Sock It To Me?

I put on two different socks and waited for the world to change.

I didn’t mean to wear them. I was putting my laundry away and just grabbed them. At the time, I thought they were identical. A few minutes later, when putting on my shoes, I discovered the ugly truth.

I sat there contemplating: what is the truth in this situation? Where are the facts? What is my personal connection to the historical use of hosiery?

If I looked at my socks as articles of clothing that provide warmth, insulate my skin from possibly abrassive seams and surfaces within my shoe, and serve as an interior foot covering when moving above carpetted floors, then it really shouldn’t matter if one has an obvious and dramatically different pattern than the other. From a utilitarian point of view, these two socks were providing the maximum good with the maximum benefit.

So why is it that wearing two different socks is considered egregious–a custom “outside the herd” of people form whom a matched pair is a statement of uniformity, symmetry and the rudimentary economic sufficiency to own identical pairs?

I put on my shoes and walked the dog, carefully observing, between long glimpses of seasonal splendor, and the dog’s occasional need to stop, sniff and make environmental contributions, if anyone noticed.

A police siren wailed in the distance. I reflected that when I first moved to this suburban paradise, such sounds were rare. Having seen forests removed, roads widened and blocks of apartments “on a Parisian street theme” rise from unanticipated heights, I now hear sirens at least once a day.

Do more people bring more problems? In the best of all possible worlds, would we never hear a siren because no one with authority would need to hurry to save a life or catch a law breaker.

My socks weren’t breaking a law but I recalled that one of the reasons English peasants revolted during the 13th century were laws that forbade them to wear kinds and colors of clothing. High taxes may have been more of a motivation for them to march on London, where they demanded to meet the king so they could tell young Richard II how bad things were.

Richard fearlessly rode into the thousands gathred at Smithfield, appeared to listen and then abruptly left when his soldiers could surround them and cut them down.

Socks had something to do with that, but not much.

The dog did what the dog must. We walked our customary path and returned home, where I reflected on a belief common among those in my generation who found that after embracing a “counterculture,” their world didn’t really change that much (unless they were willing to cut their hair, go back to school, get a degree in law or finance and work for the very people they protested against), so they decided to look inward and change themselves, having the faith that “incremental” changes–like that joyous, endorphin rush you get in a long run or a short yoga position–would eventually achieve what public protests, blue denim, Richard Nixon saying “Sock it to me?” on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and natural foods did not.

Did wearing two different socks count as an incremental change?

I looked at my socks and waited.

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If You Knew Then What You Know Now

If you’re just a little bit older than you were a few minutes ago, and you have a moment between the planned and unplanned chaos that these current events deliver every day, you may look back on who you were a few minutes ago and say, “If only I knew then what I know now.”

Right away, your mind goes back years to that moment in…high school, perhaps, when a ball was coming your way and you looked up from the playing field, extended your arms and…

Entire movies have been made about this scenario. What if you hadn’t dropped it? What if you were in a different part of the field, but close enough so when the ball drops you can pick it up and run for the goal?

Or what if every single awkward, embarrassing, stupid, or heart-achingly painful thing could be seem in a slightly brighter light?

Or, better yet, what if you could visit yourself, that slightly younger person who, despite every good intention (and maybe a few that weren’t so good), missed the mark more times than they found it, and say, “Hey, it’s okay. I’ve seen the future–I am the future–and it’s all going to be okay.”

You’ll look at yourself in disbelief, absolutely certain that you’ve been cursed, like that Ancient Mariner poem that you didn’t read but said you did and now the teacher passed out a test that is asking questions about albatrosses and you know if you don’t get a good grade on this one you’ll mess up that quarter, bring your grade down and won’t won’t get into that college that your parents thought was just perfect on the campus tour (when all you were thinking about is, do the student tour guides learn how to talk and walk backwards in one of these overly impressive buildings, or was that a skill they were born with?).

“Hey. It’s okay. You’ll go to a different college where, instead of being surrounded by talking, walking backwards snarks, you’ll find the friends and teachers who show you that you already have all the skills you need to do great things in this world.”

That time you had so little money you had to chose between taking the bus home, or spending what was left in your pocket on something cheap to fill your empty stomach, and you held on to your money and your feet ached after walked those long miles home.

“You’ll make so much money that when you see someone panhandling, you’ll offer to buy that person lunch. You won’t just take busses–you’ll drive a sportscar and you’ll get into such good physical condition that you’ll run that distance three times, maybe four–and you’ll feel great when you’re done.”

