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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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Andy & Angell


Roger Angell, celebrated sportswriter and editor, died on May 20, at age 101. I've read a couple of his baseball books and especially admire his more autobiographical collections, Let Me Finish (2006) and This Old Man: All in Pieces (2015). He was the son of New Yorker fiction editor Katherine Angell and the stepson of essayist E. B. White. I met him once, when we both spoke at the E. B. White Celebration at the Museum of the City of New York in 2003. I was introduced as an E. B. White scholar; he was simply introduced as Roger Angell.


I spent most of the 1990s studying White's writing. Angell's death prompted me to browse our guest room bookshelf lined entirely with books by or about White. There I found both my first edition copy of White's Here is New York from 1949 and a commemorative edition with an introduction by Roger Angell from 1999. It was good to get the chance to read the two of them together. Angell was working for Holiday Magazine in 1948 and his editor asked White, who then lived in Maine, to write an essay about New York. White likely accepted the assignment for the chance not only to revisit New York but also to spend time with his stepson. The essay in Holiday eventually became the small book.


In March 2003 I flew to New York City for a teacher's conference, everyone haunted by the September 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center and nervous about our new war with Iraq. I'd brought along a copy of Here is New York and began an essay comparing White's past sense of the city to my own sense of it fifty-five years later. Reading him helped me get perspective on the times I was living in. I met colleagues at the Algonquin Hotel, where White had stayed, and studied its painting of Algonquin Round Table writers, including New Yorker contributors White knew. I strolled past Turtle Bay Gardens, where Andy and Katherine had maintained an apartment, often hosting Roger Angell and his wife. A few months later, on June 7, I wandered through Central Park to meet Roger at the Museum on 8th Avenue, trying not to worry about his reaction to whatever I would say about his stepfather.


Angell wrote about White in "Andy," a New Yorker article published twenty years after his stepfather's death. It evokes their time together and the challenge of reliving those moments: "What were we talking about, just now? We were close for almost sixty years, and you'd think that a little back-and-forth—something more than a joke or part of an anecdote—would survive, but no. What's impossible to write down, soon afterward, is a conversation that comes easily." He remembers them ice-skating on a frigid day in Boston in 1929 and on their return finding the shoes that Andy had hidden under a bush missing. That makes him recall an essay in One Man's Meat from 1942 where White remembers as a teen-ager holding a girl's hand and decides, "It was enough that spring to remember what a girl's hand felt like, suddenly ungloved in winter." Angell observes, "The shift from the winter general to the sudden particular of the girl's hand is a White special, as is the self-deprecation." He remembers how often White avoided public events, such as being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and his wife Katherine's burial in Brooklin Cemetery in 1977. At White's memorial service in 1985, Angell told attendees, "If Andy White could be here today, he would not be here today."


Angell noticed how Here Is New York "was widely rediscovered in the weeks just after September 11th, because of its piercing vision." He calls it "a revisiting of the pulsing and romantic city White knew and worked in during his late twenties and early thirties" and refers to White's mention of how "a small flight of planes could now bring down the great shining structure in a moment." The final sentence, he points out, ends with "the famously reversed final phrase: 'this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.'" Angell concludes, "Losing New York is possible, but not holding on to the thought of it—which is all we may have in the end—much worse."


Reading Angell's writing about White in Let Me Finish and This Old Man, not simply in titled pieces like "Andy" and "Past Master: E. B. White," but also in anecdotes interspersed through random reminiscences and comments that give us access to the workings of The New Yorker, deepens my appreciation of them both. I almost feel as if I knew them both, if only through their writing.




Angell, Roger. "Andy," Let Me Finish. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006: 113-137.


Angell, Roger. "Past Masters: E. B. White," This Old Man: All in Pieces. New York: Doubleday, 2015.


Bonomo, Joe. "From the Desk of Joe Bonomo: Roger Angell, Legendary Writer," University of Nebraska Press Blog.


