A Patriotic Rant with a Twist: A Veteran’s View of the Anthem

I am an American who loves this country. I am a voter who participates in democracy. I am a patriot who served this country.  I take my hat off when I enter a building.  I stand when I hear our national anthem playing—oddly, I do the same when I hear the anthems of Canada, England and France and St. Helena (one of Napoleon’s safe rooms, with a virtually unlistenable country and western national tune) the only anthems I immediately recognize—and take my hat off.

But I don’t care if you do these things.  Let me explain.

I joined the Army when I was 17 in 1976.  I’d just graduated high school, and started basic training a week and a half after taking a bus ride to Washington, DC, to take part in a demonstration organized by the People’s Bicentennial Commission (PBC).  This counter to the government’s bicentennial celebration was designed to push for more oversight of corporate theft, a return of power to the people and a celebration of America’s revolutionary beginnings.  If one were to describe the politics of the PBC, I suppose democratic socialism would be the closest category, but to me they harkened back to the founding fathers of our country.

I saw no conflict in marching in protest in our nation’s capital 12 days before raising my right hand and offering to die for the country.  Just the opposite, in fact:  America was a country where I was free to decry her shortcomings while defending her from enemies abroad.  I was proud to be a soldier and proud to be a concerned citizen.

My real regret was that I wouldn’t be able to vote in the November 2 election.  During the New Hampshire primary, I’d volunteered after school and weekends for Fred Harris, a leftist Oklahoma senator running for president.  He’d lost handily, but his message of economic democracy had increased my interest in the PBC.  Come November, I’d still be two weeks too young to vote for Jimmy Carter in the general election.  In January, my orders took me to Germany, where I served with the 8th Infantry Division.  Still, on my birthday I’d registered to vote and in 1978 I flew home to cast my first ballot—an off-year election where, as I remember, the incumbents all won.  Still, I’d become a voter, a citizen, an American.

Since then, I have voted in every single general election, every single presidential primary election and most of the state primaries.  For every office down to governor, I have voted for the man or woman I thought best able to represent the state, the country and me personally, voting more often for Democrat candidates, but having voted at least once for Republican candidates for governor, house of representatives, senate and president.  I value my vote, and I use it, even when neither candidate is anywhere near my ideal.

I trust the folks who are most upset about athletes not standing for the anthem all have similar voting records.

My service to my country was not particularly stellar.  I served four years, being discharged as an E-5, facing no enemy because no shots were fired in anger during my enlistment.  I never lost rank, never got an Article 15 or other punishment, never thought about going AWOL.  In short, I was just another bozo on the army’s bus.  Still, I was on the army’s bus, believing I had an obligation to serve my country—through the military, the Peace Corps or domestic service—for the freedom I would enjoy the rest of my life.  If the Russians had come through the Fulda Gap, I would have been dead, but that was the cost of being free.  My father, my uncles, my grandfather were all veterans, but that counted nothing for me.  I couldn’t navigate my life by their reflected glory—I had to serve.

I trust the folks who are most upset about athletes not standing for the anthem all served with the United States military.

Finally, I don’t often wear hats—because I look ridiculous in them—or baseball caps.  When I do, though, I take them off before entering any public building, at the raising or lowering of the flag or at the playing of the national anthem.  At the latter, I stand at attention and place my right hand over my heart.  I suspect some historian of etiquette could tell me the origins of men taking their hats off indoors, but I can’t really say why I do these things.  I just do—some notion of “paying respect” bounces around in my head.  When I walk through a post office or supermarket, and see most men keeping their hats on, I don’t get angry or judge them—I just know I couldn’t do that.  Out of respect for nothing in particular.

I trust the folks who are most upset about athletes not standing for the anthem all take their hats off and stand at attention, right hand over their hearts when they hear the national anthem.

Voting is not required in this country.  It’s up to each individual.  Serving in the military is not required in this country.  It’s up to each individual.  Taking a man’s hat off indoors is not required in this country.  It’s up to each individual.

Standing for the national anthem is not required in this country.  It’s up to each individual.

I vote.  I served my country.  I take my hat off indoors.  I stand for the national anthem.

But I don’t give a pitcher of warm spit if you do.  It’s up to you as an individual.


