It was in Low Moor that I had my first affair of the heart.
Recently, I took my 12-years-old Honda Accord to the dealer to have a dead headlight and a failed brake light replaced. The technician said it would take about an hour, so I just turned over the key, and retired to the customer waiting area, which had comfy sofas and chairs and a big screen TV. I took with me some writing materials because I wanted to work on a few details for my fourth Thomas O'Shea novel, Of Mists and Murders, details I hadn't ironed out yet, in my iron head.
An older woman soon joined me, asked if I would care if she turned on the TV. I was fine with that. The lady, who looked like an octogenarian Hobbit, settled into a sofa and began watching "The People's Court," a show I had never seen before. It was distracting, but I worked hard to ignore the peculiar people on the tube. What was even more distracting was that the local advertisers for the show looked like twenty-something blondes with Barbie figures enhanced by implants. And they were advertising for personal injury local lawyers. Every single ad had the same kind of woman, whose feet never get wet in the shower, promoting one lawyer or another who really, truly, cared about me.
The aging Hobbit had zoned out, staring at the screen, mouth slightly open, nearly catatonic, taking it all in. I fought off my tendency to be judgemental, ignoring the court cases, sneaking a peak at the commercials. If I ever need a personal injury lawyer....
GOOD NEWS ALERT! I now have my very own website! From now on, you can catch my blogs and lots of other information about my work, and me a little, at www.johncarenenwrites.com.
For that, I am entirely grateful to my Book Concierge, Rowe Carenen, and David Garrison, genius website guru. Come see!
For all practical purposes, I have finished the "big" novel I've been writing to you all about. Thirty-eight chapters ast it turns out, thoroughly reviewed, critiqued, and edited by my stellar book concierge, and studied by my writers group, "The Write Minds." I enjoyed writing the book, enjoyed the several revisions, enjoyed the outcome of the story that has redemption in it for a very troubled protagonist. Now the hard part sets in, the "corrosive self doubt" that I wrote about earlier that all writers feel. It isn't any good. It might be good but no one will want it. Is it the best I can do? Did I waste my time? What will my 6th grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa think of it?
Something even harder begins now, and that - finding an agent. I published my first two novels, and the third to come, without an agent. So, why do I need an agent for this book? Because there is a whole business side of publishing that I know nothing about and that my current publisher does not pursue. How to push the book. How to get rave reviews. How to boost sales. How to expand author's rights into foreign sales, getting into big bookstores, even movies. How to, I tremble to mention this, how to make some money at my craft.
I have writer friends who have written wonderful novels and can't get published. I have writer friends who got published but have made less than $500 in royalties over two or three years. I have writer friends who despair and give up, but I'm not doing that. I wrote a good book. I hope to find an excellent agent who will boost my career.
I will keep you posted, dear readers.
I have conversations with my chair. You need to understand this is not an ordinary chair. This is a new chair that my long-suffering wife, Lisa, bought for me on the sly, assembled herself, and set it before my computer. It is a beauty, and it knows it. Sort of like Lisa's self-absorbed cat, Bernadette.
Anyway, it is a wonderful chair and it invites me to sit in it and write.
"I am comfortable, John. Here, come sit and write."
"I know you're comfortable, but I'm busy procrastinating right now," I say.
"I am adjustable up and down."
"I can go round and round, spinning like a top. It's fun!"
"I know that, too," I say.
"I can rock."
"I agree, you definitely rock, being comfortable, adjustable, and spinning-capable," I admit.
Most days, this new chair does not need to entice me. Most days I am motivated enough that I go there willingly, without conversation. Like today, as I write this, and prepare to send it on to my book concierge, Rowe Copeland.
But now it is time to get up and attend to some chores, yet I hesitate, afraid to hurt its feelings. You see, the chair has taught me to say, "I appreciate you" whenever I get up and go away for a while. And after I say that, it responds with, "You're welcome, John. See you again. Soon." This reality makes me nervous. Makes me think of Hal, the computer, in Stanley Kubrick's epic film, "2001, A Space Odyssey."
