Images

I was watching a documentary on World War II, and I realized how ridiculous it all is. I mean, the Hitler character is clearly a Mary Sue. He’s some kind of Austrian corporal or private, and then suddenly he’s dictator of most of Europe. It strains credulity.


I was looking at some photos of my wife and myself way back when we got engaged, and I had forgotten how outrageously good looking we were:

To be fair, my wife actually IS that good looking. I look more like someone you’d try to identify in a police lineup.


Most dramatic scenes in the history of… dramatic scenes:

3rd Place: The death scene from “La Traviata”.

2nd Place: The scene in “Terms of Endearment” where the mom has to say goodbye to her sons.

1st Place: My four year old grandson, when he thinks no one will play with him.


Of course, I have a lot of room to talk about being overly dramatic. This is pretty much me:


Here’s an actual picture of my wife and I, getting ready to set out on a road trip:

Magpies

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.


I saw seven birds overhead while walking this morning, and was reminded of an old nursery rhyme about magpies.

I don’t know if kids learn nursery rhymes anymore. They were a sort of an ancestral link, much like various proverbs and sayings are. This country is rich in many cultural traditions, this particular one is either Scottish or English, but nursery rhymes are a common phenomenon across many cultures.

At any rate, I remembered that “seven” was for “a secret / never to be told.” So I won’t.

One that I occasionally still hear, is

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonnie and blithe and good and gay.


For the record, I was born on a Monday. If “fair” means “light-skinned; prone to sunburn” this is no doubt accurate, but I’m not sure that is the intended meaning. I feel more like a Thursday’s child, truthfully. I have very far to go, and the same indeterminate time to get there everyone else has.


I gave the bad news: how the older gentleman we’d always been so fond of had suffered a stroke, was being moved to hospice, and was not expected to live. The voice on the other end of the phone seemed shocked — talking about what a horrible and lonely week it had been: trying to make friends, but not really connecting; trying to live healthy, but wondering if it was even worth it; wanting to move, but without the money to do it or even a hope of ever earning it.

On wanting hormone replacement therapy. On wanting to be accepted.

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.


One for sorrow. For who we are, and what we must face.

Two for joy. All joy to all of you, wherever you can find it.

Three for a girl / Four for a boy. Especially for all of those who feel they were not born as they should have been.

Five for silver / Six for gold. Hope for all those who despair of ever having enough of either.

Seven for a secret / Never to be told. Safety and security for all who remain tethered to their secrets.

Eight for a wish / Nine for a kiss. To hope and love, two of the very greatest of all things.

Ten for a bird / You must not miss. To magpies.

May you all find them, today, in exactly the right number.

How I See Myself

“I will never be loved for who I am; I can only be loved for what I can do.”

This is how I see myself.

This is how I have seen myself for as long as I have memories.


There is an age at which girls start to notice and like “cute boys”. I remember girls discussing it in the lunchroom, on the bus, on the ramps between classes. I remember my older sister and her friends talking about cute boys at school.

It doesn’t take a terribly observant guy to determine whether or not they are in the “cute boy” category.

I was not.

So, some boys got favorable attention merely by walking in a room. Others of us drew scorn through the same action. Or worse than scorn: being ignored completely, as though we were not really there at all.


There then came an age where kids start having “parties”. These weren’t birthday parties staged by parents, these were music and dancing parties, for boys and girls.

I know about these parties, because friends of mine were invited. I was not. Not once. Not ever.

Even in a world of relative economic sameness, people will form “haves” and “have-nots”. In this case, the “haves” are people you would want at a party. Simple. Elegant, even. An upper class of desirability (normally termed “popularity”) determined in the most straightforward manner possible.

But that was okay, I reasoned, because I could use the time to practice the piano. Having no “social life” of this sort, I could use my energies to learn to do something. After all, I reasoned, girls like musicians — even the ugly ones.


I was wrong, of course. I played classical and jazz piano, which didn’t exactly bring in groupies. It did give me an outlet, though.


Another age came, one where the desire to get close to girls was so great, boys attempt to approach them, even when they know they have no hope. But we try.

I tried.

What resulted was various girls reenacting the scene from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” where a hand is forcibly reached into a chest, and a beating human heart is withdrawn from a soon-to-be collapsed victim.

Why did I think relationships were even possible? I would ask myself every time. But the urge was too great, and I kept trying. I am not a cute boy. I have no chance.

To top things off, at that age, I didn’t have a lot of empathy, either. There were any number of girls and boys in the same situation I was in, but I had yet to really notice. I was too self-absorbed.


Not long after this age, I started to make female friends. The most popular topic among the girls I was friends with was their boyfriend. However, that was far from the only subject: there was music, and movies, and spirituality, and classes, and family…I found, in fact, that I could have conversations with girls pretty easily.

I had shifted my musical repertoire so it would include popular songs of that day, which allowed music to be a connection rather than a divider, as it had been previously.

Since a lot of girls seemed to date guys who didn’t really talk to them, I became a sort of go-to expert on why boys behaved the way they did. So by the age of sixteen I was running a sort of free counseling service.

At this point, I had started to develop the first glimmers of something like empathy, although, to begin with, my empathy lay almost entirely with the guys in these relationships. I wanted female company so badly, that I took it on the terms I could get; as a confidant.

I wasn’t, so far as I knew, any girl’s desire, as a guy. However, they desired my listening. So there was my in: they weren’t going to like me for who I was, but for what I could do for them.


After that, I made a rather fateful tactical decision.

So many girls I knew dated guys who treated them badly – or even loved guys who treated them badly – that I hypothesized that “treating girls badly” was the secret key to popularity. I had just turned seventeen, and, acting on this hypothesis, I made myself over. I quit piano lessons. I got contacts and shed my glasses. And I stopped being a shoulder for every girl to cry on.

