Not Dead Yet

The form letter came in the morning mail, addressed to the family of…

Followed by my name. The local voter registration office was sorry for our loss and was dropping me from the ranks of registered voters because I was had died on…

When exactly?

I became concerned. It’s one thing to prove that you’re dead: you (or someone who is handling your postmortem affairs) gets a death certificate from the county. But, once a government agency assumes you’re dead, how do you prove otherwise? The closest thing we have to a “life certificate” is a flimsy social security card and number, which has no picture. I know I have a birth certificate but I’m old enough NOT to know where to look for it if I ever need it.

Then there’s the uncomfortable possibility that insurance companies can cancel my numerous policies, some necessary for health care and prescription drugs. What about my driver’s license?

I thought of the small pile of cards, paper, some laminated, some wrinkled, folded and fading, that say I am what I am (and, to quote Popeye, “that’s all that I yam.” I remembered numerous pre-internet science fiction novels and thrillers about sneaky operatives who are “off the grid,” that is, technically nonexistent so they can create fake identities at will. This sounds like fun until you consider Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film Brazil, when one agency makes the equivalent of a typographical error (on a genuine typewriter!) that brings chaos down on our poor hero because, in the future, the many bureaucracies have reached attained a web-like state of interconnection (symbolized by the pipes and wires that burst and dangle from the film’s nightmarish sets), so that when one makes a mistake, they ALL make the mistake.

My wife checked the voter registration list on line and found that her name was on it. Mine was not.

Was this because of the way I voted, or for whom I did or did not vote in the last election? I recalled a trend sweeping the country in which a political party was purging voter registrations in such a way that those who had voted and still wanted to vote had to somehow prove that they existed.

My wife advised me to gather my ID cards and my passport with the morbid letter and visit the agency in person. We parked in the visitor space. I entered a moderately impressive lobby and turned right into one of those bleak, windowless rooms where rows of desks are defended by a broad, featureless counter where you can almost feel the frustration, agony and irritation of all the not-yet-dead folks arriving to complain.

Except I was alone. A supervisory person assumed an arms-folded, defensive posture behind the counter. I had, after all, arrived without an appointment.

“I’m thinking of changing my middle name to Lazarus,” I began, displaying the letter.

A smile, and then an explanation as another person who may or may not have sent the letter arose from the wilderness of desks. Records were checked and, low and behold, a person with my first name and last name died a few months ago in a different town within the county. He had a different middle name but whoever put his name in the records and hit the button that sent the form letter to me, didn’t check middle names.

The person apologized for my confusion. I was assured that this would not affect any other records with my name on them, within the county, state or federal government.

“Does this happen often?” I wanted to know.

Not often. I was told, but occasionally, when names are similar.

I thought of the dozen or so people I had located on the internet who had my first and last name. I had sent some emails. Now I know why at least one of them didn’t respond.

Then I was thanked for helping them train new voter registration office employees, and others in the country, to compare middle names. I would get a letter soon confirming that I was placed back on the voter registration list.

I stood still for a moment. Then I asked, “should I do anything else to make sure everything is okay?”

“You can celebrate your birthday. You now have two of them.”

I decided to take the rest of the day off.


Good News

I was shocked on Christmas Day to see some of my familiar news media offering lists of events that happened in 2022 that were actually good.

What surprised me is how much there was to report. As a news junkie and part-time member of the news media, I heard so little about things that were pleasing, inspiring, optimistic and hopeful (not quite the same as optimism, and arguably more important). Some of these stories confirmed that, despite so many genuinely awful occurrences, things were improving, happy and affirmative of what I valued, as a United States citizen and human being.

That good news was featured around now is appropriate for those who celebrate Christmas, as the word “gospel”–the written accountants of the birth and deeds of Jesus–derives from an old English construction meaning glad tidings.The idea of doing things that increase happiness around this time of year goes back even further, to ceremonies observing the winter solstice, when the sun, whose hours and position overhead appeared to shrink, was now returning, bring the promise of warmth, the spring thaw, rebirth, health and sustenance.

Not all of what I read and saw warmed my heart. A few celebrities who had behaved badly in public (or whose private life was made public) lost a few fans. Politicians who disappointed us were ALMOST held accountable for failing to be the people we thought they were. Much that we were told to fear didn’t happen, hasn’t happened yet or wasn’t worth being afraid of. Pharmaceutical and medical research-and-development departments here and abroad had a shelf-load of treatments, medications, new surgical techniques and devices that will diagnose dangerous disease sooner, and, maybe, cure us of our many, many ills.

That also didn’t thrill me because, if you watch most network news programs, many commercials are for drugs that make similar promises until you hear the almost-too-fast-to-hear “fine print” with such blase’ observations like “may cause death.”

But then there was the fact that gas prices were way down from what they had been. And a tale of an environmentalist whose work with whales and harbor masters had increased the number of whales in one small part of the world. I’m not sure if more whales equals a slightly better world (it may not be great for what the whales eat) but it’s nice to think about.

After a year in which we were shown how some charities were most charitable to those who ran them, it was gratifying to know that the great majority of non-profit public service organizations were actually helping people. More kids who didn’t have the funds to go to college were seeking, and being admitted to, schools that cut their tuition fees. Affordable housing projects admitted their first residents. More people were installing and using renewable “clean” energy systems. A rocket sent from our planet tossed a satellite at an asteroid seven MILLION miles away and made the asteroid change course.

And, on Christmas morning, I could watch on a cellphone screen my three-year-old grandson play with a toy I selected and mailed to him. Way back when I was reading my first science fiction stories, video phones were ways that blaster-wielding heroes could glare in defiance at snickering interplanetary villains, but the rest of us had to make long distance calls and fret about the extra charge for dialing outside our area codes. Now I could see, and hear, someone find happiness from a toy that, way back BEFORE I began to read science fiction, was a wish come true.

