Category Archives: Literacy

(A Lot Fewer Than) 1000 Words: The New Library

A paragraph from a Herald-Times story about the under-construction Monroe County Public Library southwest branch caused me to raise an eyebrow this AM. Here’s the graf:

The building will be 21,000 square feet and rest on approximately five acres of sloping lawns on the southwest corner of Batchelor Middle School, 890 W. Gordon Pike. The interior will offer meeting rooms, computer access, study spaces, areas dedicated for young children and teenagers, and quiet nooks for reading and contemplation. In addition to those traditional services, the new branch will feature a teaching kitchen, all-ages collaborative space and amphitheater.

The article adds that much of the heavy construction work has been completed and the branch remains on schedule to open in May. An Indiana Public Media story dated March 5, 2020, reported an estimated total cost of $9 million for the project.

So, what made me go Hmm? None of the articles about the project over the past two or three years has mentioned the simple word, books. You’ll note, of course, the word is missing from the seemingly comprehensive run-down of the new facility’s features in the graf above.

Books — the things that used to be the main and sole purpose of libraries. Library — from the Latin, liber (plur. libri), meaning book (books).

We still don’t know how many books the new structure will contain, nor how many stacks, how much floor space is devoted to browsing, or even whether the MCPL will invest in a whole brand new inventory of books. MCPL librarians may, for all we know, simply grab a bunch of books from existing MCPL sites and move them to the Batchelor site. Who knows?

Now, I guess, books ranks way down among the list of Reasons Libraries Exist. Certainly further down than, say, all-ages collaborative spaces, whatever in the hell those are.

Remember These Things?

1000 Words: The New Queen

I’ve rarely met a woman who can grasp why men like to read in the bathroom. I keep books in the bathroom in case I forget to bring in whatever I’m currently reading while not perched on the porcelain. Right now there are two selections therein: 1) Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall, and 2) The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce.

Marshall, BTW, posits that political scientists and other such self-assured experts pooh-pooh the notion that geography has all that much to do with the actions, reactions, and relationships of the nations of the world. To the contrary, he writes, geography — mountains, plains, rivers, latitudes and longitudes, climate, growing seasons, et cetera — have almost everything to do with how countries go about their business.

See, these are the kinds of things I learn while…, well, doing something else.

Anyway. Reading. In the bathroom or out. A year ago this December, Gallup did a poll asking Americans how much they’ve read in the past year. The 2021 poll revealed, to my surprise, that the citizens of this holy land read fewer book in the past annum than in any year since 1990.

Conventional wisdom holds that people are reading less and less these days. Yet, raw data tells us books sales continue to be brisk. Even as big box retailers like Border’s and Barnes & Noble have either bitten the dust or are just about to, locally owned independent booksellers are flourishing. And Amazon is awash in cash from its online book sales.

So, are Americans reading less in this post-Trump era? I delineate things that way because the election (on a technicality) of the 45th president told us a lot of things about Americans, up to and including that they got (and/or get) most of their information from TV news channels and social media. In other words, they ain’t reading newspapers and Time magazine anymore.

Would that be because Americans aren’t reading much anymore, period?

I still say no. I continue to maintain the American populace is reading at relatively the same rate it has ever done so. Admittedly, my nation’s sisteren and brethren have never been particularly noted for devouring Proust and Kant. I recall reading in the iconic Book of Lists back in the 1970s that the two most widely read books in America were the Bible and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.

A deeper dive into Gallup’s figures reveals that Americans, on average, have been reading more and more books on an annual basis ever since 1990. The 2021 figure represents the first non-growth number since that year. So the supposed decline in American reading habits is not at all a trend but perhaps a minor bump in the road.

What are Americans reading? A lot of them — a lot of them — are reading young adult romance author Colleen Hoover.

Colleen Hoover

The Texas housewife and former social worker is the reigning royal in the genre. In the entire publishing universe, for pity’s sake. Not that she’s following in anybody’s footsteps or lineage; Hoover’s success is something the publishing world has never seen before.

