Monthly Archives: March 2014

Everyday [Super] Hero

If I make a promise and decide not to keep it (even if I think it’s a for a good reason), I feel icky. So I feel icky this morning because I promised you two memoir reviews this week, and you’re only going to get one–on Thursday.

But I do have a good reason (you knew that was coming!), and that is because I hit you with two really negative posts last week, and I hate ending the story that way.

What I like to remember is that after negative events start to commandeer my life, all it takes is one good person to turn it around. An everyday hero.

After my negative experiences in the last part of 3rd grade, with the teacher bully and the bus bullies, I was matriculated into Mr. Polonowski’s 4th grade classroom.

He was Miss Slack’s opposite. A phenomenal teacher.

Mr. P, as we called him, was a tall lanky young man with a brush cut (crew cut) haircut and glasses. Before 4th grade, I didn’t realize teachers could be men.

Mr. P’s classroom was ruled by respect, meaning he respected us. So we, of course, respected him.

It was my best year of school . . . ever.

Here are some of the many high points of Mr. P’s class:

  • He set up a long table in the front of the fully windowed wall with Michigan’s natural and cultural treasures: fossils, Petoskey stones, arrow heads, copper, and rock salt. Unlike show and tell, the goodies stayed up for a long time and we were free to handle and examine when our assignment was done. I particularly enjoyed sampling the rock salt ;).
  • We used SRA* reading materials, so I was allowed to read as much and as fast as I wanted, plowing through all the beautiful colors and then back up through them again.
  • Mr. P didn’t require boxes around answers during arithmetic. He never put a kid on the spot. He helped us learn division, to feel pride, and not to dislike math.
  • Mr. P read to us every day. He read from The Oregon Trail and Pippi Longstocking. The way he read them with his deep expressive voice, they were two of the most exciting books I’d ever “read.”
  • We watched science documentaries and got very engaged in our discussions afterward. I still remember those films and how relaxed our classroom felt–how free we were to explore new ideas and information.
  • During lunch, we were allowed to rehearse plays. A friend and I wrote the plays, usually based on fairy tales, and we coerced a few classmates into performing them. I’d started directing plays when I lived in my old neighborhood and still loved it. I think Mr. P also knew that I was a little hyperactive and needed an extra activity.

Sometimes I wonder if Mr. P, everyday hero, stayed in teaching or ended up leaving for business or law or another career. For the sake of the children, I hope he stuck with it.

Mr P

 

* SRA reading lab was a supply of color-coded reading material. We were assigned a level to begin at and we would read articles and respond to questions within that color level. When we mastered it, we would move up to the next color. When we reached the highest level, we could start back at the bottom of the box and keep reading. It functioned a bit like the Montessori method in that an entire class could be at all different reading levels–nobody would be dragged ahead until she mastered her level and nobody would be held back when she could move forward. Although eventually the color and design were changed, when we used SRA, there were many colors so it was a system that was both tangible and aesthetically pleasing.

Did you have an everyday hero when you were a child?

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Pick Pick Pick

This post picks up (pun accepted) where the last one–“Incorrect. Wrong. You Don’t Fit Here.”–left off. It’s still the first day of Miss Slack’s 3rd grade class.

Daddy had told me to take the bus home, and as class let out that afternoon, I asked Miss Slack which bus. She marched down to the principal’s office, dragging me behind. After finding out which bus I should get on, she shooed me down the hall, toward a backlit glass door, which looked like I would be walking into the light at the end of my life.

I sat on a seat mid-way down the aisle. The bus driver cranked the lever, and the door swung shut, but just as we were leaving, two girls ran up and banged on the door. The driver let them in and they quickly walked down the aisle. The brunette girl must have been a sixth grader as she was tall with an adult figure. The other girl was small, maybe my size but skinnier, with the skin of an albino and hair the color of a young pumpkin. They looked like misfits. I was eager to make friends with them.

