1969: To the Moon

Two years after the Summer of Love, it was the summer of ’69. (For those of you who like to keep track of such things, Bryan Adams was a lad of nine years old and Jackson Browne actually was twenty-one.)

Woodstock poster

My parents weren’t hippies and they certainly weren’t about to run off to Woodstock. (In fact, I don’t even know anyone who ran off to Woodstock. When I was in my thirties I worked on a magazine with a senior editor whose hippie friends had invited him to come along with them to this little concert in upstate New York. He considered it, but the date conflicted with his first day of boot camp and he chose the Air Force instead.) My parents did own a couple of Peter, Paul, and Mary albums and a record entitled “Summer of 70” that I might break out for next week’s story, but their form of counterculture was the mid-60s folk song parody as rendered by, variously, Tom Lehrer, the Smothers Brothers, or the New Christy Minstrels. (These performances prepared me for Lehrer’s later work on “The Electric Company,” the fractured fairy tales from “Rocky and Bullwinkle,’ Monty Python, and, ultimately, Weird Al Yankovic. But I digress.)

The other big event in the summer of 1969 was, in some ways, the biggest event of the millennium: the moon landing. Of course, I don’t remember any of it. And by the time I was old enough to remember such things, NASA wasn’t doing such things any more; I wouldn’t see anything so spectacular until the Space Shuttle Columbia’s thrilling launch and safe landing in 1981. I learned about it in two ways: a book about the space program (over which my brother and I later fought) and my stamp collection.

Explorer stamp album Freedom stamp album World Wide stamp album

Didn’t everyone have a stamp collection in the 1970s? My stamp albums, Harris Grab Bags, and glassine hinges all came from the Woolworth’s hobby aisle. I spent countless hours soaking them in the bathroom sink, drying them on paper towels, sorting them, and mounting them. I learned that Hungary and Poland had the coolest stamps (thank you, Magyar Posta!). The Queen’s profile, often in silver, was on every stamp of her provinces. Some countries even issued stamps in the shape of TRIANGLES. The mind reels. I traveled around the world on these small pieces of paper, which I catalogued on larger pieces of paper.

When my parents saw how careful I was with my stamp collection, they entrusted me with something precious – a first day cover of the moon landing stamp. I was in awe.

Moon landing first day cover

This one isn’t mine, but mine looks an awful lot like this one.

“Thank you!” I [hope I] exclaimed. Then, after a careful examination of the date on the cancellation, “Did I see this?”

“Yes,” they told me. “It was important, so we sat you down in front of the TV and you watched it.”

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, I was watching. My parents had made sure of it.

Curiously enough, I never actually imagined myself an astronaut or took any steps towards becoming one. I don’t think anyone would have discouraged me – certainly it would not have been the most improbable career I ever entertained – but my goals just didn’t go in that direction. When I was a bit older I saw myself as a scientist, but one doing pure research in a lab somewhere, wearing a blindingly white lab coat. Nevertheless, the moon and the stars have remained objects of fascination for me.

Apollo movie launch

That fascination resurfaces whenever I come across “Apollo 13” and feel compelled to watch it to the end. It resurfaced when I waited for months to watch “Hidden Figures” in the theater, and bought it as soon as the DVD came out. It shows itself again whenever the stars are clear, the moon is dramatic, or the sun is eclipsed.

Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad.


I didn’t give a knitting update last week, but I have finished a sideways striped scarf, a hat to match a scarf previously made, and one pair of slippers for Grandmother (to be honest, I still have to seam them up). I promised myself that this year I would knit at least one stitch every day, and so far I have kept that promise. That does mean that I shall have to knit at least one stitch tonight, and I have had slightly more than my allotment of fermented grapes. Nevertheless, she persisted. Maybe I’ll break out the bubblegum-pink yarn and start knitting a special hat. Who needs?

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Published in: on January 22, 2018 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

1968: Wee Bonnie

While teenagers were fighting in Vietnam, college students were protesting in Ohio, and athletes were protesting in Mexico City, I was turning one year old. My parents’ photo album has a few pictures of me from this time, happy beyond reason and chubby beyond belief, being held upright by my father in the kiddie pool at Wee Bonnie Swim Club.

As I grew up I spend most of my summertime outside, usually in the immediate neighborhood or just a block away at Westgate Park. But terrestrial charms would inevitably fade as the temperatures rose, and when we could bear it no more we would be gathered with our beach towels and sunscreen to be driven to Wee Bonnie for an afternoon in the water. It was less than two miles away but it felt like going to another world.

