1981: Summer Camp of the Nerds

The summer of 1981 brought great relief. I had survived the eighth grade and would be going to high school in the fall. (Considering that our middle school and high school buildings were positioned about 30 yards apart, this was not so much of a big deal.) I had made it through two years of marching band and was attending summer band practice. (There was this thing called “band camp” coming up in August, but that probably wasn’t going to be a life-changer.)

My big deal was that I was going to spend one week in July at Miami University, in a summer camp emphasizing science and math. Not only was it a camp about science and math, but it was pretentiously and embarrassingly titled the “Summer Institute for Tomorrow’s Leaders.” Nice job, Miami. Apparently I had been considered nerdy enough to attend this camp the previous summer, but my parents hadn’t gotten my application in before the spots filled up — grossly underestimating the number of extremely nerdy seventh and eighth graders in the nation’s heartland. I was waitlisted for the following year, and off I went to Oxford, Ohio.

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Our drive of one hundred miles went due southwest along I-71, wound through Lebanon, south of Middleton, and north of Hamilton, and then ended at the top of a steep hill where State Route 73 would have run straight into a forested campus if there hadn’t been a stoplight. We were in Oxford. The sky was sky blue, the grass was grass green, and every building was made of weathered dark red brick crawling with real ivy, with cream Georgian columns out front. The campus screamed COLLEGE in 72-point bold type, and I imprinted on it like a newborn duckling on Konrad Lorenz.

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We stayed in the dorms, and my roommate for the week was a girly girl named Kelly. She had come equipped for the week with a curling iron, a metric ton of makeup, and cute clothes. If I had missed some memo that summer reminding me to be girly while I studied science, it was to be the first of many. In my jeans and sneakers I happily ran around all over campus with the boys while we caught moths, saw early LOGO programming on the Apple II, played 20 Questions on the DEC VAX in the lab in Kreger Hall, and worked out solutions to math problems of our own devising.

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For example, a bunch of us made it to Culler Hall to watch a Foucault pendulum in action. A sign next to the pendulum noted how long it took the bob to swing once out and back. The same idea came to each of us simultaneously: how many times would the pendulum swing in one year? We took out pens, papers, and calculators and calculated furiously. We were astonished to find that each of us had arrived at a different answer. This led not to arguments, but to a longer conversation about our different assumptions and methods. I was in nerd heaven. And when I was with the boys, it didn’t matter that I was a girl – all that mattered was getting the right answer or asking the right question. With the girls, it seemed to matter how girly you were. I knew I wouldn’t ever win that contest, so I ignored as much of girl culture as I could afford to.

However, I did temporarily align with the girls when it came to deciding who was the cutest boy at the camp. I don’t remember his name now, but he was medium height with blue eyes and curly golden brown hair. The entire girls’ wing of the dorm was swooning over Mr. Cute & Curly, but by Wednesday I noticed that his roommate got less attention even though he was friendly, tall, and slender. I can’t tell you how it happened, but by the time my parents came to pick me up at camp’s end I had found a hand to hold as I navigated the campus. I think my parents were as surprised as I was when I introduced them to gangly, dark-haired Scott and took his picture on the front steps of Minnich Hall. Even though I never saw him again, it was a confidence booster. Thanks, Scott.

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Four years later, when it was time to apply for college admission, no college ever measured up to the memories I had of Miami. No other school had a chance at capturing my heart. When I did attend Miami, my new experiences overlapped my old paths: in the lecture room where I had heard about moth selection and elementary statistics, I took a night class on American literature. In the Bishop Woods where I had captured insects, I later darted from computer lab to geology class in a spring rain. In the computer lab where we had played text games on the mainframe, I later had the chance to alpha-test a new computer called a NeXT. And in Bachelor Hall, where our group had composed a song, I later worked at my first student job, took English and math courses, survived creative writing workshops, and — much later — shared an office with my future husband as I prepared to begin graduate school and teach my own English class. But I’m getting far ahead of myself, and the future wasn’t going to be as simple as a well-crafted ambiguous sentence can make it appear.


Knitwise… I have spent quite a bit of time reorganizing my patterns and stash over the last week. I started and finished the blue-green rectangle that I described in my previous post, and went looking for yarn to complement it. When I went stash-diving for blue fun-fur yarn for a friend, I found the unfinished projects about which time had truly forgotten. Felted loafers, two steps from being done? I pulled them out to re-prioritize them. Red, white, and blue cotton yarn? I’ll re-home it. And I found several would-be project bags filled with some high-class skeins of laceweight. In some cases I can almost remember the patterns I meant to use to knit them up. These are bags of hope, of ambition, of misplaced yet admirable levels of confidence. When I can start them, I will.

