A Painless Guide to Trauma

If you dig into the life of any famous author, more than likely you’ll find at least one or more traumas—sexual or verbal abuse, loss of parent, substance abuse, severe depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, irrational fears, take your pick—lurking behind the scenes. So where does this leave a writer like me, seventy years old, with not a single trauma I can think of that has influenced and shaped my writing? Read my latest essay “A Painless Guide to Trauma,” just published by Wilderness House Literary Review https://www.whlreview.com/no-13.3/essay/GeneTwaronite.pdf

The Whitest Man in America

Author ca. 1953

I see him every day. He stares back at me with those blue eyes of his and pure Northern European complexion. Even his hair is now silvery, though it used to be blond. Could he be any more white? For over seventy years I have put up with his boring Baltic paleness and I guess I’m stuck with him.

No, I don’t wish to be black or any other color, for that matter. Still, whenever I hear the words “a person of color,” I feel myself strangely incomplete and slightly envious. I see all the things I am not and never got the chance to know. What if my identity had been forged in strife rather than immunity? Imagine if my genes could express all the colors I lack. Would that my heart could feel what it’s like to be ignored, beaten, raped, jailed or excluded simply because I’m not of the lighter race. If I could share, only for a moment, the bittersweet mysteries of my brothers and sisters.

As a kid, I would play cowboy, with six-guns blazing at imaginary Indians, but when I watched westerns at the movies, I rooted for the Indians. The more I learned the history of our deplorable treatment of this country’s original inhabitants—which continues to this day—the more ashamed I grew of my American white boy identity. But it wasn’t just the outrageous immorality of it. For me, Native Americans also seemed to have the more interesting story, so different from mine. And despite being vastly outnumbered and ruthlessly hunted and corralled into reservations, they courageously fought back. For sheer bravery, cunning, and audacity, I’ll take Cochise and Crazy Horse over the palefaces any day. Even famed Indian fighter George Crook grew to appreciate the noble dignity of his opponents in their doomed battle with white America.

It’s the story of our country. First, take the land from the natives, and kill those who resist. Then trade some sugar and rum for slaves from Africa to do your dirty work. Breed them like cattle. Grow your economy. Then wage a fake war and steal some more real estate from the brown-skinned Mexicans. Spin your myths of the others’ inferiority and brutality to justify your inhumanity. Split the country apart and spill its young men’s blood till it’s all over, or so you think. But it’s not over, for the myths are too strong and our minds too set.

David Brooks, in an editorial for the NY Times, recently observed that “three-quarters of American whites have no close nonwhite friends.” As for the average black person, 83% of his closest friends would be black. It would seem, he notes, that our country has entered “a phase of trepidation, or even passive segregation,” and asks if there are “enough efforts to create intimate bonds across racial lines.”

I do hope we get there sooner than later, but I am not optimistic that I’ll live to see it. And how exactly do you create such bonds? Intimate bonds do not come easy.

I grew up in Manchester, Connecticut, a small city nine miles east of Hartford. During the 1950s, it was one of those racially homogeneous suburbs to which whites fled as blacks and other minorities migrated to bigger cities like Hartford in search of jobs and a better life.  Census figures for 1950 show it had a population of 34,116 whites and 88 non-whites. By 1960, these figures had grown to 42,102 and 152, respectively. Hardly a demographic transition.

Even in 2000, 82.77% of the residents were still white, though blacks, Native Americans, Asians, Latinos and others had all made significant inroads in this mostly white “City of Village Charm.”

Compare this to Queens, NY, which when Donald Trump grew up there in 1950 was 96.54% white. Of course, he lived in Jamaica Estates, a far whiter and more exclusive place—his fortress against “invading” minorities, who would one day change the face of the neighborhood and the country.

The Beaver

My native Manchester of 1950, on the other hand, had far fewer non-whites than Queens. In fact, it was 99.9974% pure white. So as a kid, I really didn’t have much of a chance to even meet a person of another race, much less establish a close friendship. I remember a couple of black teachers at the schools I attended, but that was pretty much it. It was white-bread city. I use the slang “white-bread” here not just in its racial sense but in its larger meaning as well, with all of my city’s middle class striving, material values, preoccupation with outward appearances and lawn care, and sandwiches made with Wonder Bread. We were all too readily defined by the popular TV series Leave it to Beaver. I hated the Beaver—a whitey, goodie-two shoes twerp who was so sickeningly sweet he made me retch.

Not that there’s anything wrong with middle class striving. It’s OK to want to succeed, but not at the expense of other values. As a young man, I soon began to hate this suburb of my birth and all that it stood for. I found it too limited in its outlook, and far too parochial. I especially hated lawns!

I remember frequent trips with my dad to nearby Hartford, New Haven, and New York and was drawn by the fact that they were filled with people who did not look like me. Of course, I still had no clue how to make contact with them. I was given the usual advice from my parents, who as far as I can tell were not racists—at least not outwardly so—about avoiding certain neighborhoods where more of these others lived. I don’t recall my parents ever sharing any racist views with us.

So I was spared the parental indoctrination of racial hatred and fear that so many kids grow up with. (As to what Donald Trump learned from his father, I can only wonder, like did he ever learn just what exactly Fred was doing at a Ku Klux Klan rally, back in 1927, when he was arrested?) I imagine that if I ever had managed to have a black friend or—gasp—a black girl friend, I might have heard some less than complimentary comments and perhaps even be dissuaded from pursuing the relationship. But I will never know. It just wasn’t an issue we had to deal with.

After college, I briefly became a public-school teacher in my hometown, and by that time class makeup had become a little less homogeneous. I fondly remember one seventh grade black girl in my class, who got my number before I knew what was happening. She knew my sweet spot was humor and would endlessly make wisecracks at my expense. But she was so funny! Now some might call this reverse racism, for I probably never would have let any white student get away with this. But I never let it get out of hand, and neither would she. An air of discipline was maintained, while the two of us found something in the other to share, if only for a moment.

During our back to the land phase in the 70s, my wife and I purchased an old schoolhouse and 100 acres of land in the town of Landaff, NH, which at less than 400 residents arguably had more cows than people and may still have today. Not exactly a place to experience racial diversity. If I thought life in Manchester was unstimulating, this place had it beat. But then, Manchester didn’t have bears, moose, and wild lonely mountains to explore.

Six years later, however, we tired of small town life and eventually moved to Providence, RI, which while not a teeming metropolis did at least have way more people than cows. And more people who didn’t look like us.

Shel Silverstein

And because it was more racially diverse than the rest of Rhode Island, it was surrounded by white flight cities and towns. I remember an incident at a predominately white school in nearby Cranston, where courtesy of a grant from the state arts council, I had acquired a monthlong writer-in-residency. I was reading a poem from a book by Shel Silverstein, and the teacher suddenly asked me not to hold the book up, especially the back cover which displayed a photograph of the author. “I don’t want them to see what he looks like,” she said. I didn’t say anything at the time—a fact which I regret to this day—and briefly gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking perhaps that she simply wanted the poems to speak for themselves and for her students not to get hung up with how the poet looked.

That night, however, I went home and took a hard look at the photo on the back cover, which showed Shel’s bald head and dark beard staring back in a way that could be construed as slightly sinister. True, he did have a dark complexion, so much so that I had to wonder. But it wasn’t until years later that I Googled “Is Shel Silverstein black?” and discovered I was not alone in asking this question. Turns out, however, he was Jewish. Jesus would have had the same complexion, no doubt. But the mere fact that he didn’t quite match this teacher’s expectation of what a proper white person should look like really freaked her out.

My wife and I had begun to frequent the downtown blues clubs in Providence, where we got to see a number of great black musicians while mingling with a more diverse crowd. Music knows no colors or boundaries—a place where we can put aside our distrust and fear of the other for a time, if only temporarily.

Our love of blues eventually led us one night down unfamiliar dark streets to Wabash Street in downtown Chicago, to seek out Buddy Guy’s Legends, which bills itself as “the premiere blues club in the world.”  We stuck our heads in the door and gazed around us. It was a Monday night, but the bar was filled with patrons, most of whom appeared to be black, waiting for the show to begin. Have to confess, I felt out of place and more than a little apprehensive. What were we doing here? But then as the music started and we all began to sway in unison, the club became more like a church, filled with true believers who had come to hear the sweet soulful music.

That night happened to be an open blues jam, during which the host band plays for about an hour and then invites other local musicians on stage.

At the end of the jam, we were approached by a black musician, the late great Lefty Dizz, a Chicago blues guitarist and singer. At the time, we didn’t know anything about him, other than the fact that we had enjoyed his band Shock Treatment and his wild man performance that night, laced with manic virtuoso guitar playing and raunchy jokes. Later we learned that he had released eight albums and had played with such legendary blues men as Junior Wells and Hound Dog Taylor, and had once recorded at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago with Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. 

He strode across the room directly toward me with a grim look on his face. Then he stopped and pointed at my Rolling Stones T-shirt. “I got some business with them Stones,” he said. “They stole our songs!”

Not knowing what to do, I just shrugged and smiled nervously, suddenly questioning the wisdom of my wearing a Stones T-shirt to a Chicago blues club. Then Lefty broke into a toothy grin. “Hey, you wanna buy one of my CD’s?” Which I did. We swapped jokes and jive for a time, then he continued working the room. It was one of the best nights of my life.

We eventually moved west to Arizona, in search of sunshine and new adventures. There we built a cozy cabin on five acres in the high-country foothills of Chino Valley, a small ranching and farming community just north of Prescott in Yavapai County, demographically the whitest county in Arizona. We had hoped it would be our retirement home, not thinking about the fact that we were again moving in the wrong direction toward less diversity and a homogeneous neighborhood of people who looked like us. It was no accident that our rapidly growing county was predominately white, filled with Caucasian retirees and migrants from other cities and states who had fled from people of color moving in next to them, threatening their perceived dominance as the master race.

One day, one of my good neighbors perfectly crystallized the prevailing attitudes of our community. “What’s so good about diversity?” she asked me. The question left me temporarily dumbfounded. Before I could launch my defense, she cut me off, expounding at length on her previous experiences and grievances with Asians in her former California neighborhood, extrapolating these to Asians everywhere. I listened and tried to present an alternative narrative, but the conversation did not go well. “I hate diversity,” was her parting comment.

After a few years of this, I got so desperate to see persons with a nonwhite face that, whenever I would see them in the supermarket or post office, I had to fight the urge to go up and hug them. Not exactly the best way to make new friends. Once again, my chances of doing that were severely limited. I felt as if I were regressing into childhood, surrounded by the same kind of white folks I grew up with.

One problem with moving to the country is the tradeoff you make. Sure, it’s nice to be surrounded by nature and clean air, with plenty of room to do your own thing. But that increased natural diversity comes at the cost of cultural diversity. The older I got, the more I realized how much I missed all the little interactions with others that go with living in an urban environment, all the hustle and bustle, jostling and rubbing elbows through the crowd as you go about your daily life. All the polite conversations and even the occasionally hostile ones that remind you of what being a social animal is all about. And I knew I needed these connections more than anything.

