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.

Prevent Ghost Infestation–Policies and Procedures

I don’t much like written policies and procedures. I’m no anarchist, but behavior should be based on a larger principle and focused on getting things done right for everyone involved rather than simply doing what’s been done before. What principles? Here are a few to choose from:

“Don’t do stupid stuff.”

“Don’t be mean.”

“Treat other people the way you’d like to be treated.”

“Leave things better than you found them.”

None of these can be applied in a lock-step manner, but they do help guide decisions, as opposed to written policies and procedures, which handcuff decisions—and often get broken when folks need the most guidance. For example, if a sober house has a procedure that says, “Any crime, or potential crime, will be immediately reported to the appropriate authorities,” that sounds very reasonable. Until . . . . Let’s say Tony, out on parole, comes to a staff person and self-reports that he’d taken $5 from an AA meeting collection to buy a pack of cigarettes. Tony feels guilty and wants to know the best way to make amends. Following the policy, the staff person should report this to the police, and watch Tony be set back into a locked halfway house, or even returned to prison. Most of us would say that’s unjust—Tony is seeking help to do the right thing. But consider the staff person: if she reports the theft, she is unjust; if she doesn’t, she should be fired for not following procedure. The written word, as Socrates showed Phaedrus, keeps on giving the same response no matter what question is asked of it, a sure limitation of writing. Instead, an appeal to any of the principles above would lead to a more just outcome for everyone.

Now that I’ve clarified my feelings about written procedures, I must admit a personal exception. This exception, this single policy I’ve ever disseminated and implemented, came to me years ago, and it has been effective.

I have a fear of ghosts, or, better, I have a healthy regard for the dangers of ghost infestation, an underreported problem that must be addressed. The following policy has prevented any known ghost outbreaks in all the places I’ve run. While I can’t explain its effectiveness, I can testify to it—if you do this in your organization, ghosts will not bother you.

Ghost Infestation Preparedness

We must prepare for the unlikely, the impossible and the inevitable.

Beginning today, we will practice a drill that will prepare us to deal with the death of a resident or staff and the resultant ghost infestation.

  • If you notice a dead body in the room, please notify a staff person as soon as possible.  (NOTE:  If it is a staff member who is dead, you must inform another staff person, not simply inform the corpse of his or her current condition).
  • While waiting for staff response, please check for signs of life using the traditional methods (e.g., tickling, poking, kicking, and mocking the deceased’s family).
  • A staff person will determine actual death by placing a dry cleaner bag over the deceased’s face for at least three minutes. If the deceased struggles (making him or her temporarily non-deceased), the staff person will increase the pressure on the deceased’s face and begin timing again.  At the three-minute mark, the attending staff member will call out “Done,” but continue to maintain pressure on the dry-cleaning bag to prevent ghost leakage.
  • Once the staff person has determined death, all present will sing the chorus of one (1) of the following songs:

“Stairway to Heaven”

“Another One Bites the Dust”

or (if the group needs some cheering up)

“I Like Big Butts”

  • As current scientific research suggests that most ghosts escape through the nose or mouth, the attending staff person should maintain pressure on the deceased’s face, while two volunteers drag the deceased by the heels out onto the porch.
  • Once the corpse is safely on the porch, the attending staff person and the two ankle draggers should leave the corpse, chanting “Ghosts, ghosts, go way. Come again some other day.”  Allow the wind to blow the dry cleaning bag away.

THIS ENDS THE DRILL

And any problems with ghosts.

 

Bloody Lemonade: A Radical Moderate Looks at Economics

I don’t use this space to discuss politics much, and for good reason: by my assessment I’m a Radical Moderate, the most hated of all by each side of any conflict. My political views are hard to categorize, often contradictory and tied up with my views of life itself. Let me try to explain with the example of economics.

Economically, I think capitalism makes social sense. Competition is a good thing, supporting innovation and keeping prices lower. While Adam Smith may talk of an invisible hand, my guiding principle comes from a lemonade-stand commercial I saw regularly while watching Davey and Goliath as a kid. The opening shot is of a kid behind his stand, a sign reading “Lemonade—10 Cents.” Another kid opens an adjoining stand, sign saying “Cold Lemonade—5 cents.” This begins a word-war between the stands:

“Ice Cold Lemonade—5 cents. Free Refills.”

“Ice Cold Lemonade—5 cents. Free Refills. Takeout Available.”

“Ice Cold Lemonade—5 cents. Free Refills. Takeout Available. We Deliver.”

When one kid saw the ad’s final sign, he scratched his head, then got a smile and started work improving his own sign. The unstated message was their competition would continue forever, leading to better product and improved customer experience. As I remember, the ad was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, and, like a baby duck, I imprinted on it. Capitalism=Good.

Davey and Goliath was on early Sunday mornings, a day we occasionally visited my paternal grandparents, who lived in Lebanon, NH, where my dad and his twin brother had been high school athletic phenoms. While my dad was growing up, my grandfather and his brother, Winky, had owned and operated Howard Brothers’ Groceries, the largest grocery store in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley. They’d had five or six stores and a fleet of trucks. Although my dad turned seven in 1930, so his formative years were during the Depression, his family was well-off and money was never a real concern. Howard Brothers did well, and extended credit to families throughout the 1930’s, believing folks would pay them back once the economy improved. While they may not have been seen as philanthropists, for they did expect repayment, they provided a public service to folks who needed food.

My dad and his twin enlisted in the Army during World War II, each serving honorably if not heroically, then used their GI Bill benefits to finish up college after the war. While neither wanted to follow my grandfather into the grocery game, they knew the family business would continue to thrive, and with the economy having turned around, those credit ledgers would be paid back. And they would have been. Except for capitalism.

