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My mobility problems were heightened by immobility: sitting at my desk or in a coffee shop or in a local library or driving for curbside pickup, mask on, trunk open, adjusting to isolation during the continuing pandemic. Our walks became shorter in time, distance, and frequency. I sometimes wobbled standing up, my balance unpredictable, shaky halfway through a walk, uncertain much of the way home. In March, my feet suddenly couldn't get out of one another's way and I fell flat on the paved trail near the university. In mid-May, at my annual appointment, a thorough check-over and a CT scan convinced our primary care physician I had spinal stenosis, specifically neurogenic claudication and needed an MRI for confirmation. At home I searched medical references online to better understand what I was going through.


Neurogenic claudication is "pain caused by too little blood flow to muscles during exercise," usually "occurs in the legs after walking at a certain pace and for a certain amount of time," and "because of narrowing in the spinal canal (stenosis) causing pressure on the spinal nerves." Stenosis is "often caused by age-related wear and tear," its symptoms pain, numbness, and muscle weakness. A CT scan (Computed Tomography) is a "quick, noninvasive" imaging technique using radiation (x-rays) to obtain pictures of tissues, organs, and skeletal structures. An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) works with magnets to obtain more detailed information about inner organs (e.g., the brain, skeletal system, reproductive system).


I'd been wedged into the tight tube of an MRI radiology machine before. The first time, a pacifying injection calmed me; another time, unpacified, I panicked from claustrophobia. This time, undrugged and less anxious by inserting earplugs and wearing heavy headphones over them, I lay prone, eyes tightly closed, silently counting numbers to myself while piped-in 1930s big band music was drowned out by constant thumping and pounding. The CT scan had lasted a few minutes on an open berth; the MRI ran thirty minutes in a boombox tomb. Each time the nurse checked on me, she left the room before the MRI came on again.


The clinic and my doctor both provided reports about the MRI and scheduled visits with a spine care specialist. In early June an Advanced Nurse Practitioner showed me detailed interior images of my spine, emphasizing where things seemed somewhat problematic. She arranged a series of sessions where a physical therapist coached me about repetitive daily exercises—arching and straightening my spine, bending and curling my legs, pressing my back to the floor. The next day, I did morning exercises and repeated one a second time near noon. Sue and I walked north, past a park playground and along an open field. When I paused to bend and straighten my legs, I couldn't move my feet well and fell over into the grass between the sidewalk and the road. I couldn't tell if the exercises had made my feet and ankles numb, but I seemed to do better when striding on the way home.


I tried to be conscientious about getting into those routines the recommended number of times each day. Two weeks later we walked through the nearby woods and across the river and back, roughly an hour of walking, formerly a customary outing. I felt the exercise in my legs and feet but had no difficulty completing the circuit and felt a little relieved. My internist gave me additional alternative exercises in later meetings and, by the middle of July, he approved of what I was doing, thought the exercises were helping, and updated some of them. He doubted I'd need further appointments after my next check-up.


In the interval we attended a family gathering on the Leelanau Peninsula, four hours of driving, four hours on the Lake Michigan Ferry. One day, with our daughters, son-in-law, and grandchildren, we hiked the Empire Bluff Trail, a 1.5-mile trek up and down very steep, very sandy, well-wooded terrain with a rewarding view of distant Sleeping Bear Dunes. Two days later a larger group of us walked five miles on the Mud Lake and Lake Michigan trails to the Manitou Overlook above Cathead Bay. None of that hiking bothered me, barely pained me.


At my final check-up yet another doctor reviewed my progress, scheduled no further appointments, and urged me to stay active and contact her if things worsened again. I'm theoretically no longer in need of consultations but I still need exercise.


For most of this year I've been conscious of mobility problems. Casually typing up an earlier longhand draft of this post, I wrote "mortality" instead of "mobility" and didn't realize it until I typed "immobility" further on. I didn't confuse it with "immortality." Glancing back, I corrected the spelling of "mobility." Since then, I haven't made that mistake again.


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Memory: Night Songs


The composition and rhetoric courses I studied during my University of Iowa post-doctorate year led me to write conference presentations about popular culture and preoccupied me as I settled into teaching at Central Michigan University. Eventually, long after I'd published my first book, drawn from my Restoration drama dissertation, I pieced together a completely different second book, published about ten years after I became a fully employed scholar/teacher. The chapters of The Rhetorics of Popular Culture: Advertising, Advocacy, and Entertainment are now between thirty-five and forty years old.


I revisited the book recently, after inadvertently finding an online video of "Night Moves" by Bob Seger, a favorite song of mine. It's not a good video but I listened to it twice, the second time singing softly along with Seger. Each time, I reached moments when I started to choke up, almost moved to tears. The song had affected me that way in the past, and hearing it opened the door to connections to Seger's songs lurking in memory.