The voices are similar, soft, mellifluous, easy on the ears. Hypnotic.
Maybe I'll stick around and write something more. Another blog, a letter to my congressman, a note to an old friend. Surely I can come up with something to keep me in the chair. I mustn't make it angry, it is so comfortable. One could get lost in its lovely contours. Maybe I'll just rest my eyes for a moment, maybe doze off, perchance to dream, to dream, to . . .
I was driving around the other day, not lost yet, and saw a business that announced "Industrial Gaskets" and I wondered, where did that idea come from? I mean, when asked as a child, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" imagine this, squeaky little voice and earnest facial expression: "I want to have an Industrial Gasket store!"
It set me to wondering what happens to lead people into different capacities as adults; I mean, do children want to grow up to be podiatrists, mattress salespeople, septic tank specialists?
I wanted to play professional baseball. For the Red Sox. Left field. I gave it up when, at the age of 15, I realized I couldn't see well enough to distinguish between the rotation of a curve ball and the spin of a fast ball. Two pitches that didn't break on two consecutive at-bats resulted in two beanings that drove the point home. But at least I got to first base, although they had to point me in the direction. Explains a lot, I think.
Then I wanted to be a writer, but why? Maybe it was the positive attention from my friends for writing grisly, warped-humor poems in high school. More likely, it was a creative writing teacher when I was a senior who encouraged me, and still does. Maybe it was the fun of making things up that people liked.
So that's what I am now - a writer. Pretty happy about that. I would've made a lousy industrial gasket guy.
Recently, my friend and colleague, known as "profmondo" on his excellent blog that I heartily recommend, wrote about the passing of his 1st grade teacher, and what a profound influence she had on him. I encourage you to read that blog, and all of his blogs at www.profmondo.wordpress.com. His blog brought to mind my favorite teacher. On our trip last week to the Midwest, my wife and I took her to lunch. We had a great time, too. She is in her 80's, has had two knee replacements, and walks without even so much as a limp. The following words are about her.
For me, the beginning of each year never started on January 1st. It always started when the new school year began because that was when things started to happen; new grade, new teacher, new challenges, new hopes and dreams. It is still that way with me. The new year begins when the schools open their doors, and when I think of that reality I cannot help but think of her.
When I was in the early grades, I was afraid of Miss Cook. She taught 6th grade at Hawthorne Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa, and I knew she was waiting for me. She waited patiently for all of us to come into her classroom. She was tall and strong and certain of right and wrong with a gaze that could freeze a twerpy little perp in mid-misbehavior and make him wish he were someplace else, like the bottom of the Mississippi River a few blocks east of the school. I was afraid. Of Miss Cook.
She coached softball, basketball, and track relay at Hawthorne, and was a better athlete than any of us. She decided who played and where. Her decisions were final and fair. On fly balls and pop-ups at softball practices she would shout, "Two hands while learning, John!" because one time at practice I tried to showboat with a one-handed grab like Vic Power of the Cleveland Indians. And muffed it. I was afraid of Miss Cook. In basketball she told us there was no good excuse for missing a layup. No good excuse for not making four out of every five free throws. In the track relay, to whomever had the baton, she would exhort them to do their best with cries of 'Dig! Dig! Dig!' I did not want to disappoint, so I did all those things she told us to do, because I was afraid of Miss Cook.
In the classroom she expected us to learn what was taught. We had spelldowns for spelling, science, literature, and geography. Sometimes the sides were chosen randomly. Sometimes it was the boys against the girls One individual winner, one victorious team. Mistakes led to our own embarrassment that led to working harder that lead to success. It was clear. We did not want to act or sound stupid. We were afraid of Miss Cook.