While raising three kids in her single-wide trailer home, mopping up spilt milk, and listening earnestly to people moaning about how unfair life was, Hoover decided to write a novel. She scribbled while sitting in a theater waiting for one of her kids’ after school drama classes to end. She didn’t even dream the book would one day be picked up by a publisher, and it wasn’t. She self-published the novel, Slammed, in 2012. A year after that, she self-published a sequel, Point of Retreat.

Then, out of the blue, a book blogger named Maryse wrote the following about Slammed on her website (all sic):

So! Who’s in the mood to read a book that will hook you from the first few lines, make you smile, make you laugh, make you ABSOLUTELY fall in love, and then sigh and sigh and sigh again? YOU? OF COURSE YOU!

I LOVED SLAMMED!!! One of my best books of 2012, EASILY and now, one of my all-time favorites too!! Here is the book that kept me up until 2am (laughing and crying and sighing).

Maryse must have had some hot following back then because, next thing anybody knew, both Slammed and Point of Retreat shot up the New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list. Hoover quit her job as a social worker and devoted herself to writing more novels.

Hoover’s third book, Hopeless, also self-published, hit number one on the NYT bestseller list in January 2013. Then Hoover experienced a temporary lull in sales and fame. Several of her books originally were available for free on her website. But last year, a book-reading community on TikTok went gaga over all her old books, then numbering 22, and Hoover became the hottest bestseller since…, uh, forever.

Hoover’s written two more novels since TikTok turned her into a supernova. This week, for instance, nine the top 13 paperback fiction NYT bestsellers are Hoover’s. Nobody’s ever seen anything like it. Not even JK Rowling burned as brightly all at once.

Even though Hoover tackles such heavyness as domestic and child abuse, infidelity, and toxic families, pretty much all the boilerplate topics she probably encountered as a social worker, her audience is comprised primarily of teenaged and young adult females. Their infatuation over her is astounding. Her fans call her CoHo and themselves CoHorts. She has millions of followers on several internet platforms. The Guardian asked, “Have teenagers taken over publishing?” in a June article on the Hoover phenomenon.

The BookTok social sub-medium that propelled Hoover superstardom is rife with images and videos of CoHorts sobbing, shrieking, mooning, and extolling the author in near orgasmic terms. One fan was seen burying her tear-drenched face in the pages of one of Hoover’s books.

A lot of my literate friends sniff dismissively at the very mention of Hoover’s name. Me? I say as long as people are reading, it’s all good. Hell, I read books about baseball players, a preference, no doubt, many CoHorts would find as silly as can be.

You might not find Colleen Hoover’s Verity in my bathroom or, for that matter, in anybody else’s. As I say, women just don’t get the whole bathroom reading thing.



Hot Air

Legends Walked Among Us

Bloomington’s own cinema maven, Peter LoPilato was all dressed up with somewhere to go when he strolled into The Electron Pencil’s back office (some people call it Soma Coffee) yesterday AM.

This intrepid reporter grilled him re: his fancy duds — sports coat, collared short, freshly creased trousers and shiny (-ish) shoes.

“What’s up witchu?” sez I. BTW: I just happened to be uploading a pic of legendary film director and producer Roger Corman in my roll as online manager of LoPilato’s Ryder mag. The big feature this month is a long (repeat: lo-o-o-ong) profile of Corman, who just happens to be in town this weekend. Corman’s visit comes hot on the heels of that of mega-screen icon Meryl Streep who was in town earlier this week to cop an honorary degree from Indiana Unversity. Corman lectured at the IU Cinema yesterday afternoon and several of his films are featured there this weekend. (FYI: You missed The Wild Angels and The Trip yesterday. Today you can catch The Intruder, The Tomb of Ligeia, and a documentary, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.


Streep Fêted

I mention Corman because, mirabile dictu, he’s why LoPilato was togged up.

“I’m going out to lunch with Roger Corman,” he said.

I, of course, could only gasp, “Wow.”


A Young Corman (l.) On A Set With Vincent Price

I fondled Peter’s lapel for a moment, hoping some of his cool could rub off on me, then pressed my interrogation. “Where are you two going?”

