Undated Journal Entry #17

I’m shocked—pleased, but still shocked—at the positive responses I’ve received for bits out of my journal. I mean, when I try to write well and thoughtfully, the response is, “That’s nice,” but when I throw stuff out from long-ago journals, I get praise. Go figure.

I suppose the lesson to be learned is, “You make it way too hard,” but that’s a double-entendre not even worthy of Michael Scott.

* * *

When I drank, I had lots of transitions just like that. I’m sure you’ve heard of blackouts, but you may not have understood what they are.

Normal people, if they drink too much, PASS out—they lose consciousness and go into a sleep-like state, waking up hours later with a huge head and a nauseated stomach.

Alcoholics of my type, if they drink too much, may pass out, but once the disease has progressed to a certain point, BLACKouts are much more common. Instead of having the good sense to shut down, the alcoholic continues to function as normally as a drunk person ever does, with one fairly major difference—he has no idea that he is alive or is doing any of the things he’s doing. I have spent entire evenings in a blackout, where I stop remembering anything at, say 7 p.m., but know by reconstruction of evidence, that I didn’t sleep until midnight. That evidence might be the testimony of people I encountered, dirty pans showing evidence of cooking or unexplained credit card bills. (In one summer, I blackout-bought about five-thousand dollars worth of stuff online—including a large-screen tv that was delivered a week later, much to my surprise.) One thing I know: I’ve never heard of an act of charity or a selfless action committed in a blackout.

In addition to blackouts, almost as scary (or more, in some cases) are GRAYouts, where the alcoholic has vague memories of what he did the night before, like seeing randomly-selected clips from a movie—no direction, no plot, just snippets. Even worse, he has interspersed with these memories all kinds of things that never happened—and he can’t sense the difference between true and imagined memories. Wow, I don’t know what got me going on that. The words just started flowing and wouldn’t stop.

* * *

Sometimes, and now is one of those times, my brain forms “poems” that are nothing more than silliness broken up by spacing. As Robert Frost would say, “Free verse is like playing tennis without a net.”

Not Saying What You Don’t Mean (and writing about it)

A. Conan Doyle never wrote, “Elementary, my dear Watson!”

B. James Cagney never said, “You dirty rat.”

Humphrey Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam.”

P. T. Barnum never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.

Please write five things you never said.

Don’t say them. Just write them.

Now choose one of these things.

Write a poem, story or essay to explain why you never said it.

Read your work out loud.

Now tear it up because you’ve said it.

Begin again.

Continue.

* * *

Poetry Awaits—Just Add Inspiration!

Thank you for applying.

You have been accepted

The Clara Barton School of Battlefield Medicine,

Poetry-Writing Division,

Welcomes You.

Once your check has cleared.

Below are the pieces you will use to build your first poem!

This is an exciting moment for you.

Be breathless.

Now, remember to breathe.

Use each of the following sentences or phrases in a single poem.

Feel free to add other ingredients

Before baking.

1) Flying pigs used to be rare. Before last Thursday no one had ever seen one.

2) Sorrow flowed, along with blood.

3) The bones that weren’t crushed in the fall poked through my thih.

4) Dying’s not so bad, except for having just dial-up internet.

5) I’d never liked the way Felicia looked at my baseball-card collection.

Submit your completed poem,

Stapled to a fresh 50-dollar bill

To Clara Barton . . .

And await further instructions

* * *

Three Ideas in Search of Structure

I.

The very first bomb

dropped by the Allies

on Berlin during World War II

killed the only elephant in the Berlin Zoo.

What were his thoughts

When he glanced up

And saw that lion-sized

Black metal tube?

II.

Please number and write 25 completely true things about yourself.

Tell no one of your task.

Carefully, very carefully, tear the truth into 25 slips

Hide them throughout your town

Hide them throughout your house

Hide them throughout your pockets

How many of them return to you?

These are not the truth.

How many of them remain hidden?

These are not the truth.

How many have you forgotten?

Truth!

III.

Get comfortable.

Stretch. Breathe. Burp. Whatever it takes.

Relaxed? Good.

Now:

Try to say the alphabet

without moving your lips

or your tongue.

Every letter sounds exactly the same.

How can you use this information to your advantage?

The disadvantage of your enemies?

Why do you have enemies?

