Music and Madness

Total time spent in mental health wing of hospital: around half a year.

Accomplishments while there: I learned the following piece of music, playing it on the piano located in the lobby area of the facility.

Suffering from mental illness has a unfair degree of stigma attached to it; however, the stigma is arguably less than when the same types of people were thought of as “mad”. 

There have always been two types of words for mental illness: stigmatizing ones like “insane” or “crazy”, and minimizing ones, like “troubled” or even “eccentric”. My coworkers thought of me as troubled, for what that was worth. The people at the hospital, on the other hand, knew I was mentally ill.

I practiced that old upright piano in lobby every day. I had to do something with the hours. I went to individual and group therapy. I saw doctors and social workers. I took various meds.

I thought a lot about suicide.

I had one book of piano music with me: 8 Brief Pieces by Gabriel Faure, of which the Nocturne, above, was the last. I kept working on them and it, everyday. Trying to create order out of the chaos in my head.

I had a crush on a nurse, then one of the social workers. I made friends. 

I kept working on the music, every day. People would come by and ask me to play popular tunes, songs they knew. I would.

When they left, though, I went back to learning this music.

Loneliness. Isolation. Chaos. Madness.

Trying to play music. Trying to breathe.

We built things for therapy, and in my mind, I was the jar and the crepe paper and the rhinestones and the glue smell and the man next to me had magnified eyes like jumping out of airplanes through kites in white satin —

Remember the music. Starts with an F in the right hand.

Why is there blood on my pillow? What are those shapes across the room?

You can’t go play at 3 AM.

if you had just done it while you had the chance…

No! Stop it, I’m tired of this!

Mr friend Jeneen smuggled my cat in for a visit. Her boyfriend had been feeding the cat every day. On another visit, she asked me to play “that song you always play”…

The Nocturne. The Faure.

“The therapy music. Like little bits of hope riding waves of despair.”

Little bits of hope riding waves of despair. I like that.

Total time spent in mental health wing of hospital: around half a year.

Accomplishments while there: I survived

Scenes from My Office

(These are snippets of actual work conversations I have participated in within the last week or so. I am always the second person speaking. – S.B.)


“… Doesn’t it bother you knowing he makes more money than you do?”
“No. It’s always a mistake in making statistical comparisons to anchor to the proximate.”
“Wow. That sentence actually just came out of your mouth.”
“I had to put it somewhere.”


“Are you coming out with the rest of us to watch the eclipse?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
“You just can’t stand doing anything that everyone else is doing, can you?”
“Well, that’s true, too, but, in this case it has to do with being a photosensitive epileptic.”
“Did you say ‘oversensitive’ epileptic?”
“No, I said ‘photosensitive’… although now that you bring it up, ‘oversensitive’ epileptic isn’t a bad description for me.”


“What are you doing for lunch?”
“I brought a lunch, and I’m planning on eating it and doing some reading.”
“That doesn’t sound very exciting.”
“Clearly, you’ve been reading the wrong books.”
“I don’t really read books.”
“Then you aren’t really a competent judge as to how exciting my lunch will be, are you?”


“Your wife is a preacher, right? A minister?”
“Yes.”
“But she used to be dancer… did I hear that right, too?”
“You did.”
“And what exact degree did she get that qualified her to do both of those things?”
“Sociology.”
“That isn’t exactly a normal career path, is it?”
“You want to ask a woman who’d marry me if she does anything normal?”
“Good point.”


“Why do you think the company stresses diversity so much?”
“Because it’s important to attract and retain the highest performing employees.”
“And you think diversity makes that happen?”
“Not with certainty. However, I’m very sure lack of diversity will prevent any possibility of it happening.”


“Did you see the report those consultants put together?”
“Yes.”
“What did you think?”
“What every competent person in the company thinks when they read such a report: (a) I can’t believe we paid for this; followed by (b) I should have been a consultant.”


“You look tired.”
“Tired? No, I am fatigued, and a little weary, and maybe kind of drained…”
“Aren’t those all synonyms?”
“Maybe. I’m too tired to look it up.”


(Working a crossword puzzle) “Other than a boomerang, what is something else that always comes back when you get rid of it?”
“My adult children?”

Cultural Echoes

Among statements that are almost always good advice, “never read the comments on a YouTube video” is right up there. Unless, of course, you are seeking confirmation as to some theory concerning the sickness our society is rife with, in which case, you certainly will find ample evidence there.

Today, though, I want to look at one particular thing, and that is the almost universal connection between nostalgia and music. Many people believe with unwavering conviction that the best music ever written was written when they were young. They also believe every piece of music written today is horrible by comparison.

I read it about the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s, and the comments are virtually verbatim except for the change of decade. Singers (or bands) now have no talent, back then, people had talent and could touch the heart, etc., etc.