I usually collected albums by singer/songwriters, first on LPs and eventually on CDs. Seger was a Michigan songwriter, and he was invited to share a Detroit concert stage with Bruce Springsteen. My students celebrated having purchased tickets—my class that evening was sparsely populated—and later let me know how great it was watching Bob and Bruce together. Some had attended my rhetoric class where I compared two thematically linked songs to help them appreciate familiar cultural elements as a way to consider what makes one song profoundly moving for someone and another, similar song seem irrelevant and unaffecting.


Together the class read the lyrics and heard recordings of Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight" and Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," examining the rhetorical angle in both: how the narrator portrays himself and presents his case to his particular listener, in either song a potential lover. Both songs were recorded in 1976 and eventually examined in a chapter in my popular culture book a decade later. They are essentially seduction songs, each centering on a man's attempt to talk a woman into bed, but differing notably in the presentation of the speaker's persona and the sense of who might be in control of the situation.


In "Tonight's the Night" the man prepares a younger woman to be initiated into sex, emphasizing his expectations ("Don't deny your man's desire"), his control of the situation ("Don't say a word, my virgin child"), and his semi-veiled explicitness ("Spread your wings and let me come inside"). Melody and arrangement reinforce a seductive rhythm running through the song and the lyrics center on the man's anticipation. The title is essentially a pronouncement of what is imminent for her. (In class we focused on the words and music, but a video I didn't show focuses on the man's leering persuasiveness—we never see the girl's face.)


In "We've Got Tonight" the speaker appreciates the woman's position, expressing a sense of their mutual needs ("both of us lonely, longing for shelter"), explaining his own situation frankly ("Deep in my soul I've been so lonely/All of my hopes fading away"), and offering the woman the chance to make the decision ("We've got tonight. Why don't you stay?") The song concludes with the repetition of earlier lines, the chorus heightened in intensity, the resolution open-ended.


Clearly the songs make a different impact. I prefer Seger's recording because of a certain individual literary quality in his songs. Compare "We've Got Tonight" to "Night Moves," where the narrator recalls experiencing robust sex with an avid and unsentimental partner ("We weren't in love, O, no. Far from it/We weren't searching for some pie in the sky summit"). There's a celebratory nature to the narrator's reminiscences of energetic and exploratory youthful sex and the verses rise to a crescendo ("Felt the lightnin' and we waited on the thunder"), but then the music grows calmer and the lyrics become a quiet epilogue that moves the speaker forward in time, into more remote and contemplative circumstances, where he wakes to the sound of distant thunder, starts humming a song from a much earlier time, and ponders:


Ain't it funny how the night moves

When you just don't have as much to lose

Strange how the night moves

With autumn closing in.


Unlike other popular sexual initiation songs, Seger's "Night Moves" ends on a mature perspective, adopting an older man's persona and asking listeners to identify with and accept its unromantic view of sexual initiation and the changes in self-awareness that come with maturity. I appreciate the perspective. But I should also acknowledge that my preference for Seger's "Tonight" song over Stewart's is more philosophical than musical, a judgement based on their rhetoric—the speaker's persona and perspective—rather than on their poetry or melody or orchestration.



Note: Root, Robert L., Jr. "A Listener's Guide to the Rhetoric of Popular Music," The Rhetorics of Popular Culture: Advertising, Advocacy, and Entertainment. Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture, Number 16. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987): 105-116.


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Memory: Gathering


When we got together with my cousin and her friend from Arizona recently, they were passing through Milwaukee bound for Door County. It had been several years since we'd seen one another. She caught us up on some of her world travels and we shared our visit to the Leelanau with family. All kinds of memories opened up as we talked, and I began to call up images of a variety of houses and yards and young cousins and long-departed elders and siblings. I'd seen my cousin more frequently in our youth, when both sides of my family largely resided in my hometown. My mother's parents had lived across the street from us, and her three brothers had raised their families, cousins abounding, within readily walkable blocks on the south side of the city. My father's father, his mother long departed, spent his remaining years across town from us and his sister's family lived for a long while closer to our neighborhood before moving across state. I had a good sense of whom I was descended from and who I was related to as I grew up.


Those of us in my generation eventually dispersed rather widely, and later our children did as well, to Wisconsin, Florida, and California. My wife's siblings still gather annually, as best they can—there have been losses among them as well and Covid complicated things, particularly this summer—and we've often hoped to get our children and grandchildren all in one place for a spell. When we got home from that Leelanau reunion this year, I noticed a photograph in our living room that evoked one of our earliest gatherings.


In summer 2007, we'd rented a house on the Door Peninsula, and the photo opposite my easy chair shows three of our grandchildren and two of their grandparents ostensibly reading from Sleepy Time Tales, a book I don't really remember. The picture always amuses me since our oldest granddaughter and her brother and their grandmother, holding the book, are all looking at the camera, the youngest child, their cousin, is gazing away from everything, and only Grandpa is intent on continuing to read the story aloud, completely ignored. The grandchildren's ages are likely four, two, and not-quite-one at that time. Both families will each add a daughter in a few years time.