Reader Mailbag II–Rewriting and Adoption

Reader Mailbag  II


I am a horrible correspondent.  It’s not that I don’t respond—eventually, I do, and I never know whether it will be with a brief squirt of syllables or a fire hose of verbiage.  Here, I will try to briefly answer some questions that have been emailed me by readers (keithhoward@gmail.com).


How much do you edit or rewrite your blog posts?

Zero.  Nada.  Zilch.

I really believe the old adage “rewriting is the key to writing well,” and, unlike many, I enjoy rewriting more than I enjoy writing.  Think of diamond mining, where the process begins with going down inside a dangerous, dirty and dark mine.  Lives are endangered to bring up what looks like broken glass or overgrown mica.  These shiny objects are then carefully crafted to form beautiful objet d’art.

On second thought, wipe that image from your mind.  Completely.  Don’t let even a whisper of it stay in your consciousness.  When I say “diamond,” think baseball.  Play ball!  In the image you’ve forgotten—although you’ve forgotten having had it—my finished work was compared to incomparably beautiful gems, when even on my best day of writing, I’m more likely to offer you a clever mosaic composed of pieces large and small of the days writing.  These mosaics are worth buying (for instance, On Account of Because, available on Amazon), but they don’t fetch the price of jewelry.

These posts I put up each day are unedited (and sometimes even unread) bits and pieces from the mind of a man who’s much better at the generating than the refining stage, although it’s the second I enjoy.


In the eulogy for your mother, which made me cry, you mentioned being adopted.  Will you write about adoption?  Also, what do you know about your birth family?


I’ve written about adoption at some length in other places.  One of my favorite pieces of writing was a letter I wrote a probate judge when a biological half-sibling asked to have my adoption records unsealed.  (I’ll be glad to republish that here, if there’s any interest.)  That medium-length essay helped me outline my life philosophy, one which has served me well.

Also, I wrote a nonfiction book proposal.  When I lost interest in writing the book, I published the proposal.  Here’s a sample response to that:

“You want to promote ignorance, you want to promote a practice that harms children.  Shame on you for not having the ganas to acknowledge the truth about adoption.

You suck.


I have strong, ill-thought-out and contradictory views on adoption, but I doubt I’ll write a stand-alone piece on the issue.  Of course, the memoir I’m working on now will have some things to say, but that’s still completely in the mining stage.

(Good readers here will say, “mining stage?  What’s that supposed to mean?  He’s never mentioned ‘mining’ before this.”  Bad readers, and you know who you are, will be required to undergo a George Romney brainwashing.  (If you know, without resorting to Google,  what the hell I’m talking about here, prove it in an email to keithhoward@gmail.com, and I’ll mail you a Tiny White Box sticker.  Please include your recent browser search history so I’ll know you didn’t look it up.  Unless that search history includes the phrase “Korean midget porn.”  I’m a First-Amendment absolutist, but I don’t want to know what my readers do behind their eyeballs.)

As for my birth family, I know some things.  I suspect some things.  I have random pieces of paper from almost 60 years ago that allege some things.  Let me just say my supposed biological lineage includes some very wealthy and distinguished folks, aviatrixes and aviators, but my family of origin took me in when I was six months old.  Before that, I was Baby Piper or Baby Newell or Baby Whoever.  I became myself when I became Keith Howard.

A Shameless Plug for a Smartphone App (that might make my dream come true)

A press conference with the New Hampshire Attorney General.  A participant named Howard. Cameras whirring and reporters attentive.

I’ve pictured this scene many times, the only change being which crime I’m being charged with.  Sometimes, I’ve kept my promise to every employer I’ve ever had:  “Everyone’s got a price.  Mine is $10,000,000.  If I ever have the opportunity to steal ten-million dollars from you—or anyone—I’ll manage to sear my conscience and assuage my guilt.  Until I’ve got my shot at $10,000,000, though, you’re safe.”  Sometimes it’s as a victim of a crime of passion.  “Keith Howard, age 93, was fatally shot in the back by a jealous husband.”  Sometimes the attorney general is laying out a series of seemingly unrelated allegations that add up to years in prison.  “The defendant, a known parking meter scofflaw, submitted a false affidavit regarding sale of a 1974 Datsun in June of 1982, then repeatedly drove drunk until May, 2007.  While we have no proof of these last crimes, Howard has repeatedly confessed to groups of drunks meeting in a church basements throughout southern New Hampshire.”