The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) had expanded from its initial hot caffeine sales into retail grocery stores, “supermarkets” as they were called, larger than local groceries and, because of the economies of scale, able to sell their products slightly cheaper. An A&P store opened in Lebanon in the early 1950’s. Here we’re driven back to the lemonade stand above. Howard Brothers’ Groceries could have competed on factors other than price: they were local, they’d extended credit, they knew their customers and had longstanding relationships with them. They could have kept their prices slightly higher than the A&P and still made a go of it. Except. The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company had very deep pockets and a long-term strategy to drive local competition out of the market. While, because of their size. their prices could naturally be slightly lower, the A&P opened with significantly lower prices, making it appear the Howard Brothers had been gouging locals for years. After all, if a pound of potatoes cost 15 cents at Howard Brothers and only 11 cent at the A&P, if a tube of Colgate cost 35 cents at Howard brothers and only a quarter at the A&P, if a six pack of Schlitz cost 89 cents at Howard Brothers and only 75 cents at the A&P, wasn’t that all the evidence you needed the Howards had been taking advantage of the community? Add to that the fact that when you went to the A&P you weren’t looking into the face of a man you owed money to for the groceries your family had already eaten during the Depression. The choice was simple.

Shoppers in the Upper Valley thronged to the A&P. The Howard Brothers were driven out of business, my grandfather becoming a butcher at Dartmouth College for the last 15 years of his working life. A funny thing about the A&P, though. As soon as they’d destroyed the competition, driving my grandfather from the business he and his brother had built, the A&P’s prices were raised. First, the prices went up to what people had been paying at Howard Brothers. Then, they got a little bit more expensive. After all there wasn’t competition.

I don’t honestly know what capitalism is. Is it the competitive back and forth of the lemonade stand, with innovation leading to an ever-improving experience for everyone? At times. Is it the use of predatory pricing to empty the marketplace of competition, then take advantage of the empty playing field? At times.

I’m not a socialist—I don’t have faith that people will work hard and use their creativity if “to each according to his needs” is the highest good. I’m not a complete free-market capitalist either. Capitalism at its core has a death wish for competition, tooth and claw bloody in any fight.

I’m a radical moderate, despised by both sides. That’s why I don’t use this space to discuss politics.

Don’t Read On Account of Because!

Excerpts from a letter from Hathaway, Hardaway & Schultz, Attorneys at Law, representing David Clevinger et al.

To: Amazon, Tiny White Box Publishing and Keith Howard

Keith Howard’s book about a year in the life of Clayton “Clay” Clevinger, On Account of Because, available from Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Account-Because-Keith-B-Howard/dp/0692897445/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1515684891&sr=8-1 is an unfair portrait of a number of characters. It is both slanderous and libelous (when read aloud) and we request an injunction to cease and desist publication. Its continued distribution is likely to lead to the diminution of income, other monetary harm and injured self-esteem of our clients:  David (“Pops”) Clevinger, Lucinda (Watkins) Clevinger, Sebastian (“Shiny”) Rutherford and Peter Wunderlich, Ph.D.

Your failure to cease and desist publication can be remedied with a cash payment of three (3) times the royalties paid so far to Mr. Howard.

As attorneys, we understand the legal challenges in representing fictional characters, however we believe our own fictional nature provides adequate standing to represent them. Regardless, the harm done to our clients is real and can only be partially satisfied by monetary penalties. Additionally, we would like future editions of On Account of Because to provide space for alternative interpretations of our clients’ behavior. They are, after all, as real as Clayton Clevinger.

Illustrative excerpts from their depositions follow.

David “Pops” Clevinger-I’ll always love Clayton, but I can’t understand why he was so hard on me. I’ve been pretty much sober now for two years, and I just wish this book would go away. It seems like Clayton has brought me a lot of bad luck, and I could use a re-deal. He’s living with my folks now, an author and everything, and he wouldn’t even give me 500 bucks when I called him a couple months ago. I told him I’d pay him back when I got a job. He said I was drunk. Well, what do you expect when the boy I raised has turned his back on me? You lawyers want his book not to get sold, but all I want is some return on my investment in Clayton.

Lucinda (Watkins) Clevinger-That boy is just no damn good! He was always looking down on David and me, with no understanding what life is like for folks like us. David’s an alcoholic, and I’ve got a drinking problem. He thinks his (expletive deleted) don’t stink just ‘cause he wrote a book. If I’d had $450 when I didn’t get my period, that little (expletive deleted) would have been washed down the drain. David and I have been off-and-on together since that little (expletive deleted) left, and I feel like he owes us. Especially me, because of the stretch marks.

Sebastian (“Shiny”) Rutherford-Sure, I liked Clayton, but he was such a baby. You should have seen his face when he found me drinking with Lucy and Pops—it was like somebody’d put his toys in a microwave. I feel like if someone shows you they’re a mark, it’s you’re responsibility to take advantage. It’s like one of God’s laws, like don’t crap where you eat. I don’t care whether he goes on selling his stupid book, but I feel like he owes me a cut for being his friend.

Peter Wunderlich, Ph.D.-I believe I was parodied from pillar to post in that dreadful book of Clayton’s. I tried to help him, using the techniques that helped earn me my doctorate. It’s called Philosophical Self-Discipline, and, in brief, it requires the malefactors, the bad actors, to reflect on the great philosophers, whose message, again in brief, is “straighten up and fly right.” Clayton’s portrayal of me as a weak, simpering fool mocked by his charges was just plain mean. When I first read it, I spent the afternoon at home biting my pillow.

In closing, Mr. Howard, through his creation of Clayton Clevinger, is responsible for monetary loss and emotional damage. We expect our clients to be made whole—even if they can’t be made real.