Since we've just spent a week with those three and two more grandchildren on the Leelanau Peninsula across Lake Michigan, I can't help being aware of the passage of time and the changes those kids have undergone. The granddaughter in the photo will soon start her sophomore year in college, the boys will be a junior and a sophomore in high school, and their younger sisters will be in junior high; incidentally, their grandparents' hair is now considerably lighter in color. I'm tempted to try to replicate the photo, in the way I've seen people on Facebook display decades of family growth by annually staging photographs of family or friends in the exact same poses in the exact same locations. I'm aware of the likely differences in our version. Our grandkids would sit in the same positions on the couch, the co-ed to the left, the boys still in the middle; Grandma possibly needing to perch on the nearest boy's lap. The younger granddaughters would kneel or squat before them all. Since both of the boys are now very much teller than Grandpa, he would be entirely hidden behind them, except possibly for a glimpse of his shirt—fifteen years later he still wears that same one each summer.


The Leelanau family reunion is not certain to be repeated next summer, so the recreation of that first picture is in doubt. Luckily, a few weeks ago, one of our daughters photographed all of our grandchildren on one of the Cathead Bay trails in Leelanau State Park, deep in the woods. The three from the first photo stand behind the younger girls to the rear, the oldest granddaughter still to the left, the grandsons' positions switched so that her brother is deepest in and the youngest one (with glasses) is furthest on the right, while his sister is furthest to the left in the foreground, and the youngest granddaughter is most to the front, her siblings directly behind her. Knowing something of their energies and interests—they dance and play sports and read online—I won't try to read to them this trip.


We have many photos of their younger years around our house. It's always rewarding to relive moments we've shared with them. It's always stirring to recognize how much they've grown when we gaze at recent pictures. I'm content to stay here with them in the present. I'm in no hurry to see images of them in the future but certainly hope to have many chances to view them.


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Memory: The Nameless Horse Dilemma


Somewhere recently—and unexpectedly—I ran into a cartoon by Ellis Rosen mocking "A Horse with No Name," an old hit song by the group America. It was originally released on a 1971 album, and I'd first heard it then. I'd likely seen the cartoon somewhere earlier but now find it often online. It shows a man on a horse strumming a guitar as he rides through a desert scene and sings the opening lyrics, "I've been through the desert on a horse with no name." The thought bubble emanating from the forehead of the scowling horse reads, "It's Jim damnit." It made me chuckle the first time I saw it and again when I came upon it recently.


But when I woke up the following morning, the lyrics in the chorus were resounding in my head. The second line claims, "It felt good to be out of the rain," an illusion to the desert setting, I guess. The third and fourth lines—"In the desert you can't remember your name/'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain"—have always given me problems. When I first heard the song, I responded like an overly upright English teacher—(I was a teaching assistant in grad school at the time the song came out)—thinking "ain't no one" (which grammarians might claim as a double or, with "no pain," possibly a triple negative) should be either "there isn't any one to cause you pain" or "there is no one to cause you any pain." Logically, if no one is there to cause you any pain, that would make you feel good as you rode through the desert away from the rain, which apparently you don't like to ride in.


Then I wondered about the importance of the horse's lacking a name. Is it your horse or someone else's and why did neither of you name it? Or do you simply not know the horse's name? Did you ask the owner? In the cartoon the horse is a little grumpy about your indifference. But then I dug a little deeper and wondered why "you can't remember your [own] name" in the desert? Did you remember it earlier, in the rain? Or do you actually mean, you can't remember the horse's name or just don't care? And how would someone "giving you pain" make you remember your name but not giving you pain make you forget it? Each time you sing the chorus you blithely chant "La la la la la la…" Is the guy on the horse stoned?


The verses leading up to the repeated choruses supposedly record a nine-day journey through the desert. The first two stanzas are about the first day, taking in the setting ("plants and birds and rocks and things/ . . . sand and hills and rings"); the third stanza about both the second day (getting a sunburn) and the third day "in the desert fun" (maybe not a bad sunburn?) noticing a dried up river bed; the fourth stanza, when he lets "the horse run free/ 'Cause the desert had turned to sea," repeats his mention of plants, birds, rocks and things, sand, hills and rings. I can't help wondering why the desert turning into sea makes him let the horse run free—it may be nice of him—but why we should think anything had changed if he sees the same elements there as well (plants, birds, rocks and things, etc.). The fifth stanza strives for a conclusion:


The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love


And then repeats the chorus one more time. The ocean/desert comparison is obscurely interesting, but what does he mean about "a perfect disguise" or cities standing on "a heart made of ground" or humans giving no love (to what? To whom?) "La la la la la la..."