Remember how really, really, really mad you were when you rushed back to your sportscar and saw the parking ticket flapping on the windshield?

“Pay the ticket. Be grateful you’re not the person whose job it is to write it. Some things are not worth getting upset about.”

That person you really loved who broke up with you and you can’t stop thinking about?

“This is just one of life’s crazy ways of showing both of you how much you care for each other. And you do. You see each other again someday.”

The job you wanted but didn’t get?

“The next job you won’t get either. But the one after that? You’ll end up owning the company.”

The child who drove his first car into a tree?

“He’s not hurt. He’ll become a safer driver than you are.”

That time when the person you voted for wasn’t elected? “You’ll vote another time and someone you chose will get the job.”

And when terrible things are happening next door, down the street, a few blocks away, in the hospital emergency room, or in places that are supposed to be beautiful examples of nature’s bounty–

“Be kind, grateful, generous and forgiving. These things by themselves won’t fix everything that’s wrong the world, but they will help you become the kind of person who just might.”

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I Wave at Everybody

I know it sounds foolish, or like that Lyle Lovett song, “I Love Everybody.” We know that Lyle Lovett can’t possibly love everybody. Everybody can’t possibly love him. When I saw him in concert with his Large Band he played a very long show (but didn’t perform “I Love Everybody”) and, at the end, as I looked around, I saw that some of the people trudging out of the theater toward their cars didn’t love that.

I know that if I waved to Lyle Lovett from where I was in the theater he wouldn’t see me or wave back. But, if we were passing each other on the street, or if we were both driving Jeeps (my son, who owns one, says Jeep owners must wave at each other as they pass each other–typically two fingers extended from the steering wheel, and when he left his Jeep with us for a while and told me to drive it occasionally so the battery wouldn’t die, I did the two finger thing with other Jeep drivers and they did it back to me), and he wasn’t lost in the kind of thoughts you’d expect a reasonably well known singer/songwriter to have, he might wave back.

To be sure, there are risks in waving at people beyond not getting a wave back. We can all imagine people exist who are definitely NOT worth waving at. We can see them now, coming toward us, eyes on the cell phone, lips pulled back in a snarl, arms stiff from anger, legs pushing the feet down flat on the sidewalk, brain cooking up more snarky nastiness to send to a place that only exists in the minds of people who spend too much time on the Internet.

You can see them coming toward us wearing a T-shirt that says something that bothers us. The hair is too short or too long and may not have been washed this morning. The clothing doesn’t match or could be just a bit inappropriate for the setting. Who wears THAT to a supermarket?

Or, in these times of the plague, they’re not wearing a mask and they’re giving you that disdainful sneer that says you’re an idiot for wearing one, or the mask they’re wearing is printed with something that bothers us, or the mask isn’t on properly, exposing a nose that could blow out stuff that might kill us, someone we love, someone who made music we like but hasn’t had a hit record in a while (not Lyle Lovett but the great John Prine whose equally sardonic, bittersweet songs created a place for Lyle and so many others for whom gentle laughter is a saving grace). That same junk can end the life of someone who said something, posted something or texted something that made a big fuss on the media and now people we don’t know think that this person should suffer.

What about those hyper-aggressive, toxic testosterone types who see every human contact as a friend-or-foe threat? What if you wave and they stop, pivot toward you, drop into a fighting stance and demand to know why the %$#@&* you’re in their space or making their space your space, and waving at them?

In some places, with some people, the slightest demonstration of public civility, respect or ordinary courtesy can be perilous. Some find it downright disturbing. What right do I have to wave at them? What right do I have to wave at all? Where in United States Constitution is it written that we are free to make this simple, harmless public gesture? First amendment free speech? Hardly. My empty hand doesn’t say a word.

But the gesture can create a feeling of commonality, a connection, a relationship where none existed. The absolute worst thing that could happen is this person who doesn’t watch the same cable news channel we watch, doesn’t believe the conspiracy theories we do, claims to worship the same God but doesn’t worship in the way we do and may even like kale smoothies–waves back.

That’s what’s been happening to me as I go for a run or walk the dog. People I don’t know, people I don’t even remember seeing before, are waving back. Sometimes they do it so fast that I don’t respond quick enough and I feel terrible about what that person must think of me, the waver who doesn’t wave back.

But then, it’s over. The other person has passed me.

So far, nobody has waved too much to me. I can imagine what that is: I give the little salute and that person’s arm starts whirling like a propeller and I ask myself is this person mocking me or, protecting themselves from a spiral column of nasty little bugs?

