Friday, October 22, 2021

Five Random Things to Know When Reading Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo

 


I'll do more of these as we read The Count of Monte Cristo in Brad's Big Fat Book Club, as they occur to me and or as the need arises, but here are my first five:

1) Long novels in France were a way to get around the censorship of newspapers. Strange but true. When Dumas published The Count of Monte Cristo, serialization was the rage and Dumas was king! There were plenty of other practitioners like Eugene Sue in France and most famously Charles Dickens in Britain. (The first serialized sensation in America was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851.) Dumas' success came in part due to the invention of the feuilleton. French newspapers at the beginning of the nineteenth century were largely political and subject to the ruthless suppression of whomever happened to be in power, revolutionaries to royalists. The way 'round this was to include cultural content for the first time, presumably to show there was more to a particular publication than just beating the merde out of one's political opponents. The feuilleton, or leaf from a book, eventually became de rigueur. It wasn't until the advent of serialized novels that this practice eventually contributed substantially to the newspapers' bottom line, and nobody brought in the readers like Alexandre Dumas pere. The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published in the Journal des Debats from August 1844 to January 1846, in 18 parts, 139 installments! (The publication of Dumas' earlier sensation The Three Musketeers actually overlapped with The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a good time for the readers of Dumas.) Long stories? Devoted newspaper readers.

2) At the pinnacle of his commercial and artistic success, Dumas wrote for twelve to fourteen hours a day. This is hard to imagine anyone doing, but he did. In fact, a rough estimate of his output comes to more than 100,000 pages. For all his extravagance, his travelling, and his fabulous parties (he was late in joining his friend Garibaldi for a battle because he threw an enormous feast in Naples the night before,) there was never a time when Dumas wasn't writing. He worked for every franc he spent -- though he always spent more than he earned.

3) Dumas was what we would now call "a brand." Dumas was a man of the theater and theater is among the most collaborative of the arts. His first successes were all on the stage and he only turned to writing novels when he saw that he got a much bigger slice of the profits from books than he ever saw from his plays. He worked with many collaborators, famous and obscure, from Alfred de Vigny to many a struggling young hack. Collaboration was common in the literature of his day and if he regularly lent his name to others, it was because his genius eventually came to signify commercial success. Yes, he spent money like a lottery winner from Ohio, but he was also famous for his generosity. He never walked past a  beggar in Paris or Rome or wherever he went that the beggar didn't walk away richer, and often with all the money Dumas had in his pocket. He was likewise generous to other artists, even to some who might have been fairly described as his enemies. So when it came to collaborating with others on his fiction, nobody went hungry, even if the publishers didn't want his collaborators' names on the work. His most famous collaborator, Auguste Maquet, with whom Dumas wrote his best books, eventually sued Dumas for credit. The judge famously said that Dumas without Maquet would still have been Dumas, but what was Maquet without Dumas? Well, unlike Dumas, Maquet died rich, became an officer of the Legion d'honnier, and was buried with full honors in Pere Lachaise. The other difference? Nobody reads August Maquet.

4) "The Count of Monte Cristo? But I've seen that movie." Yeah you have. Everybody has. Your great grandmother saw that movie. The first stage adaptations appeared before the book was finished. Dumas himself made a stage play in four parts, and the first performance of just part one lasted over six hours. It was a hit. The first American film adaptation premiered is 1908, starring the delightfully named Hobart Bosworth. Eugene O'Neill's dad, James starred in a 1913 film, adapted from the stage version he performed in over six thousand times (please see O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night for that sad story.) Probably everyone over a certain age has seen the glorious Robert Donat in the classic 1934 movie, still considered one of the best films of that year and one of the best adventure films of all time -- despite the single worst ending ever added, and trust me, all the movies change the ending. The Donat film was such a hit it eventually spawned two sequels: Son of Monte Cristo and Monte Cristo's Revenge, neither of which has Donat nor anything much to do with Dumas. (Neither's that bad but both unfortunately star the unfortunate Louis Hayward, as bland a slab of unfortunate ham as ever was served on the silver screen.) The 1934 film also figures prominently in 2005's V for Vendetta, which is kind of a low-brow rock opera without music of the Monte Cristo plot. For me personally, there will always be the be-a-u-tiful Richard Chamberlain, lookin' all doe-eyed and dangerous in his white wig and brown whiskers in the 1978 TV movie. Jean Marias, Louis Jordan, Gerard Depardieu, Jim Caviezel -- these last two before they both lost their damn minds -- there have been a lot of famous actors who played Edmond Dantes, and more that played it in every language from Russian to Chinese. I haven't seen them all, but I've watched a lot and trust me, none was faithful to the book so much as to those early stage adaptations, all of which changed the ending and a great deal besides. So, yeah. You've seen the movie(s). So have I, but if you haven't read the book? You don't really know The Count of Monte Cristo.

5) There is no good biography of Alexandre Dumas pere in English, alas. There is an excellent biography of his dad: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss. Published in 2012 by Crown (ISBN: 9780307382474), Reiss' biography tells the truly remarkable story of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, Revolutionary hero, son of a French Marquis and his Haitian slave, companion and rival to and eventually victim of Napoleon Bonaparte. Great book. Dear ol' Andre Maurois told the story of all three Alexandres, father, son, and grandson in a lovely joint biography from 1957, The Titans: A Three Generation Biography of the Dumas. It's delightful dash through the generations, but hardly complete. Our Alexandre Dumas wrote five volumes of memoirs, detailing his own life from 1802 to 1833. For a long time the only version in English of this massive autobiography was a slim selection deceptively titled My Memoirs and published by Chilton in 1961. (The whole five volumes of the memoirs in English can now be had in ugly print-on-demand paperbacks for which I still have yet to shell out.) The only modern biography of the great writer I've ever been able to locate is Claude Schopp's Alexandre Dumas: Genius of Life, from 1988. Schopp is (was?) an important Dumas scholar in France, so maybe his book is better in French? In English it isn't frankly very good. Schopp's book is not much a literary biography -- think Graham Robb's magnificent biography of Victor Hugo, or Edgar Johnson's double-deckers on Walter Scott and Charles Dickens -- barely mentioning most of the work that made Dumas immortal. At least in English, Schopp somehow manages to make even the most thrilling anecdote dull, if he finds the time to tell such stories at all between reviews of Dumas' bookkeeping, which -- surprise! -- was never good. I wish there was a contemporary biographer to recommend, considering the renewed interest in the life of Dumas as not only the most popular French novelist in history but also as a man of color. Maybe some day soon.*


*As for Dumas himself on race and racism, to my knowledge he addressed the subject at any length only once, in an earlier novel titled Georges, published two years before The Count of Monte Cristo and containing many of the same plot elements, but with a light-skinned black protagonist. There was a lovely new translation of this by Tina Kovar and published by The Modern Library. Well worth finding and reading.