Tucked away in our little cabin in the high country, I was not making the friends I had hoped for. Sure, there were plenty of neighbors and acquaintances. But I’m talking friends here, close friends like the kind David Brooks was talking about. And the odds for me ever finding them there were not good.

I found myself increasingly thinking about friends. What does that mean, a close friend? Doesn’t everyone have them?  Give me a dozen and I’ll be happy.

I guess it means having someone who’s always got your back, who will listen and tell it to you like it is, who will put up with your endless shit and still be your friend. Someone with whom you can let down your guard and be vulnerable. And someone with whom you can be a complete asshole, from time to time.

On that score, I was not doing very well. I could count my close friends on one hand. I’m not counting my wife here, though perhaps I should. Married now for forty-two years, we were friends before we became lovers. And our friendship has grown deeper and closer, even when I’m sometimes an asshole. OK, enough of this mushy stuff. What about my other close friends?

Well, there’s Dan, or was that is. Daily I mourn his passing. Another old white guy, same age as me, he was as close a friend as any man could ask for. It was he who gave me my most treasured nickname—fuckhead, which always made me laugh whenever he said it. Sometimes we would sign birthday cards with FH1 and FH2, though we both knew who number one was. For a brief time, he had a promising career as a keyboardist in a Boston rock band, but confessed he had to get out of the music business for fear he would succumb to the crazy, drug-fueled lifestyle. So he landed a management job in a nearby textile factory and settled into a life of crazy, semi-normalcy.

We first met at our old schoolhouse in Landaff, NH. My wife and I had just founded a local nature center offering free programs to the local community on our 100 acres. A recent membership drive had netted us some new members, including one coveted life membership for what then seemed like the princely sum of $100. As people began to arrive for one of our first weekend programs, I eyed a man, with medium length gray hair and neatly trimmed beard, get out of his car and stroll across the lawn toward the schoolhouse. I went out to greet him, and he told me his name. “So you’re our life member,” I said, shaking his hand. Then as I looked into his merry eyes, there was an instant flash of recognition between us. Why, you’re as big an asshole as I am!  Now, I am not the kind who believes in love at first sight or other romantic notions. Love, like friendship, is something you have to work at. But I knew instantly, as surely as I’ve ever known anything, that he and I were to be lifetime buddies.

With Dan, there was a certain chemistry between us, that intimate bond that David Brooks describes. While we did share a love of rock music and the outdoors, these were incidental to what we shared, a vital honest interest in what the other was thinking or feeling, fueled at times by copious drinking and raucous humor.

Dan could bring me out of myself in ways that no one else ever has. If he knew I held something to be sacred, he would push that button relentlessly with mischievous glee. He would delight in getting me into trouble. We would go into a bar and he would strike up a conversation with a gorilla-sized guy next to us wearing a Hell’s Angels jacket and then point at me and casually tell him, “He doesn’t like your boots.”

He was a born comedian, always pushing the envelope of good taste. One time, we and our wives were in a crowded bar. In the middle of the room was a perfect couch for the four of us, though partially occupied at the time by two young women. Before any of us could stop him, he sat down next to them and proceeded to cough and clear his throat most disgustingly, and in no time at all the women moved. Smiling wickedly, he motioned for us to come claim our couch. For a brief moment, I felt both guilty and sad for the two women, who didn’t stand a chance against Dan’s protean power. I suspect they knew they had been conned out of their couch by a master and would later laugh at the episode as we did.

My other close friends were formed on the basis of shared experience rather than love at first sight. There’s my friend Steve, whom I’ve known since kindergarten and who still lives in Connecticut. Despite a few temporary gaps when we briefly lost touch with each other, we have managed to cultivate our friendship across the miles. Like anything worth doing, it requires an investment of time and energy. But all it takes is a phone call or email, and the memories come flooding back. We grew up science nerds, with chemistry sets in the basement and slide rules on our belts, gazing at stars through small telescopes, launching homemade rockets, and setting off bombs in the neighborhood. Eventually, he made a career out of his nerdiness, becoming a chemical engineer, while I remained more a science generalist.

We are different in so many ways. He’s always been the precise, logical, and level-headed one, while I tend to be more emotional, wild, and unpredictable. Maybe that’s what makes our friendship tick. I admired his calm rationality—a quality I’ve tried to cultivate over the years that was sorely missing during my early years—while he envied perhaps my ability to tap and express the intense feelings that came naturally to me. He’s always been the gentle Mr. Spock of Star Trek to my raging Dr. McCoy.

Whenever we do manage to get together, we immediately start conversing on whatever topic happens to emerge. We don’t always agree, but we listen respectfully to the other and talk nonstop until one of our wives sticks her head out of the bedroom and tells us both to shut up and go to sleep.

This ability to see some quality of otherness in a person, something perhaps missing from your own life, is crucial to forming close friends. I think of my friend Jeff, whom I first met at our nature center in New Hampshire, back in the early 1980s. He worked at the time for a large state conservation group, so he and I decided to join forces in planning some joint programs for our two organizations. We both shared a passion for nature and protecting the environment, as well as for the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. These days, I am more of an armchair naturalist and environmentalist, while he, on the other hand, refined and cultivated his passion into a lifetime career with the National Park Service. He is currently a ranger/naturalist at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, AZ. As things worked out, Tucson is also where my wife and I eventually settled, so now I have at least one close friend who is neither dead nor living on the other side of the country.

We get together as often as we can, enjoying lively discussions about politics, culture, and of course nature. And sometimes we take road trips, usually to some nearby natural area. But close as I feel to Jeff, with all the shared memories, there is a gulf I cannot bridge. A true nature purist, he has read the entire Journal of Henry David Thoreau several times. Indeed, he lives and breathes the life of his hero. He is an intensely private man who, like Thoreau, has never married. There is a certain loneliness and ascetism about him, a firm determination to hear a different drummer and lead a more authentic life in a world which grows ever less amenable to thoughtful experiments in living. I see him on a road I will never travel and treasure that part of us we are able to share.

Now that I live in downtown Tucson—which while not exactly New York or Chicago is more racially diverse than any place I’ve so far inhabited—my chances of making new friends have improved considerably. And who knows, maybe I’ll eventually bond with a friend who’s not white.

Of course, despite David Brooks’ call for more “efforts to create intimate bonds across racial lines,” you can’t force such things. And so what if my friends are white or black? Why this continuing preoccupation with the myth of race?

We speak of race as if it had some real biological significance. Over a century ago, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois warned that this crude term was being used to account for differences that are more social and cultural than biological. When we start pigeonholing people into white and black groups or whatever groups, using these arbitrary classifications to justify our prejudices, we ignore the full depth and richness of human diversity. As modern genetics has borne out, again and again, race is nothing but a social construct.

Perhaps we should call it racial identity instead, how we see and define ourselves in relation to others while we hide from a truth some of us would rather deny—that we are all African, all descended from those first human ancestors who evolved on that continent, millions of years ago, to eventually spread into every habitable corner of the earth. We are each a medley of gene configurations and colors, though some of us, like me, are less colorful than others. I wish the feds would add a box to the new census form, so instead of “Caucasian” I could check off the box marked “all of the above.”

I have made many new friends since we moved to Tucson, and who knows, maybe some will one day become close. It would be nice if one of them turns out to be a person of color, if only for the chance to know and share a background most likely different from mine.

And what of Donald Trump, now that he’s moved out of Queens? If you Google him, you’ll see that he has a lot of friends. There’s Rudy Giuliani, of course, and ever loyal security man Keith Schiller, along with fellow developers Thomas Barrack and Richard LeFrak. Some sources even list a few black friends, such as Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, and Russell Simmons, though lately those friendships appear to have gone south. Calling them friends is like my calling the black woman I occasionally high-five at the gym a friend.

As Washington Post reporters Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish wrote in their recent investigative biography Trump Revealed, Trump “never really had close friends.” Trump says as much when he confessed to reporters that his friends are mostly business related or people he sees socially. “But they’re not friends like perhaps other people have friends, where they’re together all the time and they go out to dinner all the time,” he said.

What does he see when he looks in the mirror? Trump’s words to a biographer are telling: “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same.” He is still that frightened little kid hiding behind the gated walls of the childhood home he has never really left, safe and secure against the tide of minorities threatening his world.

If I looked into the mirror and saw the same clueless white boy who grew up in a safe, Connecticut suburb, it would scare me shitless. It would be like living in some Twilight Zone episode, where you’re doomed to forever act out the past. I believe I’ve grown some since those days. Despite the wrinkles, white hair and wattles, I see a face I can live with, still open to possibilities.

Donald Trump and I are roughly the same age. I’d like to think there’s still time for both of us to forge some new intimate bonds with friends who will not only put up with our shit but tell us when we’re full of it. Friends who can help us get over and out of ourselves. And if some of them turn out to be friends of color, teach us both how to be less white and to leave behind our childhood homes.

How to Choose the Perfect God

What should you look for in a god? And how do you know it’s the perfect god for you? People have been asking these questions for thousands of years, so here are some simple tips for the savvy shopper. Read my essay in the latest issue of Buck Off Magazine   buck-off-magazine-volume-103-How to Choose the Perfect God

Or visit their website  https://buckoffmag.com/

Intimacy and Dental Floss

Until you take a bad fall, you don’t know how good life can be when all limbs work properly and you’re not dependent upon someone to wipe your ass.

When my life partner Josie took a freak fall one evening, while walking home from dinner, the words from our marriage vow “for better or worse” took on a whole new meaning. One moment, she was fine, the next she was flat on her face in the street. Fortunately, having broken the fall with both arms, she had escaped with only a few bruises to her face and her head uninjured. Unfortunately, she had managed to completely shatter her right elbow and break her left wrist. As the doctor in the emergency room described the extent of her injuries, I tried to stay calm as I processed the information internally, weighing each word. I could see the neurons flashing a fortune cookie message in my brain: Your life will be filled with new adventures.

Whenever I heard about such stuff happening to other people, I would try to imagine how I might deal with it. Would I be up to the task when, these days, getting out of bed is challenging enough? I mean, how does one deal with your spouse developing Alzheimer’s? Or terminal cancer? Would I be able to face the fact that I was now a 24-7 caregiver for an indeterminate future stretching into a life unknown? What if I ended up having to do everything for my spouse and, like most of us, couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it? My mind reeled with the daily realities. Dressing. Feeding. Bathing. Hair brushing and tooth brushing. Walking, including to and from the bathroom, followed by ass wiping. That last part gave me pause. I have enough problems wiping my own ass, but to think I might have to do this for my spouse and also have to deal with how she might feel about it was not something I wanted to think about.

Our situation was only temporary, but I knew that, for months ahead, the carefree retired life we had enjoyed was about to go on hold.