Within two weeks, I had my first real girlfriend. Within three months, I was on girlfriend number four, and she was one of the most “popular” girls in school.

This confirmed what I had thought: I couldn’t attract girls being me; I had to be not-me. I choked off any incipient signs of empathy and acted almost completely selfishly. As a result, I was no longer alone.

But I hated myself for it.


I wasn’t like most of the boys I knew.

If her car was broken, I was clueless.

I played hours and hours of pickup basketball, but I was no athlete.

I got in fights, but I wasn’t a fighter.

I was the complete opposite of the “strong, silent type”. Strong, silent types were the male ideal.

The thing about acting is, if you do it long enough with one person, the fact that you are acting starts to come out. My complete lack of confidence, and belief that girls would always want someone other than me, would show through after a while, dooming every relationship.

At that age, girls wanted a monopoly on lack-of-confidence in a relationship. They could have it, but they guy needed to be confident. “Confident, but not arrogant” was (and is) their common mantra.

I was masking my lack of confidence under arrogance. I couldn’t keep it up.


So, I basically gave up. After a few years of pursuing girls using a fake version of me, I just stopped. I dated no one, saw no one, spoke to no one.

I was out of college by this time, so I just worked, came home, and wrote music. Music no one ever heard.

Loneliness, though, was like acid; it ate away, and ate away, and ate away at me, until one day, I cracked. I shattered, then tried to jump out of, a high window at work.


Fast forward to today, and I am reliving this entire part of the history of the first half of my life with Angela, my therapist.

“So you believe that many people are loved for ‘who they are’, and you are not?”

“That’s correct, yes.”

“What does that mean?”

“In its simplest form, loved for how they look.”

“Simplest form? What other forms are there?”

“Loved just because. They don’t have to do anything, or act any certain way to merit love. They are loved, because they are lovable — whatever that means.”

“Are you loved?”

“Yes, I am, I am very fortunate in that regard. But I have to try to earn it, every day.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Losing my usefulness.”

“What will happen if you do?”

Long pause.

Still thinking.

Mailboxes

I’m fascinated by mailboxes. There, I said it.

As a child, I believed that everyone was connected to everyone else through mailboxes, which made them magical. Indeed, I thought everyone, past, present, and future, was connected in this way; for instance, I believed I could send letters to my dead grandfather, and he would answer, if I just put my letter in the right mailbox. And that if I could shrink down to the right size, I could ride the magic connection between mailboxes to anytime and anywhere to see anyone.

Years later, I had the same sort of idea about Subway restaurants, where they were all connected underground. You can see I spent a lot of time alone with my imagination as a kid.

As an eight-year-old, I remember reading a book about Benjamin Franklin pioneering the postal service in this country, and realized, to my dismay, that people from even older historical times than he had been were unlikely to have ever had mailboxes. This didn’t exactly destroy the magic I associated with them, but it lessened it.

Bugs Bunny cartoons had also the effect of making think that the post office in real life was kind of slow, as he always received packages seconds after mailing off for them.

My fascination with bits of commercial technology was shared by my brother, although other objects appealed to him. He was, at one time, the world’s foremost child expert on water towers. Since our family took long car trips every summer, he would be looking for all his favorite sights (water towers, fire stations, bridges, and antique stores) while I looked for mine (mailboxes, hotels, gas stations, and abandoned buildings of any kind).

My sister, who was a sane person, would be asleep.

My all time favorite commercial sight to see while traveling, was the so-called “Great Sign” of a Holiday Inn:

A photo cannot do one of these signs justice.

However, we typically confined our driving to daylight hours, so I usually only saw these in their full nighttime glory if we stayed at one. Which was always, unless we stayed with relatives; my family loved that chain.

Driving in the country, which is still one of my favorite activities, often allowed for sightseeing of the most remarkable kinds. I remember us driving through the Ozark mountains one summer, which I thought was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.

I notice, when I’m looking for pictures for my poetry blog or this blog, that I often seek out the same objects I loved as a child, realizing that while we age and change, some parts of us never do. Part of what has always made me feel “different” than most people I’m around is how simple and trivial most of my enthusiasms are. I like convenience stores. I like commercial art. I like blogs. I like unpretentious, everyday things, because … well, just because.

And yes, I like mailboxes.

The Flower That Once

At lunchtime, I see her sitting down by the river. Who she is, I do not know, nor will I ever.

I’m not really a “people watcher”, at least as that term is typically used where I live. People watchers around here are a very judgmental group.

I do wonder about people, though; what stories they could tell me. Among people I actually do meet, I have something of an ability to draw stories out of them, I think mostly because, I’m interested.

I finish my lunch and go. I’ll never know what her story is.

As I’m driving away, a stanza from the Rubaiyat comes to mind:

“Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.”

Where I Come From…

I grew up in Florida, in a flat country near the Gulf of Mexico, spending most of that time near or on the bayous that feed the bay that then feeds into the Gulf. Because we were on the far side of the bay for most of that time, trips to the beach were common, but not frequent. The bayous, on the other hand, were every day things; we drove over them, past them, walked by them, swam in them.

On the map linked to above, the bayous are the little fingers reaching inland from the bay. You can see them around Fort Walton Beach (where I lived when I was very little, then again in my 20’s) and Niceville (where I lived near the rest of the time, and went to high school), in a tiny town called Valparaiso.

I was not, as a child, renowned for my cheerfulness. I loved the water, though; swimming, skiing, diving — whatever there was to do in water, or on water, I liked it. Given the climate, those pursuits were usually available something like 6 months per year.