University Book Store Presents Brad Craft Reading Cat Stories

Monday, October 18, 2021

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Snowball's Chance

 



I remember more dogs, if I'm honest. No dog is anonymous for long. They make their own introductions. Glad-handers, boosters, wrestlers, and even bullies some of them. Happy to meet you or threaten to eat you -- that was every dog at the edge of every property and at the end of every country drive where I grew up. Couldn't miss the dogs. So in that bucolic landscape there may well have been as many cats as there were dogs, but not as I remember. For all I know there may have been more cats than dogs, out there in the woods, for instance. Not being so noisy and forward, cats might go unnoticed, unheard and unseen. Dogs tended to come right up at you, out of their houses and across the yards before you knew it. A dog, even a three legged dog like the one down the road, could run out the length of a chain or up to the top of a fence and announce themselves before a boy on a bike could swerve back into traffic, such as it was then. Impossible to miss knowing most dogs, even the old ones. In the country dogs would chase you, as would geese, but I can honestly say I was never actively pursued by a cat. Cats sat quietly in high windows, walked the beams in barns, appeared and disappeared from the woods, and wandered at will through dairies and haylofts. As a boy, our indifference was largely mutual. A dog was a friend or a threat. Cats just were.

The animals I knew then were rarely house-pets. Nearly all were party to an older and more practical compact with humans; tenantry for lack of a better word. Animals were housed and fed and in return many if not most of them worked or, it must be said, eventually got eaten. Dogs guarded junkyards, hunted, raced, babysat, herded, chased away missionaries and the tinkers who offered to tar the driveway. Cats lived in barns and patrolled basements and storage sheds and slept under porches. They killed rats and mice and moles, and sadly birds. Many of the cats in my acquaintance were all but feral; not altogether unfriendly -- in principle -- but you did not pet a barn cat unless she asked you. We had a barn, and a chicken coop, and so we had cats. (And a quick note to all you new urban chicken enthusiasts: rats love eggs more than you love an IPA with your vegetarian empanadas so... good luck with that.)

Of all the working cats I knew there was only one who could be said to have retired. Retirement was not unknown on my father's few acres. We were not farmers. Had animals nonetheless. Here a blind horse, there a lame pony, an orphaned raccoon, the place was usually more rest-home than workplace. I knew people who bred dogs, raised hogs, kept cows. I never knew anyone to buy a cat. Kittens, discovered or captured, tended to be put out in boxes labeled "Free Kittens" by the side of the road. (There were old farmers known to drown any kittens they found. Of this custom no child approved.) Cats being by far the least likely to stick around, fewer of them acquired names, despite the mania of children to name everything that moved.  There was more than one cat we claimed as ours and named, but few of these relationships lasted. We lived too near the Interstate highway, for one. For another, cats tended to come around or not just as they pleased. One stayed. We named her Snowball. 

She was a white cat. Simple as that. Animals didn't often have human names in those days, Garfield and Morris being pretty recent arrivals on the media scene and thought comical precisely because they had names like great-uncles. Dogs had names like Tuffy and Belle. All white cat? Snowball. 

She was never a kitten as I remember, though obviously she must have been at some point before I met her. Snowball was, for want of a better word, always a lady. Another grim reality of country life in those days was that townspeople when moving, or tired of feeding the thing, or presumably just bored or displeased in some way with a family pet, seemed to have no compunction about driving a few miles out and dumping the animal by the side of the road. Probably how Snowball arrived in London Village, where we were, still are some of us, and had been for a very long time. (This was I don't doubt the origin of that middle class myth about some beloved companion having gone to live on a farm.) From her imperious demeanor and somewhat presumptuous claim to shelter and food, one could assume that Snowball had started life in a higher station. She clearly felt she had come down in the world when she found us. 

She would never come inside the house uninvited. That would have been rude. Officially and for quite some time, the lady was a visitor, just paying a call. She came no further than the porch. Perhaps hard experience had already taught her that there was too much potential for disappointment in getting too close to humans. Yes, she was glad of a drink. And a meal? Well, not to put anyone out, but she was feeling rather peckish at that, now you mention it. Not to be thought a sponger, she not infrequently brought a mole or a baby bird as her contribution to the family repast. Eventually she had her own dinner service waiting on the porch. What she didn't eat was allowed for the visiting strays and or an occasional raccoon, though clearly that old pillow from the glider was hers, thank you very much, whether she happened to be napping on it or no. 

And then came the great day. We did not recognize it as such at the time. The lady was getting on. She still hunted a bit, as the mood took her, and she never gave up the rather heartbreaking habit of stealing kittens she clearly couldn't nurse from their mothers, but she just as clearly had begun to really feel the cold. That enclosed porch ceased to be simply a stop on her regular progress and became, to all intents and purposes, home. My mother, herself a girl from town and not known to be quite so sentimental about animals as my father, may have been the first to notice Snowball's decline. When it became obvious that the lady intended to stay it may well have been my mother who suggested Snowball might need something more suitable than an old cushion to call her own.

Dad built doghouses of notorious solidity. Like nearly everything he did in the way of carpentry, he worked with the materials he had to hand: scrap metal, lumber heavy and light, odd lengths of insolation, clipped roof shingles. The results were frankly impressive. Other than size and the absence of plumbing and windows the resulting cabins might have comfortably accommodated a family of unusually small pioneers. Dad's doghouses were so heavy he usually had to haul them into place mechanically. Don't know that anyone could have just lifted them. The size varied according to the dog, from bloodhound to beagle, but there wasn't one ever overturned in a storm. The roofing could come off our house, but the dogs? Slept right through the worst of it on fresh straw.

So it was that my father came to build his first and only cat house. No doubt the scale initially was a problem. Can only cut a two by four but so small. He worked it out. The result was just right and probably weighed six times the weight of it's occupant. He installed it on the enclosed porch in Snowball's usual spot and put her beloved cushion inside. She dragged the cushion back out. Safe to say she was not altogether pleased by the new arrangement. Cushion went back in. Cushion came back out.  Seemed the new digs were not to the lady's liking. Dad's cat housing project was a failure.

Then it got really cold. No idea how long it was before Snowball deigned to sleep in her own house. Don't know if we even noticed at first. But once she was in, she stayed and by the following Spring it had become official. The lady was retired, thank you very much. Ensconced in her tiny palace, she now expected her meals in a regular and timely fashion. One might feed any of her occasional friends when and where one pleased, but the lady's meals needed to be ready when she was or the staff would hear about it. Any overnight guests needn't think they were welcome to stay. Out. Bag and baggage. The porch was public, the cat house was hers. 