As you can see, any time the name Howard has been connected with “attorney general,” the result in my mind has been fear not joy.  Turns out I was wrong.

This past Friday, my daughter Rebecca Howard, along with all the fine folks she works with, took part in a joint press conference with Attorney General Gordon McDonald.  (As an aside, I was there, and met Becca’s supervisors and co-workers, but did not introduce myself to the attorney general.  This was not because of any personal or political difference, but because of a children’s book I used to read to Becca and her sisters:  Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox.  It’s a GREAT, GREAT, GREAT book, but I knew if I were to talk with Attorney General Gordon McDonald, I’d have to practice jackassery and ask him about the book.  I didn’t want Becca to have to explain me.)  The press conference announced the release of uSafeUS, an app available for iPhone and Android that provides information to victims of sexual assault, and, much more important, helps PREVENT such assaults.  Briefly, while the app has many features, the one I’m most excited about allows a woman on a date that’s taken a turn for the creepy to casually pick up her phone and arrange to get a call in a pre-arranged amount of time from a number of possible folks:  male friend, female friend, mom, dad.  A voice on the other end gives a message that helps the woman escape her date.  For instance, the female friend voice might say, “Why is there Cheeto dust all over my side of the room?  I don’t care if you want to shorten your life by eating by eating florescent fat and salt, but get back to the room now and clean up!”

(Full disclosure:  Becca, who is much smarter, sensitiver and a betterer writer than I, spends most of her time on serious academic research, but asked me to be the voice of the dad on this app.  Thus, if you download it, you can hear Dad say, “Sweetie, I’m having an identity crisis.  I still love Adrienne Rich, but I’m being drawn to reading much more male-identified poetry this evening.  Please come home and help me with my testosterone outbreak.”  Or something like that.)

Becca’s friend and co-worker, Becca Ludecke, the driving force behind the app, did great at the conference, as did the real Becca`.  As did I.  Becca L. outlined the features of the app.  The real Becca demonstrated them.  I kept my mouth shut (even when my pre-recorded voice was played) and stayed away from (Wilfred) Gordon McDonald (Partridge).

I wish the Prevention Innovations Research Center at UNH all the success in the world in encouraging other states around the country to implement this app and localize its information.  Just so long as they don’t change the Dad’s Voice.  It would be a great irony if, instead of my AG fears, this press conference led to adoption of a smartphone application where my voice would represent all dads everywhere.

I do want to find a Wilfred Partridge somewhere in America, so I can introduce him to the NH Attorney General at a press conference I’ve called, once I’ve been recognized as the father of my country.

“Now She Can Watch Me All the Time”–A eulogy (with jokes) for my mom

George Bernard Shaw said, “Life does not cease to be a comedy when somebody dies, any more than it ceases to be a tragedy when a baby is born.”  This morning, we will explore both comedy and tragedy as we remember Bev Howard’s life.  A Zen master once said, “Life is like climbing into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.”  Again, “ Life is like climbing into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.”  All we can do is enjoy the ride.  I’d like to tell you a little about Bev Howard and her ride . . . and how she enjoyed it.


Beverly Barton  Howard was born 71 years ago in Manchester, with her grandfather as the attending physician.  Her parents, Barbara and Phil Barton, took her back to Colebrook, where Phil was principal of the local school.  A year later, Bev’s little brother, Phil, was born, and the family shortly moved to Weare, New Hampshire, where Bev’s dad was now principal.  Bev spent her early childhood in Weare, and maintained lifelong friends there, some of whom are with us today.  Whether swimming, sharing secrets with her friends the Dows or playing in the fields, Bev loved Weare, and really regretted having to move to Durham when she was 10, but her father had been called to organize and develop the Thompson School at UNH.


In Durham, Bev quickly made friends who would remain life long:  Jane Abel, Barbara Grinnell, and many others.  Coming of age in Durham during the early 40’s, Bev loved to read, staying up late many times reading under her covers.  An indiscriminate reader, Bev read the classics, the latest novels, the Bobsey Twins and Nancy Drew.  Still, she found time for her friends and, occasionally, her studies.


