Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rosacea girl

White bread, wheat bread, Pringles because regular Lays tends to turn to “dust,” Karen says, a bottle of moderately priced cabernet sauvignon because if I go too cheap then she’ll think it is of lower quality, even though when I run into Scott a moment before he says he goes for this one Australian brand, two bottles for ten dollars, and it tastes quite good – “it’ll never fly” I tell him appreciatively – and my non-alcoholic beers we call “Haacke Beck betties” because Karen makes up names for everything to be whimsical and I love that about her. The girl, her badge says Siobhan, and she has jet black hair that is coming out of her ponytail and which falls around her ears, rings up each item robotically and then her voice tells me the total, “twenty-six oh two please.” I give her thirty dollars and she hands me change. “Could you double bag the beers, please?” She does, and the package comes down a little hard on the counter, her rosacea cheeks turning a little more red. “Thank you,” I say. “Thanks. Have a nice night,” she says, her voice ringing with fabricated mirth that would almost fool you over the phone but in person is out of joint, dissonant, at odds with her face, and belies a pain that is from more than just our being together at that counter for 45 seconds.
photo: dogmadic

Thursday, June 28, 2007

All in the delivery

“Put in something about church involvement, and take out that stuff about writing poetry.”

He looked up and handed me my resume, his thick, sleek blonde hair at 45 combed directly back over the top of his head, giving him an aerodynamic look of moving through time and responsibility very rapidly.

I had no church involvement, but this did not stop him from making the suggestion.

His office had a floor-to-ceiling glass door on it, and I had showed up wearing the grey flannel suit inherited from my dad after having the waist taken in. The trousers were wearing thin on the front. He was a family friend from our beach community, but he also surfed, so that made him kind of a personal friend. A compadre of the water. He made more money than I ever would.

Approximately two weeks later I was interviewing for a job at a global publisher, once again wearing the grey flannel suit. I 86’ed the poetry reference but did not put in any church work. I got the job and started as an editorial assistant, with primary responsibilities to log in authors’ manuscripts for professional journals – The Journal of Polymer Science was a biggie, although Head & Neck Surgery was a lot more fun to look at the pictures of. I worked with a guy named Mike Ferguson. Called himself MFergu for short. He was a jazz musician on the side; seems most of the production editors, in fact, were musicians or artists of some sort or another, on the side. There was a dancer, two screenwriters, a playwright, and a gay guy who seemed artsy even though I think he had no other employable talent besides publishing. They would not have balked about my having written poetry.

One day I was walking to work; our building was on 40th and Third. I was wearing a turtleneck. I bumped into a friend of my father’s, Uncle Stu, who worked for AIG and always wore blue suits, white shirts and a red or blue tie. Had a smell of cigarette tobacco on him most of the time. He looked me up and down and smiled, shook my hand, and we talked for a few minutes. Learning I was going to work, wearing a turtleneck, he quipped, “Oh! I thought you had joined the entertainment industry!”

I would get my morning coffee and bagel from the restaurant in the building lobby. A crusty lady manned the cashier and also took money from the delivery boys upon completion of their tasks. One morning I was in line to pay and a delivery came back to her unaccepted by the customer.

“He says the toast is too dark,” the delivery boy complained.

“Tell him next time before he orders,” she said without a smile, “to send down a swatch first.”

photo: brofosifo

Monday, June 25, 2007

At the end of the day

Each boy required a two-pint container of his own, green recycled something-or-other cardboard, for strawberry picking.

We had planned to go Saturday, but the skies were threatening and it was a bit on the cool side. Sunday surprised me, with warmer than forecast temperatures and rich, blue skies. No forecast for rain, as originally thought. After church, our traditional pancake lunch, and rest time, we loaded up the Odyssey.

Karen bought herself and me an iced coffee from The Sweetest Thing in the Hamilton Shopping Plaza, even though her first preference was to drive down to Starbucks. That, I argued, would have taken us an additional twenty minutes out of the way, and given that Dunkin Donuts is closed while moving locations within the shopping plaza, Sweetest Thing was our best alternative.

The boys were happy. Of course, Dad forgot to sunscreen Teak as well as bring along “taggie” (his blanket) and “Stripey” (his tiger Webkins, which is all the rage among little kids). Thus, Dad heard a brief lecture from Mom on proper preparation for family outings – “You know taggie and stripey calm him down....” He had heard this lecture before. Many times. Each time, he failed to take class notes. He was destined to repeat the class for eternity, or so it seemed, like one of those dreams where you are always taking your Chemistry 101 final without having studied.

I took a long draw on my iced coffee and said, “OK. Let’s hit it.”

We drove the back way to I-95, through Bradley Palmer State Park, where the posted 25 MPH speed limit road winds and rises and dips, enough to make me want to skateboard it sometime, or at least imagine that at 44 I could still dust off the longboard and get out there to go downhill fast. As I drive and wind and do maybe a little over 35, I imagine doing it on a skateboard, with a camera fixed on my helmet or perhaps followed by a chase car with the passenger holding a camera out the window and taking a video of this beautiful road and then posting the video on this blog. And then I think, “Nah, too much video posted on websites, not enough copy.” This is a convenient ruse to cover up the fact that I am actually afraid of flying out of control on my board and eating it, leaving behind most of my elbow and knee skin. It is a delightful sensation nonetheless, feeling that I could skate it if I wanted to, and backed up by three boys who would probably consider me a hero for doing it.

Cider Hill Farm is in Amesbury, which charmingly has an old mill in its downtown, a number of shops and restaurants and a rotary that makes its other roads feel like loose spokes, giving it an Old World milieu. I recall coming here in 1999 looking for a place to live before we ended up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, and K does as well. The farm is about a mile outside of town, though, and as we pull off to the right onto the property, we see maybe ten people at most in the strawberry patch, stooping over and searching. This is a good sign, I tell myself, not really knowing, truth be told, whether ten bodies is a lot for the 100-yard long, 25-foot wide patch or whether it can withstand more capacity, especially three small bodies with my last name.

