What I Did on My Summer Vacation, by Prof. Mondo, Age 55

I’m back in my office in Mondoville, after spending a week in Terpville visiting the Spawn and her Main Squeeze. It was the first time that Mrs. M and I had gotten together with the girls since Christmas, and was just the thing after both Mrs. M and I had taught extra summer courses.

We took a different route than we had in the past. Mrs. M typically handles bookings for our trips, using the standard travel search engines. However, it hadn’t occurred to us until recently that a well known low-fare airline doesn’t use those services, and a bit of digging revealed that the airline in question flies out of Greenville-Spartanburg (GSP) to Baltimore-Washington (BWI). This saved us an hour’s drive each way compared to flying out of Charlotte, and the flight was less expensive than many we’ve taken before. When we added in the fact that the flights were nonstop and that there were no charges for checked baggage, it was a win all the way around. It’s really handy having a hypercompetent wife.

So last Wednesday, I drove us up the Interstate to the airport. I dropped Mrs. M off at the terminal with most of the baggage and made my way toward the airport’s long-term parking lot. I found a space and was walking to one of the lot’s shuttle stops when my phone rang. It was Mrs. M, who had just discovered that the shuttle stop was fool’s gold, as the shuttle wasn’t running, a casualty of COVID. Oops. So I hopped back in the car and parked in the more expensive garage, but at least I’d be able to make it to the terminal in short order, even with my gimp knee.

We checked our baggage, got our boarding passes, and went off to play TSA Theater. At least Mrs. M got to. I, meanwhile, was told there was an unspecified issue with my pass, and was sent back to the ticket counter. The agent took a look at my pass (or more accurately, at whatever information the pass evoked on his computer.) A second agent joined him, and said, “I think I see the problem.” She pointed at the screen.

The first agent said, “Who booked your ticket?”

“My wife.”

“How long have you been married?”

“It’ll be 28 years in October.”

“And she still doesn’t know you’re male?” Some of those pull-down menus can be sneaky. But they got me squared away, and my second trip to the security checkpoint was uneventful. Thank goodness. I hate going through those checkpoints. Because I’m big, clumsy, and slow-moving even under the best of conditions, I always feel like I’m slowing everyone down. That makes me nervous, and in turn that slows me down even more and makes me feel like I’m getting in everyone’s way. But in fact, I made it to the gate and found Mrs. M, with time to send a snap to Terpville.

Because we flew peasant-class, we were separated on the flight, the higher-priority passengers having chosen their seats before we had the chance. However, another passenger was kind enough to give me his aisle seat and moved to the middle. I appreciated it, and made sure to give him as much room as I could.

Upon arrival at BWI, we caught the shuttle to the rental car terminal, where we were told there would likely be a two-plus-hour wait for the car we had booked. As you probably know, the rental car industry took a big hit from COVID, and many of the rental services had liquidated much of their fleets. Of course, now that demand is returning, shortfalls in vehicle supply are pinching a bit. Fortunately, the desk agent’s estimate was premature, and I had just enough time to drink a soda and split a bag of party mix with Mrs. M before it was time to mount up and plunge into the maelstrom of Maryland traffic.

In the half-hour or so it took us to get to the Spawn’s place, we had two or three near-death experiences, most notably when a truck with a flatbed trailer passed us on the shoulder and pulled into the gap in front of us, despite the space being Tetris-small. That’ll teach us a lesson about leaving a reasonable distance between vehicles, I guess — namely that we shouldn’t, because no one else will. There were also several spates of horn-honking, but we weren’t sure they were directed at us. But we survived, and even picked up a few items at the local supermarket before we reached chez Spawn.

We stayed with the Spawn and Main Squeeze for the first half of the trip. Their place reminded me (as it always does) of the scruffy apartments from my own grad school years, but the girls keep their place much tidier than I ever did; they not only have a carpet, but they vacuum it regularly. O tempora; O mores! Indeed, their tidiness meant there was room for the air mattresses that Mrs. M and I used while we there. That meant, of course, that there was significantly less space in the living room than usual, but having been a source of clutter for much of my life, I welcomed the chance to be the clutter. My evening was rounded off by a meatball sandwich and fries from the local Greek deli.