Sooner than later the world will have to endure the post-New Years hangover, monstrous credit card bills, and suddenly increased fees for stuff we forgot we were paying for. We’ll have mornings when we slip on the ice from last night’s deep freeze, the car won’t start, we hear sirens and see the ruin of a house or the crumpled damage of an automobile that left its driver barely alive. An appliance we valued for years will suddenly die–just when the year-end sales have ended. The seasonal sicknesses will find us, no matter how careful we were at avoiding them. Some authority figure will insist that what we thought was fine or, at least, okay–was not. Someone will does something terrible will get away with it. A disastrous storm will blow in. Earnest news anchors will tell us of another act of rudeness that forced a passenger plane to make an emergency landing, or introduce us to a place we had never heard of until a mass shooting happened there.

Politicians will let us down. We’ll have to stop doing what we’ve been doing because if we don’t, we’ll bring about the end of the world.

The rich and famous will resume behaving badly in public. My grandchild might tire of his toy, or a new one will distract him.

Life will “get back to normal.”

But we’ll know that, on one day, at least, things were a little bit better.


Should I Quit My Day Job?

I was recently asked for advice by someone for someone who wanted to leave an unfulfilling but highly lucrative career and become the writer they always wanted to be. This was my reply:

First of all, you’re already a writer. Call yourself one and feel good about it. Anyone who writes is a writer. Anyone who finishes what they write deserves praise for not giving up, or, more often than not, giving in to a dream and trusting it enough to follow where it leads.

Avoid telling friends, colleagues and peers that you’re a writer because they’ll ask what you’ve published. The process of publication does not make writers, but it can certainly break them. Your friends may want to read what you’ve written. This can be very frustrating, because the best that they’ll do when you show them is tell you that it is “good.” This isn’t what you need. What you need is for someone to say that your work was worth doing, reading it is worthwhile and that you are the writer you want to be.

Only you can tell yourself that, and once you do, you find out it doesn’t make much difference in the “real world” where most people have no idea what writers go through in order to produce that great poem, short story, novel, newspaper story, magazine article, non-fiction book, speech, prayer, song lyric, screenplay, limerick or one-liner joke.

And these people wouldn’t believe you if you told them.

If possible, find a hospitable, welcoming writers group near you. I assure you, this is not easy. I founded one because others were either too far away, or ruled by dictatorial Svengalis who were more concerned with reinforcing their opinions about writing than nurturing the work of others. I am no longer a member of that group, but, last I heard, it still meets.

A good writers group should feel like putting on old, comfortable clothes that you love too much to get rid of. After a few minutes, you stop thinking of what you’re wearing and you feel good enough to do just about anything and not worry about how you may appear. At best, you become playful. You wander back to those times in your childhood when you cloaked your toys in stories. or gazed at clouds and had a very good idea of what it would be like to live up there.

Nurturing that sense of play is the primary task of a writers group because the world around us is far too serious and overrun by those who would tell you that you are paid to do THIS and mistakes are FATAL. Yes, there are niceties of grammar, punctuation and spelling (that sink in after a while); one must honor the customs of genres, and our mass-market driven culture comes with rapidly changing definitions about what is and isn’t art. But you should feel safe enough in a writers group to share work that is unformed, possibly derivative, unusual, surprising, not-your-best and otherwise new, without anyone (including your own inner critical voice) saying “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!!!” or, worse, “you’re wasting your time.”

No one in a writers group should have to tell you that you CAN do this and your time is well spent. Instead, they should tell you what in your offering works for them, what might need refinement. You should not feel obligated to follow anyone’s suggestions. But you should not become defensive if you thought you were being funny and some didn’t laugh. The work you bring to a writers group is new, and new things always come with surprises.

You should leave each session with the certainty that you are part of a peer group that merely wants its members to succeed and not go too crazy over the momentary joys, sudden frustrations and daunting set-backs that are part of any creative effort.

Also, consider what you’re reading right now for pleasure. This is tough for those whose job it is to read business, legal, or academic prose that can be so numbingly dull that you wish the alphabet had never been invented.

What you enjoy reading restores your soul, reminds you that writing is worth doing and remains your best teacher, especially when you have those moments when you don’t know if what you’ve done is any good, or you’re reached a point in composition where the words stop and you don’t know what to do next. From your reading, you know that if __________, did it, you can do it, too.

Or do something even better.

Finally, consider if any of your work would “fit” into publications, either on-line or in print, that you like to read, look for that publication’s submission guidelines and send it out. Of course you’ll get more rejections than acceptances, but that one acceptance just might feel good, and build a relationship with an editor of that publication. All writers benefit from good editors. May you meet several along the way

When I began to write books, my editor said, “Don’t quit your day job.” I found that insulting. Writing was my day job! My journalism was appearing in many publications. My wife was working. We had a child.

Second, I knew that the publishing industry pays like any business in the arts. Those who are starting out, but are earnest enough to work hard and meet the needs of publications, are paid very little, or nothing. Those whose work regularly rides the best seller lists, wins awards, inspires pithy grunts from critics, is made into movies or over-long streaming series, are paid more than any human being has ever earned.

This is rarely the fault of those who write, even if they strut and fret and tell eager interviewers how much they’ve suffered. In truth, the marketplace creates inequalities. I’m almost never paid what my work is worth. Sometimes it’s too much for what was an easy, blissful, effortless tip of the hat. Other times, it’s too little for a chore in which every line was rewritten five times.

Back when I was making a reputation as a lively, competent, trustworthy journalist, I was in an atmospheric Atlantic City tavern with a much older newspaperman who had had a book on the bestseller list gazed up at me over a glass of beer and warned me not to give up my day job.

I fumed: this WAS my day job!

He said, “then you should find something that brings the money in regularly. Because you can make a fortune writing, but you can’t make a living.”

