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

Electricity Amplitude

Delayed (but not as long delayed as the final bit I have in mind for my two-month-old extended essay on The Maltese Falcon) is the middle portion of my reminiscences on my electrical life and times…

stone walls and no brick floor in Olivet

So we were living in Michigan. I had cornered a dungeonlike cell in the cellar for my model-building and reading (early teen isolation from family intrusions) that I attempted to wire for lighting. I do not remember now whether my father helped me with this experience (he probably did, or at least checked my extension cords and lamps over later), but I might have had the know-how by eighth grade to do some basic wiring. I do remember learning how to wire a lamp in seventh grade shop class at god old Washington Junior High in Rock Island (among other projects, usually of the woodworking variety), which has stood me in good stead with lamps at home and not just in the theater.

The then-Congregational Church in Olivet. I fainted one time there, as well as being confirmed there for the second of three times.

I don’t even remember if I wired up my little room in the basement all by myself (or just how much lighting I even arranged). Of course, in demented hindsight I reflect on all those model-cement fumes my poor thirteen-year-old body and mind must have accidentally and unwittingly (pun?) sustained… and I worry.

The other most memorable Michigan electrical experience was my sister’s miniature (which in those days meant about a foot square by six or eight inches deep) reel-to-reel tape recorder, which I assume she acquired in order to tape classes at Michigan State University or something. All I know is that it came into my possession, at least at times, and I enjoyed recording an unimaginably wide variety of sounds, particularly my own voice (almost at the same time that Andy Kaufman was also creating his own broadcasts…). Naturally, under my tender care it eventually (or very quickly) stopped working correctly. So I have to fix it. I learned a lot about Sixties electronica and little motors. I don’t know truthfully if I fixed it or not, but the way I remember it, I did —at least briefly (and that recollection is probably false; Margaret, I am sure, could set me straight on this, but I fear to find out for sure). Maybe that early-teens recording experience explains some later events — like my first experience in theater as a sound guy and my continuing fascination with recording either for tape or now digitally my vinyl record collection (and I do still have maybe hundreds of records to play/record/add to iTunes, particularly the Baroque, Classical and Romantic stuff; getting back to digitizing music should keep me well distracted from worthwhile writing again).

We moved from Michigan to Mt. Pleasant during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, and my electrical experiences after that centered principally on the theatre. MPHS speech and drama instructor Marilyn Vincent (known to us all as “Vince”) drafted me about Christmas time 1968 for my first experience not onstage, running the sound effects for The Miracle Worker, the high school’s winter show that year. Running lights, a position he inherited from both of his older brothers, was freshman trombonist Kevin Wiley. From such small initial experiences are drama careers and lifetime friendships forged.

I don’t believe I had to do any wiring for the sound job for that play, although I was to get plenty of experience running speaker cord and testing connections and making dead speakers work again (and doorbells and telephones and…) and likewise resurrecting aged and/or defunct amplifiers, cassette tape decks and eventually wireless microphone systems. The recording engineer/producer in me has also enjoyed usually three (sometimes more) experiences annually developing pre-show, entrʼacte and exit music for plays. In the mid-Eighties, aside from transforming my classroom into a television studio briefly —  complete with stage lights and at least four functioning, separate microphones (one or more wireless) —  for the IHSSA Large Group Speech Television News event, I also got to produce The Lovely One singing and friend Jack Jones on the piano to create a tape of popular in show tunes as a Christmas gift for her grandpa Ray. All in all, my audio experiences, while electronic, may have been the most satisfactory. I am sure that a quarter-century-plus of Andrew Comment production and broadcasts was also a result of Margaretʼs tape recorder and Vinceʼs insightful assignment of the geeky new kid in the sophomore class. From childish  beginnings lifetimes grow…

To get back on track, in high school in ‘69 I quickly got involved in stage lighting and set construction, thanks mostly, I believe, to my friendship with Kevin. I really doubt my own knowledge, skills or ability had much to do with it; chiefly, I was his assistant. But as I noted before, I learned. We didn’t rewire extensively in high school, although we did some; we mostly climbed and hung dangerously in all kinds of places (discovering some places we believed no one had known about for generations — as if), inventing new and better (and more difficult) places to locate offstage lighting (hanging a bar for lekos over the audience, as has been done for the theatre in the high-school-converted-into-public-library-and-community-building nowadays under Kevinʼs suggestions in Mt. P, would have been infinitely better, but we were just kids, you know). Since the high school’s lights were wired with house plugs, I began my unending practice at wiring plentifully heavy cords into those teeny tiny little screws.