Now, when I myself was young — my teens and twenties were the 70’s and 80’s — I was aware of this tendency among adults, particularly as I started playing the piano in public for money at a fairly young age. I concluded then that “first music” was like “first love” in its tendency to seem better than perhaps it really was, because of (1) the emotional nature of the age; and (2) lack of anything to compare it to. I would probably now add (3) the tribal nature of young people, given how school tends to add a social element to life that many people never get anywhere else. Music is one of the main elements of inclusion (or exclusion) within the tribe.

Because I had to learn a lot of old music for my work, I concluded that there had always been good (and bad) music written, and most likely, always would be. I’m about as anti-tribal as they come without being a misanthrope, nevertheless, I realized and experienced the power of music for social (and sexual) connectivity.

I also learned that every bad thing about human intolerance also gets acted out through people’s musical preferences. This is another example of how almost every good and great thing in life, in the wrong hands or used the wrong way, can be a bad or even horrible thing.

So I am not prepared to decry all music written since {fill in the blank}. I realize that people will continue to talk about how much better music was in the old days, whichever particular “old days” they happen to favor.

I also realize, as I’ve said elsewhere, that the YouTube comment section is, frequently, the modern equivalent of the public bathroom graffiti of my youth. The impulse to post anonymously offensive messages is not a new one.

It’s still kind of depressing, though.

Fat Saturday

My computer hasn’t exactly died, but it’s kind of had a stroke. Writing on a tablet is doable, but not great, because I have big, clumsy fingers. Today, so far:

At the Gym at 5 AM.
At work by 7:30 AM, stopping once per hour to post a poem.
Watched one Facebook live video, and chatted with another friend on Messenger.
Ate way too much all day.
Left work about an hour ago, now sitting in a parking lot writing, because there’s shade.

There’s a couple on a date just walked by, and they both look like models. I’m envious. I look more like a model of Jabba the Hutt. Or maybe his cousin, Pizza the Hutt.

I had toffee eclairs with lunch, a food too decadent to be mentioned in decent company. It’s possible that things like that have contributed to my weight gain. Or maybe it’s a punishment for past wrongdoings.

Another young couple headed into the restaurant in front of me. That young man looks very nervous.

Maybe he’s going to propose.

Maybe she’s going to reject him.

Maybe he’ll wistfully look over at the model couple I saw earlier and wish he looked like that.

Maybe she’ll look over at the model couple I saw earlier and wish he looked like that, too.

Or she might say yes. She looked pretty happy…

This is why I should never people watch.

Chewbacca Bread

My wife likes to randomly call things by the wrong names to get me to laugh. It frequently works.

For example, last night, we went to an Italian restaurant. After the waitress had brought ciabatta, my wife moved the plate towards me, asking “Chewbacca bread?” in a cheerful voice, causing me to practically choke on the drink I was sipping.

In everyday life, I am irritated by people using the wrong terms for things, which means, in corporate life, a stream of constant irritation. For example, people frequently conflate the terms “flesh out” (make more substantive or add details to) and “flush out” (draw something out that’s hiding so you can shoot it). I’ve heard things described as “jury-rigged” (the ethnically insensitive term “Jerry” being long out use) and an irrelevant point described as “moat”. 

There is also, of course, the world of corporate consultant-speak, a place that delights in torturing the language. I believe the practice of randomly using nouns as verbs came from there, through terms like “leverage” (which is a thing, not an act). I’ve heard the term “socialize” used a lot the last few years to mean “let more people know” as opposed to “turn over to government control”, the latter being the term’s actual meeting.

And yes, I know language is living and not static and new usages emerge. It’s misusages that aggravate me.

Unless my wife does it, in which case, it’s hysterical.

Hobbies

I needed a new hobby, so I’ve started collecting calories. 

It’s going really well; I’m way ahead of schedule. The way I see it, success comes when you have achievable objectives. 

This banana split, for instance, represents a tremendous opportunity: not only can I meet my calorie goals, I can internalize them. If you don’t actually become your hobby at some point, how dedicated were you, really?

I’ve had some interesting hobbies over the years. I have collected

  • Dust. Those were the “dating years”.
  • Witty comments it was too late to make. Pretty much high school.
  • Second-hand opinions. That hobby is very popular still.

Well, enough reminiscing, I have 2,715 calories to collect.

Raisin Bread

In real life, I’m a moody and rather homely guy who is best known for being quick-witted. Not kind, not smart, not even well-spoken — no, being sharp-tongued is what is most commonly mentioned as my leading personality characteristic by those who are around me the most.

I’m not a mean person at heart — well, not anymore, I’m not — but I do find it hard to pass up a good line when they occur to me. Which is to say, pretty often.