The next day, the ladies went out to visit some thrift stores, and dropped me off in the Hyattsville Arts District. My first stop was at My Dead Aunt’s Books, which shares space with a vintage clothing shop. The young woman who owns the shop/s and I chatted a bit — she writes science fiction, and has a wonderfully eclectic range of books. She also told me the store just evolved naturally from her own interest in vintage style, and it seems to be thriving. Go entrepreneurism! I found a paperback copy of G.M. Ford’s first Leo Waterman novel, and then made my way up the street.

The whole week was pretty sticky, so when I saw what appeared to be some sort of restaurant/bar, I thought I’d stop for a snack and/or beverage. That’s how I discovered Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery, and General Store. As it turned out, in addition to the craft ales and such that one finds in these places, Franklin’s also makes a really excellent root beer. As root beer is among my favorite drinks, this made for a serendiptous stop indeed, and their ice cream sundae also makes the place worth a visit.

Partially demolished sundae — vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and caramel sauces

The next stop was at Busboys & Poets, where I picked up a copy of Camus’s The Stranger for my shelf. I was also delighted to see my friend Shaun Cosby’s Razorblade Tears on the shelves, as one would expect of a New York Times Bestseller. It’s really great to see good people succeed. That’s where I was when I met up with the girls, and from there we went back to the apartment, ordered out for some Korean BBQ and dumplings, and relaxed for the evening, talking, reading, and enjoying being together for the first time in months.

The Spawn and Main Squeeze had work to do the next day, so after breakfast (including a tasty shakshuka that the Squeeze prepared for us and some challah bread the girls had made the previous night), Mrs. M and I drove around the campus and the surrounding neighborhood, looking at houses we are highly unlikely ever to afford. We’re particularly fond of the neighborhood known as University Park, which also happens to be the home of the late James M. Cain, one of the fathers of noir fiction (and an influence on the Camus novel I mentioned earlier). No wonder I dig it. At the other extreme, it’s also where Jim Henson grew up. Go figure. The town also includes a historic district, and has a nifty stock of early and mid-20th-C. architecture. We did notice that more than a few houses in the area appeared to need some rehab, and it reminded us that being “house broke” doesn’t necessarily involve where pets use the bathroom. But there are lots of lovely houses there, and it looks like a really lovely place to live. That evening, Mrs. M and I went to the College Park Diner, which is a fine example of its type. I had a roast beef Manhattan and mashed potatoes for the first time in years, and it was exactly what I wanted it to be. I told Mrs. M that it was the sort of place and cuisine that belongs not just in a college town, but in a movie set in a college town. Recommended.

The four of us decided that Saturday was a good day for visiting Ikea. I’m always happy to go somewhere that has both recliners and meatballs, and the ladies seemed to have a good time as well.

The Spawn and Squeeze practicing a potential future

Sunday was moving day, as Mrs. M and I migrated to a hotel for the remainder of the trip. But even more important, it was the Main Squeeze’s birthday, so we headed up the highway to have Sunday lunch with her mom and dad — the first time the four parents have gotten together. We gathered at the Montgomery County location of Founding Farmers, a restaurant owned by a union of farmers in North Dakota, and carrying the idea of “farm-to-table” over a longer distance than usual. We all seemed to hit it off, and I think I can safely say that the Squueze’s people are good company. A good time was had by all (and country-fried steak was had by me), and we didn’t even notice until Monday that the Main Squeeze’s wallet was missing. But more on that later…

Later that evening, Mrs. M and I got settled into our room at the Holiday Inn, and while we love being around the girls, we had to admit it was nice to give everyone a little more room. I know that a lot of people like to jeer at the sameness of chain hotels and such, and I certainly have enjoyed some independent places, but another way to look at that sameness is to think of it as reliability. There’s a certain comfort and security in knowing there will be a clean, safe place to stay at a reasonable price. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the good things to which we’re accustomed.

And when the hotel has easy meatball access, it’s even better.

We had talked about going to DC on Monday, but honestly, we were having such a nice time with the girls and wandering around the neighborhood that we decided to just stick around with them for most of the day — they were the reason we came, after all. We did find time to get away for a bit and try some Thai-style ice cream, made on the spot with condensed milk on superchilled metal plates.

The superchilled condensed milk is peeled up in strips.
Add syrup, M&Ms, and whipped cream, and voila!

Later, I was able to make it back to CDepot, the used media shop I had discovered last year near the apartment. I bought a couple of albums from Toronto roots-rockers the Sadies, and then Mrs. M and I had a really good dinner at the Chinese restaurant next door. The girls, meanwhile, were searching the apartment for the Squeeze’s wallet, to no avail. They called the restaurant, but that was unsuccessful as well.

