To Go

When you drive a car in my neighborhood

You don’t notice

What’s between you and everyone else

Until

 

You’re stopped behind a light for so unbelievably long

You wonder what will happen to the garbage rolling across the road.

And when will they mow the median strip?

Or arrest whoever shot holes in the stop sign?

 

You realize that you are surrounded by people who just shouldn’t be on the road.

Banged up cars, smelly trucks, farting motorbikes,

A cyclist in the shoulder so everybody has to veer away

And look at that guy strutting across the crosswalk, like one push of a button makes him royalty!

 

And when are they going to plow the gray snow and salt the sheets of ice

That’ll kill you if you don’t watch out?

You want to change lanes but that creep won’t let you in!

And when are they going to fill the potholes?

 

It’s been two weeks and that streetlamp is still dark.

When are they going to stop raising the the tolls

Or finish the construction the tolls are supposed to pay for.

Stop slowing down like you’ve never seen a smashed car!

 

Where are the cops? That jerk in front doesn’t know how to drive.

Ever hear of turn signal?

Turn your high beams off and

Put the damned cell phone down!

 

I’m sure there are places where no one is in front of you, moving too slow

And no one is in back, flashing headlights and bearing down on you for going too slow.

Places with mountains, lakes and trees, and perfect weather

And city blocks with restaurants and shops and gleaming streets where

 

You can pretend you’re in a car commercial

Confident, smiling and admired from afar

For being the only person in universe

Absolutely certain that nothing ever ends.

 

 

 

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The Hero

They say you should never meet your heroes.

But you’ve met a few

None were what they were cracked up to be.

Some had merely cracked.

 

Not like a statue.

More like an egg.

You didn’t want what was inside

To seep out.

 

Because you didn’t know the right way to mop it up

And put it back in

And search for in that drawer marked Emergency Hero Repair

For the glue that would make the crack disappear.

 

But you tried with one.

You had seen him in his glory

Quiet, dignified, drinking beer:

A published author who wasn’t worried about who was paying.

 

Then you found him broken and

Angry at those who shunned him

Who couldn’t understand why

Partial paralysis and brain-damage had prevented him from being a hero.

 

He swore he would recover someday, and

He sensed that everything around you had lost its meaning.

He invited you to visit him. He promised beautiful sunsets.

He said he’d put you back together.

 

The sun sets were beautiful but his maid had quit months ago. The kitchen sink held a leaning tower of dishes and his referigator reeked from spoiled food.

You cleaned his house, mowed his lawn, cooked the food, fetched the mail and marveled how he had learned to drive a car with one hand.

You weren’t speaking properly, he said. He hated your writing.

He told you that you knew nothing about old cars, model airplanes, Swedish furniture, German beer, history, Puccini’s operas, Sibelius’ symphonies, science fiction stories and Raymond Chandler novels.

 

Could this be why,

You asked yourself as you watched the sun set,

His wife and children

Left him?

 

Then, before you had to leave, you saw his car slide down into a lake

You went in, freed him from the car, pulled his head above the water, put his one functional arm around your neck, dragged him to the water’s edge and carried him out.

He said you saved his life, then he yelled at you for not being as astonished as he was,

That you had done something right.

 

A few weeks later

He said he’d dedicate a book to you.

He was writing again.

You thought you found the glue.

 

You wrote letters.

He told you the sunsets were even more beautiful and

That book was at the publisher

And would come out, soon.

 

So you bought a hardcover edition

Opened it.

Saw it was dedicated to someone else.

Closed it.

 

After a while you read it.

It wasn’t his best.

You decided not to meet any more heroes

Until you became one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reasons for Not Writing Poetry #5

Someday a klaxon will sound in the swanky Disney Marvel Studios offices.

Those talented film-school graduates whose movies have made a pile of money

Will panic because

They’ve run out of villains!!!!

 

That big bucket stuffed with the stuff that

Makes nice, normal, reasonably good looking people

Put on a costume and make a big mess–

Is empty!!!!

 

And yet, when all seems dark for the Extended Universe

A plucky unpaid intern rounds up a bunch of quirky, trash-talking, highly talented film school graduates whose eccentric skill sets have yet to bring them a steady job.

They hatch a complicated plan that will require them to wear costumes, impersonate celebrities, fool security guards, steal fancy cars and get into high speed chases with the police, and other diversions

So they can break into the Writers Guild’s secret vault!!!!