I disagreed then, and disagree now. A day job can rob you of the energy and desire, to do anything but flop on a couch, sip bad wine and watch stupid TV.

You can make a living as a writer, though you can never be certain of how much, or when the checks will arrive. The pressures of meeting financial obligations are sufficiently extreme to interfere with, or subvert, whatever feelings of pleasure or profundity you get from writing. 

I have a karate black belt and used to teach martial arts. One thing teaching teaches teachers is beginners won’t understand some things and may even refused to believe what you’ve learned is true. Students of any endeavor, art or industry must put in time before what they heard from their kindly old teacher makes any sense.

When I taught writing, I gave this bit of what I called “black belt wisdom”:

You don’t write despite your life. You write BECAUSE of it. 

I’ll translate: I’m sure you have many moments when you find your current job frustrating or unfulfilling and you see yourself doing something more worthwhile with a pen, paper or word processor. We all have moments when writing feels like the most important thing, even if no one reads what we’ve done (although it’s very nice when they do and say good things about it!). 

You may even imagine yourself in a nice house, beach bungalow or mountain chateau, with a glass of splendid wine at your side, in a comfy, Architectural Digest profiled chair, facing a view of nature at her most magnificent, with an idea that is blossoming into a trilogy destined to change the course of literature.  Let’s sweeten the fantasy a bit: you’re a well-published author, with prize winning, best-selling work to your credit, and the latest Broadway genius wants to make your book of poems into their next musical!

You just may achieve all of that one day BUT, right now, what you feel is a powerful urge to BE a writer.

Okay. You ARE a writer. Let what you’re experiencing right here, right now, motivate you. Write about what your day job is like. Tell the truth about how it feels to have a career laid out before you like hopscotch squares, and to find it all wanting.

Or write about something totally different. Either way, the words come through you BECAUSE of who you are, right here, right how. If duty calls and you’ve only put so many words down, stop, save what you’ve done and come back to it later. If not….

Let it all begin, now!

Every profession has given us great writers, educators, philosophers, poets. William Faulkner said that “good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers or horse swipes.” As another writer told me, “Whatever happens to you is all grist for the mill.”

Therefore, as Henry James advised, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

My father was a lawyer who was lucky if he read one book a year because he worked so hard practicing law. He wanted me to join his firm and write on the side. I went so far as to take the Law School Admission Test. I tend to get low scores on standardized tests (like most imaginative people, I overthink choices). The LSAT at that time delivered a score called Writing Ability. When my test results indicated my talent ranked somewhere at the bottom, I told myself that any institution that uses such a test to deny access to education, was not for me.

This was not empty bravado: When I took that test I was writing regularly, and publishing often, in newspapers and magazines. I was also working in a supermarket deli, a restaurant and a lamp store to support myself.

Later, when I taught novel-writing at the University of Pennsylvania and other impressive colleges, I’d always get at least one lawyer in the class who wanted to be the next John Grisham or Lisa Scottoline.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I sought out other writers to see how they lived. I met one who was living in a one-room saltbox-style house. I met another who drove a Cadillac, lived on key-hole shaped peninsula jutting into a Florida lake, in a sprawling house he designed himself with sweeping views of the water. 

I wanted to be that guy with the fancy house! I thought, if he can do it, so can I!

In nearly 45 years of writing professionally, I have yet to publish any science fiction. But I have lived in places with nice views. From my current window, I see trees and the houses of neighbors.

Dreams matter can be like seeds. Not every seed finds soil. Not every seed gets adequate sunlight and water. Not all of them grow or make more seeds.

But, somehow, enough of them do.

You’re a writer now.


Patience Learned Again

I was so proud of the roses and they looked awful: black spotted yellowed leaves, withered blossoms, twisted brown canes.

I dreaded the sight of the front garden. My wife’s happy jungle of fruits, vegetables, flowers and grasses continued to be a daily joy: what she had sown with all those fertilizers, sprays and bags of mulch and soil had yielded fabulous results.

My efforts brought the opposite. All the optimism and green thumb glories I had in the spring had sunk to a dank, dingy, grody embarrassment. A few annuals had perked up, and some strange bulbs sprouted bent green bottle washers.

But the rest of it forced me to avert my eyes. I asked garden center experts, who told me about things I should buy, scatter around the roots, spray on or attach to a hose. I tried a few. Things grew worse.

Spring had started so beautifully! Everything I put in the ground took off eagerly. Then the summer heat and humidity, so characteristic of where I live, turned everything into a wretched, wilted, buggy, fungible fungi-infested mess.

After a month of steamy sun the nights became just a bit cooler. We had a few days of breezy rain that blew the bugs away. I watched in horror as the leaves fell off the roses, leaving gnarled, twisted, thorny green stalks.

I confess that I gave up. I shook my head, opened a book about World War II’s D-Day invasion, hated the smarmy, unflappable TV garden show hosts with their dazzlingly colorful borders that had not one brown leaf, and and tried to forget about the hot green mess I saw every morning when I took the dogs for a walk, picked up the morning paper (yes, I still read news printed on paper), wheeled the trash cans (the cheery blue container sending yesterday’s news to a recycler) out and back.

At my age I should have remembered the subtle inevitability of changing seasons, of the seasons within seasons when living things other than myself take breaks, get sick, react awkwardly to hardship, or lend themselves to mysterious processes that I can’t see. I should have faith that there is more to gardening than getting dirty, putting things in the ground and admiring the results.

Because, a few weeks later, I saw on those very same spindly green stalks, a little bump of new growth. Each day the sprout grew longer. Leaves unfolded and then–a bud that just might be, could be–became a bud that became a bloom.

Of the many things we so easily, and foolishly forget, patience is high on the list. Freud said we never quite stop being infants. I have moments when I zoom back to my childhood when I wanted stuff NOW and if I didn’t get it NOW I was going to be miserable NOW and if I still didn’t get what I wanted right NOW I would do my best to make everyone else around me miserable until….