Iowa Wesleyan College Chapel — home to many an electrical exploit

In college we got more creative, thanks in part to our involvement with Community Theater. Getting older and (we thought) more experienced, made us bolder and more imaginative in our electrical innovations. That was the era of twice creating Y-cords to combine two distinct 110 circuits to create 220 for a portable lightboard, among other exploits. We were doing up to six plays a year in those days, so we had plenty of opportunity to play with electricity.The college used two-pin connectors (not grounded in those days), so I got experience with alternatives to houseplugs (and I still think those massive connectors are easier and better to work with).

Kevin moved on to the University of Iowa after his sophomore year, but I remained as the by-then theatrical electrical “expert.” And the false sense of expertise stayed with me as I graduated and moved on to Fort Madison and their spring senior play and summer musical (I even moved the senior play to the high school commons/lunch area, which I had to wire and hang myself for stage lighting, and I also remember — vaguely — doing some things I’d rather forget for the summer production in 1976 on the middle school stage (which was also the junior highʼs gym floor, believe it or not — a gym in an auditorium rather than a stage tacked on the side of a gymnasium). Changing to Andrew in 1977 just forced me to keep improvising and learning, wiring and rewiring for sound and lighting systems. Right up through my retirement.

Of course, all that experience made me bolder (in some ways), and the sound, effects and electrics at Kirchhoff Theater were inelegant masterpieces of necessity and its offspring (although not the infamous blackout during a performance that tested our crowd control and foresight: that was the city not installing a sufficiently heavy-duty box for the main into the building in the first place; people are always underestimating the electrical needs of a theatre — nor the heating collapse during the run of the Christmas Variety Show, of which I have always wondered that Janet and I ran into the smoking building to put out whatever the fire was; that experience only elevated the wild levels of our technical improvisation, “our” to include director Janet, although it was me that took personal days to tend/supervise the barn burner we acquired to heat the place insufferably until shortly before showtime, then to cool and cool, each night). And that adult daring did overflow into real life, especially in the audacious Nineties.

And that should bring us close to the closing section I already posted. This has been significantly more vague than I imagined, but itʼs written now, and thatʼs how it stands. Besides, this way I can do entire posts on individual exploits, later…

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

Electricity, Too

Having begun a complex set of recollections from reminiscing about me and electricity yesterday, I feel it is only right to bring the memoir to its natural conclusion, and so…

During the early 1990s Janet and I actually got excited about possibly changing our lives and getting the heck out of Jackson County. As a result, I engaged in quite a few odd job searches and quests (none of which, obviously enough to those who know me or had me as a teacher until a year ago, came to fruition). I looked into becoming a technical writer (and I still think I could have done all right devising manuals and Help files — certainly writing better instructions than some I have tried to follow myself, including more than one set of directions for installing ceiling fans). I did everything I could to learn more about that career path, including joining the Society for Technical Communication for more than a decade, even after the job applications I had attempted had failed and weʼd settled back into our little eastern Iowa rut again. (And STC is still out there going strong without me!)

Out of all the applications I made, interestingly (because we had no such plan) focused primarily in the Milwaukee area (I still notice Johnson Controls vehicles as they drive by with no support from my own personal technical instructions), I only received one interview, and that was for a tech theatre instructor job at a private school in a northern Milwaukee suburb. Ironic, hey? Still in education. Janetʼs sister and her husband lived nearby, however (although I donʼt remember thinking that was a reason for our interest in that region), so I took a personal day (or two?) and we made a long weekend of the job interview/family visit. The interview went nowhere right away. It was an entry-level job and the interviewers almost filled their pants in front of me when I told them I would have to make $40,000 a year to consider the change (which I would have, and it was also a very nice improvement to my pay scale). They did pay teachers there that much in those days, but not for this position: they were looking for kids right out of college, willing to work for less than what I was making in Iowa (in Andrew!) at that time. And the kicker was this — they wanted a certified electrician because I would be setting the lights for their high school plays.