The lyricist Dewey Bunnell has explained that "A Horse with No Name" was "a metaphor for a vehicle to get away from life's confusion into a quiet, peaceful place." Some listeners thought it was a veiled reference to heroin use. As someone teaching freshman lit courses, I had the feeling that the rhymes in the lyrics were off-hand and random and largely chosen for sound rather than sense—"name/rain/name/pain," "sun/red/fun/bed/told/flowed/dead," "free/sea/things/rings." "underground/above/ground/love." But the melody was catchy, and it was a popular hit. Clearly it's one I've carried around a long time.


Popular culture isn't something we choose exposure to. Our favorite Italian restaurant plays tunes by Sinatra, Al Martino, Dean Martin, and others throughout the meal. You don't always have a choice about what plays in your memory later that night or early next morning.





"A Horse with No Name," Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Horse_with_No_Name>


"A Horse with No Name," Lyrics.

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Memory: Furniture


The morning after we did a thorough cleaning of our bedroom, emptying drawers and vacuuming behind and below heavy furniture and dusting a lot, I woke up thinking about my history with particular pieces.


We have nightstands on both sides of the bed. Mine is a fairly squat and sturdy do-it-yourselfer with the open space below a littered drawer filled with books. I can date Sue's stand back at least seventy years, though it may be older, originally a smoking stand set in my family's second living room, the one we all gathered in after supper—the first living room was the house entrance, open to the staircase up to our bedrooms and the hallway to the kitchen and centered on my mother's second-hand upright piano.


My father sat in the northeast corner of that room, opposite the television and next to the smoking stand. To his left, before our porch window, a cabinet housed our RCA Victor record player and our radio. Our phone sat on top of the smoking stand, Dad's pipe and tobacco canister were enclosed in the center space below a wide drawer, and phone books and magazines filled open slots on either side. He settled into his recliner after supper and on weekends for sports telecasts. I sat there during weekday lunch hours, watching one of my mother's soaps, "Love of Life," unless she was in the kitchen with my grandmother, and hoped to watch some of "The Betty White Show" rather than "Search for Tomorrow" before heading back to junior high. In late afternoon I also watched "American Bandstand," chapters of the "Flash Gordon" serial, and episodes of "Howdy Doody" with my sister and brother, before Dad came home. The smoking stand followed me to college and to apartments and houses ever afterward. Now it's on Sue's side of the bed, containing her books and folders and notepads.


Sue's dresser, across from the foot of our bed, was my mother's until her death. She may have acquired it before she married my father or when she and I lived with her parents or, after Dad returned after the war, when we moved into the house across the street. It was originally—at least in my memory—in the front room upstairs, first their bedroom, then only my mother's. My sister had the largest front bedroom, my brother and I shared the smallest one in the rear of the house. Later, when my parents remarried, the dresser was moved downstairs into what had been the family playroom. I moved into that front bedroom, where I got a clock radio for my bookcase bed and fell asleep to George "Hound Dog" Lorenz's rock-and-roll show on WKBW. My brother got the back bedroom to himself.


My mother's dresser, likely pretty old when she acquired it, had three long drawers, the bottom one the deepest, a round mirror attached to the back and towering over the top of it. Perhaps Sue and I were given it when we married and moved into our very old house in Alma, a little south of where I taught and where my ex-wife and our children lived in the middle of Michigan. It followed us to Colorado and later to Wisconsin. The drawers now screech when opened and closed, but they're roomy.


Over the years we've tried to divest ourselves of some of what we accumulate. We took half of our Michigan belongings to Colorado, and after four years in that apartment, decluttered again before returning to the Midwest and settling into this condo. Occasionally during our thirteen years here, we've decluttered again, as necessity demands. Whenever we move again, it will be to someplace smaller—we've visited older family members in fiercely institutional retirement homes and noticed how prominent Spartan settings and bare necessities are and expect our circumstances to eventually be similar in coming years.


We'll not likely pass on much furniture to our far-flung children in California and Florida and those nearer-by in Wisconsin—our descendants have also been accumulating for a while now. We may be around long enough for grandchildren to use something as they move into adulthood. Perhaps an antique store might take the dresser or the Salvation Army or Goodwill accept some things. The smoking stand might still be of use in our retirement retreat.


I'm not sure our children or grandchildren will conjure similar memories about the furniture we will leave behind. Maybe some of the bookcases would be useful (and some books readable), but that beat-up dresser and smoking stand are unlikely to prompt any fond associations with family history for them the way they have with me. You aren't always aware of everything decluttering opens up for you, how much of the past you have to confront—and how much relinquish.


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The Nonfiction of Place


When I started reading Ben Shattuck's Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, a flurry of similar titles and authors arose in memory. I recalled nature memoirs prompted by earlier nature memoirs or nature essays. My musing likely was prompted by a review of Shattuck's book by Lori Soderlind in the New York Times Book Review that also commented on A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir's Journey Through an Endangered Land by Dan Chapman, as well as books replicating locations of Hiroshige's 19th century paintings and visiting sites in Sherlock Holmes stories. I'd read all Thoreau's walking accounts and most of John Muir's, including his Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.