The Tiny White Box Receives a Huge Gift! (and I’m not sure I like it)

It’s just before three on a Saturday afternoon, and I’ve just arrived at the Tiny White Box in the Great North Woods after a nine-day trip to civilization, or Southern New Hampshire at least. Each time I’m gone for more than a few hours, I worry I’ll arrive home to find a window broken, snow blown over the floor and bed, or the doors frozen shut, or heavy snows having shattered the skylight, or the electricity out, a downed power line outside the door. So far, except for having broken off a lock key—longtime time readers will remember my whiny recounting of that adventure—I’ve always returned to a home that remains my Tiny White Box.

Until today.

I discovered a serious blow to my solitary life, a slap to my hermitic face, a forced attack on my writer’s retreat. Some bastard left a bushel of progress at the Tiny White Box, and I didn’t have the opportunity to refuse to sign for it. Let me explain.

In my previous life, not just at Liberty House but going back until, say, 1995, I’ve loved and embraced technology. From our first computer, a Compaq Presario that did little but replace my typewriter and eat up hours of my wife’s and my time playing Myst, I’ve enjoyed each new personal iteration.

In 2004 my daughters were 12, 10 and seven, and I’d grown tired of being a one-man tech-support team, regularly removing bloated software the girls had downloaded along with the latest free game. Since I was writing a book at the time, and the computer was my means of production, I bit the bullet, and we switched from PC’s to Mac’s, a decision that’s paid off in hundreds of hours of saved time, along with a smug superiority that I can’t shake. When I was at Liberty House, we became a Mac shop, and it’s a decision I haven’t questioned for a minute. Likewise, I’m an iPhone guy, although here I’ve more sipped than swallowed the Kool-Aid, lusting occasionally over the personalizability of Android, and having been a strong proponent and consumer of the jailbreaking era.

So, I’m a guy who doesn’t know really anything about how technology works but has excitedly accepted that it does work. Still, life in the Tiny White Box has meant shedding 95 percent of my physical possessions, and, germane here, ALL of my instant internet connectivity. As you may remember, the main cabin at Warriors@45North has Wi-Fi offering a circa-1997 dial-up connection, and Treats and Treasures, a variety store three miles away, offers fast Wi-Fi. Also, my phone has zero connectivity north of Colebrook, 45 minutes south of here.

Strike that. Change the tense of that last sentence. “my phone HAD zero connectivity.” When Sam (is a dog) and I got out of the car this afternoon, my phone alerted me I had a text, something I’ve never experienced here. While we’ve been gone, apparently, a new cell transmitter has gone on line, and now my iPhone 7 Plus has three solid bars. Damn!

No longer can I rely on my own memory of Napoleon’s exile to Elba—or at least my memory of the history of it—or a quote from Hemingway or the spelling of Eppa Rixey’s name. I can look them up and get them right. It’s not that I object to fact checking, it’s the rabbit holes I enter during the process. If I could stop at knowing that Emperor Bonaparte was on Elba from 1814 to 1815 and leave it at that, I’d be fine. I can’t. Napoleon leads to the Napoleonic Code leads to Hammurabi leads to the Hittites leads to Jerusalem leads to Mediterranean beaches leads to Moorish culture leads to . . . a wasted 45 minutes.

On the positive side, I can now keep in touch on a regular basis with my daughters, my friends and the world at large. Good things.

Still, I miss my enforced ignorance already.

Please Turn Off the Alarms:  Two Words are Just Two Words

In the two-word phrase of the immortal Phil Rizzuto, “Holy Cow!” About 90 minutes ago, I posted a column, a relatively short one consisting of a brief update and an old, undated journal entry.  In the update, I used two words that appear, based on emails and texts I’ve received since, to have caused great and grave concern.

Those two words were not “cancer diagnosis.”

Those two words were not “paternity suit.”

Those two words were not “suicidal ideation.”

The two words were separated by a comma and were part of an eight-word phrase describing the folks I’ve met with during my trip south: “friends, attorneys, reporters, and a bunch of drunks.” Friends and bunches of drunks aren’t the issue, but the two words in between them seem particularly powerful.

attorneys, reporters.”

Before my friends, family and bunches of drunks have a meltdown, let me offer assurance that I am in no trouble, legal or otherwise, and that the conversations with reporters are related to the Tiny White Box, writers’ retreats and my plans for the future—not to any legal issues.  The conversations with attorneys were completely hypothetical, and in one of them we spent way more time discussing warfare tactics used by the Romans than the hypothetical.  Regular readers will not be surprised we also discussed the history of Durham, NH, the Washingtonian Movement of the 1840s and 50s, and the importance of the First and Second Great Awakenings.

