Saturday, October 26, 2013

Week 10 ; Enlisting the reader; Opinion--comments on the three samples

I'm a counterpuncher.

If I read something stupid, something infuriating, something evil, I can hit right back, turn their own words against them, nail them to the wall so hard they will wish they had never opened their mouths. I can be vituperative and vengeful, venomous and vilifying, sarcastic and snide, derisive and derogatory, hateful and horrible, malevolent and mean.

There's an old expression about someone in an argument picking up any available stick to beat a dog with--I will do that, pick up any argument I think I can get away with, even if I know it's not quite fair.

All of that is a function of my personality. I'm impatient, get disgusted easily, am quick to fly at someone's throat, slow to cool off, and, at my best, I'm not noticeably full of goodwill, nor do I suffer fools gladly.

But I'm not a puncher. I'm not especially strong when it comes to working up an opinion piece from scratch, which is what I have more or less assigned you to do for week 10. Myself, I'd rather have a target than be a target....

Feel free to counterpunch if you can find a target.


Check out my two sample persuasive pieces from my blog. They both are attacks on one of my favorite targets--school administrators. I strive for humor and sarcasm in both. I do my best to make those hs principals look like idiots, mean as that is. I spare them nothing, perfectly willing to toss the kitchen sink at them if I could only lift it. I feel strongly about what I am writing. I want you to agree with me!

'School and Jail' from my syllabus is also a piece that reacts to something, that counterpunches. I am reacting to fellow instructors who apparently have time to worry about navel rings, ripped jeans, daisy dukes, druggy t-shirts, cellphones, hats worn indoors, foul language, food eaten near computers, tardiness, and a million other trivial things. They imagine their personal tastes, preferences, and prejudices should be translated into professional decrees.

I don't: have time to worry about anything but my students' writing, or think that my opinion about anything other than writing is worth wasting students' time with.

Many of my colleagues think I'm irresponsibly abandoning a college instructor's job as role model to the masses; I, in turn, think they are self-important fusspots who need to get over themselves.

That's the background to 'School and Jail.'

You will notice, I hope, that in all the samples I keep it close to home. I don't write about abortion, politics, capital punishment, euthanasia, legalizing drugs, and any of the other 'big' topics we all have opinions about but only know from a distance and, usually, from a vantage point of ignorance.

Week 10 Samples: Two opinion pieces from my school blog

'The Grind'

Today's BDN Page 1, above the fold, big headline: "A Grinding Halt to BHS Dances?"

Yep, those Bangor kids are at it again with the dirty dancing. I wrote all about it in 2008:

My morning definitely began looking up when I hit page B8 of today's BDN: "2 Southern Maine high schools ban sexually suggestive 'grind' dancing."

Exactly the kind of nonsense I love. I read the headline out loud to my missus three times, putting as much oomph and drool as I could in the words "sexually suggestive 'grind' dancing."

I just knew that the article would have lots of hormones, plenty of pompous administrators who would sound like they'd never heard of such an outrage as s-x, and, of course, as much sexual suggestiveness as the BDN would dare allow. I was not disappointed.

Sure enough, come to find out, when kids dance they rub against each other (male pelvis to female backside, we are told. The missus got up from her breakfast tea and me from my French roast coffee so that we could step out on the dance floor and try various possible ways that might work.... The dogs were not impressed.) And astonishingly enough, neither were the adult school administrators who found themselves with "concerns" about the grind; they actually come right out and call it "inappropriate."

The news story did mention the fact that dance controversies are nothing new, describing how the twist was banned in the swingin' sixties. But that does not go nearly far enough into the history of lewd dance crazes: it's worth remembering that people of my parents' generation knew very well what 'rock 'n' roll' meant and had no intention of letting their children hear wild lyrics like: "We're gonna rock around the clock tonight, We're gonna rock, rock, rock, 'til broad daylight. We're gonna rock, gonna rock, around the clock tonight."

'Rock'--hmm, a four letter word ending in 'ck.' Whaaaaa? NO CHILD OF MINE WILL EVER BE ALLOWED TO ...'ROCK'!

And, of course, the very word 'jazz' means,, "nobody would have dared include jazz in a respectable book or article a century ago because it was decidedly obscene...."

And when I googled 'waltz lewd,' I found nice stuff like this below, stretching back to the 16th Century, though there are plenty more examples going back to the invention of writing of adults dead-sure that the latest dance craze spelled the end of civilization:

"The waltz also sparked a storm of controversy for its lewd and lascivious posture that required men and women to embrace on the dance floor....Other writers of the nineteenth century were equally uncomplimentary of the waltz. In his poem The Waltz: an Apostrophic Hymn, Lord Byron refers to the "lewd grasp and lawless contact...."

"A Viennese ordinance of 1572 warned: "Ladies and maidens are to compose themselves with chastity and modesty and the male persons are to refrain from whirling and other such frivolities. Whichever man or fellow, woman or maiden will turn immodestly in defiance of this prohibition and warning of the city fathers will be brought to jail...." ...A Dresden wedding ordinance of 1595 advised similar decorum: "Several honor dances are to be held, chaste, and without voluptuous turning, jumping, or running hither and yon. The ladies and maidens are to be led to and from the dance by the arm and without holding hands."