Wherever I wander, I carry a book recounting an earlier author's experiences in that environment, sometimes prompting an essay or memoir of my own. Isabella Bird's A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains encouraged my Following Isabella; John Muir's, Aldo Leopold's, and August Derleth's Wisconsin writings were the foundation of chapters in Walking Home Ground. But publishable writing doesn't always result. Reading about their simultaneous travels in Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell's A Journey to the Hebrides I pondered—unsuccessfully—how I might repeat them. Much varied reading and wandering resulted in my never completing a book comparing the Hudson and the Rhine Rivers—my brief essay "The Marksburg Photo" was the only part of The Endless Landscape to see daylight.


Perusing my bookshelves, I recognize how one book often stirs my interest in vaguely similar books. Reading Thoreau's Cape Cod led me into Henry Beston's The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod and at least two books by Robert Finch, Common Ground: A Naturalist's Cape Cod and The Outer Beach: A Thousand Mile Walk on Cape Cod's Atlantic Shore. Meeting David Gessner at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference led me to his book A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod, and since then I've read his other books, some about places I wanted to see (Under the Devil's Thumb, about Colorado) or about writers I've also read (Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis and All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West).


Gessner's indebtedness to Thoreau reminds me of other authors who have celebrated his influence: John Hanson Mitchell's Living at the End of Time deliberately draws from Thoreau's experience at Walden and Walking Toward Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place further celebrates Thoreau and his contemporaries. After we moved to Wisconsin, I couldn't resist August Derleth's conscientious following in Thoreau's footsteps, not only in his considerations of his own home ground in Walden West and Return to Walden West but also in his personal visits to Concord in Walden Pond: Homage to Thoreau.


A good many books simply immerse me in places where the authors live. I'm thinking here of John Lane's Circling Home, about Spartanburg, South Carolina; William deBuys' The Walk, set in New Mexico's mountains; Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, ranging from Britain to the Himalayas; Chet Raymo's The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, from his Massachusetts home to nearby Stonehill College; Laurie Lawlor's This Tender Place: The Story of a Wetland Year, in southeast Wisconsin; Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City, roaming Manhattan; Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, in Arches National Park; and Reg Saner's The Four-Cornered Falcon: Essays on the Interior West and the Natural Scene and Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi.


Sometimes I'm introduced to earlier writers whose books fostered later authors' interests in certain themes and locales. Ivan Doig's Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America draws on the earlier writing of James Gilchrist Swan; Christine Jerome's An Adirondack Passage: The Cruise of the Canoe Sairy Gamp recreates the 1883 voyage through the Adirondacks of George Washington Sears (pen-name Nessmuk); Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk alludes often to an earlier memoir, The Goshawk, by T. H. White (who later wrote The Once and Future King); and John Elder's Reading the Mountains of Home is about hiking Vermont hills in the company of Robert Frost's poem "Directive."


What I've read has always had a profound influence on what I write. Years ago, as a Fourth Genre editor and conference panelist, I edited Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place containing essays and commentary by such figures as Kim Barnes, Elizabeth Dodd, Barbara Hurd, Lisa Knopp, Scott Russell Sanders, Natalia Rachel Singer, and Deborah Tall, as well as Gessner, Mitchell, and Saner. Checking my bookshelves, I think I could often have been compiling sequels to that anthology. Engaging and observant nonfiction of place abounds, and I keep collecting it.


Notes: Root, Robert, ed. Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.


Root, Robert, "The Marksburg Photo," Ascent (November 2019)

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Then Then Now

Then: E. B. White's 1949 essay Here Is New York opens with mention of "the stubborn fact of annihilation," giving gruesome hints of what might happen in an air attack: "The city for the first time in its long history is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition." World War II was over, Germany reduced to rubble, Hiroshima and Nagasaki obliterated, the debris of war spread throughout Europe. The Cold War had begun, and memory of the atomic cloud hung menacingly over the planet.


At the same time, under construction not far from the Whites' Turtle Bay Gardens apartment, the United Nations Building was expected to house an international congress of diplomats hoping that, if enough nations united in the cause of peace, it could possibly be maintained. White noted "a race between the destroying planes and the struggling Parliament of Man": "The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled." In the intervening half-century, he seems overly optimistic—or perhaps reservedly hopeful.


Then: White's scenario was grim speculation in his day, but after the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001—Ground Zero on 9/11, as we call it—it felt uncomfortably like prophecy. In 2003, at the end of a conference in New York, I joined Michigan colleagues at LaGuardia for our flight to Detroit. Two had visited the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. They were surprised not to be more moved by it, the scene of so much horror and rage and, temporarily, a binding national grief. Expecting upwellings of strong emotions while gazing into the crater where the city's tallest building had been, they felt very little. One said, "It looks mostly just like a massive construction site." The flow of commerce creates similar sites every year. E. B. White commented about change in his Here Is New York introduction, claiming "The Lafayette Hotel, mentioned in passing, has passed despite the mention." Perhaps the hotel created such a crater, probably somewhat smaller, when it was demolished and replaced by a new skyscraper.