 

That’s the storehouse of scripts that nobody–not even the latest internet streaming service– wants to film,

And pitches that nobody wants to turn into an original TV series,

And compromising, unquestionably career-shattering video and photographs of this producer and that director, which may explain why some of those scripts that nobody wants to film–are filmed!!!!

There, way in the back, shoved up against a wall, spilling out from a garbage can, are too many

 

Stepped-on thumb drives

Crumbling Post-It notes that were flushed down a toilet,

Restaurant napkins marked up with confusing plot details and the name of an A-list actor who might green-light the project

And furiously crumpled balls of paper!!!!

 

Inside one of those paper balls is a short, coffee-stained character sketch

About a humble person who

When not working in a coffee shop/Wal-Mart/cupcake shop (bookstore has been crossed out)

Writes poems!!!!

 

One day, you, the part-time poet, passes another coffee shop/low-price department store/cupcake shop (bookstore is again crossed out)

And you see a GREAT PERSON inside

You tenatively, respectfully approach and ask,

“Would you read my poems?”

 

Greatness pauses.

Greatness turns toward you.

Greatness glances down at what you hold in your trembling hand.

Greatness says, “Sure. Love to.”

 

And, for the first time in your life, you understand perfectly what a sartori is,

that feeling of effortless joy that comes from occupying a perfect moment, your body rising, your feet leaving the ground.

Until Greatness adds, “When I’m dead!!!!”

Your feet return to the floor.

 

Greatness explains: “While you’re scratching out your poem, I’m

Eating lobster

Driving a fast car with nobody in front of me

Making the play

 

Accepting an award

Taking a bow

Singing to a sold-out stadium

Making love on the beach

 

Guest starring in my own movie,

Making a half a billion dollars,

Telling a joke that gets a laugh,

Changing the world and then changing it back again.”

 

Greatness winks. “That Pierian Spring that you’re supposed to drink deep from?”

Your nod and remembering the interminably long “Essay on Criticism” by the famous 17th century English satirist, translator and poet Alexander Pope, who was sickly and deformed and never married and wrote that fabulous couplet, “a little learning is a dang’rous thing;/Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

“It’s a crock. What you want from life, you have to conquer.”

Your mouth shuts itself.

 

You walk for a while

Quickly

Without direction or intention

Until you find a costume shop.

 

The money you saved all these years appears in your hand. A caustic bile rises in your thoat. The putrid logic of violence-for-violence’s sake begins to make sense.

“I want to be Alexander…”

Your eyes move from pen that is in the clerk’s pocket, to the long, brutal sword on the wall.

“…The Great!!!!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reasons for Not Writing Poetry #4

Most people don’t know (and you’re not going to tell them)

That, if you had enough coffee

And a few cool locales where you could sit and be your marvelous, wonderful, imaginative, expressive self–

You could fill the world with so many poems that

Snarky people would make comments about quality and quantity.

They’d say you’re that you’re poem-luting the planet!

Poeming at the mouth!

While you wrap yourself in your creator’s cloak

And pretend to be oblivious

Of the self-righteous swagger of those 20th century American culture heroes

Those hard-drinking guys who led the pack,

Who went on safaris, drove Cadillacs into Las Vegas swimming pools, won awards, married badly and died ironically.

They didn’t care what their art was doing to the world.

They didn’t ask for whom the bells tolled.

They ate it up, spit it out

And kept going until they couldn’t go anymore.

Which is what people want from cars, farm animals, apple trees, beaches, and every mousetrap that’s better than the last,

But not from poems.

 

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Reasons for Not Writing Poetry #3

You can write a poem and feel so good about it

That you’ll do something else for money

Practice medicine (Williams), work in a bank (Elliot), act (Shakespeare), work in a post office (Bukowski), open your own bookshop and get yourself arrested for publishing someone else’s poem (Ferlinghetti)

Or teach, teach, teach and teach some more.

Sell your soul a little

Or a lot.

 

And while you’re at it, annoy those you live with,

make a beast of yourself, as Samuel Johnson said, so you can get rid “of the pain of being a man”

or a woman

or anything else that writing seems to justify and relieve.

You can bring suffering to those who are drawn to you, who put up with you, who will read your poems when, what they really want you to know is

life is mostly okay as it is, you’re okay as you are.

You want to tell them about a poem that meant everything, that had all the answers, that said what was in your heart so perfectly

Or seemed to, at the time.

