Uncle Chuck

Last night night I became a grandfather. I don’t have to look around for people to thank.

First comes my daughter-in-law and son. Then there are the medical professionals who made sure that both mother and son were able to look into each other’s eyes. I also tip my hat to my daughter-in-law’s parents, who kept us informed of events as they happened, especially when they took much longer than anyone anticipated.

Then there’s my Uncle Chuck, an ob/gyn who, until he retired, had the reputation of having delivered most of the babies born in the western corner of his state. When I was much, much younger, I spent the night with Uncle Chuck and Aunt Char in their big house with its sloping driveway and rooms offering views of the New England woods. After we had eaten dinner, when we had settled down in comfy chairs, the phone rang. Uncle Chuck answered and then told us that a baby was coming and he would be back. He rose, put on his coat and hat and went out into the dark winter night.

He returned when the sun was high and said, in a weary but infinitely calming voice, that everything came out okay.

While waiting to hear if everything was okay with our daughter-in-law and the child inside her, my wife and became more than a little bit worried. Part of becoming a parent is learning that life can be messy, fragile and perilous. You might believe you’ll live forever when you’re young, but when you bring new life into the world, you learn that what goes right, can easily go wrong.

At one point we checked airfares and thought we’d park the dog with our niece and join that privileged few who are two panicked to be astonished at how much the airlines charge for flights leaving that day. But then we remembered our own experiences in the birthing room, recalling that, no matter how close you are, you can’t make the baby come out any faster, easier or safer.

That’s when I remembered my Uncle Chuck’s calm, post-delivery voice. I guessed that part of an obstetrician’s job is soothing expectant parents, as well as panicking grandparents-to-be who hadn’t had an update in several hours and were two thousand miles away from the delivery room.

How could I have known, way back when I saw my Uncle Chuck throw on his coat and go out in the New England winter, that I would, some day, take advantage of the family business?

I called. He answered. I explained what was happening, or rather, what wasn’t happening fast enough. I gave my wife my phone. She listened and Uncle Chuck told her what we needed to hear.

Part of what he said was an outline of standard operating procedure. Then there was a little insider detail about when, and how often, the obstetrician on-call would check on the baby’s progress, and what was most likely to occur in the next few hours.

Finally there was that voice that, to my welcome surprise, was doing for me and my wife what we probably could have done for ourselves and anyone else in our situation, but, in our panic, could not.

Is it ultimately, the information that saves us, or the manner in which it is delivered? A mixture of the two.

I had a moment when I could glimpse way, way back in time, to those who officiated at births, deaths and other momentous events. No matter what information was offered, instructions given (“Go out and fill this basin with hot water!”), or prayers uttered, it all came down to a voice that told us that things will be okay.

May you find that voice when you need it.




Cancer Free

Four months have passed since my wife’s last cancer examination. I was apprehensive as we drove to the doctor’s office. My wife was cheery, as always.

After a brief examination, he pronounced her, once again, cancer free. We celebrated with a big breakfast at a nearby bagel shop. Then she dropped me off at home and, before she continued on to her work, we agreed we had much for which to be grateful, and thankful.

I looked around for someone to thank but just saw trees with leaves beginning to turn color, a bright blue sky marked with squadrons of birds heading toward their southern time shares, a gentle breeze and a rising air temperature that inspired me to open the windows and let it all in.

I thought back on some of G.K. Chesterton’s advice for living.

1. The most important, beautiful and redemptive thing in life is the sense of wonder. There is no shortage of miracles and we only have ourselves to blame if we don’t notice them and be grateful for them.

2. In order to appreciate the miraculous nature of our lives, we must adopt a humble attitude about ourselves and our place in the world.

3. Terrible, awful, unfair things will happen. These events will move us to anger and despair. We must not delude ourselves about our feelings. Nor should we pretend, rationalize or fail to see these events as anything other than what they are: terrible, awful, dreadful things. But we may consider that the miraclous nature of life, whether or not it can be explained adequately, remains, and that, no matter how terrible our situation seems, we can strive to identify and appreciate the wonderful things that find us, comfort us, restore our spirits and bring us joy.