Peter LoPilato merely smiled and said, “I’m not at liberty to say.”


Anyway, I hope Corman paid for the meal. Every time I ask the boss for a raise, he motions back over his shoulder at a small crowd of waifs, shoeless and forlorn, staring at me with hungry eyes. “I would, I swear it,” he says, invariably, “but I’ve got a family to feed.”

Funny thing is I thought Peter only had two kids. The magic of Hollywood, I imagine. Well, like I say, I hope Corman picked up the check.

Superlative Celloloid

My absolutely fave Corman flick is The Attack of the Giant Leeches (he produced it and, to be honest, his fingerprints are all over it). Somehow, on a microscopic budget, Corman and director Bernard Kowalski manage to recreate a steamy, indolent Louisiana bayou world so faithfully that you find yourself perspiring just watching the thing. They get a workmanlike performance out of horror film vet Bruno VeSota, playing his usual corpulent baddie. I don’t know which movie I prefer VeSota in, this one or Daddy-o with Dick Contino. Either way, he’s a treat.

Giant Leeches

VeSota & Yvette Vickers in “… Giant Leeches”

Oddly, though, despite the loving care Corman & Kowalski take in presenting an oppressive, heat-wilted world, their titled giant leeches look about as leech-like as, well, so many papier mâché Chinese New Year dragons. Then again, it’s got to be a challenge trying to make a leech scary. Slimy and gross? Sure. Scary? Uh-uh.

Giant Leeches

A Leech Carries Off A Victim

As long as we’re playing the association game, noted LA gruesome murder chronicler James Ellroy wrote a novella entitled, Dick Contino’s Blues. You can find it in Ellroy’s 1994 short story collection, Hollywood Nocturnes.


Dick Contino Makes The Scene in “Daddy-o”

Back to Hollywood-comes-to-IU: Roger Corman and Meryl Streep represent two extremes of what the American filmmaking industry does best. Either one is aces by me, as opposed to Hollywood’s current penchant for recycling superheroes and Nicholas Sparks books.


From an article in Aljazeera America:

Aljazeera Screenshot

Click Image To Read Full Article

Notice in the subhead where it warns about isolating kids from “the digital world of multitasking”? As if that’s a horror that must be avoided at all costs.

When I first saw this, I figured it was a satiric story, you know, where there author turns you around by saying We’d hate to have our precious snowflakes not be able to be psychological overwhelmed by multitasking and productivity pressures because, hell, who wants a kid that isn’t developing a stomach ulcer by 13 and isn’t on antidepressants by 15?

The author says kids today are part of the “net generation.” They learn by absorbing tons of information merely by darting like hummingbirds from one web page to the other. Earlier generations dove into books and concentrated for long periods of time. That’s old hat.

Information is the stuff that’s liable to fill your mind so much that there isn’t any room left for knowledge (this is me speaking). “Information is not knowledge,” Einstein has been credited with saying. It’s also believed he said, “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.”

Yet, members of the net generation are happy as clams that their brain cases are crammed with data. Their parents, apparently, are giddy about this as well.

“Opponents to deep, immersive reading come from all directions. Among American boys, there remains a generations-old sense that books are for sissies; I remember this from my own childhood. For neoliberals and technocrats, reading novels is not ‘what the market wants.’ Concentrated reading doesn’t require ideological opposition to be endangered: The pace of contemporary life, even for children, means that there’s simply no time or energy left for it,” the author writes.

Man, that’s a lousy life.

Wither Our Nation?

So. I’m sitting in a booth at Opie Taylor’s with The Loved One and our friends Hondo & Les. We’re playing a raunchy, sick joke card game that Hondo’d bought on eBay because…, well, because the mere playing of it will condemn any and all participants to hell if such a place turns out to be real. I really think he’s daring the god neither of us believes in to damn him for all eternity. And, I guess, I’ll be following him.

Anyway, the talk turns, as usual, to how eff’d up this holy land is. The problem with guys like Hondo is they read and listen to too much Far Right palaver. It upsets their stomachs as well as their minds. The minute some minor candidate for the Nebraska statehouse says something like women enjoy being slapped around because then their slapping husbands and boyfriends go all out of their way to apologize and be nice to them, Hondo and his ilk send out urgent messages to the rest of us saying the whole country’s going insane.

