For My Mother
....who always wanted me to write a
book but assumed I’d get paid for it.
Fierce sometimes is the rain,
Bursting on the window pane
Rain is racing down the road
Dripping wet is the olive toad.
But all the rain is far away,
For I am in my house to stay!
- written in 1973
Table of Contents
Introduction ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 1
Made-up Stories ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 2
True Stories ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 9
Travel Stories ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 38
Poems ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 78
Appendix: Family Stories ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 94
About the Author ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 103
My maternal grandfather’s sister was my favorite aunt. I was
seven years old when I spent a week in the hospital dreading
the next needle or catheter but looking forward to her daily
visit. I stayed at her house often growing up, a place as quiet as
a monastery. She’d never married, partially for health reasons;
back in the 1920s she was one of the first recipients of a newly
discovered hormone called insulin, which saved her life.
After Aunt Mary died we were told she had kept, over many
decades, a diary of prodigious length. I was surprised because
she had seemed to live such a quiet and uneventful life. But
more than surprised I was intensely curious. I wanted to read
her thoughts and opinions but diaries are assumed to be
private. But oh if she’d just given us something!
I’ve kept a journal also and I thought that although it’s
questionable anybody would want to read it, I thought I would
do what I wish Aunt Mary had done - preserve some of it, even
if it not be much good. As the great G.K. Chesterton once
wrote: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”
The journal isn’t any one thing. It is prose, poetry,
lamentations, embellishments, and trip logs. Often silly and
often serious. And so shall this be.
I remember duck-hunting with old Uncle Coot, a lifelong
Norwegian bachelor who, upon hearing of my impending nuptials,
gave me the keys to his old Ford and said, “Run, son. Run like the
wind.” I didn’t take him up on it, due to the sedation of my 401K
drip and the near-vesting of company medical benefits. He said it
wasn’t that I sold my soul that bothered him, it was how easily I’d
sold it. A tear came to my eye the next morning, when in the
ebullient light I saw the charred edges of the bushes just beyond the
welcome mat. Coot had gotten drunk the night before and must’ve
thought he was out west again, where you start campfires in your
front yard since your front yard’s at least a hundred acres. The
maple by the sidewalk had a bottle of Wild Turkey stuck in it, and
there in the well-cropped yews was his bandana. Uncle Coot didn’t
have a social security card or a birth certificate or anything reeking
of bureaucracy, so no one knew how old he was when we
celebrated his birthday. He always used to sneer the lyrics to a Merle
Haggard tune: “....so keep your retirement, and your so-called social
security.....think I’ll walk off my steady job today”. Coot never held
a steady job, or any job really, so it was kind of ironic when he sang
it, though no one ever pointed that out to Coot. I thought it was
really cool that he could have a blind spot that big, but then
everything about Coot was big.
I spent the summer of ‘81 working for the government as an
undercover street person. I grew a surreptitious beard that soon
became less than surreptitious and eventually became visible even
to the non-cognoscenti. My first stake-out involved a young man
in his late 20s who lived in a cardboard box the size of a jetsetter’s
golf bag. I was to find out the “why” behind this sad story.
“To what do you attribute your finding yourself in this position –
waking up in a cardboard box the size of a jetsetter’s golf bag
beneath the 315 underpass?” I asked.
“Dumb luck I guess. I used to see people go to work in stiff
hairshirts –I mean suits. They would disappear in dank cave-like
offices during the best hours of every day. I couldn’t believe it!
They’d come out tired, irritable and in need of a beer.”
“Yeah but how do you improve society?”
“Honestly I’m not sure. But have you ever felt the clean, brisk air
on your skin after a hard winter? Or watched the unceasingness of a
brook and imagined it to be the living waters of God, always
accessible and always flowing? Have you ever used a walking stick as
a baseball bat and struck at dead wood in the forest? Ever squawked
at ducks and watched them land like big-webbed water-skiers?”
“Uh, no, not lately.”
“Me neither. I need to get to the country – got a dollar?”
There Goes the Neighborhood
I appreciate tackiness as much as the next guy, as long as it’s done in
good taste. By that I mean “tongue-in-cheek” tackiness or Elvis-tacky,
the kind of tackiness that is so over-the-top that we know it’s a joke.
Give me pink flamingos, a velvet-Elvis or a gaudy beer sign any day. But
don’t give me fake deer. What happens when money and bad taste meet?
You get what we’ve got - a family of faux deer in the neighbor’s yard.
They are just realistic enough to know that they intend this as an
aesthetic improvement, but not so realistic that anybody who’s had less
than a 12-pack would not know they were fake. Plus they are artfully
arranged, with a doe or buck (I don’t want to know) leading the pack of
bambi’s. Everyone traveling Rome-Hilliard is treated to their display, art
terrorists bent on degrading the living environment. I wake up with
night terrors, drenched in cold sweat, thinking what can I do? I ask
myself “what are the natural predators of artificial deer?” and it hits me -
artificial deer-hunters! The next day I order full-size plastic statues of a
man and two sons, dressed in camouflage and orange flap jackets,
brandishing rifles pointed at the neighbor deer. Hope they don’t miss!
In rain-besotted Ireland there stands a public house by the name
of O’Hara’s. It is painted the color of the peat fire that warms the
interior and scarcely a night passes that the chief proprietor, Mr.
Coinneach O’Hara, doesn’t pose in the doorway proud as a
Beefeater outside Buckingham Palace.
Ivy frames the pub like a halo and mosses and lichens fill the
space between the road and O’Hara’s. The air is filled with
something between a mist and a sprinkle. For every variety of green
in Ireland there is a variety of rain.
Mr. O’Hara begins each day with the pleasant agate of the Irish
Times and a cup of hot tea. It doesn’t much matter what the news
is, the ritual of creating meaning from the wriggly symbols is
enough. He has the craggy face of one who has lived well, yet one
still capable of surprise. “The face at twenty is a gift,” he always said,
“the face at forty is what you’ve earned”.
Near the peat fire retirees hold court on the events of 1921, cursing
the perfidious English and lamenting the death of Michael Collins.
Finely carved canes lean against the bar like horses in a corral.
A group of twenty-somethings sit around the single pub table,
enlivened by a half-dozen pints drunk in honor of a work friend
who recently quit. Invitations to parties here imply “come or be
The retirees sit and the workers never mix, though both are often
present. The retirees always sit at the bar and the younger folk at
tables. The young, still chained by appearances, don’t like noticing
their flaws in the mirror. The peat-fire elderly like the solitariness of
And everyone loves Mr. O’Hara, who’s been known on occasion
to pull a pub chair to the bar or a bar seat to the table.
It was ’79 and Laura was a classmate of mine at the Livery Day
School for brilliant pre-pubescent children of vicariously
overachieving parents. We had a latte before our first lesson, a
lecture from an ex-hippie on potential career choices (I thought he
spent too much time on School Administrator).
In the cautious Livery system, controversial subjects like religion
and politics were never discussed because they weren’t considered
to be in the “value-added” category. The only reference to things
spiritual was how God could best be used to improve productivity.
Something about studies proving that meditating on a God-force
gives you more energy. When Laura asked him about the
oxymoronic notion of reducing God to servant status he mumbled
something like, “don’t let your opinions get in the way of the value
the lecture has for you.” Laura seemed satisfied.
Laura and eventually married Phil despite having nothing in
common, as is appropriate for the male and females of the species,
marriage being a microcosm of the Jew-Arab conflict only more
Gunner Kearney walked each morning to Kate Kearney’s Cottage and
drank a single shot of Paddy’s Old Irish Whiskey before computer
programming under the fluorescent lights of a large multi-national. The
walk to Kate’s was metaphorical, only in his mind, a pre-work ritual to
briefly color his world ethnic. The morning coffee would suffice for
entertainment, the liquid of the damned. Caffeine was invented was to
make dull jobs tolerable.
He walked in a world filled with vague resentments and veiled
anxieties. His friend Arness dreamed dreams of lofty vision. He had
elaborate plans of marketing “essence of scorpion”, a distillation of dried
scorpion cartilage that could be applied as a powder or spray. The scent
would be “musky yet smooth, with a pinch”.
One Tuesday for lunch, Arness and Gunner left the large multi-
national and got in Gunner’s T aurus and traveled wordlessly for miles,
reaching Kentucky by two and Georgia by five. They drove till the soil
bled clay-red, replacing the exhaust-riddled February snow. They entered
a two-bit bar on a one-lane road, a saloon at random, and stayed when
they learned the barkeep had Paddy’s Old Irish Whiskey.
After the third shot of Paddy the joint began to look like Heemskerck
painting. The bottles lined up behind the bar like a collection of future
“How can a fella get in trouble around here?” Arness asked.
“Now why would you want to get in trouble? You look like Yankee
accountants to me.” said the owner, a puffy-faced man with craggy hands.
“Not accountants but close. We were at work this morning in
Michigan and now we’re here. We’ve discovered the elbow of the
desperation curve. Arness, you ‘splain.”
“Yeah, we used to talk about the elbow of the curve financially, that
point at which we had amassed a nest egg that would basically double on
its own in a few years and make our retirement a fait accompli. Instead we
discovered that there is a point on the graph where desperation tends to
scale off the charts, basically at that point where youthful enthusiasm
ends and only ten thousand, three-hundred twenty-six working days
stand between you and retirement.”
The barkeeper shook his head.
“This one’s on me, fellas.”
He was a born Materialist, only worse – a Materialist lacking
imagination, at least to the extent that’s not redundant. So shortly
after he turned ten, when his father sat down and informed him of
the facts of life, he gave a lecture of his own: “No dad, only pee
comes out of the penis! That’s why they call it a pee-nis.”
“Consider it a dual-use instrument,” his father replied mostly to
himself, “like a trumpet that becomes a trombone.”
“No, that just isn’t possible…how would it know when to pee and
when to, when to…do what you said?”
“Well, you have a point there. It’s not exactly known as an organ
Years later he eventually accepted the truth of his father’s talk,
and he was struck by how wrong he’d been and wondered if he
could be wrong about other things. But that feeling of humility
swiftly passed as it always does.
I’ve always been attracted to the notion of profligate waste. Waste
appealed not only because of my naturally parsimonious ways but
because it mirrored the profligacy of the natural world. A million
fireflies and butterflies die on arrival, long-lasting as fireworks.
Eccentric characters and underachievers held my affection. I
saved newspaper and magazine clippings of plumbers or mailmen
who could quote long sections of Moby Dick or who’d read 10,000
books. “Dropping out” was attractive in all its delicious
permutations. A pretty nun was a figure of wonderment; untapped
potential in all its inconceivableness. The sum total of happiness
she could give a man over a lifetime could not be calculated by the
Keeping a low profile as a child was a survival tactic but
redeeming in its own way. I read May Sarton devotionally, growing
terrariums and tending aquariums. I looked covetously upon the
shores of Walden Pond as depicted on my copy of Thoreau’s work.
He was Robinson Crusoe come to life, acting like it were actually
possible, laying out the cost for seeds and wood but then he quit
and went back to Boston and it felt hollow. A year and a half out of
fifty? He called it an experiment but it seemed a failed experiment,
else he wouldn’t have high-tailed it back to civilization. Only the
permanent is romantic.
Uncle Bud used to take me fishing. He had the leather, reptilian
skin of someone who’d been out in the sun every day of his life and
didn’t know SPF from the ATF. A born fisherman, he’d look out
over the water and after ten or twenty minutes I’d be getting ants in
my pants but he’d sit there like Mount Rushmore. I’d walk around
the lake and grab at the cattails and look for dead fish near the
bank and inhale the intoxicating dank smell, and then come back
around and see if Uncle Bud caught anything. Not near enough
action. I’d bait my bamboo pole and put it in the water and pull out
a wormless hook.
But I’d sit and stare at the water and wonder if there really were
any fish under all that water. They said it was stocked but maybe
the other fisherman already caught all the fish. The water looked
the same as soil, only with relentless ripples. Uncle Bud was my
great uncle, my uncle’s father, so he was getting on in years. Always
a bachelor, he lived by his own rules and died by his own rules. Got
cancer but wouldn’t have anything to do with doctors. Holed
himself up in his house like an outlaw with the law outside yellin’
for him to come out, so the hunter shot himself. There was shock in
the horrible coupling, good uncle Bud and Judas’s last sin.
I ache that he be in heaven because the thrill of waste ends at
Growing Up Stories
Been thinking of the bright vacations between the humps on the
back floor of the old Dodge Dart, a tan conglomerate of metal that
by some miracle managed to take us to far places....Fairfield
summers, by some magician's trick, lasted eons, punctuated by a
June trip to Champion Park where we'd grab minnows and get dizzy
on the whirl-a-round. By August we'd have logged a bucolic visit to
a neighboring state. Jean, Doug and I traded places on the Dart
like good monks; bearing patiently the long rides (since two hours
to a kid is 5 hours to an adult). We never imagined that childhood
Growing Up Stories wouldn't last forever - let alone a small fraction
of our life. If we'd known, perhaps we'd have fought less? We had
no futures and no past - only the present lay before us like a huge
everpresent meadow and we were eager to grab our share of it.
At the intersection of Sando and Fairfield lay home, the center of
the universe, and though our address was Sando I felt equally at
home in a stretch of Fairfield Avenue, especially the part abutting
the river, er, creek. In the distance lay a hazy mountain chain
known as "Joyce Park", on the other side lay the foothills of
prestigious "Rolling Hills". Rolling Hills was an subdivision in
Fairfield where rich people lived.
The main street was merely “Pleasant”, not exceptional. No
braggadocia here. In our little neighborhood I wasn't pleased that
the main drag was called “Fairfield” and the city was also called
“Fairfield”. It seemed a crisis of the imagination – like they’d ran
out of street names. “Well Fred, I’m tired, it's 5:00, just put down
Fairfield”. It was confusing to a 6yr old, who reasoned that Mommy
was correct when she said she wouldn’t name my new brother
“Tom” because people wouldn’t know which Tom, the same I
thought could be said of the street & city.
Travel was our earliest job description. We’d get on our bikes and
‘explore’ or ‘splore’ as Doug used to call it before his overbite was
corrected. We hiked the mountains, no doubt treading on private
property but we were kids and laws were made by adults, for adults.
We traveled the streams of Fairfield, the river Miami; we knew the
creek system. We’d try to find new subdivisions and were thrilled
when we found Pippin Road went on & on like a movie that never
Amniotic fluid still clung to me when Mom took me to my first
YMCA swim class. She was a fiery fundamentalist when it came to
the issue of swimming - we would swim or be damned! This
determination was fierce enough to seem a bit out of proportion to
the skill itself, but we can all swim like fish now and so take it a bit
for granted. Parents surely have influence where they mean to have
influence. And so it was that as a toddler I was introduced to this
lavishly huge pool at the Hamilton YMCA, it feeling as immense as
the ocean though I had only a bathtub to compare it to.
The YMCA had a sort of antique old-world ambience that
provoked a bit of awe. After a few lessons at the Hamilton Y, it was
onto the Fairfield Y and its more humble proportions. Jean and
later Doug joined me and the sight of my younger siblings doing so
well in the water lent a new shame to my swimming - suddenly I
wasn't the doing the heroic by swimming the length of the deep
end or diving head-first into the water from a 2-foot platform.
Doug was a natural because he was fearless. He treated adrenalin
as a snack-food his whole youth. Jean also was a natural athlete,
not at all the late bloomer I was. I was destined for my own athletic
greatness when I became the runner-up in the fraternity B-league
racquetball tourney at Miami during Greek Week '86. Jean was
athletic and was always in cheerleading or dance, and made the
Badin cheerleading squad without any of usual politicking by
parents that one suspects goes on. She earned it.
~ 10 ~
Stop me before I Schadenfreude
We had the first annual “’Bobber Beer Test” today. My friend
known as “‘bobber” (short for “scambobber”) has bragged ad
nauseum (emphasis on nauseum) that he can discern a beer’s age by
its taste. He bought into the whole Budweiser “born-on date” thing
hook, line & sinker. Instead of considering it a marketing ploy, he
goes to the supermarket wading through cases of Bud in search of
product no older than three weeks old. I found it somewhat
amusing, but it gives him such joy to find something say, three
weeks old instead of five. Why make an issue of it?
But human perversity being what it is, I finally succumbed and
called him on it. I found a 5-month old can of beer that had been
stored at room temperature for most of the past five months. I found
a 4-week old “fresh” beer that had been always refrigerated. The
beers were refrigerated overnight and poured into containers
“Ahh...yes...this is the real thing...fresh brew!” he said of the five-
month brew, with absolute certainty.
“EEEhhhhhwwwww!” he nearly retched as he drank the 4-week
I admit I enjoyed it all far too much.
“The four-week old beer might’ve been somehow corrupted by
the shipping process...maybe out in the sun.” - his initial reaction.
“Don’t you consider this test aberrant in the sense that the first
taste of beer is so exhilarating than, say, a sip from the 2nd or 3rd
beer?” - his second thought.
“No, what would be aberrant would be if you didn’t provide a
rationalization!,” said me.
~ 11 ~
Is It Raining At Your House?
Man has been divided for the millennium over questions that
have perplexed the wise – how should we govern ourselves
(politics) and what is truth (religion). Politics and religion.
And now to this panoply of divisive issues we can add one more,
one of hairsplitting (or at least hair-wetting) dimensions: rain. To
rain or not to rain is the question - but just don’t ask it in front of a
mother and daughter with a combined age of an impressive 155
years. It has been said that into each life a little rain must fall, and
into their lives this damp subject has reared its dripping head.
Yes, to that long grey line of controversies such as “how many
angels can fit on a pin?” we add “how much rain is too much rain?”.
My mother and grandma are absolutists on the subject, and therein
lay the problem. No rain is too much for Grandma, no number of
sunny days too many for Mom. They have reached an impasse.
A short look of how man has evolved may illumine this touchy
subject. Over most of the past twenty-thousand years, rain was
considered so important it was deemed a god and sacrificed to. It
became so because it was so intimately connected to the livelihood
of the first agriculturalists. Rain meant crops would grow, drought
mean crops would die. Theoretically a lack of sun could also cause
crops to die, but that never seemed to be a problem. However, for
the millions of years prior to the first agriculturalists rain was a
nuisance, making it more difficult to find and catch prey. We see the
two groups still today - Mom is a hunter/gatherer on the subject,
and Grandma an agriculturalist.
Mom showed her hunter/gatherer tendencies early. For most of
the early 1970s she sang to her children songs like, “rain, rain, go
away, come back some other day!”. That sounded a bit
disingenuous to our young ears, for if truth be told there didn’t seem
a day she did want it to come back.