Anyway, it's nice to note that our highly-paid Maine school administrators having solved all the big educational problems now have the leisure to join the long line of historical fusspots standing squarely and successfully against juvenile hijinx.

Today's BDN adds little to the story (even repeating the favorite weasel word "inappropriate") but it does have a fascinating photograph of the principal of Bangor High taken by a photographer with a malicious sense of humor that appeals to me.

We see Norris Nickerson standing at the top of a long sunlit ramp stretching away to infinity or the central crossroads of the school, whichever comes sooner. A checkerboard pattern in the linoleum on the floor subtly matches the checkerboard pattern of his plaid sweater, hinting either that the man regularly is walked all over or that he deeply identifies with the school's bricks and mortar. Or both.

Two students shimmer in the sunlight but they are not in his vision at all. He faces the camera but is not looking at the photographer. His eyes are off to his right, suspicious under a wrinkled brow, clearly looking for and expecting trouble.

His arms are crossed, denying all access. Hands are clenched and half-hidden, again denying access. An ID necklace like a giant dog tag hangs around his neck displaying his photograph, no doubt one taken on a happier day. (Inquiring minds always want to know but can not quite see with this level of resolution: was he wearing an older ID tag in the ID photo, one showing an earlier year's ID photo? And, if he was, in that ID photo was he wearing an even earlier ID with an even earlier photo and so on?)

Anyway, there he is patrolling the halls, on the lookout for sex and frivolity, doing the job the anxious parents of Bangor pay him for.

Just as the schools prevent noisy lunchrooms by enforcing total silence and prevent recess problems by abolishing recess, Norris Nickerson has cleaned up the dirty dancing--by seeing to it that the music has died and that no more dances will be held until BHS students promise to be good.


'The Enforcer'

I wouldn' t want any kids of mine to be in any school run by 'The Enforcer' (BDN 9/7).

Nowhere in the article do we hear of new Principal Peter Doak's educational philosophy or of his hopes and plans for his students' intellectual growth.

Instead we get the same old tough-guy baloney that teachers who have no better ideas like to spout. Sometimes they can back the baloney up (and Doak sounds like he can), and sometimes they can't, but in the end, the baloney does not meet the students' need for learning, only the teachers' and administrators' need for total environmental control.

In Lubec, we are told, it will now be "all about pride, respect, and discipline." Those are code words: pride means school pride which mostly means strong sports, pressure to conform, and a general attitude that the school must not be let down by its students; its students owe it honor, however it may serve or ill-serve them.

Respect means that adults who may or not be themselves respectful or competent must not see or hear students react to the sort of provocations the adults regularly offer.

Discipline means students keeping quiet, following orders, and not getting into trouble, and trouble is anything that causes the adults trouble.

The litany of petty rules proudly detailed in the article makes clear how easy it is going to be for students with any juice to be undisciplined, disrespectful, and shamed. So, Lubec now follows many of the state's other schools down the road of treating its students like hoodlums, all in the name of building their character. I'd just as soon the parents took responsibility for their children's character and let the school struggle with imparting knowledge, a tough enough task all by itself.

But that probably is not going to happen, because what Lubec apparently is NOT all about is teaching, education, or learning. Doak talks only about myriad rules and students following them precisely.

And how seriously do his students take his rules? One rule is hand-holding only in the halls. But look at the page one photo taken at the assembly where Doak told the students how it's gonna be, like it or not. Look at it closely--that senior boy and girl are already flouting the new rules.

And why? Because they care for each other? No, because they lack discipline, respect, and pride. By June they will probably have a different attitude altogether.

Another week 10 sample, from my ENG 101 syllabus


Some of you have come from a place where authority figures watch your every move. They check your name off to make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be every second of the day. They get angry if you wear forbidden clothes or carry contraband or eat certain foods at certain times and places. They are always on the lookout for drugs. They worry that you’re trying to manipulate the system, take over and run the place, form cliques. If they don’t like your attitude, they may write you up, put you in solitary, send you to Supermax, deny you privileges, threaten your future. And, of course, all this is being done to make you a better person.
After a few years of being treated this way, all you can think about is the day when you’re sprung and can hit the streets, free!

Prison? Nah, all too often that’s public high school I’ve just described. You’ll notice I said nothing about learning anything. Students and teachers are so busy hating each other, doing numbers on each other, hassling—they sometimes forget why they’re supposed to be there.

It can be comforting to be in prison instead of school because learning is hard and so is teaching. If you approach this class expecting that I’m going to hassle you about your appearance, your lateness or absences, your food and soda, your homework coming in late, and so on—you’re going to be disappointed. You may get mad at me for not providing you with the discipline you need. Tough! Provide your own! This ain’t high school!

The only thing I claim expertise in is writing. I can’t make you a better person. I’m not going to try. Naturally, I want you to be neat, clean, polite, punctual, organized, friendly, chem-free, hardworking, and cheerful. But the only thing I’m going to talk to you about is your writing.

When we get to the writing, I’ll have a lot to say.