Tuesday was our last full day, so Mrs. M and I hit a thrift store, where I found a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of her Wolf Hall trilogy. I read the first book last year and had been looking for a copy of Bodies at used bookstores since then, but had missed out until now. Thanks, Value Village! From there, we hung out with the girls, trying bubble tea, visiting a comic store, and wrapping things up with dinner at an iHop near the hotel and dreading the hassles that accompany the loss of wallets. We dropped the girls back at their place and went back to the hotel.

That’s when Mrs. M said, “I think I’ll call the restaurant we all went to one more time.” So she did, and sometimes the Universe lets you roll a seven. Yes, they did have Ms. Squeeze’s wallet, and yes, they’d be open for a while longer. Mrs. M drove over, picked it up, and went to the girls’ place for our version of a going-away present, which was met with much acclaim and relief. Like I said at the very beginning, it’s good to have a hypercompetent wife.

Yesterday morning we swung by the apartment onw last time before going back to BWI to catch our flight home. Unfortunately, as I stepped off the shuttle bus from the rental car place to the terminal, something happened. I don’t know if I misstepped, had another fit of my usual awkwardness, or if my knee buckled, but I wound up in my traditional crumpled heap on the pavement between the bus door and the sidewalk. I have a knack, I tell you.

But at last we made it back to GSP, and from there to Mondoville, sore knees and all. Apart from my demonstration of the effects of gravity and/or arthritis, it was a terrific trip, and we’re already thinking about getting back up there this fall.

But for now, I’ll leave you with one of the songs I bought the other day. From their 2007 album New Seasons, here are the Sadies, with “The Trial.”

See you soon!

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Monday Afternoon Potpourri: Mondoville’s Wild Kingdom

Turned in my summer grades yesterday, and I’m trying to clear my head of the unpleasantness that marked Teaching in the Time of Corona, preparatory to re-entering the classroom this fall. As part of the head-clearing, I spent part of the afternoon writing a letter of rec for one of the better students I’ve had in recent years, which helps. Meanwhile. . .

***

Although we’re only a short walk from campus, the Mid-Century Mondohaus is also in close proximity to a stand of scrub woods. We also have our own share of trees and such on our property, which occupies about an acre-and-a-half. Consequently, we get occasional visits from Nature’s rich pageant. I’ve spoken in the past about the encounters between the Hound of the Basketballs (PBUH) and raccoons and possums, but in recent weeks, we’ve hosted a few itinerant deer, and quite a variety of birds along with our usual supply of squirrels, rabbits, and such.

But the big news here was that a couple of weeks ago, a pair of birds — either Carolina Chickadees or Carolina Wrens (I’m not ornithologically savvy enough to judge, but Mrs. M thinks they’re the latter) — found a storage shelf in a corner of our garage suitable for nesting. Mrs. M discovered the nest, and saw that this wasn’t a mere vacation spot, but rather a starter home, as evidenced by four speckled eggs, which hatched in due course. Of course, since the Spawn now lives in Terpville, this gave Team Mondo the chance to reactivate our parental anxieties. Would the chicks thrive, or might one fall out of the nest, or worse yet, might the nest be raided by a neighborhood cat?

We made a point of following the Prime Directive, peeking at the goings-on from a couple of feet away, with Mrs. M keeping a photographic record. Along the way, she discovered someone else’s online diary of the development of some chickadees, which gave us something of a basis for comparison. And as it happened, the process came to an upbeat conclusion, as the nestlings have grown, and as of this afternoon, evacuated the premises. Mrs. M’s photo diary fills us in:

Better than Sea-Monkeys!

So all’s well that ends well, and I have to say — they were excellent tenants, even if they got the place for cheep.

***

In other news, the College is moving forward into the past, having received approval to begin offering graduate programs, the first of which will begin this fall. As the previous sentence implied, this is not the first time that Newberry has offered post-baccalaureate degrees, but since our most recent one was awarded in 1928, there’s a reasonable chance that this is a first in living memory, anyway.

Of course, being the person I am, I happily mentioned that at least one previous holder of a Newberry Master’s claimed to have eaten human flesh, but I suspect our incoming post-grads will likely be less colorful — the new program is through the business department, after all.

***

I recently got caught up (or nearly so) on Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series, having read the six novels currently available in the US. Duffy, a Catholic detective in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the Troubles, is a terrific character (and I’d say that even if we didn’t have similar tastes in music), and his voice is funny and engaging. I’m eagerly anticipating the chance to read #7, which McKinty informs me will appear here whenever the publisher gets round to it. May that come soon.