I do apologize for conjoining two words that together seem to have such power, but I’ll admit to having a blind eye and ear to some things. Now that we’ve all calmed down and had a nice cup of tea, let’s just enjoy the weekend.  Sam (is a dog) and I are looking forward to returning to the deer, the cold and the Tiny White Box.

 

A Saucerful of Secrets and a Sidewalk Symphony of Smells

I’ve been trapped in the southern tier of New Hampshire for more than a week, and I really can’t wait to get back to the Tiny White Box. So is Sam (is a dog), although he does enjoy the smorgasbord of smells on the city sidewalk, and the surprising number of edible substances he finds as we walk. Maybe a key to happiness is to accept “food-like” as close enough and not be so picky.  If so, I’ll abstain.

Much has happened during this time I’ve been down, some of which I’ll be able to share with the world shortly. One thing is that I’ve had meals with six (6) (VI) of the 14 folks I named on New Year’s Day as people I wanted to reconnect with.  The resolution continues.

All this social whirl—with friends, attorneys, reporters, and a bunch of drunks—has minimized my writing time.  Once I get back to Pittsburg I’ve got a ton of material to get down, but until then I want to share something from a decades-old journal.  I release it to the world, so feel free to turn it into what you like—I could go for a double espresso if it’s not too much trouble.

“Let’s say you just dropped a hit of windowpane three hours ago and you’re just starting to peak. You know, walls are melting, you’re watching the hair grow into the back of your hands, you finally get ‘Saucerful of Secrets.’ Then you’re crossing a street and you see a giant, throbbing brontosaurus coming toward you and you know you have to fight it or you’re never going to come down. So you look around for your magical sword, but it’s gone and the brontosaurus is really a milk truck and it’s five o’clock in the morning and in the next minute you’re dead. Splattered all over the road. Lying there like a piece of firewood.”

“That’d be a drag, man,” I said, handing the joint back to Jonas. Columbian, but still not great, not at thrity-five an ounce when I was making a buck eighty five at Orange Julius for having to act straight and grind up ice and smile, smile, smile.

“I’m not finished, man,” Jonas said. “I’m not even close. The thing is you’re dead, right? You’re peeking, right? Well, what happens to you when you meet God? Are you still tripping or what? Do you spend all of eternity with acid coursing through your blood and brain and soul? Does heaven have trails when you turn your head? Let’s say you ‘re taken in to see Jesus, all healed up from the crucifixion, do you start to flash back to that Friday afternoon sun when the birds were picking at him and he was dying for all mankind? Would God the Father all of a sudden be like your own father and just seem like a colossal bummer. Since the Bible says that heaven has no time, would your trip ever end or would you just keep on forever at whatever point you were when you died?”

It’s scary sometimes how smart Jonas is. He’s always thinking about deep stuff and all I ever think about is getting into Kelly Raucher’s pants or, if she and I are on the outs, some other girl I met at the mall. Jonas, though, he’s like Socrates or Bob Dylan, just keeps churning this stuff out and not even realizing how smart he is. For a fifteen-year-old kid, he is like a national treasure, my treasure, really, because nobody else in this stupid town thinks he’s anything more than a geeky punk who smokes too much pot and who talks weird. When we were in eighth grade, he was voted class clown, yet I’ve never known anyone who was more serious when it came to important things, like feelings and God and music.

“How do you know you’d go to heaven if you were tripping?” I asked. “I mean, God probably isn’t really into acid and stuff. I don’t think he’d like to have some drooling doper grinding his teeth from strychnine and trying not to laugh or cry.”

“You’ve got to read that Bible I gave you,” said Jonas. “God only cares whether you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal saviour and let him take away your sins. He doesn’t care what you’ve done, as long as you’ve sincerely asked Jesus into your heart. I’ve been a Christian since I was eight and I know God is going to take me. Just like the prodigal son, he’ll welcome me and have a party.

 

We Have Settled for Far Too Little

I didn’t vote for Al Gore in 2000. I didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Why? Among other reasons, a lack of eye contact.

In the 2016 primary, as a registered Republican, I voted for John Kasich—a good, intelligent and decent man, I think, with whom I disagree on some issues. In fact, that set of phrases can be applied to every presidential candidate I’ve ever voted for. In the general election, honestly, I can say that about most of the two parties’ candidates throughout my life.

George H.W. Bush? A good, intelligent and decent man with whom I disagree on some issues.

Bob Dole? A good, intelligent and decent man with whom I disagree on some issues.