The United States then occupied Afghanistan and had invaded Iraq, retaliating for attacks on New York and Washington two years earlier. Some friends abandoned the conference in fear of further attacks. I remembered White's fear for the city and felt as if the terrorists had confirmed it. But in LaGuardia that day, television channels broadcast American aerial attacks on Baghdad. I thought: The destroying planes outracing the Parliament of Man are ours; the chance for peace is being evaded by us; our government drops the stubborn fact of annihilation on a foreign city, its people the victims, we the aggressors. Gazing from our flight, I thought New York looked very open, very small, very vulnerable, more destructible than ever before, indistinguishable in that regard from all the other cities of the world.


Now: In 2021 American President Biden ended occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the longest military campaigns of our history. In February 2022 Russian President Putin invaded Ukraine, causing massive destruction, an enormous refugee crisis, and a vast number of deaths. As I write, in June, the war persists, Ukraine supported militarily and economically by a broad spectrum of international allies. The Russian president is unrelenting and persistently menacing, seemingly willing to expand his war further into the world. In the US the Republican Party is relentlessly focused on gaining absolute control over legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government and opposed to environmental protection, health care, education, employment, equal opportunity, or public safety, responding to yet another massacre of school children with callous, hypocritical responses while expanding access to gun ownership and abolishing abortion rights. In the first twenty-one weeks of 2022 there were 213 mass shootings in America and at the end of May, 1,004,119 people had died of COVID-19 since January 2020.


It's hard to feel safe in America, fearful internationally of a potential third World War and disconsolate domestically about what our own government allows and enacts to reduce our personal rights and our community safety. Now, to me, feels less reassuring than the Thens we've endured in my lifetime.

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From time to time I wonder—even worry slightly—about the effect of my retirement idleness on my powers of cognition. Maybe that's too pompous a phrase—maybe I just mean, on my thought and memory. Yet, when I chanced upon a remark in a TED Talk about the retirement brain which mildly dissed working on puzzles, I mostly ignored it and continued to do my morning routine with word and jigsaw puzzles. Then I read a review of a new book about solving puzzles and decided to think more about puzzlers' brains.


The TED Ideas post by Cella Wright was an abbreviated overview of a TED Talk by gerontology researcher Ross Andel, director of the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida. He cites research linking retirement to "a decline in cognitive functioning" sometimes "double the rate of cognitive aging" and acknowledges it "does not apply to everyone." He discusses a twenty-year-long study of aging and cognition conducted in Australia where participants complete a number of tests that gauge memory, speed of thinking, verbal abilities and other cognitive skills. His research seemed to show that speed of processing ("a main indicator of the aging of the brain") declines with retirement, which "slows down information" and "leads to memory loss and disorientation." Because we don't use our brains as we did when we were working, we become "more susceptible to cognitive decline."


Andel thinks retirees need more "routine and individual sense of purpose." He urges anyone considering retirement to "find a new routine that's meaningful," one that provides a personal sense of purpose, such as "learning to play the hurdy-gurdy, mastering origami, bird-watching, [. . .] playing with grandkids." Andel deliberately avoids saying that "purpose is about intellectual engagement" and asserts that retirees "should not feel compelled to do (unless they like them) crossword puzzles and brain-teasers." Rather than "as a permanent holiday," he thinks it would be "more helpful to perceive [retirement] as a time of personal renaissance," a chance to "reinvest in things that truly matter to us."


Frankly, my own puzzling habit didn't seem like a personal renaissance. Then I discovered "Game Theory," Judith Newman's review of The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by A. J. Jacobs. The subtitle suggests a sweeping overview of puzzles ("From Crosswords to the Meaning of Life"? I suspect different levels of complication). Newman calls the book "a romp, both fun and funny," though, she claims, Jacobs believes "puzzles can save us. Far from a waste of time, they soothe, focus, excite; they can, Jacobs argues, 'make us better thinkers, more creative. more incisive, more persistent,' while giving us 'that dopamine rush of discovery.'" Jacobs asserts that puzzles "can nudge us to adopt the puzzle mind-set—a mind-set of ceaseless curiosity about everything in the world, from politics to science to human relationships—and a desire to find solutions."


He considers all kinds or puzzles: "Crosswords, anagrams, rebuses, jigsaws, mazes, chess problems, math and logic, ciphers/secret codes, visuals (think 'Where's Waldo?'), cryptics" and a good many more. Newman mentions Jacobs visiting "C.I.A. headquarters (to investigate Kryptos, the copper sculpture embedded with a secret message that continues to defy cryptanalysts)" and competing with his wife and three kids in the World National Jigsaw championships in Spain, representing the United States. She also gives attention to Adrian Fisher, who claims to be "the most prolific maze designer 'in the history of humankind'," creator of "a Beatles-themed maze in Liverpool, a maze in the passenger terminal of Singapore's Changi Airport, and one on the side of a building in Dubai, 'which shouldn't be attempted unless you're Spider-Man.'" She refers to Will Shortz, the NPR/New York Times editor, as someone "who is to puzzles what Kim Kardashian is to buttocks."