People who read my poetry might conclude I’m a very emotionally connected person in reality. I most decidedly am not. I am fairly tuned in to other people’s feelings, it’s true; however, it’s an oddly timid thing, under most circumstances. I’m very unlikely to initiate conversation with strangers, for instance.

Real emotional connections are amazing — the first time I had one, I never, EVER wanted to go back to having meaningless conversations again. The real thing was so great, so perfect… why go back?

It was kind of like when I first had raisin bread toast, and I couldn’t figure out why we ever bought any other kind of bread. Yet, here it is, years later, and I’ve had shockingly little raisin bread.

Maybe I’ll go have some now.

Watermelon in Summer

I love my wife, just as much as I did on the day of our wedding, nearly seventeen years ago. Our anniversary is later this month.

I am not the world's greatest husband, to put it mildly. I do have my uses, however: for example, I carried in the monstrously large watermelon she bought at a local market yesterday. It looked like it had been grown by Hagrid.

Last weekend, she took some watermelon over to our oldest daughter's house and the two of them sat out by the pool and ate it. That daughter is expecting a little girl in about 7 weeks.

I'm beyond excited. We all are.

I've been thinking my life is too complicated, and I'm working through strategies to simplify it. There's a lot to it, but one aspect of it all is a different approach to my writing, one involving better discipline.

Integrity is about simplicity, in some ways, and that's what I want to cultivate.

When I got the watermelon out of the back of the car and into the house, I asked, "where do you want this?"

"Anywhere is fine," she said distractedly.

I stifled my immediate impulse to put it back in our bedroom.

Because I love my wife, just as much as I did on the day of our wedding, nearly seventeen years ago.

Crème Brûlée

I’d never had a taste. I thought I’d try
A different sort of thing, another way.
I saw it on the menu, so I said,
“The coffee, please, I think. And crème brûlée.”

He brought it to my table in a bowl,
Or shallow plate, or something, I don’t know.
Out on the road, and eating there, alone,
A book to read, and no place else to go.

The waiter took a type of torch to it.
He’d sprinkled something on it first, a bit
Of sugar maybe. Then the thing was lit –
It flamed, he put fruit on it. Like a skit.

It’s taste was fine, but in my memory
Performance art was what it seemed to be

Dust-Up

My ex-wife and I considered arguing something of an art form. We prided ourselves on our ability to fight about absolutely anything, no matter how trivial.

We didn’t wait until we got married to start, either. We quarreled on our first date, bickered through our courtship, and squabbled through a year-long engagement. In a strange way, the least contentious part of the relationship was the divorce. Neither of us could be characterized as in any way “conflict averse” — at least at that point in each of our lives.

But times change, as do people. I have to argue (persuade, really) as part of my job, now. I do it, because it’s part of that career, but it has been years and years and years since I relished arguing with anyone. Spending my spare minutes away from work contending over minutiae is no longer my idea of a good time.

Nevertheless, these days, the Beautiful One and I end up doing a kind of weird reverse arguing that goes something like this:

“There’s one cupcake left,” she says, pointing a catering plate left from the baby shower. “You have it.”

“No, you’ve been running after the kids all day, you take it.”

“It’s yours, you’ve been working crazy hours, and I know we eat dinner later than you’d really like.”

“They had pizza brought in for an afternoon meeting today, and I had, like, five slices. I really shouldn’t even have dinner…”

“I already had a cupcake, and I really need to lose a few pounds; you’ve been to the gym every day…”

… and so on.

My wife and I literally argue about who can concede first before an argument starts.


Every Thursday night for the last seventeen years, the Beautiful One and I have a date night. It involves (ideally) dinner together, maybe a movie, lots of conversation to catch up on each other’s weeks, and as little distraction as possible. That means keeping conversations with other people to a minimum.

Our now-adult children know we have this date night, of course; however, the concept of what a “night” is seems to escape them; they feel like, if my wife and I went to dinner at 7:00 PM, for instance, we should be done with each other by 10:00 PM, whereupon she in particular should be free to have long conversations with them about whatever is on their minds.

Oddly enough, it is the married among my children to whom it never occurs that their might be things that occupy us that time of the evening. Or maybe that’s not so odd. I know there are things that most kids don’t like to imagine their parents doing, no matter how old those ‘kids’ might be.


Nothing in life turns out to be ‘ideal’, of course: whatever we plan, or imagine will happen, life just does what it does. We want to think we’re in control, but ultimately, the things we can control are few, nearby, and limited. Good times come, often in spite of us rather than because of us, and bad times come, no matter what we do to try and stop them.

My ex and I argued for sport because we were young, bored, and mismatched. My wife and I try hard not to argue; but, sometimes, reality happens, and the arguments that ensue are no laughing matter. Because ultimately, relationships are held together with very slight bonds, and we can fray and break them casually. When and if we do, there are arguments that must be had.