We have a pep talk in the car about manners, loudness, and internecine cooperation, and then head to the store to get details on picking.

Last night I made a strawberry-rhubarb pie, and K and I each had a slice with a scoop of Brigham’s vanilla ice cream on top. I had asked the boys to contribute four strawberries apiece to the pie so we’d have enough. Carter, usually compliant, willingly found four nice ones from his container. Bennett reluctantly offered two. Teak was busy downstairs in the playroom, so his strawberries were conscripted.

photo: anker1922

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Casual Friday

Carter and I went hunting for frogs. I hadn’t planned to, but we were having lunch in Patton Park, and it was “casual Friday” at work – where most people got out at 2:30 and the staff was at Staff Day visiting the Peabody-Essex Museum anyway, leaving the office barely occupied – so I thought I’d take a few extra minutes and seek amphibians with my first-born. K had packed Carter the ever-chosen PB&J along with some Pringles and a cookie, and she made me a turkey on wheat with a banana to go with. We had water bottles. The hour started with us eating at a picnic table and then Carter enjoying the playground for about ten minutes until boredom set in. Then we decided to be a little more venturesome. Patton Pond was inviting us, so we slowly circled it – about 2/10ths of a mile around – peering down into every little indent of shallow brown water for frogs or, more to the point, tadpoles which might just now be growing legs. Upon spotting one, Carter would bend down carefully and try to grab it. Occasionally, I would hold his hand as he would lean out over the water to try for one a few feet out from the edge. One time he got his hands on a 2-inch frog, the only one we saw, before it wriggled away. The rest of the time, his shadow or 8-year-old clumsy movements warned the adolescent creatures, and they swam away from the edge into muck and under lily pads.

We ended our time with my promise that we’d come back and hunt for more that afternoon, weather permitting, or Saturday morning at the latest.

photo: mhunter111

Friday, June 22, 2007

"Telling the truth"

Yesterday in Pittsburgh International Airport I was steps away from one of my heroes. A true celebrity in my book. You’ll say “who?!” when I tell you her name.

Now, you need to know that I’ve been kissing distance from Sharon Stone, Tom Hanks, Muhammad Ali, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates – and was really within kissing distance to Cates (please see Young for Your Age) – Donald Trump (multiple times), Bette Midler, Bill Gates, P-Diddy, Senators, Congressmen, Susan Sarandon, Larry King, Matt Lauer, Barry Manilow, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Tony Randall, Andie McDowell (twice) and others. Cindy Crawford once stared at me from across the street while she was eating lunch at Isabella’s on 77th and Columbus. I am dropping all those names – and hopefully you were impressed – only to underscore the relative obscurity of Annie Lamott.

My writing hero.

Next to Victor Hugo, who is pretty much my all-time writing hero…or maybe Cervantes is…Annie Lamott stands out as the writer who has most influenced my writing and even led to my decision to publish a bunch of Lamottian-like essays in the form of Lullabye.

I was waiting for the plane back to Boston, and off the jetway came walking quite unnoticed to all the oblivious people around me…Annie Lamott. I was unsure at first, but then it was unmistakable. Shortish white woman with dirty blonde dreadlocks, crows feet around the eyes from a soul filled with laughter, baggy clothes. Knew it was her. And I was on the phone at the time with the Lovely K – who has neither dreadlocks nor crows feet yet has a soul filled with laughter – and I said, “Hold on a minute, honey, I think I see Annie Lamott.” She knows about Lamott, because she bought me a used copy of Bird by Bird last summer from Hastings in Kerrville, and reading it changed the way I write. "Good writing," she says, "is about telling the truth." All those movie stars were sort of cool to see up close for the curiosity factor, and it was kind of nifty to see the richest man in the world, but I was like shaking when I realized I had gotten that close to the writer who was so meaningful to me during the last eleven months. Still talking to K, I can’t think straight, and I get jittery.

I am star-struck.

So I kind of paused and ummed my way through the next few moments wondering aloud whether I should go after her, as she passed me by, and ask, “Are you Annie Lamott?” or, as I suggested to K, “Is your name Annie Lamott?” because if it wasn’t her, then the second question would make a whole lot more sense to a stranger and, after all, I don’t want to make a total a#$ of myself. (Of course, this is already a fait accompli on the other end of the line.) But as I was pondering and ruminating and umming and thinking way too much about it, Lamott disappeared down the corridor of B Concourse toward the people mover walkways and baggage claim. I told K, “Hey, let me hang up and go find her. I want to meet her.” So I shuffled off down the corridor, looking for her dreadlocks and baggy jeans and, finding none, I hovered around the outside of the ladies room about fifty feet from the gate, because the restroom is usually where I go first after deplaning, and I pretended to read my email on my PDA and study the departure board on the wall, very regularly peering up suspiciously at the doorway of the…ahem, ladies restroom. (TSA had probably trained their security cameras on me at that point.) But after a few minutes it was apparent that Annie Lamott had disappeared somewhere else or was doing business in there after which she would be in no mood to be accosted by a preppie, non-dread-ed Fan.

Dejected, I walked back to the gate, called back K, and while boarding some ten minutes later, I ask the agent, “Where did this plane come from?”

“San Francisco.” Where Lamott lives. So it was her.

I am kicking myself.

I look over toward the seats to my right and, I’ll be darned, there’s John Sununu slouching back in a blue suit and red striped tie loosened at the collar. I’m sure it’s him, and he looks tired and ready to get back to New England.

It’s a big letdown, seeing Sununu after Lamott. Because after all, it’s just John Sununu.

And how in the world did I get in a higher zone than Sununu?

photo: Mark Richards

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


We sold clams for $5 a dozen, probably a lot more pricey than they were worth, but lots of parents out on Fire Island at our exclusive beach community would buy them from us. It was still cheaper from us than from the market there and certainly lots cheaper than the restaurants.

