A Tale of Two Coaches

Durham, NH.Image from Wikipedia

I don’t know anything about Nationwide Insurance except that they have a great slogan these days: Life comes at you fast ™. I like the slogan despite its obvious grammatical failings.1 I’ll go further and add that some life events come at you faster than others.

One of the fastest life turns I ever had to make was my transition in 1973 from the military to grad school. There wasn’t a lot of geography involved because Pease Air Force Base where I did my military service was only about 10 miles from the University of New Hampshire. There wasn’t a lot of time involved either because I left the military in mid-January and started at UNH early in February. But, culturally speaking, the move from one institution to the other made me feel as if I had traveled to another planet.

I was a teaching assistant in the Freshman English program, charged with helping 26 members of the class of ’76 to improve the way they expressed themselves on paper. In those days the program was directed by Don Murray, a master teacher, accomplished writer and all-around force of nature. The rules in the program were few, but they were set in stone. Two stood out in particular. One of those is for another posting, but the other was that any student who submitted plagiarized work failed the course. Period. No exceptions.

The teaching methods Murray advocated are the norm now, but they were radical 35 years ago. In keeping with his methods, for example, I held an individual conference with each student every week. The student would bring his or her week’s writing (1,000 words minimum) and would sit in my tiny office in Hamilton Smith Hall while I read through the paper and responded on the spot. I was a little shaky at first, but after a few weeks I began to develop some confidence.

At the same time, I was making other discoveries about the academic life. I learned, for example, about “review copies,” books that publishers would send to academics for free. Books that real faculty members didn’t want would find their way to the faculty lounge where they were available to teaching assistants who might want them.

One book I picked up was a collection of essays about writing and teaching writing. The book was my introduction to Joseph C. Pattison’s classic How to Write an “F” Paper. In the essay Pattison lists a dozen or so common writing faults, using the named faults to describe themselves. Writing teachers still use the essay because it is clever, engaging and memorable.

The anthology sat on the shelf in my office when the freshman hockey player in my class showed up for his weekly conference. With obvious pride he handed me his week’s work, a piece entitled How to Write an “F” Paper. I swallowed hard and handed the paper back to him. Then I took the anthology from the shelf.

“Follow along,” I said, “while I read from this book.”

I expected a strong response from the student but not quite the one I got. “This is impossible,” he said. “It’s absolutely impossible!” He knew he was copying the essay, he explained, and he had done so because a hockey trip had taken longer than he expected and he had run out of time. But the essay had come to him (apparently without attribution) from his high school English teacher. He thought his teacher had written it, so that he was copying from an unpublished source 300 miles away. In short, he thought there was no chance he would ever be caught.

Murray’s plagiarism rule, however, had no hockey trip or errant teacher exceptions. A few days later, the freshman hockey coach called me. I had heard stories about the lengths to which coaches would go to keep their players eligible, so I was astonished when the coach said, “You did the right thing. When they can’t perform in the classroom, I don’t want them on the ice.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. This story should end right here, but it doesn’t.

Five years later I was a teaching assistant at a university in the Bible Belt that I won’t name for reasons that will become apparent.

I had taken Don Murray’s freshman comp rules with me to the new school and spent some time explaining them to students at the beginning of each semester. When the plagiarism problem came around this time, the student was a freshman basketball player whose girlfriend was writing his essays for him, and finally passing them in for him in her handwriting. Once again I found myself giving a student the hard word, but this student’s response was different. “You’ll be hearing from the coach,” he said and stormed out of my office.

When the call came in, I found that this was an altogether different sort of coach. “Son,” he said, “I guess you don’t understand who you’re dealing with here.” He was right about that. This coach apparently felt that the sole purpose of the university was to protect his athletes’ amateur status until they could be drafted into the pros, and that it was somehow my job to keep his player eligible. At the end of the semester, he saw to it that the F the student deserved and received from me was magically transformed into a gentleman’s C. In that freshman English program, there was no one like Don Murray to back me up or to put the thumb on a coach who was way out of line.

I didn’t complete my degree at that university, and the coach’s wretchedly corrupt behavior was part of the reason. I didn’t like being called “Son,” and I didn’t like his open contempt for academic work. Grad school is too much work to do at a place you can’t respect.

