Emperor’s Wall

Saying that I was teaching in Liberia, West Africa, in the Peace Corps when John Kennedy was assassinated, would suggest that I’m old.


To ask me about “young” things, say, my taste in music-which my family questions-would probably fall flat. But it could open the world of fantasy about who I am, what I listen to (everybody’s hearing something, I’m told), where I am, where I’ve come from, and where I’m missing something.

My family always fiddles with my car radio. As I head out to my regular early-morning breakfast diner, just after turning the ignition key, I immediately switch channels to my Outside Favorite Frequency (OFF) so nothing will interfere with directions coming in from the Mother Ship.

Once I was a second clarinet in an excellent high school band, though now-and for years, really-I can’t remember names of songs, compositions, or artists.

Nor does that seem to matter much.

One of my sons, with some 6000 “tunes” on his iPod, in several languages no less, lives in a world that hasn’t invited me. He’s put a dozen or so-and that’s a lot for me-pieces on my little shirt-pocket sized box which I use now and then when I can pull away from a haphazard stack of miscellaneous CDs (which still seem modern). If forced to choose a favorite artist, I’d have to pick Cynthia Clawson. Why? First, I can remember her name. But she also has talent-talent enough to make whatever she performs come out with the right attitude, respect, and power. Not quite the proper parlance here, I fear. [Now to delete the next paragraph before I regret it…]

Bing. It’s gone. It ended with something about “insiders and outsiders.”

And I’m an outsider.

And not a very concerned one. My ear’s not quite tin, but when I do hear, my brain’s usually doing something else. [PAUSE… The Mother Ship’s now on hold.] Average clarineting can only take one so far, though I perk up now and then-all alone, usually-when I hear woodwinds (preferably single reeds) on NPR.

Once recently I thought I’d try to join the musical party, and when LeAnn Rimes appeared, opened the door and invited me in, I didn’t have to work hard at it. Her first songs were so…you know…not bad at all. My kids, seeing a window of opportunity, bought me a LeAnn T-shirt. But this humoring abruptly ended when I attempted to write my first country song, “In Our Olympic Triangle of Love I Won the Bronze.” (Hey, the Games were coming up and there is a message here!)

My children abandoned me. I rescued my shirt. It’s now in the bottom of my drawer. Again, I was on my own.

When I used to write “folktale-sounding” stories in the basement of our old house, I’d put on my “castle music,” a double-cassette thing of something by Wagner. It set the right mood, and I even get shivers when I think of it now. I also like monk chants and certain classical pieces turned down low.

But quiet is hard to beat. (Gladly my wife agrees.) Enough about music.

What do I do? And what do I write? And why am I saying this here? I do have a reason.

It’s my family’s fault that I began to create stories. It started when the first kid pestered and pestered about why I kept changing words in the ms for my nursery rhyme book, A Pillar of Pepper. “Why, Dad, did you mark that out…and add that here?” My son dropped his finger to a penciled-out line on the page in my typewriter. “Because it sounds better now,” I said. “Just listen.” He would trace the words as I read. That was first grade when he was a “blue bird,” just average in the best of three reading groups. For nine months we shared and played with words-he on my page, not I on his; after all, I had a deadline looming for a big book! And now to end this story-this paragraph? When my son was tested in reading comprehension that June, he had jumped to sixth grade level.

Dare I add that Pillar was made into a musical (“Nothing Happens Here at Home,” by Patti Souder)?

Now a new paragraph.

I saw magic at work in my son and I was hooked. I hadn’t been teaching him reading. That was someone else’s job. I’d only filled in blanks. And we’d had fun.

The three other kids have similar wild, even wilder, stories, but now everyone’s grown and gone. For those parents struggling along, that does finally happen. Thankfully, the long-time wife, remains. All five (including wife Karen) are well read (some now much better than I) and are becoming clever enough writers themselves. So much so they can easily set aside wonderment (at my stories and at me) and offer me generous help proofreading, editing, and complaining about, among other things, my

  • – Frequent dashes and parentheses (as I demonstrate here)
  • – Short paragraphs (just like here)
  • – Excessive capital letters (more evident in my stories)
  • – buckets full of commas, italics, exclamation points! boldface, underlining, and other sentence signals (some of which are here)
  • – And my “firecracker heroines” (!?! This one’s a bit puzzling. My only response: None “go off,” though several of my females in royal families, or aspiring to join such, do battle to earn their way, protecting their boys and men, living, loving, fighting, and dying alongside them. Just like in many classic stories.)

And oh, my kids are good-operating now at a distance by email.

In my defense: I am familiar with The Chicago Book of Style, E. B. Whiteand his friends, and I’ve even taught about these things.

But often I walk differently. And with purpose.

Just as there’s magic in quickly stripping words off a page, there’s also the magic of reading aloud. And “cue cards of style” (my term for my excesses) can greatly help a story soloist facing his audience. Good stories can be read badly. Or read well. Knowing what’s secret, puzzling, unexpected, or loud-as style markings can suggest-can make a good story sparkle. Even an average one. (And also in silent reading, but that’s not my point here.)

I can’t say this enough. With a wand in hand which (get the homophonic pun?) tweaks style, an author can help a public reader with a keen ear make unexpected things happen, even with an unfamiliar story.

I’ve read aloud to groups, even for two hours at a time. And was invited back. The “50 min. hour” performing maximum did not originate with a fool, but isn’t it a bit limiting to absolutely forbid the rush of sometimes shooting through the intersection on yellow! Of course, five badly planned minutes can kill, but my point is this: Carefully presented public readings of several kinds can work. My all-time favorite was reading to a hundred, kids 7 to 17 and their parents, in a juvenile detention home.

And with the coming age of AEMP, when all TVs, cell phones, and computers are fried, it can be a real winner! On a par with those long evenings of my wife and me reading aloud to each other on the front porch until it got too dark.

A corollary point: My stories are (also) especially designed to be shared aloud. And they have been read aloud in their earlier drafts many times. With, yes, many cue cards of style.

Here’s a turgid summary of the rest of me.

It goes like this: As I prepared to teach, I was trained to understand and teach science, and teach about science. And I did teach on the elementary, middle school, high school (chemistry), and university levels in Africa, Virginia, Michigan, and New York. Along with publishing poetry (for adults) as a hobby, it was writing, as part of a team, a series of very successful science textbooks for children (Silver Burdett) that led me through a series of twists and turns to teaching children’s literature and composition in a college English Department. Teaching other English courses came later (see other bio).

I enjoy traveling with my wife and family. Kayaking and miniature golf war. After enduring Florida, for the other half of the year we’re at our home in the “Susquehanna Territory” on Heart Lake in the mountains of Pennsylvania. I delight in reading the Bible for hours (not aloud). I’ve been an elder in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church and, for years, a high school Sunday school teacher, and weekly program presenter in a local nursing home. I have a passion for martial arts cane defense. And for Soo Bahk Do karate, which as a black belt, I still practice.

Maybe, just maybe, before I’m finished I’ll take another try at the clarinet.