Dave B., Jon, Alex and I; or Dave K. and I; or especially Dave B. and Jon using Dave’s family’s small plastic dinghy; would wade out in the Great South Bay anywhere from a foot to about 100 yards off the berm along the north side of the island at low tide. It was only up to our waists even though we were young and barely five feet tall. The main hazards were crabs, which would surprise more than hurt were you to dig one of them up instead of a clam with your pointed toes. Dave’s dinghy always gave him and Jon the edge in hauling major clams – they’d make $50 to $75 easy between them because they could get a lot more in one trip.

Then they’d take their buckets filled with clams, sand, and salt water, and put them on a wagon and drag it around the community, knocking on doors or stopping by decks, where bronzed women in white bikinis would answer with martini in hand. If no cash were readily available, we’d take credit, coming back around later to collect.

My dad loved these clams; they were littlenecks and cherrystones. He’d take the clam knife and shuck them expertly, cutting the muscle at the hinge and putting one half of the clam to his pursed lips, then would suck out the beige-grey mollusk as if he were kissing a baby. Then he’d tip back the shell into his mouth, just to make sure he’d gotten all the clam juice.

photo: dinosk

Saturday, June 16, 2007


“Hot or mad?”

“Excuse me?” I replied. The boy behind the counter at Cozy Corner serving lunch couldn’t have been more than 10, maybe even 8 judging by his height. He had lighter skin than the man of 30 or so, who was a deep brown, also behind the counter, but they had the same jaw line and smile.

“Hot or mad?” Oh. I get it.

“Mild, please.” Last night’s chicken from Gus’s had ripped through me earlier in the morning, yet I was willing to have a little of the hair of the dog for my sliced pork sandwich, served with slaw already on it. The sign by the dining area said, “This section for self-service only,” and a computer print-out sheet over the arch leading to the section announced to all customers who were gearing for a fight, “The only one who’s right all the time is Jesus…” There was no AC, just ceiling fans circling lazily.

He punched in numbers to his register like he’d been doing it since sippy cups at age 4 and then processed my credit card – “debit or credit?” – this kid didn’t miss a beat. As the machine started to spew my receipt, the boy looked up at me and said, “You ready to write?”


My receipt came out and he placed it on the counter in front of me. Then he plopped down a purple pen that was nine inches long and about an inch thick, and his face remained stoic, staring at me. I let out a belly laugh.

“Good thing my bill wasn’t as big as this pen!”


“You wanna snake with your meal?”

The lady behind the counter at Famiglia Pizza in the Memphis airport queried me as she rung up my cheese pizza and bottled water.

“Excuse me?” Seemed to be my favorite saying today.

“A snake.” She motioned over to the muffins, cookies, and fresh fruit to the right of the register. Oh. I get it. Snack.

“Sure. I’ll have a banana.”


"Where are you headed?" the flight attendant asked the couple across the aisle from me.

" 'Crowshay' Mountain." Spelled Crochet.


"I grew up in New Hampshire," she said with a smile. "We call that 'crotchitt' mountain."

photo: berenika

Friday, June 15, 2007

People call him 'Pops'

MEMPHIS, TN – Enterprise gave me a shiny black Chrysler 300, so as I drove from downtown on Poplar toward Brother Juniper’s for breakfast, I was tuned to 94.1, SNAP-FM, “the rhythm of Memphis,” instead of Thunder Country, which would have been the logical choice for me. “Reeber” had been singing earlier, and somehow it didn’t seem right this morning.

You might not ever get rich
But let me tell ya it's better that diggin' a ditch.
There ain't no tellin' who ya might meet...
A movie star or may be even an Indian Chief.

(Workin' at the) car wash.
Workin' at the car wash yeah!
Come on and sing it with me car wash.
Get with the feelin' y'all car wash yeah.

Last night I got together with a bunch of pastors, all ordained within the Presbyterian Church of America. It was a diverse bunch of guys in terms of race and geography and background, except for ages: all were under 44 years old. I am 44 years old. We talked of life at the school where I work, from which they all graduated, and we joked about how in the South it seems that if you want to be a counter-cultural Christian you get a tattoo or an earring, and how in the North just being a Christian is counter-cultural. We ate chicken from Gus’s down on South Front Street.

About half an hour before we all got together, I was picking up the food from this hole-in-the-wall joint, which happened to be the first franchise for the Bonner family, whose original Gus’s restaurant is in Mason, about 30 miles north of Memphis. Mason has a population of about a thousand, which includes the 600 or so inmates of the West Tennessee Detention Center.

Outside the restaurant a black man about 60 approached me.

“Can I wash your windows?”

“Do you need money for food?” I regurgitated, not really wanting to deal with interaction. I was on a mission for chicken.

“I need money to stay in the mission.”

“How much?”

“Six dollars.”

I looked at him. Was he telling the truth? Did I actually care if he was telling the truth?

“Yeah. I can do that. Let me get some change inside.”

“But let me wash your windows.”

“No, no, man, don’t worry about it. It’s a rental. It doesn't need it.” And it really didn’t need it. But apparently he did need to wash them, I assume, to justify getting the money. So I agreed.

I was inside for about five minutes getting the food, asking about their fried pickles and restaurant history, bantering with a big black woman behind the cash register and, then, saddled with two large plastic bags full of some of Memphis’s best chicken, slaw, beans, bread, moist towelettes, and set-ups for ten people, I went out and saw that the Chrysler was looking better than ever.

“Wow,” I said. “Looks great! They don’t deserve it!”

“I ran out of water,” he said, “and there’s a smudge on the driver’s side window.” He had paid close attention to his work. “And I was wrong, I actually need another two dollars.”

“What for?”

“I need to get a shower and clean up, and that’s extra.”

Pause. Consideration.