Luckily for me, Josie’s mind was still sharp as ever. It meant that I would not have to face this test alone. More than ever, we were a team, devising new strategies to meet daily challenges. Of course, with both arms incapacitated, she was forced to play a more passive role and could only advise me on what to do, gently informing me when I screwed up, and cheering me on when I got it right.

First, we had to establish a base camp for sleeping. We live in a townhouse apartment, and going up and down the stairs to our bedroom was just not an option. Fortunately, we have a guest bedroom with two single beds on the first floor. This meant that Josie could have her own bed without the danger of my rolling over and crushing her arms during the night. Also, I could be in the same room to help her to the adjoining bathroom.

Having secured safe sleeping quarters, I began to reevaluate all those little daily tasks I perform automatically for myself and to consider how best to perform them for another person. Take bathing, for example. You just jump in the shower and start cleaning yourself without so much as a game plan. You don’t think about the most efficient way to apply the soap and rinse, or whether you are getting yourself clean enough. But it’s different when you’re cleaning someone else, especially someone who’s wearing bandages that can’t get wet. The problem was resolved with a trip to the drugstore where I purchased plastic sleeves to fit over each arm, and a sturdy bathtub seat. Then it was on to Lowe’s to pick up a handy shower attachment so I didn’t end up flooding the bathroom every time I bathed Josie. But it took us both several weeks of splashing, thrashing, and cursing to figure these things out.

Eating was fun. Not only was Josie totally unable to pick up a fork, but she was still suffering from a recent flareup of orofacial nerve pain as a result of a botched root canal procedure a few years back, and her fall did not exactly help matters. So we took it slow. I would cut up her meal into bite-size portions and wait until the pain subsided enough for her to eat. We had always enjoyed our dinners together, enlivened by wine and intelligent conversation, but it was painful to watch her struggle now to get a bite down, made even more so by the look on her face from the realization that I had to feed her like an infant. Meals took twice as long. We eventually worked out a routine in which I would alternately feed her a few bites, then take a few bites myself. After a while, she started experimenting with two unbandaged fingers on one hand, and was soon able to pick up small pieces of food herself, though she still could not pick up anything as heavy as a glass in order to drink. Thank goodness for straws.

Funny how you adjust to things and find new insights. After the first week or so, as we settled into a new reality, we started enjoying our much-extended dinner times. No longer would she have to remind me not to wolf my meal. We learned to savor each bite and our time together, made more precious by the knowledge that we had survived this setback and were both still alive and kicking. And if takes us an hour and a half to eat our dinner, hey, so what?

We’re both very active people, and Josie knew she had to get moving again. The first few days, she would take walks around the first floor of our apartment, with her trusty guide at her side. The fear of falling was very much on our minds. We were still the same people who had fearlessly tackled rugged trails in the wilderness together. But now that one of us had taken a bad fall, it reminded us how vulnerable our increasingly brittle and fragile bodies can be. I hate that! And I hate writing that line. Reality sucks.

Before leaving the hospital, the physical therapist had given us a broad nylon belt, which could be buckled around Josie’s waist while leaving just enough room for my hand to be slipped behind it, giving me a way to hold her firmly in the event of another fall. Such a simple thing, yet an invaluable tool in getting us walking again and conquering our fears. It was a little awkward getting used to, at first, but with me holding on tightly behind her it gave me a way to get us safely down the concrete stairs leading to our apartment and to resume our walks in the neighborhood.

It did feel kind of weird. With my hand planted behind her back and both her arms extended uselessly forward, I felt in complete control, directing her every movement. By turning my hand ever so slightly and applying gentle pressure, I found I could make her turn in the direction I thought we should go to avoid obstacles or rough surfaces as we attempted to walk in unison with some degree of dignity. It was a totally different kind of walking for both of us, and for a brief time I was in charge, whether I liked it or not.

Gradually our walks extended further afield in the neighborhood, as we gained confidence. Walking had always been a vital part of our life and now, more than ever, it was essential to get back into the routine.

One thing I noticed. I seemed to tire more quickly. At first, I thought it was just stress. After a couple of weeks had passed and I was able to leave Josie alone for a short time to visit the nearby gym, the normally ten-minute walk now took twice as long and I had to cut my workout sessions short. I always came home exhausted. What was happening to me? Suddenly I felt ninety years old. Then it dawned on me. The older you get, the more time you must devote to the seemingly endless series of routine tasks just to care for oneself each day. Only now, I was doing them for two. Not only did I have to put on clean underwear, but I had to put hers on as well. I had to go to the bathroom, and take her there next, followed by grooming, feeding, drinking, toothbrushing, walking, and whatever else I did for myself. A tiny epiphany, but it gave me both a sense of relief that I was not facing total decrepitude, and a sense of awe at the work that full-time caregivers do.

Not that there weren’t compensations. After a few weeks had passed, we settled into a manageable and at times even pleasant routine. We took each day at a slower pace, trying to find some new insight or small pleasure we had overlooked. I began to see things I had never noticed before. As I tried my best to comb Josie’s hair, according to her instructions, at first I felt hopelessly lost. It dawned on me, then, that I really didn’t have a clue as to how my life partner of over forty years wore her hair, except for the fact that it was short. How she combed her front bang down slightly to cover her high forehead. How she brushed the hair behind her ears and shaped the back into a point. Had it not been for her fall, I would never have known these things. After a while, I got pretty good with the hairdryer. I imagined myself as some handsome and suave hairdresser—just call me Ramone—getting her hair to fluff up just right. My flight of fancy lasted but two weeks, at which point she decided she could manage her hair without me. Guess I wasn’t really cut out for hairdressing.

Bathing presented even more opportunities for new insights and intimacies. Once the basic problem of how to get Josie’s body clean efficiently without stressing us both out and flooding the bathroom floor was solved, we gradually settled into a smooth rhythm. I now new the drill and could devote myself more fully to the appreciation of my spouse’s lovely body. Not that I hadn’t appreciated it before. But this was different. I was performing a necessary basic task which I had initially viewed as somewhat onerous, but it had taken on a wholly new dimension. Like that first time we had made love, I was clumsy in the beginning, but as my hand glided over her body with a soapy washcloth, I began to see and discover it anew. You do not really know your lover’s body until you have washed every inch of her and gently patted her dry. It was a different kind of sexual pleasure, an arousal more of spirit than of body. We both grew to enjoy this gentle touching, as I explored parts of her body never really noticed before in simple lovemaking. And while I am glad that I don’t have to wash her anymore, I will remember it always.

Wiping my lover’s ass, however, is hardly a memory to cherish. Damned if I could find any compensations there. The only thing I can say looking back on it now is that it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I had imagined, aided considerably by the use of latex gloves, but largely by the fact that my spouse has a cute ass. But don’t take my word for it. During our first year of marriage, I found I needed a new dentist. So I made an appointment with Josie’s dentist, who I was quick to discover was a lecherous old man with a wicked sense of humor. As I sat agape in his chair, his instruments probing my teeth, out of nowhere he suddenly exclaimed, “You know, your wife has a great ass!” I almost choked, as I mumbled some unintelligible reply, then reluctantly nodded. How could I disagree?  I had always especially treasured that part of her anatomy. But now that I had to keep it clean each day, I learned to approach the task as a sacred honored duty. It couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for her, but once again Josie came through with calm, clear instructions on what needed to be done and where, and got me through it. Hard to believe that such a simple basic thing as wiping my lover’s ass could bring us closer and make me feel more needed and worthy than ever.

But for real intimacy, nothing beats dental hygiene. I thought I knew all the hidden mysteries and intricacies of Josie’s body, after all these years, but I still knew nothing of the world inside her mouth. Now Josie is a real stickler for proper brushing, flossing, and rinsing, dutifully spending over half an hour each night in front of the mirror while cursing its relentless monotony. And here I was, stepping up to the plate, in hopes of performing this duty at least passably and getting it done before midnight.

The first few nights were a struggle, compounded by the fact that Josie has extremely sensitive teeth. In brushing your own teeth, of course, you can just bend over the sink and spit, but in Josie’s case this was impossible. Not only was she unable to rest her hands on the sink, but there was no way for me to see inside her mouth while standing at the sink next to her. So I sat her on the toilet and covered her torso with a bib, as I played at being dental hygienist. Then I used our electric toothbrush, with one hand gently brushing from tooth to tooth and the other hand holding a small plastic spittoon beneath her mouth to catch the overflow and allow her to occasionally spit. It was not a pretty picture. Often I would have to slow down to let her catch her breath or go back to reach a tooth missed.

The real challenge came in flossing. It’s difficult enough to floss my own teeth properly, holding a long strand of floss between two hands and then manipulating it in my mouth, rhythmically rubbing up and down against each tooth a half dozen times. When done correctly, it’s a painfully boring task, but vital to tooth and gum health. But trying to get my two big paws and that strand of floss inside Josie’s mouth proved awkward and frustrating for both of us. Fortunately, I discovered a handy little plastic tool called a dental flosser, which holds an inch or so of floss taut, so I didn’t have to put both my hands in her mouth and risk choking my dear wife. Disposable plastics to the rescue, again.

Having previously experienced periodontal disease during my wasted youth, I am also a stickler for dental health and pretty much knew the drill. But the only teeth I knew were mine, and I had to fast learn about a whole new set of teeth and gums. Indeed, I can say that I know them now almost as well as my own.

Coming at the end of the day, and taking even longer than Josie’s usual half hour, it was probably the most tedious task for both of us. But together we learned how to better navigate around her mouth, and gradually it became less strenuous. And when the job was finished, she would look up at me and flash a grin with her now sparkling teeth and I felt a communion with her that transcended all that had gone before. We were more than lovers and friends, we were comrades of tooth and gum forever.

After two months, the bandages came off and slowly our life returned to normalcy. Josie began to resume her daily routine, taking pride in again performing her own daily maintenance and freeing me up to go back to doing all those things I had put on hold, which in retrospect seemed less urgent. She embraced weekly sessions of physical therapy with a fierce determination to regain all her strength and ability. She had always been a strong woman, but I now watched in amazement at my new wonder woman surpassing herself each day with daily feats of recovery. And evildoers better beware of that sharp right elbow, newly reinforced with metal brace.

Our experience left us more aware of not only the possibility, but the probability of falling as well as our ability to survive it. Not that we dwell on it. But I’ve noticed a certain tendency to nag, whenever one of us goes up or down the stairs without grabbing the handrail or makes too sudden a turn. According to government statistics, one out of four Americans aged 65 or over falls each year, and every 19 minutes one of us will die as a result. Those are not good odds. Makes you almost afraid to go out the front door. Not what we seniors need to hear, especially when we’re also told to not sit so much and to keep on moving. So what’s an old fuck to do?

For one thing, I’m going to make damned sure I don’t fall. At heart I am a coward when it comes to being a care recipient. I can’t begin to imagine someone having to feed, wash, and dress me each day, let alone—horrors—wipe my ass. I am sadly deficient in all the social skills my life partner possesses in spades—patience, grace, good sense, and fortitude. I know full well that, in the event I did fall, my loving spouse would be there to take care of me. All I can say is, good luck with that, Josie. I would not wish that monstrous fate on anyone.