My parents had very strong and definite views on ethics and morality. They hated racism, or any other type of “superiorism” of any kind. My father’s family was from the branch of the Republican party whose main purpose had been the elimination of slavery, and then the fight for equality under the law for the entire citizenry. My mom had grown up in abject poverty, and her sympathies always lay with the downtrodden. She was (and is) a Democrat, and while she and my father joked that they cancelled out each other’s vote every election, they came from much the same moral view, which was why it worked.

Again, and for entirely different reasons, neither of my parents drank alcohol, smoked, or used profanities or obscenities of any kind. For my mom, it was her reaction to having grown up with an alcoholic father and abusive uncles; she was the only one of of her family (fifteen children in all!) who didn’t drink or cuss. 50% of my father’s family turned out to be either ministers or missionaries, so they approached teetotalism from a different angle; nevertheless, it was another area of compatibility between my parents.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized there was anything “different” about my parents. Since most of my friends (already) drank alcohol by age sixteen, and since their parents all did, and since no one had parents who didn’t swear on occasion, I realized my parents were unusual in this regard. My father’s career as an Air Force officer had suffered (considerably) due to his not being “one of the boys”. But he did what he thought was right and took the consequences.


At the age of about seven, I came home from school and repeated an ethnic joke I’d heard at school. I’d never seen my parents so angry. I’ve never told or countenanced another once since.

To my mother and father, making ethnic distinctions of any kind, for any reason, made you no better than the Nazis. And millions upon millions of people had died, horribly, to defeat them.

“There is no difference between anyone and anyone else,” my mother told me. “Same God, same worth. No difference.”


Just in case you think this turns into a tale about my parents’ ultimate hypocrisy — it does not. My sister, who was the oldest of my parents’ three kids, dated boys of every race and creed, and my parents welcomed every one of them. They lived exactly the way they talked, and they treated everyone the same.


If you go back to the map linked to, above, you can find Eglin Air Force Base, in between Fort Walton Beach and Niceville. That had been my father’s last duty station before retiring from military service. We lived on the base for 5 years, on a street called Bens Lane, which is actually on the map. We would have been in that house between the ages of 5 and 10 for me.

One of the most common experiences I have heard people relate in my lifetime is how small things seem once you grow up and go back to where you came from. You know, small trees, small backyard — things that seemed huge when you were a kid.

I myself, however, have not had that experience. Things seem pretty much like I remember them being.

The main difference I have noticed is the difference things like Google Maps has made. Geography to me, as a kid, was one of the most fascinating and mysterious things in the world; I always thought there might be another street, another hill, another creek I didn’t know about, because there frequently was. Satellite mapping has removed all the mystery from geography in a way I find very sad. No countryside I travel through seems as exotic as it once was.

Discovery is one of the things we are built for; the modern world is one where discovery is difficult, as everywhere we go, we find the signs of others who’ve been there before us, and who’ve left little for us to explain or understand anew.

Writers, artists, and musicians struggle with this, of course; the feeling that things you might want to say have already been said is an oppressive (and depressing) one.


If you were to ask me where I come from, how would I answer?

I could answer my describing the geography of the part of Florida I grew up in.

I could answer with stories about my parents: either their ideas, or the way those ideas worked out in practice.

I could answer with stories about how the world I came from is no more; something true for all of us, even if we were born yesterday.

But the fact is, where we come from is only part of our story; it is our interactions with our surroundings and circumstances that make us who we are.

And Google has yet to map human souls.

A Beautiful Failure

And then, there are those days when clarity arrives; when you realize that what-you-really-want and what-you-thought-you-wanted are two totally different things… divergent things, really.

There are those days. “Epiphanies” they are sometimes called.


For almost the entirety of this last year, I have been battling insomnia. My own particular form works like this: I go to bed and I fall asleep; however, far earlier that might seem healthy, I wake with a start and am unable to get back to sleep.

So I get up, go to the gym, come home, and write… like I am doing right now. This particular morning, my “wake-up time” was 2:45 am. (I am writing this three days before it is scheduled to post.)

It’s not hard to figure out what it is that wakes me up at night, because it is (almost) always the same thing: thoughts about work. In real life, I work in a little place called “Corporate America”, and where my job responsibilities directly effect thousands of employees, millions of customers, and millions of shareholders. A short description would be that I am the person at my company responsible for knowing everything that is going to happen before it actually happens.

So, no stress there.

A couple of days ago, I was approached about going back into the area I started out in with the company. It would mean leaving the “futile attempt to be omniscient” division, instead working in the “actually helping human beings” department.

You might think, by those descriptions, I would have immediately jumped at the opportunity when it was raised, but I did not. My honest initial reaction was to try to figure out first whether or not I had failed at the job I’m actually in.

As I proceeded then to discuss this with my wife, two of my co-workers, and one of my best online (blog) friends, their reactions were virtually unanimous: take the new job, it’s a godsend, this job is killing you.

This job is killing me?

“Yes,” says one of my coworkers. “I’ve seen what it’s done to you this last year. I hate seeing you like this.”

I won’t belabor the point here, it is my intention to take the new job. What’s interesting to me is how much my obsessive desire to be “good at” whatever I happen to be doing has resulted in unhealthy or even warped thinking. I didn’t seek out the job I happen to have now; I was chosen for it. I’ve been aware of having some shortcomings in the position. I should have immediately jumped at a chance to do something I know I love doing, but I hesitated because I hate to think I “failed” at anything.

And yet, by normal standards, I’ve “failed” at a lot of things. My first marriage. Being a father. You’d think I’d be used to it by now.


My first really large failure — at least, in my mind — was at age eight when I realized I was never going to be a great painter.

I was taking painting lessons from a tiny woman who had an art studio and taught something like 30 students. I had it all worked out in my head: I was going to be a world famous painter. So I listened carefully to all her instructions, and applied myself diligently. Only…

I have no eye, and I notice almost nothing, visually. I was horrible, really, but it took awhile to dawn on me. However, dawn on me, it did.