“Sure. I have two dollars I don’t need.” And, truth be told, I really didn’t need it. Not really. Not ever, in fact. I probably have one hundred, or one thousand dollars, or more, that I really don’t need.

I asked, “What’s your name?”

He said something unintelligible but then, “People call me ‘Pops’.” His face was deeply pocked marked and his gray beard barely covered the holes on his emaciated cheeks. “I moved to Memphis 30 years ago and have been homeless ever since.”

We talked for a few more minutes, about God and blessings and life and health and children and then more about God and blessings. He ended by exhorting me with a preacher’s fiery tone and conviction.

I got in the shiny Chrysler and drove to visit with the pastors.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Feeling it

As a college sophomore, I still had not heard many people talk about God.

Sure, when I was a boy – 5 or 6 at most – Mom would take me to The Church of the Heavenly Rest for morning chapel services. This Episcopal church, where as an infant I was christened (which is a religious rite that is more about the martinis afterward than the vows during), is a gothic structure on 90th and Fifth Avenue, which arches imposingly over the Engineer’s Gate entrance to Central Park where on any given Sunday, its flock – albeit a scant group of sheep – would file into the sanctuary while joggers assembled across the street for a ten o’clock race sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club.

Mom and I would sit in the side chapel, and she would kneel and pray, while I would thumb through the Book of Common Prayer.

We never talked about God at home as far as I can remember, and talk of Jesus was even less common.

When I was 19 and trying to understand my place in the world and feeling somewhat “convicted” – to use a Christian-ese word to mean guilt that makes you feel good in the end once you’ve resolved it – about my carnal relationship with Carla, my college girlfriend, and after I had had an encounter with Artie, another student, a senior, who was part of a campus ministry that was rumored among us heathen to require its members to give 25% of their income to it, which sounded awfully cultish to me, but an encounter in which he and I spoke for what seemed like three hours out on the courtyard in front of the dining room at the north side of campus, in the middle of this period in the spring before my 20th birthday, somewhere in the fog I went to a student-sponsored church service in the Student Union.

There was a sea of black faces. Maybe sixty to seventy of them. I was perhaps one of five whites. And at one point there was music and swaying and praying and people were getting up and one black girl got up and walked over to the corner of the room and started shouting, “HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH!” and was jackknifing her body into right angles up and down like she was dry heaving while she was shouting. And I knew that this was not ordinary. Nor even something I necessarily wanted to participate in. But I was fascinated. And transfixed.

And then the preacher spoke for probably 45 minutes on Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” At the end of his sermon, he asked everyone seated to bow and close their eyes. And he asked if anyone wanted what he had talked about. And I did. And he asked those of us who wanted what he had described to raise our hands. And I did.

We who were hand raisers, maybe six of us, were led into a small room and those who were sponsoring the service prayed for us and then with us. And they said that we were “saved” and that things would be different.

I didn’t feel it.

But things were different, as I would learn in the coming weeks.

photo: anissat

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


My brother Jim and I would collect bits of iron that were 2 inches square and soldered off on one end from the construction site around the corner that would become Hunter College High School.

The school was added on, in roughly the same architecture, including machicolations, as the 19th century armory remains that stood to the west of the block at 95th Street between Park and Madison. The armory was basically gone, and all that remained was a craggly shell facing west, across Fifth Avenue and Central Park, as if expecting a band of marauding Jews or artists from the Upper West Side to attack the societally entrenched WASPs on the Upper East Side.

photo: mzacha

Monday, June 11, 2007

Summertime #1

In the putrefying air

where the subway runs on hot tracks and
hotter platforms in the summertime,
on the number 6 uptown train
during afternoon rush hour
I at 16 am slammed against a black girl in her early twenties
very attractive
and thin
and with my friend Roger
we are hurtling toward the
House that Ruth Built
and so is everyone else—racing
toward home, that is—
and the sweat slides off her onto me onto Roger
onto whoever is next to us
there is so much sweat
and yet
we are smiling

looking at each other.

This black girl and I,

in 1979.

The Yankees won that game,
but that and her
are all I remember.

Concerning the Unoccupied At

The following message [not italicized] appeared in my Junk Mail this morning. My attempt to understand it is in blue italics. It is vitally important to the future of our galaxy. Please help me decipher it.

Chen said, Barr did was being sent to get the remains for the faintest need a certain subjects.

I thought he wanted his remains cremated. How will his family take the news?

Sutt Gorov indulgently. Prepare his ruler's ear: gently but why take care for him in favor of Imperial assassination of their holy of the tweaties we've got it works the Empire has been warned that and from the reflection of power and reached for thirty years through at the Foundation at each former Four Kingdoms the vast that one in a vote.

This talk of assassination, and multiple Kingdoms, disturbs me. Apparently, he didn’t have his tweaties this morning.

He had been one then with a different ways (of further at a cigarette; and when I know and as he attack: on public were rank and more serious one you think we had been crowded sun of the Anacreonian press and what we ahn't the council seat). The tech man's lips; closed: a sudden faint becoming more ships of congratulations, perhaps retained a missionary, were a general background.

Ah. The Anacreonians. I suspected them all along.

Obviously your status as he knew well. You must be to get along the future. What can increase the stage. And now the Protector in a the sub field little weazened soul is that I do You (one more than for the law henceforth). The fact, that struggled to the torches had exulted. Yes! That the trial you were maneuvered the Foundation, where they didn't had nothing but Yes, said, Mallow nodded to leave. He amended, no! Yes.

Obviously a lover of Thomas Carlyle and also a student of the seminal work on sales, “Getting to Yes.”

Why me like a to be and if I have it for Seldon's recording to test, that fly through without my office, is impossible. Well, then stopped the buckles remain in a good old Board is nonsense. I don't may be spared to the interesting bahbawous Planet—

“bahbawous” – this is my new favorite word...oh, but what shall I make it mean...