 

 

Lot O. Jobs

Even when you’re writing about something you think is completely different, in the end you’re always writing about yourself. Each of us has a unique take on life, and elements of this will invariably creep into your work, no matter how rigorously objective you try to be. In my middle grade fantasy novel The Family That Wasn’t, for instance, I created a character with the pen name Lot O. Jobs. He was the author of an autobiography Travels of a Mixed-Up Man, in which he described the hundreds of different jobs he had held, each with its own special flavor. The character didn’t just pop out of my head. He’s me, of course.

Not that I’ve had hundreds of jobs. Let’s just say I’ve had my share. And yes, I’m still mixed-up.

I remember my first job as paperboy for the Hartford Courant, in Connecticut, supposedly the oldest continually published newspaper in the U.S. I should explain here, particularly for younger readers, that a newspaper is a multi-paged object composed of wood pulp, filled with news of local and world events, that is published daily or weekly and requires you to hold it up at arm’s length to read while you flip through the pages and grimace before using them to line your parakeet’s cage.

Since it is a morning paper, I was required to rise at 5 am, which for a school kid is inhuman. Fortunately, my dad, being a mailman, was used to getting up early. He would wake me, then put on some strong coffee. I forced myself to drink it because it was the only way to stay awake and get moving.

Then I had to walk two blocks to where half a dozen bundles of newspapers awaited me. In those days, if you took on a newspaper route you didn’t get to cancel delivery on account of weather. Just like my dad’s mail, newspapers were to be delivered through rain, snow, sleet, flood, hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or nuclear war, the latter being very much a possibility in my early youth. So if we had a big snowstorm, and all the schools had snow days, you were still expected to trudge through two feet of snow and deliver your damn papers. Often it would take me hours to finish delivering my route, while my buddies were out sledding.

Delivery was bad enough, but then came the hard part—collecting each week from my cruel, miserly customers. This was before the days of credit card subscriptions. Each Friday evening—and the following Saturday morning if that didn’t work—I was expected to ring doorbells and politely ask people to pay up. You wouldn’t believe the lengths some people will go to to avoid paying what they owe. They would simply hide and not answer the doorbell. In some cases, I could plainly see them scurrying around inside like trapped roaches. Other times, they would let out their big ugly dogs in the yard, timed just before I showed up. Or they would purposely avoid being home, for weeks on end, then when I did finally catch them home would question my accounting and try to convince me that they couldn’t possibly owe for two months. I did have my little pay stubs to prove otherwise, but they would then accuse me of forgetting to hand them out when they had obviously already paid. And forget getting any tips. How dare I accuse them of not paying? I suspect many of them secretly enjoyed this game of screwing the paperboy. I think this is when I first became deeply cynical about human nature.

During high school, I was a page at our local library, which for a bookworm like me was a dream come true, though the wages sucked. The job involved mostly re-shelving returned books. I simply wheeled my cart of books through the aisles where, for a brief time, I diligently placed the books in their proper locations. After a short time, however, I learned how to find a quiet, secluded section of the stacks, preferably upstairs and out of sight of the main desk. This was where the benefits came in. As long as I stood in front of my still full cart, I could make it look as if I were working while reading to my heart’s content. That is, until the hatchet lady head librarian invariably found me, chewing me out so badly I didn’t dare do it again until next day. I think back on her fondly and can still see the poor woman chasing us pages through the stacks, shaking her long, bony finger in stern chastisement.

There was one other aspect of the job I should mention. It involved taking reference room calls to retrieve past issues of magazines and newspapers from the basement, where such materials were stored. I would be issued slips of paper, with names of the items and dates published. In those ancient days, you couldn’t simply Google something on your smartphone or computer and find a hundred online articles on the subject. There were no personal computers and no digital information. Repeat, no digital information. Let that sink in for a moment. Any information you needed could be found only on the printed page. So there I was, lifting up piles of musty magazines, searching for some obscure issue, only to discover that it had been lost or misplaced. It was sort of like the great lost Library of Alexandria, where all the world’s knowledge at the time was stored on scrolls. Being a page back then was probably a lot harder.

In my senior year of college, I briefly had the best job a lonely, testosterone-fueled young male could ask for. It was only part-time, in the evening, but the benefits were priceless. I was the designated male host—sort of a bodyguard—in a women’s residence hall. All I had to do was sit behind a front desk and check male visitors in and then escort each of them off the premises at a set time, defined by each dorm. A word of explanation here. I went to college during the late 1960s when many colleges and universities had what were referred to as parietal hours, limited times when men were allowed to visit and mingle with women in the female dormitories. Dorms would often insist that doors be kept open and couples instructed to keep “three feet on the floor.” Talk about thwarting your sex life.

Of course, creative women would always find ways around restrictions to get their men inside. Meanwhile, as I sat at the desk—studying, of course—young ladies wearing slinky nightgowns or pajamas would come downstairs and greet me, offering cookies and snacks. I was treated like a god. Even the kindly old dorm matron liked me. I admit, it was quite possible that some diversionary tactic was in play here, with dozens of guys sneaking past me as the women plied me with cookies. But what did I care? Life was good.

My other part-time job in college was as freshman counselor during my senior year. In exchange for a free room in my dormitory, I was expected to offer information and advice to incoming freshman. You can imagine what a perfect fit this was, wise old senior that I was, enjoying my own first year on campus after commuting three years. In the midst of cramming as much drinking and carousing with women as humanly possible into just two semesters, I did manage to fit in some actual counseling. Not that I had much advice to offer. Mostly I just listened. And sometimes I would break up unruly dorm parties at 2 am, for which at the end of the year I was ceremoniously awarded a carved wooden wand in the shape of a penis with the words “King Prick,” signed by my grateful freshmen.

Fresh out of college, and not finding any suitable positions based on my considerable experience drinking and guarding co-eds, I took a job as science teacher at a small residential private school for emotionally disturbed kids. As part of my forestry major, I had taken some basic science courses, and that was good enough. The fact that I had no educational certification or training, and even more important, no psychological or counselor training, did not matter in the least. I was a warm body who knew how to dress for an interview and to give the right answers. And they were desperate for someone who knew at least a little about science and would be willing to work for slave wages.

My first experience with one of my new charges gave me a clue of the challenges ahead. As part of my duties, I sat behind a desk after class in the administration building, as a faculty member on call to assist students with their homework. One of my female students—an attractive, shapely, and much too mature looking sixteen-year-old—approached my desk. Then, looking over her shoulder at her friends in the corner, who seemed to be daring her to do it, promptly sat upon my lap.

Dazed at first, it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what was happening and what to do. (There was no mention of such things in the employee handbook.) Normally I am not at all averse to attractive young women suddenly deciding to sit in my lap. But this was way different. I could hear a little voice in my head ask, What’s wrong with this picture? Then, seconds later, the voice started screaming, “Stand up, stand up, you fool! I jumped from my chair, nearly dumping the girl on the floor as I mouthed some indignant protest. She just smiled and walked away.

As someone with no teaching experience, suddenly thrown into a classroom filled with unruly teenagers, I fared no worse than most first year teachers, many of whom leave after only one year, vowing never to return to that infernal snake pit. Fortunately for me, the class sizes were small, and the kids were too emotionally messed up to notice what I was trying to teach anyway. I’m talking real heavy emotional issues. Kids hooked on drugs or suffering from various traumas. Kids who had been verbally and physically abused, often by their parents or other relatives. Many had even been sexually abused. They were shunted off to this school because their parents and their former schools could no longer deal with their problems. If this didn’t work, the next stop was military school or an institution.

So there I was, a 22-year-old guy, still screwed up in far too many ways, surrounded daily by a bunch of emotionally bleeding kids. Forget about the lesson plan. All they wanted was for me to listen. So I did.

In the process, I quickly realized that I was in no way equipped to handle this. I became too emotionally involved with these kids, talking with them frankly while trying to teach them a little science, but not having a clue how to help them.

I made it through the academic year and decided to leave, when the school offered me a limited, temporary contract due to financial uncertainties. Shortly thereafter, the school closed, though my decision probably had nothing to do with it.

After my ill-fated experience with teaching, I decided to try something else. A local pet shop was looking for a full-time sales associate (Don’t you love the way stores add that little word at the end to make the job sound more important?). This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill pet shop, but an exotic pet shop. In addition to the usual puppies, birds, and tropical fish, they also sold critters like lizards, tarantulas, and snakes—my kind of animals. They liked the fact that I was a college boy and promised me that, if I worked really hard for two years and brownnosed the boss and didn’t mind taking orders from his wife, who arrived each morning wearing more makeup than Alice Cooper, I would be promoted to assistant manager.

What I really wanted, however, was my first python, at full employee discount. He arrived at the shop one cold winter evening. A beautiful baby African rock python, he was only 18 inches long and perfectly gentle. I put him under my coat and brought him home to my parents’ house and placed him in his cage, where he thrived and grew … and grew.

The problem with pythons as pets is that, with proper care, they can quickly begin to approach adult size, which in the case of a full grown African rock python can be over 20 feet long, with a thick, muscular body used to constrict its prey.

Not only did my darling little pet quickly outgrow his cage, but he was now six feet long and quite a handful. Though still gentle as ever, there was always the danger in handling such a powerfully muscular snake that he might suddenly grow frightened of falling and wrap his coils around your neck for support, which is not conducive to breathing. In fact, that is exactly how they constrict and kill their prey. So sadly, I found him a new home and bid both him and the pet shop goodbye.

After that came a stint as a computer operator for an insurance company in Hartford. At the time, I knew nothing about computers—and still don’t—but the job’s hours seemed ideal. All I had to do was work three consecutive 12-hour shifts from 7pm to 7am, and I had the rest of the week off. And for full-time pay and benefits. How tough could it be?

Basically, the job involved running large, room-sized computers called mainframes, which were series of various processing and communication units all hitched together and operated in batch mode. I was expected to keep them going, feeding them punch cards and magnetic tapes to run them at near full capacity while they spat out tests, insurance policies, statements, and payroll. I would then collect the continuous printed copy that came out. Scattered throughout the room were interactive terminals where you could push a button and make the computers pause in their operation.

One night, I was told by my shift supervisor to go hit a certain button. Now I knew perfectly well which button to push, having been instructed numerous times in proper button pushing. Turns out there was another button, way on the other side of the terminal console, which I think read “System Stop” and which was never, never to be pushed unless absolutely necessary. This button, you see, didn’t just pause whatever operation was being run but shut down the whole system. Meaning that whatever programs had been running at the time had to be completely restarted, at considerable cost.

To this day, I still can’t figure out why I pushed the wrong button. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was wrong. Perhaps the subversion of my circadian rhythm and the cumulative lack of sleep had something to do with it. I remember a lot of yelling throughout the department, with people running around, looking for someone to blame, followed by the sound of laughter from my colleagues.