Oh, and by the way — that cupcake is still sitting there.

Online Friends Are Real Friends

I spoke recently to a friend who was going through an extremely trying time in her life. I felt (and feel) bad for her beyond my ability to express.

Online friends are real friends, I truly believe that. Confronted with an online friend in a heart-rending situation, however, the only options we can often offer them in the way of immediate comfort are in the “emoji” family: hearts, virtual hugs, gifs, and so on. These things are meaningful. However, when the situation is bad enough, sending them the same sad face you sent when they said they dropped their ice cream cone just seems wrong, somehow.

In real life, I’m not exactly the kind of person that people characterize as a “hugger”. Nevertheless, I have always (or at least since my teen years) been attracted to or attracted grieving people. I’m not entirely sure why. I hate parties and never was great at small talk; nevertheless, in a room full of revelers, I have for years been able to identify the other kindred spirits in the room who don’t belong.

Grief is a paradox in that it is completely individual, isolating the people who feel it, while simultaneously universal, in that everyone goes through it. We all despair in hard times; one element of that is the certainty that no one truly knows how we feel. But then, often, we find that people will do what they can for the grieving, the hurting, the lost. In the same way that “haters gonna hate,” “friends are gonna friend”.

So let them.

We all need friends, all the real friends we can get; and online friends are real friends.

 

(Another) Last Piece

Sometimes, you write something, and hit “Publish”, then an hour later, you decide that it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written, possibly with the word “you’ve” removed.

You mean that doesn’t happen to you?

That happened to me yesterday. Hence, a new post under the same photo, and with a similar title to the original, now destroyed, piece.


When I was first divorced, before my (now) wife and I started dating, I dated, consecutively, three other women. The last of the three was the strangest relationship I was ever in. It didn’t last but about two months, and it coincided with me doing about three months of therapy to sort through issues surrounding the divorce.

I’ve decided to write about that time here, every Monday, for as many Mondays as it takes. My desire to write about it is to some degree because the issues identified about me during therapy at that time have cropped up again recently.

The names of the people involved have been changed, as is always true on my blogs. Hell, half the time, the events are changed, too, and the outcomes. But I’m trying to recount the truth here. And the truth, frequently, sucks.


Looking back on that time, I feel disappointed in myself beyond my ability to describe. Disgusted with myself, really. In keeping with that mood, I wrote a short fictional piece yesterday about a woman who finds out what a scum her husband is. It involved pecan pie.

It, too, sucked, and didn’t even have the benefit of being real, or truthful. It was more just a reflection of how I was feeling about myself when I wrote it.

My complete inability to keep my feelings about irrelevant matters from spilling over into my writing is one of the reasons I became a poet. I look at poetry – and it is admittedly just one view of poetry’s value – as a realm where neither rules of syntax nor emotional nor logical coherence need apply. Which is pretty much me.

I also realize that, when the actual facts about my own life are laid out, it does not lead most people to conclude the same things I have from the circumstances concerned. Hence, I write far more coherently about other people’s feelings, which almost always make more sense to me than my own.


Last week, my sister let me know that my favorite teacher from high school had died. She was our neighbor growing up as well, and person number one I always think of in terms of me “paying it forward”, because she did so much for me that I could not pay back at the time: jobs, food, money, sympathy.

She and her husband and sons were all very tall people (she was about 6 foot 3), but lived in a very compact old house. In their kitchen, she always had sweetened sun tea, and whole meals and desserts ready to serve to whomever might come by.

She was originally from West Virginia, but had met her husband in Alaska, before ending up in Florida where we knew her. She taught a lot subjects, but I remember her best for teaching Humanities.

She loved jokes and puns, which made me a favorite student of hers, because I’ve been a random pun generator for as long as I can remember. There used to be a genre of puns called “Tom Swifties” where the joke was always structured to be in the adverb, as follows:

  • “This soda has gone bad,” he said flatly.
  • “We should go camping, she said intently.
  • “What was Stallone’s nickname again?” he asked slyly.

… and so on.

I used to generate pages of these things to give to her, for no other reason than to see if I could do it. She would then read them to other classes, which greatly lessened my already non-existent high school popularity.

She loved literature, and poetry, and plays, and music; since I did, too, that was another point of connection. She got me my first piano playing job (at the church her family attended).

I last saw her a couple of years ago when I was in Florida to visit my elder son. She seemed the same as always I’d known her: tall, energetic, jovial. Even in the face of overwhelming sadness at the untimely death of her younger son, she radiated a sort of universal love.

And the pie and the tea were still delicious.