Grandma, on the other hand, comes from a long line of farmers
going back to western Ireland. She lived on a farm and through a
depression, and rain was like money except it couldn’t be stored.
~ 12 ~
Her parents sang and composed pro-rain ditties like, “Rain, rain
why can’t it rain?” and the classic “Let that be a rain cloud and not
a dust cloud”.
Ireland is the land of milk and honey, if by milk you mean rain
and by honey you mean rain. The Irish have learned to deal with
the unrelenting rain over the centuries by drinking a lot. An awful
lot. They developed one of the smoothest whiskeys (Jameson) and
best stout (Guinness). They’ve never invented much else, and that
should tell you something about a rainy climate. But I’m not here to
insert my admittedly sunny-day bias. I can have an opinion and not
let it affect my reporting; I report, you decide.
So we see the roots of a great conflict. Just as the pro-slave South
went on its merry way during the antebellum period while the
North became increasingly abolitionist, so did Grandma and Mom
become even more fixed in their beliefs: that rain was intolerable
and that sunny days were tragic.
What is the solution? A civil war? No! Perhaps just avoiding the
I once read of a saint, or so it seemed to me. Accounts of his
devotion to the Lord and doing his duty surpass my poor powers of
imagination. I could offer a hundred anecdotes of his dedication,
intelligence, or how admirable and worthy of respect he was. He
was a combination Clint Eastwood and St. Francis of Assisi.
Before I read his biography my impression was of a wild-eyed
Southerner who had more courage than brains. But I was wrong. His
name was Thomas, and a more devout soldier one could scarcely
imagine. His solace was the solely in the Lord and he prayed almost
literally continuously. Even the deaths of his first wife and first child
could not shake the beautiful and resolute faith in Christ. He read
Shakespeare or the Scriptures to his second wife every night when he
~ 13 ~
was home, sitting in the parlor of their Virginian home. He wasn’t
home often enough though, due to the war that raged.
He remains to me a source of fascination, for this man who I so
admire was on the wrong side of the Civil War and the wrong side
of truth. And it seems a scandal to imagine someone so close to God
could, at the same time, be so wrong about slavery. But people are
complex, and as Tom Kreitzberg wrote, “complexity makes for both
good story-telling and fruitful meditation. How can honor and
nobility co-exist with a willingness to kill to preserve slavery?
That’s an important question without a simple answer.”
I visited General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s tomb in
Richmond last year and stood a few paces from his remains. If I had
lived at that time, I wouldn’t have rated an audience with him. But
with the democracy of death, a hundred and forty years later this
soft, lazy, Yankee Catholic - everything he wasn’t - now stands a
mere ten feet from his bones.
Buckeyes as Metaphor
With Ohio State, all is prologue till the final play. There is no
assurance; one must persevere to the end. Watching them reminds
me of a line from Bonnie Tyler’s “7 Year Ache” – “see how much
your old heart can take”.
There is the agonizing fact that a resurrection requires a death, and
here in the national championship game the Buckeyes would lose
before winning. Rigor mortis began after a failed 4th down play in
overtime; there they lay, slumped on the field full of silent self-
recriminations that they had taken it too far this time, that lady luck
was on sabbatical. For an ebbing few heartbeats it was, el’ finito, until
a yellow official’s flag appeared, apropos of nothing, like a folded
~ 14 ~
burial cloth in an empty tomb, and the jubilant, devilish Miami
mascot was shooed off the field. Interference had been called against
Miami, and the Buckeye body sprang to life, like the besotted
whiskey drinker in the Irish drinking tune “Finnegan’s Wake”.
The Red Sox Win the Pennant!
Not really. Just a chance to play the Yankees for the pennant. But
there’s something different about them this year, and not just the
fact that they won. Loading the bases with one out in the bottom of
the ninth was pure BoSox - the morbid courting of imminent
collapse, the baseball version of the Titanic. And the baseball gods
teased the longest-suffering fans with a dribbler down the first base
line, a clear reference to Billy Buckner’s famous flub. But the ball
was handled and the ship managed to get to port. As an outsider
with no skin in this fight it was still baseball at its most entertaining.
I liked the shots of the crowd at Jillian’s Bar in Boston. The weight
of their father’s sin - the sale of Babe Ruth - seemed palpable as they
drink like fish with every errant Williamson pitch. A young lady
mouths “You suck! You suck!” at the glass teat; her parents must be
proud. The Sox pull the infield in with an out and the bases loaded.
Any lame ground ball will score both tying and winning run…But
that script would’ve been too easy. (Note: the Red Sox ended up
winning the pennant but losing in the World Series.)
Watched Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and was struck by how his
experience in the movie mirrors our lives. First Murray reacted to the
repeating days with the childish glee of lawbreaking: venial things like
inconsideration for others, eating everything off the dessert tray,
smoking cigarettes. Then he upped the ante in the way some
~ 15 ~
adolescents favor - he drank heavily, smashed his car into mailboxes,
tried to evade police and was arrested. The next day he took it a step
further by manipulating a stranger into having sex with him. It was
plainly unsatisfying because what he really wanted was the character
played by Andie MacDowell, and she would not be manipulated. He
slid into nihilism, killed himself several times, until finally he abjectly
admitted that it was he who was the problem. Because he could not
have who he wanted most (Andie), he no longer concerned himself
with her as a goal; he became altruistic out of desperation - the grain of
wheat fell to the ground and died. The byproduct of his altruism was
Andie’s falling in love with him.
On the Dilbertization of the Workplace
... thoughts during a meeting
Columnist Nancy Nall is convinced that the “next Big Novel —
OK, the next Big Comic Novel” — we all read and discuss will be
about work. “There’s just too much material. On the other hand,
it’s the sort of material that takes the wind out of satire’s sails,
because it transcends it in every way.”
We recently had a second pre-meeting before an upcoming
overview session. Lard upon lard. These meetings have a sort of
out-of-body experience to them; I could take them more seriously if
everyone else took them less seriously. We all know what has to be
done and could do it without the pageantry and project charters.
The meeting made me feel old or cynical or both.
I think to self, “she is too old to be so enthusiastic” but I try to
recall that her job depends on enthusiasm, on rallying the troops,
on making management see that she is valuable player. But it still
feels like farce. I feel like I’m watching a bad play. The meeting is
interrupted by someone leaping up. His phone is space-age cool,
like something George Jetson would have. A little blue light fired
on as he flipped it up. It looked like a toy.
~ 16 ~
It wouldn’t have felt this way years ago. I still recall those halcyon
days; I projected all the sophistication and importance of the world
upon my job. I showed my parents my desk and bragged, only half-
joking, that this is where all the important decisions are made.
The truth is that most work outside the home seems unutterably
small, with the exception of ministry work, the professions, and art.
Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Priest, prophet, poet. And yet all work
is meaningful, by definition, because work is done by humans and
humans are of inestimable value. A shoe-maker’s work is as valuable
to God as a CEOs. But I have trouble getting this construct into my
head though. I make the linkage intellectually but… Perhaps I’m
bastardizing the corporate experience – without ambition to
advance it becomes a farce. They can become exercised over
minutiae because they are hungry – they want to get to the next
level. Strip “the game” from the corporate rat race and you’re left
And yet these are surely just the musings of the terribly spoiled.
What about the Mexican migrant worker who sends every dime
back to Mexico so that his wife can join him? What about the
starving in Africa? They would love a farcical job.
I’ve been doing a little time travel the easy way - reading it. And
reading it the only way you can truly get it: from a book written in
1909 called “Old Miami”. Even though the verbiage is flowery,
romantic, and long-winded, the tone is surprisingly modern. There
is that edge of irony, even a hint of sarcasm.
Mr. Upham, a professor of history, was contentedly religious and
often referred to it: “Back he came to Miami, took up his books and
lessons and received his sheepskin, and went out into the world to
preach the peace of God that passeth understanding.”
The erosion of Miami’s religious identification was steady. The
~ 17 ~
early students (1820s) rose every day at 5 a.m. and went to church
for prayers twice a day. By the 1860s, church was required only
once a day. During the early 20th century, services were made
optional, and by the middle of the 20th not offered at all.
It’s interesting to read his gentle poking-fun of those that
preceded him, for the slippery slope hadn’t made itself manifest yet.
In 1909, the relaxation of standards seemed without cost. Here is a
1909 author, who by our standards was “upright” and “rigid”,
teasing the pre-Civil War rigidity. Oh, he says, “look at how
backward they were!”
He continues tongue-in-cheek: “Many things among this student body
were growing distressingly modern! And in the [student newspaper] for
December, 1867, there is a long and formal article decrying the atrocious
practice Miami men have of assembling about church doors after divine
service to stare at the college girls as they file out!”
But the strictness of that time was undeniable: “The path of
prescribed virtue was exceeding narrow…Faculty records bear
painful evidence to the truth of this philosophy. The records for
June and July, 1825, display a gruesome list of those ‘found in bed
after the rising hour’ (5 a.m.) There is a sameness about the
list….except for one chief offender, whose name comes before the
faculty for graver and graver charges - indolence, intoxication,
cards, throwing water on ladies entering chapel - and is finally
dismissed by the faculty. Thus little boys should always rise when
the bell rings.”
Here he is writing about 1860s baseball: “Baseball was then just
coming into its own. It was no child’s play either, in the original
package. Curved balls were undreamed of. There were no great
padded gloves, either.” Of course, the ‘great padded gloves’ of 1909
were NOTHING compared to padding of today’s gloves!
All in all an interesting look at how times have changed.
~ 18 ~
Tale of Cats
Sam and Alex, Alex and Sam. Different as siblings. Sam is the
great insect hunter. Sam knows insects; Sam kills insects. His
favorite pastime is lining up at the deck window, below the porch
light, jumping up and pinning moths or other flying insects against
the sliding glass door glass. Neither Sam nor Alex can catch real
prey like birds, squirrels or small dogs. Alex once brought an
obviously long-dead bird to my door; I shook my head and said,
“sorry, doesn’t count”. Sam never tried that trick, even though I
watched a bird slowly decompose right below my deck. They are
different in many ways – as simple as where they perch when I’m
watching a movie on TV. Sam will lay down on my lap, Alex
would rest on the arm rest. With bathroom habits, they were as
different as night and day. Alex would fastidiously avoid the litter
box when I was around it; if I had cause to be in his room (the
laundry room) he would stop what he was doing or avoid the scene
of the crime. Sam, however, will actually follow me to the laundry
room, and see if he can’t produce something for me.
Sam slumbers upon the bed in reposeful sleep, a paw here, a paw
there, scattered in unconscious assortment. One looks upon such
innocence and wonders if God shouldn’t have stopped there – so
blissfully unconscious of any fate but food and comfort. Sam was
de-clawed, and like the Civil War vet with a missing limb who still
pokes it at you like it was real, he has no fear of predators, of our
huge dog Obi, or of other cats. His only weapons are his hiss and
the soft boxing glove of his paw pads. Nevertheless he’s never
missed a moment of sleep over it. He reminds me of a modern day
Perseus, son of Zeus and slayer of Medusa; he rescues Andromeda
from a sea monster (Obi).
~ 19 ~
The Saga of Lazarus
Once upon a time in a place lush and verdant where worries gain no
hold lived a stray tomcat, redneck-thin and just shy of two years old. He
lived by his wits and little else in the hills of Hocking county but found a
sponsor in Steph one vacation weekend. For it was either adoption or be
subject to the whims of the property owner, who threatened to shoot him
in the head.
The country cat was tough and routinely drove Obi to insane barking.
But the little piker was afraid of nothing. What name to give him? Long
whiteboard sessions with Aaron and Steph led to fruitless results.
Winston, Seamus, Tuneces, Hobbes, Lazarus all came and went. His
behavior had noticeably cooled since being locked 24-7 in the family
homestead, so it was finally decided that Mr. Hyde would suit this Jekyll
puss. The name came hours before his Great Escape, precipitated by
finding a door slightly open at 2a.m., and he calmly strolled out with the
insouciance of …well, a cat. The timing for him was especially fortunate
since he was scheduled to go under the knife the next morning and
experience the pangs of becoming half a cat.
And so the days went by and the at-large Mr. Hyde made himself
scarcer than a dime in a frugal man’s palm. My sunny disposition was
contrasted with Steph’s increasingly despairing one. She put Mr. Hyde
on the internet’s “Most Wanted Pet” site and littered the neighborhood
with posters. She also visited the death camp, er, kitty shelter, to see if he
had turned up there. Given her obvious determination (and threat to
get another cat), I asked St. Anthony and she prayed to the Father,
feeling sheepish for it but also knowing that not a hair on our heads goes
The next afternoon, six days after Hyde’s disappearance, I received a
call at work from Steph. Her brother Joe had located our wayward cat!
He was delivering in the neighborhood for UPS and saw a loose tomcat
about a half-mile from our house, on the west side of Rome-Hilliard road.
At first thinking it pitiful that someone would leave a tomcat run loose,
he later went back and checked it against a photo Steph had emailed her
family and that was the positive ID he needed. The beleaguered puss is
back now, back from the seeming dead, and rechristened “Lazarus” for his
remarkable rebounding abilities. Obi, meanwhile, is sharpening his
~ 20 ~
Wandering amid the woods, I’d often thought that if things ever
get too much in this big old artificial world I’d go and find a remote
area just outside the Smoky Mountain Nat’l Park – in western
North Carolina or Virginia – and I’d hide out just like the Apaches
did from the white man so many years ago. I imagine hid in the
pre-Cambrian layer of a big old oak tree – enveloped by bark,
sustained by sap, hid among a byzantine tree with invisible roots
deep in the dark, thrilling earth.
Oh how I’ve always loved the forest, the precursor to the cathedral;
two places I meet God. How alike they are – in both I see His
handiwork and feel awe, for one is built for the glory of God and one
by the glory of God! How stupendous they are, and how wonderful
to feel our smallness, to remember the world doesn’t revolve around
us, to have the trees or stained glass soar over in arches hundreds of
feet above you. It’s no wonder that the phrase “communion with” is
invariably followed by the word “God” or “nature”, for never does
one say I want to “commune with food”. I slip into the silken dark
forest wood, the dank welcome smell of rotting leaves and brisk bark.
I hear the queer sound of wind rustling thru the leaves of a tall poplar,
sounding like a quiet ovation, as if the leaves were are applauding all
nature around them.
My inquisitiveness was first directed at the natural world. I
collected rocks, leaves, tree bark, plants – anything to take home a
bit of the wild. I longed to photosynthesize, to be filled with the
substance that made leaves so green, so awesomely green. The
light fairly danced off the trees, the sun’s lamplight and the
translucent green of leaves made complementary partners.
I remember being six years old and going outside and collecting
various leaves and grass and weeds and tree resins into a glass, and
then mashing it and adding water until it was a green concoction
that I longed to drink, for I longed to have the bursting vitality of
the natural world inside me; I longed to commune with it.
Instinctively, I longed for a spiritual drink.
~ 21 ~
There is nothing more prosaic than nostalgia, but can it possibly
have been so long since I was there at King Library at Miami, sitting
appalled at the graffiti scripted on the bathroom carol? Can it have
been that long ago, really? The fog of mysticism was murderously
dense that senior year, dense with the past and fed by meditative
time superfluously supplied. The very air in Oxford hung wet with
intrigue; the senior class knew it was about to go through labor – to
labor – and would be cast out like mewling youths into the working
world. We were people who knew their own death dates – we
walked around with heavy hearts and carrying burdensome bags of
nostalgia. We of deep tans would look longingly during Linear
Programming and sigh as if….as if we only had more time….Lads
and lasses passed phone numbers that would soon expire. We were
heavy-laden with so many memories of splendor; the head-rush of
so many dreams simultaneous with so many memories. We were
breathing beneath the water, that senior year, we were dead men
walking. The ivory tower was turning to dust. We were no longer
part of the majesty, the four-year pageant, the four-year spectacle of
potential and grace.
When I was growing up Dad rarely gave advice, which was a
wonderful thing, but when he did it took on Mount Sinai
importance. And one piece of advice was to never use drugs. I
believed him; drugs were bad. So you might have an inkling of the
dismay I felt when I read that another hero of mine, singer John
Denver, was accused of using drugs.
At the tender age of ten, I was forced to reconcile the advice my
father gave with the example my favorite singer gave. So I decided to
write Denver. I said that I’d read that he used hashish and marijuana,
and that perhaps the song “Rocky Mountain High” was not as
innocent as it seemed. It seemed tainted to me now, especially the
lyric “and pass the pipe around” in “Poems, Prayers and Promises”.
~ 22 ~
He wrote back about a year later. I still have the letter; it’s on
beautiful “John Denver stationary” with a little Rocky Mountain vista
on the background of the letterhead. He neither confirmed or denied
the reports of his drug-use but one sentence forever lingers in my mind:
“Don’t let your perceptions of me get in the way of the value the
music has for you.”
You can call it what you like, a cop-out, a dodge. But he was
saying “look to the music. Don’t look at me.” So perhaps this is a
lesson to us all - when bishops or priests or we ourselves disappoint
us don’t let the behavior affect our faith - look at God.
No Suburban Stereotype Here
Ran into ye olde Brit today. She’s a local used bookstore owner,
eccentric as the day is long. A Baptist who flew in the British lady
air force back in the 50s, she found herself (mis)planted here and
longs to save enough money to retire to Washington state. (She says
she took a hit in the stock market, like everybody else).
Her prose has a sort of “English as a second language” quality that
I find fascinating. It is a collection of non-sequitors, haikus and
Orwellian overtones that require diligent study to unearth the
meaning. She’s intelligent and well-read so it is all very puzzling.
Speaking with her does not result in this sort of confusion.
Truth be told, I most enjoy the large placards on her front lawn.
Today’s offering: “City Flooded my basement! Neither response or
call. Peace, Harmony and Productivity!” The other side disparaged
a local mayoral candidate, at least I think that was the intent.
She sounds crazy but she really isn’t. She is perfectly lucid in
normal conversation. I’ve not yet worked up to how to say, “where
did you learn to write?”
But vive le difference. She makes the lives of commuters a little
more interesting, and for that alone she deserves a shorter purgatory.
~ 23 ~
Memorial Day Weekend and the Campin’ is EZ
After four years of marriage, we’ve begun to fall into a sort of
rhythm such that we both intuit what will happen on a given
holiday. For us, Memorial Day is camping time.
I very much enjoy camping, but in small doses. So we went Friday
and Saturday (camping being a euphemism for “communal living in
a park-like setting”). It exists primarily so that you appreciate your
house when you get back. (Which reminds me of the classic
explanation of why jogging is such a joy - so that when you stop it
will feel so good).