She opines: "The truth is, we're all puzzlers, whether we're trying to remember our passwords or losing sleep because we're staying up till 12:01a.m. to do Wordle—a simple word puzzle that ballooned from 90 daily players on Nov. 1 to 300,000 at the beginning of the year to millions now." She concludes with reference to "what Jacobs calls the true puzzle lover's ethos: 'We should look at a problem and figure out potential solutions instead of just wallowing in rage and doubling down on our biases.' With the dreadful puzzle we're finding our world in today, this just might be the answer."


I suspect that doing crosswords or jigsaw puzzles—or learning to play the hurdy-gurdy, mastering origami, or bird-watching—is a generally rewarding way to avoid concentrating on the present dreadful puzzle our world faces. We might imagine a solution but never have the power to resolve it. We'll have better luck with Wordle.





Andel, Ross. "Is retirement bad for your brain?" TEDXFulbrightCanberra.


Newman, Judith. "Game Theory," The New York Times Book Review. (June 5, 2022): 52. Review of The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by A. J. Jacobs. New York: Crown, 2022.


Wright, Cella. "Think Retirement Is Smooth Sailing? A Look at Its Potential Effects on the Brain." TED Ideas, July 12, 2019. Summary of "Is retirement bad for your brain?" | Ross Andel | TEDxFulbrightCanberra"


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Little Hybrid Thing


Ned Stuckey-French was an advisory editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and his essay on the essay, "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay," appeared in their first issue. He also served as a book review editor for Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction and was a professor of English at Florida State University. His death from cancer in 2019 prompted a considerable outpouring of grief from his colleagues, who were deeply aware of his loss on both personal and professional levels. He had been working on a collection of essays and after his death his long-time friend John T. Price was enlisted by Ned's widow Elizabeth Stuckey-French and his friend and former professor Carl Klaus to prepare Ned's writing for publication. The collection came out this year and, as familiar as I had been with many of the selections there—Ned's work had been reprinted in Best American Essays several times over the years and I was aware that Ned had been both an outstanding nonfiction scholar and a memorable personal essayist—I appreciated the chance to have so much of his writing in one volume.


One by One, the Stars had been incomplete (and lacked that title) at Ned's death and a few of his earlier essays were added to what he had compiled. Among them was "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay" and once I'd made my way back to it near the end of the collection, I was reminded of the way Ned had managed to be simultaneously an authoritative scholar and a personable communicator. The essay refers to a variety of essayists—he points out early that the essay was established both by Montaigne, as "a means of self-exploration, an exercise in self-portraiture, and a way for him to explore, tentatively and skeptically, his own thoughts and feelings" and by Sir Francis Bacon, as "a means of instruction, a guide to conduct, a way to test, recognize, and appreciate the 'truth'." He refers to a number of major essayists—George Orwell, E. B. White, Joan Didion, Edward Hoagland, Virginia Woolf—and such contemporaries as Philip Lopate, Douglas Hesse, David Lazar, and Scott Russell Sanders.


But for all his scholarship he also models the voice of the personal essayist. "A good way to begin drafting an essay is to explore a story that you yourself aren't quite sure about, a story that haunts you, a story you need to tell but you don't know why." He suggests, "The struggle is both to tell the tale but also to find your inner voice from that time (the voice of reflection) and your inner voice now (the voice of retrospection)." He quotes Joan Didion's observation about the need to "keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be" and concludes:


"An essay recaptures the voice of a former self and in so doing enables one's current self to talk about that former self, and then one or both of them, though most likely just the current self, talks to the reader about the lives lived by both selves." In the next paragraph he adds: "Got it?"


Later he quotes E. B. White's explanation: "The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil's advocate, enthusiast." Ned reminds us that White adds, "There is one thing the essayist cannot do, though—he cannot indulge himself in deceit or in concealment for he will be found out in no time."


Ned's essay opens with a bountiful survey of competing terms applied to the essay and then subtly (and sometimes unsubtly) proceeds to demonstrate particulars of that range, from learned exegesis ("All genres are contaminated by other genres, and taxonomy itself is a subjective and relativistic exercise") to wry allusions ("It's slippery business. Our selves are and are not. They once were lost and now are found." That last sentence is a good example of his subtle humor, quietly echoing a verse from "Amazing Grace."


Carl Klaus and Ned had co-edited Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, published a year after Ned published his historical overview The American Essay in the American Century. In his commemoration of Ned on Assay, Klaus called "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing" "A tour de force from its slangy opening to its concluding shot," "a verbal and visual adventure," and "a striking embodiment of Ned's inventive and inspiring approach to the essay." As I read—and reread—his great essay on the essay, I fondly felt Ned's presence rise from the page.