1 Yes, “fast” should be an adverb, but the slogan writers were in a jam here. There’s no such word as “fastly.” Quickly, rapidly and speedily don’t work. Phrases like “at high speed” or “at a rapid rate” are just wrong.


Two Coal Shovels in the Garage

I guess most people don’t use coal shovels these days, particularly not for shoveling snow. The shovels in my garage, however, have been a part of my life for a long time. Having been made to handle coal, these shovels are practically indestructible. They will outlast me.

The shovels date back to 1963, the winter and spring of my junior year of high school. I was what is known these days as a “latchkey kid.” My parents both worked and I went home to an empty house after school. That was good and bad, generally, and the stories I might tell about that are for another time.

Today, as a late winter storm covers us with snow and slush yet again, I found myself thinking about a storm in 1963. It snowed a lot, enough that the streets weren’t cleared by the end of the school day and the walk home from school was difficult. The storm must have started in the morning, because school wasn’t canceled on account of it, and everyone had gone to work. By afternoon, it was becoming apparent that getting home from work would be difficult.

I hadn’t been home from school very long that afternoon when my father telephoned from work. The fact that he was on the phone got my attention. He probably didn’t call home from work three times in all the years I lived at home. He hated the telephone, and he used it only when he was really fired up about something.

It this case, he was fired up about shovels. On the phone, he told me we needed new snow shovels. The shovel he’d been using wasn’t much good and had to be replaced. Actually, he said, we needed two new shovels because it was going to take both of us, him and me, to clear all of the snow out of our driveway.

He wanted me to get the shovels and to start clearing the driveway so that when he got home he wouldn’t have to park on the street. There was no arguing with him.

Getting the shovels meant walking downtown to a hardware store where my father knew everyone and had credit. I put on the hat, coat, gloves and boots I had just taken off and went back out into the storm to get the shovels. I must have been grumbling every step of the way.

It was about half a mile from the top of the hill where we lived to the store. When I got there I found that the old man had telephoned the store as well. The shovels were waiting for me. Coal shovels? Yep, said the man in the store, that’s what your father said he wanted. Heavy gauge steel shovels with steel-reinforced oak handles. Shovels you can use to chop at snow and ice without breaking them. Shovels made to last a lifetime and beyond.

Dad and I used those shovels together that day and every time it snowed until 1968 when I got married and left home. As a sort of man-to-man housewarming gift for the apartment Marge and I set up as newlyweds, the old man gave me one of the shovels.

He kept the other one and used it right through the last snowstorm in the spring of 1994. He died the following summer. When my mother sold the house and moved in with us in 1996, the old man’s shovel came with her. Since then the two shovels have been reunited in our garage. I can’t tell now which one my father gave to me in 1968 and which he kept.

But every time it snows, I pick up one of the shovels and I think of him. If he were here right now, he’d be telling me it’s time to get out there and clear the snow. He’d be right, too. The driveway is a mess. Fortunately I have just the tool for the job.

Why James Lee Burke Will Never Run Out of Material

I’ve been a James Lee Burke fan for years. He writes page-turner novels, what some people call “brain candy,” but the thing about them is that they are way better written than they need to be. I particularly like his novels set in New Orleans. I’ve even developed a wary sort of fondness for his New Orleans hero, Dave Robicheaux, Cajun detective, loving father, impulsive and sometimes violent problem drinker, and magnet for over-the-top personal tragedy. For example, Robicheaux’ wives die, all of them. I think in real life women would notice a pattern there and refuse to have anything to do with the guy. But in the novels, the pattern exists only if you read all of them as a long single narrative. And I’m the first to admit that I don’t know much about New Orleans.

I grew up in a hardscrabble paper mill town with a large Franco population, so the Cajun names of Burke’s characters don’t seem strange to me. The plot twists in the stories and the traits and behavior of a lot of the characters always seemed to me to be wildly exaggerated–not that I have a problem with that in the interests of a good story. And anyway, as I said, I don’t know much about New Orleans.