Fortunately I recognize the mood and frequently nip it in the bud, so to speak. But, with the garden, what I wanted was that feeling that, despite a blissful ignorance of horticultural science and a grudging aversion to taking advice from garden center experts, I was doing the right thing with a patch of ground in front of the house, and that earnest collaborations with nature, no matter how tentative, awkward or naive, can lead to something worthwhile.

This feeling has almost nothing to do with the plants and other living things in the soil. In truth, it has almost nothing to do with anything other than me. And like most other desirable feelings and pleasant emotional moods, it is more about what’s happening in my brain than the infinitely complicated interactions outside.

After all, there are far more blossoms blooming on this planet than human beings to see them, appreciate them or even scurrilously take credit for them.

So, once again, at an age when I thought the tremors and travails of youth had given way to hard-earned wisdom, I had to wait until a bunch of plants helped me learn, or rather, re-learn, patience, not just for processes beyond my control, but for a life that still offers subtle surprises, quiet delight and new growth, perhaps the most precious gift of all.


Off the Wagon

I fell off the wagon again.

Right when I was enjoying the morning sunshine, sitting at my computer with all this time on my hands—

I started playing solitaire.


And not just on my computer but…on my phone! Within seconds I slipped into the old, familiar, cloying embrace of my addiction.

  1. Solitaire after coffee but before I do anything serious, stopping with a perfect game. Why? It can be like a dipstick for my brain: am I remembering the order of the cards? Am I sufficiently aware and awake to proceed to other tasks? Or should I see how many mistakes I’m making and either wait until another dose of coffee blasts the fog from my mind, or just give up on consciousness altogether?
  2. Solitaire as a break (or reward) after doing something especially onerous, or putting up with something (or someone) especially onerous. I can cool down after a run or bicycle ride. I should stop after a perfect game, but if perfection comes too soon, I may continue.
  3. Solitaire when I’m writing and I hit a worrisome, fretful patch and I feel an urge to distract myself and, perhaps, come back with a new or refreshed perspective. Stop with perfect game.
  4. Solitaire on the phone when I’m waiting for someone or something. Within a few deft moves of the cards, the insulting, demeaning, patronizing, not funny, sickening (especially those for drugs that treat embarrassing symptoms) and otherwise horrible commercials on the evening news, have segued into the sunset.
  5. Solitaire when my wife is watching a streaming show that isn’t so annoying that I’ll want to go upstairs and open a book.
  6. Solitaire at night, if I wake up too early with my eyes open like a car’s headlights on BRIGHT. Play until anxiety attack ebbs.

That’s a LOT of solitaire and it only leads to one thing: MORE solitaire. The buzz I get when I have a perfect game is simple and habit forming. It brings me to questions such as, do I want to commit to weeks, months and years of uncertainty and write a novel that will fulfill my childhood dream of making everyone happy, or do I want move a digitally generated card from one column to another and, perhaps, uncover enough aces to start piling them up?

And what about those moments when only a few cards remain to be turned over? It’s like everything is falling into place until…they don’t. Excitement mounts! I say to myself, when I begin the next game, I’m going to do it right. I’m not going to do what didn’t work the last time. And I’m going to do more of what seemed to work the last time. I’ll pay closer attention, or step back and consider the long view, or not take things so seriously, or trust myself, or use my psychic powers that everyone is supposed to have but have gone undeveloped in yours truly because I have yet to meet a green elf with funny ears in a swamp who speaks in enigmatic anastrophes, or put the pedal to the metal and go with the flow—

I stopped playing solitaire some time ago when I found myself in the same frantic state as Atlantic City slot machine players who won’t stop to drink water, eat lunch or go to the lavatory because they need to keep playing to win. I learned from interviewing a casino nurse that the single most common illness is a gambling hall is hypoglycemic shock. The slot junkies lose consciousness, slide off their chairs and collapse in front of their machines. Within seconds the casino’s medical staff is summoned to administer a glass of orange juice. Within minutes, the slot fanatics are back at it, yearning for that row of cherries to take them to jackpot heaven.

In Atlantic City, jackpots are advertised as a zillion bucks. But, for most slot-o-holics, it works out to considerably less cash than they put into the machine. In my solitaire sessions, it’s a feeling of having won, which we all know from our high school health classes consists of little more than a release of dopamine inside our brains.

I decided that the dopamine rush from winning a game, an argument, finding that second set of house keys that you thought you lost behind a couch pillow, getting what you think is a genuine bargain at the grocery store, finding that shirt you couldn’t afford on the clearance rack for half price—in your size!, and finishing the writing of a novel that you wish would make everyone happy but will probably bring just as much frustration and humiliation as the last one you wrote, as it struggles up the publishing stream like a salmon that wonders why it has to swim upstream when all it wants to do is make everyone happy, but incapable of changing its fate—that dopamine rush I ultimately create myself. I do it to ME, and the idea that I should spend hours wandering through a digital wilderness just to feel good, is self-defeating.

But then I fell off the wagon for every excuse listed previously, and maybe a few more. Our habits, good or bad, are familiar and comforting, even if some of them don’t do what they think they’re doing.

Which led me to ask a Big Question: is there more to live than winning? As anyone who has played it knows, solitaire isn’t so much about winning as it is about a LOT of losing until that perfect game happens. Regardless of how many times you congratulate yourself for remembering the order of the cards, working through deck so the right card arrives at the right time, calculating the possibilities from the visible cards that the one you need is more likely to turn up now rather than later, embracing the faith that what looks like a mess can be resolved by a single favorable outcome, acknowledging that seizing order from chaos is the essential structural endeavor of all living systems—you lose more than you win. In a sense, the product that solitaire provides is safe, mostly unpredictable loss that isn’t always your fault, so that win, when it happens, isn’t just a turn of the cards.