You want to tell them that a poem can save a life!

 

So tell them. Let them know that you’re not writing poetry.

You’re saving your life.

Saving pieces of yourself, like coins in a piggy bank

Pictures in an album

Things you find, collect and preserve,

Not because they’ll be valuable some day

But because they make it easier for you to be okay as you are.

And be a little bit more than a beast

Most of the time.

 

 

 

 

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Reasons Not to Write Poetry #2

(for Kevin Stokker)

You heard about this magazine that’s supposed to have the best stuff in it

Written by the best writers, most of whom live in Brooklyn, New York and write about Brooklyn as if it is really all there is, unless the magazine sends them to Berlin or L.A. or Vera Cruz to write about art dealers, snarky musicians and astonishing chefs who never wanted to be chefs but, after they got their second Michelin star…

But mostly Brooklyn, which makes you remember your grandparents’ Brighton Beach apartment building that smelled of pot roast and rattled every twelve to eighteen minutes from the elevated subway, which you could see, when your grandmother took you to the roof, slithering over the streets in a steel cage open to the sky.

For you, Brooklyn was two blocks from the ocean and two blocks from the loudest elevated subway train and a few more blocks from Coney Island, and the bumper car ride, the merry-go-round where you could lean way over and grab a brass ring, a roller coaster that was too dangerous for you to ride and Nathan’s Famous where you could have as many hot dogs as you wanted with greasy brown fried potatoes until

your grandfather died and your grandmother moved down to live closer to your mother and told you that she was lucky to leave Brooklyn when she could.

So you’re in a dentist’s office, a barber shop, an automobile repair shop lounge

Or any others place that requires people to sit around for too much of that Slow Time that sounded great in that poem by Keats but now seems to be one long uncertain, unnerving, unsettling wasteland (from a 434-line poem by Eliott that you were supposed to read in college and only remember now as being 434 lines and important)

And you find, on a table, among the worn magazines about cars, guns, sports, home decor, movie stars, how you can have your first billion in two months, abs of steel in two weeks,  a home cooked meal in two minutes–

A magazine that is supposed to have the best poems inside!

You open it up

You find a poem

You try to read it

You remember how it was when you were supposed to read The Wasteland and you try harder to read it

You remember how your English teacher spent so much time talking about Slow Time and how understanding some poems can be hard work and you must read them several times before you understand them

So you try even harder to read it

And, though the poem doesn’t appear to be about Brooklyn–

You don’t get it

You don’t get any of it.

You read it again and again and you don’t even know why it was written, much less published in the magazine that’s supposed to have the best stuff in it.

You put the magazine down and you come up with reasons

Were these the last words of a poet who died pitifully in a garett near an elevated subway?

Did the poet and the poetry editor go to a school together? Are they neighbors who visit frequently? Is there a darker relationship whose queasy details will not be revealed until court records are unsealed at the end of this century?

Did the poet not want to be a poet but after winning that second award…

Or, has poetry changed so much from the ornate angels we wrestled in school

That our own glimpses of the divine, which we wrote so carefully, so importantly, so joyously, from inner needs, or because during of a sacred moment when we felt a connection to every poet whose work we loved–

are not poetry anymore?

You close the magazine and toss it back among the others, one more fish that some other fool may catch, and release.

And, just before you’re told about the parts your car needs, the barber turns the chair toward you, or you begin that trudge back into the antiseptic lair of a dentist who you just know will find something wrong and insist on taking a full-set of X-rays–

You tell yourself you’ll continue to write.

Novels, short stories, essays, blogposts and something short that may not rhyme or scan or resemble a poem

About anything but Brooklyn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reasons Not to Write Poetry #1

The assignment was made last week: “Write a poem that shows what you’ve learned about poetry.”

Every day, for a whole week, you were afraid because you wanted your teacher to love it.

Then, on the morning the poem was due, you surrendered to a mood-elevating substance. Three spoons of a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal suspended in milk with a 2 percent fat content and

the words tumbled out, free, easy, with a rhyme linking moose to orange juice,

and a meter that would anticipate your adoration of the blues: dee dah, dee dah,

dee dah, dee dah dah, dee dah!

You tore the page out of your notebook and gazed at your teacher’s face as you handed it in.