Tips for opinion pieces, week 10

Here are a few things to think about when you write and when you do your best to persuade or enlist your reader:

* humor is a graveyard for many writers; if it works, great, but if it just ain't that funny and the writer doesn't know it--then the writing suffers, sometimes fatally

* sarcasm is a particular type of humor with all the up and downsides of humor generally

* anger and disgust are fine emotions, but many writers are ashamed of them and try to mince around the edges--and the writing suffers

* anger and disgust are fine emotions in moderation; when they take over a piece, when the writer starts ranting, accusing his opponents of being homosexual, communist, nazi, atheistical, islamofacist terrorists--the writing has gone off the deep end; emotions are fuel, but if they explode, the writing suffers

* no one really cares about your opinion; people want to be amused, interested, outraged, titillated, stirred up; but the actual opinion is less important than the delivery--I'd rather read an amusing piece by someone I disagreed with than a dreary piece by someone of like mind (and most of the people who agree with me seem to be more than a touch dreary)

* most controversial topics are already taken and the ordinary civilian off the street has nothing at all possibly new to add to that topic: abortion, gun control, capital punishment, evolution, existence of god, vegetarianism, lowering the drinking age to 18, legalization of recreational drugs, and so on--all done, very unlikely there's anything new to say

* which doesn't mean that those old arguments can't be interestingly repackaged, but "interestingly" is a big tough hill to climb--don't kid yourself

* idealism is also a possible approach, but the writer has to avoid sappiness; if your argument is that the world would be a wonderful place if only everyone loved one another, you're setting out on a tough course; more light is shed if the writer taps the dark side of his personality than the lighter and brighter side, even if that sounds like a paradox

* logic and reason are classic and traditional techniques of enlistment, but, on the other hand, the world is full of irrational people whose particular bit of unreason is to imagine that they alone are supremely rational. So, reason has its limits too, but using it will never get you into much trouble.

* emotional appeals have their place, though you never want to get icky or say stuff like 'how would you like it if you had to live your whole life in a feedlot where you stood in your own feces and were so crowded you couldn't even turn around?' Not much, is my answer, but I still appreciate a good steak

* don't waste words; 'I think,' 'in my opinion,' 'from my perspective,' and all such similar phrases are unnecessary and drags on the writing; such phrases should be unspoken but they will be understood; take these asterisked items above as an example--obviously, I'm stating one opinion after another, but I don't waste energy trying to deflect the reader's reaction by softening these opinion statements with a humble 'it's only my opinion but...'--an editorialist has to have some guts!

It occurs to me as I scribble along here that I am, in fact, writing an opinion piece as well as a lecturette. A lot of what I say about writing is debatable, and that pretty much is the short definition of an opinion piece: would someone argue otherwise?

What have I done to persuade or enlist you? I have used the 'avalanche technique' (I just made the name up, so don't be using it with your other instructors.) The avalanche technique is the one where you see the snow coming down the mountain at you at 150 mph and have no time to think, no time to react. You are swept away; resistance is hopeless!

Probably all I have persuaded you of is that this week is hopeless, but that is not so at all. Pick a topic close to home, pick a topic you know intimately and have strong feelings about.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Week 9: fiction and fact: speculative piece

When I looked again at my syllabus to check out what was supposed to happen for week 9, my heart sank. What the heck was I thinking? What is a speculative piece and why even use the seven-letter f-word, when it's the four-letter f-word ("fact" is more or less the one I have in my mind right now) that you are supposed to be concentrating on in this course?

What was I thinking when I dreamed up this syllabus a year ago for Faculty Senate approval? For a day or two I wandered around the house, thinking, 'Oh, speculative, like they're supposed to speculate on what the world will be like in 2525?' I knew that couldn't be right.

'What if' came a little closer. What if x happened, how would things then play out? Like science fiction? No. No. No. But 'what if' more or less captures the week. Any 'what if' starts with facts and then, without exactly being fiction, tries to realistically and plausibly imagine the next bit, a glimpse of the future but tethered closely to facts, the present, the likely, and the real.

So, without being quite sure what the week was all about, a topic that I knew was right for the week showed up eventually, perhaps because it's something I worry about and my wife and I have talked about.

Week 9; fact & fiction; speculative piece sample: 'Separate Planes'

'Separate Planes'

In the early 50's when postwar prosperity and the advent of bigger and faster planes brought tropical vacations within the reach of the masses, my parents became fliers, first to Bermuda and then eventually to the Bahamas, Haiti, and the Virgin Islands.

It may seem quaint today but back then, with still-fresh memories of wartime newsreels of bombers knocked out by little bursts of flak, responsible parents often decided to fly separately--in two planes to the same destination--so that if one plane dropped out of the sky, the children would not be orphaned.

My children are long past the age where we need to worry about their being orphaned and left alone in a cruel world--not that my wife and I have ever flown together or even vacationed together. Since our marriage in 1969, we have owned many dogs and horses, and we don't quite see how we can go off together and lie happily on a beach while some stranger takes care of our (current) six dogs and three horses.

So, I go to England and walk for a week or to Portugal and ride horses, and then my wife goes to England and tours cathedrals for a week or to Iceland and rides horses. Separate vacations, glorious homecomings....

