Chemist looks for trouble

My father loved problems. He looked for them in a good way. He was an organic chemist, doing process research in pharmaceuticals for Merck. He worked on the Sinemet, for Parkinsons, which he later took himself, on some of the chemotherapy treatments he later took, on anti-parasiticals, major antibiotics, on and on. He loved the challenge of his work and the satisfaction of doing good, saving lives, improving the quality of life for people he’d never know.

There was  appropriate liquid kept in the lab for celebrating victories. He and his colleagues would fill beakers and toast each other with one of their standards: “Man takes another step out of the primordial slime.” Or: “Science once again triumphs over ignorance and superstition.”

He did a lot of hiring, and  looked not only for people with stellar academic careers and superb references, but also those who looked for problems, loved problems. One question he asked (probably not PC these days) was about last names if the man (it was almost always a man in the 50’s to 80’s) had an unusual one. “Tell me about your last name,” he’d say, figuring that if a man wasn’t curious about his own name, he wasn’t curious enough to be a good chemist.

My father liked woodworking, especially making small puzzles out of wood. He’d keep them on his desk during the interview and see what happened. In one successful hire, a candidate was asked to describe his dissertation project, which was in fact brilliant. But in the midst of enthusiastic description, my father saw the candidate’s eye constantly move to the wooden puzzle until, unable to resist, the candidate reached for it, saying, “Excuse me, do you mind—” And he was hired on the spot. It was the appetite for problems, the joy in seeing and confronting them, that sold him.

That appetite for problems came in later, when Parkinsons slowly overtook my father. He confronted the progressive disease with equanimity and courage, breaking down its challenges into problems to be solved. Parkinsons is a moving target, of course, so one month’s solution may not work the next, but as he said, there were no end of problems. When he was more mobile, how to get to the middle school where he donated his time, how to write, how to use the computer, and later, how to get from the wheelchair to the toilet, how to carry plate, how to eat, how to confront death. How to triumph over ignorance and superstition with grace and faith.


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Posted in Just life, WWWS

That dude, Othello

After years of protesting military interventions, life turns had me unexpectedly teaching literature and writing at a U.S. base outside Naples, Italy. It was my first up close encounter with soldiers, albeit in peacetime. I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

  • “I loved boot camp,” a young man told his astonished classmates. “Why not? Three squares a day, clean sheets, and nobody stuck my head in the toilet like my dad used to,” he finished quietly.
  • In a class of twenty, five had lost someone close to them to drugs, gangs, or random urban violence. “I’m safer in the military,” they said.
  • Taking a chance, I pushed a painfully shy seaman to read aloud his English 101 essay. In loving, aching detail, he described his brother’s hands before and after drug addiction wasted his life. In the stunned silence of the class reaction, the seaman turned to me and gasped, “They got it. I wrote it and they got it.” He was a big guy with tears in his eyes.
  • An incredibly talented young man who might have wrangled scholarships at any school explained why he enlisted. “My mom’s a prostitute, and she can’t keep doing that.”
  • A Gulf War veteran back from fighting Saddam Hussein dropped bullets of sweat on my grammar worksheet. “Relax. You know this,” I advised. “I don’t know, ma’am. It’s kinda scary.”

I had my doubts about Shakespeare, but Folger editions with facing page glossaries and clear scene summaries, my soldiers dove in.

  • On King Lear: “You know, if you retire, you can’t pretend to be chief anymore. Everyone knows that.”
  • On Macbeth: “You just know what’s going to happen, and it makes you sick to watch.”
  • Richard IIIengendered brisk discussion of leadership styles, just when Richard “lost it,” and how lack of loyalty to his men will bring down every leader. Richard should have taken a leadership class.
  • Then came Othello. I hadn’t anticipated how intensely my soldiers would take the story.

 “Hey, Miss Schoenewaldt, Iago’s the lieutenant, right? So why is he bringing down his own general?  Nobody will want him after that.”

“That dude, Othello, was great at sea, but he sure messed up on land.”

 “You gotta wonder if Othello ever heard of the C word, communication? He should have gotten Cassio and Desdemona together and just asked: ‘Yo, you guys balling or what?’”

For energy and passion, I’d take those conversations over grad school seminars any day.

Posted in Naples, Teaching Shakespeare, Teaching soldiers, WWWS

Savior drives a Cadillac

images-1Years ago, I was living in California and my father in New Jersey was diagnosed with advanced non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, likely to be fatal in four months. I flew home and my mother picked me up at Newark Airport. Befuddled and exhausted, she promptly got lost in a sketchy part of Newark, where we ran out of gas. Hospital visiting hours were almost over, but my mother had no useful idea besides: “Stay in the car!