It’s special! It’s an event! It has something to do with your effort because you moved the cards. But, because the game begins with disorder, a bit of luck is involved, and everybody likes to feel lucky!

Until you ask yourself, is there more to life than feeling lucky? Why must so much of our time be based on doing things that lead to emotional, financial, social, religious or moral payoffs?

Can there be a virtue in being bored, tired, frustrated, annoyed, confused, uninspired, grumpy, not-your-best, or just plain NOT IN THE MOOD, and knowing it, and not going crazy over it, or committing yourself to the kind of behavior that seems to take you away but actually uses up time and energy that you’ll never have again?

Of course, there is. Life is a great big thing with plenty of seemingly dull, if not downright unlivable moments. Solitaire is this tiny thing that you do again and again that gives you a tiny buzz. Then you do it again.

If there’s more to life than payoffs, could there also be more to life than making so many mistakes, social faux pas, screw-ups, and epic failures that you could never possibly learn from them all? Is it conceivable that once we look past the binary structures of winning and losing, success and failure, and the resultant dopamine-releasing goal-oriented behavior, we find something else?

Something new?

Something worthwhile?

Time to climb back on the wagon.


Old Couch

The couch sagged in the middle. It was old and we talked of getting rid of it. How would I know that it would heal me?

Or maybe help me heal. Or, perhaps, remind me that, as much as accidental, unforeseen events can harm us or make us ill, the same unpredictability can bring benevolence.

Or seem to.

We went to furniture stores. We sat on other couches until we found one that didn’t sag. We were told it was “very mid-century” by a saleswoman with a genuine French accent. We ordered the new couch and were assured it would arrive in time for my wife’s birthday. When it didn’t, we spent six months fretting as it journeyed from wherever it was made, to our front door.

With two couches, the living room had too much stuff in it. We moved things around. The dogs let us know that they liked the old couch better. We put the old couch back where it was while I called people who might carry the old couch away.

They never called back. The couch stayed where it was. The dogs were happy. We talked of putting new foam in the cushions—anything to stop that sway-backed droop.

Then I caught a common cold. I took four Covid tests. They came up negative each time. I felt the contagion move up from my sore throat, to one nostril, and then the other, and finally, into the back of my throat. I developed a loud, hacking, gurgling cough that, because of pandemic unease, made my rare public appearances perilous.

I hoped the bug would work its way out. I wanted my body would to rouse my immune system and stomp the sucker flat. That didn’t happen.

Instead I’d have moments when I thought I was getting better. Then, after a meal, as the sky darkened, as I lay down on the bed and tried to sleep, I felt the drip in the back of my throat. I’d clear my throat and start coughing.

One night I coughed so much that the dogs complained. I decided to spend the night downstairs, on the old couch.

I sank into the cushions and it felt just fine. Instead of a sinking sensation, I found the cushions embracing me. When I was on my back, the angle of my head was just right.

I had a good dream about people I didn’t know in this world doing the right things. I awoke in the middle of the night with a distinct, if thoroughly irrational feeling that the couch had a spirt of some kind, and that it wanted to help me heal.

Or was this just a fever-dream concocted from the cold medicines I had been taken?

For a moment, I thought there could be something to ancient animistic beliefs. What if some of the possessions with which we surround ourselves have an awareness of what we say, and how we feel about them? Just a few weeks ago our garbage-disposal sprung a leak after my wife, aware of the drought experienced in some parts of the country, commented that grinding up food waste in the disposal, instead of dumping it in the kitchen trash can, caused us to use too much water.

We had to get a new garbage disposal.

After the plumber left, it eagerly swallowed the morning’s coffee grounds. I don’t remember thanking it.

I do remember pleading with a pair of shorts that was just a little too snug–please, please, please let me pull the zipper up. The zipper hesitated, then, with the dignity of a medieval king entering his throne room, slowly rose to the occasion.

I let out my breath and recalled those times I begged my car to start on cold mornings, and how, almost precisely after I complained to my wife that we should sell our second car because it was so expensive to repair, that dreaded Check Engine dashboard light winked on.

As much as I am a proud product of enlightened scientific thinking, I can’t deny how comforting it is to assume that some of the things in my life may like me, just a little bit, that the chairs we sit on, the shoes in which we stand, the kitchen gadgets, the computers, phones, lawn mowers, floors, walls and roofs above our heads—just may be able to let us know that they are on our side, that they enjoy adding pleasure to our lives and that when we hack and wheeze and cough in the darkest part of the night, they might help us heal.

Of course, the other side of animism is that these same things could hold a grudge.

When was the last time you said something nice to your dishwasher? It couldn’t hurt.


Sick Day

I have no fever. I can smell the barbecue wafting through the summer air. I don’t feel weak. My brain is okay–to the point that I can think and reason and ask those pesky little questions like “why do people catch colds?” whenever I’m not coughing, sneezing or blowing my nose.

I have a cold. An ordinary, run-of-the-mill, nothing special, nothing to worry about–cold.

Each of the four times I took a Covid test, the results were negative. I saw a doctor. The doctor told me I had a virus that wasn’t Covid, and that the virus had to run its course, but I could probably use a prescription cough suppressant and a Z-Pack. Z-Packs are antibiotics. I’ve been told antibiotics are useless against viruses but I figured if this was one more bomb I could drop on the bug, bombs away!

Before I felt the peculiar, though all-too-familiar scratchiness in the back of my throat, I used to say that one good thing about the pandemic for me was that I didn’t get any kind of respiratory ailment for three years. I congratulated myself on all those times I washed my hands, wore a mask in public, and stayed out of places where people who weren’t wearing masks like to shout, laugh and drink too much.

The name for this kind of self-congratulatory behavior is hubris. We learned in high school and college that the few surviving classical Greek tragedies considered this naive, egotistical pride in doing the right thing to be a blasphemy, because the gods control what happens, what things are right or wrong, and who gets what, and the best we can do is learn to live with whatever they dish out.

