Saturday, February 28, 2015

Inch Fifty-One: Nostalgic Reading Revisited.

Two weeks ago I wrote that I was waiting for two books from my past to arrive in the mail.

Well, they arrived and I read them. 

I was pleasantly surprised at how well one has held up over the decades and absolutely aghast at the tone, content, and context of the other, and even more aghast at my fourteen-year-old self for being so oblivious at the time.

But the quotes first, the quotes that were still lingering in my brain after 45 years. I was close on both. The lines from An Empty Spoon were "Eliot was wrong. It's January that's the cruelest month. No vacations in sight, dark mornings and cold days. It was an endless month." (Note: this memoir is set in 1966-1968—pre-Martin Luther King Day.)

And I was only off by 120 miles on the end line of Dave's Song. Kate runs out the door rejoicing that Dave has come for her with his stereo in the back of the truck blasting "Suzanne," rejoicing that her "world has turned...and Cleveland was suddenly just another dot on the map." 

So which one stood my test of time and which one didn't?

The novel held up. Dave's Song is 45 years old and still reads sweetly and humorously and pointedly. (The author Robert McKay had a major sub-story going on about respecting the natural world and supporting local agriculture which I had forgotten.) At age 59, I know now that Kates are legion—not planning on going to college, planning for what was then called secretarial work—and while Lone Wolf Daves are less plentiful, they are out there too.

I found myself wanting a sequel to Dave's Song as I reread it so many years later. I want to know what became of Kate and Dave. Did he win the scholarship to Ohio State? Did Kate wait for him to come back? Did he come back or did he move on? Kate and Dave would now be in their 60s and I want to know whether their high school romance made it 40 some years down the road. Did they still consider "Suzanne" their song and play it on YouTube every year on their anniversary? 

That is my test of good fiction: I care about the characters enough to wonder what becomes of them. And Dave's Song met that test easily.

The memoir, An Empty Spoon, is what failed so spectacularly. I finished it the same evening it arrived and Warren asked me about it.

I exploded. "The author is privileged and elitist and entitled and racist! And she is so proud of her shallow liberal leanings as she trashes her fellow teachers that she can't see that she's as bigoted as they are, only they're more open about it! And she's a lousy teacher to boot and even admits she doesn't care!"

 In Dave's Song, Kate's mother makes the comment that she likes Dave, and Kate responds that he is unpredictable. "When he pulls his hand out of his pocket you never know whether he's going to show you a baby chicken or a fist full of knuckles." Warren has to feel the same way: he never knows what he's going to get when he asks my opinion of a book.

If Sunny Decker, the memoirist, had not spent every other page preening about how cool and with it and enlightened she was, I might not be so harsh on her. But she was so smug about how great she was (even when she was putting herself down for her lack of interest in teaching, presumably so the reader could protest "no, you're great!") and how she and she alone "got" the racial divide (the kids didn't, her fellow teachers didn't) that I just wanted to smack her. Even for the times, Decker is insufferable. For example, she had a long labored explanation of why it upset and offended her when the students wanted to be called "black" instead of "Negro." (She herself used the phrases "colored" and "Negro" almost interchangeably, although she tended to use "colored" when she was being more personal.) She was upset because she knew their desired name was only a reaction to what she insisted was the shallow and unsustainable black movement of the late 60s. It was not because she was racist, oh no, no, no, just far wiser and more mature than those high school kids. Decker denigrates afros, Malcolm X, every kid who can't read (blaming that on "cutesy elementary school teachers"), and every kid who doesn't worship her, which is pretty much most of them. 

So what was I thinking that this book held such a powerful sway over me?

I think it was the overlay of young teacher teaching in difficult circumstances. I never felt drawn to the inner city but I was drawn to Appalachia, and knew my destiny was somewhere in a remote holler where, like Decker, I'd bring great literature and empathy to a group of poor, deserving students just waiting to be enlightened. Surely that was why I read Catherine Marshall's Christy some hundred plus times and a fair portion of Jesse Stuart's works during those same years.  

I hope, had I stayed the course, I would have been a far more competent and far less arrogant teacher than Decker. (And that any memoir I wrote would have been far better reading.)

I admit I wonder what ever became of Sunny Decker, not because I care about her but because I hope at some point in her life she realized just how terrible her book was and how shallow and immature and egotistical she was. Did Decker ever gain enough insight to smack her forehead and exclaim "my god, what an arrogant, elitist, little jerk I was!" and atone for her ways? Or does she to this day (she would be in her early 70s by now) pull out her little book and caress its cover, working mention of it into every conversation she can? 

Did she vote for Obama?