Glorious homecomings...always late at night after one of us has driven up from Portland where the bus from Logan drops us. We hug, maybe even kiss. Then we talk for hours, each of us describing our week apart--that's where the real glorious is: tales of travel and home, troubles, meals, problems, aches and pains, dog stories.

And truly, between the kiss in the last paragraph and the talk...come the dogs. They cannot be ignored or denied. Scooter, who is usually very aloof, whimpering and trying to sit on my lap. Silent Chloe, who almost never wags, now wagging hard, barking excitedly, staring up at me. Boca crying and snarling at any other dog who tries to come near me. Timmie with a slipper in his mouth, popping up and down, trampoline-style, over and over. Maddie barging past everyone (she is three times their size and weight) shoving her sharp collie nose at me, insisting that I stroke her head.

As I said, my children may be past the age for us to worry about their being orphaned. In fact, the chances are good that one of these days they may well find themselves orphans because my wife and are both class of 1945, the very first burst of baby-boomers, and our pull-by dates are eventually coming due.

But my dogs are not past the age for us to worry. They will never be past that age. If they were suddenly orphaned, they could not grieve and then carry on their lives as my children could. Their lives as they know them would be completely over.

Who would turn Boca out at 3 in the morning to check the cat food dishes? Who would leave slippers around for Timmie to lark about with on his mental health breaks? Who would understand why Chloe might be walking on her two hind legs and what the correct response is? Who would protect 70 pound Maddie from 10 pound Boca's infuriating lip-licking? Who would take Scooter and Timmie on the hours of walks their bodies and minds have come to expect? Who would know how to deal with deaf old Max's snaggle teeth and short fuse?

I'm not such a fool as to believe that their dog-souls would be forever blighted with grief for my wife and me. But routine is everything to dogs--and they would be distressed considerably to be separated from their pack, to be taken to new homes, to live under different routines, to learn new tricks. They could do it because dogs are resilient, but it would not be easy or fun for them.

I can't help any of that. I'm mortal and so is my wife. Anything can happen. What worries us is: how do the dogs get to their new owners, new routines, new homes? Who will take them? Will they be treated, if not as wonderfully as we treat them, at least decently?

I suppose we could write a will that ties up in a foundation every cent we might otherwise have some day left to our children. The foundation's sole purpose would be to install a couple of dog-loving walkers in the house so that the dogs could continue to live in this familiar spot. The couple would be paid a modest stipend in return for walking the dogs so many hours a day, leaving slippers around for Tim and socks around for Boca, providing laps for everyone when it thundered, and so on. Eventually, either the dogs would all die or the foundation money would run out.

It's the same problem people near retirement face. Do we have enough socked away and do we trust the people in charge of our pensions enough--to retire? Or would the money dry up before we do?

Of course, only really really eccentric people write wills like that. The headline reads: "Pampered Pooches Lie In Lap of Luxury; Couple's Children Fail to Foil Will." We are only eccentric enough to have six dogs, not eccentric enough to create a Perpetual Steak Fund for them.

So, what happens if we both are dead? We've talked to our kids about this, and we've told them it's important, but neither of them are dog people, and so their sympathy and understanding can only go so far. We suggest various people or groups who might take various dogs, and they nod. They assure us the dogs will be cared for, looked after, placed with people who clicker train and walk daily and read Jan Fennell and hate Cesar Millan--and not abandoned to the lottery of shelters and our worst nightmare scenarios of cruelty or stupidity.

And I know my children would do their very best. But I wish somehow the universe could guarantee my wife and me separate planes.

Week 9: thoughts on writing 'Separate Planes'

I wrote 'Separate Planes' on Oct. 5-6, 2010, i.e., during week 6 of the semester. The hardest part of writing it was dealing with the mental fallout from Week 5. Several people complimented 'Surgery, 'the example piece I used, and those compliments made me wish I could repeat my success so I could garner more praise.

But, alas, writing does not work that way. I knew I could write something competent and intelligent for week 9, but I also knew that inspiration comes when it comes and cannot be forced. One is only as good as one is on any given day, period.

The given day I wrote 'Surgery' was late in the afternoon when I was buzzed from dealing with strange students in a strange room in a way I don't usually deal with students. The idea came in a flash (that's 'inspiration'), and I could see the whole piece before I'd written a word.

That didn't happen for 'Separate Planes' and I had no reason to think it would (there's no button to push for 'inspiration, whatever the druggies tell you), so the corrupting effects of even a tiny bit of praise made 'Separate Planes' harder to start than it otherwise would have been. The whole time I was writing it, in fact, I was anticipatorily disappointed that I couldn't write another 'Surgery.' I wanted more praise, dammit!

If it's bad--I blame YOU!

So, while writers live for praise, it is not an unmixed good. One can become a praise addict and a praise whore, writing with only that goal in mind, doing things in the writing that one thinks will get one a fix of praise. That can't be good for the writing.

Some teachers treat praise as if it were an ocean all their writers should constantly float in. I tend to think of it more as a precious few drops of water in the canteen one doles out as one trudges through Death Valley. Maybe there is a happy medium between these two opposite approaches!