If the day was nice and she felt up to it, there might be a nice walk around the grounds. In the summer she was still delighted by the prospect of June bugs and moths drawn to the porch light. On an exceptionally cold winter day, she might even be induced to come into our house to get warm, but she did not live there. She had, she need hardly remind us, a house of her own.

Remembering that she was an adult when we met, I cannot accurately estimate her age. She lived a very long time after her retirement, so her years must have been considerable. She grew increasingly impatient of rivals as she went on and liked company less and less, even ours. For children she eventually had no patience at all and would growl from within her house at even the hint of a baby's cry or a child's laugh. Her appetite never slackened until very near her end so she became rather fat. She lost teeth and may well have been more than a little blind, the gold in her eyes growing dim and the blue milkier. Appearance remained important to her and she was never less than impeccably clean in her person, though it must be said she was never much of a housekeeper and rejected any effort to replace her favorite cushion which eventually grew black with age, though she did at some point allow for the addition of a baby blanket to her decor. Like many an elderly person, she came to welcome affection but seemed to have no special need of it, then and always content within herself and to watch the world in small from her vantage on the porch.

I was already away from home when Snowball's long retirement drew to it's natural end. My parents could not bear the sight of that empty cat house, or think of allowing a new tenant. I suspect my Dad burned it, though I don't know that he did. There was never another on the porch.

To say that such a personage was ever a pet would be to demean what was a model of civilized coexistence. Snowball lived with us. Offered hospitality, she accepted, eventually and very much on her own terms. In a fairly brutal environment, she saw an opportunity and took it. Eventually she made what was an unprecedented choice to retire and picked her spot. Call it, Snowball's chance. Damned if we didn't all go along with it too. 

Saturday, October 9, 2021

In Defense of Big Fat Books

 






Americans have always liked our books big and largely unread. The Holy Bible, once and still the subject of serious study in many American homes, had a second life as heirloom, birth-record, and for generations held pride of place as parlor furnishing in the weighty incarnation of the family Bible; notes, under-linings, tabs, and markers being kept to the more portable Testaments suitable for carrying to Sunday school. Likewise our history when it came to be written, if still somewhat slight in the full record of human struggle and achievement, was thought to require the full dignity of such massy works as Irving's five volume life of George Washington and the six of Sandburg's dithyramb on Lincoln. I've met a few who've read the whole of the latter, but none who've ever managed the first.

Perhaps no enterprise in the history of our literature spent ink and wasted paper like the waging of The Great American Novel. Turns out? The contest was won in 1851 with Melville's Moby Dick, but nobody knew that for almost one hundred years. And so generations of big boys kept making big books from Dreiser to Wolfe to Faulkner to Steinbeck, Pynchon to Gaddis to DeLillo to Foster Wallace... and on it goes. You want to play with the big boys, it seems you need a big book. Nothing wrong with that in principle I suppose, though it would seem some folks mistook tonnage for Tolstoy, windy for weighty, and big for substantial. Ayn Rand at length is still, alas, Ayn Rand. Big isn't bad, but it ain't always good.

Genre writers have become perhaps the worst offenders in this. Dear as it is to his many fans, Stephen King's The Stand is basically a rather bland Stephen King novel wrapped in at least three more Stephen King novels, Taco Bell style. Science Fiction, and supremely Fantasy fiction now comes in cases, like law books, or milk jugs. It used to take a trilogy to build a universe. Now that's called "a good start." 

And when American publishers have the chance to reprint the collected anyone or anything, unlike our European cousins who like slim, uniform volumes, we will have it all in one ungainly lump, thank you. Jane Austen wrote novels of nearly perfect proportion to her subjects. In America we want one fat, pink, faux leather Jane. Complete is better than collected which is better than selected which is much to be preferred to any intention the writer may have had. Poets? Letters? Art? Why not one big, much annotated, not-to be-lifted-let-alone-read book? Norton anthologies, am I right? For that matter, Norton Critical editions of even the slimmest works. The Holy Torah has less accumulated commentary.

All that said, I love a big fat book. Why? Well, I'm glad you asked -- and yes, someone actually did ask me today, honest.

Here's the funny thing. A whole generation read one of the longest books in the English language. The canonical Harry Potter story collectively runs to 4,224 pages. The complete A Remembrance of Things Past clocks just shy of that at 4,215. I only read bits of the first Potter book, just to see what all the fuss was about. Exciting, but not for me. I was too old to be part of that phenomenon. Had I been nine when that first one came out... you bet. I have read Proust's novel, and parts of it twice. I feel safe in saying that a large part of the pleasure in either book is in the span of the work. All those pages? That's the point. 

When I was kid in the seventies there was a brand new thing on television called the "mini series." These were invariable adapted from long, popular novels by the likes of Taylor Caldwell, Irwin Shaw, James Michener, James Clavell, and most famously, Alex Haley. This was "event viewing" of the first order. Nowadays there are "binge-worthy" series on various platforms and most of these seem to come not so much from books as from police files, but even now the better ones often started out as novels like The Queen's Gambit and American Rust. The whole business of binging requires a pretty substantial commitment of time, if admittedly in a far more passive way than a big book, but the commitment is there nonetheless. During the worst of the pandemic, like everybody else who could afford to do so, I watched a lot of these things and enjoyed them -- though not a few might have benefited from a better acquaintance with good books, or at least better ones -- says snobby ol' print man. Sniff. 

The point being that lots of people are still willing to commit a lot of time to sustained narratives, even if not everyone thinks of this as anything at all like reading a big book. 

I do see how books, good books, big fat books both classic and contemporary, can be a complicated undertaking for most readers. We may have lost, most of us, the habit of reading in a sustained way one book across many, many days, weeks, or months. It does require a certain discipline to read in this way, however enjoyable the experience. The world is full of distraction. My house is full of books. The light must be right. Most of us require quiet, etc. And look! A cat is playing the harmonica on my phone! I would argue that reading can be a place of safety from distraction, and never more so than when we are reading a very long book. The best thing about Combray is going back there, yes?

Consider also the weight of our educational experience good or bad. We all remember reading as an assignment and often a chore. The great benefit of a classroom can and ought to be having someone to guide our reading. Certainly anyone who has experienced secondary education will remember that not every guide was good at this. Even when they were good at it, time was not always the friend of instruction. Please have Pamela read by this Tuesday. And then there were those awful tests. Many a great book has foundered in the shallows of exams. If all our great love affairs ended in a grueling examination and a pass or fail grade, it would be perfectly understandable if we learned to prefer the one night stand; short stories to Victorian novels, the pithy memoir to Boswell's Life of Johnson. Too often this is all we remember of  Lit classes: the plot, the theme, the test and the grind. 