When they got near my seat, the bigger girl noticed me and stopped. She turned to the other girl and said, “Get in there.”

The redhead moved into my seat, and I scooted over, but she didn’t sit down on the outside. She climbed over me, stepping on both my feet in the process, and squished down between me and the interior wall of the bus so that I had to move over a bit. The big girl then sat down on my other side and pushed heavily against me so that I was pressed between both of them.

I looked from one to the other, wondering what in the world was going on. “Uh, hi,” I ventured.

They ignored me, but nodded at each other. That’s when they each took an arm. The afternoon had gotten warm, and I had taken my jacket off at the bus stop. I had a thin long-sleeved blouse on, but that didn’t deter these girls. They each started pinching an arm in earnest.  “Ow!” I repeated ow over and over, looking around at the other kids for help or at least moral support, but everyone ignored us. It was as if we had moved into an alternate universe, and although I could see and hear the others, these two girls had whisked me away to a place where we had become invisible to the others. A dangerous place where I was totally on my own.

Scene of the crime

Scene of the crime

It seemed as if the four mile drive took an hour. Unfortunately, the girls got off at my bus stop. I had to follow the big girl off, while the redhead followed me, kicking at the back of my knees along the aisle. The minute my feet touched ground, I took off running, while I heard them laughing behind me.  I ran all the way down the street with tears rivering down my cheeks. At home, I ran to my bedroom and slammed my door shut. I ripped off my blouse and saw that the skin on my arms was shredded with their pinches. Wiping my face with my blouse, I threw it on the floor, and then flung myself onto my bed where my tears turned into sobbing.

By then I was crying at missing my friends Vivian and Michelle, as well as Miss Dixon. I was crying for my old neighborhood and my sandbox that I hadn’t played in for two years. I was crying because I hated Miss Slack and her horrible class of mean kids. And I was crying for myself, lost in a world which had suddenly become dominated by an intolerable bus ride to and from a place which had no room for me.

How did I go from being on top of the world to being one of the downtrodden? How did it happen that two different incidents of bullying—1) by the teacher, and 2) by the girls on the bus who were not in my classroom—occurred at the same time?

So I don’t leave you hanging, Miss Slack continued to ask the class to show displeasure at my inability to remember to box my answers, and I became well acquainted with the health room from all my trips to get out of class. Those girls on the bus continued to pinch me for about six weeks. I finally told my mother and showed her my arms. The girls stopped, and soon it was as if it had never happened.

Well, except that now I knew what it felt like to be bullied, an experience that left me more empathetic to others, but also insecure and less confident.

I don’t know if my mother did something to get the girls to stop or if the cessation of bullying was a coincidence. If I ask my mother today, she wouldn’t remember. She never remembers events of the past, choosing to focus on the day-to-day.

Did you ever bully another child?

###

I’m sorry if you were looking for a memoir review today. Next week I’ll do two reviews to make up for posting a two-part story this week!
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Incorrect. Wrong. You Don’t Fit Here.

The media focus on bullying has got to remind a lot of adults of incidents when they bullied or were bullied. I know it reminds me . . . .

In March of 3rd grade we moved to a new house, and I was forced to change schools near the end of the school year.

I went from a secure position in a classroom led by a decent teacher to . . . Miss Slack’s classroom.

“Introduce yourself to the class.” The young blonde teacher nodded to me as I stood there next to the desk she had had someone vacate for me. It was in the middle of the classroom, in the second row.

I said my name aloud for the class.

She sighed with an exasperated spout of air. “Where did you go to school? Why did you come here in the middle of March?”

“Um, I go to Gull Road School. Miss Dixon is my teacher. We moved here.”

This time, instead of making a disgusted noise, Miss Slack looked at the rest of the class and rolled her eyes. OK, maybe she didn’t actually roll her eyes. But it felt as if she were making fun of me. She was putting me on display, and her manner was disdainful.

“Sit down. Open the red book to page twenty-four.”