Wee Bonnie high dive

Not my photo. Not my dad. And that diving board isn’t half as tall as it is in my memories.

Wee Bonnie actually consisted of a golf course adjacent to a swimming pool. My father, in a previous life, had managed the golf course and also worked as a lifeguard. Whether or not we had an ‘in’ at the place I’m not sure, but in those days Dad was still lifting weights and doing amateur bodybuilding, so he was rather buff. Mom knew she would be able to spread out her beach towel and relax for a little while as my brother and I splashed in the shallow end of the big pool; Dad would keep an eye on us.

As far as amenities go, Wee Bonnie didn’t seem to have very many. There was a large L-shaped pool with a high dive at the deep end, a few lifeguard chairs, and a concession stand. The only building was of cinder blocks, and I remember feeling disoriented at being separated from my family as we passed through the changing areas. Then, ready to swim, I walked out into the sun, and the brilliant green of the grass and the whiff of chlorine pulled me into the chaotic scene of swimming, splashing, running, and yelling.

There must have been music coming from somewhere, but I don’t remember it; I recall, perhaps erroneously, that periodically a siren would sound for a ten-minute rest period. All the kids had to leave the pool, and adults could swim for ten minutes while kids rested. We always hoped to time our arrival at the pool so that we didn’t get there just in time for the rest break.

Wee Bonnie was where I had the snacks I never had at home. After my Wee Bonnie days were over it was many years before I bought a pack of Twizzlers; when I opened that first package I could almost feel the sun on my skin and smell chlorine in the air (and my hair).

twizzlers-ad

Wee Bonnie was where I dared to swim underwater with my eyes open; where I thought that lifeguards were the rulers of the world, and I lived in fear of being the subject of a blast from their whistles; where I eventually climbed up the tall, tall ladder and inched to the end of the long, long board and finally jumped feet-first into the water, going deeper under the water than I had thought possible and emerging, underwhelmed, with a nose full of chlorinated water. It was more fun to sit on my beach towel on the grass and watch Dad do jackknife after jackknife from the high dive.

And Wee Bonnie was the answer after a summer vacation during which my brother and I, without any conscious attempt at synchronization, simultaneously and individually went beyond our depths in the hotel’s swimming pools. Dad pulled me from the pool as I went down for the third time (I remember counting); my brother made a valiant attempt to fight off his rescuer but was, ultimately, rescued. The next year we took swimming lessons at Wee Bonnie; at the end of the summer we posed, grinning, with the patches that proved we had surpassed Tadpole and Minnow status.

We moved away; Wee Bonnie went on without us until times changed. One year we drove past, visiting the old neighborhood, and saw that the gates were locked and the pool had been filled in. Now Wee Bonnie has a Facebook page where the Westgate Park area kids of the 60s, 70s, and 80s can share their memories of the pool, the concessions, and that awe-inspiring high dive.

Published in: on January 15, 2018 at 8:48 pm  Comments (1)  

1967: Silver anniversaries

Launching a series of stories with one from the year of my birth put me in mind of the scene in “Gone With the Wind” where Melanie Wilkes begins reading David Copperfield to pass some tense hours when her and Scarlett’s husbands are in peril. “‘Chapter One. I am born,’” she reads aloud from the first page of Dickens.

I read Gone With the Wind when I was in high school, which was [ahem] very many years ago. I decided to check my memory against the book. Surprise! The same scene is present in the book, but Melanie picks up a worn copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and begins from the middle.

This is a surprisingly fitting introduction to my first story, as will become clear eventually.

First, however, I would like to note that stories have many perspectives and memory can be fickle, spotty, or dead wrong. For that reason I will do my best to tell my own story and not someone else’s when I sit down at the typewriter-keyboard each week. The family skeletons will stay in the closet; if you and I had a past, your secrets are safe with me. For the early stories, though, keeping my cards so close to the vest will require some creativity, as my first real memories won’t be made until I’m about three years old. So this first story is something that didn’t happen to me, as well as something that didn’t happen to my mother.

1966_Mustang_bronze

Not my mother’s Mustang.

I was born in the summer of 1967, to a father from Ohio and a mother from West Virginia. When I was six months old she would be bringing her baby girl back to her parents’ house for Christmas, in her 1966 Mustang. (My father had a 1966 VW Beetle. They were people of their times.) The journey from the West side of Columbus to the east of Charleston took, at that time and on those roads, more than four hours. We made that trip two to three times a year while I was growing up; although the roads improved, the distance shortened, and the halfway point changed, the original Route 35 is still present in bits and pieces within sight of the new and improved one. Now it’s a potholed connection between gravel driveways. Then, it was the only way to my grandparents’ house.

