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.




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.








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.






The Dogs Are Confused

The sports games shut down at night. The schools closed the following morning at 5:30 a.m.

We have a plague upon our houses.

With so much around us banned or discouraged, more people are at home more of the time. Litter from kids snacks clutters the landscape. Most of the neighborhood’s cars stay sleeping in their driveways. We don’t hear so many jet planes roaring overhead.

And the dogs are confused.

They know when they’re supposed to be walked. They know who has been near their turf, when that dog and walker came through and whatever they may have left as a calling card.

But now, people who used to walk their dogs before the sun came up, are sleeping late and taking different paths. From the way my dog behaves, the common calling-card locales have new aromas, some of them not so friendly.

I don’t know why some dogs adore each other, and others drop into a fighting crouch, growl, bark and pull on the leash. It probably has something to do with scent, size and atty-tood–the big German shepherds swaggering about, tossing off looks at the smaller dogs that say, “Watch it, kiddo. You could be my lunch.”

And yet, the smaller dogs, especially the Yorkies and Chihauhaus, have this manic urge to challenge anything on four legs, no matter how large or Teutonic: “How dare you even exist in my line of smell?! Why, if I wasn’t connected to this person,  tied to this person, in LOVE with this person who really has no idea what they would do without me, I’d have my teeth in your neck!”

I used to make a joke that it was all because of the last election. Or the election before that.

But elections have come and gone and people who genuinely couldn’t care less, now feel that they have a right to be as cruel as possible to other people, especially on the Internet. Until this coronavirus came upon us, people were sitting in chairs, in comfortable rooms, with too much food in their kitchens and too much time on their hands, writing all kinds of nasty, hateful, ugly and profoundly unAmerican stuff on-line because…

Why? I really don’t know.  Is it because other people–those in power, those with money and nice clothing, those who say things that make us mad–are better at being awful, than we are?

Or are we, on some level, dogs that imagine themselves part of a territorial pack, and it really doesn’t matter what our reasons are–we have to growl and get mad and challenge dogs in other packs because, on some other level, we think that all this growling and barking will impress the alpha dog, or, maybe, it just feels good to growl and bark when you’re tied to a human being who just doesn’t get it?

I don’t mean to belittle anyone with genuine grievances. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen things become better for some people and worse for others and, like a dog tethered to a human being, there are parts of what my dog and I might call reality that I just don’t understand.

For every person who has claimed that success equals hard work and a positive attitude, I’ve seen others who have worked–and hoped–just as hard, only to see their fortunes sink.

For every dog fed steak and walked five times a day, how many others get the dried junk from a sack and are lucky if they have a few minutes a day in the back yard?

What about the dogs that are abused and abandoned? What could they possibly do that would justify that?

Any single life lost to illness is horrific and catastrophic for those who cared for and loved that peson. Right now, the numbers of people who have died from this virus are small. No one knows how much those numbers will grow.

We can be certain that the numbers will grow.

It doesn’t matter who you are, what clothes you wear, what college you attended, how much money you make, who you pray to, what awful green smoothie you’ve had for breakfast, how many times you resist the urge to rub your eyes that are itching because it’s allergy season–

You can get it. And some of those who get it, die from it.

Right now, my dog is confused at all the other dogs being walked at different times by people she’s never sniffed before. Friend or foe, she wants to know.

And I’m confused by the people who insist on blaming others, finding fault, littering the Internet with their righteous rage, and otherwise getting mad because what was routine a few weeks ago, is now a matter of life and death.

I can think of only one thing beyond all the hand washing, elbow coughs and crowd avoidance that can lead you out from confusion:

You can love the fact that you’re alive, that you’re not alone, that you can help others in ways big and small. You can appreciate every moment you have in the sun.

And understand that, no matter how you voted in the last election, we really are in this together.




Down Here

Inside the International Space Station

People float like babies in a starry womb.