And your teacher loved it

But loved another student’s poem more, because

At a time when gender didn’t matter

Where you lived didn’t seem to matter

The clothes you wore to school were just clothes until they were stained

What kind of lunch box you carried, and what was in it, would only matter at lunch time, which was an impossibly long two hours away

Your parents’ jobs were too hard to explain

And if anyone was mean to you you were supposed to tell on them and they were sent to the office so they could think of more ways to be mean to you later.

What mattered was to please a teacher who was like the parent you wished you had

Who wrote “good job” in blue across the top of your page and circled the words moose and juice.

But gave the highest grade

To a poem that had been printed out on unlined paper decorated with with a pink, green and brown drawing of a flower, that had been enclosed in a clear plastic folder.

So that what you learned about poetry was that words did not matter as much

As what you put them in.

 

 

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Miracles in that Certain Age

Many men who reach that certain age develop an affection for hats.

The reasons are not just the gradual loss of beyond the gradual loss of hair, and hair color. Ever since John F. Kennedy went hatless to his bitterly cold presidential inauguration, head coverings for men have been considered extraneous.

But–

As men grow prosperous, they acquire money to spend on hobbies, sports collectibles, fashion and travel. They discover the differences in western, riding, racing, cricket, Greek fisherman, fly fisherman, angler, national park souvenir cap and railroad engineer hats, and they’re proud of the acquired knowledge. When they’re stuck in an airport for several hours, after a few beers, that collapsible Australian bush hat begins to look good, or, at least, practical.

And then there’s politics. I’ve written previously about how I can’t wear a red cap anymore. The hat has no writing or logo on its crown. It’s a simple, well-made hat that I bought it at a Brooks Brothers shop because I was traveling to crowded places on a group tour and, just in case I wanted to be recognized, I would wear the hat. I wore the hat on the trip without difficulty. Then a new political wind blew into this country and that cap, with similar caps in white and blue, has since become connected to a policies, attitudes and manners of behavior that I don’t support.

In addition to their affectation for hats, men of that certain age become forgetful. They may find themselves, as I did this morning, wishing for an intensely practical hat that I purchased a few years ago. It was a black fleece cap like many others I’d bought for cold weather. This had had fleece ear flaps that, when not in use, folded back into the crown of the cap.

This was one of two hats I bought at a Quebec City hat shop. The other was a white riding cap that looked good on me in the store, but, when I tried it on at home, made me look like some ancient duffer hanging around a South Florida golf course bar.

Alas, guys of that certain age do not want their clothing to age them, even if they are far past the birthday when birthdays matter. So., if I should ever visit the Sunshine State and want to fit right in, I have the right hat.

I must confess that guys my age also lose things, especially hats.  This morning, as a chill winter wind turned my ears numb, I thought on all the black caps I forgotten in movie theaters, restaurants, cabs, airport transfer buses that are warmer than they should be, plus all those places that, if I knew I where I’d lost the cap, I’d go back, right now, and find it.

Of course, the hat I missed the most was the black ear flapper. When the flaps were folded back into the crown, it resembled any other black cap. But when the wind blew so cold that it numbed my ears, and brought down the flaps, the hat was like no other.

I winced at the cold this morning as I walked the dog. She wore her new magenta coat. I was clad in layers, with an old but beloved scarf around my neck and a black cap I’d grabbed from the hat pile near the front door because it matched my pea coat.

I’ll add two more “certain age” type facts: when an older man’s fancy turns to hats, he really doesn’t know how to turn it off. My wife bought a hat rack a while ago when I only had six or so. Now I have so many they perch on the banister finials, pile up atop the dog’s crate and squat on my office floor like mushrooms after a rainy day. I don’t have just one black cap. I have many.

But I missed my black flapper as the wind raked my ears.

My last “certain age” fact: despite the fact that we older guys have climbed mountains, traveled the world, met famous folks, passed our rites of passage and survived the consequences of too many foolish, stupid things, miracles still happen to us. They don’t happen every day. They don’t happen when we wish they would. At times we’ll get in moods where we are certain miracles will never happen again.

But they do.

When I came home from the chilly morning dog walk, I unfastened the dog’s coat and harness, untied my scarf and hung it on a hook, slipped off my coat, and tossed my cap on the pile. It rolled over and I noticed the black ear flaps inside.

I had mourned the loss of my favorite cap, while it was on my head.

So much for age, and being certain.

 

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Uncle Chuck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you find that voice when you need it.

 

 

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Cancer Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish the birds luck on their journey.

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

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

My wife is cancer free.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

 

 

 

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