--and flicked open to single share of Trantor no other factors. He wondered not the beginning of that Lord Dorwin to explain there was in the Galaxy, was the time longer: have you can escape death. As they asked darkly. And Lieutenant of more than that Hardin had had. On the Nyakbird; usage murmured your treasonable statements, concerning and it, turned and anti Mallow, smiled very rim of magical sorcery, and the population, was to pieces by placing his untimely death. When our path, such as you have lost his own: glass which he did he says. It got the now executed but why, not Sutt, did: not simply and stared him leave.

Sutt again?! I thought the Anacreonians had finished him off for good.

SELDON, and saddle and since but that fact, that much, absolute and her house, in my rights: for the center of the Galactic men, ignorant of the moah technical details concerning the unoccupied at? I didn't really, said wearily as to the general blazing light of earshot, he hadn't looked up on that you are wrong. He knew I move, Mr. The development. Get it narrowed: if any Prefect of nothing; of the; policy has been particularly anxious to read the succeeding Dark: ages. Said, thickly, we would be a politician of the place through the sleeve. Aporat interrupted then joined only accusations; sterile profits with commercial Empire: will be to has the rest of your highness.

To be continued...isn’t it obvious?

photo: lemon drop

Saturday, June 09, 2007


I had been in the same room – a 500-square-foot church fellowship hall somewhere on the outskirts of Minneapolis – Minneapolis, which in 1987 was so hip that the restaurant we went to as a group the night before did not have waiters or waitresses but “waitrons” – for the past 36 hours. We had slept in this room, discussed our agenda in this room, ate some meals in this room, and I was in the middle of experiencing my first chemically imbalanced episode.

It had started in the bathroom at work about five days earlier.

Employed at a globally recognized publishing company as the corporate communications administrator – that is, the producer of the corporate “organ,” its internal newsletter – I was pursuing another internal position as a writer for the Benefits Department. Why I was gunning for this position was beyond me. It was producing manuals instead of racy management pieces on corporate restructuring and downsizing. Maybe it was the salary increase from $32,000 to $36,000. I liked the prospective boss OK enough; he had suffered from depression for years and was in therapy and said so, and for some reason, as someone having never stepped foot in a therapist’s office, I figured this was kind of cool. That he was that open about it. And it spoke to me. My current boss knew that I was in the final stages of seeking this new position.

I sensed one morning that the offer was imminent, and I happened to go to the bathroom.

I have learned since then that trips to the bathroom can be attended by thoughts either useless or profound. Very few in between.

That morning I went into the stall and had a breakthrough thought: I would quit my current job, turn down the impending offer, and go freelance (desktop publishing). Yes! A splendid idea! It made all the sense in the world. It seemed Solomonic. (Rhymes with moronic.)

So I walk into my boss’s office and, more emotionally than I had planned for, told her I was quitting and going freelance. My eyes misted. Her eyebrows kind of rose up. I gave six weeks notice.

Then I trotted down a floor to Human Resources, where Benefits was housed and told my prospective boss that I was quitting and going freelance. Mmmmm, was his attitude.

“Do you have many clients?” he asked.

Deafening pause on my part.


Yes, well, I’ll get some, I thought. Can’t remember what my response was. That’s when panic first reared its serpent head.

Of course, it set in all the more when I took the afternoon off, hopped on the subway from Manhattan to Queens to surprise my live-in girlfriend, Kat, at work for a late lunch and to give her the news.

“You what?!!”

She could not capture the vision.

Needless to say, things at home that night were not so romantic or so chatty as I had imagined. I started to sink into a deep crevasse of thought.

What had I done?! Ay yay yay yay yay…

The next day and night were the first full-force depression I had experienced. I was…catatonic is a good word. I am not sure I did much but sit in a chair and meditate about what I had done. I did, in fact, have one or two clients for whom I had done minor jobs, $25 for a resume here, $50 for a brochure there. Our rent for this two bedroom apartment was about $1200 a month. There had been a boarder in the spare bedroom before I moved in and Kat decided soon after this episode that we needed another one to help pay our costs. But for now it was my office.

A client came over that second night and Kat had to coach me on basic human functioning. “OK, now, when she comes in, just bring her over to your computer and sit down with her and go over her resume on the screen, make her changes, etc….” She worked three jobs: sign language interpreter, news reader on a radio station for the deaf, and something else. I just remember her doing three “gigs” as she called them. She was also an actress – she looked like a young Meryl Streep – but she had got only so far as acting class downtown with Lee Strasberg. She had yet to be a paid actor, but she performed her love scenes with her acting partner convincingly several weeks later, I learned late one night when she came home to her still depressed boyfriend who yet could smell man on her skin. She later decided to live as a lesbian, which she had been prior to me, too, but not without taking a detour of several boyfriends.

Three nights after my first break with sanity, which took place in the 5th floor men’s room at 605 Third Avenue, I went on a weekend planning retreat with the national Unitarian young adult network group. It was called the “continental” Unitarian such and such in order to appease the Canadian in the group. I had been asked to sit on this steering committee because I had done a successful newsletter for my church at the time, All Souls, and was asked to be the national newsletter writer. I think the guy who had been doing it had done a very decent job until now but didn’t want the hassle anymore. He spelled his first and last name all in lower case letters, which might have been because he had Native American blood in him and he saw this as an anti-colonial act of rebellion, or maybe it was an anti-authoritarian Unitarian statement. I wasn’t sure, and this inability on my part to understand the nuances of Unitarian outlook may have contributed to why I eventually left the Unitarian church to become a Jesus freak in evangelical Christianity, a much simpler and more clear-cut (doctrinally speaking) way of life. Like going from a babaghanoush worldview to grilled swordfish. In a sense.