A little house
Near Lion’s Park,
Just up the hill
From where kid’s voices ring
As they swim in summer

A garden and a fig tree
In the back

A house filled up with
The smell of books
And hospitality

A kitchen stocked
With meals prepared
And frozen, ready to be
Served to whomever
Might happen upon the door

A house where
Every inch of space was used,
Not cluttered, but
Not wasted, either

Love, as though
From its original source,
Poured out in tall glasses,
And where the last piece of pie
Was never given
Grudgingly

Trois beaux oiseaux du paradis

"Three Beautiful Birds of Paradise"

Three beautiful birds of paradise
(My love has gone to war)
Three beautiful birds of paradise
Have passed this way —

The first was bluer than the sky,
(My love has gone to war)
The second was white as the snow,
The third was red as vermillion.

"Beautiful little birds of paradise –
(My love has gone to war)
Beautiful little birds of paradise,
What do you bring here?"

"I carry an azure blue-eyed glance."
(Your love has gone to war)
"And I must leave on a snow-white brow,
A kiss, even purer."

"You, red bird of paradise —
(My love has gone to war)
You red bird of paradise,
What are you bringing me?"

"A loving heart, flushing crimson."
(Your love has gone to war)
"Ah, I feel my heart growing cold . . .
Take that with you as well…"

Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis
Mon ami z-il est à la guerre
Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis
Ont passé par ici.

Le premier était plus bleu que le ciel,
(Mon ami z-il est à la guerre)
Le second était couleur de neige,
Le troisième rouge vermeil.

"Beaux oiselets du Paradis,
(Mon ami z-il est à la guerre)
Beaux oiselets du Paradis,
Qu'apportez par ici?"

"J'apporte un regard couleur d'azur
(Ton ami z-il est à la guerre)"
"Et moi, sur beau front couleur de neige,
Un baiser dois mettre, encore plus pur."

Oiseau vermeil du Paradis,
(Mon ami z-il est à la guerre)
Oiseau vermeil du Paradis,
Que portez vous ainsi?

"Un joli coeur tout cramoisi"
Ton ami z-il est à la guerre
"Ha! je sens mon coeur qui froidit…
Emportez le aussi…"

Why Hollywood Won’t Cast Me Anymore

… I’m not an actor, for one thing. They’re picky that way.

Ah, talent. We all want it. And, as I’ve been assured since a very small boy, we all have them. My particular talent is learning things after it is too late.

In between fifth and sixth grade, I began to really, really like girls. A little observation showed me that girls preferred, in order: (1) cute boys; (2) athletes; and (3) musicians. The first two seemed off the ‘possible’ list, so I decided to become a musician. Here are the results of said effort, forty years later:

“Prelude” by Sergei Prokofiev. Yes, that’s actually me playing the piano.

I learned to play the piano as an adolescent, desperate to attract girls. And I (more-or-less) succeeded, at least with the first half of that equation. However, when you are sixteen years old, and proudly displaying a months-practiced performance of “Jeux d’Eau” by Maurice Ravel for your crush, who responds in a bored voice, asking if you know “Free Bird”, you realize you miscalculated somewhere.

We peacocks spread our feathers, while the peahens walk by, indifferent, having noticed a brighter set of feathers down the way.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Many of us leave adolescence proud of being different, but few us go through it that way. I was, it had to be admitted, a little different. Like many of you, I found, in high school, people I had as much affinity to as possible, but my interests were so varied and so odd that the fit was tenuous, at best.

Part of my problem was naïveté; I believed that love or friendship meant a perfect fit, rather than a perpetual fitting. In a way, relationships are like clothes, they only “fit” long-term if we are engaged in constant altering. However, the concept of alteration seems a relic of a bygone age; buying new clothes is easier.

Fast-forward adolescent me to twenty-something me, and I had realized and accepted that I was different. I therefore attempted to bring off “bohemian” as a lifestyle, with some modicum of success. However, where I lived and at that time, the common interpretation of any sign of bohemianism was that the perpetrator was a “low achiever”, or perhaps even a “loser”.

At that age, I frequently felt that I was some kind of great, undiscovered genius. I alternated thinking that with genuine self-loathing, which in no way seemed a contradiction. Common consensus supported the self-loathing. It was rather confusing.

I had shown at that age, through an odd chain of circumstances, a talent for sketch and speech writing; I was able to use that for a period of time in the job I had back then. Various big shots would be retiring, and they would want to plan some entertainment for these somewhat lavish parties. I was on a committee planning one of them, but ended up doing virtually all the planning: when the evening came off well, I suddenly was flooded with requests to do more. Since my health had begun to allow such things again, I kept up a kind of side business in event planning for a period of about 18 months.

What I found when writing was that I was much more comfortable creating in a genre where no one was looking at me while I was doing it. Even in music, I had always preferred composing to performing, or accompanying to solos. Writing seemed ideal for this, even if the writing I was doing was strictly for humorous purposes.