Ohio_map_1967

The transition from central to southern Ohio was marked by the emergence of low rolling hills south of Chillicothe, and higher hills once you passed Jackson’s apple-painted water tower and its legendary “10 ham sandwiches for 99 cents” that we never stopped to buy. But the transition from Ohio to West Virginia was marked by our passage over a magnificent silver bridge that connected Gallipolis, Ohio, with Point Pleasant, West Virginia, just south of the very visible (look to the left) confluence of the Kanawha River with the Ohio.

Ten days before Christmas 1967, the unthinkable happened. The Silver Bridge failed, collapsed in less than a minute, and sent 46 people plunging to their icy death in their cars. The bridge failed during the evening commute, and the locals which had come to depend upon the bridge that let them travel easily between work and home became its victims.

My mother still made it home for Christmas, but had to drive several miles north to the nearest Ohio River bridge at Pomeroy, only to follow the river south again and cross a different bridge over the Kanawha at Henderson. This may have added an hour to her trip, and I can only imagine that her nerves were shot by the time she was finally able to carry the infant-me into her parents’ house and relax.

I have a few postscripts to this story. One was that, while I was researching the Silver Bridge collapse a few years ago, I stumbled across documents that pinpointed the location of each car that sunk after the bridge plunged into the river, along with a brief description of its occupants. One of those cars was a 1966 Mustang, enclosing a mother and her daughter. May they rest in peace.

Another postscript is that the dramatic and heartbreaking collapse of the Silver Bridge initiated the modern era of industrial inspection, a world I discovered when I began working for the American Society for Nondestructive Testing in the early 1990s as the assistant editor of its monthly journal, Materials Evaluation.

Another postscript is that my department manager during my time at ASNT, Paul McIntire, told me once that he’d actually stopped in Jackson once and tried those cheap ham sandwiches. If I remember with any accuracy his description of the sandwiches in question, they were rather small.

Another postscript is that my daughter Colleen was born on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Silver Bridge. Tonight I consulted her 1938 edition of Gone With the Wind, which used to belong to my mother, for the fact checking of the introduction to this story. One of the books she’s currently reading is Les Miserables.


In other news, I have been knitting each day of the new year. One of my resolutions was to knit at least one stitch every day. If you haven’t made this resolution, but wish that you had, don’t worry: I carried a few stitches for you. You can start tomorrow with no guilt. Keep calm and knit on!

In fact, I’m actually knitting with pink yarn, despite my extreme allergy to the color. The mother of one of the members of my Whitewater knitting group has been redistributing the yarn donated to her church to be crafted into hats, scarves, and mittens for cold persons. As I think that cold persons should be converted at every opportunity into warm persons, I agreed to do my part and accepted the yarn given to me (even though it was Red Heart). So far I have crafted a hat and almost a scarf, each striped off-white and pale pink. I don’t know what I’m going to make with the remaining half skein of pale pink acrylic, but I hope it passes quickly.

When I’m done with the scarf I need to shift back to hats, making a mate for a scarf I knitted as a silent auction item for a March of Dimes fundraiser in February. Then I’ll have time to knit the pair of slippers requested by my grandmother in West Virginia.

 

Published in: on January 9, 2018 at 12:16 am  Comments (2)  

A year and a life

It’s New Year’s Day and time to ensure that I have thoroughly overbooked my next flight ’round the sun.

Resolutions? Check! I have a crap-ton of them shoved hastily into my carry-on bag that I know will absolutely fit into the overhead compartment if you give me just one. More. Minute. No, that’s okay. I got this.

Responsibilities? Check! Full time job, health concerns, four children, and a terrier who is slightly…off. That adds up to many mouths to feed. May I have an extra bag of peanuts, please?

Reading list? Check! Tremendously out of control, with bookcases double stacked and groaning more loudly every day. (Currently Actually Reading: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The fact that I’m reading it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they are filming the movie version now and David Tennant is playing the lead. Well, hardly anything. Well, maybe a little bit. Well, maybe it’s none of your business. But it’s a wonderful book.)

Running out of alliterative subheads? Check!

Each year brings me closer to the end of my string (one might say rope, but one would not want to indulge in histrionics). Less time to knit up my stash, cook up everything in the pantry, go to all the places, do all the things, write all the novels, and save the world in my spare time.