I tried to find the page the rest of the class was on, but words and numbers blurred beyond recognition.

Ten minutes later, Miss Slack announced the beginning of reading period. The kids scrambled around the room, dragging and pushing desks into three circles. I looked for my reading group, the top one that I’d always been in. But Miss Slack pointed to one of the smaller groups and said to me, “Luanne, join the middle reading group.” Apparently the large group was the top group. I was being put in the bottom half of the class in reading. Me, the best reader every year.

I glanced at her in surprise. I had heard the principal assure Daddy that my new teacher already had my records and that there wouldn’t be any “gaps in her education.”

“Luanne, you might be used to being smart at your old school, but here we have a whole class full of smart students. There isn’t any room in the top reading group, so you will have to join the middle one.”

That afternoon, we worked on multiplication. I was the first student Miss Slack called to the board. She asked me to multiply 33.16 x 48.12 on the board. “To see where you’re at,” she said.

I did my work, carrying over and counting places for the decimal. Now she’ll see I am a good student, I thought.

“That’s not correct,” she said, when I was finished.

I looked back at the problem, feeling a thick crease between my eyes. I wasn’t sure where my mistake could be.

“You must make a box around the answer,” Miss Slack said. “Jeremy, go to the board and show Luanne how it’s done.”

Jeremy drew a square box around my answer. “Now it’s correct.” Miss Slack nodded for us both to sit down.

At the end of the hour, Miss Slack asked me to do another problem. The problem was easier, 7.04 x 15. I finished it and turned to sit down.

“Incorrect!”  Miss Slack gloated. “What’s wrong, class?”

The whole class sang out that I had forgotten to box my answer. I hadn’t redeemed myself at all, but had made myself out to be stupid and a fitting target for the teacher’s cruelty.

Next post: Part II of this bullying story.

Note: because this happened many many years ago, I don’t remember the exact problems I worked on the board. My memory tells me they were decimal multiplication, but I could be wrong about that. In the way of memoir, I just made up the multiplication problems here.

I’ve asked myself many times if there was some way that I had shown any arrogance that would have caused this teacher to treat me this way, but I was brand new and very shy and scared. Maybe my shyness irritated her.

Most of the pieces I share with you won’t go into my book, but they are from the same stock of memories.

Were you ever bullied by a teacher?

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[P]lucky to Survive

I remember reading Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones and thinking it was a spectacular book, but that the writer must have something very dark inside her to write it. It wasn’t a judgment, but an exploratory and rather sad thought on my part.

When I read Sebold’s memoir, I learned where that darkness originated. Lucky is the story of the tragedy that happened to her: she was raped while a freshman at college. After the rape, a police officer told Sebold about another girl who had been killed after her rape, and that Sebold was lucky. Imagine how that word lucky must have sounded to her!

The book starts right off with the rape. This hooks the reader . . . swiftly and absolutely. The rest of the book describes how this experience affected her life, as well as how the rapist was eventually captured and tried. The book has all the “high drama” elements: inadequate responses of family and friends, the emotional terrain, and the legal process.

It’s hard to isolate what I learned from this book, but I’ll go with how it put me in Sebold’s life so that I felt as I were experiencing all that she had experienced. She wasn’t lucky at all, but she was very plucky, both her immediate response to the rape and the aftermath were plucky.

I also learned something about book structure. As a nonfiction writer, I see that it can be very powerful to begin a book with the most intense scene. In this case, everything else that happens in the book is because the protagonist was raped, so it all springs from that initial event. It seems as if the book can only be structured this way, but in lesser hands, I can imagine that the writer might think that putting the rape scene first would be:

  1. “too much” (grandstanding)
  2. wasting the best scene at the beginning (how can the rest of the book hold up after the bar is set that high?)
  3. not really the beginning (after all, the fact that Sebold was still a virgin–and why–adds to the story, right?)