Remnick, David. "Postscript: Remembering Roger Angell, Hall of Famer," The New Yorker. June 6, 2022: 14-15.


Root, Robert. "Here is New York," Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012: 69-79.


Root, Robert L., Jr. E. B. White; The Emergence of an Essayist. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.


White, E. B. Here is New York. Introduction by Roger Angell. New York: The Little Bookroom, 1999.


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Telling Everything


Years ago, when I was teaching writing in an Ohio graduate program, I would spend two summer weeks on its campus—we taught online in fall and spring semesters—where the far-flung faculty would get to know one another and meet other visiting poets, fictionists, and nonfictionists. In summer 2016, I was assigned to co-present a craft lecture with a new faculty member, Erika Krouse, she a novelist, I a memoirist. We planned to discuss our genres jointly in a dual presentation. At the start of our talk, "The Value of Vignettes and Other Variations," she explained that we both "use vignettes a fair amount in our own work" and would talk about our particular strategies. I mentioned a couple of my essays and my recent memoir Happenstance, she mentioned some of her short stories and her recent novel Contenders, and we alternated giving examples from other writers in our genres. The talk went well.


That was my last year with the program and, like all but one of the people I'd known there, Erika didn't remain on the faculty either. She continued teaching in the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, a solid writing program I once (briefly) taught in. I tended to keep track of Colorado writers I'd read and eventually discovered that Erika Krouse had recently published a memoir, Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation. I learned about it because she posted on Facebook about its imminent publication and mentioned her appearances at various venues to read and discuss it. By the time she posted an image of a long review in Slate for March 14, a brief review declaring it Book of the Week in People for April 4, an article in The Week naming her Author of the Week for April 15 and quoting a Colorado Sun review, and a half-page review in the May 8 issue of The New York Times Book Review, my wife and I had already read the book aloud to one another at supper time and thought it truly merited the attention it was getting.


There are two ways to interpret the subtitle of the book. The primary narrative is a story of a specific private investigation, following the author's recruitment as a detective working for a lawyer representing the victim of sexual assault by college football players. That story tracks the author's development of her abilities to interrogate subjects and witnesses and essentially exposes a network of abuse and covering up evidence. The personal private narrative that is interspersed with that story involves the author's childhood victimization by her stepfather and its long-lasting impact on her sense of self and outlook on the world she moves through.


All of these elements are drawn from her life, altered in some details for personal and practical reasons, but otherwise emotionally and intellectually observant and honest. As Patrick Hoffman points out in his review of the book, the case centering on football players, coaches and recruits and the story of Krouse's sexual abuse "become the two threads that compose this beautifully written, disturbing and affecting memoir. This is literary nonfiction at a high level." A private investigator himself, Hoffman claims to have initially "worried that the dual narratives of Krouse's personal story and the football team's rape case wouldn't coalesce. Sadly, they fit together all too well."


In the introduction to her interview of Erika in The Colorado Sun, Kathryn Eastburn calls it "the tale of Krouse's work from 2002 to 2007 as a private investigator on a rape case against a Colorado university football team that evolved into a landmark Title IX civil rights case. It's also a blistering account of the toll of childhood sexual assault on her life." Krouse herself points out that "this case in Colorado changed the perceived responsibility of the university toward its students, saying the university is responsible for the safety of its students, no matter what."


"It is not the detective who creates the culture of the crime, like Sherlock Holmes fiddling with his matchbooks, watermarks, Dutch cigarette butts, or the fading scent of white jasmine perfume," Krouse tells us. "The culture of the crime is defined by the culture of the place where the crime is committed." Through her perceptive and conscientious prose, we come to fully understand the culture of the crime and its lasting effects on its victims.


I lived some dozen miles from the university when the case went to court and media reported it, and met Erika briefly a decade later, but have only just learned about her role in the case. The book has been optioned for TV. If the adaptation can capture what she has created on the page, it will be a very powerful viewing experience. I look forward to it.