Every year in December Miss Cook's class designed, drew, and painted Christmas scenes on the tall windows of her northeast corner second floor classroom. Our year we drew a Christmas train and painted it in bright colors, a different gift-laden car for each window, and placed spotlights behind them so people who drove or walked by at night in the cold air and crunchy snow, turned blue and sparkly in the moonlight, could see what Miss Cook's class had done. We took pride in our effort and we took satisfaction and felt relief when she said, "Class, good job!" because we were afraid of Miss Cook. In those deep Iowa winters, we would hang around after school sometimes and, from ambush, throw snowballs at the teachers as they left the building, then hide. We never threw snowballs at Miss Cook. We knew she had a better arm and more accuracy than any of us. We were afraid of Miss Cook.
After sixth grade we went on to Washington Junior High School and then Clinton High School and then colleges and universities and jobs all across the nation. We became teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, bankers, professors, and writers. And in the back of every one of our minds, where fundamentals such as honesty, hard work, respect, and diligence lived, somewhere there we wanted to do well because Miss Cook would be pleased and if she were pleased, well, that was a good thing. A very good thing. We wanted to be decent, honest, productive, and smart because if we weren't we would have reason to be afraid of Miss Cook.
And so I was afraid of Miss Cook for a very long time. We all were - her students. But as we grew older and put on weight and added silver hair and wrinkles and experience, and became husbands and wives and parents and grandparents, and lived and died, we began to realize that we weren't really afraid of Miss Cook any more.We discovered that we had edged into respect and honor, and then, finally, into, well, you know.
Miss Cook is retired now, married, and living just a few houses from where Hawthorne School once stood, where she once stood. The school itself was torn down a while back, a casualty of shifting demographics. But she still stands, in her retirement more enduring in her work than the school's bricks and mortar, windows and stairs.
She sent me a clipping, through a classmate, about Hawthorne Elementary School being pulled down. She thought I would be interested. I am decades older now and she remembered me from sixth grade. I think she remembers us all.
I love Miss Cook.
It's not often that one's labor of love is also his profession. I am in that position now (finally!) as a college professor and soon-to-be-published novelist (more on that in my next post). But I've always had great expectations about what path my life would take, what I would do for a living. When I was a little boy, I dreamed of growing up and riding a black stallion here and there, righting wrongs. The saddle and all the tack would be black, I would be dressed in black, my hat and holster would be black, My Colt .45 however, would have a pearl handle. As I got older, I realized that perhaps my fear of horses might impact my career. In addition, I wasn't sure how I would be paid, other than by sweet kisses from rescued damsels.
Then I decided I'd grow up and play left field for the Boston Red Sox. But when I was fifteen and playing for the Pony League Athletics, my batting average plummeted once I was introduced to the curve ball. Maybe my (uncorrected) 20-120 vision had something to do with that. In any case, I moved on. Then I thought maybe I would be a basketball star. That didn't work out, either.
In real life I have worked on an oven in an auto parts factory, shoveled out chicken houses and harvested grapefruit on an Israeli kibbutz, stocked shelves in a Southern California liquor store, served four years in the Air Force (ours) here and abroad, and worked with troubled adolescents and their families. I had a morning paper route, I detasseled corn in Iowa, worked as a bar back in an officers' club in Germany, and wrote newspaper columns.
But now, praise God, I am a full-time college professor and loving it. I enjoy working with colleagues I love, and students who are usually entertaining in a variety of ways. I have plenty of time to write, and I use it to do something I enjoy more than anything else - putting stories on paper.
In my next posting, I will share with you a little bit about my novel, Signs of Struggle. For now, I just want to thank you for reading curlylarryandme and hope you tell others if you like what you find here.
Her name was Eleanor, and I loved her. It was a secret love and sacred, a love from afar, ardor aflame. I decided to reveal my feelings to her, and more. I would propose marriage, an act I did not take lightly, and I chose a soft summer night to ask for her hand. My family lived in a village, Low Moor, in eastern Iowa. And I first saw Eleanor in church and was stunned when she took my hand in greeting when we were introduced, smiling a glorious smile, her blue eyes pouring into mine like liquid love as she tossed her head happily, blonde curls swaying about her alabaster shoulders exposed by her cheery sundress.
“So nice to meet you, John!” she said, my name upon her luscious lips.