I was due for my annual performance review, the very next week. My boss, a kindly man whom I really liked, told me that I was doing great, overall, with top marks in all categories. Then he looked me straight in the face and shook his head. All he said was, “Why?”

Shortly after, I decided to pursue more normal work as a public-school teacher, normal only in the sense that I was able to work during daylight hours. Despite the fact that my private school teaching had pretty much left me as much of an emotional wreck as the students I tried to teach, maybe I wasn’t as bad a teacher as I thought. I took a few more college courses to get certified and to show I was serious. I was ready, or so I thought.

As it happened, there was an opening for a science teacher at the very same junior high school I had attended. I desperately needed a job and didn’t give a second thought to any potential weirdness of going to work with my former teachers, including my much-feared, former Phys. Ed instructor, who had treated us worse than Marine recruits in boot camp.

The interview was a snap. The vice-principal and science department chairman briefly glanced at my Forestry degree transcript, with a minor in philosophy. It was not especially heavy in hard science courses. However, they remembered that I had been an A-student and science nerd and hired me on the spot.

I was to teach Earth Science, which included geology, meteorology, and astronomy, to ninth grade students. As a kid, I had loved to collect rocks and gaze at the stars with my small telescope, so I was sure I could transmit that enthusiasm to my grateful, attentive students. Trouble was, I didn’t know the first thing about either ninth-grade students or class control, which as I learned the hard way is just as important as knowledge of subject matter.

I shall not dwell here on the ugly details that still haunt my dreams. The kids were rude, disruptive, sneaky, and downright mean, constantly inventing new ways to torment and subvert me. In other words, they were perfectly normal, ninth-grade students. They ate me alive. A couple of times, the department chair who had hired me, upon hearing all the yelling and commotion coming from my classroom across the hall, came running into my room, as if someone were being murdered. As soon as he entered, of course, the kids would all be sitting at attention, perfectly quiet. He would give me a disdainful look, then shake his head as he walked away muttering.

Bad as things were, at least I didn’t have to worry about mass shooters. The worst event to happen was when one of my troubled students pulled a knife on a jock, right outside my classroom. We all ran out, and I momentarily froze. Then I herded my students to slowly back away. The issue was quickly resolved, as the jock yelled and threatened the student enough for him to drop his knife and run out the door. Show’s over. No heroes, no deaths, that day.

I was a terrible teacher, but I made it through my first year. That was the main thing, the principal told me upon renewing my contract. “You survived.” I had passed the test, and he expected me to carry on.

I worked there five more years, becoming a reasonably competent teacher, able to control the classroom while providing my students with a creative learning environment. I was now teaching seventh-grade life science and was given an expanded new science lab, which I lined with tropical plants and cages filled with snakes (including two boa constrictors), tarantulas, hissing roaches, and other exotic creatures. On Parents’ Night, the principal would always show off my lab as a model classroom.

I did not delude myself into thinking I was a great teacher, however. During that time, I came to know some truly extraordinary teachers, fully attuned to their students and learning outcomes. But that would never be me. I had fallen into teaching because it offered a regular paycheck while aligning with my social and intellectual ideals, but my mind was elsewhere. And that’s always a dangerous thing.

One day, one of the boys in my class called me out, openly challenging my authority. Something inside me snapped, and I suddenly shoved him up against the wall and shouted in his face. I watched myself, as if in slow motion, acting out this scene, and knew right then and there that I had to get out. (Can you imagine a teacher doing that in a public-school classroom today?)

There were many other jobs on the journey. None lasted more than five or six years. Yet, much like my character Lot O. Jobs, I saw each job as having its own flavor, providing new insights on life. I never wanted a big house or family, and fortunately neither did my wife, who found her niche early, pursuing a long career in education. So that left me free to follow my dreams, whatever the hell they happened to be at the time.

Some of the jobs, like groundskeeper and landscaper, involved down-and-dirty grunt work, even menial tasks, such as picking up trash. Others, like teaching and bookselling, required me to use my brain more than my back. Most of the jobs paid so little that, had it not been for my wife’s job, I would have qualified for food stamps. What they lacked in remuneration, however, they repaid in new experiences and discoveries. It may sound corny, but through them, I found dignity in a day’s labor and the simple joy of performing a job well. Mostly I was flying by the seat of my pants, learning as I went, though the last job I filled—Instructional Specialist at the University of Arizona—made it sound as if I knew something. And when I left there, after working the usual five years, I actually did.

Through it all, writing remained the one constant thread. It was the one thing I really cared about.  Since my twenties, I had dreamed of making a living from my creative writing, something that very few writers achieve. I did manage to find jobs as columnist, feature writer and editor at small local newspapers, and scored occasional sales of my stories, essays, and poems to magazines and newspapers—always the sweetest dollars earned—as I continued to feed the writing madness.

Maybe someday, I kept telling myself, if I do this long enough, I will make some real money from my writing. Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, I think back to all the jobs along the way, a rich tapestry which has given me enough raw material to last a lifetime—or at least to fill these pages—and to make a life from my writing. First published in Work Literary Magazine. 3-19-2018

Living the Absurd Life

A framed quote by Albert Camus hangs over my desk: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” To which I would add, but can it dance?

It is not a question Camus might have asked. In fact, it’s ridiculous. It just popped into my head, like so many other wacky thoughts. Cultivating such silliness is a strategy I’ve found most helpful during times of darkness and despair.

This intentional silliness is what many of us think of when we hear the word “absurd.” Unfortunately, many people also have a negative view of the absurd, since it involves a deliberate violation of what we consider reasonable, leading to illogical, nonsensical, often bizarre situations. Totally unpredictable, it follows no rules, turning on its head everything we hold logical and true. And some of us don’t like that.

Absurdist, or surreal, humor is the heart of all great comedy. Think of the preposterous scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice attempts to play croquet using a flamingo as mallet and a hedgehog for a ball. Or Edward Lear’s “Owl and the Pussy-Cat” sailing off to get married and eating slices of quince with a runcible spoon? What exactly is a runcible spoon? Or Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis? You can’t get more ridiculous than waking up and suddenly finding yourself having turned into a giant bug. Then there’s Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for a guy named Godot who never shows up and nothing really happens. But oh, what a glorious nothing it is! More recently, comics George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, and Monty Python, to name a few, have shared their private worlds of wackiness and helped to keep us sane.

But this silliness quite often masks a deep sadness, alienation, and inner struggle. Lewis Carroll used absurd humor as a way to deal with the chaotic changes taking place during the Victorian Period when, much like in Alice in Wonderland, the traditional British life he had known was being turned upside down. So he showed his character Alice struggling to make sense of this ever more curious world she must navigate.

Camus meant something entirely different by the absurd, which can also mean “the quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.” According to him: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Silly was not his game. Talk about depressing. Can you imagine this guy at a dinner party? Instead of the usual banter, he would stare, with eyes ablaze, at the guests around the table and ask, “What is the meaning of existence?” And as each cited their various religious, philosophical, scientific, and personal answers, Camus would knock them down, one by one.

Ever the skeptic, he would insist that there is no adequate answer to this question. Despite all our efforts to find purpose to our existence, the universe remains silent on this issue. We cannot reason our way to meaning, he argued, for “this world in itself is not reasonable.” Considering the vast, ever-expanding amount of information available to us as well as all that may forever remain unknown makes total certainty beyond our grasp.

Camus rejected the false hope and comfort offered by religion. Like the philosopher Nietzsche, he saw the danger of devaluing this life at the expense of an afterlife which may never come. Why deprive ourselves of the rich opportunities offered by a life we know for one which we cannot know for certain? And therein lies the dilemma. While our human hearts seek to find purpose and meaning to it all (as in Dionne Warwick’s song “What’s It All About, Alfie?”), there is no definitive answer, no “familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart” This is what Camus means by the absurd.

In his classic work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus provides us with the memorable image of a man doomed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back each time it reaches the top. Sisyphus is the absurd human, doomed to struggle through life without hope or meaning.

According to Camus, you have two choices. Deal with this emptiness in your soul and embrace it, with no hope of escape or consolation, while boldly seeking your own meaning, or decide you can’t deal with it and just end it.

Camus saw death as “the most obvious absurdity,” so he chose life instead. Through his writing, and his personal and political life, he defiantly resisted the apparent meaninglessness of existence. During World War II, he joined the French Resistance to help liberate Paris from Nazi occupation, and edited the underground newspaper Combat.  In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his life was cut tragically short, he showed us a way to triumph over despair and live an authentic life with dignity.

Have to admit, I do sometimes feel like Sisyphus, pushing my personal rock up the hill only to see it come crashing down again, times when everything I do seems hopeless and my life seems to have as much purpose as the floppy disk I found wedged between a copy of The Hobbit and The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Unlike Camus, however, the question that comes to mind is not: should I kill myself?

I do agree with Camus that the world is not reasonable, and find it curious that I am here. I look in the mirror and see a creature no less bizarre than a giraffe or a star-nosed mole, with all those weird tentacles at the end of its nose. As a kid, I used to gaze at pictures of certain animals in books and shudder. How could they be? They seemed so unreal.

And here am I, as improbable as Ionesco’s rhinoceros running through the streets. My face stares back at me in disbelief. I feel a disconnect between the image in the mirror and the image I carry inside. Is it really the same me, with all those dreams, lusts, and ambitions, all those noble and idle thoughts, all those precious and hateful memories? Or is it a mirage of someone who once was? As I write this, countless cells in my body have died and been replaced, as neurons flash and chart new pathways and memories in my brain. The person I saw this morning is no more.,

Tomorrow I will look in the mirror again, and what will I see? Will I see “the master of my fate” and “the captain of my soul?” Or will I see the more usual face of befuddlement and despair?

It is the dance I perform each day—a dance for meaning—and I never know how it will turn out. Some days, it’s a little jig before breakfast. Other days, it’s more like a polka from hell, or a slow, sad waltz on my grave.

Most often, it begins with some little thing. A little ray of hope that sets my feet moving. Some encouraging thought or word from a friend. An inspiring poem or essay. Some newly discovered truth I had forgotten. A piece of news that proves the world is not coming to an end … not yet, at least.

And I remember that the purpose of my life does not come from external sources. There is no guidebook or grand plan, no voices telling me what to do. Rather it is a series of little daily steps I take to keep the darkness at bay. It’s realizing the value of simple things, like kindness, empathy, and understanding. Expanding my mind with new insights and knowledge. Exulting in the awe of this wondrous universe and the fact that, for a little while, I am here to experience it. Writing the best I can, relishing the little triumphs while accepting that I will never be as good as Shakespeare, Yeats, or Steinbeck. James Baldwin famously wrote: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” That’s as good a credo to live by as any.

But there are times when I lose sight of these and all seems lost, and the only thing that can save me is silliness. Not some tired slapstick silliness, but the kind that’s absurd to the bone and makes you laugh so hard you start blowing things out your nose.