You go back to your past and delve into that book again that you once read numerous times but had not opened in years—a lifetime ago, a different person ago. That's different from rereading books that you never abandoned along the way. I have read and reread Little Women for the last half century, and when I reread it, I read in the present, not as the 10 year old or the teen or the young adult I once was. I've never had a disconnect from that book. Rereading An Empty Spoon and Dave's Song, I didn't feel 14 again, but it was more of a look backwards than I had thought possible. As I had speculated in my earlier post, these books gave me a glimpse into that long ago April I was, and that was enough. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Inch Fifty: The Ninth Circle of Hell Has Nothing on Us

In the 1300s, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote a three-part epic poem entitled The Divine Comedy. I have not read the entire work, but I have read the first part, Inferno, more than once. The Inferno describes Dante's trip through hell, with the Greek poet Virgil as his guide. I have not read it in recent decades, but some things stick with you, and that work is one of them in my case.

Dante divides Hell into nine descending circles, with the sins and punishments growing more severe the lower one descends. The ninth circle is the very bottom of Hell, the lowest of the lowest, where Satan resides with the traitors, the most evil of sinners.

The ninth circle is not full of fire and brimstone. It is not a searing, scorched wasteland. You couldn't toast a marshmallow, let alone warm your hands in the ninth circle.

No, as Dante wrote it, the ninth circle is a frozen Hell. Satan is encased to his waist in ice and flaps his wings ceaselessly, producing the icy winds that keep everything frozen. It is without light, it is without warmth, it is without comfort.

I don't live in the ninth circle of Hell. I live in Ohio, which right now far exceeds the ninth circle. We are in the midst of a cold winter, the cold this week exacerbated by an occurrence of a Siberian Express. A Siberian Express is a  name dreamed up by some bored meteorologist to describe a sustained, frigid, often sub-zero weather mass, often originating in Siberia. The resulting temperatures take no prisoners.

There is a reason that the Soviet regime located its gulags in Siberia.

Yesterday all schools were canceled because the temperature was 3 or 5 or something like that, with a windchill of sub-zero temperatures. Today schools were canceled again because the temperature at 7 a.m. locally ranged from -3 to -12 before the windchill.

Minus twelve. Really?

Because of my job and a major community commitment, I was out of the house both days before 8 a.m. I don't care how much one bundles up (and trust me, I do), there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that will guard every part of the body against that kind of cold.

It is cold, cold, cold. It is Dante cold. It is the Keats cold of the Eve of St. Agnes. It is way past any cold Robert Frost every penned.

When Dante and Virgil leave the ninth circle, they reemerge on the earth just before dawn on Easter Sunday. E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

"And then we emerged to see the stars."

I am hoping the spring emerges at some point from the wasteland of winter. After all, the major league pitchers and catchers reported to spring training this week.

I wish I could paraphrase Shelley:

Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of the prophecy! O Wind,
If the pitchers report, can Spring be far behind?

But right now, the Wind is the Siberian Wind, and there is no joy in Mudville.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Inch Forty-Nine: Nostalgic Reading

I am awaiting the arrival in the mail of two books from my past. These are titles that have teased my memory for years and I finally succumbed to the lure of Amazon and bought cheap copies of each.

The first book is An Empty Spoon by Sunny Decker. Decker was a young, white, idealistic, well-off college graduate who wanted to change the world in the late 1960s. Spoon is her memoir of her year of teaching inner city black youth in Philadelphia, capturing her triumphs and her failures, her shock at institutional racism, and the death of her naiveté in thinking she could change the lives of her students, let alone the world, in one short school year.

The other book winging its way to me is Dave's Song by Robert McKay. McKay was an Ohio author who wrote several short young adult novels. I believe most if not all set in Ohio. Dave's Song was the Ohioana winner for Juvenile Literature in 1969, which is probably why my classmates and I were reading it three years later in Arlene Gregory's sophomore literature class. It is a soft, safe romance between Nice Girl Kate and Lone Wolf Dave. Part of its appeal was Kate's desire to flee the stifling little Ohio town she was living in (a desire I recognized immediately and one that she abandoned in the very last sentence of the book, to my deep disappointment). (For the record, I would note that I did not want to date a Lone Wolf like the title character, I wanted to be a Lone Wolf like the title character.) The other lure of the book was McKay's weaving the lyrics and music of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" throughout the narrative. I had a 45 (yes, a 45) of Noel Harrison singing that song that I played repeatedly for several years until it wore out, it being the only remotely "pop" song I listened to in high school. (Take my word for it: my musical tastes in high school were as out of sync with those of my peers as were my intellectual interests.)