I loved paintings. My father was an artist, and I wanted to be like him; I just didn’t have it in me.

After a year of lessons, my art teacher had an “awards ceremony” (this was 1970, in case you think such things are only a recent phenomenon) where they gave out awards like “best still life” “best human figure” “best use of color” and so on. Eventually, everyone in the studio had an award, except me.

Oh, but she had thought of one. I received the “Most Original Style” award, which was a polite way of saying “what the hell is that you just painted”?

So right after the ceremony, I quit. I told my parents I didn’t want to take art lessons any more.

They argued, as some of you no doubt may try to do, that having an “original style” is what all artists strive for. Yeah, well, I wasn’t striving for it: I wanted people to be able to tell what it was I painted.

My parents asked me to reconsider and stay at it. I was obdurate: I wasn’t going back. They relented.

I did regret it, later, but in a weirdly ambiguous way. I regretted the loss of my dream of being an artist. I couldn’t really regret quitting lessons, because, I was a horrible painter.

Epiphanies don’t always make you happier at first.

A year or so after that, I started piano lessons, and that was much more my thing. So then I was happier.


The Beautiful One, who is peacefully sleeping right now on our bed, wants me to take this new job and find some peace of mind. It is my intention to take the job; as to peace of mind, that remains to be seen.

In this very room is one of the paintings I painted at eight years old. It’s not a great painting, but it’s a beautiful kind of failure: a still life painted with that combination of dreams and illusions that make up human hope.

So here’s to beautiful failure: for while failure is inevitable, in many ways, the desire and search for beauty, truth, and goodness are what really matters.

Frozen Farm Track At Sunrise

I love the picture affixed to this essay. I feel like it’s a picture of place I once was, that I remember vividly, even though… I wasn’t ever there, and my memories seem made up. Many of you will (correctly) think I’m crazy for reacting this way, but some of you, a special few, will know the feeling I’m describing.

Blogging: bringing the disenfranchised together, one weirdo at a time.


I frequently start with photos as inspiration for posts; I purchase almost all the images I use from Dreamstime.com. This particular photo is by a photographer named Kevin Eaves. He’s from the UK.

I mostly write poetry; it turns out, there’s a word for poetry inspired by painting or photography or other arts, it’s called ekphrastic poetry, and the process itself is called ekphrasis.

I know you come to this blog primarily to learn obscure Greek terms for things, so I oblige.


She wasn’t awake yet, so
I dressed and left to take a walk,
Looking at her, a lambent miracle,
Still asleep in the old farm bed —

The type of terrain was
Strange to me; I come from
Flat beach country, where
Hills are few, and snow is
Never

The air was cold and bracing, and
I could see my own breath in steam

What a night it had been

What a surprise all that was

What beautiful country it was, as
The early morning light hazed gray
Over the winter landscape

And it wasn’t even love, it was
Just the joy of knowing
Love might be

Possible


Love is its own excuse, of course: we love because we love to love.

That I love this photograph is an oddity, perhaps, but it is a fact: I love this picture.

The Meaning of Power

My second semester in college, we had a bet as to who could get a higher combined grade in chemistry and biology.

She won.

She was always better than me in math; even though I was a math major, I knew better than to bet her on that. I thought I had a shot in science.

I had to pay for dinner and a movie of her choice as a payoff to the bet. She steered me into a little known (at the time) film that had just came out, one called “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

What a great movie that was (is).

For any who might be wondering, it wasn’t a date. I was honoring a lost bet, one I had tried very hard to win. She was, I had to admit ruefully, just smarter than I was.


My best friend had dated her at one time. I never really looked at her that way, at least, not seriously. We were friendly sorts of rivals, I guess. Although, the rivalry seems rather one-sided, looking back. I was the Washington Generals to her Harlem Globetrotters, for any who might get that reference.

She transferred on full scholarship to a university in Texas, where she majored in nuclear physics. She told me in later years that she had the jarring experience of running into people there who were smarter than she was — something she’d rarely encountered where we grew up. Still, she did well, and graduated into a lucrative profession in which she’s still employed to this day.


I saw her, last year, by a completely freak set of circumstances. She spotted me first, and came up to me.

“Owen? Is that you?”

“Kathy? Oh, my God, what are you doing here?”

“I’m doing some consulting for the power plant down in Baxley. We’re up here for… well, it’s a long story.”

Since they were going to be in town for the weekend, we decided to meet up for lunch the next day and get caught up on each other’s lives.


After some pleasantries, and conversations about marital statuses (both on second marriages), kids (her three, me five), and grandkids (me two at the time, her first one due soon), we started talking about our jobs.

She was surprised to hear I ended up as an actuary. “I always felt like math wasn’t really your thing,” she said. “I mean, not like it was for some of us. You had music, and the arts and all that stuff.”

I told her I still did. I asked her if the profession she was in had a lot of women in it, and if not, was that a particular challenge?

Apparently, I had asked the right question.


“Of the handful of us who did post-graduate work,” [she has a Ph.D] “I was one of two girls. The boys there treated us fine, I mean, it was college, so, raging hormones and all that, but no one was a pig, if you know what I mean.”

I told her I probably did.

“When I started working part-time, it was 1986; since I didn’t finish my degree until late in 1987, I didn’t get a full-time gig until the next year. So that would have been around thirty years ago. My first boss, had, um — ideas about my ideal use that would have shocked me, had I heard them expressed in words; as it happened, he didn’t feel the need to use words. One night, when we were working late and the only other person still there left, he attacked me. I mean, physically assaulted me.”

“What did you do?” I asked, although, having known her growing up, I had an inkling.