***

I’m getting back behind the drum kit later this evening, and remain hopeful of taking the stage by late autumn. Along the way, I continue my eclectic and eccentric listening habits. Recently, those have led me to Seattle-based Dana Countryman. Mr. Countryman’s most-heard work may be a piece he did with Jean-Jacques Perrey, which appeared during an episode of South Park. But in recent years, he has specialized in vocal pop music, with an emphasis on the vibe of late 60s-early 70s AM-friendly songs.

I’ve previously mentioned my affection for the band The Red Button, who plow a furrow similar to Countryman’s, so it’s no surprise that I’m enjoying his work as well. As a bonus, I discovered that he has collaborated with Klaatu’s Dee Long and Terry Draper, both of whom know their ways around smileworthy pop songs. A really fine place to start would be Dana’s most recent album, 2020’s Come Into My Studio. While in a sense it’s a work of pastiche, I would contend that the album’s sincerity keeps it from being mere pastiche; more accurately, I’d describe it as a really good album that just happened to get its release delayed by about 50 years. (And given his name, the fact that he calls his publishing company “Friends Romans” is just a bonus.)

This track is from an earlier album, but it gives you a real taste of the work he’s doing, and darn it, it just makes me smile.

Hope you smiled as well. See you soon!

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“Far from the Mandarin Crowd.”

I’ve mentioned this before, but academically speaking, I’m something of a dinosaur. A leading figure in my field read my dissertation in 2002, and said that it would have been state-of-the-art forty years earlier. She didn’t mean it as an insult (and indeed, I took it as a compliment — when I’m discussing works and ideas that are 400+ years old, what’s 40 years or so of critical attitude?), but simply that I approached my subject in a manner that was then (and remains) unfashionable. Likewise, one of the members of my dissertation committee referred to me as “the last of the New Critics.” (As it happens, I see myself as more of a Frygean, but YMMV.)

As part of the Ph.D., I had to take a couple of classes on literary theory. The set-up was rather lopsided: the first semester basically covered Aristotle to Frye. The second semester covered trends from the mid-1960s and after, and was, as the prof put it, “where bad Continental philosophy goes to die.” I enjoyed both courses, and did well enough. But on the final exam for the first semester’s course, an essay prompt mentioned the recent death of the editor of the anthology of criticism we had used. Was Bate’s rather humanistic approach to literature and criticism equally moribund? You won’t be surprised to learn that I attempted to refute that hypothesis, and suggested that some of my peers and I might carry the idea of Bate and his ilk at least a little farther, even if only at the Mondovilles of the world. And I think I’ve done — and am doing — my part.

But where I’m going with all this is that we recently lost another important, if unfashionable, critic in the person of Denis Donoghue, who died on 6 April at the age of 92. At The New Criterion, Adam Kirsch looks back on Donoghue’s career, and there were several bits in it that rang true to me.

Take the essay “Beyond Culture,” in his 1994 book The Old Moderns. Here Donoghue examines what he calls “the refusing will” as a theme in modern literature—the sense that life in society offers no worthy objects for the spirit, so that there is no choice left for the sensitive individual but withdrawal.

[…] The refusing will is a literary idea, but Donoghue knows that it has profound social and political implications. […]What is apolitical isn’t Donoghue’s mind, but his conclusion: that withdrawal from society is a valid human and literary stance. Aestheticism has its own morality, which—like religion—assigns a higher value to the inner life than to social and political life.

But the refusing will is unacceptable to Marxist-inspired critics—Donoghue’s example is Frederic Jameson—who believe that literature must always be engaged with and against society. “Jameson attacks any literature or art that practices Impressionism, subjectivity, Symbolism, metaphor, aesthetics, unity of tone, the autonomy of individual life and individual consciousness. They are in collusion with the enemy,” Donoghue observes.

Marxism makes a political demand on literature; so, in their different ways, do deconstruction and criticism focused on race and gender. These critical approaches, which have dominated English departments for the last half-century, do what Donoghue warns against in “The Political Turn in Criticism”: “they compromise the literature they read by subjecting it to a test of good behavior. They defeat the literature in advance.” The critic who approaches a text with a moral-political yardstick makes clear that he doesn’t intend to learn from it or be changed by it.