Saturday afternoon we drive to “Grandma Faye’s” general store;
my brother-in-law humorously suggests Grandma is a middle-aged
man. I tell him “Fat Fred’s” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. We
pick up the essentials - beer, cigars and Milky Ways - and return for
more “nature”. Family groups stare unnervingly at us as we drive by
at the requisite 6 mph, their mouths slack and eyes glazed. Chris
notices - “why would they camp there, on display like that?”.
Sleeping with three or more adults in a tent or camper improves
the odds that one will snore. Routines are destroyed, which isn’t
such a bad thing – author Paul Theroux says that routines make
time go by too quickly. Camping exists to slow down time. To go
offline. And that isn’t a bad thing.
But a little is enough for me. And there was Mass to attend
Sunday morning so it was either get up early or drive the wee hours
Saturday night. Sleepless in southeast Ohio, I chose the latter and
bolted. My truck was parked more than a half-mile away and so I
enjoyed a rare midnight walk amid the Tiki lights, the good
brethren putting out their fires before bed, the sight of a jet-black
sky and mother lode of stars. In a couple of hours I traded it all for
the city and a mordantly-lit starless sky. But I did sleep well.
I reaped a traffic-less drive while listening to classical music
interspersed with WLW’s “Trucking Bozo” show. I listened to the
trucker’s beefs, a rare glimpse into another life. “I used to love doing
this, now it’s just a job,” they said. “Drivers don’t take care of each
~ 24 ~
other anymore. They only look out for numero uno.” The DJ takes
calls; the truckers are articulate in a country sort of way. They have
good ears for conversation, know how to deliver a punch line,
presumably from years of practice. Truckers are the last cowboys, out
there on the open range called interstates.
Our charismatic Dominican friar is leaving, going to become
pastor at a church in Kentucky. I knew he wouldn’t be with us
forever; he occasionally gave intimations of his mortality. He’s very
overweight, he once mentioned in a sermon he dreamed he had a
heart attack and died.
I grew to acquire a proprietary feeling towards him. He was always
there, available on Wednesday nights for a seeming endless stream
of bible studies or RICA classes. I didn’t go as often as I wanted, but
it was a comfort to know he was there. He was an inexhaustible
resource. He was imbued with a different world view. It was from
him I first learned the Enlightenment was ill-named.
Every hot August he’d dress in this eighth century Celtic warrior
uniform, holding a spear, playing dress-up at the annual Dublin fest.
He had an innocence about him and a love of all things Irish.
There was the strength of his convictions. The sense of honor,
humor and chivalry.
Every St. Patrick’s Day parade he’d march in that outfit while
bagpipes played, “Risin’ of the Moon” and the sight and sound
would send chills thru every beating heart. Past midnight, at the
Hibernian party, he’d sing some stirring Irish anthem. He had the
aura of celebrity about him.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw him. I was taking an Irish
language course at a local Catholic college. In the middle of class he
rushes in wearing the strange Dominican robes, a gigantic rosary at
his hip like a Colt on a gunslinger.
~ 25 ~
He sat forward in the tiny chair the classroom afforded and eagerly
responded in Irish to queries. I didn’t know then that in an earlier
life he’d graduated summa cum with a biology degree and later
became a lawyer. His vocation was late in coming, though he’s still
relatively young, maybe late 40s.
Ah, but a beacon can’t be hid, and he is a beacon. He gathered a
small coterie of followers, perhaps thirty or forty who went to every
lecture, every bible study, every “Theology on Tap”. Many went to
RCIA classes year after year just to hear the charismatic preacher and to
wait for his fascinating digressions (which came early and often). He
made you want to be better, and he felt a sense of responsibility for your
improvement such that you would let him down if you weren’t better.
~ 26 ~
Some bloke who’s able, lift up the table!
I’ve long liked the tune “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” from
My Fair Lady, partly because I can relate to the character “Doolittle”
and partly because as a connoisseur of oxymorons I relish the thought
of such an irresponsible blackguard singing a song about responsibility -
his responsibility to get to the church on time no matter what it takes.
It is everyone’s song if one sees “church” as heaven and recognizes that
we are all are more or less screw-ups. I like the way Doolittle depends
on the help of his friends (i.e. the saints). He desires what we do at the
Heavenly Banquet: to be “spruced up and looking in our prime”. “Drug
me or jail me / Stamp me and mail me” rings out with the attitude of a
willingness to pay any price for the Kingdom, followed even more
emphatically by, “Feather and tar me; Call out the army”. In other
words, don’t let my will get in the way of the appointment of Bliss.
I’m getting married in the morning!
Ding dong! The bells are gonna chime.
Pull out the stopper!
Let’s have a whopper!
But get me to the church on time!
I gotta be there in the mornin’
Spruced up and lookin’ in me prime.
Girls, come and kiss me;
Show how you’ll miss me.
But get me to the church on time!
If I am dancin’
Roll up the floor.
If I am whistlin’
Whewt me out the door!
For I’m gettin’ married in the mornin’
Ding dong! the bells are gonna chime...
Drug me or jail me,
Stamp me and mail me.
But get me to the church on time!
I gotta be there in the morning
Spruced up and lookin’ in me prime.
Some bloke who’s able
Lift up the table,
And get me to the church on time!
~ 27 ~
Thoughts on Going to the Annual
St. Patrick’s Day Party
St. Patrick’s Day it was, the 17th, and Dave and I sat at in the old
Aquinas Room at the downtown parish hall, eating fish while
sitting beneath a crucifix and a statue of St. Patrick himself. It felt
to me like the anteroom to heaven, there in the rich feast day
atmosphere with the anticipation of profligate Irish music.
Upstairs there was a satisfying conglomeration of interesting rooms
with a celebrity aspect to it: giants tread there holding black pints -
my Irish teacher Ron Crow, who has forgotten more than I’ve ever
learned, the charismatic Fr. Hayes, and so forth. Even the Columbus
mayor stopped by, glad-handing. But what made it was the ordinary
folk. They stood stock-still for adored Ireland patriot songs, red-
haired and green-eyed, as quaintly real a feeling as any gathering so
far from the homeland could be. They clapped and exploded for the
Irish tunes. Individual families yes, but somehow one family. There
was such an “otherness” about it; some completely foreign quality,
and yet paradoxically, familiar one. Even Dave remarked on how
rare this was – an atmosphere both truly festive and familial. I could
never put my finger quite upon its magic. I considered it partly
genetic. One felt incredibly part of things while at the same time
not jaded by it being too familiar.
In the gloam-lit thatched bar, amid the gentle taps that promised
visions, I could spy in the mid-distance the spires of my work place
- that place of dread, that Dickens grind-mill. For that instant I
could stand athwart handsome pints of Guinness and amber shots of
Jameson and look upon the malignant spread of the grey palace and
that juxtaposition was pure nectar.
~ 28 ~
On the Other Hand…Thoughts On
Going to My Wife’s Friend’s Party
After the age of, say, 30, parties have a vestigial quality to them,
much like male nipples.
Ancient peoples had an intuitive wisdom such that they
understood sitting around and struggling to find an interesting topic
of conversation was not the best use of their time. Instead, they
gathered and danced in circles around fires to the beat of a drum.
They were enjoying the high of the endorphins of the dance or
losing themselves in the beat of the drum. Gatherings were a vital
part of the bonding of their communities, but they weren’t just
sitting around sipping Diet Cokes and talking either.
The problem of parties past the age of 30 would hardly be worth
mentioning but for the generally acknowledged fact that time
accelerates as you get older. (Since I have experienced this myself, it
must be true). This is both good and bad - good during work days,
bad during vacations or weekends.
The “time inflation” coefficient might be assumed to be five
percent a year, which means that the 48-hour weekend you get
when you’re 20 years old is equivalent to a 30-hour weekend when
you’re 35. This is shown even more dramatically on vacation – a 3-
day vacation at 23 is equivalent to a 5-day vacation at 37 years of
age. Employers understand this, so they gradually bump up the
vacation time available to you. But make no mistake – although
you are gaining vacation time you are really barely staying even due
to time inflation.
I recall visiting Plymouth Rock one time, and they had actors
portraying Puritans aboard the Mayflower. And we could ask them
questions, and we asked how, on such a small ship, do they manage
to have marital relations. The actor answered, in character,
“privacy is a privilege, not a right”. I ought to recall that time is a
privilege - not a right – and is God’s, not mine.
~ 29 ~
Book ‘im, Dano!
“A person who has eaten overmuch is displeased rather than pleased at the
thought of food which recently gave him pleasure. Pleasures of the
intellectual order are less likely to cloy than those of the sentient order.
Spiritual pleasure is always enjoyed with a thirst for more.” – St. Thomas
Aquinas, “Summa Theologica”
I’m ready to dive into my books; the latest arrival is a sweet
firebird-red 1905 edition of Chesterton’s Heretics. The cover alone
breaks your heart with its beauty, the simplicity of that single word
in the typeface time forgot. Nearby is Paul Theroux’s novel and
next door is Belloc’s wondrous Path to Rome where all the reds in
the obscure European villages he traverses are of a remarkable
vintage. I note the little TAN insignia at the bottom of Belloc’s
neighbor “This is the Faith” and it warms, just the mere insignia. It
reminds me of TAN’s “Glories of Divine Grace” and how I treasure
it by not reading it. That is the fate of the books in the rarefied air
of the top .01%. They cannot be read because they would
disappoint, or even if they didn’t reading them would be consuming
them and I prefer they not be consumed. They are worth more in
their virginal state. Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts shares a similar
fate, to be read when no other Pearce books are available, or on my
deathbed, whichever comes first. A book can be too highly valued
to be read. I’ve managed to avoid this practice with respect to the
Bible, convinced by the truth of St. Jerome’s “ignorance of Scripture
is ignorance of Christ”.
Ultimately world politics and church politics and theological
debates all tend to exercise the same overused (left-brain) muscle.
There’s a need for beauty, but it shouldn’t be mere afterthought, as
if to “set the plate” for more politics. Politics is an accelerant. Beauty
is often a somnolent. Lush prose or poetry rests me. A strange word
or bucolic image will strike a chord of a memory past.
~ 30 ~
A Dental Visit
When I was young I had a bit of a martyr-complex. This has
carried over to adulthood in climactically favorable situations, such
as when I get cavities filled.
They stick me four times with Novocain and I want to make sure
they don’t under do it. Though I weigh 214 3/4, many mistake me
for a 180-pounder. I wear weight well, which is normally an
advantage but isn’t when a dentist is determining how much
Novocain to give you.
“Uh, is this based on weight?”
The dentist nods his head.
“Well, I weigh 214...just FYI...sometimes I don’t get enough
The assisting dental hygienist humors me. “Don’t worry, we’ll find
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Rim shot.
They wait for the gums to numb and I try to get them talking because
I don’t want them to start before the gums are properly numbed.
They begin and the doc does about ten seconds of work and
withdraws his Instrument of Terror and I say, “Well that wasn’t so
bad” and it got a surprisingly enthusiastic laugh from the dental
assistant. She’s obviously starved for entertainment, though
oblivious to my pain.
The operation proceeds apace and the doctor grinds away part of the
tooth. Apparently the dentist’s motto is “first, do harm”. I grip the chair
arms like they’re the sides of a Titanic lifeboat. Eventually he reaches a
nerve and I realize that “pain-free dentistry” is still a oxymoron.
I’m not especially good at having my mouth open at a 90-degree
angle for long periods of time, so the doctor admonishes me that if I
de-sanitize the situation he’ll have to start over. This is supremely
motivating. After this I’m the model patient, gag-reflex or not. The
~ 31 ~
fact that I’m suddenly able to take things up a notch and perform at
a higher level as a patient makes me think that in my spiritual life I
could do better given proper motivation. This bothers me, though
not at this particular moment.
The doc takes a break between cavity-fillings. It’s a good fifteen
minutes and I’ve relaxed too much, slumped in this supine position.
I’ve gotten downright comfortable and put my hands behind my
head. It’s practically over.
He comes back and begins anew and it’s like, hey-oh, this ain’t
ovah. More drillin’, more fillin’ and more 90-degree angles.
Whenever you anticipate a finish you only prolong it.
Eventually the doctor lets me go and I feel that special type of
euphoria that only occurs after a dental visit.
Every home with children ought have an escape hatch, a secret
place no one knows about, a rabbit hole, a nook that extends from
the rigid container-box of the contemporary. We had that magical
place, a scarce-used space under the staircase, plenty big for a small
boy. I stocked the small space with books and read and wrote by
candlelight, with all its potential of starting a fire. But oh what joy
to hear someone come down those stairs and know of your
hiddenness and that you are doing something you shouldn’t.
That nook exists for me today but it’s called ‘history’. And into
history I sink, reading a biography of Jefferson Davis, watching him
sweat and toil away the summer of 1851. I know the outcome. It’s
as if Jefferson Davis is descending the staircase of Davis Bend manor
and I’m underneath listening. Reading history is to feel in control,
to watch the actors and feel omniscient and invisible. His earthly
time is done, his decisions resting in the column of finality.
So Jefferson Davis travels the breadth, length, height and depth
of the state of Mississippi during the summer of 1851, to the point of
exhaustion, to an end of weeks of bed rest and ocular trouble so
~ 32 ~
severe as to almost lose sight in one eye. He’d spent the summer
evangelizing his party’s cause, trying to allay Mississippian’s
suspicion that his party was a band of disunionists. He was against
the Compromise of 1850 and had some explaining to do. Less than
a decade later his constituents would demand secession.
The interest is that Davis is so unrelievedly foreign. Foreign in time,
foreign in geography, foreign in convictions, foreign even in looks -
with bones for cheeks and a jaw so sharp you could cut with it.
Mike Corkins, Pitcher
Baseball cards were the Ur-books for me. They were the breasts at
which I nursed, portable and potable, able to comfort the rational
side with sublime columns of agate statistics and nourish the artistic
side with photographs that were minor works of art. There is my ’72
Topps Frank Robinson, a moment frozen in time, his swing arrested,
his blue spring training jacket billowing in the wind. How could
you feel homesick after looking at smiling Frank?
I say homesick because I went to Camp Campbell Guard for a
week at the age of 8, the first time I’d ever been away from home.
Think Midwestern equivalent of a British boarding school. I toted
that black box of baseball cards - in the shape of a pirate’s chest – to
camp and examined them whenever we were released to our bunks.
What was it that made knowledge, even trivial knowledge such as
Davey Johnson’s batting average in ’73, so gratifying? Why did the
long list of type in the Sunday newspaper, that long column titled
MAJOR LEAGUE AVERAGES send a shiver of delight from 1972
to around 1983? How many a Sunday was spent perusing the list,
memorizing the list and delighting in the news that Manny Mota
was hitting a purplish .362?
My first card was collected in 1970. I recall the very first pack,
bought at United Dairy Farmers, purchased for my friend and me by
his dad. His dad unlocked the secrets of the flip side of the card -
what a batting average was, how it could be calculated from hits
~ 33 ~
and at bats; he showed us the columns from which the average
could be derived and how to calculate it. We were only seven years
old, precocious but not ready for long division.
We dismissed him as he droned on about the division, assuring
him we got it. Giddily we compared all the averages to see who was
best. It was one of mine – Mike Corkins from the San Diego Padres.
He hit something like .472! My friend was jealous. I’m not sure who
found out first, but we’ll remember to our dying day the shock of
finding out that Mike Corkins wasn’t the best. He was the worst.
He was a pitcher, and that last column wasn’t his batting average
but his E.R.A., and it was 4.72, not .472 (we learned decimals
points mattered). And unlike batting average, the lower the ERA
Perversely, that card became one of our most esteemed. Due to
sentimental value, Corkins would demand an intra-trade value far
higher than his numbers would indicate. Years later we had an
English teacher who collected baseball cards and who looked
exactly like Mike Corkins. We brought and showed him “his” card
and to this day the card has a double-sentiment attached –
reminding us of a favorite English teacher and our great math error.
9/11/01 – (written 9/28/01)
The local newspaper gave us an order. The Dispatch said
everyone should write about what September 11th was like for us, if
only for our grandchildren’s sake…so...
The beautiful crystal-clear day began for the Actuarial department with
a meeting at the Auditorium. I always looked forward to meetings there,
with the plush comfortable chairs and the sweet anonymity a large venue
affords. It was scheduled from 9:30-11:30 and I’d planned to get in some
reading. The online version of the New York Times has links to the first
chapters of literally thousands of books, and I had printed off the first
chapter of Evan Thomas’s bio of Robert F Kennedy. I remember the
dullness of the meeting caused even my boss to appear to nod off, so I
~ 34 ~
became engrossed in RFK’s last moments. I was surprised to learn that a
fundamentalist Arab was responsible for his death.
Soon after I finished the last page, the Q&A session began. I was
sitting in the back row and noticed that actuary Matt Easley had
left the auditorium earlier and now returned. That seemed a bit
odd, since no one ever gets up to use the restroom during these
meetings (usually because it would disturb their sleep). But he was
back and seemed a bit jumpy. Matt Easley walked down to the
front of the stage, very odd behavior indeed, and appeared to hand
Phil a piece of paper and whispered something in his ear. Phil, at
around 10:30, gave him the microphone and said, “Tell them.”
Matt said this is going to sound like something out of a Tom Clancy
novel, but two planes have crashed into the World T rade Center and
another one into the Pentagon. Suddenly there was the image of the
World Trade Centers burning on the wide-screen behind the stage, as if we
wouldn’t have believed him had he not arranged for it to be shown. It
looked as surreal as a Godzilla movie. Phil promptly ended the meeting.
Back at our desks we hit for the internet, but it was impossibly slow.
Everyone in the country was hitting those servers. Yahoo.com, MSN.com,
DrudgeReport.com, nytimes.com - all no good. Finally we got into
cnn.com. Thirsting for news, I found my walkman and listened to NPR.
Steph, on a business trip in Florida, called and we tried to figure out how
she could get home given that all U.S. air travel was halted, apparently for
awhile. She ended up renting a car and drove home. I called Mom.
The feeling in those first moments was most of all pure surprise -
surprise that those “permanent” buildings could fall so completely.
Surprise at the catastrophic loss of life - we knew almost instantly
from news reports that thousands were probably dead. I was also
surprised at the seriousness and ingenuity of the terrorists. I’d
always thought of them as fanatical annoyances, a cost of modern
life in that every five years or so they would blow something up and
cost the lives of soldiers or occasionally civilians. But this was so
breathtakingly over-the-top. This went beyond the normal risk of
life and was an obvious act of war. They’d awakened a sleeping
giant. This was obviously the kind of crime you could never forget.
We would root out every person responsible if it took 50 years.