Which it is. I just accept it, largely. Sure, I point out funny (in a sad way) wingnut things here on The Pencil and sometimes stamp my foot about Rand Paul or Kirk Cameron or Rick Santorum. But for the most part, I can’t really keep up with all the loons who have YouTube accounts or blogs through which they can lobby for the regression of America to those grand old days of the Salem witch trials.

Witch Trial, 1692

Good Old Days

I’m more attuned to the utterances of, say, the Reagan/Bush/Bush Supreme Court, especially when it rules that rich guys should own and operate all polling places. Then I’ll yell that the country’s going insane. Between the two of us, Hondo and me, we’ve got the wingnut-osphere covered, I suppose.

Back to lunch at Opie’s. I think it was Les who asked, “Well whaddya think’s gonna happen here over the next few years.”

Natch, I had a ready answer.

The sanctified, blessed, and exceptional Yewnited States of Murrica is in for some changes. As long as the Supremes have codified the establishment of a plutocratic ruling class, the have-nots among us are going to be more restless than ever. Sure, the US always has been run for the benefit of captains of industry and financial pirates, but throughout our history we’ve always pretended that the common citizen meant something herein. No more.

If you have scads of dough, you count much more than if you don’t. That’s law now. Once you shatter the illusion of equality, there is nothing left of the mythical American Dream. When dreams die, people panic.

Now, most of the pop. of this nation is too dense to grasp that a new overclass has been installed, officially, brazenly, and w/o apology. Too many of them think their grand old flag has been sullied by Mexicans sneaking over the border to become busboys and maids, women who want the gov’t to pay for their slut pills, gays and lesbians who want to eliminate every trace of heterosexuality in our precious snowflake children, and, of course, the Kenyan who has taken over as Dictator and Tyrant-in-Chief Forever.

And, yeah, a health care reform that’s turning us into New Stalinville.

While everybody’s shrieking over these imagine threats, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and their coatholders turned the keys over to the Koch Bros. and said, “Here. It’s yours.”

No matter why people think the USA has become the homeland of Satan, they’re fast losing any and all loyalty to the nation. The Bundy Ranch confrontation will be repeated with alarming regularity in the coming years. And one of these times, somebody’s trigger finger is going to get itchy. Once the first shot is fired, all bets are off.

Militia at Bundy Ranch

A desperate band of gunfondlers is coalescing these days, certain that the US has been taken over by the aforementioned evil people. They’re not terribly organized just yet; their only real commonality is the passel of hatemongers who bark at them daily over Right Wing talk radio and, to a lesser extent, via Fox News. But, book it, some demagogue is going to pop up. He’ll preach “defense” and separation. And a lot of people are going to fall into line behind him.

What have they got to lose? They don’t have jobs, money, or power.

Perhaps Texas will be the first state to make secession noises. Arizona and Utah may join in the chorus. Then we’re going to see some real breaking news.

Think it’s impossible? Why?

The Pencil Today:


“Never loan a book to someone if you expect to get it back. Loaning books is the same as giving them away.” — Douglas Coupland


This Petraeus scandal is another one of those affairs wherein everybody involved is a flat out jerk.

Honestly, who would want to be involved with any of these chowderheads?

Consider this laundry list of reprobates and their peccadillos:

  • An aging general who leaves his plain, matronly wife parked at home while he bonks a hot babe

Petraeus & Broadwell: Puffing Their Chests Out With Pride

  • A “reporter” who gives her subject both literary and literal blowjobs and who threatens her perceived romantic rival via email
  • Social climbers who throw Champagne-and-caviar bashes for Army brass but also run up huge debts, who weasel their way into a 28-motorcycle police escort just to make a splashy arrival at a Hallowe’en party, who brag about a phoney-baloney diplomatic title, who use that phoney-baloney diplomatic title to attempt to squeeze millions of dollars out of a Korean businessperson, who purchased a ritzy mansion but haven’t made payments on it for years. who set up a questionable charity and then used proceeds to purchase lavish dinners
  • High military officials writing letters of reference in the custody battle of a parent who has been determined by a judge to be lacking in honesty and integrity and who tried to trump up a physical abuse charge against her ex-husband by inducing her 3-year-old son to lie to authorities
  • An FBI agent who sends beefcake pix of himself to a woman the agency will eventually investigate


It reminds me of the OJ Simpson murder trial. Every single person connected with that case was a dope or a social climber or a sociopath or the sire of the Kardashian beings. I couldn’t stand any of those people.