Kirsch also makes what I think is an interesting response to those who would denigrate the refusing will as a benefit of privilege:

[I]t’s worth remembering that Donoghue was the son of a Catholic policeman in Protestant Northern Ireland, born a long way from the mandarinate. The same is true of Leavis, whose father was a Cambridge shopkeeper, and Trilling, the son of an immigrant tailor in New York. All were outsiders to the academic-literary establishment. That may be why they were so serious about literature, which for them wasn’t an heirloom or pastime but a deeply democratic experience of beauty and truth. 

I will not delude myself by ranking myself in such rarefied company. But like them, I was not to the academic manor born, and in my dinosaurish way, I think I try to carry on the passionate devotion to literature that Kirsch describes. I have been faithful to literature, Cynara! In my own fashion. And I hope Prof. Donoghue would have approved.

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Happy Independence Day, 2021

No, our nation isn’t perfect — nor will it be, as it’s made up of people. But its promise is greater than that of the nations that preceded it, and it’s still the place where much of the world dreams of living. We have not always lived up to our ideals — and there will doubtless be failures in the future as well. But at least we hold ideals, and accusations of hypocrisy and debts unpaid only matter to us because we respect the ideals enough to feel guilt when we fall short of what we want to be.

Happy 245th to the United States. I’m glad to be here.

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There But For The Grace of God…

Go I.

I’ll be honest enough to acknowledge that I am less a collector than an accumulator, staying a tiny bit of serotonin and a long-suffering wife from being a hoarder.

Having said that, I’ll say that I came by this honestly. My maternal grandfather’s garage was the stuff of legends, with items ranging from old newspapers that predated the house by a decade to two entire 1958 Ford Prefects in various states of dis/assembly. (During the early-to-mid 80s, my dad tried to put them together into a single working vehicle. It ran for about 100 yards one afternoon, but eventually we wound up selling it to a guy who said he had a car museum in the Smokies. This may in fact have been rather like “the nice farmer who takes in badly situated family dogs,” but I’ll accept the fiction.

Likewise, Dad’s book-a-day jones meant that there was stuff to read in every room in the house, and in areas like the garage and semi-finished basement in Nashville, plenty to spare. Factor in garage sale purchases like the complete five-foot shelf and nearly two decades of Reader’s Digest, and I developed a certain comfort with having books around. (It’s worth noting that while my house was sometimes cluttered, it was never dirty. Before she got really sick, my mom kept the house so clean that you could do brain surgery in the kitchen. In that respect, the odds and ends may have worked to avoid a sense of sterility.) We weren’t exactly minimalists, is what I’m saying, and that’s true of me even now.

When students stop by my office, they’re frequently startled by the shelves of books and CDs there. Really, I don’t see them as superabundant, but on the other hand, the kids really aren’t as accustomed to dealing with physical media as I am. Admittedly, some may find things like the three different CD releases of each of Klaatu’s major-label albums to be a bit much, but the mixes and mastering are different. Likewise for the duplicate copies of various Beatles albums (although I don’t have the mono versions. . . yet). Well, you understand, right? RIGHT?

Likewise with the books. I do have some that probably qualify as collectible — signed copies and such, as well as some that are rather hard to find — but I’m really just as happy to have what would more commonly be called “reader’s copies” that I picked up at one used media place or another. In fact, I may be happier, because those tend to be less expensive.

That way, I can buy even more books. But don’t tell Mrs. M — she already puts up with a lot.

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Merry Blockmas!

Yes, it’s Mr. B’s 83rd birthday, and it’s also the publication/shipping date for A Writer Prepares, his memoir of his apprenticeship as a writer, from his teen years to the publication of the first Evan Tanner novel. Yes, he’s received pretty much every award his peers and fans can offer him. Today, however, I’d like to add to the celebration from my viewpoint as a teacher.

I initially encountered Larry’s work not through his novels or short stories, but through his books for writers. During the 1990s, F+W Publications, Cincinnati-based publisher of (among other things) Writer’s Digest, would have an annual warehouse sale late in the year. My dad discovered it first, scarfing up art books from the stock. By this time, I was working in Cincinnati myself, for a (sort-of) rival publisher, but I still harbored hopes of becoming a writer of fiction, so Dad brought me along to the next warehouse sale, and that became a regular part of our holiday shopping until I returned to graduate school.

I scooped up a slew of books on crime and mystery writing in particular, but some others on the art and craft of writing in general. One of the latter group was Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, by Mr. Block. I also ran across his Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web. I didn’t know if any of them would be particularly helpful — or if anything at all would be particularly helpful, for that matter — but the books were deeply discounted, and well, one can never have enough books, right?