A few times the wave-returner makes a comment about the weather. I used to get mad at people who talked about the weather because a writer I once knew told me that you never start a story by talking about the weather–you cut to the chase, toss out the hook that drags the reader in, begin in media res.

Now I know that talking about the weather is one of the big nothings of socializing, which, when you think about it, is filled with inconsequential comments, subvocal grunts, minor postural changes, empty gestures and the subtle heroism in stifiling a belch.  It’s not so much that we having nothing to say–even if we’re shy, we have too much we could unload on those who might listen. But, instead, we permit ourselves to inhabit a place where the fate of the free world does not depend on what we say and do.

Talking about the weather is a little bit like asking, “How are you?” You’re briefly recognizing that person, even if you know nothing about them and probably don’t want to know much. “Fine, thank you,” also used to bother me as a reply, because, how can we be fine when people elsewhere are suffering and all this horrible stuff is happening around us?

To quote John Prine: “It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re going to drown. That’s the way that world goes round.”

REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

Me? I’m thinking about my open hand. It’s empty, but when I wave it, something always fills the space.

 

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The Rain God

When you’re a kid your parents give you chores and tell you that they want you to learn responsibility. They never suspect that you know the truth: the only reason they want you to do this stuff is that they’d rather not.

On hot, steamy, bug-filled New Jersey summer mornings I had to untangle the hose (which always found a way of tangling itself up), turn on the spigot, drag the hose across our suburban quarter acre and squirt water at anything that was green.

This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I was a fat kid with seasonal allergies that made me a sneezing wreck for most the warmer months. I’d honk so fast and loud that people in air conditioned cars would give me that I’m-so-glad-I’m-not-you look. When my nose wasn’t clogged I’d pale at the sticky-icky-sweet smell of fermenting crab apples that fell off the trees and were chopped up by the lawn mowers to rot in the sun. The neighbors would let their dogs poop on the lawn, so I’d have to blast that, and the flies, away by putting my thumb on the end of the hose, which would squirt some back at me, so, at the end of a few long minutes, I’d be as soggy as my handkerchief.

Worst of all, instead of having so many trees and shrubs because my mother liked plants and had hired a landscaper to make flower circles and wavy borders of mulch so she could have more plants per square foot than the Jersey Pine Barrens, the neighbor next door had a big, aquamarine above-ground swimming pool rising like a natural gas storage tower. While sneezing and snuffling across our botanical garden, I’d turn and see this aluminum pond and maybe hear a sound of delight or catch the sunlight on a splash. You put water into things like THAT, I grumbled, not on plants.

My soaking duties so pleased my parents that my summer duties were increased to mowing the lawn, which I found even more despicable. Our power mower was loud and hot and stank of burnt chlorophyll. It also had one of those pull chords that aroused the motor to an angry snarl when yanked by the guy who sells it to your father, but just chutters impotently when the sun is burning a hole in your head, the neighbors’ kids are laughing in their pool, and I’m about to leave the thing in the middle of the driveway and run into the house and hide near an air conditioner when…I give it one, last, cynical pull, and the motor doesn’t start as much as it laughs at me, as if it could have come to life at the beginning but wanted to play dead just to piss me off.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that gardens in the suburbs aren’t merely stupid things to have so that you can teach your kids responsibility. They have meaning, context and personality. They show you care enough about where you live to moderate the bland conformity and harsh edges of the developer’s original plan, with blurs of green, moments of visual drama and beautiful flashes of seasonal color.

And, if you happen to become a person who puts plants into the ground with the expectation that they’ll grow, a garden provides metaphors that teach patience, dedication and subtle wonder.

Before that happens you have to grow a few years, lose that fat you acquired from finishing everything your mother put on your plate, and let your immune system discover that airborne pollen wasn’t out to get you. It helps if you find yourself in the gardens of Versailles on a Sunday when they turn the fountains on, and, when living in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood and wondering if anyone would publish your dreams, you discover a visit to the landscaped groves of Dumbarton Oaks can make you forget the rejections, and you find a sense of peace and gentility in places  like Longwood in Pennsylvania, Kew in London, Tivoli outside Rome, the Luxembourg and Jardin des Plantes in Paris, the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, Leaming’s Run in New Jersey, Bartram’s in Philadelphia, and Gethsemane in Jerusalem, where, in a town where so many people are sure that God is with them and not all those other people, you notice how nice it is to be left alone.

But you’re not alone in these gardens. You’re with someone who, like you, likes gardens but, unlike, actually wants to put things in the ground and watch them grow.