Back to 'Separate Planes.' I never understand how people can work from outlines. I made a few notes to help my memory in the days before I started writing. I listed all the rescue dogs we've ever taken. I wrote the words 'separate planes.' And I wrote 'Chekhov Kashtanka.'

Chekhov's story is told from Kashtanka's point of view--she is a dog with a brutal master who is lost one day and found by a kind master. She lives with the kind master for quite a while until one day her old master accidentally discovers her. He takes her off--and she is happy to be reunited with him, because dogs do love their routine and one's master is, after all, one's master.

As you can see, I used nothing in my notes except the separate-planes idea.

It would be nice, indeed, if writing were as straightforward as building off a blueprint, but it is not so.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Week 8:authorial presence: problem/situation/question/explanation piece

Here's something I found on the internet about authorial presence.

Six qualities of author's presence: sincerity; self-revelation; creativity & innovativeness; intensity; interactivity and use of poetic devices.

Whew, that's a lot to think of when you write, but some of it should be more or less automatic or should come from the material itself.

Sincerity should be more or less automatic. I hope no one is intentionally writing bullshit they think is bullshit but is good enough to get a frippin grade. That would be insincere.

Self-revelation is a function of the material, and what you choose to write about. Once you have a topic, then there is an obligation to pursue the material and not skip away from the truth of it, but there are truths and truths, and none of my assignments is called 'The Stupidest, Cruelest, Most Embarrassing and Illegal Moments of My Life.' This course is not Self-Revelation 101. You, the writer, control your material.

Creativity and Innovativeness? Nice if there were a dial and you could crank up a higher level of both when needed! They're automatic or not, but, as I say, not anything you can crank up on demand, unless you are one of those writers (I'm not) who thinks that drugs or liquor are helpful for inspiration.

Intensity...I'm not sure about. Intensity sounds to me like a tonal issue. You perhaps want your piece on your deployment in Iraq to be intense. Not so much your piece about learning a nursery rhyme about buttercups.

Interactivity and the use of poetic devices. I understand what the writer is after but I wish she had avoided 'poetic devices" because sometimes I get writers addicted to awful similes--thinking that they are what make 'fine' writing--,and I would hate to encourage more of 'her beauty struck my eyes like a sledge hammer striking a Chinese gong' or such like nonsense. But the writer is trying to tell us that the reader is not some kind of passive receptacle. The writer has to enter into a conversation with the reader, has to get him asking questions as he reads, laughing at jokes and saying, 'Yeah, I get that, I see where you're coming from, but have you thought about...oh wait, uh HUH--you have! " And so on. One way to start that conversation is with poetic devices--symbols or motifs woven through the writing are often very intriguing.

But it's not something to plan out, or at least I think that if you do, the writing becomes a little mechanical.

So, authorial presence: it's more than voice and tone; it's your whole self. Does the reader get a sense of what you are like? Does the reader find you interesting, obnoxious, funny, stupid, aggravating, likable? Same questions any two people meeting have about each other. That's your authorial presence.

Your job this week is to read the lecture, think about it, and say to yourself, 'No way can I ever inject "authorial presence" into my writing, Goldfine!' That's okay, but don't stop thinking about it--as long as it's somewhere rolling around in your mind, you will unconsciously be working on it every time you write.

As for the rest of it for the week: problem, situation, question, explanation...those I take to be self-explanatory.

Week 8: Sample; 'Upper Oak Hill Rd'

Early Spring day, cloudy, cool, wind from the west. Every place else is too muddy, too wet, or still frozen. It’s the road or nowhere, so, ears and eyes open, I am facing traffic and tolting my Icelandic horse Kaldi south along the shoulder of the road.

I hear a car behind us and urge the horse on, preferring that he think about my demands rather than the car. It’s coming fast and passes with a rush of displaced air at perhaps 75. Kaldi’s ears twitch but he hangs tough. Now I see a car a half mile ahead and approaching. Kaldi and I bear down, moving right along. The car slows just a little and swings wide. The road hasn’t been posted yet, and I hear a gravel truck to the north. I steer the horse off the shoulder into the ditch and bring him down to a walk. The truck roars past, its drop gate banging as it hits a pothole. Kaldi flinches a bit but soon we are back on the shoulder—my good steady boy, still calm and easy. I hear a Harley ahead but can’t see it yet—it’s loud enough to hear over half the town. What I can see is a pickup approaching with…oh god, a trailer attached, an empty, rattling, bouncing trailer. And there’s the Harley now, coming fast, ready to pass the pickup—that should happen just when the pickup is even with us.

If it weren’t early spring, I’d steer Kaldi further away from the road than the ditch, but lingering snow closes off that option. We stand in the ditch, watching and listening as the truck and bike zoom by. I had hoped for a good half mile tolt without interruption. Not much chance of that on a weekday, early afternoon, on this road…

When we moved to 1221 Upper Oak Hill Road in the late Spring of 1973, it was not called Upper Oak Hill Road. It had many other names. The Post Office called it RFD 2. On its monthly bills CMP called it Zoar Hill Rd. Some people called it Oak Hill Rd, others The Frankfort Rd, others The Town Farm Rd. In Belfast, a person might have given directions here by saying, “Just keep going down High St, past the shoe factory, keep going, keep going, bear right across the railroad tracks, keep going about 9 miles, next house on the right after the Joe Dickey farm, and there you are.”
All different ways of describing the same address. Then there were no Google maps, no GPS, no terrorism that affected us, no 911 emergency number, and people generally didn’t take themselves quite so seriously (Today, there is no shoe factory, no railroad, no Joe Dickey farm....)