This all changed in 1946.  With the war over, UNH was besieged with returning veterans and their families, all eager to grab their piece of the American Dream through the greatest social service program ever administered:  the GI Bill.  As Durham had been a sleepy little college town, it was not close to ready to house all these new students.  One student, Roger Howard, and his wife, Edna, searching for a place to live, heard that the Barton family might be able to house them.  Bev was unceremoniously forced to leave her spacious bedroom and move into her brother Phil’s room, as he had decamped to Northfield Mount Herman for prep school.


Bev heard that Roger had a twin brother, and one day a knock came at the door of 82 Madbury Road.  Bev opened the door, said, “You must be Richard.”  The rest, as they say, is history, as Bev and Rich fell in love almost immediately, and would have married right away but for Bev’s father’s requirement that Rich graduate from college before she could marry him.  A previously undistinguished scholar (to say the least), having focused more on football, skiing and baseball, Rich buckled down to his studies long enough to graduate in 1949, with a bachelor’s degree.  While Rich never used his zoology degree, it did manage to snag him Bev, a pretty good return on investment as it turned out.


Bev and Rich married in September of 1949, becoming Bev-and-Rich, two people with one soul.  Always, it was Bev-and-rich, not one without the other.  Bev and Rich settled into their first apartment on Edgewood Road at the Fitts’s.  Although Bev had ostensibly been a home economics student at UNH, her domestic skills were not fully developed.  In fact, when they married Rich had to cut her meat, the same way her father had when she lived at home.  Later in their early marriage, Bev tried to make pea soup in a deep-well cooker, starting the process by turning the burner to high.  Their close friends, Paul and Nan Holle, invited them over for drinks, and Bev figured they would be back shortly.  This being the early 50s, when the martini generation was in full flower, one drink led to another led to Bev and Rich coming home three hours later to find their kitchen engulfed in smoke, the soup’s ham bone a cremated crisp and the bottom of the cooker completely burned out.  Not to digress, but 40 years later, Bev and her daughter-in-law, Cindy, thought that the loaf of bread they had bought had been packaged in a special type of paper that would withstand heat.  They inserted the bread in a 350-degree oven and went off to enjoy a glass or three of wine.  Different decade, but the same result.  Suffice to say, Bev was a lovely, dear beautiful person, but not one who was born to the kitchen.


After a year in Boston, Rich and Bev returned to Durham, becoming active in the young married set:  the Holles, the Mooradians, the McDonalds, the Finnegans, the Myers and many others.  In 1956, they bought their first house, Paul Holle’s house on Faculty Road.  Throughout this time, Bev and Rich had tried to have children, with Bev getting pregnant five times, but being unable to carry full-term.  While they very much enjoyed the process of impregnation, their hearts were broken with each miscarriage.  Recognizing that they could not have biological children, Bev and Rich began the process of adoption.  Their efforts paid off in May of 1959, when they adopted their son, Keith, who was six months old at the time.   Bev and Rich loved that little boy and treasured every milestone of his life.  Later, in response to a request from a court that Keith’s adoption records be unlocked at the request of a biological half-sibling, Keith wrote:


My view of life is that each of us is born with certain biological strengths and limitations; the vast majority of us have “enough” of everything we need to be successful.  The secret to that success, though, comes not, except in the case of professional basketball players and midget wrestlers, from the biology with which we are born, but from the psychology and sociology of our parents, which enables us to make good choices later in our lives.  In the battle between nature and nurture, my money is on the importance of nurture.  For example, I was born with a brain capable of learning a lot of different information.  My mother is a voracious reader who encouraged me to read broadly, deeply and until my eyes dried out.  Whether I was reading comic books or Kafka, she urged me to read and think about what I was reading.  Likewise, I was born with potentially adequate hand-eye coordination and a body that would be capable of running fast.  My father, who was a high-school phenom, drove me to baseball soccer and track practice and attended every single one of my childhood and high school games, meets and tournaments, whether I was starting or riding the bench.  In each of these examples, and in countless more, I was born with certain potential gifts and abilities but it was the nurturance of my parents who breathed reality into that potential.