So you’re married to this person and you watch her visit nurseries and garden supply stores and you have to open the car’s sun roof so that the newest tree can fit in, pile up around it so many big bags of mulch and garden soil to the car, piling them so high that the frame of the car hangs down on the tires and the people in cars give you another, distinct but sufficiently similar I’m-glad-I’m-not-you look.

And when a living thing she’s planted doesn’t make it, you feel a little bit sad. You want to replace it with something so you make a run to the nursery and you come back with all this strange stuff, and soil and mulch, and you stick it in the ground and find yourself standing in front of it all with a hose in your hand shooting water at it all.

That’s when, on hot summer days, you imagine the plants are talking to you, asking, pleading, demanding that you train the spray on them so, rather than turning brown and scraggly, they can be green and colorful and shoot off so many blooms and blossoms like a slow-motion fireworks display.

You see, in one small growing thing, the person you were when you were many years ago when you were just one more kid living in a scuzzy urban apartment, writing stories that you absolutely sure should be published, and, it seemed, that success was like rain that fell on so many others who didn’t have the talent or didn’t work as hard, and you wished some of that sweet water would come your way.

The kid with the hose has become the man with the hose that he has to unkink occasionally. Some of the back spray hits me in places I’d rather not be soaked. Bugs swirl about and the sun scorches my skin.

But this time, I’m not sneezing and complaining about what my parents want me to do. I’m a rain god by whose whim life-affirming success showers down on the deserving, the beautiful, the merely pleasing, the parched and needy, or, as it also happens, whatever else is in the way.

From the corner of my eye, I see an air conditioned car slow down. The driver gives me a look that says, if he didn’t have to drive this car to run this errand or go to this job, he just might want to stand still on a summer day and help living things grow.

 

 

 

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Invasive Joy

When I’m not pressed for time, I prefer a different path to the familiar. Before the covid lockdown, my wife and I filled a winter afternoon with a visit to the state aboretum.

We drove country roads lined with stone walls and split-rail fences that framed views of century-old farmhouses and horse stables. After about an hour and a half in the car, we entered a vast open place of monumental trees, stark rock formations, intriguing trails, people walking dogs and a few empty picnic tables. What would this grand place be like, I asked myself, in summer?

I went to a map and saw, about halfway to the arboretum, right off the main road, a tiny park commemorating a Civil War battle. I checked–you could walk your dog there and, though I did not see any picnic tables, the park encircled an old stone bridge that was on the National Register of Historic Places. I thought it might make a nice stop on the way.

My home is surrounded by Civil War battle sites. Gettysburg is an hour and twenty minutes to the north. The road you drive is the same one that Lee’s Army took, though it has been paved and widened considerably. Manassas (a.k.a. Bull Run) is a few miles to the south. To the northwest, on the south bank of the Potomac River, is Ball’s Bluff, where Union Army Lieutenant, and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. survived a rifle shot to the chest.

And those are only the ones that have been identified. A neighbor who drives bulldozers for a local site developing company told me he rarely has a day on the job when he didn’t uncover a cannon ball.

The Civil War battlefield park I found on the map was smaller than a supermarket parking lot. It featured a scenic overlook of a section of Goose Creek, which flows a few miles west and south of where I live. The stone bridge crosses the creek and dates from the early 19th century when what is now state Route 50 was a turnpike.

The sign leading to the park was small enough to miss, but we found it and parked on the gravel lot. We walked the dog and admired the bright green meadows along the creek’s flood plain. The stone bridge, which dated back to the early 19th century, had waist-high retaining walls wide enough to form a temporary table for a picnic lunch.

A sign told us that four days of skirmishing and fierce fighting happened here, and several miles to the east. Lee’s army was marcking north toward Gettysburg and a detachment under J.E.B. Stuart had to stop Union forces heading south that wanted to come around and encircle Lee’s troops. Stuart delayed the Union army here and elsewhere long enough to prevent them from catching up with Lee.

Unlike Ball’s Bluff, which has a small cemetary on a tree-shrouded mound, this little park showed no monuments to lost lives.  In Jerusalem’s Old City you can see masonry pock-marks and other battle scars from the Six Day War.  I found no battle damage on the bridge, which, another sign told me, stayed in use until the 1950s.

The sun rode high overhead in a cloudless blue sky. Everything was peaceful, tranquil, and–when I passed some wild, pink rose blossoms along an abandoned stretch of the old turnpike–quietly beautiful.

My wife, who knows roses, said this variety was invasive. Left on its own, it would soon take over.

We took our time returning to the car. I paused to turn back and take one last glance at the park.