John McCain? A goddamned hero and idol of mine, with whom I disagree on some issues.

Oddly, there are two men, one a Democrat and one a Republican, that I would not say that about. If I were a better man, my differences with a candidate would be based solely on major issues. As a lesser man, the cause of my disregard of these two men is based solely on personal interactions with them. Let me explain.

As a relatively politically active voter in the first primary state, I’ve met almost all the ultimate nominees, either during the primary or during the general election. “Met” is a relative term—I haven’t had a one-on-one meal with any candidates who made it out of New Hampshire (Hi, Bruce Babbitt—you were better than you got!). Still, I’ve had, say, at least a three-minute conversation with all the finalists, and only two of them struck me as not good, intelligent and decent.

In 1987, four or five months before the 1988 primary (and before I’d signed on with the sainted but doomed Babbitt campaign), I was making the rounds of political coffees, getting to know Dick Gephardt, Paul Simon (not THAT Paul Simon), Mike Dukakis, etc. In August, at a garden party in Nashua, I had a chance to meet Al Gore, Tennessee Senator and presidential candidate. I’ve always been a reader or subscriber to The New Republic, a neoliberal magazine that was excited about Gore. Both Gore and I had been military journalists—he in Vietnam—so I expected to feel simpatico; instead, I felt dismissed and disrespected, as Gore, while talking with me, kept his gaze resolutely over my left shoulder as if looking for a cameraman to come into his sight. During our three minutes, he did respond to my questions, but never met my gaze.  I know it’s petty, but I swore on that August evening, I would never vote for Al Gore for president. And I didn’t. When he was the 2000 Democratic nominee, running against George W. Bush, I wrote in John McCain, a wasted vote, I know, but a vote for a man who is good, intelligent and decent.

The second candidate I can’t describe as good, intelligent and decent is Donald Trump, again because of a personal encounter, this time 10 days before the general election. I’ll write more soon about this meeting, at which I kept a ton of notes, but the quick takeaway is the Trump campaign had arranged a meeting between the candidate and a small group of folks who’d been impacted by the opiate epidemic. I happened to be seated within arm’s reach of the candidate, so was able to observe him for the 20 minutes or so he granted this group. During this time, while mothers wept for their lost children, health-care providers shared stories of addicts turned away to overdose alone and addicts in recovery talked of what worked for them, Donald Trump stared down at his cell phone, like a back-row high-school sophomore during a boring assembly. While he may have been reading important messages regarding campaign strategy (or playing Fruit Ninja, for all I know), he was able to ignore true human tragedy in the form of stories, tragedy being directed to him in hopes that, if elected, he could ease that pain. Since his campaign had asked folks to bring their concerns to the candidate, Donald Trump might have at least given the appearance of paying attention to their grief.

And Al Gore might have looked me in the eye.

I don’t think basic goodness is too much to ask for, nor is intelligence or decency, but to accept less is to ask for far too little.

 

 

If I Only Write What I Know, I’ll Never Write Again

Writers should write what they know is an old truism, one I often don’t follow, not because I’m trying to be contrary—although I probably am—but because I don’t know a lot of stuff.  I mean, my brain is filled with facts and factoids, trivia and twice-told tales, but of real knowledge it’s pretty empty.  For instance, let us consider baseball.  (Like almost all men of an earlier age, everything comes down to baseball, much as almost all comment-driven internet flame wars devolve to Hitler.) (The previous sentence is an example of my lack of knowledge—I almost never read comment threads unless I’m looking for a specific piece of information.  I have read this Nazi nugget is so; therefore, it is so.)  Back to baseball.

Off the top of my head, I can name the starting infields of most American League teams of the 1968-72 era.  I can identify Hoss Radburn, Eppa Rixey and Lon Warneke.  I can tell you when the pitcher’s mound was lowered, the season expanded to 162 games and the designated-hitter travesty introduced.  Likewise, I can develop an argument that Pedro Martinez from 1998-2002 was not just better than Sandy Koufax from 1962-1966, but significantly better, or that Jim Rice should not be in the Hall of Fame while Ron Santo should. (The angered reader should look at the relative strengths of league-wide hitting and pitching during all these eras before sending me an angry email.) (Unless she or he wants to simply call me a Nazi stooge in the comment section and be done with it.)

