No Carol… but Wishes Warm for You and Yours

Merry Christmas!

When I was not still young — in my high-school teens and college years and even those first years as a single dolt out teaching school — I was not given to appreciating mornings. I liked to sleep and sleep late. That behavior made Christmas a bit of a puzzle. I was still young enough to be uncontrollably eager for presents, but I was too adolescent to even want to get up when comfortably and utterly out and off in sleepland.

I wasnʼt very pleasant when awakened in those days, either (perhaps I am still not much better; I think I am, but Janet usually awakens after me when I do arise early to run or shovel snow…). My brothers, sad to relate, used to bribe each other to be the one stuck with waking me up on Christmas morning. Paul, next younger and nearest me in ways more than age, had the cash to pay Stephen or David to do the dirty deed. Somehow, at least as I recall it now, older sister Margaret wasnʼt involved in the yanking-John-out-of-bed-so-we-can-all-start-opening-our-presents bit. Itʼs displeasing to recall that I must have behaved like such an ogre that no one wanted to have to nudge me toward consciousness…

Sorry, siblings. I hope Iʼve already apologized a long time ago. I should have.

You can see (not quite in focus) some of Janetʼs wrapping skill under our tree.

I donʼt know how well I will awaken this morning, but it wonʼt matter. If all went well — and with that up-to-seven-inches of snow the weather folks predicted for yesterday (and the night before), it isnʼt easy to predict (writing on Thursday night to be prepared for distractions on the Eve and today) whether the storm will trouble the transportation plans of Janetʼs sisterʼs family, who were supposed to arrive about noon yesterday — the ceremonious events wonʼt commence until around lunchtime, when the Norton parents arrive from Anamosa. I donʼt even know if Janetʼs planning much of a breakfast at all.

I spent Thursday, around all the tasks The Lovely One wished to have accomplished by the stay-at-home spouse (shower scouring, vacuuming, fixing my special potatoes, shopping for groceries…) and, most important, wrapping Janetʼs gifts. Sheʼs a fantastic gift wrapper (and crafty all around, thus the now-famous decorations), but I am clumsy at it, incompetent, creating saggy wrappings and lousy extras on every package. However, I tried, and after all it’s the contents that count (no, wait — shouldnʼt that be the thought that… ?). So I hope we are all ready.

I had originally intended to write a little dissertation on A Christmas Carol and my lifelong experience and heartfelt attachment with that wonderful story. But it will have to wait. I have this started, and I donʼt want to make a Christmas Day post any too long. Besides, Janetʼs gotten home (on Thursday), and although sheʼs busy in the kitchen doing her own preparations, itʼs rude of me to peck away in here (the office) without her. Very unsociable. Very unseasonable (if Dickens has anything to say, and he does, on the subject of Christmas).

I hope everyone enjoys a very merry and serene day (with or without that first syllable included in the holidayʼs name).

Iʼm only a week away from the complete year (365 plus one) of posts!

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A

Christmas? Elementary…

The snow seems so utterly appropriate today…

As Christmas Eve arrives, I remember that this festive time of the year is connected emotionally for me with Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps not for the reasons one might suspect. Yes, there is “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” with its seasonal setting (December 27, for the uninitiated) and even seasonal themes (not the robbery part, but the forgiveness element). But that story came later than my original tying of the great detective to Christmas.

When I was a child, we seemed always to make great journeys for Christmas, visiting both my maternal grandmother and my fatherʼs folks over the break (since my dad was a teacher, as I have reported before, we enjoyed the ten days to two weeks off that education provides). Both sets of grandparents lived in Iowa, about two or three hours apart originally (later my Grandma Fischel moved to Traer, where she died, a location that put the two sides a little closer for travel purposes). And, as I remember things, we always, invariably, tediously for me, had to be at both households over the holidays. Sometimes actual Christmas arrived at my momʼs motherʼs, sometimes at my paternal grandparents (and even sometimes the holiday was at “home,” then we would get on the road to Iowa). The problem was that we werenʼt living in Iowa for much of my remembered childhood, not returning to this state until my sophomore year in high school (the big move to Mt. Pleasant), so our family had some long drives to get away from home for the holidays.

I told about those drives for Thanksgiving. The pilgrimages at Christmastime were simply snowier, on worse roads, freezing even colder in the back of my dadʼs car. (I am, by the way, certain that my attitudes as a child made those drives just as unpleasant for my siblings and parents. Apologies at last.) It seems like it was always either dark or snowing to me now, although I know better — just one or two events remaining as the only relics of those visits.