Meanwhile I have cast on for a simple triangle shawl made of fuzzy grey-and-white yarn, with a eyelet rows three stitches in from each edge. I use the easiest pattern in the world, which works just as well for a small cotton dishcloth as it does for a king-sized blanket, and it will allow me to knit on with confidence and hope through all crises.

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1980: Shots fired

Out in the backyard of our house in the country, my brother and I learned to shoot with his Daisy BB gun and some larger firearms. Our property was host to varmints galore, but we left those to the dogs — by the dogs I mean Toby (who came with the house) and, later, Babe (who came home with me from gym class); poor Charlie, the middle dog, was a rescue from German Village and was always an inside dog. We took aim solely for target practice, with a range consisting of soda cans set atop fenceposts. Plink, plink, plink. Set them up again.

Dad was not obsessed with guns, but over time he had acquired a few diverse and interesting specimens of home protection. I remember when he taught me how to cope with the kick-back on a .357 magnum Ruger. It was a powerful gun, and knowing how to handle it properly was pretty satisfying. Dad also emphasized safety and proper cleaning, so when you wanted to blow some empty Coke cans away you knew you had to prepare beforehand and clean up afterwards.

We never had to fire a shot in anger, but we almost came to it once when someone spotted a field mouse in the closet by the front door. By then I was accustomed to rescuing lost and/or slightly damaged animals, and I wanted to cage it and release it. Mom rushed in with a broom to whack it into submission, and had it cornered when Dad charged down the hallway with his shotgun.

“Jim!” she yelled before he could pull the trigger. “NOT IN THE HOUSE!”

I have previously written about some of the loveliness of that apex of public education, eighth grade. It was in the middle of that school year when other people with guns began making the headlines by bringing tragedy to the world. On Monday, December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon. My generation, born after the assassination of President Kennedy, was alive during the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, as well as the attempted assassination President Ford, but we were hardly aware of these events. This one got our attention. Everyone knew the Beatles, and everyone knew who John Lennon was. Double Fantasy, the album he had just released, played endlessly on the radio, and the track “(Just Like) Starting Over” now sounded like a cruel joke but rose from No. 6 to No. 1 on the Billboard charts after Christmas and stayed there for more than a month.

Having recently read something about the Beatles, John, and Yoko, I wrote a letter of condolence to Yoko Ono. A month or so later I received a reply — a copy of a letter she had sent out in response to the thousands of people who had acted on a similar impulse. I wish I could find this letter today.

A few months later, we heard the shocking news that President Reagan had been shot by John Hinckley, Jr., and some of his Secret Service agents had been wounded while protecting him. The whole incident had been caught on film, and we the captive audience watched it over and over for days, still disbelieving. There was a brief period of procedural chaos while Reagan underwent emergency surgery, but soon order seemed to have been restored.

Two months later, I was leaving school and headed for my bus when I heard, probably from a radio in the school secretary’s office, that the Pope had been shot. When I raced onto the bus and told my driver the breaking news, she thought I was making it up. To tell you the truth, it could have even been the other way around: perhaps I heard the news on the school bus radio and then ran back into the building to inform the secretary. It was a confusing time, and it was all a long time ago.

 


 

Knitwise, I wasn’t sure what project to take up next after I finished the slippers and hat. So I went to the biggest bin that was easiest to reach, and pulled out two items that could be considered works in progress. The first was a purple-and-white acrylic project that had begun as a hat, then transmogrified into a baby sweater. (I was bored. Work with me, people.) Now it’s sort of a toddler-sized vest, with some stitches on holders, some stitches live, and with no clear plan as to how to bring it all together into something that a very young person could actually wear. If I look at it for much longer, it might turn back into a skein and get donated to someone more clever than I. At this point, that could be anyone.

Another project on hand was Nakia’s Infinity Scarf. With the jury still out on whether one should knit a Noro Silk Garden ball of yarn from the inside or the outside, and with me nearly paralyzed by looking at the charts for this pattern, I moved along to Project Three.

Said Project Three turned out to be two skeins of the Michaels version of Lion Brand Homespun in a blue-green blend. I had set them aside to be used in a pattern that used three blue-toned yarns in an alternating sequence to produce…something. The pattern wasn’t even with the yarn any more, so the yarn was available for reassignment. I tried a US 13 needle, frogged the unsatisfactory results, then cast on 42 stitches on a US 15 needle and gartered away. At this point I have just started knitting the second skein. I have plans to make something a bit classier (and more complicated) than a blue-green rectangle, but first I have to finish the basic rectangle. It’s good to have goals.