Today, however, I read the obituary of Al Copeland, New Orleans native, entrepreneur and founder of Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken. What a life. Follow the link and read the obit for yourself. You won’t regret it. If anyone knows of anyone else whose life includes a divorce which resulted in the divorce judge’s going to jail for side deals on the outcome of the divorce, please let me know. As an attorney, I handled divorces here in Maine for more than ten years, and it never occurred to me that such a thing would even be possible.

Anyway, my view of James Lee Burke has changed, as I realize that I know a lot less than I thought I did about his ability to make things up. He’s probably making up a whole lot less than I thought. His real gift may lie in his ability when he walks the streets of New Orleans to understand that he really is seeing what he seems to be seeing—sort of a cross between urban America and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Guilty Pleasures and Difficult Memories

I’ll come right out and admit it: I read Carolyn Hax every single day. Before her, there were Ann Landers and her twin sister Dear Abby. Of course, Dear Abby still exists, but the pen name has passed to a new generation. It’s just not the same. I’m sorry, but there it is.

The result is that Carolyn Hax is now my everyday guilty pleasure. Her target demographic, I am told, is women under 30. I happen to be male and over 60. It matters not a whit. I’m not female, but I was once under 30. And I have interacted with women nearly every day of my life.

As a reader, I like Carolyn’s just-short-of-bitchy tone. I like how opinionated she is (especially since she is so often opinionated in the same ways I am). I like that snarky little smile in the photo that accompanies her column. I like how smart (and smartass) she is.

It’s pretty likely we wouldn’t get along very well in real life, what with trying to work the same turf in every conversation and all. But no problem. We aren’t on each other’s Christmas card lists.

This week Carolyn has turned her column over to pinch-hitting readers, and today’s first letter–on the subject of infertility–stopped me cold. Marge and I don’t dwell on it these days, but in the early years of our marriage infertility defined us. Elizabeth, our only child, was born a few days after our twelfth anniversary. She was (and is) a miracle in our lives.

Our “fertility workup” (as the doctors called it) went on for nearly eight years. The emotions that build up during such a time are intense, and their power is cumulative. In the future I may decide to tell some of the stories from those years, but my point today is that it is not only women who suffer over infertility.

Nor does it matter whose “fault” the infertility is, except to the extent that male fertility is vastly more simple than its female counterpart. With men, the little guys are alive and swimming, or they are not. The “workup” doesn’t involve much or take very long. You may not like the answer you get, but at least you have your answer quickly. Female fertility, by contrast, is a hall of mirrors hidden in a labyrinth.

Near the end of our “workup,” we learned that Marge’s sister was pregnant. We were happy for her and her husband, but we wept for ourselves. The tears came again and again, and they were always tears of grief for the children who never were.

For Marge and me, of course, the end of the workup was a successful pregnancy. Other couples are not so lucky and must learn to embrace the stark alternatives, adoption or childlessness. Our workup ended in 1979, but even now, when I talk to anyone who knows what it is, I am never far from tears and the memory of tears.

The Poets Agree to Be Quiet by the Swamp

The title comes from the poet David Wagoner. Here is the poem in its entirety:

They hold their hands over their mouths
And stare at the stretch of water.
What can be said has been said before:
Strokes of light like herons’ legs in the cattails,
Mud underneath, frogs lying even deeper.
Therefore, the poets may keep quiet.
But the corners of their mouths grin past their hands.
They stick their elbows out into the evening,
Stoop, and begin the ancient croaking.

I keep coming back to this poem, at least once a year since 1974, when I first discovered it in an anthology I had purchased for a grad school course. Truth be told, I didn’t enjoy the course very much, but this one little poem made the whole thing worth it.

Of course, what can be said has been said before! Who could think otherwise? But what do I care when what can be said has not necessarily been said by me!

Yes, the poets may keep quiet! That is every poet’s right. But what writer (even yours truly, the humble blogger) hasn’t thought, “I love this story. I’m going to tell this story again. There must be somebody who hasn’t heard me tell it!”

Hence the tagline of this blog. I know a few good stories. I’ve been telling a lot of them for a long time already, but please, please, don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one before!

And there we gol Suddenly my mouth breaks into a grin I can’t hide. I stick out my elbows as I stoop over the keyboard. I start to type and, before I know it, I have begun the ancient croaking.

Frogs, poets and bloggers sometimes agree to things they don’t mean.