My Burrow grandparents lived in an old farmhouse, later a new ranch farmhouse, across the road from my Uncle Bill and his family, who had taken over running the farm. I dimly recall the old farmhouse, which by the way had no running water (meaning we used an outhouse), but the new home is the realm of most of my memories. They had old-fashioned bubble lights on their Christmas tree, which some of my siblings still think is the only kind to have (although I do remember hearing those were about as dangerous as any kind of tree illumination). The whole clan, four big families, would gather at that place for Christmas Eve when my grandmother would make her notorious oyster stew (notorious among us younger cousins who didnʼt like the slimy oysters), and in hilariously overcrowded conditions we would eat, us kids usually being discharged to the basement, which was fine with us as we had developed many games to play down there, including one involving the clothes chute (a novelty, I believe, to all of us, something found only there, at the grandparentsʼ house). Presents were on a draw-a-name system, at least by the time I got old enough to understand, so we didnʼt have too many gifts awaiting us at this celebration, but it was still great fun.

And you probably expect me to say I got a Sherlock Holmes book for Christmas one year. But I didnʼt. Well, I didnʼt back then…

However, it was at my grandparentsʼ home, perhaps not even at Christmastime, that I first read one of the tales. It was in a book of stories for children that the old folks owned, probably just for us grandchildren, and sometime between about fifth and seventh grade I devoured whatever was in that book, including the excitement of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” That story was my introduction to Arthur Conan Doyle, a pleasure I have never outgrown.

That wasnʼt my first encounter with Holmes, however. One summer at Spartan Village, when my dad was getting his masters, or some further training, through Michigan State University, I think as part of some other kidʼs birthday celebration/party, many of the boys and girls in our area went to the movie theater to see the Peter Cushing Hound of the Baskervilles. It mesmerized and terrorized me, and I know I had dreadfully, delightfully technicolor dreams for weeks after involving the scenes and settings from that movie. (I am pretty sure that reading the other story came later.)

In Mt. Pleasant, at the public library I found the Christopher Morley one-volume edition of all 56 stories and the four novels (which Janet kindly gave me for Christmas many years later and many years ago, 1986) in which I first read all the stories, particularly The Valley of Fear. I believe I was reading that book while waiting for the dentist at least once. (I actually have the feeling I was reading Holmes while in a dental waiting room one time in Michigan, earlier, as well.)

My Sherlockian enthusiasm was rekindled in my adult life, me having given way to more literary reading in my late college and early teaching years, by acquiring the two volumes of Baring-Gouldʼs Annotated edition about 1979 or ʼ80 (by mail from Barnes & Noble, only a mail-order catalog house in those days, or Scholarʼs Bookshelf, from which I also acquired a complete Arden Shakespeare and a complete Shelley), once I was in Jackson County and living in the apartment on Matteson Street. I really enjoyed his quirky notes and the game of pretending the characters were real (the Irregular practice of which I had previously been innocent). I also got aroused by his rearrangement of the stories in his own chronology, which gave many of them a freshness, out of order.

As a teacher at Andrew Community School, I eventually incorporated Holmes into the curriculum, once I realized that I was instructing kids who had never read any of the stories. An old textbook had “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” in it, and because it was usually late December when we would read some Doyle (either before or after Dickensʼs A Christmas Carol, perhaps my first favorite piece of literature), I also included “The Blue Carbuncle.” Over the decade or so that we included Holmes in Advanced English, I acquired some old videotapes of the Jeremy Brett series, particularly, although not a favorite story for me, “The Resident Patient.” I hope the students enjoyed that unit; I meant for them to. They should. The tales are pure storytelling, done pretty well, and Sherlock Holmes is, like Tarzan, one of the few literary figures mythically larger than the literary oeuvre in which he actually resides.

I have lots to say on Holmes, but I have wildly exceeded my thousand words, and perhaps a genuinely literary post isnʼt the thing for Christmas Eve. Later will do fine. I will conclude merely by adding that the current updated Sherlock on PBS (from Britain) gets it very right and works well. Robert Downy Jr. wasnʼt bad at all, either.