I was speechless, stunned mute by her beauty and vivacity. I believe I grunted. I know I blushed. I could feel the heat flooding into my face. But she was charitable over my non-verbal response and said nothing. Another reason to love her.
On the night I was to declare my love and ask her to marry me, I took a bath, dressed in my Sunday clothes, clipped on a bow tie. I said good night to my parents and strode the two blocks to downtown Low Moor, which consisted of a general store, gas station, lumber yard, post office, and meeting hall for the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs. There was also a barbershop open on Thursday nights, and all day Saturday. I went inside and got a haircut.
As the barber, Mr. Samuelson, finished up and brushed hair off my shoulders, he asked, “Special occasion, John?” I nodded and jumped down from the padded chair. Then I paid and hurried out the door, turned left, and walked three blocks to Eleanor’s house.
She was going off to Iowa State University in the fall, but until then, she was still living at home in the big white frame house with the wraparound porch festooned with flower baskets. Green shutters framed the windows. It was dark now, and beyond Eleanor’s house vast fields of corn grew in the humid black loam. I could smell the rich earth. I could hear crickets. I could see fireflies winking in the dark. Sheet lightning flashed across the sky, matching my passion, as if God Himself were taking pictures of my quest.
I paused at the sidewalk leading to Eleanor’s porch, a good thirty feet from the front door with its giant oval of beveled glass. What if her parents answer the door? What if she isn’t home? What if she laughs at me? What if she hears my heart, now pounding passionately in my chest?
Determination overcame fear. I ignored the part of my fevered brain that told me no one would ever know my mission if I just went home. Maybe another time would be better – she’s not even expecting me. Go back! Go back!
I stepped forward. One step, a second, a third step and more, up to the front porch steps. I don’t remember crossing the veranda to the front door. Perhaps I merely floated, or simply swept across the gray-painted floorboards, but I did arrive. The doorbell, her doorbell, had a little amber light behind it, a warm color on a warm night for a warm heart.
I peered in, and there she was, alone, recumbent on a sofa, book in hand, reading next to a tasseled lamp. She was elegant in repose, a princess on her divan.
It occurred to me that someone should be fanning her with peacock feathers. She stretched languorously and I felt my throat thicken. I stared, mute, thinking about fleeing before I made a complete fool of myself, yet rooted to the spot like a possum on pavement. Then it occurred to me that she might look up and see me before I could ring the bell! She would think I was a Peeping Tom, a nutcase! Alarmed out of my trance, I stabbed a finger at the doorbell. A soft chime followed, and Eleanor rose. She flowed to the front door.
She opened the door, then the screen door, holding it open, and said, “Why, hello, John. What a nice surprise. Won’t you come in?”
She’d asked me in! I never thought of that! What would I do? Say? “No,” I said. Eleanor smiled and stepped out on the porch, nearly brushing up against me, sending me into bliss by her mere proximity.
“What can I do for you?” she asked, her right hand reaching out to rest on my left shoulder. My mind nearly collapsed at the touch of her hand. Eleanor’s hand! My shoulder!
I drew upon every ounce of reserve of mind, willpower, and commitment to my mission. I said, “Eleanor, will you marry me?”
It was out and done, the question I had longed to ask for months, my love revealed to the one loved in the sticky-warm Iowa night on Eleanor’s front porch now fragrant with her scent. My relief was palpable. I had done it. The burden of declaration was delivered.
She smiled. A good sign.
“Why, thank you, John,” she said, her musical voice filled with kindness and interest. “That's a very important question for a boy to ask a girl, and I’m flattered, but don’t you think we should take some time to think about it?”
She did not say “No.” She did not laugh or smirk, grow angry or insulted. She was “flattered” and she wanted to “think about it.” There was hope, and it filled my chest with joy. I said, “Okey-doke,” turned, and walked away down her sidewalk. I turned again and saw her still standing there, a glorious silhouette in her doorway. She waved, and I waved back.
I floated home that night, the happiest five years old boy in the whole state of Iowa.