Well, except one. Kato.

Can I Testify?

Kato Kaelin was the only un-detestable soul in the bunch. I mean, he never pretended to be anything more than what he was — a dingbat, celebrity-junkie, coat-holder who had the bad luck to be at home when he heard a thump on his bedroom wall.

I wonder if there’ll be a Kato in the Petraeus case.


Okay, Indiana, you voted for Mitt Romney and elected a Republican governor. And the statehouse is still firmly in the control of the GOP.

What more do you want?

Oh, this: Republican state senator Dennis Cruse will introduce legislation that, in the words of the National Center for Science Education, will be a “permission slip for teachers to bring creationism, climate-change denial, and other non-science into science classrooms.”

A Proud Member Of The Indiana Legislature?

What next, the crucible?


A middle-aged couple walked into the Book Corner yesterday, appearing as if they’d been transported suddenly to another planet.

I tried to make eye contact but they both averted their gazes. They didn’t seem to be potential shoplifters but one can never tell so I kept an eye on them.

Plenty of folks who’d never been in a bookstore in their lives wander into the Book Corner. We’re across the street from the Monroe County Courthouse, where folks who live in such far-flung locales as Bean Blossom township come to pay their property taxes.

They consider a voyage into downtown Bloomington to be akin to visiting Rome. They step into the bookstore tentatively as if concerned that some questionable books sold therein might contaminate them. Within moments they relax, after being assured they won’t be assaulted by members of the Red Brigade.

They Hang Out In Bookstores, Don’t They?

Anyway, this particular couple did the tentative two-step as well. By and by, they felt emboldened to separate, he to thumb through outdoor sportsmen’s magazines and she to search for something.

Eventually, she approached me, presumably after convincing herself I wouldn’t snatch her and do a Patty Hearst job on her. She asked for a Becca Fitzpatrick book in the Hush, Hush Saga teen romance series. I figured she was hoping to buy it for a 12-year-old daughter. I was wrong.

A Hush, Hush Saga Book

“I love these books,” she said. “There’s a whole bunch of ’em. It’s like a series or somethin’,”

“Well, that’s good,” I said, trying my damnedest not to let myself think snarky thoughts.

You make snap judgements about people when you work in a bookstore. Some buy books with titles like “Applied Concepts in Differential Equations.” You immediately come to a conclusion about the entirety of their lives. Same with those who buy Stephen Colbert books or that new biography of Peter Criss, the drummer from Kiss.

Reading Material?

So, noble soul that I am, I labored not to conclude that the woman was a dummy. Lucky for me I did.

“I’m just learnin’ how to read,” she volunteered.

I was speechless.

“Can you believe it? I’m 44 years old and I never learned how to read.” She said this almost matter-of-factly.

“Well, that’s fantastic,” I said.

“Uh huh. My husband’s teachin’ me how to read. He said we’re gonna do this no matter how hard it is. He said, ‘You better learn how to read. It’s time.'” There wasn’t a hint of embarrassment in her tone — if anything, only pride.

She explained that she’d be back in about a month, after she and her husband got their next check. Then she could buy some of those teen romances.

Sometimes when people want to buy junk books like “How to Read the Tarot,” I console myself about the transaction by thinking, Well, at least they’re reading. Plus, they’re buying from us so we’ll stay in business that much longer.

This woman wasn’t the first 40-something to buy a teen romance for herself. And normally I need to console myself when taking an adult’s money for this kind of kid lit. But the next time the woman comes in, I’ll be proud to sell her a couple of Becca Fitzpatrick novels.