We may forget if we ever knew, but the satisfaction of a big book is in the freedom it offers both its author and his or her readers. The end is not always in sight. The trip is long. Plenty to see. The subject is seldom a single thing. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That is perhaps the most famous opening line in literature, and it is true so far as it goes. And how far is that? Well, it took Tolstoy 864 pages to tell Anna Karenina. I don't think anyone who's read the book thinks that that famous line either sums up the novel or even states Tolstoy's intentions. That sentence is the point from which we -- the writer and his reader -- set out. He isn't trying to prove his assertion, or even support an argument, he's starting a conversation, and we have all the time in the world. Not only is it an interesting invitation, and an excellent story, what makes the journey worthwhile ultimately is that Tolstoy is excellent company -- or he was at least before he started praying all day, bless 'im. 

Some very modest people have written some very interesting books.  There's every reason to read Robert Walser, or Fleur Jaeggy, but there's probably an excellent reason to think that the books they've written are exactly the size they should be. I assume Walser was a very nice man. I'd bet Fleur is a perfectly charming person. I would not however be terribly confident inviting either to a party. Meanwhile, I can't think of one book of more than say six hundred pages worth reading that was ever written by a dull person. I would rather have dinner with Balzac, or drinks with Dickens, pass an evening at Johnson's club, or spend the weekend at Montaigne's. None of those dead gentlemen had an untroubled soul and lord knows Dickens for example was a shit to his wife, but just think of the conversation, the talk, the going on! And so it is that I don't want all my books to be careful, exquisite, tightly made. It takes almost a kind of courage to sit down next to such a big man as Dumas, or to brave the company of Alfred Doblin or Jaroslav Hasek, all of them men of imperfect manners, large appetites, roaring, funny -- at least on the page -- and yes, profound.

And such crowds they bring with them! Big books can accommodate many characters, most of whom would never fit into a more compact vehicle. The multiplicity of the human experience is ultimately the premise of most big books. Think of that mob of Duchesses in the salons of Proust, the throng on the streets of Dickens' London and Hugo's Paris. Even Boswell's Doctor Johnson is seldom alone. The delight for the reader in such a multitude is that we needn't bring a thing to the party. Our host has arranged everything. We will meet all the right people. We will be seated by the best gossips, have the best view of the dance, stay safely in our carriage to watch the battle.

More. In a big fat book we are asked to observe whole societies, witness the sweep of history, plumb the depths and exhilarate in the triumphs of people about whom we have already been made to care. Even reading through Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while it is not always easy to care very much about the sorry fate of this or that emperor, or the collapse of this or that once noble people, the writer, being so good a writer makes sure we see people in the burning churches, men and women in the moving hordes. The historian's purpose is to preserve and translate a vast expanse of history. The writer wants not just to instruct but to please us. And in the great novelists, however didactic they may intend to be the urge to show emotion, to move us, to make us laugh, to be human in the readers' company is unrestrained by history, much as most of them love it and use it to ground their stories in time.

Time is the impetus of every long book and its subject, and if it is worth reading time is the justification of the effort, the writer's and the readers'. What a rare thing it is in this hectic, over-stimulated, and anxiety-ridden period to be offered the luxury of time! We mustn't be put off by the breadth of the thing, by the distance to the horizon. We are constantly being told by fatuous sloganeers that the journey is the destination, that we must stop to smell the roses, etc. All we are actually being sold in such packaged candies is complacency and patience with our lowly lot in capitalism in a burning world. Time spent in a big book may be one of the better ways to really appreciate how humanity moves through time, how the individual may suit the times or not, may effect the times or be destroyed, may triumph or withdraw. Big fat books serve us more than one meal and help us to avoid the sticky sweet certainties of received wisdom, cliche, and control. Big books teach us how much we may have in common not only with their heroines but also with the villains. It is only in a big fat book that we learn the real value of so called minor characters. All great literature is thorough within its parameters. But a big fat book, a great novel of a thousand pages, a biography, history, an epic, while these forms may not be entirely of our time, they are still being written and still being read. Why? Because we still need stories bigger than the ones we know, bigger perhaps than our own, and we need to take the time to read them. It is time the readers reclaimed our time, no?

That in mind, I'm of a mind to start a new book club, Call it Brad's Big Fat Book Club. The idea being that a space is needed in which my friends and I and any strangers interested might read such books together in the time it takes. Circumstances necessitate that the space would be virtual for now and perhaps even when we again have other options as not everyone wants to take a bus in the evening if there isn't at least a burrito at the end of the trip (and by "not everyone" I of course mean me.) 

I have been in book clubs before and my experience has been at best mixed. I ran a few meeting myself and was not a great success. I am not a serious critic, a particularly close reader or student, and I am no kind of a teacher. I gab. I talk off point. I can be intolerant of the dismissive and the dim. I do not care generally what one's grandma always used to say on a given subject and I heartily dislike anyone whose only response to something I've said is, "Tell us what you really think, Brad." (Get out. And don't come back.) 

I've been in the company of a great book club host and discussion facilitator in the person of my dear friend and fellow bookseller Nick DiMartino. He was everything I was not and the man knows exactly how to ask a leading question. He never pontificated. He is genuinely, wildly curious. He is a dear. 

I can't guarantee that I can be anything like the amazing Mr. Dimartino. But I will try my best.

My only agenda is to read good books and big ones at that in the company of others. We might do it anyway by ourselves, but company can be nice, no?

Consider this an invitation.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Sharp Stick

 


Nothing quite so dreary as other people's illnesses, just as there is supposed to be nothing quite so fascinating as our own. Half right. It seems that there are enthusiasts of illness, otherwise perfectly nice, well intentioned people eager to sympathize and condole in the expected way who are also genuinely curious as to the specifics. I can not imagine why. I'm not squeamish as such and practical experience has taught me I can muck in without judgement or disgust beyond the usual, but I am very far from wanting to know any more than is practical to the task at hand. I don't much marvel at the wonders of the gastrointestinal or find the adrenal fascinating, etc. Medicine, like engineering is a closed book to me. Best that things work and when they don't I largely trust to those better educated to repair what's come undone. Happy to sweep up after if that would help, otherwise I'd say everyone's better off if I stay out of the way. As to the inner working of my own much neglected innards, I am not so much indifferent as inattentive. To be sick is a distraction. Pain however is consuming, and all the more boring for being so.