So, though it appears one of our cherished trees is dying, I am grateful for the others that are blooming in this beautiful autumn.

I thank the sky overhead for a color that suggests infinite possibility.

I wish the birds luck on their journey.

I welcome a breeze, perhaps connected to a fearful storm in another part of the country, into my home, as an honored guest.

And, despite a persistent, spasming pain in my knee, I took the dog out for several walks. We met dogs she likes. The other dog walkers agreed with me that it was a pleasant day.

My wife is cancer free.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.






A Fish Story

On a dark and stormy night at the end of a jetty sticking into the raging surf of the Atlantic Ocean, a working class Jersey boy who did odd jobs and fished all the time to feed his family, hooked the biggest blue fish ever caught in New Jersey and, perhaps, the entire eastern seaboard.

The fish was as big as a motorcycle and the guy who landed it couldn’t lift it. He needed help. Somehow, he found help. When they got the thing back to his house on Brigantine Island, he had to remove most of the frozen fish that was already in his garage freezer. Then he wrapped his big blue in garbage bags and put it in the cold.

The guy and his family were still eating the thawed fish when he heard at the bait shack that a national angling association had offered a cash prize for a record-breaking catch. He contacted them. They ignored him. He contacted them again, sending another picture of the fish. No response.

Somebody tipped off the local newspaper. A reporter called and learned that there was no picture of the guy holding the fish up in front of a weighing scale because it was dark and raining when he landed, he didn’t know anybody with a camera (this was before the era of the cell phone) and the last thing they were going to do in fifty-mile-per-hour winds was put the fish in somebody’s truck and drive it over the Brigantine Bridge to the weighing scale at Gardner’s Basin.  Besides, he didn’t know there was a contest going on for big catches. He and his family would have eaten the fish by now if he hadn’t been told to wait until this national angling society certified his catch.

The reporter tried to get a response from the angling society but nothing came in before the deadline. The newspaper printed a cautious story that this fish just might be a record-breaker but we’ll have to wait for the powers-that-be to decide.

I was living at the Jersey shore and writing for magazines. I read the newspaper story and called the guy up. He told me I had just missed the “expert” from the angling society. The expert looked at the fish and said that it didn’t qualify because he hadn’t caught it.

Say what?

In order for a fish to count for the record, it has to be alive when it is landed.  The expert said this fish, while certainly large, had been dead on arrival.

I asked if the expert had done an autopsy. He hadn’t. He barely unwrapped it. He just looked at it and left.

I made a visit. The guy and his family lived in a tiny, humble, barely furnished two-bedroom house in Brigantine. We started talking and he invited me to eat with his family. He opened a few cans, threw a block of frozen ground beef into a frying pan, and served us sloppy joes (a sweet bolognese) on white bread.

Then he took me to the garage and showed me the fish. I’d seen tuna that big, but never a blue. He told me how he caught it, describing how he stood alone on the jetty in a bitter nor’easter, because storms can make the bigger fish come in closer to the shore. After hours of rain and wind blasting him in the face, he was about to go in when a voice spoke inside him and told him to stay a little longer.

He stayed a little longer and hooked the fish. Pulling it in was like dragging a truck. He would have lost it if the nor’easter wasn’t blowing toward him, sending the ocean, and whatever was in it, crashing up on the jetty.

I asked him if he’d read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. He hadn’t.

When he saw how big the fish was, he didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t want to leave it there. Finally he put his rod down, ran to the nearest street and got help. The fish was there, breathing, when he returned.

I thanked him for dinner. The next day, I called the angling society. I got the line about the fish being dead. I asked if any tests were done to determine how and when the fish had died.

No tests were done. The expert knew what a dead fish looked like. Besides, the reward for a record-breaking catch was intended for professional sport fishermen who are scrupulous about documentation. How is it possible that an amateur could land a fish that big? This was one man’s story and, me being a journalist, I should know what they say about fish stories.

To be sure, some of what passes for journalism might as well be a colorful exaggeration. Journalism as a profession tends to be reviled by those who don’t like what they read or see. I had never wanted to go into the trade, but I had a fierce desire to prove to myself that I was worthy. Almost every short story I sent out had been rejected, sending me into despairing tail-spins ending in writers block. Journalism, with its deadlines, does not accommodate writers block.