Happy holidays!*

* Weʼre supposedly getting up to seven inches of snow overnight and today.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A

REH, Take 2

Yes, no post at 5:05 this morning, although I was out running (having put in at least a whole mile by then, by the way). Yesterday evening I did a little research on publication options and got fairly depressed thinking about acquiring agents one of these days, once a complete novel is in the can. Sorrowfully self-pitying, but true. I also think that a full day (mostly out and about) had gotten to me just a bit. Anyway, when Qwest interrupted service yet again (for the fourth time, and I hadnʼt been online until after 3:30), I just shut down about 6:00 and made Janetʼs lunch and yesterdayʼs supper. So now I get to churn out something this morning.

the old one, the Ace edition I read first, too many years ago

I wrote about Robert E. Howard a while back, reminiscing about early fantasy reading from my days in Olivet, before I got hacking on the November novel project. During November, having purchased a copy from amazon.com back in May or June, I also reread my least favorite Howard book, Almuric, his only foray into the Burroughsian interplanetary-traveling-Earthman side of planetary romance, and a pretty noticeably bad book. I didnʼt hate it as much this year as when I first finally read the whole thing about twenty-five years ago, having bought the Ace edition back in the late Sixties or earliest Seventies — some time when my proprietorial signature was more legible than itʼs been in decades and I hadnʼt yet begun dating and locating my book purchases in the front.

the new edition from Planet Stories (thanks to whom I now own the complete Northwest Smith)

As Howardʼs only real venture into science fiction, Almuric is not the best, although I think it had an unconscious influence on my choice to strand Hunter on his own for a few months on Tsyriel (which is why I wanted to reread the book, to avoid unconscious thefts). All the Texanʼs flaws are on parade — including sketchy background detail, too much self-praise for the brawny muscles of the protagonist (itʼs also in first person, unlike Howardʼs best stuff) and unbelievable fights and heroic victories. The girl is even more sugary-lame and pathetic than usual (truly a thing to be rescued and thatʼs it). The book reads like an anti-intellectual tract (Esau Cairn, our brutal hero, knows he has no books, art or intellectual pursuits, and thatʼs the way it should be; the “humans” on Almruic are hairy beasts, whose women are supernaturally unhairy lovelies, every one, doting on the “protection” of their brutish male masters), as if Howard were trying to convince himself a lot too much. The book has bird-people, too, so that was another issue I wanted to avoid borrowing unintentionally. However, it was considerably more readable than I had thought the first time around (of course when last I reread the first three of Burroughsʼs Martian books, the three “good ones,” about ten years ago, I wasnʼt too enthralled, particularly with Princess, which I enjoyed a lot last month — moods and other interests determine so much).

my edition

Howard gets a lot of credit these days for his “realism.” I am not a scholar, although I have read just about every Howard story published in book form since 1967, including the boxing-sailor and Western tales, and realism is not a quality I have particularly noticed. Hammett, even Chandler, have it all over Howard in style and language, characterization and plot (and weʼre not even talking about actual realists here, like Twain, Howells, Crane, Dreiser or even London* — the last of whom, being one of Howardʼs literary heroes, leaves the pupil in the Texas dirt, realistically). Even in the boxing stories, and the author was a practiced combatant at the ungentle science, the level of realism is pretty bookish on settings (our writer had never been much farther than a couple of hundred miles from home, although massively well-read in a certain kind of second- and third-tier range of fiction and nonfic, a lot like me in that) and events; even the fights, though violently well described are generally narcissistic fantasies, which is what I enjoyed, I bet. The same goes for his historicals (personally some of my favorites — discovering Sowers of the Thunder in the mid-Seventies was wonderful in many ways, and reinvigorated my Howardolatry, me having dropped even rereading Conan for five or six years then), but even there the story lines are always improbable and glamorously self-aggrandizing — both for reader and author, I think. The perfect adolescent escapism.

The Howard-as-realist doctrine is probably trying to defend/exalt the writerʼs violence (and he is good at violent action, enviably and worthy of emulation). For the Thirties, Howard was as bloody and gory as they got, at least in my limited experience, and at least for me he did a fantastic (careful word choice there) job of making it real to my imagination. He also had a relatively stripped-down style, for all his sometimes paragraph-long passages of imaginative (or borrowed and “improved”) description and lapidary deployment of adjectives and adverbs (both parts of speech I think the Hemingway — now thereʼs a realist — school of critics has improperly made modern and contemporary writers coltish about wielding sufficiently). Howardʼs defenders intend realism to mean/substitute for juicy violence, which of course is nonsense — in that case every Hollywood action flick of the last several decades is a rough gem of realism in gritty and gore-splattering violence (but of course if that were actually true, as it is decidedly not, one could avoid injury in any massive explosion by simply leaping, as all action heroes always/invariably and totally unrealistically do). Howard splashed blood liberally and successfully, but not I think realistically.