If we knew the length of our string, we could set an appropriate pace. However, the passage of time occasionally reminds us that, in the absence of an accurate measurement of the length remaining, we should just get off our butt and do a few more things before we go to bed each night.

Last summer I turned fifty. I didn’t dread it, not was it effusively celebrated by anyone (other than 73 birthday greetings from Facebook Friends, for which I am grateful), but it eventually led to a time of introspection (i.e., this morning) at which time I realized that fifty is almost fifty-two. Let’s not dwell on the fact that it took me six months to figure this out.

Here’s what I’m going to try. Once a week I will sit down and write a story about something that happened in one year of my life. By the end of the year, I should have covered the entire time up to now. (Except that now it’s called then, and then it will be called now. Oh, never mind.) And by the end of the year I will be fifty-one, so the yearly installments and the introduction add up perfectly.

I will also, as the urge strikes me, write about other topics, let you know how the knitting projects are coming along, and even write in another of my blogs (the one about baking; I’ll provide a link to it when there’s new content to read).

So. Happy new year. Keep warm. And buckle up: next week we’ll be going to 1967.

Published in: on January 1, 2018 at 9:16 pm  Comments (3)  

Second thoughts

Recently I read an article that explained why, when we’re driving, we can sometimes get lost in our rambling thoughts yet still arrive safely at our destination. Apparently the brain can construct some sort of parallel structures so that one process (in this case, driving) can go on in the background while another activity (pondering) seems to rise to the foreground until some action occurs to bring the background function to the fore.

That immediately brought to mind a question that my high school Government teacher asked my class of seniors in 1985: “Did you ever just get in the car and start driving, then suddenly realize that you were at your destination with no memory of how you got there?” At the time, we all laughed and said no, of course not. Who would admit to being such a distracted driver that they didn’t remember the trip? Some of the students teased him and called him a stoner, and he just laughed. In retrospect, and with the perspective of many more years, it was incredibly brave of him to put that question to a room full of irreverent teenagers. These days, it might cost a good teacher their job.

But he was right. Anecdotal evidence and science happen to back him up. I have my own data set, because it’s youth basketball season and I’ve been doing more driving than usual — to practice and back, to games and back, to tournaments and back. And forth. And back. And forth.

I find that driving on familiar roads, which I am wont to do, eventually begins to serve as a sort of Zen activity which permits the wandering thoughts to become firmer and bolder. I have come up with some deep thoughts worthy of Jack Handey, but there seems to be no way to record them while I’m driving. And by the time I arrive safely home, they have faded in contrast to the thoughts of parking the car, unpacking, and starting a new set of urgent tasks. Sometimes they disappear.

ferris-blink

I’ll have to find a way to catch these gossamer thoughts before they drift away. Will it be an app on my phone? Will it be a pen and notebook kept in the car? Will it be my frustrated shout, “I have to remember that! Shut up until I get home!”

Sometimes my thoughts do give me another chance, like a Girl Scout making a second visit with the order sheet if you weren’t at home the first time she was out peddling Thin Mints. At that point they’ve been more than generous, and it’s imperative that I do everything to record them and develop them, to think about their implications. (Thank you, I’ll take two boxes. One for now and two for the freezer.)

I have certainly surrounded myself with enough notebooks, pens, Post-It notes, pencils, writing pads, crayons, backs of envelopes, calligraphy pens, and reams of copy paper with which to take down these mental notes. I also have an incalculable amount of computing power in the house (incalculable for the most part because not all of it still works, but the potential is certainly there).

The hardest things to find are quiet and time. Time is difficult enough to obtain, but I’m not yet skilled enough to block out all distractions in order to develop some of these thoughts. And if I’m punched in on the Parent time clock, I have to stay alert and responsive to the changing needs of the other members of my family. They may not be interrupting my reading and thinking to ask for a cup of juice these days; they might be unable to sleep because they’re wondering about their purpose in life. I’m not saying that I have the answer, but the point of being a parent is to be there when your child asks the question, and let them know that it’s something worth talking about. So, checking out from that responsibility isn’t the way I’m going to get a novel written.

alcott-writing

Yet I still have to write a novel. One of the thoughts that did recently occur to me is that there are many things about me and about my life that my children do not know, in many cases simply because they have not asked me. They are busy navigating their transitions from childhood to young adulthood, and it’s quite possible that it will never occur to them to ask those questions. Maybe someday their own children will ask those questions about me, and my kids will have no idea what the answers could be. But they could know me, a little bit, through the characters, experiences, and thoughts I could weave into a book.