Eastburn, Kathryn. "Sunlit Interview: Erika Krouse couldn't ignore own sex assault in a broader investigative story," The Colorado Sun (March 20, 2022).


Hoffman, Patrick. "Trust Me," The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 8, 2022): 19.


Krouse, Erika. Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation. New York: Flatiron Books, 2022.


Miller, Laura. "The Unreliable Narrator," Slate (March 14, 2022)


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The judges who gave Margaret Renkl the 2022 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay claimed that her weekly essays for the New York Times "offer a model for how to move through our world with insight and sensitivity" and called Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartbreak from the American South "a stellar collection that spans nature writing and cultural criticism, the present and the past." I'd read earlier PEN winners and finalists like Annie Dillard, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ann Patchett and saw a review comparing Renkl's "graceful sentences" to those of E. B. White. Renkl seemed like an essayist I should read.


Graceland, At Last gathers sixty essays from her op-ed column, arranged in separate sections (as she explains in her introduction) "on the flora, fauna, politics, and culture of the American South [. . .] but also on the imperiled environmental context in which the flora and fauna are trying to survive, the social justice issues raised by the politics of this region, and the rich artistic life of a widely varied culture." Each essay has a publication date, none in strictly chronological order. Though some are more narrative and personal and others more editorial and argumentative, all are thoughtful and interesting.


One essay that stayed with me—I dogeared a lot of pages—was "Hawk, Lizard, Mole, Human," the first essay in the opening section, "Flora & Fauna." It is divided into four short, titled parts, each focused on one of those beings. Below the title she writes in italics: "Because William Blake was right: 'Every thing that lives is holy'" and that theme is reinforced in her witnessing of the first three creatures and her reflections on their lives in the fourth section. It's the only segmented essay in the book; the rest are in familiar essay format. I took my time reading through the book, four or five essays a night, and found her to be good company, honest and thoughtful no matter her subject.


The book contains two pages of blurbs about her previous essay collection, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, and the nature of them made it seem even more necessary for me to read it. Ann Patchett compared it to Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Agee's A Death in the Family as potentially "an American classic." People claimed it "has echoes of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life," the Times called it: "Equal parts Annie Dillard and Anne Lamont with a healthy sprinkle of Tennessee dry rub thrown in," and novelist Richard Powers called it "A compact glory, crosscutting between consummate family memoir and keenly observed backyard natural history." Blurbs are intended to encourage you to read the book. Her first book arrived in the mail before I finished her second book.


Most pieces in Late Migrations are dated, the collection moving chronologically from an account of Margaret's mother's birth in 1931—one of the occasional excerpts edited from transcripts of her brother Billy's interviews with their grandmother, each titled "In Which My Grandmother Tells . . ."—up through "Separation Anxiety," Margaret's account of preparing to drive her sons to their college dorms in 2018. Billy Renkl's artwork sometimes sections off his sister's essays. Some undated essays are taken from her New York Times column, but the dated essays always refer to moments in Renkl's personal history, births and deaths and family events. Much of the material is short, essentially "micro-nonfiction," only a few paragraphs or a single page or two long, expressing and inhabiting flashes of memory and observing the nature around her.


In "Prairie Lights: Eastern Colorado, 1980" she's traveled from her home in Alabama to her boyfriend's family reunion in the west and witnesses a meteor shower: "And, oh, the stars were like the stars in a fairy tale, a profligate pouring of stars that reached across the sky from the edge of the world to the edge of the world to the edge of the world. Even before the first meteor winked at the corner of my eye, I tilted my head back and felt the whole world spinning." The reader is continually, fully invited into the moment the writer relives.


In "Still" she tells us, "Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world." Throughout the book her reflections on family and personal history intersect with her reflections on nature and place. In "After the Fall" she realizes, "There is nothing to fear. There is nothing at all to fear. Walk out in the springtime, and look: the birds welcome you with a chorus. The flowers turn their faces to your face. The last of last year's leaves, still damp in the shadows, smell ripe and faintly of fall."