Two years later, Bev and Rich were blessed with the arrival of their daughter, Jennifer.  Jennifer, or Gengifer as Paul Holle called her, was a beautiful and sweet young girl, of whom her parents were very proud.  While Jennifer and Keith generally got along, there was a bit of sibling rivalry, as Jennifer was the good and faithful daughter and Keith was . . . well . . .  Keith.  When Keith drowned Jennifer’s Chatty Cathy doll in the toilet, for example, nobody wanted to know what the doll had done to him first.  Later, when Keith rolled the family car out of the garage onto the inclined driveway so that he could wash it, he really expected that his 110 pounds would be able to stop a Chevy Malibu.  Instead, it took a light pole across the street to break the car’s momentum—and its windshield.  Jennifer made quilts and other crafts; Keith made trouble.   But I digress.


In 1966, Bev and Rich built their dream home on Beards Landing in Durham, joining 10 families with 30 children among them.  Bev quickly became close to Ann Cochran, Bev Dingle and Barbara Cilley.  A few years later, Bev took a job at the Durham Trust Company (later to become the Durham Bank and later to become defunct).  While Bev began as a part-time receptionist, because of her parental obligations, over time she demonstrated her organizational ability and her skills in working with difficult people.  By the time she retired, 15 years later, she had become an officer of the bank, in charge of customer service.  Even then, though, she retired making less money than the youngest, least experienced male officer.  While Bev would probably not have identified herself as a feminist, she had an incredibly raised consciousness about the role of women, and was not the least bit shy about publicly pointing out hypocrisy and unfairness.


Many of Bev’s close friends come from this period at the bank:  Flora Shields, Faye Kenniston, Grace Knight, Miner Taylor and, most of all, Jean Hull.  Jean, and her husband Jack, joined the team of Bev-and-Rich, traveling around the world and to any beer-soaked club where a band would let Jack sing his bawdy additions to the old R & B number, “Kansas City.”   Jack-and-Jean and Bev-and-Rich had quite a ride together, and when the Hulls died, the Bev and Rich bond became even stronger.


Bev retired from the bank in 1984, and she and Rich moved to Florida, after Jennifer’s wedding to Dennis, the son-in-law who was like a son to her.  In Florida, she had the chance to become closer to Rich’s sister, Phyllis and her husband, Bob.  Within a few months of retirement, though, Bev grew tired of staying home, and took a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, where she quickly became a highly valued employee.  In 1991, as soon as Bev heard that Cindy, her daughter in law, was pregnant, though, she and Rich planned their move back to New Hampshire, where they would become closer to Rich’s brother Wesley and his wife, Dora.  Always, family came first for Bev.  Bev and Rich were living in Concord for the birth of Rebecca, and the births of their subsequent granddaughters, Nicole, Mary, Jayme and Elizabeth.  “Doting” does not begin to describe Bev’s relationship with her granddaughters, as she believed that each one, in her own way, was the most beautiful, wonderful and creative little girl in the whole wide world.


Last Friday night, Bev died of a massive brain hemorrhage.  Her life ended painlessly as she made dinner for the man she loved, her husband of 51 years.  None of us know the day or the time when we will die; could Bev have chosen her time to die, though, it is not impossible that she would have chosen this very moment.


A Zen master once said, “ Life is like climbing into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.”  Again, “ Life is like climbing into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.”  All we can do is enjoy the ride.  When Beverly Barton Howard’s boat sank into the sea last Friday, she could look back onto a long, loving ride.


Let us pray:


God, thank you for Beverly Howard and the way she touched our lives.  She was funny, and smart, and pretty, and we loved her very much.  Thank you for having made her transition from life to death so painless and seamless.  As each of us leaves here today, let us endeavor to create for ourselves a ride of love, selflessness, kindness and generosity.  Let us also ask you that when it is our turn to sink into the sea, that we may go with the grace of Bev.  Amen


In closing, I’d like to tell you what one of Bev’s granddaughters said when she was told that Grammy Bev had died.  “I’m sorry she’s dead, but the good thing is that before she died, if I wanted her to watch me do something we had to drive to her house.  Now, she can watch me all the time.”  Now, she can watch me all the time.