These are all useless worries. The rape belongs at the beginning, and because it is at the beginning, it lurks underneath every scene after it. That makes the whole book that much more powerful!

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The Neighborhood of My Puberty

You might know that I’m writing a memoir. It probably won’t be done for a long time yet. I’m not complaining about the time it takes; I just don’t want you to pass out holding your breath ;).

To give you an idea of one of the book’s settings, I’ve written a description.

I’ve lived in a different neighborhood for every stage of my life.  The one I think of as quintessential suburban America was the scene of my puberty, from fifth through ninth grades.  At the head of the street, intersecting the busy main drag, sat the First United Methodist Church with its big parking lot.  Next to the cars, the church had installed one swing set and one seesaw and called it a playground.  Crabapple trees tempted bored children with their small, hard, bitter fruit.

Church at the head of the street

Church at the head of the street

My parents and brother and I lived a lazy walk down the street from the church, in a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath ranch. We had a large front yard with lots of grass to mow with the old egg beater Dad made me use.

Vintage "egg beater" lawn mower

Vintage “egg beater” lawn mower

At the boundary of my backyard my parents kept a garden of tomatoes, string beans, and zucchini.  Next door, the old man’s garden soil was darker and richer. His tasselled corn could be eaten crisp off the cob.  Next to our garden was my tether ball court and on the other side of the concrete slab, the playhouse my father built me smiled its crescent moon grin.  Dad’s joke was that crescent moons used to mark outhouses when he was a kid.

Some of the houses on my street were new like mine, but the ones on both sides of us were at least ten years old, and a few were close to twenty.  The houses were in good repair, with aluminum siding and front lawns—some green, others brown and patchy.  Around the corner, the houses were both single family and duplexes.  My grandmother’s duplex was at the end of that street, and I bicycled down there for dried apricots and butterscotch Dumdum lollipops and to babysit the baby boy of the young lawyer who lived on the other side of the duplex.

Along the back of the houses on the other side of my street was a forest of Balsam firs and white pines known as “The Pines.”  Under the trees, the earth was two inches thick with fallen needles.  When we slept out there in our sleeping bags, the boys visited.  Warm nights increased the pungent fragrance of the pine needles, which blended with the spicy scent of the teen boys.

At one end of the pines was the church and at the other end the minister lived in his parsonage with his wife, my piano teacher.  Below my scales and arpeggios, I could hear the boys playing softball outside and the timbre of their voices was a call to me to come play with them.

The little kids rode their Schwinn Stingrays and Huffy bicycles on the street, warm breezes blowing in their faces.  Between five and six-thirty every day, mothers called their children in to dinner.  A dinner gong at my house called me home just in time for the Mercury Vapor lamp to light up the yard.

Behind our house was an open field where we dug out forts in the dirt and weeds, which we covered with scrap lumber from the new houses being built in the next neighborhood.  Down at one end of the field, where there were a few oak trees, somebody had built a simple tree house, and even the protruding rusty nails couldn’t keep us from climbing to it.

Beyond the field was the City Dump which attracted us like maggots to a dead squirrel. A large pharmaceutical company dumped its wastes at the landfill.  The foam from their trucks hardened into large sculptures we climbed all over.  On hot and humid days, the toxic stink cloud hung over the dump and the field, and I held my breath.  The refuse from all the homes and businesses in the city ended up out back of our houses.  The best trash was the stacks and stacks of dirty magazines, molding and solidifying into blocks.

That gives you an idea of where my childhood turned into my adolescence.  When I was fully a teen, we moved to a new house in a new neighborhood, and my world changed.

###

My best memories are of the summers. But the photos I have are of the winter. In the parking lot of the church above, we ice skated on the frozen pavement. I wonder why so many of my memories are of the short summers?

Our house

My playhouse post can be found here.

My fort post can be found here.