But as it turned out, the books really were (and remain) helpful. I took a lot of creative writing courses in my first run through grad school — it was a way to keep my GPA where it needed to be as I wandered through academia and the Lexington music scene. I do value those classes, but while they (justifiably) focused on the artistic end of things, there really wasn’t much on the craft of what we were doing. What made a scene work or not work? How can you use dialogue to tell your story? And that stuff matters; even when Dylan Thomas spoke of his “craft or sullen art,” you’ll notice which he mentions first.

But these books were practical approaches to writing as a craft, looking at the nuts and bolts of getting the right words and ideas onto the page in the right order. There wasn’t the emphasis on the whiteness of the whale that had marked a lot of the workshops I had attended in the previous years. (This shouldn’t be a surprise — several of the books were collections of El Bee’s columns on fiction writing at Writer’s Digest.) This isn’t to say that there was no attention to the sullen — or even cheerful — art. There’s always going to be some of that when we deal with the imaginative, I think, as there should and must be. But the books struck me as eminently useful. On top of that, the column/chapters were typically short and entertaining even as they informed. They were good reads. They still are.

A couple of years later (still in Cincinnati, but not long before we moved to Muncie), I discovered the Matt Scudder series at a bookstore just off Fountain Square, and became a fan in short order. Oddly, it took me a little while before I made the connection — probably because I had thought of the non-fiction work as textbooks, and unless you’re an academic (which I wasn’t at the time), who remembers the authors of textbooks? But eventually, I put the pieces together.

And so, years later in Mondoville, when the time came for me to teach some classes in fiction writing, I started using Telling Lies and Spider with my students. And they loved the books for the very reason I did. This was stuff that answered the how-to-do-it questions they had as they started to take steps toward creating fiction.

By the late Oughts, I had taught from the books a few times, and had seen how much my kids had valued them. Since that sort of thing means a great deal to a teacher, I thought I might try to pass the news along. By this time, the Web was a thing, and sure enough, I found that LB had his own space there, so I wrote what amounted to a thank-you note, letting him know how much the kids had appreciated the books, and why they had. I wrote a brief e-mail and sent it to the address at the web page, figuring that some intermediary would read it and life would go on as usual, but at least I had put something positive into the world.

Who knew the guy read his own e-mail? Well, I didn’t, but within minutes he had sent a gracious reply. As it happened, the college was starting a visiting writer’s program, and what with one thing and another, in 2010 our freshpeeps read Eight Million Ways to Die and LB same down to talk to them about the book and about writing in general. A few years later, he mentioned an interest in doing a residency at a college somewhere, and my chair and I managed to lobby the administration into making that happen. He taught a fiction writing course to a selected group of our writers and English majors, and guess what?

They adored the class, and they adored him as well. Before the term was over, some of them had approached the regular faculty and asked if they could run a workshop along the same lines even after Larry had headed back to NYC. Folks, that just. Doesn’t. Happen, at least in Mondoville. But it did. The kids were learning and growing as writers, and at least one of them has gone on to thank LB for getting him to take something besides his sport seriously.

One afternoon during all of this, Larry, my chair (and fellow crime writer) David and I got together for a videotaped discussion about LB’s time in Newberry.

Along the way, Larry said that David and I are teachers, whereas he is simply a writer. He may want to think of himself that way, but he’s also a heck of a teacher, and I’ve seen it both within and outside the classroom, in books and in person, whether he wants to admit it or not.

Happy birthday, Mr. Block. Here’s to many more.

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So It’s Father’s Day. . .

. . . but the Spawn is still in Terpville, where she and the Main Squeeze are visiting MS’s folks. And that’s okay — I’ve already received an HFD text and will have a Discord chat with her this evening, and Mrs. M and I will be heading up to see her in less than a month.

One of the odd things about fatherhood, I think, doesn’t really happen until your own parents are gone. Suddenly, you’ve become The Old Man in your line, something like a patriarch, the repository of whatever paternal wisdom is available. In this case, God help the Spawn. But as I said on Twitter and the Book of Faces this morning, whatever good I have been and continue to be as a dad, I learned from mine, incomplete as my learning may be.