Journalism does accommodate reporters who sympathize with their subject. Is there a great difference between a lone guy sending out short stories to magazines, and another braving a storm to catch a fish?

My article that suggested that the angling society could not believe that a simple, humble, hard-working Jersey boy could, through determination and luck, beat them at their own game.

After it was published the angling society sent down another expert who decided that the Jersey boy had, indeed, landed the largest blue fish, and that the check for the award was in the mail.

A month later I called the guy up to find out if he got the check. He said the check had come, and that after he cashed it, he the check, he sawed off sections of the fish and was trying to eat it, but everybody he knew was tired of the fish. He’d baked it, fried it, grilled it it so many times. Did I want any?

I thanked him but said I had a blue in my freezer at the moment that I caught at the supermarket. I told him that I liked to “blacken” it with black pepper and broil it, with onions, sliced Jersey tomatoes and garlic.

He said he’d try my recipe and we never spoke again.



The October Country

My favorite season has arrived, bringing chilly mornings, spectacularly colorful trees standing heroically against a bright blue sky, blustery breezes that carry golden leaves to peculiar places, stink bugs clinging to the doors and windows waiting patiently to invade, and the comfort of sunlight warming my back.

A hot cup of tea tastes especially good in autumn. My dog moves faster on the walk–is it the cool air or scent of other dogs, suddenly more vivid now?

The squawk of birds and the song of the garden wind chimes are challenged by the rumble, rattle and whine of power tools. Our Home Owners Association hired an especially picky person to do exterior inspections this season.  The angry howls from my neighbors went up last month about the indignity, unfairness and capriciousness of the multi-page, copiously illustrated list of violations. This month, I hear the pressure washers, nail guns and skill saws rushing to meet the November 1 fix-it-or-else deadline.

One strangely wonderful thing occurred: people I never knew came up to me to complain about their inspection and tell me about that house down street whose inhabitants never did this or that, or wanted to raise chickens in their backyard. We found a common enemy. We few, we angry few, we band of owners–whoever had to spend money this month on useless exterior repairs was my brother.

Or sister.

To show the neighborhood what our newly increased HOA fees can do, a different inspector came around and marked sections of the sidewalk with a day-glo orange X. A week later these sections were blasted apart with a jackhammer and replaced with new concrete whose palid, corpse-hair gray didn’t match the older, sunbaked slabs. The neighborhood kids quickly customized these with their initials and, on one near my house, an obscene graffito.

As one among those whose jobs keep them at home, I savor the quiet moments when jets aren’t roaring overhead, the bad brakes on delivery trucks aren’t squealing, the one car with the bad muffler doesn’t grumble through the morning mist, the coy bleeting of a car responding to a remote lock or unlock signal, the amplified pop music from kids’ phones isn’t broadcasting–like the boom boxes of an earlier generation–the dubious taste of the listener.

The soundtrack of my life was once filled with music from several thousand recordings that changed from vinyl discs to “compact” discs and now, digital files, some of which my Ipod won’t play because I bought them back when Apple decided that you can store your music on only five hard drives. When you buy you’re sixth computer, you learn that the soundtrack of your life was never fully yours.

As much as I love that music, the more I find out about the composers, the musicians who performed it, the recording companies that made and ruined musicians’ reputations and did their best not to pay royalties and now, the digital gate keepers so certain that artists should make art for the luminous thrill of creation rather than anything as tawdry as money, not to mention the concert promoters who will sell you a stadium ticket that costs the equivalent of ten trips to the supermarket just to see your favorite band from a seat that gives you a better view of the city skyline than the tiny people on the stage–the more I want to listen to something else.

So, in these days before the cold air will force me to close the window, I listen to the wind chimes and the sounds of other people doing so many, many things until that first, marvelous night of snow, when we’ll wake up and see the naughty illustration on the sidewalk covered in a smooth flow of white that will soften the edges of the neighborhood and make our slumbering cars resemble enormous sheetcakes waiting for birthday candles.