The Bobbsey Twins and the Persistence of Memory

On my way from Manchester the Tiny White Box in Pittsburg, I took a detour through Lee and Durham, two towns where I lived for more than a third of my life.  Since I was meeting my childhood best friend Jonas for lunch, and had an extra 15 minutes, I did something I’d never done before—went into the Lee Library.  It wasn’t that I’d been banned, but I’d always kept my Durham Library card, and when I was a boy, the town of Durham and the University of New Hampshire shared a library.  One of the funny things about growing up in a small college town is the notion that every town provides readers with an ocean of books, newspapers and magazines.  I could set sail with Dr. Doolittle one day, the New Republic the next and Henry James The Varieties of Religious Experience the third, all while surrounded by UNH students who were excited to introduce me to these—all before I was 13.  The Lee Library was no ocean; it was, in my mind, a pleasant swimming hole.  Thus, I never went there.

While I was in the Army, and for years afterward, my mother did.  A reader of voracious if indiscriminate appetite, my mother was as likely to read Sidney Sheldon as John Updike, Irwin Shaw as Philip or Henry Roth.  Although she’d grown up in Durham, she transplanted her loyalties to the even smaller-town library.  When she died in 2001 (in winter, so before 2001 became 2001!!!), instantly and painlessly of an acute brain hemorrhage, my family asked that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Lee Library.  At some point, my father brought this photograph, framed, of my mother and her younger brother to the library and asked it be placed on the wall.

Taken by my grandfather in, I’d guess, 1937, it’s an odd picture, really.  I mean, the princess sits with a book set on her lap, with her vassal looking down, unable to see anything but worms on a page from that distance.  No matter, for he likely can’t read, existing as he does to do her bidding.  But maybe I’m reading just a bit too much into a picture.  Maybe.  Strange or not, it’s a great picture for a small-town library—even if she is reading The Bobbsey Twins in a Radio Play, not one of the classic volumes about Freddie, Flossie, Bert and Nan (yes, even if it means I am no longer seen as a real man, I did dip into the Bobbsey oeuvre).

Since more than 15 years had gone by, I assumed the photograph had been taken down, packed in a box and taken to the dump at some point.  When I walked in, mumbled something about “A picture of my mother and uncle from the 30s,” though, the desk librarian knew exactly what I was talking about, and led me around a corner to where it had pride of place in a reading room. The librarian remembered my father bringing the picture in, and even the stories he’d told about my mom.  How she’d been brought into the world with her grandfather as the attending physician, spent her first few years in Colebrook, where her father was schoolmaster, before moving to Weare so he could be principal and finally, when she was seven moving to Durham, for her dad to be the founder and first director of the Thompson School, having the ugliest building on campus, Barton Hall, named after him when he retired.  She remembered my mom.  She remembered my dad.

And the Bobbsey Twins will live on, performing that damned radio play.

How Many Harmonicas are Enough for a Man Who Can’t Play Any?

When my daughters were little, we got a computer, a Compaq Presario that cost two grand.  That was a lot of money for my wife at the time and me, but it was not too high a price to pay to make sure our kids weren’t left on the roadside of what was then called the “information superhighway.”  Also, it meant Cindy and I could play Myst, a game that inexplicably took over our lives briefly.  For those of you under  40 or so, Myst was an immersive game with no real rules, but a series of puzzles that needed to be solved on a mysterious island (and other lands) for the purpose of . . .  Well, I don’t really remember the backstory, but it was a very important mission, important enough for us as young parents to put the girls to bed, grab beers and drop into that wonderful world.

Myst was of course too scary and mature for the two girls we had at the time, ages four and one, so we also bought Oregon Trail III on CD-ROM.  (Again, for younger readers—and God am I getting old if UNDER 40 is young—CD-ROM games did not network with anything, for who wanted to tie up the phone line to go online to play a game?  CD-ROMs were discs inserted into the computer and containing the whole game on them.  Even video!)  Oregon Trail placed you as head of a party setting out in the 1840s and going to, as I remember, either Salem, Oregon, or Salt Lake City.  You began in Missouri in a small frontier town, with the amount of money you had dependent on what your occupation was—bankers started off with more money than farmers or blacksmiths, but had fewer skills once the journey began.  Anywya, by the time Becca was seven, Meri was five (and spelled her name Mary, an odd quirk on our part since her name is Meredith) and Libby was two, they had become quite addicted to the game.  I’ll admit I liked it too, primarily for the chance to “hunt” game and carry meat back to the wagon train.  The girls’ favorite part, though, was, oddly, at the beginning of the game, walking through the frontier town and deciding how best to outfit their wagons—how many rifles, how much flour, how many horses?  They could spend a rainy afternoon negotiating with each other on whether a single cast-iron skillet would be enough or if rope was really worth a nickel for 10 feet.  I know, I know—they were being trained as capitalists; still, they had a good time.