Humor is highly subjective, of course, but there’s a scene in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail that gets me every time. The knights appear to be riding around on invisible horses as their squires clap coconuts together to produce the sound of hoof clopping (it was a low budget movie and the group didn’t have enough money to afford actual horses, or so they say). And you want to know what’s really absurd? Watching the movie, I begin seeing the horses. When and if nuclear war breaks out, I will watch it, laughing, as the world ends to the beat of horse’s clopping.

In the introduction to my book Dragon Daily News, a collection of silly stories for children, I paraphrased Thoreau and wrote: “In silliness is the preservation of the world.” The world presses down on us with relentless reality, often unfolding in ways that seem to make no sense. How could such things happen in a sane world? we ask ourselves. But the world is not sane. It can be as crazy beautiful as the arms of a spiral galaxy or human eye. And it can be as crazy ugly as anencephaly in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull, or a flu virus that suddenly mutates and kills tens of thousands of people. Or all the not-so-nice and horrific things we do to each other daily. Sometimes, all that saves us is our ability to laugh.

Tears are overrated, if you ask me. Beware of anyone who cannot laugh. Run for the nearest exit.  Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet who died recently at age 103, frequently wrote poems marked by absurdity. Explaining his relationship to the reader, he said: “Humor makes contact easier. Remember that it’s when you lose your sense of humor that you begin to reach for your pistol.”

Whenever I get particularly depressed by the doings of my fellow human beings, I try to do something silly. It is a personal act of defiance against a world that seems to grow more absurd by the moment.

Maybe I’ll wear a silly T-shirt or write a silly poem. I’ll do like Shel Silverstein in his wonderful poem Put Something In: “Do a loony-goony dance/’Cross the kitchen floor/Put something silly in the world/That ain’t been there before.”

Imagining Wilderness

Sitting on a rock overlooking Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, I gazed beyond the grass and sage-covered plains to a more distant view. In my mind’s eye, I followed the Lamar River drainage, exploring lonely dark spruce-fir forests and meadows in the footsteps of grizzlies and wolves. An hour earlier, on a park road jammed with tourists, I had actually seen my first wolves—a few specks of black dancing at the edge of my vision. And I imagined what it would be like to wind among sagebrush that had known the touch of wolves.

It is a trip that I have taken many times since. With each passing year, its memories grow more vivid and no less meaningful to me than if I had actually backpacked into that wilderness.

In this case, there was at least some link to actuality. I was in my sixties and at last had fulfilled my dream of visiting this iconic national park. The wilderness lay just ahead, not far from where I sat. I could almost smell the sagebrush on the wind. All I had to do was head for the horizon and keep walking. But why bother, when I had already imagined it.

Lately, I have visited other wilderness areas as well, with no sensory link other than a book, map or video image. When I look at them on a map, running my fingers over the contour lines, in a real sense I feel a connection. I have stood at the very Gates of the Arctic, surrounded by virtual black flies, flower-covered tundra and the immense solitude of the Brooks Range. I have wandered through alpine meadows of the John Muir Trail from Yosemite all the way to Mount Whitney and explored the endless hidden canyons of Escalante. And I have visited, at no expense, the fabled islands of Galapagos, where I have marveled at giant tortoises and marine dragons and followed the path of Darwin.

Being the dreamer I am, it’s a wonder I didn’t think of this sooner. It might have saved me a lot of grief and confusion.

Growing up, I was always a bookish loner. Since my earliest childhood, I have imagined wilderness, chiefly from the books I read.  Writers such as John Muir, Sigurd F. Olson, William O. Douglas, and Edward Abbey provided such glowing firsthand accounts of wild places that I could feel myself there beside them. With Sigurd Olson I have skated down a silvery mirrored lake in the Quetico-Superior country, bathed in the aurora’s shimmering light. I have swayed in the treetops with John Muir as he described it in “A Wind-Storm in the Forests.” Once, while out walking in gale-force winds through a New Hampshire forest, I considered recreating Muir’s experience by climbing a tall white pine. The feeling lasted only a moment, then was quickly suppressed by common sense.

Indeed, we are indebted to writers such as these for instilling a love and thirst for wilderness that provided the first impetus for its preservation. Together with paintings and photographs, these earliest accounts of Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and other scenic wonders first stirred the imaginations of urban readers, often far removed from these places, to support legislation  to preserve them. Only later would some get the chance to visit these places. But first we had to imagine them.

Starting in my teens, I would take long walks alone through the tame parks and state forests of Connecticut suburbia. Though a far cry from real wilderness, they provided me with a stage to act out the fantasy that I was some kind of wilderness superman, aloof from the world, sufficient unto myself, sustained only by my love for wildness. So powerful was the image that by high school I had convinced myself that the only path for me was to become a natural resource professional, protecting wildlife, forests, and scenery in the great outdoors.

I think my dad had something to do with this. He was always telling me about how he wanted to be a forest ranger. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, however, and he eventually landed a job as a postman with the U.S. Postal Service. There he remained and raised a family, in the small suburban city where both he and son were born. He seemed to be content with the life he had made, and I wonder if he would have been as happy spotting forest fires or cruising timber in some remote corner of the wilderness.

Rebellious child of the sixties, I was going to be different, not chained down by the stultifying sameness of Connecticut suburbia. Like my dad, I was a dreamer, but I was about to be kicked in the head.

In hindsight, I should have seen it coming, but I was a cocky, know-it-all kid who thought he had life all figured out. There were plenty of clues, if I had ever bothered to look. My dad, for instance, for all his talk of being a forest ranger, was a real homebody, a man who didn’t stray far from his front door. In so many ways, I was just like him. Yes, we took hikes in the woods, but not once did he ever suggest we try roughing it. Family trips to the Adirondacks and White Mountains always involved a well-stocked ice chest and clean, comfortable hotels. All I remember from the few times I tried backpacking myself was how much fun it is carrying forty pounds on your back, how hard it is to sleep with tree roots and rocks projecting into your butt, and the sinister rustling sounds that a mouse can make outside your tent.

Unlike my dad, affording college was no obstacle. So in 1967, at the end of my freshman year as a major in wildlife management at the University of Connecticut, I was ready to test myself against the wilderness. One of my professors had landed me an entry-level federal job for the summer cruising timber for the U.S. Forest Service, in the remote town of Cougar, Washington. Yes, that was its actual name. It sounded every bit as wild as my dreams. For weeks before I left, I lorded it over my friends. I was off to the wilderness—a real mountain man. Even bought my first sleeping bag.

The big day came, and my parents saw me off on my first airline trip—a red eye flight—to Portland, Oregon. There, early the next morning, I was picked up by a kindly Forest Service employee who drove us fifty miles northeast into Washington and the rugged mountains of the southern Cascades in Gifford Pinchot Natural Forest. Raised in New England, I had never seen such wild country in my life. Glacial rivers surging through ravines of giant boulders. Trees hundreds of feet tall, with trunks so massive it would take six men to span them. Forests that seem to go on forever. I was both giddy and slightly frightened. This was no imagined wilderness.

We finally reached camp where I was handed my first big dose of reality. The deal I had signed on for had stated that the Forest Service would provide lodging with a bed and a shared room. The supervisor informed me, however, that all the rooms were filled. So he assigned me to a cot in a huge tent shared by a few dozen fellow employees, all of whom snored so loud it’s a wonder the tent didn’t come down. Inside the tent, it was hot by day and freezing cold by midnight, and despite my sleeping bag I shivered most of the night. Nobody had told me I would spend the summer camping.

My first two days on the job involved working with a professional forester cruising timber. I took turns with another new guy measuring and recording such things as tree species, diameter at breast height (DBH), height, and defects. After a while, I got the hang of it, though the forester became increasingly frustrated with me at how all the number 2’s that I recorded in the entry book always looked like “s.” I could tell it was really starting to bug him. To this day, I can’t write a 2 without wondering if it looks like an “s.”

On Saturday morning, a bunch of us temps went out on a hike along a nearby river. There were elk tracks winding everywhere through the giant, moss-covered trees. We approached one huge Douglas fir, and it took six of us to get our arms around its circumference. And there in the distance was the snow-covered summit of Mount St. Helens. Little did I know that in thirteen years it would blow its top and lay waste to much of this forest.

That evening, we went into the local town and headed for the bar. I wasn’t into drinking back then, but I enjoyed shooting some pool and swapping stories. I remember one guy in particular, who made quite an impression on me. Frankly, he scared me. He had grown up in Washington and loved the back country more than anything else. He wanted to get as far back in the timber as he could to get away from people and modern civilization. “All you folks coming here from back East,” he said, his eyes ablaze with righteousness, “are ruining this state. Soon there won’t be any wilderness left.” For him, the state was already too crowded. People were the problem, and as far as he was concerned they could all go to hell. Who needs ‘em?

It’s funny how one conversation can bring everything into sudden focus. Up until that moment, I had thought that maybe things would be fine and that I could tough it out. Sure, I was homesick and had to sleep in a damn tent. Deal with it. But suddenly all the thoughts and impressions of the past few days crashed head on with my romantic notions of wilderness and myself. Is this really the life I wanted, a life alone in the wilderness? All I really knew was that I was not that guy back in the bar. I could hear Barbara Streisand singing “people who need people” in my head. It was all a mistake and I had to get out of there fast.

My supervisor tried to talk me out of it, then shook his head and accepted my abrupt resignation. He had seen it all before. Everyone was remarkably cool about it. The forester who had driven me into camp agreed to take me back to Portland and even loaned me the money to catch a flight back East. So I came home, tail dragging between my legs, and started life over again. The worst part was the way my dad looked at me as he saw his dream to be a forest ranger go up in smoke again.

Of course, I still dream of what my life might have been if I had stuck it out, a life full of adventures in the wilderness. But it wasn’t me. And as I look back on the life I have made for myself, I wouldn’t trade it for all the adventures in the world. Yes, it was painful and embarrassing to come home and admit my mistake. But if I hadn’t made that journey, I would never have found out who I really am.

I still dream of wilderness, and even hike there sometimes. Though I’m certainly no John Muir or Bob Marshall, I have logged enough wilderness hours to know some of the sensory images and feelings that only such places can provide. Each of my wilderness hikes, even if only for a few hours, has been a privileged moment. Whether in one of the great wilderness parks like Death Valley, Canyonlands, or Yellowstone, or in some smaller corner of wildness in Maine, New Hampshire, or the Great Smokies, I experience the same kind of emotion. I become a different person. Crossing the wilderness boundary, I can feel myself expanding, filling with new possibilities. These moments have provided me with a sensory record of detailed memories that I can call up faster than a mouse click. With this record I can not only recreate these actual trips but, by using input from many sources, including words and images of wilderness recorded for me by others, build upon them to create entirely new trips in my mind.