~ 35 ~
Travel – (April ’00)
I ache to travel. Real travel, not beach slumming. I ache to
throw myself into some other world. There is little more delicious
to me than the role of unobserved observer, to be able to
surreptitiously delve into the way another culture handles the
I ache to drive a rental through the Cajun country of southern
Louisiana, up and down, east and west, where they begin drinking
at 9am and begin dancing at noon.
I ache to re-visit Ireland, and travel by bike mile upon precious
mile, small town after small town, collecting and comparing them. I
long to see old, laconic farmers in their fields and thatch-roofed
houses and indigenous pubs. I long to smell the earth, the sky. I
long to gaze upon the green-greens stretching out in that
idiosyncratic tree-less landscape.
I long to visit Arches National Park and get lost amid the dust-red
roads and weird wind-shaped monuments. I long to ride my bike
until the sweat and red dust commingle and I am no longer an
outsider but an Indian, a native.
I long to visit Iran, the secret society where I am hated just because
I’m an American, where the women where veils and the men beards.
I long to explore it so I will be able to differentiate what in life is
cultural and what is our shared humanity - I long to find the border
where culture and politics and religion and race end and our simple
basic universal humanness begins, and there is no greater opposite to
America than Iran. I long to see Damascus, Syria and touch
centuries-old Persian carpets in the Muslim holy places. I long to visit
Middle Eastern bazaars and wander the maze-y streets.
I long to eat a big, fat pizza on the terrace of a Zoder Motor Inn
room at Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where a mountain stream, as
pristine as creation, gurgles with godlike endlessness.
I ache to see new things so I can see the old anew. I ache to re-
open these uncurious dead eyes, and give them a small resurrection.
~ 36 ~
Notions of God
It seems to me that as notions of God become more specific and
more loving, they become harder to believe but more consoling. It
would seem to be an act of faith to believe that all this is an
accident. To believe that a billion-billion stars exist and that we
naturally perceive the beauty in those stars and the trees and seas
purely by evolutionary means is hard to believe. To believe that the
level of complexity in the earth started with an amoeba takes, well,
an act of faith. Thus it is a miracle that God created the world, but
it would also be a miracle if it happened by accident - either way is a
leap. But to believe in a loving God is different from believing in a
creating God, and it seems to me that believing in the Jewish
notion of God is easier than believing in divinity of Jesus because it
is harder to believe that God would take human form. An
omnipotent God is more in line with our expectations. God went
from being nameless (“I am who am”) to taking human form to
taking the form of bread, each requiring a greater seeming humility
of God and each requiring greater faith on our part but offering the
consolation of greater closeness.
~ 37 ~
…(in chronological order)
Cross Slab at Riasc
Excerpts from Ireland (1996) trip log:
No matter how hard I concentrated, I couldn’t make out their
muddled, accented speech. They may as well been speaking Gaelic.
They sounded like a cross between Archie Bunker and an
auctioneer. I wanted to eavesdrop, but could only observe at this,
our first stop, a really small Irish pub in the middle of nowhere.
The trip was like that, strange and familiar at the same time. The
sheep we saw on the roads and in the pastures everyday began to
symbolize something to me - a kind of freedom. They looked
straight out of Heidi, no fences holding them in. Incredible vistas
appeared and I followed the sheep and their droppings to still more
hidden places, so far from computers and telephones. The baby
lambs looked comical, with black stovepipe legs abutting snow
white fleeces. I always thought of sheep as friendly and harmless,
but one stared at me with a sort of intensity that didn’t seem mere
curiosity. Unlike the others, his horns weren’t curled, but stood
~ 38 ~
straight up and his eyes moved with me, like plane radar. They
grazed and went where they would, on land too rocky to till.
Perhaps there’s a lesson there, in the freedom of poverty.
The following day we headed towards the great Dingle peninsula.
We drove through Ballyferrigam, a throw-back town where the
residents speak only Irish. It’s one of the few Gaeltacht areas left,
and only 55,000 now speak Irish as their main language compared
to 3.9 million who speak primarily English. I was smitten by the
area and ‘hired’ (or rented) a bike and rode back in the direction of
that small town Ballyferrigam. The sun was very warm (for Ireland)
and the road was framed by hedges with red flowers growing five to
six feet high. I went off the road and followed a dirt path towards
an ancient ruin. It was a falling down stone building and a farmer
stood nearby. I said “Dia Duit” (hello in Irish, literally meaning
‘God to you’). He nodded. A bit farther down the road I again
turned off, and by pure luck happened upon a Christian burial
ground from 600 A.D, just 200 years after the arrival of Christianity
in Ireland. I took a picture of what I later learned was the “Cross
Slab at Riasc”.
The desolate part of the trip continued as we crossed the Burren -
a moonscape-like area with more rocks than anything else. Mark
and I walked in the cold while the others waited on the bus, and
we were treated to a 4500 BC ruin - le’ ruin of all ruins! It was
weird to think that this simple ‘structure’ - a huge slab of sheet rock
held up by two supporting sheets of rock - had survived seven
millennia. I walked under it, figuring it wouldn’t fall down during
my five minutes. How they managed to get it there is, of course, a
big question. It puts things in perspective when you see the
handiwork of people thousands of years before Christ. The ‘later’
Celts, the people who came to the island about 1500-2500 years
ago, made up stories about this structure & had myths about it.
Every generation came along and attached their own significance to
this simple monument.
It was far too short a time spent in pleasant Ennis, a picturesque
town with a big statue of the Irish liberator, Daniel O’Connell, in
the town square. The pub was enjoyable, with the now familiar
~ 39 ~
cast of characters, the occasional tourist amidst the haberdashery
Irish and the old man with the gargoyle face. There always seemed
to be a guy with a misshapen face - an exquisite example of British
or Irish inbreeding - or simply the natural look of true United
Kingdom’rs? I wish I had a picture, but alas could only look on afar
at the bulbous noses, & chinless men. I also watched with
fascination at the couples that would come in. A man and a
woman, with quite plain, expressionless faces, came in and sat
down, side-by-side, and grimly drank their drinks (he usually
Guinness, she whiskey). They sat without talking and drink. I
thought it romantic. American Gothic in an Irish pub. There
could’ve been the caption “what if Stoics drank?”.
The next day we headed for the famed Cliffs of Moher. I tummy-
walked up to the very brink, watching the ocean crash and my
stomach turn. Just a slightly different center of gravity and I would
fall, or at best have to grab hold of the Cliff like Wile E. Coyote.
Our nightly pub ritual this time included a small, very cramped
one with no music in the middling town of Westport. We shoe-
horned into a booth, no easy. I ordered drinks and came back to
find my leg room gone - an old gentleman in his 60’s with a brown,
tweed jacket sat where there was no chair just minutes before. The
proximity was such and our group so quiet that I think he felt it
incumbent upon himself to entertain us, given that we were so
obviously foreigners. He asked where we were from, where we were
going, and what brought us here. I explained that we were looking
for an Irish pub that had sing-along Irish music, but none seemed to
be found. He asked what kind of songs and I said ‘Black Velvet
Band’ and ‘Four Green Fields’, etc. To my astonishment and
embarrassment he began singing in an extremely loud but
competent voice ‘Black Velvet Band’. All heads turned in the
crowded bar, the young locals bemused. Our brown-coated singer
expected us to sing along, and we had a lame half-hearted attempt
at the refrain, so half-hearted that he cut out the refrain the next
time. He continued unabated, singing ‘Moonshiner’ and ‘Whiskey
in the Jar’. If I was looking for the uninhibited Irish character, I’d
found it and was glad, though would’ve preferred to be more
spectator and less participant. He sang a song with some humorous
~ 40 ~
made-up verses to it, and then played a song on his nose.
The next day I trod off on my own, exploring the city of Dublin. I
made a pilgrimage to the Molly Malone statue (heroine in the song
“in Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty crying cockles and
mussels sweet Molly Malone”). The lascivious statue, with her
bronzed protruding pectorals covered by half cuffs of bronze fabric,
has a quality that Mona had in her Lisian smile - meaning all things
to all people. To some, Molly is a motherly figure that represents
Ireland as earth mother, a symbol of Ireland par feminine that goes
back centuries. To others it represents the young and vibrant spirit
of a city that is infused with music and poetry. To teenage guys, it’s
hey check out the babe statue. Molly perpetually struts aside her
cart of cockles and mussels, looking for all the world like a naive
peasant girl amidst the busiest square in the busiest city in Ireland,
never closing her eyes to the wide spectrum of indecencies, the
public urinations on her, the drunks retching their huddled masses
upon her... But Molly retains the wide eyed innocence that is so
easy to retain when you’re made of brass, but so difficult if of flesh.
Utica, Ohio – June 1998
It was Sunday, and I hadn’t worked out all weekend. The weather
was blistering hot, good late June weather but not great for running
any distance, so now I needed to run and ride the bike but the
“same ol’, same old” wouldn’t cut it. On the spur of the moment, I
decided to bike-travel and see something here on the extreme
eastern edge of Franklin County since I would soon be moving to
the extreme western edge. So I loaded up the truck and headed
east... I headed for the first small town that was completely self-
sufficient of the corrupting influence of the Columbus metropolis,
and that small town turned out to be Utica, about 25 miles away.
Almost immediately I realized this trip for what it was - a mistake -
an exercise in self-abuse. I couldn’t think of why I wanted to do
this, and the long miles getting there only reminded me to try to
think of a reason.
~ 41 ~
First a short history: Utica is the English bastardization of the In-
dian word, “Ueweeeteeeechsupercalifragilisticbacteriumecolieeeeeeeech-
supercalifragilisticbacteriumecolica”. Needless to say, the early settlers
found themselves getting hungry between the time they started to
say the name of the town and the time they stopped, so they short-
ened it. I finally arrived there (after nearly hitting a dog who de-
cided the middle of highway 62 was a good place to stand motion-
less), and one of the first signs I saw was designed for me - a tourist!
It said, “ye old Mill - 1 mile”, and a new handsome brown sign it
was. This might be a good thing, I thought, since this meant the
town thought of itself as an actual destination. I drove to ‘ye old
mill’ and thought maybe it wasn’t such a good thing, for it was
packed. Yep ye old mill, a museum of mill history, was crowded.
Surely if there were anything better in town, it would’ve drawn
people away from a mill museum. A confirming blow was the next
sign, which proudly proclaimed Utica “the handmade window glass
maker capitol, 1903-1929”. I couldn’t imagine anything less inter-
esting if I’d made it up myself. But at least Utica has a history, some-
thing my little area seems to lack. I’ve often wished to know every-
one who has ever walked in the little postage-stamp area of land I
call my own. I imagine Indians, some of different tribes, then in the
1800’s white explorers or surveyors, probably from Virginia or Penn-
sylvania, then maybe some runaway slaves since there was an “Un-
derground Railroad” house just up the street. By the 1960’s and 70’s
you might have kids hiking far from their homes; in the 1980’s kids
from neighboring houses passing through.
So I began my time in downtown Utica, at an old Presbyterian
church since I didn’t think I’d get towed from a church. I began
jogging down the main street, with quaint shops and such, some a
bit aged and decrepit. Small towns can seem a bit scary, since
everybody knows everybody and you feel like a total stranger. You
wonder what they know and you don’t, like you don’t go by ol’
man Krazy’s junkyard dog, who’ll tear you limb from limb. But I
pressed on in the surreal heat, and had to start walking after only
five minutes. I jogged slowly back to the truck and got out the bike.
I was going to see this one-horse town, and it wouldn’t take long
on bike. I feared my ride would be over nearly as soon as it begun. I
~ 42 ~
began peddling up and down a rolling hill, until I came across a dog
that was standing at attention, completely unmoving, eyes
unblinking. It looked quite possibly sick, a sort of ghost dog, so
unmoving it was. I finally decided it must be a statue. I marveled at
how lifelike it was - these folks really went to a lot of trouble to
protect their property by putting out a fake dog. Then I noticed a
doghouse - wow, they really did go to a lot of trouble. I circled back
after coming to a dead end, and noticed the dog now had laid down
and had his face on his paws. Wow! They apparently had a
mechanical dog that could lower his head. I hurried on by as quietly
as possible so as not to provoke a mechanical bark. I continued on
through town, noting an old, scary looking gray house that had six
gables and was falling down. No better candidate good be found for
a haunted house. I wanted to go up and look in the windows but
thought it not prudent, since there was an old gray car (probably
haunted too) in the driveway. Finally I started humming a song
about Utica, with the lyrics, “Uuuuu-ti-ca, U-tiiii-ca, Uuuuuu-ti-ca,
Ut-iiii-ca.” That’s when I realized I should get out of the heat and
that it was probably time to leave Utica. On the long drive home
though, I came up with some lyrics in remembrance of my fifty
minutes in this town: “Utica, / Brave Utica, / your candle burned out
long ago / but your legend never did. / Born a farming town, / you were
just a kid / facing the industrial revolution was hard / but you turned the
century / with grace and courage /with your mills and your glassmakers.”
And to the tune of “God Bless America”:
From the hill top
To the statue dog
To the mill museum
& melting asphalt
God Bless ol’ Utica
I’ll remember her all the way home…
God Bless fair Utica
Somebody else’s home sweet home.
~ 43 ~
New York Stories – from July 1998 trip
A different world could scarcely be imagined than the one I just
left a few hours ago. New York feels so far removed from 4509
Bimini Dr and all the quotidian details of suburbia. My head is
swimming in details, but regrettably most of them trivial. For
instance, today at the Natural History Museum on the Upper West
Side, I saw what the “Bird of Paradise” looks like and now I can
visualize what Little Jimmy Dickens really meant in the old country
song “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose!”
As I said, lots of insignificant details. Natural History Museums
kill me anyway. You pay good money to get into a museum that has
a bunch of stuffed animals in a fake environment. It’s like a zoo,
only not real, and I wouldn’t go out of my way to see a zoo.
Display case after display case showed us what the wombat or blue
marlin looks like, made up of some polyester compound or rubber
and having marbles for eyes.
But, natural history museum aside, I do miss New York already. It
has a way of growing on you, once you get past the steaming vents
of suspicious air, and once you get used to sidewalks with liquid
substances of unknown heritage on them. Another trivial thing
remembered is how the whole trip long, there were four bladders
with remarkable a-synchronicity. I know now that the saying “he
travels fastest who travels alone” actually refers to the smaller
number of bathroom breaks necessary.
On 36th and Park Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan, I walked
into the great J.P Morgan library. I walked into a huge foyer and
through the open east door I could see a literal wall of 17th and 18th
century books, the kind you see on the opening of Masterpiece
Theatre. It’s like if you were walking by a partially obscured
window in your home and you saw part of the ocean out of it. J.P .
was a true bibliophile, a great lover and collector of books, and he
had the added fortune of having a fortune. So he was able to abide
his pleasure in the grandest way. He owned not one but three
copies of the famous Gutenberg Bible, from the first movable
printing press, way back in the 15th century. I wondered if he had
~ 44 ~
a hard time reconciling great wealth with his faith - he had over a
hundred bibles and many more religious works. John D. Rockefeller
felt the guilt of having great wealth, and gave away so much of it
partly as a result. But at this point I badly wanted to take a picture.
Obviously. I saw that the guard was bored and studying his
homework. I was the only other person in the room, and it was so
quiet in there that the click of a camera would make the sound of a
nuclear warhead. I asked if I could take a flash picture and he
simply laughed. I asked about a non-flash (since there was some
available natural light) and he didn’t answer. So I took out my
camera, set it to non-flash and aimed it and he about had apoplexy.
“Sir, no pictures at all!”. I told him he hadn’t made that clear.
Until then. I put the camera back, feeling like some kind of
terrorist. I could see the headlines in the New York Post the next
day, “Tourist Shot Dead after using camera in J.P Morgan Study”
and the sub-header, “authorities assert shooting was justified”.
~ 45 ~
Key West, Fla - March 2000
In Key West everything is labeled “Southernmost”, like
“Southernnmost Laundry”, “Southernmost Dead End” and
“Southernmost Asbestos Factory”. The south end of Key West is so
close to Cuba you could spit and hit it.
Key West looks a lot like Ft. Myers, Fl which looks a lot like
Sanibel, Fl which looks a lot like Hilton Head, SC. I have difficulty
distinguishing between the flora and fauna and beaches because
they are all warm and sunny with sugar sand beaches and green
palms. We walked by the famous bar Sloppy Joes followed by a
quick tour of a tacky old bar papered with thousands of business
cards and brassieres, two different kinds of advertising indeed.
Jimmy Buffet sings a song about a woman going crazy on Caroline
Street. Mark and Sandy wanted a picture re-creating this, so Sandy
‘went crazy’ in front of the Caroline Street sign but Mark was
having camera difficulties and so Sandy had to re-create craziness
several times, each time a bit less crazy, until she was just smiling
with her arms spread, proving that it’s hard to be crazy on cue.
We spent the sundown on Mallory Square where the best
entertainment was the sunset but there were also interesting “people” like
a tight-rope walking dog named Mo, and his shaggy owner. We spent the
night hours at a karaoke bar called “Two Friends”. Karaoke is the
Japanese word meaning “those missing the embarrassment gene”, and
rarely has one seen so many diverse humans. The emcee for the evening
was friendly and wore his poker face even during the worse song
fractures. Many of the singers didn’t let the notes get in the way, but that
can be refreshing too. That karaoke can be a narcotic was news to me;
the older husband and wife team who sang “I’ve Got You Babe” in a
variety of keys apparently spend vacations karaoke-ing every night.
Tuesday was our first full day at the Ft. Myers beach and the
surprisingly pleasant Tropical Inn and that night we found a beach bar
& grill with cheaper and lower quality food. Sandy dragged a chair over
to use as a foot rest in order to get more comfortable, but then promptly
passed out, which was way too comfortable for our tastes. Steph noticed
first, and alerted Mark to help her. Mark and I went over to her and she
~ 46 ~
took on the pall of death, and not at the sight of us either. Her body
became rigid and seemed to mimic the beginning of a seizure. It all got
very scary, very quick. Steph immediately ran to tell the bartender to
call 911 but he bolted out the door to get the cops. Mark and I
managed to extricate her from her chairs and lay her down flat. The
drunks and near drunks flocked to her rescue with comments like, “Is
she dead?”, “How much did she have to drink?”, and our favorite, “is
she pregnant?”. Fortunately Sandy was okay; it turned out that she is
susceptible to low blood sugar and needs to eat at regular intervals.
Friday’s last event before the decline and fall of our vacation was
parasailing. Parasailing involves getting into a harness and getting tied
to the end of a very long rope while a boat pulls you at fast speeds.