However, at the end of that period of time, I decided to begin work on a Master’s Degree (in math and stat) at night, so I had to leave off creative pursuits for a time, or, at least, publicly facing ones. I continued to write songs privately, as time allowed. The degree (and about five more years of exams) led to me switching to the career I have now as an actuary.

When I met the woman who is now wife, she expressed (and continues to express) a great love of my songwriting and piano playing in general. So all that work did pay off — just 25 to 40 years later than I had expected at the time.

Performing, though, is not really my thing, so eventually I landed on blogging. I switched to mostly poetry back in 2014, and here I’ve been ever since.

I no longer feel like an undiscovered genius; I would say, these days, I feel more like an undiscovered buffoon.

I don’t expect I’ll ever be “discovered” as that term is popularly understood. I am grateful to people who read and like and take time to comment on my blogs, as personal interaction — which I am admittedly not terribly good at — is what this is all about. Not being discovered by unimaginable masses of humanity is probably just as well.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, either.

Nothing Good

Awaking from a nightmare, I check the time. 3:15 am, the watch face tells me.

In my dream, I had been walking home from an unknown location, only “home” was a tiny apartment I never lived in, and the “unknown location” appeared to be across the street from Niceville high school, from which I graduated in 1980. I had encountered some drunken people on the street, who attacked me; I managed to get away and get back to my dark and dismal apartment, where it was also just after 3 in the morning.

In my nightmare, being home felt worse than being attacked. I then awoke.

I get up. I take an energy shot, then check my work computer. I work with people on the other side of the globe, so 3:20 isn’t a bad time to check in with them. I then transition to my own (non-work) computer.

On Facebook, I “like” some pictures of my wife’s family reunion that’s going on in New Jersey, but that we chose not to go to. One of my daughters is there, her son has been with us.

Sticking with Facebook a little while longer, I get 40 out of 40 questions right on a “Harry Potter” quiz. Big shock there.

I check my poetry site. I chickened out last night on the image I used on my poem; I had one that was a lot more provocative, but it just felt wrong.

Everything feels wrong.

When I was a young man, I traveled around the country for my then employer, and was naively shocked to see how many of my co-workers ran around on their spouses. I decided nothing good happened when I stayed out past a certain time of night, so I stopped going out when I traveled.

30 years later, I’m still the “early to bed, early to rise” type. Only “early” keeps getting “earlier”.

I stop a moment to wonder why returning home felt so hollow in my dream. I obviously lived alone there, was probably one thing. I had narrowly escaped assault, was another. But there was something more.

Something is wrong.

About that high school: bored out of my mind, my most common activity there was skipping class. I spent a lot of my class-cutting time hanging out at the laundromat across the street. That laundromat is one of the few things that is still there, just as I remember it.

A kind of haunted place at night, that was. Haunted, like I am now.

One of my common pastimes as a teenager – particularly when unable to sleep – was imagining what crowded places were like at night when no one (or almost no one) was there. Places like amusement parks, or restaurants, or the school, or churches.

I remember thinking about that laundromat in just that way. When I would be in there during the day (I was the world’s most harmless delinquent) I would find myself having vaguely sexual thoughts about the young housewives I would often see in there. When I used to imagine it at night, I would compose little mini-movies where young housewife would suddenly look over at scrawny teenage me and realize I was the love and passion she’d been missing all her life.

Only that never happened.

In fact, a little rough reckoning tells me that the young housewives I fantasized about would all be in their 60’s or even 70’s now. I am 55 now. Like the speed limit that was imposed nationally back when I was a teen.

It’s 4:41 now. I ought to go to the gym. Some exercise should help me feel a little less morose. Either that, or give me different types of aches to dwell on.

I don’t know that there are any laundromats left in this town I live in now. I remember where one used to be – it might still be there. I’ll have to look next time I’m that way.

I suppose this essay ought to have some sort of conclusion, one that makes sense and that ties all of these disparate thoughts together. Alas.

Nightmares are like music: we try to share our feelings about both of them with others; but they are so intense, and so personal, that our message gets lost during the transmission of it.

Besides that, nothing good happens this time of night.

Among the Rites of Passage

The first time I ever saw a condom dispensing machine, I was eighteen years old. It was in the bathroom of the Villa, in Niceville, Florida, a now defunct bar. The drinking age in Florida in those days was eighteen.

It had never occurred to me in my life to buy a condom. At that age, I’d scarcely been a situation that called for them. Coming face to face with a condom dispenser, I considered doing so. Upon reflection, it seemed to me that buying condoms in the filthy men’s room of the town dive probably said something about the quality of the experience I would be likely to have using said condom.

But I bought one anyway. Rites of passage, you know.

I placed it in my wallet and returned to the group of friends I had come in there with. The condom didn’t get used that night, nor, so far as I can remember, did it ever. I wasn’t exactly unpopular with girls at that age, nor was I particularly popular. In the year or so that followed this, I probably dated something like twenty-five different young women. None of those relationships ever got to the condom using stage. They just — didn’t.