Published in: on April 9, 2018 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

1979: This ain’t no disco

Let’s face it, 1979 was not exactly a peak year in American history. I searched for a cultural high point and I found events that included the nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island, the start of the Iran hostage crisis, and even Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park. In my personal history, this year is associated with seventh grade — the middle year of middle school. It’s also tough to find a personal high point.

Merging with the other elementary school students in sixth grade had been an opportunity to get sort of a fresh start at making friends, but my circle hadn’t gotten much larger than the few people I had met and hung out with at Derby Elementary. Being in the marching band would eventually be the the activity that led to travel, danger, challenge, and achievement — but not this year, when I was still learning notes and trying to march and play at the same time.

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Recently we had gotten some new music into the house, after a lapse of more than a decade since my parents’ college days. In a flurry of purchases we wound up with the soundtracks for Annie, Star Wars, Tron, Grease, and Saturday Night Fever. This was followed up with a Bee Gees album and two multi-disc John Denver albums. We actually had a wide range of music in the collection, and I was never quite sure which belonged to Mom and which belonged to Dad. Eventually, it just became one eclectic shelf of albums by 101 Strings, Mott the Hoople, the Smothers Brothers, the Chad Mitchell Trio, The Christy Minstrels (not to mention The New Christy Minstrels), Crystal Gayle, the Kingston Trio, Jethro Tull, the Brothers Four, Godfrey Cambridge, Tom Lehrer, Helen Reddy, and the various casts of several Broadway plays. Oh, yes, hipsters — it was all on vinyl.

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Many years later, my parents sold their house, moved into an apartment while they built their next house, and had a garage sale to get rid of the extra items before they had to haul them all over Pickaway County and back. Before the sale, my brother and I cherry-picked the album collection, and I think we’re each happy with what we saved. Those weird albums are our childhood, and they were shared with the open air and everyone else in the house in the days before headphones, the Sony Walkman and Discman, and even boom boxes. Digital music, CDs, and iPods were decades away. Music in our house was public, and if I ever annoyed anyone with the stack of albums I queued up on the record player, they never mentioned it or I have long since forgotten their dissatisfaction. Perhaps I didn’t even notice it at the time.

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The other medium of music in our house was the audio cassette. The blank ones came in three-packs at KMart and I always seemed to be running out of them. I was a devoted listener when the American Top 40 with Casey Kasem came on every Sunday, and I often positioned the portable tape recorder next to my clock radio and did my best to record my favorite songs without any of the commercials. (Funny that, these days, I might be more eager to hear those old lost, local commercials than the songs I’m likely to still hear on ‘oldies’ radio stations.) This was a tricky enterprise, as I could not sing along or even make any noise in my room while making the recording, or the creaky floor would end up on the tape, too.

The prerecorded tapes came via the Columbia House Music Club at six for a penny and a flat fee for every month thereafter (or until you got sick of them). My six selections were the soundtrack to the Muppet Movie, the soundtrack to The Rose, and four Barry Manilow albums. I do remember that there was a default album that came if you didn’t send in your selection in time (by postcard, if I remember correctly). I accumulated plenty of music this way, but the one genre I never really expanded upon was disco.


Knitwise, I finally finished two pairs of slippers, then decided to turn as much of the leftover yarn as I could into a hat. It ended up fitting better than the slippers did, but since it was for a toddler it didn’t stay on for long. Sometimes it really is the thought that counts. You’ll appreciate it when you’re older and colder, Jake.

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What’s next on the needles? Probably something I still need to finish, but I haven’t settled yet on one of my myriad options. Stay tuned!

Published in: on April 2, 2018 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

1977: Transitions

Sometimes I look to the past and think about how an event was “so many lives” ago. In this context, a life is just the length of time it takes you to feel as if you have become someone new, someone distinctly different from your prior self. The first time I can draw such a line between lives is in the summer of 1977, when so many things changed for me, never to change back.

The most obvious change in my life was that my family moved — out of the gentle edges of the city into the green and decidedly fragrant countryside. We changed houses, schools, counties, and friends. My parents must have been preparing for this move for a long time, because I remember going along on visits to several houses that were for sale. I loved inspecting the empty rooms while my parents asked serious questions of the real estate agents. My brother and I explored closets, basements, garages, back yards. I don’t remember visiting the house we bought in Orient before we actually closed the deal, but I do remember taking the long trip to it via Grove City, and the whole family being absolutely overwhelmed by the stench of a road-kill skunk as we approached a small town that was no more than a stoplight and a sign. The sign read “Pleasant Corners.”