Because my book takes place in a variety of settings (I have moved quite a bit), I probably will end up combining a couple of settings or using one setting over a period that is longer than I actually lived there. It’s a bit like combining two or more characters into one. It will be necessary to keep the book focused on what’s important, rather than forcing the reader to spend too much energy processing all the moves.

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Memoir’s Cousin

So that I can use this memoir-sharing day to talk about a biography, I’m insisting that biography is a cousin to memoir. After all, they are both non-fiction and try to examine a real life.

Where they differ is that a) biography shows the whole of someone’s life–from birth or before to death or the age the person is at the point of book publication, whereas memoir focuses on a certain aspect of someone’s life, such as coming-of-age, and b) biography is written by someone other than the protagonist, and memoir is written by the protagonist herself.

But I have an even better reason for sticking a biography in here today instead of a memoir.  I’ll tell you my reason in a sec.

The biography I recently finished is Mama Rose’s Turn: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Mother by Carolyn Quinn, who blogs at Splendiferous Everything.  You’ve heard of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque star? June Havoc, the movie star? “Mama Rose,” as she’s known in pop culture, is the mother of those two celebrities. She herself is the inspiration for the starring role in the musical Gypsy. 

Mama Rose's Turn

 

Even if the title of the musical doesn’t ring a bell for you, there is no doubt you’ve heard the songs before. They are classics of the American songbook.  Mama Rose herself has been played by Ethel Merman, Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Rosalind Russell, and Bernadette Peters. Whew. I am on a mission to collect every version of “Some People” I can, as it’s one of my favorite songs.

Bette and Angela are two of my favorite versions:

And then there is Liza!!!!

Anyway, the other reason I feel that this book belongs in memoir country is that part of the research Quinn used to write this book is based on the memoirs of Rose’s two daughters.  That’s right–both Gypsy and June wrote their own memoirs! And I haven’t read them yet . . . .  But I can’t wait!

Quinn believes that Gypsy wrote her own memoir.  Additionally, she wrote two novels, a play, and shorter memoir pieces for The New Yorker. 

June, on the other hand, probably had a ghost writer for her two memoirs.

Early Havoc

More Havoc

Are you wondering if you should read Quinn’s biography of Mama Rose?  Yes, definitely! What a CHARACTER (Rose, not Quinn)!!! And if you’ve seen the musical on stage or screen, you don’t know HALF the story! Actually you don’t know a lot of the story because, as Quinn points out, the full name of the musical is Gypsy: A Musical Fable. It’s only loosely based on the true story.  I won’t give away all the fascinating facts I learned about the lives of these three women, but I will tell you that I was amazed to discover that Baby June/Dainty June (June Havoc as a kid) was a super talented dancer and performing star in Vaudeville when she was young.

Recently, Carol Balawyder, on her blog, listed the three types of biographies as mentioned by Michael Holroyd:

  1. the biographer who writes about the very famous – film stars, murderers and royal family
  2. the ambitious professor who writes historical and political  biographies
  3. the literary or artistic biographer.

This book is squarely in the #1 category. The protagonist is a notorious celebrity. You’ll have to read the book to see if she deserves the notoriety bestowed on her.

Go. Read. Enjoy.

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Studs and Ruth and Hubby and Me

The other day Vickie Lester of Beguiling Hollywood posted a piece on Ruth Gordon, and it reminded me of one of my weirder non-family memories.  I’ll sketch it out for you.

Setting:

A weekday evening in Chicago in the late 70s or perhaps 1980. The interior of an upscale Indian restaurant. The dining room glows with gold and rose tones, and the tables are small and intimate, for couples, covered in rose tablecloths and candlelight. Rather than elaborate Hindu decor, the design is elegant and classic European with small touches of Indian art for flavor.  Outside it rains, but inside all is dry and quiet and warm. The faint fragrance of well-blended turmeric and cardamon, as well as melting wax, beckons new guests.