You have a parachute behind you, so you are lifted up a hundred or
more feet in the sky. Seconds before we were to “fly”, I had to sign a
distasteful waiver saying I would accept broken bones, paralysis and
possible death without holding them liable. Then the instructor tells
us that the cracking sound we would hear is normal and that it is not
the rope breaking. Fortunately there was little time to brood about
paralysis because we were quickly air-lifted into the sky and rode what
felt like an ocean Ferris wheel. I rarely thought about the cracking
rope, though the sound was unnerving. It was exhilarating and I
managed to peel my hands from their death-grip on the bar above me
in order to snap some pictures. The ride was over very quickly, but for
a moment or two we had a hot air balloonist’s view. The water under
us was a crinkly green, like a dull green aluminum foil.
Oh vacation - to borrow the old phrase - it’s the triumph of hope
over experience; it’s the feeling that things will be different now,
though experience proves that after two days things look the same. My
theory of travel is that eventually everywhere will be the same because
of television, for that it is the great homogenizing force. I enjoyed the
strict fast on this vacation from news, news shows, politics and even
movies. I didn’t miss ‘em. Nature is different, and the ocean is special. I
love the messiness of the sand and the sloppy, irregularity of the waves -
the ocean appears spontaneous and anti-machine, with odd things
strewn randomly in it like fish and shells and sandpipers.
~ 47 ~
Richmond, Va - July 2000
But there is no awe when I take the first exit of the ex-
Confederate capital of Richmond and see a Shoney’s, a Friday’s, a
Honda, a Subway and a Motel 8. If I took a picture of the street at
the first exit of the ex-Confederate capital of Richmond I would
have no idea if I was in Dayton or Louisville or Cincinnati or …
Places are all starting to look the same, which certainly decreases
the value of vacation’s currency. Still I was on vacation, and if the
mass of men live lives of quiet desperation (and the rest live lives of
loud desperation) then I was on furlough. On the way I must’ve
seen at least 12 ‘deer crossing’ signs. The signs do nothing but make
me tense up a bit, which is exactly what you don’t want to do.
Drunk drivers are notorious for surviving wrecks because they are
loose enough to roll with it. The deer signs seem a bit silly also
because most of the time there is no time to react. It’s like having
earthquake signs on highways near the San Andreas Fault - useful as
a reminder to pray.
The first pungent moment of the vacation came in the hotel
lobby, walking to room 2105. My Pavlovian response was one of
euphoria, my scent glands deeply connected to past experiences of
vacation joy. You can’t disconnect the thrill of a vacation from the
thrill of renting your own piece of real estate. And there’s that
famous hotel scent, the same cleanish smell that permeates every
hotel from Boston to L.A., is like a sharp shot of adrenalin. There is
nothing quite like that initial foray into the room - that wide
expanse of finely made bed, the initial succor of the TV remote and
the obliviousness you feel in making a mess. And so as I eat King
Dongs and drink a beer, I flip the wrappers and can from the bed in
the general area of a garbage can and feel the rush of knowing I will
not be bending over and picking it up. It’s the only time in your
adult life when you can throw trash guilt-free.
The first morning in Richmond I headed to the Museum of the
Confederacy and strolled through the war exhibits. Relics, like
Stonewall Jackson’s simple cap, remind one of the realness of
historical figures. Reading his biography, and of a time so completely
different from our own, makes him seem kind of unreal, like some
~ 48 ~
ancient Greek warrior or even some extraterrestrial visitor. But to
see the cap that he doffed to the cheers of his adulatory troops has a
tangible-ness that connects. Obviously we rely quite heavily on
historic figures like the apostles, so it is not surprising we would
desire relics there too, like the Shroud of Turin (assuming it is real),
and the True Cross splinters and the many saint relics. I noticed in
the displays that the Southern general uniforms had ornate Celtic-
like designs on them while the Union had straight bars. That simple
detail is a nice metaphor for the perceived difference in their
societies - the south was more fond of ornament, more Celtic and
leisurely (due in part, of course, to slave labor), while the North was
more materialistic, linear, efficient and straight-to-the-point. The
South had a Celtic background since most of the plantation owners
were either Irish or Scotch-Irish (no wonder Margaret Mitchell set
O’Hara as the family in GWTW). After an hour or so it was time
for the next tour of the adjacent White House of the Confederacy,
which is where Jefferson Davis and his family lived during the war.
This was really out of Gone With the Wind, so over-the-top and
opulent that one expected old Jeff Davis to walk through those
doors again. The gaudy parlor where guests were entertained had
more statues and busts per square inch than could be counted. Deep
burgundy draperies hung everywhere like Spanish moss, and the
wallpaper was a circular-patterned red. Huge gold mirrors attempted
(vainly) to reflect light and thus lighten the heavy room.
~ 49 ~
Mexico City - Sept. 2000
Down where peyote dreams meet prickly pear catci…where
pollution hovers like a sour stomach over the body of Mexico
City…where loud discotheque music screams from a club at 7 in the
morning….where a mustached, cool-visage’d bus driver shares a
smoke with a paid-off policeman…where child beggars hold their
hands out and plaintively tilt their heads to the side when asking
for a peso….where rich reds and bright yellows emanate from
indigenous plants…where flower-laden groups walk the long
corridor to the Gaudalupe area….where old women with leather
faces walk the length of a football field on their knees to Our Lady’s
image. ..where bus drivers make the sign of the cross when passing a
church…. where under a strong Mexican sun stream children in
dark blue school uniforms through dire neighborhoods of corrugated
shacks…where amid these shacks lay a simple white stone church
of Juan Diego’s uncle…...all this is Mexico.
The adrenalin began flowing at the Mexican airport. We were
deep in the heart of the country, in a state capital drenched in the
colors of their flag - red, green and white. This was no silly border
excursion, no weak Cancun trip (i.e. ‘Florida warmed over and
served with a Spanish accent’). This was the real thing, the nerve
center of Mexico where the main economy isn’t tourism. The
natives here are a mix of Spanish and Indian and some are more
one than the other. We met our avuncular host, Jacob, at the
airport. He was loquacious and proud of his country, shown by his
frequent disclaimers that most Mexicans are not “banditos” and by
his intense interest in pre-modern Mexican culture. Jacob reminded
me a bit of Red’s broadcaster Marty Brennaman - short of stature
with perfectly coiffed hair but never at a loss for words.
Unlike Cortes, who came to Mexico City in the early 16th
century by long and tortuous route, we arrived by plane (while
complaining, of course, on how long it took). You could see the
dense city of 25 million souls hemmed in by the mountains, that
appear from on high like a big green skirt. Our foray into the foreign
met us with foreign signs like “Que y Sabarro” and swarms of green
VW bug taxis. Dense canyons of buildings covered the land till the
~ 50 ~
reach of the mountains, at which point shacks and shanties sidled
halfway up the hills, their inhabitant’s laundry hanging out on
rooftops suggesting a kind of exhibitionism or vulnerability.
We arrived and saw an old priest hearing a confession out in the
open as if it were a common thing. I saw paintings of Jesus and Mary
that exuded an inexpressible warmth. There was electricity in these
beginnings, these firsts: like the first church, the first sight of the
city, the first arrival to the hotel, the first meal. The hotel, Krystal
Zona Rosa, was very comfortable. The rooms had views and reports
of Montezuma’s Revenge were greatly exaggerated. It turned out I
could not only eat the ice but drink the water, at least in this hotel.
We visited the Shrine at Los Remedios (“the Remedy”) on
Saturday just one day after the feast day (Sept. 1st) when 10,000
pilgrims come here for a celebration of Masses and devotionals and
food and fireworks and high-wire acts. There was a little courtyard
with various rooms containing religious articles and walls papered
with petitions, prayers and pictures, all home-made. I’ll not soon
forget walking into that courtyard of glass-eyed Mexicans, staring
impassively at us like we were visitors from Neptune. It was like a
movie set and we were the “Three Amigos” wandering where we
didn’t belong, with our gaudy white skin, tennis shoes and money-
laden wallets. I wanted to interact with the Mexicans and get a
better sense of who they were, and what made some of them so
pious. And what was it like to live without television and money? I
bought a rosary at the shrine and asked the local padre to bless it.
He looked like a tall Sancho Pancho and wore a white Dominican-
like robe. He took a pine bough and dipped it in holy water and
proceeded to brusquely bless the rosary and then me. Earlier, at Mass
at Los Remedios I witnessed Mexicans with tears in their eyes. They
appreciated the faith. It was by their example and the knowledge
that soon I would be seeing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe
that made me ask impulsively if the padre would hear my
confession, with comic results.
“Could you hear my confession?”
Quizzical look ensued.
~ 51 ~
“…Confessiono?” I figured adding an “o” at the end might do the
trick. Wasn’t the Church supposed to be universal anyway?
“es hablo salt al es linguinisa,” said the Padre in Spanish, or words to
“Hablo English?” I asked.
The good padre looked pained but concerned, and I was quite
sorry by this time that I had brought the whole thing up. We
seemed to have reached a stalemate, and I started to back away
saying, “that’s okay”, although I realized immediately the inanity of
that - I could’ve said, “free spaghetti!” for all he knew. He didn’t
leave me off the hook and instead came over and warmly led me by
the hand out into the courtyard searching all around. Finally he
found Jacob and I understood he was to translate.
“I just asked if he could hear my confession,” I told Jacob. Jacob
said some Spanish words back out at the good Friar and then Jacob
to me laughing, “I hear your confession. You tell me!”.
I found that mixing with another culture while expecting them to
speak your language is a bit ludicrous. You are invisible to the
natives if you can’t speak the language. Over the length of the trip
we visited at least ten churches. All of them were beautiful though
markedly different. The Cathedral at Zocala Square was a feast for
the eyes of epic proportions. Ornate gold altars and side altars
repeated like endless eaves of finely decorated libraries. It seemed to
illustrate the gospel account of Mary Magdalene pouring expensive
oils on Christ’s feet, or the story of the wise men and their gifts of
gold and myrrh. Another church, Juan Diego’s uncles’, was the
opposite. It was light, and airy and easy. There were no reliquaries
but a simplicity emphasizing the accounts of Christ riding on a
donkey and being born in a manger and God’s gentleness and
mercy. The yin and the yang…
We went for a walk that night and had a pair of Corona’s at a bar
with live Mexican music and looked for beggars to give pesos to.
The next morning we visited the Aztec pyramids of the Sun and
the Moon. We scrambled up to the top for a magnificent view of
~ 52 ~
the whole mixed-up crazy valley where Indians sacrificed up to
20,000 of their best athletes and prettiest virgins. Now we make
them homecoming kings and prom queens.
Zocala Square is second in size only to Red Square in Moscow.
The imposing square is surrounded by gargoyle’d buildings and one
expected to see a bullfighter or matador at any moment. Zocala felt
foreign - it pulsated with foreignness. At one end loud opera music
blared, at the other side there was a maniacal Indian drumming.
The place felt like the setting of a lost empire or somewhere Indiana
Jones would feel at home. The square was equal parts danger - full
of rogue tour guides and pick-pocketing banditos - and glamour,
with pistole-toting police guarding the Mexican treasures from
American riff-raff. I clambored up the stairs to a sumptuous room
only to receive a curt, “no moleste!”. I said, “Vamous?” and he said,
“si”. Later, at the bottom of the stairs, I offered a “Beunes Dios”
(good day) at a stiff-necked policeman and received my first
‘gracias’. It was then I knew I’d connected with the Mexican people
and was now one of them.
The next day we loaded up the bus and headed for the reason we
came - Guadalupe. We were so used to seeing copies of the image of
Guadalupe that when we walked into the actual Basilica we had no
idea we were looking at the real thing. Mass was far in back and
because of the immense crowd we came back the next day for the
real visit, getting at last to see this cactus fiber cloak that had
survived five centuries. Scientists cannot explain how this image was
imprinted on the tilma nor how it has lasted - so bright that it seems
like it was given to us yesterday. After Mass we went to the back of
the altar and gazed at this wondrous icon.
~ 53 ~
Excerpts from Rome, Italy (Mar 2001) Triplog:
The after-images of Rome still linger in my dreams and in my
waking; the strange beauty and hominess, the memory of slipping
between the cracks and going back in time. I remember using the
small red bathroom, more closet than bathroom in a shop near the
Pantheon. There I contemplated the maps in my search of the
grail, the little French restaurant run by lay missionaries and called
“L eau Vive” and where the cardinals of the church party and
where, after dinner, comes the ritual singing of Ave Maria in French,
sung in such sweet and childlike tones that the hair on your skin
stands up. I found the little restaurant, where John Paul II had gone
before his papal promotion and where discreteness is the word, but
not easily. The little restaurant is a block or so from the Pantheon,
just off a little medieval square where four streets conjoin and I ask
various people where “Le Monterone” is and one shrugs, seemingly
amazed he doesn’t know. A policeman knows but isn’t telling,
another tells but doesn’t know. I walk the equivalent of a few more
football fields and at last retrieve it from its obscurity (only to lose it
again later that night when it is time to eat there). The pleasure of
looking and finding was greater and it is that little area of Rome I
consequently remember most - the little café stop Le Euastochio
where big shots sip cappuccino, where the sudden appearance of
Swiss guards occurred marching to the beat of a distant drummer,
where religious shops line the square like a Geiger counters
triggering the nearness of the ecclesiastical restaurant.
We arrived at last that night, the late opening (7:30pm) eased by
the delicious food and the best wine we’d have in Rome. The red
was eminently sippable, so rich that to drink it fast would be a sin,
and we waited to the bewitching hour when the lay missionaries
came with programs and we experienced the novelty of prayer sung
while eating, or just after eating. The only meal that came close to
the enjoyment of this one was the final one, where the bathrooms
were modeled after the catacombs we’d just seen (where else but
Italy are there Catacomb bathrooms?) with an arched niche just
beside the urinal that looked exactly like the grave niches of the
~ 54 ~
The flight to and from Italy is a barrier to entry akin to fraternity
hazing. On the flight home I sat in an aisle seat (Mark & Sandy & I
had seats all different places despite having made our reservations
together). Being in back next to the bathroom, I was assaulted by the
smell of some horrific “perfumed” soap that soon became nauseating.
The constant parade of passengers to the bathroom, each taking care
to bump me, made sleep something that occurred only in two to three
minute increments. Next to me sat two teenagers one of whom
quickly discovered that sitting in the last row has its advantages,
namely the ready availability of unprotected sampler bottles of wine,
which he proceeded to down at a pace Nero would be envious of. He
eventually began saying the word “fuck” every third word. He
mercifully passed out the final three hours of the flight. Being in the
last row had other disadvantages too; the food service cart would
invariably start from the other direction and run out of the most
desirable food just before the end. So I ended up with fish instead of
chicken, and it was a fish covered with a sauce that I had been
smelling since Milan. It had mingled with the smell of the urinal-cake
perfume behind me for the past several hours and was distractingly
unpleasant. I began to think I might actually throw up, so I didn’t
have much of it. The flight was almost literally purgatorial.
One night in Rome, I ventured out alone after a couple glasses of
wine and found myself in a world no more seeming real than a
movie set. I walked in the light rain to a new (i.e…hundred year
old) church. I peaked inside its slightly ajar doors, and inside were
the comforting images of saints. I stealthily moved all the way in
and saw that some sort of singing practice was going on. The
language barrier being such, I could make out nothing of their
sounds; it was completely opaque. I felt like a voyeur, an outsider,
and lurked in the shadows, though surely not menacingly? A man
in his late 40s, with a look of annoyance, began the long trek down
the aisle. Reading body language, I scattered. I bolted out the door,
delighted that I’d provoked a response, and then observed from a
distance as the man looked left and right and left again, and then
closed the church doors completely. I was on vacation, and if I
could enter the local’s lives, even in a perfectly annoying way, then
at least I was having an impact.
~ 55 ~
What was the Rome like? I’ll start with the hotel. The front desk
combined as a bar, where the locals suddenly gathered like a flock of
birds on some pre-arranged signal. Their foreignness was fetching
but off-putting, and they spoke and drank with glassy eyes and
mouths that shut immediately when we came in, causing us much
embarrassment. They would all speak at once if we asked a
question. I couldn’t tell if they were thought us a necessary
inconvenience or if we thought them so.
The scene outside my hotel window became literally my little
window on Rome. I tried to imagine all the catacombed people who
lived just within view - like those with laundry hanging outside.
What made them who they were? The weather was always mellow,
never harsh, very civilized. The windows lent themselves to being
open. The sun was strong certain days, days we walked till we were
dizzy from fatigue and hunger. We arrived in our tennis shoes at
Trattoria’s, obviously tourists, incongruously drinking fine wines and
good food in our tourist uniform of khakis and tennis shoes.
I remember fondly the first time I saw the vision of the main castle
at Disneyworld in Florida at the age of twelve. I was almost as if it
wasn’t real, and that is kind of how I felt the first time I saw St.
Peter’s. Inside it felt lighter, airier, and architecturally warmer than I
expected. Of all the big churches I’ve seen - Dublin’s St. Patrick,
Notre Dame in Paris and NYC’s St. Patrick’s - St. Peter’s felt the
most …well, homey? This might be partially due to the fact that
those other churches are Gothic and St. Peter’s doesn’t have the
dark stained glass windows and severe grey-stone pointy arches.
There was a huge mosaic band of lettering around the interior that
lent a kind of literary feel to this largest of all churches. I didn’t
know what the lettering meant, not knowing Latin, but thanks to
“reverse tourism” I learned later that it was the scriptural verse from
Matthew 16:18. It wasn’t a baroque church, with teeming masses of
statues and paintings competing for attention. It was a prayerful
place, well-lit and awe-inspiring. We went to Mass there and were
worshipping where for almost two millennia Christians have
worshipped, giving sense of solidarity with previous souls and
making the past come alive. Only Jerusalem and the Holy Land
would be more special. Vivid images linger - the reassuring cadences
~ 56 ~
of the elderly bishop, the dove representing the Spirit over the altar,
the high windows, the pushy Italian nuns who formed an
impenetrable line for Communion making it difficult to merge, the
procession at the start and end. The day before we’d strolled around
and come across Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, behind glass, and what
surprised me (but shouldn’t have) was how much is missing in
reproductions, like the expression of Mary, the tilt of her head and
The previous day we’d also taken a tour of the necropolis (“city of
the dead”) below the main altar of St. Peter’s. On the tour we saw a
cross-section of altars, going back to Constantine who in 300-
something A.D. covered the grave of St. Peter in a marble box.