Rockets bring them enough stuff

So they can be happy way up there

Instead of down here

Where I was told

I should write a poem.


Down here, people are dying

Of too much this

And not enough that.

A study just came out:

Everything you thought was good for you


Maybe you should write a poem.


Down here, it’s okay for some people

To be mean to other people.

They’re rich. They’re powerful.

They have a gun! They have a right!

They think they can do what they want.

While the rest of us

Should write a poem.


Down here, storms with names make expensive real estate

Go away

Faster than you can say, “location, location, location.”

The wind kills people you may not know personally.

Garbage clogs the gullet

Of a falling sparrow that sings,

“You should write a poem.”


Down here, people do all kinds of awful things

On the Internet

Where there’s no up and down.

They have apps that make it easy

For people you don’t know, to think they know

Everything about you.

Except the poem you should write


So that aliens on distant planets

Who have really big guns

Or angels in heaven

Who have terrible swift swords

Can peer down on us and

Let us continue to do all that we do

Just because they like our poems.








Reasons for Not Writing

I’m not ready yet! I should

  1. Play solitaire until I win.
  2. Check the news (Have you ever noticed how, unlike what happens in that great Kurosawa film Rashomon , the more points of view you get on a topical subject, the more you feel you really don’t know anything?)
  3. Have more coffee, maybe with something sweet, so I can get that sugar rush and blurt out any old thing. (Even if the blurt fades and leaves you in a low mood)
  4. Go to the gym or go for a run so I can get more ideas and inspirations. (So I can be  too tired to write).
  5. Check e-mail (and see who has rejected my submissions, ignored my e-mails or used one of those cheeky automatic replies that is not a reply as much as it is another way to tell someone that they are not worth your time).
  6. Consult the I-Ching (Book of Changes). This ancient Chinese fortune telling system that I encountered in college involves a random series of actions that generate a pattern. You then read commentary on the pattern. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung especially enjoyed the I-Ching because it confirmed for him the interaction of theoretical archetypes that can act as metaphors for human conditions and possibly reveal hidden truths about situations and personalities. Like astrology, Tarot cards, palmistry and tasseography (tea leaf reading), the efficacy depends on the superstitious belief that all events are connected, that faraway incidents can influence local outcomes and—specific to the I-Ching—natural forces, visual images, family structures and royal hierarchies are equivalent and direct metaphors of human interactions. (This is fun until you notice that belief systems that encourage these ideals are very popular in tyrannical regimes because they reinforce rigid social order and repress dissent).

Counter reason: No one is ever “ready,” and one can argue that those who believe they are could be less flexible and adaptable than those who just jump in or “get out of the way” and let the creative impulse come through.

I still don’t know if any of this is good. I should show it to someone who is in the business–

Counter reason: The only thing they can tell you with any reliability and accuracy is what they think you’re trying to do and how they might do it if they were you. They’re not you. If they were, they would be doing EXACTLY what you’re doing.

But what if nobody likes this? Or, even if they do, they reject it becaise the publishing business has changed. The things considered necessary for publication have changed. Publishers no longer want a good story (one can argue that they never did). They want a story that can be sold as a souvenir of an encounter by someone who is already popular on the Internet. I am not popular on the Internet.

Counter Reason: There is another kind of success that has little to do with popularity. It’s based on kindness, generosity and a willingness to do “good.” Yes, good intentions may lead you astray, but it’s rather obvious that the writing that is meaningful, enjoyable and worth reading, is worth bringing into the world.

As a journalist, I’ve written about many popular people and I’ve seen what these people must do (or feel they must do, or resist doing what they feel they must do) to maintain that popularity. About the best that can be said about celebrity maintenance is that it is its own skill with highly situational values (what works for one audience does not always work for another). The worst is that you can get lost in it   and spend so much time and money on it that you forget who you are (this is a common theme of Hollywood success biopics), become a parody of what made you successful, or so ignore your gifts and talents that your performance (or whatever art you provide) loses its value.