“I almost killed him. I bashed his head halfway in with a stapler. I mean, I had learned self-defense growing up, you know my dad, he insisted on it, and I just grabbed the first thing I could reach. But I didn’t just hit him once. I hit a few extra times for good measure.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, better than you’d think. I didn’t get in any trouble, and he got fired.”

“Well, that’s surprising. I thought this was headed toward you getting in trouble for him attempting to sexually assault you.”

“No, that didn’t happen, but, here’s the thing: I was lucky. If he had grabbed me from behind, or I didn’t have a weapon right at hand, or, any number of other things, it might have turned out differently, and that thought kept me awake for months, for years.”

I told her I was really sorry to hear that.

“You know, I’d always heard that rape was more about power than sex, but I never really understood before that.”

“Did you have other experiences like that? You’ve been in the business a long time.”

“Oh, yes, and I married two people from the business. I was never assaulted again, thank God, but I went through my share of innuendo and inappropriate jokes and salacious hints, and so on… You know, I thought guys in this business, with a lot of education would be more …”

“… civilized? Enlightened?”

“Yeah, both.”

“Did it sour you on the business?”

“No. I love this work. The entire country depends on power, and we produce it. I know how it works, and I’ve been able to make it work better and better over time.”

We went on to talk about her son for a few minutes, before returning to the subject above.

“Some men are pigs, is the way I look at it. And by pigs, I mean, whatever is in front of them, they feel entitled to, and will just take, if they can. Right and wrong don’t enter into the way they look at things.”

“Some women are pigs, by that definition,” I said.

She smiled at me.


“How was lunch?” my wife asked when I got home.

“Interesting. We talked a lot about power.”

“Nuclear power?”

“All kinds.”

Entrance

​A friend of mine asked me to write something that could be used at her wedding in place of the traditional bridal march. She wanted something softer and sweeter, and described to me how it would be used for her little flower girl and her, with the ceremony to be held outdoors in a garden.

I gave it the imaginative name “Entrance”, playing on the fact that two different english words are spelled the same way, one meaning “to enter”, and the other meaning “to hypnotize or enchant” — both of which seemed apropos.

Below is that song, in all its no-fidelity splendor.


Throwaways

For those of you unfamiliar or newly familiar with my work, I am primarily a poet.  While writing, I occasionally write lines that don’t seem to go with the piece being written, but that I like for whatever reason, and set aside for future use.

Below is a collection of such lines; they have been on the poetic shelf for so long, I’m pretty sure no poem is going to walk in and claim them. Ergo, the following “throwaways”.


I love the world of politics, because

I’d grown weary of more traditional clown makeup


What we don’t understand

We tend to despise;

Yet what we truly we despise

We feel we fully understand


love is a beautiful morning;
those who miss it
are very possibly
overly concerned
with bed


… the bullying boots of pseudo-morality,
raining down kicks from the high ground.


she’s always kissing shadows;

it is as if to say,

the only thing left real is her

so it’s the only way


self-righteousness:
the nation’s one truly
renewable resource


I never understood girls.

At all.


we’ve replaced boredom with anxiety

moving back one letter, alphabetically


Yes, I make music few will want to hear,
And I pen poems few will want to read;
But I decided, when I was quite small,
To keep on playing, even when no one was watching.


He was considered “quite a catch”

And yet, she threw him back.


hey, friend,
fall in love with this mailbox
and see if it loves you back


She got the House of Commons:

She’d wanted the House of Lords


I could never be handsome, but
I could still be honorable


Humans: treat humans like humans

Once, We Flew

This was a very busy airport at one time.

If I close my eyes, I can remember this ramp, with cars and buses, honking; people loading and unloading suitcases; families, visitors, good friends, old friends.

Opening them, the wind is blowing in from the north, cold and hollow. There’s nobody around for miles.



Airports are, if you think about it, one of the pinnacles of our civilization in terms of technology. And, like all of the most breathtaking and amazing technologies, within a generation or so, we pass by them without thought or remark. In fact, air travelers these days probably think about the inconveniences of air travel more than the miracle that is flying, roughly in a ratio of 10,000 to 1.

Except for children, of course, who crowd up to windows at airports and in planes to look at the things adults and teens are too distracted to bother with.

As jaded and indifferent adults, there’s even a part of us that views our ancestors as being something like children for getting so excited over things like airplanes and flying. Which is indefensibly wrong, of course. It is we who have come to view things poorly through the distorting lens of abundance.

To whom much is given, much is taken for granted, it seems.



Once, we flew out of this airport: many of us, heads down, minds preoccupied, harried, distracted. When it closed, it was articles in the news, and hand-wringing, and council reports; followed by fences, and barbed wire, and cracks in parking lots and runways. Now I stand here in the presence of ghosts, as I am most places I go these days.

It’s like the little store or restaurant you used to love that closes one day, where you find yourself wishing you’d gone a little more often. A friend you lost, a miracle — one you should have appreciated more, while you still had the chance.

But we are built to live, not necessarily to live wisely. Yes, once we flew, and perhaps we will fly again in dreams; but the sun is going down, now, and all the ghosts I hear in the wind are telling me it’s time to move on.

Drawn

He had an old-fashioned, black pen-and-ink pen in his left hand, and he was sketching on an artist’s pad. I was about five, I think, and was trying to do the same thing with a black crayon.

We were at a park outside our hotel near Rochester, New York, where my dad was from; my mother, sister, and brother had gone down the street to a drug store. I had my own little artist’s sketchbook as well, although I think the pages were lined.

“I’m going to give my picture to grandma,” I said.

“She’ll like that,” he said.


I was fourteen years old; my sister and brother were grown by then, and had left home. I was reading on my bed, when I heard my mom, who had been down the hall giving my dad hell about something, suddenly give a screech. I heard the front door bang open and I tore out of my room to see what was going on. I could see them through the hall window.