At that time, I had set lights for nearly every production with which I had been involved since my junior year in high school, hundreds of plays. There had been very few shows (still havenʼt been many more up to now) that I directed, acted in, lit, built, helped with make-up or whatever, that I hadnʼt also done at least some of the lighting set-up. Including wiring up our own homemade, jerry-built 110-220 circuitry to run a lightboard in traveling circumstances (like a motel restaurant for dinner theatre or the science lecture hall at Wesleyan for kidsʼ shows) — itʼs a pretty simple procedure, needing just two separately fused 110 circuits that you patch together into a 220 outlet plug for your lightboard to plug into. Admittedly, most of that accomplishment was due to longtime lighting partner Kevin Wiley, if not all of it, but I learned. I had wired up the 220 hotbox at Andrew every year after we got the new lightboard (ha, “new” in 1980 maybe— that Andrew lightboard is thirty years old already!), wired the male and female ends and rigged (hanging in midair over the gym floor) a vast array of homemade extension cords for a few years when the original lighting circuits were bad, and with the drama class one fall even delicately opened the lightboard to try to get more of its dimmers operational (and they succeeded).

The wrong color — cream!

But I am no certified electrician, and strangely, I didnʼt get that private-school job. (Yeah, I was being sarcastic; I knew it wasnʼt going to be me well before I left that job interview, and that was okay with both sides). That school was just too professional-theatre for the likes of me. Iʼm just an amateur through and through. So I kept doing the job at Andrew until retirement could kick in, although the coming of the Ohnward Fine Arts Center (and the essentially consequent closing of Peace Pipe Playersʼ by-then decrepit old Kirchhoff Theatre) pretty well ended my lighting career. I lit and hung the first PPP show at Ohnward, The Silver Whistle, but the ladder-on-platform-suspended-over-the-seats to get into their rafters to hang lights was too hazardous for this old man (I really did get spooked a bit up there), and I didnʼt really enjoy using a computerized lightboard very much anyway (at least not that “state of the art” item) — just another old fogey not with the new technology, you know. Besides, there were others already in that system, and I had always told the students that if I was still hanging in rafters to aim lights when I was fifty, something was wrong (and I was doing just that until I was 55, boys and girls). And I retired, and even school lighting tasks are for others nowadays.

Now I just do what is needed around the house, having years ago put in those ceiling fans I grumped about already and redone all our wall switches and outlets (so Janet could have lovely white covers and plugs instead of the aged-cream/yellow ones we bought with the house itself in 1984). Last summer, I fixed up our doorbell (I hope more than temporarily) that hadnʼt quite been done right when the new siding went on after the big hailstorm a decade ago, but especially as those little tiny screws in plugs and outlets seem to keep getting smaller and more fragile, I keep thinking at some point electricity and I are going to have to drift apart. Except for using the service, of course.

Yes, you are right. This is actually the end of the reminiscence, and the middle is lacking. After all, I left you hanging back in Michigan, with me about to wire up some illumination for a cellar hideout atmospherically dense with the fumes of model-airplane glue. How did that get into theatre? I will just have to write the middle portion of this essay some day. But this is the part my teeming unconscious wanted to write about today (well, actually yesterday, so we could all read it today). And tomorrowʼs a holiday (who can guess which one?), so I have to write about that next.

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

Electricity, part 1

On Saturday, I made passing reference to my electrical work, which got me thinking (always a bad idea, you know). Electricity and I have had a longstanding relationship…

not my floor lamp and decidedly not my room

closer (that paper shade is vaguely in the right category) but still no cigar (and the room is again way wrong)

My oldest memory is electrical (I think). It used to come to me in dreams. I see an old-fashioned electric floorlamp (Thirties or Forties vintage, I imagine) standing in a corner against some rather ugly vintage wallpaper, yellowed. The four-inch floorboards are painted white, carefully I think, with the routered top curl. All quite period: cluing us in that this image is from my childhood, possibly very early. That is all there is to it: a floorlamp standing in a wallpapered corner. I donʼt even know if the lamp is on. And it terrifies me (asleep in my dreaming — so much so that when I dreamed this image I usually woke up, sweating or something like that, nervous, not willing to talk the dark walk to the bathroom and having a little trouble falling back asleep).

I havenʼt had that dream in decades, although it persisted into my adult life, into my time in Maquoketa, I believe even into my married life (but not here in our gray house). But I still remember it. Vividly. Obviously.

And I donʼt know why. I tried talking about it with my older sister Margaret (at least I tell myself I did), and she told me (or I told myself in my imaginary conversation with her) that the description could sound like our family house in Colorado Springs, where we lived when I was quite young (less than two, if I recollect correctly — and I frequently donʼt). The frustration of getting the clarity of the image clear to other people (and the image is very clear in my dream, but it is only visual with no other senses involved; of course, most of my dreams are predominantly visual) made me realize long ago how isolated our internal experiences are. My favorite line from Conrad (Heart of Darkness) is: “We live as we dream — alone.”

