Monday, March 26, 2007

The Sweet Scent of Magnolia Blossoms


The saucer magnolia next to my house has started to bloom. Whereas some of the other saucer magnolias in Leavenworth are in full bloom, the one in my yard, which is shaded during part of the day, has some unopened buds, still. When I was a graduate student at Kansas State, an Asian international student asked me to identify the saucer magnolia in bloom next to Eisenhower Hall. I had no idea what it was.


Every Tuesday and Thursday that semester I was sitting in Ben Nyberg’s fiction workshop, with my back to the window that opened onto this magnolia. The undergraduates that semester were putting their childhood fears into fiction; one of the stories described an elderly woman living in a concrete house with concrete furniture, including a concrete bed, so that the creature under the bed wouldn’t get her. It got her anyhow in the last sentence, as I recall. It took me a while that semester to begin writing stories. I hadn’t written fiction since junior high. My first one addressed nine months in twenty-two pages. My next two addressed an interior conflict in fewer pages, the last one addressing the sexual tension between a married woman and the visitor who was spending a few days with her and her family. It was an adulterous liaison that could have been and one the main character regretted not having once he said his goodbyes.


The Bradford pear trees in bloom have made downtown Leavenworth particularly picturesque. Last weekend, during the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the overcast sky and temperatures in the 40’s made the day seem a bit Irish, minus the requisite shower. These trees bloomed just a few days later, surprising me at least.


Northeastern Kansas and western Missouri are particularly pretty in the spring. The redbud trees will be in bloom next. I haven’t yet been able to identify the bushes ablaze with yellow blossoms. I keep asking myself why I haven’t planted any of these bushes in my yard.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Quartet of Shorts

I recently managed to donate about thirty composition readers to the local library for its biannual sale. Serving on a textbook selection committee made me realize that it serves no purpose to hang onto readers that were published more than a year ago. Before spring break at one of my schools began, I culled through my old textbooks to see what I could get rid of. I tend to save all of the textbooks that I have used in my classes; it’s a habit that results in a lot of clutter. Believe it or not, I still have too many books and need to go through some of my older rhetorics and handbooks when I have time. It doesn’t make sense to have three copies of the St. Martin’s Guide to Writing, two copies of Successful Writing, and two copies of the Simon & Schuster Handbook for Writers.

When this semester ends, I may finally pay for my lifetime membership to Library Thing. I’ll only be teaching three sections this summer instead of the four sections that I have been teaching for the last three years. It might be possible to devote some time to cataloguing my books during the summer. What I first need to figure out is what books I have already added to my free account. Instead of concentrating on one genre when I added two hundred of my books, I recorded a cross section of my books, that is, some of my poetry titles, along with history titles, jazz discographies, and nonfiction set in the Great Plains—books that represent my current interests.

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Since I added the Site Meter to my blog, I have discovered that the Red Moon Café appears in search engines fairly often. Apparently, there are actual Red Moon Cafes in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, and sometimes the searcher decides to click onto my blog when intending to investigate one of those restaurants. I hope those of you who happen to drop by like what you see. You might want to consider investigating some of the older entries here. You are also welcome to leave me a comment once in a while.


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In an effort to enjoy the warmer weather, I ate outside last week on two occasions. My son and I decided to order from Taco Bell on Wednesday and took our food to one of the local parks situated on a hill overlooking Platte County in Missouri to the east, the only mall in Leavenworth to the west, and within earshot of the trains hauling hoppers emptied of coal northward. A couple of days later, my wife and I packed a picnic dinner for us and our son and one of his friends before we drove to a secluded spot on the edge of town, allowing us to get a great view of the setting sun. It doesn’t take a whole lot of planning to enjoy the outdoors.


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Unfortunately, I am behind in my grading and have four sets of essays to grade this week. Sometimes I wish I had taken a more conventional path when I was younger so that it would be possible to retire in the next year or so. My son's principal mentioned last week that she will be retiring in another year and moving to South Padre Island. I'm envious.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Elements of Style and Writing

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, I discovered recently, is rated at number sixty-two by the National Review on its list of The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Century ; it’s rated at number twenty-one on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books. This rating is surprising because of a glaring error early in the book when the authors say that when adding the word that in front of a quoted sentence, it is necessary to eliminate the quotation marks. That practice might have been acceptable when the book was first created; that practice now would lead to charges of plagiarism. I admit that the Elements of Style offers some good advice. It helped me in honing my prose many years ago. Perhaps the best advice I found in that book is the dictum regarding writing naturally. When I began writing essays in graduate school, I used the same writing voice that I had cultivated in my journal. I sought to be clear as possible and to avoid adopting a tone that I thought my professors wanted to hear.