So I get to Minneapolis and we kind of tool around the Walker Art Center’s outdoor sculpture garden, which was quite cool, and then we congregate in this church’s common room for Friday night through Sunday, talking about policies and decisions and whatever else we talked about, because I simply don’t remember much past the waitrons at the local restaurant and the fact that I dwelled on my act in the 5th floor men’s room as having cosmically negative significance. Just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I think I spoke probably three sentences in the span of 24 hours, and this was in the midst of a working group of about 14 people. Think it was conspicuous?

At some point Saturday night, I call Kat, and she says something about “chemical imbalance.” This is the first time I had heard that phrase. I was 25 years old. And it struck a chord.

“You know,” she said, “if that seems to resonate with you, then you should look into it.”

Dear Reader, there was a big difference in that statement between what a person in a committed relationship would say versus what she said. What she said was helpful, no doubt; it may have set me on the course to eventually get well eight years later, once I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on meds. But she used the second person pronoun to describe whose responsibility it was. She had checked out, but I didn’t know it at the time.

I slept soundly that night.

And though because of her chemically imbalanced roommate she was basically “on the market” now for all the guys, including some erstwhile friends of mine at church, those two words from her mouth set me on a better path.

photo: dimshik

Friday, June 08, 2007

Young for your age

Phoebe Cates was somewhat of a dangerous dish in middle school.

Lest you think me some kind of Internet creep, let me hasten to add that this post is a follow up to last one, where I ended by dropping her name in a sentence about playing spin the bottle with her and her classmates when I was 14.

This is true.

We are the same age and, yes, she must admit if asked to being 44. She was in eighth grade when I was in eighth grade, and so I guess she could be 43…or she could be 45. Which makes husband Kevin Kline about 92.

Seems that in the late-70s when I was in the eighth of my twelve years at Trinity School, a private school on the Upper West Side that was established in 1709 by Anglicans seeking to further education among the brutish Manhattanites of the pre-Enlightenment New World, parents started realizing that young boys and girls were spending way too much time on the city streets drinking, smoking, and sniffing ammel nitrate, also called locker room or locker ‘roma. My friend Edgar had a stash of this insidious liquid in a brown bottle and used to partake of it like it was modern day snuff. Google this crud and you come up with but two entries whose links I did not follow but whose text summaries sounded so pathetic it will give you an idea of what kind of kid Edgar was and what kind of kid I was hanging out with him and what parents were trying to protect Phoebe and her Hewitt School Future Debutante Friends from on the rough streets of the Upper East Side of New York, otherwise known as the Silk Stocking District of Congress. Edgar also took an early prototype CD his father procured and said, “Check it out, they’re indestructible,” and – flinging it like a Frisbee hard against his apartment wall – he and I watched it shatter. He got kicked out of Trinity on the last day of school that year for smoking opium in the stairwell. Last day of school.

Independent school parents, among them mostly Republicans I’m sure for reasons that will be apparent in a moment, decided that it would be great if there were a cool “club” that kids in 8th and 9th grade could go to on Friday and Saturday nights. They called it “Bandwagon,” and we met in the New York City Republican headquarters offices on East 84th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. Bandwagon was created to both manage and put distance between the Edgars of New York City and their children. The building was a brownstone that had only a small placard on the fa├žade telling pedestrians what it was, and on weekend nights some 200 kids would pile in for ping pong, music and dancing, drama, and – in upper floor rooms where there was probably a lot of strategizing during the week about how to ensure that Congressional delegates kept the pork coming to New York – there was spin the bottle.

Phoebe Cates had been in Teen magazine and young miss underwear advertising, which I had not known previously. At 14, she was simply dark brunette and gorgeous. It sickens me that at age 60 already, Kevin Kline had his eye on her as his eventual bride. (This is a joke; I wish not to be sued for it. He was only 40-something at the time anyway.) She went to Hewitt, which was a second-tier independent girls school to the more sought after Spence, Brearley, Chapin, and Nightingale. (This is an accurate assessment of Hewitt during the 70s; if you sue me, I’ll have Kevin Kline’s great grandson come over and break your arms.) It really doesn’t matter if she was an excellent student, which I’m sure she was, because she was beautiful and went on to star in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which was nominated for an Oscar…oh, wait, I must be thinking of "Gone With the Wind," which starred Kevin Kline, not Phoebe Cates. (In actuality, he will turn 60 on October 24 of this year, but of course that’s not counting the 30 years of being cryogenically frozen after winning the Oscar for "Gone With the Wind.")

One Friday, the boys from Trinity got with the girls from Hewitt and played spin the bottle. This was approximately one hour before we all went outside and the 84th Street gang, thus called because they habited and menaced 84th Street in particular, came around and sent all the Bandwagon kids scattering because their ring leader was reputed to pack heat, and yet my friend Joe Murdoch knew the gang leader personally and I happened to be standing next to Joe at that moment and got a formal introduction to the leader involving a handshake and getting on a first-name basis with him.

But blissfully unaware of what was to come, about ten of us gathered upstairs in the Pork Room and played spin the bottle with a flashlight or pencil or something in place of a bottle. My friend Ricky Schwartz spun on Phoebe, and I suppose all the boys were waiting with bated breath until the game broke up to ask “how was it?!” I spun on a girl named Jane, plain as her name, but who bestowed upon me only the second kiss of my life. I remember with equal vividness that kiss and standing next to the revolver-packing gang leader.

Years later, in about 1987 to be exact, Phoebe and Kevin strolled through the Fellowship Hall of the church I was going to, All Souls Unitarian Church on Lexington and 80th, after the Sunday morning service.

She did not recognize me. And Kevin recognized no one so far as I could tell.

photo: danzo08

The Real Shanghai

Well-written piece by Howard French in the New York Times travel section for Sunday about the "real" Shanghai. It is written as a slice of life essay, my favorite as you know.

photo: French/NYT

Movie Hero

I remember my first kiss. I was five.

Yes, five. My brother Jim was there, and he can attest. That is, if he remembers my first kiss. It wasn’t, after all, his first kiss. He was three. And probably pooping in his training pants.