His defenders also want to praise Howardʼs lushly teenaged “tragic vision.” Yes, the writer had and expressed a dark and brutal** view of life, but quite simply, boys, the heroes always survive to fight another day. Your author (that secretly self-deceiving mommaʼs boy) may have shot himself, tragically, but the story ainʼt a tragedy when the hero wins and wins and wins impossibly again. Howard was a better poet than my adolescent self, but the “darkness” expressed in his verse matches perfectly the stuff I imposed on the Mt. Pleasant High writing club meeting after meeting — itʼs teeenaged angst and not much more (which is secretive and self-deceiving, perhaps the origin of just that melancholy).

Howardʼs forte is improbability, romanticism, fast brutal action and escapism (pencil-armed, bespectacled nerds imagining themselves into the indomitable brawn of Conan, Kull, Kane or any other REH protagonist), which is what drew me to the stories in the first place, lured me back over the decades, and attracts me still. Realism has its own appeals, but they are not those of Conan. Or even Almuric.

* If I really wanted to compose a thorough and effective lit-crit analysis/critique of Howardʼs unrealism, I would contrast him against the equally romantic (and sometimes equally escapist) but actually realistic Jack London.

** …the best word for Howardʼs writing, I think. “Brutality” is much preferable to the lie of “realism,” and much more adolescent, too.

most, but not all, of the Howard books (I really, truly, really own too many — a pity that the author got nothing from my investments); nice contrasts with what else is on these shelves, too

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A

Trying to Change, Changing to Try

Once upon a time, I lived in a river town (humorous now, because in “Mantorville”* and Quetzal County, the river towns are especially vile, rundown, terrifying and inbred, although we wonʼt be getting into that in the current tale). I spent two years in Ft. Madison, toward the bottom end of Iowa, my first two years teaching. That period of my life concluded with my job being staff reduced (these are not the only hard economic times we have faced, children), even though I used my association/union right of a hearing before the board (held brightly early on a Saturday morning, of all godawful times for a 22-year-old slacker lad — that would be me — to raise himself from the depths of Morpheusʼs amorphous empire) at which I infuriated my representative by speaking on my own behalf repeatedly, excessively — a totally unhelpful maneuver, as the other, less experienced teacher theyʼd also dropped got retained eventually (he didnʼt seek his own hearing and was still teaching at FMHS a decade later, having briefly become their large group speech coach and thus an amusing encounter at state contest for me), even though an (well, I thought) elderly lady (who was probably younger then than I am now) in the English department exercised her right to retire that spring in my favor.** (At least I got to use and abuse my knowledge of the words antepenultimate and penult in the daily bulletin and thus frighten the administration into thinking I intended some kind of of Righteous revenge for my sacking, which I truly did not, although I still savor the sweet taste of their desperate, misinterpretive coddlings afterward.

But getting fired (all right, to be accurate, “reduced”) isnʼt what I wanted to talk/write about today. I want to tell a story about my consciousness getting raised (such a Seventies bit of jargon now, but so very, truly accurate and descriptive).

Lots happened to me and to my psyche in those early years of my teaching career, predictably so, me being such a callow cad (perhaps then and now). Iʼll make you search back through the post archives to find out, but I have talked already about fragile and breaking affairs of the heart in those years (try clicking the “Poetry” category to simplify your search). In the end, I left the Fort sans my longtime college girlfriend but temporarily in a new relationship that would founder within months of my move to Maquoketa (perhaps because the lesson I am about to recount hadnʼt fully altered my behavior or being yet). And although I recoiled from the knowledge then, I know now that I deserved both blows.