So why is my dream image so frightening? My guess is that it is a real memory of a two-year-old who then grabbed the presumably frayed cord for that floorlamp (probably only those as old as myself or older recall the stiff friability of those old-fashioned cloth-covered — probably asbestos-lined — power cords that were already aged and hazardous in the Fifties and Sixties) and accidentally, partially electrocuted himself. The terror is the repressed remnant of the experience in which I inflicted electrical pain on myself.

Thatʼs what I remember. Thatʼs what I once dreamed. Thatʼs my conclusion about it all.

And from such small beginnings lifetime engagements begin…

too new, too sleek, and no exposed terminals for youthful experimentation…

Years later, when the family lived in Rock Island, Illinois, one year at Christmastime, when I was still in elementary school, possibly fourth or fifth grade, my folks dropped brother Paul and me at the movies for an afternoon. (I am sure it was so they could go shopping without us, probably with Margaret who was so much older and more mature.) I wrote about this before. The whole afternoon was set up for kids to have fun, including (beyond a movie or two of which I remember nothing at all) games, a magician, and (most importantly and best of all) prizes. And I won a chemistry set (probably to the dismay of my mother and delight of my science-teaching father), which taught me little if any chemistry except for (as the link I just created nostalgically reviewed for  me) the names of chemicals (some of which I am sure I actually ingested under the influence of Thirties and Fifties horror flicks) and a youthful appreciation for experimentation (pretty worthless and destructive experimentation in my case: my biggest goal was to create foaming beakers of chemical compounds as seen onscreen in those aforementioned movies). Paul and I also had some electrical train equipment, mostly abused and forgotten by this age. However, my next-door-neighbor friend Bill Lindahl and I used the train set transformers (AC to DC) to perform our own little experiments à la Edison on various threads and things to see if we could discover our very own (nonvacuum-enclosed) electric filaments. Of course we also got totally distracted into creating bigger and better conflagrations as the electricity burned lots of those substances before our very eyes (and noses). The sturdy transformer lasted an amazing length of time (at least in my memories) burning cotton threads, dust bunnies and every other filamentlike object we could lay across the DC terminals, including various remaining chemicals from the chemistry set (disregarding their nonfilamental structure). And so more electrical experience permeated my consciousness.

(How we kept my mother from preventing those “experiments” I have no idea. Of course, I also collected an amazing amount of my own and Paulʼs urine in jars — where did I get those? — stored in our bedroom closet before discovered by Margaret, too. What did I think I was doing with that pseudo-experiment? Not to mention the anatomy explorations performed on Margaretʼs discarded — thatʼs my view of their condition, and I am sticking to it, regardless what she says — Barbies… And probably this paragraph is entering the realm of too much information.)

I actually did learn some basic electricity from setting up the trains and even from Bill and my peculiar electrical experiments with the transformer. I think I had acquired a good basic understanding from my fatherʼs Traveling Science Teacher act and equipment, too. (Yes, I clearly recall in the basement of our house in Rock Island going through those deep green footlockers holding the TST equipment in quest for playthings/experimental equipment for myself.)

By the time we moved to Michigan (eighth grade for me), I was ready to wire up my own lights in the dungeonlike cellar of the huge old (former fraternity) house which my father received/rented (I donʼt know the financial arrangement, having been oblivious of real life as a child) for the family from Olivet College. One stony chamber of the cellar, remote and originally black (thatʼs my version, and again I am sticking to it), became my private realm to assemble model cars and airplanes — I  am pretty sure that the model Wolfman and Dracula and Frankenstein were already behind me, in the Rock Island era — (and perhaps itʼs the overenclosed atmosphere of model-airplane glue fumes that makes my memories of those experiences so vividly colorful and lifelike… and probably have limited my mental abilities ever since) and read (illicitly acquired?) comic books and science fiction and fantasy (as I partially disclosed earlier). But I had to rig some lighting in there first…

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

Let Summer Begin…

Although contemporary kids (and their parents and the school boards) seem to think summer should begin with (and therefore school ends by) Memorial Day, I have always felt itʼs summertime once June arrives, as it does today. This year, of course, I have enjoyed the arrival of summer as not for 35 years — with no school, no play rehearsals (academic or community theatre) and with more than expected time for myself. The current/ending job has helped, too, as I got to drive across Jackson County at least three days a week through May, soaking in the lush greens against the blue sky. The advent of ninety-degree temperatures for a while back in April while I trained for the job also queued me for the æstival season (as well as the forty-minute drives to and from the training site and the long lunches — an hour, huge for someone leashed to less than 25 minutes at school — during which I wandered about observing the growth of young plants groping for full maturity).