Grapefruit and Good Friday

When I was a kid, they always served grapefruit at the Good Friday Breakfast. The event was hosted by the Eastern Star, an auxiliary Masonic organization in which my mother was active in those years.

The breakfast started early; they were serving people by 6:00 am. So every year my mother would get up at around 4:00 am so that she could arrive by 5:00 am at the Masonic hall where the breakfast was held. The hall was a suite of second floor rooms, including a kitchen, located above a department store on Main Street. Mom didn’t drive at that time, however, so everyone had to be up–my father to drive her to the hall and me to go along for the ride because they didn’t want to leave me home alone.

It made for a strange morning. I usually liked to keep out of my father’s way in the morning because he tended to be grumpy. On Good Friday, however, we were bleary-eyed companions. We’d drop Mom at the hall and return home. The old man would sit at the kitchen table and drink cup after cup of instant coffee until just before 7:00, the time he liked to go to the breakfast. Dad and I often didn’t have a lot to talk about, and I was always grateful when the morning paper was delivered early enough for him to read before we went to the breakfast.

The breakfast itself, however, was good. The menu included pancakes (rare at our house) and waffles (unknown at our house) in addition to the eggs and oatmeal that were inescapable at our house.

They also had grapefruit, and this presented three problems. The first was generational because it neatly illustrated my growing suspicion that grownups were impossible to deal with. The serving line was the grapefruit gauntlet.

The woman standing behind the little plates with the half grapefruits would ask if I wanted some. If I answered no, she would invariably say, “Well, I bet you’d like it if you tried it.” If I answered yes, she would say, “Are you sure? Most kids don’t like grapefruit.”

The second problem arose only if I was actually able to secure the grapefruit. I’ve learned in subsequent years that the civilized way to serve grapefruit is to take a knife to it first and separate the little sections so that the thing can be eaten easily with a spoon. But the ladies of the Eastern Star didn’t do things that way. They would simply cut the grapefruit in half and plop in on a plate. I didn’t know about taking a knife to it because no one told me to do that and I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out on my own. So I’d start stabbing at the grapefruit with my spoon. The juice would squirt out unpredictably, sometimes at me and sometimes at the people around me. Either way, I would attract unflattering comments.

Problem number three arose only if I was able to get some of the grapefruit or its juice on the spoon. The stuff tasted awful to me. I mean, it’s fruit, right? Fruit is supposed to be sweet, right? Not grapefruit, at least not this grapefruit. It was as sour as vinegar. No wonder we never had it at home.

I wonder now why no one suggested that I put some sugar on it. I also wonder why I never asked what the connection was between breakfast and Good Friday or what was “good,” for that matter, about Good Friday.

Kids ask a lot of questions, but I guess no kid ever asks them all.

On the Fifth Anniversary of War

I wrote what follows in August of 2003, when it seemed the Iraq War had already gone on too long, when it seemed inconceivable that five years after the invasion our government would still be following the same delusion with the same blind devotion.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

Vachel Lindsay

I spent half an hour the other day talking with a veteran of the Korean “police action.” Now more than 70 years old, he retains that melancholy loathing of war that veterans of all wars should be able to understand and that Vachel Lindsay captures forever in his image of the ghost of Lincoln. walking the earth in his native Springfield, Illinois, unable to find rest until the world is at peace.

In the twenty-first century, wars are begun and waged by leaders who don’t have much trouble sleeping. The place in their hearts where wisdom and compassion should reside is filled instead with icy certainty that no amount of death, sorrow and human misery can dislodge. In their view of the world, it doesn’t matter how badly one is in error, so long as one is never in doubt. Religious men all, they pray to a tiny, bellicose God, a God much like themselves.

It wasn’t that way for Lincoln or for his God. Lincoln was a giant in a role now filled by a stunted moral bankrupt. The Civil War broke Lincoln’s heart, even as he knew where his duty lay and somehow found within himself the resolve to do it.

These days, the ongoing war doesn’t trouble our President’s easy smile. His face is unlined and his gaze steady, even as more and more young Americans are sent off to die in Irag, a country most of us could not readily have found on the map a year ago.