I’ve noted before that my dad was a lot of things over the years. He saw himself as whatever was necessary to get the job done. And he was right, whether it was serving as Mayor (and occasional city janitor) of Union, KY, swapping out the transmission on a buddy of mine’s car, refurbishing a houseboat, or becoming one of the very first Certified Information Systems Security Professionals in 1994 or so. He also played (and built) guitars, banjos, and other stringed instruments, and was a sufficiently skilled hand drummer to have earned an ovation at his high school talent show (where he also earned the debate medal.)

But the thing he most wanted to be was an artist, and he was for much of his life, even as he did all these other things. I think he saw himself that way internally, although it also frustrated him because he didn’t ever think he was as good as he wanted to be. He painted on a regular basis into the 1970s, but basically stopped that after we moved to Northern Kentucky and after Mom was diagnosed with MS in Fall of 1978. Depression runs in my family, and I honestly think that was a factor as well, although it wasn’t ultimately diagnosed until a few years before he died, around the time of my brother’s first criminal trial. Whatever the case, he essentially stopped painting after we moved north, confining his art to woodworking and luthiery.

But today, I thought I’d share some of the paintings and drawings he did. The first one is the one that appears in From Sea to Stormy Sea, the anthology that contains my story about fathers and sons.

Homage to “Les Fauves”, Acrylic on Canvas, 1975
Tauromachia, Oil on Canvas, 1962
Untitled Still Life, 1962
Hardison’s Mill, Tennessee, Pen-and-ink, early 1980s
Boats in Winter, Acrylic on Canvas, 1976
Transcendental Yoni, Acrylic on Panel, 1975?
Two Trees, Acrylic on Canvas, 1977-8?
Untitled Pen-and-Ink, 1974
Title Currrently Unknown, Acrylic on Canvas, 1961-2. Collection of Douglas R. Vaughn

Wherever you are, I hope you have a Happy Father’s Day.

See you soon.

Posted in Culture, Family, Why I Do What I Do | 4 Comments

And Speaking of Beatles Stuff…

I’ll be among the many wishing Paul McCartney a happy birthday today as he turns 79.

I’ve mentioned before that the first rock and roll I remember hearing was Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It for the Money and Absolutely Free when I was three or four years old. However, another track I remember from my little kid days was Macca’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” which hit Number 1 on the Billboard charts a few weeks before my sixth birthday. Oddly, I have no recollection at all of the “Uncle Albert” part — all my childhood memories of the song start with the trumpet riff. I didn’t even know about the first section until I was in fifth grade or so.

I began to take music seriously in fourth grade when I discovered the Beatles, thanks to an article on the McCartney death hoax that attracted my morbid interest (even as a nine-year-old) and my friendship with Michael Dearing, who introduced me to “I Am the Walrus,” which connected to my taste for the weird. Ever since then, the Beatles have been a major part of the soundtrack of my life. I can remember asking my sixth-grade English teacher what he thought about the band’s work. He said he didn’t think they’d stand up to Cole Porter’s (which meant that I had to learn about Cole Porter — education takes a variety of forms). In retrospect, he had a point, but I still think that fifty or even a hundred years from now, one might do better to put one’s money on the kid from Liverpool.

For a good while, it was fashionable to downgrade Paul’s work for its sentimentality, occasional corniness, and relative disengagement with the various agons of the post-Beatles era. This was particularly true when people compared his work to that of his former partner John Lennon. Of course, these days, we recognize that much of Lennon’s radicalism was somewhere between calculated and posed, and an album like Some Time in New York City is a spectacular example of selling one’s birthright for a pot of message. Throughout the decades, however, McCartney has continued to write and experiment with musical styles and a wide array of collaborators, from Elvis Costello to Youth and Kanye West. While he may be the guy who wrote (and writes) “Silly Love Songs,” he’s also continued to put his work into the world on his own terms, and occasionally paying perhaps a bit more attention to the outside world than we might have noticed.

And at this point I haven’t even mentioned the fact that along with John Entwistle, McCartney redefined the role of the bass guitar in popular music. Every bassist who has stepped beyond playing roots and fifths or has come up in the mix owes something to Paul, whether consciously or not.

I’ll wrap this up with my favorite of Paul’s compositions. “For No One” is a track from Revolver, still the greatest album of the rock era for my money. The finished version is perhaps best remembered for the wonderfully mournful French Horn solo by Alan Civil (a performance that in fact took the instrument to notes outside its normal range, challenging even a musician of Civil’s caliber.) In any case, it’s my favorite song of Paul’s, and to realize that he wrote and recorded it when he was 23 is to remind us of how quickly he became brilliant.