There are definite advantages to this kind of trip. Age, physical ability, and money are no obstacles. There are no bugs, rapids, or grizzlies. Also, if we agree that wilderness areas are precious, does it then follow that all of us must visit them? I doubt that the American wilderness would long survive such a loving assault. Maybe it’s better that most of us limit ourselves to an occasional visit, making do for the most part with experiences of the virtual kind—the kind that leave no footprints.

This is not about turning wilderness into some kind of video game. For no matter how convincing the experience might seem, there is no substitute for the actual. It is the source of all images, all input.  The virtual wilderness is only as good as its programming, and for that we need raw data from the real thing to feed into our devices and dreams.

I suspect imagining wilderness will become easier in the near future, with virtual reality headsets and “interactive imaging systems.” Fascinated as many of us are with technology, I can imagine a time when virtual wilderness trips become so vivid and convincing that people may prefer them to the real thing. After all, why get wet when you can just put on a helmet and float down the Colorado?  Who am I to judge when I can still get a virtual thrill from reading about John Muir swaying in the wind atop a tree?

I now live in Tucson, a city surrounded by mountains and bona fide wilderness. On a recent short hike at Sabino Canyon, I paused to rest my stiff, arthritic limbs. Just ahead was a sign marking the wilderness boundary. I gazed up longingly at the steep
trail winding for miles through the solitary feeder canyons, where new wonders beckon … if only my feet would take me there. But a man can always dream.

 

How I Met Vonnegut or Goodbye Blue Monday

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It was November 1990, back when I lived in Providence. A short, offhand blurb on page four of the local paper for which I wrote quietly announced that Kurt Vonnegut would be in town to address Brown University students at Alumnae Hall. “Check to see if any tickets remain,” said the article. Say what?!?

In exactly twenty-fours, one of the major writers of the twentieth century and my all-time hero was scheduled to appear at my very door. My chances of getting a ticket now were about as slim as finding a rent-controlled apartment in Trump Tower. Nonetheless, I ran like a bad rumor over to Brown—only to be told that all 600 tickets had been handed out a week ago, two tickets per Brown ID. It was shaping up to be blue Monday, indeed.

“Why don’t you just go over there and tell them you write for a local newspaper?” asked my wife in a cheery, optimistic voice. “There’s your ticket.”

Raising my head slowly out of a bowl of soggy corn flakes in which I was trying to drown myself, I looked at her and laughed. “Yeah, right. With hundreds of bigwig journalists there, from George Wills and Mark Patinkin to Hunter Thompson and, who knows, maybe Tom Wolfe, do you really think they’re going to let me in there? Don’t be absurd.”

“Got any better ideas?” asked Josie, in her gentle tone of why-did-I-marry-this-jerk sarcasm.

I did not. So I called the Brown News Bureau and introduced myself. “Hello, my name is Gene Twaronite and I write for The East Side Monthly. I’ve been assigned to write an article on the Vonnegut lecture. I was wondering if …”

“Who did you say you are?” asked the young woman. “Isn’t that the paper that runs all those disgusting sex ads?”

“No, that’s the other paper,” I reassured her. “We only run ads for poodles and politicians.”

“A press conference has been scheduled for three,” she said. “Just show your press card at the door. There will also be a section reserved for the media at tonight’s lecture.”

“I don’t have a press card. My publisher says they’re too expensive.”

“Are you sure you’re a writer?” she asked, like I was something from the bottom of a dumpster.

After a short enumeration of my writing credits and the promise that I would throw myself off the Point Street Bridge if I didn’t get to see Vonnegut, she reluctantly agreed to meet me later at the door. I will remember her kindness always.

Shortly before three, I was allowed to enter and ushered into the inner sanctum—a small side room of the Maddock Alumni Center. Furtively I looked around, still expecting someone to challenge my credentials. But the expected horde of media hounds had so far failed to materialize. There wasn’t even a podium or microphone in sight. Just a few dozen folding chairs set in front of an overstuffed pink chair in a corner near the window.

Journalists started trickling into the room, though none of them were from the NY Times or Newsweek. There were eighteen of us in all, many from student newspapers. Tom Wolfe was nowhere to be seen.

Expecting to get no closer than 500 feet, I had brought with me a 300 mm telephoto lens for my camera, which I hoped would also certify me as a bona fide journalist. I had also equipped myself with a crisp new first edition of Vonnegut’s latest novel Hocus Pocus. One never knows.

Suddenly, he appeared. Wearing a dark grey suit, tie, and V-neck sweater, he strode gracefully into the room like a wise, beloved professor and quietly took his seat. Then, as if addressing old friends, he began to talk in a soft, reassuring voice.

“I’ll be speaking six times this year, speaking in some strange places … though this isn’t one of them.”

Then he launched into his opening remarks about the deplorable state of the country today and how “we are miserably led.” As he warmed to his subject, the pace and intensity of his words picked up. He described the choice of Dan Quayle for vice-president as “a terrible insult to the American people.” Sitting back and crossing his legs, he reminded me of a less flamboyant Mark Twain. His hollow, slightly vacant eyes—eyes that had seen too much yet never enough of this crazy world—stared back at us with a mixture of mirth and madness, inviting us to join the party. “Life is fooling around.”

With the precise timing of a good comic, he fired off one extravagant remark after another, occasionally interspersing them with common sense observations revealing the intense humanism that fueled his cynicism.

“I can understand people wanting to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. But people who want to be managers, well … something is wrong with them.”

“Government’s a TV show.”

“The ideal government is an extended family.”

“I took my junior civics course in grade school very seriously.”

Asked by Providence Journal-Bulletin reporter Bob Kerr if “there is anyone you find particularly hopeful,” Vonnegut replied without hesitation. “Yes, the American people.”

Swallowing hard, I finally summoned the courage to ask my own question. “In your novel Galapagos, you raised the point that our brains may be too big for our own good. Do you …?”

He cut me off, delighted to be given this tangent, and went on to compare our brains to the ridiculously over-sized antlers of the extinct Irish elk. “Nature may have made a mistake.”

For a few more minutes, Vonnegut bantered with the media. He came to lecture, he told us, usually at the invitation of students, not faculty. He doubted if anyone from the English Department would be in attendance that night. To hear him tell it, he was a virtual nobody in the academic world. (This despite the fact that a seminar on his works was held by the Modern Language Association at its annual international convention back in 1975, where he was compared to such world class authors as Nabokov, Swift, and Twain. It was not the first or the last of such seminars)

Lost in sad reverie over one of his parting comments that “there were a lot of swell writers in the world who just weren’t ever going to be noticed,” I was caught by surprise when suddenly the author bolted out of his chair and began heading for the door. I remembered the book in my knapsack and lunged to intercept him.

He was almost home free, but I nabbed him just in time. “Mr. Vonnegut,” I asked in a timid voice. “This may seem tacky, but …would you mind signing my book?”

“Not at all,” he replied, staring at me with those wild, wonderful eyes of his. Then on the endpaper he made his famous scribble, complete with a certain orifice that some people mistake for a star.

That evening, having been told that press seats would be limited, I arrived at Alumnae Hall forty-five minutes early. I needn’t have worried. The first three rows on the left had been reserved for me and my fellow journalists. Being the first one there, I sat down in my privileged seat as the hall quickly filled to capacity and overflowed to the balcony and much of the floor.

Actually, the best seats in the house were reserved for the creative writing class. And sitting among the students, as if to nullify the author’s earlier prediction, were some unmistakably professorial types.

I was especially interested in hearing what Vonnegut had to say about how to be a writer. This time, there was a podium and even a blackboard. Right on time, he stepped up to the microphone and began to address the crowd with the same unpretentious grace as that afternoon.

He introduced himself as having been born of the last generation of novelists “whose brains were marinated in books.” He then told us that, if as some people claim, rock ‘n’ roll can cause suicides, he did not want anyone to read his latest book.

Commenting on the Voyager Spacecraft’s trip past the Outer Planets, the author displayed his scientific bias, proclaiming this “the most beautiful thing humans have ever done. Just think of it—we made that thing!”

For a while, he read animatedly from a prepared speech, which emphasized the darker side of his worldview. “We are swamped with bad news,” he reminded us, then ran through a checklist of his most deeply felt social and environmental issues, as if making sure we all knew he wasn’t just some flaky novelist.

He even slipped in a quick lesson on transcendental meditation, describing this state as like “scuba diving in warm bouillon.” Then he compared it to reading—“the meditative state of Western Society.”

Finally, he got around to the topic I’d been waiting for, though I really didn’t expect he’d have much to say. In his diverse collection of essays and stories, Wampeters, Foma & Grandfalloons, he wrote that “you can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. (This from an avowed atheist.)

He told us there are two main ways to support yourself as a writer: inherit money, or marry a rich person.

He then gave us one of his cardinal rules of revision—throw away the first three pages of any manuscript. It’s just needless introductory clutter.

Stepping to the blackboard, he began to draw graphs illustrating the curvature of various kinds of stories. He was always trying to bring much-needed science to English departments.

At the end of his lecture, commenting on the changing nature of student questions these days, he recalled that back when he was a young man on campus, when the world seemed to be in flames and Europe and Asia were on the verge of being swallowed up by Hitler, the burning question was: “Does penis size really matter?”

Whereas now the question he is asked most frequently is: “Do you use a word processor?” I detected a note of sadness in his voice.

So it goes.

(Author’s Note: An earlier version of this piece first appeared in East Side Monthly, Providence, RI.)

To Procreate, or Not

The_Big_Game_of_Africa_(1910)_-_Black_&_White_RhinosA female white rhino, on average, can produce 11 offspring during her lifetime. Who knows how many more are sired by the male rhino … or Mick Jagger, for that matter. A nine-banded armadillo can produce 54, while lemmings and rabbits can produce hundreds. Spreading your genes around is the first rule of life. From an evolutionary standpoint, I’m a complete failure.

The closest I ever got to procreating was in my early twenties when the young woman I was dating and hoped to marry asked me pointblank if I wanted to have children. Yes, I told her, of course. I even convinced myself that I really did. Men will do anything to get a woman into bed.

Fortunately for both of us, she saw through me (the fact that at the time I was employed in a pet shop, dreaming about all the successful books I would write, may have also made her think twice about my future financial prospects). We went our separate ways, sparing me not only thousands of dollars on an engagement ring worthy of my potential fiancé’s expensive tastes, but the inconceivable tragedy of my becoming a parent.

Growing up, I never thought much about having kids. I just didn’t see it as a life goal, the way some people have always known that they wanted to be parents. I want exactly seven—three boys and three girls and one … well, whatever the Good Lord gives us—dealer’s choice.

Occasionally I caught myself thinking about what it might be like. Taking my little boy or girl hiking. Trying to explain the mysteries of sex or how to fry an egg. Passing on my genes and values to some little person with maybe the same blue eyes and big ears, who would for a time worship the ground I walk on and demand all my waking moments, then completely ignore me in her teens, and later call me a terrible drunken monster when she wrote her memoir at 32.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, over half of all U.S. citizens 18 to 40 already have kids, and even the 40% who don’t still hope to have them someday. Only six percent of this group do not want to have any children, under any circumstances. Seems I’m in the minority.