I made a group of seven male friends starting in 7th and 8th grade that have stayed my closest friends now for something like 40 years. Three of them were with me the night I bought my first condom, and the same three (plus one) were with me at the Villa four years later when I actually picked up someone up at that bar.

I had graduated and was working back in the old hometown; the rest were back visiting family during Christmas vacation. We decided one Friday night to meet out at the Villa; one of the friends had the (good) idea to call some women we had known from school to meet us out there.

One of those women was a very good friend of my old high school girlfriend. She was a very intelligent young woman, but not someone I had every known all that well. As we sat and drank, and talked, and laughed, I noticed how funny and likable she was; when we were dancing, it really struck me just how much fun she was to be with.

At some point, (we were there a long time, and I wasn’t wearing a watch) we were no longer talking to anyone but each other. We also both had quite a bit to drink. We went out to my car, and —

— well, I couldn’t have used the condom then, either, if I’d still had it. But other things happened, things that men rarely complain about when they happen.

Eventually, she decided she needed to get back home. The bar (which stayed open until very very late) was still going strong when she got into her car and pulled out, me right behind her. When she turned, she turned the opposite way from what I was expecting, because (it turned out) she was going the back way to her parents’ house, a way I wasn’t familiar with. But I was puzzled by it just long enough to pull out without looking.

WHAM.

I had pulled right out into a car as it drove by. It smashed into the side of my car, knocking it off the road and into a telephone pole.

I got out of the car (I was either okay or too drunk to notice I was hurt) and immediately started apologizing to the woman in the car. Neither she nor her vehicle seemed damaged in any way. Someone in the parking lot of the bar had headed back in and called the police. An officer showed up about three minutes later.

I admitted it was all my fault; the officer got her information, then mine, then she left, then he was about to administer a breathalyzer to me when five more police cars suddenly came zipping down the street, flashers flashing, pulling into the Villa. The officer who had been dealing with me said, “Wait here,” then dashed across the street.

I stood there for what seemed like hours next to my pitiful, smashed up car (which still ran, surprisingly) while the police attempted to break up a giant bar fight that had broken out.  Ten people (by my count) got arrested and herded into cars. Then, after a long while, the original officer came back, and said, “I can’t believe you’re still here.”

“You told me to wait.”

“Well, it’s been too long for a breathalyzer.” He handed me a citation for pulling out into traffic, and left. I drove my beat-up car the four blocks home.

The next afternoon, my roommate (who had been one of the friends with me the night before, but who’d left early) asked how things had gone. I told him about my car wreck, and the riot that had broken out at the bar, but he seemed impatient and uninterested. “I mean with you and HER.”

“Oh, that. She is fun.”

“Are you going to see her again? Call her?”

I hadn’t even considered that. He continued on:

“Her friends were really excited you two seemed to be hitting it off. She’s never apparently had a boyfriend, or so much as a date.”

“What?”

“That’s what they said. I told Sandra I’d let her know your side of the story. I just had lunch with her. She says she’s never seen Margaret so happy.”

Uh, oh. Um. Fuck.

I called her, telling her I needed to talk to her about something. I drove over to her parents’ house (using the only route I knew) and she met me at the door. We walked around back to a kind of covered garden area.

“You have a girlfriend, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Where was she last night?”

“She goes to school in Mobile.”

“So you just thought you’d have a little fun.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you. Look, I wouldn’t even have come here, except I felt like I owed you…”

“Owed me what?”

“An explanation.”

“I don’t need your pity.”

“No, it’s just that I — I really like you.”

“Yeah, well. Fuck off.”

She wasn’t crying. She was angry. I got back in my smashed up car, pulled out, and drove home.

“So what happened?” my roommate asked as I walked back in.

“Nothing. I told her about Annette.”

“You just made a big mistake, boy. I’ve never seen you as happy with Annette as you were last night with Margaret.”

Mistakes: the true rites of passage.

Rainbow Colors: Violet

An empty room contains an infinity of possibilities.

 

Love is a mystery, and we each get one lifetime to figure it out.

 

Gentle pressures that completely surround us win out in the end.

 

New realities, experienced firsthand, teach more than words ever could.

 

Peace is comprised of all the things worth not doing.

 

“Criticizing other people’s appearance” is one of our nation’s more popular spectator sports, ranking somewhere near “minimizing other people’s problems”.

 

Real family is there when the storm appears and still there when the storm departs.

 

Love doesn’t need the words to know the music.

 

We are meant for happiness and wonder, and the real wonder is why we don’t find more happiness.