I hadn’t flown all this way to miss visiting hours, so I jumped out to flag a passer-by and go for gas. “It’s not safe!” my mother screamed, yet more horrified when an old Cadillac screeched to a stop in front of us, and her worst nightmare, a tall, black man in a doo-rag, beckoned me to hop in. Her face in the rear view mirror was frozen in terror as he spun a 180 across traffic and peeled off.

I was absolutely certain this man would help, and reeled out my predicament: terminal diagnosis, no gas, visiting hours closing. “Don’t worry, honey,” he said, “there’s a station up ahead and I have a gas can.” I relaxed. Then he thanked me. He was on his way to evening Bible study, and hadn’t done his assignment for the week, which was to help a stranger. Here I was, a certifiable stranger, surely sent by a loving and patient God. He asked for my father’s name, carefully wrote it down, and said his group would pray for his healing.

We got the gas and roared back. By then a couple had stopped to hear my mother’s panicked account of her daughter driven off to a Fate Worse Than Death. We filled the car as the three of them watched in stunned silence. I thanked my savior, he thanked me and hurried off to church. I made it to visiting hours.

After five brutal months of chemotherapy, the cancer seemed beaten and my father was free to go. A slight recurrence a year later was stopped in its tracks. He continued regular checkups, building a pleasant relationship with his oncologist. Over and over, from across the country, I silently thanked my savior.

Six years later, the oncologist announced that, pleasurable as their meetings were, with cancer in full remission, there was no medical necessity to continue. In the press of the moment, I never asked my savior’s name, but I truly wish him well.


Posted in Cadillac, cancer remission, Just life, Newark, WWWS

’Twas the Night Before Christmas: Textual issues

I’m fine with flying reindeer delivering presents to every earthly child in one night. However, Mr. Clement C. Moore has imbedded some serious textual inconsistencies in “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

The reindeer and sleigh are clearly diminutive: “miniature sleight . . . eight tiny reindeer  . . . tiny hooves.” Let’s say mouse/squirrel size. However all extant illustrations show St. Nick as proportional. A portly man looks ridiculous pulled by little beasties in a miniature sleigh, not to mention flying reindeer abuse. Case in point: Cinderella’s steeds were normal-size horses pulling a normal-size coach. Even flying reindeer have to be up to the job.

What clatter? Our speaker refers to a “clatter” on the roof (which doesn’t wake Mama, perhaps because her kerchief stifles sound, but I digress). Would eight rooftop mice or squirrels make a “clatter”? No, more like a scamper. Poor word choice, Clement.

What does the speaker see? Our speaker refers to St. Nick as “a right jolly old elf,” and elves are typically small, maybe as small as our “tiny reindeer.” However, he doesn’t note that St. Nick is diminutive. The two characters, when shown together (eg our speaker spying from around a corner), are always of similar height (although not body mass).

Are these real toys? The toys are apparently normal size. If they come down the chimney tiny and zoom to normal size in the living room, wouldn’t our otherwise observant narrator share this magic?

Does St. Nick shape-shift? Suppose he’s tiny in transit and when going through chimney. However, when he’s about to ascend in our speaker’s full view, there is no note of size transformation. A poet of Mr. Moore’s talents could easily have written: “[St. Nick] turned his head with a jerk/And laying his finger aside of his nose/ Then zap! down to mouse-size the plump figure goes.”

What about Mama? What happens when she sees all that mess of “ashes and soot” in the living room? I’m not crazy about ashes and soot causing a “tarnish,” but that’s another article.

Who hears the exclamation? Let’s accept a size-shifting Santa. He’s normal size in the living room and miniature/tiny when aloft and flying “out of sight.” Would those tiny vocal chords produce “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night” at a volume that carries from the horizon? I think not.

I welcome your commentary.




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Posted in Just life

Recipe for a bestseller (says Robert Graves)

UnknownIn 1929, Robert Graves needed a best-seller to fund his plan of cutting out of England, buying a house in Majorca, and never having to work again in his life (aside from pumping out 120 books). In eleven weeks, he dashed off Good-bye to All That, a memoir of his years as an officer in World War 1. Instant bestseller (and never out of print). Graves and paramour are off to Majorca.

A few years later, he shared his recipe for success, which I just found and now share with you. His process (he says) was to deliberately mix in all the subjects that people like reading about. Some subjects may be less relevant/useful now, but you can pick and choose.