But at least among the 75 million or so millennials in this country, I have company. According to a recent Cassandra report, fully a third of them do not want kids. Many see this as a deliberate lifestyle choice or not wanting to take on the significant responsibilities that go with parenting. And they don’t seem at all worried about what people will think. Gotta love those millennials.

Of course, if your spouse or significant other really wants kids, it’s hard to say no. I could very well have ended up reproducing, whether I wanted to or not, had I not had the incredible good fortune of meeting and marrying my one and only wife, Josie. She never wanted kids, either. How lucky was that!

I realize that, if every human on the planet shared my views, we would soon go extinct, which might not be a bad idea, considering how our species has totally messed up the planet. We’re not exactly the pinnacle of evolution. We’ve had long enough to change our ways. Why not put some other species, preferably with more intelligence, say ravens, elephants, or even white rhinos, in control of things? The earth would do just fine without us, as it has for billions of years.

Baby naked mole rat

Could be I’m just lacking a baby gene. While other people gush about how cute the new baby is, I’m heading for the door, especially if pictures are involved. The only thing worse than kiddie pictures are dog pictures. Let me know how the kid (or dog) turns out at 21, then we’ll talk. And face it, some babies are about as cute as a newborn naked mole rat.

I could blame my attitude on my maternal grandmother, whom I adored, having spent many idyllic early days on her farm. I remember her warning me how the world was getting worse every day and never to bring kids into this world. Of course, she could have been just tired of putting up with all her own kids’ crap—she had four—or with me, for that matter. I was always getting into trouble, shooting fish and frogs in her pond with my BB gun or cutting down trees in the woods with my ax and leaving three-foot-tall stumps (well, she did ask me to clear out some of the shrubs and trees encroaching on the field).

Not that it’s likely, but I can think of several good reasons why I shouldn’t procreate. First of all, my wife still doesn’t want to. And I doubt very much if she would approve of me spreading my seed around, even if it might potentially benefit the human gene pool. It also sounds like a lot of work, and would impinge on my afternoon naptime.

Second, if I ever did have a kid—perish the thought—I would undoubtedly be a terrible father, the kind who thinks the only good music is classic rock and embarrasses his kids by continuing to wear in public tight Rolling Stones T-shirts over his advancing pot belly.

Finally, there are plenty of people who still want to have kids, as well as plenty who have them accidentally. There are far too many of us here already, with more on the way. As I see it, I’m doing my bit for the planet. The two, four, six (hey, why not twelve, as long as we’re being hypothetical?) kids Josie and I might have had are a counterbalance to those being born. Plus I’ve kept my genes out of the gene pool, which on further reflection is probably a good thing. One Gene is quite enough.

 

Guns, Spears, and Dolls

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Growing up—still an ongoing process—I don’t recall anyone ever telling me how or when to play or whether I was playing too much. My parents encouraged me to read and to get good grades, of course, but I was a nerdy kid who would have done so anyway. Play was just something I did, as natural as breathing or falling on my face.

One time, I played with a shovel and dug for hours in the bare soil behind the shed. As the hole got deeper and my head vanished beneath the surface, I became a paleontologist searching for dinosaur bones. Why not? They could be down there, I thought, waiting for me to discover them. All I had to do was dig. Maybe I would reach the other end of the world. Just imagine—a tunnel through the earth.

Then I found it. It was a birdlike skull and backbone of some strange creature. It had to be a dinosaur. The fact that it didn’t appear to be fossilized and came out of the earth so readily didn’t matter. Part of the game, you see, was to believe. For a few minutes, I reveled in the joy of discovery.

Suddenly a stern voice intruded. “What are you doing?” my dad asked. “And why are you holding that chicken bone?”

Gone was my dream of a new dinosaur or reaching China. Shaking his head, he helped me climb out of the hole. It was not the first time his son had done something stupid. Then he pointed to the hole. “Now get it filled before supper!”

It was a long afternoon. Filling the hole was nowhere near as much fun as digging it. It did teach me a lesson, though. Finding dinosaur bones in your backyard is not that easy.

I remember something else as well. The fact that I had dug a deep and potentially dangerous hole that I could have fallen into didn’t seem to bother my dad. He didn’t stick around to help or watch over me. You dug it, you fill it.

It does seem that since the 1950’s, the period when I at least started to grow up, kids have far less time for unsupervised play, especially outdoors. Increasingly they are protected from dangers, real or imagined, and prodded to take on more organized activities or to study harder. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to dig a deep hole in the backyard.

“When does a kid ever get to sit in the yard with a stick anymore?”  asked George Carlin. Speaking of sticks, Jonathan Winters was known to improvise with any object handed to him. On the Late Show, Jack Paar once gave Winters a stick and off he went, pretending to be everything from a fisherman to a lion tamer. Which brings me to my own stick adventures.

One day, after my third grade geography class, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could reenact the lesson. It was about a remote native tribe in Brazil, New Guinea, or somewhere, and how they fashioned spears, bows, and arrows out of branches in the jungle to kill the animals they ate or to protect themselves from other tribes. It was a glorious time to be a kid. You didn’t run home after school to watch TV. Many families still didn’t have one, and both the television sets and program selections were dismal. So you ended up creating your own entertainment from whatever popped into your head.

I gathered my gang of friends. There were two or three of us boys, accompanied by the minister’s daughters who lived across the street. Since it was my idea, I got to set the stage, followed by the inevitable squabbling over who gets to play what. We were already into costume. Shorts and no shirts for boys, shorts and blouses for girls. We fashioned our weapons out of whatever sticks we could find. One girl made a bow, with some featherless arrows that never went anywhere. Most of us simply made spears. I had a ready-made one, the shaft of a toy wooden golf club, from which I had removed the head. Sharpening our lethal weapons, we set off into our neighborhood jungle.

After terrorizing some neighbors’ dogs and killing scores of imaginary beasts and tribal foes, we were about to set off into the next yard when a towering, fearsome giant appeared, blocking our path. Scared out of our wits, we froze in our tracks. Actually, it was my buddy Mike’s dad, who at six foot three did seem like a giant to us. Proud of his physique, he was shirtless as usual. With muscled arms folded across his hairy chest, he glowered with menace.

“What the heck are you guys doing? Do you want to kill someone?” At that point, he grabbed my little golf spear and pointed at its well-sharpened tip. “Look at that. You could put someone’s eye out with that.” Then he broke it across his knee, and did likewise with the other weapons. Game over.

He had no right to do that, I thought. But I was not about to argue with him. Had to admit, it was not the wisest thing for us to be doing, and he was just redirecting our play into safer channels.

Most of the time, however, there was little playtime supervision. I adored kindergarten. I remember sprawling out on the floor and playing with blocks with my pal Steve, building tall structures perpetually in danger of falling on our heads. Besides the traditional-sized blocks, there were also these polished timbers, sort of like 2 x 6’s, with which we made long tunnels snaking across the room. Then we would crawl through them, exploring the dark passages we had made. Our teacher, bless her heart, pretty much left us alone. I can’t imagine a kindergarten teacher today ever allowing students to engage in such hazardous construction.

In the same kindergarten room, there was also a full-size dollhouse that you could walk through and play, well, whatever. There were never any boys in there besides me. It wasn’t that boys weren’t allowed. But I was intrigued. A whole house where you could go inside and play. I can’t remember exactly what we played, but I do recall the girls and I had some lovely parties.

It was simple curiosity on my part. I wanted to know what exactly you did in a dollhouse and if it might be fun.

It was the same when I briefly took up playing with dolls. I watched girls as they cuddled and cared for their dolls. Could I be missing something? I had to find out.

So for a while, I had my own baby doll, doing all the things you’re supposed to do. I never tried breast-feeding, however. There were limits. I still saw myself as a boy trying out something new.

No one ever told me I couldn’t, except for my Uncle Johnnie, who took me fishing once and warned me against the dangers of playing with dolls. The fact that none of the other boys in the neighborhood played with dolls didn’t bother me. However, my friend Tommy’s dad—a real he-man kind of guy—sternly informed me that my dolls and I were no longer welcome in his backyard. Guess he didn’t want me infecting his sons.

The interesting thing about this episode is my discovery that there were other kinds of dolls besides infant ones. Once, playing dolls with my two girl cousins, I noticed one of the dolls had a decidedly different look about it. She had a shapely figure, with breasts! She wore high heels and a tight-fitting dress, and underneath it was a bra and girdle. Playing with this doll made me all warm and weird inside. From that day foreword, my doll-playing days were over. I had discovered sex.

As a young kid growing up in a strict Catholic family, I could only imagine sex, of course. There was only one kind of play that was forbidden to me, and that was to play with myself. You’d burn in hell if you touched yourself down there. And to play with other kids in that way was unthinkable.

But kids always find a way. They play doctor, for instance. I remember getting my first doctor set at Christmas. My first patients were the minister’s daughters across the street. I put on my stethoscope and called the first girl into my office. Her name was Barbara. She was in my class, and every day I walked her home from school. We had a thing for each other, but there was never anything physical. We were too shy to even hold hands. But that day, she did something unexpected. She took off her blouse, baring her naked chest for examination. I took one look and nearly fainted. Then, sputtering an excuse, I grabbed my doctor set and ran home. It took me many years before I could look at a girl’s bare chest again.

When not playing dolls or doctor, I played with toy guns. Six-guns, derringers, rifles, shotguns—I loved them all, especially my tommy gun. You pulled back its bolt and it made a high decibel rat-tat-tat that was music to my ears and drove everyone crazy. I’d run from room to room, firing off my gun and mowing down imaginary enemies until some relative would yell, “Get outta here, you’re driving me crazy!”

Growing up on westerns and war movies, guns were always part of my childhood. Later, there were BB and pellet guns, with which I shot starlings and other unfortunate creatures. For a brief time, I even played with real guns, plinking at tin cans in the woods, until I outgrew them.

All through my teens, I loved to take long solitary hikes, imagining myself a mountain man. I would pack a knapsack and strap on a fearsome-looking hunting knife, trekking down my suburban street as if setting off for the wilderness. In those days, while you weren’t allowed to walk down the street with a real gun on your hip, no one gave a second thought to a kid packing a Bowie knife in plain view.

Numerous studies have pointed to the importance of play in childhood. Kids will always play, though in new and different ways. In the future, they won’t need sticks or toy guns anymore, when they can just touch the screen on a computer and make whatever 3D-printed object they desire. They won’t need dolls, when they can act out their fantasies with realistic robots of any age or sex. They won’t need an imagination when they can step into a virtual reality holodeck and set the controls for whatever place and time period they wish to visit. It’s a good thing those things weren’t around when I was growing up. I never would have come out.

Meanwhile, I feel a sudden urge to go out and play, maybe dig a big hole. Too bad I live in an apartment.