 

Rainbow Colors: Indigo

There was a fish pond in front of the Episcopalian Church down on the beach where we were to be married. We were headed there, under a bright September sun, for pre-marital counseling. Being a few minutes early, we stopped to look at the beautiful fish. It was a very bright day, the white sands reflecting the sun from every direction.

Father Ed’s study looked out on the water; he greeted us and motioned us to chairs. I’d always liked Father Ed. He was very direct. He impressed upon us the long-term nature of marriage. He asked a lot of questions; and since both of us liked to talk, he got answers.

At one point, I stood up and walked over to his window. There were a few palm trees and some white rocks.

The day is white and indigo
The years are long and can’t be known;
For all we have’s the pond we swim
As distant (maybe) sails are somewhere blown


It was September, again, six years later, and raining hard. I sat out on the carport, watching the water deluge down the driveway and into the street. I saw her car round the corner on to the street and pull into the empty space in the two car carport. I walked around to get our three year old son out of the safety seat in the back of the car. She didn’t get out of the car, or roll down her window, she just spoke to me without turning her head:

I’ll be in Europe for three weeks. I’ll try to call at night when I can. I left a number at the office I can be reached at if there’s an emergency.

He was asleep in my arms. I closed the car door, and she pulled back out into the rain.

The world is dark and indigo
But for you than me;
I hold you sleeping in my arms
And wish that I could spare you from
A pain you never caused


It was a Saturday afternoon in April of this year that my now-wife told me a young couple was coming over for premarital counseling. I was spending the day writing, so I told her I would be in the back room. It was a bright beautiful day, and it reminded me of the day I had gotten premarital counseling before my first marriage, all those years ago.

The young couple came: they were both nervous and excited. I slipped back to finish my writing, hearing them leave several hours later. After that, my wife left to go to see her mother, and I, having noticed that bright colors had appeared out in the yard, walked out back to take in the view.

I stand there, realizing: for someone like me, if I could not actually see colors like these, I could not possibly imagine them. Even for those of us who cultivate our imaginations (and many of you do so to a far greater degree than I do) life is largely a series of unimaginable happenings, things far beyond the little ponds we think we’re trapped in. I never could have imagined getting married, or having a child, or getting divorced, or getting remarried, or the life I live now.

I hope I’ve learned some humility through all of this: for what I thought I knew, I didn’t, and what I thought was important, largely wasn’t. So the same might be true now. I can only do the best I can to add whatever colors I am here to add.

Enchanted Memories

Starting with Volume 4 of the Harry Potter series (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”), my son and I followed the same pattern as each new Harry Potter book was published; he was ages 5, 8, 10, and 12, respectively:

  • I would buy the book on a weekend he was at his mother’s. I would plop down and read it, essentially in one sitting.
  • He would come back home the next day, and we would begin reading the books together, aloud, at bed time, one chapter a night until finished. That meant 37, 38, 30, and 37 nights of reading – including the epilogue of the last book – or 142 nights of reading together on just this series, up until he was almost a teenager. (We had also read the other three books aloud, just not immediately upon publication.)
  • Since I was reading these out loud, I felt obliged to do voices. I had a voice for every character, and my son was quick to point out if I used the wrong voice or confused the characters.

When you read to a child, you experience literature like a child does; openly, intently, and full of wonder. Storytelling is every good thing about being a parent: it’s closeness, it’s imagination, it’s safely exploring the dark and scary things that children’s minds will find anyway. It’s bravery, and daring, and fancy, and humor, and friendship; it’s also contrasts of those things with cowardice, and fear, and drudgery, and cruelty, and malice. It’s the enjoyment of artwork, the answering of questions, and the asking of even more questions.

(It’s worth noting that I was editing out things I thought were too scary when he was five years old, but by the last two books, he was getting pretty much the complete stories. This is also a way in which reading is like other aspects of parenting: you have decide what you think is appropriate for your child at what age, and act accordingly.)

It was said at the time that the Harry Potter series in some ways reinvented the practice of parents reading chapter books to their children; certainly for us, before that, there were mostly picture books and very short chapter books. We had always read at bedtime, but what these books did for us was to send us back generations, in a way; to a time before computers, before television, even before radio; when storytelling was the only entertainment there was, and parents did a large amount of their teaching that way.

By the time the last volume was published (10 years ago), I had thought my son would want to maybe just read the book himself, being twelve years old and all, but he still wanted me to read the book to him — just the way we always had. So we did.

My child has since grown up and left home, and it became easy to think of parenting as an “either/or” type of activity: that we’re either “good” parents or “bad” ones. Because my child grew to be unhappy, I questioned every decision I had ever made as a parent. But life can be like that. Dark days can come, from without or within.

If we learned anything from our reading of those books together, it’s that it is “our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” We choose to love, we choose to stay loyal, we choose to keep hope. We choose to do the best we can, to keep fighting the good fight.

And to keep reading great books. For I have grandchildren now…