I recall me sitting in my upstairs apartment, having watched a television show, which one I no longer possess even a glimmer of a guess. But the episode (probably of a situation comedy, to be honest) left me puzzling my noodle over the issue of feminism. The broadcast wasnʼt the only stimulus to this perception-shifting session of sweet, silent thought, but it was the straw that broke this camelʼs stubborn back. Through a long evening, or even a longer weekend, I wrestled with myself over the genuine equality of the fairer sex. Naturally, being the age I was and accepting the freewheeling socio-political outlook that I shared with my friends, I paid lip service to this ideal and sought to fulfill it in social, employment and financial terms. What I had to grapple with that night was the actual, personal reality of the idea and how it would forever alter my relationships. And I didnʼt like that notion one little bit.

I cannot any more resurrect the pros and cons and emotional wrangling that I endured. Our human brains are wired, after all, to forget painful experience. But I went to bed at last having persuaded myself that I had to perceive (and treat) women differently than I had grown up doing (and I had grown up with a strong mother and a clever older sister — if that informs you sufficiently). What did I have to determine? I didnʼt come first (or solely) in romantic relationships (a really tough one for a boy whose hormones were still erupting powerfully). I didnʼt even matter in some extremes (no matter how my raging inner self might feel). Any she was as or more important than me (and of course, that insight has multiplex ramifications for us all). In some ways it was probably a pretty masochistic moment, but the lessons were vital and I hope inspirational for me, regardless how little I wanted to experience and learn them.

The Lovely One (and others between that day and my meeting my future wife, if not since) probably would assert I have never mastered that set of lessons even mostly, but I have tried. Still do. And the fact that what I had to learn was unpleasant, disorienting and even denying something of myself is the key element for today.

We all have to learn that what we hold dear (even dearest) and take most for granted might be wrong, and probably is if it harms, hinders or manhandles any other person. We must wrestle daily, moment to moment, with every notion we have never really considered or else we are making less of ourselves, of our humanity, than is required of everyone for the gift of life itself. Socrates*** and the Temple at Delphi had it right long ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And those who do not examine and re-examine and live willing to change in honor of others… ? Well, the old Greek saying made it clear.

* — golly, I donʼt like that as a title; itʼs worse than if Lovecraft had denominated one of his stories “Arkham” or merely “Dunwich” —

** I may have just composed my longest bit of periodicity, in that immense sentence, yet.

*** Another in my small symposium of personal heroes, by the way, not that it matters whatsoever here and now.

In case the powerful (astonishingly christian) radicality of this position is not clear, this postʼs for disreputable Rep. Steve King, among so many others.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

 

 

Creative Stall

I havenʼt got a good update to anything creative that some of you might expect on a Sunday. Thereʼs nothing new outside my head on “Mantorville,” not a clear angle for the next Daniel bit for Stars in Heaven (although there is a whole section from the boykidʼs point of view thatʼs been done forever), and I started handwriting a new Søren-and-Judah story (the direct sequel/continuation of “Mistakes by Moonlight”) instead of getting a third bit of editing and revision completed for today (or any more of it digitized — too busy becoming Picasso/getting a new furnace/subbing last Friday/wasting my time arguing against ignorant authoritarian Rightist politics on Facebook/reading/idling).

However, it has been raining around here this weekend, starting Friday night into early Saturday morning. So I will take refuge in a bit of verse I had wanted to put up for autumn, but with our month-long dry spell this year, ending Friday night, this antique hasnʼt seemed quite right. And, as I have pretty vivid memories of the weekend around which this not-quite-a-poem came to be (mostly because theyʼre recorded in the poem), I know itʼs not cold or dreary enough to really qualify for a revisit. However, I donʼt have anything else, and I really have wanted to post this one (or at least have an excuse for typing it up on the computer).

It came from my first autumn in Maquoketa, in the (probably underheated) cute little house on Emma Court (has anyone noticed that I used that street as a character in the Queztal County story?), which was evidently a cooler and definitely wetter autumn than this one has been. I was sitting at home alone in the quaint house, rain drizzling, feeling tired and old and apparently very chilly as I listened to I-donʼt-know-which-Bob-Dylan-album on the stereo. It might have been Street Legal, but I am pretty sure (especially having just checked on Wikipedia) that came out later, the next spring, and was new when I played it almost ceaselessly on the drive to and back from the 1978 International Thespian Festival with three unwitting high-school girls on lawn chairs in the back of my blue Ford van (sorry about that, ladies, in retrospect). Much more likely the soundtrack for the poem(s) was Blood on the Tracks, which would fit perfectly.