A few years ago, one of the schools I teach at required that the students in the first-semester composition course purchase the Elements of Style, in addition to two other texts. I was fortunate enough to get a cloth edition as my instructor’s copy; my paper edition then made its way to the local library for the biannual sale of used and discarded books.

I no longer record events, impressions, thoughts, and feelings in a journal. That practice stopped in graduate school, mostly because of the absence of time. My journal once made it easier to articulate what I was thinking. Oddly, it even helped in foreseeing events that happened within the next few days, such as my getting fired from a proofreading job in Connecticut. I still have the twenty or so bluebooks that I filled up, plus the seven or eight black and white composition books, stored away somewhere. I think I also still have the copy of Delacroix's journal, which helped to establish the guidelines for my own journal entries. My writing gradually become more spontaneous, once I listened to what I had been telling my students and learned to write without an immediate concern for what appeared on the page. That lesson was the most difficult one to learn.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Remembering Cities and Noise

I have known a handful of cities. When I was younger, a city offered a variety of places to go and things to see. I used to seek out cities, too, when I wanted to educate myself in those things that I hadn’t yet known. When I was studying literature and art, I made a trip to London to see the Dante Gabriel Rossetti paintings, and the other Pre-Raphaelites, at the Tate Gallery and the French Impressionists at the National Gallery of Art. When I wanted to discover serious films, I moved to San Francisco to learn more about Truffaut, Fassbinder, Wertmuller, Buneul, and Scorsese. Overall, I have visited London, Belfast, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City, Topeka, Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York and have lived in Istanbul, San Francisco, Wichita, and Hartford, Connecticut. Although I would like to take my kid to some of these places for a visit, I don’t see myself living in a large city ever again.



As someone strongly sensitive to noise pollution, I prefer those quieter places now. Probably my worst encounter with noise occurred in Hartford one night around midnight when the city suddenly began jack-hammering the street in front of my apartment. The noise continued all through the night, making it nearly impossible to sleep. I eventually dragged a pillow and blanket to the hall by my door, the farthest I could get from the noise, and maybe got one or two hours of sleep before I had to go to work the next morning. At the time, I was proofreading church bulletins for a small publishing company. I also had the misfortune of living a couple of doors down from a 24-hour donut shop in Hartford, at the intersection of New Britain Avenue, Washington St., and Bernard St., and often tractor trailers (semi trucks) would pull up and leave their engines running. The pizza shop in the building next to mine remained open until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. and the delivery guys, in a rush to make their deliveries, would roar down the street. Some of the local teens carried their boom boxes with them, ensuring that everyone else could hear their music. Most of my sleeping problems began in Hartford. Although I eventually moved to the back of my building and faced the Institute of Living, an expensive psychiatric hospital, my environment didn’t become much quieter. My downstairs neighbor belonged on the other side of the brick wall as a patient. Sometimes she used to bang on the ceiling when I rolled over in the bed that I had created on the floor, using camping pads and blankets. Apparently, the floor was no more than plywood or some equivalent material.

Wichita, apart from the traffic, was relatively quiet at first when I lived on North Oliver, near Murdoch, and on Poplar Street, off of Douglas. Once I moved to East Clark St., in the south part of Wichita, I was plagued by the noise of dogs. The neighbors a couple of houses away had a dog that often barked through the night. The owners were either deaf or were oblivious to the noise their dog created. Eventually, someone with two Doberman pinchers moved into a duplex down the street from mine and let her dogs bark constantly, leaving them chained up both night and day. This kind of noise was extremely disconcerting. I was attending college and wanted nothing more than a quiet place to read and write. This noise drove me to the library at Wichita State on Saturdays. At night, I learned to generate white noise by letting a fan run while I slept, making it possible to ignore some of the noises in my neighborhood.



My environment in Leavenworth is not as quiet as I would like. If it were possible to suddenly move, I would find a quiet place near the country but close enough, still, to have city water, sewer, and electricity—those conveniences that we come to rely on. My neighbor, whose husband divorced her a year ago, seeks comfort in having a dog, which she mostly ignores and never walks or plays with. Fortunately, she keeps the dog inside at night. I’m in an area where no one parties loudly late at night. Although I once drove away my neighbors in Concordia by playing the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire and Frank Zappa’s Waka/Jawaka, Grand Wazoo, and Overnight Sensation loudly, I have come to learn how obnoxious my behavior was.

It’s this desire for quiet that led me to get outside on Thursday after having spent three days grading essays and having spent the previous weekend sick with a cold that has since become bronchitis. I drove north of town and took a gravel road that had no outlet, eventually reaching a deserted spot where I got out of the car and spent about a half-hour poking around. Although I later drove to a few other spots in the search for a good picture, I couldn’t find any other place as restful and rejuvenating as where I went to at first.