Whatever the name, all roads lead to 1221 Upper Oak Hill Rd.

Imagine an isosceles right triangle. Rt 141 squeezed between the cliffs and Swan Lake is the long leg, about 3 miles. Rt 131 running uphill all the way from the Swanville church to Town House Corners is the short leg, about 1.5 miles, and the Upper Oak Hill Rd along and then down Marden Hill is the hypotenuse, about 2.25 miles.

In 1973, living along that hypotenuse were the Browns, Mr Baldwin, the Dickeys, the Goldfines, the I-forgets, the Wagners, the Kellys, and the Woods. Eight houses. All of those houses, except the I-forgets, were built in the 19th Century. Except for the paving, ditching, loss of the elm trees, opening of a gravel pit, regrowth of some forest, and the collapse of several barns, the road looked in 1973 very much as it must have in 1873. Cars were a rarity in 1973, three or four an hour. We waved at cars. Our kids rode bikes in the middle of the road. When I cut down the big dead spruce alongside the road one Sunday morning and it failed to cooperate with my plans and instead fell across the road, I had plenty of time to cut it up and drag it off without a motorist arriving to witness my embarrassment. I could--and often did--ride a horse from Town House Corner to 141 without giving a thought to traffic.

In 2010, along that same two mile and a quarter hypotenuse, there are at least 40 trailers or houses, two of them multiple family dwellings (one carved out of the old town house, the other carved out of an old garage.) We don’t wave at cars any more. Bicycles are as rare as pedestrians, and when the powerline crews from Texas were cutting tophamper from the trees last summer, they needed two flaggers to slow the cars down even a little.

Kaldi and I are tolting again, down to just past the Dickeys, where nowadays the congestion of houses, cars, chainsaws, barking dogs, and noisy kids forces us to turn around. We cross to the west side of the road, facing north and I tell the horse to canter. He picks it up immediately and rolls right along—I’m wondering if Joe Dickey is watching us from the house where he was born in 1930. Joe farmed with horses as a boy and young man and still loves them. I hope the traffic does not drown out the sound of Kaldi’s hoofbeats because nothing in the world sounds as exciting, not the roar of a diesel engine, nor the throb of a motorcycle, not a car redlining, or any of the other sounds we can’t avoid on the Upper Oak Hill Rd these days, and I want Joe to hear those hooves.

Week 8: Writing 'Upper Oak HIll Rd'

Here's how 'Upper Oak Hill Road' came to be. I thought about 'Upper Oak Hill Rd' while riding behind my house one day and seeing a new bulldozer track in the woods, signalling a new house, signalling one less place I could ride. I remembered the quiet of 35 years ago and decided on a piece about the problems of trying to ride horses around lots of houses and funny noises and startling occurences--horses are quite skittish and excitable.

I started the piece with the idea of describing that dozer track and what it meant but realized I first needed to set the scene a little. As you can tell, the scene- setting ran away with me and I never got the horse off the road and into the woods. By the time I was ready to do that, I'd run out of words--nearly 900 seemed like a reasonable amount to expect a student to read.

So I shaped what I had into the piece you see.

But 'Upper Oak Hill Road' was not my first choice of topics. It was the default topic, the merely do-able one. There was another problem piece I wanted to write but chickened out on--I was afraid that tone and voice would completely get away from me and that the authorial presence would distract and detract. The closest I could come to writing that piece, the one I wanted to write, was to describe it here, now.

So: There was a boy named Arthur in our neighborhood when I was growing up. His father had served in WW2, in combat, and Arthur loved to play war, to dress in bits of his father's old uniform, and to kill (pardon the racist expression we used unselfconsciously in the fifties) Japs. Arthur was a few years younger than me, more my brother's age, and was not a particular pal of mine, or, so far as I knew, my brother.

Flash ahead to the late sixties. Arthur, now 20 years old or so, is in the service and is killed in Vietnam. His old school names its new auditorium after him, and my brother goes to the dedication ceremony.

I ask him about the ceremony years later and my brother, not a very emotive guy, gets a little choky and refers to Arthur as his childhood "best friend."

Here's where the problem comes and here's where I didn't think I could handle the material. My brother's emotion seemed to me almost completely sentimental and phony, not based on much of anything. Maybe he was choky about the lost days of youth, but I had to doubt he was quite as emotional about Arthur, someone he had not gone to school with and someone he had last played with in 1960 or so.

My brother does have a great talent for friendship and still has several close friends he first met when he was 12 or 13, but Arthur was never part of that group. When my brother and his friends were starting to smoke dope, Arthur was still living his boyish, John Wayne fantasy life.

So, the problem, as I saw it, was that my brother was permitting himself to feel a big phony emotion.