Without the explanatory signs, I would not have believed this to be a place of violence or death. If anything, the park and that spray of cheerful pink roses, suggested that nature’s mission here was a continuation of what nature does best: use as much as possible of what’s close at hand, to create much more than was thought possible.

Of course, not everything nature creates is welcome. I can think many invasive illnesses without which we’d live longer and happier.

But if one of the results is an unexpectedly pleasant flash of exuberance, a bit of intrustive joy in what was once a place of fear, anger, agony and loss, then it let it continue here, and, in our cities, in our hospitals, in our homes and our hearts.

I imagined the place overwhelmed with bright, colorful roses, and hoped someone would let nature take its course, so those roses, which may be unwelcome intruders, remind us that things can, and will, change for the better.

 

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Slow Time

I envied my grandparents as they slowly made me breakfast.

They knew what to do without thinking, opening the thick, rounded doors of their refrigerators like a banker opens a safe. A slow turn of a stove dial brought forth flames that roared and danced until another, measured twist brought the flames down to an even, opedient blue ring.

How wonderful to have mastered such things!

My grandparents moved with a unpreturbed grace. The soles of their shoes didn’t slap the floor as mine did when I clomped about the kitchen. Each foot went up and down gently on black and white tile.

I don’t remember any eggs breaking when grandmoter lowered it into boiling water. Sometimes I could stand on a step stool and watch them tumble happily.

Instead of serving the eggs in cups, my grandmother cracked the shell, scooped out the gooey interior into a bowl, added salt, pepper and a pat of butter, then mashed it into a delicious, pale yellow mess that was perfect with rye toast. She served this to me with orange juice that my grandfather called Tropicanoh.

My grandparents lived in houses so scent with cooked food that the aromas never went away, even when the windows were thrown open to “let in the air,” or, later, when they moved to Florida, my grandfather turned down the thermostat dial to “make the air condition.”

I don’t remember anyone measuring ingredients. When I grew old enough to cook  for myself and I asked for the recipe, I was told “just a bit. Not too much.”

I could not stop myself from gobbling my grandmother’s Cream of Wheat. It tasted so much better than what my mother made at home. I discovered later that my grandmother spiked hers with butter and sugar.

These old, slow moving people revered patience, peace and small pleasures. When I wanted to rush downstairs to the swimming pool, where the scrawny old men sat on lounge chairs and talked about their surgeries, my grandfather paused to feel the Flordia breeze on his face.

As I hurried down the Coney Island boardwalk toward the noisy rides and the possibility of brown, lusciously greasy French-fried potatoes from Nathan’s Famous, I would look back and see my grand parents gazing across the beach at the water. What was the big deal about being able to look at a beach and water, I wanted to know.

Instead of riding the merry-go-round, they watched me clamber up an outside horse, lean over and snatch a tarnished brass ring. I know I kept the ring as precious treasure that, somehow, I lost. But I have clung to what my grandparents’ said to me when I was frustrated, angry or crying from a scraped knee: with patience, peace and gentle persistence, all things we could want from life arrive at the right time.

I am now a grandparent and my experience tells me that too many things never arrive and those few that do are easily ignored, or squandered. I move slowly because the medication I must take frequently makes me dizzy. My body is stiff in ways that yoga won’t soften. I try not to recall the times when I could run fourteen miles in a day, or bike 50 miles, or teach back-to-back karate or doing that yoga pretzel pose so serenely, without feeling anything but accomplishment.

Number One Son has a grandchild that I have seen more often on a video screen than in person. Number Two Son works hard and likes to buy used cars, fix them and sell them. I’m not sure where his love for automobiles comes from, but I know the importance in reaching for, and grabbing that brass ring, whatever its shape or size, while you can.

I don’t need to ride the merry-go-round now to be happy for Number One Son’s new job and Number Two Son’s newest old car. You can be sure that when it’s time to make breakfast, I’ll add a little bit of butter or sugar to make a simple pleasure just a little bit more pleasureable.

And when I trudge my daily mile-and-a-quarter, or zoom to the supermarket on my bicycle, or hear my joints creak and crack as I squirm my way into a yoga pose, I’ll notice the fragrance of a spring breeze coming through my window, confident that, it’s not how many of the things you wanted that came to you, but what’s already here, that makes slow time so much fun.