My wife, the dog and I will put on our big boots (yes, we have boots for the dog) and go for a walk. The snow will crunch obediently under our feet. Our dog will do what dogs must and change the color of the snow in strategic places. Where every little thing had a noise to call its own, we will pause as the snow absorbs every sound but the sigh of our breath frosting in front of us.

Until the cars wake up, the snow blowers growl, the snowplows come to seal your car into a wall of packed ice just after you dug it out, and the October country, with its swish of store-bought Halloween costumes, squeaky cries of “trick or treat,” and parental admonishments, delivered while holding the latest cellphone, about the unholy torments awaiting those who take too much candy, will have come and gone.



Stop and Start Again

I began a novel that I had started years previously with the hope that this time, the writing would be easier and I’d actually finish the thing.

I lasted about three paragraphs, went away from the word processor and realized I hadn’t written a blog post today.

So I went to the Write page and started a post that, after a few paragraphs, veered off into territory I’d already discussed in an earlier post.

Meanwhile I thought about a topic I really wanted to write about, though I knew very little about it: should philosophy be the aggregation of ways of thinking that benefit ordinary human beings as they negotiate their turbulent lives, or should it be a branching heresy of extraordinary thinking (which is not to be confused with thinking about the extraordinary) becomes a probe that reveals things about our world that most would tend to ignore?

Restated, should philosophy function as an art, or a science? The easy answer is it should be both–sharpen our understanding but also show us what we could be doing better–and neither, because our definitions and assumptions about art and science are based on prior experience and, for philosophy to grow, it must not let what has been thought previously hold it back.

Others among the zillions who write blog posts, and the few who actually read blogs other than their own, might say, “who cares?”

With that, I lasted about two paragraphs.

In my experience, what starts a writing session is mysterious. What stops it is obvious, but never final. Writing, like the practice of any art or activity that gives you something you can’t get anywhere else, is never finished. It stops and starts, again.

Writing doesn’t have to begin with an idea, but it helps. For me, Ideas come from an invisible place and, like seeds, they spoil if they aren’t planted. They also fail to grow and  propagate if the soil, sunlight, water, the presence of predators and other plants, isn’t within a limited range.

How much, then, does limitation–the frame around the picture, the rules that control the game, the moral or ethical traditions that identify acceptable behavior, the laws that construct society–have to do with creativity, whose proponents notoriously resist categorizing, qualifying, quantifying, disciplining and most every tendency to define what they’re doing?

Finally, to what extent is writing a blog post part of a larger avoidance strategy interferes with, prevents or limits the accomplishment of…going to the gym?

Thus I stop, to start again.






Editing For Joy

The first time I heard about editing my life, it was a throwaway idea from the manic radio commedian Jean Shepherd. “I saw my editor today,” Shepherd said after promoting his collection of humorous short stories, In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash. He said he thought everyone should have an editor, not just for literary efforts, but for life itself.

Think of all those moments you’d rather not remember, Shepherd went on. A few quick swipes of a pencil, and faster than you can say delete-and-close-up, they’re gone.

I was an adolescent when I heard this. Five nights a week (and sometimes on Saturday, when his stand-up act at the Limelight nightclub was broadcast live), Shepherd would improvise stories of childhood pratfalls (“The Christmas Story” is his best known), his Army sertvice, teenage humiliations, embarrassments and utter failures that, no matter how regretful, contained a lesson, a moral, an insight into a cold, unforgiving world that nevertheless permitted moments of comic tragedy and grand romantic gestures. Jean Shepherd was among many who inspired me to tell stories of my own.

I was too young to know what an editor was. At the time I had teachers who would mark up my assignments with a red pencil, circling, underlining and generally making a mess of what I thought was perfectly good prose.

But the idea of being able to cut from your life the stuff you didn’t like appealed to an overweight, bookish kid who was terrified of girls and spent five months of the year sneezing and sniffling from hay fever. I had read some versions of this in science fiction time-travel stories, most of which ended on the note that, when it comes to the past, we’re better off it we leave it alone.