There was my mom, standing out in the yard, looking back at my dad, who was standing in the doorway. They were just looking at each other. She looked wary.

I knew right away what had happened. He had been laying down on the couch, not feeling well, and had shot up off the couch to respond to her. She, who grew up in a home racked by domestic violence, hadn’t stuck around to see what his intentions were; she ran out at the first sign of sudden movement.

He hadn’t hurt her. But for a moment, she thought he might. And he was really angry.

He stepped back from the door and she came back inside.


“What happened today?” I asked at dinner that night. “I saw you out the hall window.”

“We had an argument,” my mom said.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

They looked at each other. I guess I wasn’t supposed to have noticed, let alone started asking questions about it.

“No,” my father said slowly. “But it will be. Sometimes couples argue.”

Now they were looking worried. They always saw me as the oversensitive type who couldn’t deal with the realities of life. I changed the subject.

“Dad, I’m supposed to a sketch of a tree for school. Could you help me after dinner?”

“Yes,” he said, relieved for the change of subject.


I was in college by this time, back home visiting for one day. My mom and I were talking about this and that.

“Your father and I have been going to counseling,” she said.

“How’s that going?”

“Turns out that your father has been depressed for something like twenty years.”

I thought “You’re just now realizing that?”, but I said, “Oh, wow. Um… what other things have you all learned?”

“Ways to understand and appreciate each other better. You know how difficult your father can be to communicate with.”

“Yes.”

“And apparently, I can be hard to please at times.”

“I had never noticed.”

She laughed. “Yes you have.”

“Okay, I have. So it’s… helping? Maybe?”

“We think so.”

We moved on to other subjects.

“I got together a few things you can take with you back to school”, she said.

They were on a chair by the telephone in the front hall. There was a jacket I had been looking for, a couple of books my friend Andy had returned, and one of my father’s old sketchbooks.

“He was throwing these out, and I told him you kids my like to keep them. Here.”

I thumbed through the pages. There was the clean, simple sketch of the Rochester park. I remembered being out there with him with my crayon, drawing my crummy picture.

“Thanks,” I said.


“We knew you owed a lot, on your medical bills,” he said, “but we never dreamed you’d go out and put them all on credit cards.”

I was in my mid-twenties, and I had been very ill. Very, very ill.

He said, “I cashed in a life insurance policy we had on me, and I’m going to lend you the money to help get square.”

He produced a very neatly drawn loan amortization schedule, in his almost calligraphic print. “You will pay me on the 15th of every month, until this is paid off.” In the sum borrowed, and with payments I could afford, it would stretch on for years and years.

“Thank you,” I said. “I will, I promise.”

“Credit, and family, are things that can be drawn upon, when needed, but — you have to be careful.”

My mom was sitting at the table with us, looking fondly at my dad. He got up and left the room to go back to work in his shop.

“Your dad loves you,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “I know you both do. And I’m grateful, I really am. Now that I can work again, I should be able to pay you back.”


Five years later, at my first wedding, he waived the remaining payments as a wedding gift. I still had his carefully penned loan amortization schedule.

That was twenty-five years ago. My dad died, a little over ten years ago.


The other morning, I was picking up various items to take out to recycling. Among them was a crayon drawing by my eldest grandson, who is four years old. I took it out of the items for recycling and put it up in my room.

“What is this?” my wife asked. “Why is this up?”

“Because it’s hand-drawn,” I said.

She brushed her hand lovingly over my hair before leaving the room.

Autumn Reverie

I’m headed out, and it doesn’t matter where. The autumn has exploded into color around me, and it’s taking me with it.

I’m a country guy, at heart; I like the arts and some other city things, but open stretches of road know my real name, and shorelines and hilltops speak a language I was born understanding.

Cities make feel trapped, and crowds are like leeches that suck the life out of me.

But, for today, I’ve got the open: road, sky, and heart.

The world is a cauldron of fantasy,
And life could be splendid for you and me
If we opened our hearts to the wonder inside,
And were less motivated by fear, or pride,
Or the feelings that come when we put our desire
Above what is right – maybe just a touch higher –

For there’re different songs that we’re all meant to sing,
It’s the rhythm and concord in everything.
And we all could be happier, yet, if we tried,
Not to say that there’d never be tears to be cried,
But we’ll never fix violence, hunger, or thirst,
If we don’t learn to fix
What is wrong with us
First

The Store

Many mornings, I stop at a convenience store near our house before or after going to the gym. It is typically before 5:00AM when I do.

There are three night-shift workers there, and they rotate nights. There is a young woman of about thirty or so; another young woman of about nineteen; and a man of around forty. I’ve gotten to know each of them fairly well, as I come in during a boring time of night for them and when there is rarely anyone (or anyone much) else there.

Yesterday, it was the youngest one. She and I have talked quite a bit in the past about sort of nerd-related topics: things like video games, and Star Wars, and comic books. I happened to be wearing a Hufflepuff House sweatshirt, and as I walked up to the counter, her eyes lit up. “You wear the coolest shirts.”

“Thanks,” I said, swelling a little with pride.

“I wish my grandfather would wear cool shirts,” she said as an afterthought.

“Maybe you could get him one,” I said as I turned to leave, considerably deflated.

Male ego. It’s the gift that keeps on taking.

As a matter of complete irony, the other woman at the store, the thirty-something, had, just a few days before, suddenly blurted out as I was about to leave with my purchase that I could call her if I wanted to.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m married,” I said, thinking that since I don’t wear my wedding ring to the gym, she probably just didn’t know.

“You can still call,” she said.