 

 

 

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Wandering Fires: Graduation Inspiration from Maxwell Anderson

Maxwell Anderson was among the most famous and popular American playwrights of the first half of the 20th Century. One of several children born to an itinerant Baptist preacher, Anderson aspired to write poetry and chafed at his father’s religious beliefs. Though he rejected traditional Christianity, he later professed a humanist faith in an individual’s personal freedom and the importance of democracy as a safeguard against tyranny. He won the Pulitzer Prize and several other awards, wrote Hollywood screenplays and is remembered today for the historical dramas Elizabeth the Queen, Mary of Scotland and Anne of a Thousand Days, which, with the more contemporary Winterset, were written in unrhymed blank verse.

Unlike Eugene O’Neill, the greatest American playwright of that era, Anderson did not attend Ivy League schools or have any significant exposure to the stage beyond English courses at South Dakota University and student theatricals. He got a masters degree from Stanford University and, after several failed teaching positions, became a journalist and editorial writer in New York City, where he saw enough plays in Manhattan’s thriving theater district to want to write them.

With the exception of some military reportage during the Second World War, Anderson gave up journalism after the resounding success of the second of his 40 plays and musicals, What Price Glory, a collaboration with Army veteran Laurence Stalling about Americans fighting in World War I.

He claimed he only wrote for money. He also wanted to inspire his audiences with stories of mostly sympathetic characters who, like the ancient Greek anti-hero Oedipus, discover a hidden or tragic flaw in their natures, or in their relationship to others, and then struggle toward a moral or socially redemptive resolution.

The single work that brought him the most money was “September Song,” composed with Kurt Weill for the musical Knickerbocker Holiday. The song was written at the insistance of actor Walter Huston, who wanted a solo number that would humanize his otherwise gruff and dictatorial role as the musical’s antagonist. Though the musical is now forgotten, and some of the song’s original lyrics have been changed, “September Song” has become a staple of the great American songbook.

Anderson despised the lucrative work he did in Hollywood, because actors, directors and producers made significant script changes without consenting him. He revised many of his plays for films. His many screenplays include an uncredited rewrite of Ben Hur.

He did most of his writing inside a roughly finished shack behind his house in New City, New York. Visitors described it as lined with books, with a desk and chair and iron stove. In warmer months, the cabin reeked of mildew from an exterior sprinkler system that splashed water on the rear window, giving rise to a theater legend that Anderson did his best writing when it was raining, or appeared to be.

Like many American writers of his time, Anderson had a difficult emotional life. Infamously dour, shy and short-tempered, he was married three times and maintained a careless disregard for the money he made. He tended to give away fortunes to friends and family who did not always repay his generosity.

He was, without question, a superb writer and, though he suffered when his plays flopped, dooming him to went several months in which he could not write a word, he found ways to rally his spirits and write more. He wrote this “to the young people of this country”:

If you practice an art, be proud of it, and make it proud of you. If you now hesitate on the threshold of your maturity, wondering what rewards you should seek, wondering perhaps whether there are any rewards beyond the opportunity to feed, sleep and breed, turn to the art which has moved you most readily. It may break your heart, it may drive you mad, it may betray you into unrealizable ambitions or blind you to merchantile opportunies with its wandering fires. But it will fill your heart before it breaks it; it will make you a person in your own right; it will open the temple doors to you and enable you to walk with those who have become nearest among men to what men sometimes may be.

Amen.

 

 

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Doing Something Wonderful

A writer I know sent me e-mail urging me to affix my name to a petition protesting an “emergency” archive that stores books that can be downloaded without charge. The archive exists, I was told, so that people who can get reading matter for teaching purposes or light the darkness with cultural sparklers after the end of the world as we know it (presuming that the internet, computer operating systems and screens still function). Until the apoclaypse arrives, people can download this stuff for free.

The Writers Guild says this is theft and should be stopped. I agree that it is theft of an author’s copyright. As someone who has a copyright, I can say it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when publishing royatlies come up for discussion.

For example: a while ago a friend bought a digital copy of one of my books. This should jave triggered an infinitesimal publisher’s royalty payment to me. Because publishers like to hold on to royalties, just in case the world ends, the publisher should at least have sent me a statement filled with creative accounting methods that prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that even if the entire population of Sweden bought digital copies of my books–the publisher owed me nothing.

I’m still waiting for the statement.

So I checked out this emergency list. Most of the stuff on it I didn’t recognize. I saw copies of Architectural Digest and immediately thought of a dystopian scenario (similar to Canticle for Liebowitz) in which commercial effluvia attains the veneration of a sacred text. Most of the books were in the public domain, so Lord Byron will not rise from the grave to claim whatever he is due for Four Longer Poems downloads.