Meeting her was the best thing that happened to me all day yesterday.

The only events listings you need in Bloomington.

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

MUSIC ◗ IU Auer HallDoctoral Recital: Elena Paradies on organ; 5pm

MUSIC ◗ IU Ford-Crawford HallDoctoral Recital: Yoon Won Shin on piano; 5pm

MUSIC ◗ IU Sweeney HallPerformer Diploma Recital: Michael Miragliotta on trombone; 5pm

MUSIC ◗ Bear’s PlaceThe Matt MacDougall Quartet; 5:30pm

LECTURE ◗ IU Memorial Union, Whittenberger Auditorium — “What Are Friends For?: The Adaptive Power of Social Bonds, Presented by primatologist Joan Silk of Arizona State University; 5:30pm

FILM ◗ Monroe County Public Library –“The Line“; 6pm

MUSIC ◗ The Player’s PubBuilt for Comfort; 6:30pm

STAGE ◗ IU AuditoriumMusical: “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas“; 7pm

MUSIC ◗ IU Ford-Crawford HallEarly Music Institute Chamber Music Concert; 7pm

PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEO ◗ IU Latino Cultural Center — “Akadoi Epera: The Embera’s Hope,” By Alexandra McNichols-Torroledo; 7pm

MUSIC ◗ Muddy Boots Cafe, NashvilleKara Barnard & Chuck Wills; 7-9pm

MUSIC ◗ IU Musical Arts Center, Recital HallSenior Recital: Abigail Kunkel, mezzo-soprano; 7pm

FILM ◗ Boxcar Books — “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger“; 7pm

FILM ◗ IU Cinema — “The Motorcycle Diaries“; 7pm

LECTURE ◗ Monroe County History Center — “Saving Indiana’s Old Barns,” Presented by Justin Smith; 7pm

SPORTS ◗ IU Assembly HallHoosier men’s basketball vs. Sam Houston State; 7pm

STAGE ◗ Ivy Tech Waldron Center, in the Rose FirebayDrama, “The Rimers of Eldritch“; 7:30pm

STAGE Ivy Tech Waldron Center, AuditoriumComedy: “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps“; 7:30pm

COMEDY ◗ The Comedy AtticJames Adomian; 8pm

MUSIC ◗ IU Musical Arts Center All-Campus Band, Brett Richardson, Trae Blanco, and Christopher Dortwegt, conductors; 8pm

MUSIC ◗ IU Auer HallLatin American Popular Music Ensemble: “¡Anda Jaleo!“; 8pm

MUSIC ◗ The BluebirdDavid Nail; 8pm

MUSIC ◗ IU Ford-Crawford HallMaster’s Recital: Jeong Hoon Lee on flute; 8:30pm

MUSIC ◗ Max’s PlaceAndrew Simmerman Trio; 9pm

MUSIC ◗ Rachael’s CafeRadar Eyes, The Constants, Jerome & the Psychics; 9pm

MUSIC ◗ The BishopMount Carmel, Charlie Patton’s War; 9:30pm

MUSIC ◗ Max’s PlacePretty Boy Freud; 9:40pm

MUSIC ◗ Max’s Place Ampersand; 10:30pm


ART ◗ IU Art MuseumExhibits:

  • “Paragons of Filial Piety,” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi; through December 31st
  • “Intimate Models: Photographs of Husbands, Wives, and Lovers,” by Julia Margaret, Cameron, Edward Weston, & Harry Callahan; through December 31st
  • French Printmaking in the Seventeenth Century;” through December 31st
  • Celebration of Cuban Art & Film: Pop-art by Joe Tilson; through December 31st
  • Threads of Love: Baby Carriers from China’s Minority Nationalities“; through December 23rd
  • Workers of the World, Unite!” through December 31st
  • Embracing Nature,” by Barry Gealt; through December 23rd
  • Pioneers & Exiles: German Expressionism,” through December 23rd

ART ◗ Ivy Tech Waldron CenterExhibits through December 1st:

  • “Essentially Human,” By William Fillmore
  • “Two Sides to Every Story,” By Barry Barnes
  • “Horizons in Pencil and Wax,” By Carol Myers

ART ◗ IU SoFA Grunwald GalleryExhibits through November 16th:

  • Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf
  • Small Is Big

ART ◗ IU Kinsey Institute GalleryExhibits through December 20th:

  • A Place Aside: Artists and Their Partners
  • Gender Expressions

ART ◗ IU Mathers Museum of World CulturesExhibits:

  • “¡Cuba Si! Posters from the Revolution: 1960s and 1970s”
  • “From the Big Bang to the World Wide Web: The Origins of Everything”
  • “Thoughts, Things, and Theories… What Is Culture?”
  • “Picturing Archaeology”
  • “Personal Accents: Accessories from Around the World”
  • “Blended Harmonies: Music and Religion in Nepal”
  • “The Day in Its Color: A Hoosier Photographer’s Journey through Mid-century America”
  • “TOYing with Ideas”
  • “Living Heritage: Performing Arts of Southeast Asia”
  • “On a Wing and a Prayer”

BOOKS ◗ IU Lilly LibraryExhibits:

  • The War of 1812 in the Collections of the Lilly Library“; through December 15th
  • A World of Puzzles,” selections from the Slocum Puzzle Collection

ARTIFACTS ◗ Monroe County History CenterExhibits:

  • Doctors & Dentists: A Look into the Monroe County Medical Professions
  • What Is Your Quilting Story?
  • Garden Glamour: Floral Fashion Frenzy
  • Bloomington Then & Now
  • World War II Uniforms
  • Limestone Industry in Monroe County

The Ryder & The Electron Pencil. All Bloomington. All the time.

The Pencil Today:


“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” — Honoré de Balzac


What do you know about this holy land? Can you accurately define America in this year MMXII?

Oops, sorry. The Super Bowl agit-prop machine still has me thinking in Roman numerals.

The question holds: What is America?

I’m not smart enough to say in 60,000 words or less. And, with all due respect, neither are you.

But a couple of guys I spent some quality time with last week each might have an inkling. One’s a retired medical specialist. Let’s call him Dr. Moray. The other is a Catholic priest. He’ll be Fr. Frawley.

Let’s start with Dr. Moray. He retired about 20 years ago. The medical profession had been good for him and his family. He wasn’t a terribly wealthy man when he hung up his stethoscope but he was certain he had enough money stashed away to support himself and his wife through his golden years.

Long before he’d become a doctor, when he was still a teenager, a relative had died and left him a humble inheritance: a half dozen or so shares in a local bank. They were worth pennies.

Dr. Moray never thought much about those shares when he went out into the world to find his fortune. Like most young men, he tried on a hat or two before settling in to his lifelong career.

He grew up in a staunchly Republican part of the Midwest and he, too, proudly proclaimed himself a member of the Grand Old Party. He even took a job as a page in the statehouse. For a hot minute, he dreamed of a career in politics.

He thought: Who knows? Maybe I’ll run for the General Assembly one day. And why couldn’t I be a senator or governor?

This is, after all, America.

He also knew that thousands of young men entertained the same dream. Perhaps a woman or two as well. (This was just before women like Betty Friedan informed their sisters it was okay to dream the dreams of men.)

In any case, hedging his bet against a political career, he enrolled in medical school. Before he knew it, the medical profession had swallowed him up.

He wasn’t unhappy with the way things turned out.

About 30 years ago, a couple of things happened. The banking industry started inventing what they liked to call “financial instruments.” I like to call them magic tricks.

Employing these tricks, bankers found themselves able to make bushels of money appear wherever they pointed their wands. They became so good at it that they began to believe those bushels of money were real and not simply illusions.

The rest of the country started believing those bushels of money were real, too. A magician depends on his audience wanting with all their hearts to believe in his tricks.

Eventually, Dr. Moray learned that his half dozen bank shares had multiplied like rabbits being pulled out of a hat. And the value of those shares had increased so much his breath was taken away. He pulled out his pencil, did a few calculations, and discovered his modest inheritance was now worth a half million dollars.