Renkl, Margaret, with art by Billy Renkl. Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019.


Renkl, Margaret. Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartbreak from the American South. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2021.


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A few years ago, responding to my inactivity and slowing memory, my daughter sent me a book of mixed puzzles. Supposedly, doing puzzles helps your brain stay active and engaged. I obligingly worked my way through most of them.


I now have a first-thing-in-the-morning online routine: three different crossword puzzles, then two (or three) jigsaw puzzles, then the day's weather forecast, all before checking my email account and then—too often—Facebook. I claim knowing the weather helps me decide what to wear and it's remotely possible I'll have a personal email message or find an urgent Facebook post. I delete most of the messages out of a sense of tidiness and scroll quickly past most Facebook posts. I claim that this routine prepares me to start the working day, but other than editing and re-editing an entry to post on my blog on Friday morning or revising my check list of things I might be doing during the coming week or composing biweekly notes to record what I did or didn't do in terms of writing, editing, and reading, my concrete accomplishments in any week are likely to be various household chores and curbside errands.


Online jigsaw puzzles appeal to me, especially the plentiful array of nature scenes and historical sites available at Jigzone and Jigsaw Planet. Those sites give me a range of patterns to work with. The Jigzone puzzles range between 6 pieces and 247 pieces, in over a dozen shapes (zigzag, birds, polygons, stars, lizards, triangles—in one option you piece together a map of the United States); I almost always do the 48-piece Classic version. The Jigsaw Planet puzzles have eight shapes to choose from and generally range between 24 and 300 pieces; I mostly choose 24- or 30-piece puzzles in a fairly simple shape. Most of the puzzles I pick show places I've sometimes but most often never have been.


Crossword puzzles—AARP's The Daily Crossword, The Daily Word Search, and Scramble Words—appeal to me more. They involve words that call upon powers of memory and interpretation. The Scramble Words puzzle is a timed event in four rounds with three to five or six blank spaces to be filled with certain letters randomly presented below the puzzle. If one of the letters is an S, chances are good that one or more three-letter or four-letter singular words will add it to become a plural: tip, tips, pit, pits, port, ports, sport, lime, limes, guy, guys, dent, dents, gent, gents. I almost always make it through the third round, but I've only completed all four rounds three times. I can look up the words I've missed when the game ends, which usually makes me certain I would have guessed them if I'd had more time.


The Daily Word Search centers on the trivia theme of finding words about that day in history. Words are variously arranged in a puzzle grid, to be read up, down, forwards, backwards and diagonally. The words are listed beside the grid, two of them hidden for extra points. I generally try to find the hidden words before they're exposed but pay no attention to the score I rack up.


In The Daily Crossword the words are either horizontal or vertical, roughly 80 or so intersecting one another, with a numbered list of clues for up words and down words alongside the grid. You need to figure out what a clue is alluding to: a historical figure or event? a familiar expression? an alternative meaning? I avoid the more complicated crosswords—the Anagram Crossword, the Cryptic Cross, the Daily American Crossword (which took me over half-an-hour to complete yesterday)—and stick to the Daily Crossword, which I can now complete in six or seven minutes. My speed relies on how repetitive the words are. I can almost count on certain words showing up: Ella, elle, ella, ell, ells, els, Elton, Eddie, Reba, Alec, Alecs, Eric, Erics, area, arena, Erie, eerie, lama, llama, aper, icer, and how Shakespeare would write "never" or "ever" or "evening". The repetition makes the puzzle easier, of course.


As I confess to the frequency with which I work at crosswords and jigsaws, I'm aware of how insistently I opt for the less challenging approaches. More challenging versions take more time and the prude in me resists playing games that long. I suppose the question might arise as to whether the time I'm spending and the level of challenge at which I'm spending it is sufficient to keep my brain active and my memory operational. Maybe the more urgent question is whether this blog post is proof positive that the crosswords and jigsaws I've completed have helped keep me as intellectually proficient as I used to be.


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