As a critic I’ve learned that popularity is not easy for anyone to control. Even if the work is uniformly excellent, the artist’s image can change, sometimes without the artist doing anything different. Fashion also changes: different eras pick different artists to mirror their values, and the media just as eagerly tears down those who, not long ago, were so righteously built up. Celebrity may seem as a judgement of value, but it’s really about consumption. Fame eats people, places and things. At best, it changes them. At worst, it destroys them.

As an artist, I understand that nothing is guaranteed. You really have no way of knowing, much less being certain, how your work will be received. There is a joyous part of making art when you stop worrying about this and just let it happen. Reaching that joyous moment is not only possible, but likely, with practice. Practice isn’t about repetition. It’s about finding a different way, every time, to what matters about your art.

Finally, when popularity becomes the hierarchy of success, those at the top benefit at the expense of just about everyone else.


  1. It’s a beautiful day. I could walk the dog, run an errand, start cooking something that requires me to watch a pot.
  2. I like listening to music but my favorite tunes are tangled in a mess of music files. What if I clean up my music files, extract my favorite tunes, and listen to them for a while, hoping that inspiration takes hold?
  3. I want to find out something on the Internet but I need to research to make sure I’m doing it properly. Of course, researching anything on the Internet can take an hour or more and…now it’s time for lunch!

Final Counter Thought:

Everyone feels anxious before beginning. See it. Feel it. See past it and let go.


Play ‘Em

I found this Internet list of what were supposed to be the 100 greatest bands of all time, and, as you might expect, most of my favorite bands and musicians, and, most likely yours, weren’t on it. What can we do about this?

The list appeared to be based on Spotify followers and the anonymous list maker’s ability to link music industry awards and multi-platinum album sales to overall quality and significance. At the top was The Beatles. The Rolling Stones was there, too, with Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Led Zepplin (though the picture of Zep was some other band), ZZ Top, The Who, Metallica, The Beach Boys, REM, The Band, Credence Clearwater Revival, U2, Coldplay, Rush, Steely Dan, and The Police. Heart was on the list, The Pretenders and The Eurythmics,  so that bands with powerful female lead singers–whose recordings and concerts made a pile of money–could also be remembered.

I agreed that most of the choices were obviously popular and worthy of acclaim, with the exception of Grand Funk Railroad, a 70’s power trio so despised by my teenage friends and I that I made a movie about burning one of their records, they certainly earned their acclaim.

Few single musicians were on the list, unless you want to count Jimmie Hendrix (and the Experience), Janis Joplin and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Little Richard, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, David Bowie, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash, Billie Eckstine, Sarah Vaughn, Hank Williams, James Brown, Billie Holiday, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Tony Bennett or, perhaps the greatest musician of 20th century America, Louis Armstrong–are not there.

No songwriters were on the list, either, though their work may have generated piles of money just as big. Irving Berlin remains the songwriter with the most hits–far more than the Beatles. A day doesn’t go by when a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical is not performed somewhere in the world. Can we raise a Martini to Cole Porter’s bittersweet wit? How about Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Julie Stein, George and Ira Gershwin? Lest we forget, Bob Dylan became the first singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize, and his voice is STILL terrible. Though Randy Newman won an Academy Award for film songs–where would we be without “Sail Away,” as well as Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”? How could a high school senior prom end without Elton John’s (and Bernie Taupin’s) beautifully gentle “Your Song”?

What about “crossover” artists from classical music, like Yo-Yo Ma, Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein (who also qualifies to be among the songwriters, for “Maria” and “Tonight” in West Side Story)? Folk artists like Woody Guthrie, Richie Havens and Pete Seeger whose work brought social change?

While we’re at it, why are British pop and rock bands on the list, when great Latin American, South American and African bands and musicians were not? Were the sales figures unavailable? Do Astor Piazolla, Hermeto Pascoal, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masakella, Tito Puente, Ruben Blades, Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto not qualify? Could it be the fact that the American music industry awards typically ignore, or give only token attention, to world music?