At times, being around finished books is hard to bear. I recently had to leave a bookstore after realizing that I was surrounded by the work of people who had actually finished their books, and I felt inadequate and ashamed. Yet at other times, the same experience is inspiring. Look at how many people have felt the same urge to write, to record, to create! Look at how many times they have been successful! When I read poor, sloppy writing I feel upset, as if that author has taken a place I should have had, as if their printed book has crowded out my unwritten one. (Of course, that’s not true — they have put in the work and I haven’t. Yet.)

But when I read truly great work, it seems to make more work on the bookshelf for whatever I may be inspired — and driven — to write. Literature isn’t a competition between writers, but more of a test that takes place within a single creative mind. How will I perform on that test? Will I work hard enough to succeed? Will I make the time? Will I nourish the thoughts? Will I develop the skills? I sure hope so. I’d love to read the kind of book that I think I could write.

Published in: on January 16, 2017 at 8:33 am  Comments (1)  

Apparently I am the 90 percent

In the previous post I mentioned that I have occasionally been accused of not finishing what I start. Now, that’s a bit unfair to make as a blanket statement, because I certainly have proof that I have completed some of the things I have started. Including blankets.

Well, most of them, except for the blanket project I just started a year ago, and THAT blanket project I started several years ago, which nobody in my knitting group had better throw in my face — AGAIN — because, after all, I don’t have a bed big enough for that blanket any more. But I will still finish it anyway. Eventually. So there. (I’m not sure that this proves my point.)

The point is that some things I start, I completely finish. That should give the lie to the statement that I never finish anything I start.

And it probably would, except that it turns out that most of the things I start only get mostly done. And by mostly done I mean really, really close to done, like 90 percent done.

90 percent used to be a really good grade. Sigh. Back in the days of junior high school and part of high school, before I had Mrs. Beathard and her math classes and her 93-100 “I have higher expectations for you” grading scale, 90 percent was a solid A. 90 percent was great, and certainly more than good enough.

asiandad

I never gave a thought to that other 10 percent. How neglected it must have felt — abandoned after the 90 percent had been bagged and tagged. But after a while it found a companion: another 10 percent. Even side by side, they didn’t look like much, especially next to an 80 percent. Who were they kidding anyway? They weren’t important.

Now, however, they are legion. While my 90 percents are cowering in project bags and storage boxes waiting for free time that will never come, those 10 percents have gotten together, sent petitions around, and freakin’ unionized. You get enough 10 percents hanging around, and eventually they add up to about 2000% of some seriously unfinished business. And if you’re only running at 90 percent efficiency in the first place, you’re never going to finish 2100% in a day. And the next day it will be 2110%.

Those pesky 10 percents.

They are the three missing photos I need to complete my firstborn son’s baby book. (What’s the rush? He’s only seventeen years old…and ten months. Crap.)

They are the five minutes’ work of knitting I need to do to finish a project for a friend who lives on the other side of the planet. (It’s only two years late. I want to get it riiiight.)

They are the books that lie sideways on the shelf because they don’t have a proper place to go because I buy new books faster than I finish reading the old ones. (Maybe I’ll break both my legs and have to stay home in bed for several months and then what will I do if I run out of books to read?)

They are the bills I’m going to pay tomorrow, the clothes I’m going to fold tomorrow, the refrigerator I’m going to clean tomorrow. (Guess what’s going to happen tomorrow?)

I have finally realized that nobody cares about what I plan to do tomorrow. Heck, I’m not even that crazy about it myself. I’ve had plans before, and assumptions, and bought-and-paid-for concert tickets. I know what can happen. I know what has happened. I could have all the best intentions in the world and it doesn’t matter if I put them all off until tomorrow.

It doesn’t matter if I have a great idea for a novel, a series, heck, an entire franchise! It’s just an idea and it’s going to fade away if I don’t tackle it and give it 100, yes, 100 percent. Even worse, it might leave me and go attract the attention of someone who will give it 100 percent on the first go-round.

It doesn’t matter if I’m the kind of person who wanted to take Latin or be a professional baseball player or have a de-scented skunk for a pet. Wishes are wishes, and I didn’t do any of those things. Could’ve, maybe should’ve, but didn’t.

I’m not trying to just dump on myself here. I’ve done some pretty neat stuff, and I don’t think that I’m a failure. But I can’t take credit, even in my mind, for the things I merely wanted to do but didn’t have the courage and strength of character to accomplish.