So happy birthday, Paul. You’ve brought a lot of beauty to a lot of people’s lives, and you’ve given them moments that have made them smile or cry.

Nice work, that.

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Degrees of Separation: Update/Addendum

In the post immediately preceding this one, I established that as a musician, I am four degrees of separation from the Beatles. However, Michael Dearing points out that he was in a one-shot band for a TV show that included the late saxophonist Bobby Keys. While Keys is best remembered for his work with the Rolling Stones, he appeared with a huge variety of rock royalty, including work with George and the solo on John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.” This then gives Keys a B=1, and if we count the TV band, then Mike Dearing bumps up to B=2. That gives Carl Groves two different routes to B=3, but it also bumps me to B=3, and any of my other bandmates over the years (such as the Mad Dog, for example) to a B=4.

As Dearing himself notes, his link to Keys is something of a gray area. While I have no problem assigning Keys an RS (Rolling Stones) value of 1 along with his B=1, the question arises of whether the Dearing/Keys nexus suffices to give Mike a B=2. Obviously, judgments of this nature are going to be somewhat arbitrary, so in the best tradition of professors from time immemorial, I leave that solution to the interested student.

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Degrees of Separation

Some years back, there was an uptick of interest in what was known as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” The game/concept was to take some actor, and by looking at films s/he had appeared in, and then looking at the casts of those films and those casts, making connections through films and casts until we found a film that included Mr. Bacon. Indeed, there’s a website that will do the heavy lifting for you, allowing you to discover, say, that Elmo Lincoln (first man to play Tarzan) is only three degrees removed from Mr. Bacon. (Lincoln was in Birth of A Nation along with Donald Crisp, who was in The Long Gray Line along with Betsy Palmer, who was in Friday the 13th with Mr. Bacon.)

Somewhat less known is the Erdos Number. The late Paul Erdos was an astoundingly prolific and peripatetic mathematician, authoring or co-authoring more than 1500 published papers. For example, a friend of mine is a math professor. His dissertation advisor co-wrote a paper with Erdos, giving him an Erdos Number of 1. If my friend were to co-write a paper with his advisor, my friend would then have an Erdos Number of 2. If I then were to co-author a paper with my friend (an exceedingly unlikely proposition, but humor me here), my Erdos Number would be 3. And so on.

Such concepts as the Erdos Number or the Bacon game (which also expresses in a Bacon Number — in the example above, Mr. Lincoln has a Bacon Number of 3) have been described as measures of what is called “collaborative distance” between the parties involved, and can be applied to a wide variety of fields. Allow me to demonstrate and have a bit of fun.

Consider the Beatles. For our purposes, we will assign John, Paul, George, and Ringo (and Pete and Stu, but that won’t mean much) a Beatle Number of zero. Alan White was a member of the Plastic Ono Band, and played drums on John’s album Imagine, giving Mr. White a Beatle Number of 1. (Incidentally, he also appears on George’s All Things Must Pass set, so we could do it that way, but chacun a son gout.)

Mr. White is probably best known, however, as the drummer for Yes since 1972. This gives the members of Yes (post-1972) a Beatle Number of 2. Yes has had a lot of members over the years, most significantly for our purpose, a singer named Jon Davison, who has been a member since 2012. Yes recruited Mr. Davison from another progressive rock band called Glass Hammer, giving the members of Glass Hammer Beatle Numbers of 3.

As it happens, a musician named Carl Groves has done the Grover Cleveland bit with Glass Hammer, serving as vocalist with the band from time to time as well, including (critically) an overlap with Davison in 2013. (Did Carl and Davison ever share a studio or stage? I dunno, but if it’s good enough for Wikipedia…)

In the above picture (from the spring of 1978), Carl is the guitarist at left. In the center, Michael Dearing is on bass, and the kid playing bongos behind them? Ahem. I’ve collaborated with Carl (and Mike) on a variety of occasions over the years (although I don’t think any of that work has seen release), and as evidenced above, have been in at least one band with him. I therefore claim for myself a Beatles Number of 4.

This in turn means that the other members of such groups as The Berries and the Groovy Kool have Beatles Numbers of 5.

Now I realize that all of this is statistically equivalent to claiming descent from Charlemagne, but I have to admit that I get a small charge out of the knowledge that there’s a connection (however tenuous) between the music I do and that of the greatest band in rock and roll history. We really are all in this together.

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