We are most of us largely helpless in the presence of real and persistent pain. Even to witness it is debilitating. I've seen it. So probably have you. What I know of it just now I would hope to forget. Physical suffering makes no memories worth having. We learn nothing worth knowing from it. From it we make cruel nothings: false and cautionary fables, cold monuments to ambition, even colder theologies. Pain makes us cowards. Joy, love, even the memory of comfort, these are what make us brave. The alleviation of pain is noble. Joy divine. Pain is. Nothing to be said for that. Cold as the space between the stars and just as empty. 

While the scandalous monetizing of addiction in the past twenty years of pharmaceutical malfeasance may yet prove to have taught us nothing else, it might at least remind us that remediation is no cure. One of the most frustrating parts of my own recent and ongoing experience with serious pain has been the willingness of my doctors and their support staffs to prescribe without examination, bless 'em. Kindly meant. I find I dislike the side-effects of serious pain medications almost as much as I dislike the system that prioritizes everyone's time but mine over treatment and diagnosis. It seems there is a way things are done; as inexorable as an algorithm, and as grinding as a Wagnerian explaining Parsifal -- again. Meanwhile, try this cream, pill, ointment, pillow, prayer. "We apologize for the additional wait time..." All I find I want is to be done talking on the phone, and no, I shouldn't like to try a different pill.   

I should like to see a doctor.

It's a cliche to say that pain makes a body selfish. Illness of any kind I think does that -- thus it's unhappy reputation as a topic of conversation outside of nursing homes. Better to say that pain has made me impatient with my own good manners. For fear of offense and or causing unspecified trouble, I do not like to bother even the poor souls whose job it is to book appointments with doctors they will nowadays never meet. (If you are in any kind of Health Care System bigger than a veterinary clinic you are not likely to talk more than once to anyone you may know unless and until some anonymous soul has "booked" you an appointment to do so. This is now the way of things in the new, more efficient day of "tele-visits" and website messaging.) Aurelius tells us that "... there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life." What pain does to dignity doesn't bear reviewing, honestly. Suffice it to say the Emperor would not approve.  After an hour trying to rebook a canceled colonoscopy, Zeno would weep with frustration. Since my complaint began last February I have had more graphic and unpleasant conversations with total strangers and described my symptoms to people who seem never to read charts more times than I would ever have thought possible. Worse, I have carried on so shamelessly in emergency rooms (rebranded as "Urgent Care" without apparent irony) I wonder I was raised by decent people and allowed to vote in local elections. On at least one occasion, if I'd thought running naked through the gift shop would have got me in any sooner to see a doctor, they would still be looking for my underwear in the greeting cards. 

Another tired truism of medical science is that we do not remember the actual sensation of pain, only our relief in its absence or something like that. That's as maybe. Like nearly everything else, pain makes us, or me at least impatient of larger conclusions. That would seem to be the point, or at least mine. Trust me, I will be absolutely thrilled to forget. Looking forward to it. Just now as I finally have a diagnosis and some hope of recovery, I feel I can finally afford to look if not up or forward at least back a little ways, as we say back home. What then do I see in the months behind me?

No work worth doing -- though my illness accounts for only part of that. Furloughed due to the pandemic well before this ugly business in my body started. Nothing made or bettered or shared. When even food becomes something to be feared and sleep a rare thing, one does not much care to make art, darling. So be it. I've never needed so good an excuse to not do good work. I am weirdly proud to say that my personal hygiene suffered less than it might have done, all things considered. It is in just such pathetic victories that the ill can still find pride, sad to say. My already limited contact with the world -- see the afore mentioned pandemic and furlough -- quickly became an almost willful isolation from even the rudiments of human contact. I made myself spend time on social media. I made myself call a sick friend, phone my elderly mother, write letters when I was well enough to sit up. I tried not be utterly cheerless in the company of beloved husband, himself not in the best of health now. 

What else? Curiously, and this may well be the only interesting thing I will have had to say in this whole exercise, I found I could not give a sitting, walking, or running damn about the fate of Dorothea Brooke or any other fictional person. In all other illnesses, at nearly any other time when I have had both enforced leisure and sleepless nights, novels have been my better friends. Somehow being in physical pain made me quite unsympathetic to the psychic pain and even the mortal danger of characters I otherwise love sometimes better than real people and always better than most people's pets or children. (Not yours, dear, you know how I love them.) For whatever reason not being able to find a comfortable position in which to sit or stand or stretch-out made me look on imaginary persons both on the page and when broadcast as just so many empty cyphers; nothing but shadows on the wall, thin and as empty of meaning as a Republican's promise of equality before the law. The experience was most disconcerting and new.

What I did read, what I still am reading has been history, old, dusty, obsolete history of a kind written when prose mattered and assumptions were made that would now bring a blush to a Tory. I do not recommend this to sensitive young persons. You have other, better priorities and much bigger problems to address. I am aware the world, for example is burning. I do not expect to have my enthusiasm widely shared. I read historians of an earlier age not because I find comfort in Empire or because I believe in the inevitability of progress or any of that sort of antique sentiment. When I read the old historians usually I do so because they wrote well and what they wrote had in their own day some influence for good. I read them normally as I read old fiction, always aware that good and even great writing was never done by perfect and seldom even wholly good men -- and yes it was mostly men, particularly writing history. I think during my illness that somehow the very quality of obsolescence in everything I read was soothing to me. Pain robs us of any future but its end. The present is unbearable mostly. The past, and specifically the company of the dead describing the even longer gone gave me something I can only think was a kind of distance. I wanted nothing so much as to not be where and as I was, and where and as I sadly still largely am. What better company than ghosts? Who else have I been fit for?

And so at three in the morning I went to Ramillies, and I shook my head at the fate of Scythians, and followed the progress of Corn Laws and wondered again at the abstinence of ascetics and the obstinacy of kings and the duplicity of politicians and the touching decency, now and then, of even exalted people. And none of it mattered and all of it mattered and none of it matters now and some of it still does.  I was distracted as best I could be from what's been happening in my body by what seems to have mattered most to men long dead. Carlyle said, "Happy the people whose annals are tiresome," but nobody writes much of that, do they? But then all history becomes a bit tiresome over time (and in nearly every classroom) and so maybe that is why it's given me rest. 

More though, reading old history has reminded and reassured me that indeed there are and have always been other people in the world. Other people, real people suffered and triumphed and loved and felt joy. Other people after them found all of this important enough to record it and to be inspired and comforted by it. None of them it seems were wrong even when they might have been in the details. Life seems to go on even when we can't quite imagine why it should. There's a kind of hope in that, isn't there? Easy to forget that, rocking back and forth in the wee hours. I don't have to talk to them, these other people, which is convenient, 'cause these are all dead and I'm not much in the mood. Not to be churlish, but none of them can ever be interested in my bowels or ask me if I've had a good night which I haven't. Maybe that's what pain has reduced me to, I can sympathize with no one but the dead. Certainly it's made me a bit grim, hasn't it?  