Well, I thought at the time, getting into my car, that was uncomfortable. Now, I’m thinking, Her co-workers would be shocked to know she’s trying to pick up grandfathers. Even ones with cool shirts.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of finding a new store to go to in the morning, thinking things would be really awkward going in there when she was on shift, but I decided not to. It’s not like she had committed a crime, and even if she had, she could plausibly plead temporary insanity.

As a sort-of-ongoing inside joke, the guy who works there always tries to sell me lottery tickets, knowing full well that I don’t buy lottery tickets.

It isn’t that I have anything against gambling, its more that since I’m in the professional statistics business, I shy away from anything outside of work that reminds me of it.

Once he realized I don’t buy them, however, it became a matter of humor for him to always ask me if I want any.

“What would you recommend?” I asked the most recent time.

He shows me the forty-eight kinds of scratch-off games, explaining that game #26 has been very lucky for people in our city.

“Nah, I think I’ll pass this time,” I said.

“Your taking more chances drinking those damned energy drinks then you would with these,” he said.

I had to laugh. “So I’ve heard.”


I have had, since my teen years, an incredible affection for convenience stores. I first learned to love them at the “Jr. Food Store,” a local convenience store in my hometown of Valparaiso, Florida. It would be a hundred degrees in the summer, and I would have just finished mowing the lawn; I’d ride my bicycle the four blocks down to the store just to feel breeze, and I’d leave with a cold Coke in a bottle and a couple of new comic books.

Cold drinks for a hot summer day and comic books. You name a store that sells anything better.

Convenience stores stopped selling comic books in this country back in the 1980’s and part of me died.

Even though I wasn’t buying comic books any more.


There is another convenience store, way over on the other side of town here in Georgia, that I have an extreme fondness for. It’s the place that hired my then-unemployed son after he’d been out of work for eighteen months.

He lives in Tennessee now, and is moving forward in his life. A big part of him progressing was that job and that convenience store.

Sometimes, on a weekend, I’ll drive over there while I’m out. I’ll stop in, pick up a few drinks and some chips or a hot dog, and look around the place. I still feel grateful there.

It’s kind of weird to be grateful towards a building, but, there you have it.


When I once again did encounter the woman who’d offered me her phone number back at my local store, she acted like nothing had ever happened. Which, in fact, nothing had.

“Headed to the gym, or coming back?” she asked.

“Headed to. You working later over at Hibachi Express?”

“No, thank God. I get to go home and SLEEP.”

“Well, you have a good one.”

“Thanks! You, too.”

And all of you, too. You all have good ones.

Waves

Gratitude comes in waves, leaving colored streaks as the Gulf inhales at my feet.

The world is reflected the surf, and time itself swirls in it’s eddies.

Friends, both met and as-yet-not-met gleam like flecks of paint on a well-composed canvas. I know them, because they let me; I love them, because I’ve come to know them.

The teal and green waters cover my feet again as the Gulf exhales. I ran joyfully here as a child. I walked pensively here as a young man. Now I stand here, awash in wonder.

And color.

And friends.

And love.

 

Distracted

Two days ago, a woman I work with stopped to help an injured dog in the road. Two other passers-by stopped to help.

A man driving a third car, who was “distracted”, hit the three of them, killing her.

Because he was distracted, and because she stopped to help an injured dog.

She stopped to help.

An injured dog.

My (IOS) phone has a setting I’ve turned on, where I don’t get notifications of messages and the like while I’m in the car. If you have such a setting, you might want to turn it on.

A Fantasy in Lights

In dreams, she’s always as I remember her: young, slight, and full of wonder.

She left this life in her late twenties from cancer, leaving behind a husband and two small children, the youngest being not quite a year old. That child is now around thirty.

I watch her slowly make her way towards the lights. The landscape is beautiful, otherworldly.

Towards the end, she was bitter; and I, young as I was, didn’t understand. She didn’t want to die. She had lived an open, joyful life. Why was this happening to her?

There is a light breeze blowing her hair, and beautiful music. There’s a sort of domed city at the edge of the trees.

She was the younger sister of a woman who was (and is) a very good friend. On the anniversary of her sister’s death, my friend posted a number of pictures of her late sister on Facebook. Love may come to terms with death, but the parameters of the negotiation are very one-sided.

It seems to be winter, but the dome is giving off warmth. She’s dressed to sleep.

I wish the good didn’t die young, but I’m not in control of that; none of us are. We’re in a play we didn’t write, and don’t produce: players leave the stage, sometimes, and we don’t see them again. Except in photographs and dreams.

She reaches her hand for a door. The dream dissolves.

The Shame

As I walk through a grocery store, trying to find extra-pulp orange juice and the specific type of flatbread my wife requested I buy, I see all kinds of people.

Young mothers with children riding in baskets. Couples, trying to figure out the most economical ways to do things. Individuals, some dressed up, some dressed down. Young men, older men, women of all ages. People of all ethnic and national backgrounds.

It’s a pretty big store.

People where I live tend to engage in any number of politeness rituals: “excuse me”-“no, you’re fine” and “sorry about that”-“oh, it’s no problem” type of exchanges are going on all over the store. People occasionally make eye contact and try to appear friendly, or, at least, not hostile.

Going around a corner, I nearly collide with a woman who was steering her cart through a very tight space. I apologize and back up, leaving her room to pass. I make myself look at her when I’m speaking. She smiles fleetingly, in a distracted sort of way.

I have to force myself to make eye contact, when I do. Becoming aware of this, walking by frozen foods, I try to think of why that is.

I realize it is because I was raised to believe that men should be ashamed of being men.

I stop.

Since I was pretty young, I have more-or-less tacitly assumed that every girl or woman I meet is innately hostile. I knew this was a psychological oddity (to say the least) but I never pinpointed exactly why I felt this way. But I just realized — just now — it’s because I have been told, over and over, that to be a man is to be something inherently bad.