Both books were slim paperbacks. Both lingered in my life and were read occasionally for two decades or so, which means I carted them to Chicago, back to Ohio, to Oregon, to Ohio, to California, and back to Ohio once again during the years I owned them. Each eventually disappeared during one of several Book Purges that dotted my adult years.

I am looking forward to seeing the books again. I have been trying to pull a line from Spoon out of my memory, something about T. S. Eliot being wrong about April being the cruelest month. Decker said it was February, for reasons I cannot remember, but as I check this morning's temperature (5 degrees at 4:30 a.m.), I am convinced that she was on to something. And I just want to know if my memory serves me correctly and that the last words of Song are "and Columbus was just another dot on the map."

There is the risk in looking back across a gulf of four and half decades to books so continuously read at the time. That girl I used to be is long gone and the woman I am now has a hard time recalling her passions and ideals (other than my burning desire to get out of this town). These books may be insipid, they may disappoint, I may read them with 59 year old eyes and wonder what I was thinking at the time.

It's a roll of the dice.

When she was a few years older than I am now, Anne Morrow Lindbergh published the first of her several volumes of diaries and letters. I read Save Me A Unicorn, which covered her college years and post-college romance with Charles Lindbergh, in the same general high school years as Dave's Song and An Empty Spoon. (Unlike those two books,  AML is still on my bookshelf.) In looking back at her adolescent self, Anne wrote that she had a "certain respect" for the youngster who was "so many lives removed" from the older adult. "I can laugh at her and am often embarrassed by her, but I do not want to betray her. Let her speak for herself."

Thankfully, I no longer have my high school or college diaries, but my book choices are a form of diary keeping. I am eagerly waiting to see what two of those choices reveal. I am waiting for those choices to speak for that long ago me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Four Feet: The R Word

Note: I have blogged "an inch" every week for over 48 weeks now. When I reach a milestone (a foot, a yard), I often reflect on what it means to write on a weekly basis again. This is not that kind of post, despite hitting another milestone. 

There was an ugly incident in Portland while I was out there that shook me deeply.

Alise, my brilliant, beautiful, loving, witty, articulate daughter-in-law, got called a racial slur when she was doing nothing more than standing beside her car.

Alise got called an "[effing] filthy Indian" in a cowardly drive-by attack.

Having your daughter-in-law called an "[effing] filthy Indian" is pretty horrible. When she told me and her mother, we both gasped involuntarily. As I have thought it over for almost two weeks now, I have concluded that the only word that would have made it worse would have been substituting "redskin" for "Indian."

The R word.

Like it or not, the R word is racist and offensive and wrong, no matter what NFL owner Dan Snyder claims to the contrary.

Over the last several months, as pressure grows to get that Washington team to change its name, I've had friends and others chide me, sometimes severely, for my objections to the team name and its fans who happily and ignorantly dress up as "Indians" for the games. I've been accused of being too politically correct, I've been accused of making a Big Deal out of nothing. Those fans are having fun in their garish gear. It's all fun!

Really? Even my two year old grandchild knows that her regalia is for powwows and not for play like her box of dress-up clothes. If a toddler can understand that key point, what is stopping fans of that Washington team from abandoning their pretend costumes?

Nothing but a sense of entitlement, deep ignorance, and latent bigotry.

I would suggest to those who feel my position is ridiculous or PC imagine a sports team with any other racial or ethnic slur as part of its title. How about the Detroit Darkies with fans showing up in blackface, waving large foam watermelon slices? Or the California Chinks, with fans sticking their fingers in the corners of their eyes to "slant" them whenever the team scores? Or the Kansas City Kikes, with fans wearing exaggerated noses and big foam skullcaps, shouting "Oy Vey!" when their team is down.

The possibilities are endless.

When I made that very point to a friend who had lectured me about why there was nothing wrong with the R word, he recoiled immediately. "You can't use those words," he gasped. He recoiled even further when I asked him how he would react if his adult daughter (adopted, of Vietnamese origin) was called a gook. Would he tell her to get over it? Would he suggest she was being too PC by being offended by it? Of course he wouldn't, he said.


There is a saying: "speak your truth, even if your voice shakes." I often do not speak my truth. I tend to avoid confrontation because I don't handle intense conflict well. My voice usually does shake (along with my hands and my heart), so I many times say nothing and let the moment pass.

But then my daughter-in-law was called an "[effing] filthy Indian."

One day Ramona may well be called an "[effing] filthy Indian."

One day Ramona may well be called the R word.

Whether she is called either of those, without change she will grow up in a country where a multi-billion dollar tax-exempt industry allows a team and its fans to belittle and trivialize her heritage, her people, her family, and herself.

And I don't want to have to tell her that I didn't speak up.