Maybe. But, in making my own list, could I be guilty of excluding others just because I don’t know the songs and sounds of a particular region or culture? Easily. Absolutely. We live in a time of abundance. One person could never listen to it all in a lifetime.

So, how do we work off our lingering annoyance at lists that don’t include the artists we love, whose work changed our lives and whose music still is in our hearts?

Play ’em. Play them when you’re driving, cooking, going nowhere fast on a treadmill or a stationery bike. Play them when you’re working from home and you’re not on a teleconference.

If they’re not on Spotify (as with most of my favorites), buy a digital download and let it survive somewhere on your hard drive.

Don’t be afraid when an earworm crawls into your brain and you find yourself humming, whistling or croaking through a few notes in the shower. Singing when you’re alone must be done, and done often!

Because whoever might be listening might need to hear it, again.




Hooptie Heaven on the LeMons Rally Retreat From Moscow

“You feel differently about a road-trip,” said my son Stephen with steely reserve, “when you know the car you’re driving could die at any minute.”

The car in question was an ancient seaweed green “bubble butt” Infiniti J30, with 189,000 miles on the odometer, wobbly tires, rust blotches on the sun roof, a radio with a frozen volume knob, molding falling off the windows and dash, an exhaust leak behind the catalytic converter, and a check engine light that glowed ominously on the instrument panel.

Standing next to us, Dominick, a young guy in jeans, a dark hoodie and a white, google-eye cap, put it best: “The LeMons Rally is like nothing else you would ever do involving a car. Basically, you find a car you wouldn’t drive across the street, and drive it 3000 miles across the country.”

No, this wasn’t LeMans, the chic automobile endurance race in France, but the very American LeMons, a gathering of truly dreadful cars and motorheads with a sense of humor.

Dominick, with his wife Julie and their 16-month old daughter Elizabeth, had already driven their rusting Buick Roadmaster station wagon 256 miles southwest from Yardley, PA to the parking lot of the Cumberland Maryland Historical Museum.  From here, under chilly, overcast winter skies, the annual LeMons “Retreat from Moscow,” one of five cross-country rallies sponsored by the California-based junk-car fan club (

Named for Napoleon’s humiliating withdrawal from Russia, the Retreat would take my son and me, and 80 other drivers in 39 cars on a four day, seven-state road trip, extending from Moscow, Maryland to one of two Eiffel Towers in Atlanta, GA, and concluding at the Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama. Neary all the travel would take us down rural lanes, scenic by-ways, notoriously treacherous mountain passes and the occasional dirt road, far from cell phone reception and farther still from emergency services.

Which meant if our cars broke down, we had to fix them ourselves.

Like our car, Dominick’s was filled with tools and spare parts. If he couldn’t do the repair, he could beg a ride until he got cell phone reception and call for a tow truck. Or he could do what my son did last year when the transmission of his LeMons car fell completely apart in a hotel lot–sell the car to a junker, get a rental and continue the Rally.

Two of the cars came from as far away as Missouri and Quebec. Most were hideously decorated, like the “Lawn Dart” Dodge Dart encrusted with darts, a lemon yellow Toyota Privia printed over with green slogans (e.g., “When life gives you lemons, drive ’em.”), a black Ford Galaxie “Men in Black” sedan, a “Bratmobile” Mercedes with a Cuisinart grill bolted to its trunk, and “the Dude Arrives” Cadillac with working chandeliers mounted on its front and a disco ball hanging from the roof.

You could also drive an ordinary, reliable, undecorated, new or merely used car on the Rally. The cars that got the most attention were furthest from that, such as the midnight blue and red rust 1953 GMC pick-up from Deptford, New Jersey.