When it comes to baseball literature as well, I can more than hold my own.  From You Know Me, Al, to Catcher with a Glass Arm, to Ball Four to the undeservedly-ignored The Great American Novel, I’ve read a lot.  Throw in the dozens upon dozens of baseball biographies I read as a kid (Ken Harrelson, after one good year, had an “as-told-to” autobiography out before 1969 spring training began.  Think about that.), and my consumption of baseball books numbers in the hundreds.

I’d like to tell you I was a great baseball player. I like to be honest though. I was not a great baseball player—in reality, that is. I haven’t played the game in more than 40 years—and then I was a fair-hitting catcher with speed, a lot of enthusiasm and hustle, and a woefully inadequate arm.  “Catcher with speed” may be the most damning scouting report imaginable, since defensively catchers almost never ever run.  It’s like trying to sell a dune buggy based on its ability in the snow.  A feature, perhaps, but not one to close the deal. Still, I was a fast and aggressive baserunner, built more like a second baseman than a catcher, with the arm strength of a second baseman and the scrappy hitting of a second baseman. Except I was a catcher.

Despite my ability to talk baseball, I don’t know the sport the way a regular player does.  Anyone who’s played ball beyond Babe Ruth League, where I topped out as the second-best catcher in a town of only 10,000 residents, or has played more recently than the mid-70’s, knows, really knows the game, in the same way a carpenter knows a chair in a way the Platonist can only imagine.  Of course, that’s kind of Plato’s point. And mine.

Like Plato’s ideal chair, non-existent but real, more real in some untrue sense than any flesh-and-blood chair. (“Flesh-and-blood chair,” of course, is built of leftover body parts and fluids left behind by Dr. Frankenstein. But I digress.) The wood-and-nails chair can be sat on, but the Platonic chair can be meditated upon. I know very little about very much and very much about very little. Still, a man’s writing should exceed his knowledge, else what’s a column for?

World Enough and Time: Story Ideas to the Wind

I write quickly if not well. Unfortunately, my mind works even faster than my fingers, so I fill up my computer desktop with more ideas than I’ll ever get to write about. When F. Scot Fitzgerald died, his notebooks contained story bits and pieces that he’d never finish. I don’t have any plans to die—in fact, I think it’s bad luck to accept death’s inevitability—but I recognize this backlog of ideas is simply going to grow and grow until, like The Blob, it’s taken over my entire world. To prevent that, I’m setting free these seeds, hoping some other writer can water them, prune them and turn them into Diet-Coke-bearing trees. If so, please send me a case.

 

Fifteen Story/Novel/Poem/Essay Ideas

 

  1. A mirror with a memory. This wall mirror, located in a back bedroom, has a memory of everything that it’s seen.  Unclear whether it’s conscious or not.  Accessed through concentration (like the I ching or tarot?)

 

  1. Life in a group home for troubled teenagers. Narrator is a staff member who misunderstands most of what he sees/hears among his charges.  An unwittingly unreliable narrator (e.g., The Story of the Dog in the Night).

 

  1. The difficulties of incorporating technology into contemporary fiction. That is, the novelist writing in 1963, say, may not have seen the advent of touchtone phones, refrigerator ice makers, or black-and-white TV, but technology didn’t change the form/function/TASTE of communication for cripes sake!

 

  1. Related—why did voice telephones last for 80 years before the advent of texting. How would the world/people/I be different if VOICE were the groundbreaking new technology?  And what about video—does anyone who doesn’t live far away from grandchildren care about video chatting?

 

  1. An interrelated series of stories about the same event but told by different families on Beards Landing

 

  1. Escaping to Canada across the New England border, escaping the fascism that never came. Subtheme—difference between political dissidence and mental illness

 

  1. A pill that makes farts colorful, so no one can deny having passed gas. (Credit to five-year-old Libby, who was regularly accused by her sisters of being gaseous in the car.)

 

  1. A first-person account of the Oyster River Massacre.

 

  1. An examination of the opening lines of my favorite novels. Closing lines.  Correlations between.

 

  1. What are basic human rights?

 

  1. A satirical scholarly essay on ghosts. Do animals have ghosts? How long do ghosts haunt a particular place?  Where do ghosts go when they die?  Are there ghosts of ghosts?

 

  1. A life lived with the lyrics of Alice Cooper (or Three Dog Night or Ani DiFranco or name your favorite) as one’s moral compass.

 

  1. A straight man trying to turn bisexual.

 

  1. The stories of each of the graves in the little graveyard at the end of Woodman Avenue.

 

  1. The difficulties of having a dog die, especially when you won’t bury it or burn it or even stuff it, but continue to drag its corpse around with you.