We were out at Point O’ Woods, a very WASPy, very exclusive beach community on Fire Island that my parents first rented at and then, when I was about 12, bought a house at that Jim and I sold only after our second parent passed away, in 2002. No cars except for utility vehicles were allowed – much to the chagrin of Robert Moses in the 30s who almost ended that – so it was safe to let loose little ones and animals.

As I said, I was five and was playing at the eastern end of the community, toward the long stretch of open sand and dunes that led past Lonelyville, where if you walk down a double-track car path you’ll eventually get to where the chickens and junk yard dogs roam free and first you hear the chickens clucking and then you start fearing the rumors of nasty German Shepherds and other canines that will eat you alive if the Resident of Lonelyville doesn’t get you first with his shotgun, and after that you come to Sunken Forest, which is pretty cool but to which I never took the Lovely K because I was lazy and she never lets me forget it, and finally you arrive at Cherry Grove, the gay hangout, which actually has some of the best restaurants around but to which a group of us teenagers once went for novelty’s sake and when I opened a fashion magazine in a store it showed a picture of a man in a business suit with his trouser fly open and him…basically flapping in the breeze, which I thought quite bizarre and not exactly up to journalistic standards…and then we all saw a topless woman running happily screaming down the path with a mixed drink in her hand chased by a very effeminate man who was enjoying himself just as much but had no end purpose to the chase.

It was at this eastern end, where there were only four more houses in our community, and I was playing with Ann K., and Jim was there for some God-only-knows reason – probably Mom told me to take him along. Ann and I were playing movie heroes and heroines – probably my idea, because I had a sense that kissing was involved in all movies and dammit I wanted a kiss.

I let Ann be the heroine and “fall” off a 3-foot high sand dune onto the soft ground, and I scooped her up and kissed her. Jim looked away. “The horror…!”

The kiss felt soft. And hot. And because it was hot, it was kind of gross. I thought that icicles would form, that it would be like a cool breeze. I had no idea that 98.6 degrees plus 98.6 degrees plus hormones plus summer sunshine equal heat.

It was not what I pictured, nor what I really cared for, until my second kiss in 8th grade nine years later, when I played spin the bottle one Friday night with girls from the Hewitt School, including one Phoebe Cates of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” fame. (That’s for another post.)

(Spoiler: I didn’t get to kiss her, but my classmate Rick did. He said it was hot.)

photo: alanford01

Thursday, June 07, 2007



There’s just so much that’s evocative about that word.

I think of a gold-nugget looking “ring” that covers all four knuckles on left hand which is…may I say it in polite company?...covered in rich, brown skin.

Why is it that “bling” just doesn’t go with WASPy skin?

I think the word itself is too hip to go with WASP. WASP is decidedly un-hip. WASP gave us “beach music” (see HERE), which really is Motown for vanilla eaters; WASP gave us Cardigan sweaters wrapped around the neck; WASP gave us lime green anything on our bodies; WASP gave us singing and talking in 4/4 time…

It’s not that I’m against WASP, being one myself, it’s that bling is new and edge and WASP is old and crust. Which is like edge gone moldy.

This post is weird. I wrote it because Poetry Thursday had as its random prompt the word “bling,” and that was just too good to pass up. Read on below if this one stinks.

Express elevator

The umbilical cord is much thinner than I had expected. It was kind of tough, too, like cutting through a piece of asparagus with scissors, not at all mushy.

These thoughts went through my mind as they let me snip the ¼-inch purplish-white cord that tethered Carter, my first-born, to Karen as she lay mercifully out of pain and smiling in Roosevelt Hospital on West 59th Street.

They placed him on Karen’s stomach for her to look at while I cut the cord, and then they checked him out, swaddled Carter to keep him warm, and handed him to me.

Handed him to me.

I looked into the face of my ancestry, an ancestry I had never known since I was adopted as an infant. I looked forward and backward in time. Carter stared up at me and started to make the suckling action with his lips. He was awake and alert. This quality of his has not changed in over eight years.

The day before we had been doing circles around our apartment building on 76th Street off Central Park West. K had been dilated about three centimeters and she was having regular contractions, but nothing significant enough to warrant The Trip to The Hospital. So we walked down CPW and around 75th Street, then up Columbus to our street and back around. She had borrowed from a mom friend, the wife of our associate pastor, a gray flannel dress that was very fashionable, because pregnancy or extreme disability are poor excuses for bad couture in New York City. It was a comfortable morning outside, probably in the upper 50s or lower 60s, unseasonably warm for mid-March in New York City.

About the third lap – punctuated by her stopping regularly to have contractions and lose her breath – she paused just off CPW on 75th Street, the south side, in front of a white stone building which had planters in front guarded by wrought iron fence about 2-feet high.

“My water broke.”

The Trip was about to begin.

I raced to the corner, raced but not without her alongside, but walked carefully with her because of her delicate state but raced well not really ran no kind of walked briskly yes briskly is a good word because that describes walking with intentionality like you have something to get to that you need to make sure and do but you don’t want to really RACE because that would be close to panic and now is not a time for panic but quiet intentional walking with intentionality and briskness and purpose toward a joyful event that so many people have gone through without losing their brains no not even after their wives’ water broke and yes they do this even in New York City.

We walked to the corner and I started to hail a cab, but I had K step back some 15 feet out of the immediate view of cabbies, for they are known to sometimes by-pass very pregnant women for fear of having babies delivered in the backseat. Cabbie scum.

One stopped – Cabbie Angel – and I motioned for K to come, and we got in and I told him THE HOSPITAL and please avoid potholes.

Once there – did I ever pay the driver? Oh, yes, I must have – we went to the 12th floor. Good thing this was not a Saturday because we might have ended up on the elevator that stops on every floor automatically for the benefit of our orthodox Jewish friends so they don’t have to push buttons (and therefore they don’t have to operate machinery; if this is a new concept to you, please read the Bible and the Talmud in their entirety and write me a five-page book report on keeping the Sabbath and what it means in your life).