Characters:

Ruth Gordon (1896-1985)–Famous movie star of Rosemary’s Baby, Harold and Maude, and Every Which Way But Loose. In addition to being an actor, Gordon is a writer–of screenplays, plays, and books.  In this scene she is elderly, but still has her trademark brown hair (pulled back) and wry expression.

Studs Terkel (1912-2008)–Writer Terkel is seated across from Gordon at one of the small covered tables.  Terkel is also a historian and actor, as well as a radio personality. He and Gordon are good friends. They have much in common, both being actors and writers. Terkel’s hair is white and thinning, but brushed back from his forehead in a casual, confident manner.  He’s got a sturdy overweight build that is more accepted in 1980s culture in a man than it would be in a woman.

Young husband–In his 20s, this man has curly off-black hair and hazel eyes. He holds dreams of succeeding in business. He has an observant eye and a lot of knowledge for someone so young. Loves history and travel. He’s a rock.

Young wife–In her 20s, this  woman still thinks of herself as a girl. She married young and created and runs a retail business with husband. She enjoys it, but likes to read and write and has other dreams for herself. But right now she’s very naive and doesn’t know too much about anything. She’s not very observant. With her long brown hair and slim build, she’s considered pretty by many people, but she’s not a bombshell by any means.

Plot and story sketch:

The young couple is seated at a small table. The lovely glow in the room relaxes them as they study the elaborate menus. They spent the day at the Merchandise Mart and Apparel Center, buying handbags and jewelry for their store.

As the wife begins to sip her first drink, the husband leans toward her and whispers, “That’s Studs Terkel and Ruth Gordon.” He nods toward the table behind him. His back is to the back of the woman at the next table. A white-haired man with a compelling face faces the young wife across both tables.

The wife says it can’t be. She barely knows that Studs Terkel is a writer and confuses him with Ring Lardner. She knows who Ruth Gordon is, but she can’t see the woman’s face the way the older woman is seated. The wife wonders aloud how her husband knows who the others are when his back is to them.

This is one of the first times she learns a lesson she must repeat over and over again for over 30 years: that her husband has an uncanny way of knowing things.

She peeks around her husband’s shoulder to sneak a glance at the famous man. She can see from the man’s expression and way of hunching at the table that he’s very sure of himself and comfortable with who is–and that he is “somebody.”  Gordon is tiny and talks quietly to Terkel. In fact, she talks more than he does. A lot more.

Perhaps Terkel is bored with the conversation or with his life, but he must notice the young wife peeking at him, so he glances back. Boldly. In fact, it’s not a glance. It’s too long for that. Before too long it becomes a stare.

She feels shiny tonight in her teal silk blouse and gold chain. Terkel’s stare confirms that she looks shiny. He doesn’t look away for quite a while, but she withdraws her glance immediately. Still, she can feel his eyes on her.

At first she refuses to look at Terkel. The more he looks, the more she tries to keep from glancing. Eventually, his gaze overpowers her and she glances at him. It’s just a glance as the moment he catches her eyes with his, she retreats.

Terkel continues to stare at the young wife, with only an occasional flickering look at Gordon. The wife and husband finish their first drink, order another, and place their dinner order.

Rather than feeling like prey, the young woman is nervous, but flattered. She occasionally slips a glance at the man who is the same age as her grandmother (though she doesn’t know it at the time) and at Gordon’s back. She wonders how Gordon can stand having her friend stare mercilessly at a strange girl. She wonders what kind of friendship they have that would tolerate this behavior. She wonders what kind of man Terkel is. He’s got a sloppy, rather mobile, face with a large nose which melts across his cheeks. He looks intelligent, almost dangerously so. His eyes tip a bit, but are symmetrical. He exudes virility.

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

Occasionally, the young husband says, “He’s staring at you.”  She says, “No, not really.” The husband laughs.  “He’s definitely staring at you.” The young couple has finished their second round of drinks, and a bottle of white wine now sits in a chiller on a stand at tableside. They will be paying off their credit card for months. Only once does Gordon turn back and openly look at the young wife.