You also get this in the Biblical Book of Job, in which Satan makes a bet with God that a happy, respectable, morally righteous human male could not be driven to despair by unreasonably calamity.

Is it hubris that makes an emotionally shattered Job ask why God had to pick on him? God replies, “Where were you when I made the world?” and then restores much of what Job lost.

The moral of the story has always been a problem for me. True believers say the story means God can put back whatever you feel is taken away, and that hardship in this world is but a test for your worthiness of paradise in the next. Do the right thing today and you’ll accrue blessings, happiness and bliss tomorrow.

I find that a bit difficult to believe. A few years ago I went on a drive through what was Coal Country. These people lived in one of the planet’s most beautiful places, but every bend in the road revealed more tumbled down homes, ruined Main Streets, factories and railroad yards that would never hear the sound of prosperity again.

And yet, every church I passed was in immaculate condition and tip-top shape. I imagined so many suffering people hoping to be like Job, and have their lives restored by the kind of power that parts waters and brings light into being.

You either have to presume a Greek Stoicism that the best you can do is suffer without blowing your cool, that human morality has no consequence, that wearing a mask, washing your hands, practicing social distancing, getting your shot, getting your second shot, getting your third shot, getting your fourth shot and otherwise being good will not protect you, or–

When you hear Satan and God making a bet–run!

Like Albert Einstein, I like to believe God doesn’t play dice. But then again, what does God do with this world He made? If you ask politely, will He tinker with Creation so you can find an open parking space on a crowded city street that otherwise would not exist? Will He make sure that the right college accepts your teenager? Will He favor your sports team, your political party, your family, your friends in contests where only one side can win?

Or will He permit what seems to have happened for me: let me wrestle with a virus that isn’t fatal or permanently debilitating, in a setting that is comfortable, safe, secure, surrounded by pharmacists, doctors, neighbors who wave hello to me when I wave at them, supermarkets that have been able to cope reasonably well with the shortages and price increases, laundry machines that cleanse and disinfect so many soggy handkerchiefs, dogs who slumber at my feet, a wife who loves me and…

More blessings to count, than I’ve counted recently.

So I take a Sick Day, when all I can do (and just about all I’m capable of doing) is to be grateful that I can let myself heal. Whether my cold is an act of the gods intended to punish my pandemic hubris, or just a thing that happened, doesn’t matter as much as my ability to say thank you, to the dog that slumbers at my feet, the whispering breeze that moves my window curtain, and the fact that I am not alone.


In Praise of the Kaiser Roll

It isn’t fair that bread goes stale. So much work goes into it. All those teeny yeasties live and die for it.

And then there’s the fact that baker has to wake up long before the sunrise so that the rolls, and whatever else comes out of that fragrant oven, is ready for sale when you and I decide to buy it. Never having been a morning person–even when I forced myself with buckets of coffee–I must honor the baker as another one of those laborers who must sacrifice what we consider to be a normal life to bring us bread and earn a living.

I learned the difference between a kaiser roll and any other kind of bread when my father took me to a South Philadelphia institution: Nick’s Roast Beef. Up until that time, I thought roast beef was a leathery gray slice of gristle that was served with mashed potatoes, brown gravy and some despair from my mother about how long it should have stayed in the oven. After a while my mother gave up on her quest for the perfect roast, substituting an aluminum foil covered tray called a TV Dinner.

The exception to this was cold roast beef that we bought sliced paper-thin from a local delicatessen, wrapped in paper. No matter what you did to it, it tasted carnivorously divine, especially that red center. Slather it with brown mustard, put it between two slices of rye bread, serve with a pickle (because it tastes so good you have to assuage the guilt by eating a green vegetable) and you’re in heaven.

A Nick’s Roast Beef sandwich was a Philadelphia version of what is also called a “French dip.” You find it in taverns because it goes so well with beer. Like a cheese steak, you could have it with peppers (sweet or hot), onions, a slice of cheese, a squirt of mustard, a glunk of ketchup, or, if you really wanted to show the world how tough you were, a spoonful of ground, pale golden horseradish.

You bring up Nicks Roast Beef nowadays and you can start an argument (you bring up just about anything in Philadelphia and you can start an argument, but, if it’s about food in the City of Brotherly Love, the fight ends when you put the food in your mouth) about Old Original Nick’s versus regular Nick’s. I haven’t probed the history much but I can tell you that I’ve been to both and, each time, the sandwich knocked me out.

Nick’s kept the roast warm, sliced it warm and served it on a thick, soft, crusty round roll with what looked like a pinwheel pattern in the top, with juice (not gravy–gravy has stuff in it, joose is what comes from the meat!) all over the meat until it filled the crevices of the roll and turned it into a soggy sponge.

A sponge that miraculously held together, so that when I hoisted the sandwich into my mouth, the salty, rich, juicy beefiness caused my entire universe to shrink to what has happening on my tongue, and not get that much bigger, until I ate the entire thing.

It was simply a great sandwich in a city famous for them. I liked them so much that when I had to go into a hospital for an operation on my wrist, my father visited with a foil wrapped Nick’s and, for a moment I was like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz: I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Later, when I began to do journalism, I’d do the occasional fun food story that would bring me close to the purveyors of the mind-blasting meals that make-up for all that whole-wheat, low-fat, low-carb, low-taste stuff you eat because you believe what’s written in the newspapers you write for.

Sometimes I’d meet the entrepreneurs who started the business. I never met the inventors of the original Nick’s Roast Beef sandwich, but I did ask several cheese steak, hoagie, oven-grinder and sub chefs what essential ingredient made their sandwiches taste so good, and they all said two words:

“The bread.”

Anybody can get good ingredients. Anybody can cook them right. The bread is more than the frame around the picture. It’s what absorbs the melting cheese, the oil & vinegar, “tha joose from tha meat” so it all goes into your mouth to create a clanging cacophony of flavor that is so incredibly satisfying.

