnificent.)

My first real job was as church secretary at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, where I was a member.  One of my tasks was typing (and eventually editing) The Confluence, the twice-monthly newsletter.  Typing the newsletter was meticulous work, since we still used mimeograph stencils.  Running off the finished product on the hand-cranked mimeograph machine was a breeze, and addressing it and taking it to the Marietta post office was pure tedium.  The only movie that the certified lunatic Mel Gibson ever made that I enjoyed was Conspiracy Theory, which I’m sure is far superior than his snuff film disguised as Christian devotion, The Passion of the Christ.  My favorite scene in the movie is when the hero, Jerry Fletcher, is alone in his cluttered Greenwich Village apartment typing up his little newsletter, photocopying it, and then driving around Manhattan dropping each copy into a different mailbox, and trying to be so nonchalant about it that he inevitably calls attention to himself.  It brought me back to the days when preparing the newsletter–from collecting information to bringing it to the service window at the post office–was such a project that I was weary of the publication by the time my copy arrived.

So, once I apply the Liquid Wrench to the recalcitrant carriage of my typewriter, I’ll have one less excuse to not be writing.

Eve of Día de los Muertos Thoughts

My mother died two years ago on October 30, Hallowe’en Eve.  Because of the physical and emotional abuse she caused during the early years of my life, my reaction to her death is best summarized by this Mad magazine cartoon drawn by Sergio Aragones:

Just before I left work today, I turned the page on the calendar pad on my desk.  Besides November 2, the pre-printed page for tomorrow said Day of the Dead (M), with the M standing for Mexico.  I think about mortality often, so it’s gratifying to see there’s a day set aside for reflection and remembrance of the dead.

I don’t think much about immortality and whether there is life after death.  My thoughts about afterlife are rather proto-Judaic.  There may be an afterlife, there may not be.  However, there is much to do in this life, so you don’t have the luxury, time, or energy to spare speculating about what may come in the next.

When did I first become aware there was such a thing as death?  It was pre-kindergarten, when we lived in a small rented house on Third St. in Marietta.  I remember a summer early evening when I went out to the side yard and quite a few people, ranging in age from my age (which would have been about four) to teenage, all gathered in a semicircle around a tree.  I wondered what was so fascinating about the tree, until I saw there was a blue jay perched on one of its more slender branches.  It wasn’t flying, it wasn’t flapping its wings, it was barely moving.  I was able to understand that it was sick.  One or two of the kids made tentative moves to touch it, to take it down from the limb, but drew back when older friends and/or siblings cautioned them not to touch it because “it has lives [lice].”

I went in for dinner and didn’t come out again that night, but the next day there was no blue jay on the branch, but I did see something that wasn’t there before.  Our neighbors had a stack of bricks flush against the back wall of their garage, but one brick stood apart from the others.  Laboriously printed with Magic Marker on the brick, all in capital letters, was an epitaph.  I cannot recall the text (nothing like HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER BLUE JAY KNOWN BUT TO GOD), but it said something about “blue jay died” and the date.  All I could glean from that was that the blue jay was under that brick, and he wasn’t going to be flying, or pulling worms from the ground, or singing, anymore.

That fall, I learned that the same thing happened to people.  Our landlord lived with her husband, children, and widowed mother in a large brick house that fronted Third St., while our house was a small five-room house behind theirs.  One night, my dad was getting me ready for bed when the youngest child, a girl who about 13 at the time, knocked on the door and said that “Grandma was really sick.”  My mother left right away to go over to render whatever aid she could, and Dad continued to help me get ready for bed, giving me my usual snack of animal crackers and milk, helping me get into my pajamas, reading me a bedtime story, etc.  I kept noticing that Dad often made trips to our front window to look out into the night, to see what was going on at our landlord’s house.  I looked outside, expecting to see that something was different, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary for an autumn night in Marietta.

I overheard conversation the next day at breakfast.  The grandmother (who was 79) had died.  In fact, by the time my mother had gotten over there, she was already dead, collapsing on the front hall stairs.  When my mother had arrived, the priest from St. Mary’s Church (which was only a block away) was already there administering the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, and emergency personnel were already there to take the body to the hospital.  My mother immediately went to the kitchen to make coffee for everyone and stayed for about an hour afterwards.

The solidifying event was a spring afternoon when I was in kindergarten.  One of my dad’s female students was babysitting me, and we were walking from the Marietta College campus to our new house on Sixth St.  She suggested we make a side journey into Mound Cemetery, which was on the way.  (It would, in 2000, be where my dad would be buried.)  “Let’s go in and see the people,” she said.

I had no idea what she meant.  I had been past Mound Cemetery before, and we had driven by Oak Grove Cemetery as well.  I had heard of rock gardens before, and I thought that cemeteries were just big gardens set aside with big stones for decorations.  That was when the sitter explained to me that when people died, they were buried in the ground, and the stones and statuary I saw marked where they lay.  From that day on, cemeteries became places of refuge for me.  I could easily spend hours at Mound Cemetery, visiting the graves of different Revolutionary War heroes, or climbing the steps to the top of the Conus mound in the center (said to be the final resting place of a Mound Builder chieftain).  I never cared much for the parades, ceremonies, and rifle volleys that happened on Memorial Day at Oak Grove Cemetery, but Memorial Day was the one day its mausoleum was open, so I could behold the unique experience of seeing where people were buried in the wall.

Susie learned about death when my dad died in January 2000.  He lay in an open casket in the viewing room of Hadley Funeral Home in Marietta, a block from Mound Cemetery, and Susie, who was two at the time, wondered why people were standing around and talking.  “Shhh!” she kept cautioning, her finger to her lips.  “Grandpa’s sleeping!”  Steph took the time to explain that no, he was not sleeping, he was dead.  I explained to her later on that it happened to everybody.  The funeral director had a copy of a Sesame Street book called I’ll Miss You, Mr. Hooper, showing the story that aired soon after Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, died.  The writers sensibly decided that Mr. Hooper would die as well, and I read the book to Susie.

(Compare this to my experience.  I never saw a dead person until I was in high school.  That was only because I had a funeral home on my newspaper route.  It makes me think of the opening line of the movie Stand by Me: “I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being…”)

I try not to be this morbid, but it seems to be appropriate for tonight and tomorrow.  I won’t have a trip to the polls to report tomorrow, since I’ve already voted.