Inside the marble box there is what became known as the “graffiti
wall”, which contained scrawl from the 2nd century saying “Peter is
within”. It contained an opening where bones lay of a 60 to 70 year
old powerfully built man. What is amazing is that there were
ancient drawings of “Constantine’s box” but no one knew if it
actually existed until around the time of the 2nd World War. Peter’s
bones lay undisturbed for over 1500 years until excavations in 1939
found the Roman necropolis just outside the present basilica. It was
like when I was a kid and teased my brother or sister by putting
their present in a box and then wrapping it in another, inside
another, etc…It was held the fascination of a secret within a secret,
and then a secret revealed. This was the feeling I got looking at that
cross-section of altars - and how incredible it must have been to
have come across this Roman necropolis by accident.
The “Church of 40,000 Bones” as Mark called it was actually Santa
Maria della Conceizione. Here, not quite entombed, were over 4,000
monks who donated their bones as the raw material for macabre
decorations that illustrate biblical imagery as well as the brevity of life.
(For example, the sacred heart with a crown of thorns adorns the
walls via a unique combination of bones.) When I read about this
place I imagined it much more dark and dreary, a scary Halloweenish
place. But I thought it was about as cheerful as you could make it,
especially if you forgot for a minute the archway decorations were
bones. The message is the “as you are/ so was I/ as I am/ so shall you
~ 57 ~
be” and is intended to give a sense of urgency in the spiritual life.
These monks seemed to be taunting death and saying “where is thy
sting?”. Another thing that I love about Rome is that so many of the
characters of history have seen it. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain
both visited this church and came away appalled.
I liked how things tied together with things I’d previously knew.
For instance, in London I’d been struck by a very moving statue of a
woman who lay on the floor either dead or in a posture of supine
obedience. I took a picture of it though I didn’t know the story
behind it. Then in the Catacomb of San Callisto, we came across
that very statue. The original was found here, in this particular
catacomb (there are many around Rome), and it marks the grave of
St. Cecilia, a martyr beheaded during the Roman persecutions. The
tour guide explains that there is a visible line on her neck
(symbolism for how she died) and one of her hands one finger is
pointing (symbolism that there is one God, instead of the Roman
formulation of many gods) and her other hand holds out three
fingers (symbolizing three persons in one God).
~ 58 ~
Hilton Head, SC 2001
I am back from Hilton Head, another week spent, whether for ill
or profit I am not sure. Hilton Head invariably become weeks for
the body, not the mind or soul. And yet I slogged down there with
some thirty-five books in tow, as if this were a month long retreat at
a Maine winter cabin. I remind myself of the value of leisure and
how the only societies in history to have shown a deep respect for it
were the ancient Greeks and the societies of the Middle Ages. Both
recognized that man should not be defined by his work
It was not entirely a Club Med; there were moments reading
Walker Percy’s “Lancelot” which I’d lost on a Savannah tour bus
and was replaced by his other novel “The Second Coming”. The
long rides to and from Hilton Head were idyllic, in that they
arrested time and made us slow down for leisurely classical music
strolls, long visits via tape with a Dartmouth professor on the Civil
War (first 4-lectures), and three long commentaries on the Book of
Revelation (Scott Hahn). We traveled along tiny towns like
Hartford, West Virginia and Moped, Ohio where tiny pale green
cinder block houses wore the reds, blues and whites of the Stars ‘n
Stripes. We rolled into fast food restaurants where they took our
order with the thickest of Southern accents, and into a Virginia 7-
11 cast into the mountains, and where a stooped, tanned aged man,
looking as old as Methuselah, made his way to the restroom and
eyed me with clear-eyed distaste. I appreciated the unfeigned
attitude of a Virginia curmudgeon. I bought a postcard containing
headshots of ten Civil War generals, and then Steph and I shared a
homemade pie of pita-bread stuffed with blueberries. We chased it
with Cracker Jacks, having a jolly good time. Pomeroy, Ohio faced
out like a bay window over the Ohio River, and we watched as
boaters and wave-runners made use of the waters while old men
sprawled in their ease in an overlooking gazebo. The town had row
houses of indeterminate age, but the poverty seemed of the genteel
sort. Time stood still here it seemed, only to an outsider of course.
The shining sun seemed to make all things good when set in the
manifold groves of trees and hills and rivers. We arrive at the coast
and unpack our things. The next day is the beach.
~ 59 ~
The endlessly beguiling point of the ocean is where ocean meets
shore, where the violence of the waves crash the sand. I
experimented with different viewing arrangements, at first far from
the sea but then growing ever closer. The optimal situation seemed
to be in the waves, my feet rhythmically rushed over with water,
while a beer and book is cradled in hand. But the warm giving sand
on the soles of the feet is not bad either, and you can make a small
cavity in which to rest your feet for max leverage. It was of such
crucial decisions that vacations are made of.
The beach at dusk is like a huge highway with no traffic, one big
swath of flat land, ripe for the taking. The long sand avenue looked
like freedom - no lines, no lanes, no construction, no speed limits. I
ran down it with reckless, mindless abandon in my mind’s eye.
Likewise the superabundant sky, lit by candles called stars.
Stephanie and I laid on the beach looking up at the stars, watching
the light turn infinitesimally darker. The heavenly dome stretched
unencumbered, a huge galaxic bowl without a tree or building to
obstruct the perfect bluing horizon. We heard the ocean’s call in the
mid-distance, tasted and smelt of the salty air, felt the easy breeze
and saw stars shoot. The peace of fatigue had settled in our bones
before we pulled them up for another sunrise.
~ 60 ~
Bike Ride Extraordinaire
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to take
long bike rides through the countryside, summer offers the perfect
opportunity. And so began our fourth year doing just that, the
annual bike trip that traverses small, practically unseen Ohio towns
like Corwin, Spring Valley and Oregonia. As far back as the 17th
century one exercise-fan wrote, “Oh, how much misery is escaped
by frequent and violent agitation of the body!” Thomas Jefferson
and John Adams both recognized the mental benefits of exercise
and prescribed those who tend to sit around and think all day as
likely to be melancholic. But to me it was just a great excuse to
take a half-day off work, which in itself reverses melancholy.
But into each bike ride a little rain may fall, and it did at the very
start of ours. Raring to go, we had to hole up under a tree just a
tenth of a mile into our proposed 28-mile ride. The rain died out
relatively quickly, and it was all white and pink skies ahead as we
headed south by south-west.
In fairly fast time we arrived in the euphoniously named Spring
Valley. Oh to live in Spring Valley, where it is eternally spring if in
name only! It’s a little Mayberry of a town, with a small ice cream
& antique shop called the Spring Valley Mercantile Exchange. There,
behind a counter, a slow-moving man makes the sweets that keep
the bikers going. An old picture in the shop shows the Exchange in
feistier days, with a banner unfurled that said: “Spring Valley
Against the World!”. One can only imagine what the little
mercantile was fighting against or who won.
We re-entered the bike path under blazing sun. We continued
along towards our goal of Corwin, the half-way point, or mile 14.
We rode by a masterwork vista of several farms dotting the
landscape and a large white house on the hill looking as pristine as
paradise. But soon we came to a proverbial fork in the road, or at
least an animal with a forked tongue. Mom gave a whoop and a
yell at the deadly cobra that lay mid-path. The rattlesnake was
alive and cocked its head menacingly. Soon another biker
~ 61 ~
happened by, dressed in the inexplicable fashion of bikers these days
– in a tight suit of loud colors, this time red, white and blue. He
was stopped dead in his treads when he saw the python. He
confessed his great fear of snakes. Mom, in a nice understatement,
said something like, “well I guess you’ll be stuck here”. No
sympathy given here. We later wondered if he really expected us to
Onward we pressed, but Mark noticed a rather disturbing
development. The whole north sky behind us seemed a swollen
black and blue, like some sort of horribly disfiguring injury. It
looked like some sort of huge pus abscess, soon to be drained all
over us. We moved on to Corwin, had ice cream & cokes, and
waited for the inevitable. Which came in buckets and buckets.
And so we were stranded in the small Corwin Peddler for at least an
hour and a half.
The temperature dropped twenty degrees or so, and Mom got
pretty cold, so the Corwin Peddler t-shirts that she had been
disparaging since 1998 (ex: “who in the world would buy something
like that?”) became suddenly very attractive.
Eventually the weather turned and so we traveled back through
Spring Valley, where I saw a man without a t-shirt sitting in front of
a house the size of a small cabin, full of American flags. I noticed
my law of inverse patriotism was at work – those who have the least
have the most gratitude, those with grandest houses the least.
~ 62 ~
Sanibel Island, FL - Jan 2003
I always write what I call a “trip log” in the mistaken notion that I
will actually one day go back and read it. At the very least it affixes
the details in my mind one last time. The advertising on the rental
car was right, at least right now. “Florida - the Sunshine State” proved
to be full of sunshine as we loaded our weary bodies into a rental
which still held the aroma of “new car”. From Ft. Myers we took the
causeway into sunny Sanibel where we blinked like uncovered slugs.
The condo had a small screened-in back porch overlooking the pool,
where a fat cigar and a couple ales on repeating days provoked nostalgia. I
had a strong sense of deja vu, and of remembrance of things past. The
large green shade tree was much like the one at our house growing up,
the one near which we dug a large hole with the hope of reaching China
(our knowledge of the hot earthen core being incomplete). The sun
deck and pool had the ‘60s style accoutrements that reminded me of my
best friend’s grandma’s swimming pool and her maddeningly strict rules of
no swimming for an hour after eating; (I recall being out of the pool more
than in it). The sun deck ascended in whitely glory, a mad pad to which
I would carry a ridiculous number of books despite always choosing to
read Russell Kirk’s Sword of Imagination.
The leafy courtyard had antebellum lamps and reminded me of my
alma mater, which reminded of what Burke wrote concerning the man
who hangs about college after having graduated - “he is like a man
who, having built and rigged and victualled a ship, should lock her up
in dry dock.” Ah but what a gloriously unbattered ship she would be!
Later in the week we visited a nearby beach. Mirage-like it floats
into my consciousness; here I am endorphined on Bowman’s beach
with a houseboat sitting big as life just offshore, some fellow alone
with the golden sunlight split between the rudders. He fishes in the
reflected glory of God’s creation, putting out in the great 75% of the
earth. Worries there dissolve like seltzers, cast like dead mollusks on
the shoreline, gleaming gleams of embarrassed delight, embarrassed
that worries ever saw the light of day. Oh sailor man, in your life less
traveled, what did you catch today? What briny fish of unblinking
eye hath caught your eye?
~ 63 ~
Western Caribbean Cruise – Jan 2004
We arrived at the airport just before 6am and the flight was
painless – the soft cacophony of voices, the drunken fog of
sleepiness, the disembodied voice of the pilot. You feel like a child
again when you’re on a plane, like you’re on a bus ride, the flight
attendants are the adults who bustle by you and serve you like your
mother did when you were sick. We arrive to the blinding sun of
Miami, Florida. Is there a bit of Stockholm Syndrome, held captive
too long by Old Man Winter? The sun is discomfiting; too faux, too
ripped from context.
Before long we are in our cabin and I’m sitting on the balcony in
the the G-force winds smoking a cigar. All horizon, all the time, a
sea broken by whitecaps. Call me Ishmael. I am Mogli, raised by the
sea. This balcony is a wondrous thing.
Cruises force you to make time to do what you’d really like to do,
once you run out of things you think you should do. The first port
o’ call was Nassau, Bahamas where I walked/jogged around the city
both for the exercise and to see more. I ran down a street at random
and came to the old 1885 church St. Francis Xavier, where Mass
was going on for an impressive 90+ minutes. I waited outside
awhile and listened to the music. At first it was as though I were
standing outside a Baptist church in Harlem. No “Amen’s” and
“Hallelujah” ejaculations but the singing was like it, with a little bit
of Dixieland jazz thrown in (I realized that came from a saxophone
in the church ensemble.) But after an unfamiliar tune I suddenly
hear the words of the Creed recited fervently and without
affectation and it was melting, this Church universal. These were
my brothers and sisters in every sense, including their incipient
reception of His Body and Blood, creed and sacrament.
Twenty-five mile an hour winds today; folks in their 70s lay in it
for hours, placid as though in the eye of the hurricane. One fellow
wears a NY Yankee cap and I figure it must be super-glued to his
head for it not to be blown off. I see the elderly Sox fan and think
“Stoic, Frugal New Englander”…i.e. “I paid for this trip and
bygummit I’m going to enjoy it!”
~ 64 ~
I’m fascinated by our cruise director, mainly how he can be so
enthusiastic cruise after numbing cruise, saying the same things,
making the same jokes (“Man, are you folks eating or what? I found a
white suit lying on the dining hall floor. Oh no, I said, they’ve eaten a
waiter!) . Can you fake enthusiasm? He appears ageless, a cross
between Dick Clark and Pat Sajak. Is the unexamined life so bad?
I can’t get enough of looking over these hills from the private
balcony. Verdant, conical hills like green pyramids bedecked with
white houses with Santa Barbara-ish red roofs. Sailboats sit in the
harbor maintaining a proper British distance. Amphibious planes
happen by. The sun lights up everything exquisitely. For some
reason, I recall postcards sent by a pen pal when I was in grammar
school of her fjord in Norway.
I also recall disparate books about the sea I’d read like William F.
Buckley’s sailing books and Steven Callahan’s remarkable Adrift,
about his seventy-six days lost at sea on a five foot inflatable raft. At
dusk the clouds look like islands as the sun leaves behind
phantasmagoric aurora borealis-like lights.
Vacations teach you to “look” again – to see. When everything is
new, such as a foreign port of call, looking “pays off” and you begin
to notice more with begets noticing more. I notice the little sea
light about the door of the balcony and the carpet and fine wood
railing. And I notice the wording above the bathroom toilet:
“Please do not thrown foreign objects in toilet bowl”. I make a
mental note to make sure only domestically-made objects are
thrown in said toilet bowl.
The “midnight buffet” proves that people crave ritual. How else to
explain it? You’ve eaten 17 meals in 5 days, gone thru 3 packs of
Alka Seltzers and yet you line up for a midnight feeding? I don’t get
it. I can only assume that the very first or second cruise included an
ice sculpture as an excuse to eat and every cruise since pays homage
to this frozen calf with shrimp cocktail.
At dinner Chuck mentioned how his father would drink like a
sieve – wine, of course, as a good Italian, but also an obscure drink I
don’t recall. We marveled at how much that generation drank.
~ 65 ~
Functional alcoholics, I’d say, with a tinge of envy because it’s easy
to romanticize it. Their world was far harder than ours though. I
knew of a great uncle who was given the stark choice of “the
drink”, as the Irish call it, and a wife. She gave him an ultimatum
shortly after he proposed marriage – either me or the booze. To his
credit, he was honest and chose the booze. To her credit, she stuck
to her ultimatum. People were tougher then. He died young, in his
50s, and his sister, my great aunt, was distraught but seemed to hear
his voice. “Don’t mourn, don’t be sad,” she swears she heard him
saying, “it’s wonderful here.”
Chuck mentioned the near slave labor conditions of the crew. We
did win the lottery, as the Pearl Jam song goes, by being born in
America. Six months of twelve hour days, seven days a week. Then
two months off. Then six more months, 12 by 7. Ouch. Our waiter,
35, has been doing it for five years.
Haiti wasn’t what I expected it to be, but then we really didn’t see
much of the “real” Haiti. Labadee is a private Caribbean resort, a
little fenced off edge of the island. I jogged around the perimeter,
feeling like a zoo animal. Just beyond the fence sat a couple of
Haitians, surely wondering why this fool was jogging in the
noonday heat. I wondered what they were doing; what is it like to
have all that time and be patient enough to sit around with nothing
to do? What is it like to be unemployed on a tropical island, rather
than employed in frigid Ohio? From the ship you could see the tiny
village of Labadee, a little collection of brightly colored and greatly
weathered homes nestled in the bay and humbled by the great
green mountain/hills above and beyond them. To call it picturesque
doesn’t begin to cut it. I could’ve gazed at that bucolic scene all day.
At the end of the day the ship sailed away from the newly empty
resort as a little boat of workers sped back to their village. One
waves at the huge ship and we wave back. Another goes to the aft
and windmills his arms in exhilaration. At being done with work?
At success in craft sales? Just because he’s alive?
The music as we pulled away from Labadee was, for once,
wonderful. It was Latin but quietly soulful, which matched my
metabolism and internal rhythms. The cruise was ebbing away, as
~ 66 ~
was Haiti. Let go mon, a cruise is a series of goodbyes, and leaving
Haiti was hard. That primitive impulse, always latent, gets triggered
by scenes of utter simplicity like this mountain village. Jay McInerny
put it in “Bright Lights, Big City”:
“You tell her there are so damn many things on your mind. You
can tell her the date of the Spanish Armada, but you couldn’t even
guess at the balance of your checkbook. Every day you misplace
your keys or your wallet…So many little things. The big things - at
least the big things declare open combat. But these details...Along
the windows, the potted plants form a jungle skyline, a green
tableau of the simple life. You think of islands, palm trees, food-
Of course, their life is neither as simple as I think and much
harder than I can imagine. Goodness and purity come not from
without, but from within, and that is what is ultimately attractive
about anyone, be they city or rural folk.
An island off the coast. It’s Cuba. It’s also the last day at sea, so
there’s Guinness, a ‘sippin’ drink’ and sun and reads.. I liberally read
from Philip Roth, finish both Paul Collins’ “Sixpence House” and
Philip Trower’s wonderful “Turmoil and Truth”. The lounge chairs
on deck are arranged tighter together than two Sicilians at a family
reunion. To my left – major snoring. I sleep farther away from my
wife than I was lying next to this stranger. Steph, on the right,
thought it funny.
After a few hours of head-banging music and close quarters with
snoring girls, it’s nice to be on the private balcony again. This ten
feet before me contains our own piece of the horizon, peaceful as
our own backyard. Whatever Stockholm Syndrome there was seems
to abated; the sun no longer feels faux. The clouds come and allow
only a shaft of light to get through, under which a ship passes
gloriously, wearing a diadem of rays.
~ 67 ~
Hilton Head, June 2004
…(140 Years After Sherman ...another Ohioan goes South)
The plane lifts off and my wife notices what I’m doing.
“That’s an accident waiting to happen,” she says as I put a full cup
of coffee in the seat pocket, balanced precariously between Skymall
and the Delta magazine.
“That’s for sure,” I say, undeterred. She keeps an eye on the coffee
and for the next ten minutes I take a perverse satisfaction, a vestige
of Original Sin. I decide to remove it so as to avoid I told you so’s,
having waiting long enough to have my own.