We got her admitted, which was a quicker activity that day than brushing my teeth running out the door to a meeting, and I immediately loved with a love bigger than all of Manhattan these doctors and nurses. They were saints, Loved Ones, Beknighted ones, my Best Friends…they could do no wrong.

Life changed at 9:11 p.m. on March 18, 1999. Just another minute marker in history.

So much can happen in the span of sixty seconds.

photo: al-ex

Sunday, June 03, 2007

In custody

A man at the church I went to in Atlanta, let’s call him Charlie, had a nearly bald head and a bushy auburn pirate’s beard only a little trimmed so he looked more like a biker than anything else. His head had been totally shaved when he was in the pen, where he was for I don’t know how long, and this is how he looked when I met him at church at first. He sported a Japanese or Chinese pictograph tattoo on the right back side of his neck and multiple works of body art along each arm. He smoked clove cigarettes, and his breath reeked. But his eyes were clear blue, like they saw into you, and when he shook your hand, he grabbed it with both of his, and he looked right at you, and bent his face in toward you, so you’d smell his breath, and he’d say in his discomforting and difficult to understand voice that was borne of being deaf and having a half-rate hearing aid in his right ear and not really hearing his voice as it came out, “How you doin’?” He had three kids who were being battled over in court with their mother: a girl, 8; another girl, 5; and a boy, 3. He would bring them to church now and then, to the “family friendly” service at 9:00 a.m., and the kids were just out of control. The little boy would wander around and talk and fidget with other people’s arms in the pew behind them and just…just…out of control. Undisciplined. Unparented.

One Sunday after worship, we were sitting in the chapel to the side of the sanctuary hearing from a group the church supported financially that helps young mothers and also helps people with adoption. Charlie spoke up and said that he had recently gotten full custody of the kids, that he was trying to learn how to parent them, that it had been rough, that he knew he had a “higher power/Being” he was trying to follow, who had made his life so much better, but right now it was just tough, and what kind of help was out there for a guy like him, a single dad, trying to raise his three kids? His voice broke a couple times while he was talking.

I watched him and marveled. A man who spent time in prison, the kind of man who looked as though he’d be as comfortable holding a sawed-off shotgun in your face then as he would a hymnal on Sunday morning now, sitting in a chapel pew asking for help raising his kids. Trying to make a go of it. Trying to be a part of something larger than himself. Trying to give his kids a good life, not one necessarily of prosperity, but one of love and direction, of a father loving his children the way he knew they should be loved.

He didn’t know this way, but he was committed to learning it and doing it.

For his kids’ sake.

photo: johnpring

Friday, June 01, 2007

Better than a dump truck

Bill sat across from me at a cafeteria table in the school where I work. He fiddled with the rim of his paper cup of coffee: black, piping hot, steam circling the fingers on his right hand. We meet about every three weeks or so for java and conversation. He is about twenty years my senior, and I often look to him for sage counsel. Occasionally, I get to tease him, as I did the other day.

“You know what gets me,” he said with a self-mocking laugh, “is that it says in the book of Revelation that heaven is like a city. That gets me every time.” He laughed again, looking down into his cup.

Born and raised in Montana, Bill was an auto parts manufacturer and had a successful business before retiring and moving east to work in full-time ministry. He had spent his childhoods hunting and fishing with his buddies, including Native American friends with names like Tommy Whitefoot and Joe Swiftdeer, and he returns each summer for vacation with his wife and again each autumn to hunt elk and fish for steelhead. He said he couldn’t reconcile his intimacy with and knowledge of God’s natural creation with the account in the Bible of the “new Jerusalem” being like a city.

“And,” I added, not making him any less uncomfortable, “not a very interesting city at that: it’s '12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long…” I did this to rib him. He laughed once more, realizing the humor in speculating about it.

Our upbringings couldn’t have been more different: his in a Christian home out in the open, mine in a secular household where we didn’t speak the name of God except in anger, in arguably the most exciting city in the world.

At times when I worry whether something will be in heaven or not – when I was a new follower of Jesus I always worried whether God had included surfable waves on the other side of eternity – I always remember the story the Lovely K said she heard once from a pastor.

The pastor spoke of a man who was fielding his 5-year-old son’s questions about getting married.

“Dad?” the boy asked.

“Yes, son.”

“On my honeymoon, will I get to take my toys?”

“Son, you’re not going to want to take your toys.”

“Not even my dump truck?”

“Not even your dump truck. There’ll be something much better waiting for you.”

“What’s that, Daddy?”

Friends, that’s the surprise.

photo: shlomaster

Just this once...

Blogging about blogging seems a bit like manifesting Gertrude Stein's "there's no there there," but I've been "tagged," so I will do it this once, then repent, then get back to writing stuff that hopefully has some "there" in it.

My Blogger Friend Lillie Ammann, who has been a great encouragement to me these past few weeks while Lullabye was coming out on Amazon, gave me and four other blogs the "Thinking Blogger Award." It looks like this:

I'm told that there are several rules to participating in this "meme."

1. I am supposed to cite the post that she gave me this award for, which you can read here.

2. I am supposed to refer you back to the original post of the person who created the award, which is here.

3. And then I am supposed to cite five blogs that make me think. Here goes: besides Lillie's, which is already noted when she got the award...I get to thinking when I read Ninja Poodles, whose humor is revitalizing; my friend Dave's Mongolia Chronicles always evidences a grateful look at the world around him but I know without a doubt that he will not continue this chain of tagging because he hates stuff like this; fellow bipolar blogger Susan Bernard has some great recent posts about the benefits of slight hypomania and also some Quaker meanderings; the MoleskineCity Detour sites, especially the New York City one, really get my creative juices flowing; and my friends over at Brewing Culture also give me a steady stream of thought to interact with.

To these fellow writers and creators, my Red Sox cap is off.