I almost wished to see my books on the list. They were written to be enjoyed. I like the idea of someone in the distant future finding my work and having a chuckle. I did not see them but, then again, I did not search for them because, long ago, I learned the frustration of searching for my books in a bookstore.

My first job was bookstore clerk. Though I had wanted to be a writer long before that, I had a dream of strolling into a commercial literary establishment and, after enhaling the aroma of freshly printed paper, I would find one of my books sitting snugly on a shelf, cover out.

This actually happened, and, when it does, it’s one of the things that can make you forget all the other stuff that’s supposed to happen to an author, but doesn’t.

Still, I quarreled with the dream: my book wasn’t science fiction or fantasy, which I have always revered; and the book wasn’t is every bookstore. But it was in a some. And, for a moment, that was wonderful.

When I was a child I thought books were monuments of an author’s genius that, once published, sat on shelves forever to delight those that found them. When I began to publish journalism, I believed that my important writing—the stuff I was born to do—would happen in books.

This expectation made writing books slow, worrisome and fretful. When you want your stuff to be good, when you write for the ages and fear that mistakes, hidden biases and sloppy work will damn you forever, you want every word to count.

Though my mother encouraged me to read books, neither she nor my father were avid readers. Both thought science fiction and fantasy was a childish thing that I’d put away. I never put it away,  largely because it “spoke” to me, as it does to many adolescents who have no idea how they’re going to navigate the perils and pleasures of the adult world.

Most of the writer heroes of my youth wrote for money, which meant they were known for what they wrote about, not how they wrote. They cranked the stuff out quickly, depended on editors to tidy up the messy parts, used stock characters, reused plots and settings like old tea bags, strung out their stories in a sequels and prequels when a single volume would have sufficied, shamelessly copied the tropes and pacing of movies and mainstream fiction, and didn’t fret about critics because they had two other manuscripts awaiting publication, a third in the typewriter and a dozen more waiting to be written.

No matter how much they seemed to know about astronomy, engineering, the military or advanced technology, most had day jobs. I can infer now from the authors’ ritualistic disparagement of authority figures, that these jobs were sufficiently degrading and humiliating to inspire fantasies of strong willed, brilliantly inventive heroes from outside the social mainstream who instantly see the truth, realize their destiny, fight the good fight, rescue the damsel and save humanity.

The editors and exemplars of the genre rationalized their hastily cooked escapism as a necessity: science fiction no longer about predicting the future as much as it was anticipating the moral, psychological and sociological implications of technological developments, and show that humans will not only solve problems, but evolve (symbolically or actually) into beings who can master the rude passions that brought wars and the threat of Cold War era thermo nuclear destruction.

And, more than any other literature (or so the purveyors claimed), fantasy gushed with the sense of wonder, that ecstatic, sublime, transcendent emotional state that would redeem us from our narrow, selfish concerns, and inspire us to take our place as explorers and citizens of a universe better than we can imagine.

What genre fiction really did was make money for a very few people, shamelessly exploit many more and create fan cultures that found imaginary worlds more appealing than their own. In terms of production values, it was about quantity, not quality, though some writers sought an illusory legitimacy by selling their work to mainstream publications that not only paid more, but reached a larger audience.

When science fiction and fantasy found that bigger audience it was rarely taken seriously. Oh, there were a few infamous moments, such as Orson Welles radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds, but it was only until the hippies of the 1960s turned to J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, that a scaffold rose that would one day bring us Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones and, finally, the Marvel movies. And you know these have inspired a new generation that can’t wait to chose the tropes they most enjoyed from previous literary and visual genres, and put them into a package that sparkles with the spectacular adventures and wonderful visual effects that the rest of us can’t find at home.

In a sense, the Marvel movies are a new generation’s equivalent of the traveling circus that used to come to town and, for pocket change, thrill us with things we’ve never seen, makes us laugh and fills us with a sense of wonder about the astonishing things people can do on the high wire, the trapeze, in the lion cage and behind curtains in the side show.

How many wanted to hop aboard an elephant, or stowaway on a truck or a train when the circus left town? Of that number, how many found out that to do those tricks required discipline and dedication: you had to practice, practice, practice and practice some more, and that one slip can either end your life, or render you worthless for any other kind of employment?

And how many reached that conclusion that being able to do something wonderful ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s still worth doing?

More than enough so that when their work speaks to you, you can’t help but listen.

 

 

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When You See a Rainbow

The bike shorts didn’t fit. Don’t ask why.

I put them in the “when I’m thin” pile. Then I saw the rainbow dividing the eastern sky.