And tonight, I have some bills to pay.

Published in: on January 9, 2017 at 9:03 pm  Comments (2)  

Unfinished Business

I haven’t published a blog post here for a year and a half — but then, you already know that. What you may not know is that, before I started writing this post, Chocolate Sheep had six visitors for all of 2017. Six! After an empty, desolate eighteen months of non-publishing!

Now that’s a faithful audience. But then, I already knew that. (And thank you.)

My last year and a half has been busy and stressful and joyful and sorrowful. Many of the things that happened to me, I can’t write about. But that’s okay. I have been doing a lot of thinking and waiting and writing in my head during that time. I’ve studied my math, written an essay about various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, switched jobs and switched jobs again and then switched back to the previous job, started a new blog (or maybe two) and posted for a while and then didn’t post, started reading a lot of books and finished reading most some of them, knitted (and partially crocheted!) a few things, mourned Alan Rickman and David Bowie (ouch) and Gary Shandling and Prince (ouch) and Leonard Cohen (WTF) and Carrie Fisher (please, no) and Debbie Reynolds (wait, what?) and William Christopher (okay, 2016, I officially give up now, please take all my heroes) and so many others, and started writing here and there — journal entries, embarrassingly bad poetry, grocery lists, song lyrics, the aforementioned (and as yet still unpublished) Sherlock Holmes essay, love letters, parts of short stories and longer stories — and, as I mentioned, done a lot of thinking.

I have done a lot of thinking about who I am. I start a lot of stuff. And I have to admit that I don’t finish everything that I start. I have had that fact thrown at me like a poisoned dart in the last few years. At first it hurt. Maybe after a while, though, I got a bit more acclimated to the poison. Plenty of people start lots of stuff, including knitting projects. Most of it probably isn’t worth finishing and should just be frogged. Are you obligated to hunt down every wild hare and chase every wild goose just from a sense of honor? Or can you walk away from the hunt when you realize you didn’t really want Hasenpfeffer or Duck a l’orange anyway and a good tuna salad on whole wheat sandwich was more to your taste? And if you walk away, how do you deal with other people’s opinions about your change of mind?

You don’t deal with it. They deal with it, if they really care at all. And if they only cared enough to criticize actions they didn’t understand, they probably don’t need to deal with it either. Just move on. Really. Just move on.

So here I am, still thinking and writing, and trying not to beat myself up for all the loose ends I’ve left behind me. These days I’m getting better at not beating myself up unnecessarily. So when I’m able, I will weave in the ends that are important. Until I’m able, I may be casting on for something else that may be profitable. That’s how my brain works and that’s a large part of who I am. I do my best and I keep going. I don’t want to get stuck any more in the morass of guilt over my as-yet unfinished business. Sometimes I don’t keep writing because I don’t know the end of the story yet. I move on to something else until I do. Sometimes I don’t know how to take the next step in a project. I get something else done while I figure out that next step. It may take five years before I pick up that project again, but I did finish other projects in that five years.

A couple of weeks ago I took a new kind of step and applied for a writing fellowship that would provide professional support and structure to my writing. (Clearly, I need structure.) Whether or not I earn/win/receive the fellowship, I need to start writing again. Today is as good a day as any to start. Knowing that six readers were here waiting for me at a virtual blank sheet of paper is one kind of motivation. Even if they turned out to be six Russian spiderbots collecting subversive knitting lingo for Putin, well, it’s still nice to be waited for. (For the comrades: CO 4x+2. k2, k1 tbl, p1 across, end k2. Turn and repeat. For the Motherland!)

Today also happens to be my tenth anniversary of starting this blog. Online writing has changed a lot since I joined WordPress. So has WordPress, which (after I’ve published it) will probably tell me how many posts I’ve published. For what it’s worth, so have I.

I have started many blogs, all on WordPress, since I started this one — one for each particularly interesting-looking-at-the-time wild goose that crossed my field of vision. Most of them are defunct for lack of interest, lack of time, or lack of relevance to my current life. But there are two that I will most likely choose to maintain in addition to Chocolate Sheep, and they relate to my home baking and my movie reviews. If you’re not interested, then by no means should you worry about them (I haven’t seen a movie in the theaters since Interstellar). If I do post something to those blogs, I will link to it from here so you can see what my writing is like on the other side of the tracks. But frankly, it’s quite a bit like my writing on this side of the tracks.