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During the time that my parents were house-hunting, one of my father’s brothers was trying out a career as a real estate agent. It was his company’s sign that was erected in the front yard of our Westgate house, so I assume that he was the selling agent. He was, however, less than impressed with the property that we ultimately purchased. Someone’s sanity was definitely called into question. The acreage was more than we could use, and the parts of the yard that weren’t overgrown were covered in cow manure, goat droppings, and/or chicken…manure. Electric fence ran almost all the way to the house from a cinder-block barn that had basic electric service but no running water. The house itself had one bathroom and two bedrooms for a family of four, a basement that took on water after a hard rain, and lights that dimmed when we made toast. My father rented something called a “bush hog” to clear the land — though he did let us take a few whacks at the tall grass with a rusty sickle — and started improving everything that he could.

The house also came with a dog, Toby, who was the son of the dog of the folks who lived next door. At the time, my romantic mind thought him to be a Gordon Setter based purely on his coloration. His mother Pookie, however, was a tiny scrap of brown and black fur that looked like a Yorkie, and his father could only be imagined. Toby was a real country dog who didn’t hesitate to challenge the local groundhogs, snakes, and raccoons to combat. It didn’t matter — I finally had a dog! Maybe this “moving to the country” thing wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

And now…I even looked different. I had loved my long, thick hair and putting it up into ponytails that flew out behind me from under my baseball cap when I ran the bases, but my mother gradually complained more and more about how hard it was to take care of. One evening before we moved, she sent me down the street so a family friend could cut my hair. I wasn’t in on the plan, and cried when my long waves were cut off and the remaining hair sprang up into tight curls. I didn’t recognize myself, but there wasn’t much that I could do about it.

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That 70’s vacation.

And now I was ten years old. We had taken our summer vacation to visit Niagara and Horseshoe Falls and make a brief trip into Canada. We were on the road on my late-June birthday; a waitress brought out a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting on a ceramic plate that rotated and played “Happy Birthday,” and I was embarrassed at being the center of attention. But on the same trip we visited what must have been a corner drugstore, shopping for road food or other supplies. I wandered over to a newspaper stand and picked up a copy of the local paper, and the store owner snapped at me to put it back, as if I were a thief. My parents didn’t hear him. I felt scared and didn’t know what to do. I put the paper back. I was furious at having been falsely accused, and it was decades before it occurred to me that the storekeeper had probably been the victim of young shoplifters and was just looking out for his store. He probably couldn’t imagine that I just wanted to read the newspaper.

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The ‘new’ gym was added in 1937.

And now we had a different school to attend. My mother drove us there in the early August heat and let us play on the playground while she attended to the administrative details. My new elementary school, where I would be in fifth grade and my brother would be in second, was an immense brick structure built in the early 1900s as a K-12 institution (replacing a school built in 1886). There was a large central staircase that, supposedly, had been made wide enough to accommodate girls ascending and descending in hoop skirts. The story was utterly credible. In my single year there I wasn’t brave enough to explore much but I found three staircases. I wouldn’t have been surprised to be told there were more. The whole place was a woodworker’s dream, with hardwood floors and walnut-stained railings. But once school started I had a lot of adjustments to make — the new school used different reading books and no one was sure which level I should be in. My classmates all seemed to be related to each other somehow, and even if they weren’t, they had still known each other since they were born. Their country accents were so thick that sometimes I didn’t understand what they were saying, and some of them made fun of me for doing my homework in class instead of taking it home. I became more shy and withdrawn, hesitant to either make a mistake or do well.

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And there weren’t Camp Fire Girls in the country — just Girl Scouts and 4-H. I had heard of 4-H groups as the ones who trained seeing-eye dogs, so that was what I picked. Luckily, there was a much wider range of activities under the 4-H umbrella, and it was a good organization for me to join. I took projects to the county fair in birds, cats, dogs (attempting to show Toby in the middle of the sheep barn was a memorable experience), photography, and creative writing over the next several years.

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And the next year…I would be off to the middle school, mingled with kids from the other two elementary schools in the county. Our teacher promised that everything would be harder. And I’d have to make friends all over again.


Knitwise, I finished and gently blocked the Olympic cowl. The colors were bleeding while I was working on it, so I did some Internet research and gave it a cold-water vinegar rinse before laying it out to dry on an old towel. We’ll see if that does the trick. It’s a pretty thing, and now it’s soft as well.

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See? I really do knit.

Then I started to collect yarn for a future project: Nakia’s Infinity Scarf, which is designed by Jeff Giles, featured in “Black Panther,” and free on Ravelry. I have NOT started this project yet, as I have not yet finished the project I said that I would finish before I started my next project. Sheesh. All I did was print out a new pattern and buy one LOUSY FREAKING SKEIN OF YARN and put them in the same project bag. (Okay, it was Noro.)

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Gotta finish some stuff before I start some stuff. And I’m in the mood to start some stuff.

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  Comments (1)