I went to the garage, hit the door opener and the cool afternoon breeze blew away the dank, oily, grimy odors from all the stuff that we would never put indoors.

Before me was an old Dahon fat tire two wheeler, my second folding bike. The first I got as a birthday present. A few months later it was stolen after I locked it to streetlamp in front of the Delancey Street Playhouse in Philadelphia’s posh Rittenhouse Square. I had ridden several miles from my safe, suburban house down through scary slums and nasty, broken streets so I could rehearse my minor role in a community theater production in which my 13-year-old son was co-starring.

Later that year he would go to New York City to audition. Then he would become an equity actor in a revival of a Neil Simon play that would rehearse and open in south Florida, playing Cocoanut Grove and Fort Lauderdale before returning for six weeks at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater.

I would accompany him to New York and Florida and feel so proud when he took his bows at the end of every performance.

Then I would buy another identical Dahon folding bike that, a decade and a half later, looks just about the same, while its owner has thickened somewhat from the chest downward, had two heart attacks and gave up riding.

But strange things happen when you see a rainbow. You can feel like ancient people, who presumed that anything so beautiful must be special and divine–a gift, a signal, a sign.

I wore creased LL Bean full-lenth khaki trousers with one-inch cuffs, clunky black Merrill leather mocs, and a favorite blue-striped T-shirt.

The tires had enough air. I eased the bike out of the garage. The rear wheel’s snick-snick accused me of neglect.

I threw a leg over the bar, sat down, pressed on the pedal and took off.

My face divided the thick, late evening air. I hit the street that would normally be cluttered with rush hour parents returning from wherever they hunted and gathered, zoomed past the masked folks with their masked kids and unmasked dogs, heard the steady drone of fat tires on asphalt wet from the earlier cloudburst and returned to that moment from my childhood when we took the training wheels off my first two wheeler and I entered the transcendent state of speed.

I did the course I previously trudged in running shoes, with earphones and an ancient I-Pod. I glided up inclines that had seemed so signifcant as if they were mere variations in a path that was mine alone to enjoy.

I caught the scent of spring blossoms as my street came up. I was not sweating. I was not tired. I did not feel like a heart attack survivor, or a survivor of anything. I was just a guy on a bike having a great time being alive.

I asked myself if I should maintain my state of speed and prolong the ecstasy. Aging wisdom kicked in: don’t push yourself; it’s better to quit when you want more.

I rolled up the driveway and entered a garage that was no longer a dungeon for outdoor stuff.  It was a Bat Cave and I was Bat Man having returning to a world of an invisible, infinitesimal killer, in which people are suffering and dying and sacrificing everything they have to save lives.

But a world with enough rainbows for everyone, when we need them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Be Happy For This

For a moment, put the phone down. Turn the big screen off. Look away from the news. Reports of so many frightening, terrible, shameful things will be there when you return.

If you have kids, parents, friends close or far, and they’re okay, be happy for that.

If you have pets, and you have the food to feed them, a place to care for them and they don’t need the vet, be happy for that.

If you share your space with a loved one who is stressed out because working from home is still work, be happy that you can still love that person, even if it’s only to make a cup of tea for that person and leave that tea where they can see it.

If you have a roof over your head that doesn’t leak, hot water when you need it, cold water you can drink, doors and windows that you can open to let in a spring breeze and close to keep out a storm, be happy for that.

If you have an old shirt, sweater, pair of shoes or pants that just feel good when you wear them, be happy for that.

If you hear about someone being kind to another, be happy for that.

If you can finish the work you have been given, if you can put your kids to bed, wash the dishes, sit in a chair or sprawl out on your couch and do nothing for a few minutes, be happy for that.

If you have enough food in your house for a few days, be happy for that. When you go to the market and you find something you need, or something that would be so much fun to share, and you have enough money to buy it, take it home and serve it, be happy you can do it. Even if some don’t touch it, don’t like it and don’t know why you bought it, sharing food is a good thing to do.

If you go for a walk and people you don’t know on the other side of the street wave and ask you how you’re doing, and you can’t figure out how it is that those you’ve never met and probably never would, are so pleasant, be happy they are.

Maybe there’s something to being nice that makes it worthwhile.

If you see plants pushing up from the soil, if trees and flowers bloom and then push new leaves into the air, if some other thing you find suggests to you that being alive–as hard, scary and sad as it can be when too many people are struggling, suffering and dying–can have moments of incredible, astonishing, redemptive beauty, and you wonder why you didn’t notice it, or why you need to be reminded of it, just be happy that beauty got your attention, for a moment.

Find peace.

 

 

 

 

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