Apologies. Where are my manners? I am not myself.

They also used to say where I grew up that something unpleasant was "still better than a sharp stick." Sometimes we read to not be alone. Sometimes we read because we find we are not very good company even to ourselves. Better days? Still better.



Friday, March 26, 2021

Letter from (FaceBook) Jail

 


Dear Fellow FaceBookers,

There was a picture of big dill pickles stuffed with Snickers candy bars -- so yes that's a thing. I didn't post the photo. I merely commented, "Americans are terrible people." And that, dear friends, was that. Within minutes I received a notification that I had "violated community standards" and was banned from FaceBook for 24 hours, effective immediately. I read my way through the notification. I objected. There was no response, no appeal. Done. Well.

I've known lots of people serve time in FaceBook jail. I know a number of artists, many of whom have been put away multiple times, usually for male nudity. I also know a number of activists on various fronts; LGBTQ rights workers, defenders of sex-work, free speech advocates, all sorts, some of whom have been booted from the platform temporarily too. I know at least one photographer who has been fighting the good fight for a very long time, and one delightful provocateur who's been canned nearly as often as he's been out. Never happened to me before.

Shocked? Why I nearly fainted.

I am among those who have supported efforts to hold social media platforms accountable for policing their content for hate-speech, racism, and the like. They have none of them done a very good job of this. At least since the Idiot Insurrection of January 6th, 2021 and the storming of The Capital, a token effort would seem to have been made on most of the major sites to address the very worst of the knuckle-dragging Nazis, supremacists, and radical whack jobs by closing some of their accounts and blocking certain purveyors of hate.  Pretty small beans, as I understand it, other than kicking the Idiot in Chief off of Twitter and Facebook, at least temporarily. I still support this new found acting out of social responsibility on the part of the Billionaire's Boys Club and hope to see more, and more substantive change. 

If I buy a pair of slippers online and ten minutes later all my social media accounts offer me more slippers, how hard, one has to ask, can it be to track actual Nazis and klansmen? If I "like" someone's photo of a pound cake and then get flooded with ads from Goldbelly for Carla Hall's 5 Flavor Pound Cake...? (It was good, by the way so thank you, Ms. Hall. A little dense, very expensive, but delicious.) If these miraculous algorithms -- which in my head is always pronounced, "Al Gore Rhythms," -- can track my every consumer impulse and quite rightly offer articles from The Washington Post in preference to The Washington Times, ask me to donate to Stacey Abrams' Keep Up the Fight and John Fetterman's campaign for the Senate, and avoids invitations to Mar-a-Lago, then surely...? No?

And yet. 

On reflection, I shouldn't be surprised to learn that Mark Zuckerberg does not quite ken irony. In case any others might be confused, let me just say that I do not believe that Americans are terrible people. Or, to put a finer point, I don't think we are always. Our history is short by the standard of human civilization but fair is fair and we have done a remarkable job for such a young country when it comes to terrible things. I do think we have done and continue to do some considerable good in the world. At least we've proven ourselves capable of doing both, which is both disappointing and predictable in almost equal measure. This does not, to my way of thinking and according to my reading of the Constitution and our history make me either unpatriotic or in anyway nuts. Indeed, when one thinks of the levels of undisguised villainy and stupidity immediately accessible on the internet, I am downright upright. 

So, how then did I end up in the virtual clink? See: irony, Zuckerberg of course, but also please note, in the absence even of the obviously harmless context of that comment on that post, just what the sentence was that silenced me for a day.  Isn't it fascinating that this was what tripped the trigger? Who would have guessed? Evidently a Georgia Deputy Sherriff/racist spokesmodel can share giggles at xenophobic  misinformation and go on to speak not just for his department but his type when describing a murderous  goon as having had "a bad day," but me suggesting in good fun that "Americans are terrible people" is just that little bit too far for the mechanical censors. 

I am not outraged -- at this temporary suspension from FaceBook, at least.  Nor am I fishing for outrage on my behalf. When it happened I admit to being taken aback and very confused. Took a minute, honestly. When I finally tripped to the truth, I was very disappointed (how parental that sounds) but I felt no urge to mount a boycott or swear-off social media or write to my Congressperson. Perhaps I should be up in arms, but I confess to a certain amusement at the absurdity of my example, or rather this example being made of me. Programmers can be such clumsy fuckers, no? And who exactly was the management genius who had to sign off not only on this ruthlessly silly new software but also on the endless stream of potentially punishable variations of the shocking indictment of the American Character with which I tried to crash the internet? Makes one question our  technological hegemony, don't it? 

Stupidity is always shocking, however familiar. Never underestimate its infinite variety.

I would hope that there are any number of busy little tech dudes (and a still unfortunately smaller number of women) working to refine this, some of their first crude attempts at virtual civility. After all, it took them years to stop trying to pitch me a membership in Christian Mingle and skinny jeans. 

For all the recent hue and cry -- to say nothing of the bellow and screech -- over "cancel culture" and the supposedly unprecedented reach of the rising generation's "woke-ness," I will not offer my brief exile as an example because that would be both silly and wrong. In the time it has taken me to write this little bit, I could easily have gone online and found example after example, many of them still being trumpeted on the Right, of the so-called "canceled" whose behavior and opinion absolutely deserved to be censured, and an almost equal number of propertied victims of cancellation who are still, unsurprisingly employed, publishing, recently hired elsewhere and or still living comfortably if not on their royalties (who does that?) then certainly on their continued commissions from The Weekly Standard, The American Scholar, and or  their advance from Regnery Publishing.  I do not deny that there have been and continue to be sincere and honest people being unfairly targeted for ridiculous offenses against the new community standards at, for example our universities and colleges, among other places. Nor would I willingly be lectured about my biases by teenagers, even admitting I got 'em and that they would be right to call me on 'em. That must be hell. It is the job of the young to discomfort and disabuse their elders. Did it myself in the day. Doesn't mean I want to hear from them personally, you understand. Please, no. (SO typical of my generation.)

If I wanted to provoke some of my friends, I might mention my complete collection of the essays of Joseph Epstein. I could admit that Vivian Gornick's infamously homophobic essay from nearly my whole lifetime ago has not kept me from reading every word she writes. I wouldn't dream of defending the behavior of Charles Dickens with his much maligned wife, but neither will I stop reading and recommending his novels. I still read Jefferson's letters with John Adams every 4th of July. If I can't bring myself to read overt antisemites like Celine, I should quickly admit that it was "..." that defeated me before I even knew what a shit he was. I might even go so far as to suggest that mine may not be such an untenable position for others, even persons younger than myself. I would naturally not insist because, well -- to whom on earth would I be in any position to do that?! 