My Life in Books

Now my job ends (I hope by Wednesday), so much like school terminating all those previous years, leaving me psychologically primed for the hot, fun times. I feel like rereading Ray Bradburyʼs wonderful, not-quite-a-memoir Dandelion Wine (a much-beloved book on the experience of summer for a preteen in a Twenties Midwest so full of flavors still available from my own youth in the early Sixties, but ancient history now). I started on that volume again six years ago, attempting to read in it as I enjoyed lunchtime outdoors at the Area Education Agency in Bettendorf (I was taking my required five hours of education courses to recertify for the final time), but the actual effort of the coursework distracted me before I was a full third into that sensuous, imaginary summer. Then Janet gave me the sequel, Farewell Summer (still unread), restimulating my interest. Maybe this June…

I am also being haunted by a summer book that I needed four rereadings over a twenty-year gap to begin appreciating — F. Scott Fitzgeraldʼs The Great Gatsby, which I felt (at first) that I had to teach once I took over the Andrew American Literature course. The first two years were dreadful (for me, probably for the kids as well) because I had to force myself to read that skinny little volume (partly because I was asking them to tackle too much at a time — two chapters a day!) and I wasnʼt partcilarly inspired by the shallow lives of those selfish rich people in a very different summer of 1922 (different from Bradburyʼs 1928, that is). I had hated it in college (Fitzgeraldʼs poetic style too dense for my immature science-fiction-bred tastes, I guess), and it wasnʼt until the third year using it at Andrew that I keyed into the fact that it was about a single summer and in its own peculiar way captured an essence of summertime in the experiences of the characters — and the readerʼs experience of the prose, too. After that the book began to blossom for me with more secrets and more revelations every year.

Huck himself: it really is good for someone like me to have to appreciate a poor-white-trash punk like Huck

(And I really did miss reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — aloud to English III for a decade or more — this year, too. Thatʼs another wonderful summer, about eighty years earlier than either of the two already mentioned. Even though the reading-aloud occurred in January and February annually. I want to watch the PBS film of Twainʼs riverboating years, too, Life on the Mississippi; it always made me yearn for summer in the deeps of snow.)

Gatsbyʼs appeal still surprises me, but witnessing and experiencing the wonderful greening of the world this year, itʼs Ftizgeraldʼs phrases I recall… it was a warm season, and I had just left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees …And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer. There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air. — All from the second or third page. Not to mention Daisyʼs frustrated wish to celebrate the longest day of the year but always miss it, or Gatsbyʼs faded yearning to hold onto the the summer and not let it go. I might have to drag it off the shelf…

I also read through all of Heinleinʼs juveniles early in two different summers a long time ago — first when I was ending my junior year in high school, in volumes from the Mt. Pleasant Public Library, then in June after my first year of teaching, deliberately dipping back into a world of excited youth (and repeatedly remaining up all night to finish another book in a single day). The Science Fiction Book Club reprinted all of them in omnibus volumes a few years ago, which I bought, of course, and I want to read those stories in hardback again…

An ellipsis… A fine way to begin a summer… Kind of lazy…

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

Religious Reconnoitering

Yesterday I told the story of composing my first full-length play, Speak No Evil, explaining that I have tended to write my long plays from frustration (anger) with falsehoods rampant in the world. If you read that little essay, anger wasnʼt really the flint that sparked that first dramatic endeavor into existence but the wonderful uplift of science (thank you, Carl Sagan).

Feel free to put these crosshairs on the bilious hypocrite(s) of your choice.

My second play, however, arose directly from anger at the reactionary and ignorant religious right and put hate-mongering televangelists dead in the center of my literary gunsights (hey, itʼs not just the wacko/Palin Right that can utilize figurative weaponry). I donʼt know why as the Eighties dawned I started taking so personally the scamming and con-artistry so blatant on the televangelista circuit. Perhaps it was growing up; perhaps, later, it was growing together (with Janet) and getting married — both indications conjuring maturity. But the money-grubbing, false-as-sin-we-donʼt-admit hypocrisy and cant got my ire up. And my dander, too.