I notice that the requirements for those sitting in exit rows
continue to grow more stringent with every flight. Someday there
will be exams and physical tests to determine suitability. Standards
for exit row husbandry grow while those in education and morality
I can’t seem to get the ’80s song “All You Zombies” out of my
head, probably because I feel like one. 6 A.M. flights will do that.
My fatigue is drug-like in its effect and I recall how my stepson once
told me of a drug - peyote or something - that makes you feel really
tired. I’m thinking, “why not just get early?”. It’s cheaper and I hear
the rehab’s a breeze.
“Bodily pleasures are often more intense than intellectual pleasures, but
they are not so great or so lasting. The objects of the bodily pleasure
quickly pass away; spiritual good are incorruptible.” – St. Thomas
Aquinas, Summa Theologica
John Henry Newman once said that the man who confuses a
feeling of physical well-being with any sort of internal goodness is a
fool. The animal high spirits that a vacation engenders are of no
merit. I’m of two minds on bodily comforts. One is that it’s good to
forgo them for the purposes of spiritual training. The other is that it
~ 68 ~
is not my place to remove temporal supports, that that might be
“tempting God” in the sense of asking him to do what I could, in a
limited earthly sense, do for myself. Lent answers this question in
the sense that there are seasons in which to purposely remove
bodily comforts for spiritual training.
“They Say I’m Lazy But It Takes All My Time” - Joe Walsh
I read a line from a Paul Theroux novel and I think how true: “Far
from making them seem like menials, these chores gave them an air
of authority. Each time Ronda polished or dusted something, she
seemed to be taking possession of it.” It’s usually when I’m mowing
my grass that I not only become acquainted with the lay of my
backyard landscape but feel a sense of ownership. Another startling
line from Theroux (which reminded me of Joseph Stalin, who was
great with children but tortured his “friends”): “He was sentimental
as well as sadistic - not so unlikely a combination of traits, a natural
pair in fact.” It also recalled for me Flannery O’Connor’s line about
how tenderness apart from Christ leads to the gas chamber.
A vacation is a weight-bearing instrument, sometimes buckling under
the load. She bears the weight of months of numbness, the numbness
induced by the auto-pilot life of regimentation. I read much of Joseph
Pearce’s book on Oscar Wilde this week and Wilde wrote about the
danger of jobs: “The evil that machinery is doing is not merely in the
consequences of its work but in the fact that it makes men themselves
machines also. Whereas we wish them to be artists, that is to say men.”
Pearce said Wilde words were prophetic and preceded the code of the
distributists several decades later. “His words could very easily be the
utterances of Eric Gill, G.K. Chesterton, or Hilaire Belloc.” Wilde went
on to say that art “must not begin in the scholar’s study not even in the
studio of the great artist, but with the handicraftsman always. And by
handicraftsman I mean a man who works with his hands; and not with
his hands merely but with his head and his heart.”
I look from the balcony and the vista appears unreal. My
doppelganger is here but I’m too enmeshed in the mundane to
absorb this wonder, this massive ocean in front of me. I seek to
confine its confines to what I can see - this stretch of beach and
~ 69 ~
horizon - unaware that it goes and goes and goes. The priest began
his sermon Sunday by telling us how theologian Paul Tillich began
his theology classes. He’d say, “Who do you think of when you
think about God?” (Pause.) “Everything you just thought was
wrong. Too narrow. God is much more than we can conceive.”
We decided to fly this year because of a prior commitment on
Friday and wanted to save time by avoiding the 12 hour drive there
and back. But lacking this “down time” - the 12-hour trip to mellow
and prepare - seems a loss. When we drive we hear music, we listen
to books on tapes, we see the gorgeous mountains of North
Carolina and the long, patience-testing plains of the Low Country
in South Carolina. You arrive tired but your previous life is already
half-way shelved, you are already in the zone of being “ready for
surprise”. A jet flight is so quick you bring your troubles with you,
like going to Heaven without Purgatory.
Mass Sunday at Holy Family. Before the final blessing the priest
says, “I don’t like to embarrass anyone but I did notice that Scott
Hahn and his family are here today” and then he thanked Scott
and talked about how the parish is involved in a bible study on the
book of Romans and that his commentary is being used. I lingered
after Mass and watched a small group gather around Scott to shake
his hand and speak of how inspired they were. “I’ve listened to all
your tapes,” said one man. I didn’t introduce myself, thinking I had
nothing to say that he hasn’t heard before, in fact nothing unique
from what that man had just said. Also this wasn’t a book-signing, it
was Mass. My wife said, “but we pay his salary”. But he’s entitled to
privacy. It was about seven years ago, before I’d ever heard of Scott
Hahn, when another priest on this island introduced him before the
final blessing, unstinting of his praise of him. I recall thinking, “who
the heck is Scott Hahn?” and wishing the encomium were
truncated. It was about six months later when I found “Rome Sweet
Home” and recalled the priest’s introduction. I think it ironic that
I’d brought his latest “Swear to God” and would be reading it
within a few miles of where the author was staying.
~ 70 ~
On to the beach! Foreward ho!
Another run on the beach and my legs are so fresh and the
surface so giving that my arms can scarcely keep up. This will not
last, but I’m enjoying it while it does. By nightfall I feel more torn
up than a defeated bull rider. I feel every muscle but the joy of
movement lives. I’ve gained the athlete’s economy of motion and
there is a small pleasure in sitting or getting up, in walking or
standing. Midway through the second day’s run I can feel my
quadriceps begin to give out and the surrounding muscles are
compensating - which isn’t good in the “long run” because they will
eventually fail since they weren’t meant for forward locomotion.
Muscles not meant to carry the load will do so uncomplaining only
for awhile. An analogy: During the 50s the clericalism caused the
Church to rely too heavily on priests for her forward progress. But
when they gave out under the strain, the laity not only did not
compensate but joined the ruin.
I notice that the roofs on the hotels look like pagodas. The beach is
emptying as we linger late in the afternoon, kissing early the eve. A
storm visited and left debris of driftwood and chilly temps. But here at
half-past six the sun still has palette enough to paint her warmth
upon us. The unblemished sand lies billiard-smooth, its magic dust
reflecting a hatchery of pointillistic lights stretching to the breaker of
grass and thistle where the rabbits hide. A strange - if human thing -
is to attempt to preserve or extend time by writing it down.
Eating is something of a chore now, something to be sandwiched
(!) between reading, swimming, running, biking. When it’s dark
there’ll be plenty of time to eat. A 90-year old disabled person I
know says that meals on one of her few remaining joys.
Marsh grasses lip the dunes and small crabs locomote distinctly.
My wife is nearly finished with a book I’d borrowed from the library
for myself, James Hynes’ “Kings of Infinite Space”. I started reading
it on day one and found it unpalatable. I don’t want to read about
work on the beach.
~ 71 ~
Tuesday in Paradise
The foliage-draped paths are restorative. The beach inheres
restlessness with the wind and the call of the surf and the wilding of
the blood. The quiet bike paths are antipodal and soothe, creped
with hanging moss and shade trees and dappled sun. I am the
coxswain of peace.
I hold the door for Scott Hahn after leaving morning Mass. I don’t
think I consciously arranged that. Honest. But in a celebrity culture I
suppose the best we can boast of is to trade up: J-Lo for Scott Hahn. My
wife keeps nagging me to talk to him so I decide that better than
talking to him I’ll see if I can arrange to be blessed by him. I’ll just sit
behind him and greet him at the Sign of Peace. Would I not kick myself
if he were canonized some day? Stranger things have happened.
We saw a figure walking down the beach who looked like Jesus, as
depicted in religious art. He had the beard and long flowing locks,
was carrying a bible in one hand and a stole in the other and wore
the long white robe. I go up to him and ask if I can take a picture
and he says sure. He said his name was James Joseph and that he
travels around like a missionary. He was featured on 20/20. I told
him I saw him at Holy Family and he asked if I knew they had
Eucharistic Adoration 24-7 there. I did not. He said that Mother
Teresa said she got her energy from the Eucharist.
Ideally vacations, like movies, allow you to suspend disbelief by
making you think “this is my life now”. When you’re a kid, this isn’t
a problem; a week to a ten year old feels like a month to an adult. I
wonder where the line is. I’ve never gone on more than a nine-day
vacation so have never had the opportunity to really go in believing
“this is my life now”, a belief that eradicates a sense of urgency, that
“if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium” mentality.
We don’t go to the beach, we take it - like the forces at Normandy
but with more planning. Like gypsies we follow the tide but when
she rolls out she creates long supply lines and logistical nightmares,
the bedevilments of generals before us. Our base camp is far to the
North now; to retrieve a beer requires a long hike across hostile
territory in the form of hot sand and flying balls. The base camp
~ 72 ~
consists of an extra chair, an umbrella, a cooler of beer, pop and
water, seven or eight or nine books, a cigar and a lighter, a watch
and earplugs, a walkman, a beach towel, tennis shoes, a sheet and a
cast of thousands more.
Even longer supply lines lead to the condo, much distance
On the beach at night
in the utter darkness you can’t see but don’t fear
There’s nothing to bump into.
The waves are scattered with catamarans
skiffs that skate the sea’s surface.
In the haste to tick off the todo list - groceries and bike rental on
day one - I told my wife I’d take care of the latter. Two days later I
noticed the sin of my haste - the rental car must’ve gotten scratched
during the loading of the bike into the too-smallish trunk. A sense
of constantly being responsible is one of the things vacations are
meant to escape, as long as that responsibility is not of a moral
nature. Given a key to our place without a keychain didn’t set off
any alarm bells but it should have. It was lost in the afterglow of a
two-hour bike ride.
Pearce writes that Wilde had the “wisdom of foresight which is
the mark of prophecy”. On a trip to America Wilde said that
“everybody seems in a hurry to catch a train.”
“This is a state not favorable to poetry or romance. Had Romeo or
Juliet been in a constant state of anxiety about trains or had their
minds been agitated by the question of return-tickets, Shakespeare
could not have given us those lovely balcony scenes which are so
full of poetry and pathos.” Well I’m feeling some self-pathos for the
rental car situation.
Wilde called America “the nosiest country that ever existed” and
this was before the days of leaf blowers and gas-powered hedge
~ 73 ~
I like to the beach early
and bow to the unexpired day
By noon fed by prose and doze
By four on waves and haze.
Days’ consecutive don’t break my ardor
but gathers like the sea.
It’s day five and I look out at my “co-workers” on the beach and
some of the faces are familiar now. The author Ralph McInerny
wrote that he built a beautiful study at his house with large windows
overlooking a golf course and sharp built in floor-to-ceiling book
shelves but that, in the end, a study is a study and the environment
matters little when your face is a few inches from a computer screen
all the time you’re there.
But it’s different I think with this beach, my “study” for this week.
The room at the hotel is infiltrated with shade and faux coolness
and newspapers but most of all enclosure, that amputation of the
sky, that which appears as a huge basin or, as Oscar Wilde put it:
“clouds are the only thing unchanged from the beginning and they
remind me of Renaissance paintings”.
One could have worse studies. The shock of reading under the
quintilliant sun at noon reminds me why we’re here. In the condo
we bravely say that we’re ready to go back home. But when supine
before the truth of the sky’s majesty and beauty we remember why
we came but also why we don’t want to leave.
Reluctantly, I sit behind Scott Hahn today at Mass today. Directly
behind him would be too obvious so there’s a row between us. At
the Sign of Peace he didn’t shake my hand but half-turned and
smiled reticently, if that’s not an oxymoron. His child (maybe eight)
raised his hand in blessing towards me and I felt like here was my
blessing, the one I didn’t ask for and the one from who’d I had
One feels keenly the sense of loss when the end approaches. The
sun, the dying Gaul, stands in the Western sky as we turn our back
from mother ocean that we might have the company of the Gaul. A
week at the beach seems insufferably long given the Spartan
~ 74 ~
entertainments of just book and radio and exercise. But it passed
surpassingly fast and now we cast a gimlet eye at the prospect of that
last mourning, a half-day at the beach, a grotesque centaur at which
we stare at in disbelief, so fast went this second-to-last day.
A final bike ride. In the patches of sky in the dappled-noon
schwarzwald I catch glimpses of the past. Was that my best friend’s
father’s car? Are we on a camping trip to Lake Hope?
Back to the beach. There’s 1985 music on one station. It sings
the truth. Did they make a bad song in ‘85 or is it just me? A couple
Pale Ales serve as consolation and fortification for leaving this brine
of sea, set in equal part salt as my own blood. Why do vacations
open the trap door of memory so readily, music or not? Nabakov
and Proust are good company, in their seeing something in the past
worth recovering. I decide that the mass of men lead quiet last half-
hours of desperation on vacations. But one can no more hold back
time than the tide.
And so tomorrow the lifeguard will perform her umbrellic rituals
again. And the turtles big as canned hams will pee on someone else
when they carry him to safety. And the birds will go about their
business as the rabbits will theirs, and so must we.
~ 75 ~
I Love the Scent of Woodland in the Morning
It wouldn’t be summer without the annual 36-hour camping trip
and this year was no exception. I like to camp in small quantities -
until a shower or bowel movement becomes necessary (whichever
comes first). The phrase goes, “fish and guests begin to stink after
three days” and Friday night-to-Sunday camping is plenty for me.
There’s something cathartic about sitting catatonically around a
campfire. Try it sometime, it’s not as easy as it looks. I briefly visited
the lake with Obi and enjoyed his comical swimming style - he
thrashes about the water like sumo wrestler trying to dance. By
Sunday I noticed a kind of hallucinogenic effect beginning to set in;
I took Obi on a walk early and every leaf looked spectacularly
beautiful. The 1975 song “hey, hey, hey it’s magic..you know-o-
oo...” sprung unbidden to mind. The sun was an orange ball and
like God you can’t gaze at it directly though you want to.
The drive home through Ohio’s Appalachia was scenic. The hills
and hollers are unspeakably beautiful on a morning in late summer.
Drove by the small town of Union Furnace and later the
“Coonsville Holiness Church” with the sign “If you live wrong, you
can’t die right.” I walked a stretch of the town, made so beautiful by
the mountains despite houses wretchedly poor. I wish I’d taken a
picture or two because it’s difficult to describe, a strange beauty in
the poverty. It’s like walking into a Walker Evans photograph, a
time capsule since outsiders never move here due to the depressed
economy. Folks tend to feel more free to be themselves. There’s a
heartbreakingly beautiful grey-weathered “Walton’s Mountain”
house with a wrap-around front porch. I’ve more desire to see any
of these houses, draped with atmosphere and haunt, than where
Edison lived in the 1920s. If you’ve seen one early 19th century
inventor’s house you’ve seen them all. You lean on the velvet rope
and see a room with nary a thing out of place, embalmed for our
viewing, lacking a glimpse into the owner’s personality. No, give me
one of these Appalachian houses and let me see their interior,
fecund with life.
~ 76 ~
Since this is Appalachia there is many an Ulster Prot name -
fellow Celts. I’d love to look for clues to their Celtic background -
unconscious ones of course. The leprechaun and self-Irishly
conscious to which I am prone is not interesting. But to see the
smallest clue that assimilation hasn’t totally taken place would be a
small thrill. To see the persistence of an earlier culture - a
persistence of memory - in our materialistic flat land is worth seeing,
a David over Goliath triumph.
~ 77 ~
Long criss-cross rows of
sun-kissed and dew-blissed
long gravel-winding drives
carrying the scent of life
sandaled and happy
full of pregnant meanings
and fulsome silences
meadows ripe for the ransacking
expansive lawns of dotted picnic tables
buttercup’d fields ground-swollen with bees
robed, ribbed grasses heather-high
glib crickets and harrumphing toads
Appetite for Destruction
Our dog is good
at destroying things.
removes the squeaker
and eats it.
He turns foodstuffs
into brown goo
for us to step in.
He ate a pack
of razor blades;
X-rays showed silver flashes
like little fishes.
He doesn’t eat razor blades anymore.
~ 78 ~
A quarto of drawn-Guinness
gentle with a barber’s care-
the clanking of the glasses, the craick
of cloistered hospitality
in an inhospital clime
muddied they trundle accented paths
the essence of the particular.
He drank till he remembered himself—
in the bogland his trouser cuffs dirty,
collecting peat for fires lit by progeny
the rousing of the fiddle the flurry of feet
shamans and charlatans and shape-shifters all;
a fleet of Children of Lir!
The day of the martyr’s victory dawned
Marched from cell to theatre
With cheerful look and graceful bearing
‘To heav’n the deathblow sent
In silence received.
* Taken from the Commemoration of Perpetua and Felicity, Roman
martyrs (March 7th):
“The day of the martyr’s victory dawned. They marched from their
cells into the amphitheater, as if into heaven, with cheerful looks
and graceful bearing. If they trembled it was for joy and not for
fear....The others stood motionless and received the deathblow in
silence, especially Saturus, who had gone up first and was first to
die; he was helping Perpetua. Such a woman—one before whom
the unclean spirit trembled…”
~ 79 ~
Carolina Here I Come
Back to the Low Country
a stiff sand-breeze grazes
your bearded face;
Stiff upper lips and strong toddies
taste of ocean,
night sky sugared of stars
and a jellyfish twist.
“Es regnet!” we called
our bellies full of German laughter,
“It is raining!” we called
like impish stewards.
Bare we knew the trouble ahead,
the horizon fixed at twenty blessed miles.
the easiest of emotions,
“it’s their fault”
fits like a glove
Into your wound you fly.
pity for others
the most difficult of emotions,
“it’s their fault”
fits like a glove
will into their wound you fly?
~ 80 ~
What Have I To Show?
The sunny hill brought
a bitter fruit –
a hailstone of tombstones
grey with somber miens and jaunty minders
from the thick tree roots they gestated.
I looked on the sober dates they cried
‘what have you to show! I lived far less than you!”
‘Are you like me?’ asked the Federalist
gowned in Resurrection palms
and atrophied script.
‘Are you like me?’ asked the Victorian
draped in frank and maudlin prose.
‘Are you like me?’ asked the Modern
impersonal as marbled ice
giving nothing but emptiness.
Sit a chair on the beach
Set it at a jaunty angle
set seaface to foam
ale for what ails, so pale
be fat-billed birds and cirrus clouds.
Banks of sand and birds of mien
mystic fish fly at strange intervals
seaweed gesticulates in the Gulf waves
sand-dollars spend their ancient inscriptions
in the vanishing space between sea and sky
and the ineluctably drawn eye.
~ 81 ~
We pitched camp near the Columbia
took fire-coffee in battered tins
hiccup’d through the ol’ cowboy lines
blue-granite mountain backdrop
nip of whiskey to keep warm
telling tales at the cacklin’ fire.
Viva l’ Difference
If Marie had said
“Let them eat cake”
“Let them eat my flesh.”