In Philadelphia the Amoroso Bakery makes most of it. On a summer night you can open your window and smell the ovens at their South Philadelphia factory. I don’t know if Old Original or regular Nick’s get their kaisers from Amoroso. All I can say is, if you need an introduction to a kaiser roll, mine could not be beaten.

Down where I live, you can’t get Amoroso in a supermarket, and I wasn’t thinking of bringing home any bread (having read all that stuff about guys with action-hero bodies eschewing carbs for a handful of almonds), when I saw, in a corner, on a rack, the day-old bread.

Having baked bread, I know that the major benefit of the process (aside from the aroma when it’s in the oven) is that you can’t rush it. Whether you’re up before dawn or lazing in bed as the sun comes through the window, baking bread is an activity you build your day around that rewards you with a whole mountain of carbs that tastes so good you forget about every bad thing that was said about carbs, and pile on the butter.

I made kaiser rolls once and didn’t bother to cut the pinwheel pattern on the top, or sprinkle on any of the bagel toppings that make them interesting. I found that they were a little too big for the average hamburger patty and, because I wasn’t roasting much beef (why do so many of the publications I write for want me to eat chicken all the time?) or barbecue, they seemed to be more bread than I wanted.

But then I saw a bag of day old kaisers in my supermarket, and something about their toasty brown tops (with the pinwheel pattern cut in!) took me back to my childhood and Nick’s Roast Beef, Old Original or whatever.

They were slightly dry but soft enough and, what do you think happened when I made one of my bigger than normal ground turkey burgers? Or a pepper-and-egg (another great Philadelphia sandwich)? Or a thin sliced steak, seared with a little olive oil, and smothered in mushrooms?

And all that joose went into the roll, and, day old or not, I had that moment again when I remembered why so many people like stuff that nobody has to celebrate, nobody has to die from eating too much of, nobody has to give awards for, nobody has to write about or do anything else but just enjoy.

Ir tastes so good.


Roses and Me

My mother visited me last night in a dream. I told her that I was sorry that I may have killed two roses bushes when I pruned them too severely.

She told me what mothers always tell their kids: don’t worry, that you learn as you go and that even if I made a mistake, some mistakes are worth making. She added that I was fortunate that I didn’t have to chase away the neighborhood dogs who killed the two bushes she had planted at the end of our suburban driveway.

I smiled at that. Unlike most on our street, I didn’t grow up with a dog. Those that trotted by our house dutifully paused to sniff the rose bushes, and other plants my mother arranged around our house. Perhaps they lifted their hind legs out of respect.

When my mother saw one about to tinkle, she rushed out of the house. Before she reached the stricken plants, the dog walkers had pulled their beasts away, but the damage was done. The roses at the foot of our driveway died.

Those in the back survived. She planted about a dozen in a square of soil, each about a foot from the other. I had just enough room to move my toy trucks through what my imagination turned into giant Sequoias. I had to be careful: thorns could snag my clothing and scratch my skin. I couldn’t understand what she saw in these ugly, nasty little things, covered in shiny green leaves, until the weather warmed and they began to bloom.

Then the Japanese beetles would descend and my mother dumped a white powder on the leaves that killed maybe two beetles. She also forbade me to play near the plants because this powder was poisonous and the beetles had to die. Those that didn’t ate holes in the leaves and attacked the blossoms. By August, it was all rather awful.

Because of this, and seasonal hay fever that turned my nose into a sneezing mess, I grew up with no affection for horticulture. My mother, on the other hand, found salvation in it. She was entirely self-taught and filled every room in the house with plants. After she died, my wife took some of those plants to our house, where they continue to grow.

For many years I believed I assumed that whatever genetic proclivity my mother had for helping things grow had skipped me. I thought I had a black thumb and harbored a general loathing of the outdoors. My allergies gradually faded as I grew older, giving me the ability to fire up the lawnmower and give a haircut to the tiny patch of grass in front of my suburban house.

I also developed a taste for landscaped gardens. On a rather extravagant date, my high school sweatheart (who became my wife) and I went to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. When my son was a baby I strolled him through the Azalea Garden behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and deeper into Fairmount Park. I was lucky enough to be on the grounds of Versailles on the rare day when the fountains were turned on. When I spent some time living in New York City, I walked through Central Park as many times as possible, getting to know all the bridges and overlooks.

Best of all was Dumbarton Oaks, a landscaped garden at the top of a hill in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Go there and you’ll enjoy how the neoclassical elements close to the grand house slowly unravel into a fantastic wilderness that, like most gardens, looks so much better than the real thing. I later discovered it was an important work of Beatrice Ferrand, America’s first female landscape architect.

But I resisted any attempt to put living things in the ground. A neighbor stared at the back of my house and agreed to help me trim the shrubs. He drove his car to a woodsy area and loaded the trunk with plants he said “were fun because they’re free.” A single leave of English Ivy clinging to one of the root balls soon spread itself all over the front, and back, of the house. I was curious: why was it called English Ivy? Did it have something to do with British imperial history?


Shortly before my mother died, I found out that someone in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (of which she was a proud member and patron) named a rose after her. I tried to find out what it was. I even called and e-mailed the society. They never responded.

What was it about roses that made my wife–and my mother–so interested? I really didn’t know, and didn’t care to know, until my wife and I drove back from a long, early springtime day in Washington, D.C. and, to my surprise, she steered into a garden center. A few minutes later we came back with a David Austen rose called Princess Alexandra of Kent.

I didn’t know roses had names and I had never heard of David Austen. All I knew was that my wife liked roses and, having bought her cut flowers frequently, I was happy to see her enthralled with this big, potted snarl of dark green leaves with tiny green buds on the top that were about to bloom.