There are so many things I want to do.(Don’t get me started. Seriously, don’t even think about getting me started.) But most of all, I want to be my best self and keep trying. I hate it when I give in to the dark forces — don’t you?

Keep trying, and keep reading. I promise to keep writing.

Published in: on January 2, 2017 at 12:09 am  Comments (3)  

Part Two: Re-Reading Mockingbird

With my middle-school experiences in mind (see Part One), I got ready to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and, while I was visiting my parents this summer, started looking around for a copy. I just assumed there would be a copy at hand whenever I felt like picking one up, but this turned out not to be the case.

Me: “Mom, where’s your copy of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Mom: “I don’t think we have one.”

Me: “  ”

I had purchased my copy of Go Set a Watchman at Target, so I went back there and looked. Unfortunately, they had no copies of Mockingbird. (Perhaps they were sold out and waiting for a fresh truckload. I didn’t ask.) I finally found a newly printed paperback edition at Meijer, bought it, and dove in.

TKAM_pb

Happily, I discovered that it was just the kind of book to draw you in so nicely and carefully that after a chapter or two, if you managed the self-control necessary to put it down, it soon convinced you to pick it up again and read just one more page, just one more section, just one more chapter to discover what would happen next — even if, thanks to memories of the book and the movie, you in fact already knew what was going to happen next. I kept picking it up until I had to drive back to Wisconsin with the kids, and I think I was in Illinois by the time I realized that I had left Mockingbird in one of my parents’ guest rooms with the first page of Chapter Ten folded over to mark my place. I may or may not have done a facepalm while driving at the moment I realized this.

Head in Hands

I need not have worried. A few days later a box showed up on my doorstep with some of the things we had accidentally left behind, and when I opened it, resting on top was Mockingbird. Now I could finish.

Finish I did, within a week. I had just launched myself into a new full-time job, I was driving all over the county to do all kinds of errands, and it was time to start getting all the kids ready for school. But somehow I just kept picking up the book and reading for chapters at a time until I spent all one Saturday morning racing towards the end and finishing it with great satisfaction.

Certainly by that time, and probably while I was still in Ohio, I had come to the uncomfortable realization that I had not, in fact, actually read To Kill a Mockingbird before. What I had read was, I realized, the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of To Kill a Mockingbird. This explained a lot.

It explained why the lovely prose I was reading didn’t seem familiar to my mind or my ear. Yes, I had read the story somewhere around 1979 or 1980, but still. At this time I was also reading George Orwell, John Steinbeck, and some other heavy hitters of American literature. I would have remembered this writing — and I didn’t.

It explained why I had breezed through a novel that the class was taking longer to make their way through. It was longer.

It explained why, over the years, there were references to the book that I didn’t catch. Those details, those immortal lines, just might not have even existed in the version I read.

For a moment I felt guilty, as if I had lied to get out of reading a book. Even though 36 years had passed. Even though the thought was ludicrous of there being a good book out there, somewhere, anywhere, I wouldn’t want to read. But that moment of guilt passed too, and I was in awe at the quality of the book that someone, somehow, had managed to convince all the schools should be required reading.

I did not go to school in pre-Civil Rights-era Alabama like Jem and Scout. But I went to school in a rural agricultural area that was so white we didn’t even think of our district’s one black family as black. Our society was so homogenous as to be almost monolithic: white, Protestant, economically getting by. If any of us thought we were rich, it was only if we compared ourselves to the terribly, desperately poor among us. And I don’t think that any of us thought we were rich.

But it was also a school where I overheard one future jail-cell-dweller tell his friends, “If I have to go out, I’m taking a nigger with me.” It was not exactly the bleeding-heart-liberal audience for Harper Lee’s eloquent book about embedded, enculturated racism, self-serving false accusations, mistaken assumptions, and the short-term consequences of all of the above. And it wasn’t a school wherein one brave iconoclast took a stand against the culture to prove his honor and earn their grudging respect. How it was…was how it was. Minorities suffered. Athletes got away with it. Homosexuals were tortured. Smart kids were ridiculed. People with connections used their connections. Nothing ever seemed to change. (If the school culture changed after I graduated, I wasn’t aware. But I hope that it did.)

To Kill a Mockingbird was a book from which we all should have learned something. I’m not sure that we did. I’m glad that I finally read it in its entirety, and I’m glad that we were supposed to read it as eighth graders, when it should have been able to make a difference in our psyches before we were fully formed adults. Whether or not it did, I think it was good that we read the book.