Wandering about in a white hazmat suit with a clipboard was a bearded, somewhat intense Eric Rood, the planner and overall supervisor on the Rally. With his assistant, John Pagel, Eric awarded starting points for team costuming and overall “hooptieness” of the vehicle. Stephen and I were given points for the bad radio, the check engine light, the bad tires and the fact that I lost my made-in-Philadelphia cheese steak hat on the way to the rally when it flew out of the car while we were adjusting our CB radio antenna.

But we lost points because we were driving a Japanese car that has a reputation for reliability. If we had arrived with any French car, or, better yet, an “Eastern Block” Yugo or Trabant, we would get extra points.

John tallied our points, made sure out vehicle was licensed and insured, and then gave us our bright yellow and green LeMons Rally sticker, and told us to go into the museum for a meeting. .

The museum staff generously provided us with free coffee, donuts and a local, cream-filled pastry so good I momentarily forgot how crazy I was to go on this trip with my son. Stephen works in analytics but has loved cars all his life. He took his wife, and high school friends on previous LeMons Rallys. Now it was my turn.

At the meeting Eric then warned as that though portions of the Rally were to go along the Blue Ridge Parkway, sections of the historic roadway have been closed for the winter. We should check the Parkway’s web page, or travel the alternative routes.

He explained that a road rally wasn’t a race. There were no prizes for those who finish first. We earned points for how many check points we visited along the way.

We were to obey all federal, state and local speed limits, and behave in a respectful manner. “Most of the check points are on public property, with places close enough for you to park, get a picture and get back on the road. Some are on private property that is closed for the season. The last thing we want is someone calling the cops on a bunch of crazies in stupid cars causing trouble.”

We were given a printed book of list of check points, but no map. We would have to use our cell phones, a portable GPS, a road atlas or get lost to find the checkpoints.

Because my son had done previous LeMons Rallys he found the fastest routes easily on his cellphone, using Google maps and Roadside America, a website listing unusual tourist attractions.

Within minutes we had started our engines and headed for the hills. A half hour later, we stopped at our first checkpoint: a copse of old American Victorian houses in reasonable condition nestled near a single railroad track. A sign proclaimed this the site of Moscow, Maryland, established in 1868. My son posed for a picture. We turned around and headed south.

A hooptie is motorhead-speak for a car or truck so old, ugly or wretched that you have to be crazy or in love, to drive it. LeMons Rally competitors are advised to spend no more than $500 purchasing a vehicle (the owners of one confessed that the Salvation Army gave it to them without charge because they didn’t think anyone else would want it). You can make safety improvements to the brakes and wheels, but anything in the cabin, engine and drive train should be left intact.

You could make decorations and team uniforms as silly as you wanted as long as they were inoffensive and apolitical. I saw cars sporting Texas longhorns on the front grill, a rubber alligator stuck on the top, inflatable green aliens hanging out the windows, the eye-searing orange shag carpeting covering the dash of Dominick’s Food Monster Buick–and costumes (the inhabitants of a lemon yellow van were dressed as lemons; a husband and wife wearing Nascar regalia in a “Fig Newtons” car referenced characters in the “Talladega Nights” Will Ferrell film.

As we rolled into small towns in West Virginia and paused at checkpoints (you earned points when you posted a photo to an Instagram page of yourself with the car in front of the check point), we were greeted by the locals with shock, awe and a lot of laughter. None had heard of the LeMons Rally, but some of them had owned one of the cars in their past, or knew someone who did. Conversations arose about cars, following questions about where we were from and where we were going. Some eagerly shared local history and lore.

In Independence, Virginia, site of the “Grand Privy Race,” a local marveling at our cars informed us that, every October, people did, indeed, mount outhouses on wheels and race them down Main Street. He also told us his love for mountain music. He attended the fiddle competition every year, and boasted that the famed acoustic guitar maker Wayne Henderson lived nearby.

Other spectators suggested restaurants and places worth visiting along the way. At no time on this four day adventure did my son and I encounter the antagonism, or exploitation, that road-tripping tourists can get when their license plate announces that they’re from another state.