David Austen roses were special, my wife assured me. Austen was the world’s most famous breeder of English roses in the world. So, for birthdays, anniversaries and for no other reason than to make her happy, I bought her more.

I know the English have their ivy, but I didn’t know the difference between an English rose and any other country’s. When we went to Paris, we visited Malmaison, the rather small villa on the outside of Paris that Napoleon Bonaparte shared with his first wife, Josephine Beaharnais. Though Napoleon had tried (and failed) to breed roses, Josephine succeeded and acquired a collection, of which one, called Souvenir of Malmaison, is named in her honor (legend says it came from her original collection). I saw some roses at Malmaison that, I guess, were French. Later I learned that Souvenir of Malmaison is one of the fussiest roses ever.

Alas, Princess Alexandra of Kent died in our garden (I found her a replacement). Another rose called “hot chocolate” is thriving. Crown Princess Margaretta didn’t do well at first, but now it is proudly climbing our fence. Falstaff, a rose I bought to honor the famous Shakespearian blowhard, also struggled, but is now taller than I am. Among our other Austens are Gentle Hermoine, Port Sunlight, Lady of Shallott, Princess Anne, Windermere (a town we visited in England’s Lake District), the Lady Gardener (in honor of my wife), Empress Josephine and another one whose name I’ve forgotten. We also bought roses from other breeders, some we found at a discount at Home Depot and Lowes. They have names like Old Timer (I guess that’s me), Twilight Zone, Bliss, Ebb Tide, Mr. Lincoln, Maggie (my wife’s nickname), Moonstone, Electron (my wife is a scientist specializing in physics), and Ringo Starr.

Some of our roses don’t have names. They are red, white, pink, coral and orange. Last year, as they bloomed, the air filled with fragrance of extraordinary beauty–that did not bother my allergies.

And the Japanese beetles left as alone.

One has a special name. Called Peace, it was bred to commemorate the end of World War Two. This one also struggled for a while and, yes, I made the joke about giving peace a chance and…

A few days ago I noticed the first red shoots emerging from the root. Yesterday some green leaves popped out. I should have told my mother about this one in my dream but I was disappointed about the two roses that we lost.

Or did we?

We have a section of our garden, way in the back, where we put things that we want to come back. We have good soil back there. We water regularly and add fertilizer. I planted the gnarled roots of those two, stood back and thought about how springtime can be such a surprise: we forget about so much of the stuff we experience, and then, we don’t expect it, they come back. When the air is cool, the sunlight bright and a fresh wind blows through what little hair you have left on your head, to hope for things, no matter how seemingly impossible, irrational or just plain foolish, can bring a different kind of peace.

I pruned those roses so severely because a sudden frost had turned what was green a dark, dingy brown. I remembered how beautiful those roses were last year, and wanted to cut off the dead shoots to make way for the new.

And if nothing new emerges, I will embrace my mother’s advice: some mistakes are worth making.


Old Clothes, New Voice

Way back at the far end of the closet is a long-sleeved, sky-blue poplin shirt with long, pointed collars that my mother bought me when she knew I was going to Miami.

We were in a BJ’s so she could buy a week’s supply of yogurt cups and a die-cast model car for my son. When I told her I would be spending some time in South Florida, she headed toward the piles of men’s clothing.

I was old enough not to need some of the stuff, but wise enough to let her do her thing. She wanted to believe that, among all my fashionably faded polo shirts, denim trousers, beat-up sneakers and zipped hoodies, I would need a shirt for that rare dress-up occasion. She handed me the shirt and she reached across a pile of sweaters–“this for when it’s air conditioned.”

My parents used to go to South Florida every winter. People were crazy down there about air conditioning, she told me, especially when they don’t have a view of the ocean. I should take Vitamin C every day with Tropicana (pronounced “trop uh can no”) orange juice, and wear a sweater at night because sometimes they have winter nights that can be as cold outside as it is inside.

I balked at the white polyester pants and we meandered toward the check-out line.

I actually did have a dress-up occasion in Cocoanut Grove one night. Out came the shirt and sweater and I looked just like all those guys who were so much older than me, with their dark tans, white shoes and pastel blue pants that rode up over their ankles so everyone could see they were wearing white socks. I ordered another rum punch. The drink arrived with a tiny yellow parasol stuck in the orange slice floating atop the ice in the glass. I took a sip and I fit right in.

My mother passed more than a decade ago. My son graduated college, got a job and, as far as I know, got rid of all the die-cast model cars my mother bought for him. My yellow sweater and blue shirt remained with some of the other stuff she bought for me. I may have worn the shirt once when I was teaching. The polyester blend fabric did not wrinkle, though it would cook me in the classroom.

I don’t know if I wore the sweater. The combination seemed odd to me until a few days ago, when I saw Ukrainian people flying their flag as Russian troops bombed their cities and towns.

I took the shirt out again. Somehow, the bright azure blue was a perfect match with the yellow sweater. I could put it on a show my support for these brave people.

For a moment I had a lack of nerve. What would I do if I walked into a supermarket and one of the neighborhood crazies started in on me about what right I had to make a statement about “someone else’s war”?

I reached for a red pullover and then, I paused and looked back on my history of mistakes, inept decisions and all those things that did not turn out the way they should–and I asked myself when was the last time anyone confronted me about the color of my clothing? Not once.

Those incredible Ukrainian people were fighting for their lives. My family descends from eastern European people who endured centuries in which their farms and towns became battlefields, as one dubious leader after another answered the call of destiny, or the “will of the people,” the need for “living room,” and so many other awful reasons to destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands. What did these people do to deserve this? They were in the way.

And now some of those people were saying that they weren’t in anyone’s way: they will fight to be just where they are.

I put on the yellow sweater and marveled how old clothes can speak with a new voice.

And I thanked my mother for having enough faith in her son that, sooner or later, I’d wear the right ensemble and fit right in.