I offer this as at best a mildly cautionary tale. That's all. Hope it might amuse as well, though if it makes anyone angry I must say I would not be entirely disappointed by that response. Unless you're mad at me. Then I am sorry, And please don't feel you need to explain. I'm sure you're right.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Good People

 


When something catastrophic happened, they'd have a supper. Church needed a wheelchair ramp, they'd have a supper. Someone's house burned down? They had a supper. Somebody's kid was diagnosed with leukemia? They had a supper. Motorcycle accident? Supper. All sorts: pancake suppers, corn suppers, ice-cream suppers, chicken dinners, fish dinners, game suppers, whatever was in season, whatever could be got up quick to raise money. Went to suppers at firehouses, the Grange, churches, Elks Lodge, Knights of Columbus, Masons. 

There would be a notice in the paper and flyers on telephone poles. You'd see a hand-out in the vestibule at church. There would be an announcement at the PTA, something in the lobby at school, or a can for donations at the diner. Hand-lettered mostly, with a photograph maybe if they had one, date, time, place, and a suggested donation to be collected at the door.

And we went. People did. Strangers mostly, to the extent that small towns had strangers. Friends and family and the family of friends went of course, but many times if not most it was just folks going out to eat something nice and for a good cause.

The Grange Hall was a good size, with a large kitchen. Put up enough tables and chairs, you could get one hundred people in there, I should think. My Grandmother Craft went to a church so small it didn't have a proper kitchen and only a privy out behind the parking lot. In summer though, they'd have picnic tables and the women would bring in the dishes and tureens and sheet-cakes and set up by the basement door. They mixed punch -- always nonalcoholic -- in bowls so big men had to lift them. Every church, every hall had those big coffee pots with a tap at the bottom. There'd be iced-tea in the summer too. At the Elks they'd have bottled beer.

Cheerful as the atmosphere might be, the purpose was serious and I never saw a man get drunk at a supper or send back anything they didn't think good. Most of it was good, come to that. Not exotic certainly, nothing unfamiliar, and if the green beans came out of a can and the potatoes weren't quite the way mother made them, well, don't go back for seconds then. People smiled as they came in and smiled as they went out if they smiled at all. You went, you said hello to this one and that one, you sat with someone you knew or you sat where there was a chair, you ate and you went home.

I don't remember much in the way of speeches. Somebody would ask for the attention of the crowd and explain why we were there. Someone said grace. Might be a preacher or just one of the cooks. Nobody begged and nobody shamed anyone for need. Give what you can, eat what you were given and thank the volunteers. 

I worked every kind of supper at the London Grange #1492. My Grandma made pancakes and buckwheat cakes on big griddles, cooked Salisbury steak in huge white enamel cookers, mixed hamburger with her hands and argued with the women next to her about how much mustard was too much in potato-salad. Grandma argued easily, but laughed that way too. I turned ice-cream churns, husked corn, poured tea, set silver, and cleared tables, almost before I could see over the tops of them. Later I carried plates and just like in a real restaurant when somebody broke a glass, everybody would audibly gasp and then everybody'd laugh. The steam from the kitchen made everybody hungry and everybody in there would sweat like they were shoveling coal. It was hard work but cheerfully done, mostly.

I do not describe all this from any sentimental longing for a time gone-by or a place I left willingly forty years ago. I don't know that it is right to celebrate the memory of other people's hard times -- because that was what brought every one out to suppers. These were not picnics for the 4th of July, or graduation parties, nor even organized charity, though the same people worked at those too. The purpose was different even if the means were familiar. No one was proud because these were and are times when pride was something in the way of what needed to be done. Good people don't brag about the little they can do to make someone's burden lighter.

The frustrating thing was then and is now how often we can only do but so much. In the absence of a rational and compassionate health care system, when stockholders profit from the illness and tragedies of working people, when too many preachers teach their flocks that God wants them to be rich, and when charity is made a show, and necessity seen as a shame and a scandal, good people will still do the little they can to supply what the rich assume as a privilege of their rank and dispense as an exercise of power. Too many of us in this country, in the West and in the world, believe that want comes from the want of will, that poverty is sly, and that people work at what they choose and do only as well as they do according to their gifts, make their own circumstances, and that we all might be rich if we only did as the rich have done. Balzac may or may not have said that "behind every fortune was an equally great crime," and he may or may not have been right if he did. The champions of contemporary capitalism still tend to dismiss even the idea of criminality in any profitable enterprise whose beneficiaries send their children to "good" schools, have bankers and brokers to manage their money, and support cultural, religious, and political causes conducive to the maintenance of their privileges. The ruthless corollary to this is a deep suspicion, sadly shared by many without the means to support such pretensions, that respectability is conformity by just another name, that poverty breeds criminality rather than the reverse, and righteousness is best measured in a bank-balance. In my personal experience, people more concerned with being taken advantage of by the "undeserving poor" than they are with taking care of those in need do so for fear someone may rightly question how they got all they have.

My parents were born into the Great Depression. My mother remembers when men came to the door for food and work and my grandmothers both gave the first because they hadn't the other to give. My father's family knew genuine want, and they all of them knew the bitterness of poverty and what it was to work harder for less than I can now imagine. Retrospectively, collectively we like to imagine that this, and war, made them better. Perhaps in some ways it did, but it also made them want nothing so much, at least my own, as to want their children and their children's children to never know the like.

All my life I have known work and seen want and sadly I have too often seen when the one was not enough to relieve the other. Someone got sick. Someone fell. Someone had to tend to someone because there was no other way and perhaps did so gladly, but also because there was no dignified way otherwise. Someone did well until they didn't, or couldn't anymore. Someone lost a husband or a home or all that they'd saved. Someone lost his mind, or her health insurance, or their child's hope of a cure for want of the money to treat the disease. Anyone who sees the divine in such suffering stands in a place I've never been and where I would not wish to be seen, though I can't begrudge them whatever comfort they find there. Anyone who sees in such suffering the just punishment of sin or the absence of initiative I would pity if I could, but it seems that likewise is beyond me.

Pride comes into this at the last. Help is not something easy to ask for, where I am from and when it is offered it takes real effort to accept. There is an irony in this not lost on me now. But as we cannot seem to fix the systems that fail us all but a few -- at least not today, at least I can't -- all I can do is ask others to help now as best they can.

Can't have a supper, and a hundred suppers may not be enough. Suppers seldom were. Something though, the something we can do, the help we can ask, we must when the need arises. I must.