  • Food and drink . . . “I searched my memory for the meals that have had significance in my life and put them down.”
  • Murders . . . “I was careful not to leave out any of the six or seven that I could tell about.”
  • Ghosts . . . “one ghost story with a possible explanation and one without.”
  • Kings . . . and other people’s mothers.
  • E. Lawrence and the Prince of Wales
  • Poets and Prime Ministers
  • Foreign travel . . . “I hadn’t done much of this, but I made the most of what I had.”
  • Sport is essential.
  • Other subjects of interest . . . “school episodes, love affairs (regular and irregular), wounds, weddings, religious doubts, methods of bringing up children, severe illnesses, suicides.
  • Battles . . . “the best bet of all.”

Easy, right? Have at it and let me know how it goes. There’s still room in Majorca.


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Posted in WWWS

Flipping on Anna Karenina

In the summer when I was sixteen, I read great gobs of Anna Karenina with my feet over my head. I had been somberly informed that you retain information better if there is more blood in your brain. This seemed reasonable, so I lay in bed with my feet up against the wall. If the novel hadn’t been so fine, I might have been derailed by the fatigue of holding a big book up in the air for hours, but I actually don’t remember being troubled by this fact of reading gravity.

I can attest that in this singular case, the feet-in-the-air tactic worked. Despite the multiple names of myriad actors, the plot unfolded thrillingly and I remember, even now, how my bedroom room became Russian salons, private rooms in Moscow restaurants, birthing rooms, dachas, coaches, and the terrible final moment. With my brain full of blood, the scenes fixed themselves in memory cells.

Being 16, I was fervently convinced that the “point” of the novel was romantic love, that Anna was to be pitied, of course, but maybe, if Karenin had been more reasonable, not controlled by spiritualists, Anna and Vronsky would have been so happy, heroic in their sacrifice of respectability for passion. What a thrilling life they could have lived, not like the staid domestic peace of Levin and Kitty. And thus began my time of complex, exhausting, not-ending-happily relationships.

Some years later, I re-read Anna Karenina, sitting the regular way, and oh, the penny dropped. Or maybe it was just that I was older. Ah, Anna and Vronsky weren’t the point at all. My bad. It’s Levin and Kitty and the purposeful life (granted, an absurd reduction of magnificent novel). I’m happy to say this literary revelation joined changes in my own life and the love-as-pain model fell away.

But back to the feet-in-the-air reading tactic. It does work for retention. Now, with the coming of tablets, the weight of a book is no impediment. It could be, though, that all that blood created a more hot-headed reading. Or maybe it was just the fact of being sixteen.



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Posted in Just life, Writing

Perils of Childhood Reading

If you read a lot in private as a kid and listen to Big Issues on TV, life can get confusing, sometimes scary. Here are some examples.

An Id in Your Pocket? Slipped into the young people’s shelves of our public library was a Freudian biography of Louis Braille with mystifying references to an “id” that went everywhere with young Louis. Nobody seemed to comment on it or speak to it. Was it small, pocket-sized? Invisible? It constantly kept him from doing the right thing and he couldn’t seem to shake it. So it was clearly bad. Was it something only blind Frenchmen had or did everyone have one. If so, I might have one, or would have one. How would I know? Would it trip me up? You can see the problem.

Where’s the Ladder? Nancy Drew had two friends: Bess and George. George, confusingly, was female. In introducing them or, more generally, introducing two people, “Carolyn Keene” invariably noted that “the latter was . . . .” I read this as “the ladder.” Where did the ladder come from? Was it animated? Would it figure in the crime? Really strange.

Too many palaces I consistently read “place” as “palace.” This created problems in comprehension: where were the palaces in the Wild West, in Appalachia or colonial America?  And why, when the “palace/place” was further described, did it invariably seem so decidedly un-palatial, inhabited by non-royalty? Why couldn’t I see these many palaces?

When to argue, when to urge? I guess this is a case of mild dyslexia but the confusion either made conflict in a scene with none or had characters appearing wimpy in not standing their ground.

Coming soon to you. . . euthanasia My parents were fond of watching PBS talk shows on Big Issues. Once I walked in on a panel discussion of one such and was hastily told the topic wasn’t appropriate for children and I should “go read or something.” Of course I was curious and did go, but only as far as the hall. There I hid and listened.

Clearly this was a Big Issue. The panelists were very somber. The consequences of poor choices were irreversible and the risk of mistake high. Death was clearly involved. Finally I caught the name of the Big Issue: euthanasia. Except that I understood “Youth in Asia.” Now there were lots of youths in Asia. Too many, apparently, and this was a terrible problem. Apparently the solution was to kill them off. “Youth in Asia,” then, was code for “kill the kids.” The process should be painless and “experts” involved, but the goal was clearly death.