The January weather was also kind to us as we drove through snow and fog in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, crisp sunshine along Tenessee’s sparkling Ocowee River and a light rain that followed us through Georgia.

With barely ten hours of daylight and eight to ten checkpoints each day, we did not have time to linger or explore the shuttered roadside attractions (Sylva, NC’s American Museum of the Cat, Ansted, WV’s “Gravity Defying” Mystery Hole), odd monuments (to Ann Hodges, the first American woman struck by a meteorite),  and roadside sculptures (a flying VW “Hippie” Bus outside Sam’s Burger Deli in Rome, Georgia).

The rally took us through back country roads and small whistlestop and factory towns, many of them showing the grim effects from being ignored by the last decade’s economical revival. The train stations that had brought prosperity to these aging, abandoned examples of small town America were shuttered, or converted to museums that honored a distant pass, or craft and boutique shops that hoped to capture a latent automobile tourism of the future.

As Eric had warned us, most of the Blue Ridge Parkway–a 470 mile two-lane scenic drive connecting Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park with North Carolina’s Cherokee National Forest, was closed, so Stephen and I visited the alternate checkpoints, including a stop at the Odd, West Virginia post office, and a house whose fence, front door, garage and facade was covered in souvenir coffee mugs.

One mountain pass that remained open was “Moonshiner 28,” which we took to a section of US Route 129. Known to motorcyclists and sports car fiends as “the Tail of the Dragon” or, more simply as The Dragon, this 11 mile two-lane paved road links North Carolina at Deals Gap to Tennessee through the Great Smoky Mountains, and features 318 turns and no guardrails. A website memorializes the numerous fatalities and accidents the road has claimed.

Stephen had “done the Dragon” enough times to invite me to do it. And so, the son I had taught how to drive and parallel park in tiny Toyota Tercel, handed me the keys,  and told me to “stay inside the yellow line, don’t look at the scenery, keep your hands on wheel and ease into the turns.” I joined a convoy of LeMons cars swooping and swerving down one of the most dangerous roads anywhere. And lived!

Road weary drivers could eat and overnight anywhere they wished, though some places were recommended by the rally organizers. Stephen and I missed the first informal “meat-up” at a Boone, NC barbecue restaurant because a jaunt down a rock-strewn dirt road punctured a rear tire. The Infiniti did not have a spare but a nearby Mr. Tire did. In Atlanta, Stephen took me to Mary Mac’s Tea Room, the famous soul food restaurant, where I had iced tea, cornbread, collard greens, black-eyed peas the best fried chicken I’d ever tasted. The sweet potato souffle was enough to be a dessert.

Though our car held up rather well–“You must have the faith that the car will fix itself,” Stephen said when our Check Engine light mysteriously winked out–we heard stories of other cars that suffered. The Dude Arrives Cadillac gradually lost its fourth, third and reverse gears. Two cars hit deer and survived (the deer did not). Another car blew a water pump along an open stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The driver spilled water on the engine to keep it cool until they found a motel, whose owner gave them the keys to his car so they could find a new pump.

As a relief from roadside hotels, we followed the organizers’ suggestions and spent a night at the Historic Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel. Though the registration desk, inside the city’s railroad station hall, is a long walk from the hotel rooms, you could drink beer and sleep in staterooms on some of the passenger rail cars, work off muscle cramps in the fitness center, and have your picture taken on the cow catcher of an old steam locomotive.

On Friday afternoon in Alabama, about an hour from the finish line, we saw a LeMons Rally camper truck stricken beside the road. We pulled over and the drivers told us transmission had died completely. One driver had to wait for the tow truck that would take the vehicle to the finish line. We invited the other to come with us.

Of all the cars and trucks that began the rally, only this camper truck failed to finish. The 1953 GMC pick-up was one of three cars that got special awards. Domnick won “Most Heroic Repair” for two frantic hours swapping out a starter in an Ashville, NC hotel’s valet parking lane. Eric invited us all to attend the LeMons endurance race, a 24 hour event with different but no less ridiculous cars, that would begin at noon tomorrow.