Terkel and Gordon began their meal before the young couple. After forty-five minutes of staring so intense it feels intimate, Terkel walks out of the restaurant with Gordon without a backward glance.

The wife, on the other hand, remembers this evening for decades. She thinks that Terkel doesn’t know that she’s a smart student or that she wants to be a writer or that she will become a feminist and go to grad school. He sees her as just another pretty girl.

Oddly, she thinks she likes this strange experience. This objectification.

But just this once.

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He Said, He Said

One of the most well-written memoirs is by the granddaddy of memoirists, Tobias Wolff. His coming-of-age memoir, This Boy’s Life, is often held up as the gold standard of memoirs.

This Boy's Life

And it deserves this place, although I think it ought to share the position with some others ;).

But if you had never read a coming-of-age memoir, and you wanted to sample one, this book would be a good place to begin.

I read this book as a woman reading the story of what it’s like to be “this boy,” and I learned what it’s like to be the son of a single mother and  to be a boy in the home of a man who isn’t his father.  It’s the sort of book I can imagine suggesting teen boys read. But I think teen girls should read it, too. And women and men.

Toby grows up in a home with his mother and sometimes with a stepfather, but his knowledge of his father and older brother (who grows up with the father) is sketchy at best. He does spend time with his brother Geoffrey when he’s a little older, but they are more like acquaintances or remote cousins.

Interestingly, Geoffrey, the intellectual brother of Tobias, has written his own memoir of his childhood and their father: The Duke of Deception.

The Duke of Deception

In Geoffrey’s book I learned of the extreme personality and antics of their con man father. But Geoffrey’s tone is different from that of Tobias who sounds fairly well-adjusted and humble. The older brother seems a bit elitist, the sort of person who is very well educated and doesn’t let others forget it. In this respect, he reflects their father’s influence on his own personality. In fact, it is up to the reader to decide at the end how much like the father is Geoffrey. Is this resemblance Geoffrey’s fear or is it reality?

While This Boy’s Life is the book read by so many, I think reading The Duke of Deception afterward makes for an enriching experience.

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Snake Weather

March usually means spring in Phoenix. This year, though, February was a lot like spring. I haven’t wanted to say much about it because I know how many of you have been struggling with a rough winter. Let’s hope most of that is behind you now. If not, remember that sometimes we get some negative with the positive. And that’s what I’m writing about here.

Some February days it is so cold in Phoenix that I have to wear a wool coat. But I don’t mind too much because I know that sunny and temperate days await me in March and April. And I am happy to wait for late March when the snakes wake up from their hibernation.

But this year, with the weather in the 80s in February, the local television stations issued warnings during their news reports: “Warmer weather brings out snakes earlier this year.”

So I’ve been on the lookout for snakes for a month now. The snakes to worry about are rattlesnakes, but most people don’t like to find any kind of snake in their path. Most people respond as Emily Dickinson’s persona describes:

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him, -did you not?
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun, –
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

That swift intake of breath, the quickening of the pulse, the flipflop of the stomach . . . . Yup, I’m just like most people!

King snake behind my house in a previous year

We have a variety of snakes in this area, but the most common snake near my house is the King snake. These are the big black snakes with beautiful creamy stripes. They are non-venomous snakes that eat baby rattlesnakes, so I think of them as protectors of my property. But they are large and powerful and do bite–and they are snakes, after all. We also have gopher snakes, which are huge and brown and mimic rattlesnakes by raising their shoulders to make their heads look wider and pretending to rattle their tails.

I haven’t seen a snake yet this year, but I am careful not to reach into a pot or behind a watering can without looking first.

I’m telling you all this about snakes so that you realize that the beautiful spring weather we’ve had this winter doesn’t come without “thorns.”  But there is no doubt that it is beautiful.

Many of our flowering shrubs, trees, and plants have bright yellow blossoms.dsc03974

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