In order to get married, Janet and I had to endure/survive/experience Pre-Cana classes. She was raised Catholic, attending Catholic elementary school and the whole gambit, so she wanted to get married in the church. I agreed, being of no firm faith, naturally (and at that particular era, drawn powerfully toward Judaism from my reading and nonfiction studies — frightening my mother that I might actually convert, unfortunately; but naturally I lacked the full conviction, although on our honeymoon in Minneapolis, I dragged The Lovely One along as I sought Jewish bookstores for purchases.)

My own religious background was more mixed (-up). My family was United Methodist, to which my older sister Margaret and minister brother Paul (going full-time at it once he retires from teaching this spring/summer) adhere now. Younger brother Stephen also finds comfort in his religious values, mostly confined to Bible study, I believe, these days. Youngest sibling David has sought solace in the UCC, whose generous spirit of liberality he finds welcoming (as do I, differently).

I was confirmed a Methodist in sixth grade in Rock Island. It was a hot June day. We wee believers were clad in our best church clothes (including wool jacket and shirt with tie for me) and then covered in choir robes, so we were dropping like flies in the awful heat, including me. I only have vague recollections of the minister putting his hands upon my head as someone held me up, lifted from my unconscious state on the carpet, and then being rushed off to a recovery room nearby. Maybe my semi-conscious condition explains why the experience hasnʼt taken.

The next summer the family moved to Olivet, Michigan, where my father took his only college teaching job. With no Methodist church in town, we became for the two years we remained in Michigan Congregationalists (perhaps helping to explain Davidʼs choice?), and I was confirmed yet again (I think that next spring, as an eighth grader) into the bosom of that New England faith. But then my father wearied of college faculty politics, and with him going back into high school teaching, we moved again to Mt. Pleasant, where there was a strong Methodist congregation that confirmed young people as sophomores in high school. So I went through the confirmation classes for a third time (and each experience, disregarding the subtle theological distinctions of two different brands of Protestantism, was different from the others) and got the official sanction for a third time, too.

One time in Olivet I even got “saved,” having gone to watch a magician at the next-door Assembly of God building. His show was so inspiring that I felt the spirit in me move (something), went to the front during the Call and got reborn, I guess (or something). I went directly home, into the garage where I had hidden a pack of cigarettes, and destroyed them all in my blissful, heart-so-light reinstalled innocence. Iʼm not sure how much more than three days that exaltation persisted, but I guess I share a little something with the pea-brained Bimbo from Alaska, however briefly in my case. (I shall have to reserve the sorry tale of my youthful evil — and it is a sad story — for another post.)

More complexly, I went Presbyterian without the formal rituals for nearly five years in Mt.Pleasant, drawn thither by the allure of romance (the then-girlfriend was of that persuasion) and friendship — a lot of my peers attended there as well, drawn by the warmth and even radicalism of the pastor, whom we all called “Rev” (thatʼs how cool he was, although he once lost it with me during adult discussion group — no mere Bible-studying Sunday school for them! — when I wouldnʼt admit I was terrified to die/unaware of my incipient and eventually certain demise). The more-than-liberal Rev even made national news (and Time magazine) for sheltering illegal Salvadorans in the later Seventies and early Eighties once he had moved off to the Southwest, having become a strong mover in the Sanctuary movement. I liked that church a lot, although I also recall committing some less than holy actions there. As most of this period was  college for me, I believe my parents (who were both very sincerely devout) were just glad I was going to a church of any kind.

More twistedly, I continued to attend the Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church at least once a year through college… in order to qualify for a UMC scholarship that covered a good deal of my tuition at Iowa Wesleyan College (yep, that good old religious connection again).

But after commencing from college summa cum laude, the church stuff pretty much withered away, although like most Americans I would still attend with the family for Christmas and Easter if I went back to my folks for that holiday. Withered away, I guess, unless you count those years in the late Seventies when I was gobbling up every Talmudic and Kabbalistic volume I could acquire (and in the process worrying my poor mother that I was headed straight to conversion perdition). My Dante studies were equally drenched in theology — Christian this time, of course, and Roman Catholic, as I steeped myself in medieval scholarship, scholasticism and Thomas Aquinas (and possibly more comforting to my mother).

So there you have it: thrice confirmed, once saved, and having dabbled in lots of beliefs, probably damned eternally.