One of the panelists proposed implementing “Youth in Asia” here America. My stomach dropped. There were definitely lots of “youth in America.” I was part of the Baby Boom. We were too many and had to be culled.

At that point, one of my parents got up and I ran to my room, where I passed, as you can imagine, a sleepless night.

The next day, convinced I should know the worst and plan—move to Europe, perhaps—I eased up to my mother in the kitchen and asked what she thought of “Youth in Asia.”

“In the some circumstances, it’s the best thing,” she said.

“So . . . will it be happening in America?”

“Well, some people want that.”

Long pause before I ventured: “Do you?”

“Like I said, sometimes it’s the best thing.” The penny must have dropped and she turned to look at me. “Were you listening to the program last night?”


“We told you. Some topics aren’t for children. Why don’t you go outside? It’s a beautiful day.”

I should go outside one last time before being . . . gotten rid of? I must have dawdled at the door, looking stricken. Maybe I cried, begged, or threatened to run away. In any case the confusion was resolved, along with a reminder that none of this would have happened if I had only followed instructions to “go read or something.” Except that, as noted above, reading creates its own confusions for the young mind.

I’m thinking I’m not the only one to be tripped up by too much secret reading.

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Posted in WWWS

Things I wanted as a kid

To find whole new chapters in favorite books, as if the pages stuck together on earlier readings were now magically revealed.

A secret passage from the outside of the house straight into my room, so if I was on the outs with my parents, I could sneak in or out and nobody would know.

To be cute and adorable and adored like my little brother and sister, forgiven for transgressions, with no homework, regrets, embarrassments or worries about school or what people thought about me, and no proof that my options were constantly narrowing. Mozart was writing music at five. At nine, I hadn’t written a single sonata. Many saints had performed their first miracles. Child prodigies were already prodigious by nine. I was just a kid.

To walk across a backyard without tripping. Being very pigeon-toed, I couldn’t do this. Likewise, to have regular shoes, not the corrective, high tops that mean kids called “kindergarten shoes.” My parents tried to reassure me by saying that people who did amazing things (singers, dancers, magicians and so forth) did all this because they wore special shoes. Not convincing.

To have a nose like my friend Judy Crum, neat writing like Sharon, shiny hair like Cheryl, or the incredible confidence of Laura who lived next door (who later became known as a bad girl, very “fast” so maybe not Laura), or even just widely known as nice, like Janey.

 To have certain foods on my plate vanish without my having to eat them, especially without having to stay at the table until my plate was clean, pondering the starving orphans who would be grateful for Velveeta cheese sandwiches on Wonder bread, bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder bread, beef stew on glass plates making puddles of broth that I found loathsome, knockwurst (boiled) with that horrible smell, leftovers of leftover baked ham, bitter white insides of iceberg lettuce, asparagus from a can, slimy spinach from a can, kidney beans from a can, cold oatmeal, or Chef Boy-ar-dee.

On the up side of my mother’s cooking, to find a magic slice of pound cake that, when you took a bite out, would magically re-grow that bite so the slice would last forever. Likewise my grandmother’s German Chocolate Cake.

To be featured in A Child’s Book of Heroes and Heroines without being dead or having to do anything painful or scary.

 To be the first Protestant saint. Or any kind of saint. I was starting from way behind on this. Saint Elizabeth’s first word was “Jesus.” Mine was “Daddy.” I had never performed a miracle. I reasoned that the first step might be to be noted for sleeping all night with my hands crossed on my chest. I tried to tuck my sheets in tightly to restrict movement, but morning after morning found that I had moved in the night. This was distressing.

To have a stuffed mommy dog like my friend had with seven little puppies that you could zip into a pouch in her back. Once, in living room gymnastics, my father launched me across the room into a walnut desk, knocking me out cold. When I came to, my father, white-faced, offered to buy “anything you want.” Wow. I asked for one of those dogs. The poor man scoured the local toy stores, finding only a mommy dog with two puppies. Under the circumstances, I had to be grateful.