Meawhile, the ghost of Lincoln sadly walks. The old veteran and I share something of his sorrow.

The Cycle of Fourths

I was having a cup of coffee with a musician friend of mine when the old Cat Stevens song Baby, It’s a Wild World began to play in the background. My friend remarked that the chord structure of the song was pretty much straight out of the 17th century. As Stevens sings, “But if you wanna leave take good care, hope you have a lot of nice things to wear…” the harmony of the song moves through a part of what is called the cycle of fourths.

If you follow the cycle all the way, it will take you through every possible musical key and bring you back to where you started. In modern terms, one example of the cycle, starting on A, can be represented like this: A → D → G → C → F → B♭ → E♭ → A♭ → D♭ → G♭ → C♭/B → E → A. It’s a common feature in music back at least as far as the Renaissance, but it had to begin somewhere.

I found myself imagining a musician centuries ago plucking the strings of an ancient instrument and somehow discovering the cycle. Picture the musician, hearing the discovery but scarcely believing it, playing through the cycle again and again and again and again.

At first there would have been no way to talk about the cycle. The vocabulary didn’t exist. For another thing, the cycle doesn’t work unless you “regularize” the tuning of the instrument. You can see the “regularization” at work in the string of keys I listed above. Any violinist will tell you that C♭ and B are not really the same note. But they are very, very, very close. If you use what is called a “well-tempered” tuning on an instrument (the way a modern piano is tuned) the cycle works. To most people, it sounds good.

I imagine the ancient musician rushing to other musicians and playing through the as-yet nameless wonder again and again. “What is it?” they would ask. “How do you do that? What is it for? Will you teach it to me?” These are the same questions musicians always ask each other, usually about tiny details, but on a few wonderful occasions about magical discoveries that change music forever.

God Bargains with the Irish

Apparently it is astronomical fact that Easter will not come as early as this year again for more than 200 years. That should mean that it will be a long time before we see the peculiar bargaining around St. Patrick’s Day that we have witnessed this year.

Our local Roman Catholic Bishop, concerned that St. Patrick’s Day revelry would be unseemly during Holy Week, offered the faithful a bargain: forgo getting drunk for St. Patrick on Monday the 17th and, in exchange, eat meat with impunity on the 14th, a Lenten Friday. You can almost hear the voice of a grateful Irish parishioner, “‘Tis only me great love o’ the Lord Jaysus makin’ me get drunk of a Saturday night instead o’ waitin’ for the Monday.”

The religious connection gives me a whole new appreciation of the old Jimmy Buffet lyrics:

Cheeseburger is paradise.
Heaven on earth with an onion slice.
Not too particular, not too precise.
I’m just a cheeseburger in paradise.

But what would Jimmy do about St. Patrick’s Day this year? Well, as any Parrothead is likely to know, forgiveness can be had on Tuesday for what might be done without permission on Monday.

Still Not a Millionaire

My mother-in-law Betty sometimes expresses the view that I ought to audition for the TV show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I think that’s because I seem to be able to answer many of the questions most people find difficult or obscure. I watched a few minutes of the show with her today and got a good example of what’s really going on.

I was way ahead of one contestant right from the start, blurting out answers before the answer choices were even displayed. Then came the question that stopped me cold. It had to do with a recurring sketch character on a late-night talk show. I was dead in the water.

I know a lot of things found in books, but I almost never watch TV. I spend a lot of time online, but I almost never go to the movies. I’m a singer and jazz fan, but I almost never listen to the radio. The result is that I have a head that is full of uncommon knowledge and surprisingly lacking in what most people consider common knowledge. I doubt I’d make it to the million dollar question on TV. An ordinary question having to do with TV or movies or sports would trip me up.

If I were running for political office (I’m not, thank you, Jesus) that could be spun as “out of touch with ordinary Americans.” That’s what happened to George H.W. Bush in 1992 when he was caught on camera in a supermarket and it became clear that he’d never seen a grocery scanner before.

I always thought Bush was shielded from common knowledge by his money, but maybe it’s really his disposition. It’s certainly not money that keeps me from turning on the TV.

But for that millionaire TV show, I’d need to find a popular culture junkie ready to take a phone call from Meredith at the critical moment. Hmmmmmmmm…..