The actual trigger for composition was work-weariness and the earliest sensation of arthritis in my poor overworked and enervated fingers (much more noticeable any day of any week in any season nowadays), which you may easily observe in the second part/poem/stanza…

Shades of Gray: Autumn Rain

I

And so the hectic day subsides
into a slimy chillgray evening
whispering winter in my knuckles and my knees.

II

The cracks between my bones
forget the lambent tones of electric lights
and listen: the sleety whispers of the wind
keen autumn autumn autumn winter night.

III

Dylanesque atmospheres suggesting
ice inside these fingertips
and fogs behind my eyes;
the coals of existence whisper
out in the leaf-drenching drizzle.

15 September 1977

Not a lot for exegesis here. The three poems or verses or stanzas (I donʼt know why I numbered them — probably an Eliot-influence) are essentially moody description (intended to mean description that creates a mood).

The date is a Thursday night (I really do love being able to check anything in a heartbeat or ninety on the internet; I probably would be a good victim/consumer for a smartphone or an iPod Touch), so my notion it was a weekend is wrong (unless I am recalling the typing process, having first composed longhand — no idea if that was the way it went, either). However, that would explain the “hectic day” falling quiet in the beginning, a long day after school, and in those days for Andrew, church night (meaning no extracurricular activities in the evening, thus no play practice) was on Thursday. So I would have been at home in my then-TVless house. The arthritis-or-whatever-you-like sensations are there in the close of that verse and grow worse/stronger in the next little poem.

Why my aching joints forget the warm “tones” of electric lights rather than the warm sun is probably me trying to avoid the too-obvious image, and life at school really is ruled by artificial illumination, especially in these shortened days of fall and winter. The final line of number II is mere sounding rhythm (but for lots of poets, say Poe, thatʼs what itʼs all supposed to be about) and the conscious mind of the speaker falling asleep, maybe. The susurrus of the storm/cold rainfall outdoors probably shouldnʼt use so many m sounds.

Number III brings the music on the stereo to the front (so Seventies of my Seventies self). And the speaker falls asleep? (That sounds so trite that perhaps youʼd be better off without the explication…) But autumnal weariness and chill extinguishes whatever passes for energy or life in our speaker.

Of course, I feel this one works as a companion piece to “Dry Leaves” written in the same location a year later (sorry, Rod and Dave, I couldnʼt go so obvious as either of your suggestions; I really do feel poetry shouldn’t be quite that literal). Or maybe I should chose to call that other one “Burnt Fires”? “Fallʼs Cinders”? “Faded Flakes”?

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

The Book Junkie

Whatʼs wrong with reading? I listed it among the vices that I enjoy, here on August 13. And I know that most of my readers (yes, including especially you, Colleen) may not understand why such a reading addict as myself would include reading as a vice. From the lessons of my personal experience, I should like to explain.

…if I ever would…

One of the least pleasant duties I had to endure as a teacher was lunch supervision. (I was also not overly successful or pleased with study hall oversight, hall monitoring, useless home-room touchy-feely time watchdog, standardized test administrator, rowdy school bus manager or dance chaperone. Can anyone see the pattern? I make a very poor unofficial cop, either inept and unintentionally overlooking what was supposed to be wrong action or too sternly stepping in unnecessarily. Standing around watching kids have “fun” in order to prevent and/or intervene against objectionable activities, of which I might personally not even genuinely disapprove, or worse, tolerate group mania that I found particularly obnoxious, struck me from the beginning of my educational career as the vilest waste of my time imaginable. Besides, in every one of those situations, the permissible/objectionable distinction on behavior was never particularly clear, and I always felt dirty when we monitors let some kid, or group of scoundrels, get away with what another got exiled for, inequality before the selfjustifying and selfimporant petty authorities being one of the most questionable aspects of education, public and private [which is often worse with the favoritism], that history and society have permitted to evolve.) Until the Nineties, all Andrew teachers had to serve periodic weeks regulating the students at lunch, and the weeks I had to serve were torturous tedium for me (and a waste of time that I could better put to reading/grading work or at least composing the next dayʼs announcements for the daily bulletin). Furthermore, the minutes I had to spend looming over the excited eaters seemed to stretch subjectively into protracted hours. At least, being unpleasant, the details of those tedious (nearly) halfhour sessions of timewaste I have mostly forgotten. However, a single incident from that extensive experience, inspired some periodic but valuable meditation.