He told his wife the good news. “We won’t have to worry about a thing for the rest of our lives,” he said.

Around the same time the bankers started their act, Dr. Moray learned he had developed diabetes. Being a medical man, he had access to all the information he needed to manage the disease. He knew he’d have to watch his diet, exercise, and poke himself in the belly with a needle every day for the rest of his life.

Dr. Moray was a disciplined man. Some 25 years after being diagnosed, he was still alive and, if not kicking, at least he could see the sunrise every morning.

You’d think he’d be the happiest of men these days. He’s lived a long, full life. He’s still got his wife. He reads constantly, always thirsting for more knowledge.

The only problem is that half million dollars worth of bank shares is now worth next to nothing. By Dr. Moray’s calculations, there’s enough left to support him and his wife until 2015.

You know why — crashes, the Great Recession, the banking crisis. The old magic doesn’t work anymore.

Dr. Moray visited Bloomington last week, as he does every month or so. But he’s essentially characterizing this round as his farewell tour. He says he wants to see all the people and places that have meant so much to him over the years. He’s starting to speak in the past tense a lot.

A man who’s running out of money is apt to speak that way.

I’d hate to think Dr. Moray isn’t terribly interested anymore in seeing the sun rise tomorrow.

Now for Fr. Frawley.

He’s the pastor of a small parish not terribly far from Bloomington. He’s also the chaplain for the state maximum security prison near his church.

Fr. Frawley has spent a lot of time hanging around guys who’ve killed people for gain or sport. Many others have relieved individuals and businesses of scads of money.

I won’t say bankers are the moral equivalent of murderers but the money they’ve relieved individuals and businesses of makes the inmates at Fr. Frawley’s prison look like rank amateurs.

If the bankers were magicians, then many of the men Fr. Frawley ministers to are nothing more than pesky uncles who pull nickels out of six-year-old kids’ ears.

It’s important to note, though, that America loves a professional man. Slap a nice suit on a guy and automatically we think of him as a man who’s going places. The guys in Fr. Frawley’s maximum security prison have never much gone in for nice suits.

Fr. Frawley has learned that many of the men hardly even know how to read.

Imagine that. In the richest nation in the history of Earth there are countless men — and women — who can’t even read a children’s picture book.

If you want to learn a little bit about the correlation between illiteracy, criminal behavior, and recidivism, read through the National Center for Education Statistics report entitled “Literacy Behind Prison Walls.” Or you can scan the study, “National Assessment of Adult Literacy and Literacy Among Prison Inmates,” published by the University of Alaska.

Do I need to mention that many official prison literacy programs are operating under severe funding cutbacks these days? You know, money’s tight — crashes, the Great Recession, the banking crisis, and all.

Fr. Frawley, figuring that more than a few of the inmates would one day be shoved back into society, decided that what the men needed was a lending library. Maybe some of them might even learn to read. He contacted his diocese and asked for money to buy books. He got the go-ahead a few years ago.

Now, once a year, Fr. Frawley makes the long drive up to Bloomington, to the Book Corner, where he purchases piles of brand new books for his lending library. He spends about $500 a crack.

He purchases as many or more children’s books as he does books written for adults. He shies away from murder mysteries and true crime stories. He figures the men don’t need any help in those departments.

Fr. Frawley buys the children’s books because so many of the inmates have the literacy level of kindergarteners. Some of them can’t read a single word. The men must learn to read just as little kids do.

Naturally, every year a few of the books go missing, even the children’s picture books. Fr. Frawley shook his head and wondered why some inmates don’t take the basic lessons they learn in the children’s books to heart. Lessons like stealing is wrong.

I tried to comfort him by pointing out at least they’re stealing books. They must sense there’s some value in the written word.

Fr. Frawley shrugged when I told him that.

But Fr. Frawley is not a pessimistic man. No man who spends hours with hardened criminals and hopes they learn to do something as simple and basic as read can be called pessimistic.

I expect to see him next year and the year after that.

I wonder, though, if I’ll ever see Dr. Moray again.

Two Americans. Two people who know a little something about this holy land.

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