Next: To Read a Watchman?

Published in: on August 30, 2015 at 9:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Part One: Me and the Mockingbird

Recently the American novel To Kill a Mockingbird and its author Harper Lee have received a lot of attention because of the publication of her “sequel,” Go Set a Watchman. This summer I purchased copies of both books with the intent to read them both.

I wasn’t alone; for a while this summer, both novels were Top Ten New York Times bestsellers. But since you know me — either in person or through my writing — you may be interested in knowing my own reasons for doing this. To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel that most American public school students read in the eighth grade. I, however, did not, and thereby hangs a tale.

First, let’s discuss why I did not read this wonderful, amazing, brilliant novel in the eighth grade. There are, basically, two reasons: the first is that I had already read it. The second is that I had the same English teacher for both seventh and eighth grade. And when “Bob” (his real name, but not his full name, as he may still be teaching English somewhere) realized that I had already read the novel, he didn’t think I needed to spend another six weeks (or was it longer?) slowly re-reading it as the rest of the class encountered it for the first time. In retrospect, this may not have been the right decision to make, but his intentions were good.

As I said, “Bob” was my English teacher in seventh grade. He was new to my school district, and — if I remember correctly — this was his first or second teaching assignment. He was 26 years old, and I was 12. I was the daughter of two teachers, a rabid reader, a diligent student, and a budding writer. I got through English classes with one finger serving as the bookmark for the front-of-the-textbook matter that the whole class was reading, and another finger poised to flip the pages to the much more interesting reading at the back of the book, despite the teacher-of-the-year’s exhortations not to read ahead.

“Bob” soon realized that I could read whatever was put in front of me, write papers that were excruciatingly organized, whip almost anyone in Scrabble, and diagram complex sentences until the cows came home. My saved English assignments from seventh and eighth grade are covered with his positive feedback, his encouragement, and his judgment that I could soon be submitting my work for publication somewhere. He gave me extra books to read and extra assignments to do to make sure I kept being challenged. He also gave me what was, apparently, some remnant of his college career — a spring-loaded black vinyl pouch to keep my folders and papers in. I felt honored and special.

Then came eighth grade, and he was my teacher again. This was not supposed to happen, and everyone knew it. To this day, I still don’t know why or how it happened. But everyone knew how the tracking worked. I had had Teacher “A” for seventh grade and was supposed to have Teacher “B” for eighth grade. Most of my friends moved on to Teacher “B.” I still had “Bob.” Everyone noticed, and that’s probably when people started to talk. (This was, incidentally, the year that The Police released the hit single “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” about an English teacher with a crush on a student who was half his age. Thank you very much, Mr. Gordon Sumner. You made eighth grade extra enjoyable.)

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Eyebrows were raised, but my schedule didn’t change. We proceeded through the year with the usual assignments until it came time to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know if “Bob” asked for a show of hands in class or I discreetly let him know after class, but somehow I let him know that I had already read the book. He soon decided that it was better for me to give me new assignments than to make me re-read the book. And off I went on my own course, doing a sort of independent study while the class plodded through Mockingbird with oral readings in class and quizzes and tests a couple of times each week.

Somebody got upset. Somebody thought there was favoritism. Somebody thought I was getting special privileges. And probably somebody (or somebodies) thought there was more going on between the twentysomething new teacher and the teenaged student than met the eye. There wasn’t, but it was enough that someone thought there was. Meetings were held. My mother was called in to talk things over with the principal to help “calm things down.” It was decided that I would join the rest of the class in following the standard curriculum. I traded my independent studies for a paperback copy of Mockingbird, joining everyone else just as Bob Ewell was called to the stand. The quizzes were easy, the plodding was slow, and that was apparently the desired outcome. I managed to finish eighth grade without receiving any further accusations of misconduct, then went on to the high school and never looked back. What became of “Bob”‘s career, and what effect his decisions regarding my assignments had had on him, I never knew. I never saw him again. But at the end of the year I emptied out the vinyl pouch that I had so treasured, and returned it to “Bob”‘s desk when he wasn’t looking.

I eventually went on to Miami University, where I earned a bachelor’s degree, with University Honors, in the dual major of English Literature and Creative Writing.

Next: Re-reading Mockingbird

Published in: on August 28, 2015 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Baby steps

I want to write, but it’s hard to write things right now. My work situation is tentative. My health situation is mildly distressing, but also tentative.

I want to use my words!

Published in: on April 1, 2015 at 11:45 pm  Leave a Comment