Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From Lemonade Stand to Graduate School

My first transistor radio was a baby-blue and silver box about the size of a Kindle.  I bought it from Sears with $50 I had netted from selling lemonade.

How could I earn so much money from lemonade?  We lived about a mile from the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, and a large nearby field, home of four or five Little League diamonds, served as a satellite parking lot for the fair.  By the time people reached their cars on a hot August day in the late 1950s, when no one carried a plastic water bottle, they were pretty thirsty.

All summer my mother and I would stock up on cans of frozen concentrate when they were on sale, keeping careful track of how much we spent, and for three days on Labor Day Weekend, my lemonade stand became a family enterprise.  Mom would make the lemonade, Dad would transport it in the car about two blocks to my stand, my little brother would shout, “Ice-cold lemonade, made in the shade!  Only 10¢ a glass, get it while it lasts!”  One summer I told him to stand on a board on a pile of rocks, and a rusty nail pierced the sole of his foot.  My dad rushed him to the hospital for a tetanus shot, and I felt guilty for weeks.

The transistor radio fit under my pillow, and it transported me everywhere:  to Chicago, where I listened to Dick Biondi on WLS; to Montreal, where I tried out my high school French-in-progress; to Detroit, where WJR broadcast “Ask the Professor.”

That program should have been called “Stump the Professors,” and I accepted the challenge.  The first time I submitted questions, I won a year’s subscription to The Atlantic Monthly.  A few months later, I submitted a list of “foreign dishes” like risotto and rinktum-ditty that they could not identify, and I received Harper’s Magazine; a year later, I beat them with four questions drawn from my current reading (e.g., who was Roger Chillingworth?) for another year of The Atlantic.

Looking back at those magazines, as I prepare to toss them after 50 years of moving them from Indianapolis to Topeka to Chicago to Washington, I see how much they shaped my interests over the years, and I am particularly struck by how they echoed and resonated through the years of my adult life.

  • Countless full-page ads for European vacations, Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and the Book-of-the-Month Club.
  • Poetry by Randall Jarrell, Maxine Kumin, and Theodore Roethke, with whom I later took a seminar when he was a visiting poet at the University of Cincinnati (“Roethke makes me/think in poesy” was my first feeble attempt).
  • The famous photo of Freud and Jung at Clark University that I saw 1,000 times when I served as editor of publications at the Menninger Foundation and helped with the Freud exhibit at the Library of Congress.
  • “The Angry Young Women,” an essay by Ellen Moers comparing contemporary women writers to those of the Victorian period.
  • “Why Nobody Can’t Write Good,” by John Fischer, a piece on the teaching of English in college that concludes, “I have hopes that the colleges will someday refuse to admit any student who cannot read and write”:  my sentiments exactly after teaching Freshman English at two universities some 15-20 years later.
  • A Bell Telephone System advertisement for “educational television:  help for busy teachers, hope for crowded classroom.”
  • “The Nation’s Worst Slum:  Washington, D.C.” by Agnes E. Meyer, drove me to D.C. rather than away.
  • A loving tribute to “England,” by Ken W. Purdy, shaped my anglophilia.
  • “The Writer as Moralist” by Saul Bellow, the subject of my doctoral dissertation.
  • A report on the Cornwall town of St. Ives, which I finally visited in 1972.
  • A critical essay on The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James, who was the subject of an entire course I took in graduate school.
  • On one cover, in my mother’s precise printing, is her household budget for the month.
  • On many others, words that must have puzzled me:  beatific, necromancer, penumbral, subterfuge, lachrymose, rapport.

I don’t remember being encouraged or driven to do this, or be like this.  I was ambitious, self-directed, curious.  Later, I realized that people thought I was a “show-off,” a “Miss Know-It-All.”  I was proud of my SAT verbal scores, ashamed of my math scores.  My father went over and over the arithmetic with me.  I had stomach aches in math classes; a friend tutored me privately in math.  I never got it.  I had “math anxiety” before Sheila Tobias gave it a name.

Instead, I loved words; I loved books; I loved reading about books, and people, and places.  I wanted to write with them all, meet them all, see them all.

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