Babine, Karen, editor. "'Never to be yourself, and yet always': Paying Tribute to Ned Stuckey-French," Assay Journal. 6.1 (Fall 2019).


Klaus, Carl H., and Ned Stuckey-French, editors. Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012.


Root, Robert. "The Death and Life of the Essay," review of The American Essay in the American Century by Ned Stuckey-French, American Book Review 33:2 (January/February 2012): 7.


Root, Robert. "On The American Essay in the American Century," Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, 6.1 (Fall 2019).


Stuckey-French, Ned. "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay," One by One, the Stars: Essays. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022. Originally published in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. 1.1 (Fall 2014).


Stuckey-French, Ned. The American Essay in the American Century. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.


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It sometimes takes awhile for things to connect. My son sent me a photocopy of an image of me from his mother's SUNY Geneseo college yearbook, taken when I'd been a student there, and, though uncertain about its context, I wrote an essay about it. The photo was from 1965, the photocopy from 2015, the essay published in 2020.


I may have only learned of William Melvin Kelley's death in February 2017 a year later, through an article by Kathryn Schultz in The New Yorker. I'd occasionally thought about writing an essay about the creative writing class I'd taken from him in Spring 1965 and how much I'd admired his short-story collection and four novels. I'd read his first novel, A Different Drummer, when my college made it required reading for freshmen, and I'd reviewed his second novel, A Drop of Patience, in our college newspaper. Copies of his five books were likely somewhere in our garage, probably near issues of The Lamron I'd published in.


A year ago, posting entries about short stories written for our college magazine, one about "The Stone" from Spring 1965 made me remember Kelley's comment on it. He thought it had too positive a conclusion and that my sympathy for my characters made me avoid a more realistic outcome. He was likely right. Together with his reaction to my Lamron article about him, I had two anecdotes to share if I wrote an entry about Kelley on my blog. By now Geneseo's English department had been archiving its history online, including material focused on Walter Harding, a Thoreau scholar who had been instrumental in bringing Kelley to campus. I found a wealth of material on the exhibit website, including one mention of me.


"An Open Letter About William Melvin Kelley" by Art Brooks, published in Books, began with the statement, "William Melvin Kelley is a disappointment to students at the State University College at Geneseo, N.Y.—and they love him because of it," and then elaborated: "As Robert Root wrote in the college newspaper, it was logical to assume that Kelley would be 'a beatnik, an egoist, a rebel, controversial, flamboyant.' Instead, students have found, since he arrived at Geneseo in February to take up his appointment as writer-in-residence, that Kelley is 'very human, very real, an average guy outwardly.'" My article incited Kelley to sneak up behind me in the college snack bar and hiss "Assassino!" in my ear, startling me and walking away laughing. I ran after him to talk more about the article, which—thankfully—he liked.


That yearbook included a two-page dedication to Kelley's time as writer-in-residence, with close-up photos of Kelley and some of his students. "Ten people sat around an elliptic shaped table," the comment opens, adding nine student names and Kelley's and explaining they "came together weekly to examine their writing. There between puffs on his cigar, William Kelley would emphasize a point by tapping his finger or folding his fist. His manner was one of casualness and quiet alertness. He would listen as the students criticized each other's writing and then insist they drop their politeness to dig deeper into each other's errors. After all comments ceased the author in residence spoke."


A list of quotations from Kelley's classes follows, ending with: "You have to be presumptuous to be a writer. You have to believe you must write because there's a gap that must be filled. You wouldn't write if you thought you'd just say something that someone's said before. Instead, you try to break the mold."


I appear in two of the photos, one with my friend Doug Brode and one that is that yearbook picture my son sent me seven years ago. Now I know where I was in the photo, in a classroom being taught how to write fiction by a novelist with a uniquely individual perspective on race and relationships. His advice stayed with me for a long time whenever I tried to write fiction.


Kathryn Schultz's New Yorker article was inspired by finding a copy of a Langston Hughes' novel with its frontispiece autographed, "Inscribed especially for William Kelley ~ on your first visit to my house ~ welcome!" She gives us a thorough overview of Kelley's published books and the later decades when he published none of the other novels he continued to write. She calls him a "lost giant of American literature," and that may be apt— for almost fifty years I heard nothing about him until his death—but I've learned that all his novels have been translated into several other languages and are all available in more recent editions once more. There's still an opportunity for readers to appreciate the kind of writer he was. I'll always remember the kind of person he was.





Kelley, William Melvin. A Different Drummer (1962), Dancers on the Shore (1964), A Drop of Patience (1965), dem (1967), and dunsfords travels everywheres (1970). All five books have recently been published again.


Root, Robert. "The Stone," June 25, 2021.


Schulz, Kathryn. "The Lost Giant of American Literature." The New Yorker January 29, 2018


"The Spring of '65: Walter Harding and William Kelley," The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar.


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