My sister's son has been hurt seemingly beyond repair and needs help. If I haven't talked much about this before now it was because it wasn't my place and my sister, her husband and their sons are proud people. They have worked all their lives, worked hard, my sister Sue and her husband Ty, and they do still. Their eldest boy, Dillon, works harder than any man I know other than his father. And now the youngest boy, my nephew, Cole is in a nursing home after sustaining catastrophic injuries when he was struck by a car while crossing the street on foot. He is a new father. He is a beautiful young man not untroubled in the past, though that hardly matters anymore. We would hope to see him cared for and his needs seen to as best we can. The state will not do this and those that might with a wave of the hand cannot be made to, so I would only ask that any that can might do so insofar as you are able.

I can only thank my many friends for their good wishes and be grateful for the help.

As ever, I am humbled by the generosity of those that work, and those that may not have even the means, and angry that so many should want in the midst of so much, but let that pass. 

We do what we can. I am glad of the good people.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

For My Teacher

 


She is the reason I can write more than my name. If that seems both too much and too strange to be entirely convincing, I understand. She might well have challenged the sentence, and the sentiment herself. The woman was not one for rhetorical flourishes or fanciness generally. Sense, that was her singular goal and from that should come everything else: meaning, purpose, expression, emotion, possibly even art -- however doubtful that outcome must have seemed considering the raw materials with which she had to work for forty years, like me, for example.

Her name was Miss Joan Stuck and she died recently. (I don't think she would have approved of saying she'd "passed." She would have acknowledged the social convention, but she disliked euphemisms. Imprecision even in the service of social convention, while understandable, ultimately does none of us any real good. She died at the good age of 91. That's a simple sentence.) She was my ninth grade English composition teacher. I will never forget her. I would like to be able to say that I've never forgotten all she taught me, but that can't be true. I'd be hard pressed just now to describe all the syntactic functions (adjunct?), but I remember that phrase at least.

I learned this morning from her obituary that she retired not long after I graduated. I do not mean to suggest that the two events are related. She'd been a school teacher by then for decades. She taught in the place she was born and where she herself went to high school and to college. Imagine that. Her mother was a school teacher. They looked just alike, according to my mother. When back home in later years, I would occasionally see Miss Stuck on Broad Street, or meet her by chance at County Market. Often as not she was still wearing the same sensible cape and vaguely Tyrolean hat I remembered, a pheasant feather tucked in the band. I see in the picture featured in her obituary that her hair though long since gone white as snow was otherwise unchanged. (She might have forgiven me the cliche, but not I think the personal familiarity. Apologies to her shade.)

On the board in her classroom there was always a quotation. These changed regularly, though I suspect their sources and the schedule on which they were added to the chalkboard did not. I learned years later that one of the first duties of her many student-teachers was to recopy the index cards from which she ostensibly taught, though I do not remember her ever making reference to these when she taught, and I doubt her lessons changed from year to year. Of the quotations she put up I can remember none, though I do remember writing down more than a few and in so doing managing to misspell both Emerson and Carlyle despite the uniform clarity of her hand. I know that I misspelled their names because, first it is a safe assumption that I misspelled most things even as late as my freshman year in high school and second, because I remember I later had trouble finding either gentleman's books in the school library.

"Work alone is noble," said Carlyle.

"Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee," said Emerson.

Miss Stuck was not the sort of teacher one might call a friend. I was blessed with a few of those; kind souls who kept me alive, who comforted and counseled me, who opened my eyes and ears to art and philosophy and life. To them I hope I have expressed my gratitude already and elsewhere. Miss Stuck was of a different school, as it were. There was little of the maternal in her nature, at least as exhibited in her rather cold classroom. She was older than most of my teachers, of an earlier and more formal generation and not one for informality or nonsense. She was not, I should think entirely popular, or better say she saw no reason to cultivate popularity. She was there to do a job, do it well, and to some extent, Devil take the hindmost. Not the stuff of annual Christmas cards and Valentines. To be fair -- another of her absolutes -- she was invariably kind, specially when met in later life, and always eager to hear from former pupils what they may have done since. She must have grown used to disappointment there, though she would never have said so if so. (That sentence smacks of showing off, of which she did not approve, though I remember her smile when she quite rightly called me on just that, more than once.)

She taught me what a sentence was; it's parts and how it worked. She taught me that above all else and despite the thickness of my skull and my ignorance of my own language. She taught me that in the structure was the purpose. She taught me that the intention, my intention meant nothing unless it was expressed in the best selection and order of the words. From her I finally learned why paragraphs happen and why they end (properly) when and where they do. She taught me that an essay was not a task but an attempt. She made me write, and write as well as I might because even I might have something to say. She made a revelation out of rules and rote and work. How hard a thing that must have been to do!

I will not say I was altogether ignorant of grammar and the like when I met her. I'd been instructed in much of this before I came to her class, how could I not have been, even in a place like Grove City? So what then was so different in what she did from what had been done in all the classrooms through which I had already passed? That is a question I cannot satisfactorily answer even now. Perhaps it was simply time I leaned something that would really matter to me thereafter. I was already a reader. Perhaps she gave me the tools to do more and somehow convinced me at last that I might. Others had told me I was clever. Other teachers had encouraged me to write and praised what I'd written. Of praise she was sparing so maybe it meant more. All I can say is that somehow, from that unchanging lesson-plan on those unalterable index cards, she managed to open my eyes to the workings of something I assumed I either already knew or otherwise had no right to. She taught me what I owed to the words I used and to the language that might make of me something more than what I was without it.

For four decades then she went to work with an enviable optimism that into even the hardest heads she might pound a little sense. How did she not despair of the task?! I think she was confident of the soundness of what she taught. That may not be so easy nowadays, for good and bad. Teachers now, as I understand it, learn more of theory and methods and perhaps less of grammatical rules and the benefit of offering "Thought of the Day" quotations from great, white, dead men. I can't now imagine what might be involved in telling a student to memorize "The quality of mercy" and be prepared to recite it by the end of the week.  In many if not most ways the why of what she taught must by now be nearly as old fashioned as the what and how. There are those I do not doubt who benefited little or at least less than I did from her class. Certainly there was even then reason to question some of what she did and what she believed she was doing. I am glad she never did, or that if she did, she nevertheless still saw the sense in it.

Life requires change. A good life also requires that which does not. It is good to know that we are loved and to be told so. It is a joy to read and to own books better than we've any right to by income and formal education. There are things that it is simply good to know and things without which we could not learn anything new. I said that if I can now write anything more than my name that I owe this to Miss Stuck. I meant it. What she taught me has proved to be the means of every thought and sentiment I have expressed since and if I am not yet the writer she would have had me be, it is no fault of hers.

I wish her rest well earned and send after her my love, and no apologies for the noun. It is not, as she might have thought it, too strong.