So I’m standing here, looking at frozen Snickers bars (which look really good, by the way) trying to figure out if this is fair or not. I’m not sure.

That people are capable of great evil is beyond dispute.

That people have usually abused power when they have it is also beyond question.

I am capable of evil. And I have some power, such as it is. Do I abuse it?

Sometimes. I don’t sexually harass women, though. Most of the time, I don’t even make eye contact.

I notice them, of course, and I tend to think of all women as beautiful.

I have known any number of men in my life who were what one might call sexually amoral. Their view was that any woman who wanted to have sex with them was okay with them.

I’ve also known some (fewer) who were immoral (criminal): abusing their power, pushing themselves on women who didn’t want them. I’ve learned of three of these men at my current place of employment, and every one of them was fired over it, with one going to jail.

I never actually witnessed it, though. Not since I was eighteen, when I intervened (badly) in a situation where a waitress at a restaurant I was cooking for got cornered after hours by the assistant manager.

I helped her get away. I got fired.

I wasn’t proud of helping her. In fact, I felt ashamed.


Anyone with the patience to read my poetry blog knows: I think about all kinds of things, and sex is one of them.

For any female readers who want to know how men really think, or have wanted to know since they were girls how boys really think, I’ll let you in on a couple of secrets.

The first is this: when it comes to sex, boys don’t have thoughts, thoughts have them. It’s like having your body and mind and emotions taken over by an alien lifeforce. Since most boys aren’t that popular with girls in early adolescence (there’s usually around six boys in a school who get all the girls’ attention) it is a world of energy with no place to go.

It’s torture, basically. It wakes you when you’re sleeping, sometimes leaving embarrassing stains. It causes easily evident physical changes when you are around girls that they (and everyone else) notice.

And laugh at.

Meanwhile, all the female classmates who are the constant subject of your newfound erotic obsessions are mooning over pop stars and the six guys at school I mentioned earlier. Many boys grow up thinking that girls would all belong to harems, if they could.

Much that is unexplainable in male behavior goes with the view — and you can see it all too evidently in the news these days, although it shouldn’t be news to anybody — that if a man is a “star” every woman will really want to be his “groupie”.

Which is ridiculous, of course.

A second secret about how men look at sex is that many boys (men) give up even trying to understand how girls (women) view relationships (sex). Guys just know: sometimes gals like them, sometimes they don’t, and it all seems mysterious and unexplainable, so why try. Particularly if you often observe at a young age that girls seem to very often like guys who don’t treat them that well.

I went through a phase of my teen years where I consciously attempted to treat girls worse than my natural inclinations. Sure enough: suddenly, I had girls interested in me. The lesson I thought I learned, interestingly enough, wasn’t that girls liked “bad boys”, it was that girls liking me or not liking me really didn’t seem to have anything to do with me at all.

Essentially, I concluded at age seventeen that relationships, like weddings in this country, are completely about what the female wants, and the male is just along for the ride. Or so I thought.


I’m all the way over in the pharmaceutical section of the grocery store now, and I’m still thinking about the original question: should I be ashamed of being a guy?

No, I think. Ethical generalizations about groups of people are inherently wrong. There’s no difference in saying “All men are bad” and saying “All members of ethnic group X are bad”. It’s just wrong.

What should I be ashamed of, then, if anything?

Being a bad guy, not being a guy. And being a “bad” guy is what it has always been: abusing power and hurting people.

And what about these strongly rooted adolescent ideas you formed about relationships and sex?

They’re messed up. In every type of relationship, men and women have to be respectful of each other’s wishes and desires: to listen, and to respect the voluntary nature of all interactions — not to attempt to coerce or manipulate. Men have to understand and embrace the idea of… well, propriety, for lack of a better term. They also have to accept their own sexuality for what it is, and what it is not. Strong desire is not license.

Is that extra pulp orange juice?

It’s not even orange juice. I picked up some kind of mixed fruit concoction.

And did you ever actually get the flatbread?

Dang it. Now I have to go back.

You should be ashamed.

“The Haunting and the Haunted”

Headin’ in or headin’ out
Standing on the shore
Pause a moment to reflect
Which trip costs you more
Between the ever restless crowds
And the silence of your room
Spend an hour in no man’s land
You’ll be leaving soon

Victims come and victims go
There’s always lots to spare
One victim lives the tragedy
One victim stops to stare
And still another walks on by
Pretending not to see
They’re all out there in no man’s land
Cause it’s the safest place to be

But sanctuary never comes
Without some kind of risk
Illusions without freedom
Never quite add up to bliss

The haunting and the haunted
Play a game no one can win
The spirits come at midnight
And by dawn they’re gone again…

– “No Man’s Land”, Bob Seger


I remember her tear-streaked face looking at me. “Why? Why did all this have to happen? Why?”

I had no answer.

She left years ago, in search of answers. I hear she found them.

The years rolled by, doing the kind of damage only time can do. I stand here now, looking out at the restless movement of the Gulf, wondering, what could I have said? What do you say in the face of a grief that demands answers?

The problem was – and is – that I don’t really traffic in answers. I have found my own, of course, but I’m not their best exemplar — judging by the uniformity with which my own adult children have rejected them. My one, halting attempt to share what I’ve learned, summarily dismissed.

So I’ve moved on from my parenting stage, and I’m back where I was with her, all those years ago, both emotionally and geographically.

I don’t know why. I don’t know why all this had to happen.

Nor do I know why we ever thought it wouldn’t.


…And so it seems our destiny
To search and never rest
To ride that ever changing wave
That never seems to crest
To shiver in the darkest night
Afraid to make a stand
And then go back and do our time
Out there in no man’s land