To have an organized mind. I had read about someone with such a thing who did his organizational work at the end of each day. In those pre-computer times, I pictured a large room of filing cabinets with a little white-haired man in a smock scurrying through the aisles, moving files. Charged with ambition, I lay in bed the first night, my imagined little man on his mark. But how to organize these files? By topic, like family members, school, math facts, books I liked, holidays, seasons, thoughts? Chronologically? By feelings: good, bad, scary? By place: home, outside, school, neighborhood, far away places? My poor little man was constantly scurrying, arms full of files, putting a folder here, then moving it there. Just watching him was exhausting and the mental activity frustrating. Within a week, the project lapsed and I was left with a jumble of memories . . . . Like this one.

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Posted in Just life

When my father needed a vice

Recently I blogged about the time my father as a boy threw an gold ring into a pile of green beans, where it was lost forever. I realize there is a sequel, also involving gold.

Fast forward 60+ years. My mother has just died of lung cancer and I’m helping my father clean out the sick room. It should be mentioned that despite a promising start, the last decades of their marriage were trying for him. Still, he was a devoted nurse in the months of her rapid decline. It’s also significant that he was a research scientist, given to unsentimental rationalism (like tossing an outgrown ring into green beans).

Back to the sick room. My mother’s gold watch sat on the night table. “What about this?” I asked.

“It isn’t running,” he observed. Before I could suggest a new battery, winding, or giving it to somebody, he added: “No point keeping a watch that doesn’t run.” I can still hear the ping in the bottom of the trash can.

“I guess not,” is all I could add.

That afternoon, we visited friends who were miffed that they’d called during the day and couldn’t leave a message. (My mother hated answering machines.) “That’s a problem,” my father said, pulling a notepad from his shirt pocket and jotting down: “Get answering machine.”

“And new clothes,” I added, since his wardrobe was decades old, chosen by my mother for thrift and easy-care. “Get new clothes,” he added to the list. “Will you help me tomorrow?” Yes I would.

He wasn’t finished with the to-do list. “I need a vice,” he announced.

“A vise?” I wondered why, since he’d long ago given away his wood working tools.

“No,” he said, reading my mind. “A vice. I think my vice will be a Jack Daniels every day at five o’clock. Let’s get some on the way home.” I should note that in the decades of my mother’s alcoholism, he hadn’t kept liquor in the house.

“OK,” I said. “Anything else? Scotch, mixers?”

“No, I’ll take it straight, on the rocks.” He checked his list: “Answering machine, new clothes, a vice. That’s enough for one day.”


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Posted in Just life

Gold in the green beans. Why?

My father grew up in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression, in a house so close to the next one that once, when a spark ignited the shingles, a neighbor simply jumped from his roof to my father’s and stamped out the spark.

Despite the general hard times, my grandfather had a modest, steady income, and my grandmother’s somber economies provided for the family’s needs with some carefully considered extras: one very good suit for my grandfather, books for the two boys, and a few nicely made dresses for my grandmother.

When my father was small, a relative gave him a gold ring. With most of my grandparents’ attention fixed on the flashier, more sociable older brother, it took awhile to realize that the gold ring was getting tighter on a growing boy’s finger until it couldn’t come off with any household treatment—pulling, twisting, soap or soaking the boy’s hand in ice water.

After some discussion of the probable cost, my grandmother took my father to the neighborhood jeweler and had the ring cut off. For some reason, my father was allowed to put the now C-shaped ring in his pocket for the walk home.

My grandmother must have been closest to the street, firmly holding my father’s hand. I picture him with his free hand fingering the ring in his pocket, the smooth sides, the rough cut. My grandmother isn’t paying attention, perhaps thinking how the gold could be melted down, or rejoined for an eventual grandchild. A flash catches her eye. My father is tossing the gold into a mound of green beans. She screams. The green grocer rushes out. She’s a regular customer, and he’s as outraged as she is at the wanton waste. The two of them, with my father forcefully recruited, tediously go through the entire mound of green beans, with rising intensity demanding of the unrepentant boy: “Why did you do that?”

My father can only say that he figured the ring wasn’t good anymore. “But why throw it in the green beans?” He doesn’t know. They look everywhere: under the tables, all over the sidewalk, even in the squash. No ring. My grandmother is furious, more so because of the boy’s placid refusal to provide an answer to the logical question: “But why throw it in the green beans?”

In fiction, I’m sure, there would be a motive, but years later, my father couldn’t say. Sometimes real people just can’t tell you why.

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Posted in Food, Writing

Sunday, May 6, 2pm reading from latest work at Hexagon Brewing Company, Knoxville, TN.

Thursday, May 10, 6-8 pm presentation on research on the historical novel, Blount County Library, Maryville, TN.

When We Were Strangers, Italian translation, to be presented in Pescasseroli, Italy, August 2018.

Recent Review
“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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