But could I convey that to a reader without sounding like a mean, judgmental, hateful prick, who was only going to allow people to feel the emotions officially approved by John Goldfine? No, I didn't think I could.

That was really what I wanted to write about: my brother, his feelings, my feelings, the past and it uses and abuses.

But as you can see, I went with the easier choice.

After that last sentence, I'm tempted to use an emoticon but whether it should be an emoticon for human tragedy :( or that for the human comedy :) I do not know.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Week 7: Structure; Profile; Lecture

This week a profile of a person.

A profile is a look at a person, but not a three dimensional, in-depth look. It tries to give the reader an unforgettable shot, 'sideways' in the sense that it never claims to be a full-fledged, detailed biography.

I have three samples: 'What the Dog Saw,' a profile of Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, by Malcolm Gladwell, a profile of a sports figure by Joe Posnanski, and one I just wrote: 'Well-Respected Citizen.'

I'm going to describe what I see in the Gladwell piece and then some of the writing problems I had doing my profile.

Gladwell: Gladwell is such an impressive writer. Reading this profile made me want to try something similar, though in the end I wasn't able to imitate a lot of what impressed me.

Here's what Gladwell does:

* He opens with a typical scene in Millan's work

* Continues with a physical description of the man

* Adds some biographical information

* Then some interview material and a behind-the-scenes look at Millan's 'empire'

* Backs up for a full and formal introduction of the subject of the profile

* Gives another typical scene from Millan's tv show

* Offers scientific overview and speculation about animal behavior

* Continues with detailed description of Millan's body language working with dogs

* Backs up to describe Millan's marriage and how it connects to his relationship with dogs

* Ends with another typical Millan scene with dogs

Described that way, it sounds like an awful mess, an English teacher's nightmare (we'd say: "Malcolm! Where is your outline for your profile!") but if you read it, you will see the author glides incredibly gracefully from one element to another.

We should all be so lucky as to produce a 'mess' like that!

Several things stood out for me: Gladwell avoids inserting himself into the profile. Although he obviously saw in person some of the scenes described, he becomes a camera, a recorder, and excludes his ideas, opinions, and obvious reactions. I liked that idea and wanted to imitate it in my own piece.

Another noticeable feature is Gladwell's recurrent use of dramatic scenes of Millan working with dogs. These are salted throughout the piece to keep reader interest. Think of them as the sweet raisins in the raisin bread. They are not the whole thing, but they are what makes the piece what it is; they define the piece and without them we would be far less interested in Millan. The old-fashioned and slightly patronizing name for these raisins is 'human interest material.'

The final thing that stands out is something I've already mentioned: the organization. If I could write that way, I would, but it requires talent I do not have. I can but stand back and admire.

'Well-Respected Citizen." That brings me to my profile.

Originally I wanted to do a profile of a truly well-respected citizen, the extraordinarilty talented and good man who was my neighbor for nearly forty years until his death this winter. I had many stories, much material, and could have done a much more in-depth profile (if 'in-depth' is the right word for a profile) than the one I eventually did.

I decided against writing that profile, not because I had anything at all bad to say about the man (on the contrary), but because he was private and his family is private, and I did not want to open the slightest possibility of invading that privacy by putting a profile on line.

So, I came up with Robert Osborne, whose privacy concerns are non-existent. The things he might have liked to keep most private wound up a matter of public record. The downside of writing about Robert Osborne is that the material is sketchy. I didn't have much to go on.

I had a few personal stories, though, imitating Gladwell, I avoided the first-person in the piece. The clever reader will see the writer in there easily enough. I had some newspaper articles from 2005 and 2006. I had some information from my wife and a bit of local gossip.

Was this enough? Should I have interviewed the many local people who knew the man? I was tempted to make a few phone calls but had to rein myself in--all I needed was 900 or 1000 words for my ENG 262 profile. More information might have added spice but also length and complexity I wasn't prepared to cope with.

Even fitting together what I already had became a question. Some stories would have added a lot of bulk to the piece without necessarily shedding much light on Osborne. He came before the Swanville Planning Board when I was serving on it, and we had many evening sessions where Osborne and his rather intimidating partner browbeat us until they had our approval. I wanted to write about the partner in the profile but decided against it.

And what about the story of Osborne's 1994 marriage to a former town clerk, a marriage quickly ending in divorce. What was that all about? I wasn't sure. It was certainly strange and a generator of gossip, but in the end I could find no way to use it effectively.

In a perfect world, I would have tracked down Osborne himself, if he's still alive, and interviewed him. I would have asked about his youth in Massachusetts, his war service, his marriage, education, how he came to Maine, his children, business, and so on. Would he have talked to me? I think he would. I think he would be happy to have the chance to once again vociferously deny what the jury was convinced of beyond a reasonable doubt, just as he did in court.

In that same perfect world, my piece would have flowed as smoothly as Gladwell's. I would have been able to avoid those triple asterisks between my vignettes. I would have had more juicy material. I would have remembered more of our 35 year-old conversation in the restaurant in Liberty, and I would be surer that what I remember is accurate (I'm not.)