Which brings us back where we began… Janet and I attending pre-Cana in Dubuque to get married in her hometown Catholic Church, after six weeks of soul-searching and counseling with the local priest in Andrew, Father Maichen — a really excellent gentleman who sincerely tried to help me understand that my own sense of what he called “doubt” was a perfectly acceptable aspect of oneʼs serious, tortuous road to Catholic faith. Although I had no intention of taking the plunge for a fourth (or fifth) time, he and I had some good discussion about church fathers and theology in general (matched or superseded only by visits with my late brother-in-law Brian Sullivan, he of the “I thought I heard a joyful noise” incident).

—But I have greatly exceeded my thousand-word limit for posts without even getting back to televangelical shenanigans and deceptions and the rocky road to Magick. So thereʼs got to be more to come. Soon.

(And let us not forget to mention Bertrand Russell, key philosopher in my spiritual development. And Spinoza, arising from Judaical studies and Shelley, too… And Gandhi… )

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

Sci Fi Child

You probably don’t, but sometimes I wonder how many poems there are about black holes

At least for a long while, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine used to accept and print poetry, and since I have more than just a couple poems arising from either science or fantasy/sci fi, I probably should have sent them some years ago. Maybe yet. For now, today’s post will include a pair of poems arising from science.

Tripping back though Time…

My father was a science teacher. I recently subbed in science classes and felt a little rush of recollection about my dad.

When I was little, when we lived in Port Byron, Illinois—so close to where I live now by coincidence—, he was a Traveling Science Teacher. I don’t remember the timing exactly, but I would bet it was in the years right around 1960—part of the effort our government put into the improvement of science teaching after the Soviet Union put Sputnik into orbit. Those heady days of American shame as the Soviets clearly plowed ahead in the as-yet-unnamed space race prompted lots of innovation in U.S. schools—for science and mathematics. The Traveling Science Teacher program was part of that great all-American quest to catch up.

a typical building in Spartan Village, MSU

(I am sorry that all you get is a link to the search I did; I did learn that the program ran from 1957 to 1961—a pretty good match to my memories—and there seems to be a connection to Michigan State University, possibly explaining my father transporting us all to East Lansing for his Masters work in the mid-Sixties. Spartan Village, MSU married student housing, is a big element in my childhood, even if we were only there for a few summer sessions. I fondly recall not eating tomatoes for supper, digging a long cave—to China?—on a hillside, attending summer school nearby, trying to eat crab apples, watching fireworks from my bedroom window, attending and being terrified by the Peter Cushing The Hound of the Baskervilles, playing toy soldiers with my first black friend—and being blissfully unaware of any importance in his race. Janet even had to endure me revisiting that past by touring through the more modern-day Spartan Village—even identifying one of the locations where we lived!—on our first trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. —I hid three links there on Stratford.)

As a TST, my father developed (or learned) a whole wide range of science tricks and stunts to use in his lectures at the schools he visited. I remember him trying out some of those demonstrations on us and the multifarious equipment packed into his several green footlockers for travel. Even more than a decade later, he still used some of those stunts. I helped him set up his room one late summer while I was in college, when he taught in New London; he showed off his room-sized pendulum which swung from one corner to another across the room. Treating me as a student, he had me stand on a chair in one corner with the massively heavy weight held against my chin and release it, staying quite still, head back in the concrete blocks of the corner, to learn that the pendulum effect prevented the weight from actually returning to smack and bloody my chin on any of its swings. We learn by doing! (A lesson that I tried to practice in my own teaching career—kind of difficult for instruction in reading and writing, at least when ed experts oppose “doing” to “reading.”)

Science stuff lay around our house, particularly during my elementary years in Rock Island, making for great playthings (probably much to my father’s consternation and chagrin). In fourth or fifth grade, at Christmastime, brother Paul and I got dropped at a downtown movie theater for a matinee extravaganzas—probably designed for parents to shop for Santa Claus gifts while we were safely contained at the theater—and in the extra activities beyond the movie I won a chemistry set (of which I am sure my dad approved and with which we never did any approvable “experiments”). Lots of scientific allure surrounded my youth.

And my sister Margaret got me reading science fiction early, too. I was started on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian series while still in upper elementary. Burroughs opened an entirely new reality to me—much more colorful and vivid than the Hardy Boys or the historical nonfiction and biographies I had been reading from the Rock Island Public Library. I devoured all the Mars books, Pellucidar, Venus, pretty much everything… And from there it easily a small leap into real science fiction (starting with an Ace Double that I bought for myself in Olivet—it was •G-580 SF Mack Reynolds Dawnman Planet / Claude NunesInherit the Earth ©1966—thinking of Mack Reynolds may inspire a politoc-economic post soon…).