In the Garden
Knew he the prophet’s fate
Shan’t Divinity itself
the pattern break?
May this Cup pass, he asked
though obedient to the last.
~ 82 ~
Remembrance of Bike Rides Past
Fêting the sun-gardens of the mind
poems broke and bled
unwound on transcendental rides
past the sweet-apple hay-thrown
that appeared on those spark-lit August roadsides.
Hocking Hills in Indian Summer
There lay a field in view of the highway
a field mown high for my tastes
chastening heels and calves
though bidding me come like Lorelei
to see what lie beyond.
A sea of sailors with dashed hopes
the up-cupped lip of earth beckons
as if this greenish knoll
should prove the earth flat after all.
A passageway to a field beyond
I tread this new-secluded land
how maddening it was to see
another bank of trees and passage lea!
I tread the threshold once again
enclosed and ovalled like a womb,
to reach the thrice-hid field held back
perchance another meadow loomed.
~ 83 ~
Cliffs of Moher
The wind bereaves wayward souls
hugs you at the corners; unrolls vistas
where bitterns ‘round battered lighthouses
hale-gust promontories sound-crush
winds, forty mph, prey on the
tummy-crawls to vertiginous falls
organs fasten to skin and skeleton
by the barest of margins.
Oh profligate dandelions
who summer in Hilliard, Oh
grow I wistful at your stubborn roots:
I’d dance an Irish jig
to see you in mid-December.
Wanting it all
Deep in the Irish lee
lies a mermaid
in a capricious pose
in her half-and-halfedness.
She takes her coffee with cream -
Half & Half –
and is half-way committed
to the cause of boycotting tuna
for the fish in her sympathizes
but the woman in her
loves her Starfish.
~ 84 ~
Fun With Etymologies
Let me “interject” – 15th century Latin –
it takes a “villa”, 1611 also Latin,
to raise a “child”, OE of course, but kin to Goth
‘kilthei’ or ‘womb’.
And I’ve met kin
who could be mistaken for Barbarians
but that shan’t give you “sciatica”, 14th century,
unless you’re a “schussboomer”, from 1953 a skier
There were no “crowds” before 1537 evidently,
or ‘cruises’ from the Danish kruisen, “to make a
To be “miffed” is so 17th century,
and there was no “midtown” before 1926
after there was an “uptown”, of course, in 1838,
and a “downtown” in 1851.
“Minotaur” Middle English from the Greek
medievals discovering the ancients.
Respect, as in ‘with respect to’ came in the 14th,
by 1560 it was also ‘worthy of esteem’,
forty years later it became a respectable adjective,
but not till 1814 did it become respectable:
~ 85 ~
Rendering of Sculpture
Purchased by an Art Illiterate
Like Zeus he sits
a horned devil
purchased off some piazza in Rome
holding some atavistic charm.
‘Throw that away!’
she said, when I got back
‘what pagan thing is that?
I’ll not have it in our home.’
It found a closet
my little Roman miscue
until one day I learned
that Michelangelo had sculpted Moses.
Now he hangs redemptively
on the bookroom wall
rescued from the closet’s noisy indecencies
looking mildly pissed off.
what makes your lines so straight?
No double yellows
nothing to stop your Deere
from figure eights.
~ 86 ~
Bikers and Farmers
do you ever look up
from your bicycle tread?
do you look up
and see the shorn fields
swathed and chopped like bitten cuticles?
do you look
to the distant house in splendid isolation
its lack of pretense
caused by never being seen?
do you look down?
and hold the soil from which you came?
Knead and lift and fluss and tuck it,
wear its scent upon your beard?
Remembering the Irish
cast doggrell upon a
by seal of candlewax and tears?
Who’ve left their leavenings
unread, unsaid, unfound
in that plain potato-loving soil
with faces long and fatalistic
and wit mordant, biting, slaked
by fishy ales?
~ 87 ~
So let’s to Byrne’s pass
and take a stand
though we fall like heroes
our blood split like a tabby’s milk
Let the brave music be our
surcease and comfort
from British musketries.
and the beat of the bodhran
be heard even to the English hills.
Tiny Amlin, Ohio
old buildings peel paint
a pony-keg beer drive-thru
on a day with Noah’s rain
air dense and aroma full
baby trees with baby raindrops hanging
like Christmas ornaments
hills with crosses and red ground cover
the product of a thousand-million fallen leaves
I look up and
the ceiling is limitless.
Songs of porter and Finnegan’s Wake:
Stout full enough to stand
a night laden with tea and cakes.
7 times 70
oh blessed alliteration
oh holy equation
the number of our salvation
~ 88 ~
Flannelled before fire
beholding books with serrate edges and
flourished Danish typefaces;
entranced, he sits, engorged on lyrics like:
“this type was first set in 1642 by …”.
into the dark abyss
deaf and blind soccer players play;
the ball never sent true
half-hits and lucky glances
the ball advancing by grace.
Leaves in great numbers fall;
a yellow Asian carpet of hoarfrost
Believing evergreens stand athwart the winter
they keep their heads
while all about lose theirs;
calmly facing the splendid ruins of summer’s demise.
I drank the dram proffered by profs
dressed in plaid imputing glam
to previously dull subjects to wit:
it seemed plausible to give your life
to a study carol and an obscurity
like 18th-century economics
amid the grand trees and tenured security.
~ 89 ~
Visit to Home Depot
an old Elton John song plays while
scents drive a poor man crazy
The oiled leavings of
spent curled cyclindrical iron
sets me to a dreamy world
of gasoline stations of old
the smell of asphalt on my brain
the key to memory embedded in scent glands
then the keen fragrance of wood, freshly cut,
in long white carnivorous strips
I inhale the God-made fragrance
and briefly wonder:
How come they don’t charge to visit Home Depot?
Throw the shackles
wind the thymes
duc in altum!
Put together beak and
carraway and find
a seedy bird! be silly as
the created world,
as the three-toed sloth!
~ 90 ~
A dog named Obi
‘kercheifed with mischief
snout of black
how can one not laugh?
A dog named Schnapper,
of serious mien
and directionless walk
a small-town sheriff
how can one not laugh?
play-bites, surrounded by fur
a harnessed, harmless one
how can one not laugh?
a lay-about, an observer
a fat hunter of grass blades
how can one not laugh?
~ 91 ~
In the Dark
seek me out
find my hovel
my eyes defect
they cannot see
else I would come
to Thee. A Poem Named “Spot”*
Kansas saw-grasses whisper and wave
in the unbearable 1800s wind
I listen to Dixie songs first as irony
till the simpleness wins my heart,
crystal voices selling honesty
be they so or not, I am sold
and I Fly Away to purer times
Kansas saw-grass waving on the prairie
little houses, yes.
*The writer Flannery O’Connor said that she would name her dog ‘Spot’
as irony, her mother would without irony. O’Connor said she figured it
didn’t matter much in the end.
~ 92 ~
Poem Found at the Confluence of Fotos & Babelfish*
evocative of their childhood chaqueña
in the gallery of Flowery street 681
in the center of Buenos Aires
lowering the stairs
by the general have gone away by clouds
but serves to appreciate of what treats.
I ran into one of those gratuitous recitales
with a conjuntito of tango
those “bitter” cortazianos personages
apostatized of the humanity and the cosmos
as consolation and psychic food
to prevail and to affect, through the elegance
of here cerquita and yesterday just
to ayunar as God commands.
(* - while putting a Spanish website site thru the a web translator, I came upon this
wondrously strange, fragrant phrases that have a innocent brokenness to them
while also possessing the exoticness of the foreign (i.e. the occasional untranslatable
word which often enough “fits” anyway). None of the words of this “poem” are
my own; only the arrangement of the phrases.)
Knowing her to be my mother
only by her virtue,
for if she were a sinner
she’d surely choose another.
Choosing all to mother,
as her Son does all to save,
for the Fruit of her perfection
is the source of what she gave.
~ 93 ~
Surnames of our eight great-grandparents:
Father’s side: Smith (paternal), Hatti, (father’s mother), Holstein
(maternal), Nichting (mother’s mother).
Mother’s side: Connaughton (paternal), Hodapp (father’s mother),
Cogan (maternal), Byrne (mother’s mother)
My grandfather’s name was Ernst Smith. His parents were Amelia
and James. Ameilia Hatti (nicknamed “Gocko”) came from
Germany (the Baden-Baden region, we think) at the age of sixteen.
James Smith was an immigrant from somewhere in Britain - possibly
England or Scotland or Ireland. They met in St. Louis before
moving to Hamilton. Amelia was a cook at the YMCA most of her
life here. James Smith apparently died in the Great Flood of 1913.
His body was never found. He lived with Gocko and the kids near
the Great Miami River in Hamilton, in the First ward on A Street.
He was the only one at home at the time of the flood. From a local
history: “The First ward was hard hit, A Street, being practically
wiped off the map of the city.” 200-300 died in the flood, but the
~ 94 ~
Sixth ward (Lindenwald) was untouched, and East Hamilton also
escaped the main ravages of the flood. 10,000 were homeless,
including my grandfather Ernst.
“James and Gocko lived right on the river. Gocko worked at the
YW but was evacuated. The kids were at school. Bud (my uncle)
and Dad at a school on one side of the river and Tom at a school on
the other side Gocko hooked up with Tom while Dad and Bud
were taken in by a family in Trenton. They lived with this family for
about 3 months. No one was home with James. Their house was
washed away. There are only 3 houses left on A street. Gocko
moved about a block away on B street acording to the 1920 census.
James was out of work in 1913.”
From Joan Puma (Dad’s sister):
“James wasn’t working because he was unemployed at the time (at
least I think this is true because in the 1910 census he was
unemployed. He may have gotten a job, but he was a blacksmith, so
I’m not sure they were in great demand at that time. The house was
2 stories and they lived at 22 A Street. By the way, they did not
own the house. It was rented, according to the census. We may
have relatives in Missouri anyway. Gocko came to America with
her sister. I think she married someone called Steinhaus or
Steinhauser. Seems that what she told us, but I’m not sure. Note
that from 1917 Amelia Smith was not listed in the city directory.
Also note that 1921-24 Gocko is listed as widow of James
Smith....but in 1915 she is listed as Mrs. Amelia Smith. I wonder!
Could he have left around 1912 and then she got word that he died
around 1920? Therefore, she then listed herself as widow for the
city directory. Just speculation!”
The elder Byrne, William, came from Ireland in 1847 or 1848 during
the height of the Irish famine. He settled near the farming community
of Glynnwood. Hannah Daley came from Ireland & William Byrne
had a child, Hannah Byrne (1881 -1973), who married Thomas
Cogan and had a child - our grandmother (Margaret Cogan).
~ 95 ~
The Cogans arrived after 1849, missing a brutal cholera epidemic.
The Byrnes survived it - from a local history: “When the cholera
epidemic struck the town (Minster, Ohio) in 1849 the bodies of the
victims were buried in the cemetery in unmarked mass graves as
outlined in a previous chapter. A monument in their honor was
erected in 1937. The inscription reads, ‘In Pious Memory of All
Our Cholera Victims, Over 300, Especially in the Year 1849’”.
The Connaughton and Hodapp Families
Little is known about the family of my great-grandfather William
Connaughton (1871-1943). Some say that his grandfather came
from Ireland in 1821, well before the Irish famine, and was
relatively well-off financially. One website owner says that “The
CONNAUGHTON family, who came from Roscommon, Ireland
came up from Butler County to Glynnwood.” We do know that he
married Mary Hodapp (1875-1952), whose parents were Andrew
Hodapp (1842-1928) and Anna Mary Schillinger (1843-1930).
Mary Hodapp was William Connaughton Sr’s second wife. The first
one died of pneumonia.
From Margaret Connaughton (wife of William Connaughton Jr, my
“When I was in my teens we drove a horse and buggy to
Wapakoneta, but later we got a model T Ford, the kind you had to
crank to start the engine. I drove all kinds. Also I remember going
to town of St. Mary’s (5 miles away). The passenger train stopped at
Glynnwood. Your Mom was very close to aunt Mary and Ed
[Connaughton - sister and brother of William]. Mary was close to
our family. I really liked Bob, your great uncle. He was a very kind
person, very charitable. He died very sudden of a diabetic coma. He
was going with a very nice girl, but because of drink she wouldn’t
About my wedding day - Tom Byrne (Fr. Jim’s brother) got a buggy
out of the barn chained it to his car and took us in it, along with
any guests that wanted to go, on a trip to St. Mary’s (5 miles from
Glynnwood), through the main street to a saloon at the end of the
street. There we were put up on a table and all the guests sang a
~ 96 ~
number of songs and drank beer. My brother-in-law Bob paid the
bill. I’m sure my father-in-law liked that part. Some of the guests
(from Cincinnati) didn’t trust “that Irishman”) and didn’t go. I am
sure Tom Byrne had it pre-arranged. We were also to be put in jail,
but that fell through. That was part of our “reception”. There was
no music or dancing in those days.”
Holsteins and Nichtings:
Little is known of Henry Holstein and Whilimia Nichting, the
parents of my grandmother Ruth Holstein. They died at a relatively
young age; Henry left much money to the Church. I’ve heard that
their parents were possibly from Hanover, Germany or maybe Essen
on Bremen in Germany. They were apparently both born in this
The only grandparent Dad remembers is Amelia “Gocko” Hatti,
who was born in Germany, probably near Baden-Baden. She was
born in 1865 and emigrated to America at the age of 15 or 17
(possibly 18) and died around the age 86 in Hamilton, Oh. Why
she left Germany is anybody’s guess. It was probably for economic
reasons; Otto von Bismarck, the prime minister of Germany, was
making life hard for Catholics because he thought they were loyal
to Rome instead of his dream of a greater Germany.
It was still unusual in those days to marry outside your ethnic group,
but James and Amelia did (James was of British, Irish or Scott
heritage). They also rebelled against the times by getting married
later than was customary - Amelia was 27, James 29. They were
married in 1891 and their first child was born in Sept. of 1891.
Millie went to New York City to become an actress but died a
pauper. Like his father, Ernst married a German, Ruth Holstein.
Ruth’s parents, who died before Dad got a chance to know them,
were said to be devout in religion and relatively well-off materially.
From Joan Puma (Dad’s sister):
“James Smith married Amelia in 1891 in Missouri. Three girls were
born in Missouri. Amelia, Sept. 1891; Anna in June, 1893; and Ella
(Eleanor) in May of 1896. Tom was born in Ohio Dec. 1898, so I
~ 97 ~
assume that they came to Hamilton sometime between 1896 and
1898. [Dad’s father Ernst was born around 1903]. I do remember (I
think) that I was told that Gocko came to the US when she was 15
with her sister 17, or vice-versa...or I wonder if she came with her
brother, Michael, who was listed as kindred at Greenwood
Cemetery. (I’m only assuming that Michael was a brother. Could be
her father’s name?)”
The Cogan Family:
“Our Cogan Family ancestors came to America, the land of
Opportunity, in the years 1847 and 1848. They came, as so many of
the Irish did, because of the Potato Famine of 1845 in Ireland. They
didn’t have much money and came on the ships as steerage
passengers, meaning; they lived and slept in the hold of the ship.
They couldn’t read or write the English language.
The Cogans came from County Sligo, Ireland, which is in the north
western section of what is now Free Irish State. There were three
brothers and their sister that came to the United States. There may
have been more children that didn’t come over. I have reason to
believe they didn’t all come at the same time. The brothers; John,
Thomas, Patrick and their sister were the children of John and
Mary Sheridan Cogan. John Cogan and Mary Sheridan stayed in
Ireland; we do not know if they survived the Famine.
According to a published account in “History of Western Ohio and
Auglaize Co.” by C.W Williamson, Thomas came with an older
brother. Didn’t give his name, but John was the oldest. Thomas was
listed on the 1850 census as living in a hotel in St. Mary’s. I am fairly
sure they came in through New York. In 1850, Patrick appears on the
New York Census as living in Syracuse. The three brothers worked
their way over to Ohio and to Auglaize County in the early 1850s.
They bought land with the money they had saved from working on
the canals. They had to clear the land so they could farm it.
Thomas Cogan may have come to U.S. through Quebec – he drove
mules for the Erie Canal in NY. prior to coming to Glynnwood.
They bought land in Moulton Township, some of which was called
Canal Land, even though the canal didn’t pass even close by. The
~ 98 ~
reason it was called Canal Land was because the U.S. government
owned the land to any purchaser. The money from the sale of these
lands could only be used by construction of Ohio Canals. One of
the larger buyers of these lands was the State of Arkansas. That is
why some of the original deeds show Arkansas.
The Irish began to locate about five miles north east of St. Marys.
As the Irish were Catholic, they needed to have a church. In 1857,
they heard Mass said in the homes of Thomas and John Cogan and
Mrs. Bridget O’Boyle. Then in 1860, the people built a frame
church and in 1884 a brick church was built. The frame church
stood where the cemetery is today.
The baptismal register of St. Patrick’s Church, on its first page,
records these names: Cogan, Patrick and Sarah Monahan, parents
of Sarah Bridget Cogan, the first child baptized in Glynnwood in
1861. The little community where the Irish settled was first called
Six Mile. The name was changed to Glynnwood, naming it after
John Glynn. The village was laid out in March, 1876. There isn’t
much left of Glynnwood today except St. Patrick’s Church, the
cemetery and four houses.”
About Thomas Cogan, the following was obtained from an article in
a scrapbook at the local historical society. It concerns our great-great
grandfather who died in 1914 and who, after first emigrating, had no
nearby church: “The Rev. James P Ward, who preached the funeral
sermon, said: ‘Mr. Cogan was known to walk from Glynnwood to
Piqua to be present at the divine Sacrifice of the Mass. It was his
earnest zeal that prompted him to have a church close at hand, and
he with others of the same sturdy faith united their efforts and
established a pastorate at Glynnwood.’” As the crow flies the
distance between Glynnwood and Piqua is thirty miles!
~ 99 ~
About the Author
Since this book is for friends and family (after all, if you can’t inflict
your writings on your family, who can you?), it’s probably
superfluous to have a section titled “About the Author” but I’m doing
so on the publisher’s recommendation. The first heroic deed of my life
was being born, shucking the amniotic fluid for oxygen. Since then, I
have moved from my hometown of Fairfield, Ohio to Hilliard, Ohio
where I found employment as a computer programmer and married
my wonderful wife Stephanie. We have a son named Aaron, a dog
and two cats.
A special thanks to the traveling companions who made many of the
trip logs possible: Mark, Sandy, Amy, Nina, Anna Marie and Mary.
Finally, a toast of Guinness to Hambone and ‘du bist ein!’
~ 100 ~