At one time the older and younger kids must have been allowed to overlap their time in the (tiny) lunchroom, or else I was supervising early or otherwise in the lunchroom unnecessarily (me not ever eating hot lunch during my entire career, for no good reason, as the Andrew cooks were always top-notch). For whatever reason, I was present when various primary children/grades were in the lunchroom to overhear/witness a teacher reprimanding one of her pupils for a major eating-time sin: reading a book at the table! At the time, I was horrified. Getting our youthful charges to read (or by the age I encountered them, back to reading at all) was and is a horrendous challenge. To prevent one from doing what we cajoled/ordered/tricked kids into attempting seemed contrary to sense and our purpose as teachers.

I know the instructor was merely imposing an old tradition from many (if not most) families that mealtimes should be social experiences for the kinfolk. I believe my own mother wished us (an exquisitely reading group of kids and parents) to speak and practice the skills of society when eating (we are also an acutely unsociable group — if that is not an oxymoron — of intensely introverted shy people). However, being a reticently pensive, withdrawn and socially awkward person myself, I (who had my own book with me to read during the dull banality of my supervisory duties) took unexpressed offense at the rebuke, although the child dutifully and quietly put away the offending volume, and rather theatrically made an affected display of perusing my own tome (which I am sure no one noticed or considered in the least). I wanted to make ostentatious my preference for reading at any time and in any place or manner.

I am one of those people who always has a book on my person. No matter how dark the party or eyeshatteringly distracting the activity, I come prepared, by reading, to cope with the possible boredom the artifice of social situations invariably imposes. (I also come prepared to write, thus my — now infamous — notebooks and the geekish, multipocketed vests I perpetually wear. Evidently, any selfcontained activity short of video games or cell phoning is preferable to shy-boy than relentlessly commonplace conversations.) Those imaginary folks within the covers of my publication are somehow better than the real people among whom I find myself. Always. Without fail.

from the Dictionary program, standard and preinstalled on my iMac

And thatʼs one (perhaps the most important) of the negative issues about reading. The habit withdraws farouche individuals even more than otherwise into themselves. (And I just used, thanks to the digital thesaurus, a word entirely new to me!) This quibble against reading may seem petty, but any number of other people in my life (weʼll use The Lovely One herself as a single example) have suffered embarrassment and indignation at my self-centered public behavior. And I have undoubtedly missed out on all kinds of possible human interaction (and personal growth and satisfaction therefrom) by hiding behind/within a book instead of talking to people. Thatʼs sad.

Moreover, reading is addictive, no joke. At least for me (I hope in times past only) my interest in the fictional events of a novel (or the interestingly philosophical issues of a nonfiction treatise) could cancel any awareness of the actual, exterior world around me, and I would (okay, often still do) pull out the book in preference to completing or even remembering my actual, mundane responsibilities. We reading addicts (I wonder if there even could be a twelve-step program for such isolates by nature, choice and preference) share lots of behaviors and attitudes with junkies, alcoholics and other antisocial obsessives. I have had to take myself in hand and force me to regard reality and real duties as significant, and my selfish withdrawal into fiction has made life miserable for poor Janet (hey, just Friday I neglected to call a guy about replacing our furnace because I got enthralled with finishing The Thin Man, and Nick Charles, by the way, like his creator is clearly an alcoholic).

Probably, that elementary teacher had more right on her side in preempting that child from a life of literary addiction than this poor reading fiend could admit at the time.

…Hello. My name is John, and I — …am a book junkie…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Freedom of the Open Road

I like to drive. I donʼt think I have actually acknowledged this pastime previously, but itʼs true (“as true as horses that I shall never tire” — I wonder if I got that allusive quotation correct…). Janet and I were reminiscing about various driving experiences with her sister and brother-in-law over the weekend (some not repeatable here). Whether it was in…

  • Willie Faye (the blue VW Beetle my father essentially let me drive most of the time in early college years),
  • or the old ʼ56 Ford that didnʼt need a key to start it (fortunately on several occasions),
  • a beaten old Chevrolet boat (my brother Paulʼs car, loaned to me while he was a resident student in Spain for the 1975-76 school year),
  • the worthless ʼ69 orʼ70 tan Beetle I bought for myself and smacked into a deer just over a year later,
  • my blue Econoline van,
  • the 1986 Ford Escort wagon (my only new vehicle, probably ever in my lifetime),
  • the fairly worthless 1989 Ford Ranger pickup I bought next and drove through the Nineties and into this millennium,
  • or my current 1998 white Nissan Frontier (the “Desert Runner” model that if truly named should never have been purchased by an old farmer from south of Galena to tool around this area in),
  • or any of Janetʼs various vehicles that she has permitted or required me to drive (or those of previous girlfriends, too),