This was a difficult piece to write. It took a week of thinking, of doing bits and pieces, and of arranging and assembling them. 'Difficult' does not mean unpleasant. I never doubted I could finish what I had begun and that it would adequately satisfy my sense of my capablities. I knew I wouldn't disappoint myself, and I enjoyed shuffling the puzzle pieces around the page until I had my profile.

You will notice that the structure of my profile follows Gladwell's example and does not go chronologically. I try to present the man in his best guise at town meeting and then offer a sharp, dramatic contrast by showing him at his sentencing. Then I back up to give anecdotal material stretching back several decades. This approach is certainly not a requirement of a profile, but using it allows the writer a lot of flexibility and an easy way to cherrypick material and avoid 'completism'--the sense that he has to tell everything he knows.

It's a profile, not a biography. The ultimate question: Is the reader left with a clear outline or silhouette of the profilee?

Try one yourself. Do not, please, write about Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI, David Ortiz, or Mother Teresa. Write about someone closer to home.

Week 7: structure; Three Sample Profiles

Malcolm Gladwell's profile of Cesar Millan:


Joe P.'s profile of a baseball player you've probably never heard of:

'Well-Respected Citizen'

There are questions from the floor, and the issues are complicated. The first selectman stands to explain and to argue his point of view. He leans forward a little and gestures with his fist to emphasize certain points. His pale eyes pierce, his voice is a clear tenor, and his words are forceful, resolute, easily understandable to everyone in the overheated Grange Hall. Most people nod, understanding, accepting his logic. The man has command presence.

There is an occasional moment when he betrays impatience at someone asking a question he has already answered or even annoyance at another person disagreeing with a point he has made and nailed down beyond argument. But he is never less than in control, in charge, confident, and cool.


So, townspeople can imagine him as he stands in Waldo County Superior Court, making his plea to the judge; they can see him lean forward and gesture. He says, "I am here to protect my reputation. I am not a pedophile; I never have been and never will be. I am not a child molester. That's all I can say. That's not my lifestyle." He looks over at his daughter who is sitting with his accuser. Her eyes are red, but they are dry, and they do not, will not, meet his. He has no supporters now, no one who nods and agrees, who finds his words persuasive. But he does not quit. He looks back to the judge and raises his right hand. "I don't want to die with this blemish on my otherwise good record. That's the truth, so help me God."

His last words come out loudly, and then he subsides, a bent old man, 83, in slippers and dark green prison fatigues. His eyes do not leave the judge's face. She opens her mouth to pronounce sentence.

He waits to hear his fate.


Robert Warren Osborne: born 1922, Massachusetts; World War II veteran; Methodist Church deacon; Selectman, Swanville Maine; Selectman, Searsport Maine; President of the Maine Board of Realtors; land developer, businessman, insurance agent; husband, father, adoptive father.


Robert Osborne was a church deacon. A parishoner speaks: "He always made a point of being extra, extra friendly to my young son. He would use a bit of a strange, kiddie voice when talking to him. Enough so I thought it was odd but then reassured myself he was such a well-respected citizen he just loved kids and what a great guy."


Sometime in the early 70's, Robert Osborne picked up a hitchhiker outside Augusta, a grown man, a resident of Swanville.

They stop at a restaurant in Liberty. When the coffee has come to the table, Osborne asks, "How long have you been married?"

"Five years, Mr Osborne."

"Oh, call me Bob. How's it going?


"The marriage. Any problems? You know you can talk to me about it anytime." He smiles. "I'm an old married man. Anytime."

He insists on paying for the tuna sandwich and coffee and then drives the man to his door.

The land Robert Osborne plans to subdivide has a derelict red barn, in local legend a bootlegger's storehouse. One day in the mid-80s, the hitchhiker and his wife come down the hill on horseback. The door of the barn opens and Robert Osborne comes out followed by a boy of 10 or 12. The riders say hello, and Osborne says "Doing some fixing up in here.”

The riders say, “Well, good,” and ride on.

But when they are out of his hearing, they look at each other. The woman says, “What do you suppose they were up to?”

“Not our business,” answers the man.


His accuser, now 31, claims that the abuse began at age 5 or 6 when his uncle delivered him to Robert Osborne and continued until he was 18. The statute of limitations has put most of the alleged abuse beyond the reach of the law. In court, Osborne calls his accuser a thief, a liar, a fat little boy. He has explained to the jury that the oral sex with his victim only began after the boy was of legal age. He further explained he had no emotional attachment to the boy. But a jury of his peers has found him guilty of five counts of gross sexual misconduct for raping and sodomizing a child.

Judge Nancy Mills sentences Robert Osborne to twelve years in prison, all but three suspended, and newspapers reported that, with time off for good behavior and counting time served while waiting for sentencing, he would probably serve no more than a year at the prison in Windham. His appeal to the Maine Supreme Court was found baseless and turned down in 2007.


A recent Google search and a search of the local newspaper reveal no obituary for Robert W. Osborne. Nor is there a record of him in either the Maine or national sex offenders registry. A court recently ordered that the uncle who originally delivered the victim to Robert Osborne be forbidden contact with the victim's school age son.

Copyright (c) 2010 by John Goldfine