But I couldn’t stop remembering, and beating my self up, over things I did that didn’t come out as I wished they might. And, having become a professional writer who has met good editors and not-so-good, married the right girl, published a few books, taught at prestigious places, written for prestigious publications and has enough money in the bank not to scrape and scramble as I did in my youth, I continue to think back and get mad at myself for not having sufficient people skills, not clamping down my conversational “filter,” and other times when I zagged instead of zigged. I’ve spent a lifetime with the psychological equivalent of a red pencil, circling, underlining and turning much of my personal history into humiliating, Jean-Shepherdesque failures that, unlike Shepherd’s stories, end with a grim hindsight, or a wistful fantasy of how things could have been if only I had done things differently.

A life editor wouldn’t help me rewrite those passages. But what if I just eliminated them, cut them out, refused to think about them anymore?

While some self-help books may advise this, I’ve also come to admit that, having cluttered my life with numerous strategical errors, I have learned a thing or two from them, and that this has supported some of my more meaningful, worthwhile decisions.

Sometimes the path to wisdom isn’t paved with excess as much as it may be strewn with banana peels. Slip on a few and you’ll want to put your fruit residue in a garbage can.

But what about those regrets that haunt us? What to do?

Some time ago I decided I would no longer line-edit manuscripts offered for my reading and comment. I did this on a hunch that by circling, underlining and making a mess of the roughest of drafts, I wasn’t helping the writer–who shouldn’t be worried about grammar in the early stages of writing–or myself. When I line edited, I’d focus on the prose when I might be getting something else from reading the piece. That, and, after a two to three hour meeting of my writers group, I was too tired to enjoy the convival, refreshing experience that conversation with like minds in a good writers group can bring.

So, why not apply this to my life story? Acknowledge that we do very little rehearsing for what life brings us, that if we are not improvising our responses to the slings and arrows, we are falling back on habit or instinct that, no matter its source, is more about who and what we are, then it is about right or wrong.

Accept what has happened, honor it to the extent that without it, I wouldn’t be the reasonably kind and loving writer I’ve aspired to be, and then let it recede from view.

What happens when I do this? I have one more chance to rejoice that I’m still here, and reasonably capable of taking part in the daily, little miracles whose only mystery is not that they’re here, but why I spend so much time letting slights and circumstance distract me.

Yes, bad things happen. We’ll never understand why, to what extent we brought them on, or didn’t do enough to prepare for them or avoid them.

But, when the bad things are not imminent, we can look at where we are right now and not even begin to count blessings that are so numerous that we could grow old very quickly looking for someone to thank.

Better to stand where we are right now, in joy.



The Missing Post

I spent hours writing. Then I pressed the right buttons and–it disappeared!

Where, I wonder, does our writing go when it is inexplicably swallowed by the technology that made it possible? I tried everything I knew (and few things I didn’t, while thrashing at my disappointment) and can’t find the piece anywhere.

Perhaps a specialist adept at computerized sorcery can enter the digital graveyard and resurrect my missing blog post, as well as the true stories, false starts, spiteful grumbles, passionate revelations and revisions of those revelations. Would one of those dusty scraps connect with the many, many readers who have so far not given this page their kind attention? Would my life be any different?

Or is this an Act of God that, one day in the future, I will acccept with gratitude. It will be another cool autumn day with a brightly blue sky and fluffy clouds parading grandly in a breeze that blows the leaves this way, and that. I’ll be walking the dog, or sitting down to savor the scene, and I’ll remember some prolix profundity I was hurl into the world of people who have nothing better to do than read blog posts. I’ll recall what I had said, or, perhaps, the spirit that made saying possible, and I’ll smile.

Or I’ll grumble when, having joined temporarily the tribe of those who have nothing better to do than read blog posts, I’ll find that this person said the very same thing, perhaps not as elegantly as myself, but close enough. Or that these other writers wouldn’t have written they did if they had encountered my post first.

Or I’ll just sit down and enjoy the day. Not every arrow we shoot into the air, lands I know not where, but enough of them do to make some of us put down our bow, hang  up the quiver and find something different to do.

Which makes room for those like me, who know that the best thing to do is pull out another arrow.