Given my Jeep’s limited storage space, I spent the past four days in Manchester playing my own version of Oregon Trail.  I mean, I’ve got a Cherokee, but it’s not a Grand Cherokee, so each visit to a Walmart or Market Basket or my friend, George, at Liberty House was filled with the same conversations the girls had.  A quick inventory of the Jeep:

–Six 2.5 liter boxes of Poland Spring Water

–Eight jugs of generic water

–Five bags of Trader Joe’s peanut-butter-filled chocolate-covered pretzels (the only sweet treat I’ve allowed myself)

–A small electric heater

–Three dozen washcloths

–Two Pier One multicolored table runners

–Materials for scraping rust and repainting the Jeep’s roof

–A Hohner Marine Band harmonica in the key of C (more on this to follow)

–Two small bags of quality coffee to be mixed for maximum psychological effect with the six or eight cans of Folger’s coffee

Now, I’m back in this strange new world—I call it home—with a wagon train just emptied of goods.

As Becca, Meri and Libby would have inquired years ago, though, Is one harmonica enough?



Razors and Reciprocating Saws

Yesterday morning, I was in the shower at my daughters’ apartment, sort of/kind of using a razor to clean up the hair on my neck.  (While in the Tiny White Box, I take showers two or three times a week—I believe I’ve complained about their inconvenience—so being able to get in a hot shower in a warm room and actually relax instead of focusing on the shock of cold to come is heavenly.) (As another aside, my daughters have, between them, probably seven kinds of shampoo and five kinds of conditioner.  As you may recall, I’ve sworn off hair products, using just a slurry of water and baking soda on my hair—which I’d unfortunately left in the Jeep–, so being in this luxurious shower, with so many empty promises in brightly-colored bottles right at hand was much like being an alcoholic left alone in a bar with no video camera recording him.  Which, after much writing in circles, brings me back to the razor in my hand.)

As I moved the razor down my neck, and looked at all the shampoos in front of me, I thought of alcohol.  Not that I wanted to drink alcohol—or shampoo—just my relationship to alcohol.  Normal people can have a drink or two to take the edge off, to relax and transition from the day into the evening.  Holding the Harry’s razor (this is not an endorsement—they’re not a sponsor—but I do use Harry’s razors.  They send me new blades every few months, and now that I’ve given up daily shaving, I will be rich beyond my wildest dreams in industrial-grade, precision-engineered sharp, shiny metal), I removed the neck stubble, and realized normal folks use alcohol like that razor—they take just enough off of the days hair and then those folks put the razor away.  While alcohol may at some point have been a razor for me, I’d misused and abused it long enough that I had transformed it into a Sawzall, a reciprocating saw.  For those not familiar with reciprocating saws, here’s an apt description from handyman.com:  “Reciprocating saws make demolition easier and more fun. You can struggle and rip it out with a variety of crowbars and hacksaws or you can use a reciprocating saw and just cut it free. It’s the ultimate demolition tool. Windows, walls, plumbing, doors and more—just cut and toss.”

Exactly how I’d used alcohol for at least the last five years of my drinking.  Instead of trimming my neck and putting the razor away, I’d used it as “the ultimate demolition tool,” just cutting and tossing away my self-respect, my relationships, my financial security and any shred of hope.  Pretty damn effective, I’d say.

Standing in the shower, I was glad I could keep my hands and lips away from that reciprocating saw.  Shampoo is not booze, but I was also grateful I was able to keep my hands and hair away from any of the smells, textures and dreams inside those bottles.  I simply rinsed my hair with water and went on with my day.