Having had our glimpse of hooptie heaven, my son and I began the long journey home.



Hooptie Do

In a few hours I depart with my son on a 1500 mile cross country, un-Interstate LeMons road rally driving the worst car we could possibly find.

It’s called the Retreat from Moscow, one of more than a dozen “hooptie” events happening this year in the United States and around the world.

What is a hooptie? Try this link:

Or imagine a car so old, rusted-out and banged-up that you either have to be crazy, or in love, to drive it. The car may also be blatantly ludicrous: a stretch limo with slanted, Titannicky smokestacks thrusting from its cabin, a sportscar “reverse engineered” to drive upside down, or a jalopy so unbelievably ugly that it’s…really ugly.

Created by a California-based group of hooptie heads, ( in the spirit of the famed LeMans endurance race, but with a sense of humor. The Retreat from Moscow salutes Napoleon’s humiliating trudge from Russia. Previous Retreats left from eastern American cities named Moscow (Moscow, Pennsylvania, a popular burg of departure, made a Best-Places-to-Live list: This year’s flees from Cumberland, Maryland, though we’ve been promised that the first checkpoint will be in what remains of that state’s version of the Russian capital.

Checkpoints make this different from a road race. We must observe all local, state and federal speed limits. The goal is to complete tasks required at numerous checkpoints, which, my son assures me, are wonderfully stupid, such as having to stop in ten different Tennessee Waffle Houses and by a single waffle in each, in a single day!

From Maryland, we go south, driving 300 to 450 miles a day down back roads and scenic by-ways, among them US 129, a two-lane road in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains notorious for its switchbacks and hairpin turns. We overnight in Roanoke,  Asheville, and Chatanooga where I’ve booked us a room (and not a train car, though the train car was available) at the Historic Chatanooga Choo Choo Hotel.

The Rally ends Friday in Leeds, Alabama, where prizes will be awarded for Random Acts of Stupidity and Hooptiest Vehicle.

Our hooptie is an ancient Infiniti sedan, reputed to be one of the ugliest cars ever to come out of Japan. To qualify for LeMons hooptiness, we must spend no more than $500 on the car (my son has a receipt). The seats still heat, the radio works but the volume knob is frozen, the automatic transmission groans slips a little and one of the rear tires makes a bump-bump-bump sound that I’ll just have to get used to. The car is licensed and fully insured, but we’ll have points taken off because Japanese and German cars, no matter how visually hideous, have a reputation for reliability.

We’d get 100 added points if we showed up in a Russian Yugo!

What happens if we, or any of the competing vehicles, break down? You fix the car on the spot, which my son did on a previous Retreat. Failing that, you get a tow to a garage, or call Enterprise for a rental and asked to be picked up.

I haven’t asked my son if he suffered that on a previous Retreat. Our first stop is a Walmart, where I intend to purchase radiator fluid, extra flashlight batteries and duct tape.

A lot of duct tape.




I Thank You Kindly

I saw a recording of a speech given by Dr. Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor and founder of the positive psychology field of study. I want to share an idea he suggested.

If you haven’t heard by now (and it’s surprising how many people haven’t), positive psychology differs from much of what was studied in the 20th century in that, instead of examining and devising therapies for mental illness and psychopathology, positive psychology asks such questions as, “What really makes people happy?” “Why do people stay happy?” “What has to happen for people to feel good at about who they are, the work do, the place where they live and those who surround them?”

Among the many things that came out of studies led by Dr. Seligman is the importance of gratitude as a practice, a habit and an expression of value.

Many religions incorporate some kind of gratitude practice in prayers, ritual, and regular worship. The effect of sacred and secular gratitude practice might as well be the same: you look around and acknowledge that who you are, where you are and how you’re feeling right now have a lot to do people, places and things around you that you tend not to notice that often.