Oh, the irony, for those who click the pic (thinking of Connie Willis and “The Last of the Winnebagos”)

…driving has been a pleasant experience, usually, that I will miss when the gasoline/crude oil supply runs out. We Americans seem thoroughly uninterested, in a genuine and therefore behavior-modifying manner, in releasing the teat of fossil fuels and overcoming our addiction to petroleum.

I am not keen on winter driving, mistrusting myself on ice but also deep and heavily falling snow. Unlike most people, I donʼt mind driving in fog, even in places unfamiliar (I, however, do turn on my headlights — not for myself but all those other drivers headed at me) or, as I did heading up to Cedar Rapids recently with Kevin, in heavy rain (only a few times, ironically — or predictably — near Rochester, MN, have I been forced to pull over in blinding downpours). And living in the Midwest, I am not proficient (or particularly comfortable) with mountainous drives, although I have had wonderful times on old Highway 1 along the California coastline (of which, however, I havenʼt driven more than about ninety minutes to two-hours distance out of San Francisco), so it may be simply my fear of heights that intimidated me in Colorado.

Anyway. I was thinking about the pleasures of driving as I headed up to Dubuque yesterday morning for my semiregular escape from home while it gets cleaned. The day was brightly sunny, and ensconced within the air-conditioned confines of the Frontierʼs extended cab, comfortable (outdoors was another story, although I think overall Wednesday was slightly cooler or less humid than Monday and Tuesday had been, or else my hours in air-conditioning helped me stand the afternoon and evening in the actual weather). Highway 61, four-laned for years now between Davenport and Dubuque, may be a dull drive nowadays, but itʼs still pretty, rolling up and down the countryside and peering up the country lanes that extend off on the sides (more pleasurable for knowing and also not knowing what lies down those apparently — but deceptively in this riverine territory — arrowlike routes). I was also thinking about topics on which I could write for the blog, so notice how promptly my brief meditation on the road has turned into a post.

I am not sure what I enjoy about driving so much. I usually donʼt drive very fast, so the pleasures of the countryside are more visible and enjoyable for me than otheer more tensed and aggressive drivers, such as The Lovely One herself. I also donʼt usually face much traffic (notice I havenʼt once discussed city driving, a form of spirit-rending torture I assume is continued in any number of the circles of Hell — commuters being exemplars for me of what is wrong about capitalism and greed or selfishness in general: just observe your own reactions to others and their vicious self-promotion on the overcrowded roadway and generalize from those behaviors to ponder the theoretical principles of any “free market”). In fact, 61 north of Maquoketa probably doesnʼt support enough traffic to really be four lanes, however pleasant it is to cruise the nearly empty freeway. (And I commented yesterday on Janetʼs reactions to the nearly constant bilane flood of teeming automotive corpuscles pulsing competitively toward that urban heart, Milwaukee, on Friday afternoon.)

I think what I like most is the sensibility of being in transit. I drive along in splendid isolation (thank you, Warren Zevon, for that phrase), attuned to my music, freely contemplating everything and anything, distracted only minimally and infrequently by the rigors of piloting a speeding ton and a half of metal and semiflexible petroleum-based chemical byproducts. My soul soars. Although the acquisition of a cell phone has changed my outlook a bit, I enjoy being suspended between home and other obligations ahead. Other drivers ruthlessly intervening between me and my freewheeling solitude make urban or other overloaded driving a gut-churning chore in itself, banishing ruminative reverie. A pleasant rural drive liberates the spirit to fly freely and happily, especially on sunbrightened, temperate days. While in transit, there is nothing you can actually do about any of your regular duties, so you might as well relax and enjoy everything about the experience of being where you transitionally are, fully savoring each aspect of every evolving moment, liberated for the nonce from the rigors of responsibility.

At least, that is what I do.

Also, thatʼs generally why I so seldom recognize other cars or drivers furiously waving from our accustomed friendship at me — no snub or diminution of our normal relationship, just my temporary obliviousness of ordinary, unsparing and relentless reality.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.