Science + science fantasy + science fiction yields… me? Interestingly, coincidentally (one last link before we get to the two poems for today), Asimov’s currently has a featured editorial by Isaac himself on science fiction poetry. Check it out here—much more interesting than my selfish reminiscences.

Now for some verse:

Startime

imagined black hole

Yes, bluewhite―the stars:
fusion
gravity wells,
possibly imploded now,
falling outward toward the future,
downward into time,
making helium and steel―the stars
crying light cross the satin sky.

Bend time for me, black gravity,
and bring me to that dire place,
intense with weight―no escape―
where I’ll have time, when the clocks stop,
to learn her eyes and love those sighs.

21 April 1980

First, let’s credit the entirely readable source for the picture: J. M. Connell’s blog.

As for my bit of old verse, it’s just a love poem, pretty standard issue, really. The interesting part is the Carl Sagan-inspired physics of the first stanza and the use of the notion that time might stop on the event horizon (although probably only true for distant observers, not for a lover hanging over ultimate gravity). I have a story—the oldest one I still work on and a twist on Shakespeare for the plot—that uses the principles of stellar evolution, perhaps leaving the last stars in the universe giant lumps of iron or steel once they burn out (if the universe goes on expanding forever)—as the basis for a Universal Encyclopedia that starfaring humans contribute to while in hyperspace. I thought this idea up in the late Seventies, while visiting my friend Kevin as a grad student in Iowa City, inspired by Asimov’s Foundation series, and now there’s Wikipedia. Windows 7 may not be my idea (I haven’t even tried it), but…

By the way, you have read better science-inspired poetry by me, back at the beginning of this year, here. The original moon landing made as big an impression on me as anyone—staying up late to watch those grainy pictures from 385 thousand kilometers/239,000 miles away. The poem arose, not quite a decade later, from reflections on Armstrong’s attempt at immortal nobility (“one small step…”) and reading in Joseph Campbell about heroic quests and boons. It’s also much more controlled than either of these later attempts today, a regular and pretty well-turned sonnet. I impressed myself at the time (and now) by how easily the rhymes come into place—with not much forcing at all. But enough of poems from the past, let’s turn to our second selection today, continuing a Sunday theme of embarrassment for me.

abusing science

For our other poem, we turn to my return to science in the late Seventies and Eighties. Inspired by Jacob Bronowski’s still-thrilling science series on PBS, The Ascent of Man, I started some serious reading on science (especially physics) in popular-science books for a long time (still continuing). Sometime shortly after I moved to Maquoketa, I picked up Einstein’s popularizations of his theories of relativity, and from that reading came this poem (misappropriating his phrase for my title), also inspired by watching morning TV—once I had gotten a television set (tiny old black-and-white model) about a year after I moved to town. This poem is also pretty standard in its sentiments (and noticeably not as good as the first one, by the way; don’t feel awkward if you notice its certifiable juvenilisms).

a practically rigid body of reference

There’s a poetry
in the televised motions
of winter dawn pedestrians
on Today in New York City.

A music unwinds
in the electrical conversations
between the hemispheres
in this cranium
which cross-connected see
no princesses in denim
nowadays: girls
cruise in Camaros and
love imbeciles.

(laughter never makes a mystery
and beauty doesn’t cry.)

The sun’s not rising, rather
the streets twist
to the east,
as that mediocre star
shoots somewhere through deep space.
An egg exploded: proteins
should not think.

A rhythm flatters itself
all night all day,
iambic lies.

9 January 1979

I’m not proud of this one except for little pieces, a turn of phrase here and there. I like the first stanza for both its simple observation and the sounds that express it, and the first five lines of the second work in ways I would improve over the year or so ahead. The rest is really trite, and I have no idea what woman or girl or whoever I might have had in mind for that remarkably puerile lack-of-observation which ends stanza two. I almost cut out the parenthetical lines but decided to be honest about my former self (and I sigh with shame). The fourth stanza kind of works, but it’s still immature. And the last stanza leads toward a place I explored better and less obviously in poems to come. However, as a document of what little effect my reading could actually have on me, there it is.

For tomorrow, mostly because it will be easiest, let’s return to the third part of the as-yet-untitled horror story…

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