Do this often enough and the grumbles and grievances and, perhaps, inconveniences, if not downright disasters and unforeseen losses, are complicated by a certainty that, even in the worst conditions, things are not as bad as they seem.

I’m reminded here of Dorothy Day, the journalist and social activist who, when asked why she could remain so positive through a life of challenge, conflict and struggle, she merely replied, “Too much beauty.”

It can be hard to see the beauty when you’re seriously ill, you’ve recently lost a loved one, you’re fired from a job for no fault of your own,  you’ve made a mistake that has harmed someone or you’re just plain lonely on a Saturday night. Gratitude practice reminds you of that beauty not only exists but that it is possibly more varied and prevalent than you thought.

Seeing beauty, even in the worst circumstances, doesn’t hurt and can provide a moment of relief that can give us the strength to find our way to a health, healing and happiness.

Gratitude can become a habit through practice and daily affirmations. A positive psychology study in a nursing home revealed that residents lived longer, had better social lives, were better at coping with change and needed fewer doctor visits when they kept a diary, or used some other daily reminder of the things for which they were grateful.

G.K. Chesterton, a witty English writer best known for his Father Brown mystery series, linked gratitude to the identification and appreciation of the sense of wonder, which, he believed, was the essence of the religious experience.

For Chesterton, the sense of wonder was a great, big, continuous wow! The path to this wow wasn’t as easy as looking up at golden sunlight or fireworks in the sky because, as Chesterton often acknowledged, the English sky is mostly overcast, wet, gloomy and gray. He advised that we should accept gray skies and other kinds of limitation with humility and rediscover our childhood innocence in the warmth of a room, the glow of a candle, laughter and the joy of good food and friends.

Gratitude as an expression of value is not about what makes us special, unique or worthy of privilege and good fortune. It is the recognition of the importance of gifts, obvious and subtle, that sustain us, whether or not we have done anything to deserve them.

Which brings me to an exercise Dr. Seligman mentioned, the gratitude testimonial. Students were asked to think of a living person who made a significant, positive contribution to their lives. The nature of that contribution was open to broad interpretation. What mattered was that the students’ lives were made better because of what that person did.

Students then composed a speech about how this person changed their lives, thus compelling them to review that event and bring forward from the past a moment (or more) for which they were grateful.

That was only part of the assignment. After completing the speech, students found the address of that person’s residence, office or place of business, and (presumably when classes weren’t meeting), traveled there. Without making an appointment or warning that person in any way, showed up, asked politely to see that person and then, when that person was within earshot, read their speech to that person.

What did this accomplish?

First, students had to do a gratitude survey in which they usually came up with more than one person, thereby enriching their appreciation of the many people who had helped them, or had been a gift in some way. They had to prioritize their selections and choose one that was reasonably accessible.

Second, the act of putting a person’s contribution into words had the same effect as writing a journal or memoir. It brought a memory into the present and framed it in light of the student’s current understanding and education.

Third, the pilgrimage introduce an element of risk. We can imagine many ways in which gaining access may be problematic, and reciting the speech may lead to confusion, embarrassment, impatient foot-tapping from the person’s nearest and dearest, and that disquieting moment when this person admits to having no memory of you, and can’t recall ever doing what you’re grateful for.

Seligman said that the exercise ended up being beneficial for both the student and the person in ways that neither could predict.

And it made both rather happy, for a few minutes and more.

This said, I want to thank you for reading this. I believe that kind attention paid to another’s efforts furthers that effort in vital ways. This happened when I was a young writer and couldn’t wait to show my girlfriend what I had come up with that day.

Today, that girlfriend is my wife and I still show her what I’ve written. She is my muse, my inspiration and my best friend.

What if the reader and the writer never meet, or share a word across cyberspace?

For a moment, let’s be grateful for those whose words, however we found them, were exactly those we needed to read.

Thank you very much.